The progress of World Literature since the ’90s has accompanied that of global capitalism. In the past, the spread of money — what Marx called the “universal equivalent,” for its ability to serve as an empty vessel of exchange value — strengthened rather than weakened national boundaries and languages. It wasn’t so much “world literature” as vernacular literature — composed in Florentine Italian, say, rather than universal Latin — that developed alongside international finance in northern Italy in the late 15th century. Later, the headquarters of capitalism shifted to Holland, then England, then the US, countries mainly inhabited by Protestants who distinguished themselves from Catholics (the word catholic meaning simply “universal”) largely by listening to, but especially by reading, the Bible in the same Dutch or English they spoke over dinner. Not coincidentally, these countries attained mass literacy sooner than Catholic ones. In these countries, and others gathered into the capitalist world-system, questions about how money was to be distributed, for example, were discussed in publications produced in the local and/or national language and thus legible to far more people than any “universal” language had ever been. The overall nationalization of literature, throughout modernity, didn’t mean there could never be an internationalist literature, of the kind once imagined by 19th-century radicals. But an internationalist literature would be different from World Literature as we know it.
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