Review: What is a World?

This is the proof of my review of Pheng Cheah’s What is a World?, recently published in a special issue of Seminar (54.2.

Pheng Cheah’s What is a World? argues for the “world-making” power of literature. Taking on the might of recent debates in world literature, Cheah argues that literature has the capacity to redefine (rather than simply to react to) our existing world. A distinguished scholar in the field, Cheah has written extensively on cosmopolitanism, human rights, and postcolonial literature, and this book extends his earlier ambitions with a quite specific intervention into the discipline of world literature. In essence, What is a World? seeks to develop a “normative” account of the worldliness of world literature and argues that literature opens worlds because it is a force of receptivity. This should not be confused with the counterfactual or imaginative project of creating alternative worlds, but instead is an insistence on the ways in which literature allows us to redefine the world to begin with.

For Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Erich Auerbach, the notion of Weltliteraturwas speculative and ideal. Although these early formulations have rightly been taken to task for their Eurocentrism, it is possible, as Cheah seeks to demonstrate, to be vigilant about the narrowness of certain aspects of the historical development of the notion of world literature without dismissing, in its entirety, the critical-humanist ideals underpinning the concept in its early forms. Cheah argues that the recent revival of world literature has abandoned these critical-humanist ideals, suggesting that there has been a “hollowing out of the humanist ethos that had been world literature’s traditional heart and core” (24). For Cheah, this is connected to the “irreducible temporal dimension” of Weltliteratur (25) lost in current conjectures on world literature. It is the temporal dimension of world literature, and its connection to world history, that distinguishes it from the “world” of the “world market”: a type of causality and normative force which compels us to see our humanity (26). This is to say that, for Cheah, recent debates on world literature have become spatially based, at the expense of a proper sense of temporality. He argues that the relentless focus on the exchanges of the global literary marketplace has determined the world spatially, “solely in terms of extension” (5), and that this has placed literature in a reactive position rather than acknowledging what literature can “contribute to an understanding of the world and its possible role in remaking the world in contemporary globalization” (5). What is a World? therefore assigns literature a kind of redemptive power, and at his most optimistic, Cheah highlights the “immanent resources for resisting capitalist globalization,” which become available when we begin to understand world literature in terms of literature’s connection to worlding (11). This claim, that the question of literature cannot be answered solely sociologically in terms of market forces, also has wider resonances for the humanities in an age in which market forces are squeezing the academy in unprecedented ways.

In order to understand the idea of worlding, Cheah suggests, we need to rethink the object of our scrutiny. He therefore distinguishes between the spatial “globe” and a richer, temporally situated “world,” arguing that recent scholarship in world literature has erroneously conflated the two. This is not to say that Cheah advocates a dematerialized account of literature that claims autonomy from the workings of transnational markets, but rather to suggest that we lose the very heart of what literature is about if we reduce it purely to commodity exchange.

This ambitious book seeks to tackle these challenges through a combination of philosophical and literary analysis. The book is in two parts. The first is an impressive, wide-ranging discussion of spiritualist, materialist, and phenomenological accounts of the world, toward developing a richer understanding of literature’s worldliness. In accomplished prose, Cheah conducts a theoretically dense discussion of a range of thinkers, from an examination of how Hegelian idealism and Marxist materialism conceptualize the world within the “eschato-teleological framework of universal progress” (7) in chapters two and three to a detailed discussion of the concept of worlding through a study of Arendt, Derrida, and Heidegger in chapters four to six. In the second part of the book, Cheah examines a number of anglophone postcolonial novels, including Michelle Cliff’s Clare Savage novels, Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide, Nuruddin Farah’s Gifts, Ninotchka Rosca’s State of War, and Timothy Mo’s Renegade.These novels are offered as “examples of how to analyze world literature as the interplay of different processes of worlding” (14). The analysis of the literary works is intended to inflect and deepen the theory developed in the first part of the book by “exploring concrete postcolonial sites where the opening of new worlds is of the greatest urgency” (14). Although the book appears to separate philosophy from literary examples, they are in fact deeply interconnected, as Cheah himself acknowledges. This is an admirable project but leaves us asking, on occasion, about the unresolved tension between close and distant reading: between texts and contexts. Although Cheah offers sophisticated readings of the novels, particularly in relation to their experimentation with narrative temporalities, there is less formal specificity and close attention to poetics, syntax, style, or craft (to the substance, material, and techniques of literature itself) than is perhaps needed to wholly convince us of the redemptive power of literature itself. In other words, it is difficult to conceptualize the worldly force of literature (including its resistance to total rationalization and endurance in an age of advanced technological communications) without a sharper sense of what it is that makes a literary work literature at all. What constitutes literary material and how does this relate to the fields in which it is produced? How do we do justice to the fine distinctions between literary forms without turning away from the contexts in which literary works are produced?

These questions underlie Cheah’s book and have been acknowledged as central challenges in the study of world literature. Nevertheless, the question of doing justice to both texts and contexts remains, perhaps necessarily, somewhat unresolved in Cheah’s book. It is possible, however, that this is precisely the challenge that What is a World?presents us with, as future critics, translators, writers, and specialists: to better understand the normative power of literature in our specific disciplines, fields, and areas of research. We might, for instance, address Cheah’s heavy emphasis on narrative fiction by asking how his ideas about the worlding of literature work in dialogue with the specific poetic or dramatic works that we are currently working with. In this way, it perhaps becomes possible to collaborate with What is a World?in order to develop new situated accounts which productively pressure and extend its claims about literature’s world-making force.

This is, without doubt, a welcome book. It resounds with hope: repositioning literature as active force for the emergence of new worlds, new ways of thinking, and new forms of subjectivity in the world. Who wants to turn their backs on the possibility that literature does not simply reflect on the sorry state of a globalized, highly unequal world, but also carries a normative power to create and shape alternate worlds? In a period increasingly characterized by division, inequality, and hatred, it is surely our task to think critically about Cheah’s reintroduction of ethics, humanism, and agency into discussions about world literature, and to put pressure on these ideas in order to think harder about the ethicopolitical possibilities that world literature offers for our existing world.


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