Towards a Swedish Model of Comparative Literature (work in progress)
The term "komparativ litteraturvetenscap"—hence the name of our research group Komplitt—still sounds surprisingly novel if not deliberately obscure to most Swedish ears today. Yet, once you employ the English term "comparative literature", a Swede would in all likehood acknowledge that you are in the discipline of litteraturvetenskap, with "vetenskap" being the lexical equivant to "science" in English, "Wissenschaft" in German, and "savoir" in French. What happens, then, to the adjective "komparativ" in the Swedish term? What is it that makes this qualifier feel rather "unusual" in the Swedish context when used to describe a particular way of approaching literature, or many different ways of exploring and creating literary relations? More importantly—and here comes our research mission—why should we insist today, more than ever, on supplementing and keeping this qualifier as the essential component of a disciplinary nomination in Sweden.
Litteraturvetenskap: A Historical Trajectory
This is, of course, not to say that Swedish academia is somewhat left behind the global developments of Comparative Literature, or that comparative methods of inquiry are still entirely new for literary scholars in Sweden. Quite on the contrary, literary studies in Sweden have a long history of being self-consciously comparative in nature. The first Swedish university chairs of "literature"—established in 1835 at Uppsala and in 1858 at Lund—were actually entitled Professur i Estetik samt Litteratur- och Konsthistoria (Professor of Aesthetics and the History of Literature and Art). In 1918, the name of the subject was changed to litteraturhistoria med poetik (literary history with poetics), and it is only since the late 1960's that the discipline of literary studies has become what we now know as litteraturvetenskap in Sweden.
At least two features in this historical trajectory are worthy of our careful consideration of the discipline in retrospect:
First, right from the start, there was an apparent de-emphasis on the nation-state, and the role and the status of a national literary language (Swedish), especially in relation to other languages and cultures, stayed particularly vague and unarticulated. The discipline seems to have historically adopted a holistic and universalist approach to literature while overlooking, to some extent, the complexities arising from language varieties and their associated national collectivisms and political allegences.
Second, literary studies in Sweden historically had a cross-disciplinary outlook, especially in relation to aesthetics, history, and art. Yet, as reflected in the evolving terminology of the name of the discipline, there seems to be both a narrawing down of the field (now only litteratur) and an enhanced generality to systemically include more "literary" objects (signaled by the word vetenskap). This comparative and inclusive characteristic inherent in the conception of litteraturvetenskap may in part explain the seemingly gratuitous qualifier "komparativ".
From a theoretical point of view, these features would invite interesting comparisons and contrasts with the development of Comparative Literature in other cultural traditions. For example, the de-emphasis on nation-based thinking in the Swedish tradition is in fact what many major contemporary theorists of Comparative Literature strive to achieve. Yet, the Swedish generalist approach to literature seems to lack the philosophical and theoretical vigour and global ambition to decolonize knowledge, grapple with Eurocentrism, and forcefully engage with complex regional geopolitical issues.
In reality, the field of litteraturvetenskap today is concerned predominantly with European and Nordic literature. It has an increasingly exclusive focus on Swedish literature, but we still do not yet have an institutionalised, formal subject or discipline called svensk litteratur ("Swedish Literature") in the history of the country. This, we must stress, is a unique literary institutional phenomenon (in relation to nationhood in particular) even among Scandinavian countries, e.g. nordisk, sœrlig norsk litteratur in Norway and dansk litteratur in Denmark. Interestingly enough, it is only when we try to translate litteraturvetenskap into English—as "Swedish and Comparative Literature"—that the national, linguistic, and comparative dimensions of the discipline are explicitly addressed.
Centre and Periphery—A Double Vantage Point for Comparison
Compared to the output and influence of other major cultural traditions (English, French, German, Spanish, American, Chinese, Arabic, etc.) in the world literary system, the Swedish and Nordic literary forces may still be seen as rather "peripheral". Strinberg, Ibsen, Anderson, and the Icelandic Sagas practically represent the sum total of literary productions of this region throughout history for the outside world, although the situation has started to change with the international success of Scandinavian crime fiction and writers such as Karl Ove Knausgård (with the problematic epithet "Norway's Proust" in the Anglophone and Francophone world).
Yet, we are also at the centre of global literary dissemination with a universalist intention to acknowledge and explore literary values on the world stage. Such an intellectual effort and epistemic position are perhaps most noticeably represented by the Nobel Prize for Literature in Sweden.
This centre-periphery double vantage point of comparison largely characterises the research context and mission of our Komplitt group. By insisting on the qualifier "komparativ" for litteraturvetenskap, we would like to enhance and revitalise literary studies in Sweden by redirecting our critical attention to the investigation and construction of intrinsically diverse literary relations across languages and cultures while, at the same time, making a Scandinavian contribution to the vibrant global network of Comparative Literature as a discipline.