- The Dead Ends of Decolonization, or Faith in the Literary?
UNESCO is widely recognized as a formidable institutional protagonist in world literary culture, albeit at a remove from the day-to-day transactions of the contemporary literary world. Commissioning large-scale translation projects, intervening over legal copyright, appointing literary and intellectual heavyweights from Claude Levi-Strauss to the Birmingham Center for Contemporary Cultural Studies, UNESCO has been a considerable force in the modern history of writing and reading. Its vulnerability to forces of politicization―notoriously, the threats of divestment by some member states after UNESCO decided to grant membership to Palestine in 2011―offsets its sheer size as an international cultural organization. Given these things, it is surprising that UNESCO rarely makes more than cameo appearances in literary studies.1 Sarah Brouillette, a critic who has led much of the recent debate on literature's imbrications in global capitalism, is well positioned to respond to this situation. Her sociological diagnoses of contemporary literature and culture in Postcolonial Writers in the Global Literary Marketplace (2007) and Literature and the [End Page 118] Creative Economy (2014), among other works, explore the ways in which writerly creativity has been in service to the economy, from the production of authorship as a brand to the enlisting of writers as performers of authenticity. It is appropriate, then, that her third book, UNESCO and the Fate of the Literary, deals not only with a neglected global institution, but with what this might tell us about literature's wider fate and the related question of what it means to still hold faith in the literary. From Brouillette's vantage point, it is precisely literature's inducement to trust and its power to convince that is part of the problem, forcing the question about literature's condition: what is it, and why should we believe in it?
Brouillette situates her approach against the occasionally high-minded notions of literature and literariness circulating in academic discourses of world literature and cosmopolitanism, as well as Marxist-inspired approaches that have "preferred to highlight works with congenial political tendencies rather than grounding their analysis in the sociology of high art and the shifting fortunes of literature's social effects" (3). Her critique applies both to world literary criticism's prematurely celebratory aspects and its grittier impulses to read thematically or formally "against the grain" in order "to counter capitalist modernity." Although they ramify more widely, she regards Pheng Cheah's What Is a World?: On Postcolonial Literature as World Literature (2016) and the work of the Warwick Research Collective as particularly emblematic and offers the following characteristic rebuttal:
Literature may indeed have this kind of critical edge, may contain ecopolitical and anti-capitalist critique, and may help us glimpse other possible worlds. But we must at least consider the question of why, when work of this kind is so widely circulated and embraced by people within the literary milieu, the incorporative force of capitalism nevertheless motors on? To neglect this question, to ignore the delimitation of literary activity and exposure, to write as if literature is straightforwardly "an active power in the making of worlds" . . . is to fail to recognize its actual dominant character and the contingencies and mediations that define it. Whose "worlding" does it shape? In whose thought does it intervene?(5)
UNESCO functions as a test case, at once singular and exemplary, for the ways "literature" and "culture" have been put to work as [End Page 119] categories of benefit to national and global economies and how a "literary disposition" has legitimized and made relevant UNESCO's work in the world. Part of the irony of the current critical status quo is, in her view, that "[l]iterary scholarship celebrating the radical potential of a critical anti-capitalist or counter-modernity message fails even to reach UNESCO's standard" (4). For all its flaws, UNESCO has at least made valiant efforts to address the brokenness of the global communications system.
Chapters 1 and 2 address UNESCO's early programs, positioning the Collection of...