This brief essay on a huge subject is very much thinking in progress.footnote1 To achieve a manageable scope for discussion, I engage key programmatic works by three Western comparatists, representing three generations over the last half-century: Erich Auerbach, Edward Said, Franco Moretti. I select works that are roughly evenly spaced—the early 1950s, the mid-1970s, and 2000—although I will not be dealing with them in chronological order. For the argument developed here, criticism deals concretely with the language of texts, while theory is cast in abstraction, at a distance. By this definition, a lot of what we call theory, because it is thoughtful—much of the work of Walter Benjamin, Roland Barthes, Paul de Man, Jacques Derrida—would count as criticism.

In this perspective, then, it seems clear that globalization erodes criticism in favour of theory. The reason for this is the relation of English, as the global language of exchange and information, to the hundreds of languages and cultures that globalization brings into interaction with each other.footnote2 I am by no means the first to describe this complex phenomenon, which could be summarized as follows:

Globalization pluralizes: it opens up every local, national or regional culture to others and thereby produces ‘many worlds’. Yet these many worlds can only be known through a single medium: just as the dollar is the medium of global commerce, so is English the medium of global culture, producing ‘one world’.

The exemplum for my thesis comes from a brilliant and challenging piece which makes me uneasy. It was written in English, for an English journal, by an Italian scholar based in the US. Franco Moretti, in his ‘Conjectures on World Literature’, proposes to escape the confines of the Eurocentric, Cold War discipline of comparative literature by renewing the notion of Weltliteratur, first proposed by Goethe in 1827 and also invoked by Marx and Engels in The Communist Manifesto.footnote3 Moretti focuses on the modern novel, as a transculturally extensive form that has spread from a European core with the dual rise of capitalism and the nation-state—an instance of the globally productive conjuncture of print, capital and nation over the last two centuries evoked by Benedict Anderson in Imagined Communities.

Moretti begins from the observation that ‘the literature around us now is unmistakably a planetary system’. In an age when we confront, more imperatively than ever before, ‘hundreds of languages and literatures’, he asserts that it can hardly be sufficient simply to insist, as comparatists always have, that we must read ‘more’. His solution moves from quantity to quality: what we need is not to read more, but to work with a new set of categories. Reaching back a century, he finds in Max Weber a model for interpretive, historical, comparative social science as Geisteswissenschaft. Weber argued that

It is not the ‘actual’ interconnection of ‘things’ . . . but the conceptual interconnection of problems which define the scope of the various sciences. A new ‘science’ emerges where a new problem is pursued by a new method.

As strongly as, in their different ways, Kuhn, Foucault and Althusser later did, Weber here emphasizes the primacy of ways of knowing, of cognitive technique, and the subordination of raw material. Following this model, Moretti argues that world literature is not the name of an object, a thing, but rather of a problem—that is to say, a possibility—which requires for its science a new critical method that can never be found simply by reading more texts. To come into being, Moretti asserts (in the wake of Popper), theories require ‘a leap, a wager, a hypothesis’.