MDRN is a University of Leuven Research Centre of Excellence. It studies literature in a uniquely varied period in European cultural history: the (long) first half of the twentieth century. All MDRN research initiatives have a double goal: (i) they wish to further our understanding of European literature from the first half of the twentieth century, and (ii) they more generally seek to reflect on the practice of modern literary historiography and to explore different modes of writing the history of modern European literature. MDRN is a laboratory. This implies that it is a space where ideas are tested and experiments are discussed and reported on, that it is a site visited by scholars from other institutions to present their work in progress, that it is a place where junior researchers are given room to think outside the box and to prepare for a career outside the laboratory.
The Six Premises
A key feature of MDRN’s research is its inclusive and comparative scope, which builds on six premises.
1. Literature belongs to everyone. Literature in the first half of the twentieth century, as today, was more than a matter of a small elite. Everyone came into contact with literature somehow. This explains why work in the MDRN lab tackles an array of literary genres and registers, and why the lab houses expertise on canonised ‘high’ modernists and the international avant-gardes as well as on the period’s so-called ‘middlebrow’ writing (which addressed a wider audience of educated men and women) and ‘low’ or popular literature (which further addressed the broadest audience possible). Because literature today still belongs to everyone, the MDRN lab also invests heavily in communicating its work to non-specialists by way of exhibitions and digital initiatives, interventions in the press, public readings and lectures.
2. Literature is everywhere. Literature from the first half of the twentieth century can be found in books, obviously, but it can as often be encountered in places where we least expect it. A poem recorded on a wax phonograph cylinder, one sung in an opera, or one pasted onto a cubist painting is as much a poem as any other. Moreover, literature in the period would not have been the same without typewriters, specially designed book cases, reading chairs, the postal system or the freighter. All these material objects as well formed part of the vortex called ‘literature’. So did the other arts and crafts that developed alongside literature. Hybrid genres which arose during the period, such as the photo-novella, the artist’s book, the novelisation or the radio-play formed part of literature too. For all these reasons MDRN also looks at a wide range of other arts, media and technologies (such as photography, film and sound-recording media), which came to flourish in the first half of the twentieth century.
3. Literature is of all languages. Research in the MDRN lab covers various European linguistic traditions because literature in the first half of the twentieth century did not stop at language borders. This multilingual scope raises awareness of the fact that those linguistic borders created fluid, multi-centred institutional and cultural (regional, national, inter- or transnational, and even global) networks—a single ‘Eurocentric modernism’ never existed. The same linguistic borders also gave rise to intricate forms of subjectivity at play in literature. For even writing in a single language, say French, was always composed of many languages: the many languages of gender and race, the language of other, often long-gone, writers, and even, as certain French surrealists believed, the language of stones.
4. Literature can know everything. This of course is a bold statement, because no single work of literature can ever deal with all there is to know. Yet in the abstract there is really no limit to what an author could write about. Hence, all types of knowledge, whatever their provenance (be it culture at large or a specialised discipline), can find a place in literature. So how does literature select and disseminate knowledge in circulation? Why does it not speak about certain things and manifestly addresses others? Does it, perhaps, create a type of knowledge of its own? This is a question of great interest to MDRN, not least because it was widely addressed in literature from the period. It also explains why much research conducted in the lab is interdisciplinary of nature.
5. Literature asks for multiple perspectives. Located at the crossroads of three important research traditions (the French, the German and the Anglo-American) and at the heart of the European Union, the Belgium-based MDRN lab is an ideal site for comparative methodological reflection on modern European literature. It is well-known that different academic cultures in the humanities often approach the same object in diverse ways. Combining such varied perspectives in a single team leads to productive frictions and in turn often yields surprisingly fresh approaches.
6. Literature demands collaboration. To study an object as complicated as writing between 1900 and 1950 requires that we cooperate. MDRN works as a group, often co-authors books and essays, and publishes, as a rule, in a variety of languages. MDRN also frequently invites experts worldwide and from a variety of disciplines to participate in its exciting journey.
It is not to be excluded that more premises will be added to this list as work in the MDRN lab progresses. To the above six premises today perhaps a seventh could be added: literature belongs to all periods. This may or may not be true, depending on what we call literature. And it is correct that some research initiatives of MDRN also tend to look at phenomena beyond the first half of the twentieth century. Yet because literature from this period already refuses a single definition, it is only wise to impose certain limitations on our scope.