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Regular version of the site

Article

The Location of World Literature

Canadian Review of Comparative Literature. 2017. Vol. 44. No. 3. P. 468-481.

In the last ten years or so since the publication of David Damrosch's groundbreaking book What Is World Literature? (2003), one has come to recognize the need to begin to locate the various facets of the currently prevalent Anglo-Saxon discourse of world literature with more conceptual rigour. The first imperative, it seems to me, is to pose the question: where is "world literature" ontologically?2 Some believe it to be an attestable network of texts that, aided especially by the process of globalization, enter into myriad relations—however complex and mediated, but still ultimately demonstrable—that reveal (or sometimes conceal) the hard facts of canon formation, cultural propaganda, ideological indoctrination, the book trade, etc. Others understand world literature above all as a prism through which to analyze literature, a "mode of reading." Sometimes these two beliefs coexist in the same body of work, making it prone to conceptual confusion. A third option, often coexisting with the other two, is to practice "world literature" as an intellectual discourse with clear ideological subtexts, frequently liberal and cosmopolitan. How we actually understand "world literature," as an attestable reality of texts or as a prism—one might even be tempted to add a "unit"—of comparison, in other words, a "mode of reading," is not a metaphysical issue. It has very real implications for the ways in which we approach questions such as how one should try to narrate the history of world literature. In addition to this fundamental differentiation, I also wish to suggest another, more concrete grid that should assist in this effort of locating world literature as a construct. This grid is essentially chronotopic and consists of several vectors. One needs to be aware of at least four major reference points: time, space, language, and, crucially, what one could term self-reflexivity—how literature itself reflects on, and creates images of, "world literature," thus opening up spaces for interrogation and dissent from the currently prevalent notions of world literature. In what follows, I will address these four points in sections of varying length.