Critical Inquiry36 (Spring2010 )
What Is World Literature?
In the current revival of the concept of world literature, something of
considerable importance appears to be largely missing: the question of
Orientalism. Despite the reputation of Edward Said’s Orientalism as a sortof foundational text for concern with cultural relations on a planetary scale, the specifics of that book’s conceptual armature or the archive with which it engages do not seem to play a significant role in this renewed discussion and intensification of interest in the effort to comprehend lit-erature as a planet wide reality.
This is the case for instance with Pascale Casanova’sThe World Republic of Letters , which presents an argument about the emergence of interna-tional literary space in Europe in the early modern era and its expansion across the continent and beyond over the last four centuries.
The overall armature of the book rests on the identification of three key moments in the development of this international literary space and seems to follow fairly closely the chronology established by Benedict Anderson in Imag-ined Communities. The first, its moment of origin, so to speak, is the ex-tended and uneven process of vernacularization in the emerging European states from the fourteenth to the seventeenth centuries. The next turning point and period of massive expansion comes, she argues, again following Anderson’s periodization, in the “philological-lexigraphic revolution”
starting in the late eighteenth century and the widely dispersed invention
1. See Pascale Casanova,The World Republic of Letters, trans. M. B. DeBovoise (Cambridge,2004 ).
of national traditions that ensued.
Casanova argues that the new practice of literature to emerge in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centu-ries, linked to a new conception of language and its relationship to its community of speakers, emerged within and as a modality of a massive shift and expansion in European world literary space. The third and,
for Casanova, ongoing, period in the expansion of this world literary
space is linked to the historical “event” of decolonization in the post-World War II era.
My point of entry into this formulation is what I take to be its most
consequential misconception: for Casanova, non-Western literary cul-tures make their first effective appearance in world literary space in the era of decolonization in the middle of the twentieth century. Casanova thus fails to comprehend the real nature of the expansion and rearrangement of this until then largely European space in the course of the philological revolution. It is through the philological knowledge revolution—the “dis-covery” of the classical languages of the East, the invention of the linguistic family tree whose basic form is still with us today, the translation and absorption into the Western languages of more and more works from
Persian, Arabic, and the Indian languages, among others—that non-Western textual traditions made their first entryas literature , sacred and secular, into the international literary space that had emerged in early modern times in Europe as a structure of rivalries between the emerging vernacular traditions, transforming the scope and structure of that space forever. This moment, which she reads almost entirely through Herder, is mistaken by Casanova for a redrawing of the internal cultural map of Europe rather than as a reorganization that is planetary in nature, in the sense that this emerging constellation of philological knowledge, perhaps best known to us now from Said’s reading of it in Orientalism, posits nothing less than the languages and cultures of the entire world as its object
in the final instance. As is well known, in his writings of the 1770 s, including the Treatise on the Origin of Language, Herder began to mark a break with conceptions of the origin of language that had been dominant in the eigh-
2. Ibid. p. 48 ; for the phrase in the original, see BenedictAnderson, Imagined Communities:Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism(London, 1983 ), p. 80 .
teenth century, which viewed the origin and development of language as
such as part of the history of humanity; we need only think here of the
well-known works of such contemporaries of Herder’s as Rousseau, Con-dillac, and Mendelssohn. He argued instead that human intelligence
always took a historical form and could only be exercised in language,
in particular languages in particular places at particular times. The
consequences of the rise and acceptance of some of these ideas about
the boundedness of thought in language, from the emergence of secular
methodologies of interpretation of the scriptures ultimately to romantic notions about the imagination and history, and even, over a century later,in the forms of cultural relativism that are foundational to British and American anthropology— both Franz Boas and Bronislaw Malinowskihad received the German Herderian heritage as part of their intellectual formations—are too well known to require rehearsing here.
My point here is a more circumscribed one: the nearly exclusive focus on Herder’s writings of the early 1770 s, which predate the infusion into the European intellectual-literary sphere of the properly Orientalist ideas of linguistic and cultural diversity, allows Casanova to formulate her argument about the transformation of (European) world literary space without reference to the gestalt shift made possible by the assimilation of the Oriental exem-pla that became increasingly available to European reading publics in large
numbers for the first time from the 1770 s gradually onward.
(I returnshortly to the history and modalities of this dissemination.)
Because Casanova misses this initial charting of non-Western traditions
of writing on the emerging map of the literary world (as in fact in many of the recent discussions about transnational literary relations), such figures as Kateb Yacine, V. S. Naipaul, and Salman Rushdie and the psychology of assimilation into metropolitan languages and cultures typify the non-Western writer (as they all do for Casanova). Such models of cultural change as creolization and me´tissage consequently become the privileged mode of understanding literatures originating outside the metropolis, and the far more complex and elusive tensions and contradictions involved in
the emergence of the modern non-Western literatures disappear from
view altogether. In other words, I propose we take seriously what would
3. See, for instance, Isaiah Berlin, The Roots of Romanticism, ed. Henry Hardy (Princeton,N.J., 2001 ). Michael F. Brown has recently revisited the uniquely anthropological notion ofcultural relativism in “Cultural Relativism 2.0,” Current Anthropology 49 (June 2008 ): 363– 83 .
4. Concerning Herder’s later engagement (in the 1790 s) with the Indological studies andtranslations, especially the Bhagavad Gita , see Saverio Marchignoli, “Canonizing an IndianText? A. W. Schlegel, W. von Humboldt, Hegel, and the Bhagavadgıta ,” in Sanskrit and
“Orientalism”: Indology and Comparative Linguistics in Germany, 1750 –1958 , ed. Douglas T.McGetchin, Peter K. J. Park, and D. R. SarDesai (Delhi,2004 ), pp.248 –51 .
appear to be a rather obvious historical claim but one that has not been rigorously present in a great deal of contemporary critical discussion,namely, that the deep encounter between English and the other Western languages and the languages of the global periphery as media of literary expression did not take place for the first time in the postcolonial era, let alone in the supposedly transnational transactions of the period of high glob-alization but, especially, at the dawn of the modern era itself and fundamen-tally transformed both cultural formations involved in the encounter.
The effects of the reorganization of culture and knowledge in the course of the philological revolution were far-reaching, not just for the European intelligentsia, but for those very colonized and semicolonized societies,and more specifically the textual traditions, that were now brought under the purview of these new knowledge practices. In order to comprehend the structure of literary relations that is now a planet wide reality, we need to grasp the role that philological Orientalism played in producing and es-tablishing a method and a system for classifying and evaluating diverse
forms of textuality, now all processed and codified uniformly as literature.
As Vinay Dharwadker has argued in a pioneering essay, the forms taken by“British and European representations of literary India...lienotso much in the ‘nature’ of the Indian materials as in the intellectual contexts of European literary thought.”5 The (now universal) category of literature,with its particular Latinate etymology and genealogy, marks this process of assimilation of diverse cultures of writing, a process only partially con-cealed by the use of such vernacular terms as ’adab (Arabic, Persian, Urdu)and sa hitya (Hindi and a number of the Indian vernaculars) to signify thenew literariness.
In this essay, I attempt to suggest ways of thinking critically about the profound consequences of these new structures of knowledge for lan-guage, literature, and culture, and more broadly for the politics of identity,in the Indian subcontinent in the course of the nineteenth century. Such a project is a response to suggestions inOrientalism—as I read it, against a great deal of contemporary Said reception, I might add—that the critique of Orientalism must ultimately take us to the Orientalized spaces them-selves. For Orientalism in Said’s sense consists of those Western knowl-edge practices in the modern era whose emergence made possible for the first time the notion of a single world as a space populated by distinct civilizational complexes, each in possession of its own tradition, the
5. Vinay Dharwadker, “Orientalism and the Study of Indian Literatures,” in Orientalism and the Postcolonial Predicament: Perspectives on South Asia , ed. Carol A. Breckenridge and
Peter van der Veer (Philadelphia,1993 ), p. 160.
unique expression of its own forms of national “genius.”6
A precise, aph-oristic formulation of this question comes in one brief sentence in Said’s luminous essay on the late works of Jean Genet: “Imperialism is the export of identity.”7 Orientalism is for Said the name for the vast cultural (and,more specifically, philological) machinery in modern Western imperial-ism for the establishment of identitarian truth-claims around the world. Said’s critique of Orientalism is thus directed as much toward “readers in
the so-called Third World” as anyone else, and for them “this study pro-poses itself as a step towards an understanding not so much of Western politics and of the non-Western world in those politics as of the strength of Western cultural discourse, a strength too often mistaken as merely deco-rative or ‘superstructural.’ My hope is to illustrate the formidable structure of cultural domination and, specifically for formerly colonized peoples, the dangers and temptations of employing this structure upon themselves or upon
others.” Recalling Gramsci’s assertion, in the Prison Notebooks , of the “im-perative” to produce an “inventory” of the “infinity of traces” that the historical process has left upon the critical subject itself, Said concludes that in “many ways my study of Orientalism has been an attempt to inven-tory the traces upon me, an Oriental subject, of the culture whose domi-nation has been so powerful a factor in the life of all Orientals.” Thus, far
from ignoring the possibility of historically autonomous action on the part of the colonized, and far from viewing Orientalism as a totalizing and absolute system of representation, as careless readers have sometimes sug-gested over the years, Said’s critique of Orientalism amounts to a call to precisely such action, an invitation to historical self-transformation in the very process of the “critical elaboration” of the self.8 Said places the rise of modern Orientalism within the general process of secularization of Western culture in the early modern era. His account of this process is of some interest to us here: Modern Orientalism derives from secularizing elements in eighteenth-century European culture....But if these interconnected elements represent a secularizing tendency, this is not to say that the old reli-gious patterns of human history and destiny and “the existential para-
6. For an early, in fact pioneering, study along these lines, which seeks to identify the northern European, phil-Hellenic reinvention of Greece as a colonial event, and which is influential for me here, see Stathis Gourgouris, Dream Nation: Enlightenment, Colonization, and
the Institution of Modern Greece (Stanford, Calif., 1996 ).
7. See Edward W. Said, “On Jean Genet’s Late Works,” Grand Street 36 , no. 9 (1990 ): 38 .On Genet and this remarkable essay of Said’s, see Gourgouris,Does Literature Think? Literature as Theory for an Antimythical Era(Stanford, Calif., 2003 ), pp.249 –91 .
8. Said, Orientalism (New York, 1978 ), pp.24 , 25 ; emphasis added; hereafter abbreviated O.
digms” were simply removed. Far from it: they were reconstituted,
redeployed, redistributed in the secular frameworks just enumerated.
For anyone who studied the Orient a secular vocabulary in keeping
with these frameworks was required. Yet if Orientalism provided the
vocabulary, the conceptual repertoire, the techniques—for this is
what, from the end of the eighteenth century on, Orientalism did and
what Orientalism was—it also retained, as an undislodged current in
its discourse, a reconstructed religious impulse , a naturalized supernat-uralism. [ O,p.121; emphasis added] Said’s critique of Orientalism is thus in essence a criticism of its “natural-ized supernaturalism,” of its remapping of humanity in terms of suppos-edly secular cultural logics whose Manichean modalities with respect to
human collectivities, and in particular those societies that are Christianity’s traditional antagonists, can only be understood as a “reconstructed reli-gious impulse.” In this sense, Orientalism may be said to offer an account of the cultural logic of (Western) bourgeois society in its global or outward orientation, in its encounter with and reorganization of human societies on a planetary scale. Against this, as it were,false appearance of the secular
in history and its attendant antagonisms—a fundamentally localized (thatis, Western) emergence that simultaneously carries the force of the univer-sal in history—Said points not so much to a utopian and distant future without those, as it were, theological antagonisms as to the possibility in the historical present of “surviving the consequences” of these structures and logics “humanly” ( O,p. 45 ). Said conceives of this antiidentitarian imperative as the classically secular critical task, concerned with the here and now, attentive to the dense and ultimately unassimilable fabric of society—which would barely require repeating, were it not for some re-markably fanciful characterizations of his project current today. It is no accident that “Secular Criticism” is the main conceptual essay of the first
book that follows Orientalism, for it may in some important ways be read as a methodological reflection on the critical project of the latter. As I have noted elsewhere, the figure of Erich Auerbach exiled in Istanbul that pro-vides a sort of running leitmotif in that essay is an exemplary figure for secular criticism in Said’s terms precisely because, as a figure of displace-ment and dispossession, it marks a certain distance and fissure from the transcendentalization of cultural authority, forms of reckoning cultural transmission and descent that are based, as it were, on the “quasi-religious
authority of being comfortably at home among one’s people.”9 The cri-
9. Said, “Secular Criticism,” The World, the Text, and the Critic (London, 1983 ), p. 16 . See Aamir R. Mufti, “Auerbach in Istanbul: Edward Said, Secular Criticism, and the Question of
tique of Orientalism (and of imperialism more broadly) is inseparable for Said from criticism of the religious as such, understood as all those culturalforms, both the traditionally religious and the conventionally secular,whose appeal to authority is placed outside the fabric of social interest and the possibility of historical transformation. Secular criticism is in that sense a radically historical practice, opposed in concrete and detailed ways
to metaphysical grounding and authorization of culture, both secular and religious, constantly unearthing its social filiations and affiliations and identifying the “human” costs of failing to subject to such criticism the process of critical thinking itself. This basic aspect of Said’s project is lost on those of his current readers who have found their way to the emerging orthodoxy of the “postsecular” in the humanistic disciplines and yet can-not quite let go of the radical cachet of this eviscerating book even as they take more and more conservative positions, producing self-interested and
spectacular (even gymnastic) contortions, with the Saidian text marshaled in the interest of projects and purposes far removed from its own explicit and implicit commitments and affiliations.10
Taking up once again this foundational concern of Orientalism, I am concerned here ultimately with the significance of historical Orientalism for the fabrication, in non-Western societies in the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries,of forms of cultural authority tied to the claim to authenticity of (religious,
cultural, and national) “tradition”— tura th , riva yat, or parampara in some of the languages that will concern us here—and thus for the emergence of the kinds of social fissure that have often accompanied such transitions. In this sense both religious and secular traditions in the modern era—the Arab tradition and Islamic orthodoxy, for instance, or Indian civilization and Hinduism—are products of the Orientalist conjuncture and, far from excluding the religious, the secular complexes have themselves been pro-duced by their anchoring in religious elements configured in majoritarian
terms. This, I want to suggest, is the suppressed element in the concept of world literature from its inception, namely, the far-reaching refashioning
Minority Culture,”Critical Inquiry25 (Autumn 1998 ): 95 –125. On secular criticism and “detranscendentalization,” see Gourgouris, “Transformation, Not Transcendence,” Boundary 2 31 (Summer 2004 ): 55 –79 .
10. See, for instance, Gil Anidjar, “Secularism,” Critical Inquiry33 (Autumn 2006 ): 52 –77 . Modesty is not among the many weaknesses of this somewhat careless essay. Anidjar sets himself the task of instructing Said in the real significance of his critique in Orientalism,regretting that Said failed to realize that, following the logic of his own argument in that book,he should have been a postsecularist. It is really too bad (I have sometimes thought since reading it) that this instruction was not undertaken while Said was alive.
of the cultures and societies of the world in the new phase of colonial
expansion that accompanied and followed from the Industrial Revolution.
By the time Goethe coins the term world literature in the last years of his life in the late 1820 s— his first reported use of it is in the context of his having recently read a “Chinese novel”—it represents a retrospective look, with the global shifts in the structures of “literary” knowledge it is intended to reference having already been a long established reality, including of
course in the life of the poet himself, who, as is well known, was deeply affected in1791 on reading a translation of Kalidasa’s Sakuntala —well be-fore his better known encounter with the verse of Hafiz in the second decade of the next century, to which I return below. And by the time the term is resurrected by Marx and Engels more than a decade after the pub-lication of the Conversations with Eckermann, which had reported its ear-liest use by Goethe, it is relatively speaking an old story indeed, appearing
within a historical account of the rise and growth of the bourgeoisie as aglobal social force.11
It is the effects of these shifts on the colonized societies
themselves, which constitute the objects, properly speaking, of the Orien-talists’ endeavors, that I am concerned with here. Whether we view world literature (with Franco Moretti) as a conceptual organization rather than a body of literary texts or (with David Damrosch) as a special kind of liter-ature, that which circulates beyond its “culture of origin”—and this ten-sion is inherent in and as old as the term itself—we cannot ignore the global relations of force that the concept simultaneously puts in play and hides from view.
And, finally, taking seriously these scenarios of domination that
emerged in the era of the birth of modern Orientalism will require some
fairly dramatic revisioning of the model of national competition proposed by Casanova for what she calls the world republic of letters. The ongoing discussion about world literature, in the singular and plural, is both hugely encompassing and strangely timid; it seems unaware of the enormous role played by the institution of literature in the emergence of the hierarchies
11. See Stefan Hoesel-Uhlig, “Changing Fields: The Directions of Goethe’sWeltliteratur,”in Debating World Literature, ed. Christopher Prendergast (London, 2004 ), pp.26 –53 . Goethe’s earliest known use of the term occurs on 31 January 1827 ; see Conversations of Goethe with Johann Peter Eckermann , trans. John Oxenford, ed. J. K. Moorhead (New York, 1998 ), pp.164 –66 . On Goethe’s reading in Orientalism and travel literature, see Walter Veit, “Goethe’s Fantasies about the Orient,”Eighteenth-Century Life 26 (Fall 2002 ): 164 – 80 , and Fritz Strich, Goethe and World Literature(1945 ; London, 1949 ), chap. 9. On Goethe’s reading of Hafiz and the writing of the Divan, see Jeffrey Einboden, “The Genesis of Weltliteratur: Goethe’s West-Östlicher Divanand Kerygmatic Pluralism,”Literature and Theology 19 (Sept. 2005 ): 238–50 .
12. See David Damrosch, What Is World Literature?(Princeton, N.J., 2003 ), p. 4, and Franco Moretti, “Conjectures on World Literature,” New Left Review1 (Jan.–Feb.2000 ): 54 – 68 .
and identities that structure relations between societies in the modern
world. The integration of widely dispersed and heterogeneous sociocul-tural formations into a global ensemble has taken place, especially at the most decisive periods in this historical process, disproportionately on and through this terrain. The concept and practices of world literature, far from representing the superseding of national forms of identification of language, literature, and culture, thus emerged for the first time precisely alongside the forms of thinking in the contemporary Western world that elsewhere I have referred to as nation-thinking—that is, those emergent
modes of thinking in the West that are associated with the nationalization
of social and cultural life and point toward the nation-state as the horizon of culture and society.13
Our larger task is to comprehend the precise na-ture of this extended literary-philological moment, in which often-overlapping bodies of writing came to acquire, through a process of historicization, distinct personalities as literature along national lines. The
institution of literature, which has not received as much scholarly atten-tion in colonial studies as such practices as the census and ethnography, is chiefly significant for the historical role it played in the formation of the new colonial-national intelligentsias, formed in many colonized societies through the destruction of heterogeneous and ancient cultures of reading and writing.