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Working Papers

This paper is a version of the introduction to Combined and Uneven Development: Towards a New Theory of World-Literature, and introduces the main WREC thesis.

Peripheral Modernisms


As long ago as 1981, in the context of the ‘McCabe affair’ at Cambridge University, Raymond Williams argued that English Literary Studies had stumbled into incoherence – on the one hand, because the idea of ‘Literature’ no longer provided a stable evidentiary basis of study; on the other, because the connotations of ‘English’ were so densely problematical. Asking whether the ‘English’ in ‘English Literary Studies’ identified ‘the language or the country’, Williams wrote that ‘[i]f it is the language, there are also fifteen centuries of native writing in other languages: Latin, Welsh, Irish, Old English, Norman French. If it is not the language but the country, is that only “England” or is it now also Ireland, Wales, Scotland, North America, Old and New “Commonwealths”?’ (1991a: 194).[i] In the almost thirty years since that Cambridge-centred ‘Crisis in English Studies’, the instability – indeed, on some accounts, including Williams’ own, the strict unviability[ii] – of disciplinary literary studies overall (not just ‘English’, but equally ‘American’, ‘Comparative’, ‘Italian’, ‘Postcolonial’, ‘African’, etc.) has become even more pronounced, in the wake of the ‘culture wars’ (the arguments over canonicity, literary value and Eurocentrism), the ongoing subordination of culture generally to the laws of the market[iii], the apparently declining significance, relatively speaking, of literature itself as a cultural form[iv], and the steady assault on the autonomy of the humanities – and indeed of the university itself in its historical guise as, for better and worse, an ivory tower, a ‘world apart’ – by government, business and media regimes, all bent in their various ways on incorporation, control and instrumentally-defined regulation[v].

These are therefore testing times for literary studies. Let us note in passing also[vi] that significant challenges are posed to scholarly activity in the field by any number of contemporary social and political developments – from political devolution within the United Kingdom itself and the expansion of Europe to the renewal and refurbishment of imperialism, signalled most notably, post-‘9/11’, by the American-led misadventures in Iraq, Afghanistan and, increasingly, Pakistan. Looming behind all these, as their overarching determinant, perhaps, is the opaque phenomenon of ‘globalisation’, in the context of which, as Hirst and Thompson put it in the opening sentences of their invaluable dissenting study, Globalization in Question,

[I]t is widely asserted that we live in an era in which the greater part of social life is determined by global processes, in which national cultures, national economies and national borders are dissolving. Central to this perception is the notion of a rapid and recent process of economic globalization. A truly global economy is claimed to have emerged or to be in the process of emerging, in which distinct national economies and, therefore, domestic strategies of national economic management are increasingly irrelevant. The world economy has internationalized in its basic dynamics, it is dominated by uncontrollable market forces, and it has as its principal economic actors and major agents of change truly transnational corporations, that owe allegiance to no nation state and locate wherever in the globe market advantage dictates (1996: 1).

Citing these developments and others, commentators in the field of literary studies have moved in recent years to suggest that the received modes of scholarly procedure are in need of radical overhaul. Everywhere, the institutionalised and consolidated methods, the structuring premises and principles, the coherence of the disciplinary object of study itself, are being challenged and opened up to reconsideration and sometimes searching and fundamental critique. In Comparative Literature, for instance, the very questions of why it is worthwhile to ‘compare’ literary texts at all, and what doing so might involve in a world that is both more transparently, plurally and complexly polyglot and – at the same time, and seemingly paradoxically – more deeply dominated by just one language – English – than ever before, are being discussed. In American Studies, similarly, there has been a proliferation of new initiatives aimed at combatting the isolationism and nation-centredness of the field in its established modes, in the interests of reconfiguring it along the lines of systemic (global) and comparative rather than exceptionalist perspectives.[vii]

Of course one does not have to be a card-carrying Bourdieusian to know that academics are rather given to pronouncing the fields or sub-fields in which they themselves work as moribund or in crisis. The strategic function of this time-honoured gesture is to pave the way for those involved to present their own interventions as being in the nature of decisive departures, corrective reconstructions or new beginnings. The goal is to make enough of a splash to attract attention, for one increases one’s own specific capital in a given field by ensuring that one’s own position-taking is registered in it.

In these terms, a certain programmatic skepticism might represent a healthy initial reaction to contemporary work bearing titles like Death of a Discipline (Spivak 2003) or Politics and Value in English Studies: A Discipline in Crisis?(Guy and Small 1993). Thus Thomas Docherty, correctly noting – in an article assessing the current state of Comparative Literature – both that ‘[t]he talk of crisis in the discipline compels us to think of ourselves as being at the start of something new or at least something refreshed’, and that ‘institutional forms of literary criticism have a tendency to be complicit with [the]… marketisation and homogenisation of our work’, proposes and moves to defend the counter-suggestion that ‘Comparative Literature is not “in crisis” at all’ (2006: 26, 27). Point taken. Yet we believe that there are compelling reasons to view the current evocation of disciplinary turmoil more than a mere internal power-play or strategic ruse. If Williams’ identification of a crisis in English Literature in 1981 can be taken to mark the emergence of various new initiatives – postcolonial, ethnic and women’s studies, cultural studies itself, poststructuralism, postmodernism and deconstruction as well as Williams’ own cultural materialism – perhaps the current moment is marked by the recognition that these ‘new formations’ have themselves now passed their sell-by dates. Certainly there appears to be an emerging consensus that literary study is going to have to reinvent itself in the years just ahead – not only because, subject to external, heteronomous pressures, it is being given no choice but to, but also because what ‘literary study’ is taken to be, to mean, and to represent – and where and how it is taken to be, mean and represent these things, and by whom and to what ends – have (again) become burning questions to academics in the field themselves.

In this context of disciplinary rethinking and reorientation, the notions of ‘world literature’ and ‘global literature’ have emerged as important nodes of discussion and research. A relatively minor difference in the sub-disciplinary provenance of these two nevertheless closely linked initiatives might be registered quickly. It is clear that the thought-figure of ‘globalisation’ is fundamental to them both. But where ‘global literature’ might be understood as in the first instance an extension of postcolonial studies – as postcolonial studies under the sign of ‘globalisation theory’, in fact – ‘world literature’ is in the first instance an extension of comparative literature – it might be understood as the remaking of comparative literature after the multicultural debates and the disciplinary critique of Eurocentrism. The term ‘global literature’ is typically deployed in discussion of contemporary social processes bearing on the production and modes of reception of culture, and also of the implications of these for the constitution of identity – hence the significance accorded, as in ‘cultural studies’ generally, to such concepts as transnationalism, deterritorialisation, diaspora, homogenisation, (post-) modernity, cosmopolitanism, etc.[viii] Discussants of the new version of ‘world literature’ (occasionally the very same people), by contrast, typically treat ‘globalisation’ not directly but as an underlying determinant at a certain remove – as the sociological pretext or warrant for a fresh engagement with questions of comparative literary method (which is what really characterises the new discussion of ‘world literature’). We might say, in these terms, that ‘world literature’ is what happens to comparative literature when – having, however belatedly, engaged the task of ‘unthinking’ Eurocentrism – it ‘goes global’ (a phrase that one encounters quite frequently, as also the idea of ‘an age of globalisation’). A handy illustration is provided by the advertisement for David Damrosch’s latest book, in the 2008 Wiley-Blackwell Literature catalogue. How to Read World Literature, the catalogue tells us, ‘addresses the unique challenges faced in confronting foreign literature – reading across time and cultures, translated works, and considering the emerging global perspective’; it ‘offers readers the tools to think creatively and in an organized way about the great literary works produced around our world’.

We can readily see the ‘postcolonialist’ origins of the discussion of ‘global literature’ in such representative works as National Culture and the New Global System (Buell 1994), ‘Rethinking Colonialism: Globalization, Postcolonialism and the Nation’ (Dirlik 2002) and ‘Globalization and the Claims of Postcoloniality’ (Gikandi 2001).[ix] Similarly, we can see the ‘comparativist’ origins of the discussion of ‘world literature’ in such equally representative works as The Translation Zone: A New Comparative Literature (Apter 2006), ‘World Literature and Global Theory: Comparative Literature for the New Millennium’ (Cooppan 2001), ‘To World, to Globalize – Comparative Literature’s Crossroads’ (Kadir 2004), and many of the essays in Comparative Literature in an Age of Globalization (Saussy 2006). Today, however, the discussions of ‘global literature’ and ‘world literature’ are not only often conjoined, they are also pan-disciplinary, extending beyond ‘postcolonial studies’ and ‘comparative literature’ narrowly conceived, as a mere listing of a few exemplary titles might be able to attest: Fictions of Globalization: Consumption, the Market and the Contemporary American Novel (Annesley 2006), Shades of the Planet: American Literature as World Literature (Dimock and Buell 2007), Globalization and Literature (Gupta 2008), ‘Globalization and Contemporary Literature’ (Israel 2004), Immigrant Fictions: Contemporary Literature in an Age of Globalization (Walkowitz 2007).

Indeed it is clear that over the course of the past ten years or so, the old idea of Weltliteratur – whose specific genealogy can be sketched, as in John Pizer’s (2000) succinct survey, for instance, from Goethe through Marx and Engels to Auerbach, Said, and such contemporary scholars as Sarah Lawall[x] – has been reformulated quite self-consciously to carry the banner for a new pan-disciplinary project that transcends and supersedes the inherited (sub-) disciplinary formations, whether of comparative literature or postcolonial studies or the various ‘national’ literatures (‘English’, ‘French’, ‘Russian’, ‘Japanese’, etc.). Premised on the assumption that the ‘world’ is one, integrated if not of course united (an assumption that had been discouraged during the Cold War, when the opposition between ‘East’ and ‘West’ had prevailed; and not really overturned even by the ‘Three Worlds Theory’ that arose during the Cold War era to challenge that dominant construction[xi]), ‘global’/ ‘world’ literature’ in its contemporary aspect pushes intrinsically in the directions of commerce and commonality, linkage and connection, articulation and integration, network and system. It thereby distances itself, explicitly or implicitly, from the antecedent lexicon of ‘post-‘ theory, which had been disposed to emphasise not comparison but incommensurability, not commonality but difference, not system but untotalisable fragment, and not translation but rather its relative impossibility.


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I will borrow… [my] initial hypothesis from the world-system school of economic history, for which international capitalism is a system that is simultaneously one, and unequal; with a core, and a periphery (and a semi-periphery) that are bound together in a relationship of growing inequality. One, and unequal: one literature (Weltliteratur, singular, as in Goethe and Marx), or, perhaps better, one world literary system (of inter-related literatures); but a system which is different from what Goethe and Marx had hoped for, because it’s profoundly unequal’ (Moretti 2004: 149-50

Thus Franco Moretti, in his provocative ‘Conjectures on World Literature’. There is much to debate in Moretti’s essay: the terms of his appropriation of world-system theory, for instance; the centrality of narrative prose in what he says about world literature (in general); and above all, perhaps, his promotion of ‘distant reading’ and corollary eschewal of ‘close reading’. But the statement we have just cited strikes us as being indispensable in two immediate respects: insofar as it grasps ‘world literature’ as neither a canon of masterworks nor a mode of reading[xii] but as a system; and insofar as it proposes that this system is structured not on difference but on inequality.


To describe the world literary system as ‘one, and unequal’ is of course to reactivate the Marxist theory of combined and uneven development. The theory originated in the work of Lenin and, especially, Trotsky, although it is Fredric Jameson’s more recent deployment of it that Moretti evidently has in mind. An appreciation of the ‘complex and differential temporality’ of the capitalist mode of production, ‘in which episodes or eras were discontinuous from each other, and heterogeneous within themselves’ is, as Perry Anderson has argued (1984: 101), already observable in Marx’s mature writings from the late 1840s onwards.[xiii] In these writings there is an awareness of the fact that even within capitalist or capitalising social formations, vast rural populations continued to provide the material ground for the persistence of earlier economic conditions, social relations, cultural practices and psychic dispositions. This insight is then amplified in Trotsky’s writings of the 1930s, in which, on the basis of his consideration, first of conditions in Russia in 1905, and subsequently of those in China in 1925-27, he formulated a ‘Law of Uneven and Combined Development’, by way of analysing the effects of the imposition of capitalism on cultures and societies hitherto uncapitalised or within which the capitalist mode of production did not prevail. In these contexts, Trotsky noted, the imposition of generalised commodity production and capitalist class relations tended not to have the effect of supplanting (or was not allowed to supplant) pre-existing modes and structures: rather, capitalism was forcibly conjoined with these pre-existing modes and structures. The outcome, he wrote, was a contradictory ‘amalgam of archaic with more contemporary forms’ – an urban proletariat working in technologically advanced industries existing side by side with a rural population engaged in subsistence farming; modern plants built alongside ‘villages of wood and straw’, and peasants ‘thrown into the factory cauldron snatched directly from the plow’ (1967: 432). The theory of ‘combined and uneven development’ was therefore devised to describe a situation in which capitalist forms and relations existed alongside ‘archaic forms of economic life’ and pre-existing social and class relations.


This general idea has, inevitably, been important to socialist and left liberation movements since the 1930s, as well as underpinning a sizeable sociological literature. Indeed, it continues to motivate research in the social sciences.[xiv]Thus Liu Kang (1998, 2000), for instance, who – writing about the imposition of capitalism on China in the 19th century – argues that even as the latest techniques in capitalist production, transport, commerce, and finance were being introduced in centres like Shanghai and Beijing, over which the Euro-American powers exercised military and political control, the agents of imperialist intervention were actively propping up an archaic landholding system, and supporting, landlords, officials, militarists, and comprador elites in prolonging pre-capitalist forms of social organisation. Similarly, Mahmood Mamdani (1996), writing about colonialism in Sub-Saharan Africa in general, points out that while the colonial powers coercively imposed new modes of production and capitalist social relations, they typically sought at the same time to buttress traditional hierarchies, forms and outlooks, and to encourage the survival of ethnically based local power, ‘tribal’ divisions and those indigenous cultural habits deemed conducive to promoting social ‘stability’.


The significance of the theory of combined and uneven development has been less often registered in the humanities than in the social sciences. But the theory has latterly received a powerful revisionary elaboration in the work of Fredric Jameson, where it appears as nothing less than a template for any consideration of capitalist modernity, whether in the metropoles or at the peripheries of the world system. Insisting that it can can only be conceptualised adequately through reference to world-wide capitalism (2002: 13), Jameson understands modernity as representing something like the time-space sensorium corresponding to capitalist modernisation. In this sense, it is, like the capitalist world system itself, a singular phenomenon. But far from implying that modernity therefore assumes the same form everywhere, as Jameson has sometimes mistakenly been taken to suggest, this formulation in fact implies that it is everywhere irreducibly specific. Modernity might be understood as the way in which capitalist social relations are ‘lived’ – different in every given instance for the simple reason that no two social instances are the same.


Jameson emphasises both the singularity of modernity as a social form and its ‘simultaneity’. This latter concept he derives from Ernst Bloch’s ostensibly oxymoronic formula, Gleichzeitigkeit des Ungleichzeitigen [‘simultaneity of the nonsimultaneous’].[xv] Modernity is in these terms to be understood as governed always – that is to say, definitionally – by unevenness, the historically determinate ‘coexistence’, in any given place and time, ‘of realities from radically different moments of history – handicrafts alongside the great cartels, peasant fields with the Krupp factories or the Ford plant in the distance’ (1995: 307).


This formulation stands as a compelling repudiation of the various recent attempts to pluralise the concept of modernity through the evocation of ‘alternative’, divergent’, ‘competing’, or ‘retroactive’ modernity/modernities.[xvi]Inasmuch as these invariably derive from an initial assumption as to the ‘Western’ provenance of modernity – rather than situating it in the context of capitalism as a world system – they are both unnecessary and misguided. Of course, if one believes that modernity is a ‘Western’ phenomenon, it is only possible to understand its global dispersal in terms of the ‘universalisation’ of ‘the West’ – to be celebrated or, as in the avowedly anti-Eurocentric conception currently so influential in postcolonial studies, deplored as imperialistic.[xvii] To postulate ‘the existence of an “original” formulated in Europe’ is, as Harry Harootunian has argued, inevitably to suppose that the form of appearance of ‘modernity’ elsewhere must be both ‘belated’ and ‘derivative’ – ‘a series of “copies” and lesser inflections’ (2000a: 62-63). No wonder then that theorists who view modernity in these terms and yet are committed to the critique of Eurocentrism should want to argue for ‘alternative’ modernities!


Against this postcolonialist line of thought, however, which attributes modernity to the gifts or the luck of the capitalist homelands, the account elaborated by Jameson (and Harootunian) emphasises modernity’s singularity and global simultaneity, while insisting that singularity here does not obviate internal heterogeneity and that simultaneity does not preclude unevenness or marked difference. In these terms, the specific modes of appearance of modernity in different times and places – St. Petersburg in the 1870s, say, Dublin in 1904, rural Mississippi in the 1930s, a village on a bend in the Nile in the Sudan in the 1960s, Bombay in 1975, Glasgow in the 1990s – ought to be thought about not as ‘alternative’ but as ‘coeval… modernities or, better yet, peripheral modernities… in which all societies shared a common reference provided by global capital and its requirements’ (Harootunian 2000a: 62-63). If modernity is understood as the way in which capitalism is ‘lived’ – wherever in the world system it is lived – then ‘however a society develops’, its modernity is coeval with other modernities, ‘is simply taking place at the same time as other modernities’ (Harootunian 2000b: xvi). This suggests that the only plausible usage of the idea of ‘alternative modernity’ is to signify a future, post-capitalist (i.e., socialist) modernity (a case for which is made in Liu Kang 1998).[xviii]

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We take our cue, in this project, from this reconceptualisation of the notion of modernity, that involves de-linking it from the idea of the ‘West’ and yoking it to that of the capitalist world system. However, our central concern lies less with the politico-philosophical category of modernity as such, than with its literary correlates – we are chiefly interested in the literary registration and encoding of modernity as a social logic. We are operating therefore with a preliminary tripartite conceptualisation – capitalist world system/modernity/’world literature’ – in terms of which the latter is understood in the broadest sense as the literature of the (capitalist) world system. We understand capitalism to be the substrate of ‘world literature’ (or, to borrow the phrase that Nicholas Brown uses as the subtitle of his 2005 study, Utopian Generations, its ‘political horizon’); and we understand modernity to constitute ‘world literature’s’ subject – modernity is both what ‘world literature’ indexes or is ‘about’ and what gives ‘world literature’ its distinguishing characteristics. Questions of periodisation inevitably arise here. If we follow Wallerstein and others in speaking of the instantiation of capitalism as a world system around 1500, it is clear that it is only in the nineteenth century, and then as the direct result of British and European colonialism, that we can speak of theworlding of capital and of the capitalisation of the world. ‘World’ literature, as we plan to deploy the concept, would then presumably be understood as a development of the past 150-200 years, though its formal conditions of possibility would have begun to be established some three centuries earlier.


Now Adorno has already given us a reading of modernism as the (modern) culture that says ‘no’ to modernity. His argument, more precisely, is that modernism ought to be conceptualised as a cultural formulation of resistance to the prevailing – indeed, the hegemonic – modes of capitalist modernisation in late nineteenth and early twentieth century Europe. Hence the ‘modernism’ of, for example, Ibsen and Dostoevsky, Breton and Kafka, Krauss and T.S. Eliot. Provided we are prepared, for the sake of argument, to abstract from the precise determinants, contours and coordinates of this ‘modernist’ projection, the Adornian conception is relatively elastic. It can readily be extended backwards in time – certainly as far as Romanticism, say, and such obvious figures as Coleridge and Shelley, Hölderlin and Heine; and also forwards – to apply to such writers of the latter half of the twentieth century as, say, Louis Zukofsky and Geoffrey Hill, John Berger, Gunter Grass and Jose Saramago, James Kelman, Thomas Pynchon and Orhan Pamuk. But it can also, and notwithstanding Adorno’s own deep-seated Eurocentrism, be extended geographically – or rather geo-politically – to incorporate such writers as Lu Hsun and Lao She, Aimé Césaire and Miguel Asturias, Saadat Hasan Manto and Ismat Chughtai, Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Abdelrahman Munif, in whose work the dissenting registration of capitalist modernisation takes the historically unforgoable form of a critique of imperialism and/or colonialism.


Certainly it is the case, as Nicholas Brown has pointed out in his consideration of the relation between modernist (that is to say, ‘Euro-modernist’) and independence-era African literatures, that both of these formations revolve around and are animated by the same world-historical process. ‘The mere fact that European imperialism names a key moment in the spread of capitalism as a global economic system already implies a certain baseline of universality’, Brown writes, before cogently drawing the key implication that ‘there can be no question of merely applying the methodological norms developed for [the] one literature [‘Euro-modernist’] to the texts of the other [African]’. Rather, what is required is to ‘reconstellate… modernism and African literature in such a way as to make them both comprehensible within a single framework within which neither will look the same. This framework will hinge neither on “literary history” nor abstract “universal history” but on each text’s relation to history itself’ (Brown 2005: 2-3).[xix]


The question might be raised, in these terms, as to whether the conceptual schema that we are proposing – capitalism/modernity/’world literature’ – might not equally well be expressed, in light of the ‘reconstellation’ that Brown envisages, as capitalism/modernity/modernism. It is, after all, the latter schema that Jameson appears to allude to when he speculates that if ‘modernization is something that happens to the base, and modernism the form the superstructure takes in reaction to that ambivalent development, then perhaps modernity characterizes the attempt to make something coherent out of their relationship’ (1995: 310). Although this way of representing the economy of determinations between ‘base’ and ‘superstructure’ makes good sense to us, we would want to suggest that the scalar phrase, ‘in reaction to’, does not do full justice to ‘modernism’, which, on Adorno’s understanding, at least, is additionally imbued with a (more or less explicit, more or less self-conscious) criticality – and which therefore seems to require theorisation as a vector rather than a scalar quantity, to extend our mathematical metaphor. A vector is a quantity that has direction as well as magnitude. Modernism demonstrates this ‘directionality’ in its mode of appearance as negativity or dissension. We understand it, thus, as a ‘subset’ of the larger field of ‘world literature’. If the latter is, as we have proposed, the literature of the capitalist world system, ‘modernism’ might be thought of as a specific configuration, governed by the category of critique, within this wider field.


Our intention in this project, then, is to contribute to a theory of ‘peripheral modernism’, understood as the critical aesthetic generated within situations of peripheral modernity. Here, too, Jameson’s work can help us substantially to clarify the issues under consideration, since it has often been concerned centrally with the relations between capitalist modernity and literary form. Thus while his essay on ‘Third-World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism’ has regrettably received attention only because of its claims about ‘national allegory’[xx] – claims which in our view have been tendentiously misunderstood – we find remarkable and illuminating his commentary in that essay on the ‘crisis of representation’ in non-metropolitan cultures that were, and remain, ‘locked in a life-and-death struggle with first-world cultural imperialism… a cultural struggle that is itself a reflection of the economic situation of such areas in their penetration by various stages of capitalism, or as it is sometimes euphemistically termed, of modernization’ (1986a: 68). The proposition that the violence entailed in the imposition of capitalism in such societies made for the ‘generic discontinuities’ of the literatures subsequently produced (83), receives elaboration also in ‘On Magic Realism in Film’, another of Jameson’s essays addressing third world cultures – published, like the ‘Third-World Literature’ essay, in 1986 – in which he provisionally proposes that magic realism be considered as ‘a formal mode… constituently dependent on a type of historical raw material in which disjunction is structurally present’, and in which the content


betrays the overlap or the coexistence of precapitalist with nascent capitalist or technological features. In such a view… the organizing category of magic realist film… is one of modes of production, and in particular, of a mode of production still locked in conflict with traces of the older mode… [T]he articulated superposition of whole layers of the past within the present (Indian or pre-Columbian realities, the colonial era…) is the formal precondition for the emergence of this new narrative style (1986b: 311).[xxi]


In a footnote to the ‘Third-World Literature’ essay, Jameson furthermore suggests – for our purposes, decisively – that this way of thinking about combined unevenness demands a new type of literary comparativism: namely the ‘comparison, not of the individual texts, which are formally and culturally very different from each other, but of the concrete situations from which such texts spring and to which they constitute distinct responses’ (1986: 86-87, fn. 5).[xxii]

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The premise of ‘combined unevenness’ developed here repudiates at a stroke the idea – linked, presumably, to the political mantra that ‘globalisation’ is a tide lifting all boats – that the ‘world’ of ‘world literature’ is a ‘level playing field’, a more or less free space in which texts from around the globe can collide, intersect and converse with one another. It is remarkable how pervasive this idea of a ‘level playing field’ is in contemporary literary critical discourse. Particularly among those committed to a reconstructed model of comparative literature there is discernable a tendency to suppose that, ‘after’ the multiculturalism debates and the disciplinary critiques of Eurocentrism and Orientalism, comparative literature was now finally free to become genuinely, authentically comparative – a supposition perfectly encapsulated in the title of one of Jonathan Culler’s recent essays: ‘Comparative Literature, at Last’ (2006). Thus Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, who writes that it has been her ‘long-standing sense that the logical consequences of our loosely defined discipline [i.e., Comparative Literature] were, surely, to include the open-ended possibility of studying all literatures, with linguistic rigor and historical savvy. A level playing field, so to speak’ (2003: 13). Inasmuch as it has elsewhere been one of Spivak’s signature gestures to deconstruct particularisms that masquerade as universalisms, and to demonstrate their structurality, it is difficult to appreciate the grounds on which, here, she chooses to subscribe to the idealist fantasy that a ‘level playing field’ is a ‘logical consequence’ of Comparative Literature as a discipline. In our view, Comparative Literature as a discipline and a mode of literary critical practice has pretty much always commenced from an unalloyed and irrevocable Eurocentric particularism. InDeath of a Discipline, however, Spivak holds out an olive branch to Comparative Literature. What she is ‘advocating’, she says, is not ‘the politicization of the discipline’, but ‘a depoliticization of the politics of hostility toward a politics of friendship to come’. The tortured syntax of this formulation admittedly makes it hard to know exactly what she has in mind here, but to the extent that we understand them, we view her tactics in Death of a Disciplineas deeply misconceived. For it seems to us that what is called for is precisely not the ‘depoliticization of the politics of hostility toward a politics of friendship to come’, but, on the contrary, the active politicisation of the discussion on the basis of a steady and thoroughgoing critique of Comparative Literature as a disciplinary projection, both in the past and as it exists today.


Some of the new comparativists have wanted to project the ‘level playing field’ gesture backwards in time, to propose that the deepest intrinsic tendency of Comparative Literature was always ‘global’ or ‘universalistic’ in this sense.[xxiii] Emily Apter, for instance, argues that ‘Comparative literature was in principle global from its inception, even if its institutional establishment in the postwar period assigned Europe the lion’s share of critical attention and short-changed non-Western literatures’ (2004: 76). Apter attempts to defend this empirically counter-intuitive thesis by redrawing the lines of the received history of comparative literature, such that Leo Spitzer’s period of residence in Istanbul is afforded exemplary significance, rather than – as in most accounts – Erich Auerbach’s. Her point is that where the manifestly Eurocentric Auerbach claimed to feel himself in the wilderness in Istanbul, cast out of ‘Europe’ and hence adrift of the civilised world, and made no attempt to learn Turkish (Apter suggests that his rather self-pitying accounts were ungenerous at least, and in fact inaccurate), Spitzer made himself rather at home in the city, learning Turkish and setting up a school of philology which published actively. Apter’s suggestion is that Spitzer’s example ‘might have significant bearing on attempts to redefine comparative literature today as a “worlded,” minoritarian comparativism’, inasmuch as it might be taken to signify that ‘early comparative literature was always and already globalized’ (82). Thus she reproduces the table of contents of the 1937 issue of thePublications de la faculté des lettres de l’Université d’Istanbul – which featured ten articles: four in German, three in French, one in English, and two in Turkish – and argues that the multilingualism of this issue ‘attests to a policy of non-translation adopted without apology’ which ‘[i]t is tempting to read… as the in vitro paradigm of a genuinely globalized comparative literature, as evidence of critical reading practices that bring the globe inside the text’ (104, 95). For Apter, Spitzer’s philology ‘affords its micrological counterpart as close reading with a worldview: word histories as world histories; stylistics and metrics in diaspora’ (108). It is this ‘worlded’ model – ‘always already’ spectrally present within Comparative Literature as a promise to be redeemed – that she sees as having resurfaced over the course of the past decade in literary studies overall: hence her bold claim that ‘[i[n many ways, the rush to globalize the literary canon in recent years may be viewed as the “comp-lit-ization” of national literatures throughout the humanities’ (76).


All of this strikes us as deeply unconvincing. Let us protest in passing that, whatever might be said in this respect about, say, ‘French’ or ‘German’ or ‘Spanish’ as sub-disciplinary formations, Apter’s purported defence of Comparative Literature against ‘national literature’ programmes fails to hit the mark against English. For ‘English’ has never been ‘national’ in the sense evidently imagined by Apter. On the contrary, it has always, and for any number of reasons (not all of which do it credit, to be sure), been deeply invested in the worldliness of language and literature, in their political instrumentality and social power. It is for this reason, for example, that it has been within departments of English that materialist, feminist, anti-racist, and anti-imperialist criticism has found room to breathe in recent decades. It is true that these progressive tendencies have led minority existences in English departments, which have mostly been given over to distinctly orthodox, if nevertheless very varied, work. But criticism of this kind could neither have arisen, nor have sustained itself, in the chill formalist climate of Comparative Literature.


More substantially, Apter’s emphasis on translation, multilingualism and philology not only fails to challenge, but in fact reinscribes the idealist version of comparativism central to Comparative Literature in its dominant institutional form. Although she refers repeatedly to ‘globalisation’ in thinking about what Comparative Literature does, and how it does it, Apter’s failure to say anything at all about the capitalist world system renders moot her claims for the universalism inherent in the discipline. It is all very well to call for ‘critical reading practices that bring the globe inside the text’: but it is difficult to see how, in the absence of any consideration of the world system, the referencing of ‘globality’ here differs from the orthodox construction of ‘the world’ in Comparative Literature as a virtual universe of circulating languages and literatures, cultures and values.


Against ‘national’ particularism, Apter advocates ‘a paradigm of translatio… that emphasizes the critical role of multilingualism within transnational humanism’ (2006: 104). One problem here is that Comparative Literature has always been disposed to uphold a merely quantitative notion of multilingual competence, to celebrate multilinguisticality as though it in itself conduced to social tolerance.[xxiv] The fact that the ten articles in the Istanbul literary review are written in four different languages seems to have blinded Apter to such other, less congenial, facts as that eight of these ten articles are in the hegemonic languages of metropolitan North-Western Europe and that, with only one exception, they all tackle problems to do with these languages or the literatures written in them.[xxv] Apter speaks of ‘close reading with a worldview’, but the evidence that she adduces in support of her contention that the ‘worldview’ in question here is no longer Eurocentric but genuinely globalised is thin, to say the least. As Apter herself knows very well, a daunting number of colonial administrators and Orientalist scholars could speak fluent Farsi or Arabic or Zulu or Urdu without in the least feeling the need to question their Eurocentrism. Their ‘multilingualism’ was ‘critical’ not to ‘transnational humanism’ but to what they saw as ‘the pacification of primitive tribes’! The argument has been made, by Lawrence Venuti (1998), among others, with respect to translation, and Louis-Jean Calvet (2006), with respect to the ‘ecology’ of languages themselves, that languages, literary forms and literary productions never enter the world on their own terms.[xxvi] A fundamental inequality – not intrinsic, but fully social – marks their capacities as representational practices; and this inequality is then overdetermined by the social logistics of publication, reading, pedagogy, and so on.[xxvii]


Moreover, the idea of ‘close reading with a worldview’ is itself unconvincing to us in its apparent assumption as to the ideological neutrality of critical method. Whatever might be said about Moretti’s injunction to scrap ‘close reading’ altogether in favour of ‘distant reading’ (and Apter is writing with Moretti’s provocation firmly in mind), it is surely a mistake, given its irrecuperable formalism, to attempt to defend the received disciplinary practice of ‘close reading’ in any strict sense. For the price of the rigorous examination of language and literature in institutionalised ‘close reading’ has invariably been abstraction from their social determinants and structuring conditions of existence.

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‘Efforts to rethink the study of world literature will continue’, Sarah Lawall has written, ‘as long as there is a discrepancy between the lively expectations generated by the term “world” and the pinched reality elicited by conventional approaches’ (qtd. Damrosch 2003: 129). We would like to construe this thought-provoking formulation along materialist lines. Across the full range of disciplinary literary studies, the structurality of the capitalist world system is typically misrecognised, if it is not ignored (or even denied) altogether. The misprision generally takes the form of an idealist recasting of capitalism – and/or of imperialism and modernity – in civilisational terms as ‘the West’. The effect of this idealism is to undermine, in our view fatally, contemporary efforts to rethink the object of disciplinary literary studies. Let us examine briefly three instances of this idealism in operation, and consider their implications: Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism, and recent articles by Susan Bassnett (2006) and Rey Chow (2004). These three pieces come from very different points on the literary critical spectrum, both methodologically and ideologically: Said stands significantly, of course, at the disciplinary crossroads between ‘English’, ‘Comparative Literature’ and ‘Postcolonial Studies’; Bassnett offers an endorsement of Comparative Literature in the wake of the disciplinary critique of Eurocentrism; Chow argues that this critique has been cosmetic only, and that Comparative Literature remains fundamentally Eurocentric. Our argument will be that despite the severe differences between them, Said, Bassnett and Chow all demonstrate the same tendency to substitute the civilisational category of ‘the West’ for the category of capitalist modernity as the object of their analysis – a substitution that has the inevitable effect of dematerialisation.[xxviii]


In Culture and Imperialism – which eventually saw publication in 1991, having been eagerly anticipated since the publication of his ground-breaking Orientalism over a decade earlier – Said proposes that it has been the belated discovery on the part of contemporary scholars of ‘the enormously exciting, varied post-colonial literature produced in resistance to the imperialist expansion of Europe and the United States in the past two centuries’ that has served most decisively to throw the received paradigms of literary scholarship into question (1993: 71). He mobilises the category of the ‘post-colonial’ here following Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin, who had used the term ‘to cover all the culture affected by the imperial process from the moment of colonization to the present day’ (1989: 2). We should note in passing that we regard this use of ‘post-colonial’ as both counter-intuitive and incoherent. It is, among other things, incompatible with Said’s own resolute emphasis on contrapuntalism, in terms of which ‘the culture affected by the imperial process’ would surely include ‘colonial’/’metropolitan’/‘Western’ as well as‘colonised’/’peripheral’/’non-Western’ culture. Hence Said’s more characteristic identification on the very next page of Culture and Imperialism of ‘overlapping territories, intertwined histories common to men and women, whites and non-whites, dwellers in the metropolis and on the peripheries, past as well as present and future’ (1993: 72).


However, the larger point that Said is concerned to make is that imperialism is the ‘major, I would say determining, political horizon of modern Western culture’ (70). His argument, in fact, is two-edged. On the one hand, he suggests that imperialism is fundamental to modern ‘Western’ culture – is, in fact, that culture’s very substrate or grounding instance. On the other hand, he suggests that precisely this truth, or reality, has been ignored, systematically and symptomatically, within ‘Western’ culture itself: within literary studies, a ‘massive avoidance’ – which, were it a matter of consciousness, rather than of ideology or, better, of epistemic ‘atmosphere’, might be said to amount to the mother of all conspiracies – ‘has sustained a canonical inclusion and exclusion: you include the Rousseaus, the Nietzsches, the Wordsworths, the Dickenses, Flauberts, and so on, and at the same time you exclude their relationships with the protracted, complex, and striated work of empire’ (70).


Writing at the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s, Said argues that ‘the relationship between empire and culture’ has only just begun to find registration in literary studies (71). We have been quoting thus far from the chapter in Culture and Imperialism significantly entitled ‘Connecting Empire to Secular Interpretation’. The contention in this chapter is that from the mid-eighteenth century to the time of his own writing in the late twentieth, the literary field has been blind to its own enabling conditions, modes of operation and ideological effects. The thrust of literary scholarship during this period has sometimes been nation-centred (and occasionally narrowly chauvinistic) and sometimes (as in Goethe or Auerbach, for instance) comparativist and even universalist in its rhetoric. But even in its more expansive, comparativist guises, which Said himself vastly prefers, the scholarship has been constitutively Eurocentric: the field has been organised ‘epistemologically… as a sort of hierarchy, with Europe and its Latin Christian literatures at its centre and top’ (52).


The fundamental task that Said therefore enjoins upon his colleagues in the literary field is to ‘unthink Eurocentrism’.[xxix] This is partly a matter of opening oneself to the existing archives and burgeoning new literary production from the world outside the ‘West’, for he argues, surveying the scholarship of the past 200 years, that ‘[w]ithout significant exception, the universalizing discourses of modern Europe and the United States assume the silence, willing or otherwise, of the non-European world. There is incorporation; there is inclusion; there is direct rule; there is coercion. But there is only infrequently an acknowledgement that the colonized people should be heard from, their ideas known’ (58). But ‘unthinking Eurocentrism’ also involves revising our construction of ‘Western’ culture itself. We cannot simply add or assimilate new material to an otherwise unchanged canon in accordance with unaltered modes of disciplinary practice. The constitutive Eurocentrism of old-style ‘Victorian Studies’ for example, would not be transformed were we merely, so to speak, to ‘add colonialism and stir’. Said enjoins us instead to


reinterpret the Western cultural archive as if fractured geographically by the activated imperial divide, to do a rather different kind of reading and interpretation. In the first place, the history of such fields as comparative literature, English studies, cultural analysis, anthropology can be seen as affiliated with the empire and, in a manner of speaking, even contributing to its methods for maintaining Western ascendancy over non-Western natives… And in the second place our interpretive change of perspective allows us to challenge the sovereign and unchallenged authority of the allegedly detached Western observer (59).


This injunction – it would be more accurate, perhaps, to understand it, as Raymond Williams has taught us, as a dispersed and historically specific political imperative, rather than through reference to a single scholar, no matter how influential – has been at the heart of much of the work produced across the full range of literary studies over the course of the past quarter-century. A mere recitation of some key titles might be sufficient to demonstrate this: Rule of Darkness. British Literature and Imperialism, 1830-1914 (Brantlinger 1988); Gender, Race, Renaissance Drama (Loomba 1989); The Masks of Conquest: Literary Study and British Rule in India (Viswanathan 1989);Critical Terrains: French and British Orientalisms (Lowe 1991); The Poetics of Imperialism: Translation and Colonization from The Tempest to Tarzan (Cheyfitz 1991); Macropolitics of Nineteenth-Century Literature: Nationalism, Exoticism, Imperialism (Arac and Ritvo 1991); Civilising Subjects: Metropole and Colony in the English Imagination 1830-1867 (Hall 1992); Colonial Encounters: Europe and the Native Caribbean, 1492-1797 (Hulme 1992);Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation (Pratt 1992); Cultures of United States Imperialism (Kaplan and Pease 1993); Imperial Leather: Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest (McClintock 1995); Out of Place: Englishness, Empire, and the Locations of Identity (Baucom 1999); Literary Culture and US Imperialism: From the American Revolution to World War II (Rowe 2000); Fabulous Orients: Fictions of the East in England 1662-1785 (Ballaster 2005).


Said’s identification of the inextricability of ‘culture’ from ‘imperialism’[xxx] – the ‘integration and connections between the past and the present, between imperializer and imperialized, between culture and imperialism’ (72) – strikes us as being of indispensable importance. But we need to register a major weakness in his understanding of the key concept of imperialism. This weakness has already been addressed and explored in some of the criticism directed at Said by his materialist followers and interlocutors in Postcolonial Studies[xxxi]. There are various ways of registering the problem in shorthand. One of them is simply to point out that while the terms ‘empire’ and ‘imperialism’ run like a rich dye through all of Said’s work, there are very few references to the term ‘capitalism’. Another is to observe the anomalousness of his repudiation of Marxism: as Benita Parry has pointed out, we can scarcely fail to remark the fact that Said’s ‘work on culture and imperialism dispensed with that very tradition of thought that has done most to theorize modern empire as integral to the capitalist system’ (Parry 200?: ).


The main problem is that Said presents imperialism as a political dispensation rather than as a process of accumulation on a world scale, under conditions of capitalist monopoly. Imperialism for him implicates military conquest, alien governance, systematised top-down violence, social asymmetry, cultural and symbolic domination, Eurocentrism as a set of deeply patterned ‘structures of attitude and reference’. It is characteristically about domination rather than about exploitation or class struggle or the imposition of a mode of production. The severing of imperialism from capitalism leads Said to neglect the structuring dynamics, agencies and vectors of historical development. Situating imperialism in civilisational terms as an ‘ongoing contest between north and south, metropolis and periphery, white and native’ (1993: 59), he typically refers us to ‘the West’ as its originating force – as when, inOrientalism, he speaks of ‘a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient’ (1979: 3).[xxxii] In the absence of a materialist conception of imperialism, ‘the West’ in Said’s work comes to stand in for the socio-historical process that it tacitly references, but at the price of mystification.


A second liability of Said’s conceptualisation follows directly from this first. A further consequence of his conflation of imperialism and ‘the West’ is that the latter instance tends to suffer homogenisation: both historically and geo-politically, its internal divisions and differences, the trajectories of its development, are flattened out and disregarded. It is not only that between the categories of ‘the West’ and ‘Europe’, no significant difference is registered – such that, for example the United States is presented as a more or less organic outgrowth of ‘Europe’, merely with a broader geo-strategic base. Also observable in Culture and Imperialism is a steady if reductive progression from ‘England’, ‘France’ and ‘the United States’, to the ‘major metropolitan’ formations, and thence to ‘the West’ itself. The fact, as Lucia Boldrini has recently pointed out, that ‘[m]any European countries have no imperial history if not a passive one, having themselves been “colonised”, subjugated or controlled by other political powers’ (2006: 15-16), is never taken into account by Said. Although Boldrini’s complaint about the ‘continuing identification of Europe on the one hand with some Western European countries and, on the other, with “the West” and therefore with colonial history – of the reduction, that is to say, of Europe to the colonial history of some of its states’ (15), is not directed at Said’s work, it is easy to see its relevance to any appraisal of Said.

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It is because Said’s work both homogenises ‘the West’ and construes it as the agent of imperialist domination that he has sometimes been accused, by critics to his left and to his right, of ‘third-worldism’. There is no need to rehearse this dispute here.[xxxiii] What can be noted, however, is that the tendency to essentialise ‘the West’ has become a staple ingredient, across the range of literary scholarship, of much of the recent work that – following Said’s injunction – has been directed to ‘unthinking Eurocentrism’.[xxxiv] We can see this very clearly, for instance, in Rey Chow’s recent call for a ‘post-European’ perspective in Comparative Literature, to which we will turn shortly. Before doing so, however, it will behove us to look quickly at Susan Bassnett’s ‘Reflections on Comparative Literature in the Twenty-First Century’, since it is to the kind of thought exemplified in Bassnett’s essay that Chow is evidently responding.


Bassnett wants to take stock of Comparative Literature after the disciplinary critique of Eurocentrism. This critique is taken to have been levelled, absorbed, and appropriately acted upon. ‘[W]e have come a long way in three decades’, she writes, summarily, en route to a restatement of the value and vitality of the ‘Western’ literary canon and the tradition that it inscribes and memorialises.[xxxv] She readily concedes that it was important for scholars of literature generally to take to heart the central argument brought against mainstream scholarship by the critics of Eurocentrism – which argument she introduces under the rubric of ‘plurivocality’: the call for multiple voices to be attended to, ‘rather than one single dominant voice’ (4). (It is worth registering in passing here the distance between this concept of ‘plurivocality’ and the Saidian notion of ‘contrapuntalism’. For all that might be said against it, the latter, as we have seen, identified ‘overlapping territories’ and ‘intertwined histories’ which, according to Said, it was necessary to think together, as registrations of a vast social experience binding all its participants, even if antagonistically and unequally.[xxxvi] ‘Plurivocality’, by contrast, identifies only the multiplicity of discourses; it has nothing to say about their inter-relations.) But in a passage directed explicitly at Gayatri Spivak, Bassnett suggests that while a comparativist approach to literature governed by this model of plurivocality ‘works for anyone approaching the great literary traditions of the northern hemisphere from elsewhere’, it is not

particularly helpful for those of us who have as a starting point one or other of those great traditions. The question remains as to what new directions in comparative literature there can be for the European scholar whose intellectual formation has been shaped by classical Greek and Latin, by the Bible, by the Germanic epic, by Dante and Petrarch, by Shakespeare and Cervantes, by Rousseau, Voltaire and the Enlightenment, by Romanticism and post-Romanticism, by the European novelists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, by generations of writers who have borrowed, translated, plagiarized and plundered, but whose works run inexorably to some degree through the consciousness of anyone writing today (4-5).


Some of the implications of this deeply tendentious formulation are worth exploring in detail.[xxxvii] We can start by noting the conceptual muddle entailed in the internal slippage from ‘northern hemisphere’ to ‘Europe’ – and compounded elsewhere in the essay, when Bassnett mobilises in addition the category of the ‘West’ (as in ‘Western foundation texts’ and ‘Western writing’). She deploys these three terms – ‘Europe’, ‘northern hemisphere’ and ‘West’ – in her essay as strict synonyms, all naming the same thing. That thing is, evidently, a (singular) trans-national (but not global) ‘culture’ or ‘civilisation’. ‘No single European literature can be studied in isolation’, Bassnett writes, evidently meaning thereby to challenge national(ist) literary scholarship; but nor, she adds,

should European scholars shrink from reassessing the legacy they have inherited. There is a great deal to learn from the perspectives of Southern hemisphere scholars, principle [sic] of which is the shift in perspective that their views inevitably incite, but it is important not to lose sight of where we, as Europeans, stand in relation to our own literary history (10).

While ‘Europe’ comes into focus as a civilisational unity for Bassnett, the premise of a world system is denied or disregarded. ‘No single European literature can be studied in isolation’, she writes; but European literature evidently can – indeed, must – be studied in isolation from ‘non-European’ (or ‘southern hemisphere’) literatures. No ‘contrapuntalism’ for Bassnett, evidently. Instead, we must assume that she conceives of the world as the ensemble of plural, more or less discrete, civilisations.[xxxviii]


What Bassnett proposes as a bedrock – the cord that supposedly binds together and unites into a single ‘Great Tradition’ the various micro-traditions of the constituent cultures, nations and peoples of ‘Europe’/’northern hemisphere’/’West’, is in our view a strictly ideological construction, which it would be better to construe as a post-facto justification for the currently prevailing global dispensation.[xxxix] The problem is not only that Bassnett’s presentation tends to erase the violence structurally entailed in ‘inter-cultural’ relations in the contexts of colonialism and capitalist modernity – specifically, the relations between ‘Europe’ and the world beyond its historically porous and often shifting boundaries. (What she terms ‘interconnectedness’, in this respect, and sees as a positive good might with greater historical warrant be described in terms of systematic exploitation.) Just as important is the fact that her essentialism serves to mystify the history of Europe itself. It is worth reminding ourselves that, far from representing any intrinsic civilisational unity or ‘community of values’, the ‘making of Europe’ involved (and continues to involve) conflict, division, violence, and mutual animosity. The ‘Europe’ that would come to impose itself on the rest of the world in the modern era – and that would present itself in civilisational terms in doing so – was, as Robert Bartlett has argued very eloquently, itself the product of ‘internal’ conquest, colonisation and enforced cultural change:

Conquest, colonization, Christianization: the techniques of settling in a new land, the ability to maintain cultural identity through legal forms and nurtured attitudes, the institutions and outlook required to confront the strange or abhorrent, to repress it and live with it, the law and religion as well as the guns and ships. The European Christians who sailed to the coasts of the Americas, Asia and Africa in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries came from a society that was already a colonizing society. Europe, the initiator of one of the world’s major processes of conquest, colonization and cultural transformation, was also the product of one (1994: 313-14).


Reciting the names of Dante and Shakespeare and Cervantes, evoking Latin and the Bible and the Enlightenment, Bassnett conjures up the image of a literary tradition freely available, as something like a family inheritance, to all ‘Europeans’ – but not, evidently, to ‘non-Europeans’. (Her thesis is made more convoluted still – not to say, more untenable – by the fact that on her reading the category of ‘Europeans’ would include [some? most? all?] North Americans, Australians, etc.) One could play Bassnett’s game in reverse here, and recite other names that point in a completely different direction: Andalusian Arabic, Bulgar, Drevani, Muromian, Curonian, and Pomeranian, for instance – now extinct ‘European’ languages, obliterated (and along with them the cultural identity of the people who spoke them) in the long march of ‘Europeanisation’; or Cornish, Welsh, Occitan, Breton, Livonian, and Sardinian – dominated and/or sub-national languages that still survive in Europe despite the fierce pressures exerted upon them by hegemonising forces (often trans- or super-national cultures and languages), whose imposition it has proved impossible to resist. It takes nothing away from Shakespeare and Cervantes, the epic and the Bible, English and German, surely, to recognise that it has often been precisely in the name of the selective tradition identified through reference to them (and such as them) that politically dominant forces in Europe have rained violence and terror upon their neighbours, by way of subduing and subordinating them – a process involving first deculturation and then enforced acculturation. It is not only in extra-European theatres that English, French, German, Italian, Russian have been imposed on speakers of other languages, by way of breaking their resistance and undermining their cultural integrity.


Bassnett’s article is written partly by way of attempting to re-energise Comparative Literature after the critique of Eurocentrism, which – for all its indispensability – is seen to have left the discipline somewhat demoralised. Hence her suggestion that ‘the perspectives of Southern hemisphere scholars’ are ‘not particularly helpful for those of us who have as a starting point’ the Great Tradition represented by the ‘Western’ canon. Her argument is unambiguously ‘First-Worldist’; it is clearly predicated on an assumption as to the distinctiveness and the internal unity of ‘Europe’/’northern hemisphere’/’West’ as a civilisational bloc irreducibly different from, if not necessarily in opposition to, other civilisational blocs (e.g., that represented by ‘the southern hemisphere’). We have attempted to demonstrate that, because of its essentialism, this construction of ‘Europe’ mystifies the history of Europe as well, of course, as the relations between Europe and the rest of the world.


It might be worthwhile here to place Bassnett’s argument in relation to the debate about European ‘identity’ sparked off by Jürgen Habermas’s recent call for the development and projection of a European presence capable of counter-balancing ‘the hegemonic unilateralism of the United States’ (2005: 6). Writing in May 2003, in the shadow of the US-sponsored invasion of Iraq, Habermas asked whether there were ‘historical experiences, traditions, and achievements offering European citizens the consciousness of a shared political fate that can be shaped together’ (7). He answered in the affirmative, but only after rejecting firmly the civilisational idea of Europe evoked by Bassnett. For Habermas, that idea would be merely the corollary of the particularist chauvinism sponsoring the ‘bellicose past’ that ‘once entangled all European nations in bloody conflicts’ (12). He proposes instead an idea of ‘Europe’ predicated precisely on a break from this past through the reflexive creation of ‘new, supranational forms of cooperation’ (12). A similar vision is promoted by the Swiss writer, Adolf Muschg, who writes, in dialogue with Habermas, that


What holds Europe together and what divides it are at heart the same thing: common memories and habits, acquired step by step through the process of distancing oneself from fatal habits. Europe is what Europe is becoming. It is neither the Occident nor the cradle of civilization; it does not have a monopoly on science, enlightenment, and modernity. It shouldn’t attempt to ground its identity in any other way than through its own experiences: any claims for exclusivity can only lead into the same delusion and pretension through which Europe of the nineteenth century believed itself to represent the rest of the world, and entitled to dominate it (2005: 25).


The idea here is of Europe as a counter-hegemonic work in progress – a strictly contemporary project negatively motivated by recognition that the effects of all of the previous projections of ‘Europe’ – that took themselves to be gestures of civilisational self-assertion – have been catastrophic.[xl] Yet even this carefully historicised and radically contingent construction[xli] might be susceptible to criticism on the grounds that it generalises unwarrantedly from the modern experience of the historically dominant European nations to all of Europe. Thus a latent essentialism seems to lurk in the background of Habermas’s refunctioning of the category of ‘core Europe’ (‘Kerneuropa’) and his suggestion that this ‘avant-gardist core of Europe’ must play the role of ‘locomotive’, powering the generation of a new, pan-European consciousness and politics (2005: 5-6). While we certainly appreciate the necessity of defending France and Germany – whose governments opposed the rush to war against Iraq – from the wrath of the Bush administration, the metaphor of ‘core’ and, presumably, ‘peripheral’ Europe, like that of ‘old’ and ‘new’ Europe,[xlii] seems to us both impolitic and high-handed. Hence, presumably, the anger directed at Habermas’s manifesto by certain commentators – not only in ‘East’ and ‘Central’ Europe, but also in Scandinavia and the Iberian peninsula – unwilling to accept his apparent marginalisation of them as ‘non-core’ Europeans.[xliii]

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Rey Chow’s article, ‘The Old/New Question of Comparison in Literary Studies: A Post-European Perspective’, appeared two years before Bassnett’s, and so does not, of course, address the latter directly. But Chow writes self-consciously from what Bassnett calls the ‘perspective of the Southern hemisphere’: indeed, she might be seen as offering a ‘Third-Worldist’ critique of precisely the model of comparative literary scholarship that Bassnett both champions and seeks to represent. She begins, thus, by identifying the performative contradiction represented by Comparative Literature’s ‘cosmopolitanism’ or ‘universalism’ whenever the focus is shifted from the European to the world stage. On the one hand, the commitment to comparativism in the discipline gestures towards inter-cultural reciprocity:

As part of a cluster of concepts that sees linguistic cosmopolitanism and the peaceful coexistence of national and cultural traditions as its telos, comparison in comparative literature is understandably grounded, as the etymology of the word suggests, in the notion of parity – in the possibility of peer-like equality and mutuality among those being compared… Hence… comparative literature often proceeds with investigating multiple literary traditions on the assumption that there ought to be a degree of commonality and equivalence – and thus comparability – among them; that they are, somehow, on a par with one another despite their obvious differences (2004: 290).

On the other hand, this ‘mutuality’ proves to be highly selective. It operates only between ‘European’ literatures and cultures, never between ‘Europe and its Others’. Chow quotes as exemplary in this respect Wellek and Warren’s formulation, in their Theory of Literature (1949), of the basic predicate of Comparative Literature as a discipline:

it is important to think of literature as a totality and to trace the growth and development of literature without regard to linguistic distinctions… Western literature, at least, forms a unity, a whole… and, without minimizing the importance of Oriental influences, especially that of the Bible, one must recognize a close unity which includes all Europe, Russia, the United States, and the Latin American literatures (qtd. Chow 2004: 294).


One might have expected Chow to criticise the essentialism evident in Wellek and Warren’s formula – their insistence on the singularity and specificity of what they call ‘Western’ culture. But she does not. Nor does she comment on the fact their their formulation is altogether blind to the radically discrepant and incongruent histories of the ideas of ‘Europe’ and ‘the West’. The mere facts, for instance, that significant sections of the Russian intelligentsia have consistently defined themselves in explicit opposition to the category of ‘the West’ (while insisting on their fidelity to ‘Europe’), while significant sections of the U.S. intelligentsia have consistently defined themselves in explicit opposition to the category of ‘Europe’ (while insisting on their fidelity to ‘the West’) ought surely to have given Wellek and Warren pause, especially in 1949. But Chow focuses instead on Wellek and Warren’s bracketing of the ‘non-West’ and the implications that derive – in her view, inevitably – from it:

Wellek and Warren’s formulation of comparison, which may be named ‘Europe and Its Others,’ remains a common norm of comparative literary studies in North America today. In this formulation, the rationale for comparing hinges on the conjunction and; the and, moreover… signals a form of supplementation that authorizes the first term, Europe, as the grid of reference, to which may be added others in a subsequent and subordinate fashion… Theand thus instigates not only comparison but also a politics of comparison: on the one side, the infinite opening of histories, cultures, languages in their internal vicissitudes in such a manner as to enable their studies to become ever more nuanced and refined; on the other side, a crude lumping together of other histories, cultures, and languages with scant regard to exactly the same kinds of details and internal dynamics of thought that, theoretically speaking, should be part of the study of any tradition. These other histories, cultures, and languages remain by default undifferentiated – and thus never genuinely on a par with Europe – within an ostensibly comparative framework (294-95).


Proposing that Eurocentrism is, as it were, ‘hard-wired’ into the disciplinary machinery of Comparative Literature, Chow calls not for a revision of the discipline, but for the generation of an entirely new notion of comparativism, implicating a new form of critical practice: ‘The incommensurability between what scholars might want to uphold as the ethical as well as theoretical ideal of an inclusive world literature, on the one hand, and the actual events that take place in the name of comparison, on the other, requires us to conceive of a radically different set of terms for comparative literary studies’ (297).


There is much in this proposal – and in Chow’s general critique – that we find attractive and congenial. We echo her call for a new practice of comparativism. The problem, however, is that she mis-identifies both the nature and the historical dynamic of the dominant social instance that she wishes to counter and oppose. Linking her project explicitly to Dipesh Chakrabarty’s influential campaign to ‘provincialise Europe’ – an agenda as thoroughly ‘Third-Worldist’ as her own, and for pretty much the same reasons – Chow promotes a ‘post-European perspective’ in literary studies. However, the persistent slippage in her commentary between geo-historical and ideological categories – ‘European’ on the one hand, ‘Eurocentric’ on the other – fatally undermines her argument, transforming a potentially compelling ideological critique into an ineffectual complaint about ‘European’ civilisation, which, she supposes, has always, or at least throughout modern history, presented itself as ‘culturally superior’.


Thus ‘the dominance of European conceptual models’ (not ‘Eurocentric models’) is deplored, and ‘Europe’ is incoherently identified not merely as the ‘source’ but as the very form of domination on the world stage. This way of putting things has the effect of homogenising ‘Europe’, mystifying its ‘internal’ history and flattening out the unevenness of its ‘internal’ development. (It’s a bit rich for Chow to complain that her antagonists are guilty of ‘a crude lumping together of… histories, cultures, and languages with scant regard to exactly the… kinds of details and internal dynamics of thought that, theoretically speaking, should be part of the study of any tradition’, when this exactly describes her own commentary on ‘Europe’.) In this respect, what Paulo de Medeiros has written in general of contemporary attempts to unthink Eurocentrism pertains directly to Chow:

Within the general attack on Eurocentrism… there are two related flaws: first, the amalgamation of everything European into a fictive unity that, even if it might have some correspondence to the dream of homogeneity, has no real counterpart in a fragmented and divided Europe, more often than not torn against itself and amongst its constituent members; second the forgetting exactly of those parts of Europe that ‘Europe’ itself tends to forget, its own, anything but central, dominated others (1996: 43).


Chow’s ‘Third Worldism’ also leads to a dehistoricisation and dematerialisation of the dynamics of ‘modernity’. Her suggestions that ‘comparison’ in literary scholarship ought to include ‘a critique of the uneven distribution of cultural capital among languages themselves’ (303), and that such scholarship ought to take as its object ‘a type of discursive situation, involuntarily brought into play by and inextricable from the conditions of modern world politics’ (301), for instance, sound very promising, until we realise that, on her understanding, capitalism evidently plays no part in ‘modern world politics’. Instead, the latter are evidently to be thought of as being about the encounter between civilisational blocs: ‘Europe’ (including the United States, of course) and its various ‘others’. Even when ‘imperialism’ is named, the term is inevitably prefixed by the qualifier ‘European’, thus making it clear that what is at issue for Chow is not a process of accumulation on a world scale, but rather the imposition of ‘European’ culture upon other cultures.


Fredric Jameson has urged us to take on board the implications of the fact that ‘the United States is not just one country, or one culture, among others, any more than English is just one language among others. There is a fundamental dissymmetry in the relationship between the United States and every other country in the world, not only third-world countries, but even Japan and those of Western Europe’ (1998: 58). Chow’s ears are resolutely deaf to this reminder. She proceeds as though it were possible to achieve the ‘provincialisation’ of ‘Europe’ in the absence of any plausible explanation of what has grounded and enabled ‘European’ dominance over the course of the past five hundred years. The fact that this idealist understanding is counter-posed to the dominant understanding, equally idealist, does not in our view make it more compelling. We would argue that the idea of a new comparativism in literary studies only makes sense in the context of an overarching theory of the (capitalist) world system.



[i] See also Peter Widdowson, writing at the same time and in the same national context as Williams: ‘The “crisis” in English… is no longer a debate between criticisms as to which “approach” is best. Nor is it directly, yet, a question of English Departments being closed down along with other economically unproductive (and ideologically unsound) areas… Rather it is a question, posed from within, as to what English is, where it has got to, whether it has a future, whether it should have a future as a discrete discipline, and if it does, in what ways it might be reconstituted’ (1982: 7).

[ii] See Williams 1991b, 1989.

[iii] In this respect see Huggan (2001), Brouillette (2007), Strongman (2002), English (2005), and Casanova (2005), all of whom have interesting things to say about the commodification and marketing of literary prestige.

[iv] Cf. Fredric Jameson: ‘My sense is that this is essentially a visual culture, wired for sound – but one where the linguistic element… is slack and flabby, and not to be made interesting without ingenuity, daring, and keen motivation’ (1995: 299).

[v] Jameson speaks thus, of the ‘subsumption of whole fields and disciplines under the patronage of private business and, as it were, the assimilation to wage labor of the standard nonacademic type of researchers whose work is subsidized by monopolies who set the agenda and are likely to profit from the results’ (2008: 571). See, among others, Readings 1996, Furedi 2006, Ohmann 2003, Watkins 1989, Teeuwen and Hantke 2007, Maskell and Robinson 2001, Miyoshi 1998, 2000, 2005. Given their specific training, literary scholars are likely to view the ‘junk language’ of managerialism (‘junk language’ is Jameson’s term, in a slightly different context) as a vile insult added to the injury already caused by policies aimed at ‘socialising’ universities, and about which they are seldom consulted: ‘incentivisation’, ‘value added’, ‘quality assurance’, ‘competitiveness in a knowledge society’, ‘foresight activities’ ‘targets of opportunity’, etc. In the UK – the national environment in which we ourselves work – the ‘Research Assessment Exercise’ – a top-down, state-imposed scheme, centralised and vastly bureaucratic, in which all departments in all universities are obliged to participate – is widely seen to have had deleterious effects on the scope, ambition, originality, and independence of humanities scholarship, especially among younger scholars.

[vi] We have in mind here the salutary Bourdieusian admonition that the relating of ‘intellectual products and producers to their social conditions of existence’ remains ‘one of the fundamental taboos of the intellectual world’ (Bourdieu 1984: xiii).

[vii] ‘The notion of American exceptionalism is in many ways the foundation of the discipline of American studies’, Michael Denning notes: ‘whether the answers are cast in terms of the American mind, the national character, American myths and symbols, or American culture, the founding question of the discipline was “What is American?”’ (2004: 175). Cf. also Dimock and Buell 2007.

[viii] See for instance Amireh and Majaj 2000, Apter 1999, D. Ganguly 2008, Moses 1995, Mudimbe-Boyi 2002, Mufti 2005. For the wider context in the study of culture and globalisation, see Appadurai 1996, Breckenridge et al. 2002, Fludermik 2003, Howes 1996, King 1997, and the essays by Mignolo, Subramani, Kapur, and Paik in Jameson and Miyoshi 1998.

[ix] See also McCallum and Faith 2005 and the essays by Behdad and Cooppan in Loomba et al. 2005. A critical commentary is provided by Brennan 2004.

[x] See also Hoesel-Ihlig 2004.

[xi] Cf. Denning 2004; Brennan 1997, 2001.

[xii] Compare Moretti in this respect with David Damrosch, who, while rejecting the idea that ‘world literature’ is ‘a set canon of texts’, argues that it is to be understood precisely as ‘a mode of reading’: ‘a form of detached engagement with worlds beyond our own place and time’ (2003: 281). Damrosch’s three-part definition of ‘world literature’ also includes the propositions that ‘world literature is an elliptical refraction of national literatures’ and that ‘world literature is writing that gains in translation’. Cf. also Vilashini Cooppan: ‘[w]orld literature, as I tell my students, is not something you are given in full or get by proxy. Not a pre-packaged canon that differs from the traditional one only in its inclusion of a handful of unfamiliar names. Rather, world literature is a way you learn to think, a mode in which you learn to read, and a collective agreement you make to lose something in translation in order to gain something in transformation’ (2004: 30).

[xiii] In this sense, the famous passages from the Communist Manifesto that seem to evoke a transformation that is as abrupt as it is total, are potentially misleading: ‘All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient prejudices and opinions are swept aside, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air’, etc. (Marx and Engels 1998: 38). But just as readings of such passages in the Manifesto as being infused with enthusiasm for capitalism typically ‘forget’ that the writings of Marx and Engels are notable also for recording and protesting the violence of expropriation, the systematised misery and servitude that the imposition of capitalist social relations visited on populations everywhere, so too it is necessary to insist that the authors were well aware of the fact that the ‘capitalist revolution’ was not a once-and-for-all event, but rather a sprawling, bloody and erratic historical process, protracted over centuries.

[xiv] See especially the recent work of Justin Rosenberg, who revisits and reconstructs Trotsky’s conception, partly by way of debunking ‘globalisation theory’: Rosenberg 1996, 2005, 2006, 2007. See also Rosenberg’s exchange with Alex Callinicos in Callinicos 2008.

[xv] Bloch originally developed his concept of Ungleichzeitigkeit in Erbschaft dieser Zeit (1935). English translation, Heritage of Our Times (Bloch 1991). See also Bloch 1977, and the commentaries in Brennan 2006: 47ff., and Durst 2004: esp. 1-32.

[xvi] The case for ‘alternative’ modernities has been advanced most notably by Gaonkar 1999. See also Gaonkar 2001. For a critique, see Lazarus and Varma 2008.

[xvii] This line of thought is represented in the work of Dipesh Chakrabarty, Ashis Nandy, Timothy Mitchell, David Scott, and Tsenay Serequeberhan, among others.

[xviii] ‘To understand China’s modernity or its alternative modernity, overdetermined by complex and multiple structural relations, the centrality of revolution and political struggle in the field of cultural production, must be acknowledged. China’s alternative modernity can be best grasped as an ongoing process replete with contradictions: its revolution aiming at constructing socialism in a third-world, unindustrialized economy is alternative to the Western capitalist modernity in political and economic senses, and its emphasis on cultural revolution is also alternative in a cultural sense. But Chinese revolution is an integral part of modernity that is at once fragmentary and unifying, heterogeneous and homogenizing. Its project of modernity is as incomplete as its vision is unfulfilled’ (Liu 1998: 168).

[xix] In a subsequent passage, Brown notes that such a ‘reconstellation’ would involve a deconstructive demystification of the very ideas of ‘Western’ and ‘non-Western’ literature: ‘The question’, as he puts it, ‘would not be whether the most vital writing of the second half of the twentieth century was produced by Third World writers: it was. The question is rather what we mean by “literature” and what we mean by “West,” what agendas reside in those words and whether they have any meaning at all… What we usually call “non-Western” literature is rarely the expression… of some other culture, if by that we understand some other set of norms and rules that has developed along its own internal logic; rather, it must be thought of in terms of the positions that economically, ethnically, sexually, and geographically differentiated subjects occupy within the single culture of global capitalism that has more or less ruthlessly subsumed what was once a genuinely multicultural globe.

All of this should be obvious, even if our entire mainstream multicultural discourse is built around its explicit denial. But the recognition of what multiculturalism denies should not be taken to signify a celebration of, or acquiescence to, the power of some henceforth inescapable “Western’ tradition. Indeed, the capitalist monoculture dissimulated in multcultural discourse is not strictly speaking “Western” at all’ (2005: 6).

[xx] The paradigmatic critique of Jameson’s essay remains Ahmad 1987. For fifteen years or so, Ahmad’s argument against Jameson was taken as conclusive by pretty much everyone who entered the debate. More recently, however, a counter-critique of Ahmad and corresponding defence of Jameson has begun to make headway. See for instance Buchanan 2002, 2003, Lazarus 2004, McGonegal 2005.

[xxi] Cf. also the argument in the concluding section of Jameson’s book on postmodernism that modernism itself must be seen as ‘uniquely corresponding to an uneven moment of social development’, in which there is a ‘peculiar overlap of future and past’, such that ‘the resistance of archaic feudal structures to irresistible modernizing tendencies’ is evident (1995: 307, 309). Jameson illustrates this argument through reference to Kafka’s The Trial, focusing on the juxtaposition in the novel of a thoroughly modernised economic order and an older, indeed archaic, legal bureaucracy and political order deriving from the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

[xxii] He adds that comparative analysis of this kind ‘would necessarily include such features as the interrelationship of social classes, the role of intellectuals, the dynamics of language and writing, the configuration of traditional forms, the relationship to western influences, the development of urban experience and money, and so forth’.

[xxiii] A splendid and somewhat whimsical example of the ‘orthodox’ Eurocentrism of Comparative Literature is to be found in Hazel S. Alberson’s 1959 essay, ‘Non-Western Literature in the World Literature Program’. We write ‘whimsical’ because the exoticisation of ‘non-Western’ culture appears despite Alberson’s best intentions and most earnest aspirations, in an essay explicitly directed against cultural arrogance and condescension. ‘The pressures upon all of us to become acquainted with non-western countries are more urgent and more vital than in Goethe's time’, she writes, at the high point of the Cold War. ‘Today we are faced with a ONE WORLD. No longer can we hide behind the façade of our ignorance and our provincialism, no longer can we be indifferent to those parts of the world we do not know. Today the reality of the Orient with its varied cultures, its different orientations, its problems, is here, not to be made over in our image but to be understood and to be accommodated. It always seems to me that there should have been a Fifth Freedom – Freedom from Contempt which comes with ignorance’ (45-46). All this is deeply humane, and rather affecting. Alberson believes that ‘in exploring [literary works from the ‘non-West’] with our general knowledge of literatures and our comparative approach we can introduce the East within the perspective of the West, arouse a respect for the traditions of the East, erase some of the contempt that springs from ignorance and promote a larger tolerance’ (49). But she gives the game away, betraying in the process also the narrow and strictly time-bound provincialism of her own cultural formation, when she adds: ‘I will admit that at times the literature of the Orient can seem like its foods - highly spiced, exotic, with strange flavours - but they are usually concocted on the basis of staples with which were are quite familiar, just as is their literature…'

[xxiv] Cf. Rey Chow, who makes the excellent point that, although she ‘deeply appreciate[s] the intellectual and personal benefits of knowing multiple languages, it appears problematic… to equate comparison with multilingualism per se. In that equation, so often voiced in the decision-making processes of hiring committees and other professional situations, language has come to be viewed as a stand-in for method, and the ability to use a particular language, more or less as the equivalent of having knowledge itself – indeed, as a privileged – because nativist – way into a culture, a key that opens all doors’ (2004: 290). We will consider Chow’s ‘Third-Worldist’ critique of Comparative Literature below.

[xxv] The multilinguisticality of this particular issue of the Publications de la faculté des lettres de l’Université d’Istanbul also seems less portentous when considered against the backdrop of the vibrant cosmopolitanism of Turkish (and especially Istanbul) intellectualism generally in the period. See Kendall, for instance, who points out of the 47 journals appearing in Istanbul in 1876, ‘only 13 were in Turkish: the others were in mainly Greek, Armenian, and French’ (2002: 331). ‘Western’ literature and culture were actively debated by Turkish writers, journalists and intellectuals from the second half of the nineteenth century onwards.

[xxvi] See also Chow: ‘Because language as such tends to be viewed as a neutral fact, seldom is it pointed out in discussions of comparative literature that languages and cultures rarely enter the world stage and encounter one another on an equal footing, that “languages embed relations of dominance,” and that the notion of parity embedded in comparison as it currently stands would need to be recognized perhaps as a form of utopianism that tends to run aground in practice’ (2004: 296).

[xxvii] Thus Calvet: ‘even if to the linguist’s eye all languages are equal (the most widely spoken languages and those that are in the process of disappearing, those languages in which hundreds of thousands of books have been written and those that have not been transcribed), the world’s languages are in fact fundamentally unequal. To be sure, absolutely any dialect form of a little-spoken language of the Amazon basin or Africa deserves to be analysed just as much as English, Chinese or French and, so long as one undertakes the necessary labour of coining new words, everything can be said, written or taught in absolutely any language. But the fact remains that a discourse which would represent English and Breton, or French and Bobo, as socially equivalent would be both unrealistic and ideological: all languages do not have the same value, and their inequality is at the heart of the way they are organized across the world. To maintain the contrary would be an act of blindness or a sort of demagogy, granting the same importance to a mosquito as to an elephant, to a human being as to a butterfly: there are “elephant languages” and “mosquito languages” which it is difficult to consider on the same level, except of course from the point of view of the science which describes them. This comes down to saying that “elephant languages” and “mosquito languages” are all languages, a remark that borders on tautology’ (2006: 4).

[xxviii] See also Lazarus 2002.

[xxix] Cf. Shohat and Robert Stam 1994.

[xxx] Said presents his argument here as a break from the dominant forms of aesthetic philosophy since Kant: ‘Cultural experience or indeed every cultural form is radically quintessentially hybrid, and if it has been the practice in the West since Immanuel Kant to isolate cultural and aesthetic realms from the worldly domain, it is now time to rejoin them’ (1993: 68).

[xxxi] See the relevant writings of Brennan, Larsen, Lazarus, Parry, San Juan, Jr., and Sprinker, for example. [PROVIDE DETAILS]

[xxxii] For an interesting critique of Said’s ‘civilisational’ understanding of imperialism, suggesting its affinities with Max Weber, see Farris.

[xxxiii] Refer to some of the key commentaries on Said/Ahmad. [PROVIDE DETAILS]

[xxxiv] Cf. the analysis of the ‘fetishism’ of ‘the West’ in postcolonial theory, in Lazarus 2002.

[xxxv] ‘[T]here is a need now to look again at the idea of the canon, not least because of the way in which Western foundation texts have found their way into other literatures – think of the impact of naturalism on southern Indian literatures, of the extraordinarily creative use of Homer and the epic tradition by the St. Lucian Nobel laureate Derek Walcott, of the current translation boom in China, as Western writing is translated, imitated and rewritten in exciting new ways. A fundamental question that comparative literature now needs to address concerns the role and status of the canonical and foundation texts that appear to be more highly valued outside Europe and North America than by a generation of scholars uneasy about their own history of colonialism and imperialism’ (Bassnett 2006: 5).

[xxxvi] Cf. the dedication to Nayantara Sahgal’s 1985 novel, Rich Like Us: ‘To the Indo-British Experience and what its sharers have learned from each other’.

[xxxvii] The tendentiousness of Bassnett’s argument can be exposed merely through counter-citation of Sophie Bessis’s elegant demolition of its premises. Bessis writes of Eurocentric evocations of a ‘Greco-Roman tradition’ in general: ‘In fact, since Petrarch and others gave it an initial form in the fourteenth century, the founding myth of an exclusive Greco-Roman source has functioned as an implacable machine for the expulsion of oriental or non-Christian sources from European civilization. Erased: the Babylonian, Chaldean, Egyptian and Indian influences on Greece, from the pre-Socratics to the late descendants of Alexander. Disregarded: the huge prestige that Egypt always enjoyed within the Greek world, whose literary figures happily recognized what they owed to its sciences and its religion. Obscured: the crucial dimension of the Hellenistic era, that hybrid of Hellenism and the East. Passed over in silence: the cultural pluralism of a Roman empire for which the barbarians were men from the North, not the familiar peoples along the southern shores of the Mediterranean' (2003: 13.

[xxxviii] In which case, one would want to know the grounds on which Bassnett’s idealist positioning of the ‘inter-connection’ between these ‘civilisations’ is to be preferred over Samuel Huntington’s rather grimmer, ‘realist’ theory of a ‘clash of civilisations’.

[xxxix] In fact, Bassnett’s argument is in places so definitively Eurocentric (in the restricted sense of ‘Europe-centred’) as to render implausible even her own conflation of ‘Europe’ with ‘the West’ and ‘the Northern hemisphere’. It is difficult to know, for instance, how North American or Russian readers are to position themselves in relation to the advice that ‘it is important not to lose sight of where we, as Europeans, stand in relation to our own literary history’. The facts that significant sections of the Russian intelligentsia have consistently defined themselves in explicit opposition to the category of ‘the West’ (while insisting on their fidelity to ‘Europe’), and that significant sections of the U.S. intelligentsia have consistently defined themselves in explicit opposition to the category of ‘Europe’ (while insisting on their fidelity to ‘the West’) have evidently not given Bassnett pause.

[xl] See also Bauman 2004; Todorov 2005.

[xli] Or one could describe it as deconstructive. Habermas’s manifesto actually appeared under the joint signatures of himself and Jacques Derrida. Derrida was too ill at the time to contribute directly, and managed to append only a short preface. But he indicated that he wished to have Habermas’s piece appear under his own name also. The manifesto – ‘both an analysis and an appeal’ (Habermas 2005: 3) – duly appeared simultaneously in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and Libération. See Levy, Pensky and Torpey 2005: xi-xxix.

[xlii] Habermas is responding to the then-US Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, who had infamously castigated France and Germany as ‘old Europe’, praising instead the ‘new Europe’ of Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, among others, whose leaders supported – or at least refrained from publicly disavowing – the American-led offensive.

[xliii] See for example the dissenting pieces by Esterházy, Stasiuk, Krzeminski, and Keel in Levy, Pensky and Torpey 2005. Esterházy begins his piece with the witty observation that ‘Once, I was an Eastern European; then I was promoted to the rank of Central European. Those were great times (even if not necessarily for me personally), there were Central European dreams, visions, and images of the future; in short, everything (everything one needs for a round table, but that is spoken in haste and unfairly). Then a few months ago, I became a New European. But before I had the chance to get used to this status – even before I could have refused it – I have now become a non-core European’ (2005: 74). Stasiuk, too, protests that Habermas’s idea of ‘core Europe’ is not only truncating but falsifying, beginning his article with a cascading list of peoples evidently relegated by Habermas to the status of non-core Europeans: ‘Albanians, Bosnians, Bulgarians, Estonians, Croatians, Lithuanians, Macedonians, Moldavians, Montenegrins, Poles, Romanians, Serbs, Slovaks, Slovenians, Czechs, Ukrainians, White Russians’. And he adds: ‘And just so it doesn’t appear too simple, let’s add the “belt of mixed population” – as Hannah Arendt calls the diverse, amorphous areas somewhere between Germany and Russia – that is, small heaps of Germans and Russians scattered here and there. To this, we can add, for example, the Gagausians and Aromunians, the restless international Sinti, the Crimeans and the Turks who didn’t get back to their native lands on the Bosporus before it unexpectedly shrank’ (2005: 103). For his part, Keel, self-consciously writing from ‘the Scandinavian perspective’ – takes the opportunity to remind Habermas that if Danes in the modern era have participated in the ‘bellicose past’ that Habermas sees as having ‘entangled all European nations in bloody conflicts’, it has not been as instigators but rather as subjects struggling against German domination: ‘Around the year 1700’, he writes, ‘some 20 per cent of Copenhagen’s population was German-speaking, and Herder still regarded Copenhagen as “the Danish end of Germany”. Up until the end of the eighteenth century, German was the native tongue of the Danish royal family. It was only in 1773 that Danish became the official language of the army’ (2005: 81-82).