Unmaking World Literature

By Chris FindeisenDecember 26, 2019

Unmaking World Literature

UNESCO and the Fate of the Literary by Sarah Brouillette

IMAGINE FOR A MOMENT that the World Republic of Letters had a library. Now imagine that the librarians who selected, distributed, and in some cases produced the books circulating among the patrons were a loose confederation of Marxist professors, publishing lobbyists, and government bureaucrats from every nation on earth. Upon what common ground might such an institution build its foundation? From what raw materials might they select its keystone, such that it bears the load of its design and does not collapse, immediately, in some spectacular catastrophe? 

It’s difficult to imagine the labor that could bring such a colossus into the world, but what’s more surprising: that it can be made, or that it could be unmade?

Sarah Brouillette’s excellent new book, UNESCO and the Fate of the Literary, grounds the category of “world literature” in the only literary institution capable of matching the concept’s scale. Of course, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) is not exactly a library. Like its United Nations counterparts, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Health Organization (WHO), UNESCO is very much a specialized agency that enacts international policy. The question of how and why world literature — famously defined by Pascale Casanova as a “literary universe relatively independent of the everyday world and its political divisions, whose boundaries and operational laws are not reducible to those of ordinary political space” — would become the explicit subject of a United Nations special agency is the central concern of this book. According to Brouillette, understanding UNESCO’s shifting attitudes toward cultural programming helps us recognize how world literature functions during periods of economic growth and, more provocatively, periods of economic decline. 

UNESCO and the Fate of the Literary makes four major claims. First, UNESCO’s cultural programs reflect an ideological consensus among its representative members that itself emerges out of economic conditions in the capitalist world system. Second, changes in the real economy between 1945 and today led to corresponding changes in the way UNESCO understood and enacted cultural policy, consistent with both the political demands of its representative members and the expansive requirements of capital accumulation across national boundaries. Readers familiar with recent scholarship about the sociological function of cultural institutions will recognize a familiar logic in these first two arguments, largely because Brouillette has been a leading figure in cultivating them.

Her next two claims might strike readers as more controversial, even though they were once central to our collective discussions about the literary field. Like most critics in the Birmingham tradition of Marxist cultural studies, Brouillette’s research is predicated on knowing who reads what and why, which leads her to reject the assumption that literature inherently “reaches a substantial audience of uninitiated readers who need to learn what writers want to teach them.” In fact, she asserts the opposite — that the category of literature, materially constituted through restricted objects, industries, and institutions, necessarily instantiates hierarchies between readers. UNESCO and the Fate of the Literary is thus attuned to the ways in which aesthetic taste shapes common sense and helps to normalize unequal power relations within and between sociological categories. “To ignore these realties,” she writes, “in the name of ‘the literary’ is more conducive to our own self-flattery than to insight.”

The idea that even our most anti-colonial, anti-capitalist, anti-extractive literatures are much more effective at normalizing unequal class relations than they are at eliminating class relations might sound a little bleak. Those who hope to be free from literature’s regulatory power may soon get their wish, however. Brouillette’s fourth and final claim is that although the bourgeois sociolect we call the literary has traditionally been the province of the elite, as the social relations necessary for literature’s flourishing inevitably decline, so too will the power of its normative force. The major implication of this book is that literature itself may be left behind as the dividing lines over culture begin to be drawn elsewhere instead.

For people interested in the sociology of reading, literary institutions, canon formation, and contemporary, postcolonial, and world literatures these claims are timely and urgent. In directing our attention toward the primacy of literary institutions and away from the content of “exceptional” literary texts, one of Brouillette’s goals is to correct unearned assumptions circulating among the literati about the inherent emancipatory effects of their work. To that end, UNESCO and the Fate of the Literary positions itself in conversation with several recent scholars of world literature who, according to Brouillette, tend to treat global economic development as merely the occasion for formal experimentation among a small group of notable authors rather than the condition of the literary field as such. Brouillette saves some of her sharpest critiques for this way of thinking. She writes that:

Literature may indeed have [a] critical edge, may contain ecopolitical and anti-capitalist critique, and may help us glimpse other possible worlds. But we must at least consider the question of why, when work of this kind is so widely circulated and embraced by people within the literary milieu, the incorporative force of capitalism nevertheless motors on? To neglect this question, to ignore the delimitation of literary activity and exposure, to write as if literature is straightforwardly “an active power in the making of worlds … a site of processes of worlding and an agent that participates and intervenes in these processes” (Cheah 2), is to fail to recognize its actual dominant character and the contingencies and mediations that define it. Whose “worlding” does it shape? In whose thought does it intervene?

Whose world indeed. After sketching the book’s primary argument in the introduction, each of Brouillette’s chapters investigates a different period in UNESCO’s short history, using transformations in the real global economy to explore policy changes in UNESCO’s cultural programming. For example, Brouillette’s first chapter begins with the founding of the United Nations in the immediate aftermath of World War II and the postwar economic boom in which it seemed plausible that a rising tide would raise all ships. According to its charter, the UN exists both to “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war” and to foster “social progress and better standards of life.” Having good reason to believe that international peace and prosperity could not simply be legislated politically, the UN created UNESCO to cultivate “the unanimous, lasting and sincere support of the peoples of the world” and, in so doing, grounded its political ambitions in the “intellectual and moral solidarity of mankind.” So far so good. Who wouldn’t want that?

To help build consensus around the UN’s broader political project, Brouillette explains, UNESCO developed the Collection of Representative Works. The program brought “the world’s most notable literatures together onto a global roster of masterworks […] intended to foster cross-cultural understanding and help to establish the bases of lasting world peace.” Each nation selected its own classic works of literature — texts that reflected supposedly universal literary values and simultaneously expressed the enduring characteristics of a particular national culture. UNESCO then translated and distributed these texts to the widest possible audience, thereby “foster[ing] the coming of an international consciousness.” The Collection of Representative Works was thus conceived as a platform for highlighting the specific qualities of national literatures while also valorizing the universal appeal of literary culture writ large.

Here, we return to the book’s leading questions: what exactly do words like “prosperity,” “development,” and “universal” mean to the people and institutions that deploy them? What does one have to believe in order to think that economic development is the fundamental building block of international solidarity and human flourishing? Into whose thought, exactly, does an international literary consciousness intervene?

According to Brouillette, the answer is Cold War liberals — figures like Julian Huxley who understood the central problem addressed by international policy to be that

not everyone was yet able to escape the poverty of communal life, and they could thus not participate on equal terms, as free rights-bearing individuals, in a globalizing economy, selling their labor, purchasing commodities, and developing modern scientific, technical, and cultural wealth to share with others.

Huxley wanted to combine developed technology from the cosmopolitan centers with holistic culture from the decolonized margins, but unlike the “old modes of unthinking domination and cultural erasure” which defined colonialism, Huxley and his fellow reformers were genuinely concerned that transforming social relations by introducing liberal capitalism would mean destroying the social relations that produced the very cultures they were trying to sustain. Internalizing this valid critique, UNESCO’s signature project thus became the earnest canonization of past national literatures so that they might be eternally preserved from the very future the UN was helping to create.

The example she uses to make this argument is the novel Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata. In Brouillette’s reading, UNESCO selected Snow Country to be among its Collection of Representative Works because it lyrically preserves pre–World War II Japanese traditions while also valorizing the “nature of that interest itself, to understand the psychic comportment and relative leisure of those with the time and income to support cultural traditions in the name of aesthetic ideals.” In that respect, Snow Country reflected the dominant attitudes of the Western literati, namely that good writing was introspective, anti-political, and individualistic (and thereby superior to the statist and overtly political writing of the Soviet Union). This is not to say that Kawabata in any way supported the project of world literature’s value being underwritten by the spread of liberal capitalism, only that his “apolitical lyricism” was entirely compatible with that project.

UNESCO and the Fate of the Literary goes on to show how, when confronted with people across the globe who perceived their own lives “in ways radically antagonistic to the requirements of capitalist production,” UNESCO’s cultural programming was developed to “acknowledge, integrate, manage, and assuage” that antagonism. Of course, if it seems improbable that overtly anti-capitalist, anti-colonial, anti-fascist cultural programming could be considered the handmaiden of economic growth, Brouillette suggests that we need only look around. Cultural institutions in the West have done an admirable job of making structures of oppression visible to anyone who has the motivation and resources to see them. But because they almost always assume that education is itself a form of political action, these institutions are organized according to the belief that changing the hearts and minds of students is functionally equivalent to changing the world. While cultural gatekeepers train students to self-reflexively perceive those institutions as oppressive in and of themselves, in order to survive they must simultaneously diffuse calls to action by reifying critique as the end-goal of education. “You’re exactly right,” these teachers say. “Lesson learned. Now make space for the next cohort of students, and don’t forget to pay the registrar on your way out.” Few people would deny the satisfaction we may feel about perceiving power relations and expressing our displeasure toward them, but there is also something deeply misleading when ideas about power are conflated with power itself.

And so the story goes, from economic boom to economic bust, from economic slowdown to what can only be described as the vague sense of an impending economic catastrophe, which is precisely the fate that the book’s title portends. Perhaps that is why UNESCO’s current attitude toward “world literature” should come as a dire warning to academics in the West who see the concept as a valuable resource with which we might imagine alternative futures. Recognizing the logistical unfeasibility of making literature accessible through economic development, UNESCO has essentially recategorized literature as a legacy activity of aging elites — a “residual rather than an emergent practice.” Way harsh, right? Put simply, what UNESCO learned through all its hard work is that literature requires surplus leisure time, publishing infrastructure, enforceable copyright policing, and accessible educational institutions in order for the market of symbolic goods to also function as a market that pays livable wages. In the absence of these very expensive networks, the dominant character of world literature — whatever its content might become — can only remain of equal concern to both the rich and the poor insofar as it continues to mark a defining line between them.

At this point it’s worth reiterating that Brouillette never denies literature’s capacity to produce insight, pleasure, critique, or any of the other effects we might typically demand from it. On the contrary, she spends much of the book interpreting individual works of literature, and her interpretations prove that novels and short stories (poetry, the ultimate residual practice, is notably absent) can do all those things and more. At times vibrant and generative, at times heartbreaking and frustrating, the book’s readings are worth thinking through. One wonders, however, why a scholar who claims such strong ties to Marxist cultural studies would rely entirely upon literary texts to make the underlying case that uninitiated readers do not need to know what writers of literary fiction want to teach them.

Although what seems most important to Brouillette is demonstrating how high literary culture is embedded in a system of capitalist growth, what gets passed over in this book are related questions about whether all forms of culture — mass, communal, or otherwise — can function in different means toward similar ends. Put another way, is there a kind of culture anywhere on earth whose dominant character isn’t compatible with those requirements? Can the cultural field be reorganized to stymie rather than manage expansion? If it’s true that the liberal capitalists who created the Collection of Representative Works selected books that reinforced their own worldview, would world history have looked any different if the committee selected political a-lyricism instead? Is there a literary practice that is not consistent with capital’s demands, and what is its dominant character? If the audience for “apolitical lyricism” is an elite niche, how should we understand the audience for communist agitprop, which is — and this is just a guess, having done no research on the topic — just slightly smaller? The World Republic of Letters may have found its mediating institution, but if such an institution was made to be consistent with the expansive requirements of capitalist accumulation, how might it have been made differently?

To circle back once again, whose worlding does UNESCO and the Fate of the Literary shape? In whose thought does it intervene? If Brouillette believed that the literary field cannot be changed by actors and agents — that its structure is determined by the real economy — it’s hard to see why the individual content of books matters one way or another. The very fact that she produced such insightful readings of literary texts suggests that there is something important about the content of both literary artifacts and literary analysis, however politically ineffectual it might be. Ultimately, then, her book is a powerful argument for the modest power of literature, however long it lasts.


Christopher Findeisen works at the University of Southern California.

LARB Contributor

Christopher Findeisen is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of English at the University of Southern California where he is completing a monograph on social reproduction and academic fiction. His work has appeared in PMLA, American Literature, and Modernism/Modernity Print +.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Please consider supporting our work and helping to keep LARB free.