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The poetics and politics of grief – a literary history

Carlsbergfondets postdoc-stipendier i Danmark

What

My research project "The poetics and politics of grief - a literary history" investigates the question of grief in a contemporary, but historically and aesthetically reflected perspective. Much research has been done on the topic of grief from within the fields of anthropology, sociology, philosophy and psychology, but this project uses the tool of cultural studies and comparative literature to study literature from three historical periods (corresponding with three different genres): Grief In Attic tragedies (e.g. Sophocles' Antigone), modernist novels (e.g. William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying) and contemporary poetry (e.g. the work of Juliana Spahr).

Why

While grief is undoubtedly an integral, transhistorical and universal feature of human life, its historical and cultural manifestations vary widely. In recent years, two important changes are worth mentioning. First, grief as one pertinent form of unhappiness has become an increasingly marginalized if not medicalized phenomenon in the public sphere, while grief has also undergone a gradual - conceptual and clinical - transformation into a pathological disorder. Second, the society of today has seen happiness emerge as a dominant norm, according to which it is a moral duty to be happy, and conversely immoral to be unhappy and sad. This historical development calls for a systematic conceptualization and analysis from cultural studies, which is exactly what this research project offers.

How

I am planning to insist on the importance of literary and cultural studies, asserting that the historical archive of literary texts not only provide evidence of social and political processes in the past; they also enable new understandings of present problems. As a consequence, I will primarily conduct my research and develop my main arguments through careful analyses of works of literature from the three historical periods mentioned above and by studying these literary sources in order to map the cultural landscape of contemporary grief. At the same time the project maintains a strong interdisciplinary impulse, merging the insights of comparative literature with those of psychology for instance.

SSR

The aim of the project is to fulfill three objectives. The first is conceptual/theoretical: To offer an illuminating angle on the concept of grief through the framework of comparative literature and cultural studies. The second is analytical/historical: To shed new light on some canonical works of literature, which have already received scholarly attention that could fill libraries on their own. The third is critical/political: To use grief as a prismatic vantage point through, which some pertinent problems of the world of today can be exposed. Overall, the project thus seeks to contribute to and extend ongoing academic as well as more public and popular discussions on the contemporary culture of grief.