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.


Make A Comment


basheer said...

Dear sir,
As you said that while we understanding the literary text in a world context,there is the danger of over simplification and neglecting the text's 'individual personality'.
But taking into this 'world- system' is also i think is a result of the better under standing of the 'individual text'.The process making a literary text into a world frame work consists at the beginning a good under standing of its individual personality.

Anonymous said...

hi everyone. thanks for the great incoming comments. remember everyone to sign your comments at the bottom with your first and last name.


Michael Simeone