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Literature And The Global Movement Of Knowledge

Literature is an art form capable of presenting itself as a singular unit that acts as a conduit for a variety of knowledges. (Example: what does it mean to spend a day wandering around Dublin at the turn of the 20th century?) Global literature can imbue the previous statement with a degree of an exponential truth — or, at the very least, it should/ought to. Though networks convey a certain structural flexibility — i.e., states have more alliances between countries now than they did during the era of the second World War (on average, each country around the world has 10 alliances with other countries) — the art contained in a piece of literature has within it the capacity to be a distinctly variable unit.

This makes its use as a variable in relation to otherwise traditional movements of knowledge an object of interest, especially in a world of global communication. (How would a novel about an earthquake in Japan spread across the world in comparison with the news of an earthquake in Japan? What networks beyond those that note where the novel physically went would be worth tracking here?) And though I’m tempted to loosen the definition of literature to include music or film, it makes sense to keep the focus on literature for the moment and ask questions like, “What does it mean to translate Shakespeare into Portuguese on a ship bound for India?” (If Portuguese is ‘fixed,’ then what is this new thing in Portuguese called ‘Hamlet?’) To what degree were the practitioners of literature aware of the movement of manuscripts to and from India between 1750 and 1800? (And, if it wasn’t aware of this movement — if it only expressed this truth indirectly — then why was that?) What’s to keep us from treating acts of world literature like the Voyager Golden Record we sent into space —as something we can send to each other in the here and now — as opposed to the kind of object of initial complaint that Tim Parks once grumbled about years ago?

That’s one reason why the initial work of The Stanford Literary Lab is of interest: they are capable of exploring the question at an appropriate scale. Or, as six authors working at the Stanford LitLab wrote at the beginning of 2016: “Of the novelties introduced by digitization in the study of literature, the size of the archive is probably the most dramatic: we used to work on a couple of hundred nineteenth-century novels, and now we can analyze thousands of them, tens of thousands, tomorrow hundreds of thousands.”

What has that led to so far? Well, in the above-cited paper and above-excerpted infographic (temporarily eliding over all the other work on their splash page), it’s led to the conclusion that what qualifies for something being ‘in the literary canon’ “is not the ‘the economic world reversed’ … the canon — or at least this canon — is made of authors from whom commercial publishers are still expecting to make profits two or three generations after their initial success.” In other words: there is an under-appreciated degree to which the idea of a canon carries with it a class-based construct borne out of a certain globalized market world that is — and very well could be — ‘always already’ there (along with other subtleties, too, like, “Was the introduction of Catch-22 into the discourse ‘more’ canonical than Oprah trying to select The Corrections for her bookclub?”) We may be capable of independently judging a canon on its merits — and of valuing the canon for simply being the canon — ; we may be capable of judging the insufficiencies of that canon, as Fanon, Spivak, Said, Morrison, Diaz, and others have all ably done; but what — again — happens when we reach a certain dimension of scale? How should biases and prejudices be judged at that scale? (For that, please keep an eye out for “Representations of Race and Ethnicity in American Fiction, 1789–1964.”) How should movement be judged?

As a conclusion based on data, the study from Stanford goes some way towards explaining the disappointing nature of what would otherwise seem to be a fairly rudimentary (and widespread) style of exegesis — i.e., that, as Martin Puchner notes in Aeon

[Rabindranath Tagore’s] success also showed how easily world literature could be co-opted by nationalism, its old antagonist. Despite his political ideals, India in 1950 and Bangladesh in 1971 both adopted Tagore poems for their national anthems.

— or, as Adam Kirsch notes in The Global Novel, citing Orhan Pamuk’s Snow as an example

When a Turkish writer undertakes to write about his country, knowing that his books will be read around the world and especially in Europe and America, does that automatically turn him into a kind of cultural translator or ambassador? If so, how does he avoid the double temptation of flattering his compatriots, to avoid denigrating his country in the eyes of the world, or of condescending to them, to cement his position as a world writer emancipated from the ideals of his tribe?

There’s a degree to which these comments from both Kirsch and Puchner are comments of a critic perpetually re-encountering world literature, not of world literature — or art — simply being itself. If a goal of world literature in the 21st century is to build an edifice that enables deep meaning, humanity, and aesthetics to pass through our lives with the ease and intelligibility with which we process weather — while still understanding how to balance self with neighborhood with nationality with international humanity — then we’re going to have to do a lot more.