Rather than a cosmopolitan space where all national literary traditions can finally cohabitate on an equal footing, world literature is instead, Michael Allan argues, a “global discipline,” in both senses of the word. It has not merely governed textual study across the planet from the late eighteenth century forward but, in the process, fundamentally transformed traditions everywhere—and, by extension, the subjectivities of all those it has educated.

In the Shadow of World Literature poses the question, therefore, of world literature’s articulation with the liberal state. Its answer is, in short, that literary education presumes to endow liberal societies with the capacity to engage in critique—and, as a consequence, the singular right to self-government. Whereas the uneducated mind is captive to religious authority, the literate mind’s critical skills unfetter it from all authoritarian structures and enable it to envision both the theoretical arguments and the material strategies that constitute political praxis. As In the Shadow of World Literature explains, this entwining of literary education and human emancipation operated not only in the metropole but, ironically, even in colonies. In fact, colonial administrators such as Thomas Babington Macaulay in India and Lord Cromer and Alfred Milner in Egypt considered literary education to be the very precondition of native self-rule.

On one hand, the coupling of education and emancipation is practically immemorial, harking back to the liberal arts’ ancient origins. In the classical world, liberal referred to those pedagogic fields that were thought to be “worthy of a freeman.” The classical liberal arts were, in Christopher Newfield’s words, the “art of freedom,” designed to create citizens, those for whom the crucial question was always how not to be coerced in any aspect of their lives. Keep in mind that this freedom was contrasted not only with bondage of those whom citizens owned but also the commerce for which these slaves and others were responsible.

But, on the other hand, the strange premise that literary criticism, no longer the ancient liberal arts, was fundamental to human emancipation emerged only with the modern research university. In Immanuel Kant’s blueprint for the university, The Conflict of the Faculties (1798), the humanities possess the unconditional freedom to think, say, and write whatever reason demands. They thus produce a public sphere in the proper sense of the term: a people that knows its rights and questions power’s legitimacy; a people that has, in Bill Readings’s words, reached “self-consciousness and become self-determining.” The humanities inculcate only “the rules of thought,” not positive knowledge, ensuring in this way that thinking remains an “autonomous activity.” They teach, according to Readings, “not facts but critique.” In his account as in Allan’s, the capacity to engage in critique is the very essence of the liberal subject.

By the nineteenth century, the privileged discipline for such critique had ceased to be philosophy and become instead philology and literary studies. It came to Egypt, as Allan observes, with the founding of Dār al-ʿUlūm (1871) and the Egyptian University (1908). According to early advocates such as the University of Chicago’s Richard Moulton (a proponent, not coincidentally, of world literature), academic literary criticism enabled students to think beyond the intellectual limits placed on human agency.1 The particular pleasure that pertains to reading literature may arise from an appreciation of the author’s or the artwork’s creative autonomy; the student’s recognition of his or her own imaginative independence; or an aesthetic experience that has no instrumental motive. In every case, though, theorists of the liberal arts from Wilhelm von Humboldt through Cardinal Newman to numerous Ivy League presidents supposed such enjoyment to be emancipatory, the gradual liberation of the student’s judgment from other people’s designation of value.

But in contrast to Newfield’s and Readings’s penetrating analyses, Allan’s study concerns the development of literary education in the colonies. One could argue that it was here—not Germany, Britain, or the United States—that the link between literature and emancipation first emerged. In fact, the shift from classical humanism (i.e., grammar, logic, rhetoric) to the modern humanities, and from a primarily theological curriculum controlled by the Church to a primarily secular one under public as well as private control, occurred in British India before it did in Britain itself. Responding to a decades-old condemnation of the East India Company’s moral degeneracy, Parliament forced the Company to undertake public education in 1813 (long before it existed in Britain), thus making the colonies a laboratory for secular education principles. Literary education could remedy colonial violence, in Parliament’s view, not only because of the ancient opposition between the liberal arts and economic coercion but also because of the modern association between the humanities and the public sphere. Here, literary education begins to perform what one could argue remains its fundamental liberal task: to create spaces of supposed intellectual and creative freedom within a global system founded on various forms of coercion, political as well as economic.

How should we conceive literary education’s emancipatory potential given its colonial genealogy—indeed the possibility that it was originally an apology for colonial rule? As Allan emphasizes, when we associate literature (or, for that matter, critique) with freedom, we tacitly accept the obverse of this association: the non-European traditions that count not as literature but as religion belong instead to the realm of unfreedom. But the former association, no less than the latter, constitutes a colonial ideology: European (or world) literary forms and non-European religious traditions correspond, respectively, not to critical reason and uncritical belief but rather to colonial modernity, on one hand, and the forms of life it conquered, on the other. Put differently, religious fanaticism is not the antithesis of literary education but, on the contrary, a concept disseminated precisely by such education in order to justify its own global expansion. The coupling of literary education and human emancipation is thus deeply implicated, in a manner we have yet fully to grasp, in the apparently necessary subordination, if not eradication, of all prior traditions.

To understand the precise form of this complicity, we will need to explore more carefully the claim with which I began: World literature fundamentally transformed tradition and hence the subjectivities of those who were inducted into it. Gauri Viswanathan’s Masks of Conquest explains that colonial literary education was designed to give Indians historical consciousness: Only such a consciousness could emancipate them from myth and replace it with a correct understanding of their religions and, by extension, their authentic selves; only such consciousness could, in other words, give the colonized the capacity for critique that supposedly distinguishes liberal subjectivity.

But historical consciousness presupposes the replacement of the temporally and spatially fluid discursive practices (whether religious scriptures, legal manuscripts, or poetic and dramatic performances) that preceded colonial rule with stable texts, i.e., objects that facilitate historical generalization and hence can serve as the sources of historical knowledge. This substitution, which is of course the very basis of comparative literature, was achieved by means of European philology, which claimed that it alone possessed the expertise necessary to reconstruct non-European traditions in their historically authentic and hence authoritative forms. Allan calls this substitution “entextualization” and emphasizes the fact that the category of literature flattens countless phenomenologically and semiotically different traditions. I would suggest, furthermore, that precisely in their refusal of textual stability, those other traditions were iconoclastic—or we could say, critical—at their core. This is one irony of literary education: Even as it supposedly equips students with critical reason, the false identification of traditions with texts and intellectual emancipation with historical understanding must remain beyond critique. Yet the textualization of native traditions and the historical interpretation of these texts served, above all, to produce knowledge about the governed. In other words, the colonial institution of literature is aligned with political centralization, not popular liberation, despite its own claims.

Founded on a narrow definition of what it means to be “critical and reflexive,” liberal concepts of freedom thus tie us to a structure of authority that pretends to be antiauthoritarian, as Allan deftly explains. Such a paradoxical concept of liberation is evident, Allan argues, even in Edward Said’s work, particularly in such seminal terms as “secular criticism” and “worldliness.” Both evoke Said’s demand that scholars consciously locate literature in a material and collective reality, as opposed to an “ethereal” and “private” one. Only such a reading practice realizes what Said (himself misreading Michel Foucault) calls “the critical attitude,” Allan explains. For Said, the axiom that texts inscribe the “world” (saeculum)—rather than, for example, the Word (theologia)—is the starting point of secular criticism and indeed of critical thought tout court. But this axiom is itself the product of a colonial history, indeed the very basis of a colonial episteme, never historicized in Said’s work. In his ahistorical understanding of the category of literature, Said’s thought was, ironically, continuous with the Orientalists he criticized. Even as they attended to differences between languages, traditions, and territories, they treated literature as a constant, the cultural practice whose presence in every history and geography makes comparative literature possible in the first place.

In Allan’s hands, the point of comparative literary study is no longer to include (i.e., assimilate) otherwise marginal textual traditions, but on the contrary to foreground the limits that define the world of world literature. Such an effort is, I think, more important now than ever. As Readings, Newfield, and Viswanathan have each made clear, modern literary education was designed from its origins to produce a liberal managerial class, those who in Europe would mediate between the state and the people, those in the United States who would be responsible for corporate innovation, and those in the colonies who would alone have the right to enter the civil service. To the extent that such education never penetrated beyond the colonized elite, the line between the literate and the illiterate, the critical and the fanatical, or liberal and the supposedly illiberal marks a divide much more fundamental to postcolonial states than to the West. Given the ecological devastation, economic crisis, and political chaos into which neoliberalism has thrown many of those states (a situation Alain Badiou has called the complete “liberation of liberalism”), this line will likely mark even greater deprivation in the decades to come. If so, neither literary education nor secular criticism will be able to present themselves as the path toward universal human emancipation; their elitist character will only become more evident over time.

At world literature’s limit lie traditions that, Allan suggests, are “no longer thinkable” within the “modern literary paradigm.” Each of the traditions that preceded colonial rule was, of course, self-reflexive and self-critical in their own way. In fact, it was precisely the ease with which precolonial religious and juridical traditions underwent geographic and historical adaptation that put them in conflict with colonial rule (as well as the liberal state). In deference to these now unthinkable traditions, perhaps the point of the humanities should become ultimately not to advance the critical tradition but rather take it apart piece-by-piece. Following Talal Asad, we might find that the mass killing we now identify with uncritical fanaticism has its roots instead in in the forms of violence liberalism used critical reason to legitimize long ago. We might then begin to rethink what is particular to those traditions that lie beyond the pale of liberalism. Perhaps it lies precisely in the martyr’s passion, in the theological sense of an other-worldly suffering, which recognizes not only that the secular has always been and might always remain the space of violence but also, furthermore, that this violence has depended, at all times on clerical, juridical, and/or textual authority.

Stefano Harney and Fred Moten have suggested that becoming open to this passion, to this illiberal experience and perspective, is the very antithesis of the modern humanities and might as a consequence begin to transform the university from within. Moving beyond a model of education designed to produce a liberal managerial class requires, they observe, “allowing subjectivity to be unlawfully overcome by others [in particular, the “refugees” and “fugitives” the university harbors], a radical passion and passivity such that one becomes unfit for subjection, because one does not possess the kind of agency that can hold the regulatory forces of subjecthood, and one cannot initiate the auto-interpellative torque that biopower subjection requires and rewards”.

It seems to me that only such a use of literary studies, not to enforce but rather to undo the authority of critique and of critical subjectivity, can reverse the centuries-old trajectory of world literature to which we have been subject, along with it, the transformation of literary study into a liberal discipline.


  1. For more on Moulton, see Sarah Lawall, “Richard Moulton and the ‘Perspective Attitude’ in World Literature” in Theo D’haen, David Damrosch, and Djelal Kadir, eds., The Routledge Companion to World Literature (New York: Routledge, 2012).