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  • First Responses
  • Barbara Harlow (bio), Sarah Brouilette (bio), David Thomas (bio), Maria Elisa Cevasco (bio), Joshua Clover (bio), and David Damrosch (bio)

Barbara Harlow:

It is not very comforting to anyone in countries of the South to say that the present world-system is in structural crisis and that we are in a transition from it to some other world-system over the next 25–30 years. They will want to know what will happen in the meantime.1

Immanuel Wallerstein propounded his rhetorical question in a keynote address delivered at Cornell University in October 2004, a speech reviewing the untold futures of his signature critique of “combined and uneven development”; he concluded with a perhaps equally rhetorical turn to his audience in the final admonition that we must “fight both defensively and offensively. And if we do it well,” Wallerstein went on, even if somewhat inconclusively, “we may, but only may, come out ahead in the lifetimes of some of the younger members of this audience.”2 Crises, like the combined and uneven developments promulgated by Wallerstein and his political economy coevals, are writ large too through the pages of the directives from the Warwick Research Collective (WReC) “towards a new theory of world literature,” opening as the coauthored volume does with the less than sanguine observation for those who would critically profess literature, that we read and write in “testing times for literary studies” (1). These “times,” recorded in the competing and conflicting historiographical narratives of world literature, are themselves periodically riddled by ominous proclamations of crises, structural and otherwise, such as that proffered by Raymond Williams in 1981 and cited as an exemplum at the outset by the Warwick authorial/research collective (2). The current “testing times,” however, are characterized by nothing less than a “steady assault on the humanities,” an aggression, at once institutional and ideological, waged relentlessly by “government, business and regimes, all bent in their various ways on incorporation, control and instrumentally defined regulation” (1). In a word, perhaps, neoliberalism. [End Page 505]

The organizing structure of Combined and Uneven Development: Towards a New Theory of World Literature is itself one of the “combined and uneven development,” comprised as it is of two expository chapters cum manifestos—“World Literature in the Context of Combined and Uneven Development” and “The Question of Peripheral Realism”—followed by four text-based case studies. Enlisting world-system theory in their project of “remappings of both the history of modernism and the intertwined trajectories of world-literary wave formations” (19), the collective’s participants (who include Sharae Deckard, Nicholas Lawrence, Neil Lazarus, Graeme Macdonald, Upemanyu Pablo Mukherjee, Benita Parry, and Stephen Shapiro) combine their own respective, if globally dispersed, research imperatives to challenge the current acclamations of an unreconstructed legislation of “world literature” in curricular enterprises in the Euro-American academic arenas, whose champions enroll such doyens as David Damrosch, Emily Apter, Franco Moretti, and Pascale Casanova, in an ostensible “leveling of the playing field,” an equilibration that results nonetheless in equivocation instead, a “tendency,” according to the WReC in the first chapter, to “substitute the civilizational category of ‘the west’ for the category of capitalist modernity” (29).

In the meantime, or at least in the volume’s second polemical chapter, “The Question of Peripheral Realism,” the inflations of the clarion calls to “world literature” are grounded in a remapped literary-critical atlas, across a “single but radically uneven world-system; a singular modernity, combined and uneven; a literature that variously registers this combined unevenness in both its form and content.” That denomination, argues the collective, is the “kernel of our argument” (49), an argument that is both geopolitical and historiographical, overdetermined by the received debilitating divisions between core and periphery and beset by teleological linearities that sequence, no less disabling, the perceived differences between realism and modernism. A “literary world-systems theory” would insist instead on the “comparison,” if not contrast, “of discrepant literary subunits and social formations of the world-system” (68). Such literary subunits and social formations provide the occasion for the four case studies, at once exemplary and exceptional, that ensue, extrapolating, albeit less than systemically, an alternative atlas that nonetheless remains grounded in the...


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pp. 505-534
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