The Becoming-Literature of the World: Pheng Cheah’s Case for World Literature

By Shir AlonDecember 19, 2016

The Becoming-Literature of the World: Pheng Cheah’s Case for World Literature

What Is a World? by Pheng Cheah

OVER THE PAST two decades, the term “world literature” has been revived on the American academic scene as a magical remedy for humanities departments charged with parochialism and irrelevance. The list of new anthologies, studies, and journal issues dedicated to world literature is difficult to keep up with and impossible to ignore. Nowadays, a young academic looking to spice up her résumé can enroll in a summer course at the Institute of World Literature, run by Harvard professor David Damrosch, which presents itself as a training ground for scholars and educators of literature in the globalized era. Its curriculum exemplifies the two primary practices associated with world literature today: the first is a scholarly focus on global networks of literary exchange, influence, or intersection, usually grounded in the work of Pascale Casanova, Franco Moretti, and Damrosch himself. The second is a curatorial-pedagogical project, geared toward introducing the “literature of the world” to the American classroom. Both are timely endeavors. It seems self-evident that any serious argument for the relevance of literary studies today cannot limit itself to an Anglophone or even Western canon, but must be attentive to many languages, localities, and cultural forms.

Nevertheless, since the early 2000s, the term “world literature” has also served as a target for a wide variety of assaults. Gayatri Spivak’s dramatic Death of a Discipline set the tone in 2003, bemoaning the fact that it has increasingly replaced “comparative literature” as a disciplinary paradigm. Spivak writes that the concept of world literature tends to appropriate and domesticize difference, while comparative literature’s nuanced attention to language and idiom upholds alterity. Ten years later, Emily Apter’s polemically titled Against World Literature charged the burgeoning paradigm with inattention to the complications and complicities of literature read in translation. That same year, n+1 published a sizzling, contentious editorial, “World Lite,” which created a minor blog swarm with its call for a more radically political global canon. As these few examples illustrate, the specter of world literature seems to draw disproportionate amounts of vitriol. The diverse nature of these assaults, and the wide disparity between the various objects called “world literature” that they claim to oppose, illustrate how broad, amorphous, and often vacuous the term has become, making itself an easy target for a diverse set of agendas.

Pheng Cheah’s What Is a World?: On Postcolonial Literature as World Literature (Duke University Press, 2016) is a newcomer to this debate, presenting yet another challenge to world literature as a pedagogical canon and a critical-theoretical approach. This theoretically dense and rich book achieves a great number of things, though a successful critique of world literature is not necessarily one of them. Most notably, Cheah wishes to rehabilitate a definition of the literary as an ethical and political force in our time. However, his latching on to the popular debate forces the question: Why the need to strike at the straw man yet again? Or, in other words, what is it about world literature that sparks such recurring antagonism?

A recent observation by a friend of mine, a scholar in postcolonial Anglophone literature, is illuminating in this regard. “They really want a world lit person on their faculty,” she reflected upon returning from an interview at an English department in a large Midwestern university. “Mostly they want that person to tell them what world literature is.” It seems that many departments feel the pressure for an injection of world lit, without quite knowing what that literature would or should be. For world literature has become, rather rapidly, a business model, aligned with the needs of the corporate university. This is a university that is eager to produce “global citizens” while eliminating its costly and cumbersome language studies divisions, that is committed to diversity without necessarily studying its violent prehistories.

As corporate logics and neoliberal agendas threaten to fully overtake liberal arts education in the United States, humanities scholars increasingly struggle to hold on to the idea that their work can be differentiated from, or even positioned against, a global capitalist economy. The attacks on theories of world literature are an attempt to defend an old idea: that humanistic inquiry can and should remain removed from instrumental relationships of power. It is not enough to argue that there is room for the humanities in the corporate university (an idea that, as witnessed by the budgetary drainage of humanities department, is itself under attack). What is at stake in the world literature wars is the need to demonstrate that literary studies can exceed, challenge, or simply remain removed from corporate logics; that it has a value that cannot be easily calculated toward the students’ (or the university’s) financial futures.

The anxiety to differentiate humanist scholarship from processes of globalized capitalism is central to What Is a World?, making it appear, at times, almost old fashioned. In a field overrun by sociopolitical methodologies, Cheah insists that there must be something about what literature is or does that cannot be accounted for in purely rational, sociological, or political terms; that literature, even when taught within an academy increasingly concerned with profit, can still count otherwise. This is not a return to a romantic idealization of art’s autonomy — indeed, the recognition that any oppositional stance is itself “contaminated” by predatory globalized capitalism is central to Cheah’s argument. He reads this “contamination,” or, more precisely, this overlap of thematic and formal concerns between globalized capital and literary production, in a select canon of Anglophone postcolonial novels by Michelle Cliff, Amitav Ghosh, Nuruddin Farah, Ninotchka Rosca, and Timothy Mo. These writers are familiar, albeit to differing extents, in the field of postcolonial literary studies, and scholarship has addressed their relation to legacies of colonialism, globalization, and to discourses of environmentalism and human rights. Cheah contends, however, that their narrative fictions do not simply reflect on the sorry state of a globalized world, but also carry a normative power to create and shape alternate worlds. Literature is an inexhaustible resource for world-making, he declares in one of the book’s explicitly optimistic moments, for reforming the degraded world given to us.

This is a potentially misleading formulation, since it may seem that Cheah is primarily interested in speculative fiction — literature’s capacity to imagine fantastical worlds or alternate realities. But this is not his project. Rather than imagining other worlds, Cheah is interested in the manner in which literature allows us to redefine the world to begin with, as his title explicitly asks. Like many world literature theorists, Cheah follows the French-Algerian philosopher Jacques Derrida’s distinction between the world (or monde) and the globe, sharing Derrida’s preference for the former. The globe is a spatial category, an imaginary unity that is bound materially and geographically, and increasingly so by networks of globalization. It lacks the social, historical, and cultural resonances that make the world a much richer and essentially unbounded term. Cheah’s polemic with contemporary world literature scholars is that their world is in fact a globe — a geographic space formed by networks of exchange and influence. By focusing primarily on the circulation of literary objects and forms, they equate literature with any other commodity, ignoring its profound “world-forming” power. The key questions of the field (such as, in how many languages do we read? from how many localities? What was their journey to us?) simply replicate the logic of commodity markets, even when being critical of those markets’ destructive effects.

What Is a World?, by contrast, aims to identify the “ethicopolitical horizon [that literature] opens up for the existing world”: literature’s normative, rather than merely reflective, capacity — in other words, its ability to shape a world rather than simply being its product. To that end, Cheah mobilizes a series of terms that seem to have long gone out of fashion, beaten out of use by historicist deconstruction: world spirit, universality, teleology, and authenticity. What Is a World? argues that novels that merit the name world literature “remake the world against capitalist globalization” by pointing, through their narrative contingencies, at the openness of ontological structures.

While there is certainly some truth to Cheah’s critique of the sociological, encyclopedic, or technological penchants of contemporary world literature studies, the book might be more productively read as a direct elaboration of his 2006 book, Inhuman Conditions. There, Cheah examines how normative definitions of the human underwrite concepts and approaches to globalization, particularly in the fields of human rights and cosmopolitanism. Combining both material and theoretical critique, it reveals the shortcomings of these two approaches, which attempt to give globalization a “softer” humanitarian face. Cheah relies there on Derrida’s philosophy of justice for imagining more hopeful cosmopolitan alternatives. For many readers of Inhuman Conditions, particularly those hailing from global or social studies, the leap from an astute social-materialist critique of the global trade in female domestic workers, for example, to Derrida’s opaque demand that the “idea of justice” must adopt the logic of an absolute gift, “without calculation and without rules, without reason and without rationality,” proved to be jarring, undercutting the force of the analysis.

What Is a World? enacts similar transitions between sociopolitical critique and abstracted ontological considerations, but the “intermediary” layer of prose fiction makes the move between the two modes both more apparent and more complex. The book is divided into two distinct parts. In the first, Cheah offers a substantial overview of influential concepts of world: from the spiritualist-idealist accounts of Goethe and Hegel, through the materialist accounts of Marxism, to the phenomenological worlds evoked by Heidegger and Arendt, finally arriving at an ontological concept based on Derridian deconstruction. Relying on the work of the latter three thinkers, Cheah extracts a theory of the world as a temporal category, held together by the “gift of time” — an inhuman force that is radically open and foreign to us, exceeding calculation or rationality.

The notion of the world as a temporal category does not refer to world history, but rather to the world in a phenomenological sense. The world is temporalized since it is never simply given or present, but is in a constant process of taking shape, a constant process of worlding. Time, therefore, is what holds any world together. Time is also a flexible enough concept to allow Cheah to move between different scales and realms and link them together. On the political level, for example, the implementation of Greenwich Mean Time (GMT), a particular technology of temporal calculation, facilitated the entrance of new localities into a capitalist global economy dominated by a European metropole. In the realm of ideology, on the other hand, time underlines any normative project, or any projection of what the future should look like and aspire to. Finally, narrative (which Cheah often conflates with literature) relies on time — both the time of narration and the time narrated.

Despite the attempts to monitor, calculate, and control time, it can never be fully subjected to a predetermined human end or to any normative ideal. Put more modestly, time is the vehicle of change. The “incalculable gift of time” entails that nothing can be trapped in inertia or stasis, that humans have the capacity to intervene even in the most oppressive, regimented, and manipulative world structures, and that the outcome of their intervention will and should always remain open-ended. “The to-come,” Cheah writes, “is the sheer structure of promise devoid of determinate promises.”

The second part of the book turns to a selected corpus of postcolonial novels in order to examine the extent of this promise. It is here that Cheah also provides his own definition of world literature: works that address globalization as a theme or subject matter; that take up an activist or oppositional stance by enacting a world for colonized people who have been denied subjecthood by global capitalism; and that stage the world’s radical openness through self-reflective techniques of narrative instability or indecision. This is an intentionally narrow definition that is very different from predominant world literature paradigms, which focus on broad literary systems or on all-encompassing data sets. Positioned in the Philippines, Somalia, Jamaica, or the Sundarbans, Cheah’s chosen novels reflect on how former colonial localities are affected by destructive global initiatives such as humanitarian aid dependency, mass tourism, or ecological preservation efforts oblivious to the needs of indigenous populations. But the novels are not simply native informants, outlining alternative cartographies of solidarity and self-determination; they also negotiate their own complicity in globalization, and reflect on the possibilities and limits of world-making today.

The limited definition, however, inevitably leads to a limited and, in some ways, homogenous corpus. It is difficult to ignore that all the works of “world literature” in this study are English-language novels. Cheah thus seemingly unwittingly replicates one of the main shortcomings of world literature theory. As Aamir R. Mufti argues in Forget English!, another recent intervention in the world literature debate, the world-encompassing aspirations of world literature are undermined by the dominance of English as the language of literary production and criticism. The attempt to address this lacuna by noting the implied multilingualism within the Anglophone texts does not truly diminish the sense that Cheah’s radically new definition of world literature so easily does away with a great number of other language-worlds, their writers and readers. His choice implies that the “world” to be “reworlded” through literary encounter is a very particular one: the world of the Western Anglophone reader, who needs the rest of the globalized world to be brought to her.

Cheah contends that world literature theory has so far focused too narrowly on histories of literary influence and circulation, which he therefore avoids. But, as a result, the term “literature” often appears in his study as an object whose contours are taken for granted. Ignoring how social or ideological structures change the way literature is defined and read leads to a conflation of different forms of writing or oration (novel, poetry, narration, storytelling), as if all of these were merely formal variations on one theme. And this theme, according to Cheah, is always the radical, irreducible openness of the world and of time. The problem here is not that Cheah uses a set of “Western” philosophical tools to read a canon of non-Western texts. He is right to dismiss this charge as a form of knee-jerk criticism, and, in any case, it is questionable whether the work of Derrida, a French-Algerian Jew who has done much to unwork Eurocentrism, can be dismissed as “Western.” The problem, rather, is the sense that Cheah reads postcolonial novels only to unearth, once again, the Derridian philosophical world-model.

How can so much richness, nuance, and variation always be read back to one absolute model? The thing about the radical openness of time is that it is so, well, open and non-committed, that any form of narrative, agency, or political agenda can be read onto it. The only imperative to which it is committed is openness to an irreducible future. This abstraction does not always do justice to the creative particularities of the postcolonial novels discussed. The questions Cheah is most interested in are not, ultimately, those of literary production or storytelling. His concerns are more fundamental, ontological: “[h]ow human beings have access to things, how they are open to each other in the first place, and where the time required for circulation comes from […] Where does the time of storytelling come from?” What Is a World? is most useful not when it utilizes Derridean theory to analyze and interpret a set of novels (the common practice of “applying” theory), but rather when it demonstrates that literature is precisely what makes Derrida’s notion of a justice-to-come more clearly relatable.

In his last decade, Derrida’s writing increasingly engaged with questions of justice, politics, and the possibility for the emergence of novelty in a seemingly conclusive capitalist political system. Cheah directly contends with one of the most difficult aspect of this development in Derrida’s thought, namely his adoption of a “messianism without a messiah”: an eschatological structure minus the divine redemption. The political event, according to Derrida, is a moment of irreducible otherness, a coming that cannot be appropriated or anticipated. And yet the ethical act is to be open — hospitable — to this absolute alterity, vulnerable to the new horizons of justice or democracy, always still unimaginable, that it may bring.

This is a paradoxically secular religious structure. Nevertheless, Cheah’s reconstruction of a Derridean world-theory shows that this absolute otherness might not be so foreign after all: we contend with it daily when we encounter that unruly, irresolute, yet utterly worldly object that is literature. By virtue of its excess of language, of affect, and of possible interpretations — of the fact that it can always be read otherwise — literature can never be definitively tied down, enclosed, or subjected to rational calculations. As such, reading is a form of vulnerability, a welcoming invitation for a radical otherness that cannot be contained, and whose results cannot be calculated. As Cheah shows, Derrida’s account of the world as an encounter with otherness eventually adapts the model of literary reading, the becoming-literature of the world.


Shir Alon is a PhD candidate in comparative literature at UCLA.

LARB Contributor

Shir Alon is assistant professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. Her work on modern Arabic and Hebrew literatures and cultures has appeared in boundary 2Comparative LiteratureArab Studies Journal, and other venues. 


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