A Tale of Two Worlds

Tyler Scott Ball

In the summer of 2016 I visited the Institute for World Literature at Harvard University. The following summer I attended the African Literature Association’s annual conference, the theme for which was “Africa and the World,” and a great many panels and panelists considered the role African literatures might play in the emergent field of world literature. The following is an attempt to place my encounters with these institutions in radical juxtaposition, allowing one to interrogate the other. I will sketch a rough genealogy and analyse the discursive practices at work in their respective mission statements, programs, and keynote addresses.

The Institute for World Literature (IWL) was founded in 2011 by the Chair of the Department of Comparative Literature at Harvard, David Damrosch. In part, the institute was a response to the resurgent interest in world literature that had developed over the previous decade, but the field traces its roots back to the continental European comparatists of the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries.[1] In his genealogy of world literature, Aamir R. Mufti maintains that “world literature was from the beginning an eminently Orientalist idea, made possible by the new philological and institutional practices that made up the world of modern Orientalism” (36). And while proponents of world literature are certainly invested in genealogies with philological origins, the imperial or colonial contexts in which these disciplines were forged go largely unacknowledged. The field seems further invested in an image of the world that is newly globalized, and a belief that canon expansion is a necessary requirement for literary studies in this new context. The mission statement of the IWL states:

“The Institute for World Literature (IWL) has been created to explore the study of literature in a globalizing world. As we enter the twenty-first century, our understanding of “world literature” has expanded beyond the classic canon of European masterpieces and entered a far-reaching inquiry into the variety of the world’s literary cultures and their distinctive reflections and refractions of the political, economic, and religious forces sweeping the globe (emphasis added).”

What strikes me about this statement is its presumptive use of the possessive pronoun “our” in the second sentence, which extends an invitation to the reader to be included within the collective on the condition that they accept a particular formulation (fabrication?) of the world. In order for our shared world to expand beyond the established canon, we must first accept a Eurocentric universe as our starting point and ground. “Underlying this supposed global and historical breadth,” Michael Allan suggests, “is an assumption that the accumulation of traditions under the rubric of world literature leads to a deprovincialization of literary knowledge” (115). Is it enough for an expansion of the canon to seek to include “the world,” rather than the exclusively European world, without first addressing the criteria that excluded the non-western world in the first instance? Or, to put it another way, if our project intends to replace injustice with inclusion, without meaningfully addressing injustice, then how are we to avoid reifying the same colonial logics that produced the imbalance we seek to correct? Or, to put it in even another way, is there a fundamental difference between the imperial projects of philologists and translators during the colonial era and the project of world literature in this contemporary iteration?

In his introductory lecture, David Damrosch showed us a graph of what he calls the hypercanon: those authors about whom over a hundred new scholarly works are published annually. The list included James Joyce, Marcel Proust, Franz Kafka, Jorge Borges, and Virginia Woolf. As Damrosch pointed out, each of these writers represents a powerful Western European language, whether English French, German, or Spanish. He discussed the disparity in scholarly attention that would see the relatively minor French author Georges Perec rank among such literary giants as Rabindranath Tagore, Orhan Pamuk, and Naguib Mahfouz. The discrepancy of influence was noted, it was bemoaned, but the long histories of colonization, globalization, and cultural assimilation that lead to it remained entirely untheorized.

In his concluding remarks, Damrosch made clear that the study of world literature demands a certain degree of selection on the part of its scholars, who are ultimately tasked with deciding what is worth discussing. Or, to put it another way, what literature counts and what counts for literature. He suggested that these are political decisions and need to be treated as such, declaring: “What I think we need to do is push against our own will to power over our material” (20 June 2016). Looking back, this statement strikes me as an important example of the bright potential of world literature as a concept, and the willingness of the field to highlight the shortcomings of “national one-sidedness and narrowmindedness,” as Marx and Engels put it, felt liberating (143). We are going to need a lot more than pithy statements, however, if we are going to resist the persistent forces of globalization, colonization, and capitalist accumulation.

Consider for a moment the selections that Damrosch made in developing his own syllabus for the seminar he ran at the IWL that summer. At first glance, the scope of his reading list seems impressive. Texts from across Europe, East Asia, and Latin America make up the bulk of the readings, but they are complemented by Caribbean and South Asian writers, as well as texts from Tibet and Taiwan. If we consider the list by another metric, one that does not consider all nations to have been created or subjugated equally, its apparent diversity disappears. The overwhelming majority (93%) of the works assigned for this seminar, entitled “Grounds for Comparison,” come from the national literatures of G20 nations. Precisely the same pattern exists if we consider the makeup of the IWL. Of the 151 participants in attendance in 2016, 134 came from institutions located in G20 nations. And so, though dozens of nations are represented at IWL each year, and there are most certainly scholars who come from the peripheries of the world system, they have had to find their way into the centres of global power in order to be included within the world of world literature, and the same can be said of the texts that are deemed worthy of inclusion. We should not downplay the work that has been done to expand the canon, or the range of scholars who participate in world literature as a field; however, the question remains: is the imperative towards expansion an attempt to disrupt the systems that produce exclusion, or is it merely an attempt to redraw the existing borders to include the officially-sanctioned canons of the sufficiently-developed world?[2]

At the ALA in 2017, Simon Gikandi delivered a keynote address entitled “African Literature in the World,” in which he praises the “drive for plurality and planetarity” of world literature and observes that the success of the project “depends on its capaciousness and inclusiveness, its ability to provide modalities that are as comprehensive and as diverse as the world itself” (16 June 2017). Gikandi asks whether “literatures produced in the periphery of the world system [can] meet the standards established by the high-priests of world literature?” (16 June 2017). Using the principles set out by Damrosch in his influential work What is World Literature? (2003), Gikandi declares that “almost all African texts belong to world literature” (16 June 2017); and yet, despite satisfying the criteria for inclusion within the field, African literature remains overlooked and underdiscussed in world literary circles. This leads Gikandi to ask: “why is the world literature establishment afraid of African writing?” and “what is it that this thing called African literature seems to threaten?” (16 June 2017).

If we return to the various syllabi for the seminars taught at the IWL in 2016, the neglect of African writings is patent. Of the 13 seminars offered that summer, more than half failed to discuss a single African text, including Damrosch’s own seminar. In total only a dozen texts out of more than 350 assigned readings for over a hundred sessions could be said to come from African contexts, and the overwhelming majority of these were from a select few writers in what we might think of as the African hypercanon: J.M. Coetzee, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, and the newly-anointed Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. One wonders what Chinua Achebe did to be excluded this time. In all seriousness, however, there is some merit to judiciously accounting for the remainder in these literary exchanges, that sum that refuses to balance.

Gikandi began his talk by celebrating the linguistic and cross-cultural complexity of the African literary community, admitting that he had been walking around the conference making note of all the languages he could recognize: “So far I have found 12 Nigerian, 8 Kenyan, 6 Ugandan, 4 or 5 Cameroonian languages, and this is only day two of the conference” (16 June 2017). Ultimately, he declared: “Africans truly are the language people” (16 June 2017). Of the roughly 7000 languages in the world, more than 2000 are found in Africa. In comparison, there are less than 300 languages in the whole of Europe, about as many as can be found in Cameroon. During the question period, Ato Quayson offered a rather provocative explanation for the exclusion of Africa from the major discussions and anthologies of world literature: ignorance. Looking around the room he observed that this audience was proficient in hundreds of languages, including all of the major European languages, and he questioned whether the inverse was true for scholars of world literature.

Perhaps the very concept that national one-sidedness can be equated with narrowmindedness is a problem that results from the enforced homogeneity of Euro-nationalism, where nation-people-language are expected to align. Perhaps the shift towards minority literatures, or towards the peripheries and margins is a biproduct of monocultural exhaustion. And perhaps our attempts to address this problem could benefit a great deal from (con)texts in which homogeneity is not the norm, or even the expectation. Gikandi and Quayson seemed to agree that the struggle for African literature is not simply to fight for inclusion but to fight to renegotiate the terms of inclusion. As Gikandi noted: “The texts that are admitted into the configuration of world literature are those that seem to retain and sustain not only the romantic idea of literature that was driving Goethe’s project, but also a European centre that remains undisturbed by that which was meant to disturb it” (16 June 2017). Perhaps it is time to be disturb.

On my very first night at the IWL, I attended a reception dinner at the Harvard Museum of Natural History, where I found myself desperately trying to concentrate on a conversation about translating Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway from English into English, while the knowing eyes of recently-extinct animals stared at me from behind their glass cases. It all seemed rather tongue and cheek, the sort of thing you might say to sound clever in a room full of academics. As I still struggled to figure out if the speaker was being facetious, I think about the 135 African languages that are in the process of going extinct, and the 366 others that are endangered. I wonder whether the curators of future generations will be able to house them in glass cases like they have done with the last of the heath hens.

While attending the ALA I had a chance to visit the Yale University Art Gallery, and spent the afternoon in the west wing—three floors containing a collection of African, Asian, and Indo-Pacific art. While wandering the African gallery I had a rather fortuitous encounter with Guarav Desai and Kevin Hickey, in which Dr. Desai pointed out a sculpture from Sierra Leone that featured a female figure wearing a bindi. He spoke about the cross-currents of Indian and African histories, and the Indian Ocean world that has been circulating for millennia. Dr. Hickey and I spoke briefly about the tragically speculative labels on many of the African artworks.

The label for the piece mentioned above identified the artist as “possibly” John Goba and stated that this object “could be a reference to the slave trade” or it “might” address “ongoing racial tensions in the country” (Lamp et al. 312). Other labels said no more than “Unidentified Kom Artist,” “Unidentified Baule Artist,” “Unidentified Yamba Artist” (Lamp et al. 145, 126, 300)—the last of these labels described the piece as being from “Cameroon or Nigeria.” This lack of specificity was a problem that seemed isolated to the western wing and sat in stark contrast to the rich details that were bestowed upon works from the European exhibits of the central galleries. More glaring still was the fact that many of the pieces on display in the African exhibit were contemporary artworks, including those possibly produced by John Goba—a living artist whose work continues to circulate in the metropoles of Paris, New York, and Los Angeles. And yet we often know more about the wealthy donors that amassed these collections than we do about the artists who produced the works they so coveted.[3]

We can think of these museums not as analogies for world literature, but as parallel projects of accumulation, which highlights some of the tendencies at work in the both fields. In their current iterations, these projects seem driven by a desire for acquisition, rather than a desire for meaningful inclusion. It is not enough for the canons of the non-European world to be added to the pile of world literature, like so many volumes in a Borgesian universal library. The truly radical potential at the heart of the concept of world literature is the impetus to rethink literary studies outside of the national, or even transnational condition. To engage with that potential, however, the study of world literature should be a deeply disturbing practice that seeks out material, conceptual, and experiential encounters that undermine world systems of global circulation, capitalist accumulation, and colonial subjugation.

[1] Although there are countless possible origins for the concept of world literature, dating as far back as ancient Sumer (c. 2000 BCE), the more commonly cited source texts tend to be Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s “Conversations with Eckermann on Weltliteratur” (1827), Hugo Metzl’s “Present Tasks of Comparative Literature” (1877), Hutcheson Macaulay Posnett’s “What is World Literature?” (1886), and Karl Marx’s rather brief discussion of world literature from The Communist Manifesto (1848).

[2] In his recent book, In the Shadows of World Literature, Michael Allan rather astutely observes: “world literature is not the neutral meeting ground of a variety of textual practices, but rather assumes—and at times enforces—a particular place for literature in the world” (4-5).

[3] The great bulk of the Yale African art collection was donated by New York real estate magnate Charles B. Benenson, whose second wife used to wear a nineteenth-century Fon headdress to cocktail parties—an anecdote that the Yale Alumni Magazine thought fit to print on the occasion of the galleries acquisition of the collection.

Tyler Scott Ball is a doctoral student and SSHRC Joseph-Armand Bombardier research fellow in the Department of English at York University. He specializes in contemporary literature from the Indian Ocean with a focus on the impact of oceanic environments on cultural production in the region’s various littoral zones.

Works Cited

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

Damrosch, David. What Is World Literature? Princeton: Princeton UP, 2003.

—. “2016 IWL: David Damrosch, ‘What Isn’t World Literature? Problems of Language, Context, and Politics.’” Youtube, uploaded by Delia Ungureanu, 6 August 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jfOuOJ6b-qY&t=2565s.

Gikandi, Simon. “Simon Gikandi on African Literature in the World: Imagining a Post-Colonial Public Sphere.” Uploaded by YaleUniversity, 16 June 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x6g1pL0qTuE&t=282s.

von Goethe, J.W. [1827] “Conversations with Eckermann on Weltliterateur.” Trans. John Oxenford. Conversations with Eckermann 1823-1832, Everyman Library, 1930.

Lamp, Frederick John et al. Accumulating Histories: African Art from the Charles B. Benenson Collection at Yale University Art Gallery. Yale UP, 2012.

Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels. [1848] The Communist Manifesto, The Seabury Press, 1967.

Metzl, Hugo. [1877] “Present Tasks of Comparative Literature.” Trans. Hans-Joachim Schulz and Phillip H. Rhein. Edited by David Damrosch et al., The Princeton Sourcebook in Comparative Literature, Princeton UP, 2009, pp. 42-49.

Mufti, Aamir R. Forget English! Orientalisms and World Literatures. Harvard UP, 2016.

Posnett, Hutcheson Macaulay. “What is World Literature?” Comparative Literature, Kegan Paul, Trendl & Co., 1886. pp. 235-41.

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