An open access publication of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences
Summer 2008

What is a world? On world literature as world-making activity

Pheng Cheah

Pheng Cheah is professor of rhetoric at the University of California at Berkeley. He is the author of “Inhuman Conditions: On Cosmopolitanism and Human Rights” (2006) and “Spectral Nationality: Passages of Freedom from Kant to Postcolonial Literatures of Liberation” (2003), and has recently edited the forthcoming “Derrida and the Time of the Political” (with Suzanne Guerlac; Duke University Press, 2008).

Modern cosmopolitanism is largely an affair of philosophy and the social sciences. Whether one thinks of the ideal ethical projects of worldwide solidarity of the eighteenth-century French philosophes or Kant, or of more recently emerging discourses of new cosmopolitanism in our era of economic globalization, transnational migration, and global communications, literature seems to have little pertinence to the construction of normative cosmopolitan principles for the regulation of institutional actors on the global stage, or to the study of the proliferating associations and networks that envelop the entire globe. Cosmopolitanism is primarily about viewing oneself as part of a world, a circle of belonging that transcends the limited ties of kinship and country to embrace the whole of humanity. However, since one cannot see the universe, the world, or humanity, the cosmopolitan optic is not one of perceptual experience but of the imagination. World literature is an important aspect of cosmopolitanism because it is a type of world-making activity that enables us to imagine a world.

At first glance, cosmopolitanist discourse seems only to refer to literature in disparagement. Kant frets that his teleological account of world history, with its goal of establishing a world federation of states, will be taken for a fanciful fiction: “It is admittedly a strange and at first sight absurd proposition to write a history according to an idea of how world events must develop if they are to conform to certain rational ends; it would seem that only a novel could result from such a perspective [Absicht].”1  However, he also points out that cosmopolitanism is a pluralism, the imagining of a larger community (the world) such that one’s self-importance diminishes as a result of considering other perspectives beyond immediate self-interest: “the opposite of egoism can only be pluralism, that is, the way of thinking in which one is not concerned with oneself as the whole world, but rather regards and conducts oneself as a mere citizen of the world [Weltbürger].”2  In this imaginative process that generates cosmopolitan feeling, we can discern three moments. First, one must sunder the identification of oneself with the world and breach and transcend the limits of this particularistic perspective. Second, one must imagine a universal community that includes all existing human beings. Third, one must place oneself within this imagined world as a mere member of it, subordinating one’s egoistic interests to that of the whole.

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  • 1Immanuel Kant, Idee zu einer allgemeinen Geschichte in weltbürgerlicher Absicht, in Schriften zur Anthropologie, Geschichtsphilosophie, Politik und Pädagogik 1, ed. Wilhelm Weischedel (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1968), 47– 48; “Idea of a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose,” in Political Writings, ed. Hans Reiss and trans. H. B. Nisbet (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 51–52, translation modified.
  • 2Immanuel Kant, Anthropologie in pragmatischer Hinsicht, in Kant, Schriften zur Anthropologie, Geschichtsphilosophie, Politik und Pädagogik 2, ed. Wilhelm Weischedel (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1968), 411; Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View, trans. Robert B. Louden (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 18.
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