It happens in Berkeley, but only because it happened in Paris first

Last night, Pascal Casanova came from Paris to give a talk on her book, and larger literary project, The World Republic of Letters. I have to admit at the outset that I’m fairly predisposed not to like this style of argument, the way sweeping claims about inclusiveness and globalization end up focusing on the same old writers we’ve been studying for a long time. And for some reason, her title always makes me think of that Reading Lolita inTehran writer, and her “republic of the imagination,” of which I am not a huge fan. Anyway.

Her project is to think about the ways that literature and the literary is always produced in a global context, or how what she calls the “world republic of letters” structures and influences the ways we all perceive what the literary is. She isn’t quite as naïve as this may sound; she doesn’t try to say that there is one thing out there that makes all the rules, but she tries to think about and chart the various centers of global literary prestige (privileging Paris, naturally) and trace out how those centers set the rules for what texts will be celebrated (she used the word “consecrated” multiple times) and how and why. This is a multivalent process, and she doesn’t deny it; the world republic of letters is (like the global economy, on which it is implicitly modeled) a structure of inequality and domination, and her attention to these modes of domination is something I can embrace.

That said, an example she spent some time talking about was the ways that William Faulkner modeled a particular way of being a writer in a peripheral place, and she recited a long list of writers in Latin America, Africa, and “peripheral” places in Europe who participated in this Faulknerian revolution. It’s a good long list; Faulkner got read all over the place, and lots of writers pointed him out as an influence. But when she writes things like “Faulkner is also a figure with whom all writers in countries on the periphery can identify,” the excessive broadness of this net indicates to me a central problem with her project: while she wants to talk about how a writer like Faulkner becomes a kind of cultural capital (which can be converted into another currency called “modernity”), the fact that a writer in Algeria might find doors opening for him or her after being dubbed “Faulknerian” does not therefore imply that that writer truly identifies with Faulkner. Another obvious example of this kind of argument would be Gabriel Garcia Marquez, whose relationship with Faulkner’s legacy is hugely important, and I know that because I wrote a paper on it (which means it must be important). But when she talks about structural affinities and derives relationships between writers on that basis, she always seems to be claiming that these writers are essentially the same, because the place they occupy in the literary marketplace is analogous, and this is just a bogus claim. When pressed on this point, of course, she was quick to say that this was not her point at all, but her argument gets continually misread in this way (it seems to me) because its logic is always dragging her towards those kinds of readings. For example, Garcia Marquez narrates one kind of genealogy of his craft, in which his master is Faulkner and he learns everything from him. But at other points, he tells a completely different story, about how his writing is basically just a transcription of the way his grandmother used to tell stories. Casanova might reply that when GGM tropes on his grandmother’s stories, he’s actually just marketing himself as an authentic, organic kind of local intellectual (just transcribing the stories of a real Colombian like his grams) and selling that authenticity on the marketplace. And there’s something to that. But because she presumes that the most important factor in a piece of writing is its relationship with the center, she is predisposed to not see anything about a text that doesn’t fit into that model. The fact that GGM, for example, might actually have something interesting to say about Colombia (in a novel like Cien Anos de Soledad, which is obsessively concerned with the position of the writer in a peripheral position) kind of disappears from view. When your paradigm focuses on the ways a work gets commodified (as hers does), it becomes very difficult to talk about the ways that it isn’t only a commodity.

So when she takes as the title of her talk “The Greenwich Meridian of Literature,” she can have some valuable things to say about the ways that the literary centrality of London, New York, and Paris define how and why which texts outside of those centers get integrated into global literary structures. But how does this kind of paradigm help us think about, for example, the particular and ocntingent logics and structures in the lusophone literary world, the strange ways that Portugal and Brazil triangulate for a writer like Mia Couto in Mozambique? A writer as original as him is infinitely impoverished if you try to compare him to writers in the “real” literary meridians of Paris or London or New York, and if you start to think about meridians in Brazil or Portugal, the whole structure starts to get incredibly over complex and unwieldy. It reminds me of the ways that early astronomers would adopt ever more complex structures to explain the motions of heavenly bodies that their models didn’t predict: every time reality doesn’t conform to the model, you just add complexity to the model to incorporate that non-conformity, and pretty soon you have such a complex model that it doesn’t usefully explain anything. Occam’s razor would have sliced right through that mess: when simpler isn’t better, it just might be because the simple answer isn’t completely right.

In any case, Couto would be unlikely to see his literary qualities as anything but rooted in the particular logics and situation of Mozambique; while he has addressed to Mozambique’s status as a “small country” (in a famous letter he wrote to George Bush), this is not (like GGM’s thing with Faulkner) the be all and end all of his “literary” project. You can read A Varanda do Frangipani as a kind of noir mystery novel (or a deconstruction of it), but unless you address the way it is talking about and responding to the end of Mozambique’s thirty year war, very little in that novel makes much sense. Casanova’s paradigm is very good at addressing the former quality, but at the cost of downplaying the latter. As far as I’m concerned, Couto and GGM are both writers for whom the significance of the latter is far greater; Garcia Marquez, after all, is not merely a Colombian Faulkner: his books get read by numerous readers who have never heard of Faulkner. You could make the claim, of course, that the only reason these readers had even heard of GGM, the only reason he had been published in the first place, was his relationship with Paris and Faulkner, but it feels to me like the cart is starting to exert tremendous weight on the horse: we’re no longer explaining the evidence, we’re twisting the evidence to support the explanation.

In any case, all of this puts all the power in the hands of the “center,” in ways that the evidence does not completely support. Most of the writers of El Boom may have been originally published by Spanish presses, but the reason those Spanish presses were interested in Latin American writers in the first place was because they were managing to sell a lot of books down south. But the ways that publishers took note of what kinds of books sold down there and then printed and published more of those is a dynamic that tends to drop out if you start from the presumption that all decisions get made at the center. So while it may be true that the structure of El Boom as a literary movement has much to do with Parisian models of modernismo, that’s only part of the story, and maybe not the most important part (I would say not, but what do I know). The trouble with Casanova, for me, is that her focus on that global centers precludes any real engagement with this kind of complexity.

There is a particular precedent for this, of course, in the old world systems model of globalization, which is itself modeled on a curiously uncritical taking of imperialism at its word. But while the old way of understanding imperialism was to imagine that plans constructed in London got implemented (or contested) in Kenya, for example. But the most interesting studies of imperialism in the last couple decades (I’m thinking of Timothy Mitchell or Frederick Cooper or Ana Stoler, but those are just two great ones amongst a very rich group) have been the people who study the ways that conditions on the periphery influence how plans get made in the center. Imperialists love this way of thinking about empire, love the idea that powerful men hatch plans in civilization and then send forth their influence into the savage wilds of the periphery, but the reality is much more complex than that; Stoler traces the ways that “official” mores about sexual relations with “natives” in the dutch indies get shaped by changing economic circumstances for example, or Cooper traces how conceptions of the potential modernity and modernization of Africans develops out of rapidly changing political struggles in colonial Africa. From my perspective, Casanova’s desire to assert that everything starts and originates in the centers reflects and unwillingness to think of how the centers, too, are already defined and influenced by their relationship with the peripheries. Or rather, there are not really “peripheries” and “centers” but simply a stunningly complex web of relationships between different types of social and cultural capital. Some of it can be explained using a model of centers and peripheries, but a whole lot of it cannot (good luck trying to make sense of or integrate textual production in the “Islamic world” into her model, for example), the same way an earth-centered view of the universe can explain a lot of the data. Just not all of it. So while I’m in full agreement with the argument that we need to look at the ways that the trends in Paris exerts force on writers in the formerly colonized world, and how New York exerts force on the third world, and so forth, such models presume a centrality for the “center” that doesn’t so much explain the complexity of writers like Mia Couto as make predictions about him that can only be fulfilled by oversimplifying and downplaying the very complexity I find most interesting. And if I may, when the choice of model made by an academic in France just happens to emphasize the centrality of Paris and radically downplay the autonomous logic of cultural economies in places that are far from France, well, William Occam again has some suggestions. But I leave those to you, dear friends…

PS- the hits keep coming. Tonight we hear from Immanuel Wallerstein, perhaps the major theorist of “World Systems Theory” back in the seventies and eighties (and still its most prominent standard bearer), so stay tuned!