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Polysystems Redux: The Unfinished Business of World Literature

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  03 August 2015


In responding to Muhsin al-Musawi’s two-part essay on the Arabic Republic of Letters, this essay proposes a rethinking of the world systems model in global literary studies in terms of a polysystems framework. Rather than trying to fit literary worlds—ancient, premodern, modern—within a single Euro-chronological frame culminating in a world capitalist systems model—where the non-European worlds appear as invariably inferior—it is worthwhile to see them as several polysystems with variable valences within a heterotemporal planetary literary space. This approach offers a comparative reading of the emergence of three language worlds—Sanskrit, Persian, and Arabic—and urges us to rethink the totality of the world literary space as a diachronic field that generates overlapping, multiscalar, comparative histories of literary polysystems.

Forum on Literary World Systems
© Cambridge University Press 2015 

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1 Apter, Emily, Against World Literature: On the Politics of Untranslatability (London: Verso, 2013), 3 Google Scholar, 8.

2 Ibid., 326.

3 See his discussion of coinage, Peter Bayle’s, Republique des Lettres, at the end of the seventeenth century, and Dena Goodman’s subsequent history of the phrase in her book, The Republic of Letters: A Cultural History of the French Enlightenment (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press 1994)Google Scholar. al-Musawi’s, Muhsin, “The Republic of Letters: Arab Modernity?Journal of Postcolonial Literary Inquiry, 1.2 (2014): 267 Google Scholar.

4 Mufti, Aamir, “Orientalism and the Institution of World Literature,” Critical Inquiry 36.3 (2010), 459 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

5 See Krishnaswamy, RevathyNineteenth Century Language Ideology: A Postcolonial Perspective,” Interventions 7.1 (2005), 4371 CrossRefGoogle Scholar. In my own essay, “The Language Question in India,” I trace the shift from Sanskrit and Persian worlds to English at the cusp of eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and discuss the gradual disenfranchisement and desublimation of Sanskrit as a the locus of philological knowledge. My essay was published in The Cambridge History of Postcolonial Literature, ed. Ato Quayson. Vol. 2. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 649–680.

6 See Stefan Helgesson’s essay in this forum for the use of terms introversion and extroversion in literary theory.

7 Foucault, Michel, The Order of Things (London: Vintage, 1973), 252 Google Scholar, emphasis added.

8 Ibid., 43.

9 Here I echo and reiterate Gayatri Spivak’s injunction that comparative literature should open up conversations with scholars in area studies if it is to survive in the twenty-first century. Spivak, Gayatri, Death of a Discipline (New York: Columbia University Press), 2003 Google Scholar.

10 Guillen, Claudio, Literature as System: Towards a Theory of Literary History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1971)Google Scholar. Even-Zohar, Itamar, “Polysystem Theory,” Poetics Today, Vol. 1.1/2: Special Issue: Literature, Interpretation, Communication (Autumn 1979): 287310 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

11 Cited in Villaneuva, Dario, “Claudio Guillen: (World) Literature as System,” The Routledge Companion to World Literature, eds. Theo D’Haen, David Damrosch, and Djelal Kadir (Oxford and New York: Routledge, 2011), 111 Google Scholar.

12 For an expanded explication of these see Itamar Even-Zohar, “Polysystem Theory”; see specially page 291 for the idea of open and closed net-of-relations.

13 This resonates somewhat with Franco Moretti’s take on the conundrum of temporality in conceiving of world literature as a system. As he puts it: “the past and the present of literature (a “long” present, beginning in the eighteenth century) should be seen, not as ‘superior’ or ‘inferior’ to each other, but as two epochs that are structurally so different that they require two independent theoretical approaches.” Morett, Franco, “World Systems Theory, Evolutionary Analysis, Weltliteratur ,” Immanuel Wallerstein and the Problem of the World, eds. David Palumbo-Liu, Bruce Robbins, and Nirvana Tanoukhi (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011), 7576 Google Scholar.

14 Not that such studies have not been attempted. See Gonda, J., Sanskrit in Indonesia (Nagpur: International Academy of Indian Culture, 1952)Google Scholar and Wales, H.G., The Making of Greater India (London: Bernard Quartich, 1961)Google Scholar. None, however, approaches the ambitious scale of Pollock’s enterprise.

15 Pollock, Sheldon, The Language of Gods in the World of Men: Sanskrit, Culture and Power in Premodern India (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006), 11 Google Scholar.

16 Ibid., 12.

17 Ibid., 572.

18 Ibid., 580.

19 Ricci, Ronic, Islam Translated: Literature, Conversion and the Arabic Cosmopolis of South and Southeast Asia (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 4 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

20 Alam, Muzaffar, ‘The Culture and Politics of Persian in Precolonial Hindustan,’ Literary Cultures in History: Reconstructions from South Asia, ed. Sheldon Pollock (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2003), 131198 Google Scholar.

21 Ibid., 134.

22 Ibid., 148–49.

23 Ibid., 149.

24 Macaulay, Thomas Babington, “Educational Minute,” The Proceedings and Transactions of the Bethune Society, (Calcutta: Bethune Society, 1870), 225 Google Scholar.

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