"Against World Literature": The Debate in Retrospect

Saint Jerome in His Study, Caravaggio (1605-1606)
Saint Jerome in His Study, Caravaggio (1605-1606)

What does a critic oppose, exactly, when she takes a stand “against world literature”? Emily Apter takes that polemic as the title of her latest book (Verso, 2013), but she uses it to advance a thesis that requires no argument at all: Something always gets lost in translation. Apter argues that the truth in that cliché is overlooked by contemporary critics, with their “entrepreneurial, bulimic drive to anthologize and curricularize the world’s cultural resources.” Valuing efficiency over exactitude, these antagonists read The Divine Comedy as a perfect replica of Divina Commedia, and they teach others to repeat their error. To slow their progress, Apter proposes the idea of “the Untranslatable,” and she assembles a list of words that illustrate it— fado, for example, Cyclopedia, checkpoint. She traces the meanings that get lost when these words are conveyed to rough synonyms in other languages, testifying to the “quality of militant semiotic intransigence” that inheres in language more generally.

But she leaves unnamed the critics who fly too swiftly to worry over such subtle things. And names seem necessary, because the scholars most closely associated with world literature—Pascale Casanova, David Damrosch, Djelal Kadir, Franco Moretti, Rebecca Walkowitz—have written substantially on the interpretive problems translation poses. Damrosch devotes a full chapter to them in his pedagogical text, How to Read World Literature, and he cites translation theory on the first page of the introduction to The Routledge Companion to World Literature. Such efforts to theorize translation might arguably be called inadequate, but those inadequacies would have to be filed under ‘not for lack of trying.’ Apter makes no reference to this body of work on translation and world literature, so she asserts without evidence that she is alone in her recognition of “the importance of non-translation, mistranslation, incomparability and untranslatability.” 

That rhetorical gesture of critique lacks any critical content, but it works nonetheless as a frame for Apter’s strong analyses of “world literature,” which is to say, literary texts from a variety of times and places. So, while Apter pretends to fire against world literature like an enemy, she leans against it like a plank on a wall to join a critical conversation where these questions have only one good answer: Can a translation replicate its original exactly (no), and should we worry about that (yes)? Apter confronts those worries directly to study the circulation of world literature as Damrosch defines it, tracing the ways that “a literary work manifests differently abroad than it does at home.” In that context, her textual analyses are robbed of their stated raison d’être, but their richness suggests some other raison that works in its place, which prompts me to ask: What is Emily Apter really against, what is she really for, and why does she invoke world literature to make that case?

 “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 into weltliteratur 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.

She claims its extra-literary implications in part by obscuring the differences between the various registers in which world literature works—the commercial, the literary, and the curricular. And that is significant, because the contemporary meaning of the term depends greatly upon who uses it. To a publisher, Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner (2003) is a great work of world literature, not least because it is a bestseller. A literary critic or novelist will object, citing instead works by writers with the aesthetic craft of J. M. Coetzee, Kazuo Ishiguro, Haruki Murakami, or Orhan Pamuk. An academic will frame the debates about world literature partly in terms of where and how to teach it, and few others care about that. But by leaving these various uses of the term entangled, Apter swings broadly at all of them for their “reflexive endorsement of cultural equivalence and substitutability, or toward the celebration of nationally and ethnically branded ‘differences’ that have been niche-marketed as commercialized ‘identities’.” No credible scholar could like world literature by this definition, because it is everything that a university and its inhabitants are not supposed to be: politically naive, theoretically unenlightened, and crucially caught up in the business of making money. Apter finds parts of the university that seem proximal to global capital and the inequities it creates, and she isolates herself and her audience from them by locating them under the banner of “world literature.”

As she argues against them, she vents prevailing anxieties about the worth of intellectual labor in the contemporary U.S., where worth that is hard to calculate in dollars becomes hard to calculate at all. In this context, critical debates about world literature become legible as debates about the literary critic’s best defense against the very American suspicion that our work is a luxury good. Both proponents and critics of world literature stake claims implicitly for literature’s utility to a global economy and a globalized world, suggesting that the practice of reading literary texts from faraway places might foster the cross-cultural understanding on which transnational traffic depends, perhaps, or somehow slow the motion of capitalism’s gaping maw.

That is a lot to expect from literature of any sort.  And because those expectations underwrite the debate about world literature, the critics who enter into it weigh in also on the good that literature might do in the world, balancing grand gestures with knowing shrugs. The editors of the literary magazine n+1 capture that opposition tidily in a long and contentious article published under the title “World Lite” that reprises Apter’s title without naming her as an ally.  Writing collectively in the wearied voice of a protagonist post-bildung, the editors frame world literature as “a nice idea” that must be trimmed to fit “a sick, sad world.” “The word literature itself has come to sound fake,” they muse, wondering whether there is “something the addition of world is making up for, a blemish it’s trying to conceal?” That stain is feared to have economic contours, because a global literary canon “can’t help but reflect global capitalism in its triumph, inequalities, and deformations.” Indeed, but so what? By all of its definitions, world literature is about as bound up with the economic conditions as other cultural phenomena—which is to say, completely. A critic who asks whether world literature reflects global capital asks a question that is as drearily easy to answer as the question of whether some literary meaning gets lost in translation. And on both subjects, those one-word affirmations mask much better questions like where, how much, to whose advantage, and in what way.

The n+1 editors join Apter in the activity of raising and avoiding those questions, but they make more concrete progress, partly because their interest in the definition of world literature is more than passing. The article’s only footnote states the editors’ intention to use a capital W and L to “refer to a publishing category and object of academic study; this is in contrast to the ‘world literature’ that would be everything ever written in all languages.” A necessary clarification, this definition posits world literature as a finite set of texts that spans popular and literary fiction. And that it is a canon of complicity with Citibank and its beneficiaries, the n+1 editors argue, more redolent of capitalism’s “triumphs” than its “deformities.” To illustrate the point, they name names: V.S. Naipaul, Salman Rushdie, J.M. Coetzee, Kiran Desai, Mohsin Hamid, Chimananda Ngozi Adichie, Michael Ondaatje, and Orhan Pamuk. They read this body of work as “an empty vessel for the occasional self-ratification of a global elite.” And who could like that?

But if world literature helps the rich to stay that way, then it must do so by canonizing texts that somehow further entrench the economic and political status quo—but how, exactly, does not emerge with any clarity from the n+1 editors’ list. Most readers will admire some authors on it much more than others and wonder what common fault binds them together. They take a shared interest in the European tradition of the realist novel, perhaps, and they have biographies that begin in wealthy strata of nations not known for great wealth; they are left leaning and politically provocative to some people in the world, but not to many Western readers of literary fiction. None of these arguments are made in “World Lite” although all are arguable, and the most obvious commonality that holds these writers together is their global success. But it seems tautological to complain that the most successful authors are the most accessible, or the most heavily invested in the status quo.

The n+1 editors note one surprising commonality among these non-American writers, and it resonates meaningfully with Apter’s argument: All of these writers enjoy a close relationship to an American university. “Every World Lit writer seems to have an appointment” as faculty somewhere, the editors observe, and college campuses figure prominently in many of the novels they write; at the turn of the twenty-first century, “the university becomes the key institution in the creation of World Literature.” To explain this undue influence of American college life on world literature, the n+1 editors gesture toward an earlier generation of “academic theorists of hybridity, the postcolonial, and World Literature.” These scholars opened institutional doors by lending literary writers “from the global south an authority that no longer emanated from themselves.” And if this authority must have enriched the writers, it must have damaged their work, since “the university always threatens to insulate World Lit from the world it wants to describe and address.” From this premise, the argument against world literature becomes legible as an argument against university literature, which is a very different thing.

And the difference has political implications, as Poorva Rajaram and Michael Griffith argued in a critical response to “World Lite” in the Indian news organization Tehelka. If global capital “is responsible for eliding the local,” they argue, “then so is any cultural criticism that sees the whole world and all its writers as a valuable unit of analysis.” In that context, Rajaram and Griffith see the rise of university novels among non-American novelists as a refreshingly honest departure that frees privileged people from all over the world to write what they know. “We will happily choose experience-based novels set in universities,” they write, “over a transnational literary elite that insists on ventriloquising the poor.” Accusing the n+1 editors of fetishizing the politics of less privileged others, they raise a rhetorical plea: “When will certain strands of the left stop requiring the high-culture novels they love or hate to spark off revolutions?” That is a wish that world literature and the debates around it might not be asked to do so much extra-literary work.

But that wish will not come true. Critical debates about world literature reflect the concerns of an academy that is both privileged and marginal—and it is deeply ambivalent about both of those things. Literary critics need money to buy the time it takes to look at capitalist structures and critique the violence they inflict on the rest of the world, not to mention the crassness with which capitalism dismisses our work. And if the quickness of that dismissal stings our collective ego, it also underwrites the terms of our academic freedom, since our wars against windmills seem unlikely to inflict much damage. It is in that context that Emily Apter reflects her position as a tenured professor at NYU when she frames her work on Unstranslatables as “anti-capitalist critique.” It puts philosophical pressure on what it means to “‘have’ a literature,” she writes, “or to make claim to aesthetic property” as nations and languages do. This figurative use of ‘to have’ is trusted to enjoy a direct relationship with possession in a literal sense, as Apter sees her inquiry into linguistic ownership as a study also of the economic structures of a globalized world. That enables her to claim that her work has tangible if indirect effects on people far beyond the university’s walls.

That is a tenuous claim, and the n+1 editors make it, too. The editors place implicit trust in literature to make the world a better place, provided that “literature” is good by their definition. To define it, they contrast the world literature they dislike with a “thorny internationalism” they would like better, because it is more inclined toward words like “opposition, project, and most embarrassingly truth.” Populated by writers like Elena Ferrante, Kirill Medvedev, and Yan Lianke, this canon would be more engaged with worldly realities, and it would be more “radical” by some definition. But that definition remains unstated, leaving a reader to wonder how it fits the aesthetics or politics of Ferrante’s harrowing Days of Abandonment (2005) but not to Coetzee’s also harrowing Disgrace (1999), just to take one example from each list. Another adjective that could describe the n+1 canon is avant-garde, as the editors argue implicitly that relative difficulty plus obscurity equals a revolutionary potential by necessity.

But there is a logical fallacy that has ethical implications in this elision of the metaphor that makes intellectual work stand in for something else that could plausibly put food on a table. Apter agrees with me about this in some moments, and when she does, she stands in opposition to most of her own work. In her study of Untranslatables, she asserts the need to retain the first meanings of the words that structure global capital—checkpoint, for example—against the theoretical usages that render the discourse of borders “an all-purpose, ubiquitous way of talking about translation.” Apter argues forcefully against that kind of substitution with her reading of work by the Palestinian artist Khaled Jarrar, who has performed the ritual of border crossing by checking passports and stamping pages in locations where he has no particular authority, and no border is crossed, like the Ramallah Central Bus Station. “I want to welcome people, as a Palestinian, to Palestine,” he said, and to “provoke the whole idea of a state.” By performing a checkpoint himself in a place where no nation demands one, Jarrar questions the authority of the state and the occupation; he asks who has the power to maintain national boundaries, through what means, at what cost, by what violence. Apter recounts this performance to align her project with Jarrar’s recovery of the literal meaning of “border-crossing,” and to locate herself outside of an academic discourse where any “purchase on the politics of actual borders—whether linguistic or territorial—has been attenuated.” This is an argument about the degree to which the theoretical discourse that uses borders as a metaphor pertains to people who actually cross borders between nations and states.

It seems obvious to me that the degree of its pertinence is zero, and therefore not worth discussion—but Apter’s equivocation speaks to a discomfort that is pervasive among literary critics in the U.S. We know that we live in a world where millions of people become refugees annually, and national borders witness all manner of violence and humiliation, so it can hardly be ethical to strip these terms of their first meanings—and, yet, we remain susceptible to well-turned metaphors, and we are glad to have the time that global capital affords us to enjoy them. Apter voices that ambivalence when she writes that Jarrar speaks to her “unease” and “worry” when he “raises the issue of how legal, territorial markers are used figuratively in translation theory.” In fact, Jarrar doesn’t engage directly with translation theory at all; if his work “raises issues” about the internecine fights among scholars, it raises them from the outside, as a conversation about apples might raise issues about oranges by indirection. It says literally nothing about the borders that distinguish words in books, or scholars in universities.

In her self-contradiction, Apter wrestles with the question that world literature’s advocates and opponents raise together whenever they talk about it: How much should literary critics trust the metaphors we use to bind our work to material realities, and how can we engage most meaningfully with a world that seems troubled but unable to speak our language very well? Gayatri Spivak addresses those questions more convincingly for me than either Apter or the n+1 editors, and she addresses them when she argues against world literature, too. She locates her literary work at a far remove from the any project that confronts global inequality. To fill that distance with “substance would take us into the UN and international NGOs,” she argues, “the real players in a dominant feminist collectivity crossing borders—activist comparatism today. The obvious gap between the two cannot be filled by only academic labor.” That gap may be obvious to Spivak, but it is not obvious at all in most arguments about world literature, which are laced with another set of concerns entirely. When we align ourselves for and against it, we stake claims that sound too good to be true about the benefits we bring to non-fictional people on the other side of the world.