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,footnote1 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’.

Wallerstein traces his use of the phrase ‘world-system’, and indeed ‘world-economy’, to Fernand Braudel’s work on the économie-monde of the sixteenth-century Mediterranean. For Wallerstein, the word ‘world’ in the phrases ‘world-economy’ and ‘world-system’ functions as a noun in apposition to the other noun in the phrase, rather than as an adjective modifying that noun, with a hyphen marking the distinction.footnote2 This point forms one of the unspoken assumptions most writers on world literature seem to have taken from Wallerstein, namely that world-literature (to restore the hyphen Wallerstein might demand) is not the sum total of the world’s literary production, but rather a world-system within which literature is produced and circulates.

The other assumption for which writers on world-literature are indebted to Wallerstein is that of an axial division of labour. This aspect of world-systems theory is one (understandably) less explicitly endorsed by writers on world-literature, given its echoes of imperialism and/or of contemporary global capitalism. Nonetheless, models presented by Pascale Casanova and Franco Moretti both assume some form of an axial division of labour, the former reserving higher-order and higher-value work for core cultures, and the latter for core specialists within the field of literary study (located, naturally, within the academic centres of those same core cultures). In either case, each of these models has the perhaps unintended effect of re-inscribing a hegemonic cultural centre, even as their avowed desire is to globalize literary studies. I examine the models of Casanova and Moretti in turn.

Pascale Casanova has shown us a république mondiale des lettres, for her a decidedly mercantilist republic, in which the global cultural-capital markets in Paris determine the exchange-value of texts. Her model has much explanatory power for the Europe of the past several centuries, and, arguably, for the post-1945 world at large, but by her own admission, can say little about the non-European world before 1945. Casanova goes so far as to date the non-‘Western’ world’s entry into literature (not merely ‘world literature’ or ‘world-literature’) to the era of decolonization. Her point is perhaps less that literature did not exist in non-European languages before decolonization, than that it could not be recognized as literature until after decolonization, an argument which begs the question: ‘recognized by whom?’ Casanova is working within a very specific and localized definition of literature, one which is effective enough, perhaps, for the periods, texts and languages which have provided the traditional focus of literary studies, but which cannot account for the full range of literary production across all cultures and times.

Another problematic feature of Casanova’s work is her reading of the relationship between literary and politico-economic systems of power. She identifies a parallel between the inequalities of what she calls ‘national history’ and the inequalities in literary resources between nations, but sees these parallels as analogical, rather than causal.footnote3 For her, the literary world is an alternative universe, operating under laws different from but analogous to those of the political world. The circulation of power within her republic of letters remains distinct from the circulation of power in the larger world; the currency of her republic cannot, it seems, be exchanged for dollars.