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What is the "world" in "world literature"?


In Public Books, literary scholar Caroline Levine reviews two new books that strive in different ways to define the concept of a “world” as used in humanities scholarship: What Is a World? by Pheng Cheah and The Official World by Mark Seltzer. Levine suggests that while the two books have different methods and objects of focus, together they vindicate the project of world literature, provided that we understand this “world” as polyvalent and flexible rather than hegemonic. Here’s an excerpt from the review:

Two recent works of theory—Pheng Cheah’s What Is a World? (2016) and Mark Seltzer’s The Official World (2016)—throw an intriguing new light on why and how “world literature” succeeds in generating plurality and disruption rather than falling back into a flattening familiarity. Though their books are very different in scope and method, Cheah and Seltzer alike argue that the term “world” does not refer to a single, inert, predetermined spatial fact. “Worlds” are created concepts or schemes—models of space-time relations that can and do take a variety of shapes. For both theorists, any particular model of “the world” will be limiting, but also contingent—capable of being remade and replaced by alternative worlds. As Cheah reminds us, we commonly refer to “worlds” in the plural—lifeworlds, virtual worlds, “developing” and “developed” worlds—each with multiple contours and contents and capable of unfolding according to different norms and expectations.

Cheah is especially critical of those scholars who assume that “the world” is nothing more than a spatial container for the circulation of commodities. This particular model, he argues, simply retreads the pathways of global capitalism, violent circuits of exchange that have destroyed more richly habitable worlds. Drawing from Marx, Heidegger, and Arendt, he defines “worlds” as ways of “gathering and holding-together”—constellations of shared practices that connect us to others in an ongoing way. Worlds are, he says, not just containers but dynamic, temporal forces that bind people and objects, ways of “relating, belonging, or being-with.” The particular world imposed by capitalist globalization is just one particularly destructive model of “the world” that has eradicated many other meaningful frameworks for living created through rituals, labor, religious practices, and ethical bonds.

Like Cheah, Seltzer rejects the notion that “world” is above all an expansive spatial category. “The official world” that interests Seltzer is a modern, Euro-American social system. Specifically, it is the world of the self-reporting bureaucracy, which sets forth tasks, positions, and rules, and then relentlessly observes and evaluates itself as it unfolds over time. Seltzer’s official world is a self-enclosed, self-organizing, and self-describing social system, always absorbed in the “attempt to keep up with what it is at every moment bringing about.”

Worlds apart, so to speak, Cheah derives his model from continental theory and postcolonial fiction, while Seltzer draws his “official world” from systems theory and US popular culture. Cheah’s worlds open us to political hopefulness; Seltzer’s official world feels chillingly inescapable. This disparity makes what their two concepts of world have in common all the more striking.

Image: Cryosphere Fuller Projection by Hugo Ahlenius. Via Public Books.