The list of new anthologies, studies, and journal issues dedicated to world literature is difficult to keep up with and impossible to ignore. Its curriculum exemplifies the two primary practices associated with world literature today: the first is a scholarly focus on global networks of literary exchange, influence, or intersection, usually grounded in the work of Pascale Casanova, Franco Moretti, and Damrosch himself.
Both are timely endeavors. It seems self-evident that any serious argument for the relevance of literary studies today cannot limit itself to an Anglophone or even Western canon, but must be attentive to many languages, localities, and cultural forms. As these few examples illustrate, the specter of world literature seems to draw disproportionate amounts of vitriol. This theoretically dense and rich book achieves a great number of things, though a successful critique of world literature is not necessarily one of them. Most notably, Cheah wishes to rehabilitate a definition of the literary as an ethical and political force in our time.
However, his latching on to the popular debate forces the question: Why the need to strike at the straw man yet again?
Top Works in World Literature
Or, in other words, what is it about world literature that sparks such recurring antagonism? A recent observation by a friend of mine, a scholar in postcolonial Anglophone literature, is illuminating in this regard. For world literature has become, rather rapidly, a business model, aligned with the needs of the corporate university.
As corporate logics and neoliberal agendas threaten to fully overtake liberal arts education in the United States, humanities scholars increasingly struggle to hold on to the idea that their work can be differentiated from, or even positioned against , a global capitalist economy. The attacks on theories of world literature are an attempt to defend an old idea: that humanistic inquiry can and should remain removed from instrumental relationships of power.
It is not enough to argue that there is room for the humanities in the corporate university an idea that, as witnessed by the budgetary drainage of humanities department, is itself under attack. The anxiety to differentiate humanist scholarship from processes of globalized capitalism is central to What Is a World? In a field overrun by sociopolitical methodologies, Cheah insists that there must be something about what literature is or does that cannot be accounted for in purely rational, sociological, or political terms; that literature, even when taught within an academy increasingly concerned with profit, can still count otherwise.
These writers are familiar, albeit to differing extents, in the field of postcolonial literary studies, and scholarship has addressed their relation to legacies of colonialism, globalization, and to discourses of environmentalism and human rights. Cheah contends, however, that their narrative fictions do not simply reflect on the sorry state of a globalized world, but also carry a normative power to create and shape alternate worlds.
But this is not his project. Rather than imagining other worlds, Cheah is interested in the manner in which literature allows us to redefine the world to begin with, as his title explicitly asks. The globe is a spatial category, an imaginary unity that is bound materially and geographically, and increasingly so by networks of globalization.
Combining historical presentation with programmatic intervention, Pizer argues for and exemplifies the adoption of a Goethean dialectical approach to world literature in US academia. Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login. Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here. Not a member? Sign up for My OBO. Already a member? Publications Pages Publications Pages.
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Sign in with your library card. Related Articles about About Related Articles close popup. Catherine Belsey Hayden White I.
Richards Find more forthcoming articles Little magazines and publishing houses set up in capital cities all over. Yet much as the general air of revolution had invigorated modernism with a sense of enormous imminent change, the repression of revolution knocked the wind out of it. In modernism, the universal and the obscure make familiar bedfellows.
These poems continue to live, while the works of such contemporary world-spanning giants as Malraux and Gide slowly fade to oblivion. Tidings of war and revolution accompanied European literature for only a few years after There is, by contrast, a kind of geographical and social underspecification about much of the best Euro-American literature published after World War II, which, in the most striking cases, turns deep personal peculiarity into a gnarled universality. Kafka, precursor to this tradition of blank allegory, had been literally a man without a country: a fitfully Zionist German-speaking Jew in Prague whose people, including his three sisters, were soon wiped off the map by the Nazis.
Borges in Buenos Aires had his own reasons for stinting on local color in his fiction.
Teaching World Literature
Raised largely in Geneva, speaking English from an early age with a British grandmother, he went gradually blind while living, until late middle age, under the same roof as his mother; the hinterlands of Argentina were hardly more familiar to him than those of Canada or Russia.
Freud had described a related phenomenon: plumb individual pathology deeply enough and you emerge in an underground realm of universal mythology. In the more recent fiction of a pacified Europe, a smooth EU-niversality prevails in place of the old strife within and between countries. Handke, such a late modernist that the party appears to have ended, is an Austrian who lives in Paris; but can you regularly identify the city or country his peripatetic characters are passing through, metafictional preoccupations in train? Typically the narrator is a monologist, resembling the author, who tells of personal turmoil amid social stasis.
He recognizes himself, with snobbish self-approbation, as a part of a stable polyglot pan-European elite; most other inhabitants of his country, as of the neighboring ones, are unthreatening idiots who turn on the TV after returning from work. The younger ones take drugs and dance to club music on weekends; the older ones go on package tours before dying of cancer. Nietzschean last men and women , they can be roused neither to the self-promotion nor to the gun violence that lend spice to American life.
Their tribune is Michel Houellebecq. Other big-name European novelists write books about personal relationships and international culture, and not much in between. Resigned to terminal minorness, this is a European novel written by, about, and for literary people who attain a critical mass only at the Frankfurt Book Fair, and then without taking the opportunity to riot against the European Central Bank.
Many suicides occur in its pages. The portion of southern writing that became World Literature required champions in the publishing houses of northern capitals. Their international reception depended on a cosmopolite audience — political, curious, appalled by the war in Vietnam — that emerged with the end of colonialism and seems to have lasted through the Central American dirty wars of the s.
The social situation of the southern writer remained what it had ceased to be in the rich countries not long after World War II: to one side of the writer stood a large, increasingly educated population of working people whose ongoing tolerance of social injustice could not be taken for granted, and to the other side a government run on behalf of an owning class too insecure and divided to shrug at the opinions of national writers. The class composition of many postcolonial countries resembled that of European countries three-quarters of a century before: a ruling class uneasily split between rural landlords and a thin stratum of urban bourgeoisie, a working class that still consisted more of peasants than city-dwelling wage-seekers.
The combination of restive masses and a hostile or approving but not indifferent bourgeoisie gave the work of southern writers a social charge no longer available to literature in the stabilized rich countries. The valence of this charge naturally depended on the book in question. Naipaul, a Trinidadian of Indian descent writing from southern England, the leader of a left-wing uprising on a Caribbean island was a half-educated black rapist. Either way, these and other southern novels of their time were buoyed by revolutionary ferment.
Pakistan was served up for similar treatment in his next novel, Shame In The Jaguar Smile , a still left-wing Rushdie went to Nicaragua to check out the Sandinistas, about whom he offered guarded praise.
Fortuitously, The Satanic Verses was published the year before the Warsaw Pact unraveled: now a world split by the cold war could become a unified globe. Khomeini had thus inadvertently sanctified the global novel in English. The novel itself was deeply impressive, deploying the metafictional techniques of postmodernism to address the major contemporary theme of migration, later prompting as much theory as it seemed to be responding to.
But a post—cold war, globalized World Literature was not a more radical or politicized one. Following The Satanic Verses , the association of postcolonial writing with anti-imperialism was dead. Still more belong to a manifest world-system. Their publishers are multinational corporations; the universities they teach at, or where their work may be taught, train a global elite; and much of their audience, actual or hoped-for, reads English, though huge markets for books also exist in Mandarin, Spanish, and French.
In France itself and in smaller markets, half the fiction on offer may be in translation though in Europe two out of three translated novels are from English. Marx and Engels wrote, however, when literature was on the march, at a time of fast-growing readerships in Europe and America and the beginnings of universal public education. The literate portion of the population, and the quantity of modern literature it consumed in addition to its diet of journalism, scripture, and delectable trash , would go on swelling for another years or so. Even today, in a few countries, including enormous India, the average person probably reads more rather than less each year, and maybe even reads better stuff.
Elsewhere, writers of serious or half-serious fiction and essays, never mind poetry or plays, face national audiences apparently shrinking in relative or absolute terms. Literature never quite shed its elite connotations; today it is a more professionalized and elite activity than it was a generation or two ago. One temptation is for writers to hope that enough thin-sliced national audiences, stacked together, might be world enough to support them. Through globalization, the US and China can become equally unequal!
The question is what we make of it.
It has its own economy, consisting of international publishing networks, scouts, and book fairs. It has its prizes: the Nobel, of course, but more powerful and snazzier is the Man Booker, and the Man Booker International. Its political arm is PEN. And it has a social calendar full of literary festivals, which bring global elites into contact with the glittering stars of World Lit.
What happens at these festivals?
Related What Is World Literature?
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