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Jen Hui Bon Hoa

In recent decades, world has emerged as one of the most fiercely contested concepts in literary studies. The more narrowly defined stakes of the debates over world literature concern the disciplinary mandate of comparative literature. One way of grasping the world as a problematic is in terms of a dispute over the correct unit of literary analysis. Should comparative literature scholars seek to illuminate broad historical patterns in the global circulation of influence as reflected, for example, in the morphology of literary genres or the adoption of tropes across different literary cultures? Or should they seek instead to come to grips with the singularity of the world—the unique systems of thought and meaning—presented in individual texts, using the methodology of close reading that offers a model for the ethical relation to otherness? The issue of scale is equally at play in the multiculturalist imperative to expand the literary canon beyond its traditional emphasis on European and Anglo-American traditions. While the general consensus is that undoing comparative literature’s Eurocentrism is crucial to the discipline’s continued relevance, the practical question of how to go about it has been contentious. If scholars are required to draw from a diversified literary canon, how can they attain the linguistic competence required to treat the enlarged field of inquiry with adequate hermeneutic care? The danger, according to some critics, is that world literature will normalize the study of literary texts in English translation. Another critique of such globalizing initiatives regards the value of diversity itself. Some have argued that conceiving of literary works as representatives of specific cultures or regions is itself a legacy of Orientalist Eurocentrism and that, therefore, a multiculturalist approach inadvertently entrenches the very problem it seeks to rectify. A range of political and ethical concerns are thus at stake in the endeavor to globalize comparative literature. Indeed, the concept of world literature has historically been bound up with an assessment of globalization’s liberatory potential and, increasingly, its oppressive effects. The emergence of world literature as a project or goal is often, though not always, traced back to Goethe at the beginning of the 19th century. Reflecting the Enlightenment value of universalism, Goethe’s evocation of Weltliteratur projects a world united through free literary exchange across borders and intercultural understanding. In The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels situate Goethe’s cosmopolitan vision in a materialist framework, presenting it as derivative of the economic transformations entailed in the world market. They also radicalize Goethe’s model of cosmopolitanism. Instead of an autonomous sphere of communication among the national literary traditions of the world, for them Weltliteratur stands metonymically for a future in which both the nation and private property—as manifested in the idea of national patrimony—are superseded by an internationalist commonwealth. Fleshing out the tension between Goethe’s and Marx’s visions of the globalized world, recent debates on world literature have generated productive confrontations between liberal humanistic, Marxist, deconstructive, and postcolonial perspectives on the gap between the world one inhabits and the world one wants.


Derek Attridge

The term singularity has been put to a variety of uses by philosophers and literary theorists with a limited degree of consistency among them. It is very often contrasted with one or more other terms which might seem to be synonyms, such as particular and individual, and its relation to universality and generality is frequently discussed. Although the term itself is not an important one for Kant, his discussion in the Critique of Judgment of the peculiar nature of aesthetic or reflective judgment marks the beginning of a long history of philosophical attention to the artwork as a singular entity resistant to analysis and the experience of art as unamenable to explanation. Some philosophical deployments of the concept of singularity stress uniqueness, self-sufficiency or transcendence (Martin Heidegger, Gilles Deleuze, Hans-Georg Gadamer); others see singularity as self-divided and existing only in relation to other singularities (Jean-Luc Nancy) or to generalities (Jacques Derrida). Singularity is sometimes understood as an event rather than an entity (Deleuze, Jean-François Lyotard, Nancy, Derrida); for some thinkers, it is closely connected with community (Giorgio Agamben, Nancy). For Derrida, the most influential of these philosophers for literary studies on this topic, singularity is inseparable from iterability; a mark or sign is able to remain the same through history and in various realizations if it is able to change with each new context in which it appears. As a term in literary theory, singularity is usually regarded as a distinctive quality of the literary work, combining as it does a sense of the work’s uniqueness with its participation in general and generic codes and norms. The reader’s encounter with the singularity of the work is an encounter with otherness that necessitates a change in his or her frameworks of understanding and feeling; every such reading is singular in that the reader and the context of reading will always be different. Iterability is a condition of literary singularity: works retain their identity only because they are open to change.


Julie Thompson Klein

The relationship of interdisciplinarity and literary theory is marked by the boundary work of competing practices deemed inside and outside of the discipline, conflicting claims of specialization and generality, and shifting representations of the concept of interdisciplinarity. The line between text and context has been a recurring point of debate, amplified by tensions between traditional practices and new approaches. The earliest warrants for interdisciplinarity included a synoptic view of knowledge and the social and moral purpose of literary education. Even after institutionalization of the modern system of disciplinarity in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, advocates upheld related claims. Other interests, though, were also apparent, including the practice of borrowing from social sciences, the synchronic paradigm of periodization, interart criticism, and the work of polymaths who posited a broad view of culture. Guides to practice published by the Modern Language Association from the late 1960s through the early 1980s reinforced the power of intrinsic criticism. Yet, as new interests beyond formalist criticism took root, representation of interdisciplinarity changed. The 1992 guide was marked by a heterogeneity of movements that broadened the scope of literary study while shifting theorization of interdisciplinarity in literary studies from earlier warrants to critique and historical, political, and sociological turns in scholarship. Transdisciplinary and transnational redrawings of boundaries are extending the scope of both interdisciplinarity and literary theory. Counter to popular characterization of movements rising and falling, hybrid methodologies combine older and newer approaches, such as combining close readings of texts or deconstructionist analysis with questions of gender or power. Relations of literary studies with other disciplines and interdisciplinary fields also exhibit a growing momentum for intersectionality apparent in the 2007 guide to practice.