Intellectual Captivity

Literary Theory, World Literature, and the Ethics of Interpretation

In: Journal of World Literature


This essay concerns the unequal distribution of epistemic capital in the academic field of World Literature and calls for an epistemic shift: a broadening of our theoretical canon and the epistemologies through which we read and interpret world literature. First, this epistemic inequality is discussed through a sociological examination of the “world republic of literary theory,” addressing the limits of circulation of literary epistemologies. The current situation, it is argued, creates an “intellectual captivity,” the ethical and political implications of which are demonstrated through a close reading of the acts of reading world literature performed by scholars at the center of the field. A few possible solutions are then suggested, drawing on recent developments in anthropology, allowing for a redistribution of epistemic capital within the discipline of World Literature: awareness of positionality, reflexivity as method, promotion of marginal scholarship, and a focus on “points of interaction.”

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