- KILLING OUR MEDIA: The impact of Facebook and the tech giants by Nick Fiek in The Monthly
- Michelle Cahill, interviewed by Daniel Young in Tincture Journal
I remember when I was in primary school escaping into other worlds, aware of a ‘narrating’ voice that was not quite myself, though it was an intimate aspect of my experience. Growing up through cultural transitions, class and race anxieties, over the years, through books, across countries and interruptions, I guess that voice became writing.
I sensed that I needed to completely trust the drift of the language, and allow character and plot to develop from an embodied voice and from the straggly shoots of narrative possibilities. Several years and drafts later I stopped doubting myself and realised that I was risking narrative beginnings and endings, because being anchored and stable has not been my experience as an economic migrant. Conventional narrative does not represent, politically or aesthetically, my experience as someone who has lived in several countries in exile from my home. How can stories be shared if all you have is a voice?I think the prose explores a negative space and it works with less anchorage than conventional plot structure. Another reason for the experimentation is simply to be inventive. Realism has limitations; it’s predictable. I like to challenge my skills with language, not merely to stretch the ideas. Language is not one-dimensional; it has textures and layers. Writing can be like painting and composition in this way….The colonial encounter invariably produces two kinds of responses, approval or disapproval, depending on whether we present as assimilated or whether we are refractory. This lies at the heart of colonial ambivalence towards the Other: the ‘no, yes, no’ response to the alien is restricted and binary. The migrant is expected to forget entire lives and histories left in another country; the colonised subject, the migrant subject, the refugee has been fragmented by geographies but also by historical time.I think my heteronyms are selves of the imagination and equally selves of the real. To write, you become another and you lose yourself. Consider the ancient art of mask-wearing and its cross-overs with oral story-telling in so many other cultures. Consider gender, race, class and colour which are all destabilising provocations. The mask is not merely a disguise; it becomes an identity, rebirthed and free from hierarchy, metaphysically supple. And I guess I am interested in the Other of the mainstream, of gender, of logocentrism, of the Global North, of capitalism…. In mainstream writing and publishing, desire and agency tends to be contained to white heteronormativity but also historically; the stereotypes restrict how we come to know Others. There are always double standards and we are expected to be silent about this. I refuse that conformity, not for the sake of rebelling but because ultimately to do so would impede my creativity. //
The expectation for writers of colour and migrants is to be content with narratives of assimilation or social satire.
I am not perversely fascinated or repelled by violence, but it is often concealed by our social conditioning or normalised into relationships as forbearance, and I wanted my characters to be layered, and also to lay this bare as emotional texture rather than mere sensation. In particular, for women, domestic violence can take the form of coercion and be normalised; but aggression and vulnerability are aspects of living I have wanted to explore. More theoretically, desire, writing, queering, embodied violence are inter-related because of the breaking-in of boundaries. Textual elements in prose can be aggressive in the way alterations, distortions and excesses seek not so much to restore lost meaning but to create and invent in new ways. There can be a sadistic relationship between text and reader. By breaking rules, textuality can violate meaning and transgress structure.
As far as intertextuality goes, I’ve talked about the minority narratives being grafted to mainstream stories. I think of a graft as being restorative, like a new patch of skin after trauma. Or a graft might mean resourcefulness and survival like a tree trunk growing in the cracks of rocks. This is how these stories work. Often the psychological trauma of the colonial encounter is thrown into shadow by political and economic analysis. Trauma is something which interests me in the history of imperialism and migrations. It goes right back to Franz Fanon’s Black Skins, White Masks, and it remains deeply present in the accumulation of low level racisms and cultural hierarchies.
I think part of the reason for the coherence of the book is the fact that it reflects my writing processes more broadly speaking, the integration of poetic language with fictional elements, narrative structure, at times with an essayistic register, with epistles, diary fragments and philosophical angles; also the integration of my reading practise with writing and with rewriting.
The in-between spaces of diasporic reality are a kind of negative space that one becomes comfortable with; this interests me, because it is a space of possibilities, and hybridity, as I hope the collection attests for. I think this middle voice, where narrative structure and historical time collapses invites the blending of genres. Another thing to mention is that the voice is sometimes a bisexual narrator or gender-fluid, which I think speaks to how writing is not a gendered process. Also, my Buddhist perspective has shaped my awareness of reality and the mind as staging constructs.
I do believe the self is a performance, a relation, a series of incomplete and impermanent events: consciousness, feeling, thought, memory, imagination.
I’ve been privileged to read contributions and work with a range of formidable writers and researchers; of course this has shaped my thinking and so my work in Asian-Australian writing and activism, in subalternity and minority literatures. I have not enjoyed the politics, trauma or isolation of activism; I simply wanted to write poetry and fiction. But I have come to appreciate that fiction is much more than simply the imagination; it is about what can be reconfigured even if it cannot be fully restored. Writing can do this; and that is how my writing practise has changed.
I think with platforms like Mascara, Peril, Tincture, The Suburban Review, South Asian Crossings, Vagabond, Five Islands Press and Margaret River Press there have been some exciting productions and initiatives. There are so many young promising culturally-diverse writers.
There are increasingly more writers, activists and theorists from a range of cultural intersections working collaboratively through transnational networks and so I am optimistic about change, but at the same time there are still many challenges for writers of diverse backgrounds.
From Pacific to Pasifika by Winne Dunn in Sydney Review of Books
When well-meaning White people step in to facilitate a discussion about my community empowerment is never the result, no matter how much they want it to be.
Having attended numerous events like this for the last few years, which are always built on the idea of empowering migrant and Indigenous communities, I have come to understand that White people believe that they are the centre of any and all discussions. As Ghassan Hage says, this belief in White supremacy is a fantasy – but it is one that governs Australian cultural politics.
Where am I? In order to achieve genuine empowerment, Oceanian and Pasifika people must be in control of the events, dialogues and policies that define our fate – and we need to be the primary and lead creators of our own narratives. We need the space to create and tell our own stories in our own way.
In this essay, I want to argue that self-representation in culturally and linguistically diverse communities creates healing and empowerment for everyone. It also means that some people have to occupy a lot more space – and others have to stop taking up so much space. I want to argue against the deluded idea that only the dominant White culture can create healing dialogues. (And by healing, I mean healing the wounds of colonialism). It is not my intention to ostracise White readers, rather my purpose is to include people of colour in a discussion that is entirely about us.
African-American writer, feminist and civil rights activist bell hooks argues for the healing power of self-representation in her 1989 book, Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black. By engaging in a type of speaking that is both resistant and self-transformative, ostracised groups can move from ‘being object to being subject’ – an act hooks calls ‘coming to voice.’
Australia’s lack of forward movement in terms of understanding race is shown, in part, when people refer to me as a fob. This term is shorthand for ‘fresh off the boat.’ My people were once seen as innovative navigators of the Pacific Ocean; in more recent years, we have been grouped as illegal immigrants or ‘overstayers’ with the rest of the ‘third-world looking’ migrant population. Those of us seen as ‘legitimate’ are often referred to as ‘Pacific Islanders’ – a name used by politicians, schoolteachers and the general public. However, the term ‘Pacific Islander’ does not accurately represent those of us raised in countries like Australia or with an established Indigenous-Pacific identity like Māoris. The more complex terms that refer to people of South Pacific heritage are: ‘Oceanian’ and ‘Pasifika.’…Togi Lemanu advocates for the use of the term ‘Pasifika’ because it helps to recognise those of us with Oceanian heritage but who were not born in our homeland. These terms help to describe my tribe as part of an Indigenous-Pacific. The fertile dynamic between Oceanian and Pasifika allows us to reimagine, redefine and nourish our spirit as a diverse community.
Growing up poor in the southern parts of Western Sydney, however, I did not see such complex reflections of my tribe in mainstream Australian media, art and politics. It was something I had to learn.
..The Pacific Solution is about governing national space through neocolonialism. Kwame Nkrumah defines neocolonialism as an economic system that keeps ‘third-world standards depressed in the interest of developed countries[,]’ by using their ‘self-imposed authority’ and ‘first-world’ status to govern poorer nations. The arrangements Australia now has in Nauru and Manus Island are an outcome of diplomatic processes that involve many South Pacific islands, where leaders are asked to consider the trade-offs between increased aid and housing off-shore detention centres. It is clear enough how Australia specifically ‘buys off’ Pacific islands to gatekeep its own land…This kind of destructive neocolonial management of asylum seekers and Oceanian people is rooted in Australia’s ‘White fantasy’ about national space. As Ghassan Hage puts it, White racists and White multiculturalists believe that they are ‘in one way or another, masters of national space and that it [is] up to them to decide who stay[s] in and who ought to be kept out of that space.’ White Australia would rather gatekeep land than attempt to engage in a serious ‘deeper commitment to a more far-reaching multiculturalism.’
Only the fantasy of White centrality and nationalism reaps the rewards of spatial management. If we are to transcend this fantasy together, we must accept the reality that Indigenous, migrant and refugee people are part of our national landscape, with their own conversations to have with each other. Dialogues of healing cannot be mediated by the dominant White culture. We must allow for more self-affirmed and empathic spaces to understand our losses and gains, to comprehend our own perspectives and to share stories that portray the reality of our shared land.
However, self-representation isn’t always empowering. Our storytellers must maintain a critical consciousness.
In rejecting my culture, in dismissing my own nana, I believed that I was somehow better than my own blood and skin. I assumed I could be part of the dominant White culture – despite being called a ‘freshie fob’ at school every day. This kind of deluded desire to participate in ‘White fantasy’ is chemical warfare against young people of colour. It was not until I attended university that I started to learn the importance of using my own voice to represent the silence around my culture. It was only by reading essays, prose and poetry created by Oceanian and Pasifika academics and artists, as well as reading cultural theory centred on the existence of Black and Brown people around the world, that I realised healing and critical consciousness is the purpose of self-representation. It was then that I began to love being Tongan. When marginalised people are given the space to write our own stories, empowerment is always the result.
- Decolonial Theory should Not be safely contained in the classroom by Evelyn Araluen in Lithub
Is it possible for an institution of knowledge production in a settler-colonial state such as Australia to function as an agent of decolonization? Over the last 20 years, through critical texts such as Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s Decolonizing Methodologies, decolonial theory has pried Indigenous studies from the grasp of anthropology and created a space in which Indigenous ways of being, knowing and doing are more than mere curiosities or stylistic gestures; they are embodied practices and protocols in our work both within and beyond the institution.
When speaking beyond the praxis of poetic conceptualisation, the language of decolonization is not merely unsettling, it is violent. As it should be. In the early nineteenth century, literacy was often the only tool by which Aboriginal people could plead for the return of their lands and children. The interrogation of this archival history has become a site of stylistic and conceptual innovation for Aboriginal poets such as Natalie Harkin, Jeanine Leane and Tony Birch, whose respective projects reach beyond poetic constraints, into family or community narratives to challenge structures of erasure.no movement to reimagine and rearticulate colonial power will go uncontested:
As we witness the death throes of global capitalism and its insatiable appetite for Indigenous land and resources, we must also understand that, like a cornered animal, it will fight until the last breath in defending the privileges of colonial governments and extractive industry.
Decolonial theory provides the Indigenous subject with the tools to deconstruct and challenge colonial infiltrations into our worlds and minds, but decolonial practice within the academy is restrained to that which the institution regards as profitable. In other words, it is safely contained within the classroom, in the form of critical frameworks, unsettling questions or creative-thinking assessments.
While these spaces and discourses allow for generative engagements with other marginalised communities, they are not themselves instances of decolonization. The material logic of decolonization—in its most literal translation, the overcoming or undoing of colonial domination—has been in operation since at least the fifth century BCE. Until the late 1990s, the study of decolonization in the academy was predominantly historical and historiographical, concerned with metropolitan politics, colonial matrices, wars of independence, nationalist rebellion, language restoration, racial segregation and nation-building following the trauma of imperial violence. James Le Sueur in The Decolonization Reader insists upon a definition of decolonization as “a process by which colonial powers—in this case European nations and administrators—departed, whether voluntarily or by force, from their overseas possessions in various areas of Africa and Asia.”
Major theoretical influences from Frantz Fanon and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o have pushed lived experiences of oppression to the fore of decolonial studies and have contributed to the development of critical frameworks that challenge the cultural, political, material and epistemological dimensions of imperial power. Their approaches are ostensibly oppositional: Ngũgĩ’s best-known contribution to this discourse—Decolonizing the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature—is concerned with the liberatory possibilities of language, both as communication and culture, and has been key in mobilization around language policies in Kenya, while Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth explores systems of embodied resistance available to the colonial subject:
You do not turn any society, however primitive it may be, upside down with such a program if you have not decided from the very beginning to overcome all the obstacles that you will come across in so doing. The native who decides to put the program into practice and become its moving force, is ready for violence at all times. From birth, it is clear to him that this narrow world, strewn with prohibitions, can only be called in question, by absolute violence.
Fanon’s work cautions against bourgeois nationalist replications of colonial institutions and hierarchies, and demonstrates imperialism as an insidious matrix of sociological determinism. He is unapologetic in his recognition of violence as the final tool for the colonial subject.
Fanon has also been eagerly taken up by those who are unlikely to face the consequences of violence. For Dane Kennedy, decontextualized reliance upon figures like Ngũgĩ and Fanon in contemporary discourses of decoloniality is part of a broader tendency towards abstraction, an obeisance to the literary roots of postcolonial theory.
This structure is maintained by forms of what Eve Tuck and K Wayne Yang have termed external and internal colonialism, the former referring to the exploitation of Indigenous lands and waters, and the latter referring to the geo- and bio-political management of Indigenous bodies within the borders of the “nation.”
An additional complexity in this configuration is the offshore detention of refugees and asylum seekers, many of whom are themselves dispossessed Indigenous peoples. This structuring of the colony creates an entangled social division between those who occupy a beneficial position in relation to the state and those who do not. It is this opposition that needs to be at the center of how we understand the decolonial possibility in Australia.
Given these fraught political demands, it is important to question why, and how, decolonization has been discussed so intently in Australian literary theory and poetics. From an Indigenous standpoint, there is merit in such an approach within the current stage of dreaming—indeed, radical imagining is critical to any liberatory discourse. To build a body of knowledge that could sensitively attend the complexity and difference of Aboriginal literature would be no simple task, but it is one that must be anticolonial, given the origins of the study of Aboriginal literature and cultural production in anthropology.
Yiman and Bidjara academic Marcia Langton’s landmark 1993 publication Well, I Heard it on the Radio and Saw it on the Television was one of the first to engage with the possibility of an anticolonial Aboriginal aesthetic in film and television, and incremental improvements have been made ever since. However, literary theory and poetics still occupy a contentious place within global discourses and practices of decolonization. Literature is a term we apply to the textual products of the West, or those texts that reinforce accepted narratives of the other. For those who live in a perpetually compromised position regarding the sovereignty of our ancestral homelands, for whom the West came with guns and disease, literary theory usually signifies a binary of applicability: either it is unconcerned with our material realities and processes of cultural production, or it has seized upon our creations for its tropes and metaphors. At worst, literary and poetic theory is elitist, ahistorical, esoteric and universalizing.
The apparently oppositional dialectic between politics and literature, between the real and the writeable, is exemplified by the widely circulated mistranslation of Jacques Derrida’s aphorism “il n’y a pas de hors-texte”—“there is nothing outside the text.” This rendering legitimates the depoliticization of literary, social and cultural theory by suggesting there is nothing that cannot be understood in discursive terms. Its more accurate sense—”there is no outside-text”—more relevantly speaks to the impossibility of separating context from language and meaning.
Minter, along with many other Indigenous scholars, makes the crucial point that decolonial theory offers more potential for sovereignty and autonomy to the Indigenous subject than postcolonial theory. In Dhuuluu-Yala: To Talk Straight, Anita Heiss establishes, through dialogue with a number of Aboriginal writers and scholars, that postcolonialism is a largely irrelevant and depolitical fashion in Australian literary discourse. For Chickasaw literary scholar Chadwick Allen, postcolonial theory has become an attempt for colonial institutions to evade settler accountability and essentialize global Indigenous aesthetics through dematerial bodies of theory.
Most literary approaches to, or co-options of, decolonial theory are premised upon one version or another of Lyn Hejinian’s argument that purely discursive resistance implies the material political resistance of hegemony. The critical equivalent of this becomes the argument that “liberated” or resistant readings of colonial texts in scholarly, critical or pedagogic contexts are sufficiently influential to justify an invocation of the decolonial project.
This tendency to remove decolonial poetics from its material context corresponds neatly with what Tuck and Yang have delineated as “settler moves to innocence”: a range of intellectual evasions of settler complicity in the colonization of Indigenous peoples. This includes notions of settler nativism and fantasies of adoption into Indigenous “country” on purely symbolic terrain. In her 2016 essay for Cordite, “Unbidden: Settler Poetry in the Presence of Indigenous Sovereignty,” Bonny Cassidy interrogates the fraught ambitions of this movement in settler representations of Indigenous place and being…The essay knowingly situates itself on a fault line in Australian poetry, in which settler writers are laying claim to decoloniality through a depoliticized emphasis on place and self. These tropes are not accountable to any material reality or lived experience. The conceptual aim is merely to transform settler ontologies, albeit, as Cassidy briefly acknowledges, “in parallel to the historiographical, political and legal acknowledgement of Indigenous sovereignty, a task I presume it’s left to me and mine to achieve.
The central concern of land acquisition and exploitation in the maintenance of the settler-colonial state perhaps accounts for the manner in which eco- and geo-poetics have taken up decolonial theory, but Corey Wakeling’s essay on Lionel Fogarty and decoloniality stands at odds with the poetic body of the journal. Fogarty’s work is unambiguously volatile to colonial power and its languages. As an activist, elder, and community leader, his work often appears in such discussions, but is rarely interrogated beyond its more didactic political demands; his linguistic defiance is usually explored from positions which ultimately privilege English as a poetic standard. I contend that Minter’s call for non-Indigenous poets to take up responsible positions has been misconstrued as an invitation to cultivate Aboriginal associations for political and poetic capital, rather than as a call for material solidarity.
When speaking beyond the praxis of poetic conceptualisation, the language of decolonization is not merely unsettling, it is violent. As it should be. In the early nineteenth century, literacy was often the only tool by which Aboriginal people could plead for the return of their lands and children. The interrogation of this archival history has become a site of stylistic and conceptual innovation for Aboriginal poets such as Natalie Harkin, Jeanine Leane and Tony Birch, whose respective projects reach beyond poetic constraints, into family or community narratives to challenge structures of erasure.
Decolonial studies within the academy are asking interesting questions. Many of us use “decolonial/decolonizing” to provide a language to express our movement against the settle-colonial interior. Decolonial theory gives us what feminism, critical race studies and gender critiques cannot alone give us. These are not metaphoric stakes. Dialogues concerning the boundaries and possibilities of decolonization are crucial, but they demand political counterpoints.
The decolonial imagination should be there to serve the colonized in protest and solidarity. We run the risk of foreclosing decolonization to an academic elite by coding it purely within poetics and academic practice. While it is true that there is no protocol for settlers to engage with the enormously confronting notion of decolonization in any discipline, the theory that emerges from this struggle should benefit those outside the sandstone walls of a colonial institution, mortared with our blood.
- Stuart Hall and the Rise of Cultural Studies by Hua Hsu in the New YorkerIn the summer of 1983, the Jamaican scholar Stuart Hall delivered a series of lectures on something called “Cultural Studies.”Writers from around the world gathered for a summer institute devoted to parsing Marxist approaches to cultural analysis. At the time, many academics still considered the serious study of popular culture beneath them; a much starker division existed, then, between what Hall termed the “authenticated, validated” tastes of the upper classes and the unrefined culture of the masses. But Hall did not regard this hierarchy as useful. Culture, he argued, does not consist of what the educated élites happen to fancy, such as classical music or the fine arts. It is, simply, “experience lived, experience interpreted, experience defined.” And it can tell us things about the world, he believed, that more traditional studies of politics or economics alone could not.Broadly speaking, cultural studies is not one arm of the humanities so much as an attempt to use all of those arms at once. It emerged in England, in the nineteen-fifties and sixties, when scholars from working-class backgrounds, such as Richard Hoggart and Raymond Williams, began thinking about the distance between canonical cultural touchstones—the music or books that were supposed to teach you how to be civil and well-mannered—and their own upbringings. These scholars believed that the rise of mass communications and popular forms were permanently changing our relationship to power and authority, and to one another. There was no longer consensus. Hall was interested in the experience of being alive during such disruptive times. What is culture, he proposed, but an attempt to grasp at these changes, to wrap one’s head around what is newly possible?Hall retained faith that culture was a site of “negotiation,” as he put it, a space of give and take where intended meanings could be short-circuited. “Popular culture is one of the sites where this struggle for and against a culture of the powerful is engaged: it is also the stake to be won or lost in that struggle,” he argues. “It is the arena of consent and resistance.” In a free society, culture does not answer to central, governmental dictates, but it nonetheless embodies an unconscious sense of the values we share, of what it means to be right or wrong. Over his career, Hall became fascinated with theories of “reception”—how we decode the different messages that culture is telling us, how culture helps us choose our own identities. He wasn’t merely interested in interpreting new forms, such as film or television, using the tools that scholars had previously brought to bear on literature. He was interested in understanding the various political, economic, or social forces that converged in these media. It wasn’t merely the content or the language of the nightly news, or middlebrow magazines, that told us what to think; it was also how they were structured, packaged, and distributed.Hall was reluctant to publish these lectures because he feared they would be read as an all-purpose critical toolkit rather than a series of carefully situated historical conversations. Hall himself was ambivalent about what he perceived to be the American fetish for theory, a belief that intellectual work was merely, in Slack and Grossberg’s words, a “search for the right theory which, once found, would unlock the secrets of any social reality.” It wasn’t this simple. Gradually, the lectures cluster around questions of how we give our lives meaning, how we recognize and understand “the culture we never see, the culture we don’t think of as cultivated.” These lectures aren’t instructions for “doing” cultural studies— Instead, they try to show how far back these questions reach.“I could not find a language in which to unravel the contradictions or to confront my family with what I really thought of their values, behaviors, and aspirations.” The desire to find that language would become the animating spark of his professional life.Hall found ready disciples in American universities, though it might be argued that the spirit which animated cultural studies in England had existed in the U.S. since the fifties and sixties, in underground magazines and the alternative press. The American fantasy of its supposedly “classless” society has always given “culture” a slightly different meaning than it has in England, where social trajectories were more rigidly defined. What scholars like Hall were actually reckoning with was the “American phase” of British life. After the Second World War, England was no longer the “paradigm case” of Western industrial society. America, that grand experiment, where mass media and consumer culture proliferated freely, became the harbinger for what was to come. In a land where rags-to-riches mobility is—or so we tend to imagine—just one hit away, culture is about what you want to project into the world, whether you are fronting as a member of the élite or as an everyman, offering your interpretation of Shakespeare or of “The Matrix.” When culture is about self-fashioning, there’s even space to be a down-to-earth billionaire.
Many of the pieces in this collection orbit the topic of “common sense,” how culture and politics together reinforce an idea of what is acceptable at any given time.
This was the simple question at the heart of Hall’s complex, occasionally dense work. He became one of the great public intellectuals of his time, an activist for social justice and against nuclear proliferation, a constant presence on British radio and television—though this work is given only a cursory mention in “Familiar Stranger.” Similarly, he doesn’t mention Marxism, his key intellectual framework, until the final chapters of that book. Instead, as in much of his more traditional scholarship, he focusses on his shifting sense of his own context. Culture, after all, is a matter of constructing a relationship between oneself and the world. “People have to have a language to speak about where they are and what other possible futures are available to them,” he observed, in his 1983 lectures. “These futures may not be real; if you try to concretize them immediately, you may find there is nothing there. But what is there, what is real, is the possibility of being someone else, of being in some other social space from the one in which you have already been placed.” He could have been describing his own self-awakening.
- INTRODUCTION; Let’s address the obvious: why does the world need yet another magazine? What, among the seemingly infinite array of journals, periodicals, blogs, news sites, podcasts, and ‘projects’ dedicated to the exposition of contemporary art, is there possibly left to say?Art, we held, is nothing if not a conversation—a semiotic glue that holds people together.Our focus was then, as it is now, on voices who find under-representation in the mainstream of art. While the work presented in public institutions, commercial galleries, and seminal publications garners the attention of mainstream audiences, there’s a critical current in artist-run initiatives. A tremendous amount of significant work emerges from these spaces. Nevertheless, we find that it’s regularly passed over by established critical frameworks.unbag is an attempt to amend (in part) the shortfall of platforms that attend to emerging and grassroots critical discourses.Our goal isn’t to disparage the art business or idealize an outside. Rather, we aim to frame the dominant center as simply one space of activity. If art has any political potential, it’s in a capacity to produce dialogue. We must complicate the discipline to diversify not only who can speak but, also, the platforms that determine how we speak. This is our task, and challenge.
While spirited argumentation might cement certain modes of collective solidarity, we aspired to make our conversations tangible, and available to a broader public. How can we engage artists, authors, and thinkers beyond our milieu? How do we foster greater collectivity around these dialogues? How might we increase our capacity with a space for circulation?
Much has changed since the inception of this project. Populist shifts have yielded a frightening brand of conservatism. Policy changes have impacted education, health, social services, environmental protection, the arts, and humanities, to name a few. And war in the Middle East rages interminably while displaced people continue to be detained amid an increasingly divided and dogmatic West. We stand at an historical and political precipice. Where conditions for life have been transformed by recent social and political turns, so too have the contexts for art. As we move forward into this uncertain epoch we need to reevaluate and renegotiate our engagement with the discipline.
What is the social role of art? How have an ethics of art been transformed by this moment? What criteria should we now use to evaluate the arts? To what degree is it necessary for the arts to adopt a more expedient form of politics?
In the following you will find no proposal, map, or intellectual model from which we might approach new horizons. You will find no solution, program, or answer to attend these crises. Rather, what is expressed here may simply be regarded as an affirmation of self-organizing, of collectivization, and a drive to give visibility to cultural practices drawing on metis as a critical form.
- Listen: A Review of Foreign Soil by Fiona Wright in SRBWithin Maxine Beneba Clarke’s Foreign Soil, there is a constant shifting, a continual and often uncomfortable interplay between acts of speaking and acts of writing, between text and voice and back again. Speaking and writing, in Foreign Soil, are never simple acts. Both are, of course, embedded within the body, and as such are deeply personal and even instinctual; but they are, at the same time, inextricably implicated in wider social circuits of violence, of bodies politic, of privilege and power.
…The choice is both stylistic and ideological: the epigraph to the book, by Chinua Achebe, states: ‘Let no one be fooled by the fact that we may write in English, for we intend to do unheard things with it.’ Unheard is important here: Clarke is interested in articulating both the loaded silences and the idiomatic, accented language that is the stuff of these characters’ lives. But reading across these incredibly disparate uses and configurations of English is also a disorienting experience. Between stories, huge shifts in voice and rhythm occur, and as each new pattern begins to unfurl the reader is forced to adjust, and quickly… this dislocation is exactly what gives Clarke’s voices their power. The constant shiftings of rhythm and intonation, the continual disorientations enact another experience that so many of the stories’ characters have in common: upheaval, defamiliarisation, linguistic or cultural exile….Clarke wants us to be uncomfortable, to lose our bearings; she wants us to squirm. She wants us to have to adjust our expectations and learn the different languages in which her characters speak. She wants us to feel different and out of our depth. And she wants us, above all, to learn how to listen.We have to listen, because speaking, alongside its more devastating counterpoint, silence, is a theme in each of the ten stories that make up the collection. The protagonists struggle with language and their ability to own or to have agency in their own narrative. Or else they are trapped somehow by silences, enforced or otherwise. One character even stitches his mouth shut in desperation and despair. Silence figures here as a kind of suspension; it is the gap, often, between what the characters want for themselves or their lives and what is realistically available to them as outsiders, as migrants or refugees, as women or as people of colour. Clarke’s protagonists are all left hanging, somehow, in their attempts to make their own meaning and negotiate the world, when the language that they must use to do so is never apolitical….Equally important in Foreign Soil, though, are the always-contested acts of writing and reading that recur throughout the stories. Reading and writing often figure as the means by which the characters – poor, provincial and otherwise marginalised – are able to improve, or at least change, their situations, or are able to find some small glimpse of hope…But more importantly, reading and writing give the characters in Foreign Soil a means by which to tell their own stories, and shape their own sense of their lineage and history. This focus on writing as a means of self-definition, even empowerment, is strongly influenced by the work of the activist and theorist bell hooks, who sees literacy ‘as a radical agenda for politicisation’, because ‘degrees of literacy determine so often how we see what we see, how we interpret it, what it means for our lives’. Being able to read, and to read critically, the kinds of representations created by other people allows marginalised, outsiders to see the structures that oppress them, to step outside of them. Being able to write allows them to fight, to create their own ‘new and exciting representations’, as hooks puts it.
…And yet Foreign Soil is not a book about foreignness. It is not a book about class or gender or race, or even difference, even though these things are present beneath the stories, almost the scaffoldings upon which they are built. It is a book about self, about being and belonging in a violent and unjust world, about surviving after trauma, about finding a path for oneself that is fitting and right, regardless of the pressures and judgments of wider society. It is about being answerable only to one’s self, about knowing one’s own soil. And it is about honour and compassion, at a time when our national political landscape is largely bereft of both. Foreign Soil is problematic at times; it is flawed. But it presents a vision of the world that too easily falls into invisibility when we do not choose to pay attention. It is this act of attention, of looking and actively listening, that Clarke is trying to impress upon her readers, in the hope that we might learn to check those blind spots in our own imaginary, to make space for a national narrative that is broader, more expansive and more complex than the one we are used to encountering in our literary and media landscapes.
- In Response to Listen by Maxine Beneba Clarke in SRB
- In Defence of the Bad, White Working Class by Shannon Burns in Meanjin
- MAKING A MURDERINO: A FEMINIST DISSECTION OF TRUE CRIME BY AIMEE KNIGHT
- WOMEN IN SPORT: ‘THE PHYSICAL IS FEMININE’, BY BRUNETTE LENKIĆ
- “STORIES, MEMES AND FREDDO BOOKS: A REVIEW OF MAX OLIJNYK’S ‘SOME STORIES’”, BY REBECCA VARCOE
- First Person Feminism by Zora Simic in Sydney Review of Books
- “Against World Literature”: The Debate in Retrospect by Gloria Fisk in The American Reader
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.”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 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.
‘World Literature’ 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.
…“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+1editors 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?”
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.”…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. … 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.
- World Lite: What is Global Literature? by the editors in n+1
A literature truly global in scope ought to enlarge readers’ sympathies and explode local prejudices, releasing us from the clammy cells of provincialism to roam, in imagination, with people in faraway places and times. The aim is unimpeachable. Accordingly, nobody says a word against it at the humanities department conclaves, international book festivals, or lit-mag panel discussions where World Literature is invoked. People writing and reading in different languages (even if one language, English, predominates) about different histories and cultures and ideas: who could be against that?
This much is clear: by the late ’90s, a new literary globalism had begun to flourish…Literary scholars have focused on World Literature especially since 1999, when the French literary critic Pascale Casanova published her pathbreaking World Republic of Letters. In the ’00s, Franco Moretti, from Italy but resident (with Google) in Silicon Valley, instigated data-based debates about the world-system of literature in the New Left Review.
The geographic broadening of literary sensibility has taken place alongside the beginnings of a remarkable economic catch-up of poorer with richer countries. In 2013, for the first time since the Industrial Revolution, more economic growth will take place in “developing” than in developed countries. The Indian market for anglophone literature will soon be bigger than the British one. Chinese writers have won two of the last thirteen Nobel Prizes. A South American is now pope, for the first time since Columbus brought Christianity to the New World.
What has all this meant? In literature, no more folkloric long poems, like Okot p’Bitek’s Song of Lawino (1966), let alone those dreary tales of hardscrabble villages with nonpotable water, which everyone in grad school pretended to like. In the new millennium, literature has taken a Jason Bourne–like tour through the emerging financial capitals of what used to be the third world: big books about Mumbai and Beijing, Nairobi and São Paulo, have joined books about London and New York in a glittering constellation rotating across the night sky. In the new economic era of northern slowdown and southern catch-up, the exemplary novelists have seemed to be those, like Orhan Pamuk, Ma Jian, and Haruki Murakami, who successfully transcend their homelands and emerge into a planetary system where their work can acquire a universal relevance.
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.
…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.
CERTAIN TEXTS HAVE always circulated among geographically broad but socioeconomically thin strata that we could call worlds…The spread of modern nation-states — carrying out central administration, within defined borders, of a population often linguistically defined — standardized national languages (sometimes slowly, as with Italian) and sometimes separated them (as with Swedish and Norwegian). Newspapers published in capital cities and written in the national language were decisive, as Benedict Anderson has argued, in establishing the “imagined community” of the nation-state; the same papers also published poetry, fiction, essays, and criticism. Literature’s audience came to be nationally constituted even where, as with the US and UK or most of Latin America, states shared a common language. The big story since Goethe’s proclamation of the imminence of world literature, in other words, has been, until recently, the nationalization of literatures. The very idea of the state-of-England novel or Great American Novel, the fact that these aren’t the same, testifies to the national character of writers who have mainly felt themselves to be addressing a compatriot audience. So does the way that poets in the same language work the national register…The sound of modern literature, including almost all modern works later promoted to World Literature, has usually been that of someone speaking, or attempting to be heard, in a nation-size room…In the middle of the 19th century you could hardly walk a block in Paris or London without running into one or another exiled writer — a Mazzini, a Heine, a Herzen, a Marx — sent packing from his country for calling for revolution, or national unification, or both.
In modern times, World Literature has consisted mainly of texts from abroad read in translation. For readers with a second language, the most common was French. This had been the case since the establishment of French as the language of diplomacy in the 17th century, and remained so until a few decades after World War II, when English won out. Paris was thus, as Pascale Casanova argued, the world capital of the republic of letters throughout the roughly two centuries when more and more Europeans and Americans could read and spent more and more time with books. Throughout the long Parisian period of World Literature — before headquarters were relocated to London and New York — a northern or metropolitan author usually addressed an audience consisting chiefly of compatriots (even if he was later translated). Things were a bit different for writers from “the periphery,” whose main or only publishers might be located in a European capital: for a Senegalese writer, Paris; for a Peruvian, Madrid; for an Indian, London. This split the southern writer’s audience more evenly than the northern writer’s between an audience abroad (where the sophisticated and sympathetic read foreign work) and at home (where the literate population was proportionally smaller). Of course the metropolitan writer might also enjoy an audience in those “peripheral” countries where his own language was used — but the metropole can always more easily ignore the periphery than vice versa. For this reason, writing from the global south has always tended to be more international-minded than that from the global north (even if its translation into other languages was less, rather than more, assured). Work addressing a smaller-than-national linguistic community — in Catalan, Kannada, or Welsh —very rarely entered into World Literature.
MODERN LITERATURE also emerged in an atmosphere of threatened revolution to radically reorder — or, among colonized peoples, simply establish — the nation-state. The specter of revolution haunts modern literature, from Romanticism to postcolonialism. In the later 19th century (a time of advancing mass literacy and mass agitation both), naturalism shuddered at images of rising social classes and ruined individuals.
Literary modernism in the strict sense — the “last literary season of Western culture,” Franco Moretti has called it — was a more international than national phenomenon. This was a virtue made partly out of necessity, since modernism was nowhere locally popular. Ulysses, written in Zurich and Trieste, published in Paris in 1922, and unprintable at home in Dublin, became an event in London and Berlin. Futurism was current in Italy, but also Soviet Russia and even, through Wyndham Lewis’s Vorticism, England. Surrealism was French (Breton) and Spanish (Lorca), but also Brazilian (Mario de Andrade) and Chilean (Huidobro). Little magazines and publishing houses set up in capital cities all over. Yet much as the general air of revolution had invigorated modernism with a sense of enormous imminent change, the repression of revolution knocked the wind out of it. The failure of socialist insurrection in Germany and Italy in the ’20s, paving the way for fascism; the success of the generals’ uprising in Spain (during which Lorca was killed); the frigid congealing of Stalinism (which put to death modernists as varied as Mandelstam, Babel, and Pilnyak) — these thinned the ranks of international modernism and demoralized its troops.
In modernism, the universal and the obscure make familiar bedfellows…Tidings of war and revolution accompanied European literature for only a few years after 1945. The term “modernism” became current in the ’50s and ’60s, when the thing itself was expiring. The so-called late modernism of the postwar — of Beckett, Robbe-Grillet, and Sarraute; of Peter Handke, Nabokov, and John Barth, as well as the earlier texts of Kafka and Borges that now attained a vast audience — feels very different from the “high modernism” of Joyce or Woolf… There is, by contrast, a kind of geographical and social underspecification about much of the best Euro-American literature published after World War II, which, in the most striking cases, turns deep personal peculiarity into a gnarled universality.
Kafka, precursor to this tradition of blank allegory, had been literally a man without a country: a fitfully Zionist German-speaking Jew in Prague whose people, including his three sisters, were soon wiped off the map by the Nazis. That no one can say where The Trial and The Castle take place helps add these books to World Literature. Borges in Buenos Aires had his own reasons for stinting on local color in his fiction…Beckett, “the last modernist,” came by placelessness in yet another way. An Irishman of Protestant background living from his late twenties in and around Paris and writing, after 1946, in French, his fiction is virtually solipsistic: no need to speak of street names, let alone social classes, when you’re howling and chuckling to yourself in a small bare room. These late modernists — who attained the purity of World Literature without seeming to pass through the crucible of nationality first — were a few very odd people with unusual backgrounds. Freud had described a related phenomenon: plumb individual pathology deeply enough and you emerge in an underground realm of universal mythology.
In the more recent fiction of a pacified Europe, a smooth EU-niversality prevails in place of the old strife within and between countries. Much of the postwar European fiction, some of it very good, that we might read as World Literature — is extremely psychological in character and only vestigially social and geographical. Typically the narrator is a monologist, resembling the author, who tells of personal turmoil amid social stasis. He recognizes himself, with snobbish self-approbation, as a part of a stable polyglot pan-European elite; most other inhabitants of his country, as of the neighboring ones, are unthreatening idiots who turn on the TV after returning from work. The younger ones take drugs and dance to club music on weekends; the older ones go on package tours before dying of cancer. Nietzschean last men (and women), they can be roused neither to the self-promotion nor to the gun violence that lend spice to American life. Other big-name European novelists write books about personal relationships and international culture, and not much in between. Resigned to terminal minorness, this is a European novel written by, about, and for literary people.
IF THE PROSPECT of social revolution or counterrevolutionary crackdown departed Europe after World War II, it didn’t disappear from the world. It flared up in the form of wars of national liberation in South Asia, Latin America, the Arab world, and Indochina. The portion of southern writing that became World Literature required champions in the publishing houses of northern capitals. Through declining Paris, the West got Carpentier and Cortázar from Latin America; through rising London, Gordimer and Naipaul from the Commonwealth. Their international reception depended on a cosmopolite audience — political, curious, appalled by the war in Vietnam — that emerged with the end of colonialism and seems to have lasted through the Central American dirty wars of the 1980s.
The social situation of the southern writer remained what it had ceased to be in the rich countries not long after World War II: to one side of the writer stood a large, increasingly educated population of working people whose ongoing tolerance of social injustice could not be taken for granted, and to the other side a government run on behalf of an owning class too insecure and divided to shrug at the opinions of national writers. The class composition of many postcolonial countries resembled that of European countries three-quarters of a century before: a ruling class uneasily split between rural landlords and a thin stratum of urban bourgeoisie, a working class that still consisted more of peasants than city-dwelling wage-seekers. The combination of restive masses and a hostile or approving but not indifferent bourgeoisie gave the work of southern writers a social charge no longer available to literature in the stabilized rich countries.
The social situation of the southern writer remained what it had ceased to be in the rich countries not long after World War II: to one side of the writer stood a large, increasingly educated population of working people whose ongoing tolerance of social injustice could not be taken for granted, and to the other side a government run on behalf of an owning class too insecure and divided to shrug at the opinions of national writers. The class composition of many postcolonial countries resembled that of European countries three-quarters of a century before: a ruling class uneasily split between rural landlords and a thin stratum of urban bourgeoisie, a working class that still consisted more of peasants than city-dwelling wage-seekers. The combination of restive masses and a hostile or approving but not indifferent bourgeoisie gave the work of southern writers a social charge no longer available to literature in the stabilized rich countries…The major transitional figure from this earlier era of World Literature, when things were still “postcolonial,” to the contemporary globalized period, is Salman Rushdie. Midnight’s Children (1981), a genuinely angry book, belongs to the older style of World Lit: Rushdie, outraged by the Emergency, wrote a Günter Grass–inspired denunciation of the failures of India.
The book Rushdie published the next year, The Satanic Verses (1988), now looks like the inauguration of World Literature’s global phase, in the form of the novel of “hybridity.” Rushdie answered the question posed at the beginning of the novel — “How does newness come into the world?” — by devising his own English-Hindi-Urdu patois, in which he gave a revisionist account of the mingled, mongrel voices that went into composing the Koran. Fortuitously, The Satanic Verses was published the year before the Warsaw Pact unraveled: now a world split by the cold war could become a unified globe. Less fortuitously, the head of the Iranian Revolution — itself a salvo against cultural globalization, among other things — put a price on Rushdie’s head. Khomeini had thus inadvertently sanctified the global novel in English…The novel itself was deeply impressive, deploying the metafictional techniques of postmodernism to address the major contemporary theme of migration, later prompting as much theory as it seemed to be responding to.
But a post–cold war, globalized World Literature was not a more radical or politicized one. On the contrary: for Rushdie and other writers like him, what had been radicalism swiftly collapsed into a single pious axiom — freedom of speech — on whose behalf they would support any action. Three years after The Satanic Verses, the US would invade Iraq for the first time; just over a decade later it fell to Rushdie, no longer in hiding, to make the “liberal case” for the second invasion. Rushdie, who hadn’t cared for the Indian national ideal, came to have few qualms about the United States. Following The Satanic Verses, the association of postcolonial writing with anti-imperialism was dead.
Many writers today are unavoidably, increasingly, transnational—in experience, subject matter, reading tastes. Still more belong to a manifest world-system. Their publishers are multinational corporations; the universities they teach at, or where their work may be taught, train a global elite; and much of their audience, actual or hoped-for, reads English, though huge markets for books also exist in Mandarin, Spanish, and French.
…writers of serious or half-serious fiction and essays, never mind poetry or plays, face national audiences apparently shrinking in relative or absolute terms. The readership for “literature”—in the sense of actual or wannabe works of artistry and intellect—may be spreading out, globally, but in most societies it appears also to be thinning. Literature never quite shed its elite connotations; today it is a more professionalized and elite activity than it was a generation or two ago. One temptation is for writers to hope that enough thin-sliced national audiences, stacked together, might be world enough to support them.
Today’s World Literature might better be called Global Literature. World calls up aspirations to true universality—“We are the world!”—while global, through no fault of its own, evokes phenomena like global capitalism and global warming the good and bad effects of which are by no means universally felt. Global, in other words, implies worldwide processes that polarize the conditions of the world’s people (including, presumably, their literary condition). Through globalization, the US and China can become equally unequal! Writers aren’t to be blamed for this situation, or not much. The question is what we make of it.
Global Literature can’t help but reflect global capitalism, in its triumph, inequalities, and deformations…It has its own economy, consisting of international publishing networks, scouts, and book fairs. It has its prizes: the Nobel, of course, but more powerful and snazzier is the Man Booker, and the Man Booker International. Its political arm is PEN. And it has a social calendar full of literary festivals, which bring global elites into contact with the glittering stars of World Lit. Every year, sections of the dominant class fly from Mexico City to have Julian Barnes sign books in Xalapa, or from Delhi to Jaipur to be seen partying with Mario Vargas Llosa.
What happens at these festivals? No debate; no yelling; some drinking; lots of signing of books. They are like peace conferences, though the national constituencies haven’t been consulted. They represent the state of World Literature at the present time. Everywhere, a political writer has acquired a quieter global successor. Insurrectionary Gordimer has given way to the sedulously horrified Coetzee; ranting Grass to mourning (and deceased) Sebald; angry Rushdie to shitty Rushdie. Of course there was something wrong with the old militancy, too. “We fought for parties that, if they had won, would have sent us immediately to forced labor camps,” Bolaño said bluntly, without too much exaggeration: “We fought and put all our generosity into an ideal that had been dead for more than fifty years.”
World Literature was not often called that when there were still three worlds: first (capitalist), second (Soviet-style socialist), and third (could go either way). Since the cold war, what it has gained in circumspection it has lost in direction. In spite of the increasing worldliness of writers, the contemporary world often fails to impress itself on World Lit with much force. Themes of the novel (the main vehicle of World Literature) from the era of late modernism and postcolonialism — exile and trauma in particular — have become, pried from their original political context, devices of blindness more than insight. Michael Ondaatje, a Sri Lankan–born Canadian of Dutch ancestry and hero to many world litterateurs, has been exemplary in the worst way, with his sinuous capacity to suggest a political mind without betraying a real one…
An older global novel was animated by an attempt to win for fiction not only a new language and form but a role in securing an entire realm of freedom. But the political liberation failed, or was botched or betrayed; to write as if third-worldism were still a source of promise would be an especially tedious kind of cant. In the absence of political prospects, writers have produced backward-glancing narratives of trauma…The obsession with past trauma refracts World Lit’s sense of belatedness, even when the genre advertises its contemporaneity. You can argue that we’re still haunted by Hiroshima or the Holocaust, that people refuse to speak about this haunting — kind of the way they refuse to care about the novel. Past horrors, unlike contemporary ones, also tend to be events liberal readers agree about. But they displace the contemporary world, locating politics always elsewhere, in some distant geography and irrecoverable past. Present day confusions and controversies are neglected or sentimentalized.
THE KEY INSTITUTION in the creation of World Literature has not been the literary festival, or even the commercial publishing house, but the university. Every World Lit writer seems to have an appointment. Pamuk teaches at Columbia; Paul Muldoon at Princeton; Junot Díaz at MIT. University-produced postcolonial theory was also part of the education of World Lit. Rushdie had crucial friendships with Edward Said and Homi Bhabha, as did Ngugi with Gayatri Spivak. Increasingly writers from Calcutta and Cape Town attend MFA programs in East Anglia or Syracuse. Universities that celebrate their commitment to diversity — of cultural identity, if not class background — owe it to themselves to hire writers of odes to hybridity.
Universities began to hire and promote writers from the global south around the time that the national liberation movements failed, prompting many to flee abroad. (After the cold war, the US was also willing to grant visas to writers, like Gordimer, whose fellow-traveling sympathies had previously kept them out.) These southern writers turned into guest workers of a kind, their employment dependent on a permanently foreign identity. The result was uprooting without assimilation; foreign writers transformed exile into professional expertise and literary theme. Fundraising draws at the university and stars of the festival circuit, they were invited to speak on panels about the loss of self under migration, or to meditate on the bloody crossroads of politics and literature in rooms where nobody raised his or her voice. (Across the hall, the purely academic panels in the 1980s were, for better and worse, more vituperative.) Bereft of both a native and a general metropolitan audience, with a readership geographically broad but socioeconomically thin, they floated in the wake of the academic boat steaming ahead of them. Academic theorists of hybridity, the postcolonial, and World Literature gave novelists an authority that no longer emanated from themselves. The novelists must have felt required to perform their identity in a solemn key, since few if any wrote self-burlesquing comedies of exile as Nabokov had in Lolita and Pnin.
The university always threatens to insulate World Lit from the world it wants to describe and address. The great Ngugi began with socialist bildungsromane and in midcareer wrote Petals of Blood, a Marxist classic about rising peasants and workers who — he hoped — would overthrow the corrupt new ruling class of postcolonial Kenya. But Ngugi eventually decided he was producing one of Empson’s versions of “pastoral” — proletarian literature for nonproletarians — and stopped writing in English altogether. He composed subversive plays in Gikuyu and put them on in villages, deliberately forsaking “global literature” for pieces addressed to a specific community…In the university Ngugi’s analysis of the uses of language by those in power faded into a wan poststructuralism. All material questions were replaced by issues of language.
…Then there’s Arundhati Roy, who may well have abandoned the novel, after The God of Small Things, because she couldn’t find a fictional form that was right for her developing radical politics. “With her unrelenting critique of not only the liberalist ‘development’ of India but also the expansive double standards of the USA,” wrote the Indian novelist Tabish Khair of her activism, “Roy has isolated herself from many people of the sort who go to literary festivals. What they want is some soft criticism that does not make them feel too uncomfortable.”
WORLD LITERATURE, in the form gestured at by Goethe and now canonized by the academy, has become an empty vessel for the occasional self-ratification of the global elite, who otherwise mostly ignore it. If an earlier World Literature arose in the four decades after World War II to challenge northern narratives of the south, these days writers from outside the rich countries don’t seem afflicted by white writing in the same way…today’s World Lit is more like a Davos summit where experts, national delegates, and celebrities discuss, calmly and collegially, between sips of bottled water, the terrific problems of a humanity whose predicament they appear to have escaped.
There is another path. The historic rival to a World Literature made up of individual national authors was the programmatically internationalist literature of the revolutionary left: journalism, treatises, and speeches, novels, poetry, plays, and memoirs necessarily written in a given vernacular but always aimed at a borderless audience of radicals.
A developed internationalist literature would superficially resemble the globalized World Lit of today in being read by and written for people in different countries, and in its emphasis on translation (and, better yet, on reading foreign languages). But there would be a few crucial differences. The internationalist answer to the riddle of World Lit — of its unsatisfactoriness — lies in words never associated with it. These include project, opposition, and, most embarrassingly, truth. Global Lit tends to accept as given the tastes of an international middlebrow audience; internationalism, by contrast, seeks to create the taste by which it is to be enjoyed. The difference, crudely, is between a product and a project. An internationalist literary project, whether mainly aesthetic (as for modernism) or mainly political (as for the left) or both aesthetic and political, isn’t likely to be very clearly defined, but the presence or absence of such a project will be felt in what we read, write, translate, and publish.
The project can only be one of opposition to prevailing tastes, ways of writing, and politics. Global Lit, defined more by a set of institutions than a convergence of projects, treats literature as a self-evident autonomous good, as if some standard of literary excellence could be isolated from what writers have to say and how they say it. In its toothless ecumenicalism, Global Lit necessarily lacks any oppositional project of form (as, again, international modernism did) or of content (as international socialism did); the globally literary content themselves with the notion that merely to write or read “literary” books is to enlist, aesthetically and politically, on the side of the angels.
Literary excellence aside, Global Lit makes no judgments. The work it favors is in consequence often a failure on its own narrow terms, good writing being, in a word, the creation of people trying to tell the truth, however slant, rather than to produce “literature.” Writers more interested in literature than the truth ensure that they never come out with either thing