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  • Worlding World LiteratureA review of Pheng Cheah, What is a World? On Postcolonial Literature as World Literature
  • Emily Sibley (bio)
Cheah, Pheng. What is a World? On Postcolonial Literature as World Literature. Duke University Press, 2016.

The basic premises of Pheng Cheah’s book are encapsulated in its title: first, that any consideration of world literature requires a return to theorizing “world” beyond its spatial dimensions, and second, that postcolonial literature bears a unique relationship to world literature in its ability to challenge hegemonic understandings of what that world is. As a field, World Literature is often criticized for being apolitical—for performing a disingenuous depoliticization rooted in the logic of equivalency, where one text from the Global South is easily substituted for another, and for turning a blind eye to the structures of power that postcolonial theory brings to critical attention. Where inequalities are acknowledged, it is often done with a center-periphery model of a world system in mind, applying an evolutionary logic that has at its core a notion of Eurocentric teleological progress. Cheah is certainly no stranger to these debates, and his contribution critically considers the positionality of world literature vis-à-vis histories of imperialism, global capital, and modes of cosmopolitan belonging.

Cheah’s stated aim is to rethink “world” as a temporal category, and, in the process, to reorient critical thought toward the relationship of literature to the world—a question wholly different from the ways in which literature circulates within that world. He rightly notes that the focus on circulation takes the world as a pre-defined entity, which is precisely what What is a World? questions. Only by first examining the category of “world” can we consider its relationship to literature. Cheah’s position rests on the injunction to think beyond spatial cartographies, instead turning to time as the crucial category by which to define the world. “Before the world can appear as an object, it must first be,” he writes, arguing that philosophical paradigms based on temporality provide important bases for resistance to the globalizing thrust of capitalism (2). He devotes the first two parts of the three-part book to examining the category of “world” in this temporal sense, providing rigorous readings of European philosophies of world. Part Three explores how several postcolonial novels elucidate the openings and closings of worlds beyond the time of global capital.

Cheah thus positions his work as a corrective to the dominant spatial turn in world literature theory. His first chapter critiques the way cartographical models reproduce the capitalist system of thought and valuation. He takes aim, for instance, at Pascale Casanova's much-debated theory that literature acquires value through recognition by the metropole. In Casanova’s spatial model, circulation is what matters; literature remains reactive in its relation to the world rather than possessing any force of its own. For Cheah, by contrast, literature’s normative force lies in its power to create ethical response and engagement with the world. Ultimately, this is what he aims to theorize: an “ethicopolitically committed world literature” in contrast to one that is market-driven (34).

How can we constitute an ethical ground for literary representation in a secular, postmodern era? The pursuit of an answer to this question takes Cheah through a number of philosophers grouped into three main categories: the spiritualists (Goethe, Hegel), the materialists (Marx, Lefebvre), and the phenomenologists/deconstructionists (Heidegger, Arendt, Derrida). The return to Goethe is inescapable, given his foundational status as the author of the term Weltliteratur. Cheah’s reading highlights three aspects of Goethe’s thought: the connection to cosmopolitanism as universalist intellectual practice; the “sacralization of world literature”; and the conception of world as “an ongoing dynamic process of becoming” (40–41, 42). Hegel brings histories of violence and domination to bear upon the concept of world as spiritual process, where “historical violence is absolved by a theodicy of spirit’s teleological progress towards the actualization of freedom in the world” (55). For Cheah, the conceptualization of world as a “dynamic spiritual whole” and as an objective (rather than idealist) structure constituted by violence are valuable contributions to a theory of “world,” which he decouples from a Eurocentric...

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