Through the literary and historiographical works written by Ethiopian intellectual Käbbädä Mikael in the 1940s and 1950s, this article problematizes the concept of the “world” in world literature. In some theories of world literature, the world is presented as a static a priori, a self-evident spatial referent, a background setting for literary activities. Contrary to this objectivist frame, I propose instead to look at the world as a performative category, and to conceive world literature as a study of worldmaking processes. Käbbädä Mikael’s worldmaking attempted to break into the Eurocentric exclusivity of hegemonic narratives of modernity, jostling for recognition within modernization theory but also, at the same time, activating polycentric connections along oblique South-South networks. For him, the world was not a cosmopolitan project, but a pool of symbolic resources from which to draw in building a better future for Ethiopia.
One of the problems with current theories of world literature is that the term “world” is insufficiently probed and theorized. As a category, “world” is too generic and suggests a continuity and seamlessness that are both deceptive and self-fulfilling. Easy invocations of “world” and “global” (novel, literary marketplace) replicate the blindspots that Sanjay Krishnan identified when he called the global an instituted perspective, with macro-theories drawing unproblematically on theories of globalization elaborated in the social sciences. Instead, in our comparative project Multilingual Locals and Significant Geographies we argue that to theorize world literature taking on board the complexities, layers and multiplicity of “literatures in the world” (as S. Shankar prefers to call it), we need a richer spatial imagination of the “world.” Here we propose the notion of “significant geographies” as the conceptual, imaginative, and real geographies that texts, authors, and language communities inhabit, produce, and reach out to.