Academic journal article Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature : JASAL

National Literatures, Scale and the Problem of the World

Academic journal article Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature : JASAL

National Literatures, Scale and the Problem of the World

Article excerpt

One of the leading figures in world literature today is the Harvard scholar David Damrosch. His 2003 book What is World Literature? has been widely influential, and might be said to have established the new, US-centred field of study known as world literature. In a 2010 review of three later books edited or co-edited by Damrosch-How to Read World Literature (2009), Teaching World Literature (2009) and The Longman Anthology of World Literature (2009)-John M. Kopper describes them as Damrosch's aleph. The reference, which I take to be ironic, is to the title story of Jorge Luis Borges's collection, The Aleph (1949). The aleph is a mysterious gadget that apparently allows the narrator, who is also named 'Borges,' briefly to experience an all-encompassing vision of the universe. It is a parable about the madness of desiring a total or 'encyclopedic vision' (Echevarria 125). To describe world literature as Damrosch's aleph is to imply that it is fundamentally misguided to seek a total vision of literature or to read books at the scale of the world. 'If the aleph stands for the totality of literature,' Kopper writes, then today's rich and expanding bibliography of works about that immensity, along with the increasingly massive anthologies that seek to encircle it, show that we have lost our fear of the unbounded object that we study' (408).

What we are dealing with here is a problem of scale. What is the appropriate scale for the study of literature? This is another way of asking, where is literature best located? Is it desirable or even possible to study a text or the phenomenon of literature in general on a world scale? What are the consequences of approaching a national literature like that of Australia, or the literature of a city like Melbourne or Sydney, from the scale of 'the world'? Do texts invite being read at different scales? In a slightly different sense of the word 'scale,' what are the consequences for the degree of resolution or accuracy that we might achieve from such a perspective? If an American critic, for example, reads an Australian novel as world literature, is he or she likely to get the details right? Will they know enough? In the end, it is a question of professional expertise.

Scale has long been pervasive in the study of literature, yet even when they are most preoccupied with questions of space, as in the writing of literary histories, literary scholars tend to treat both space and scale as passive terms, an aspect of the subject that we take for granted or as given, rather than as a problem to be explored or a part of our approach and methodology. This is not the case in many other disciplines, especially in the social sciences, which have very sophisticated tools for thinking about questions of space and scale (Dominguez). In human geography, for example, scale has long been at the forefront of methodological considerations, and it is there that I'll turn initially as a way of refocusing on the problem of scale in literary history and literary criticism. My purpose is to ask how scalar thinking might illuminate the relationship between Australian literature, conceived both as a body of writing and as an academic discipline, and world literature.

The Problem of Geographic Scale

Beginning in the 1970s, and following the publication of Henri Lefebvre's The Production of Space in 1974, human geographers have argued that space and, by implication, scale, are both material and discursive categories that are 'constructed' or 'produced' by social processes and the intervention of human agents (Sheppard and McMaster, 'Introduction' 15). Some of the major theory-building was done by geographers Neil Brenner, David Harvey, Neil Smith and Erik Swyngedouw, drawing especially on Lefebvre. Lefebvre was not himself concerned with questions of scale, but the usefulness of his argument about the social production of space was that it contravened Euclidian and Newtonian conceptions of space as the given dimension in which things happen. …

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