We are an open, inclusive and friendly network of researchers, scholars and activists interested in furthering a conversation about world literature in the contemporary moment: What is it? How do we recognise it? How do we research and teach it? And why does it matter? Read on for more details.
Theorising World Literature:
There is currently a clear sense within higher education that the disciplinary protocols of literary studies have entered into crisis. The reasons for this are many and varied, but ‘globalization’ is often identified as a master-process feeding in to the marketisation of the sector and the changing face of literary publishing. In this context, the concept of world literature has (re)emerged as key, with numerous jobs, specialist series’ and books propagating the label. However, debates continue as to what ‘world literature’ can and should mean. We hope that this network will become a central resource in support of these conversations.
One of the most significant interventions to date has been Franco Moretti’s ‘Conjectures on World Literature’ (2000). Borrowing his ‘initial hypothesis from the world-system school of economic history’, Moretti posits the existence of a ‘world literary system (of inter-related literatures)’ that is both ‘one’ and ‘profoundly unequal’ (55-56). Moretti’s challenging and provocative article fired a fierce discussion, with even a brief sample of the many books that appeared in the wake of his intervention attesting to the vibrancy and urgency of the questions raised: see, for example, Damrosch (2003); Saussy (2006); Brouillette (2007); Moretti (2007); Lawall (2010); D’haen (2011).
One particular line of enquiry of interest to us is that offered by various materialist critics, who have reconstructed the concept of world literature in terms of its relationship to global capitalism (Brown, 2005; Shapiro, 2008; Parry, 2009; Lazarus, 2011). For such figures, world literature is to be understood as the literature of the capitalist world-system – as literature that has as its ultimate interpretive horizon the social logic of capitalist modernity.
From this perspective, the pressures, effects, and dynamics of the world-system ‘will necessarily be discernible in any modern literary work, since the world-system exists unforgoably as the matrix within which all modern literature takes shape and comes into being’ (WReC, 2015: 33). This registration of the world-system may well be explicit in a particular text, but it may also be indirect or unconscious, visible only in the formal structures or narrative stylistics of the work. Underpinning this conception of world literature is an insistence that modernity must be grasped, like capitalism itself, as a singular and simultaneous phenomenon, yet one that is everywhere heterogeneous and unique. Even as the socio-economic dynamics of modernization provide ‘a certain baseline of universality’, the experience of this process will always be differently inflected in different locations (Brown, 2005: 2). Hence the possibility of reconstructing world literature in terms of its relationship to global capitalism: while every literary work and the social situation from which it emerges will have an irreducible specificity, the (uneven) singularity of capitalist modernity allows for comparisons to be made across texts as they respond to the same, if uniquely articulated, world-historical pressures and developments.
While it is this materialist approach that we are most concerned with theorising, other ways of defining, understanding, and even challenging world literature are also welcome. We are keen to create an inclusive forum for discussion, one that remains open to conversations with those working across a range of fields: from postcolonial studies, feminism and queer theory, through to language activism, ecological protest and anti-capitalist groupings.
If you’d like to join us, please sign up here.
- Brouillette, Sarah. 2007. Postcolonial Writers in the Global Literary Marketplace. Palgrave.
- Brown, Nicholas. 2005. Utopian Generations. Oxford UP.
- D’haen, Theo. 2011. The Routledge Concise History of World Literature. Routledge.
- Damrosch, David. 2003. What is World Literature? Princeton UP.
- Lawall, Sarah. 2010. Reading World Literature. University of Texas Press.
- Lazarus, Neil. 2011. “Cosmopolitanism and the Specificity of the Local in World Literature.” The Journal of Commonwealth Literature 46 (119): 119-37.
- Moretti, Franco. 2000. “Conjectures on World Literature.” New Left Review 1: 54-68
- —. 2007. Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary History. Verso.
- Parry, Benita. 2009. “Aspects of Peripheral Modernisms.” Ariel 40 (1): 27-55.
- Saussy, Haun. 2006. Comparative Literature in an Age of Globalization. John Hopkins UP.
- Shapiro, Stephen. 2008. The Culture and Commerce of the Early American Novel: Reading the Atlantic World-System. Pennsylvania State UP.