Call for papers : « Expressing the collective »

Expressing the collective: Forms of dialogue in Eastern European Jewish writings

Symposium co-organised by the Centre d’Études et de Recherches Moyen-Orient Méditerranée (INALCO) and the Centre d’Études et de Recherches Comparatistes (Sorbonne Nouvelle – Paris 3 university)

5-6 June, 2015


What can be called collective? How do collective utterances appear in texts? How can writing become a place for dialogue between collective voices and individual speech? In the context of written productions shaped by Eastern European Jewish culture, either directly or indirectly, the interdependence between individual writing and collective responsibility – in the name of a group or a community – causes a double-bind, which implies both telling the author’s unique experience and writing for a collective entity. These texts cannot be considered as closed entities: they all imply a dialogue with some kind of “otherness”, in the form of pre-existing or coexisting speeches.

If words are the expression of a collective world, if it is framed by “dialogism” as defined by Bakhtin, it is worth questioning the nature of this collective entity expressed within language itself. The translinguistic context, the gaps and movements which run across the writing language, while they favour interactions between collective and individual voices, also multiply potential cultural references. How, then, can modern Eastern European Jews identify as a group despite their multilingualism? In these societies which are historically mostly Yiddish-speaking, but always enriched by multiple linguistic influences – Hebrew and Aramaic from the sacred texts as well as surrounding languages –, the transition to modernity which occurred from the 19th century onwards caused various dissensions and ideological commitments which often focused on linguistic issues.

The collective: the discursive network in which every statement is woven, can be shaped by multiple languages. And even though this multilingual context participates in cultural dispersion – both locally, with the production of new political ideologies, and internationally, massive waves of migration forcing Eastern European Jews come into contact with new linguistic environments – some kind of dialogue may remain between these new speech acts and the languages of tradition. Jewish culture is shaped by the practice of quotation and gloss. Moreover, the revival of Hebrew in the wake of the 20th century, as well as the evolution of the language, occurs in a state of constant contact with other languages, whose influence can be suppressed or asserted, but always present: from Agnon or Yeshurun’s works to David Grossman’s, all literary creations in Modern Hebrew enter into dialogue with older forms of the Hebrew language (the ones of sacred texts, of rabbinical writings, of maskilic literature) and with Yiddish, which was the first language of most pioneers. In relation to which collective group do these new utterances place themselves? How can this dialogism, which is obvious in the case of speech acts which occur within a language, also be transferred from one language to another throughout the evolution of Eastern European Jews’ linguistic situation? How does it appear on a trangenerational level, in the works of writers who have inherited some elements of Eastern European Jewish culture sometimes without having known it directly? How does the revival and evolution of Modern Hebrew represent this polyphony?

Finally, dialogism also appears in the mise en abyme implemented by the texts themselves. The “we” is expressed by narrative devices which bring in multiple points of view, dialogues and narrative authorities in order to give new forms to collective speech. The voices expressed through polyphony – the Other, the living or past community, the dead who disappeared in historical catastrophes – vary with circumstances and imply a constant renewal of narrative strategies, running from the first classics of modern Yiddish literature (Mendele Moykher Sforim’s shared narratives, Peretz’ dialogue with Hassidic tradition) to the modernist experiments of the interwar period (Kulbak, Der Nister, Bergelson, etc.). In what ways do these narratives stage a dialogic situation? How does polyphonic writing assume responsibility for a group? How are the “I” and the “we” intertwined in these writings? How are these polyphonic references, playing with the canon, inversion, counterpoint, harmony and disharmony, narrative rhythms, built up and what do they say about the individual assumption of a collective voice?

We will consider all proposals addressing the issues of:

  • Polyphony and linguistics: the linguistic approach of polyphony and its application to Eastern European Jewish languages.
  • Polyphony and translation: how polyphony can occur in the transition from one language to the other.
  • Polyphony and palimpsest: the practice of quotation, both diachronic and synchronic, in relation to sacred texts as well as literary intertexts.
  • Polyphony and languages: how enunciative responsibility for a collective entity influences modern literary works, in Yiddish, Hebrew, or in the transition to non-Jewish languages, and how, at different times, writing practices adopt or reject de-individualised speech.
  • Polyphony and historiographical/testimonial practices: the influence of tradition on modern historiography, including the collection, transcription and use of testimonial sources.
  • Polyphony and narratives: narrative strategies transferring into the plot the issue of singular and collective voices; how dissidence translates into narrative devices (satire, irony, parody, etc.).
  • Polyphony and folklore: scholarly or literary appropriation of popular culture (tales, songs, proverbs, etc.).
  • Polyphony and “subconscious”: subconscious voices as underlying statements and speeches, circulating in the depths of texts and language and shaping them.

These avenues are given only as indications and examples. All proposals centred on written texts marked by the influence of Jewish Eastern European modernity in their relationship to the expression of the collective will be carefully considered.

Paper proposals must be sent by 19 January 2015 to Fleur Kuhn-Kennedy ( or Cécile Rousselet (

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