our words make worlds

Julian Weiss

Planning Language Acts & Worldmaking encouraged me to think about how one of its core concepts — language as a material, world-making force — had already shaped my teaching, research and my intellectual outlook generally. More importantly, it made me think about how the strand ‘Travelling Concepts’ could open up new pathways to investigate the work done by words in the world.

In the early 1990s, I became fascinated by the cultural materialism of Raymond Williams, particularly his Marxism and Literature (1977). Finding my way through this dense and at times opaque book was not easy (one acerbic reader compared it to a haiku version of War and Peace). But critical engagement with his work was, and continues to be, profoundly rewarding. His materialist approach to language, to the category ‘literature’, with its genres, forms and conventions, exerted an explicit influence upon my thinking in many ways, but especially in relation to poetics. This was the field in which I began my academic career as a doctoral student and which produced my early articles and first book (1990). Williams began with the premise that ‘a definition of language is always, implicitly or explicitly, a definition of human beings in the world’ (Marxism, 21). This approach, which Williams shared with many others, before and since, would eventually inform my later studies: on the masculinist conventions of the Galician-Portuguese lyric (1997); on the social meaning of form in medieval poetic treatises (1998); on the material poetics of Juan del Encina (1999); and my second book, on thirteenth-century clerical narrative, The ‘Mester de Clerecía’: Intellectuals and Ideologies in Thirteenth-Century Castile (2006). In the classroom too so much of my work relies on close reading of ‘words in action’ in historically specific social situations and conditions.

Raymond Williams has not been my only influence: feminist, postcolonial and other forms of cultural critique have also played a part in shaping my research and teaching at undergraduate and MA levels. Ideological critique — how meaning intersects with power — plays an important role in such current offerings as ‘Writing Women in premodern Spain’, ‘Muslim Spain: A European Fantasy’; ‘Sepharad: The Jews of Medieval and Early Modern Spain’; ‘Global Iberias: An Introduction to the Spanish and Portuguese Speaking Worlds’ (a team-taught core module for first-year students, resources for which will be one of this strand’s research outputs). Our project has also inspired me to develop a second-year undergraduate module called ‘Language Acts and Worldmaking in Medieval and Early Modern Spain’. More information about this module and about ‘Global Iberias’ will be posted on this site, and will be updated as my ideas and practice develop in the classroom.

Besides collaborating with my colleagues AbdoolKarim Vakil and Rachel Scott on developing teaching resources for ‘Global Iberias’, I am now actively working on three main avenues of research that contribute to the ‘Travelling Concepts’ strand: a monograph on the early modern reception of the Romanized Jewish historian Flavius Josephus in the Iberian world (1492-1687); research into the ‘The French Connection’ (about medieval and early modern epic rivalries between Spain and France and their ideological reconfigurations of Iberia as a border zone between Christendom and Islam); and conference papers on Romantic visions of Al-Andalus (especially Chateaubriand’s Le dernier Abencerrage and Washington Irving’s Tales from the Alhambra). Also in preparation is a paper on the significance of Iberian history and epic legends in Sephardic balladry. The conceptual and methodological principles that underpin ‘Travelling Concepts’ lend coherence to these various projects. Together, they build on recent trends in literary studies that argue for more polycentric, relational and transhistorical approaches, in order to understand and critique the historical emergence of ‘Europe’ through the multiples lenses offered by the Iberianate world.

Future blog posts will report on these and other projects as they develop.  Full details about my publications (including pdfs) can be found on my academia.edu page, as well as on KCL’s research portal.