Michael Allan’s important new study of the concept of world literature, In the Shadow of World Literature: Sites of Reading in Colonial Egypt, presents its object not as a corpus of texts but a set of practices. According to Allan, defining world literature in these terms points towards a “discipline to come.” Constituted by “whispers between friends united in common affection for a limited world,” the discipline of world literature that Allan sketches sounds at times like an inviting fan community or a welcoming secret society. This limited world is that of “world literature,” and its self-consciously imposed limits are crucial to Allan’s account of how, exactly, practitioners of world literature should understand this category.
Allan’s central claim is that world literature must be understood as a practice defined against other practices. Rather than a canon of texts constituting an agglomeration of national traditions, Allan argues that the discipline of word literature estranges its practitioners from national traditions and creates its own “unique” culture, separate from any national culture. Importantly, in this account of world literature, literary texts are not best read as indices to their author’s national context; instead, literary texts and their circulation and reception constitute a discourse in which a particular idea of the literary emerges. While Allan’s argument about how we should understand world literature is ambitious, his vision for the discipline of world literature to come is pointedly modest. It is anti-expansionist, uncoercive: these whispers between friends promise to “overcome the pretensions of speaking on behalf of the world or of enfolding all under the assumed liberation of its particular modernist dream.”
But Allan does not simply want to retreat into an exclusive club of world literature practitioners. He attends to, and asks his readers to attend to, those excluded from this club. This attention reminds us that there are other ways of reading, “provincializing” world literature as a particular literary culture whose claims to universal humanism are themselves contingent, and promoting ways of “empathizing” with less avowedly critical modes of reading. More specifically, by showing how world literature has construed certain audiences as illiterate, Allan aims to push beyond this designation to show how such audiences are not simply lacking the qualities of literary audiences—e.g., a critical sense—but are actively pursuing other ideals of reading and education. These other ideals have been reduced by world literary discourse to the undifferentiated “uncritical.”
In contrast, Allan explores varieties of these uncritical responses, thereby illuminating the specific ways both the literary world of “world literature” and its “shadows” were defined in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Egypt. Allan’s case studies from colonial and postcolonial Egypt show literary communities forming and, later in the period, reaffirming themselves, by marking their difference from what they deemed the illiterate. In this process—which Allan labels “literacy writing its other”—practitioners of world literature depict various forms of “uncritical” reading, which they generally linked to religion, and more specifically to the figure of the fanatic. These forms of uncritical reading include, most broadly, the practices of “memorization, embodiment, and recitation” cultivated in Qur’anic schools. Specific cases include students protesting an apparently blasphemous novel, a character who responds to critique not with more critique, but with advice designed to promote family harmony, and consumers of Islamic new media who appear uninterested in the contemporary Arabic novel.
In attending to the history of “uncritical” reading practices as they have been shaped in connection with ideas of critical practices, Allan’s book engages a current scholarly conversation about the potentials and pitfalls of various “uncritical” or “post-critical” approaches in literary studies. Allan briefly addresses this endeavor in the book, but it is not his primary concern. Rather, he is more directly engaged with the major ongoing revisions of our understandings of secularization, secularism, and religion in the context of criticism and literature, pioneered by Talal Asad, Charles Taylor, Saba Mahmood, and others.
His work exemplifies the potential the Lori Branch finds in intersections between explorations of so-called postsecular and post-critical disciplinary practices. In recounting a history of the association between “literature” and critical thinking, Allan is especially concerned with “the ultimately uncritical dimensions of modernization,” by which I take it he means both the creation of the “uncritical” as the foil to the emerging sense of the critical, and also the unacknowledged uncritical practices of those who regard themselves as belonging to the world of world literature. In Allan’s account, world literature emerges as a particular manifestation of critique, with its complementary forms of not-critique. And in this way, his study adds a crucial historical dimension to Rita Felski’s polemical exploration of the potential of so-called postcritical methods for literary studies today.
I see the illumination of the specific practices that flourish in the shadow of world literature as crucial to Allan’s imagined “discipline to come.” Unsurprisingly—as Allan’s book is a historical and literary analysis, and not a utopian treatise—the contours of this future discipline are yet vague. But there is pleasure and utility, and perhaps some useful frustration too, in the book’s invitation to imagine what they might be.
Assuming Allan’s historical account of world literature would serve as a precedent for the discipline to come, this future discipline would build on the sense of the contingency of world literature. As future world literary practitioners, we should “investigate the grounds from which we know, see, and feel” before we critique. And in addition to critiquing, we should be “empathizing differently.” I appreciate the specification that we should be empathizing “differently” rather than merely doing it more, and I wonder if some of this difference might involve not just tolerant understanding but something more like appreciation. Or perhaps whether the “common affection” uniting future practitioners of world literature might include elements of enthusiasm or even fanaticism.
While that difference in ways of empathizing remains unspecified, the discipline Allan invokes is a broadly hospitable one. By defining world literature as a practice, anyone who takes on its discipline can join its community. There is a universalizing move here: anyone has the capacity to become disciplined in world literature. But it’s a small-scale universalism constructed as a common bond. As Allan writes of the notion of literary practice that he finds in Taha Hussein’s novella Adīb, “we are welcomed to think of literature in terms of the bond it offers between these two characters who self-conceive as educated, modern, and critically inclined in their orientation to the world—and their distance from worlds they deem traditional.”
While this future world literature is hospitable—more broadly, to aspiring critics, and, in a more specialized sense, to literary scholars like myself working primarily not in “world literature” or even comparative literature, but in a single national tradition—it is also exclusive. The usual pieties of criticism would suggest that exclusivity is a bad thing; but in the context of the history Allan tells, we understand exclusivity to be a byproduct of creating any practice or forming any community. World literature will always be defined against something, but we can take Allan’s account as a prod to be more aware of the specific aspects of what gets co-opted as its foil. Being aware of one’s limits is not necessarily a guarantee of being generous or accurate in recognizing that which lies outside them; however, Allan’s book offers ways of reading—e.g., attending to the “social life” of texts—that support our perception of the details in literary and extra-literary accounts of “literacy’s other.”
Just as Allan teaches us to think of world literature as a set of practices rather than a corpus of works, his own book is less a template than a portable set of tools with which to do work in literary studies now, and to construct the future of our shared discipline.