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  • After Globalism?*
  • Lieven D’hulst

In the concluding statements of his Routledge Concise History of World Literature (2012), Theo D’haen points at some of the most critical challenges facing the literatures of the world:

  • • For most of its history, world literature has been not only an almost exclusively European, or by extension, Western concern—the discussion of world literature has also almost exclusively been conducted in just a few major European languages.

  • • This has led to the semi-peripheralization of most “minor” European literatures.

  • • With the shift of attention in the United States to other parts of the world than Europe, and hence also to other “major” literatures, the semi-peripherality of those minor European literatures has turned into full peripherality.

  • • In a number of European reactions to this state of affairs, we can recognize attempts to re-contextualize some of these minor literatures within the newly emerging world literature paradigm—quite often, this involves the recovery of native precursors.

  • • Beyond Europe, we see similar developments taking place in, for instance, Latin America, but also China. (D’haen 173)

This state of affairs requires all institutions, either initiating or undergoing processes of peripheralization, to take a position on issues such as language diversity, literary networks, geocultural configurations, literary maintenance, and interliterary transfer. Of course, this holds true for academic institutions as well: although scholarship naturally strives for theoretical generality against the idea of minority and peripherality in research, it is shaped by an array of committed and more distant or descriptive viewpoints that aim at grasping the actual processes of peripheralization affecting both European and non-European literatures. No doubt, such contemporary efforts are, in turn, highly indebted to a large range of earlier attempts to account for the factors [End Page 337] determining literary positions, as well as the role played by interliterary exchange in the shifting of these positions. Among the widespread means of handling such issues is the recourse to metaphorically extended spatial categories, which are, in themselves, a rather popular domain of interest in the humanities. In literary studies or cultural history, for instance, these categories have pointed to scales of mapping, from smaller units, such as the city, to the largest possible one, the global, as well as to positions such as centres and margins, to directions, such as the vertical and the horizontal, and to issues of mobility, such as circulation or displacement. Several of these matters have been dealt with in close interaction with geography, giving way to both a focus on literary space and literature in space (Moretti 9).

Yet, both foci seem to fit topological views with even longer traditions and even broader scopes, including relations of distance, vicinity, continuity, frontier, and directionality. Although exchanges between mathematics and the language disciplines have rarely been given emphasis, in recent times topology has been used by the latter as a cognitive metaphor to open up new perspectives. In literary studies, for example, the symbolic or metaphorical use of topology was advocated from the early 1970s on, notably by Jurij Lotman, for whom textual structures have a spatial basis: “the structure of the space of a text becomes a model of the structure of the space of the universe, and the internal syntagmatics of the elements within a text becomes the language of spatial modelling” (217).

For several decades following the seventies, models of space gradually gained ground in literary studies, although these were not only shaped as textual topographies of spatial relations. Topology also pervaded the study of more complex literary entities such as literary systems: suffice it to refer to the well-known distinction between centre and periphery (cf. D’hulst, “Quel(s) centre(s)”) or to the complex topology of interacting literatures, such as the Francophone (see Halen), or to the social topographies of writers and artists (see Anheier et al.). As is well known, much of the literary research in the systemic vein is sociology-driven. In combination with a more explicit regard for issues of cultural transfer, it has also considerably advanced our historical understanding of the transnational circulation of cultural products at large (cf. Charle).

Current views on literary globalism are, to a varying extent, indebted to...


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