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  • Untranslatables: A World System
  • Emily Apter (bio)

Many literary historians would concede that the traditional pedagogical organization of the humanities according to national languages and literatures has exceeded its expiration date, yet there is little consensus on alternative models. Mobile demography, immigration, and the dispersion of reading publics through media networks defy such sectorization, yet, thinking the comparative postnationally brooks obvious dangers. Postnationalism can lead to blindness toward the economic and national power struggles that literary politics often front for, while potentially minimizing the conflict among the interests of monocultural states and multilingual communities (as in current U.S. policy that uses an agenda of cultural homogeneity to patrol “immigrant” languages and to curtail bilingual education). National neutrality can also lead, problematically, to the promotion of generic critical lexicons that presume universal translatability or global applicability. Theoretical paradigms, many centered in Western literary practices and conventions, thus “forget” that they are interculturally incommensurate. Moreover, though planetary inclusion may be the goal of new lexicons in contemporary comparative literature, they often paradoxically reinforce dependency on a national/ethnic nominalism that gives rise to new exclusions.

Ideally, one would redesign literary studies to respond critically and in real time to cartographies of emergent world-systems. Parag Khanna, writing from an American “think tank” perspective on the shrinkage of the U.S. as a superpower, usefully identifies a host of new “Second World,” midsize empires built up from global trade-offs in resources and financial services whose networks traverse but also bypass “The Big Three” (China, Europe, America). Khanna’s nomenclature, from retro regionalisms (“the Middle Kingdom,” the “Greater Chinese Co-Prosperity Sphere”) to modern transnational acronyms like “the BRIC countries” (Brazil, Russia, India, China, associated through their common status as sites of “the world’s greatest concentration of foreign-exchange reserves and savings”) assigns renewed momentum to thinking in empires (problematic in my view), but it is at least responsive to geopolitical configurations that overturn Western assumptions about who should be aligned with whom: [End Page 581]

To the Western eye, it is a bizarre phenomenon: small Asian nation-states should be balancing against the rising China, but increasingly they rally toward it out of Asian cultural pride and an understanding of the historical-cultural reality of Chinese dominance. And in the former Soviet Central Asian countries—the so-called Stans—China is the new heavyweight player, its manifest destiny pushing its Han pioneers westward while pulling defunct microstates like Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, as well as oil-rich Kazakhstan, into its orbit. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization gathers these Central Asian strongmen together with China and Russia and may eventually become the “NATO of the East.”1

Literary studies, arguably, has yet to catch up with this kind of socioeconomic mapping. There is no coincident or contingent structure in place that enables fluid analysis of “Second World” cultural interactions among, say, the “Stans,” the Greater Middle East, “Chindia,” the Americas, Eurasia, intra-Asia, “other Asias,” or Euroland. Certainly transnational research occurs, as does transhistorical or asynchronous historical analysis, but the academic organization of the humanities tends to reimpose national periodizing strictures on knowledge-fields, some of them inherited from area studies. Literary history’s cartographic catalogue is thus either constrained by the national habitus, or thrown into the vast agglomerative catchall of “world literature.” With respect to the latter, what we find in the place of self-updating world-systems is a proliferation of geographically emptied names that all more or less refer to the same thing—globality—albeit with different political valences. “World Literature” is the blue-chip moniker, benefiting from its pedigreed association with Goethean Weltliteratur. World Literature evokes the great comparatist tradition of encyclopedic mastery and scholarly ecumenicalism. It is a kind of big tent model of literary comparatism that, in promoting an ethic of liberal inclusiveness or the formal structures of cultural similitude, often has the collateral effect of blunting political critique. Then there is “the world republic of letters,” historically tied to a Francocentric republican ideal of universal excellence (“the literary Greenwich meridian” in Pascale Casanova’s ascription), and denoting world literature’s adjudicating power manifest in prize-conferring institutions of cultural legitimation. “Cosmopolitanism,” (and its contemporary variant...


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pp. 581-598
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