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World Literature and the Globalectical Imagination Pier Paolo Frassinelli (Comparative Literature and Cultural Studies – Monash University) What is world literature? More and more people who do literary studies are asking and debating this question. A sign of the times, for one could say that world literature is literature in the age of globalisation, when «the literature around us is [...] unmistakably a planetary system»,1 and that all the academic activity that surrounds this category looks like an attempt to catch up with what is going on in the (literary) world outside the classroom or conference venue. Its recent prominence is arguably also a response to the deepening institutional crisis in the humanities, in the face of which world literature sounds like a better project to defend and promote than more arcane or narrowly specialist subjects. It is easier to sell to students than, say, pastoral poetry or medieval satire, and it is in fact not by chance that the renewed attention to world literature comes from the United States, where its promise of easy access to the richness of the literary world, usually in English translation, fits in well with «a consumerist North American model of liberal arts education».2 So, despite (or, possibly, precisely because of) the conspicuous lack of agreement on what exactly it is – interpretive category, disciplinary field or canon – world literature has become the focus of a proliferation of academic books, articles and conferences, and, not least, an area of expertise required for a substantial percentage of the remaining academic positions available to young literary scholars going on the market. To gain visibility and get one of those elusive jobs in the humanities these days you’d better be able to have your say on the topic of world literature. My opening question is also the title of a book by David Damrosch – What Is World Literature? (2003) – which entered a debate that had gained momentum with the publication of Franco Moretti’s short article Conjectures on World Literature (2000) and Pascale Casanova’s encyclopaedic La république mondiale des lettres (1999), translated into English as The World Republic of Letters (2004). Given the prominence gained by postcolonial theory and its critique of the Eurocentric bias of earlier literary studies – even when, as Edward Said once noted with reference to Eric Auerbach’s project, they pursued the «grandly utopian vision [of a] vast synthesis of the world’s literary production»3 – the return to Goethe’s notion of Weltliteratur 1

F. Moretti, Conjectures on World Literature, «New Left Review», 1, new series, Jan.-Feb. 2000, p. 54. G. Huggan, The Trouble with World Literature, in A Companion to Comparative Literature, A. Behdad and D. Thomas (eds), Malden, MA, and Oxford, Wiley-Blackwell, 2011, p. 500. 3 E. Said, Introduction to the Fiftieth-Anniversary Edition, in E. Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, trans. W. R. Trask, Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, p. xvi. 2


has inevitably centred on the imperative to move beyond its conception as an established canon of Western masterpieces. Thus, in the opening salvo of the debate, Franco Moretti began by stating that for all its global aspirations, comparative literature had turned out to be «a much more modest intellectual enterprise, fundamentally limited to Western Europe, and mostly revolving around the river Rhine (German philologists working on French literature). Not much more».4 Likewise, in Death of a Discipline (2003) Gayatri Spivak argues that if it wants to be reborn comparative literature must shake off its staid Eurocentric roots – or, as she puts it, «Europe and the extracurricular Orient»5 – and embrace the global South and its many languages. But much as there is today a broad consensus on the need to move beyond a Eurocentric model of comparative literary studies, agreement on the pars construens of this project seems much more difficult to achieve. Moretti, for example, borrows from Immanuel Wallerstein’s economic theory to postulate a «world system (of inter-related literatures)» governed by evolutionary laws that can be observed through a practice of «distant reading» devoted to mapping the global circulation of literary forms.6 Spivak, on the other hand, dismisses the model provided by the «world systems theorists upon whom Moretti relies» as «useless for literary studies – that must depend on texture»:7 that is, on a practice of close reading and an attention to textual singularity which, on the contrary, for Moretti get in the way of having a panoramic view of the world literary system. As he insists, «What does it mean, studying world literature? How do we do it? We are talking of hundreds of languages and literatures here. Reading ‘more’ seems hardly to be the solution».8 Is that so? Or rather, is world literature anything but an aporia, a «wild idea, unattainable in practice, worthy not of an actual reader but of a deluded keeper of archives who is also a multimillionaire», as Claudio Guillén has teasingly objected?9 David Damrosch responds that Guillén’s «objection is hardly decisive», in that it refers «to the sum total of the world’s literatures», which in fact «can be sufficiently expressed by the blanket term ‘literature’». It follows that we must come up with a more specific definition, whereby the «idea of world literature can usefully continue to mean a subset of the plenum of literature».


Moretti, Conjectures on World Literature, p. 54. G. C. Spivak, Death of a Discipline, New York, Columbia University Press, 2003, p. 6. 6 Moretti, Conjectures on World Literature, pp. 56-57. 7 Spivak, Death of a Discipline, p. 108. 8 Moretti, Conjectures on World Literature, p. 55. 9 C. Guillén, The Challenge of Comparative Literature, tr. C. Franzen, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 1993, p. 38. 5


Here it is: «all literary works that circulate beyond their culture of origin, either in translation or in their original language ».10 Although it still includes a huge amount of literature, which it also problematically compartmentalises in terms of essentialised cultural belonging – one text: one original culture – this definition has the advantage of pragmatically dealing with the endless textual proliferation that constitutes world literature without abandoning the actual engagement with the individual text. World literature, then, both as a mode of circulation and practice of reading: «World literature is not a set canon of texts but a mode of reading: a form of detached engagement with worlds beyond our place and time».11 And this is what’s most valuable about it: «As we triangulate between our own present situation and the enormous variety of other cultures around and before us [...] we may actually experience our customary horizon being set askew, under the influence of works whose foreignness remains fully in view».12 Damrosch reminds us though, that cultural diversity might just as well «being sucked up in the Disneyfication of the globe».13 Through selective appropriation and refamiliarisation – that is, the assimilation of ancient or non-Western writers «to the immediate interests and agendas of those who edit, translate, and interpret them»14 – «peripheral» works imported to and canonised in the metropolis often end up providing little more than an exoticised and essentialist version of the literary culture they are designated to represent – an argument that echoes Aijaz Ahmad’s earlier critique of metropolitan theory’s tendency to designate specific generic forms, such as magical realism or national allegory, as the homogeneous literary language of the post-colonial world.15 This is also one of the problems – as Franco Moretti says, «world literature is not an object, it’s a problem»16 – addressed by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s new book, Globalectics: Theory and Politics of Knowing (2012), which can be read, among other ways, as one of the latest instalments in the revived debate on world literature. Part autobiography, part exercise in what wa Thiong’o calls «poor theory» – on which more later – this intellectually generous and clear minded volume provides a genealogy of the critical and academic project of world literature that goes back not so much to Goethe’s canonical pronunciations on Weltiteratur, as to postcolonial Nairobi, where in the 1960s the generation of young Kenyan intellectuals of which 10

D. Damrosch, What Is World Literature?, Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 2003, p. 4. Damrosch, What Is World Literature?, p. 281; italics in original. 12 Damrosch, What Is World Literature?, p. 300. 13 Damrosch, What Is World Literature?, p. 17; italics in original. 14 Damrosch, What Is World Literature?, p. 25. 15 A. Ahmad, In Theory: Classes, Literatures, Nations, London and New York, Verso, 2008 (new edition), p. 69. 16 Moretti, Conjectures on World Literature, p. 55. 11


Ngũgĩ was part started questioning and working to replace the Anglocentric bias of the literary canon handed to them by colonial power. Their demands were recorded in a document about which Ngũgĩ has written on several occasions, «The Abolition of the English Department».17 In it Ngũgĩ and his colleagues argued for the replacement of the University of Nairobi’s English Department with something that eventually came to be named Literature Department, and that Ngũgĩ now says embodied «the basis and vision of a world literature».18 Out, or at least to the margin, went the hitherto towering authorities of T. S. Eliot, Matthew Arnold and F. R. Leavis – and with them protocols of reading centred on the role of the Western canon in shaping individual talent or the moral significance of literature – and in came the new works of African and Caribbean authors such as Peter Abrahams, Chinua Achebe and George Lamming. «It was amazing», Ngũgĩ reminisces, «to find that a novel could capture the drama of the colonial and anticolonial while obeying all the aesthetic laws of fiction. It spoke directly to my experience. It was fiction that gave us a theory of the colonial situation».19 As said, we have read about this before, but it is still good to be reminded that there is more to what we now call postcolonial literature and its curricular recognition than being the latest, or maybe penultimate, fad in the academic literary marketplace. Moreover, Ngũgĩ’s latest reflections are given a fresh edge by their confrontation with current debates on how to realign the study of literature to a transnational or global horizon. In his analysis of the formation of the category of world literature, Ngũgĩ reconstellates the debate that took place in Nairobi in the 1960s with the «celebrated pairing of master and bondsman in Hegel’s dialectic». His starting point is the silence at the end of Hegel’s dialectical inversion between the master, who turns out to be a parasite living off the labour of his subject, and the bondsman who, conversely, gains autonomy and independence «by making and identifying or seeing himself in what he produces». Ngũgĩ asks: «how come the de facto dependent is still the master of the de facto independent, for where the latter proposes the former disposes?».20 For Ngũgĩ, the answer not provided by Hegel is to be found in the forces of


See for instance N. wa Thiong’o, Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature, London, James Currey, 1996, pp. 89-95. 18 N. wa Thiong’o, Globalectics: Theory and the Politics of Knowing, New York, Columbia University Press, 2012, p.6. 19 wa Thiong’o, Globalectics, p. 15. 20 wa Thiong’o, Globalectics, p. 27. Ngũgĩ’s intervention also serves to remind us that for all the critiques of Eurocentrism directed at Hegel, particularly over the last few decades, his reflections on the master-bondsman dialectic have long been – from Frantz Fanon to Orlando Patterson to, more recently, Susan Buck-Morss – a key point of reference for anticolonial and postcolonial thought. For a synthesis of this debate, see S. Fisher, Modernity Disavowed: Haiti and the Cultures of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, Durham, NC, and London: Duke University


combined physical and mental coercion: that is, the tale of Prospero and Caliban or Crusoe and Friday in Shakespeare’s and Defoe’s literary renditions of the master-slave narrative, and also the tale of the history of colonialism that these texts are today often said to allegorise. A form of both coercive domination and knowledge production, colonialism came armed with its own fully organised cognitive and explanatory apparatus – diaries, maps, ethnographies, narratives, myths, theories, categorizations, museums, exhibitions, educational institutions – in which knowledge about the colonised world was produced in Europe using it as a source of unprocessed data. The dislocated view from the colonies was therefore that of a Eurocentric world – including the world of literature – that looked at here from the outside, beginning with the epistemological dislocation produced by speaking in the tongues brought with them by the colonisers. But to the extent that, in its ideological and epistemic refractions, this body of knowledge ultimately revealed more about the subject doing the knowing than the object of knowledge itself, there also lay the seed of the bondsman’s ultimate cognitive advantage: «The bondsman knows the master in a way that the master does not know him».21 Hence the «sense of universality» that constituted «the foundation of the new literature» produced during the phase of anti-colonial resistance and decolonization, in which the «rejection of the master’s narrative of history» and the concomitant affirmation of a distinctive identity led to a «synthesis forged in resistance» and capable of appropriating the legacy of European and Western culture and of incorporating it into a new dimension.22 All of which explains the global reach and cultural inclusiveness of postcolonial literatures: In their struggle, the imperial lord and the colonial bondsman leave marks on each other, but with the difference that the bondsman can appropriate the best of the imperial input and combine it with the best of his own into a new synthesis that assumes the “globe for a theatre”. The postcolonial embodies this new synthesis.23 Press, 2004, pp. 24-33. See also S. Buck-Morss, Hegel, Haiti and Universal History, Pittsburgh, PA, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2009. 21 wa Thiong’o, Globalectics, p. 40. 22 wa Thiong’o, Globalectics, p. 41-43. 23 wa Thiong’o, Globalectics, p. 51. The problems with the label postcolonial are well known: it is geographically and historically indeterminate – in that most parts of the world have been subjected to a form of colonization or another at some point in history – politically suspect – for it appears to suggest that colonialism is a thing of the past, thereby erasing neo-colonial forms of economic or military influence and domination – and it might also be used to remarginalize the global South by seeing its rich and diverse history uniquely in relation to its position in the colonial backwaters of modernity. And yet, although all of these problems with the category postcolonial are real enough, one good thing about it as a signifier lies in the fact that it can still be rescued to designate the formerly colonised world as an emblematic site of global modernity.


As a product of the hybridization of cultures and languages that define colonial and postcolonial regions and of the mass movement of generations of migrants who have left these regions for Western metropolitan locations, postcolonial literature – from the Francophone exponents of the négritude movement all the way to the rich variety of contemporary African, Asian or Latin American literary production – presents itself as «rooted in the intertextuality of products from all corners of the globe».24 When we look for the world in world literature, then, we could do a lot worse than starting our search in what we have become accustomed to call postcolonial literature. Recasting postcolonial literature as world literature also means liberating the literary traditions and texts the label designates from the shackles of a narrowly defined regional or national interpretive horizon. With another nod to Hegel’s dialectics, Ngũgĩ identifies the cosmopolitan practice of reading he advocates with the notion of a «globalectical imagination», or «globalectics», produced by a view «derived from the shape of the globe» and presupposing «the mutual containment of hereness and thereness in time and space, where time and space are also in each other».25 Ngũgĩ’s globalectics, then, points to a way of retrieving and making intertextual connections akin to what Wai Chee Dimock has called «deep time»:26 a process of deterritorialization that foregrounds the links between diverse geographies, languages and cultures, and locates the text within the longue durée of the planet’s history. «Even old classical literatures of different cultures and languages», Ngũgĩ underscores, «can be read globalectically».27 There are, however, two main obstacles that stand in the way of this expansive, worldembracing project. One is what Ngũgĩ calls «linguistic feudalism»: the hierarchy of languages as more or less worthy of study, more or less prestigious and viable, which forecloses the possibility of accessing a truly global dimension for literary studies to be actualised through a praxis of linguistic acquisition, collaboration and translation.28 The second obstacle is the hierarchy in which the written and the oral, literature and orature, have long been positioned.29 24

wa Thiong’o, Globalectics, p. 55. wa Thiong’o, Globalectics, p. 60. 26 W. C. Dimock, Through Other Continents: American Literature Across Deep Time, Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, p. 3. 27 wa Thiong’o, Globalectics, p. 60. 28 wa Thiong’o, Globalectics, p. 61. 29 I must admit that this is the section in which I felt most inadequate as a reader, for to properly assess Ngũgĩ’s argument one would need to be knowledgeable in at least some African languages and the long history of orature and dramatic and poetic performance on the African continent. But even so, my intellectual lacunae notwithstanding – which in as much as they are shared by many literary scholars, even among those who claim to 25


The colonisers certified their civilizational advancement and cultural superiority – all that gave them the right to dominate, the ideology backed by military might – through writing: Prospero’s book, colonial education and law. Perhaps no place and historical context illustrates better than the colonies the notion that writing constitutes «hierarchical relations of power»30 – beginning with the power relation between the writing master and the inferior, primitive Other: the oral native. Literary decolonization has not been just a matter of replacing the European canon with a polycentric view of the literary world. In many formerly colonised regions it has also been a matter – or at least should have been – of giving literary dignity to the oral tradition, or orature (the term coined by the Ugandan linguist Pio Zirimo to replace the quasi oxymoronic designation oral literature). Ngũgĩ writes that in several African traditions orature assumes and gives expression to the organic relation between the human and the natural world, which is described in some of the most lyrical passages of the book, where Ngũgĩ’s exposition seamlessly transmogrifies into what these days gets called ecocriticism: Humans are definitely of nature. In that sense they are not different from animals and plants that all depend on the same mother-environment of earth, air, water, and sun. Orature assumes this. Hence in the narratives of orature, humans, birds, animals, and plants interact freely, often change into each others’ forms, and share language. [...] Nature in orature manifests itself as a web of connections of mutual dependence [...]. This web of connections reflects the language of nature; the various aspects of nature are in active communications with themselves, for instance, in each biological unit between and within cells. But they are also in active communication with other entities, for instance the rain circle of water, vapor, clouds, rain, rivers, lakes, and seas, the subject of poetry and song. It is seen in the interaction between bees and butterflies with flowers, a process that enables fertilization between plants. Eliminate all bees and butterflies, and famine descends to threaten human life. Everywhere one looks in nature is a web of connections, even among the seemingly unconnected.31 But orature is not just something associated with tradition. To the contrary, Ngũgĩ suggests that in the age of the Internet and cyberspace the «lines between the written and the have broad and cosmopolitan interests, are one of the targets of Ngũgĩ’s critique – I still found this part of the book hugely rewarding. 30 wa Thiong’o, Globalectics, p. 65. 31 wa Thiong’o, Globalectics, pp. 76-77.


orally transmitted are being blurred» and the «language of texting and emailing and access to everything including pictures and music in real time is producing a phenomenon that is neither pure speech nor pure writing». From Twitter to SMS to e-mail to chat rooms, a new language is being created in which «orality is mediated by writing. It is neither one nor the other. It’s both. It’s cyborality».32 And so he ends by asking whether this new synthesis between written and oral will produce a post-traditional, cybernetic equivalent of orature, a «cyborature» that by undoing the hierarchy between written and oral «will free the richness of the aesthetic, oral or literary».33 One can only hope Ngũgĩ is right. For what’s certain is that cyber communication, with its sociolects, modes of engagement, codes and forms of attention, is quickly replacing writing and reading as we had known them up to the end of the last millennium. And we can take it for granted that if there is a future for literary studies or indeed literature as such – which is more than a rhetorical question: like all things in history, art forms come and go34 – it is not going to be one that brings us back to a pre-Internet era. But I want to conclude with Ngũgĩ’s notion of «poor theory», in which, he explains: poor is not used in the sense of appertaining to poverty, for even in a critical theory one does not want to give dignity to poverty by according it theory, but rather to accord dignity to the poor as they fight poverty, including, dare I say, poverty of theory. Poor, no matter the context of its use, implies the barest. Nothing could be barer than a grain of sand, and yet William Blake could talk of seeing the world in a grain of sand, eternity in one hour. Without the luxury of excess, the poor do most with the least.35 Doing more with less: it sounds familiar, doesn’t it? It is what university administrators are asking of us when they talk of what today often gets named by the euphemism ‘rationalization’. It is what is happening everywhere, including in Italy, as the humanities get marginalised and starved of funding. It is the crisis in the humanities everybody is talking about. If you google «crisis in the humanities» you get 13.800.000 results, the first of which is a paper by US poetry 32

wa Thiong’o, Globalectics, p. 84. wa Thiong’o, Globalectics, p. 85. 34 See N. Brown, Utopian Generations: The Political Horizon of Twentieth-Century Literature, Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 2005, p. 174: «it does not take a very strong historicism to note that art forms are born and die, that their constitution and social meaning change over the period of their existence, that an art form may continue to eke out a subsistence even while the social configuration that gave it force has passed into history. And it should not be a particularly radical stance to suggest that literature itself may already have entered this sort of afterlife». 35 wa Thiong’o, Globalectics, p. 2; italics in original. 33


scholar Marjorie Perloff that starts by noting that «One of our most common genres today is the epitaph for the humanities».36 And so it’s good to read someone who suggests that we can fight back and turn the tables for a change. When you talk to colleagues you hear the same narratives of decline over and over again. Take the Internet. As Kathleen Fitzpatrick writes in the latest issue of Profession, the annual publication of the Modern Language Association of America on the state of the discipline, «Anxieties about the effects of digital media abound», and they often translate into the perception «that the technologies that facilitate such easy communication are causing our actual communication skills to deteriorate» or into apocalyptic statements like «No one reads anymore». All of which, she points out, blinds us «to signs of literary culture’s continued proliferation, including the increasing number of devices and platforms and services through which we read today». As a matter of fact, people who are active on the Internet read more than they ever have before. She also reminds us that this anxiety about technology is nothing new: Plato worried that writing would have produced forgetfulness and there were also those, like Alexander Pope, who saw the printing press as a «scourge» for the educated elite.37 Like writing, the Internet is here to stay (at least for the foreseeable future) and that’s one of the reasons Ngũgĩ’s argument commands attention: Already we have entered the world of e-books and audio books on CDs, a host of endless possibilities. All we can say is that writing and orality are realizing anew the natural alliance they have always had in reality, despite attempts to make the alliance invisible or antagonistic. [...] Certainly, the powers of their products, orature and literature, will continually be harnessed to enrich creativity in the age of internet and cyberspace.38 Among the theoretical elaborations I have recently read, Ngũgĩ 's new book is the one that comes closest to offering a convincing vision for the future of literary studies. By the time I finished reading Globalectics I felt energised. It reminded me of the Brechtian maxim: «Don't start with the good old things but the bad new ones» (which in this case are not necessarily bad at all).39


M. Perloff, The Crisis in the Humanities, K Fitzpatrick, Reading (and Writing) Online, Rather Than on the Decline, «Profession», 2012, pp. 41-42. 38 wa Thiong’o, Globalectics, p. 85. 39 Thanks to Melissa Myambo and Lisa Treffry-Goatley for their (cyber) comments. 37