IT IS AN ARTICLE OF FAITH in the humanities that reading literature, insofar as it brings us into contact with other worlds beyond our own, is an ethical activity. Most famously, perhaps, George Eliot insisted that:
The greatest benefit we owe to the artist, whether painter, poet, or novelist, is the extension of our sympathies. Appeals founded upon generalizations and statistics require a sympathy ready-made, a moral sentiment already in activity; but a picture of human life such as a great artist can give, surprises even the trivial and the selfish into that attention to what is apart from themselves, which may be called the nearest thing to life; it is a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellow-men beyond the bounds of our personal lot.
But can there be too much of a good thing? Do the processes of globalization, especially as they have compressed time and space and brought us into exponentially greater contact with once-distant peoples and places, demand that we consider, instead, how we might set limits on the flow of otherness into our lives? In his challenging new book, The Deliverance of Others: Reading Literature in a Global Age, literary critic and Stanford professor David Palumbo-Liu is keen to take the measure of the global encounter between a reader and the “other,” that stranger who comes importuning upon his or her sympathies.
The Deliverance of Others is organized around close readings of works by J.M. Coetzee, Nadine Gordimer, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Ruth Ozeki, yet its orientation is expansive and outward. The literary imagination displayed by these writers offers a powerful mode of reflection upon the various cultural, political, economic forces that bring us into contact with one another in the global age. Palumbo-Liu is especially interested in how we are “slotted” into new situations by what he calls “delivery systems” — standards of rationality, patterns of consumption, advertising, the global market as a whole. These “delivery systems” package and manage the encounter between self and other, but reading global literature, Palumbo-Liu argues, can give us significant new critical purchase upon such processes. What global literature has to tell us about this or that culture has less to do with making some foreign experience easily accessible — literature as armchair tourism, in other words — than it does with making us reconsider the very relation between “self” and “other,” or “here” and “there.”
The Deliverance of Others thus carries forward the exemplary critical attention that Palumbo-Liu has always paid to cross-cultural relationality in his scholarship. In Asian/American: Historical Crossings of a Racial Frontier (1999), he troubled the all-too-unilateral narrative of Asian assimilation into American society by offering a nuanced account of the ways cultures interpenetrate in dynamic and often unstable ways. More recently, he has focused on the work of sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein and world systems analysis, a macroscopic and long-historical view of the global political economy, one that challenges the parameters of the modern nation-state as well as the boundaries of academic disciplinarity. Palumbo-Liu acknowledges the power of this synthetic account, while arguing that humanistic scholarship, with its emphasis on cultural particularity, ...read more