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The Hermes Consortium for Literary and Cultural Studies

The Hermes Consortium for Literary and Cultural Studies

is a collaboration of doctoral schools in Belgium, The Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Great Britain, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, France, and USA that seeks to further an understanding of the European presence in the fields of literature, art and culture in an era of globalization, to promote interdisciplinary thoughts in the fields of literary and cultural studies, to explore changes in European self-understanding and self-criticism across the cultures and disciplines in and beyond Europe, and to develop co-operation between European as well as between non-European research environments.



Possible Worlds: Environment, Community, Heterotopia – Summer school of the Hermes Consortium for Literary and Cultural Studies

University of Siena – Arezzo campus, June 12-16, 2023

Over the past decades, Possible Worlds theory has proved one of the most fascinating fields in the theoretical study of aesthetics and narrative imagination, both in literature and other media. It has increased our insight on the relationship between artistic representation and reality, and on the role of fictional imagination in human life, as scholars of different disciplines – psychology, anthropology, cognitive sciences – have acknowledged the idea of narrating as the primary human activity. Creating, representing and ‘visiting’ imaginary world are practices situated somewhere between children’s games of make-believe (Walton 1990) and the dual structure of religious thought (that postulate the concrete existence of an afterlife): they bring back and revitalize the experiential energy of play in the adult world, but without the supplementary energy of a religious approach, and therefore keep it entirely lay and human; they provide a space for experimentation and reasoning (Doležel 1998, Schaeffer 2010) and preserve the creative side of social behaviors, that tend to be sclerotized by rules and conventions (Pavel 1986). More recently, cognitive and social scientists have discussed from different disciplinary perspectives the crucial role of narration as a tool to make sense of individual and collective experiences by filtering and interpreting singular events through pre-existing narrative patterns; and even to prevent potential future traumas by an act of imaginative training or ‘premediation’ (Grusin 2010). Conversely, other scholars, while acknowledging the revolutionary power of narration, emphasize the dangers of surrendering to fictional imagination, and the progressive erosion of the very distinction between truth and fiction in the time of pervasive mediation, virtual reality and ‘post-truth’ (Baudrillard 1994, Žižek 1997, Lavocat 2016).

These are just a few of the aesthetical, cultural and political perspectives intertwined in an incredibly rich and lively field of study, whose implications concern not only artists and scholars, but also the communities and cultures to which they belong and refer. This is the main reason why we believe in the relevance of a renewed, comprehensive and articulated  reflection on the world-building power of aesthetic imagination from ancient myths to today’s fantasies of the Multiverse; on the creative and falsifying role of fiction, from Plato’s mistrust in mimesis to Baudrillard’s complains of iperreality; and on the vital importance and at the same time the dangers of projecting ourselves in a different, possible world brought to existence by an act of artistic creation.

The starting point of this reflection are the theories on imaginary worlds and their relation to the actual world. Since its origins, Western culture has known two primary contrasting conceptions of the relationship between aesthetic imagination and reality. The theory based on the Platonic idea of art as “copy” (eikon) and on the Aristotelian concept of mimesis has been a tenet of Western aesthetics for centuries. Regardless of its multifarious and ever-changing guises, the key principle of the mimetic paradigm is that fictional entities are imitations or representations of actually existing entities, be they historically determined or psychological or sociological types and categories. An alternative approach to mimetic theory is based on the idea of art as creation of ‘other’ worlds. Victor Stoichita (2006) has claimed that such conception originates in the Ovidian myth of Pygmalion and in the related idea of phantasma, or simulacrum. The conceptual backbone of this alternative position is to be found in the philosophic theory of Possible Worlds, which first appeared in Gottfried Leibniz’s Theodicy and has been properly developed in the second half of the 20th century by philosophers of the analytic school. Starting in the 1970s, the application of PW theory to artistic imagination has allowed literary studies to overcome the structural moratorium on questions of reference (Pavel 1986) and created the premises for the modern study of fictional semantics (Ryan 1991, 2013). Adapting the logical-philosophical theory of PW to the aesthetic field allows us to describe literary works as fictional worlds generated by a textual act. In the light of these remarks, the idea that art represents (copies, imitates, describes) reality is no longer viable, since the fictional world does not pre-exist the act of representation: it is a unique world brought into existence by the twofold creative act of the author and the reader (Eco 1984). In this perspective, the setting of a story is not perceived as a simple feature of the text, but as the logical condition for its existence, determining its attributes and its development. Moreover, these new visions of artistic creation and reception have been the ground for new aesthetical experiences, in which the cooperation of the reader/viewer plays a crucial role in structuring the imaginary world and its relations of reference to the actual world: from the obscurities and riddles of symbolist poetry to the ontological uncertainties of postmodern realities, from the experiments of the avant-gardes up to today’s interactive works inspired by video games and virtual reality models (McHale 1987, Bell 2010).

Beyond and apart from cognitive and aesthetic insights into PW theory and its use in understanding the operation and the function of literary representation, we are specifically interested in discussing the cultural and political implications involved in the concept of PW that are hinted at by the three keywords in the subtitle.

‘Environment’ is a key concept which can be meant in – at least – two different senses. On the one hand, it stands for the wide range of possible spatial structures within literary texts (settings, interior/exterior spaces, landscapes, descriptions, architecture, referentiality, non-places etc.), which have recently been punt under scrutiny by several critical approaches (commonly linked to the label of Geocriticism: Westphal 2011). On the other hand, ‘Environment’ represents a political concern which is becoming more and more urgent nowadays, and which is reflected both within recent works dealing with environmental issues on the thematical and ideological level, and within new critical perspectives orienting our readings of literary texts: Ecocriticism, Environmental Humanities, Human-Animal Studies, Posthuman Studies.

‘Community’ hints at the cultural and especially political function of fictional modelling of reality. Communities exist so far as they can be ‘imagined’ and narrated as such (Anderson 1983): traditional communities share a common heritage of significant stories; other are founded or refounded through an act of collective storytelling, which sometimes takes the form of a counternarrative, a retelling and a manipulation of the canonical texts produced by the (former/present) dominant culture from a postcolonial, feminist, queer or posthuman perspective (Newman 1995, Spivak 2006).

Finally, ‘Heterotopia’ reinforces the political connections evoked by ‘Community’, and stresses the creative and critical elements of speculative imagination: scholars of utopia, science fiction and fantasy (Suvin 1987, Jameson 2005) have convincingly discussed the functioning of speculative works as cognitive exercises, which by offering the reader alternatives to her world always compel her to not take her own world and system of values for granted, and to conceive the possibility of alternatives to them. At the same time, writers and critics have also highlighted the dangers of all fanatical idealizations of supposed upcoming or past utopias (or retrotopias, as Zygmunt Bauman has defined them), which may lead to the loss of critical thinking and the surrender to totalitarian ideologies.

We welcome abstracts related but not limited to the areas listed below:

  • Geocritical approaches and readings; the analysis of literary representations of real spaces, settings and communities
  • Literary and narrative strategies (allegories, symbols, language, mythological rewritings, counternarratives etc.) aimed at building personal and collective identities
  • Epics, romance, fairy-tale, carnivalesque: the imaginary worlds of Early Modern tradition.
  • Forms and themes of speculative imagination in literature and media: utopia, dystopia, retrotopia, alternative history, fantasy, apocalyptic narratives, imagined futures
  • Possible worlds on stage: referentiality and aesthetic illusion in drama
  • Contamination and overlapping of truth and fiction in contemporary genres: neo-historical fiction, autofiction, docufiction, etc.
  • Eco-criticism, Post-anthropocentrism, Posthumanism: new visions fostering new narratives, or new readings of older narratives
  • Strategies of world building and make-believe processes across media, and the evolution of immersive/interactive models of aesthetic enjoyment: film, comics, interactive works, videogames


Each paper will be allotted 20 minutes. Please send your proposals, including an abstract (300 words) and a short bio note (150 words, with your name, email address, institutional affiliation, dissertation topic, and disciplinary anchoring), to hermes.siena2023@gmail.com by January 31, 2023.

Keynote Speakers

Thomas Pavel (University of Chicago)

Maria Boletsi (University of Amsterdam)

Serenella Iovino, Professor of Italian and Environmental Studies (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)

Masterclasses by Hermes faculty for small groups: the program will include three seminars for small groups, each with a specific focus on a topic related to the general theme of “Possible Worlds”.

General Information

The doctoral school in “Phylology and Criticism (Filologia e critica)” is a member of the Hermes Consortium for Literary and Cultural Studies, a long-standing collaboration of twelve doctoral schools in Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, and the USA. The Consortium’s annual summer school, hosted in turn by each partner institution, brings together specialists, delegates from the partner universities, and 24 PhD students (two per university). An intensive training workshop and work-in-progress presentations focus on shared methodologies and interdisciplinary themes and lead to the publication of an annual edited volume, published by UCL Press in the Comparative Literature and Culture series.

Practical Information

The school will take place on the Arezzo Campus of the University of Siena. Accommodation for delegates, speakers and student participants will be provided for five nights (12th June to 17th June 2023). A conference fee of EUR 325.00 per participant will include participation, accommodation, cultural activities, coffee breaks, lunch on five days, and conference dinner. Participants are requested to make their own travel arrangements.


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Bauman, Zygmunt, Retrotopia, Cambridge: Polity, 2017.

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