How to Make Worlds

Caroline Levine

We might be tempted to think of the “world” in “world literature” as a spatial category. This “world” would designate the vast space beyond national borders, beyond the fiction of “Western civilization,” and even beyond empires that have reshaped power, labor, and language across the planet. “World literature” would be all the written and spoken stories, plays, and poems generated within that huge geographical expanse.

World literature’s most outspoken critics, such as Gayatri Spivak, Emily Apter, and Aamir Mufti, have warned that any attempt to take on such an immense array of cultures and texts will always flatten and homogenize them, smoothing a rich array of particularities into a Eurocentric monoculture. This is a fair concern. But lately the strongest work in the field of world literature has done the opposite. Scholars have been deliberately interrupting familiar models of lineage and tradition, especially those that treat Europe as a powerful center of influence.

Let’s start with a quick thought experiment. What are the first, most immediate associations that the term “modernism” evokes for you? Perhaps you think of Joyce or Woolf, Picasso or Cezanne, Mies van der Rohe or Le Corbusier, The Wasteland or Baudelaire. Maybe you picture the devastation of trench warfare or the invention of cinema or the automobile. Whatever the specifics, I am guessing that the term “modernism” prompts examples drawn from Europe and the United States around the turn of the 20th century.

Susan Stanford Friedman’s Planetary Modernisms (2015) asks us to rethink our habits of associating “modernism” with Euro-America. Comparing a number of specific cultures across three continents and eleven centuries, she shows how the historical conditions often ascribed to a uniquely advanced Europe—rapid technological innovation, artistic experimentation, social upheaval, and cosmopolitan mixing—also describe places and times that lie far off conventional maps of modernity, including Tang Dynasty China and Mughal India.

Leaf from an album illustrating the poems of Du Fu (1666). Wang Shimin / Wikimedia Commons

The eighth-century Tang poet Du Fu is one of her examples. Du Fu lived through one of the most deadly imperial wars in history, his life transformed by the collapse of existing institutions and the expansion of trade relations. He developed a newly autobiographical kind of poetry that broke with a more conventional poetry of consolation. Du Fu’s work binds personal suffering with violence on a mass scale, often experimenting with a colloquial vocabulary and reflecting on mundane experience in the midst of suffering:


wearing the robes and belts of office

I sit at work and want to scream


and my subordinates

just pile up more paperwork

Friedman builds on scholarship in world literature that invites us to cross traditional boundaries of time and space. By juxtaposing cultures rather than linking them, she dislodges entrenched accounts of literary modernism that find their center and culmination in Europe.

A more common approach in recent world literature scholarship has been to examine how books and writers move across languages and borders. These pathways often end up circumventing the more familiar lineages traced by scholarship in national or colonial literatures. Jason Frydman’s Sounding the Break (2014), for example, offers the fascinating case of Edward Wilmot Blyden, known as the “father” of Pan-Africanism. Blyden was born in the Danish West Indies to Igbo parents in 1832; he learned Spanish in Venezuela as a child and studied Latin and Greek with a US minister. On becoming an educational and political leader in Liberia and Sierra Leone, Blyden began to correspond in Arabic with intellectuals in Beirut about the value of Islam to people of African descent. Influenced by a surprising array of sources, the political-cultural project of Pan-Africanism that emerges here is not simply a response to European colonialism; nor is it an ethno-nationalism based in a single race or language. Instead, Frydman shows how Pan-Africanism drew on multiple imperial and national and linguistic histories, taking and leaving pieces of each of them along the way.

For scholars like Frydman working in the field of world literature today, the “world” is not simply the nation or empire writ large. Nor is the world a unified, cohesive mass. What their accounts offer, in fact, are histories that do not unfold as we have come to expect.

The work of art is self-aware. It knows it is an artifice, a mere model.

Two recent works of theory—Pheng Cheah’s What Is a World? (2016) and Mark Seltzer’s The Official World (2016)—throw an intriguing new light on why and how “world literature” succeeds in generating plurality and disruption rather than falling back into a flattening familiarity. Though their books are very different in scope and method, Cheah and Seltzer alike argue that the term “world” does not refer to a single, inert, predetermined spatial fact. “Worlds” are created concepts or schemes—models of space-time relations that can and do take a variety of shapes. For both theorists, any particular model of “the world” will be limiting, but also contingent—capable of being remade and replaced by alternative worlds. As Cheah reminds us, we commonly refer to “worlds” in the plural—lifeworlds, virtual worlds, “developing” and “developed” worlds—each with multiple contours and contents and capable of unfolding according to different norms and expectations.

Cheah is especially critical of those scholars who assume that “the world” is nothing more than a spatial container for the circulation of commodities. This particular model, he argues, simply retreads the pathways of global capitalism, violent circuits of exchange that have destroyed more richly habitable worlds. Drawing from Marx, Heidegger, and Arendt, he defines “worlds” as ways of “gathering and holding-together”—constellations of shared practices that connect us to others in an ongoing way. Worlds are, he says, not just containers but dynamic, temporal forces that bind people and objects, ways of “relating, belonging, or being-with.” The particular world imposed by capitalist globalization is just one particularly destructive model of “the world” that has eradicated many other meaningful frameworks for living created through rituals, labor, religious practices, and ethical bonds.

Like Cheah, Seltzer rejects the notion that “world” is above all an expansive spatial category. “The official world” that interests Seltzer is a modern, Euro-American social system. Specifically, it is the world of the self-reporting bureaucracy, which sets forth tasks, positions, and rules, and then relentlessly observes and evaluates itself as it unfolds over time. Seltzer’s official world is a self-enclosed, self-organizing, and self-describing social system, always absorbed in the “attempt to keep up with what it is at every moment bringing about.”

Worlds apart, so to speak, Cheah derives his model from continental theory and postcolonial fiction, while Seltzer draws his “official world” from systems theory and US popular culture. Cheah’s worlds open us to political hopefulness; Seltzer’s official world feels chillingly inescapable. This disparity makes what their two concepts of world have in common all the more striking.

<i>Cryosphere Fuller Projection</i> by Hugo Ahlenius. Source: UNEP / Wikmedia Commons

First, both Cheah and Seltzer point to the crucial importance of time to any conception of “world.” The flat spaces of the Mercator map might allow us to track trade routes or to grasp the extent of empires, but these spatial markers alone do not make a world. A world is a dynamic way of life in process, a constellation of practices and relations. Worlds must be made and remade.

Second, the best model for understanding this ongoing creative production of worlds is the work of art. Cheah follows Heidegger in seeing the work of art as gathering materials into meaningful wholes that also open out to the unknown and the other. For Seltzer, the modern work of art acts as a dizzying double for the autonomy and reflexivity of the official world. Literary texts create worlds, arranging relations among characters, things, and places, establishing rules, and then inviting us to follow as these unfold over time. We might think of literary worlds as various as Dante’s hell, Murasaki’s court in The Tale of Genji, Jane Austen’s “3 or 4 families in a country village,” and the time travel of Octavia Butler’s Kindred. The modern Euro-American work of art, especially, draws attention to the fact that it is an artifice. For Seltzer, this reflexive work of art is an uncannily good model for the modern workplace, which also knows itself to be an artificial, made world, which sets forward rules and then reports on how each of us follows and breaches them. Patricia Highsmith’s talented Mr. Ripley is one of Seltzer’s favorite examples—the arch-impersonator who observes social rules and figures out how to play the game to win. These days, Seltzer argues, we are all Ripleys, observing ourselves as created characters behaving according to contingent rules in an artificial world. In this sense, there is no outside of the work of art.

Third, Cheah and Seltzer both single out narrative, the most time-bound of art forms, as crucial for conjuring worlds. Stories hold together the relations among worldly elements—characters, events, spaces. And because storytelling is always structured as a temporal unfolding, its worlds are dynamic and processual. Narrative is, for Cheah, the form most likely to open out on to the unknown, to an ethical and liberatory, perhaps revolutionary otherness. For Seltzer, narrative matters because it shows us how a world comes into being as it goes along: “It makes a world and shows its making.” In both cases, narratives map dynamic relations as well as spaces, giving us worlds unfurling over time.

All worlds are artifacts. made, they can be remade.

Together, Cheah and Seltzer point to a fundamental question about knowledge work. Though neither says this directly, both imply that scholarly frameworks across disciplines—history and geography, experiment and system—are very much like works of art in that all of these give shape to worlds. Scholars make worlds when they posit relations among elements: cause and effect, becoming and stasis, dynamism and stratification, circuits and containers, sets, layers, networks, lineages, and assemblages. The work of art is an especially self-aware kind of knowing because it knows it is an artifice, a mere model. But if all models simplify or abstract in order to make sense of existence or experience, then all models—scientific and historical and artistic—do the work of world-making.

If we take modeling seriously, then we might also rethink the problem of scale that has left world literature’s critics worried about the loss of nuance that attends thinking across centuries and transcontinental systems. It is precisely the work of models to move across scales. Models can be smaller, simplified versions of a vast and complex reality. Dickens’s novels, for example, make London knowable by imagining its gigantic, teeming world on a graspable scale. In other cases, the reality envisaged by the model might remain imaginary, like a building planned but never made. Sometimes the model will be deliberately manipulable, as in a war game scenario or economic theory that allows us to track different outcomes under changed conditions. And sometimes the model will be the same size as the reality—as in a model apartment, an example that will be reproduced elsewhere. The point of the model in all these cases is to help us perceive what cannot be apprehended directly. As models shift scales, they sharpen and alter what can be known and imagined.

What Cheah and Seltzer together make clear is that it is time to stop arguing about whether or not “the world” in world literature is too large an object of study. What is really at stake in the charge against world literature is in fact one specific, exceptionally destructive model of the world that has done too much world-making already: the enforced homogenization of cultures to serve Euro-American interests. This is not a matter of size. It is a matter of the shapes and stories that this particular model of the world permits.

All conceptions of the world will entail spatial plottings and temporal unfoldings. Stanford Friedman’s world-making is paratactic, placing things side by side, juxtaposing disconnected examples and inviting comparisons across space and time. Frydman’s is circulatory, following tracks laid down by trade, transportation, and translation. Cheah’s plural worlds are models of the possible: local, open, processual. Seltzer’s official world is a product of history now seemingly stuck in an endless loop of self-reporting.

What these very different thinkers share is a self-consciousness about the models we build to know and understand worlds. This seems urgent now. All worlds are artifacts—made, they can be remade. Other worlds are always possible. We might think of the vast array of models already out there, as well as those still to be conjured and created, and those that must be sustained while others are destroyed.

And this is why the work of scholars and artists could matter very deeply indeed, beyond any of our own small worlds. The task of modeling and building worlds beyond the dominant order might well be the most promising activity we can muster.