CfP: ACLA Panel 2017 „Flexible Fetters: Obligation, Commitment and Tolerance in Modern Literature“

Proposed Seminar for the 2017 Annual Meeting of the American Comparative Literature Association (ACLA) in Utrecht, The Netherlands (July 6-9, 2017)


Joachim Harst, Bonn University (

Manuel Clemens, Rutgers University (

Post-structuralism discovered literature as a free discourse of non-commitment, claiming that literary texts can’t be reduced to any single, binding interpretation. Reading texts closely thus led to unmask any binding set of values as ideology, but could also teach tolerance, the acceptance of dissent as a productive force. In this perspective, tolerance and ideological bindings can be considered as antithetic. Our panel, in contrast, proposes to rethink this relation. Doesn’t any productive dissent presuppose a common ground which is not to be questioned? And to what extent must tolerance itself be binding, if it is to be more than a minimal consensus to be revoked at any time? In his discussion with Habermas, who considered tolerance as the basis of liberal democracy, Derrida criticized the power imbalance between the one who tolerates and the one who is tolerated. Deconstructive readings, however, have rarely left any doubt that their result – the non-binding nature of all interpretation – should itself be considered binding.

A new approach to obligation and tolerance could well entail questioning the binding character of values and laws (“Verbindlichkeit”). In their respective critiques of the paradoxical foundations of law and sovereignty, both Derrida and Agamben think the force of law as a power of imposition that always presupposes itself: the institution positing the law has to presuppose its own lawful imposition, and it is precisely this paradoxical movement that constitutes the binding force of law. Thinking law from the act of its imposition, however, is close to a normativistic understanding that ultimately locates the force of law in the power of the state. Our panel, in turn, proposes a different perspective: rather than relying on any external, institutionalized constraint, the binding character of values and laws (“Verbindlichkeit”) is referred back on a preceding level of tacit knowledge that implies language, affective dispositions and basic cultural practices (see Descombes, Castoriadis, Th. Vesting). In order to posit values and establish institutions, there must be social relations and cultural practices – in short: engagements with the Other – that are structured like networks and precede all binary (e.g., master/slave) oppositions. This also allows to raise the question to what extent literature (as part of cultural networks) can exert a binding force. Preceding explicit legal constraints, both tolerance and pre-institutional obligations refer to flexible forms of binding that are perhaps all the more powerful.

Our panel invites papers that discuss literary and philosophical negotiations of obligation, commitment and tolerance from the enlightenment (Voltaire, Lessing) to the present (Rushdie, Z. Smith) as well as representations of intolerance and disagreement (Coetzee, Houellebecq). In addition, contributions addressing the binding force of literature from the perspective of media theory, discourse analysis or cultural studies are welcome.

Please submit 300-word proposals for twenty-minute papers through the ACLA portal ( during the submission period (Sept. 1 – Sept. 23).  Since potential ACLA meeting participants may submit proposals to only one seminar of their choice, interested individuals are encouraged to contact the seminar organizers by email with inquiries about the appropriateness of their proposal for the seminar before formally submitting their abstract through the ACLA site.  Seminar organizers will review all submitted papers and propose their rosters to the ACLA by Sept. 30.  The ACLA Program Committee will review all submitted seminars for consideration for inclusion in the program in October.

For more information on the ACLA Annual Meeting, see

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