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date: 26 October 2020

Abstract and Keywords

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.

Keywords: collectivity, comparative literature, cosmopolitanism, globalization, internationalism, multiculturalism, totality, universality, Weltliteratur

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