In the Shadow of World Literature

World literature has commonly been understood as a collection of national or linguistic traditions (relating French, German, Russian, and Kiswahili literature, for example), and aesthetic periodization has tended to serve as a basic unit in literary history (distinguishing between Romanticism and modernism, for example). Michael Allan’s In the Shadow of World Literature proposes a different type of analysis, one that shifts attention from literary texts to the practice of literary reading and that considers the sensibilities, dispositions and behaviors cultivated by literary education.

With the rise of departments of modern literature, being literate comes to imply not only a linguistic competence with which to decipher words, but a particular way of relating to language, textuality, and critique, all of which come to be understood as aspects of reading properly. If we link world literature to the sensibilities it assumes of its readers, then how do we trace these sensibilities across differing textual practices and traditions? How does literary education reconstitute the distinction between literacy and illiteracy? Who or what determines what it means to read properly? World literature, Allan argues, is not the neutral meeting ground of a variety of textual practices, but instead a framework that asserts—and at times enforces—a particular place for literature in the world.

Drawing from the work of social scientists—who raise important questions regarding the relation between colonial institutions, religion, and knowledge production—and postcolonial literary scholars—who investigate how literature mediates the interactions between the colonizer and the colonized—In the Shadow of World Literature ultimately aims to bridge history, religion, and anthropology with literature and aesthetics, all in an effort to consider the contingent formation of a literary world in colonial Egypt.

In the discussion that follows, six scholars—from departments of comparative literature, English, Arabic, and religion—engage with questions and implications of Allan’s book.