05 January 2016

An Ecology of World Literature: From Antiquity to the Present Day, by Alexander Beecroft

When I pledged to post more, you may have thought it was going to be about things that were of interest to you, but this likely won't be, sorry. Not that it's not interesting, it's just rather specialized. But it's good for me to write this stuff out, so here we go. Apologies. Kinda.

A grandly ambitious and highly thought-provoking book. Beecroft's main idea is to use ecology (rather than say, economics) as an analogy for world literary systems, because it allows for greater complexity and a richer sense of different interacting parts. His second key idea is to create a typology of 6 ecologies (epichoric, panchoric, cosmopolitan, vernacular, national, and global), spanning from the very small-scale and local to the global. Interestingly (and this is where things get a bit tricky), these ecologies are really modes of reading or interpretation, though they also sometimes seem to be modes of production -- the distinction gets a bit fuzzy. But these two ideas are in and of themselves intriguing and worthwhile contributions to the field, offering an interesting new framework that may prove useful to people (like me) who are trying to think new models of world literature.

One does wonder (well, I do) about how useful analogies or models _really_ are in literary studies, and I have to admit that I cringed a little when one chapter began explaining why concepts from population genetics are so relevant to understanding literary fields. To Beecroft's credit, he is not so deeply wedded to his framework that he is unable to perceive that sometimes things don't develop the way you'd expect, but it's a tricky negotiation, arguing why a model that is in some ways basically a shaky analogy with limited predictive powers is a useful tool. The opening makes a very generous move, suggesting that various theories from scholars such as Casanova, Moretti, or Pollock are not competing models so much as concrete answers that are applicable to specific moments -- which, to me, again underscores a certain tenuousness, though I certainly don't want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. I realize I tend overly strongly towards deconstruction rather than modeling, so it's very possible that the problem is really just me. But I do wonder if part of what makes literature so fascinating isn't its slipperiness when it comes to models like this; a certain unpredictability that a metaphor of genetic mutation doesn't quite do justice to.

Anyways. The structure of the book is odd, in that although each chapter is on a particular ecology, they all do rather different things. Some flesh out examples, explaining what that ecology is, exactly. Others provide histories of a shift to/from that ecology, or show how this framework affects interpretations of specific texts. The Global chapter, surprisingly, engages in a lengthy speculation about future trends in or possibilities for a global ecology. It's all interesting, though some parts are more persuasive than others, and it's all related, obviously, but it can feel a bit disorienting at times. But this ranging quality also attests to the potential of the framework -- it opens up A LOT of new avenues to consider. Overall, certainly an interesting contribution to the field -- I would really love to hear what other people thought of it...

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