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  • Divisions of LaborBetween Cheah’s Worlds
  • Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan (bio)
A review of Pheng Cheah, What Is a World? On Postcolonial Literature as World Literature (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016). Cited in the text as ww.

To be a scholar of literature these days it seems you must have a take on, if not a stake in, world literature. Pheng Cheah’s What Is a World? On Postcolonial Literature as World Literature is the latest entrant into what is arguably the most contested debate on the study, configuration, and theory of literature today. The much-anticipated monograph presents a project first announced in a 2008 essay in Dædalus: the development of a normative theory of world literature as literature that opens up an “ethicopolitical horizon . . . for the existing world” (ww, 5) as well as “other possible worlds, thereby giving us resolve to respond to modernity’s worldlessness and to remake the world according to newly disclosed possibilities” (ww, 129).1 What Is a World? unfolds in three parts, which respectively examine European philosophical conceptualizations of the world and philosophies of worlding (parts 1 and 2), and literature from the postcolonial South (part 3).2 As with Cheah’s earlier work, it is a magisterial study, written in his characteristically scrupulous and teacherly prose.

There is much to learn from What Is a World? at the levels of its intervention into the field of world literature, its case for postcolonial [End Page 243] literature as an exemplary modality of world literature, and Cheah’s own interpretive style as a reader and critic. And yet, the book’s substantive arguments risk being overshadowed by a passage in its introduction that has already, at time of writing, gained some notoriety.3 In that passage, Cheah describes having taught a graduate seminar in the spring of 2010 at the University of California, Berkeley, that roughly charted the outline of the book.4 According to Cheah, the course, which was cross-listed in rhetoric (Cheah’s home department) and English, yielded unexpected resistance: “The comments in course evaluations by graduate students in English were worrying” (ww, 15). These students described the novels Cheah taught as “wanting” and, in one case, “terrible.”5 They reportedly questioned the syllabus for its inclusion of novels on the basis of their having “thematized issues about ‘world’”; as a result, students alleged, the discussion “focused too much on thematic issues” (ww, 15). Cheah’s judgment of these evaluations is definitive: “My students’ comments are patently Eurocentric. They favor European philosophy and dismiss literature about the non-Western world by writers of non-Western origins” (ww, 15).

Full disclosure: I was in that class, although, as a graduate student in rhetoric at that time, not in English, I am not one of those cited.6 Leaving aside the incongruity of a senior scholar commenting in print on anonymous graduate student evaluations, Cheah’s professed “worry” about his students has left discernible traces throughout What Is a World? It has even, I will suggest in what follows, modulated the progression of the book’s argument. “Eurocentrism” is no minor charge. Here, it points to a series of theoretical-pedagogical conflicts between the worlds that Cheah variously inhabits as scholar and teacher, and into which we readers might follow him in turn: philosophy and area studies, rhetoric and English, postcolonial literature and world literature.

The twentieth century saw numerous efforts to reanimate Goethe’s project of Weltliteratur, from the philological criticism of Erich Auerbach in the 1950s to A. Owen Aldridge’s efforts in the 1980s to bring “universal standards” to the comparative study of literature as scholars grappled with the increasingly urgent imperatives of reading literatures of the non-West.7 Recent re-specifications and critiques of world literature include Emily Apter’s case for untranslatability, Pascale [End Page 244] Casanova’s world-systems-theory-inspired “literary geopolitics,” the generalist-specialist negotiation of translated literatures advocated by David Damrosch, Wai Chee Dimock’s counter-Andersonian “literature for the planet,” Eric Hayot’s enumeration of aspects of the “aesthetic world-imagination,” Peter Hitchcock’s study of transnational chronotopes in the “long space” of postcolonial novels, Franco Moretti’s pragmatist prescription of...


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