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Meritocracy and Literature: Transcultural Approaches to Hegemonic Forms

Project description

Investigating meritocratic narratives in and through literature

Social narratives of meritocracy are reflected in many literary and artistic forms. They feature in plays, novels, travelogues, films, and artistic manifestos. Through colonisation and globalisation, such narratives have travelled widely. This is especially noticeable in Anglophone contexts. Funded by the European Research Council, the MERLIT project will explore how meritocratic narratives shape literary forms, as well as how they are shaped by literary forms in turn. It will investigate how meritocratic narratives are written and culturally circulated, arguing that their adoption in literary forms allows insights into the 'spirit' of a particular age and context. Eventually, MERLIT will aim at understanding shifts in the articulation of value, merit, and success over time, from the 17th to the 21st centuries.


MERLIT is the first systematic, diachronic and comparative investigation of meritocratic narratives in literature. Meritocratic thinking manifests itself in powerful narratives across the globe, from the constitutionally embedded “pursuit of happiness” to neoliberal narratives of self-enhancement. MERLIT investigates forms of these narratives, which are embraced for their seemingly empowering and universalist appeal, but also criticised for their enmeshment with structures of domination and privilege. MERLIT explores how meritocratic narratives are written, how they are written into cultures, but also how they are written back to in text forms that have shaped the zeitgeist of particular moments respectively. Although research into meritocratic thinking is a vibrant interdisciplinary field, it is characterised (1) by a lack of investigations into the formal principles underpinning – or challenging – meritocratic articulations, (2) by a narrow focus on (white) Western contexts and (3) by a concentration on recent developments. To counter these gaps, (1) MERLIT explores in six work packages how practices of writing have played, and continue to play, crucial roles in shaping meritocratic articulations but also critiques thereof; (2) MERLIT expands the contextual focus of existing scholarship by engaging with radical writing practices from the Global South and a range of transculturally entangled anglophone contexts; eventually, (3) MERLIT challenges perceptions of meritocratic thinking and its critiques as recent phenomena by engaging with changing forms of articulating value, merit and success from the 17th century to the present. Situated at the intersections of literary history, new formalist theory and cultural translation, MERLIT not only offers a literary history of meritocratic thought, but significantly advances our understanding of the workings of a set of hegemonic forms in and through writing, and of the formative, worldmaking role of literature.

Host institution

Net EU contribution
€ 1 961 451,00
1050 Bruxelles / Brussel

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Région de Bruxelles-Capitale/Brussels Hoofdstedelijk Gewest Région de Bruxelles-Capitale/ Brussels Hoofdstedelijk Gewest Arr. de Bruxelles-Capitale/Arr. Brussel-Hoofdstad
Activity type
Higher or Secondary Education Establishments
Total cost
€ 1 961 451,00

Beneficiaries (1)