In an article devoted to medieval mysticism, Niklaus Largier discusses Martin Luther’s attention to reading and authority.1 As he tells the story, the translation of the Bible into the vernacular was accompanied by a frustration with those who claimed mystical experience as grounds for understanding scripture. Far from democratizing print culture, Luther’s activities were keenly focused on how readers interpreted the written word—and underscored a concerted effort to police those who read improperly. It is against this backdrop, Largier suggests, that the secular emerged “as an institutional context that is meant to contain and limit the use that can be made of the scriptures and of scriptural exegesis.” Engaging church history and various treatises, Largier goes on to add:

The secular is thus a principle of inclusion and exclusion. It establishes itself as the universal order of the social world in its temporal state, defining a rational economy of governance and subjection that conceals its origin, namely the exclusion of specific hermeneutical possibilities and their force in community-formation.

In this account, Luther is less an emancipatory figure ushering in modern literacy than he is obsessively concerned with the worldly grounds of reading.

I initially heard Largier’s remarks as I was writing my third chapter, and now, nearly ten years later, I begin with his words to underscore shared connections between early modern print culture and the consolidation of reading publics. What I admire in Largier’s work is the fundamental shift he provides away from the conventional liberation narrative associated with literacy, translation, and democratization, to consider hermeneutics, interpretative practices, and the consolidation of reading communities. Where Luther’s concern for establishing a framework in which to read could be seen to pertain to early modern Europe, how might this readerly culture translate across religious traditions, literary practices, and historical moments?

In the Shadow of World Literature takes reading to be at the backbone of literary study and integral to the emergent understanding of what literature is. I share with Largier a concern for those modes of reading that fall outside the purview of modern literacy. Focusing on literary institutions in colonial Egypt, my book attends to the dynamics connecting moral education, critical sensibilities, and the cultivation of character, and it does so with an underlying question about the structures of authority that anchor claims of reading properly. As much as I take Egypt as my focus, my argument extends beyond the specific historical sites at the heart of each chapter to track the negotiations implicit in the globalized discipline of world literature. These negotiations not only involve the emergence of a particular understanding of what literature is, but are also accompanied by fears of illiteracy and fanaticism.

That all said, I obviously resist the temptation to dictate here how my own book ought to be read. I find myself compelled by the sort of reading Jeffrey Sacks performs in his insights on “improper love.” Might it be that literary reading is, in the end, a delight in the improper? In what follows, I have hopes of acknowledging my debt to the various participants of the forum from whom I have been grateful to learn. From Tom McEnaney’s references to Virginia Jackson’s work on the lyric and Angie Heo’s engagement with Jan Assmann’s insights on Egyptian hieroglyphs, to the dialogue that Siraj Ahmed offers with Immanuel Kant and that Mimi Winick ushers in with her gesture to Lori Branch, I find here a guide for further reflections. In Angie Heo’s card game, Jeffrey Sack’s insightful twist on improper love, and Avi Alpert’s interacting plurality, I find figures with which to think, and through them, I come to see pages of my book in a new light. There are complexities raised in the responses that offer much more than my comments here can reciprocate, but I want to add some thoughts to extend possible directions and elaborations.

The Values of Illiberal Education

Of the many questions raised in the responses, I was intrigued and impressed by Siraj Ahmed’s drawing together of Kant’s research university and Gauri Viswanthan’s study of colonial education. “The coupling of literary education and human emancipation,” he writes, “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.” Over the course of his response, Siraj Ahmed pushes the implications further, and he considers alternatives to the literary humanities by turning to “The University and the Undercommons”:

Stefano Harney and Fred Moten have suggested that being open in this way would turn the humanities upside down. Moving beyond a model of education designed to produce a managerial class is, they observe, “about 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.”

What is at stake in education overcoming the agency at its core? To what extent do these values inhere in the university? Siraj Ahmed’s response gestures quite tellingly to some of the potentials for thinking the history of reading alongside the colonial foundations of the modern university.

In light of his remarks, I found myself reflecting on how I might have sharpened some of the distinctions at play in my book. Across the various chapters, I draw from three rather distinct institutions in my various sites of reading: there is the Islamic university of al-Azhar, which has foundations that predate the paradigm of the research university; there is Dār al-‘Ulūm, which was the foundation of the modern literature department for what would become the Egyptian University; and there is the Syrian Protestant College, which is almost paradigmatic of American missionary education. Were I to attend seriously to the questions raised about illiberal education, I would be tempted to consider how these different types of institutions deal with interpretative practices. On the one hand, how does the globalization of the modern research university transform the forms of knowledge at stake in institutions of Islamic learning and Protestant missionary colleges?  And on the other hand, does the study of literature emerge in analogous ways across these institutions?

Empathy and Its Other

Because my book revolves around sites of reading, I end up posing questions drawn from registers of interpretation at different times and places—something I do in an effort to think beyond textuality as the organizing rubric for analysis. Mimi Winick is astute in noticing moments when I seem to make an argument for a different type of empathy: “While that difference in ways of empathizing remains unspecified, the discipline Allan invokes is a broadly hospitable one.” Avi Alpert is perhaps even more direct in his observation: “[I]t’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 admit that I am less interested in empathy than I am in its limits. I also realize that I allude to “hearing differently” in the Darwin debates, and I point explicitly to empathy in my discussion of Azar Nafisi at the book’s conclusion.

The fundamental question, it seems to me, is not necessarily one of educating a public how to empathize better (and this may explain why I do not necessarily go down this rabbit hole myself), but to consider the conditions through which empathy emerges. Part of my argument is that identification in the novel makes possible a certain type of empathy—and forecloses others. And yet, if we think about the category of the un-empathizable, then we think alongside those most often purged from the domain of reason, literacy, and cogency: the students protesting Haydar Haydar’s novel, Daniel Bliss in the Darwin debates, or Amina in Naguib Mahfouz’s novel. The challenge here is that these positions are only intelligible as a sort of fantasy within accounts that liberal education offers. My book is much less concerned with recuperating subject positions than noting how they emerge. In this regard, the issue is less one of being situated “inside” or “outside” the literary universe, as Jeffrey Sacks notes, than it is a matter of analyzing the specter of illiteracy across the chapters.

Description and Futurity

What is to be gained by tracing this horizon between literacy and illiteracy? I sense in a number of responses a lingering question about the world to which the book opens its reader. There are suggestions that the model of world literature leads to new ways of reading, which, as Mimi Winick gracefully notes, “seem vague.” Avi Alpert adds, “There does not appear to me In the Shadow of World Literature much of a theory of engagement, or dialogue, or transformation.” I should be clear that my goal was never to prescribe ways of reading, nor to formulate a how-to manual for the contemporary reader. Instead, if there is a future at hand, it is one predicated on the shifting questions that the book raises: the relationship of literature and the secular, the horizon between literacy and illiteracy, and the fantasy of the bad reader at the heart of the world republic of letters.

In the end, I appreciate how Mimi Winick frames the book as a “portable set of tools with which to do work in literary studies now, and to construct the future of our shared discipline.” I am grateful to learn from what the various responses offer by way of engagements in this present and future: the connections that Tom McEnaney sees between the book and contemporary debates on reading, the ways that Angie Heo highlights work on icons and relics, and the questions Jeffrey Sacks poses about anthropology, religion, and textuality. If I gesture to a future of our discipline—with attention to both its limits and potentials—I am heartened here to see the possibilities that these readers raise for imagining the book in a new light.


  1. Niklaus Largier, “Mysticism, Modernity, and the Invention of Aesthetic Experience,” Representations Vol. 105. No. 1. Winter 2009, 37-60.