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New Left Review 54, November-December 2008

Literary studies with global ambitions are on the rise. But do they truly embrace the literatures of the world? Alexander Beecroft offers a typology of historically distinct kinds of writing that reaches further into the past and wider across human languages than any hitherto.



Towards a Typology of Literary Systems

The rubric of ‘world literature’ has in recent years come to assume a prominent, perhaps even dominant, role in discussions over the future of Comparative Literature, and of literary studies more generally. While discussions necessarily and automatically begin with Goethe’s use of the term Weltliteratur in conversation with the young Johann Peter Eckermann in January of 1827, [1] For an enlightening discussion of Goethe and Weltliteratur, see David Damrosch, What is World Literature?, Princeton 2003, pp. 1–36. I would argue that a more immediate point of origin is Immanuel Wallerstein and, through him, Fernand Braudel. Wallerstein traces the development of his world-systems theory to the 1970s and to contemporary debates in the social sciences concerning the usefulness of the nation-state as the proper unit of analysis. In place of the nation-state, Wallerstein and the world-systems analysts offered the historical system, and described three kinds of such systems that have existed: the mini-system of the pre-modern world, geographically limited in scope; the world-empire, such as Rome or Han-dynasty China, ‘a large bureaucratic structure with a single political centre and an axial division of labour, but multiple cultures’; and a world-economy, such as that in place in modern times, which is ‘a large axial division of labour with multiple political centres and multiple cultures’.

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Alexander Beecroft, ‘World Literature Without a Hyphen’, NLR 54: £3

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