“Against World Literature”: The Debate in Retrospect


Gloria Fisk in The American Reader:

“World literature” is as heavily freighted as any of Apter’s Untranslatables, and many of its common usages have only slight relation to literary texts. It has worked historically to map the lines of inheritance—cultural and otherwise—that separate high from low, smart from dumb, timeless from temporary, haves from have-nots. When Goethe invoked weltliteratur in the early nineteenth century, it was to imagine how German poetry would supersede other nations’ to become “the universal possession of mankind, revealing itself everywhere and at all times in hundreds and hundreds of men.” That assertion of the global value of local goods was built intoweltliteratur from the start, and Karl Marx borrowed the term decades later to theorize the economic value Goethe implied. For Marx, world literature was a cultural effect of economic compulsion, a testimony to the market imperative that “chases the bourgeoisie over the surface of the whole globe,” compelling them to “nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere.”

World literature still connotes an expansionary move that is distinctly capitalistic, and Apter makes that connotation work for her purposes. Addressing an audience that imagines the university in opposition to corporate interests, she yokes the scholarly impulse to “anthologize” and “curricularize” to the imperative to monetize that chased Marx’s bourgeoisie across their national borders. Establishing that loose rhyme between world literature and the economic processes of globalization, she frames her argument about Untranslatables as a critique of them both, although she does not address any economic questions directly. She renders herself an occupier of Wall Street—and an opponent of corporate influence in higher education—without leaving the subject of literary theory.

More here.