- Global Special Delivery
Once upon a time, world literature was quite easy to identify, even at a distance. As a generalizing term for virtually anything non-Western, or anything translated, the designation “world literature” made distinguishing one’s literary others a rather transparent enterprise. Despite Marx’s and Goethe’s idealism in describing the nineteenth century as the end of national literatures, world literature began its life as a thinly veiled stand-in for the colonial epistemology of legible, digestible difference. The influence of postcolonial studies on departments of literature helped to replace the naïveté that once epitomized the organizing principles of world literature with increasingly rigorous, if still problematic, methodologies for reading and classifying narratives that cross the borders of language, culture, and geography. With the return of the world to respectability in literary studies has come a protean lexicon for describing the objects and processes of a world system. Texts become cosmopolitan, trans- and international, and global under rubrics ranging from David Damrosch’s “mode of circulation” in the world to Franco Moretti’s admonition that the literature “around us is now unmistakably a planetary system” and Emily Apter’s “translation zones.”1 [End Page 182] This fluidity of vocabulary is symptomatic, in part, of the continual need for new modes of describing encounters and relations with others, needs unfulfilled by any single approach to a text or critical practice. David Palumbo-Liu’s The Deliverance of Others: Reading Literature in a Global Age reads in contemporary Anglophone literature a methodology for exceeding the limitations of terminology and reframing the way we constitute otherness in our global moment.
“To conceive of literature in a global context,” as Stefan Helgesson reminds us, “is no natural or neutral operation.”2 Indeed, the works that have given birth to a lineage of so-called global literature are most often defined as such by their engagement with the constructedness of these new forms of relationality. Palumbo-Liu’s incisive study of the contemporary novel speaks to this burgeoning field. With rich and persuasive readings of contemporary Anglophone literature, Palumbo-Liu cuts through the arbitrary dividing lines that have for so long separated aesthetic and ethical responses to otherness to ask what he calls the fundamental question for contemporary literature: “if literary narratives can still help us imagine others across global discourses . . . can they also exceed the ways those specific modes determine the shape and form of understanding?” (26). Rather than feeling derivative of the many other “global age” books newly in press, Deliverance reconfigures our perspective on contemporary literature more broadly to ask whether an attention to the discourses that give rise to the very category of otherness might allow one to see novels as “thinking through being together in the world.”
Implicit in Deliverance’s subtitle, “Reading Literature in a Global Age,” is Palumbo-Liu’s theory of reading, what he calls “another optics” for understanding how novels go about their global thinking (123). Building upon recent work by Derek Attridge, Rebecca L. Walkowitz, Berthold Schoene, and Paul Jay, Palumbo-Liu delineates the work of the novel as uniquely positioned to understand community under globalization, thus charging our reading practices [End Page 183] with the ethical dilemma of how to interpret the presence of radical otherness within explicitly global literature.3 Deliverance shifts focus away from what Palumbo-Liu calls the “abysmal task” of “codify[ing] and set[ting] conventions for encounters with others” and looks instead at “how literature engenders a space for imagining our relation to others and thinking through why and how that relation exists, historically, politically, ideologically” (14). His thesis goes straight at what he terms the philosophical, literary, affective, and economic “delivery systems” (29) that bring otherness into legible form by way of certain assumptions of commonality. These systems operate discursively, setting the terms via which one encounters otherness, and in the case of Palumbo-Liu’s literary objects, these include rationality, political solidarity, biopolitics, and affect. Literature, and particularly the novel, is the critical platform for interrogating the...