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

posted under , , , by Unit for Criticism
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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Ratul said...

Marcus raises some very important points about funding that should be highly pertinent -- as a matter of fact, central -- to this debate. We are aware, with perhaps different measures of cynicism, that the American Academy is very much a part of what Dwight Eisenhour, in his famous final address, called the military-industrial complex. In as much, work in the academy, its immediate professional rewards, are circumscribed by a circuit of value very much within the logic of capital forged by the military-industrial complex. We do know how the status of Slavik departments, for instance, changed in terms of financial and other priorities with the end of the Cold War. Today the financialization of a planet is undoubtedly a major factor behind the rise of Area Studies and the twilight of the the Comparativist.

Even when it comes to 'hot' areas, like the Middle East, it is not difficult to see how in terms of disciplinary method, some projects would get immediate precedence in the academy over others. There will be grants and fellowships galore for ethnographic studies that provide valuable information to fine tune governmentality. But for a comparativist-historical study of Ibn Rushd and Erasmus? I do not think so. Meanwhile we are allowed to do our Shakespeares and Miltons in English Departments in relative peace so that hawks like Lynn Cheney can aim the canon from time to time, and also because (as one of my obnoxious former professors once glibly put it) we offer writing and general education courses "that teach [white] middle class America how to read and write."

Anustup Basu