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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 48.1 (2002) 1-17

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Worldly English

Michael Bérubé

With few exceptions, US departments of English have tended to behave, over the past thirty years (amidst energetic theorizing, no less), as if the twentieth century had not witnessed a global explosion in English-language literature--and as if this explosion had not occurred amidst debates over the disciplinary status of postmodernism, postcolonialism, and/or cultural studies. On one hand this is a bureaucratic matter, a matter for the tweaking of curriculum committees and the planning charts of associate department heads: it is a matter of proposing and staffing new courses, perhaps of reshuffling requirements and adding a half-sentence to the department's mission statement. But on the other hand this is an intellectual quandary that cuts across multiple and conflicting fields of theoretical inquiry, a matter not to be settled by the addition of a new elective course or the hiring of a single faculty member in "postcolonial studies" who is thereby assigned responsibility for Africa and South Asia (and perhaps a few pinpricks in the Caribbean).

"Postcolonial studies" is, despite all the oft-checked baggage the term carries, the most likely and congenial theoretical heading for world literature in English, since much of that literature is now being written in former colonies, relatively new nation-states that may themselves be neo- or crypto- or not-quite-yet-post-colonial. But the ready association of English world literature with theories of postcoloniality has, in a [End Page 1] way, let theorists of cultural studies and postmodernism off the hook, as if the emergence of Ngugi wa Thiong'o and Rushdie and Coetzee were of no real consequence to theorists of contemporary culture except for those carrying portfolios in postcoloniality. I have argued elsewhere that cultural studies (at least as it is realized and practiced in US English departments) might do well to attend more to contemporary world literature than to MTV and Star Trek, but I fear that I made the case badly in 1998--and I am no longer quite so sanguine as to whether US "cultural studies" can or should be pressed into service for work in an area where it has shown so little interest or aptitude. But postmodernism, with its vexed and contradictory relations to postcoloniality, is another matter. For if "postmodernism" names the variety of intellectual enterprises that attempt to forge theories and practices of the emergent and the contemporary, then it is hard to explain why the emergence of contemporary English-language literatures from postcolonial nation-states would not be a matter of central interest to theories and theorists of postmodernism and literature.

Shop talk: at some point in the past year I mentioned this special issue to a colleague at another university, a colleague who had just published a fine essay on contemporary "world literature." "Postmodernism and the globalization of English?" he asked quizzically. "Surely you mean postcolonialism." Well, no, I replied, I wanted to ask--or to invite others to ask--how theories of postmodernity might engage global literatures in English, and I expected there to be some measure of skepticism and/orantagonism in the engagement. There was some question, I conceded, as to whether my call for papers had referred to "postmodernism" or to the broader notion of "postmodernity," but really, when will our suffixes suffice?

I must admit at the outset, however, that I have made trouble for myself on this score before--and may even be guilty (guilty with an excuse) of having crafted one of those "provocative" critical one-liners designed to draw fire, something along the lines of "there's no such thing as postmodern literature and it's a good thing too." It started innocently enough: in 1999, Andrew Hoberek included me in an MLA panel devoted to the question of how to think about twentieth-century literature as the twentieth century was coming to a close. The panel's rationale--the list of questions to which we panelists were asked to reply--deliberately combined substantive scholarly questions with the more frivolous...


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