Conceptualizing World Literature

To continue our discussions of World Literature as a theoretical concept in more depth, we will discuss four crucial articles in the field and also the preface and introduction to my new book where I use this framework.

Each of you should consider yourselves “experts” on one of these articles, which means roughly 8 people should read each one carefully and be ready to present it. But you should have read all five works at least quickly.

The first is a classic and is accompanied by many others that bolster Moretti’s still controversial position against close reading, favouring “distant” reading. Mufti’s is more recent and provides a crucial discussion of Orientalism’s links to the institutionalization of World Literature. Tanoukhi’s piece focuses on the context of Africa and elaborates on some of the larger problems with World Literature through her discussion of art and literature. Nadia al-Baghdadi concentrates on putting the way in which Arabic literature has been studied traditionally into conversation with ideas underpinning World Literature as a concept. My new book uses World Literature as a framework to think through the way in which we talk about Lebanese women writers who use Arabic words/language in their texts written in standard French.  All of these works are available through the McGill library system. I have copied links below, but it is your responsibility to find and read these articles/chapters.

(1) Franco Moretti, “Conjectures on World Literature,” New Left Review

(2) Aamer Mufti, “Orientalism and the Institution of World Literature,” Critical Inquiry 36 (Spring 2010)

(3) Nirvana Tanoukhi, “The Scale of World Literature,” New Literary History, 39: 3 (2008) pp.599-617

(4) Nadia al-Baghdadi, “Registers of Arabic Literary History,” New Literary History, 39: 3 (2008): 437-461.

NLH Baghdadi Arabic Lit. History

(5) Michelle Hartman, preface and introduction, Native Tongue, Stranger Talk: The Arabic and French Literary Landscapes of Lebanon (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2014).

ntst intro

(NB: You must be connected through the McGill system, or another system that subscribes to JSTOR and project MUSE to download most of these articles, I will upload mine ASAP…).

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5 Responses to Conceptualizing World Literature

  1. Azra Siddique says:

    I personally found the argument in Franco Moretti’s article particularly interesting and thought-provoking for it was unanticipated. One would think that close reading would allow us to grasp much; however, he argues that world literature surpasses what can be grasped by conventional ways of close reading and further promotes the approach of distant reading. The standpoints in regards to world literature of the various individuals in the articles are very diverse, interesting, but somewhat puzzling. Puzzling because I feel as if world literature is supposed to be something which is in theory, superlative and accessible to all, yet is defined in a very different way according to each individual. World literature raises the question as to how one should read the world … I guess that the variation in the definitions are the different methods in how each individual imagines comparative literature is a mirror to how they see the world.

  2. Florence Béland says:

    What I understood is that according to Moretti, to study world literature is to study how power varies from place to place. It is to analyze the literary compromises made by the local source to fit the more powerful foreign influence. Is power-balance the lens through which to analyze world literature?

    With this in mind, I become sceptic of Moretti’s Japanese example. Who is one to say that the “local characters” behave in strange ways to fit the “foreign plot”? And how can one identify and define the uneasiness in the comments of the narrator resulting from this attempt to fit a foreign plot? Can’t this uneasiness be an aspect of the local culture as well, not a dysfunction resulting from a compromise? I mean, what is “strange”?

    Perhaps I am seeking more concrete examples with a text and a culture in particular, but in the end this would defeat Moretti’s point as Azzra finely put it above; distance reading is his valued approach to study world literature.

  3. Hannah Wiliams says:

    I agree with Florence in that I had difficulty understanding exactly what Moretti meant by the uneasiness he found present in foreign narratives. Additionally , I think his claim that “there is no symmetry in literary interference. A target literature is, more often than not, interfered with by a source literature which completely ignores it,” misses an important point that Mufti stresses in his writing on Orientalism. Mufti shows that Indian literature had a profound effect on Europeans, creating an “Indo mania” soon after colonization. I think that Moretti’s argument of “One and Unequal,” is incomplete because he doesn’t address the effects of “world literature” on European writers.

  4. shelbyfys says:

    I found Moretti’s perspective to be quite interesting, but at the same time it was somewhat confusing. He did not state exactly what ‘distant reading’ entailed, and his study of literature seems to have more of an anthropological base. I found this point interesting where he stated, “investing so much time in individual novels only makes sense if you believe so few of them matter”. I don’t agree with this statement, but his method of analyzing world literature is something I have never heard before. In regards to the article, I found the broader idea of his research intriguing, but the text itself dull and not thoroughly explained enough.

  5. Robert Bell says:

    In contrast to some of my peers responses, I felt Moretti’s conjectures to be one of the most interesting interpretations of World Literature that we covered in the course. I think the key theoretical basis of Moretti’s approach lies in the ‘distant’ reading that the comment above addressed. By this Moretti means that if one wants to use World Literature as a methodological tool, one needs to interrogate the synthetic and syncretic processes that produce works of local literature, which are consumed on a global scale. It is in Moretti’s Marxian orientation that we can gain insight into how this “mode of reading” that is World Literature should be done. Moretti calls on us to focus our analysis on the global imposition of genre, form, device, or theme into literary production as our primary locus for inquiry. From a post-colonial framework this entails recognizing that literary forms and techniques, for the most part, have been forcibly exported by the European core to the subaltern. We cannot view these colonized texts as “self-sufficient” or “autonomous”. However, I think we can still read them as having agency because in reading (and thus elevating) such works using Moretti’s theoretical framework we are also in effect exposing the unequal power dynamics that inform them.

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