- Global Matters: The Transnational Turn in Literary Studies
In recent years, “transnational” has become a buzzword in the majority of humanities departments, particularly so in literature departments, with academics continuing to seek new ways of grouping disparate literatures, both to create courses and to categorize research that does not neatly fit into old historical or national models. Whilst postcolonial literature is now well assimilated into the British academy, this is not always the case elsewhere. Moreover, academics continue to query with the literature department’s tendency to label the work of any non-white, non-European writer as “postcolonial.” Such contentions that originally arose within postcolonial discourse are now frequently being voiced by the undergraduate student: what about those writers from second or even third generation immigrant families? Can we justify comparisons with Indian and African writing based on their shared colonial histories? What about writing in English that originates from outside Western publishing, such as China? Furthermore, the postcolonial pathway usually omits studies in American literature, thus forgoing any exploration into the wider relationships of African American writing to Africa, the Caribbean, and European diasporas, as well as an engagement with Latin American literature. “World” literature is a term that few academics are satisfied to be associated with, largely due to its sheer vagueness.
Such concerns have opened up a space for the possibility of a transnational, literary framework: in a very general sense, transnational models of literary analysis allow a critic to compare texts from different areas of the globe, no longer restricted to geographical, national, or continental boundaries. In some ways, it is reminiscent of comparative literature, although the emphasis is not so much on translation. In terms of its appeal, Paul Jay argues that transnationalism has “productively complicated the nationalist paradigm” of literary studies, along with having “transformed the nature of the locations we study, and focused our attention on forms of cultural production that take place in the liminal spaces between real and imagined borders” (1). Yet despite its potential usefulness, transnationalism is by no means flawless and without controversy. With regards to literature, one of the more controversial elements of transnationalism is its perceived links to globalization theory, not necessarily a positive attribute in literary criticism, particularly for those schooled in postcolonialism. The term “globalization” invokes a threat of cultural homogenization, as well as a privileging of neo-liberal capitalism as the worldwide economic model. The influential postcolonial theorist Homi Bhabha cautions against an unquestioning embrace of globalization, viewing it as an exclusive state of world-citizenship, one that is only open to the privileged few and conforms to a global, shared notion of free-market capitalism, usually exploiting poor citizens.
It is these issues that Paul Jay addresses in Global Matters: The Transnational Turn in Literary Studies. Here, Jay proposes a transnational model for studying literature that is both informed by and critiques the theories of postcolonialism and globalization that have shaped its development. In fact, he argues that the two discourses have a “dialectical relationship with each other” and that any successful transnational model has to understand “the historical and the methodological relationship between them” (34). Jay is particularly interested in how theories of globalization have impacted both the creative writing process and academic interpretation of recent literature. The book is split into two distinct parts: the first, entitled “Globalization and the Study of Literature,” features four [End Page 299] chapters that introduce and clearly explain those areas of globalization that are relevant to his argument, addressing work by Arjun Appadurai, Kwame Appiah, Roland Robertson, Anthony Giddens, James Clifford, Paul Gilroy, and Edmundo O’Gorman, among others; the second section, “Globalization in Contemporary Literature,” focuses on how the conceptual issues outlined in the previous section are embodied within specific literary texts, exploring novels by Arundhati Roy, Vikram Chandra, Mohsin Hamid, Kiran Desai, Zakes Mda, Zadie Smith, and Junot Díaz.
Global Matters is a highly engaging critical work that functions both as a survey of and an argument for the relationship between globalization theory and literary fiction. Although not intended as an...