For World Literature

You could tell the story of literary study in the US as one long process of expansion. For hundreds of years only the Classics were considered worthy of serious academic attention, and strenuous ...

You could tell the story of literary study in the US as one long process of expansion. For hundreds of years only the Classics were considered worthy of serious academic attention, and strenuous objections followed the introduction of modern literature courses in the 19th century. While Latin and Greek “inculcate a certain manly and just taste,” wrote Alexander Kinmont in 1834, “modern fine writing
… breaks down and womanizes the soul.”1 Those who sought to limit academic reading lists lost that battle, however, and they kept on losing. Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton, Dryden, and Pope became frequent objects of study after 1850; courses on the novel began to take off around 1900. American literature fought for academic recognition after World War I, and with the 1960s came calls to open up the canon to women, African American, and postcolonial writers, among others.2

In this story of an ever-broadening canon, the study of world literature makes perfect sense. It is simply the latest chapter in the larger story of the widening horizons of literary study. Yet world literature has prompted an awful lot of hand-wringing. Isn’t it absurd to try to study the literature of the entire world? How could anyone begin to know such a vast object? “A wild idea,” writes Claudio Guillén, “unattainable in practice … The most harebrained editor has never aspired to such a thing.”3 Even more worryingly, the very aspiration to study world literature seems to some critics to bespeak an imperializing will to power. US scholars who try to collect all of the literatures of the world into a single, graspable totality appear the ready instruments of a greedy global hegemon.

“In their rush to franchise ‘global’ campus outposts all over the world, universities seize on World Literature as a catch-all rubric for flimsy programs in the humanities that ignore rather than deepen local knowledge,” writes Emily Apter, summarizing the views of world literature’s most outraged critics in Against World Literature. Too immense to be read and analyzed in any thoughtful way, these critics contend, world literature swallows up nuance and difference: it “either reinforces old national, regional, and ethnic literary alignments or projects a denationalized planetary screen that ignores the deep structures of national belonging and economic interest contouring the international culture industry.”

In Apter’s account, one cannot responsibly “anthologize and curricularize the world’s resources”; any attempt to work on this “gargantuan scale” must fall back on superficial strategies that reinforce ethnocentrism, such as reading in translation, depending on familiar categories such as nation, region, and ethnicity, or transcending diversity altogether by ignoring or covering over differences. There is no question that Apter is right to be concerned about American hegemony, but is she justified in singling out the scale of world literature as a special problem? Is our scholarly object now, for the first time, simply too big to know?

Two other theorists of world literature, Eric Hayot and Franco Moretti, have glimpsed a promising critical richness and depth, rather than a flattening, in world literature’s gargantuan scale. Their new books, On Literary Worlds and Distant Reading, appeared at almost the same time as Apter’s. All three critics are entering a debate about world literature that has been going strong for about a dozen years. On the one side are scholars like David Damrosch, who have called for world literature as a way of de-provincializing literary studies. Damrosch draws our attention to the many ways that texts cross borders to reach new audiences.4 On the other side are critics like Gayatri Spivak, who have argued strenuously against world literature on the grounds that reading in translation neglects the specificity of idiom and style, folding all of the world’s literature into a deceptively accessible English.5

Apter’s title, Against World Literature, suggests that she is intent on launching another round of this debate, but in fact rather few of the pages of her new book concern world literature. She focuses most of her attention on specific instances of mistranslations, the impossibility of translation, and curious philological pathways. Moretti, for his part, has welcomed an investigation of world literature since 2000, and several of his seminal essays on the subject, “Conjectures on World Literature,” “More Conjectures,” and “Evolution, World Systems, Weltliteratur,” are collected in the new volume, Distant Reading. Hayot, a recognized voice in the field of comparative literature, which has often cast itself as an antagonist to world literature, offers a new and refreshing contribution to the debate.

Hayot and Moretti are very different from one another, but for both, the vast size of world literature presents an opportunity rather than a loss. It is what stimulates a rethinking of the most basic practices of literary study: how should we read texts in a field that exceeds any single scholar’s knowledge? How might the new scale prompt a reorganization of our objects? What constitutes an adequate knowledge of literature? What was missing in the old ordering of the field, and what kinds of knowledge are only possible if we move to a world scale?

Hayot argues that all previous expansions of the field allowed us to keep telling the story of literature as if Europe always came first, with the rest of the world appearing belated and imitative. This was because traditional period categories were organized around European innovations, such as the “discovery” of the “New World” or the rise of the novel. The frame of world literature could be the first scalar shift to succeed in unsettling this habit, stopping us from simply slotting literary texts into an uncritical Eurochronology. Hayot recommends adopting unfamiliar spans of time—the longue durée of modernity, for example, or a century that runs from 1850 to 1950—to see what happens to our knowledge of literature if we divide up time in new ways.

Moretti’s now famous call for “distant reading” seeks to unsettle traditional scholarship even more dramatically. To address the vastness of world literature, he invites a new kind of collaborative work among scholars working in national literatures. He has begun to use quantitative methods—text tagging and data mining and mapping—to grasp a field of objects much too large for any single scholar to know using the traditional techniques of close reading. He presents visualizations of information in place of conventional interpretive arguments: maps of the different global distributions of action films and comedies, branching trees that track the development of genres. Analyzing literary change through evolutionary theory and drawing his economic history from the study of world-systems, Moretti introduces a whole range of unfamiliar theoretical approaches to apprehend literature’s massive new scale.

We used to think that periods and nations carved up the literary field into manageable units of knowledge so that specialists could go deep.

Moretti’s models have not persuaded most practicing literary critics, appearing too abstract for Joe Cleary and Natalie Melas, too caught up in big data for James English and Kathleen Fitzpatrick, too dependent on a biological model to describe cultural history for Christopher Prendergast.6 But there is something of value here beyond the scientific methods Moretti himself exalts: a question about what it is possible to know. We used to think that periods and nations carved up the literary field into manageable units of knowledge so that specialists could go deep. Apter clearly longs for a moment when we immersed ourselves knowledgeably in the local. But Moretti’s attention to scale allows us to see that this was a fantasy all along. Scholars in traditional fields haven’t paid enough attention to the fact that our corpus of texts was always too large for any single reader to know: “there are thirty thousand nineteenth-century British novels out there, forty, fifty, sixty thousand—no one really knows, no one has read them, no one ever will.” Traditional techniques of close reading only ever brought us knowledge of a tiny sliver of literary history—less than one percent of the novels written in one country in one century. In short, we have always been “flimsy” readers, to use Apter’s term, skimming the surface of literary production—a handful of texts standing in for whole cultures.

If we are willing to acknowledge that a certain ignorance has vexed our objects all along, then world literature at least has the advantage of freeing us to imagine new arrangements. In some specific ways, the old arrangements distorted our understanding of literature. The most familiar framework for literary studies for most of the 20th century was the nation, which routinely obscured the ways that texts travel across borders and reshape the cultures they encounter. The Norwegian Henrik Ibsen, for instance, scandalized and riveted audiences around the world, ushering in a whole new playwriting tradition in China.7 In the early 19th century, Nguyen Du, in The Tale of Kieu, transformed vernacular Vietnamese poetry by joining it to Chinese philosophy and poetry, and Toni Morrison built her 1977 novel, Song of Solomon, out of African storytelling traditions.8 Conventionally, we have read Herman Melville and Emily Dickinson as major American writers of the 19th century, though they were hardly known to their contemporaries, while Charles Dickens’s works reached more American readers than any US writer of the period.9 Bertolt Brecht and Sergei Eisenstein would be turning in their graves if they knew how successfully their techniques of alienation and montage—intended to spur the workers’ revolution—had become the daily fare of Broadway musicals and television advertising.10

Dickens promotion ad from the <i>New York Post</i> (January 7, 1936)

Dickens promotion ad from the New York Post (January 7, 1936)

Instances like these invite us to rethink national traditions. We typically study French literature as though you could draw a straight line back from Proust to Flaubert and Stendhal, and Russian literature as if Chekhov grew out of Tolstoy and Pushkin. We miss the fact that Proust devoured Dostoevsky and Ruskin, and that Chekhov first fell in love with the theater when he saw a performance of La Belle Hélène, an operetta about ancient Greece written in French by the German-born Jacques Offenbach.11

Transnational reading and writing emerge as the norm, rather than the exception. And this is not only true of a Western modernity. Persian and Bengali poets adopted the sixth-century Arabic poetic form of the ghazal, which eventually spread to Europe and North America, to be embraced by Federico García Lorca and Adrienne Rich, among others.12 Wai Chee Dimock has argued for a new set of methods in literary studies that would do justice to literature’s transnational itineraries. She reads American literature “across deep time,” as it grows out of histories of writing that long precede the nation. She follows the path of the ancient Sanskrit Bhagavad Gita, for example, as it shaped Henry David Thoreau, whose essays later helped a young Mohandas Gandhi reread the Baghavad Gita.13 Gandhi then went on to start the International Printing Press, as Isabel Hofmeyr has recently shown, a publishing house in South Africa that sought to reach an Indian readership spread across Africa, India, and Great Britain. It printed translations and reprintings from all over the world, including excerpts from Ruskin, Tolstoy, and Thoreau; Gandhi eventually had a major impact on Martin Luther King.14 Influence in this account travels from India to the US, back to India, around the world, and then back to the US again, leaving not only a literary but also a major geopolitical mark along the way.

Considering that none of our objects—not cultures, not readers, not writers—fit within a national frame, why did we ever imagine that nations were the best organizing principles for the study of literature? The answer is almost certainly political nationalism. The study of English literature, Gauri Viswanathan has argued, actually began in India as a way of training Indian subjects of the British Empire to accept the superiority of English culture.15 The German literary tradition, too, was institutionalized in the 19th century as a way to help Germany cohere into a political unity.16 Responding to Soviet allegations in the 1940s and ’50s that the United States was a shallow and materialist nation with no culture to call its own, Cold War strategists set out to establish American culture as a weapon in the struggle for hearts and minds worldwide.17

Why did we ever imagine
that nations were the best organizing principles for
the study of literature?

Given the dangers of nationalism—most vivid in the German case—surely it makes sense for literary studies to stop tying itself to nationalist political programs. But can we reorganize our objects of study in ways that don’t end up delivering Apter’s nightmare of an assimilative US global hegemony? I think we can. The debate taking shape now among theorists of world literature begins with questions about global political power, wealth, and inequality, and it constantly returns to the question of literature’s relations to material historical conditions—how culture is shaped by economic and political conditions. Scholars eager for an expansive world literature have insistently brought the question of world trade into view, asking how exactly books have moved across borders: do they travel as cargo along with spices, missionaries, slaves, or opium? Are they purchased, reprinted, borrowed, or stolen? Moretti takes the frame of world economic history as his starting point, and uses economic and geopolitical maps to organize his study of literature. Other scholars interested in world literature, like B. Venkat Mani, steer clear of world-systems theory but still train our attention on the material routes literature has followed—pathways laid down by print, trade, diaspora, and conquest.18

Most world literature scholars begin by refusing the presumptive wholeness of the nation—the lingering belief that a culture expresses a Volk. They ask instead where a particular text starts, how it moves, and who ends up reading it. They pose questions about what values and agendas have motivated decisions to translate texts, bringing them to new audiences. And they wonder how such cultural movements enact or reinforce growing global inequality. None of this “reinforces old national, regional, and ethnic literary alignments,” as Apter fears, or “ignores the deep structures of national belonging and economic interest contouring the international culture industry.”

An intriguing exception to the focus on literary itineraries is Hayot, who is less interested in tracking the global movements of books than in comparing the varied ways that literature imagines, formulates, and theorizes worlds. This might seem politically retrograde, if we are training our attention on global inequality, but Hayot actually poses a fundamental question that might shift the very terms of the debate itself. How is it, he asks, that any of us comes to think “the world” in the first place? On Literary Worlds invites us to investigate the many and various strategies by which literary texts create worlds: some offer social worlds dense with realistic detail, character relationships, and activity; others create deliberately spare and separate realms, alternatives to any familiar world.

Hayot is the theorist who can best help us unpack how contending scholarly theories of the world actually work.

Hayot’s argument is rich and intriguing, and I would like to push it a step further, beyond the strictly literary, to pay attention to the range of ways that theorists of world literature themselves imagine “the world.” For Apter, to think a single vast interconnected world is to swallow up plurality into a “monoculture that travels through the world absorbing difference”; for Moretti, the “world” is a planetary economic system that is “one and unequal,” organized around a core, periphery, and semi-periphery; for Dimock, tracking global routes created over many centuries allows us to see how narrow and provincial our usual sense of cultural tradition has been. These are different ways of imagining worlds, and Hayot is the theorist who can best help us unpack how contending scholarly theories of the world actually work.

Hayot’s method might also lead us back to material pathways. Following his example, we might compare the “world” of The Tale of Kieu, written in Vietnam around 1815, with the worlds conceived by its contemporaries, such as Jane Austen’s Emma, Chinese novelist Li Ruzhen’s Flowers in the Mirror, Urdu ghazals by the Indian poet Ghalib, Simón Bolívar’s “Jamaica Letter” (a call to unite the nations of Latin America), and Anansi stories carried by slaves across the Atlantic from West Africa. All of these texts register the impact of historical change; all of them consider relations of power and inequality; all of them show an interest in gender norms; all of them establish ethical values; and all of them travel across boundaries. Together, they show us how “the world” is being imagined around the world at the same time. And we can fruitfully compare these texts, following Hayot’s model, by investigating their different formal methods of conjuring worlds for us.

World literary approaches, then, have the advantage of allowing us to leave nationalism behind without sacrificing attention to the very real power relations that shape the production and dissemination of culture. But Apter worries that these still encourage us to spend our time reading in translation, which, she argues, has the effect of homogenizing literatures across times and places, discouraging the study of foreign languages, and permitting Anglophone readers to remain isolated in a monolingual cocoon. For Apter, the field of world literature succeeds in smoothing all of the world’s linguistic differences into an easily accessible English, so that we never have “to question the idea that translation works, that substitutability wins, and that something can now be fully installed in the place of something else.”

Even the most dedicated polyglot will never manage
to learn more than a minute fraction of the world’s tongues.

And yet, only to read works in original languages will be limiting in its own way, closing out most of the world’s writing to any of us. I can read a book in English, French, Italian, or German, which happen to be the languages of my educational formation, but if I refuse to read in translation, I will remain entirely ignorant of all other literatures—Arabic, Chinese, Spanish, Amharic, Vietnamese, Sanskrit, ancient Greek, and literally thousands of others—unless I am willing to read in translation or to learn a few more languages. And even the most dedicated polyglot will never manage to learn more than a minute fraction of the world’s tongues.

Nor is it true that works that come from distant places and times feel readily familiar in translation. Texts as unlike one another as Gilgamesh and The Trial feel to me and to my students, at least, like invitations to fascinatingly remote worlds, with alien norms, power relations, and geographies. Much of this world-imagining, to follow Hayot’s terms, survives very well in translation. And unfamiliar literary worlds are among of the most effective ways to encounter values and expectations that are strange and unexpected. Literature in translation can therefore prompt us to rethink and reimagine the familiar worlds we take too much for granted.

Back in 1834, Alexander Kinmont wanted to refine the tastes of readers by limiting their reading lists. I’d like to do the opposite. I’d like to expand my own tastes, and my students’, through encounters with surprising, perplexing, and remarkable works. Since only 3% of books sold in the US are translations from foreign languages, we are hardly a culture drowning in other worlds. Wouldn’t it be better, politically, if we began to hunger for cultural multiplicity? Learning new languages is time-consuming and expensive, a project in practice now restricted to an elite few. It takes long years of study to read complex literary texts fluently in the original, and most US students give up long before they feel any pleasure in it. Reading world literature in translation makes a much more practicable and promising start. Apter calls “world literature” “bulimic.” I prefer to think of it as an amuse-bouche: it doesn’t take the place of a satisfying meal, but it stimulates the taste buds and gets us ready for the delicious main courses to follow. Let’s first see if we can’t help readers fall in love with the Popol Vuh and The Pillow Book. Maybe then they’ll find themselves developing an appetite for more. icon

  1. Alexander Kinmont, “The Classics: Report on the Question, ‘Ought the Classics to Constitute a Part of Education,’” in Transactions of the Fourth Annual Meeting of the Western Literary Institute and College of Professional Teachers (Josiah Drake, 1835), p. 170.
  2. Gerald Graff, Professing Literature: An Institutional History (1987; University of Chicago Press, 2007), pp. 124, 211.
  3. Claudio Guillén, The Challenge of Comparative Literature, translated by Cola Franzen (Harvard University Press, 1993), p. 38.
  4. David Damrosch, What is World Literature? (Princeton University Press, 2003).
  5. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Death of a Discipline (Columbia University Press, 2003).
  6. Joe Cleary, “The World-Literary System: Atlas and Epitaph,” Field Day Review, vol. 2 (2006); Natalie Melas, All the Difference in the World: Postcoloniality and the Ends of Comparison (Stanford University Press, 2007), pp. 33–34; James F. English, “Morettian Picaresque,” and Kathleen Fitzpatrick, “The Ends of Big Data,” Los Angeles Review of Books, June 27, 2013; Christopher Prendergast, “Evolution and Literary History: A Response to Franco Moretti,” New Left Review, no. 34 (July–August 2005).
  7. Chengzhou He, Henrik Ibsen and Modern Chinese Drama (Trondheim: Akademika Publishing, 2004).
  8. Nguyen Du, The Tale of Kieu, translated by Huynh Sanh Thong (Yale University Press, 1983), p. xxii. Gay Wilentz, “Civilizations Underneath: African Heritage as Cultural Discourse in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon,” in Toni Morrison’s Fiction: Contemporary Criticism (Garland, 2000), p. 112–14.
  9. Robert F. Selcer, Civil War America, 1850 to 1875 (Facts on File, 2006), p. 327.
  10. Jeremy G. Butler, Television: Critical Methods and Applications (Lawrence Erlbaum, 2007), p. 414; Stephen Banfield, Sondheim’s Broadway Musicals (University of Michigan Press, 1993), p. 39.
  11. William C. Carter, Proust: A Life (Yale University Press, 2000), pp. 79, 281, 285, 294, 746; James N. Loehlin, The Cambridge Introduction to Chekhov (Cambridge University Press, 2010), p. 4.
  12. Shahid Ali Agha, ed., Ravishing DisUnities: Real Ghazals in English (Wesleyan University Press, 2000), pp. 1, 11; Erik Martiny, “The Ghazal in North America,” in A Companion to Poetic Genre, edited by Erik Martiny (Wiley-Blackwell, 2012).
  13. Wai Chee Dimock, Through Other Continents: American Literature across Deep Time (Princeton University Press, 2006), p. 21.
  14. Isabel Hofmeyr, Gandhi’s Printing Press (Harvard University Press, 2013), pp. 5, 94; Thomas Weber, Gandhi as Disciple and Mentor (Cambridge University Press, 2004), p. 169.
  15. Gauri Viswanathan, Masks of Conquest: Literary Study and British Rule in India (Columbia University Press, 1989).
  16. Lee M. Roberts, Literary Nationalism and Japanese Germanistik (Peter Lang, 2010), p. 2.
  17. Frances Stonor Saunders, The Cultural Cold War (New Press, 2001); Joel Whitney, “Exclusive: The Paris Review, the Cold War and the CIA,” Salon, May 27, 2012; Michael Berube, Rhetorical Occasions (University of North Carolina Press, 2006), p. 130.
  18. See, for example, B. Venkat Mani, “Borrowing Privileges,” MLQ, vol. 74, no. 2 (2013).
Featured image: World map attributed to Chinese Admiral Zheng He (1418; copy, 1763)