Sunday, April 06, 2008

On World Literature/s

Since the early 1990s, my department has placed world literature at the core of the English major--students here have to take 3 of 4 courses in an introductory genre-based world lit sequence--but since I've been teaching here we've never really sat down and systematically examined what we mean by "global literature," how we approach teaching it, and how we might improve on the goals and requirements of our major. That's going to change later today. We'll be building on an earlier Global Studies conference we co-organized and responding in particular to a few pieces from the University of Wisconsin-Madison's World Literature/s Research Workshop, 2007-2008:

  • the introductory distinction proposed by the workshop organizers between World Literature and World Literatures:

    World Literature - in the singular - seems reserved for the repository of the timeless wisdom of the world, the best representation of the multitude of narrative forms and traditions around the world from the antiquity to the present. World Literatures - in the plural - however, is unreflectively used for contemporary literature written in and/or translated into English and other languages of European descent. Marketed as exemplars of the contemporariness of the world, such literary works make their way into the classroom through courses and series on “World Literatures.” The seemingly democratic plurality ascribed to the noun, however, does not guarantee this body of works the singularity reserved for the repertoire of “World Literature.” The contemporariness of “World Literatures” creates the impression of their being ephemeral; their multifaceted and purportedly chaotic ambition is often measured against the timeless and eternal value inscribed to representative works of a national or a linguistic canon assembled under the rubric “World Literature.”

  • Franco Moretti's "Conjectures on World Literature" (2000) proposes a method for studying world literature: "Distant reading: where a condition of knowledge: it allows you to focus on units that are much smaller or much larger than the text: devices, themes, tropes--or genres and systems" (57). He takes as one example the "rise of the novel" around the world, and draws the following conclusion from it:

    if after 1750 the novel arises just about everywhere as a compromise between West European patterns and local reality--well, local reality was different in various places, just as western influence was also very uneven: much stronger in Southern Europe in 1800...than in West Africa around 1940. The forces in play kept changing, and so did the compromises that resulted from their interaction. (64)

    He suggests that this compromise is not just a matter of form and content alone, but something that expresses itself in the narrative voice itself, as well. And he concludes that tracing out national phylogenetic trees and global diffusionist waves are two competing approaches to analyzing world literature.

  • David Damrosch's definition from What Is World Literature? (2003): "all literary works that circulate beyond their culture of origin, either in translation or in their original language" (4); "a mode of circulation and of reading" (5) that casts a work as both literary and worldly (6). By literary, he suggests inclusiveness in response to the debate over whether world literature consists of "an established body of classics, an evolving canon of masterpieces, or multiple windows on the world" (15), but points out problems with each, as well. By worldly, he argues that "works of world literature take on a new life as they move into the world at large, and to understand this new life we need to look closely at the ways the work becomes reframed in its translations and new cultural contexts" (24). Along the way, he offers advice on avoiding cultural and critical imperialism, presentism, literary ecotourism and cultural Disneyification, total immersion or airy vapidity, and other dangers of reception and production attendant upon translating, editing, and reading world literature. And he suggests that Moretti's choice between a tree or a wave viewpoint on world literature and between close and distant reading techniques is too stark.

More on this after our symposium. The Valve's Moretti book event and the online journal Words Without Borders make for interesting reading in the meantime.

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