What Is a World?

On Postcolonial Literature as World Literature

What Is a World?

Book Pages: 408 Illustrations: Published: January 2016

Author: Pheng Cheah

Literature and Literary Studies > Literary Theory, Postcolonial and Colonial Studies, Theory and Philosophy > Postcolonial Theory

In What Is a World? Pheng Cheah, a leading theorist of cosmopolitanism, offers the first critical consideration of world literature’s cosmopolitan vocation.  Addressing the failure of recent theories of world literature to inquire about the meaning of world, Cheah articulates a normative theory of literature’s world-making power by creatively synthesizing four philosophical accounts of the world as a temporal process: idealism, Marxist materialism, phenomenology, and deconstruction. Literature opens worlds, he provocatively suggests, because it is a force of receptivity. Cheah compellingly argues for postcolonial literature’s exemplarity as world literature through readings of narrative fiction by Michelle Cliff, Amitav Ghosh, Nuruddin Farah, Ninotchka Rosca, and Timothy Mo that show how these texts open up new possibilities for remaking the world by negotiating with the inhuman force that gives time and deploying alternative temporalities to resist capitalist globalization.


"Drawing from four critical philosophies–idealism, Marxist materialism, phenomenology, and deconstruction–theorist Pheng Cheah invites the reader to reconsider the presuppositions that underpin contemporary theories about world literature. Works from luminaries Amitav Ghosh, Michelle Cliff, and Timothy Mo, among others, providethe reader with concrete examples of Cheah’s theories in action." — World Literature Today

"[T]hrow[s] an intriguing new light on why and how 'world literature' succeeds in generating plurality and disruption rather than falling back into a flattening familiarity."
  — Caroline Levine, Public Books

"Cheah strategically broadens the notion of world literature beyond its most common reference points, which too often constrain literatures and the worlds they offer to their spatial geographies and global circulations." — David W. Hart, Postcolonial Text

"Pheng Cheah has contribued an eloquent volume that stands out in the crowd and belongs on the bookshelf of anyone interested in the field." — Thomas O. Beebee, Comparative Literature Studies

"As with Cheah’s earlier work, it is a magisterial study, written in his characteristically scrupulous and teacherly prose. There is much to learn from What Is a World? at the levels of its intervention into the field of world literature, its case for postcolonial literature as an exemplary modality of world literature, and Cheah’s own interpretive style as a reader and critic." — Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan, Qui Parle

"Beautifully written and eloquently constructed, What Is a World? will transform the landscape of world literature studies in the coming years by posing new questions about how the world is and should be conceived." — César Domínguez, Recherche Littéraire

"Pheng Cheah’s What Is a World? On Postcolonial Literature as World Literature makes a powerful intervention in current debates on world literature, arguing for the literary text to be seen as an ethico-political force in the world rather than just a commodity whose global trajectory is best understood in terms of existing networks of influence and exchange." — Ira Raja and Roanna Gonsalves, New Literatures

"What is a World? challenges scholars of world literature and postcolonial literature to reconsider and possibly to expand the definition of their fields. It is a thoughtful, theoretical work that further challenges all of us to reconsider the role literature plays in the world(s) around us and to assess our inclusion of literature beyond the Western tradition. Undoubtedly, this book will play an important role in the ongoing dialogue over what world literature really is." — Gregory R. Jackson, Studies in 20th & 21st Century Literature

"Cheah’s compelling and acute study ultimately proposes a radical and complex reassessment of the notion of world itself as temporal object, to better explore some of the long-ignored intersections—or what he calls “missed encounters”—between cosmopolitanism, world literature, and postcoloniality. In doing so, the book makes a significant intervention in the ongoing scholarly debates dedicated to these topics. . . . The book [also] constitutes a critical response to the pressing questions raised today by the uneven process of (capitalist) globalization."

— Emmanuel Bruno Jean-François, Comparative Literature

"Cheah’s in-depth study of the philosophies of world, whose endpoint is always the role of literature in the worlding process, enables him to define a fresh take on world literature’s normative function, in terms of inclusion/exclusion." — Christine Lorre-Johnston, Commonwealth Essays and Studies

"In bridging the postcolonial and the world, Cheah offers a powerfully refreshing account of the category of the 'world,' which arbiters in the world-literary field tend to take for granted." — Kelly Yin Nga Tse, Interventions

"Pheng Cheah makes a compelling argument for literature’s worldly force, its ways of impacting the ethico-political problems of the world. This is exactly what the humanities need now." — Robert JC Young, Julius Silver Professor of English and Comparative Literature, New York University

"Setting out to provide a systematic and analytical account of the notion of the world—and worlding—Pheng Cheah rethinks world literature not as the inevitable outcome of globalization, or as a reaction to the world system, but as part of the capitalist conceptual reconfiguration of the world. Powerful and provocative, What is a World? makes a significant, timely, and radical intervention."  — Simon Gikandi, Robert Schirmer Professor of English, Princeton University

"Unafraid of controversy, Pheng Cheah prompts his readers to think and rethink their own critical, philosophical, and literary commitments. A remarkable book." — Peter Fenves, Joan and Sarepta Harrison Professor of Literature, Northwestern University

"Wide-ranging and complexly argued, What is a World? gives us a theory of world literature inspired by Heidegger, Arendt, and Derrida, locating the variety and volatility of the literary field in the finiteness of humans and the destabilizing infrastructure of time."  — Wai Chee Dimock, Yale University


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Pheng Cheah is Professor of Rhetoric and Chair of the Center for Southeast Asia Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of Inhuman Conditions: On Cosmopolitanism and Human Rights and Spectral Nationality: Passages of Freedom from Kant to Postcolonial Literatures of Liberation.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments  vii
Introduction. Missed Encounters: Cosmopolitanism, World Literature, and Postcoloniality  1
Part I. The World of World in Literature in Question
1. The New World Literature: Literary Studies Discovers Globalization  23
2. The World According to Hegel: Culture and Power in World History  46
3. The World as Market: The Materialist Inversion of Spiritualist Models of the World 60
Part II. Worlding and Unworlding: Worldliness, Narrative, and "Literature" in Phenomenology and Deconstruction
4. Worlding: The Phenomenological Concept of Worldliness and the Loss of World in Modernity  95
5. The In-Between World: Anthropologizing the Force of Worlding  131
6. The Arriving World: The Inhuman Otherness of Time as Real Messianic Hope  161
Part III. Of Other Worlds to Come
7. Postcolonial Openings: How Postcolonial Literature Becomes World Literature  191
8. Projecting a Future World from the Memory of Precolonial Time  216
9. World Heritage Preservation and the Expropriation of Subaltern Worlds  246
10. Resisting Humanitarianization  278
Epilogue. Without Conclusion: Stories without End(s)  310
Notes  333
Select Bibliography  369
Index  383
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-6092-6 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-6078-0
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