Friday, December 16, 2016

World literature and "Orientalism"

Osman Hamdi Bey, A Young Emir Studying (1878) (Louvre Abu Dhabi)
The title of this post is provoked by a book that I am now reading: Forget English! Orientalisms and World Literature by Aamir R. Mufti. Edward Said is an important presence in Forget English!, but Said's Orientalism and the claims made by Said in that study have been altered by Mufti. The issue here is not Said's claim of ideological prejudice on the part of scholars of Eastern languages or of artists presenting false views of Eastern subjects. Instead, in Mufti's view (if I understand the author correctly), Orientalism “consists of those Western knowledge practices of the modern era whose emergence made possible for the first time a notion of a single world as a space populated by distinct civilizational complexes, each in possession of its own tradition, the unique expression of its own forms of national ‘genius.’” And, ergo, world literature.

Mufti draws on various writings by Herder, for whom "humanity" was "an irreducible concert of peoples," each representing discrete national and ethnic characteristics. It was a time when "nation-thinking" was being elaborated, when societies were increasingly viewed in national-cultural terms. Herder was responding to the bloodless and relentless universalism of the philosophes with a defense of “particular, local, historically established, and communal ways of life, such as in the ancient Germanic world — organic ‘communities of brothers living beside one another.’” Scholarship on languages of the "East" -- Persia, India, the Arab lands, maybe China (Mufti doesn't mention it) -- resulted in the creation of such cultural categories. This version of “Orientalism” produced a conception of the world as “an assemblage of civilizational entities, each in possession of its own textual and/or expressive traditions.”

Yet, as Mufti writes, even if world literature is conceptualized as "one-world thinking," not all literatures or literary traditions occupy prime real estate, so to speak, in the space of the world, even as the “international geography of academic conferences, literature festivals, literary prize competitions, and other similar practice of contemporary literature surely facilitates such ‘beyond borders’ perceptions for those of us who participate in them in some way.”

There is much to agree with in Forget English!, but it is obsessed (as was Said) with “the asymmetries and inequalities of the institutions and practices of world literature.” In other words, we are back to Marxism again.

More later.

Picture credit: Khan Academy

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