Theses Doctoral

"Conceptions of the World": Universalities in Literature and Art After Bandung

Vanhove, Pieter

This dissertation examines how after decolonization the philosophical concept of universality was reimagined in European and Chinese literary and visual culture. My central argument is that, in the wake of the 1955 Bandung Conference and the Afro-Asian solidarity it embodied, writers and intellectuals from both sides of the Iron Curtain proposed alternative notions of universal culture and World Literature. While traditional Eurocentric conceptions of the universal were lodged in an exclusionary logic rooted in colonial violence and racism, after decolonization it became possible to imagine postcolonial claims to universality.
I show how the Non-Alignment Movement imagined at Bandung inspired artists and intellectuals from both sides of the bipolar divide to voice new modes of solidarity in their work. I focus on three specific contexts: Italy, the Francophone world, and China. In the Italian context the writers I study include thinkers of a distinctively Gramscian lineage, from Pier Paolo Pasolini to Maria Antonietta Macciocchi. Conversely, the French and Francophone writers that I discuss, including Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Frantz Fanon, and Patrice Lumumba, were reconfiguring universality chiefly from a Hegelian perspective. Finally, in the Chinese context, I show how the Chinese contributions to the Bandung-era reinvention of universal culture and the ulterior art practice of the post-Mao 1980s were both rooted in the Marxist tradition. I conclude with a discussion of how postcolonial claims to universality, such as those imagined at Bandung, relate to “globalized” conceptions of the universal.
My work contributes to major recent debates in the fields of Comparative Literature and Postcolonial Studies by engaging with the theoretical questions of universality and translatability. Scholars like Emily Apter have recently published critical studies of what has been dubbed the “translatability assumption” at the heart of the burgeoning field of World Literature. My research discusses how an overt emphasis on reading works of literature in translation in the name of ease of access and universal circulation can gloss over the cultural and linguistic diversity of the world’s languages and literatures.
My research also relies on Judith Butler’s notion of “competing universalities.” In her text of the same title, Butler draws from Hegel, Gramsci, and others as she sets out to think the conditions of possibility for political hegemony. She arrives at an open-ended conclusion. Since many political constructs claim universality from within their located particularity, Butler argues that the intellectual’s task is to “adjudicate among competing notions of universality.” In line with these recent debates on the question of universality, my dissertation navigates between the different competing universals at stake during and after the Cold War.
My dissertation is original in the sense that it is one of the first multilingual and interdisciplinary studies that elucidate how current geopolitical changes on the world stage—from China’s expansionist politics to the rise of formerly Third World nations as global economic players—are embedded in a cultural history. While globalization is commonly seen as a phenomenon that expanded after the historical shifts of 1989, my project shows how the “postcolonial universalities” imagined in the wake of decolonization by Western and non-Western writers and artists constituted the groundwork for this history.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Leake, Elizabeth
Liu, Lydia
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
July 20, 2017