Background on the Modern Language Initiative
The Modern Language Initiative publishes scholarship by first authors writing in English about linguistic cultural productions in languages other than English. This includes all types of literature, as well as other verbal productions such as rhetoric and film, in addition to performance, popular culture, and any other form that employs language.
The initiative has created a collaborative model that will offer scholars in a wide range of languages and literatures a shared and welcoming space for publishing excellent scholarship and at the same time addresses a transformative moment in the structure, purpose, and content of foreign language teaching and research.
We have crafted this initiative to respond to a negative—some would say a disastrous—trend: the dramatic reduction in publishing opportunities in foreign languages and literatures at a time when enrollments in foreign languages and interest in foreign cultures are greater than they have been in many years. Modern language departments, in which scholarship on linguistic cultural productions in languages other than English is primarily based, develop, preserve, and transmit the cultural knowledge and linguistic competence necessary for understanding other cultures. Moreover, since culture is inherently international, these departments have been the point at which many of the most important intellectual developments in recent decades, whatever their home discipline, have first entered the American academy. They house the scholars who can read these developments in their original languages and who can interpret the culture of their origin.
The focus of this initiative is on language itself, especially as manifested in literature and other cultural narratives, rather than some other more traditional factor, such as geographical area or “national” origin. In this, we take encouragement from the recent position paper issued by the Ad Hoc Committee on Foreign Languages of the Modern Language Association (MLA), which commends an “integrative approach” to the study of literature, society, and cultural expression centered on language, one that situates language study in broad historical and cross-cultural frames while maintaining a methodological focus on the study of language as such. This integrative model offers an antidote to the piecemeal approach that considers language acquisition an instrumental skill, which the committee contends has served this country poorly in an age of ever-increasing international connections. The model depends conceptually on book publication, since it is in their books that scholars in this field work out the complex linguistic and cultural interconnections that then translate into further research and teaching. On the pragmatic level, book publication is necessary if scholars are to be recruited into these fields and are to keep their jobs.
Under the conditions of globalization, new situations of transnational and transcultural contact both create new understandings of language and bring into view the degree to which these, or yet other constellations, may have been present all along. To take an example from Fordham University Press’s current list, to learn about Islamic cultures via their literatures, one might need to go to a scholar based in a French Department as much as to a scholar in a Department of Middle Eastern Languages: she is from Afghanistan, teaches in Chicago, and writes about Islamic North African authors who choose to write in French. An instrumental conception of language as merely a skill cannot do justice to the complex cultural melding and borrowing at work here. It pushes even beyond the Ad Hoc Committee’s recognition that “Expressions such as ‘the pursuit of happiness,’ ‘liberté, égalité, fraternité,’ and ‘la Raza’ connote cultural dimensions that extend well beyond their immediate translation.” The scholarship currently being done in the modern foreign languages recognizes both the impossibility and the necessity of translation, as well as the need of linguistic production to both work within and press against these boundaries.
The reasons for taking an inclusive approach to publication of research in foreign languages are institutional and methodological, intellectual-historical, and pragmatic.
Institutionally and methodologically, the situation of scholars in the foreign languages presupposes that, although languages vary greatly, there are commonalities in the process of studying foreign languages and linguistic productions. In some institutions (such as Stanford), all foreign languages are institutionally grouped together in a single division. Even in institutions (such as Yale) in which the major European languages each have their own department, disparate languages and cultures get grouped together—Chinese and Japanese are almost always housed in a single department, for example, despite the dissimilar structure of the two languages. There are also, in many universities, departments or programs of comparative literature that bring together scholars primarily housed in language departments on the premise that they have something to contribute to one another’s work and teaching.
Historically, the vision of language as tied to nation and territory is but one model of how languages work—and a rather fraught one at that. Indeed, to separate language study from the trio of blood, tongue, and soil helps us to see that linkage as a project of modernity, and not just in European nations. Virtually no language is entirely separate from other languages, and many nations ostensibly unified linguistically have more than one language in play within their national borders. The persistence of linguistic diversity, especially in today’s diasporic world, has begun to generate a rich vein of scholarship.
Moreover, in intellectual-historical terms, to think that a scholar of, say, Chinese or Japanese language would share more interests with historians of China or Japan than with scholars of the French or German language would be to overlook the entire history of modern literary production in China and Japan, let alone the profound influence of China and Japan on modern French and German art and literature. To focus on the lens of language and its inherently international scope opens the possibility for such investigations.
Pragmatically, the term modern in our initiative has been chosen because it has become a term of art in the name of the Modern Language Association. Most of the books to be supported will be written by scholars who have studied in departments affiliated with this association. Since the number of faculty devoted to any given foreign language is necessarily small in comparison with those teaching and researching linguistic productions in English, most institutions are not able to support multiple language departments the size of the same campus’s English Department. Given that this Mellon initiative relies on economies of collaboration and scale, in order to have a real impact on the publishing situation of foreign-language scholars, we believe it should not be limited to scholars who teach any specific language. For further pragmatic reasons, however, we exclude scholarship exclusively on works written in classical languages and in those foreign literatures already served by other Mellon-supported initiatives.
We have received support for an average of four books per year for each of the five presses of the consortium for a period of five years.
The Consortium: Presses
The proposed consortium comprises Fordham University Press (administering the consortium), Northwestern University Press, the University of Pennsylvania Press, the University of Virginia Press, and the University of Washington Press.
The presses invited to participate in the consortium were chosen because of a history of innovative publishing that is consonant with the focus of this proposal and of the report of the MLA Ad Hoc Committee. Apart from Fordham, where the thinking expressed here has guided the choice of publications in literature for the past five years, the University of Washington Press faculty members have initiated a series designed to help alleviate the publication crisis in this field, and Northwestern University Press has accepted a series designed by faculty at the University of California to do the same. The University of Virginia Press has two well-established series in areas of the world (the Caribbean and Africa) that are almost textbook cases of multilingual mixing. Among the important directions at the University of Pennsylvania Press is an emphasis on material culture—which, like the initiative focus on language itself, cuts across divisions between languages.
A statement of the interests of each press, in the words of that press, follows.
Fordham. In its scholarly publications, Fordham University Press focuses on the intersections between philosophy, religion, and aesthetic productions. It added a list specifically in literature in 2003, with a focus on interdisciplinary work and work potentially of interest across fields or across languages. Recent titles have focused on literatures in French, German, Rajasthani, and Italian. The Mellon grant will allow Fordham to more than double its contribution to this field.
Northwestern. From its inception, Northwestern University Press has been at the forefront in publishing important works of scholarship as well as quality works of fiction, nonfiction, and literary criticism. Northwestern University Press is committed to the widest dissemination of scholarship possible, and as such, continues to look at new media and other alternatives to the traditional book as it strives to promote the finest works of scholarship in the humanities and social sciences. The Press seeks to publish important works in comparative literature, literary theory and critical theory, early modern literature, and German studies as well as interdisciplinary explorations of translation theory as it impinges upon a rethinking of world literatures. The FlashPoints Series in Literary Studies seeks to publish books that consider literature beyond strictly national and disciplinary frameworks, distinguished by both their historical grounding and their theoretical and conceptual strength. The series is interested in how literature contributes to forming new constellations of culture and history and in how such formations function critically and politically in the present.
Pennsylvania. The University of Pennsylvania Press has long-established lists in interdisciplinary and comparative literary studies, from the medieval to the modern; its Material Texts series, in particular, explores cultural technologies of communication—books, manuscripts, scrolls, films, graffiti, the actor’s voice—with particular attention to the ways that the specific material forms in which linguistic communications are cast affect their meaning. Yet the scholarly ambitions of the list have been hampered by concerns about market, and when book sales are considered, certain fields—early modern French or German, Italian studies of any period—have heretofore been only marginally viable at best. The Mellon grant will help remove such restrictions.
Virginia. As the publisher of a translation series in francophone literature from the Caribbean and Africa, Virginia occasionally takes on studies of these literatures (not translations) that demand knowledge of French. Similarly, the Press also publishes Caribbean cultural studies that often demand a knowledge of the multiple languages in that region—not only French but also Spanish, Portuguese, and Dutch. These multilingual studies tend to be underserved because of their specialization, and up to now, Virginia has published only a small number of them. Again, the Mellon grant will work to remove this restriction.
Washington. The University of Washington Press’s publications in literary studies cover a range of world literatures studied from a variety of disciplinary perspectives, with particular focus on the literatures of Asia (especially China), Scandinavia, and the Middle East. The Literary Conjugations series investigates literary artifacts in their cultural and historical environments.
The Consortium: Editorial Processes
The Modern Literature Initiative focuses on single-author works by first-time authors. Participating presses are using the initiative both to build on existing strengths and to add work concerning languages on which they have not published before.
Because this initiative focuses not on this language or that language, but rather on questions involving language itself—and because the consortium explicitly involves presses with either series or lists that in their conception cut across distinctions between individual languages—the question is not whether X press will add books in Y language, but that of increasing these presses’ ability to publish on a scale that might help address a crisis in scholarly communication in the modern languages.
Each press applies its own policies for acquisition, review, approval, revision, and development, up to the point of transmittal to an outside managing editor for copyediting and production. We also offer a standard royalty advance of $1,000.
For MLA Executive Director Rosemary G. Feal’s letter in support of the initiative, click here.