Words Enough: Eric Hayot's "On Literary Worlds"

THIS BOOK ISN’T CAREFUL, or entirely successful. That’s what makes it useful, and potentially galvanizing. Eric Hayot’s On Literary Worlds tackles the central problem of what is problematically called “world literature.” Among literary intellectuals in the West, consideration of non-Western work still takes the form of a concession, duty, or supplement. Even the most well-intentioned and influential criticisms of the English-speaking literary canon have not much altered its basically ethnocentric premises. “The furniture changes,” in Hayot’s simile, but “the foundation is unmoved.” So, Hayot suggests, let’s build new foundations. And he has blueprints. Hayot’s method reverses a common response to embarrassment about canonicity, in which uneasiness about current categories can recommend a resistance to categories altogether. Hayot wants the opposite. Our problem, he suggests, is that we’re not looking at literature systematically enough. The way to a new account of the literary world is a new idea of literary taxonomy.

Hayot’s proposed labels are admirably, satisfyingly logical. As a world of its own, though, his book can be confusing to navigate. His argument doesn’t emerge in a step-by-step deduction of conclusions — more like a side-by-side description of possibilities. The text is compact but ragtag. A Q&A introduction answers the reader’s objections before the text has had a chance to raise them. Three appendices that end the book add integrally to what came before without quite integrating themselves into the analysis. Still, On Literary Worlds is never less than engaging. And to argue that Hayot should have let his vision evolve more before unveiling his ideas — that would miss the point. Hayot’s work here is both summary and provocation, offering an account of existing scholarship about world literature (by Pascale Casanova, David Damrosch, Wai Chee Dimock, Franco Moretti, Bruce Robbins, and others) as well as a vision of how to proceed. His book seeks to “provide the source code for an analysis and a task that it cannot complete.” The sooner we start arguing about On Literary Worlds, the sooner we start filling in gaps and mapping routes, the better.

A good place to begin is the crucial term “modern.” Hayot’s last book, The Hypothetical Mandarin: Sympathy, Modernity, and Chinese Pain (which won the Modernist Studies Association book prize), not only decentered the geographical axis of modernist studies but also widened its temporal limits. On Literary Worlds begins even further back and with an even wider reach — pinpointing the new globalism of a modern world. In fact, modernity exists, Hayot explains, partly because globalism does. Something new happened, in Europe, in and around the late 15th century, when cosmography and geography together gave humans a sense of their planet as a whole. For the first time, the globe could be circumnavigated and comprehended — a change that allowed everything from Kant’s theory of ethics to Galileo’s astronomy to Magellan’s cartography. Various forces of modern development (capitalism, imperialism, revolutions in religion, media, philosophy) depend on, ramify, and modulate this basic worldview. At its simplest, Hayot summarizes, modernity is “the feeling that one lives in the same world as everyone else” — which means that modernity cannot be plural. It can seem plural, but its pluralities always depend on a larger summation: “Modernity is by definition exclusive of other possibilities.”

This idea of modern universalism is not new. Hayot, though, wants to stress its importance as an aesthetic issue. Worldliness is aesthetic because aesthetics are worldly; indeed, this is a distinguishing feature of all art. “No work of art recognizable as such,” Hayot writes, “could avoid constituting itself in relation to a theory of wholeness that would, minimally, allow it to be recognized as a work of art at all.” Hayot’s formulation does not argue that works of art simply describe a totality or manifest a weltanschauung — the normal assumptions in passing references to “the world of Genji” or “the world of Dickens.” Works of art allow for a negotiation of totality; they show an attitude toward weltanschauung. What he calls “aesthetic worldedness” is “the form of the relation a work establishes between the world inside and the world outside the work.” His redescription thus nods to some long-held intuitions while prompting some not-yet-common extrapolations: Yes, Hayot tells us, the “made-ness” that we call art eternally parries with the “given-ness” that we call nature. No, Hayot tells us, our descriptions of that symbiosis are not adequate. Neither our formal tags, like genre, nor our thematic stories, like “realism,” get at this relation. Genuine “worldedness,” Hayot writes, requires terms that are simultaneously “formal and thematic/historical.”

Here’s where Hayot’s structuralism gets specific — in offering just those terms. He provides six “variables” to describe the inner workings of an aesthetic work’s “world”: amplitude, completeness, metadiegetic structure, connectedness, character-system, and dynamism. More provocatively, he offers four “modes” to describe the attitude of an aesthetic work towards the very idea of “world.” These labels redefine commonly used terms: the most important, Realism, now means a literature that affirms both the idea of totality and experience of totality. It’s an assent to a world and the world. Romanticism (in another capital-R redefinition) depends on the former concept but rejects the latter — providing an aesthetic of alternatives. Modernism rejects both the world as it exists and the possibility of another. A hazier fourth mode (Hayot calls it “neutral,” after Barthes, which suggests the useful new label of Neutralism) declines the “world-concept” but affirms what totality there is — a habit of detail that resists summation.

Of course, no work of art operates only in one of these modalities. Even what might be paradigmatic examples of each (respectively, perhaps: Balzac’s Comédie, More’s Utopia, Pound’s Cantos, Benjamin’s Arcades) show intermixing. Like any good scheme, then, these four possibilities help us find new commonalities or differences. Prepare to walk around for a while in a haze of four-part diagnoses, determining the level of Modernism in medieval epics or the level of Romanticism in 21st-century television serials. Such speculations are heartening, right now, not only because they are useful in understanding culture but also because they are neglected in recent understandings of culture. Wise to the lessons of theory, which so often undermines binary divisions, current literary critics tend to shy away from classification per se. Hayot’s book looks back to the pre-deconstructive vigor with which midcentury scholars were willing to offer seven types of ambiguity or four kinds of myth. He evokes systematizers like Joseph Frank or Ian Watt or Northrop Frye or Mikhail Bakhtin or (especially) Erich Auerbach, whose ghost smiles above much of On Literary Worlds. “The long, fallow period of the syncretic impulse,” Hayot notes, has meant a long neglect of “large-scale literary projects of the nomothetic type.” Hayot revives an unembarrassed, non-naïve version of these endeavors.

Which are easy to criticize in their specifics. Formal and thematic, yes, but Hayot’s variables and modes are not so textural. I miss an attention to language, or aesthetic material, apart from its referential function. (Hayot passes over the question of translation altogether.) And I find too little room for the psychological: an account of identity or personhood, apart from its place in totalities. Not surprisingly then — since sound and self are two of the most-debated topics in lyric studies — Hayot’s schema explain narrative more easily than poetry. And while he offers some examples of verse analysis to mitigate this impression, he also agrees with Benedict Anderson that “modernity’s best avatars” are “the newspaper and the novel.” In some sense, his inhospitality to poetry could be seen as a strength, not a weakness: the centrality of “worldedness” to modernity might help to explain why the modern lyric as an idea appears so often to be both prestigious and marginal — or never-realized.

But that leads us to more substantial questions — and leads back to the problem of the “modern” itself. Hayot’s remade labels unmake standard ideas of literary history, which assume a necessary progression from romanticism through realism to modernism. But Hayot’s remade labels depend on a particular idea in literary history — that of modernity itself. If the world-picture is a legacy of a modern world, is literary “worldedness” an exclusively modern phenomenon? No, Hayot suggests: “modernity may be an especially fertile ground for the analysis of aesthetic worlds,” given that “the conjunction of literally world-shaping and world-shattering events produces a concomitantly heightened awareness of worlds, “worldedness,” world history, world literature, the globe, globalization, and so on.” But “theoretically at least,” he writes in an appendix, his modes describe “responses to any historically normative world-view.” This late shift to an inclusive “worldview” — from a modern “world” — seems at once necessary and disappointing. It vitiates the force of Hayot’s modes, in which a distinctive type of totality was precisely at issue.

And that distinction came not only from a historical time but also from a geographical place. There’s something of a paradox in using Hayot’s worlds to legitimize world literature, since Hayot describes the global phenomenon of modernity as grounded in Western developments. To anticipated accusations that this is Eurocentric, he responds that “history is always the history of this world and this planet” — which is fair enough. But does a literary history of “worldedness,” therefore, in fact, weaken the case for studying art of the non-West? No again, this book argues; Hayot’s categories want to “allow for comparative work across nation, language, genre, and time in ways that many of our contemporary concepts…. do not.” This is not entirely satisfying, since whatever the shortcomings of current concepts, they “allow” for comparative work — the problem is that they do not require it. And Hayot seems to recognize as much in another argument, where he predicts that his four-fold schema will necessarily pull us toward new sites of focus. If we try new categories, he writes, their center “may prove to be located in our future, not our past — and thus perhaps outside, also, the geographic frames to which they have been restricted so far.” Yet even leaving aside the problematic “thus,” the probability in this sentence does not do much to guarantee the robust non-Western comparativism that Hayot would like.

No categories may be able to do so. Hayot’s book thus raises an old and impossible problem of any comparativism or structuralism: that neither the position from which we work, nor the categories with which we work, can be neutral. If Hayot’s new taxonomy will not solve the dilemma, new labels can nevertheless heighten our awareness of the pragmatics and politics it entails. And with that, new labels can shake up those institutional configurations preventing more informed, more flexible thinking about world literature and literary worlds. In a final discussion of “ideologies of the institution,” Hayot takes up the achievement of these goals within university incubators of academic learning: his polemic “against periodization” — the most forceful section of the book — excoriates a “collective failure of imagination and will on the part of the literary profession.” Periodization, as it perpetuates “a canonical set of actual periods to use” and promotes “historical microscopism,” endorses only “certain kinds of question and certain kinds of answers.” We should clear away the temporal classifications from our teaching and let bloom a different sort of expertise, one rich with “questions about large historical periods,” thoughtful about “transperiodizing concepts like the modern,” welcoming to “structuralist or longue durée models of analysis.”

Hayot’s own instance of such analysis — the structuralism in the preceding 150 pages, with its questions and answers about the large concept of modernity — now takes its place as one of many possible projects. The book aims to provide “one example of what experimentation in literary history would look like.” This means that On Literary Worlds does not exactly “[make] the study of the non-West […] necessary,” as it sets out to do, so much as set this change as part of a larger institutional reformation. Replace current divisions of place and period with different categories of mode and concept — and analysis can more easily range beyond the Western canon with real inquiry rather than tokenistic notice. Salutary recent books already show what can result. Dimock’s Through Other Continents, for example, erases the spatial and temporal boundaries of “American” literature.

On Literary Worlds also suggests two tasks that will further this hopeful reconfiguration of our learning. First, we need better accounts of the relation between time and space in our literary descriptions — how one category becomes another, in modernity (following Benedict Anderson and others) and outside it. Second and more important, we need to devise more sophisticated understandings of scale. Hayot recommends this goal, and leads by example. His own book moves fluidly from Satyajit Ray to Chaucer, compares Marechera and Freud, zeroes in on a word in Whitman and widens out from a sentence in Cervantes: such examples show the theoretical force behind the old cliché that the measure of a literary critic is the ability to quote well. His range of interlocutors in the footnotes is equally vast and varyingly specified: an idea from Leibniz, a comment from Bazin, a provocation from Boltanski and Chiapello. Quoting well requires a continuous sensitivity to depth of field. When Hayot writes, then, that one must attend to non-Western literature not because “it’s good for you,” but because “not doing so produces bad theories of literature and bad literary history;” scale seems to provide the missing criterion to adjudicate bad. A fluency of scale, he writes elsewhere, should be “one of the profession’s major collective projects.”

Hayot is not alone in his attention to that project, as demonstrated by scholarship, which Hayot recognizes, from Dimock and Moretti, as well as from Mark McGurl and Nirvana Tanoukhi, among others. Hayot’s book shows the novelty and traditionalism in this focus. On Literary Worlds suggests how a breed of 21st-century structuralism might coexist with, even depend on, some 21st-century habits of quantification, as scholars amass the literary-sociological data that will allow us to know where, among various scales, various works take their position. At the same time, On Literary Worlds suggests how scalar thinking — a more acute awareness of possible levels of time and place — deepens a habit that is as much imaginative as empirical. At one point, Hayot recommends the “the twin projects of Enlightenment thought […] to speak well and truthfully about the world, and to consider in as serious a way as possible the role one’s own truth-procedures play in that speaking.” To be “worlded,” within these very modern aims, means striving to know what one means by any totality as well as where one stands within one’s various summations. These are important tasks of literary history that this book continues to press.


Siobhan Phillips is the author of The Poetics of the Everyday: Creative Repetition in Modern American Verse (Columbia, 2009), and her writing has appeared in PMLA, Prospect, and Hudson Review.