World Literature versus Postcolonial Literature: Any Basis to its Claim?

The resurgence of world literature and its opposition to postcolonial literature has ignited vigorous debates. While some scholars have publicly confronted contentious claims of Postcolonial Studies’ dwindling scholarship in an era of Globalization Studies, Translation Studies, and World Literature—Baidik Bhattacharya’s Postcolonial Writing in the Era of World Literature; Amir Mufti’s Forget English! Orientalisms and World Literatures; and Chantal Zabus’s The Future of Postcolonial Studies, come to mind—others have privately exchanged their defense in their classrooms or on paper. Whether against world literature’s veritable erasure of the (postcolonial) Other, or its unassuming rendering of a Europe-centered perspective, its coeval rebirthing and mission to replace postcolonial literature is a self-mystifying hyperbole that generates distortions of its appearance versus its essence. In world literature’s attempt to be an exemplary substitute to postcolonial literary criticism, it has avoided its own representational claims.

My dear friends and colleagues, you have heard by now it is better to be critical and leave room for differences, rather than be a critic; so please allow me to explain myself. As a graduate student deeply exhausted from a steady stream of doctoral writing and competing—are we not all trying to publish often, attend conferences, and win awards, all the while watching the statistically depressing rates of professorial employment, and the faculty’s invigorated answer in alternative careers—, the introduction of World Literature posed a new concern for me. As the diploma piqued interest in our department, debates on the relevance of postcolonial literature began. The requirements and rewards (note: Harvard Institute of World Literature) of the diploma aside, reconciling a long-standing involvement with postcolonial studies, or frustration with bringing its theoretical apparatus to a productive dialogue with one’s research problems, or even pursuing literary inquiries outside its purview, is harder to accomplish for students. Lacking constructive discussions on both disciplines, world literature quickly rose to produce an exclusionary politics in our department, thus minimizing the diversity of critical scholarship. Mufti explains its effect on students and scholars alike: “The idea of world literature seems to exercise a strange gravitational force on all students of literature, even on those whose primary impulse is to avoid or bypass it entirely, forcing on them involuntary and unwanted changes of course and orientation” (2). While Mufti’s analysis somewhat assumes students are critically unaware, there is greater truth to the commodification (and conformity) of world literature in English departments across the world. He adds, “…The ongoing institutionalization of world literature in the academic humanities and in publishing cannot quite dispel a lingering sense of unease about its supposed overcoming of antagonism and a reconciliation and singularity that is too easily achieved” (Mufti 2). On my part, I felt the certificate was served as a fait accompli. By declining, I understood the field did not help me re-encounter postcolonial literary texts undoubtedly shaped by historical and contemporary exigencies.

Notwithstanding my department’s intentions, nor the few others enticed by the alternative position the field promises, I ask what is world literature? From what I read, world literature encourages the internationalization of literature beyond national identities and cultural affinities. According to the Journal of World Literature (JWL), its substantive mission embraces the “antimonies” of the fields of Comparative Literature, Postcolonial Studies, Literary Theory, and Translation Studies (Damrosch 2). David Damrosch writes these antimonies are the paralyzing, yet escapable “rifts” between cosmopolitan and national/cultural discourse, postcoloniality in an era of globalization, and works of translation versus texts of original languages (2). The answer to these challenges—the happy consequence—is world literature. Its commandments implant a spirit of this responsibility: “These are real divisions and they cannot be ignored,” declares Damrosch (2). Proleptically, its stone tablets detail its fight against exclusivity by parceling up Western European canons into its own agnostic revisioning. The discipline applauds itself as paying attention to the literatures of the world: (1) to advance more languages and texts (via translation); (2) to accept the reliance on English as a pedagogical inference (never mind the perils of Anglo-Globalism or what Bhattacharya argues is Anglophone’s totalizing force in re-inaugurating the singularity of world literature (9); (3) receptivity to periodization (pre-modern, modern, contemporary periods of western teleology); (4) and the ever-expanding context of ‘literary circulation’ signifies temporality over spatiality (perhaps inspired by Pheng Cheah’s theory-deft Hegel-Marx formation of cosmopolitanism and the role of time as worlding).

While proponents of world literature claim its definitions are manifold, inspired by the diversification of postmodern and postcolonial discourses, its opponents argue it is a revived concept that embodies the historical encounters of the European gaze as its starting point. The field has expanded since the 1990s, and as Damrosch asserts, it comprises “all literary works that circulate beyond their culture of origin, either in translation or in their original languages” (4). In its reliance on fiction’s encompassing power—mediated through texts that traverse borders and break free of cultural and national specificities—it encourages Enlightenment universalisms in its conceptual opposition to national narratives, rather than assert the promotion of non-European universalisms as an ethical imperative to further social transformation and representative change in our world. Given our current global milieu, the idea of reading the literatures of the world to challenge dichotomies and borders into a mediation of exchanges, circulations, and connections has gained currency, yet it uncritically distorts and dehistoricizes the legacy of imperial economies of extraction and western modernity that dominated the global south and settler colonies—colonialism, slavery, indentured labour, resource extraction, land possession, political sovereignty, cultural alienation, and language loss. More so, it devalues the insurgency and resistance of many postcolonial masses who strive beyond a subaltern consciousness of fragmentation and displacement and towards a Left-focused and ethically-sensible praxis.

In his book, Bhattacharya contends world literature is neither a reconciliation of the world’s diverse literature, nor a new framework to existing challenges of globalization and transnationalism. First, he argues the field is “dead” as it purports a “nineteenth century ideal…always and already embedded in colonial histories” (n.p.). For its two main models are the “mimetic systems [that] account for all literatures of the world and [a] miniaturized replication of Europe to map whatever lies beyond its discursive limits” (22). Second, its literary framework and cosmopolitan imagination is already exhausted by postcolonial Anglophone writers like J.M. Coetzee, V.S. Naipaul, and Salman Rushdie. Bhattacharya defines the field’s multiplicity, methodology, and purpose as a progression towards universalization first, canonicity second, and third the examination of literature’s intrinsic characteristics, as per Casanova, versus its extrinsic values. For postcolonialists, examining the text within the parameters of its aesthetics and formal features without any adherence to historical, political, and social analysis is insuperable. Concerned with the “trinity figure” of David Damrosch, Franco Moretti, and Pascale Casanova, Bhattacharya questions the reliance on their “canonical status” as “unparalleled” in today’s standards (22; Hayot 33,38). The concern with these key (American/European) figures speaks to the unease of how it privileges, or allows one to be detached from the condition of the Other. In addition, it defines ‘who’ validates the primacy of the literary text. As English scholars, the text holds great importance, for it enters spaces where theory cannot dwell. As an object of thought (and hence of knowledge), the text has power. Rightfully, this power can be an antidote to theoretical confinement and its manipulation of content and context. All literary theories enact an epistemic violence on the text, and postcolonial criticism is no exception but neither is world literary studies. As I read it, world literature cannot escape its own sectorial language, nor its desire to monopolize the truth. Beyond the inclusivity of world texts, harnessing an assemblage of multiple positions—oppositional but complimentary, integrative but advocating a strong stance while combing through other theories (favorite: postcolonial theory), and freedom to pursue its own lines of inquiry—suggests a specific point of view between who can define ‘the world,’ access it and be a part of it.

In tackling the issue of cosmopolitanism (a key direction for world literature), Didier Costa argues that beyond questions of canon and who is entitled to ‘world-making,’ world literature is “extremely ambiguous” because of the problems it generates in confining any work implicated as “cultural” in our era of globalization (328). Costa’s notion of experimental cosmopolitanism, not only denounces the renewal of cosmopolitan’s one-sided, hidden and conflictual force that propels the ideologies of comparative and world literatures, but declares itself as an ethical project towards decentering utopian ideals and fixed notions of originality while embracing all cultural differences (that does not divide and exclude through its definition). To simplify this, Mufti’s Forget English! claims world literature inadvertently purports “modern Orientalism,” as per Edward Said’s term (in Bhattacharya 24; Mufti n.p.). In his harsh analysis, he imbues the field regurgitates capitalist modernity and bourgeoisie culture. While his insistence on world literature’s dependency on English and translation studies is to argue against its (cosmopolitan) limitlessness, by centralizing Said’s study on imperial structures of power/knowledge, he equally admonishes its provincialization of Europe—reminiscent of Dipesh Chakrabarty’s thesis in Provincializing Europe. Where Mufti attempts a postcolonial analysis of British India, Chakrabarty’s theorization of the imaginary Europe with which notions of teleological time, unhistoricized spaces, and ‘primitive’ natives in the colonization of Others—Native-American/Canadian, African, Asian, Latin American, Aboriginal Australians—and the imperious confidence of the motherland finds a contemporary friend in world literature. If the field found its theoretical treatise in Cheah’s What is a World?, in its championing of “time” through a Marxist historicity while readily maturing the literary text as the active agent that intervenes in all processes, then its argument for the death of postcolonial analysis is still incomplete. Cheng’s reversing of a spatial understanding of the world, despite his notation of time in historical materialism, cannot fully concretize the tenets of domination and subordination in the postcolonial south. World-time is European, and Cheng’s charge of its “imprisonment” in silencing local temporalities is noteworthy, yet faultily ignores the maturation of capitalist hegemony in determining the necessity and abject conditions of many impoverished groups and communities. Another interesting defense is Allan’s In the Shadow of World Literature. Although focused on world literature in his extensive exposition of modern Arabic literature, he attempts to redefine the field in both possible and problematic ways. Taking colonial Egypt as a site (note: Egypt is in Africa, it is not Africa) and example of the limits of reading publics, Allan centralizes the “formation of the ethical subject” to reconstitute the textual practises of postcolonial and world literatures (3). While I feel in his ethical reconstruction he questions the normative as well as the exclusionary claims of any critical field, he argues that world literature expands the representational subject of the postcolonial text to the “critical subject” of the world (9). The main problem with Allan’s theorization is the ‘site’ of Egypt as a historical power in North and East Africa, and its conflicting relationship with the Middle East, Arab world, and Sub-Saharan Africa.

Hence, after reading much of the inaugural issue of JWL and other books, I have concluded this much: even in countering the assertion that world literature encourages an Eurocentric paradigm, its inability to focus on its own shortcomings is problematic. While the infighting among postcolonial scholars has resulted in extensive ideological differences, it is almost necessary to offer diverse modes of readings and misreadings. This article has pointedly asked about world literature as its primary question, while its secondary question—whether postcolonial studies is tethering on its last legs—underscores the field’s need for its own deeper exploration. While it is a pertinent question to ask, and one addressed well in advance by Ania Loomba’s passionate call for postcolonial critiques of globalization, as well as many scholars who move theory and criticism forward in the field, it still has a long way to go. Thus, the future of postcolonial studies must challenge its own former attributes, while highlighting new intersectional differences. In recent criticism, we can note diverse discourses on contemporary migration (forced migration, refugee studies, diaspora, and returnees), spatiality and narrative geographies, literatures of liberation, globalization and hybridity, Left universalism, and Marxist influence in postcolonial theory. Its geographic scope is forcing tectonic shifts in our understanding of hemispheric studies, world maps and literary cartography. Certainly, gaining momentum is Indian Ocean Studies, North African/Maghreb Studies, and a rethinking of the Eastern African region. As new areas expand the reach of postcolonial inquiry, while equally sparking off its incommensurability (as a strength), Indigenous Studies/Literature, African/Asian/South American indigeneity and language literatures, and Dalit Studies, challenge how minority groups have access to political, economic, and social institutions that have historically limited their participation. For instance, Jodi Byrd’s Transit of Empire is a powerful indictment of the imperial conceit of Euro-American power. In her impressive book, she poignantly asks if the indigenous subject can define itself? Byrd’s premise of indigeneity as “transit” distinguishes its own dominated past from postcolonial others, all the while transforming the field through the material conditions of both the realist and revolutionary subject (xv).

The focus on reading practises in new/old postcolonial genres also have reenergized our appetites—postcolonial poetics; Afropolitanism; African FutureS (futuristic sci-fi); Postcolonial Trauma Studies (that asserts histories of genocide and mass trauma in the south within (and beyond) the ongoing theorization by Holocaust Studies; note: 25th year anniversary of the Rwandan genocide); ecocriticism, greening and paradisiacal discourse embedded in neocolonial imaginaries; new postcolonial realms (example: Italophone writers of Somali, Eritrean and Ethiopian descent);  and the changing notions of gender, sexualities, and queering. Indeed, as Chantal Zabus’s The Future of Postcolonial Studies acknowledges its eventual demise, the role of western academics in publishing production and reception requires greater scrutiny, while the revitalization and promotion of indigenous languages/literatures and ways of being needs to be placed front and center (a great example: the role of storytelling in Aboriginal people’s experiences to change our epistemological structures of what we hear and know). Without adhering to a ‘back and forth’ of every claim and counter-claim between world literature and postcolonial studies, Zabus claims its near-death experience is an opportunity to sufficiently attend to its theoretical assessments. In the edited collection, Zabus identifies the field’s unprecedented surge through its second-generation of scholars, with herself and current scholars as expanding its notions of intersectionality (5). I add that a newer set of scholars must address the rising proliferation of technology, terrorism and territorialization of nations and borders in a post-WWII, post-cold war politics, post-911, post-national/transnational, geopolitical world; yet the postcolonial imperative must always call for the agency of the postcolonial subject.

In the end, I hope world literature will follow the same call. I am certain that in undergoing its own “infighting” world literature will attend to those questioning voices, and explore the ways in which its theoretical and methodological frameworks do not address the issues and dilemmas that plague our twenty-first century. I am also certain that the new crop of emerging scholars, cognizant of the differences between postcolonial and world literatures, will adhere to the question of ethics. Therefore, the opposition between world literature and postcolonial literature is deeply problematic in its entrenchment of how opposition is secured and validated. Difference is necessary, almost injunctive to growing as a scholar, while rekindled suspicion and passion are entertaining in theoretical debates, yet I would like to end by reminding you that it is not easy to defend ethics, but necessary in the work we do and the texts we read.

Nasra Smith is a doctoral candidate and Teaching Assistant in the Department of English at York University. She holds a BA (Spec. Hon) in Individualized Studies, an MEd in Education, and an MA in English from York University. Nasra is currently writing her dissertation on East African Literature.

Works Cited

Allan, Michael. In the Shadow of World Literature: Sites of Reading in Colonial Egypt. Princeton University Press, 2016.

Bhattacharya, Baidik. Postcolonial Writing in the Era of World Literature: Territories, Globalizations. Routledge, 2019.

Byrd, Jodi A. The Transit of Empire: Indigenous Critiques of Colonialism. University of Minnesota Press, 2011.

Costa, Didier. “Experimental Cosmopolitanism. Reframing Critical Literary and Cultural Theories: Thought on the Edge, edited by Nicolette Pireddu, Palgrave Macmillan, 2018, pp. 327-52.

Damrosch, David. “The World in a Journal.” Journal of World Literature, vol. 1, no. 1, 2016, pp.1-7.

—. What is World Literature? Princeton University Press, 2003.

Hayot, Eric. On Literary Worlds. Oxford University Press, 2012.

Mufti, Amir. Forget English! Orientalisms and World Literatures. Harvard University University Press, 2016.

Zabus, Chantal. The Future of Postcolonial Studies. Routledge, 2015.




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