Jacob Emery reviews David Damrosch's World Literature in Theory

(Wiley-Blackwell, 2014)

Even though literature is already in the world by virtue of being written, the redundant modifier "world literature" adds value. At the time of this writing, the Norton Anthology of World Literature is ranked twenty-eighth in Amazon's list of best-selling anthologies. This achievement is especially impressive given that all the books that outrank it were written in English and only two are printed on paper. They are preponderantly collections of e-book erotica that retail for under a dollar—Risqué, No Regrets, Contemporary Submission Fantasies. There is a place for books like this, and the internet's largest clearinghouse of cultural commodities testifies to how large that place is. What is astonishing here is that excerpts from Sanskrit epic and ancient Chinese lyric, under the brand name "world literature," compete successfully in an ecosystem otherwise dominated by low-rent digital smut.

Some might evaluate this market phenomenon as proof of the lasting power and value of literary art, whose manifold expressions of the age-old human experience irrepressibly exert themselves through the world wide web—that paradigmatic technology that represents the sum of global knowledge in its sublime and uplifting, as well as frivolous and dismaying, aspects. On the other hand, in a marketplace calibrated to supply genre fiction in English, the literary achievements of far-flung times and places may find a place only insofar as they have been reduced to palatably vague suggestions of the exotic, presented in bite-size pieces and neutering translations—the literary equivalent of a food court, to use a comparison that comes up several times in the new anthology World Literature in Theory. Does the success of world literature reassure us that quality sells, or does it ruefully bear witness to the humanities selling out? For all its aspirations to noble cosmopolitanism, world literature is haunted by parallel rubrics like the World Cup, which functions not least as a stage for nationalisms, and the world music and international fast foods that cater to weak-stomached first-world clienteles.

As the volume's editor quips, "The study of world literature can very readily become culturally deracinated, philologically bankrupt, and ideologically complicit with the worst tendencies of global capitalism. Other than that, we're in good shape." A tireless advocate of ecumenical approaches in the humanities, David Damrosch has assembled these essays to demonstrate that the scholarly study of so-called world literature, despite pressures towards the lazy and ingratiating, remains rigorous and self-conscious. He directs Harvard University's Institute for World Literature, whose website positions itself messianically as a necessary response to the "political, economic, and religious forces sweeping the globe." World literature responds to the prevalent apocalyptic sense that the world is changing, that humanistic reflection is a sluggish victim of the bottom line, that the forces of a globalized economy have irreversibly exceeded our traditional mechanisms of understanding and control. In this sense, its motives are those of international environmental movements, alliances of protectionist parties in the EU, and other efforts to adapt to or mitigate the challenges of a humanity exerting itself on a planetary scale.

World literature responds to the forces of globalization by identifying with them. Its locus classicus, cited in a dozen of this volume's thirty-five essays, is Goethe's 1827 exhortation that "the epoch of World-literature is at hand, and everyone must strive to hasten its approach." Two hundred years later, the authors represented here take Goethe at his word by promulgating an idea of literature as a global system of translations and transitions, nearer at hand than ever, that comprises "all literary works that circulate beyond their culture of origin," as Damrosch writes in his lively 2003 prolegomenon, What is World Literature? From this point of view, the foremost aim of literary study is to describe how cultural phenomena are lost, recovered, and transformed across a planetary entanglement that has always existed but only now insistently unfurls itself for the benefit of scholars—a splendid divulgement of the world, threatening only to the faint-hearted and regretted only by curmudgeons.

The extraordinary thing about World Literature in Theory is the ferment of scholarly activity it represents. Almost every essay was written in the last fifteen years. Apart from a classic 1982 essay by Edward Said, "Traveling Theory," the exceptions seem intended to construct a sense of temporal depth to world literature rather than to make material contributions—a piece by Jorge Luis Borges, some documents by Yiddish writers from the 1930s, a manifesto by René Étiemble, and an initial section entitled "Origins" that curates a few seminal documents from a quartet of European and Asian languages, including Johann Peter Eckermann's Conversations with Goethe. The rubric "World Literature in an Age of Globalization" covers a set of influential programmatic statements, notably Franco Moretti's brief for statistical methods in the humanities and Pascale Casanova's idea of a "republic of world letters," centered on cosmopolitan capitals that confer recognition on literary works from the periphery. "Debating World Literature" presents arguments at the margins of the concept, mostly scholastic ones—standouts include Emily Apter's defense of the "untranslatable" and Stephen Owen's distinction between poetry for global consumption and localized lyric traditions—though the section also makes a foray into political discourse to consider the recent controversy over la Francophonie between politician Nicolas Sarkozy and a coalition of French-language intellectuals." The last grouping, "World Literature in the World," switches out abstract concerns for a series of practical demonstrations: descriptions of literary networks across South Asia or East Asia, for example, or a reading of the "post-postmodern" digital lyrics of Young-hae Chang Heavy Industries in their dialogue with Ezra Pound. All the contributions take place within the purview of the Western academy, although several—notably Revathi Krishnaswamy's "Toward World Literary Knowledges"—point out concepts that arose independently of it.

As a whole, the collection is a snapshot of activity by academic advocates of globalizing trends in literature, at a time when everyone agrees these forces exist but no one knows exactly what they mean for literary culture or humanistic scholarship. In the Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels characterize world literature (Weltliteratur) as resulting from the historical cruelties that nonetheless, in the ultimate calculus, progress towards a united humanity and a rational global economy—the cultural equivalent, as Zhang Longxi points out, of the political slogan, "Workers of all countries, unite!" The passage comes up a few times in this anthology, though no author is intrepid enough to quote its full context, which concerns the cheap commodity production that "forces the barbarians' obstinate hatred of foreigners to capitulate. It compels all nations, on pain of extinction [...] to become bourgeois themselves. In a word, it creates a world after its own image." Their endpoint in utopian globalism notwithstanding, these lines would identify academic scholarship with the impersonal homogenizing violence from which its practitioners are anxious to distance themselves.

Perhaps most profoundly, the Manifesto implies that scholars are not so much a vigorous vanguard "hastening the approach" of a global epoch, as Goethe would have it, as hapless observers of historical forces that play themselves out regardless of who cheers and who objects. From this perspective, earnest debates over the future of the field are a kind of magical thinking—like the child who believes that his rage causes a thunderstorm or the neurotic who believes that an airplane safely reaches its destination because she is wearing a lucky pair of socks—that provides comfort in an uncertain, precarious situation about which nothing can be done. World literature provides effective paradigms for describing globalized culture, but it also provides a sense of intellectual mastery over a progress towards unknown outcomes that threaten professorial careers and academic institutions. Indeed, it participates in that process: quite apart from its intellectual merits, one suspects that the approaches gathered under the term "world literature" have gained so much traction in the contemporary university not least because they can be taken to justify trends that are happening anyway. World literature provides intellectual cover for the dissolution of national language and literature programs in favor of larger, more efficient catch-all departments with less administrative overhead and literature taught largely in translation.

In this sense, world literature is both diagnostic and symptomatic of prevailing trends in the academy. Despite the essential interest of the subject for anyone who is interested in verbal culture, there is no doubt that the collection is meant above all for "students and scholars," as we read on the back jacket. In other words, world literature's appeal to the global or the universal (variously qualified as "alternative modes of universality" or a "strategic bargain with universalism") takes place primarily in the microcosm of the universe that is the university. However, for all its myths of aloof intellectualism, the ivory tower is itself a mirror of prevailing economic currents. As a teaching anthology, World Literature in Theory is a tool of the professionalization process whereby, as Damrosch notes, large research institutions receive "raw material—undergraduates—produced by the colonies, they bring them to the metropolitan center for reprocessing, and they send them back out to the colonies, value-added, to teach the undergraduates." Although the Institute for World Literature advocates for the globe, its affiliates are inevitably located in North America, Western Europe, the Pacific Rim, and the Persian Gulf. World literature's geography reiterates the map of global markets, which discover raw materials in agricultural and extraction regions and sell them, refined by translation and exegesis, to industrialized populations. With every transaction, value accrues to writers, translators, scholars, publishers, administrators, and students.

Perhaps this is the key to world literature's success in pacifying fractious academic debates over literary theory and canonization. The movement has been hailed variously as a safe harbor for Great Books programs, a long overdue leveling of the cultural playing field, or as an argument for new research methods that utilize the information technologies that have revolutionized other sectors of the economy. However, whether incarnated as the big-data analysis of all literature in lieu of a few closely studied canonical texts, or as the policy of bringing books into the classroom insofar as they have demonstrably exerted influence across times and places, an emphasis on expanding scope and traveling texts defaults to the free market values of ramifying trade and frictionless exchange.

If only by reverting to the underlying logic of the market, world literature's ecumenical sweep sidesteps the vexed business of determining what texts are essential for a general education, a specialist knowledge, or an introductory course. People get along better when they agree to let algorithms and market forces create the categories for them, and anyway the same forces that lift up and cast down literary texts drive the fortunes of scholarly vogues. Markets and algorithms have their own biases, however. The contribution that tackles Marx's uneasy implications most directly, Aamir Mufti's "Orientalism and the Institution of World Literatures," notes that world literature "recodes an opaque and unequal process of appropriation as a transparent one of supposedly free and equal interchange and communication." Franco Moretti—here the author of an influential essay advocating "distant reading" approaches capable of accounting for the vast masses of text that are invisible to research methods concentrating on a small number of exceptional, and therefore misrepresentative, texts—has agonized elsewhere (in the 2005 essay "The End of the Beginning") about this conundrum, that the descriptive methods he propounds seem to occult the critical role on which the humanities pride themselves, and which has been important to Moretti's own scholarly formation.

The very title World Literature in Theory seems intended to answer charges that world literature abandons the project of critical theory—a philosophical tradition that possesses its own, more abstract concepts of the world, drawn from Heidegger's aesthetics or Marx's theory of representation. Long the privilege of comparative literature departments, which developed sometimes recondite concepts and disseminated them as general theoretical lenses to other disciplines, high theory has lately commanded shrinking student audiences and unsympathetic administrations. Its proponents, unfairly lampooned as purveyors of jargon and suspicious of world literature's rising institutional fortunes, have themselves at times dismissed world literature as anti-intellectual populism. Damrosch's anthology is testament enough to the mental energies currently marshaled around the concept of world literature, but there remains something to be said about the sea-change that world literature represents: I mean a general shift from modes of analysis that facilitate comparisons and resonances and theoretical generalizations to descriptive methodologies that look for relationships of context, proximity, and cause and effect. In lieu of interpretation as paraphrase—construing texts as whole aesthetic objects that represent a world—we find here interpretation as illuminating gloss, the tracing of influence and echo as texts pass through space and time. In this respect we can place world literature within the intellectual zeitgeist articulated by sociologist of science Bruno Latour, who imagines the scholar's task as tracing "a trail of associations between heterogeneous elements" instead of erecting interpretive paradigms.

The fault line was visible already in Goethe's Germany, where the Schlegel brothers urged their audience to read artworks from India, China, and the South Seas side by side in order to discover in this "map" of externally differing literatures a set of parallel efforts to embody a universal poetry, whereas Johann Gottfried Herder anticipated the pursuit of literary mutations "through peoples and times and languages" that has become typical of contemporary world literature. Even Moretti's work, which is concerned about its own critical potential and which is capable of producing insights into the convergent evolution of literary forms in distinct contexts, is presented primarily as a methodological breakthrough in the digital study of the humanities. The shift emanates immediately from a need for better textbooks, pedagogies capable of engaging more students, and research methods addressing the enormous increase of texts to be read; although the debates of world literature are largely specific to the academy, the academy looms large enough in global culture that they can profitably circulate beyond it. Nonetheless, it is literature in the world that is the occasion for its scholarly study, and our age, for better or for worse, is increasingly unwilling to summon the theoretical attitude necessary to grasp the world as a whole object, if inevitably in error: the university is only the flawed miniature mirror of the world it strives to comprehend. Still, the continuous revelation that verbal culture is ever richer, more entangled, and more independent of our parochial perspectives is some compensation, even if the epoch of world literature in its fullest sense remains perpetually at hand.