- Immanuel Wallerstein and the Problem of the World
Sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein is well known in social science circles for his theory of the modern world-system as an interdependent network of core, semi-periphery, and periphery states. This edited collection, which emerged from a conference at Stanford's Program in Modern Thought and Literature, considers what the humanities, so much concerned with the particular, the local, and the subjective, can learn from Wallerstein's systematic vision. As the introduction argues, many disciplines have already begun to transform their methodologies under the pressure of globalization, a process which has led, in literary studies, to the highly contested (re)emergence of world literature. Participants in the discussion about appropriate methodologies for understanding the relationship between macro and micro, systemic and particular, are typically loath to practice the kind of "worlding" that Gayatri Spivak associates with a (neo)imperial impulse to assimilate the world into Western rubrics of civilization and development. Contributors challenge existing models of world-scale thinking put forward by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Wai Chee Dimock, and Wallerstein himself on this issue and others. Engaging with Wallerstein's work thus presents an occasion for scholars from a variety of disciplinary positions to explore current models of the global within the terms of their respective fields.
The collection is organized into four sections. In the first, "System and Responsibility," sociologist Richard E. Lee situates world systems theory within its historical context, claiming that its emergence during the tumultuous decade of the 1970s makes it particularly useful for understanding our contemporary moment of crisis. Speaking to scholars in the humanities, Lee represents "structures of knowledge" as an essential part of the modern world-system in Wallerstein's tripartite schema (alongside the political and the economic). He points to "the new liberalism" as one such structure of knowledge, which has exhausted its ability to contain the growing political and economic turmoil of the world capitalist system. For Lee, the outcome of this crisis is uncertain, but he sees some promising signs for interdisciplinary scholarship in the collapse of established structures of knowledge, which [End Page 134] is "closing the gap between the humanities and the historical social sciences" (37). Wrapping up the first section, Bruce Robbins challenges the conventional critique that world-systems theory misreads culture "as merely a passive reflection of economic relations" (48), cautioning against the tendency in the humanities to overemphasize agency at the expense of larger forces that constrain individual action. Rather than a choice between system or agent, he calls upon scholars to approach this dilemma as "an open question: how far have people actually been able to make their own history in this case or that, under these circumstances or those?" According to Robbins, such an approach "will help us understand what can and can't be done about global injustice and thus how our interpretive puzzles do or don't contribute to that goal" (50).
Moving beyond the challenge that world-system theory's marginalization of culture poses to the humanities as a whole, the second section, "Literature: Restructured, Rehistoricized, Rescaled," assesses the particular costs and benefits of systemic global analysis for literary studies as a discipline. Franco Moretti identifies world systems theory as a critical tool for describing the production and circulation of literature within an ever more homogenized global literary market after the eighteenth century; but he contends that evolutionary theory presents a more accurate picture of the disparate forms produced prior to this period within relatively isolated cultures. Nirvana Tanoukhi's essay is considerably more wary of the current systemic thinking in comparative literary studies, particularly the totalizing impulses she associates with the (re)turn to the model of world literature. As Tanoukhi argues, comparative literature depends too much upon a spatial language of "crossing," "borders," and "zones" that evacuates historical analysis in favor of "a radically synchronic outlook" (78). By undertaking "a disciplinary critique of the very concept scale," she aims to "mov[e] us...