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Problems with Paradigms: Irish Comparativism and Casanova's World Republic of Letters

From: New Hibernia Review
Volume 17, Number 1, Earrach/Spring 2013
pp. 48-66 | 10.1353/nhr.2013.0010

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One of the most ambitious and controversial works of recent literary criticism, Pascale Casanova's The World Republic of Letters (2004) draws on the sociological methodology of Pierre Bourdieu to describe the phenomenon of "world literature" as a "world literary system." Charting the uneven circulation of literary value or capital in the world, The World Republic of Letters demonstrates the way that literary capital flows from the cultural peripheries to a metropolitan center (in this case, Paris) whose power lays not only in controlling publishing, reviewing, and translation but, most important, of "consecration"—that is of granting peripheral works legitimacy through the status of "literariness" that allows a work to enter into World Literature.

Remarkably, Irish literary modernism from Yeats to Beckett plays a formative role in this reconception of the literary field. In a pivotal chapter titled "The Irish Paradigm," Casanova uses the Revivalist debates over language, nationalism, and the politics of literature as a model for how small nations achieve this "literary consecration" by the center. This period of Irish literature contains all of the structural conditions available to a small literary field and is thus equally applicable to parallel examples from South America and Africa. Her aims here are similar to those of Irish comparativism, a subfield of Irish literary criticism that sees Irish literary production in a global context. Irish comparativism needs to engage with Casanova's work because of the centrality it affords Irish literature as a bridge between nineteenth century conceptions of linguistic nationalism and the "autonomy of literature" that she observes as crucial to the formation of world literature in the twentieth century.

Casanova's "Irish Paradigm" offers a methodology for Irish comparativism that has been caught somewhere between dismissal and neglect, with the exception of a review essay by Joe Cleary and a few comments by Irish critics. Possibly, Casanova's paradigm itself is to blame for its reception by relying on a familiar version of Irish literary history. For Cleary, Casanova's "Irish Paradigm" is an "overused example." Emer Nolan remarks briefly that Casanova's account of Irish modernism is not much more than a "reformulated version of the standard reading of this period." This suggests a paradox: Irish literature is given a seminal place in an ambitious account of world literature, yet somehow remains unchanged by the process.

What can be learned by examining the role of the "Irish Paradigm" in Casanova's World Republic of Letters is precisely the question of how it is possible that Irish literature might be both revised profoundly, while also remaining the same. In taking Casanova seriously for Irish Studies, it also possible to see the limitations of her "paradigmatic" methodology, particularly as it depends on a formulaic image of Irish literature. Irish literary criticism might profitably engage with and use Casanova's work in reinventing its own comparativist approaches. Although it is true that the Irish example is "overused" in her book, it is more significant that it has to be, in order for her system to succeed. As a result, Casanova's work is too significant for Irish Studies to dismiss; yet it is also too problematic to be appropriated wholesale. It would appear that Irish literature's significant place in an influential account of world literature suggests a positive contribution toward making Irish Studies more global and comparative. But its formal methodology forecloses on this expansion of the field unless criticism attends as carefully to the "paradigm" in her formulation as it does to the "Irish."

Most criticism of Casanova has focused on the book's claims for creating a method of canonicity for world literature, and thus, has predictably focused on her neglect of certain authors and genres. Other than acknowledging her adaptation of the theories of Wallerstein and Bourdieu, her method has been largely ignored. Arguing against the traditional model of emerging, dynastic national literatures, Casanova posits these national modes as in a dialectical relationship to an international standard of value. As a result, one cannot judge the value of a literary work principally on national grounds without acknowledging the aesthetic space created within international markets of value. The ultimate value for twentieth-century texts has been the aesthetic...

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