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Intellectual History

The Passage of the Text

by James Daniel

Last year, the BBC reported on a library in the basement of a bombed building in the Damascus suburb of Darayya. The library is both a resource and a refuge for fighters of the Free Syrian Army who make use of its medical textbooks and literary works. Most of the library’s 14,000 volumes salvaged from the city above are by Arab authors, though some patrons have found a few European texts among the stacks. As Abdulbaset Alahmar, a former student, explains, “I’ve read some books by French writers but I like Hamlet the best… To be honest I became so obsessed with Hamlet that I began reading it at work.”

The presence of Hamlet in such a place prompts a variety of questions concerning print culture and textual circulation. How does a 17th century British play about medieval Denmark come to have resonance with readers in 21st century Syria? What are the conditions of translation and printing that allowed it be available? How did Shakespeare first arrive in the Middle East?

Installation "The Parthenon of Books", by Marta Minujín, at the documenta 2017 in Kassel. Photo by Olaf Kosinsky, used under CC BY SA 3.0 License (cropped from original).

Installation “The Parthenon of Books”, by Marta Minujín, at the documenta 2017 in Kassel. Photo by Olaf Kosinsky, used under CC BY SA 3.0 License (cropped from original).

It is such questions concerning the movement of literature that guide the investigation of B. Venkat Mani in Recoding World Literature: Libraries, Print Culture, and Germany’s Pact with Books (Fordham, 2016). Professor of German at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Mani regards textual movement as the crucible of world literature, the means by which literature has been empirically and conceptually constructed as a global enterprise. Mani’s term for the movement of texts, both the central paradigm of the work and a theory of world literature writ large, is “bibliomigrancy,” what he defines as, “the physical and virtual migration of literature as books from one part of the world to another” (10). For Mani, it is by way of such movement that literature becomes “coded” (10) —through the manifold of the library—as literature, as national literature, and as world literature. On his account, this complex, participatory process of textual migration and (en)coding produced the epistemological construction of “world literature” [Weltliteratur] as such. It is accordingly such a construction that, as he argues, provides readers access to a global literary consciousness and contributes to our understanding of the world: “a mode of access to the world, an imagination of the world through literature” (11).

In Mani’s dutiful reading, Germany plays a crucial role in the history of bibliomigrancy and the construction of the paradigm of world literature. As Mani reminds us, it was during the 19th century when Germany, sought to become “a Bücherreich, an ‘empire of books’” (22). Goethe is particularly significant in this process, adopting the term “Weltliteratur” and introducing a global perspective on texts in his writing, “a philosophical, humanistic ideal, a mode of transnational arrangement of texts” (23). For Mani, such a relation with texts continues throughout Germany’s history, continually making and remaking national identity and mediating Germany’s international relations. Charting this relation from the emergence of the German Federation to the digital present, Mani constructs a compelling narrative of the interlacing of German, European, global, and textual history and of the role of movement, both textual and embodied, in world affairs.

Mani begins the story of bibliomigrancy in the late 18th century, a period in which Goethe and Kant presided over the Germanic intellectual scene. Mani focuses specifically on Goethe’s internationalism, a literary worldview that saw the book a site of connection to other texts and to non-European literary traditions. It is such a relation, of Europe with “non-European peripheries” (52), that Mani regards the conceptual genesis of world literature in Germany. Mani specifically credits this period with a turn away from a purely exoticist interest in non-European cultures towards a more empirical approach to the non-European world. However, he also suggests that such “‘worldliness’” (67) emerged in tandem with a language-based German nationalism that preceded the birth of the political state. In his reading, parallel nationalist and internationalist sensibilities were driven by textual relations, particularly through the canonization “of masters and masterpieces” (88).

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (after Stieler 1828)

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (after Stieler 1828)

Mani observes a shift away from Goethe’s construction of world literature as a global commons in the mid-19th century and toward a model located in print culture and capitalist production. This shift parallels what Mani views as the “domestication” (93) of German literature, a period in which the idea of a national literature became territorial rather than purely linguistic. In his reading, the poet and critic Heinrich Heine is particularly significant for refining a model of world literature during this period. Heine’s works, as Mani argues, extended Goethe’s globally conscious project, founding “a national literary public sphere and a world literary public sphere” (102). Against Goethe’s model, Heine’s construction of Welthülfsliteratur, literally “world-help literature,” figures world literature as profoundly internationalist and anti-nationalist. For Mani, in rejecting German exceptionalism, “Heine becomes the most flamboyant and perhaps also the most political practitioner of world literature” (101). Mani likewise credits numerous figures, particularly Marx and Engels, for introducing a materialist conception of textual circulation with respect to world literature during the late 19th century. In his reading, world literature’s development during this period is the history of rising nationalist tendencies counterpoised against anti-nationalist cosmopolitanism and of a growing recognition of the book as a material object subject to market value.

Mani charts how such nationalist tendencies swelled leading up to and following the rise of the Nazi regime, an age that saw a drastic reframing of the lineage of world literature through the narrative of the state. It was here, Mani relates, that the ambitions of those who sought to continue the cosmopolitan project of world literature would be met with divisive political reality. He recounts, for example, how in the 1920s, Romain Rolland and Emil Roniger, in distant collaboration with Rabindranath Tagore, sought to establish the Weltbibliotek. However, such plans were dashed by the political and economic conditions following the First World War. Mani also relates how the period also saw the growing recognition of the book and of literature as a tool of persuasion and propaganda. The text recounts how with the rise of the Nazi regime, books and libraries became the site of immense repression and the narrative of world literature as a cosmopolitan, democratic enterprise shifted to one that was overwhelmingly defined by race. In particular, Mani comprehensively details how Hellmuth Langenbucher redefined world literature against the models of Goethe, Marx and Engels, and Hesse as an exoticist and imperialist project propagandizing Germany’s racial and cultural superiority.

Mani additionally details how ideological constructions of world, and world literature, continued long after the war with the dual literary legacies of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) and the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG). As a microcosm of the tensions and rivalries exhibited by Cold War powers, a divided Germany vied for bibliographic supremacy, constructing varying understandings of world literature. In his reading, a crucial development during this period, one with significant ramifications for German literary history and for bibliomigrancy writ large, is the Frankfurt Book Fair, still the largest trade fair for books in the world. Mani notes how the fair’s German Freedom Prize, in recognizing a breath of non-European voices, served as an important site of the (re)internationalization of world literature following the war.

Mani concludes the book by turning to the changing nature of world literature by way of contemporary digitization efforts of German libraries and human migration in post-reunification Germany. He specifically details how the European Library project (TEL) and the European Digital Library (EDL) have inaugurated a new textual paradigm in Germany and changed the conditions of materiality and access vis a vis books. Unlike many contemporary critics who view such transitions through a univocally positive lens, Mani, while largely supportive of the efforts to preserve and promote texts digitally, also questions how such digitization remove access to a text’s material history. He also questions how contemporary migration patterns, particularly in Germany, have shifted heretofore stable literary paradigms. As he argues, post-colonial migrations and the movement of authors non-Western authors to sites of former colonial power have enhanced the internationalism of world literature. Nevertheless, Mani notes that in Germany, writers of non-German heritage who write in German are woefully neglected in the literary scene. As he suggests, it is necessary to attend to the work of non-Western writers and to the ways they challenge and inform traditional Eurocentric models of world literature and bibliomigrancy.

Broadly speaking, one of the most remarkable features of Mani’s book is its capacity to put the typically discrete discourses of world literature, print culture, and library science into intimate conversation. In expansively conceptualizing world literature as constructed by the processes of production, movement, and encoding, Mani offers a deeply nuanced portrayal of global networks of writing and readership. Such an effort not only represents a dramatic reframing of the enterprise of world literature but parses the occluded relations between readers, writers, states, and texts that other recent studies of world literature have failed to fully interrogate. The text is also particularly striking for its deep veneration of libraries. Overwhelmingly concerned with transit and transmission, Recoding World Literature is also a paean to the spaces where texts come to rest. In discussing libraries formative of his own intellectual development—the Soviet bookmobile, Jawaharlal Nehru University’s library, the Leipiziger Buchwissenschaft—as well as those that constitute crucial nodes in the narrative of bibliomigrancy, Mani celebrates the aesthetic, intellectual, and political value of the spaces that house and disseminate texts. Crucially, this is not a nostalgic defense of the brick-and-mortar library but a recognition of the importance of the physical library as a space of worlding and intellectual access.

While the book is comprehensive, one wishes that Mani would have also included further discussion of the contemporary political crises in the Middle East and the attendant migrancies they have borne. Admittedly, such issues are explored in Mani’s first book, Cosmopolitical Claims (2007), yet contemporary conditions in Syria and Iraq offer emerging (and perhaps reactionary) paradigms when it comes to the movement of both texts and bodies. What, for example, does the burned library at the University of Mosul indicate about ISIS’s regard for texts’ material and ideological power? How has the influx of Syrian migrants to Germany further shifted the textual and intellectual conditions of German, European, and world literature? Concomitantly, how has the rising tide of nationalism and xenophobia influenced world literature? Such conditions seem to suggest a diversity of ideological tracks within the scene of bibliomigrancy—one towards greater digitization and enhanced access and another of violence and repression. In the work’s final section, Mani gives greater attention to the latter. Perhaps in subsequent works he might extend his impressive project to consider how the global politics of xenophobia threatens the cosmopolitan project of world literature.

B. Venkat Mani,
Recoding World Literature: Libraries, Print Culture, and Germany’s Pact with Books
New York: Fordham University Press, 2016
ISBN: 0823273415
360 pages, Paperback, US$ 28.00

James Rushing Daniel obtained his Ph.D. in English from the University of Wisconsin in 2012. Currently a lecturer in the Interdisciplinary Writing Program at the University of Washington, his research concerns issues of agency at the intersection of philosophy and rhetorical theory.

(c) 2017 The Berlin Review of Books.

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