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  • What Is a World? by Pheng Cheah
  • Rachel Bower
Pheng Cheah. What Is a World? Duke UP, 2016. 398 pp. US$28.95 (Paperback). ISBN 978-0-8223-6092-6.

Pheng Cheah’s What Is a World? argues for the “world-making” power of literature. Taking on the might of recent debates in world literature, Cheah argues that literature has the capacity to redefine (rather than simply to react to) our existing world. A distinguished scholar in the field, Cheah has written extensively on cosmopolitanism, human rights, and postcolonial literature, and this book extends his earlier ambitions with a quite specific intervention into the discipline of world literature. In essence, What Is a World? seeks to develop a “normative” account of the worldliness of world literature and argues that literature opens worlds because it is a force of receptivity. This should not be confused with the counterfactual or imaginative project of creating alternative worlds, but instead is an insistence on the ways in which literature allows us to redefine the world to begin with.

For Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Erich Auerbach, the notion of Weltliteratur was speculative and ideal. Although these early formulations have rightly been taken to task for their Eurocentrism, it is possible, as Cheah seeks to demonstrate, to be vigilant about the narrowness of certain aspects of the historical development of the notion of world literature without dismissing, in its entirety, the critical-humanist ideals underpinning the concept in its early forms. Cheah argues that the recent revival of world literature has abandoned these critical-humanist ideals, suggesting that there has been a “hollowing out of the humanist ethos that had been world literature’s traditional heart and core” (24). For Cheah, this is connected to the “irreducible temporal dimension” of Weltliteratur lost in current conjectures on world literature (25). It is the temporal dimension of world literature, and its connection to world history, that distinguishes it from the “world” of the “world market”: a type of causality and normative force which compels us to see our humanity (26). This is to say that, for Cheah, recent debates on world literature have become spatially based, at the expense of a proper sense of temporality. He argues that the relentless focus on the exchanges of the global literary marketplace has determined the world spatially, “solely in terms of extension,” and that this has placed literature in a reactive position rather than acknowledging what literature can “contribute to an understanding of the world and its possible role in remaking the world in contemporary globalization” (5). What Is a World? therefore assigns literature a kind of redemptive power, and at his most optimistic, Cheah highlights the “immanent resources for resisting capitalist globalization,” which become available when we begin to understand world literature in terms of literature’s connection to worlding (11). This claim, that the question of literature cannot be answered solely sociologically in terms of market forces, also has wider resonances for the humanities in an age in which market forces are squeezing the academy in unprecedented ways.

In order to understand the idea of worlding, Cheah suggests, we need to rethink the object of our scrutiny. He therefore distinguishes between the spatial “globe” and a richer, temporally situated “world,” arguing that recent scholarship [End Page 272] in world literature has erroneously conflated the two. This is not to say that Cheah advocates a dematerialized account of literature that claims autonomy from the workings of transnational markets, but rather to suggest that we lose the very heart of what literature is about if we reduce it purely to commodity exchange.

This ambitious book seeks to tackle these challenges through a combination of philosophical and literary analysis. The book is in two parts. The first is an impressive, wide-ranging discussion of spiritualist, materialist, and phenomenological accounts of the world, toward developing a richer understanding of literature’s worldliness. In accomplished prose, Cheah conducts a theoretically dense discussion of a range of thinkers, from an examination of how Hegelian idealism and Marxist materialism conceptualize the world within the “eschato-teleological framework of universal progress” in chapters two and three to a detailed discussion of the concept of...


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pp. 272-274
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