Thoughts on Pascale Casanova’s The World Republic of Letters

Partly out of curiosity, partly out of obligation (my thesis project), I read Pascale Casanova’s The World of the Republic of Letters (the Spanish translation actually).  I wasn’t really able to enjoy it, as I had to read it over a weekend, among other readings – although I’m not  sure I would have enjoyed if I had more time to digest it.

Casanova’s analysis basically applies Bourdieuian theories of intellectual capital to global literature, what might be more accurately described as the “world literature” market.  She relies mostly on a Marxist model in which the First World accumulates the literary labor value of other countries.

In the meanwhile, the books aims at showing what Deleuze called “minor literatures” were in fact, accruing literary capital via re-creation of new aesthetics.  In the end it’s a kind of “ex-centric” or “peripheral” literary community. This kind of mega-narrative approach assumes, I guess, that this will explain a world system of literature, focusing on the rules, rather than exceptions. Great idea, but overall I found this theory uneven, filled with holes. Here are my complaints

1- The idea of literary capital seems to have a lot of flaws,chiefly that real capital and its inner-workings seem to create aesthetics.  The entire rise of “third world” literature might be attributed to the Cold War.  The USA and USSR fought it out in congresses and magazines throughout the world, and directly influenced aesthetics.  I see the voice-in-my-head (thanks to listening to his discussions so much) Alan Filreis has written things along these lines about Modernism.  It´s definitely a fertile area.

2- The organization of power seems to almost directly follow capital.  I disagree with Casanova that the U.S was wealthy but did not make itself a capital of literature like Paris.  First off, come 1940s everyone was running away with Paris, then New York post-WWII became at least a potential rival of London and Paris.  In either case, New York presented the model of a new kind of cultural center, without an actual bohemian space, but big money, museums and magazines.

3- How good is “national literature” as a model for understanding structures of power and aesthetics?  Even in the twentieth century nodes of power would seem to be more diversified.

4- It’s fine to examine literature as a market, particularly as novels, but when we take this theory over to poetry it doesn’t quite work.  If it weren’t for university English programs I bet many of those canonical texts would sell even less than they do know.  But what if we were to examine university positions and that sort of thing?

I’m just now getting into some of the critical responses to Casanova, like “World Literature Without a Hyphen”  by Alexander Beecroft.  More on that in the new few days.

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