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The South Atlantic Quarterly 100.3 (2001) 603-626
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The Globalization of Fiction/the Fiction of Globalization
Susie O'Brien and Imre Szeman
The idea for this special issue of the South Atlantic Quarterly emerged out of a question posed by one of our students: Does it make sense to speak about a literature of globalization? This question seems easy enough to answer, or rather, a whole host of possible answers offer themselves right away, which may not in fact be the same thing as coming up with a simple, satisfactory response. First, one could suggest (as a number of other scholars do) that though we have discussed it almost exclusively in national terms, literature has in fact long been globalized. Writing at one of the key moments of European nationalism, Marx and Engels already pointed to the existence of a world literature produced out of the constant revolutionizing of bourgeois production, and discussed its spread across national and cultural boundaries. 1 Without question, one of the first elites linked globally—materially as much as imaginatively—was a literary elite able to sample exotic narrative confections produced outside of their original national and local contexts. 2 But glimmers of a "world literature" appeared long before the explicit formulations of Marx and Engels or Goethe in the nineteenth century. [End Page 603] Forms such as the fabliau, Mennipean satire, and autobiography provide evidence of cultural migrations dating as far back as the medieval period; literature was global, then, before it was ever national. 3 And as Stephen Greenblatt points out, "English literature was always an unsteady amalgam of Scottish, Irish, Welsh, Cornish, and other voices of the vanquished, along with the voices of the dominant English regions, and the English language itself, so securely and apparently imperturbably at the center of the field, is revealed, under the pressure of examination, to be a mixed, impure, and constantly shifting medium." 4 It seems reasonable to suggest, then, that literature in general, and Anglophone literature in particular, is—and perhaps always has been—globalized.
It should be clear immediately, however, that this response does not take up the real demand posed by our student's question, which seeks to understand a more fundamental entanglement between literature and the phenomena most commonly associated with globalization—transculturation, the various forms (from cultural to economic) and periods (from the time of Columbus to the present) of imperialism and colonialism, the violent and uneven impact of socio-cultural and economic systems on one another as they come into contact, the eclipse of traditional ways of life, the temporal (modernization) and spatial (nationalism-internationalism-transnationalism) demands of European modernity, the global spread of capitalism and Western liberalism, and so on. How are these processes expressed through, facilitated, and/or inhibited by literature? To ask this question is to think not just about how globalization is reflected thematically in fiction, for example, but also about literature's role in the narrative construction of the numerous discourses or "fictions" of globalization. One of the first things to realize about globalization is that its significance can only be grasped through its realization in a variety of narrative forms, spanning the range from accounts of the triumphant coming-into-being of global democracy to laments about the end of nature; literature no doubt has a role to play in how we produce these often contradictory narratives about globalization. 5 Whether one sees globalization as a contemporary phenomenon that defines the character of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, or merely as an extension of a process initiated millennia ago, there can be no doubt that the generation of narratives about globalization has assumed particular urgency over the last few decades. 6 While the historical purview of our student's question is open to debate, it is clear that the [End Page 604] question itself could only be asked in the context of contemporary social, political, and cultural conditions and preoccupations.
Thinking about narratives and their determining contexts highlights another, less obvious but equally important...