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  • Globalization and Literary History, or Rethinking Comparative Literary History—Globally
  • Walter F. Veit (bio)

If the term means the peaceful economic and cultural exchange or military engagement with the “known world,” then globalization describes a phenomenon as old as the world’s oldest heroic epics and historical narratives. However, the modern condition of “true” globalization is quantitatively and qualitatively different in that the term now includes the whole world and its survival or demise as well as the possibility of instant communication around the globe. Under these changed global conditions of human culture, it is the task of the scholar of literature, as historian or critic, to reassess what has up to now been called literary history, its tradition, theory, and practice—if only to explore the impact that the commodification of literature in the global intercultural marketplace has on its interpretation by the reading public and the literary critic alike and, therefore, on its meaning. Furthermore, the issues are more complex and varied than can be surveyed, let alone adequately treated, here. In consequence, only a few elements and theoretical problems as they pertain to the human sciences had to be selected from recent advances in scholarship, with a view to establish a number of hermeneutic parameters considered important enough for the task of writing comparative history generally and as might be applicable to the project of a comparative history of Australian literature. Such a task is not without risks given the facts that, judged by the overwhelming number of publications, even topical encyclopedias and handbooks with useful entries on literature, globalization is generally taken to be an encompassing economic phenomenon and that very few economists of globalization have an interest in cultural matters such as literature beyond making it an object of their study of wealth production. But for Timothy Brook’s daringly experimental Vermeer’s Hat, his interdisciplinary and intercultural comparative history of Sino-European economic interdependence during the seventeenth century from a Chinese point of view, economic historians are by and large not interested in the un-quantifiable production of meaning.1 [End Page 415]

When talking about global literature, a variety of uses of the term have to be distinguished. Historically, literature is already a global phenomenon even if some of it has been called “oral poetry” or “literature of the unlettered,” indicating that in earlier cultures and language communities poets created and published literature without themselves or their audiences being literate. Today, global literature denotes a progress of dissemination and ingathering in which not only the book market plays a dominant role, but in which the positions and functions of the writer, the reader, the critic, and other mediating institutions have to be considered and assessed since all have come under attack for various reasons at one time or another. Above all, there is the task to describe the relationship between existing national literatures and an emerging global literature. The title of this essay, “Globalization and Literary History, or Rethinking Comparative Literary History—Globally,” wishes to focus on the theory and practice of historians of literature who maintain that the understanding of a literary work as a system of aesthetic argumentation2 and, therefore, as an institution of human communication,3 is no longer restricted to a national border and language, but by means of translations, book markets, and interpretation is productive of meaning beyond such borders and restrictions.

The whole issue in question has been approached under the venerable concept of “world literature,” circumscribing the field and subject matter the literary historian had to deal with.4 Participating in the emerging debate about the possibility of a new history of literature, Adrian Marino went one step further by starting out from “world literature” and, in order to overcome the confines of the Eurocentric Enlightenment’s project of a “cultural unity of the Western world ” and the cultural nationalism of the nineteenth century, proposing to extend it to “universal literature” on the thesis that “no one literature is superior to any other: European or non-European, all are equally important.” 5 He acknowledges the “esprit” of the Enlightenment in his definition: “Universal literature defines the sum, or totality, of the literatures of the world...


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