You must unlearn what you have learned. —Yoda
No intervention in literature studies could be more urgent than the one offered in Michael Allan’s In the Shadow of World Literature. It is a book that begins with the Thousand and One Nights and ends with Edward W. Said citing Erich Auerbach’s “Philologie der Weltliteratur,” as Auerbach speaks to us of Hugo of St. Victor, where “the entire world,” for Hugo, becomes “a place of exile,” and where, as Auerbach comments, this becoming-exile “is a good way also for one who wishes to earn a proper love for the world.” But why love? And is love “proper”? Must it be?
I don’t want to rush too quickly, fanatic that I am, and share that any love that is love, any love that loves, would have to be, without end, improper, in excess of itself, partaking in and rupturing with a Christian tradition of love, from St. Augustine to Herman Melville and that great literary and philological book, Moby Dick—a book that should be required reading in all fields of literature studies in America. And so it is because I love Michael Allan’s book and because it taught me about love that I want to offer here a reading that would be—without end—improper.
In the Shadow of World Literature is an urgent and timely book; let us say that clearly and at the outset. It wishes to place in question the presumed recognizability of a literary object—in Arabic, but also in world literature studies, and, differently, in comparative literature. Allan is concerned with “the recognition of an object as literature,” and he explains of this act of recognition that, “The terms that delimit its significance already produce the object itself.” And this book places this act of recognition, and its ongoing consequences, within a social field, in relation to “the emergence of a particular conception of the subject,” what Allan also calls “the modern critical subject.” In a time of the expansion and intensified institutionalization of Arabic literature studies, Allan teaches us to attend to the terms for the formation of a literary object—in Arabic or in whatever language. He asks us how the privileging of forms of legibility, and the generalization of the figure of the reader, in colonial Egypt and on a global scale, perform a kind of colonizing violence.
And what could be more urgent, today, than a reflection on this violence, and the forms of social coercion, linguistic domestication, and formal appropriation with which it is engaged?
Allan’s argument relates the transformations imparted through the privileging of the category “literature” in the Arabic nineteenth century. These transformations are mirrored, in Allan’s argument, in the distribution of the category “world literature” and the field of study that takes it as an object. His procedure is to isolate particular textual instances, “to consider how the category of literature transforms and reconstitutes textual traditions.” And this transformation and reconstitution impart a sociality of recognition: “It is worth considering,” he also writes, “how world literature produces the conditions through which traditions come to be recognized.”
The argument draws on the influential work of the anthropologists Talal Asad and Saba Mahmood, and through their work Allan reframes the reflection on literature, and literature studies, and forms it into a reflection on the ethical sensibility and forms of comportment that literature, for Allan—as a practice, discipline, and field of language—compels. This reframing offers something of a rebuff to literature studies, as it is practiced in America, within and outside of Arabic studies, and perhaps most urgently in relation to comparative literature and what Allan understands to be its “textualism.” “Entwining the valances of ethics, embodiment, and discipline,” Allan writes, “we reinvigorate literary studies with those aspects of reading leveled out in discussions of textuality.”
And yet Allan’s framing of his argument through Asad and Mahmood produces a persistent opposition—between an inside and an outside. For example, in Allan’s discussion of Amina’s response to her son, Kamal, and his ever-absent article about Darwin, in Naguib Mahfouz’s Trilogy: “By correcting him, as though he has deviated from the commonly accepted path,” Allan writes, “she makes thinkable a mode of response in many ways alien to the properly disciplined mode of reading.” But in what way can a statement—Mahfouz’s or Amina’s, for example—be “alien” with respect to the massive, differentiated transformation in language, the reordering of language and “textual traditions” Allan studies? What sort of reading technique is required to understand a language event as “fundamentally outside” of all of this?
Listen to this passage:
In effect she [Amina] recognizes her religious duty to correct the wrong—as against the rights of the speaker or intellectual to affirm or deny a set of beliefs. In staging the illiterate reading of Kamal’s article, Mahfouz entangles the limits of literature at the heart of realism’s epistemological other, the debate over the foundations of science and knowledge itself. The scene is not necessarily an argument for or against Darwin, but is instead an argument for the frame within which knowing occurs, and it is this framing of illiteracy, be it the nonsecular or the traditional, the remains the unspeakable horizon of literature and its presumptions of a supposedly modern literacy.
And yet Amina is already caught up in, entangled with, and therefore constituted by her relation to the epistemic force of realist narrative and the field of presumption of “a supposedly modern literacy.” Amina is not outside of or alien to this “framing of illiteracy,” because she only becomes who or what she is—if she is, and if my use of the verb “to be” can do anything other than reenact the violence Allan teaches us to read—in relation to it. Rather than something other than the sort of being privileged in the form of literacy Allan studies, we might say that Amina is merely a being, like whatever other being—whichever other one—constituted in relation to practices, forms of violence, and scenes of address she will never have chosen in advance.
This book is a critique of recognition—of those “normative practices embodied in and crucial for the recognition of the literate subject” and of “what it is to be recognized as such.” And yet it recognizes, if only through a string of associations, those beings which, it tells us, fall outside of the field of social and literary violence it studies: “There are important questions to be asked,” Allan writes, “but one is to imagine a world outside [my emphasis—JS] the literary textualism invited by the Rosetta Stone and Marcel’s translation of Arabic texts into the French literary frame.” This exteriority belongs to those “worlds foreclosed by particular modes of reading”; such worlds, Allan writes, are “different.” Colonial violence becomes a form that can be side-stepped—individually (in Sayyid Qutb’s “remarkable” al-Taswir al-fanni fi al-Qur’an) and collectively (by students protesting Haydar Haydar’s novel, in Chapter 2). What is affirmed is not only a “critical anthropology” but also the institutional authority of the critical anthropologist, whose terms become nothing less than a culturalism—an opposition between “Islam” (Amina, who offers nasiha rather than naqd) and “literature” (a form aligned, for Allan, with a particular European practice of reading). The placing in question of the legibility of language in “textualism” is displaced in favor a legibility of cultural and religious terms, and anthropology becomes a mediating practice for the sanctioned—and, for the anthropologist, self-affirming—recognition of forms.
If language is coerced to be recognized as “literature” in “the globalization of literary hermeneutics,” beginning in the late eighteenth century—and things are far older than this, they reach back, at least, to the letters of Paul—this recognition represents the institutional domination and coercive appropriation of language—and of the untimely, a-telic force we have come to call “literature.”
And yet it is not literature, in this sense, but only literature studies that coerces modes of being, understandings of form, and practices of relation.
The task of a critique of such practices—and Allan offers to us nothing if he does not offer us this—is the task of a critique of everything, whichever thing, wherever, in whatever language—including the form of the critical subject, said to be stable, coherent, and legible. It is toward an aligning of literature studies with this critique—rather than with an affirmation of the legibility of objects—that In the Shadow of World Literature offers to us its most enduring lesson. And it is for this reason that it teaches us, frazzled and frenetic beings that we are, an improper, excessive love for literature—and for the world.