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.”