Saturday, December 6, 2014

"Against World Literature"

Collage by Maureen Mullarkey
I am finishing up my essay on Fritz Strich –– oh, how bedeviling are the footnotes! I find myself in opposition to almost every scholarly approach to world literature since it has become such a scholarly industry –– since Strich's Goethe und die Weltliteratur, first published in 1946. The term was of course in circulation already in Goethe's lifetime, as it first appeared in 1827 in volume 6, no. 1 of Ueber Kunst und Altertum. Peter Goßens' study (discussed here by me) has detailed the afterlife of the concept in the period immediately after Goethe's death. For instance, its political and ethical ramifications were seized on by Karl August Varnhagen and other Goethe admirers in Varnhagen’s Berlin circle, among whom the ideas of the followers of Saint-Simon had taken root. Goßens quotes Cyrus Hamlin on Varnhagen’s reading of the Wanderjahre as “Gebrauchsanweisung für die zukünftige soziale Ordnung Europas in 19. Jahrhundert,” thereby forming, in Goßens’ words, “der Grundstein einer sozialistischen Goethedeutung.”

Marx and Engels blew that interpretation out of the water, and after 1848 "world literature" came more and more to be identified with comparative literature, which began to establish itself as a scholarly discipline. Not that everyone agreed with that conflation, and in the decades before the appearance of Goethe und die Weltliteratur there occasionally appeared an essay or a book that sought to rescue the concept from the comparatists.

Since at least the 1980s, the concept of "Eurocentrism" has been intimately linked to the world literature industry. It is true that Europe and its offshoots have dominated the rest of the world in economic terms, to the extent of producing inequalities in respect of “marginalized peripheries.” (That's from Samir Amin, the guy who invented the term "Eurocentrism.") And in a burst of 19th-century overreach, they sought to "export" their institutions to non-Europe, with not such great results. In my essay on Strich, however, I seek to distinguish "Europe" as an economic product from "European" literature. The former is in about "progress," which means rejecting what was loved only yesterday. In non-material terms, this has given rise to one of the most characteristic features of Western life of the past several centuries, namely, the rejection of the intellectual and cultural authority of the past (the Battle of Ancients and Moderns marking an early milestone in this rejection).

"Using Literature to Teach Global Citizenship"
The provocative title of this post is also that of a new book by NYU professor of French Emily Apter. The TLS reviewed the book, providing a clear summary of Apter's critique: world literature, according to Apter (but in the words of the reviewer), is "the handmaiden to a late-capitalist moment that transforms all cultural idioms into easily digestible products for an expanded global marketplace." I agree with this sentiment. One only has to consider those ghastly anthologies of world literature foisted off on high school and college students. Not to mention the cloying, dumbed-down multicultural programs. Apter's fight "against" world literature seems to concern the issue of "untranslatability" (as per her subtitle). I say "seems," for frankly it is hard to know what she is talking about. The following is exemplary of her terrible writing:

"[I]n translation studies, the limits of sayability and expressibility are increasingly a focus, conjugating logic and philology, with the latter understood in Werner Hamacher's ascription as an 'inclination' (or disinclination) to that which is 'said and not said.'"

Why the weird use of "conjugate" and "ascription" here? And how does the second half of the sentence follow on the first? And why are the writings of full professors so offputting?

Proudhon and His Children by Gustave Courbet (1853)
It strikes me that Apter is a 21st-century version of the proto-socialist enthusiasts of Goethe's day. Her wish, like those proto-socialists, is the formation of non-national, emancipated, cosmopolitan literary communities. But that is exactly what the market creates. One only has to read a contemporary English-language novel coming out of India or Pakistan or an African country to understand that the writers of these novels are repeating the experience of Europe, namely, rejecting their own traditions, literary and otherwise, and becoming "cosmopolitan." Such has been the arc of the novel in the West, namely, to portray individuals contending with a non-traditional world, one in which the old sureties have been destroyed in the name of "progress."

I am beginning to find something weird about the world literature movement. Besides the endless numbers of conferences, I just came across an announcement for a "Four-Day Vacation School" on the topic of "World Literature: Theories, Practice, Pegagogy." Held in September at the University of Warwick, it was sponsored by "the Connecting Cultures Grp." Need I say more?

Picture credit: Vamos a leer; Encyclopedia Britannica

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