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 AnzaldĂșa 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?

We invite you to join the conversation.


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Rob Rushing said...

Does Moretti actually say we need to abandon close reading for distant reading? I didn't take that away from his book, so much as the suggestion that close reading was (a) totally inadequate to answer certain questions, and (b) that an over-reliance on close reading had actually led to some conclusions about, say, the rise of the novel, that were inadequate in the light of a larger historical context. But I didn't take Moretti to be advocating abandoning a close up and intimate portrait of individual works--just that such an approach can never show large scale pattern, or the periodicity and cyclicity that are evident at the medium scale.

I hope he wasn't saying it, since there's no way I'm going to spend a decade assembling data. It's not right for my idiom.

Michael Rothberg said...

Rob asks whether Moretti actually says we need to abandon close reading for distant reading. Well, he's certainly being provocative, but I do think that he's proposing that *literary history* should abandon close reading.

As he writes in "Conjectures on World Literature," if critics follow the world systems approach, "literary history will quickly become very different from what it is now: it will become 'second hand': a patchwork of other people's research, *without a single direct textual reading*. Still ambitious, and actually even more so than before (world literature!); but the ambition is now directly proportional *to the distance from the text*: the more ambitious the project, the greater must the distance be" (57).

There are a few things to be said about this. First, I think Rob is right that an alternate approach of this sort may be necessary to capture large scale patterns, cycles, etc. In that sense, this is an exciting project. Second, I think FM is proposing a division of labor between the literary historian and the literary critic in which the former abandons close reading while the latter continues it. So, no, close reading doesn't completely disappear. However: Third, this division is clearly hierarchical--one project is "ambitious," while the other is assumedly something less than that. So, yes, data assembly seems to be on the agenda. Thus, fourth, the question then becomes (and this seems to be the question that many contributors to the Unit panels inspiring this forum want to pose): must there be such a division of labor and doesn't that division reproduce the "one, and unequal" (56) system Moretti is trying to map? I'm not sure...

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