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Literatures of the World: An Inquiry

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  23 October 2020


The Number of Conferences, Books, Essays, and Anthologies Dedicated to the Topic of World Literature Amply Testifies to a growing interest in the subject among literary scholars. In one sense, this interest within literary studies is perfectly comprehensible. It corresponds to a profound sense of a shrinking globe in which once-distant cultures are put in ever-closer proximity. The thinking goes something like this: if the world is becoming one, mustn't the literature of that world, too? In essence, the idea of world literature is the affirmative answer to some such commonsensical question, never mind that all the evidence points to a more complicated reality. Despite all the falling walls and speeding planes and globally communicating technologies (which doubtless do shrink distances), the world does not seem to be becoming one and indeed remains as complexly riven today as it ever was. There is no need to rehash the multiple genealogies—most often traced back to Goethe through René Wellek, Erich Auerbach, and Karl Marx, sometimes with a brief detour to Rabindranath Tagore—that underlie contemporary notions of world literature. The books, essays, and anthologies I allude to above sufficiently provide these genealogies. I have written elsewhere about my skepticism regarding the intellectual and political viability of the world literature project, suggesting that the notion of world literature always, and to little advantage, produces a fixed notion of the world (Flesh xvii, 124-36). In contemporary versions of the world literature project, the world becomes a reductive enumeration of cultures that have produced “masterpieces,” or “great works,” deemed good enough to enter a global canon. I am mainly skeptical of the idea of world literature because of this reductive impulse: I don't believe the idea can ever avoid a problematic diminution of the world or of the literary work.

theories and methodologies
Copyright © Modern Language Association of America, 2016

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