Symposium Introduction

Secular Frames: Symposium Introduction

Under what political and epistemological conditions do textual forms become literature? Michael Allan’s In the Shadow of World Literature offers not one entry point into this problem, but multiple. The book interrogates the normative limits of literature, drawing our attention to the objects, publics and practices recruited into its orbit, and the forms of life that persistently fall outside of it (or in its “shadow”). But instead of tracking the work of literary norms within the canon of world literature, Allan carries us to different “sites of reading”—i.e., historically and geographically located scenes through which the relationship binding educated subjects to textual objects that defines literature became hegemonic and synonymous with civilizational achievement.

Throughout its six chapters, the book takes the reader to these scenes of encounters and translations—ranging from colonial educational reforms to contemporary students’ street protests and the discovery of the Rosetta stone—which illuminate the ways literature comes “to dictate how to read, respond to and understand the world” (4). Allan’s analysis, however, goes beyond the limits of colonial Egypt; it ultimately suggests that world literature is not neutral ground where many textual traditions find a home, but instead a frame through which texts come to be understood, religious tradition transformed, and ethical subjects produced. In making this argument, the book engages a rich conversation with the work of Edward Said, Talal Asad, and René Welleck (among other scholars).

Indeed, while Allan spends the first pages locating his intervention at the crossing of literary theory and secular studies, the careful reader finishing the last pages notices that In the Shadow of World Literature poses a challenge to both of those fields. In conversation with literary scholars, Allan suggests we approach literature not as a collection of texts or as a strictly aesthetic category, but rather as “a cultivated sensibility integral to the recognition of an educated subject” (61). Underlying this conceptual shift is a new set of questions: how did memorization cease to be a literary practice? What does the process of translation do to the phenomenological distinctions between languages? Within the field of secular studies, Allan concurs with Asad and Mahmood that secularism has been involved in defining religion’s place in the modern world. But in taking literary reading as an object of analysis, he pushes the study of the secular into uncharted territories, where questions of instructions, hermeneutics and aesthetics take on a new salience.

A testimony to the importance and wide-ranging implications of Allan’s argument, our symposium brings together five interlocutors working in different fields across the humanities. Each engages some of the questions raised by In the Shadow of World Literature and reflects on the ideas that the book sets in motion within their respective domains of scholarship. Without giving too much away, here is a snapshot of what will unfold over the coming week.

In her remarks, Ellen McLarney draws our attention to the way Allan treats the binary oppositions (e.g., tradition and modernity, religion and secularism) underlying current scholarship on the Middle East. Instead of succumbing to them, Allan analyzes how they are “secured” (7) and “policed” (22) in the first place. Zeina Halabi adds that this very word choice reflects the way modern power constructs “the opposite of literature as irrational and fundamentalist.” In her essay, she analyzes new “sites of readings” where the opposition between adab and world literature is set up and stabilized.

Drawing on Timothy Bewes’s reading of Lukács, Jerilyn Sambrooke finds a leverage point to challenge Allan’s claim that the scenes of literate reading from Naguib Mahfouz’s Qasr al-shawq gesture to the limits of the “narrational possibilities of the novel” (96). Such scenes, she suggests, raise the “ethical questions that constitute the novel form itself.” Inspired by Allan’s provocations, Maha AbdelMegeed raise difficult questions. Under what conditions, she asks, can we—disciplined readers—cultivate alternative reading practices? Are there ways of potentially escaping the literary, and if so, what are their limits? This distance between Jordan Alexander Stein’s field of expertise (early US Literature) and colonial Egypt enables him to reflect on the implications of Allan’s overall argument. “No theories of language currently fashionable in the study of Comparative Literature,” Stein writes, “actually support the assumptions about generic integrity that underpin these practices of translation.”


Ellen McLarney


Commentary by Ellen McLarney

I read Michael Allan’s In the Shadow of World Literature: Sites of Reading in Colonial Egypt with excitement that a new generation of scholars is taking Arabic literature seriously. My main fear reading this serious contribution was that no one would pay attention, that no one cares anymore about “the literary,” that this would fall on deaf ears, that the critical importance of Arabic literature would be lost on this generation of digital citizens. Yet literary histories like this are so important to understanding our post-secular age, its current clashes and crusades, so many of them fought out discursively in the digital sphere. Charting a history of these confrontations could not be more critical.

In the Shadow of World Literature examines Arabic literature as a category in itself both historically and in its confrontation with modernity. There are many rich resources to draw on, since it is a fertile—and vast—field of study. This is daunting for Allan’s treatment, which zooms in for close textual analyses and zooms out for a bird’s-eye view of the world, the Arab world, the Middle East, the fields of literature and literary criticism, religion, secularism, and colonial confrontations. This is an ambitious and far-reaching project for a young scholar. Throughout the book, I was left hungry for more detail, breadth, and depth—not that it doesn’t exist here—but that is the challenge of approaching the notion of the “world” and “world literature” as a topic. He can’t cover the world even as he tries to give us a picture of it (along the lines of Said’s The World, the Text, and the Critic or even Orientalism).

This dilemma is the heart of his subject, a world of literature that is both specific and historically bounded, but that evolved in relation to a set of global developments both technological and political. These developments have influenced a global sense of what “literature” and “the literary” is and the function it performs, especially in relation to a sense of “the human,” “humanism,” and “the humanities” as a collective enlightenment endeavor that sees knowledge as an end in itself. Though this humanism has defined itself largely as “secular critique” in contradistinction to religious literature, the scriptural, and sacred readings and recitations, Allan carefully illustrates the imbrication, contingency, and mutual interdependence of enlightenment humanities and religion. A defining feature of Allan’s treatment is his refusal to get sucked into the binary oppositions that so often characterize analyses of the Middle East, the Arab world, and Islam. His willingness to take analyses beyond reductive oppositions and clashes distinguishes this book, through nuanced and thoughtful analyses of seemingly contradictory stances that appear complementary in his treatment (East and West, center and periphery, tradition and modernity, religion and secularism, literary historicism and “art for art’s sake,” literature and scripture, etc.).

Allan’s foray into defining Arabic literature in relation to world literature is haunted by colonial imperialism (hence, “in the shadow of . . .). Orientalism as a field of colonial knowledge production frames this study, finding its more contemporary instantiation—and critique—in the field of area studies. By looking closely and carefully at knowledge production in the Arab world, the Middle East, and specifically, Egypt as an intellectual-cultural center, Allan examines literature as not just a response/reaction to the historical conditions of colonial domination, but as part of larger, global trends toward reworking the function of literature and the literary (and reading, schooling, and scholarship) for a secular modernity that is not always and forever the production of the West. The title In the Shadow of World Literature similarly echoes the title of Sayyid Qutb’s Fi zilal al-Qur’an (In the Shadow of the Qur’an), calling attention to the scriptural tradition haunting contemporary hermeneutics.

Allan attentively and thoughtfully treats the deep history of Arabic literature and its longer and larger relationship to notions of “the literary” in general. This history haunts and shores up this project—to critical effect—specifically because of the imbricated literary and intellectual histories of Arabo-Islamic and Arabo-Judaic literatures with their European and Latinate counterparts. Understanding, and taking into account, this longer history is crucial to grasping the longue durée of the Arabic literary tradition, with its branches growing out of Greek philosophy, rationalism, and the sciences, as much as pre-Islamic poesis, the Islamic scriptural tradition of Qur’an and hadith, and the Islamic oral-recitational tradition. That tradition is threaded through contemporary notions of Arabic literature, specifically with respect to metamorphoses in the concept of adab in relation to the global literary field. Its relationship is not as a periphery to a center, although it might be conceived as such in developmentalist logic. Rather, Arabic literature has been a critical generator of humanism writ large from Abbasid Baghdad and Muslim Spain to colonial Orientalism and its neoimperial descendants. These intertwined literary genealogies have variously influenced contemporary modes of cultural production in the Arab world and the Middle East.

Allan is able to eschew reductive binaries of center-periphery and modern-traditional to great effect, in a way that challenges facile and reductive assumptions about these categories. Instead, he outlines more thoughtful—and contingent—relationships between these oppositions (and “clashes”) as a means of rethinking traditional methods of literary analysis. Nothing could be more important to grasping Arabic literature not as some bastard offshoot of colonial governance and secular modernity, but as a very long and rich literary tradition that helped give Europe its lyric poetry, its national epics, its rationalist philosophy, its linguistics, grammars, and lexicons, and its picaresque contributing to the rise to the novel. However contested and politicized these literary histories are, they are vibrantly real dimensions of the legacy of the cross-flows of civilizational influence between the Arab world and Europe. In his fascinating chapter “Literature: How Adab Became Literary” (based on an earlier article in the Journal of Arabic Literature) Allan touches on these “deeply entwined literary traditions” through an analysis of H. A. R. Gibb’s essay “Literature” in his 1931 Legacy of Islam. Allan highlights Gibb’s emphasis on the importance of disseminating knowledge about the “literatures of the East”: “As this knowledge spreads and the East recovers its rightful place in the life of humanity, oriental literature may once again perform its historic function, and assist us to liberate ourselves from the narrow and oppressive conceptions which would limit all that is significant in literature, thought, and history, to our own small segment of the globe” (88).

One of the most important contributions of Allan’s book is its lucid juxtaposition of two rivaling modes of literary interpretation. He performs a close reading of two essays by the Czech-American critic René Wellek. The first, “The Crisis of Comparative Literature,” published in 1959, emphasizes the formal elements of the “literary” as a work of art, “a stratified structure of signs and meanings which is totally distinct from the mental processes of the author at the time of composition and hence of the influences which may have formed his mind” (74). Here Allan considers modern theoretical formulations of “literature” and “the literary” as an aesthetic object “beyond time and place.” This is in stark contradistinction to Edward Said’s understanding of texts as “part of the social world, human life, and of course the historical moments in which they are located and interpreted” (75) or to Fredric Jameson’s injunction to “Always historicize!” at the outset of The Political Unconscious: Narrative as Socially Symbolic Act. Allan is able to hold these dueling understandings of literature stable, demonstrate them as simultaneously contingent, and illustrate how literature and the literary are aesthetic categories embedded simultaneously in both local and global cultures. He is smart enough not to subsume the “global” always to “the colonial” or Western, but to note a certain dialectic that emerges via world systems that are both secular and post-secular.

Wellek himself would later retreat somewhat from his reductive view of literature as a closed system of signs in a second essay, “The Name and Nature of Comparative Literature,” published in 1968. He noted literature’s earlier connotations of “learning” and “literary culture,” as well as its connections to the Greek grammatike. Allan sees these definitions resonating with understandings of “adab” in all its “disciplinary, ethical, and pedagogical dimensions” (78). He suggests that the development and evolution of adab into a sense of “the literary” worked in tandem with other processes of secularization and partly in service of secular society and politics. Drawing on Said, Allan sees the emergence of this category of “the literary” as partly a practice of “secular criticism” and of enlightenment humanism, which also helped produce religion and religious literature as a separate—or perhaps as an analogous and related—category.

Allan explores the characterization of religious literature as “the other” of secular humanism and its literariness. As described in Charles Hirschkind’s article on Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd “Heresy or Hermeneutics,” these literary tensions between the sacred and the secular have been not just a major problematic in contemporary Arabic literature and letters, but a generative axis. What Allan seems to be saying, or pointing to, is that the “transcendence” assumed of the religio-scriptural tradition has been now imbued in the transcendent aesthetic literariness of the secular humanities. As Hirschkind puts it: “A notion of the transcendent . . . finds continued application in that ineffable inner world of individual writers” (39). Or, in the case of Allan’s argument, the transcendent finds its expression in the literary as an aesthetic system. Meanwhile, sacred literature becomes subject to “scientific” analysis, becoming a context-bound text. Such literary analyses were an integral part of Arabic letters, particularly in Egypt, during the 1930s and 1940s, with Taha Husayn’s Fi al-sh‘ir al-jahili, Amin al-Khuli and Bint al-Shati’s writings, Muhammad KhalafAllah’s al-Fann al-Qisasi fi al-Qur’an al-Karim, and Sayyid Qutb’s al-Fann al-Taswiri fi al-Qur’an al-Karim, decades before the writings of Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd inspired such impassioned responses (and his trial and eventual exile for blasphemy). But these literary analyses drawing on new hermeneutical approaches were also critical to bringing scripture into the purview of modern Arabic letters.

Allan analyzes the relationship between the secular and the sacred in world literature in general and in Arabic literature in particular. He recognizes that these sacred and secular literatures are mutually constitutive and mutually generative and in fact, productive in the field of literature, not just under secular modernity, but historically as well. The nature of the relationship shifts over time and space, but the secular modern draws on earlier tensions between immanence and transcendence in earlier works of art, in instantiations of the sacred and scriptural, and in the literary and poetic fields.

To set secular and sacred literature against each other would be to betray the Arabic literary tradition, a tradition that so masterfully intertwines the other world with this one as one of its primary philosophical messages about the nature of the relationship of the material world to the divine. This has always been a part of the great balancing act performed by Arabic poetics and the Islamic literary tradition. This tension has distant roots in pre-Islamic poetry, a point that is historically one of the defining features of Arabic literary criticism as a category, whether classical-medieval or contemporary. The histories of literature discussed by Allan, like Jurji Zaydan’s Tarikh adab al-lugha al-‘arabiyya (History of the literatures of the Arabic language) take pre-Islamic poetry as a point of departure for their histories of Arabic literature, orienting Arabic literature toward the birth of Islam. The mu’allaqat or the “hanging odes” of pre-Islamic poetry blend ritual—and the sacred—with the harsh, unforgiving, material conditions of (not just human) life in the desert. Pre-Islamic poetry is decidedly not humanist, for although the poet is the journeyman through these poems, traveling ritualistically through generative states of being, the poet finds his greatest expression in the signs in the world, in the tracks etched into the earth, the shimmering mirage on the horizon, the glimmerings of memory, the ebbs and flows of the seasons, and the flora and fauna that surrounds and envelops and sometimes subsumes humanity. Pre-Islamic poetry has a way of emphasizing human smallness next to the magnitude of the world. The vivid palpability of the created world would continue to dominate Arabic and Islamic poetics, partly through representations of the divine through material signifiers, as in Surat al-Rahman and in the erotic poetry of Abu al-Atahiya and Ibn al-Farid.

New concepts of the sacred emerged with the coming of Islam, transforming the yearning and erotic desire of the pre-Islamic nasib into sacred poetry back into profane poetry back into sacred poetry, ad infinitum over the centuries. Pre-Islamic wine motifs became sacred imagery of wine drank in the afterlife transformed back into profane imagery of drunken revelry back into sacred motifs of mystical Sufi intoxication back into profane motifs of erotic desire. Moreover there were robust periods of interpreting the Qur’an and Islamic literature in purely rationalist terms, a rationalism that preserved the Greek tradition for the Latin world, a rationalism that Europe would wrestle with as blasphemous for much of its own history. Excising these fertile histories through reductive oppositions does no service to the literary field. Recognizing their mutual—and fertile—generativity only enriches the field of literary criticism.

The Qur’an was and is understood as transcendent and divine, partially through the consolidation of Ashari doctrine about the Qur’an’s divinity. But Ashari doctrine also did philosophical battle with the formidable intellectual tradition of Mu’tazilism, or rationalist philosophy that has contemporary adherents. Moreover, “asbab al-nuzul,” or the contextual reasons for the verses coming down have always been a crucial part of the Qur’an’s interpretation, just as hadith, the words of the Prophet and his companions have also been critical to understanding the context of the verses for purposes of interpreting them. Similarly, the context in which the hadiths were spoken (by whom, to whom, at what time) became critical to interpreting their veracity, through a complex and intricate science of hadith that took meanings into account as much as context to determine “truth” and “truths.” The stories told around the early community and the Prophet’s life helped inform a body of biographical literature (sira), as well as tell stories of battles and conquests, writing the history of the early community. Hadith would be integrated into popular culture through particular satirical vernacular storytelling forms (the maqamat) that later became, some believe, a progenitor to the early novel, or at least one of its many influences. These stories continue to be told in popular modern literature, in many forms, in short stories and biographical literature, informing a body of literature giving rise to the modern Arabic literature that Allan analyzes. In short, context and historicism, as well as rationalism and humanism, has historically been part of the field of Islamic and Arabic literary criticism, as much as a transcendent aesthetics—categories that cannot be understood as stemming solely from colonial secularism and colonial modernity. To attribute these literary qualities to European enlightenment humanism elides Arabic and Islamic literary history—and the role of this literature in awakening Europe from its dark ages.

Not to equate the Arabic literary tradition with Islam, on the contrary, Arabic letters and poesis as a generative category had a great influence on the theo-poetics of the Jewish intellectual tradition as much as the Christian, as well as the other literary poetic cultures with which it came in contact, whether Persian, Chinese, or Indian. There have always been contextual and historical cross-cultural and cross-religious exchanges along axes of power. Even a glimpse at this textured and vast history will convince us that our modern preoccupations with separating the secular from the sacred are reductive, delusional, and probably futile. But it must be admitted: these tensions entertain. Witness Ayan Hirsi Ali’s “secular” critique of Islam that is her “Submission” video, filmed with Theo Van Gogh. The soft-porn reenactment of Islamic ritual (à la Abu Nuwas) is offensive but riveting. And it has undoubtedly generated an extremely lucrative literary career for Hirsi Ali, as much as similar critiques have for Salman Rushdie, Irshad Manji, and Charlie Hebdo. Alongside secular critiques of religion is a robust and thriving body of Islamic cultural production in television, film, and popular literature that has taken many of its cues from seemingly modern secular ideas about the public sphere, mass education and literacy, digital, visual, and news media. Yet as some scholars have observed (Hent de Vries, Jonathan vanAntwerpen, etc.) different media have always served as vehicles of the message, if not the message itself. Allan’s close attention to the institutions that help produce these contemporary conditions of the literary is invaluable.

In reading In the Shadow of World Literature, I wanted to know and hear more about each particular topic, about “the world,” translation, education, the “literary,” “critique,” and intellectuals, the subjects of the different chapters. More about Jurji Zaydan and his vast contribution to envisioning and indeed generating the field of modern Arabic literature! More about Taha Husayn’s vast corpus of literary and critical writings! More about Darwin! This is less a critique of the book than a testament to how Allan was able to train his sights on his overall goal—making his point through finely tuned analysis of specific examples, rather than some encyclopedic treatment of his topic, which would have clearly been impossible. And he warns about this at the outset, telling us “preliminarily what this book is not.” It is not “a meticulous historical account of a social world,” nor a comprehensive survey of the literary world of modern Arabic literature (3). Such a project would be impossible, although some have tried.

The text left me feeling hungry for more, left me wanting to know definitively and comprehensively what his interventions on science, religion, the world have to say about the body of contemporary Arabic literature as a whole, world literature as a category, divisions of literature into national literatures and traditions, and the relationship between literatura and scriptura. But each chapter says so much, and does so through a focused mode of argumentation that succeeds in being theoretical and historical at the same time. Allan brings Arabic literature, as well as Egyptian literature, into the purview of world literature, not as some “minority” literature, but as a primary generator of global conceptions of the literary that is not merely derived from colonial secularism. This is particularly important because the Arab world, the Middle East, and Islam are constantly set up in scholarly contexts as the foil against which the West and the North Atlantic world defines itself and vice versa. This stems from a Euro-American imaginary with roots in colonial orientalism, a legacy continued in current imperial incarnations. Yet Allan takes us beyond those binaries, treating some of the most important doyens of Arabic literature, Taha Husayn, Jurji Zaydan, Shawqi Dayf, and Naguib Mahfouz, figures that are shockingly undertheorized in scholarly production in the West, despite the existence of truly fine scholarship on these writers and thinkers. But there are a host of others, Mahmud ‘Abbas al-‘Aqqad and Ibrahim al-Mazini of the Diwan school, Amin al-Khuli and ‘Aisha ‘Abd al-Rahman, Tawfiq al-Hakim and Sonallah Ibrahim, Samah Selim and Samia Mehrez, Sabry Hafez and Ferial Ghazoul. Allan has done a fine job distilling a set of critical motifs. There is so much work left to do. In the Shadow of World Literature not only opens the door to more and new interpretations of Arabic literature, but invites them.

  • Michael Allan


    Response to Ellen McLarney

    Thank you, Ellen, very much for your thoughtful remarks and for situating my book in the context of the long durée of Arabic literature. I have learned from and admired your work over the years, and it was especially illuminating for me to see the aspects of my book that drew your attention. You are quite right noting that my book is meant much less as an index of historical sources than it is an argument about reading practices. Avoiding the fantasy of mapping literary history as a totality, the book takes sites of reading as its focus and teases out analytic implications. I appreciate that you were able to attend quite closely to some of the crucial axes of the argument, and I especially like how you highlight the question of the sacred, which you trace fruitfully in pre-Islamic poetry as both ritual and everyday life, as well as in the sira relating to the Prophet’s life. Already you anticipate various implications that the book offers, and I look forward to continuing to follow and learn from your own engagement with similar questions.

    If I might, I would love to point here in my response to some of those scholars whose work I quite love and admire who do offer the additional detail your response begs. For a style of historical argument, I respect Omnia El Shakry’s history of the social sciences and On Barak’s reflection on time, and when it comes to Arabic and world literature, Shaden Tageldin, Margaret Litvin and Anne-Marie McManus are just a few of the exceptional literary scholars enriching our conversations as a field. As I worked on the Darwin chapter, I held Marwa Elshakry’s work in highest regard and have been happy to see her research appear as Reading Darwin in Arabic, 1860–1950 (Chicago 2013). When it comes to adab, your own work as well as that of Nadia al-Bagdadi has been tremendously influential for me. I also look forward to seeing the papers that materialized out of the recent conversations on this topic facilitated by Elizabeth Holt and Tarek El-Ariss at the Journal of Arabic Literature. When it comes to Dar al-‘Ulum, I would point to Hilary Kalmbach’s remarkable dissertation, and for discussions of transformations in the field of law, I appreciate the insightful work of Samera Esmeir and Hussein Agrama.

    Embedded as my book is in these conversations, I should add that many of these studies fall quite explicitly in the domain of Arabic literary and intellectual history. My own book is as invested in the question of what literature is as it is in the site through which this question is explored. I look forward to continuing to learn from our many insightful colleagues, and I look forward to continuing to explore how it is that literature comes to be negotiated, defined and enforced.

Zeina Halabi


Commentary by Zeina Halabi

Michael Allan’s In the Shadow of World Literature is not about how historical processes transform “social worlds”—those worlds that emerge at the intersection of literary fields, intellectual genealogies, and modes of critical engagement. Rather, it deals with how “the world of literature and the world in literature are invariably entangled” (17), how words have the power to constitute discursive territories that are then delineated and defended. It is a process that he identifies as “the world-making function of texts” (3–4). In “sites of readings,” or scenes that depict practices of reading and interpretation, Allan shows us how readers interpret worlds in a double process that is both configured and configuring. He is particularly interested in how the category of world literature creates and sustains “interpretive communities” (41), transforms textual practices, and sets the boundaries of a world republic of letters. In so doing, it determines what makes the literate, the modern, the rational, the tolerant—and what is always already set in their “shadow,” their negative image (3).

Allan maintains that world literature eclipses textual forms and experiences that have fallen out of modern literary paradigms precisely because they are defined and classified according to their presumed lack of normative sensibilities (4–7). Arabic literature in the modern age, adab, becomes in this context the subject of modern semiotic ideology, elevated to the realm of world literature through various practices (83). Chief among those are translations and global literary awards set against modes of reading and interpretation such as memorization, embodiment, and recitation that are linked to religious training. Such approaches to interpretation are imagined as the antithesis of a modern mode of reading that upholds “reflection, critique, and judgment” as integral to the evolving notion of literacy in its modern iterations (3).

Allan avoids reiterating the tradition/modernity, religion/secularism, and education/ignorance binaries by pointing to all the ways in which they are sustained, “secured,” (7) and “policed” (22)—an interesting choice of terms that reveals how power, whether that of national or colonial states, is intrinsic to the process of imagining the opposite of literature as irrational and fundamentalist (61). It is in contradistinction to this model that the “virtuous, educated, and modern subject comes to be understood” (64).

I build on Allan’s caution about the tradition/modernity binary that he argues is inherent to the process of defining and policing literacy in the context of world literature. I follow his approach in focusing on “sites of reading” and suggest ways in which we can examine the instability of this domain of opposition. I do so not by pointing to the presumptions and fallacies of the tradition/modernity paradigm, but rather by examining fissures in what we assume is stable in and between the categories of adab and world literature. I point to the ways in which world literature may be eclipsed by the shadow of adab; how world literature, through various processes of intertextuality, creates its own illiterate subjects; how both world literature and adab may be set in opposition to a life in language that is ostensibly ideological.

In the Shadow of Adab

As he explores scenes of reading and interpretation that erect borders between worlds, Allan discusses Sabry Hafez’s interpretation of the controversial reception of the Syrian novelist Haydar Haydar’s Walīmah li-a‘shāb al-baḥr (A banquet for seaweed, 1983). Almost two decades following its publication in the Arab world, the novel picked up a new life in Egypt when a newspaper article accused the novelist of blasphemy. This accusation mobilized students of al-Azhar University who took to the streets and faced violent police repression. Examining this multilayered site of reading (the critic reading the students’ reading of the novel), Allan suggests that Hafez discursively sets the world of the novel, the Egyptian literary field, and the state against that of al-Azhar and its students. Hafez’s reading of the students’ engagement with the novel—rather, their irrational and fundamentalist misreading of it—delimits two worlds: the rational, modern, and progressive world of the novel versus that of the students.

The novel’s reception in Egypt prompted the police and literary institutions to join forces in order to secure that which they deemed progressive and literary. The discursive and physical violence that ensued illustrates the ways in which practices of reading can indeed define the boundaries between fundamentally different worlds and how those erected boundaries are defended and secured by power. I propose to layer this discussion with an additional scene from the contemporary Egyptian literary field that may help us locate fissures in power itself, assumed to remain stable in its claim to the modern and the rational.

In December 2015, an Egyptian prosecutor requested the indictment of the Egyptian writer Ahmed Naji for his “affront to public morality.”1 Naji, the prosecutor insists, had “violated public modesty” by publishing in a literary journal excerpts from his previously published novel Using Life, in which disenchanted youths roam a dystopic world of drugs, sex, and cynicism. The court sentenced Naji to a two-year term.2 Soon after, both Naji and his novel received significant attention from global media and world literary figures who wrote in defense of the writer’s right to free thought.3 The novel’s translation into several languages accelerated its circulation as a text of world literature, the child of a world tradition of dystopic and libertine prose. Naji’s defense appealed the sentence while the prosecutor appealed to the literary and ethical sensibilities of the magistrates and proceeded to perform the role of the critic. He spoke about social responsibility underlying freedom of expression and the manners and ethics that are inseparable from the practice of adab. He invoked the notion of adab, the legacy of Taha Hussein and Neguib Mahfouz, as the epitome of culture and ethics, the last line of defense of what remains of an Egyptian literary tradition. Adab, he insists, is not about offending human sensibilities and highest moral values, but rather about social responsibility that does not transgress customs and norms.4

This scene of reading literature in a court of law is revealing, as it writes adab against world literature. Here, power discursively defends its authority to discipline and punish but does not set adab against a practice of reading categorized as irrational, traditional, and religious but against a practice of reading that belongs to the domain of world literature. Adab, which once aligned with world literature, is now conceived against it, as its righteous victim. World literature in this context is constructed as engulfing, erasing, perhaps also anti-nationalist and, most importantly, in tension with the ethical and civilizational mission of adab. It reveals that it is less “through the specter of the fanatic that the supposedly virtuous, educated, and modern subject comes to be understood,” as Allan writes, but rather through the specter of world literature that the virtuous and modern subject may be defined (64). As it did in the case of Haydar Haydar’s novel, the state here stands strong in the defense of adab. What is different now is that the threat is not an irrational premodern reader (e.g., the fundamentalist students protesting against the novel) but rather a necessarily rational, modern, and literate global reader who misreads Egyptian adab, precisely because reading in this case does not account for the specificity of the Egyptian literary field and its moral injunctions. We are then facing a case in which the stability of the opposing categories is itself in doubt. It suggests that boundaries exist not only between a premodern mode of reading and adab/world literature, but also within the notion of adab as world literature.

This scene makes us question whether adab is always a necessary extension of a world republic of letters. It is now perhaps the last line for defending nationalism and state power where adab is constructed against a world republic of letters. Pushing this new structure of tension further, could we read this curious dissent of adab from the world republic of letters as a move that sets the boundaries of what constitutes world literature? What can we make of this moment in which adab writes off world literature by reverting to a neoconservative semiotic ideology at the intersection of social realism and nationalism and secured by a judiciary not uncomfortable with military power?

The Illiterate Reader of World Literature

Allan examines the relationship between worlds and words, how words have an “imaginative force” that constitute the world around them by endowing them with meaning. In so doing, they erect boundaries that initiate the process of othering, or what he describes as “literacy writing its other, delineating the terms through which the otherness of the illiterate is to be understood” (119). I am interested here in the notion of illiteracy, particularly in the context of world literature.

If world literature is constituted by the cosmopolitan sensibilities it expects from readers, then how does intertexuality, which may materialize in the seamless, almost organic invocation of canonical texts of world literature, define our understanding of what makes a good reader of world literature? Take, for instance, formal adaptations (Sonallah Ibrahim’s Committee and Kafka’s The Trial) or narrative engagement (Fernando Pessoa’s specter in Rabih Jaber’s prose) as texts of adab that presume their readers to be literate in world literature. In this model, illiteracy does not stem from the inability to read adab—the misreader here is not the angry student of al-Azhar—but rather the misrecognition of the world literary canon, the inability to locate the world literary canon in the remainder of the modern tradition of adab. Put differently, one can be a reader of adab, one who nevertheless misreads its world literature evocations.

Can we, then, conceive of the possibility that world literature creates a category that, in addition to setting what constitutes the literary and the good reader, sets the condition of who, within this same tradition, is or is not interpellated by the semiotic ideology and the cosmopolitan sensibilities associated with its tradition? In the context of a literary text setting up the boundaries of what a good reader is, are we redefining worldliness increasingly away from its Saidian, postcolonial and cultural studies iterations and turning more to a neoformalist understanding of what literature is, as a text whose fabric is already necessarily reaching out to a world literary canon that is—and here’s where Welleck might return—“beyond place and time, embedded in the aesthetic encounter with a text” (75)?

The Illiterate Generations

I am thinking once more about how world literature operates as a delineator of literacy. In some cases, illiteracy is not necessarily irrational, premodern, and religious in nature. It can take us somewhere else, where misreading is linked to worldliness. I have in mind another scene of/about reading that evokes the notions of illiteracy and misreading. It is a 1960s televised interview in which the most prominent figure of adab, Taha Hussein, hosts a group of emerging writers and intellectuals such as Neguib Mahfouz, Mahmoud Amin al-Alem, and Yusuf Idriss, many of whom began theorizing their commitment to Marxist, nationalist, or anticolonial modes of engagement. In a tone that exudes boundless admiration for the “doyen” of adab, al-Alem asks Taha Hussein about his impressions about the new generation of writers that includes Mahfouz and himself. Hussein responds by chiding the emerging writers (with the exception of al-Alem) for their lack of familiarity with their own classical literary tradition and world literature not only in its original languages but even in Arabic translation. The emerging generation, he adds, “barely reads and does not engage deeply with anything.”5

In his answer to writers who were, lest we forget, emerging figures of the critical anticolonial left, Taha Hussein reiterates the civilizational value of adab and its necessary fidelity to the aesthetics of world literature represented by Russian and French classics. Taha Hussein’s opinion, about how contemporary writers misread precisely because they do not read world literature, sets up the political sensibilities of the emerging intellectuals (the worldliness that Edward Said will later write about) against a world republic of letters imagined as the safe haven from the emerging generation’s worldly, perhaps also anti-aesthetic, ideological commitments. Hussein thus sets the mark not between rational/irrational or modern/traditional binary modes of reading, but between both adab and world literature as the last line of defense against nonaesthetic and worldly readings. In this sense, the illiterate represents not the irrational and the premodern but rather the unapologetically ideological readers.

Hussein’s attachment to the aesthetic value of adab and world literature is in itself the marker of good readership and semiotic ideology, without which literacy is impossible. It invites us to reflect on two related questions: Can we indeed imagine how adab and world literature may be set against worldliness and a semiotic ideology presumed anti-aesthetic? In addition, to what extent is the concept of generation as a system of classification useful in interpreting the ways in which worlds of reading are erected?

  1. See a summary of the case and a profile of the author in Pen America,

  2. Ahmed Naji, Using Life, translated by Benjamin Koerber (Austin: University of Texas Press), 2017.

  3. See, for instance, Zadie Smith’s article on Ahmed Naji in “Egypt: Laughter in the Dark,” New York Review of Books, 2 December 2016,

  4. For the full text of the prosecution, see

  5. See the interview with Taha Hussein and Laila Rustom, posted August 26, 2016, at

  • Michael Allan


    Response to Zeina Halabi

    Thank you, Zeina, for the thoughtful set of reflections you offer regarding the relationship between adab and world literature. I appreciate the questions you raise through the two additional sites of reading: the first, Ahmed Naji’s trial and the prosecutor’s recourse to literature, and the second, Taha Hussein’s chiding of young writers for a lack of deep learning. One of the critical implications these two sites raise is the possibility that literature might not always align with the sort of ethical valences that my book suggests. Where some of the instances I cite pit the literary establishment against the state, how, you ask, might we understand when definitions of literature are aligned and instrumentalized for an assertion of state power? The weight of your question derives richly from the legal scene you describe, one in which a text is made to speak in a court of law and the prosecutor, though not the author, performs the task of reading for the judge.

    True as it may be that the prosecutor and not Ahmed Naji takes up literature as the site through which to argue the case, I cannot help but wonder if this scene actually performs precisely what the book itself argues. In the trial, it is the prosecutor who makes a statement about “what literature is” as a command for “how literature ought to be read.” The circularity is that every assertion of what literature is turns on an affirmation of how best to read, recognize and affirm its properties. In this case, the resonance of adab as etiquette exists also in the term literature or even world literature. If I had to put emphasis anywhere, I would err on the side of this circularity between literature and reading whether the claim is being made by a prosecutor, an author or an educator. The claim is not necessarily that literature has a normative content, but rather that it is tangled in the circularity between assertions of how to read and the conditions of recognizing a work as literary.

    Your consideration of the Ahmed Naji trial leads to a broader question implicit in what you raise—does each site of reading give rise to a particular conception of literature? Is it, in the end, possible to abstract a theory of literature from the particularity of a site of reading? I would turn in response to your treatment of Taha Hussein and the issue of intertextuality. It is tempting to read citations across traditions as instantiations of word literature. And yet, as with literature so too with intertextuality, the references are recognizable to a certain set of readers and perhaps not to others—something that Taha Hussein’s proclamation makes clear. Here, as in the book, appreciating literary complexity turns on an appreciation of a broadened scope of reading. Rather than consider intertextuality as something implicit in a text, how might we understand the training of readers geared to recognize intertextuality? What are the conditions of an intertextual reader?

Jerilyn Sambrooke


Readers Who Cannot Read

Already in its title Michael Allan’s In the Shadow of World Literature signals its divergence from most discussions of world literature. What does it mean to turn our critical attention to the shadow of world literature? The metaphor implies subordination, the shadow presumed inferior to the object. It also entails a necessarily imperfect relation: the shadow never assumes the precise shape of the object that casts the shadow. Relatedly, the boundaries of the shadow shift, moving along several axes over time. A shadow has fuzzy boundaries that appear increasingly imprecise the closer one looks.

The metaphor of a shadow raises significantly different questions than the metaphor of a map, so often taken as the foundational image for world literature. Allan’s work diverges from scholarship that conceptualizes world literature in terms of circulation—where texts are tracked across national and linguistic boundaries—or in terms of an ever-expanding community of literary texts—where “world literature” becomes an ever more inclusive category in a global age. The first approach expands the reading community of particular texts as they traverse the global map, and the second approach expands assumptions about who, across the map, produces literature. Both approaches, Allan points out, take for granted what literature is and what it means to value and read texts as literature. Pressing the map metaphor in a different direction, Allan directs our attention to the skills required to read the terrain, create a map, and read a map. Let’s not look at the map and ask where we are or how accurate it is. Let’s examine our interaction with the map: how have we learned to read it? If this is world literature—the skills, sensibilities, and attitudes necessary to read such texts—then its shadow appears to be something quite other than we may have thought.

Allan’s book appears as six distinct chapters, but I read it as working in two discrete sections—the first problematizes literary reading practices and the second explores how to read in light of such arguments. It is the relation between these two sections that intrigues me. The first four chapters consider a range of objects, events, and institutions, and each chapter assembles a critical scene in which Allan traces how specific texts “com[e] to matter in the world” (25). While each scene is grounded historically, the project does not aim to recast a historical narrative. The first chapter, for example, investigates protests in Egypt that erupted over a contemporary Syrian novel, while the second chapter turns to the early nineteenth-century discovery of the Rosetta stone. Allan compellingly demonstrates how these scenes are best understood as disputes about how to read.

In the case of the Syrian author Haydar Haydar’s novel, Allan looks at the controversy between the students who understand the novel as blasphemous and those who argue the protesting students do not properly appreciate literature: they don’t know how to read. The students are presented as acting under the influence of their religious teachers, and their activism is cast in the language of fanaticism, relegating it to the domain of the irrational. Rather than reiterating the binary opposition between secular literary readers and religious non-readers, Allan challenges us to consider other ways of thinking about textual meaning. The students do not read the novel as a literary text to be studied as part of an author’s work; they object to it as a matter of moral injury. Allan suggests this approach to the novel has been cast into the shadow of educated, literary ways of reading. The necessary critical intervention is not comparing these two worlds, light and dark, but asking how the distinctions between them emerge and operate. Allan concludes by asserting that the “world that supposedly grounds our readings of texts is a world whose terms are, in fact, contested” (38).

I take the time here to review Allan’s line of argument because it decisively shifts the debate away from the all-consuming question about whether or not the text actually is blasphemous. So frequently, critics ask are the students justified in taking offense? Allan refuses the terms of this question by investigating the assumptions about reading that ground the controversy. Evidence gathered from the text (whether from “close reading” or “surface reading”) would not further his argument, and so instead of reading the novel, he analyzes how the students’ sense of moral injury stems from a distinctly different relation to the novel.

This critical approach returns in the second chapter about the Rosetta stone where we learn very little about what the stone “actually says.” Allan instead asks how is the stone understood to “speak” at all? To render the three scripts on the stone commensurable, thereby framing the “puzzle” as one of translation, is to construct the stone as a site for understanding literary networks. As Allan inquires into the world within which the Rosetta stone “comes to matter” (54), we come to see how our sensibilities as readers work to construct the object of study itself. The first section of the book concludes by emphasizing that “literature” is not something to be defined more accurately or translated differently but to be examined in terms of its “conditions of intelligibility at a point in time.” What, Allan invites us to ask, are the particular literary disciplines into which texts are born?

Given the efforts made in the first half of the book to “provincializ[e] this literary world” (93), the second half of the book strikes me as more exploratory and experimental. “I have hopes,” Allan notes as he concludes the first half, “for what might come of those worlds foreclosed by the disciplines of literary reading” (93). To open up these worlds, the final two chapters examine “the negotiation between the educated and uneducated within texts deemed literary” (93). His arguments about the texts featured in chapters 5 and 6 operate simultaneously at the level of plot (what happens in the story?), of form (how is the story told?), and of critique (how do we analyze the story?). Crucially, at stake at each level of analysis are questions of reading. Allan presents this second half of the book as “an effort to demonstrate what sorts of readings are possible when we enfold the problem of words and worlds into the reading of texts” (93). By asking how else we might read, the second half of the book explores answers to the questions posed in the first half.

At the risk of glossing over the considerable complexity of these chapters, I’d like to focus briefly on Allan’s reading of Naguib Mahfouz’s novel Qasr al-shawq. The chapter in question recounts how a young man, Kamal, writes a scholarly article on Darwin that his father subsequently reads. As he reads, be becomes increasingly agitated by what he finds. Kamal and his father dominate the ensuing confrontation, but Kamal’s mother sporadically interjects, at one point advising him to become a scholar of the Qur’an like his grandfather. The story of this family’s conflict piques Allan’s interest, given the narrative preoccupation with conflicting modes of reading—Kamal’s often taken as secularist and his father’s as religious.

Allan addresses several common critical approaches to reading the relationship between religion and literature in this novel. Insofar as the storyline explicitly addresses the conflict Darwin’s ideas incite in this Islamic family, religion can be considered thematically (i.e., the story is about religion). The parallels with and references to the Qur’an provide a possible starting point for a formal kind of reading. Critics have also advanced arguments about Mahfouz’s secularist stance by aligning him with the novel’s main character (109–10) or by conflating the protagonist’s struggle against the authority of the family as “emblematic of the Trilogy as a whole” (111). Allan deftly sets aside these four approaches (which one sees repeated throughout literary studies) and convincingly demonstrates how Mahfouz’s novel “constructs religion as a category negotiated between characters” (111). The novel does not simply narrate the triumph of a secular over a religious character; it presents how Kamal’s self-understanding emerges through struggle with “one mode of perceived authority and subordination to another” (111). Rather than dramatizing an argument about Islam, the novel questions the “parameters of a recognizably critical argument or position” (97).

I highlight Allan’s approach to reading this particular novel because it makes a much-needed intervention into scholarship about religion and literature. We have moved very far from traditional arguments considering the representation of Islam in literature. Allan’s analysis persistently returns to analyze the “frames within which knowing occurs” (105), and as the novel builds these different frames, it narrates the tensions that emerge between them. It is on these terms that Kamal encounters conflict with his parents.

Adding further complexity and also returning us to Allan’s opening preoccupations, these differing “frames” are marked primarily by modes of reading. Mahfouz’s novel tells a story of a text finding its way into the hands of “readers who cannot read but whose responses furnish the basis of the chapter” (96). How can a novel represent a conflict about literacy? Insofar as the novel works to represent this kind of conflict, Allan suggests the novel confronts its own limits. We have here, he argues, “literacy writing its other, delineating the terms through which the otherness of the illiterate is to be understood” (103). At this point, it becomes more clear how this exercise in reading Mahfouz’s novel brings Allan back to the questions about literary reading that animated the first half of the book.

The question Allan raises here is a good one: how do we read this representation of an illiterate reader within the novel form, particularly since this representation of illiteracy is grounded in differing ethical practices and commitments (rather than only religious belief)? This line of inquiry brings Allan to make his boldest claims about the novel form. This scene of illiterate reading gestures, he argues, to “the horizon of novelistic intelligibility” (96). While I agree the novel does represent the limits of the reading public, do we encounter in this text the limits of the “narrational possibilities of the novel” (96)?

While literary scholars have not asked such questions so clearly in terms of religion before, Timothy Bewes’s insights about novelistic form offer an interesting counterpoint to Allan’s arguments. Bewes recalls Georg Lukács’s distinction between a novel having a problematic and being problematic (2011, 17) and argues the distinction usefully characterizes contemporary critical approaches. A novel can be read as opening up a problematic, addressing an ethical or philosophical problem within the terms of the work. When a novel is read as “being problematic,” however, the critical focus turns to the uncertainty of the “definition and ontology” of the novel, its “ethical substance” (Bewes 2011, 18). The novel, according to Lukács, is always in the process of becoming and the problem of the novel does not concern the instantiation of the problematic but instantiation itself (ibid). The novel, Bewes argues via Lukács, is continually asking ethical and philosophical questions of itself. This is the distinctive mark of the novel form.

Even these rough contours of Bewes’s argument suggest that Allan may not have brought us to the limits of intelligibility of the novel but, rather, to the point from which we can see how Mahfouz’s novel wrestles with the ethical questions that constitute the novel form itself. What Allan describes as the “literary vanishing point” (96) of Mahfouz’s novel might best be articulated as a conflict that is constitutive of the novel.

I raise this possibility not to minimize the myriad insights Allan’s book offers, particularly to the field of literature and religion. By emphasizing how the novel frames the conflict about the category of religion, Allan’s reading grapples with a problem at the heart of representation. If representation is, as Allan compellingly demonstrates, “inseparable from the world certain representational regimes make knowable” (97), we must understand the novel as engaging this particular problem of representation. This kind of a problem, as Bewes reminds us, is not a technical one but an ethical one, and it is one to which theories of the novel persistently return. The challenge that Allan has set for himself and for us all in this book is daunting. Once we understand how literary texts come to matter in the world through specific historical—and therefore contingent—processes, we see more clearly how they could come to matter differently. Those modes of reading that come to be recognized as appropriately critical ways of reading literature have emerged through conflict and struggle with other ways of reading, modes of address, and ethical practices. I have focused on the second half of Allan’s book because it strikes me as the most ambitious, if in a modest, implied manner. How do we read as literary critics once we understand the conflicted history of our own practices? By suggesting these arguments return us to the ethical problems of representation central to the form of the novel, I do not mean to minimize Allan’s incisive work but rather position it directly in conversation with a longstanding debate among literary critics at the highest level.


Works Cited

Bewes, Timothy. “The Novel Problematic.” Novel 44.1 (2011) 17–19.

  • Michael Allan


     Response to Jerilyn Sambrooke

    I read your response with great interest, Jerilyn, and I appreciate the focus you offer on the latter half of the book and its concern with the implications of reading when it comes to novels. As you rightly note, I focus on the Darwin debate in Mahfouz’s chapter for how it stages an account of reading. Your incorporation of Timothy Bewes’s work and Lukacs’s notion of novels as problematic struck me, and I like that you willingly push this dimension of my book’s argument. If there is anyone to tease out the complexity of these questions, it is you—and I am eager to read and learn from the work that you are currently writing on fanaticism and literature.

    To take seriously your question, I should admit first off that this chapter acknowledges the novelistic form and the genre, but reads with attention to reading instead. You are generous to recognize this shift in register, but also astute in recognizing some of the questions foreclosed by doing so. I was initially drawn to the passage in Mahfouz out of an interest in the limits of realism, and George Levine’s work proved helpful to me at the time, as did a range of studies that recognized that realism involves reflexivity about its own terms. It struck me as I read your comments that many of these arguments about realism echoed almost directly in what you state about the novel. I would concede that there are implications and corrections novel theory could likely add to amplify, refute or twist the terms of the argument I offer.

    I should also add that what compelled this chapter was both an interest in Mahfouz and an interest in the Darwin debates at the Syrian Protestant College. Even though the relation between Daniel Bliss and Edwin Lewis was by no means a novel, it played out of the pages of literary-scientific journals that overlapped quite immediately with a literary reading public. The whole Lewis Affair, as it was called, was a literary event of a certain sort, made possible in no small way by virtue of the emergent public galvanized by the account in al-Muqtataf. I mention this not to sidestep your question, but to suggest that the stakes of the argument extend beyond the novel and into a framework involving responses to Darwin in this emergent world of literary and scientific journals.

    In the end, I find myself wondering what sort of vocabulary we might share for the affinities between the two registers of the Darwin debate—on the one hand, the historical record as animated in the journal, and on the other hand, the novelistic record as it appears in the Mahfouz novel. I would be remiss if I answered your question without attending to the two parts to this one chapter—akin to the two parts that unite the chapter that follows, which combines the correspondence between André Gide and Taha Hussein with Taha Hussein’s imagination of literary friendship in Adib. Combining historical instances with literary texts, I find myself animated by questions regarding the conditions of fictionality. What are the conditions by which novels come to be read differently than journals? What makes a novel literary? These are not so much questions that my book answers in any explicit sense, but I see in your work possible pathways for responding.

Maha AbdelMegeed


Commentary by Maha AbdelMegeed

Michael Allan’s In the Shadow of World Literature: Sites of Reading in Colonial Egypt hinges on demystifying the “world” of world literature. It suspends the immediate link between the world; understood as the cumulative national and social contexts of textual production and circulation, and literature as the mass of collected objects across textual and linguistic traditions. Variations on the latter formulation have informed the wide range of debates on world literature thus far.1 The book carves out a different terrain of enquiry by turning to the disciplinary dimension of literature as a conceptual category rooted in international modern institutionalised practices.

“World literature is not the all-inclusive meeting place of national literary traditions,” but “shares in common a normative definition linked to a particular semiotic ideology” (3, 7). As such, the book shifts “from the analysis of literature as a product of national histories and authors to consider how the category of literature reforms and reconstitutes textual traditions” (8). Each of the six main chapters confronts a central category in the debates (world, translation, education, literature, critique, and intellectuals). In engaging each category, the book does not aim at pitting one position against another. Rather, it scrutinizes the shared assumptions and practices which anchor the seemingly conflicting stances. These assumptions and practices are precisely what goes by the name of the modern discipline of literature in the book. Put differently, the common definition of literature is not presented as an abstracted theoretical articulation, but as a reading practice at the intersection of secularism, the liberal state, and modern education. As such, each chapter appears as a microcosm of the book. It enfolds the total movement of the book’s argument from the vantage point of one particular category. At the same time, the chapters are the pillars of that total layered movement through which the “world” is demystified.

To offer a schematic summary of the movement, one could say that representation as a central theoretical category is imploded. That is to say, if the relationship between the literary text and the world (understood as social context) is encoded through representation, the book pokes at the founding assumptions of this claim, dissolving its naturalness. World literature’s expansive claim on the world—as the totality of the social world—is rooted in a narrow, even provincial, international discipline of reading. For a literary text to be read as representing the world (here both the local context as its condition of production and the traces of its international circulation), it must be treated as an archaeological object evincing information about its producing culture (39). That said the manner in which an object discloses knowledge cannot be dissociated from the way in which it comes to be read—here as the globalized semiotic and hermeneutic regime of interpretation (41). The insight enables the transition from social context to the analysis of the institutionalised practices of reading and of the alignment of national literary histories across traditions vis-à-vis the modern discipline of literature. Consequently, the set of antagonisms between the general/particular, the global/local, and Western/non-Western are dissolved. Furthermore, the question of what grounds comparison between seemingly different literary objects and traditions is revealed to be the discipline of reading known as modern literature. As such, the circularity of the conception of literature and the texts deemed literary is revealed.

“Considering what literature is means noting the overdetermined ways in which it comes to be understood” (91). The attempts at expanding or pluralising the conception of literature then are futile. They ignore “how social disciplines produce and authorise knowledge” (92). The argument proceeds in the direction of unraveling the limits and constitutive exclusions of world literature. It sets out to halt “the pretension of speaking on behalf of the world or of enfolding all under the assumed liberation of its particular modernist dream” (129). In the process, the limits of the critique possible from within world literature, and the role of intellectuals (writers and critics) are sharply reconceived. The “world” of world literature refers less to the totality of the social context than to an international reading public, who share in assumptions about what it means to be “civilised.” Representation is subjected to another kind of pressure. The issue is no longer the relationship between the text-context, but of the writer/intellectual to the people. To put it somewhat simplistically, if the text is no longer an object indexing its social context, what claim does the author have on that context and its inhabiting collective? The entire book then can be read as an effort to provincialise world literature. It unearths the entanglement of world literature with a specific and limited modernist conception reified as the world itself. Such a realisation clears the space for potential alternatives without grounding them in the same fantasy of the world—as the totality of the social world. But, what “object” must a literary text become for these alternatives to be realised? This question will be the focal point of my brief reflections.

I was particularly enthralled by the discussion of the relationship between text and object or literature and archaeology. Allan’s analysis of the Rosetta stone traces the translation of an archaeological object into a text (ch. 2, pp. 39–54). It equally shows the manner in which a literary text, like an archaeological object, comes to be read for how it encodes its conditions of production (i.e., social context). The discussion offered a refreshing counterpoint from the way in which I have been thinking the question of the “object” in literary studies. I have been concerned with the recurring metaphor of the “machine of representation.”2 Form, in the articulations of Frederic Jameson, Franco Moretti, and in a different manner Timothy Mitchell, appears as a Western machine of representation. To my mind, this metaphor underpins the questions possible from within world literature and postcolonial studies. For example, one could look into the conditions of globalisation (and even universalisation) of this machine of representation. Equally, one could trace the transformations of this machine through its temporal and spatial dislocations. Being rather hopelessly historically inclined, I have been reflecting on the metaphor of the machine itself.

What if form is not a machine (or an object) that can be imported/exported as it is, and then encounters something outside itself (be it “local” social reality or “local” form)? In line with this, I have been engaging with two interlocking paths. On the one hand, what potential series of negotiations of varieties of social relationalities occur around commodities, artifacts, and art objects. That is to say, how does the seeming stability of an object contain a fluidity in the differing (you could say unequal) conditions of production, exchange, and interpretation.3 The thought does not exclusively concern the literary object. The matter leads directly into the second path pertaining to the relationship between capitalism, modernity, and temporality.4 Put briefly, how can one stress coevalness by attuning to the articulated temporalities weaving the texture of global capitalist modernity.

Admittedly, these trajectories are still rooted in trying to work out the totality of the social world, and to explore the myriad positionalities literature can come to occupy within it. Both are undercut by Allan’s emphasis on how world literature “assumes—and at times enforces—a particular place for literature in the world” (5). I found the dissolution of the ground from where I tend to ask questions to be truly fascinating. Yet, I have not been able to fully wrap my mind around the position of the modernisation paradigm within Allan’s edifice. The matter became particularly pressing when a decontextualised reading (I use this in a positive sense) of Hugo of St. Victor (1096–141) becomes a vehicle of escape for Erich Auerbach (1892–1957, pp. 138–40).

In the concluding pages of the book, an alternative world literature—as a modernist fantasy—peers through. Clearly, the point does not concern restructuring the relationship between text-context or intellectual-people through either expansion or pluralisation. Rather, the matter once again revolves around modes of reading (and perhaps also hearing and empathising). Auerbach’s encounter with a passage from St. Victor contributes an illuminating example. According to Allan, “being in the world, for someone like Auerbach, emerges not through reading Hugo of St. Victor in his historical context, but through a transhistorical appropriation of it?” (139). In the process, “Auerbach finds a pathway for escaping the conditions of his time in the careful reading of medieval texts. He finds in this historical period a manner for complicating the nationalist discourse that so permeated Europe prior to and during the Second World War” (138). Put differently, the “resurrection of a past figure freed from the shackles of context” offers an escape for Auerbach himself from the “conditions of his own time” (140). But what does context denote in these passages?

The above excerpts point in the direction of an intensifying nationalist discourse coincident with contextualised literary readings. As such, the proposition of a critical anthropology centering on exile as a way of relating to texts seems like an apt alternative. Nonetheless, I am struck by how Auerbach’s engagement is read against his social context. In other words, the movement thus far has been one where social context as the condition of production of the text, the writer, and its community of readers have been bracketed towards a focus on the disciplined/disciplining practice of reading. However, in grounding a critical anthropology as an alternative, my sense was that exile is read against the backdrop of context more than discipline. In other words, it furnishes the rubric through which Auerbach escapes his historical context and relates to texts anew. Yet, if Auerbach (as a reader) is shaped not exclusively through his historical context, but in the disciplining grip of literature as a modern discipline, how does he escape that? This is three-pronged question.

Firstly, if we as the inhabitants of the world republic of literature are shaped by the disciplined practice of reading, under what disciplinary conditions does it become possible to cultivate alternative reading practices? I am here really invested in the relationship between subjectivity fostered through the discipline and the limits of a potential “escape.” Secondly, how can a text, which is overdetermined by a globalised reading practice, offer a vehicle of escape from that very reading practice? In other words, since the analysis has defined literature in line with the practice of reading and interpretive frameworks, liberation cannot be projected in relation to an abstraction from the conditions of production and exchange. Lastly, if these escapes are in fact possible, in what manner does that complicate the history of the modernisation paradigm, not just with regards to its scope of applicability or hegemony, but to the very ideological content of it. That is to say, in what manner could these escapes complicate the history of the discipline itself?

  1. For example, see Christopher Prendergast, ed., Debating World Literature (London: Verso Books, 2004); Warwick Research Collective, Combined and Uneven Development: Towards a New Theory of World-Literature (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2015).

  2. Frederic Jameson, “Third-World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism,” Social Text 15 (1986) 65–88. Franco Moretti, “Conjectures on World Literature,” New Left Review 1 (2000) 54–68. Timothy Mitchell, Colonising Egypt (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988).

  3. In addition to Karl Marx’s famous analysis of the commodity fetish and the numerous commentaries on it one could also consult: Arjun Appadurai, ed., The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988). Eliott Colla, Conflicted Antiquities: Egyptology, Egyptomania, and Egyptian Modernity (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007).

  4. Massimiliano Tomba, Marx’s Temporalities (Leiden: Brill, 2013).

  • Michael Allan


    Response to Maha AbdelMegeed

    I was grateful, dear Maha, to learn from the questions you pose of the book, especially as pertains to the issue of form and objects around the Rosetta stone and the closing reflections on critical anthropology and decontextualization around Auerbach’s reading of Hugo of St. Victor. I respect how your philosophically trained mind tunes into various registers at which the book operates, and I appreciate how the attention you afford to the Warwick school offers for me a pathway for further exploration.

    I want to use this response to address two parts of your comments—not necessarily as an answer, but an amplification of some of the issues you raise. If I understand correctly, your question about my reading of Auerbach’s reading stems from what seems to be a sort of contradiction. Am I here at the end of the book celebrating a manner of exiled reading that the rest of the book seems to push against? Does the exiled reading that I seem to celebrate rely on a contextualization of Auerbach’s historical moment?

    My first concession is that my use of the citation is meant to highlight a sort of reading that traces Said’s use of the same quotation—in a different direction. Where Said uses Hugo of St. Victor for an emphasis on the world, Auerbach’s reading arguably arrives at a quite different understanding, one which privileges exile rather than a notion of being at home. The layers here are not entirely haphazard. When you pose the question, “How can a text, which is overdetermined by a globalised reading practice, offer a vehicle of escape from that very reading practice?” you place an emphasis on the text as the site through which different readings emerge. One can argue that I have textualized Auerbach and Said, but I would say that my quest is centrally on reading their reading—that is, on taking mediation (rather than textuality) as the site to consider. Doing so is less an escape from the modernization paradigm, as you suggest, but rather an effort to think critically about the limitations and foreclosures that an emphasis on “reading the text” offers.

    This response then brings me back to the first of your questions as regards the relationship between form and object, which I realize has quite a distinct genealogy for philosophy. In my use of the Rosetta stone and the concern for how an object (a rock) becomes a text (to be read), I meant to draw attention to a phenomenon in the history of reading—wherein language comes to be understood as a sort of code in need of cracking and translation a matter of aligning the symmetry between signifying systems. Claims about objects and forms both seem to derive their force from what can be demonstrably observed—in a poem, in a work of art, or in an archaeological discovery. Claims about reading and interpretative practices, as the book tries to suggest, derive their force from weighing the terms of an encounter, whether framed in aesthetic, scientific or political terms.

    With these concerns in mind, I would say that the book is an effort to bring vocabulary to sites where mediation is at stake—be it in the Haydar Haydar controversy, the Rosetta stone or the reception of Taha Hussein’s autobiography by André Gide. In each of these instances, I tried to focus on the terms of response rather than the ground of the text to see what ensues for the terms of a discipline. These contestations involve less a geographically determined epistemology than a forum in which a disciplined manner of reading takes shape.

Jordan Alexander Stein


Untranslating World Literature

“Hafiz is the prince of Persian poets,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1876, “and in his extraordinary gifts adds to some of the attributes of Pindar, Anacreon, Horace and Burns, the insight of a mystic, that sometimes affords a deeper glance at Nature than belongs to either of these bards.” From his manse outside of Concord, Massachusetts, Emerson wrote of the fourteenth-century Persian poet, whom he read in German translation, and whom he compared to the renowned Greek, Roman, and Scottish poets he admired. The scene of Emerson’s writing imagines a number of homologies, among nations, among poets, among poems. Present here as well, though in a less immediately visible way, is a further homology—difficult to see precisely because it underwrites Emerson’s ability to make his claim at all. The normative foundation for Emerson’s act of literary comparison is the idea that reading is reading is reading. And it is this idea that In the Shadow of World Literature so arrestingly unsettles.

Michael Allan’s study is mostly unconcerned with the matter of what literature represents, focusing instead on a motivated historical and theoretical investigation into what literature is and how it comes to be that way. Accordingly, In the Shadow of World Literature contributes to a revisionist body of knowledge that argues that what defines our disciplines is not their objects (e.g., not literature versus art versus history), so much as their methods. The analysis that follows from this focus is, necessarily, a kind of meta-analysis, and its point is to demonstrate that methods for interpretation are not based on what kind of text we are interpreting, but rather that methods for interpretation in fact substantially determine a text’s generic identity. On this account, we don’t read literature so much as we make things into literature by reading them.

“Reading” is not, of course, a uniform phenomenon, and this fact becomes wonderfully clear as the comparative frame of In the Shadow of World Literature shuttles between modern scholarly, analytic, and putatively secular reading, such as the kind we do in universities, and traditional memorization-based, pious, and unabashedly devotional reading, such as is often associated by scholars with religious traditions. Allan’s text thus heuristically distinguishes several styles of reading, in order to show how one (the scholarly kind) is normatively valued above the others. As scholars then seek to engage in the study of world literature, they end up sleeping in a bed they have made. Or, as the introduction argues persuasively, “world literature may be less an amalgamation of cultural traditions than the globalization of a way of reading” (13).

The text considers multiple examples of reading, but the one that fascinated me most was translation, the subject of the second chapter. Framing this chapter is the Rosetta stone, the stele inscribed with a decree from King Ptolemy V in the second century BCE, unearthed by the French during the Napoleonic campaign in Egypt in 1799. As is well known, the Rosetta stone is inscribed not once but three times, issuing its decree in Ancient Greek, Demotic script, and Egyptian hieroglyphics. This object became the basis for Jean-François Champollion’s code-cracking translation of hieroglyphics, and so for the entire field of modern Egyptology. Allan points out that the Rosetta stone, as an object, is accordingly understood in terms of the way it was read. It served as the scholarly basis for a reading practice—translation—that decoded hieroglyphics, and it would therefore seem to exist for the purposes of translation. This understanding certainly determines how the Rosetta stone is often studied and introduced. Why else would it record the same information three languages?

The problem with this line of thinking is that languages aren’t precisely objects. In the Shadow of World Literature observes that Ancient Greek, Demotic script, and Egyptian hieroglyphics were not second-century BCE versions of one another, but languages with distinct phenomenological and discursive significances. Just as one might repeat Latin during a Catholic mass and then speak English in the church parking lot, so did different ancient languages signify differently and find their expression accordingly. Allan takes seriously that languages are used, and that they signify in cultural ways that are not simply reducible to the semiotic value of their words. Linguistic translation, which typically treats the semiotics of language as a structural pattern, has no standard accounting for such more-than-semiotic nuance. One must turn away from linguistics in the direction of anthropology to even begin to imagine such irreducible inflections.

The point here is certainly not that scholars fail to think about untranslatables, because of course we do not. Our students cannot get past an introductory-level course in literary theory, for example, without running into a slew of untranslatable terms: langue and parole, fabula and sjuzhet, différance, wissenschaft, Aufhebung. But these are terms. Scholars of language allow for the possibility that particular concepts might be untranslatable, but the same possibility doesn’t usually scale up to things like genres. Instead, we generally assume that works of literature can themselves be translated, because a book is a book is a book, a poem is a poem is a poem, and, as Allan emphasizes regarding scholarly engagement with a book or a poem, because reading is reading is reading. Though some concepts may not survive the transformations of translation, the practice of linguistic translation confidently presumes that the quiddity of the work of literature—its object-ness—can and will. Allan is a prudent scholar and so shies away from taking this conclusion to its fullest implications. Somewhat more recklessly, however, I would push the point: no theories of language currently fashionable in the study of Comparative Literature actually support the assumptions about generic integrity that underpin these practices of translation.

These might seem like abstract concerns, but they put me in mind of a very specific experience. Some years ago in Paris, I found in a used book store two different French translations of Herman Melville’s Mardi, or a Voyage Thither—the largely plotless, five-hundred-plus-page philosophical romance that Melville published in 1849, two years before Moby Dick. Very little criticism exists in English on Mardi, and, despite Melville’s prominence in American literary study, it is not so easy to find a copy. In fact, at the time of this writing, there are only two English-language editions in print (compared to more than a dozen of Moby Dick). How, then, to understand what appeared to me that day in Paris like a superabundance of French translations?

From the perspective of world literature, one might simply presume that great works get translated. Melville is a major author in the American national tradition, and for such authors French audiences might have an appetite; meanwhile the difficulty of Melville’s prose itself might create the conditions for differences of translation, one improving upon the previous. Sounds straightforward enough. However, from the perspective that Allan’s book offers, more subtle possibilities emerge. Though Melville might logically be considered an American offering to a canon of world literature, as Allan observes at the conclusion of his study, the audiences who read world literature are not necessarily national. Recent mutations of global capitalism have made “world literature” into a cosmopolitan concern, something consumed by a city-hopping transnational elite rather than a national public. The existence of these (or any) translations needs to be explained not by way of the fact of translation itself—not, that is, as a linguistic problem. Rather, it would need to be explained with recourse to the more-than-linguistic cultural forces that might make America interesting to Francophone readers, or that might make Melville seem somehow representative of America in the first place.

The examples of Emerson and Melville that frame this comment draw on my own expertise in American literature, and they are quite literally half a world away from the Arabic and Francophone examples that support the argument of In the Shadow of World Literature. At the same time, my ability to extend Allan’s arguments beyond his original examples is a testament to the suppleness and strength of his analysis, as well as to the ambition of his study.

What I admire most about The Shadow of World Literature is its determination to think through our disciplines: what they study, how those objects of study are constructed, and what is left behind. These questions apply broadly to both the category of “world literature” and to the many literatures that do, and pointedly do not, make it up.

  • Michael Allan


    Response to Jordan Alexander Stein

    I delighted in reading your response, Jordan, and I was intrigued by the Emerson and Melville framework that you offer, especially as it attenuates the argument of the book, but with a twist. I admire in your work both the anchoring you have in a literary tradition (American literature) and the implications you draw out of this archive as pertains to issues of religion, secularism and critique. That you managed to command these two American authors with attention to points of intersection with my book offered me new ways of considering the central argument and potential directions I might have alternately taken.

    What I admire in your response here is that you are able to grapple with translation on many different levels that take American literature not as an exception, but as a point of intersection with concerns in world literature. We have a tendency in the literary humanities to understand our situatedness in time and place: nineteenth-century Arabic literature, twentieth-century American literature, eighteenth-century French literature, etc., and I was initially struck by your closing paragraph in which you suggest that Melville and Emerson are “quite literally half a world away” from colonial Egypt. As your paragraph plays out, I was intrigued to see that you then go on to question the sort of geography that sustains this sense of distance: Emerson’s German reading of Hafiz and your own encounter with Melville’s French translations. We share in this sense a connection to Emerson, Melville, Gide and Taha Hussein not as a matter of physical geography, but a literary geography in which they are conjoined. I like how your anecdote about discovering Melville in French translation in Parisian bookstores speaks to this particular issue—a seeming central presumption of world literature and a key question for considering translation beyond the terms of language.

    For the sake of our conversation here, I wonder the extent to which the bond uniting Emerson and Hafiz is particular to a period. Even though Emerson may have been geographically distant from some of the authors at play in my book, he shares in the literary culture that permeates many of the institutions I describe—across time, if not space. I find it interesting that Emerson dies in 1882—the same year as the Darwin debates at the Syrian Protestant College, which itself had connections to the Massachusetts religious world through its then-president Daniel Bliss. All of that said, my quest for a sort of historical contiguity—in which one author connects to another in time or space—may not be necessary for the sorts of parallelisms at stake. In fact, I find your response itself a persuasive and quite inspiring comparison that accounts for echoes and commonalities across our two fields without reducing either to a formalist abstraction.