A 2008 special issue of New Literary History (vol. 39) is focused on the future of literary history (and, relatedly, comparative literary studies) given globalization. To some extent one can track the complicated history of World Literature through the early and influential essays of Rene Wellek, who advocated for comparative scholarship even as he warned against the dangers of investing disciplinary energy in the search for covering laws and causal relationships between literature and the wider society. The titles of Wellek’s much-cited 1958 talk, “The Crisis of Comparative Literature,” and his 1973 essay “The Fall of Literary History,” convey some sense of his pessimism about the prospects for defensible work.
Of course the very term World Literature has to be carefully used since one must always demarcate the multiple possibilities implied by the phrase. Some use World Literature to reference all the literature produced in the world, some see it as referring to Kant and Goethe’s dream (Goethe in 1827: “a universal world literature is in the process of being constituted”) of an international body of transcendently superb literature, and still others to reference those few novels that have found truly international fame. And so some who are invested in comparative work today, often undertaken to throw American cultural productions into a wider perspective of circulation and resistance, prefer terms like transcultural literary history (Pettersson). In the context of the theoretical care one must take even to begin this kind of work (the complications of which are unwittingly revealed in Walter Veit’s summation of Linda Hutcheon’s call for a “new history of literature” which “has to be constructed as a relational, contrapuntal, polycommunal, polyethnic, multiperspectival comparative history”), the project remains inherently appealing: who would oppose the idea of research that induces cross-cultural sensitivity and understanding, even realizing its final impossibility?
After buzzing along for decades, or at least since the 1950’s when the International Comparative Literature Association first met to debate the potential for doing literary historical work, new attention has been given to transcultural literary studies thanks to two much-discussed interventions: Franco Moretti’s essay, “Conjectures on World Literature” (which forms the anchor for a 2004 anthology on Debating World Literature released by Verso and which formed a sort of introduction to his widely read book a year later) and Pascale Casanova’s The World Republic of Letters (trans. M.B. DeBevoise; Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 2004). Moretti’s work has gotten a lot of attention given his heretical view that the sheer quantity of the world’s literature, which now escapes the possibilities of close textual analysis, now requires distant reading, which is to say sophisticated forms of macro-data analysis that can reveal patterns of novelistic diffusion worldwide.
But things get tricky fast. Fredric Jameson, who leads off and who has long expressed skepticism about the work of literary historians (noting in an address to a 1984 Hong Kong conference on Rewriting Literary History that “few of us think of our work in terms of literary history,” and having subsequently called repeated attention to the essentially ahistorical nature of postmodernity), argues that the dialectical impulses of economic globalization simultaneously promise cultural liberation even as the economic chains are slowly tightened, and in ways that finally limit the range of cultural productions as well. To be concrete, Jameson highlights how global capital appears to open all cultures to all populations, even as, over time, a shrinking number of transnational conglomerates end up ultimately stifling all but the handful of mainly English-language novels able to turn a profit. He is especially keen on Michael Mann’s argument that the global economy is “encaging” – that is, as Jameson describes it, “the new global division of labor is” organized so that “at first it is useful for certain countries to specialize…. Today, however, when self-sufficiency is a thing of the past, and when no single country, no matter what its fertility, any longer feeds itself, it becomes clearer what this irreversibility means. You cannot opt out of the international division of labor any longer” (376).
The cage ensnares more tightly – and not only because “smaller national publishers are absorbed into gigantic German or Spanish publishing empires,” but because a handful of mega-publishers end up publishing all the textbooks kids read even as budding authors everywhere are subtly persuaded to buy in because of their “instinctive desire to be read by the West and in particular in the United States and in the English language: to be read and to be seen and observed by this particular Big Other” (377). So what are literary historians to do that will not invariably make them simply complicit in all this? Jameson, a little bizarrely I think, argues for a sort of criticism that imagines the world-making possibilities of novels-yet-unwritten-that-one-imagines-as-ultimately-failing-to-liberate. This sort of creative criticism “raises the ante,” according to Jameson, because it helps its audiences recognize the actual “persistence, if insufficiently imagined and radicalized, of current stereotypes of literary history” (381).
Brian Stock, at the University of Toronto, reads the current scene from within the larger new traditions of developmental and cognitive psychology and cognitive neuroscience. What work done in these areas suggests is that reading has a profound cognitive (and universal) influence on human beings, whose plastic minds are essentially reconfigured by repeated participation in practices of literacy. As Stock see is,”the only way in which reading can be related to the ubiquitous problem of globalization in communications, without running the risk of new types of intellectual colonization, is by demonstrating that it is in the genetic inheritance for interpreting language in its written or ideographic form that is the truly ‘global’ phenomenon, since it is potentially shared by everyone who can read… [I]f this approach can be agreed upon, the natural partner of globalization will become a scientifically defended pluralism” (406).
Walter Veit, at Monash University, sees the interpretive key as residing in temporality, which can never be linguistically articulated (Paul Ricouer: “temporality cannot be spoken of in the direct discourse of phenomenology”) except in novelistic narrative, where the arc of the narrative makes some sense of time’s passage and where, following Hayden White, the linguistic operations of rhetorical tropes and figures provide metaphorical access to the otherwise inexpressible. One is left with a more sanguine sense of the future within these terms: both for an analysis of the multiple ways in which the world’s literatures construct time and its passing, and with respect to literary criticism, which is always embedded in the particular and always changing practices of its time and audiences. Such a view is well supplemented by Nirvana Tanoukhi’s claim that the challenge of understanding transnational literature is also foundationally a question of scale and locale and spaces of production.
The work of literary history, and the conceptualization even of its very possibility, is, finally, a representative anecdote for the broader work of the humanities. This is a theme apprehended both by Hayden White, who notes that the questions raised in the symposium reflect the larger conditions of historical knowledge as such, and by David Bleich, who notes the close affinity between the work of literary historians and the broader work of the university (where “scholars have always been involved in the mixing of societies, the sharing of languages and literatures, and the teaching of their findings and understandings,” pg. 497). The university plays a culturally central role in translating other cultures (for students, for the audiences of its research) that is fraught with all the perils of the work of writing intercultural history – hubris, caricature, misapprehension. But the effort to make sense of the wider world, however risky, is also indispensable, if only because the alternatives – unmitigated arrogance and blinkered ignorance – are so much worse.