Contemporary Literature and the Archive, Contemporary Literature as Archive

A call for papers for a panel at the upcoming ACLA conference in Utrecht, July 2017

This sounds interesting. Tom Chadwick has been in touch about something he is organizing for next year’s ACLA conference at Universiteit Utrecht in the Netherlands. He and co-organizer Pieter Vermeulen are putting together a panel exploring the relationship between contemporary literature and the archive, and they want to hear from you!

About the Panel

While literature has long served as a repository of the past and a medium of cultural memory, recent developments have complicated its functioning as an archive. In the age of big data, movements and actions are stored in massive digital databases and archives, which has led novelist Tom McCarthy to wonder whether literature still has a distinctive role to play in archiving experiences, values, and beliefs. These technological developments resonate with ecological changes: under the rubric of the Anthropocene, the whole Earth has become an archive of human action; and in the context of the “Sixth Extinction,” many life forms threaten to be obliterated and to only persist in archives. This has informed an “archive fever” in which forms of life are manically recorded in the face of their disappearance. The result has been a literature more conscious of its archival contexts, its status as a geological inscription, and its changing relation to other practices of data management and remembrance (think of B. Lerner, J.M. Coetzee, T. Cole, K. Goldsmith, K.-O. Knausgaard, R. Kushner, D. Mitchell, W.G. Sebald, or J. Ward).

Michel Foucault

This panel invites papers that explore how contemporary literature engages with this new archival context and/or how a rethinking of archives and databases can shed light on recent and ongoing literary developments. It aims to test to what extent literature not only imagines archives, but can also be seen as a practice of archiving human and nonhuman life forms. It builds on recent theoretical reflection on the archive (in the wake of Jacques Derrida’s Archive Fever and the work of Foucault) and on more practical engagements with the archive through new digital methods and the so-called “archival turn” in the humanities and the arts. The panel wants to explore how these developments (in the fields of information science, museum studies, media theory, memory studies, anthropology, art criticism, and even geology) can enrich our understanding of contemporary literature. The panel especially welcomes papers that combine a theoretical-methodological interest with one or more literary case studies.


Topics for discussion may include:

  • Literary encounters of the human and the nonhuman past (Cole, Sebald)
  • Literature as an “encyclopaedic” archiving of disappearing life forms (Saint-Amour, Heise)
  • The rise of the memoir as a practice of self-archiving (Lerner, Heti, Clune)
  • The historical novel and counterfactual fiction
  • Reading literature as data, reading literature against data (distant reading, questions of scale)
  • Literature and the archiving of the official world (Seltzer)
  • Poetic and fictional archives (Goldsmith, Timmons)
  • Literature as cultural anthropology (McCarthy, Levy)
  • Literature’s relation to other archival media such as film, music and art

The deadline for submissions is 23 September 2016.

More Information

Find out more about the panel, and the 2017 conference, at the official website of the American Comparative Literature Association (ACLA).


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