Discussing World Literature with Pheng Cheah – Some Reflections

Daria Eldridge, Stanford University and Johannes Stephan, Freie Universität Berlin

This year’s special guest and plenary speaker of the Transregional Academy „Minor/Small Literature(s). Perspectives on World Literature from Elsewhere“, July 11-20th, 2019, Leibniz-Zentrum für Literatur- und Kulturforschung Berlin, Professor Pheng Cheah (UC Berkeley) invited participants not to take for granted the ‘world’ of world literature, which has, in our era of scholarship, largely come to be conflated with the world capitalist market. By Cheah’s account, crossing literary ‘borders’, then, simply means participating in global commodity exchange, which in fact alienates the human, rather than effecting any meaningful intercourse or encounter. Cheah re-terms literature which operates within this paradigm (merely) ‘global’ literature, and calls for a reconsideration of ‘world’ not as a spatial category, to be populated by falsely heterogenous literatures now flattened into infinitely recognizable and translatable global consumer forms, but rather as fundamentally constituted by the temporal—that is, world as the process of worlding. Worlding literature, then, is literature which enacts the passage of time, literature which creates worlds through a radical and undecidable openness. As Cheah showed through numerous examples in his texts, lecture, and in our discussion, postcolonial contexts can be particularly productive sites for the creation of this worlding literature, since they are definitionally engaged in disrupting unequal power relations and creating new worlds in the wake of European colonialism. An interesting question for further inquiry would be whether or to what extent Cheah’s take on world literature can be productively applied to non-postcolonial textual production. Moreover, how do/can modern non-postcolonial texts or pre-modern texts prior to capitalist globalization world?

Although our sessions with Cheah primarily emphasized the need for us, as literary scholars, to reexamine the ‘world’ of ‘world literature’, they also raised interesting questions about our approach to the latter half of this term: perhaps, as Cheah suggests, worlding can be thought not simply as a characteristic of one ‘kind’ of literature (which performs the literary ‘better’ than other texts) but rather as foundational to literature as such; literature which worlds (and so opens a ground for encounter with temporalization) is literature, while ‘literature’ which does not (i.e., global literature, which reduces human relations to the level of market exchange) is no literature at all, and cannot aspire to that category.

Cheah’s worldling concept made us think about its relevance to our own research areas, which we would like to share:

Johannes: Within the Arabo-Islamic literary tradition frame tales, often within the context of advice literature of an Indian origin such as Kalīla and Dimna and the Book of Sindbād (The Seven Viziers) are more than a set of stories traveling through different localities and languages. For, more importantly, such literature itself thematizes the traveling of texts and persons. As the above-mentioned texts are also known as extensive frame tales, they continuously create new self-contained story worlds; they connect single individual experiences in their limited temporality to a larger collective whole. The negotiation of such temporal opening can be well observed in the famous Arabian Nights. In this, the protagonist Scheherazade contests the claimed sovereignty of the king Shahriyar who intends to extinguish all members of the female sex from his court as a result of his anger of being cheated upon. Scheherazade, the vizier’s daughter, who risks being killed the morning after being the king’s wife for one single night as it happened to many women before her, responds with shrewdness by producing new lengthy tales, that trigger the king’s curiosity. Consequently, she can stay alive night after night and with her the frame narrative with all its manifold embedded story worlds. The frame tale as a response to the king’s single unworlding force, encloses a lively multivocality, as most tales themselves enclose encounters with new storytellers. In accordance with Cheah’s understanding that world is a temporal category, time in the Arabian Nights merely exists through the power of storytelling (T. Todorov, Les hommes-récits). The power of worlding through framing and embedding defeats the single power of unworlding that would otherwise destroy a decentralized universe inhabited by diverse and overlapping temporalities. 

Daria: The paper I brought to this year’s Academy interrogates the temporalization of one of Nikolai Leskov’s skaz texts through Benjamin’s famous essay on that topic (The Storyteller), and so I was very pleased when the essay in question came up during our discussion session with Cheah. I argue that Leskov’s skaz, as a literary attempt to exchange experience through living oral speech, rejects the temporal distancing that normally occurs in the act of writing ethnographically-inspired work and instead becomes the site of an encounter with a shared, hermeneutically ambiguous present; the storyteller’s non-alienation from his own death, as Benjamin puts it, lends authority to his telling and creates the possibility for an opening onto eternity. Cheah’s rearticulation of these notions in terms of ‘worlding’ is intriguing, and can, I think, directly address skaz as a form which is immanently effective in opening spaces for encounters with time.

Another productive area of future inquiry, which only arose briefly at the close of one of our sessions, but which I hope to continue to develop in the coming weeks and months, is the potential of the notion of worlding for thinking about film, and, more specifically, about the works of Andrei Tarkovsky. Can we work through Tarkovsky’s continual preoccupation with the intimate relationship between film, time, and the divine as a drive to create worlds? Is his film ‘worlding film’, which allows being to be, rather than reducing the world to an image of the human? How does (or does) his ‘sculpting’ of time enable the viewer to genuinely encounter its coming and going?

Daria Eldridge is a PhD student in the Slavic Languages and Literatures Department at Stanford University. Her research focuses broadly on literary, artistic, and filmic engagements with Orthodox Christianity, especially those concerning theologies of the sacred image. Her current project examines Nikolai Leskov’s fiction and non-fiction writings about Old Belief (staroobriadchestvo) within the larger context of heightened interest in the Old Believers/Old Ritualists in 19th century Russia and proposes a reconsideration of the violence perpetrated on sectarians during this period through the lens of religious architectonics.

Johannes Stephan is a postdoctoral researcher in the ERC funded project “Kalīla and Dimna – AnonymClassic” at the Freie Universität Berlin. He studied Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies in Halle an der Saale, Damascus, and Bern. Until 2018 he was a research and teaching associate in the Institute of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Bern where he earned his PhD degree with a thesis on the literariness of early modern travelogues in Arabic, most prominently the Book of Travels by the Arabian Nights storyteller Hanna Dyab (1764). In recent years he has published on Arabic literary and intellectual history of the 18th and 19th centuries and taught classes on Arabic travel literature, historiography, and the modern history of the Middle East.

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