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  • The World of World Literature and World-Systems Analysis
  • Anca Parvulescu (bio)

While the concept of world literature has been operative in the discipline of Comparative Literature since the early nineteenth century, having been cyclically re-energized, it has remained fairly marginal to literary studies until the 1990s and the early 2000s. After a poststructuralist phase, literary studies were at this time in search of new theoretical frameworks and methodologies. With the perceived end of the Cold War and the emergence of globalization studies in other disciplines, literary studies took a transnational turn. The concept of world literature returned forcefully. Today, it occupies a central stage. The many recent critical accounts of world literature, coming especially from postcolonial studies, confirm its centrality.1

The conversation on world literature often returns to the origin of the concept, itself a matter of intense scholarly debate. Coined by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in 1827 in his conversations with his assistant, Johann Peter Eckermann, the concept of world literature first appeared in Eckermann's book in 1837.2 The text has since been translated into numerous languages and has taken a life of its own.3 Importantly, in Eckermann's rendering, Goethe's concept came into view through the reading and juxtaposition of two texts: an unnamed Chinese novel and an unnamed Serbian poem. An admirer of these texts, Goethe Orientalized both, each in its own way.4 Central to the interpretation of Goethe's position has been the framing of Goethe's Weimar in world history. While some scholars place the emergence of Goethe's pronouncements on world literature on the periphery of Europe, noting the belated emergence of the German literary language in comparison to French and English, others place them in a German context [End Page 375] aligned with and benefitting from the European colonial project, especially British colonialism.5 What has become clear through this conversation and others is that world literature needs to be in dialogue with world history.6

A decade after the publication of Eckermann's conversations with Goethe, in 1848, Marx and Engels used the concept of world literature in the Communist Manifesto. They invoke a capitalism that knows no borders, at the level of both production and consumption—by analogy with how literature knows no borders.7 This line of argumentation has led to questions about the place of literature within capitalism, with capitalism functioning both as a condition of possibility for world literature and an object of its representation. The spatialization of the world through capital accumulation and the ongoing incorporation of territories into its purview have received renewed attention.8 Questions pertaining to the political economy of the international readership of world literature have been foregrounded.9 So have questions concerning the global politics of translation.10 All in all, however, although literary studies have an established line of interdisciplinarity with sociology, engagements with world-systems analysis, the field within sociology where questions related to the globalization of capitalism are most frequently posed, have been less frequent than engagements with world history.

Two trends become legible in this brief review: Since one of the most entrenched interdisciplinarities in literary studies has been with history, the return to world literature has triggered a shift to world history and especially the history of world empires. Methodologically, questions of scale are posed and the longue durée travels from historiography to literary studies. Likewise, methodologies of comparison are under renewed scrutiny.11 But if world history is taken up as a challenge by literary scholars, world-systems analysis has been of less and more ambivalent interest. The collection edited by David Palumbo-Liu, Bruce Robbins and Nirvana Tanoukhi in 2011 under the title Immanuel Wallerstein and the Problem of the World can be read as a symptom of a deep ambivalence on the part of humanities scholars when engaging world-systems analysis.

In his contribution to the collection, Bruce Robbins invokes "the strange mixture of attraction and repulsion that characterizes the intersection of the humanities and the work of Immanuel Wallerstein" (Robbins 2011, 43). How [End Page 376] do we explain this ambivalence? First, there is a concern with cultural particularity, against what is perceived as...