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  • Worlding Literature:Living with Tiger Spirits
  • Pheng Cheah (bio)

[End Page 86]

This article takes issue with the banalization of world literature in the past decade in literary studies. By this, I mean the axiomatic equation of the world with human intercourse that stretches across global space, where market exchange is the paradigm of human relations. When the study of world literature proceeds on this basis, world literature is emptied of the deep normative horizon it had in earlier formulations that drew their inspiration from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's classical account. It is no longer world literature but merely global literature. Extant normative accounts of world literature are, however, grounded in an inadequate conception of the world. Because they define the world through the anthropologistic frame of the self-actualization of universal humanity through historical progress, they presuppose a Eurocentric modern secular subject of humanity. They envision a world that cannot hospitably admit cultures that have not been completely disenchanted or purged of magic, worlds in which spirits dwell with human beings. A fuller normative account of world literature appropriate to late capitalist globalization should take its bearings from the phenomenological idea of worlding. I call this worlding literature.

I discuss Lelaki Harimau (2004), a novel by the contemporary Indonesian writer Eka Kurniawan, recently published in English translation as Man Tiger (2015), as an example. Man Tiger is not about globalization and global circuits of exchange. Nor does it foreground the global character of literary production in its formal dimensions. Precisely because of this, it is a worldly or worlding text. The globe effaces worldliness by reducing the world to the product of circulation in abstract space. As a novel about how the relations between human beings and tiger spirits structure Indonesian society, Man Tiger explores the ontological question of how human beings are with and amidst other beings, human and non-human. It thematizes the question of the world understood in the fundamental sense of habitation that is ontologically prior to relations among subjects and objects in space and suggests that such inhabiting is the ground for the emergence of new beings and the ethical transformation of the existing world through the reconfiguration of relations among individual and collective subjects. By linking the coming of new beings into the world to the poeisis or generation of stories, the novel enacts the ontological condition of possibility of the normative project of world literature inspired by Goethe—the circulation of literary works through human intercourse presupposes access to other human beings that is afforded by our propulsion into a world.

Instead of taking the world for granted and then constructing world literature as an object and a field of study based on an unexamined concept of the world as a frame or container to be populated by or filled with literary works, I attempt to reconstitute world literature on the basis of an inquiry into the ontological meaning of world. Simply put, if the world is not in the original instance a spatial container but the process of worlding, an inquiry into what constitutes world literature should first broach the question of the fundamental affinity between literature and world. In other words, what is worldly about literature? This would be the starting point from which to explore how literature as worlding participates in worldly affairs that are the domain of the natural and social sciences. [End Page 87]

The Banalization of World Literature: Global Literature

Judging by the number of books with "world literature" in their titles, the past decade has been productive for the field of world literature. In fact, whatever advances have been made in the field, contemporary theories of world literature have not substantially challenged its nineteenth-century paradigm for the simple reason that they have taken at face value Goethe's unelaborated conception of the world as an object, indeed, the largest possible object, constituted by human interaction and intercourse. In all existing theories of world literature, world literature refers to the field of literary exchanges that span across the globe. World literary intercourse is made up of processes of the creative human imagination and the social and political forces...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6539
Print ISSN
0300-7162
Pages
pp. 86-114
Launched on MUSE
2018-04-20
Open Access
No
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