SOAS University of London

Centre for Cultural, Literary and Postcolonial Studies (CCLPS)

Approaches to World Literature: Questions of Critical Methods Beyond Eurocentrism

Book World

Date: 10 June 2011Time: 12:00 AM

Finishes: 11 June 2011Time: All Day

Venue: Russell Square: College Buildings Room: G50

Type of Event: Workshop

Workshop Rationale

In current debates on “world literature”, diffusionist and economicist models have so far held sway (Damrosch, Moretti, Casanova). Based on understandings of time and geographical space derived from Wallerstein’s theory of “world-system”, these models view time and history as singular and linear, as in classic theories of modernity, and space as divided between metropolitan centres and peripheries, and use vocabularies of import and export, exchange and accumulation. As a result, literatures in Asian and African languages are deemed “local”, “peripheral”, “poor” or “underdeveloped”. They are literatures that “have not made it” onto the world stage, their distance from the “world reader” a function of their own parochialism. And even if some of these critics (Moretti, Casanova) have “denounced” the world literary system as it is as “one and unequal” so as to “empower” “marginal” literatures, the models they use are so Eurocentric and poor in history and geography that they are of little use to us.

The way we view world literature has a lot to do with the way we view the world. We believe that at SOAS we can use our expertise and sensibility to non-Eurocentric views of the world to put forward non-Eurocentric views of world literature that account for the multiple layers and networks of production and circulation of the literary worlds we are familiar with.

This workshop will explore the viability of current critical work and propositions related to the definition and study of ‘World Literature’. The thematics laid out for critical investigation have for their focus questions of the agency of the non-European as articulated and put forth in major current theories of world literature and the new comparative literature. The workshop will constitute the first in a series of revisionist workshops undertaken by members of the recently established SOAS Centre for Cultural, Literary and Postcolonial Studies (CCLPS), and ranging over the literatures of Asia, Africa and The Middle East. The workshops will aim to investigate systematically and in-depth the viability of existent critical methodologies related to the study of non-European traditions, their underpinning critical and theoretical assumptions, relevant issues of interdisciplinarity and the ultimate need for textual analytic modalities that would complement and enrich methods commonly borrowed from the social sciences. These workshops will also form the genesis of a series of envisioned publication series. For each workshop one or two leading critics and/or theorists, whose work will form the focus of the critical investigations by CCLPS members, will be invited.


This workshop is free and open to anyone with an interest in the subject. If you wish to attend, please email David Lunn ( by Friday 3 June to register.


Research questions

  • How can the field of world literature be opened towards more pluralistic understandings of literature, cultures and nations?
  • How can we bridge the gap between the local and the global in world literature?
  • How can we read African and Asian literatures without homogenizing or marginalizing them?
  • How can we read the multiple layers of production and circulation of African and Asian literatures?
  • How far does the geographical model of world systems, with centres and peripheries, work for literature? Do we need other, multiple geographical maps?
  • And what about models of literary time? Casanova works around notions of earliness and lateness that presuppose a single time-line. What other models of time can be more sensitive and useful to our purpose?


Friday 10 June 2011

Room G50, SOAS Main Building

from 09.00Registration

Panel 1: Circulation of Theory

Hosam M. Aboul-Ela (University of Houston) The World Republic of Theories

Margaret Hillenbrand (Lecturer in Chinese, University of Oxford) Philosophy, Pragmatism, and East Asian Theory

Chair: Ayman El-Desouky


Panel 2: Critical Practices, local and world

Mpalive Hangson-Msiska (Reader in English and the Humanities, Birckbeck College) Cognitive liberation or critical practice as cultural freedom: the place of the ‘indigenous’ symbolic modes of representation in reading post-colonial African literary texts

David Lunn (PhD Candidate, SOAS) Thinking World Thoughts: Humanism and Hindustani in Colonial North India

Chair: Karima Laachir


Panel 3: Rethinking the local

Francesca Orsini (Reader in the Literatures of North India, SOAS) More than one Map: Thinking about geography in world literature

S. Shankar (Associate Professor of English, University of Hawaii at Manoa) Postcolonialism, the Vernacular and Literatures of the World

Chair: Shital Pravinchandra


Panel 4: Beyond centre/periphery

Preetha Mani (PhD Candidate, University of California at Berkeley) Parallel Worlds: Worlding Literature through the Hindi and Tamil Short Story Genres

Waïl Hassan (Assistant Professor of Comparative & World Literature, University of Illinois) World Literature as a South-South Affair

Chair: Francesca Orsini

Saturday 11 June 2011

Room G50, SOAS Main Building


Panel 5: Approaching world literature through genre

Karin Barber (Centre of West African Studies, University of Birmingham) How oral texts are held to have meaning: traditions of exegesis in Africa

Shital Pravinchandra (Assistant Professor of English, Yale University) World literature and the short story

Chair: Grace Koh


Panel 6: Critical frames

Stephen Quirke (Professor in Egyptology, UCL) Towards a study of 2nd millennium BC Egyptian literature beyond Europe, global or local?

Rachel V. Harrison (Reader in Thai Cultural Studies, SOAS) The Ambiguous Allure of the West: Traces of the Colonial in Siam/Thailand

Grace Koh (Lecturer in Korean Literature, SOAS) Canon-Formation and ‘National Literature’: Defining Korean Literature in Local and Global Contexts

Chair: Whitney Cox


Concluding discussion

Chair: S. Shankar

with Kumkum Sangari (University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee)

16.30-17.15Closed panel: future plans

Paper Abstracts

World Literature as a South-South Affair

Waïl S. Hassan

This paper explores the implications of South-South dialogue to the ongoing conceptualization of world literature. My contention is that recent articulations of global literary studies, along with the anthology industry and the curricular needs to which they cater, share in the normative logic of global capital: the center-periphery structure of the Great Books paradigm has given way to a more integrated approach that maintains the centrality of Western European and U.S. conceptions of global relations. Can a world literature conceived as a South-South affair alter that perspective? The question of South-South dialogue has emerged in several sites, including academic debates over the status of postcolonial studies and whether the privileging of colonialism may contribute covertly to reinforcing Eurocentric historiography and theory. Another context where the idea of South-South dialogue has taken center stage is in international diplomacy, from the Bandung conference in the 1950s to the Latin American-Arab summit inaugurated by Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in 2004 and reconvened several times since, which aims at fostering diplomatic, economic, and cultural cooperation between countries of the two regions. Yet another, much less explored, site is that of immigration among countries of the global south and the literary relations that immigrants cultivate or, in some cases, inaugurate. My examples are drawn from the work of Brazilian and other Latin American writers of Arab descent, who establish an Arab-Latin American axis exemplary of a different kind of world literature.

Postcolonialism, the Vernacular and Literatures of the World

S. Shankar

My presentation engages with questions of world literature through the notion of “the vernacular.” Reviewing some of the meanings of “vernacular” especially in a postcolonial context, I suggest the theoretical work such a critical term can do in locating cultural specificity as well as challenging overpowering models of globality. “World Literature” immediately raises questions of translation and anthologization. I note that the vernacular has a peculiarly potent as well as conflicted relationship to translation, and thus World Literature. Similarly, the vernacular vexes the seamless production of canons of World Literature through anthologization. Building on these remarks, I conclude by proposing that “literatures of the world” is a more productive as well as tenable rubric for pedagogy and scholarship than World Literature. Throughout the presentation, I illustrate my remarks by reference to literatures of India in Tamil and English.

Cognitive liberation or critical practice as cultural freedom: The place of the ‘indigenous’ symbolic modes of representation in reading Post-colonial African literary texts

Mpalive Msiska

The paper will be underpinned by the assumption that critical practice, indeed, as other forms of knowledge, is contingently linked to broader questions of power which define what in a particular place and time is seen as constituting epistemic legitimacy. As regards the reading of African literary texts, especially those written in received languages, the challenge has been to develop conceptual tools and discourses that resonate with and articulate the decolonising impulse of the texts. The paper will reflect on how writers, for instance, Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Steve Chimombo, have sought to produce, not only an indigenous aesthetic, but also conceptions of textual formation that suggest productive ways of tracing how Post-colonial literary texts are set and located within the wider indigenous cosmologies and cultural beliefs which exist in tension with Western Modernity.

Parallel Worlds: Worlding Literature through the Hindi and Tamil Short Story Genres

Preetha Mani

The influential world literature theorists Moretti, Damrosch, and Casanova insist that one of the defining characteristics of a work belonging to the world literary canon is its world presence—not just its translatability or the portability of its language, concepts, or themes; but also its material existence across geographical borders.  In this way, works belonging to the world literature canon participate in the worlding process of world literature, by which these works are known (or made intelligible) through the discourse of world literature, rather than through other types of discourses, whether they be national, regional, literary, or political.  Works that are worlded—made a part of the world literary canon—share in the universalizing discourse of world literature that sets the standards for what constitutes literariness. Worlding literature, thus, is an ever-consolidating center-periphery dynamic through which works outside this canon can only be intelligible as “not literary” and “other.”

I will argue, however, that while worlding literature is indeed a process of creating centers and peripheries, neither do these centers necessarily link up, nor do they exclude the same peripheries.  In this talk, I take up the Hindi short story writer Rajendra Yadav’s notion of a parallel world to both gesture towards the parallel endeavors that Hindi and Tamil writers undertook in the post-Independence moment to renew the short story genre, as well as to show how each literary movement mobilized the category of “world literature” (and in particular, “the world story”) to affirm divergent constructions of “literariness” that excluded distinct traditions and histories deemed outside their respective canons.  In the Hindi case the worlding of the short story forecloses both the Urdu/Persian and the world story traditions, whereas in the Tamil case the worlding of this genre bars entry to the ethnically Dravidian, classical Tamil past.  Through an exploration of these non-aligning utilizations of world literature in shaping the Hindi and Tamil short story genres, I rethink the concept of worlding literature, suggesting that it be used, instead, as a methodology for approaching literary comparisons on the basis of their singular, albeit worlding enterprises.

More than one Map: Thinking about geography in world literature

Francesca Orsini

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of current paradigms of world literature is that whether they think of world literature in terms of circulation and translation (Damrosch) or of a “world-system” (Moretti), nine-tenths of literary production ends up falling off the map. This suggests that we need to reflect seriously on the geographical categories we think with, categories that may look neutral but are in fact euro-centric. Taking the lead from Martin W. Lewis and Kaeren E. Wigen’s critique of meta-geography in The Myth of Continents (1997), this paper will consider the consequence of using paradigms from the social sciences in thinking about geography in the context of world literature. It will in particular focus on the implicit hierarchy that places the “local” at a lower scale than “regional”, “national”, and “world”. It will argue instead that we can look at the “local” as a layered space that is already imbricated in multiple networks that, taken together, will help us design geographical maps more appropriate for literature.

World literature and the short story

Shital Pravinchandra

This paper engages with Moretti’s hypotheses about world literature in order to argue that the excessive attention he bestows upon the novel effectively reproduces the ‘one but unequal’ status of the world literary system. My claim is that an adequate theorization of world literature requires the literary critic to understand that if we fail to take notice of the problem of literary genre the problem of world literature will only be further compounded. My paper turns to an entirely different genre — the short story — on the grounds that this is a necessary shift in focus that both takes into account the actual literary production of the global south and showcases the urgent need for literary critical attention to genre. Although the short story largely remains, to this day, as F. Odun Balogun puts it when discussing the case of the African short story, “a literature in search of critics”, my paper looks at concrete instances of short story criticism. Through these examples, the paper suggests possible ways in which the short story might help us redesign our existing models for understanding world literary production.

The World Republic of Theories

Hosam M. Aboul-Ela

The work of Franco Moretti, Pascal Casanova, Gayatri Spivak and others deploying the category of world/global/planetary literature has performed the vital function of reminding scholars that literary cultures operate on the global stage across always already mapped networks of power that cannot be swept to the side by employing the language of the flat world. Questions of value have always been vexed in literary studies. The "world literature debate" has made a significant contribution in its formulation of a discourse of value that transcends conservative appeals to the aesthetic sublime, as well as rigid Marxist formulations of the problem in economism. Less attention has been paid, however, to the way theoretical texts circulate globally. "Theory" also accrues value and power, and in its international circulation, this system of value is particularly apparent, even if rarely acknowledged. Much of cultural studies tries futilely to subvert the value of theory in the world republic of letters by ignoring it. This study will offer a preliminary exploration of ways in which an awareness of our economies of value in the circulation and citation of theoretical texts can profoundly alter our practice of reading. The paper will draw on the work of Pierre Bourdieu, Samir Amin, Marilena Chaui, and Abdullah Laroui as well as Moretti, Casanova, and Spivak, and probe roads toward the "wilderness" of what might be called "theory" in the "third world."

Towards a study of 2nd millennium BC Egyptian literature beyond Europe, global or local?

Stephen Quirke

Gavin Lucas showed how archaeology constructed a Past separate from present (2005); Johannes Fabian analysed from the use of the present tense in anthropology the denial of 'coevality' in ethnographic reports after shared time in fieldwork; Edward Said challenged the legitimacy of anthropology in its colonial framing. Together, then, we might summarise along the lines, 'European imperialism assigned to anthropology and archaeology the ideological conquest of Space and Time'. In this shadow, Egyptology emerged separate from archaeology as Eurocentric philological study of writings in the ancient Egyptian language. Alongside the linguistic and geographical marginalisation of the contemporary land, there has been a recurrent engagement with literary studies, arguably promoting understanding of the history, syntax and vocabulary for a range of ancient compositions. On this basis one could commence a critique of world systems theory from comparing centripetal and centrifugal effects of the domination of one language (Egyptian) and its scripts (hieroglyphic script and, as important, its cursive forms) in one linguistically-defined region (Nile valley from Aswan to Delta Mediterranean coast) from one period (2nd millennium BC). From the regional monolingual dominance in script, one could invoke the terminology of mono-/ heteroglossia as deployed by Bakhtin, but seek to avoid the hierarchical tendency of world systems theory by invoking Gramscian approaches in which hegemony and fracture might not be read so automatically as negative and positive in effect. A researcher might then consider the generative potential, negative and positive of relationally imposed/ resisted/ accepted/ adapted expressions of verbal arts. This paper will consider on this basis whether all these European writers and writings could clarify or merely close down a non-European literature, however defined. To explore whether these questions can advance both the particular time-area study, and the world literary debate beyond, I take the example of recent applications by Anthony Spalinger of the Propp analyses of Eurasian fabulous tales to Egyptian stories. Could these analyses in some dimension define a border of Asia to Africa in the second millennium BC and beyond? This may be the moment for a marginalised Europe to suggest such an idea for future revivals of the African-Asian South-South moment from the intellectual history of Egypt under Gamal Abdel Nasser.

How oral texts are held to have meaning: traditions of exegesis in Africa

Karin Barber

Comparative literature often operates with a typological conception of genre which is external and purports to be universal, but is based on European genre-distinctions which are then applied to other cultures. More recent conceptions of genre, however, have preferred to see it as a localised way of organising speech activity, understood as a repertoire of skills, dispositions and expectations, an orienting framework for the production and reception of discourse. Taking this approach may lead to a radical reconceptualisation of the very subject-matter of comparative literature, as it raises questions about what people in other cultures think a text is and how it may be considered to “have meaning”. Praise poetry is one of the most powerful and pervasive forms of oral verbal art across sub-Saharan Africa. In most variants of this form, the praise-poet’s words are deliberately cryptic and allusive, and the interpretation lies elsewhere – in a well-defined parallel tradition of narrative, which may even be transmitted by a different set of specialists. Interpretation involves linking the formulations of the praise text to a relevant sequence of narrative; but the narrative tradition, conversely, depends on the praise formulations to serve as mnemonics and narrative stepping-stones. The links between them can be etymological, etiological, punning, or can depend on other kinds of verbal association. The similarities found in praise poetry traditions in West, East and Southern Africa already provide the basis for a kind of regional comparatism. But this could be taken further: I envisage that we could work towards mapping out a global picture of the different ways in which text and textual meaning are constituted: a view that starts “from the other side”, and from the
ground up rather than the top down.

Philosophy, Pragmatism, and East Asian Theory

Margaret Hillenbrand

The impact of Western theory on the study of East Asian cultures is a well-trodden field of inquiry. Embraced and disdained in equal measure, “theory” has had energizing effects on East Asian studies, forcing the subject to re-define itself and its priorities. As part of this process, questions are now being asked about the provenance of theory – and why, in particular, it is associated so axiomatically with the West. What is needed, scholars are beginning to argue, are ways of thinking theoretically about contemporary East Asia that take their cues from closer to home. This paper suggests that a spirit of communitarianism is vital to this endeavour.

The Ambiguous Allure of the West: Traces of the Colonial in Siam/Thailand

Rachel V. Harrison

In terms of its relationship to the wider critical debates of cultural studies and comparative literary theory, Thai Studies as an academic field has occupied a relatively isolated position. This paper discusses the epistemological effects of Thailand’s state-authorized national identity as intimately linked to discourses of “never having been colonized [by the West]”, (asserted, for example, in works of contemporary fiction and cinema, as well as in school curricula and popular history). The paper examines the impact that this claim to cultural and political uniqueness has had upon the processes by which the study of Thai culture can be drawn into broader, comparative debates. It does this by reinvigorating arguments pertaining to Siam/Thailand as semi-colonial, crypto-colonial, auto-colonial, internally colonizing, or in some other way engaging with the processes of colonization. The analytical impact of this is to draw the study of Thailand into what I argue to be a fruitful and liberating liminal or hybridized space. This space in turn opens up the potential for connection with broader and overlapping debates in postcolonial studies from which Siam/Thailand has hitherto remained relatively isolated because of what is at stake in conservative, nationalist, and often (though not exclusively) elite-centred state discourses pertaining to national identity. Whilst the study of the evolution of Thai prose fiction (the rise of the novel and the short story) from the early twentieth century, provides an abundance of examples relating to the intimate effects of coloniality on form, content and authorship, this paper also acknowledges cinema as a rich indicator of the effects of Thailand’s contemporary cultural relationship with, and commitment to, the project of “internationalization/globalization/ Westernization”.

I draw on two case studies in this paper to explore Siam/Thailand’s cultural relations with and to coloniality/neo-coloniality/post-coloniality and crypto-coloniality: the first refers to one of the earliest instances of the Thai novel, published in 1916 and based loosely on Rider Haggard’s She – namely Khru Liam’s The Divine Nymphs (Nang Neramid). The second example is drawn from the early 21st century and is provided by the 2004 film February (Kumphaphan, dir. Yuthlert Sippapak), set for the large part in New York and concerning the alienating experiences of its two Thai protagonists, G and I, in their quest to “find themselves” and return home to Thailand.

The paper will be supported by excerpts from the film itself and reference to translated extracts of the novel Nang Neramid.

Canon-Formation and ‘National Literature’: Defining Korean Literature in Local and Global Contexts

Grace Koh

This paper seeks to identify detected processes, agencies and criteria for canon-formation of Korean literature in the Korean and Anglo-American contexts, with a view to determine factors that have defined and redefined it as a ‘national literature’. It will examine the relationship between language, history and identity, and issues surrounding the translation, reception and representativity of Korean literature abroad based on a comparative study of Korean literary histories and anthologies produced in Korea, Britain and North America.

Thinking World Thoughts: Humanism and Hindustani in Colonial North India

David Lunn

While current models of world literature stress the transactional and circulatory elements of literary forms and products in the context of inter-national competition, Goethe’s original imagination of Weltliteratur was largely blind to tangible products as such, and focused more on abstracted ideas of inter-cultural exchange and mediation. Sensible to this, Georg Brandes advocated tracing ‘world thoughts’, particularly in his case ‘freedom’, as developed in and through world literature yet with sensitivity to national specificities. Through a reading of a selection of Hindustani texts from the 1920s and ’30s, I will suggest that such ‘world thoughts’ were being argued and articulated in colonial India in ways that defy economistic models of ‘import’, even as they engaged with the attempted forging of a new ‘national’ literature. Linked to circulating ideas of socialism and secularism, humanism in this literary context was the product of a dialogic engagement with European and Russian texts, alongside more localised and long-standing articulations of transcendent panentheism. This allows for the development of a strand of humanism that is at once global and local, and that has in turn re-entered global currents of humanist thought. Ultimately, this paper is a modest attempt at tracing part of the “free spiritual trade” that was central to Goethe’s own understanding of world literature, while working to liberate the concept from the more pernicious aspects of a vocabulary of economics.

Organiser: Centre for Cultural, Literary and Postcolonial Studies (CCLPS)