- Forget English! Orientalism and World Literatures by Aamir R. Mufti
"World literature is Orientalism, it is inseparable from it," remarked Aamir R. Mufti in an interview in 2016. It is a provocative claim: after all, wasn't world literature supposed to overcome Orientalism, triumphantly declaring a united literature of the world? In Forget English! Orientalism and World Literatures, Mufti demonstrates how "a genealogy of world literature leads to Orientalism" and that this is "a fact that the contemporary discussion appears by its very nature to be incapable of recognizing" (19). In order to analyze this "mutual entanglement of Orientalism and world literature" (30), Mufti revisits Edward Said's Orientalism (1978).This book had long ago entered the English studies curriculum, and its main idea had been widely discussed, critically processed, and transformed to better suit the needs of contemporary postcolonial studies and world literature. Yet Mufti suggests that it "remains still a strangely misunderstood and underexplored book" (28) and that criticism leveled at it is too often limited to pointing out false representations, thereby overlooking the Oriental space itself and how it was constructed. Attention to Orientalist processes is, in Mufti's view, crucial for world literature: the discipline sees itself as distant from colonialism and capitalism, but just as it is blind to its own complicity with neoliberal globalism, it suppresses the conditions of its own grounding in Orientalist thinking.
One of the main criticisms of Orientalism is that Said did not take into account contributions by German scholars in the construction of the Oriental other. Mufti compensates for this omission. Moreover, while Goethe's Weltliteratur is the point of departure for many world literature scholars, Mufti shows how the genealogy of world literature needs to stretch further back historically. In accordance with Said's project, Mufti demonstrates that colonialism does not happen outside the world literary space; rather, colonial processes and Orientalist thinking helped to create the notion of what the world literary space is. Moreover, since the ideas of "world" and "nation" reinforce each other (77), world literature can therefore never overcome the concept of the nation (Mufti omits transnational concepts that are often able to make up for the deficits [End Page 259] of both world and national perspectives). The world is not borderless: the ability to cross borders, for both people and texts, in some cases still depends on nationality, class, race, or gender.
Nor does everyone in the world speak the same language, though Mufti draws attention to the global dominance of English and its role in Orientalist thought. His imperative "Forget English!" actually means the opposite. The role English plays in world literature is often overlooked and thus becomes a "vanishing mediator" (16). Its dominance is hidden in the very practice and theory of world literature: as Mufti puts it, "The history of world literature is inseparable from the rise of English as global literary vernacular and it is in fact to the same extent predicated on the latter" (11). English is the last thing we should forget if we're going to engage with this subject. Mufti joins Said in the call for a historical understanding of language, and he draws attention to institutions and disciplines that shaped it.
The narrative of the books starts with Enlightenment ideas about language and the early Romantic period. Mufti follows the to-and-fro between colonial spaces and European thinkers: philosophical historicism was shaped by the newly available bodies of writing from the Orient, and these were in turn interpreted through newly formed ideas of cultural difference. William Jones, who "discovered" Sanskrit, understood highly stylized poetic forms such as the ghazal (centered on love and loss of love) in the Herderian sense of authentic expression of spirit. Oriental writings, as presented by Jones and other scholars, influenced European literature (the presence of the Oriental had a profound impact on the shaping of Romantic consciousness, literary forms, and national desires); but they were also the reason why Oriental literature, and its character, seemed limited, primitive, and monothematic: "'Lyric' sensibility emerged...