Forum on World Literature (VII)

Hug a Tree and Ride the Wave: Some Critical Thoughts About World Literature and Globalizing Literary Criticism

Thursday, February 28, 2008

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Written by Marcus Keller, French

In response to Casanova’s “World Republic of Letters,” Dimock’s vision of “deep time,” and Moretti’s project of “distant reading,” I would like to propose a close reading of some of their propositions to globalize literary studies. Despite my sympathy for efforts to widen or at least change the canon, to expand our literary horizons and to question our ways of reading, my initial response to these projects was a general unease. And what would be a better way to grapple with this unease than doing a close reading of these critics themselves, a skill that we are still trained in as literary critics, or should be, and that neither Casanova nor Moretti want to give up? For the sake of time, I will focus on Casanova to highlight some of the problems I have with a project that aims at “totality,” the daunting task of a globalized approach to literature and a critique of world literature. This will also allow me to raise some questions and make a few suggestions regarding literary methodology today and how it could be transformed. It will also lead me to my final proposition: hug a tree and ride the wave.

Pascale Casanova proposes to part with “radical monadology” (2) and to integrate the literary text in the “World Republic of Letters,” the imaginary space and time constituted by all works of literature as well as by the translations of them and the criticism on them. She maintains that in the “world literary space” “alone” it is possible to give “meaning and coherence to the very form of individual texts” (3). While I would take issue with this absolute position—why is the whole world of letters the only context in which the form of a text becomes meaningful?—, the bigger problem that the construction of such a borderless space poses is to define the vantage point from which the critic examines the individual text. Casanova suggests that we change the vantage point (3) but she does not explain how or in which direction. Where would this different vantage point be? An imagined point in a transnational space? A radically local, isolated spot somewhere on the planet? For most of us this vantage point is a literature department at the U of I and, on a larger scale, in the US American academe with its very own culture, its disciplinary structures, and institutional constraints. These often get in the way when it comes to carving out new vantage points and to reforms much less radical than what Casanova has in mind.

In terms of methodology, Casanova does not really suggest anything new. She invokes Braudel’s model of world economic history and shares his hesitations in regard to its practicability. With Braudel, Casanova admits that the totality of the model is “daunting” and pleads for “modesty” (5). This leads her to limit her project and to opt for an account of “the interdependence of local phenomena.” After positing the “insuperable antinomy between internal … and external criticism” (4-5), a binarism I find questionable, she proposes “a specifically literary, yet nonetheless historical, interpretation” (4), in other words the methodologically smallest common denominator among literary critics. Besides suggesting the erasure of limits in space and time, Dimock does not address methodological concerns either unless one considers the extension of the corpus to a practically unmanageable scope in itself a radical methodological move. I don’t. A text is a text and still needs to be read somehow regardless of its situation in- or outside the canon.

The question then remains how we can respond methodologically to what appears to be the growing desire among professors and students of literature to relate their work to the increasingly globalized world in which we live and work and to break away from hopelessly old-fashioned national literature departments. The assumption is that because these departments were once founded to define and pass on a literary canon as an expression of national cultural heritage and identity, they smack of this nineteenth-century nationalist endeavor still today. But this is only true if we make the quick and uncritical equation of say French and France or Spanish and Spain. Most of us, fortunately, do not make this equation anymore so that, at least in principle, the French Department is the place were texts and other documents in French are read and taught, and not texts from France, and the English Department were the textual production in English is analyzed. Given the rise of English to a global language, I do not envy the members of this department facing a task which is, however, less daunting than tackling Casanova’s World Republic of Letters. Needless to say, that it would be ideal to have a department for each and every language in which literature has been or is being produced. But who will provide the resources? And will there be enough student interest for these languages and literatures, the all important question for our market-driven university?

Besides providing students a critical access to literatures or, put more neutrally, textual or documentary corpora in a certain language by a department—which is quite different from the traditional handing-down of a national canon however defined—my other suggestion is to let the texts take care of the rest. If read a certain way, many texts of the French canon, with which I am more familiar, are profoundly un-national and “deep” in Dimock’s sense. Rather than allowing an idea of national identity to emerge or express some sort of national genius, as some more traditional interpretations have it, these are destabilizing any such national project. More importantly, they do precisely what Dimock and Casanova are looking for: they open up deep time, broaden space beyond national and other imaginary boundaries and provide new vantage points. Let me give you an example: La Deffence et Illustration de langue francoyse (The Defense and Enrichment of the French language) by Joachim Du Bellay, a hastily written text from 1549. This text has traditionally been regarded as the manifesto for French as a national language. I would not be surprised if French school children today are reading excerpts of the Deffence as a monument of French national literature and culture. And it is true, in his belligerent manifesto Du Bellay proposes the equality and even supremacy of the French language over Latin and Italian. But the Deffence is also a document of high cultural anxiety, showing the symptoms of a moment in French history when poets and other intellectuals were suffering from a tremendous inferiority complex. They felt intimidated by a towering classical heritage and by foreign authors like Petrarch, all the while the French kingdom was well on its way to become a centralized state and shape a national identity. Moreover, more than half of this canonical document of Frenchness is borrowed from Sperone Speroni’s Dialogo delle lingue (Dialogue of Languages) in what we would call today a shameless act of plagiarism. In the sixteenth century, however, this was regarded as a sort of imitation and perfectly legitimate. The Deffence thus can easily be read as a testimony to the hybridity and precariousness of a cultural identity, as the “criss-crossing set of pathways” (Dimock 3), of discourses and languages (Italian, French, classical, regional: Loire Valley, Ile-de-France), and as a text mediating between classical antiquity, the Middle Ages and the contemporary. In short, the Deffence embraces a sphere that to some extent comes close to what Dimock would call “deep time” and Casanova “world literary space” from a sixteenth-century vantage point. And to our twenty-first century American students this vantage point seems already awfully deep in time.

Granted, from the sixteenth-century vantage point world space was more limited because the New World had just been discovered and was still very much a terra incognita. But the world literary space of the sixteenth century was already quite daunting. Those who could read and had studied foreign languages, a learned minority, devoured and sometimes translated texts not only from antiquity but also from all over Europe and from the Middle and Far East. Travelers to the New World and more remote parts of the Old World reported back home and wrote fascinating travelogues which brought the world to France. And this world as it was known and perceived reverberates in the literary texts of the period and can fruitfully be brought to bear in the classroom for the discovery of an early stage of global encounters and exchange. In fact, it has been for some time. Montaigne’s essais on the New World are his most widely read and commented today.

Montaigne, to stay with another example of a Renaissance author who looms large in the French canon but can be read against any national appropriation, traveled to the German countries and Italy and was well-informed about what could be known at the time about the Orient, China, and the New World. His reflections on this world as seen from his vantage point, a château in the Dordogne, constitute the Essais. One could not wish for a better text to “globalize” literary study in the classroom. This is to say that, from my perspective of a sixteenth-century scholar, the buzz about globalizing literary studies does not make much sense. Literature of the sixteenth century in French could only be understood superficially if one ignored the international discursive context in which it was produced. Much scholarly work has been devoted to situate these texts in a comparative and genealogical framework. Here I only want to mention Ernst Robert Curtius’s European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, a work of intimidating scope and erudition. For scholars in search of a method to describe world literature, it might serve as a model even though it “only” treats the Middle Ages and the early modern period and “only” good old Europe.

You heard me say Deffence and château, and I want to conclude with a passionate plea for the study of foreign languages and the reading of literature in the original. I know, this plea appears to some of you as hopelessly restrictive and conservative. Given the evolution of literary studies and the growing tendency to read literature from around the world in English translation, however, I think it is actually a quite radical claim. If the point of exposing oneself and one’s students to literary texts from all times and all places is to encounter alterity, to gain a different vantage point and change perspective, or to question national identity and the supposed autonomy of national literature, begin with the language. Start with one foreign language. This is not to say that the work with translated texts cannot be fruitfut. It most certainly is, especially in regard to the all-important issue of translation itself. But Du Bellay’s Illustration is not really Enrichment, château has a different resonance than castle, and an essai is most definitely not an essay. Learn and read in one foreign language and you can already see two trees, to speak with Moretti. We remember, he suggests that those who work on a national literature see a tree and those interested in world literature see waves. He also suggests that one has to choose between one or the other, between an internal and external approach to literature, between the nation and the world. Why? If the “products of cultural history are always composite” (68), why couldn’t our literary methodology? Isn’t this precisely what it should be, composite, weaving back and forth between the national and the transnational, close reading and distant reading, reading originals and translations? Provided that our division of labor works well—and our two panels are a good step further in this direction—my recommendation is: hug a tree, or two, or even three if you can, and ride the wave.


Pascale Casanova. The World Republic of Letters. Trans. M. B. DeBevoise. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004. p. 3.
Wai-Chi Dimock. “Introduction: Planet as Duration and Extension.” Through Other Continents: American Culture Acress Deep Time. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006. 1-6.
Franco Moretti. “Conjectures on World Literature.” New Left Review 1 (2000): 54-68.
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Forum on World Literature (VI)

Literature, Globalization, and Banana Republics

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

posted under , , by Unit for Criticism
Written by Ericka Beckman, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese

I. World-systems of literature

I want to start tonight by addressing the possible utility of a world-systems approach in our attempts to “globalize” literary studies beyond the territorial and temporal boundaries of the nation-state. Reading the background texts for this forum, I was struck by the extent to which world-systems analysis, a model developed to understand the emergence and consolidation of the world economy, has proven an attractive model for literary studies. Wai Chee Dimock, for example, takes up Fernand Braudel’s concept of “long durée” (and stretches it thousands of years, well beyond the reach of modernity). Pascale Casanova looks to the international system of political and economic competition as a model for a semi-autonomous “world-literary space”. Franco Moretti’s concept of “distant reading,” in turn, is inspired by the contours of the “one but unequal” system of international capitalism.

All three of these critics agree that what we have come to understand as singular works, genres or national traditions might only be adequately understood in relation to a much wider temporal and geographical frame. I believe there are distinct advantages to understanding world literature within the “one but unequal” frame of world-systems analysis: first, this framework can complicate our notions of literature as a product that springs organically from the soil of the nation-state. Second, as suggested in our last forum, it provides a counterweight against certain miniaturizing tendencies of new historicism, in which the distance separating one moment or locale from the next can be as unbreachable as the distance between zero and infinity. Third—and this is what I personally find most promising—because world-systems analysis assumes an economic model as its ground, it poses new questions about the relationship between literature and the world created by capitalism. Of course, Marxist literary criticism has long been concerned with precisely this question, yet often in ways that have privileged the timelines and locales of European literature, only to trace the emergence of variations and “anomalies” outside of the West. A world-systems model, it seems to me, has the capacity to displace this teleology in favor of a stronger, though always uneven, dialectic between centers, peripheries and semi-peripheries.

Yet the very factors that make a world-systems model interesting and refreshing also make it problematic. First and foremost, we need to think about the consequences of such large scales on our practices of reading. A single, unifying frame can provide sudden clarity, just as easily as it can produce over-simplifications and distortions. Also, the drastic expansion of frame loosens our grip on what until now has been the central element of literary study: the individual text. From the heights of the world system, what relevance can any single text have? We should admire Moretti for meeting this problem head-on, matter-of-factly admitting that the individual text ceases to matter when we so drastically enlarge our frame of analysis. But are we willing to do the same? For what can we claim is unique about our discipline once we abandon the text in favor of large-scale, systemic analyses?

II. Literature and economic globalization

I think this last question—what remains unique about literature once we abandon small-scale readings—is important because it allows us to open discussion in a different direction. For if literary studies has been borrowing from economic theories of late, we might also ask what literary study might contribute to contemporary discussions of economic globalization. That is, how might we as literary scholars use world-systems analysis to create knowledge about the global economy itself?

A substantive answer to this question, I think, would involve a somewhat anti-systemic vision of literature, in which the unruly, unpredictable and unsynthesizable qualities of texts provide an alternate site from which to envision “the world” as the not-yet, the impossible, the utopian. To this end I suggest that we “distant” readings in tension with close readings; and “the world” at large in tension with the smaller but often richer “world” imagined by the individual text.

III. Literature in a banana republic

Let me give a concrete example of the reading strategy I am advocating. The example comes from Latin America’s best-known living writer, the Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez, widely associated with a literary style known as magical realism. We might very legitimately position García Márquez within Casanova’s “world republic of letters,” as a peripheral author who was able to achieve “universal” status through prizes and book sales (though the extent to which his consecration passed through Parisian literary circles, as she claims, is highly doubtful). In the spirit of Dimock, we might study the criss-crossing references of time and place appearing throughout García Márquez’s novels, though this kind of interpretation might not be that radical in the case of Latin America, where multiple temporalities have most often interpreted as signs of backwardness and tradition rather than signs of worldliness and up-to-dateness. We might also legitimately use Moretti’s hypothesis to test the exent to which García Márquez’s novels uniquely combine European symbolic forms with “local realities” and “local forms,” although as long as we’re re-thinking categories, we should also revise our assumptions about the direction of travel of literary ideas from center to periphery.

Yet none of these approaches can tell us anything about García Márquez’s texts as readings of the world, which are very rich indeed. As an example, I want to turn to a passage from his short novel Leaf Storm (La hojarasca), published in 1955, a decade before García Márquez initiated the great big “Boom” of Latin American literature. The “leaf storm” referred to in the title begins with a preface dated 1909, in the midst of the arrival of a foreign banana company to the fictional town of Macondo.

Suddenly, as if a whirlwind had set down its roots in the center of the town, the banana company arrived, pursued by the leaf storm (…) In less than a year it sowed over the town the rubble of many catastrophes that had come before it, scattering its mixed cargo of rubbish in the streets. All of a sudden that rubbish, in time to the mad and unpredicted rhythm of the storm, was being sorted out, individualized, until what had been a narrow street with a river at one end and a corral for the dead at the other, was changed into a different and more complex town, created out of the rubbish of other towns (Leaf Storm and Other Stories by Gabriel García Márquez, trans. Gregory Rabassa. New York: Harper Perennial, 2005: 1)

In this passage, the logic of the banana company is the illogic proper to the race for extraction on the peripheral frontier. And the image a town created from dregs, rubbish and “the rubble of many catastrophes that had come before it” is nothing less than an allegory of the creatively destructive powers of capital. The allegorical reach of The Leaf Storm is both larger and smaller than the nation-state. Smaller because since the nineteenth century it has been nearly impossible to imagine the Colombian nation as anything other than a set of non-cohesive fragments; larger because these fragments are nonetheless linked in powerful ways to the capitalist world system, especially through export economies: first gold, then coffee, rubber and bananas; today, flowers, oil and, of course, cocaine. National allegory, the symbolic form par excellence of third-world literature for Jameson, expands its scope here to envision, with Benjamin, the ruins produced by global systems of extraction and accumulation.

In contradistinction with linear and progressive narratives of economic development still dominant today, the literary allegory prophesizes repetition and ruin. (To adapt the title of another of García Márquez’s works, allegory provides the chronicle of a catastrophe foretold). This is a lesson I wish neoliberal economists might learn to grasp. Just how to legitimize literary knowledge within structures as economics departments and business schools is another matter altogether. But I do think that can and should participate in far-reaching, large-scale debates about the relevance of literature in a world created by global capitalism.
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Forum on World Literature (V)

The Singularity of Literature

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Written by Harriet Murav, Slavic Languages and Literatures

This paper critiques Casanova and Moretti for linking nationalist historiography, canon, and close reading. Using my current work on the Yiddish author Dovid Bergelson (1896-1952) I argue that close reading can be attentive to various kinds of borderlands within a single literary language (the space between different idioms in a single language, the space between different languages, and the space between meaningful language and sheer sound). Yiddish, written right to left in Hebrew characters, uses a Germanic grammatical frame, has a significant element of Hebrew, Russian, Ukrainian and other Slavic languages, in addition to elements from Romance languages. The animation of heteroglossia, multivoicedness, both intralinguistic and interlinguistic, however, is not limited to Bergelson or to Yiddish, but can be found in most literary works.

The tension between the national, the comparative, and the global has already played out in slightly different terms in the former Soviet Union. Literature from the so-called national minorities was to be “national in form, socialist in content.” Socialism, of course, was to have been an international movement of the working people all over the globe; however, “socialist” turned out to mean what the Central Committee of the Communist Party said. As Khrushchev and others famously said, the people equals the party equals the leader. And in post-war Soviet Russia, the people also turned out to mean Russians, and not the national minorities of the Soviet Union. This fascinating slide along the slippery slope of the signifying chain is not the unique experience of the “evil empire.” Didn’t universality turn out to be limited to the particularities of Western Europe and North America? Having jettisoned “universal truths,” the new terminology of globality opens the door to some new form of exclusion.

Therefore not for the sake of a global or planetary literature, but for the sake of literature itself, what matters is not what or how much we read, but how. Attentiveness to the singularity of artistic literature in the first place and the singularity of a particular work are key. "Singularity" does not necessarily call up a unique national literary tradition. A work can be understood as singular in the way that it animates the borderlands that I mentioned earlier. It is not by marking a presence, but by leaving an absence, an incongruity, by re-marking in a second language what had been said in the previous language, leaving a trace on what has already been said, rather than claiming primacy, originality, or unique utterance. The metaphor of borderlands, evoking a space between, better captures attentiveness to multiple languages than the imperial metaphor of globality.

Close reading does not necessarily reinscribe literary scholarship within national historiographies. I am not convinced that, to paraphrase Casnova, it is the national habit of thought that creates the illusion of uniqueness. Close reading rests on the premise that the literary text is irreducible to socioeconomic, political, and psychoanalytic tools of inquiry; there is always some remainder of specific textuality that cannot be translated into other systems. "Art is made of devices," Viktor Shklovsky famously said, and by "devices" he included defamiliarization ("making it strange," prolonging perception and making difficult so that we do not simply recognize objects, but encounter them afresh). The Formalists and Structuralists shifted attention away from semantics to acoustics and grammar; Roman Jakobson talked about the way verbal art makes the sign palpable, quoting "Valery's view of poetry as 'hesitation between the sound and the sense." Even this superficial description shows that close readers are not necessarily associated with national historiography.

My sample close reading comes from my ongoing study of Bergelson's novel Nokh alemen (When All is Said and Done, 1913). Bergelson was born in Ukraine in 1884; he received a traditional Jewish education with a particular Hasidic twist; he started writing in Russian and Hebrew, but switched to Yiddish; he loved the Russian writer Chekhov and the French author Flaubert. Bergelson lived in Berlin in the 1920s, returning to Soviet Russia in 1933, and having been found guilty of nationalism, was shot on Stalin's orders on August 12, 1952. As a prose writer, Bergelson may be compared with Kafka, Joyce, and Babel.

The reading I present this evening uses Henri Bergson, Deleuze and Guattari, and Jakobson to explicate the text. Bergson describes consciousness as arising in the moment when an action cannot be performed mechanically because of some kind of obstacle. When the representation of an action is fulfilled immediately by the performance of the action there is no space, Bergson says, for consciousness. When, however, an obstacle thwarts action, a space opens up for consciousness to appear: "the obstacle creates nothing positive; it simply makes a void" (Bergson 144). Deleuze and Guatarri expand this notion of the void in their analysis of minor literature. "Deterritorialization" refers to an alternative space inside a dominant culture, "what a minority constructs in a major language"{Deleuze, 1986 #592 @ 19}. Deleuze and Guatarri privilege a non-referential use of language, a "void in sense" in which meaning is “neutralized" and the "subject of the enunciation" is effaced. Bergelson, working in Yiddish, is already writing in a minor language. It is therefore more appropriate to characterize his project as a double deterritorialization, because his language refuses the "national" ethnographic trend in literary Yiddish that had dominated until his own work was published.

Nokh alemen, When All is Said and Done, is about a young woman, Mirele, who cannot find herself in either the traditional Jewish world or in "modern" life, with its new opportunities. My focus, however, is not on the existential, socioeconomic, and political borderlands that the work depicts, but the linguistic ones. The singularity of When All Is Said and Done cannot be reduced to socio-economic conditions of 1913. What makes the work utterly unique is its use of deterritorialized language: language that operates in the borderland between languages and in the "void" between meaning and meaningless sounds.

In one scene, Mirele goes to visit her friend, a (Jewish) midwife who rents a room on the outskirts of the shtetl. The midwife starts to read aloud and translate from a book that a landowner's wife, a Catholic, had given her, Dicta Sapentium [Words of Wisdom] (the Yiddish text does not translate the Latin). The midwife:

explained to her verse after verse according to the translation 'Omnis felicitas mendacium est.' Both girls suddenly became like mourners [shivezitserns], and it seemed that they were reading to each other from the Book of Job Martin, 102;

ir eyn posek nokhn tsveytn loyt der iberzetsung fartaytsht: Omnis felicitas mendacium est ... Beyde meydlekh zaynen mitamol enlikh tsu shivezitserns gevorn, un gedukht hot zikh shoyn, az zey leyenen itst eyne far der tsveyter dem poske iov DB 138.

Although Bergelson refers to a translation of the passage from Dicta Sapentium, the passage "Omnis felicitas mendacium est (all happiness is false)," he does not provide a Yiddish translation of the Latin, but leaves the Latin in Latin characters in the midst of the Hebrew characters of his Yiddish. In this refusal of transparency, Bergelson foregrounds the irreducible graphical, acoustic, and semantic differences between languages, he leaves the space, or, the borderland between them just that, a borderland. His insistence on opacity marks the irreducible differences between languages just as it marks the irreducibility of his own art and the demand that it makes on readers to read closely.

A striking example of Bergelson's technique of the borderland between sense and non-sense comes in passage having to do with Passover, the spring holiday celebrating the exodus from Egypt. Passover requires a thorough cleaning of the house to remove all traces of leavened food products. Mirele lies in her bedroom listening to the sounds of the preparations, including her father's recitation of Hebrew prayers and the sounds coming from the stove in the kitchen:

And the sound of the little inner iron door moving quickly back and forth over the flame could be heard here [in Mirele's room]: pakh—pakh--pakh. ..pakh--pakh—pakh... pakh—pakh—pakh ...

Un gehert hot zikh aher, vi s'klopt dortn di inveynikste tshugene tirl, rirt zikh ibern flam, un tsit zikh geshvint ahin un tsurik: pakh—pakh--pakh. ..pakh--pakh—pakh... pakh—pakh—pakh ..."{Bergelson, 1922 #577 @ Vol 5, 180}.

The word in Hebrew and Yiddish for Passover, which appears before the passage cited above, is orthographically identical to the spelling Bergelson gives to the sound "pakh" except for the middle letter (pay, samekh, khet; pey, aleph, khet). The sequence "peysekh ...pakh....pakh...pakh" suggests a comparison between "peysekh" and "pakh." the meaningless sound "pakh" absorbs Passover (which Yiddish speakers pronounce "peysekh") into itself. In this instance Bergelson orthographically and acoustically digs a "void" or "hole" in sense, which beautifully reflects the “void” that is the heroine’s experience.

Close readings that are attentive to borderlands do not necessarily promote or assume hermetically sealed national historiographies: on the contrary, note the evacuation of the traditional, “national” heritage in the example above. My close readings, however, do not matter unless I publish them. The market for work on non-English literature is limited. Unless an author's works are part of the canon and or unless significant English translation is available, publishers are reluctant to consider scholarly studies of such literature. I conclude with two pragmatic suggestions. If we are serious about the need to expand what we teach and research we ought to: (1) encourage more translations by counting them as evidence of significant scholarly and creative work when we grant tenure and promotion; and (2) work collaboratively for hard-wired funding of less commonly taught languages.
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Forum on World Literature (IV)

Introduction II: The Institutional Mundane

posted under , , by Unit for Criticism
Written by Michael Rothberg, Director of the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory

This multi-part series concerns the problem of how to think about literature in relation to national, transnational, and global frames of reference. The stakes of these questions are simultaneously theoretical, methodological, and practical. They encompass issues about world systems and global flows, about syllabi and research projects, and about mundane, seemingly extra-literary institutional structures. Here I want to pose a few questions about the institutional mundane and about the medium of literary study that I hope others will want to take up in the comments section. Although my formulations grow in part out of the “geography” of the Illinois campus, I’m curious to hear how these issues translate to other terrain.

History, habit, and bureaucratic logic have conspired to divide the field of literary study at the University of Illinois into two “worlds”: on one side of the Arts Quad, the so-called Foreign Languages Building (FLB), now the School of Literatures, Cultures and Linguistics, and on the other side, the English Building. What are the effects of this institutional structure, some version of which is probably common across US universities? How does the opposition between “English” and “Foreign Languages” structure research programs and pedagogical opportunities? It’s no secret that resources and prestige are allocated unevenly across departments and schools. Do administrative units in the American academy obey the same competitive, hierarchical logic that nations do in Pascale Casanova’s “World Republic of Letters”? Is there an “Illinois Republic of Letters” that mimics Casanova’s “World Republic,” but with the location of Greenwich Mean Time shifted from “Paris” to Wright St.? If so, how can we realign the relations between center and margin on a local basis?

Another set of questions concerns the medium of our discipline: language. Our campus—and, of course, the larger world we live in—is markedly multilingual. Yet, the organization of literary study remains trapped in what Yasemin Yildiz, following the linguist Ingrid Gogolin, calls a “monolingual habitus.” A product of nation-state formation, our too frequently monolingual habits impose unconscious limits on our approach to far more heterogeneous texts, intellectual traditions, and student bodies. How can national literature departments—especially, but not only, the hegemonic English Department—multilingualize themselves? What should be the roles of translation and basic language study in breaking the monolingual habitus and promoting transnational literacy? What are the possibilities for collaboration instead of rivalry in this area?

One of my secret hopes for this pair of panels has been that it might produce conversation about and across the “Foreign languages”/”English” divide. That may seem like an unnecessary task given the extent of cross-border traffic—after all, many of us regularly traverse these boundaries for all sorts of reasons, personal and professional. Yet it still seems to me, following Franco Moretti, that the Illinois literary system is “one, and unequal” (“Conjectures” 56): a gulf exists that divides our Republic of Letters—and probably the literary republics of many other institutions of higher learning as well. This forum is meant to prompt critical reflection that is simultaneously local and global, theoretical and practical.
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The State of the State

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

posted under by Unit for Criticism
For readers: since this word has come up a few times in recent posts, how do you define "the state" as an object of analysis? How does your discipline inflect your understanding and methodology when dealing with this term? Should this term be reserved for historians, political scientists and social scientists alone? Read more

Forum on World Literature (III)

The Institution of Comparative Literature -- in Theory and After it

posted under , by Unit for Criticism
Written by Eleanor Courtemanche, English

One of the reasons this topic is so fascinating is that in the last 10 or 20 years, comparative literary work has been defined by a paradox. On the one hand we live in an age of globalization, of increased interest in the international cross-currents that influence the production of art and knowledge, and of new attention to the complex material histories of that culture. We call the nation-state and traditional periodicity into question and seek to embed our studies in concrete descriptions of imperial adventures and pluralized identity positions. On the other hand, comparative literature as a discipline—which arguably pioneered these analytical trends—seems to be in relative decline. No longer do historians, sociologists, or philosophers of science come calling to borrow its portable ideas of narrativization, thick description, politicized close reading, ideology critique, constitutive blindness, or fluid subjectivity; the traffic these days is all in the other direction, toward archival work and data collection. The vector of analysis has changed, and with it the shape of literary arguments.

More concretely, given the shrinking size of comparative literature departments across the country, there may be professional pressures against certain kinds of comparative work, especially for graduate students. In attempting to tally up some of the gains and losses that come with this new arrangement, I’d like to suggest two different interpretive frameworks: comparative literature’s disciplinary association with that international set of ideas called “theory,” and the way new historical methodology can ironically make comparative projects more difficult.

1) In his recent essay “Comparative Literature, At Last,” Jonathan Culler defines the contemporary moment for comparative literature as one of bitter triumph. When comparative literature was the site of the introduction and creation of new kinds of literary theory (at least in part, I’d argue, because American philosophy departments have been hostile to Continental philosophy), it became one of the cutting-edge disciplines in the humanities. If it is no longer so, it’s because “so many people in other departments have jumped on these bandwagons, or gradually come around to the views of comparatists”; comparatists have become “universal donors” (255). However, the departments themselves are shrinking, and most new jobs are in national language and literature departments. Like feminism, comparative literature is everywhere but in name.

Now there are many new names for the internationalist impulse that used to find a home in comparative literature departments: transnational studies, transatlantic studies, diaspora studies, postcolonial studies, and globalization theory, among others. Haun Saussy’s 2004 ACLA report on the state of comparative literature foresees that comparative literature might become the home both of something called “world literature,” and of analysis of other kinds of cultural forms. Culler acerbically points out that comparative literature might become a site for the widely felt need to teach American students about the world in which their country plays such an ambiguous role – though he adds this is more of a teaching project than a research project (266). The fact remains that despite these cosmopolitan intellectual pressures, and despite the slow evolution of traditional disciplines to encompass them, graduate students in literary fields must continually keep in mind the horizon of a job market in which most positions are identified by national literature and period. You can “flavor” your work with some of these internationalist ideas, but it’s safer to do so within a recognizable disciplinary context. I would argue that we are not currently in a moment of great interdisciplinary creativity – and that the antifoundational urges of the cultural studies movement that were visible in the famous 1992 Cultural Studies anthology come across as positively quaint within the current climate of retrenchment. Is it really true that when a discipline lacks money, a recognizable identity, and hiring lines, it’s more likely to retain its political edge?

2) But surely we cannot return to the days of aestheticist high theory! Poetics? Narratology? Reading foreign literature in the original languages? Such things are no longer sexy (though amazingly, they once were). Can’t we imagine a way forward that will create a safe space for innovative new methodologies while still retaining some foothold in material history?

Another way of putting this question is whether we are still interested in studying literature as anything other than as a symptom of history. I think it is undeniably true that the recent turn to historicism in the literary fields has produced a lot of readable and solid work, and much of it seems better written and frankly more rewarding than the effusions of the 1980s. But I also think we close the door on fruitful pathways of inquiry by not treating literature as something weird and special in its own right, something that can only tell the truth by lying, something people seek out to satisfy their unreasonable desires as well as their reasonable ones.

One difficulty with comparative work today is that we no longer believe in making purely formal connections between literary works produced in different places and times. The decline of interest in aesthetics, oddly enough, seems to have taken out comparative literature along the way. The stale myth of the “timelessness” of literature is gone, but now we have no easy way of making indirect connections between art produced in different locations, despite the fact that many readers get their most vivid impressions of the past and of other countries from literary works.

The case of 19th century comparatism can be taken as an illustration of these unintended consequences, since the turn to materialist kinds of inquiry also seems to have made it more nationalistic. Victorian studies has long been somewhat self-sufficient, replicating the image of a Britain splendidly separate from its peers – and the current historicist mood has opened up all kinds of new fields to inquiry, most notably religion, economics, and imperial relations. Yet as Sharon Marcus points out in a 2003 essay, “New Historicism has militated against comparative literary approaches precisely because of its emphasis on national and chronological specificity” (680). Even postcolonial studies unwittingly reinscribes British national hegemony when we “remain focused on works written and translated into English, and thus primarily explore English perspectives on England’s imperialism” (681). Without the Foucauldian crutch of the power-knowledge nexus, in other words, we have no way of reading relations between countries that are not actively subjugating each other. Marcus argues that though the dynamism of transnational studies can inform the traditional comparative paradigm of nations as “parallel” (682), it also lacks some of comparative literature’s “linguistic and hence conceptual range” (681). So we’re learning more about colonial possessions, but less about other European countries, much less connections to the United States. Though there are certainly exceptions – such as recent work on British idealization of nationalist uprisings in Greece, France, and Italy—this remains a blind spot in Victorian studies.

The classic way of reconciling materialist internationalism with close attention to literary form, of course, is Marxism—of a kind practiced by Fredric Jameson and Raymond Williams, or even the later Lukács. I’ll leave it to the comments section to consider whether Marxism is comp lit’s only hope, whether internationalist disciplines really need a separate institutional space to thrive, or whether my desire to reconsider aesthetics is merely a feature of my class-based identification with a dying form of cultural capital.

Works Cited

Culler, Jonathan. “Comparative Literature, At Last.” The Literary in Theory. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2007. 254-268.
Grossberg, Larry, Cary Nelson, and Paula Treichler, ed. Cultural Studies. New York: Routledge, 1992
Marcus, Sharon. “Same Difference? Transnationalism, Comparative Literature, and Victorian Studies.” Victorian Studies 45.4 (2003). 677-686.
Saussy, Haun, ed. Comparative Literature in an Age of Globalization. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2006.
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Forum on World Literature (II)

Being Medium: Ten Paragraphs on the National

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

posted under , , by Unit for Criticism
Written by Matt Hart, English

1. Spiky Exceptions. Writing after the abortive 1979 referendum on Scottish Home Rule, Tom Nairn rejected the consolations of socialist internationalism over the nation-state. Internationalism, he wrote, is “an organic part of the conceptual universe of nationalism.”1 Cosmopolitanism, the UN, the dream of a universal polity—these are important parts of political history but they aren’t (or weren’t) the fate of modernity.2 His response was to replace internationalism with internationality, an effect of relations between and among nation-states. “The overwhelmingly dominant political by-product of modern internationality,” he declared, “is nationalism […] Not swelling 'higher unity' but 'Balkanisation,' a world of spiky exceptions to what ought to have been the rule.” (13).

2. Boundary Stones. Reviewing Hardt and Negri’s Multitude a quarter century later, Nairn’s analysis changes only little. He scorns the authors’ Spinozism as a philosophy of “rapturous merging” that “identifies everything with everything else.” By “[fusing] the coat of many colours into a consummate internationalism,” he complains, such philosophy tries to invert the ideological trick of nationalism, which, although it claimed to abolish universal empire in the name of the masses, more often than not only expressed “fratricidal great-nation hegemony.” But if nationalism was the hostage of murderous elites, it was nevertheless a relatively autonomous historical force. By contrast, Nairn insists, “Internationalism’, in the old sense creakily replayed by [Hardt and Negri], was a part of the 1870-1989 nationalist world, not an answer to it.” It is only now, after the revolutions of 1989, that one can imply anything different—only now that “the wealth and the meaning of nations [have begun] to struggle out from the chrysalis of the ism.”3 This is the context in which Hardt and Negri proclaim that the job of the political future is to bridge the gap between the worldwide “production of the common” and a dead or dying “global system of sovereignty.”4 But Nairn rejects this premise entirely, arguing that the current crisis in sovereignty is insufficient reason to tear down the “painfully assembled boundary stones” of nationality. If the “mastadons” of the Westphalian system are fading away, he asks, why shouldn’t this lead towards more particularity, not less: “to new kinds of democracy, […] [and] closer links between societies and states?”5

3. Homologies. This question is of old provenance. It points to the centrality of the “national” homology between cultural and political identity—and the faultline that opens-up within it. This faultline is what Slavoj Zizek explains as the contradiction between Kantian cosmpolitanism’s “radical emptying” of citizenship as a “pure Form” beyond the contingencies of culture and the “fanaticism” of the Nation-Thing, with its pleasurable illusion that we enjoy the same way of life as our neighbors (and that our neighbors believe the same Thing of us).6 Nairn implies, with Zizek, that nationalism is an inevitable response to the contradictions of market-led globalization, where the neo-liberal state has been universalized amid profound cultural difference and staggering material inequality. For Nairn, it is also an appropriate response: a way of giving shape to smaller, more manageable, and more equitable cultures and communities.

4. At what cost? The present nature of the EU—a vast and unequal transnational project with shallow roots outside political elites—suggests that these are hardly trivial questions. There’s a lot at stake in judging whether “citizenship has to be tied to community and politics to common values if we are to have the solidarity and stability that democratic societies require.”7 And yet Nairn nonetheless struggles to answer the obvious rejoinder to his language of social solidarity. If the answer to liberal formalism depends on people having an identity in common, where does one draw the line between who belongs and who doesn’t? Who decides? And at what cost?

5. Literature At Last. For all that, the nation-state’s ideological link between culture and the state guarantees its importance to literary history. Pascale Casanova, for instance, argues that Paris is the capital of the “world republic of letters” because French is the language into which the most translations are made. Her emphasis on worldwide literary capital does not, however, imply that she comes as a prophet of “globalization.”8 She rather describes how “the writer stands in a particular relation to world literary space by virtue of the place occupied in it by the national space into which he has been born” (41). This world literary space is very much inter- rather than trans-national, defined as it is by rivalry among its members rather than by deterritorializing flows. Moreover, Casanova’s emphasis on competition between established metropolitan centers and emerging cultural-capital markets indicates the profound difference between the structure of her project and something like Gayatri Spivak’s forever-unrealizable horizon of “planetarity.”9 Despite all indications to the contrary, The World Republic of Letters describes neither a world nor a Republic.

6. More Homologies. The presumed identity between political and cultural concepts has massive implications. As Wai Chee Dimock explains, the enunciation of US sovereignty in 1776 established a dubious but nonetheless totemic cause, chronology, and cartography for American literary history.10 This story is of course longer and more complicated than this crude correspondence allows. Nevertheless, it remains true—as Giorgio Agamben has it—that we often depend on the unintelligible notion of a language to define the incomprehensible idea of a people. And we depend on that impossible idea of a people to make sense of the Leviathan, “whose body is made up of citizens but whose soul is sovereignty.”11 In May 2005, Senator James Inhofe introduced an amendment to an immigration bill calling for English to be made the official language of the US.12 For the members of ProEnglish, a group that lobbied in support of Inhofe, this attempt to leverage sovereign power to shape the language of the people should be only the first of many such biopolitical acts. For instance: “To reduce the distrust and estrangement that has come between members of the American polity,” they write, we also ought to “[end] dual citizenship by enforcing the Oath of Allegiance to the United States.”13 Thus does a single language stand in for unitary citizenship of an indivisibly sovereign state.

7. Shallow and Deep. But all this, so the objection goes, is reactionary nonsense: “You use the words modernity and nation-state as if these were blithe facts of human history. But they’re not. The nation-state is exceptional. Look about you, look to the margins, or back before the seventeenth century, and you’ll see that the homology between political and cultural communities is an aberration. Dig deep or look at the topsoil—either way, you can’t mistake the transience of ethnolinguistically homogenous states.”

8. Look at Britain. And the objection is right. Within the next decade, cities like Leicester and Birmingham will become “super-diverse” spaces in which, for the first time since the Norman conquest, no ethnic group commands a majority. Meanwhile, Westminster now pools and merges its sovereignty in the multilateral institutions of the EU and the European Court of Human Rights—and in a bilateral arrangement with the Republic of Ireland, which has a statutory role in the governance of Ulster. And think again about British state-formation, in which there never was any identity between culture and politics. From 1603, after all, the Stuarts reigned over a composite monarchy with one sovereign, two sovereignties, two territories, and at least four languages. Even the creation of a unitary sovereignty in 1707 did not end the multi-national character of the Union.

9. Interregnum. If the nation-state system is a mere interregnum in global history, the period of its hegemony is nevertheless coincident with the emergence of literary studies as an academic discipline. It should be no surprise, then, that our profession is simultaneously anxious and excited about reforming its largely national disciplinary structures. There’s nothing so scary as exhuming a corpse, nothing so hopeful as cutting one’s ties.

10. The trials of being medium. The dilemma facing national literatures is that their relatively large size makes it hard for them to adjust to a fluid economy of cultural difference or métissage. At the same time, they’re by definition not up to the border-crossing work of global culture. They are condemned to be medium, too big yet too small. But this condition needn’t be fatal. Among the terms in play in contemporary methodological discourse, I prefer “transnational” for how its spatial prefix implies a journey across as well as beyond the nation. It is vastly preferable, in this way, to the term “post-national,” which in its crudest version consigns the nation to the dustbin of history, forgetting that the Owl of Minerva flies several days either side of trash night. “Transnational” also contains neither the evaluative connotations of a “comparative” method, nor the hyper-ambitious geography implied by “global.”14 A “transnational” criticism goes through the nation, not around it. It pays attention to how literary cultures are built above and below the nation-state—and to the ways the nation-state still operates as an agent of patronage, welfare, and coercion.15 It cannot any more be said, if it ever could, that the concept of a literature makes sense only by analogy with a concept like citizenship. But if our critical method is to do more than chase the zeitgeist, we must nevertheless keep our eyes on the medium scale.

[1] Tom Nairn, Faces of Nationalism: Janus Revisited (London: Verso, 1997), 27.
[2] “Nationality is simply the fate of modernity” (Tom Nairn, After Britain: New Labour and the Return of Scotland [London: Granta, 2000], 199).
[3] Quotations to this point in para. 2 from Tom Nairn, “Make for the Boondocks,” London Review of Books (May 5, 2005). . Accessed February 2, 2008.
[4] Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Multitude: War and Democracy in an Age of Empire (New York: Penguin, 2004), 358.
[5] Nairn, “Make for the Boondocks.”
[6] Slavoj Zizek, Tarrying with the Negative: Kant, Hegel, and the Critique of Ideology (Durham: Duke U. P., 1993), 221-2.
[7] Thomas McCarthy, “Reconciling Cosmopolitan Unity and National Diversity,” in Alternative Modernities, ed. Dilip Parameshwar Gaonkar (Durham: Duke U. P., 2001), 201.
[8] Pascale Casanova, The World Republic of Letters, trans. M. B. DeBevoise (Cambridge: Harvard U. P., 2004), 168.
[9] Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Death of a Discipline (New York: Columbia U. P., 2003), 102. Quoted in Wai Chee Dimock, Through Other Continents: American Literature Across Deep Time (Princeton: Princeton U. P., 2006), 7.
[10] Dimock, Through Other Continents, 4.
[11] See Giorgio Agamben, Means Without End: Notes on Politics, trans. Vincenzo Binetti & Cesare Casarino (Minneapolis: U. Minnesota P., 2000), 29-35 & 63-72. The Leviathan quotation is from Michel Foucault, “Society Must Be Defended”: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975-1976, ed. Mauro Bertani & Alessandro Fontana; trans. David Macey (New York: Picador, 2003), 34.
[12] See Carl Hulse, “Senate Votes to Set English as National Language,” New York Times (May 19, 2006). Accessed February 3, 2008.
[13] Quoted from the policy paper “Invaluable and Insignificant: a Meditation on US Citizenship.” . Accessed February 3, 2008.
[14] For a critique of comparative method in these terms, see Micol Seigel, “Beyond Compare: Comparative Method after the Transnational Turn,” Radical History Review 91 (2005), 62-90.
[15] See, e.g., the essays collected in Françoise Lionnet & Shu-mei Shih, eds., Minor Transnationalism (Durham: Duke U. P., 2005).
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Forum on World Literature (I)

Introduction: National? Comparative? Global? Literary Methodology Today.

Monday, February 4, 2008

posted under , , , by Unit for Criticism
Written by Michael Rothberg, Director of the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory

The following series grows out of two spring 2008 Unit for Criticism panels on world literature and literary methodology. The idea for this series crystallized when I was reading Through Other Continents, a recent book by the Americanist literary critic Wai Chee Dimock. A brilliant and original thinker, Dimock attempts to invent a literary study attuned to the geographical scale of the world-system and inspired by what she calls the “deep time” of geology and astronomy (6). She argues of American literature that “[r]ather than being a discrete entity, it is better seen as a crisscrossing set of pathways, open-ended and ever multiplying, weaving in and out of other geographies, other languages and cultures” (3). Dimock wants Americanist critics to be conversant with “Persian literature, Hindu literature, Chinese literature,” and with “written records going back five or six thousand years, and oral, musical, and visual material going back further” (3, 6). As a natural born comparatist—or, at least, as someone who has trouble concentrating for too long on any single nation-state—I’m sympathetic to this move toward a world-system of literature. I can only salute, if with a certain amount of anxiety over the work ahead, the call for linguistic competence beyond Europe and for historical competence beyond modernity. But what struck me as odd in Through Other Continents—and what served as the stimulus for this forum—is the simultaneous boldness of Dimock’s call for a radically extended literacy and the simple fact that her book remains a study of “American literature.” Ultimately, a project that marks itself as innovatively comparative and global maintains somewhat traditional ties to the national scale: American literature may now be defined as “a criss-crossing set of pathways,” but for Dimock it is still an “it,” which certainly sounds like a “discrete entity.” That “it” made me wonder: is Dimock’s return to the national an inevitable one? What are the limits to literary study’s attempts to globalize itself? Can comparative methodology provide an alternative to this vacillation between the national and world scales?

This online series will explore the implications of the tensions between national, comparative, and global concerns in contemporary literary methodology that Dimock’s work makes visible. Dimock is by no means the first person to think about literature on a world scale, a tendency that goes back at least to Goethe and Marx in the nineteenth century and has lately exercised many fine critics and theorists, including Emily Apter, Pascale Casanova, David Damrosch, Franco Moretti, and Gayatri Spivak. How do we explain and evaluate the recent efflorescence of thinking about world literature? Such a tendency probably follows naturally from the more general rise of globalization as a category of critical analysis, a rise that is itself a seemingly direct result of the geopolitical and geo-economic shifts of the post-Cold War period. As such, the move toward world literature can be understood either as a necessary transcendence of Euro-American parochialism, as a symptom of unipolar American hegemony, or, if you believe Parag Khanna’s thesis in last week’s New York Times Magazine about the imminent extinction of that hegemony, as a symptom of a newly emergent tri-polar world in which China and a transnational Europe loom ever larger. Whatever one thinks about the specific merit of these possibilities—and others I haven’t mentioned or thought of—it is clear that the new focus on world literature has borrowed heavily from discourses on globalization, and especially from world-systems analysis by scholars such as Fernand Braudel and Immanuel Wallerstein.

These arguments about globalization and world literature have obvious merit, but I’d also like to highlight at least one other more “local” genealogy of recent discussions: I would argue that, at least in the American academy, the world literature debates of the early twenty-first century sublate—preserve and negate—the canon debates of the 1980s and early 1990s. Controversies about the “deconstruction” of Great Books programs, the “multiculturalization” of literature syllabi, and the invasion of American campuses by politically correct hordes armed with Stalinist thought-control techniques dominated the cultural-political imaginary of the Bush I moment, as many of you will remember. Was too much reading of Toni Morrison and Gloria Anzaldúa subverting the grandeur of Western Civilization? Unfortunately not. And yet, while residual complaints of these sorts persist, I think the canon debates were largely won by the liberal multiculturalists, if not by the more radical avatars of critical multiculturalism. An open, hybridized canon has become common sense—in theory, if not always in practice.

But in the meantime, the issues mutated. Having more or less won the ideological battle over inclusiveness, we found ourselves faced with new methodological challenges. The problem involves not only our incorporation into a corporate logic of diversity and the management of difference (as Walter Benn Michaels and others have argued), but also methodological concerns about our approach to world literature, whether in the classroom or in scholarship. As Franco Moretti puts it, “The question is not really what we should do—the question is how” ("Conjectures" 54-55). Having successfully opened up the canon, we are suddenly faced with the limits of the syllabus, the sedimentation of disciplinary structures, and the finite nature of our own linguistic, cultural, and historical expertise. I don’t think the debate over world literature is in any way post-political or non-ideological—nor would I want to discourage ideological-critical analysis of these matters—but I do think recent writings have drawn us into a necessary and productive methodological detour. The shift to methodology raises a series of questions that I hope we will begin to address in this forum. For instance, what do we think about Moretti’s suggestion that we need to abandon close reading for “distant reading” and quantitative methods? Where do we stand on the question of translation and the sacredness of the original text? Can we—or should we—avoid the apparently unequal division of labor between the theorist and the national literature specialist?

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