Alexander Fyfe: The last decade and a half has seen a considerable renewal of scholarly interest in “world literature.” Central in this resurgence have been theoretical inquiries into what constitutes world literature and how it should be read, most discussed among these perhaps being works by Emily Apter, Pascale Casanova, David Damrosch, and Franco Moretti. A recent and important contribution to the debate is Combined and Uneven Development: Towards a New Theory of World-Literature.1 The book is jointly authored by the Warwick Research Collective (WReC), a group of seven scholars who are, in their own words, “motivated by a common conviction that the existing paradigms of literary analysis, in whatever field, are not equal to the challenge of theorising ‘world literature’” (ix).2 Positing a resoundingly materialist definition of “world-literature” (note the hyphen) as the literature “of the modern capitalist world-system” (8), the book’s major intervention is to argue that this world-system, with its “dialectics of core and periphery” (51), should be the basis for “a new type of literary comparativism” (22). Crucially, this appropriation of World-Systems Theory—one that is itself influenced by Moretti—emphasizes the unevenness of global capitalism’s penetration across the globe and thus relies upon “the theory of combined and uneven development” (10), most famously elaborated in the work of Leon Trotsky. Drawing upon the work of Trotsky and others, the WReC argues that while modern capitalism is global in its reach, the manner and extent of its penetration varies dramatically from place to place. In each new context, [End Page 503] capitalism combines unpredictably with existing social institutions and infrastructures, resulting in what Trotsky, writing of Russia’s development, termed an “amalgam of archaic with more contemporary forms” (quoted 6).
Suggesting that the importance of this theory for the analysis of culture has been insufficiently recognized, the WReC pursues its implications for the analysis of literature. “It is,” they write, “in the conjuncture of combined and uneven development, on the one hand, and the recently interrogated and expanded categories of ‘world literature’ and ‘modernism,’ on the other, that our project looks for its specific contours. All three of these terms, it seems to us, need to be thought together” (6). Treating the novel “paradigmatically, not exemplarily, as a literary form in which combined and uneven development is manifested with particular salience” (16), the authors present a compelling argument for combined and uneven development as a lens for cultural comparison, one that is supported by substantial readings of primary texts produced in different and diverse locations within the world-system.
In recognition of the profound importance of these arguments CLS asked six scholars of world literature (with two working as a pair) to respond to Combined and Uneven Development. In keeping with the book’s provocative intervention, we aimed to provide a forum for a lively debate about both the proposed methodology and the accompanying readings of individual texts. The journal therefore selected scholars working in a range of primary fields, theoretical frameworks, and geographical locations in order to sample a broad range of perspectives. Following the WReC’s reply to these initial responses, four of the respondents opted to make final comments. CLS would like to thank all of those who participated in what, we hope, has proven to be a stimulating and productive exchange of ideas.
alexander fyfe is a PhD candidate at The Pennsylvania State University. His dissertation explores the relationship between African literary production and structural adjustment programs.
1. Warwick Research Collective, Combined and Uneven Development: Towards a New Theory of World-Literature (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2015).
2. The seven authors are Sharae Deckard, Nick Lawrence, Neil Lazarus, Graeme Macdonald, Pablo Mukherjee, Benita Parry, and Stephen Shapiro. [End Page 504]