How has Otherness been imagined and depicted in Nordic and European Literature? This semester, students in the Literature Program have set out to explore this topic, alongside new faculty member Jan Holmgaard, Ph.D.
We caught up with Jan to hear more about his background, his ideas and readings for the course, and what he’s been working on outside of teaching at DIS.
About the Course
DIS: Tell us about the course you teach, Imagining the Other in European Literature.
Jan Holmgaard, Ph.D.: “The Other” could mean a number of things. We have chosen to focus on postcolonialism, orientalism, and gender. There is also a section on multiculturalism and urbanity. By using these various critical approaches, we examine the ideological, cultural, and political aspects of the European literary tradition, from the 19th century to the present.
DIS: As a literature course, the core course’s foundation is based on the collection of readings. How did you go about choosing the required texts?
JH: Quite simply a lot of reading and planning. One idea when working on the syllabus was to mix the more obvious references with more unexpected perspectives. A postcolonial critique of Heart of Darkness seems mandatory, whereas the idea of the female uncanny might strike you as a less obvious starting point for a discussion on gender.
DIS: Students taking Imagining the Other in European Literature embark on a Week-Long Study Tour to London and Oxford. What can they learn from traveling to these locations?
JH: We have a section on multiculturalism and urbanity. Every literary work in that section, like Zadie Smith’s novel N-W, takes place in London and deals with various questions regarding Otherness. The study tour gives the students a wonderful opportunity to better understand the cultural identities that make up a modern city like London. But also to understand how its imperial past has developed into a multicultural, global city.
DIS: How do you perceive Otherness as relevant in today’s world?
JH: One of the reasons I felt really excited about developing this course was that many of its major topics are important for interpreting the times we live in. Globalization, migrant politics, gender identity, cultural diversity, all raise key questions and are essential to the discussion of our future societies. I feel that it is important to debate these questions and to trace their roots through literary and critical studies.
DIS: Tell us about your background prior to joining DIS.
JH: I wrote my doctoral thesis in comparative literature at Stockholm University. I then joined the Søren Kierkegaard Research Centre as a postdoc scholar. After that, I spent two years as a visiting researcher at The University of Oxford, where I worked on Wordsworth and romantic aesthetics.
I am currently a lecturer at Stockholm University, where I teach courses in literary theory and the history of literature. For many years, I was the editor of the cultural journal, Aiolos. I have written extensively on various topics and published several books. My latest title, Filosofen och vargen (The Philosopher and the Wolf, 2015) deals with the intricate relationship between literature and philosophy, from Plato to Derrida. I have also worked as a translator of operas, plays, and philosophy.
DIS: You were born in Poland and lived in a number of other cities, including Copenhagen, Berlin, London, and currently, Stockholm. How has your experience traveling around influenced your perception of living as the Other?
JH: From a postcolonial perspective, my personal experience of the Other, at least as an adult, would probably have to start with the acknowledgment that my position, as a white male in brogues, is always that of a privileged position. As a child coming to Sweden from Poland, it was a different story altogether. Even though my father was Swedish, I felt different and was not able to fit in until my late teens. I have always been fascinated by cultural differences, and have to admit that I enjoy it immensely.
As a child coming to Sweden from Poland, it was a different story altogether. Even though my father was Swedish, I felt different and was not able to fit in until my late teens. I have always been fascinated by cultural differences, and have to admit that I enjoy it immensely.
Having lived in several countries, and more importantly, in vibrant cities like London and Berlin, has provided me with great opportunities to experience and reflect on questions regarding tolerance, equality, and cultural diversity.
DIS: You will also teach an elective course at DIS, Philosophy of Technology and Human Values. What makes you passionate about this subject?
JH: It’s a wonderful and very important subject that puts us in touch with some major philosophical questions, highly relevant for the times we live in. We hear of these anthropological studies on how technology affects our daily lives. But the more pressing philosophical questions at stake seem to be: What impact does technology have on our being, in our thinking, our subjectivity, our identity, the existential dimensions of our lives? What happens to us as humans, fundamentally speaking, in the age of technology, and what are the philosophical and moral implications of that?
Joining DIS Faculty
DIS: DIS faculty often teach what they do. What are some elements of your own work that you are excited to share with DIS students?
JH: I am currently writing a book where I use some very interesting and intriguing gender theories. I am sure some of it will show up in my classes with the students. More importantly, however, I always consider teaching to be part of my own work.
DIS: How have you shared your passion for teaching with the DIS community?
JH: I am very excited about joining DIS, and I am truly looking forward to engaging with the students this semester. If they can’t feel my passion, I hope they will have the decency to throw me out…
Interesting in studying literature while at DIS? There are a few more courses you may want to hear more about! Find all literature courses listed here.