Reading Michael Allan’s In the Shadow of World Literature, I thought of two competing ways to understand political impasses. On one side are those who see political opponents as irrational fools who must be persuaded with the force of reason (or just plain force) to see the truth. On the other are those who see disagreement not as epic battles of logic, but rather as the confrontation of competing and coherent—even if dangerous and violent—worldviews. This latter model has guided the research framework for two scholars who appear to have influenced Allan profoundly, and who are no strangers to readers of The Immanent Frame: Talal Asad and Saba Mahmood. In what is now several decades of penetrating analyses, Asad, and later Mahmood, have questioned how secular criticism understands the world around it. They have suggested that secularism is not a mere separation of church and state, but a profound and profoundly contradictory way of organizing comportments, embodiments, and affects, and that its ways of doing so preclude its ability to understand those with different forms of life.
Allan forcefully brings these insights into his analysis of the conceptual categories employed today in the study of world literature. He argues that across the categories that supposedly divide a Pascale Casanova from an Edward Said—his two most prominent examples—there remains a shared tendency to understand literature as a body of recognizable texts, secularly partitioned from religion. Allan calls for a change in emphasis, “from . . . the literary object to . . . the emergent literary sensibility cultivated through the disciplining of how to read. World literature transforms in this process from a collection of objects to a cultivation of readers.” Just as Asad and Mahmood ask us to understand religion and secularism not as belief systems but as lifeworlds, so Allan wants us to understand literature not as a universal agglomeration of things to read, but as a system that produces different kinds of readers with different kinds of virtues and sensibilities.
It seems to me there are several distinct advantages to this shift in emphasis. For one thing, it calls into question an increasing tendency to unreflectively diversify the canons of thought. Allan writes: “world literature may be less an amalgamation of cultural traditions than the globalization of a way of reading.” The result is that while a course in “world literature” might introduce students to texts from Kenya, Thailand, and Chile, they will all be read through a series of frameworks, and, most crucially, an understanding of what it means to read, that merely reinforces a dominant paradigm. That paradigm, in Allan’s analysis, is one that views the “correct” way of reading as a set of dispositions toward criticism, detachment, and a suspicion of authorities, and sets itself off against tendencies towards “memorization, embodiment, and recitation.” Allan’s point, as I take it, is not that one of these sets of practices is better than the other. Nor is it that the putative opposition in fact holds. (Purportedly secular critics often hold unconscious alliances to various authorities, and religious reading meant simply to reproduce itself has ended up creating some of the most profound and violent schisms in world history.) The point is rather to shift the focus of attention to the ways in which literature cultivates a particular kind of reader, even as it claims to be simply offering a universal vantage. Allan nicely calls this “provincial cosmopolitanism.”
Another benefit of Allan’s approach is to offer a mode of literary scholarship that breaks allegiance with both “close” and “distant” reading. Both, Allan subtly suggests, share the same preconception of something called “literature,” that can be closely read for literary imagery and language, or distantly read for general formal or sociological patterns, regardless of the language, date, or form of the text under consideration. What is offered here is “a mode of analysis that suspends an investment in close [and I would add, distant] reading and investigates instead the world in which the text accrues meaning.” The result is a scholarship beyond disciplines, given that such analyses are simply unavailable if you are just focused on unpacking the meaning of texts. Asking not what a text means, but how a text accrues meaning in the world, requires scholarship that reflects on religion, history, anthropology, and so on, as much as one’s given archive.
A final offering of the book is what Allan in his conclusion calls a “poetics of hearing, listening, and possibly empathizing differently.” This model (though I would like to have seen it more fleshed out) offers us a way of understanding why reading and criticism are political that is not just about representation or the political unconscious, but also concerned with the deeply engrained habitus out of which both texts and readers operate. This idea acts throughout the book as a response to the secular criticism offered by Edward Said. For Said, criticism begins with the Vichian recognition that humans make their worlds, and thus can remake their worlds without appeal to some authority beyond human life. Allan suggests that this posits an answer about politics that should remain a question. For him, following Asad and Mahmood, criticism begins with understanding rather than declaration. It does not start by outlining a vision of the universe and our place within it, so much as by asking, how do the different figures I am confronting themselves understand this problematic? Allan situates his criticism within a historical moment in which a certain strong-willed secularism has failed in its stated mission to contain religious fervor. And he asks if the problem is not the recalcitrance of religion so much as the foolhardy assumption of secularism that religion, as a complex that accrues worldly meaning in many ways, can so simply be resituated and, as one of the secularist authors he quotes has it, “’uprooted.’”
And yet, while appreciative of these concerns, I wanted to see more from this book about what exactly this other ethics looks like beyond the phase of hearing, listening, and empathizing. I may empathize with someone who denies climate change all I want, but at some point I must take my task to be that of convincing them to think and act otherwise. I would say that I think Allan is right that I am more likely to succeed if I begin with empathy—as no shortage of post-2016 American election pop neuroscience articles on my Facebook feed suggests—but I can’t make that claim for him since he never makes it for himself. There does not appear to me In the Shadow of World Literature much of a theory of engagement, or dialogue, or transformation. While Allan rightly asks his readers to listen otherwise and to understand ourselves otherwise (certainly I don’t always act as if climate change is an imminent threat as I fly around, either), it’s not clear what is to happen after we all learn to listen and embody better. An ethics of understanding is necessary but not sufficient.
I think part of the impasse here, one that Allan shares with Asad and Mahmood, is the specter of the reification of culture. Nobody wants to say that secular readers or religious readers are monoliths, but there still needs to be some way to speak of somewhat fixed viewpoints—ones that accrue in what Asad calls “discursive and embodied traditions.” The risk here is that an idea like “literature,” whose origins, as Allan tangentially notes, owe many debts to Arabic texts, somehow becomes singularly “Western.” As much as Allan or Asad or Mahmood notes the internal diversity of traditions, and they do, these horizons get erased at the point of contact. Asad’s logic for this, cited by Allan, is that however diverse modernity may be as a concept, it still was brought to Egypt with the force of unitary law. I cannot go into this here, but the mere fact of the multiplicity of colonial experience across the world seems to me to call even this welded unity into question.
More to the point, there is a risk here of erasing an understanding of how similar concepts arise in many different places and times, as Janet Gyatso has shown with the rise of a version of secular enlightenment in the history of Tibetan medicine, for example. A focus on listening and empathy gets deadlocked as much when it just listens for difference as when it does for a Rawlsian “overlapping consensus.” A theory of interacting pluralities is needed, I believe, to move beyond this dual impasse. Allan, while not quite moving in that direction, begins to open us to it simply by opening us up to the fact of needing to open up. The rest of the work is left to his readers.