CTAS Lecture on Transnationalism and Sino-American Literary Exchange

Intransitive Encounter

by Nan Z. Da, Assistant Professor in the English department at the University of Notre Dame.

Nan Z. Da works on nineteenth-century American literature and letters, Qing and early-Republic Chinese literature and letters, literary nationalism and transnationalism, narrative/genre/media theory, and theories of the book and its readers. Her work has appeared in Signs, American Literary History, J19, Henry James Review, Public Books, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. She holds a PhD from the University of Michigan (2014) and a BA from the University of Chicago (2006).

This talk wants to challenge orthodoxies about transnationalism with the reality of exchanges that don’t “take.” It uses some examples from nineteenth-century Sino-US literary encounters to analyze cross-cultural contacts that do not produce change, that linger in slippery and provocative ways in “mere formality."

At the collapse of one empire and the beginning of another, China and the United States had multiple episodes of what we now call “literary exchange.” But rather than use this knowledge to further backdate globalization, I argue that within much of this transnational and cross-cultural activity we mostly see “intransitivity.” Even though writers on both sides extended their thoughts beyond their national boundaries, they shared a lack of commitment towards transpacific interpollination and co-development and often squandered the opportunity to herald a converging world-- an indifference that doesn't even rise to the fullness of refusal.

A secondary, historical claim of the talk will be that these episodes themselves were responsible for a romance forming at the end of the nineteenth century and at the beginning of the twentieth century: the belief that an exchange must have a durable and mappable afterlife. Drawing a line from this institutionalization of literary exchange to our current moment, I ask if we might still hold open a cross-culturalism that is wholly self-contained, that uses itself up in the moment of transpiration, and does not demand institutionalization, demonstrable impact, or empirical evidence that it has taken place.