Paris, not London. And literature, itself

I thought this would be a light blogging day, but there is just too much going on.

Pascale Casanova has a "big argument" book called The World Republic of Letters that was reviewed in The Nation by William Deresiewicz in December. There seem to be two prongs to her argument. One has to do with situating literature withing the world-system:

Casanova's work amounts to a radical remapping of global literary space--which means, first of all, the recognition that there is a global literary space. Her insights build on world systems theory, the idea, developed by Fernand Braudel and Immanuel Wallerstein, that the capitalist economy that has emerged since about 1500 must be understood as a single global system of interlinked national economies. Some of these economies belong to the ruling "core," others to the dependent "periphery," but none can coherently be studied as a discrete entity. Casanova, a scholar at the Center for Research in Arts and Language in Paris, argues, convincingly, that an analogous literary system, a "world republic of letters," has gradually taken shape since around the same time. In her analysis, a core group of nations--France, England and the founders of other "major" European literatures--having built up large reserves of "literary capital" over the past several centuries, control the means of cultural legitimation for the countries of the global literary periphery--a region that, as in the capitalist world system, has grown ever larger over the past two centuries with, first, the rise of European nationalism and, second, decolonization, as nations without previous literary standing, and writers from those nations, have sought international validation. And the capital of the world republic of letters, the place to which even other countries of the core must look for ultimate consecration and the global reputation it brings, is Paris.

The surprise being, of course, Paris. Most of us English lit. types think of it as London...

The other prong of her argument is about the autonomy of literature, its separatenes from social history. She is rebelling against historicism.

Whatever the terms under which it was conducted, however, it was this rivalry among national literatures that led to the creation of an international literary space. Indeed, it led, one might say, to the creation of literature itself--literature as an autonomous realm--for it was, paradoxically, through this same struggle that literary values were asserted independently of national political and moral agendas. By constituting a transnational sphere in which literature could be judged on its own terms, this rivalry enabled writers to appeal beyond their national publics, with their invariably conservative values. It made possible, in other words, the creation of an avant-garde. (And it is because of its unique hospitality to the avant-garde that Paris has endured as the world's literary center.) Here is where Casanova parts company with the historicism that has swept literary studies over the past two decades. Rather than tying literary phenomena to underlying social and political developments, she charts an autonomous history for literature itself. The world republic of letters is governed by its own rules, keeps time by its own historical clock, partitions the world according to its own map and features its own economics, its own inequalities and its own forms of violence.

Aha. I wonder what Dan Green will think of all this.

I may or may not end up agreeing with all of Casanova's claims, but from this review I have a feeling it's something I'll really enjoy reading.