Ben Etherington: World Literature as an Ideal Concept

Do we have faith in world literature? (Do we believe that such a thing exists? Can we expect to make world literature an object of consciousness?) Given the scale of our object – for world literature, whatever it may be, presumably is big – questions concerning its actuality typically have been posed, at least in recent times, in relation to knowledge, and especially as it concerns the means of cognizing world literature. ‘How can we know world literature?’ has been, the key question. Most methodological responses to this problem over the last fifteen years have been committed to overcoming it; whether this be through pursuing mega-data approaches, reflecting on the totality of relations and interrelations between national spheres, placing the focus on translation and circulation, or orienting the concept to the political economy of the modern world-system. All implicitly share a certainty, however, that ‘world literature’ has some kind of empirical existence.

The argument of this paper is that world literature is an ideal concept that yet awaits realisation. The actuality of world literature could only be an established fact if, intuitively, the general (world literature) and the particular (literary works) were unified; which is to say that the totality would have achieved an empirical existence only if the literary acts encompassed by the term could be said cumulatively to produce ‘world literature’. The reason this has not come about is that literature is opposed that which presages world literature: the totalisation of exchange value. The opposition to the formation of commerce-led globalised literature, though, is shared by literary communities across the globe. Literary practice cannot help but to enact itself in relation to this notional space of world literature, binding disparate literary actors. This might be the basis for a paradoxical notion of world literature as: ‘that literature which negates globalised literature’ – something which finds expression in acts of the particular, or trenchant localism. The second part of the paper will be devoted to discussing the phenomenon of literary primitivism as an early (perhaps even inaugurating?) instance of world literature thought of in this paradoxical way, ending with a reading of two poems on ‘dwelling’ by the Martiniquan poet Aimé Césaire.

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