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World-Systems Theory and Literary Studies

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Organizer: Matthew Eatough

Co-Organizer: Siddharth Srikanth

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Contemporary critical buzzwords such as “global Anglophone,” “world,” and “scale” recall Immanuel Wallerstein’s influential proposal to displace the nation-state with the world-system as a "unit" of social analysis. The product of this proposal was a four-volume history of capitalism from the 15th century as organized around a single global division of labor alongside multiple polities and cultures (what Wallerstein called a “world-economy”). This capitalist world-economy is characterized by a relational unevenness in world geography, generating cores that appropriate the surplus produced by the hierarchal functioning of semi-peripheries and peripheries.

Wallerstein’s interventions (and those of other world-systems theorists such as Samir Amin and Giovanni Arrighi) either underlie or analogize several schisms in literary and cultural studies: close vs distant reading, local vs global, singular vs alternative modernities, autonomy vs dependency. World-systems theory is the substrate of Franco Moretti’s argument for world literature and distant reading, the inspiration for accounts of unevenness both in the production and reception of world literature (Casanova, Brouillette) and in the aesthetics of such literature (Warwick Research Collective). World-systems theory also acts as a sparring partner for postcolonial studies and its theorists of alternative modernities (Chakrabarty, Gaonkar), and provides fodder for the age-old critical debate that pits totalizing theory against historical contingency (Liu, Robbins, and Tanoukhi).

Given the varied influence of world-systems theory on postcolonial studies, comparative literature, modernism, area studies, and Marxist approaches to literature, we seek papers that revisit, revise, and/or re-theorize the relationships between world-systems theory and literary/cultural studies. What lines of inquiry are opened up by thinking about literature in terms of the capitalist world-economy? Is it true that “analysis in terms of the world-system entails a fatal disrespect for culture, or subjectivity, or difference, or agency, or the local,” as Palumbo-Liu, Robbins, and Tanoukhi write? How might world-systems analysis revitalize those terms through disruptive periodization, methodologies, concepts, scales? And how might world-systems relate to other theories of the world, old and new?

Other possible topics include:

Literature in the long duree
Genre, unevenness, and world literature
The Anthropocene and world-systems analysis
World literature as the literature of combined and uneven development
Racial capitalism and world-systems analysis
World literature and global publishing
The connections between literary forms and Kondratieff cycles
Oceanic literary and cultural systems
Materialist theories of world literature

Please direct queries to the seminar organizers, Matthew Eatough ( and Siddharth Srikanth (

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