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Whose is the world in world literature? On world literature and postcolonial studies

So many texts on the subject of world literature at some point indicate Goethe’s coining of Weltliteratur in 1827 as its origin story. This is to start the conversation within a European framing. But one could choose another point of departure. For instance: In 1907, Rabindranath Tagore, an enormously respected figure of Bengali literature, was asked to give a lecture on comparative literature. He chose instead to speak on vishwa sahitya. Most translations of this from the Bengali propose ‘world literature’ as its English translation, but a bit of reading on the subject (and I say this as someone who sadly cannot read Bengali) would certainly suggest that the term is this and also a lot of other things besides.

A couple of years ago, world literature became a bit of a hot topic in scholarly discussion – also amongst those working in postcolonial studies. There was a lot of debate about what it was, what it wasn’t and what it should be. Much of this discussion seemed to emerge from a frustration with the limitations of what had historically been understood as constituting ‘world’ literature. This oftentimes amounted to a call for structural critique of what had long sufficed to harness the label of ‘world literature’. It was a question of which voices were making up a canon of literature deemed worldly (and worth reading), and which voices weren’t – which parts of the world were being seen in such constructions, and which weren’t. Anglophone universities long might well have included, say, Sartre and Kafka in translation in their curricula, while being significantly less likely to give equal space to, for instance, Sol Plaatje or Mulk Raj Anand.

In disciplinary terms, this desire to revamp ‘world lit’ might have had to do with a bit of fatigue around the way comparative literature studies had, in many institutional versions at least, worked within categories provided by ‘national’ literatures – an analytical framework that makes less and less sense as one sees more and more of literature that migrates and crosses borders of every kind, literature that is about migration, by and for migrants.

This amounts to a critique, fundamentally, of the what of world literature, which is in need of significant expansion. An emphasis on the cultural productions of North America and Western Europe has led to an overrepresentation of North American and Western European experiences, and a canon of world literature that perpetuates this is not remedied by the occasional addition of a text from the global South for tokenism purposes. The what of world literature needs to be more fundamentally expanded, to meaningfully include diverse representations.

This feeds into the second strain of critique, which speaks to the how of world literature. This is a question not just of what is deemed to warrant inclusion in ‘world literature’, but the terms on which this kind of legitimation happens, and the ways in which texts are approached and read when they are understood within the ambit of this kind of inclusion. Colonialism constructed Eurocentric methods of knowledge production as universal: as representing a norm that colonial dominions should be measured against (and always found wanting). This also had ramifications for aesthetics, for what is deemed beautiful – deemed good and valuable in literary terms too. Including a broader array of literary voices into an enlarged canon of world literature might be a good start, but if they subsequently continue to be read according to Eurocentric norms and methodologies, the change has been inadequate. And there is a continued risk of exoticisation and co-optation.

Thinkers like Gayatri Spivak, probably one of the most well-known postcolonial theorists, expressed misgivings about some of the approaches that came with the upsurge in world literature as a fashionable term. Amongst these misgivings was the danger of the presumption that one could know enough about the enormous array of literatures that actually exist in all their particularities. This concern points critically to the arrogance entailed by some of these approaches, as well as by an unexamined assumption that one could grasp all necessary nuance by reading in translation. As such, a danger emerges that the heterogeneity of different literatures and their different linguistic worlds could be lost, and their appearance in the show window of an established canon of world literature would in fact undermine their integrity.

While these are important problems, perhaps they don’t need to be the death knell of a more productively inclusive understanding of world literature, both in terms of what it is and how it’s read. Maybe the limits of individual knowledge can be mitigated by collaboration and drawing on the familiarity of experts in specific areas. Perhaps, despite all that is lost in translation, this mediated access is more constructive for structural change than not reading literatures of other languages at all – though of course learning other languages remains the more laudable way to go.

To return to Tagore, and his lecture on vishwa sahitya: Tagore’s choice of topic is immediately telling in its implicit rejection of the ‘comparative literature’ he was in fact asked to give a lecture on. His understanding of vishwa sahitya , as he delineates it, refutes discourses of comparison and literary ownership. Literature, as he describes it, is not the property of any individual or nation. By its very nature, for Tagore, it belongs to and is of the ‘world’. He notes, “just as the world is not my ploughland added to yours and to someone else’s – to see the world in this light is to take a rustic view – so also, literature is not my writing added to yours and to someone else’s”. Tagore contests the adequacy of an additive way of thinking about the constituent parts of a world literature, and repeatedly rejects the logic and language of competition. He implicitly disavows the breaking up into discrete units of a comparative literature, and thus also the comparative dimensions that have sometimes led to putting literatures in hierarchies. 

Literature as Tagore configures it makes it impossible to practice the kind of reading that has imposed West European and North American categories as universal and ended by concluding the ‘superiority’ of artistic expression that most closely resembles these aesthetic ‘standards’. Configuring one’s thinking about world literature along these lines might be one productive start to approaching not only the broadening of the categories of voices that are heard in ‘world’ literature, but also reconceiving how these voices are heard and interpreted. In this desire to both critique Eurocentric modes of constituting knowledge and the beautiful, such an approach would speak to many of the aims of postcolonial studies. Maybe this is what a postcolonial world literature would look towards.