- The Scale of World Literature
This is his home; he can’t be far away.—Sophocles, Philoctetes
The Problem: Literary Space
Distance has long been a thorny issue for comparative literature. Whether one tries to explicate a foreign text, map a course of influence, or describe an elusive aesthetic, there is the problem of crossing considerable divides without yielding to the fallacy of decisive leaps. And yet, a condition conducive to methodological malaise found consolation in a fixed literary geography that justified comparison, ingeniously, with the very fact of incommensurability. Impossible distances beg to be crossed precisely because they cannot be. And for crossings to be attempted, each book, each author, each device—each canon, nation, or interpretive community—would assume its rightful place. While comparative literature, it was said, would occupy the space-in-between conventional places. And so, by a euphoric celebration of displacement, the comparative method became unquestionably subversive: in practice it exacted “shock value,”1 institutionally it was a “thorn in the side,”2 in ideological wars it proffered a “symbolic weapon.”3 But really, may that not be overstating the case? I want to consider why the comparative method, in the first instance, made a cartographic claim to scale. Why dedicate a discipline to the task of charting zones, paths, and crossroads obscured by strict adherence to “national traditions”—when logically, comparison depends for its existence on the entrenchment of nation-based geography?
Comparison’s cartographic commitment (and its poetics of distance) is worth examining not only as a logical paradox, but as a possible key to the recent disciplinary revival of the concept “world literature”—which I take to be the latest, most pronounced attempt to diffuse the teleological thrust of “literary history” with a radically synchronic outlook. With this slide from “literary history” to “world literature” the literary discipline makes a belated entry into the globalization debates,4 a time-honored, social-scientific inquiry into the time and place of uneven development. [End Page 599] But what kind of possibilities does this move open up for comparative literary analysis, and what are the risks involved? 5 Here’s my answer: on the one hand, the discussion about literary globalization has already launched us, however slowly or implicitly, on a disciplinary critique of the very concept scale, which by necessity moves us away from metaphorical deployments of “space” toward concrete discussions about the materiality of literary landscapes. I suggest that the concept scale, properly theorized, would enable a more precise formulation of the role of literature, and literary analysis, in the history of the production of space. But, in the meantime, though such a critique seems imminent, “world literature” threatens to become a hardened (albeit enlarged) image of the old literary history, where geography evokes a figurative solidity that assumes the guise of materiality. My aim is to hasten the literary critique of scale by making cracks in the geography of “world literature.” The postcolonial novel—perhaps one of the most geographically constituted objects of literary history—offers an ideal weak spot to get us started.
Man with a Novel
A most interesting insight about the comparative view of the novel comes in an essay by the cultural philosopher, Kwame Anthony Appiah, where he describes a particular geographic outlook that makes futile both the writing of the postcolonial novel, and by extension, its cultural critique. Appiah argues that so long as the novel is taken as a representative sample of African culture, Western intellectuals are bound to drown in misconceptions about the popular mentality of the continent. By “popular” he means nonliterate, which is why he proposes African sculpture as an alternate sample object of African cultural history.6 Man with a Bicycle, a Nigerian sculpture, is presented as the epistemological antithesis of the African novel, an object whose cultural ethos eludes Western critics (suggests Appiah) precisely because they insist on approaching it as a novel (Fig. 1). Appiah reprimands the sculpture’s critics and curators as follows:
I am grateful to James Baldwin for his introduction to the [Nigerian sculpture] Man with a Bicycle, a figure who is, as Baldwin so rightly saw, polyglot—speaking Yoruba and English . . . someone whose...