Recoding World Literature: Libraries, Print Culture, and Germany's Pact with Books

By Uhlig, Stefan H. | German Quarterly, Summer 2017 | Go to article overview

Recoding World Literature: Libraries, Print Culture, and Germany's Pact with Books


Uhlig, Stefan H., German Quarterly


Mani, B. Venkat. Recoding World Literature: Libraries, Print Culture, and Germany's Pact with Books. New York: Fordham UP, 2017. 348pp. $28.00 (paperback).

It is widely known that the conceptual reworking of world literature in recent years has generated one of the most multifaceted, sustained debates in current literary studies. Venkat Mani's project is to chart or, as he puts it, to "recode" in more material terms a linkage between writing and a globalizing world that has been central to the field since the American Comparative Literature Association (AÇLA) issued the Bernheimer report in 1993. That disciplinary review called for a multicultural recontextualizing of predominantly European and AngloAmerican perspectives, and suggested that to make this globalizing effort the profession must let go of old hostilities towards transcultural research, or even teaching, in translation. Mani positions his account of "bibliomigrancy" through largely German contact zones as a material corrective to the reimaginings and reconstructions of world literature since Bernheimer. From Gayatri Spivak's Death of a Discipline (2003) to the conflicting, influential essays gathered respectively in Franco Moretti's Distant Reading (2013) and Emily Apter's Against World Literature (2013), Mani's capacious introduction locates much to work, and argue, with in arguments about the politics of an ostensibly commodified, and often anglicized, recirculation of world-literary resources. Mani endorses David Damrosch's focus on translation, circulation, and production in What is World Literature? (2003), and praises Pascale Casanova's turn from specialized curricular or disciplinary concerns to the construction of a broader literary and transnational public sphere in The World Republic of Letters (2004). Rebecca Walkowitz's Born Translated (2015) or Aamir Mufti's Forget English! (2016) are more recent counterparts for Mani's interest in the pathways of translation or the dominance of Western literary worldviews over their more distant, catachrestic others.

Mani's review of the dense controversy which surrounds the central focus of his title foregrounds the distinctive, and suggestive, constellation of his project. Recoding World Literature aims to historicize, in Mani's terms, the "presentist concerns" (14) of questions that emerged, over the last two centuries, from "globalizing power politics," and the enduring impact of such forces on cross-cultural modes of circulation. Mani's focus is emphatically not on the "conceptual collections" (5) he associates with current criticism, but instead on the transnational channels of print culture traced by libraries, publication or translation ventures, periodicals, anthologies, book trade conventions, or the digital recirculation of transnational archives. What is more, this reconstruction profiles literary migrations not through central idioms of the globalizing powers but, instead, through the material proliferation of book publishing, translation, or collecting in the German-speaking world. The culturally belated, long disunified condition of the German territories offers Mani an exemplar of material transnationalism. It is well known that German writers, from the eighteenth century onwards, read voraciously in both contemporary and ancient languages in their attempt to catch up with the major European cultural and governmental paradigms. The sheer bulk of publication and translation ventures that sustained those efforts far exceeded their ability to sway political realities, whether domestically or abroad. And to this day both German publishing and, tellingly, the volume of translations into German form an outsized share of their respective markets. This conscious bookishness (what Mani's calls a "pact with books"), and its overtly cosmopolitan commitments offer rich materials for the attempt to chronicle world literature as a print-cultural phenomenon. The German archive signals, at the same time, that it is hard to draw a bright line between the material and ideational aspects of its changeable formations. …

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