1. Shall We Project a World?

“Up to now,” Jean-Michel Rabaté argues in Crimes of the Future, “philosophers have tried to change the world, and they have failed. Now, it seems, the task is to translate it; this, of course, in the hope that, if we translate better, searching for more precise and exact idioms, respecting all the startling idiosyncrasies of concepts in their original languages, we will bring about a momentous change” (35). A couple of things bear noting apropos of this passage and of Rabaté’s book more broadly. First, translation is here a highly complex act: linguistic, cultural, interpretive, and, last but not least, comparative; in a sense, all critics are translators, and, what is more, all such translators are—must be—comparatists. Further, translation has to do with words and worlds. It is a matter of discourse and representation as much as it pertains to “the world out there”; one renders (hopefully “better”) another’s poem, concept, mentality, or “vision” into one’s own, but, at the same time, and literally by the same movement, one might translate the world into a better one also. That is, one can transpose it into a new position or “situation,” into another time, space, and form as one moves, “in one’s own words,” toward another’s. And last, yet obviously following from this multifaceted, linguistic-cultural, critical-comparative, topo-ontological, and ethical understanding of translation is its politics, already in play in the critic’s “reformulation” of Marx’s eleventh thesis on Feuerbach: change is part and parcel of the translator’s job (35).

Rabaté recommends, though, that we pursue world change at this moment in history, perhaps more patiently and more thoughtfully than in the past, in the specific terms of what we do, in how we do it. For, in his view, the translational-interpretive and the transformative—the world’s cognitive and sociopolitical “reproductions”—prove to be the two faces of the same coin. Changing the world remains our brief as translators, critics, and comparatists insofar as we take steps analytically toward a certain kind of world, to the extent that the world model we work with makes provisions for world remodeling, namely, for a creative rather than repetitive reproduction. A distinguished comparatist himself, Rabaté worries, however, that such geo-ontological stipulations may be in short supply in post-Cold War, fast-forward globalization, whose “prevailing operating system”[1] seems to value smooth mobility, straightforward transfer, unobstructed transit across borders, automatic exchange, universal and unambiguous conversion, symmetry, sameness, reflection, reproducibility, “immediate[e] . . . translatab[ility] . . . without loss,” and by the same token a “general drift toward homogenization” over actual interchange, exception, asymmetry, refraction, and resistance to convertibility, interpretive rationalization, equivalence, and translation without “rest” (14-15, 35).

Befittingly subtitled “Theory and Its Global Reproduction,” Crimes of the Future ranks with the more prominent efforts to tell the story of theory after the late-1980s-early 1990s “global turn” in the field and the world at large. Like Vincent B. Leitch, Jeffrey R. Di Leo, Nicolas Birns, Jane Elliott, Derek Attridge, and, most recently, Richard J. Lane, the author takes stock of “late,” “strong,” or “accelerated” globalization’s pressure on theoretical discourse to reproduce itself by reproducing contemporary geopolitical developments and, conversely, sets out to gauge theory’s own world-reproductive thrust, to weigh, that is, the outcomes of theorists’ struggles to think the world through and, perhaps, otherwise.[2] But, at least for its latest chapters, the story of critical theory, a discipline emphatically and necessarily comparative these days, is not very different from comparative literature’s story. Not unlike theorists and other humanists, we comparatists are forced now more than ever in the history of our profession to reflect on the worldly underpinnings of our endeavors, to own up to the dynamic—to the isomorphism, parallelism, and redundancy, but also to the discrepancy, incongruence, clash, or utter incompatibility—of the world models embedded, on one side, in comparative studies and, on the other, in the material realm of the world-as-world in, for, and sometimes against which we do our work. Do we really want “world” in “comparative” and “world literature” to operate as a verb, more exactly—and performatively as well rather than just descriptively—as a politically “transitive” undertaking whose purview and impact extend beyond our classrooms and databases?[3] Do we want “comparative” to designate not just an attribute of our epistemology but also a dimension of worldliness, an ontological feature? Do we want it to be and be treated as a quality—both explanatory and normative—of the world qua world? Differently put, do we still hope to set up the methodological-epistemological in our enterprise as a political platform? If we do, then we might take our cue from Thomas Pynchon’s Oedipa Maas and pose additional questions such as: What kind of world are we projecting as comparatists after the “global turn”?[4] What is the makeup of this world, and how do we “reproduce” it in our books and articles? How do we map it? What might be the scholarly and political upshots of resulting cartographies? What and how do we “know” about this world of ours, which has been coming together—has been worlding, to recall Martin Heidegger—faster and faster after 1989?

2. Globalization, Culture, and Comparative Work   

A perennial attribute of Heideggerian Da-sein, being-in-the-world, with others, has been heightened of late by the accelerated “de-distancing” of the world’s places, actors, and sociocultural practices (Heidegger 97). Thus, as previously disconnected or loosely connected regions have brought closer together modernity’s world en miettes, the spatiality (Räumlichkeit) tied into Being ab origine has now become worlded spatiality. Already instituted—presented—by the Heideggerian Welt, presence sets itself forth and is legible in worldly co-presence. So characteristic of our age, this onto-topological world condition of vicinity marks the unprecedented, ever-expanding contiguity and codependency of agents, discourses, and settings formerly imagined to be autonomous.[5] But, to reemphasize, what “worlds” (weltet, in Heidegger) this world, and what “welds” its “independent” statements and clauses into a worldly syntax of subordinating, coordinating, of simply juxtaposing geo-ontology, is a world picture (Weltbild) that must be grasped both objectively—empirically, as what is—and subjectively, cognitively and ethically, as what it appears to us and what it should eventually become. The basic point I am trying to drive home is that what we do, comparatism, and, in it, the world on which it rests conceptually, are not extraneous to this becoming; they are its actual venues. Not only that, but these comparative sites and protocols in and through which we “compare” artifacts from all over the world by “placing them together” (see Lat. comparō) are structurally apposite in that they are homologous to the world itself, to the juxtapositions (comparationes) its coming together sets off. So it is also important to ask, in the same vein: What does it mean to know our world and lay out this knowledge in our research, to deploy this geo-epistemology—the system this knowledge implies, one way or the other—so as to aggregate cultural production, to describe its poiēsis and agents, and to frame its reading? And, still in the Heideggerian spirit: If we, humans, have a world, and an increasingly “comparative” or “(con-)pairing” one to boot, then is that world the same as that on which we, comparatists, rely in our inquiries at the dawn of the 21st century?

The usual answers go round the old chestnut of globalization: as pointed out earlier, the world has entered a new phase of globalization. What is not so clear is to what degree the hegemonic rhetoric of “globe,” “globalism,” and so on, irrespective of the political or moral construction—pro- or anti-neoliberal—this rhetoric puts on globalization, already construes the world’s worlding processes in a certain fashion, thus ending up, ironically enough, further globalizing, that is, “homogenizing,” the world, making it into a conquerable and commodifiable place rather than remaking it anew and allowing for its “change.” As couched in this rhetoric, globalization is routinely dealt with—approvingly or not—as the only fashion in which a worlding scenario has played out or as the only sort of globalization possible. “Globe” is neither the “world” (Cheah 30) nor all the world can be as the world worlds itself, but the mainstream discourse of globalization can and oftentimes does give the ideological illusion of this equivalence. It is helpful, then, to think of this discourse as discourse, as a Nietzschean “army of tropes,” because of global rhetoric’s tendency to naturalize itself as the default modality of conceptualizing the worldedness of our worlding world and thus “globalize” itself across and at the expense of all other ways of talking about and behaving in the worlding world of the late 20th century, but also because, more basically, “world,” “globe,” “planet,” “earth,” “transnational,” and the like are not synonymous, and therefore they should not be used interchangeably, as they ordinarily are in the global studies vulgate. This is not to say that globalization as we “know” it is pure “invention” of this rhetorical apparatus either. Above, I do not write “construction” idly. “[D]debates over globalization are discursive” (Brennan 880) as debates (discourse forms), but they would be pointless if they merely debated themselves. And yet the description or discourse in question has played up one way of looking at our world and, more generally, one way of looking at the relation between culture and this world, so much so that seeing the world’s face in literary-cultural artifacts, styles, and practices has reached a serious impasse. Seeing this face in all its complexity—a shorthand for critical perception and the analysis founded on it—is predicated on a recognition of what culture itself can perform over and against the new global context. As long as said discourse discounts or even dismisses altogether the world impact of this performance, we undermine our own work as critics, and so the dead end is real. To get out of it, we can begin by backing out of this discourse’s rhetorical corner, and we should not let an otherwise understandable and widely spread global babble fatigue get in the way. Lexical rigor and the distinctions it affords provide, especially in times of terminological inflation, the stepping stone for substantial critical action about and in the world.

3. “World” and “Globe”

Following Heidegger, thinkers and critics across disciplines have tackled “worlding” as the world’s fuite en avant toward worldedness, as its innate tendency to agglutinate its pieces and thus morph into a worlded ontosyntax. Of course, this need not be the macroentity monolithically “one” implied by even ethically minded “one-world” descriptions,[6] but, as Jacques Derrida would say, a “haptical” world in which most if not all parts touch one another, interact and modify each other, derive their meanings from other parts within the whole as well as from this whole itself, and otherwise hang together so much that the negotiation of their being-together is a central routine of the everyday.[7]

This worlded setup has a worlding history to it, and in this history the Cold War marks an earlier stage. The decades coming immediately after World War II were, again, comparatively speaking (in all senses), poorly worlded. In some situations, the Cold War standoff made writers, especially on the other side of the Iron Curtain, world-hungry, but, overall, it put a check on the world’s relationality, and it could not but dampen—directly in the notorious case of socialist realism, obliquely in others—the connective impetus of the world’s literary and cultural imaginary. This poverty, this limitedness, this censorship even, did not stimulate artists’ endeavors to “make out” the world-as-world.

By contrast, the post-Cold War world, in which worlding (“togethering”) has picked up speed, is a worlded world. In it, worlding has entered an advanced, ecumenically relational phase. Now more than ever, world space is relatedness-saturated, a “space of relation,” as Derrida comments on Édouard Glissant’s Poétique de la relation (Monolingualism 19). More markedly than Glissant’s postcolonial world, ours world is structurally relational. It is characterized by relatedness in that the majority if not all of its ingredients, places, and forms of life and expressions thereof are, can be, or are likely to become interconnected, interdependent, and “genetically” indebted to one another across space and, increasingly, in real time. We will see below that the relational can also lead to differently worlded worlds depending on what type of worlding is in play, which is in turn determined by the relational practice involved, by how relationality is understood, carried out, etc. Suffice it to say for now that, for aesthetic, political-economic, and technological reasons, relational wordings of the world—world pictures keen on the world’s worldedness, on the world-as-world—did not supply, regardless of their orientation and despite the inevitable exceptions, the “cultural dominant” of the decades immediately after the end of World War II. Neither would they become fully defining with late modernism and modernism’s successor, postmodernism, which, of late, has been insistently approached as a Cold War phenomenon.[8]

They would, however, after 1989. It has become abundantly clear that the fall of the Berlin Wall and of the world-system leaning on it was a tipping point in modern world history. A new world worlded into being around this event, into a new system all of a sudden notably more integrated than ever. I call this system the earth’s netosphere, from the “net” of “network,” “Internet,” and so forth, and with a bow in the general direction of Manuel Castells’s “network society,” and possibly with another one to Teilhard de Chardin’s “nöosphere.”[9] This increasingly world-systemic assemblage weaves together the economic-communicational sites, forms, channels, links, and technologies of data storage of the hyperwebbed era. This geosystemic novelty was so sharply felt throughout the world that many concluded that, to deal with this new reality, a new interpretive apparatus and a new vocabulary were called for.     

Before long, the top if highly controversial contender proved to be “global” along with “globalization,” “globalism,” “global age,” and the rest of the “globe” family. The discourse coalescing around them sent shock waves across the human sciences, which underwent a “turn” comparable to the “linguistic,” “postmodern,” and “cultural” turns of decades past. Borrowed by globalization enthusiasts from astronomy, geography, maritime navigation, and cartography, “globe” and “global” were the first to capture scholars’ imagination, essentially by subjecting the more generic “world” template to an ontologically, ecologically, and socioeconomically relational transformation or worlding process of which, conspicuously engrained in the word’s etymology, geometry was already multiply symbolic. As most globalization critics would quickly point out, the process can be summed up as totalization. A rhetorically “perfect word” for the ideological purposes of globalization, “globe” and “global” suggest a “frictionless,” complete and completed, perfect world.[10] The large-scale multiplication and strengthening of relatedness—ties, connections, and barterings among individuals, communities, and cultures—reinscribe the world as globe by “rounding off” the latter’s body, by setting in train a regularizing “agglomeration” (from the Latin glomerō, “to mass together”) and “fashioning” of the polymorphic world into a “rounded,” sphere-like (globus) totality whose “smooth surface allow[s] the unimpeded flow of capital, information[,] and language” (Apter 78). And so, if we ask what kind of world we get in “globe,” one can answer that, as the “globe” described in most accounts of globalization, “world” is neither an open biocultural system nor our natural environment and elemental habitat, turf, or ground (this is [the] “earth”) nor our cosmic address (“Earth”), but a mundane whole that flaunts its totality. Hardly dynamic or change-prone, this totality is also achieved, an immutability. The global world is, and purports to be, a well-rounded, integrated, definitive—and existentially and politically hopeless—closed system and happily confirmed teleology enforced from a political and economic if not geometrical center or centers and by a plethora of feedback loops, symmetries, parallels, and exchange procedures effectuated and conveyed across a relational web progressively overlapping with the world itself. The world worlds into globe, goes global, once the infinite, the unlimited, the multitudinous, the boundless, and the boundlessly different—the unqualified potentiality of worldly ontology—have been “qualified” and repurposed materially and conceptually as domains of the one, the homogeneous, the circular, the repetitive, and the selfsame.

Topologically, both the world (the empirical world, at least) and the globe are measurable, even though, metaphorically and, I would submit, ontologically also, the world remains a resilient trope and space of the variegated, mysterious, and illimitable and thus considerably more complex as structure than the globe. The latter’s terrestrial (or “library”) variety was designed centuries ago not only to represent the world more accurately but also to measure it, to fix, pin down (“position”), and hold it. The difference between them does not lie in volume, scope, or geometry but in ontology, culture, and politics; not in magnitude but in what this does or makes possible inside its bulk. Redolent of the “centering” and “smoothing” technology of control, command, and monitoring that went into its making, the globe is, again, a controlled system and a containment fantasy, a disciplined panopticon and a limit. It is a terminus not only, and perhaps not in the first place, to the world as journey, complexity, and meaning, to where the world can be spatially, but to what one can see and “envision” in it, to what the world and those inside it can be socially, culturally, and otherwise. The globe is or rather becomes, through the very rhetoric presuming to critique it in a number of disciplines, a multitude, a multiplicity, and a potentiality shrunk down to the measurable and the measured, to the classifiable, the charted, and the known or the seemingly known—an ontology of relational possibilities rationalized into a limited and limiting ontic setup. The world and the globe are both immensities; both boggle the mind quantitatively. But, unlike the world and insofar as it results from relationally totalizing reinscriptions of the world, the globe is no longer a worldly opera aperta, an open-ended boundlessness, a project. Once it has been brought under the regime of rational calculability as globe, largely on economic, administrative, and technological grounds—whether, once more, through truly occurring worldly developments such as neoimperial geopolitics and unification of financial markets or through rhetorical overadjudications – it is reduced ontologically and does not function as an endless space of qualitative leaps, as a playground of being any more. Fairly or not, this ontological reduction has left its imprint on the entire paradigm of globality.

4. “Globe” and “Planet”

“Planet” is the terminological hub of the alternate paradigm of planetarity. As Amy J. Elias and I argue at length in The Planetary Turn: Relationality and Geoaesthetics in the 21st Century, we are witnessing another epoch-making “turn” as new scholarship is projecting a world growingly at odds with the mainstream definitions of “globe” and the globalist series.[11] But the alternative does not make for a complete antinomy. There are plenty of overlaps between the two, structurally, historically, and otherwise. In some ways, “planet” is a subset of “global,” and, if there is something like planetary studies these days, it would not have been possible without the rise of global studies in the early 1990s.

And yet the world in “planet” wants to be a different kettle of fish. The planet, to begin with, is not an accomplished oneness, a structured, coherently administered, and measured geopolitical expanse, but a relational world-system, at once “calculable and beyond reckoning” (Rapaport 221). Therefore, this system is characterized, both geoculturally and epistemologically, by multiplicity, open-endedness, and sociocultural and political potentialities. The planet is not a “closed system” properly speaking. Its spatial, shareable finitude only begins to reveal itself gradually to humans, from space or on the ground, in the second half of the 20th century (221-222). This system is mutating, and its architecture and meaning do remain exceptionally complex, multifarious, topoculturally shifty, and thus “necessarily . . . difficult to define” (Emery 49). Neither closed nor finished, neither an attained finitude nor a teleology, the planet is a soft system: young, evolving and expanding, a world but not the world, a “webbed interrelatedness” covering most of the world but not coterminous with it (49).

If it is a world-system, the planet is so under the aegis of the toposystemic “relativity” Immanuel Wallerstein foregrounds when he draws attention to the spelling of his celebrated catchphrase. “Putting in the hyphen was intended,” he says, “to underline that we are talking not about systems, economies, empires of the (whole) world, but about systems, economies, empires that are a world (but quite possibly, and indeed usually, not encompassing the entire globe)” (16-17). The planet is not a globality. Therefore, it cannot be a totality, at least in the monistic sense in which the globe is predominantly theorized. In that sense too, one more time, it cannot be the (whole) world either. Ontologically and philosophically, it is not coextensive with our existential and cognitional gamut as humans, with all we can be and envisage. We are and dream of being and doing things, as philosophers from Heidegger to Maurice Merleau-Ponty and from the existential phenomenologists to thinkers like Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari keep repeating, always within a world’s “with” and “and” relational ambiance. It is inside the latter that the Dasein pursues its potential. Nor does the planet span the entire world understood, in a more Wallersteinean way, as geophysical earth, which is only the planet’s cosmic background, physical foundation, and natural stage. As a world-system, the planet looks like a “spatial/temporal zone which cuts across many political and cultural units” (Wallerstein 17). The planetary system is, then, “relative,” that is to say, approximate, partially systematic in its extensity and loosely systematic in its intensity (functioning), and so only somewhat “worldly” from a scalar standpoint; it does warrant a quasi-holistic perspective on cultural representation, but, in and of itself, is not a “wholism.”

Because it is not a totalist whole even though—or precisely because—it pieces together parts and features of many geocultural units, the planet geomodel is not of one piece, and, as such, it is not one, or in one place, or the same in all places either. It can be, geographically, culturally, and philosophically, many worlds or parts of worlds, “nested” inside each other at once rather than hierarchically (“vertically”) organized, and it can be so in one place no matter how small. This spatial deployment of the planetary—this re- or cross-spatialization and, of course, re- and cross-historicization of the world—entails a geometry very different from the global. Correspondingly, the planetary mindset or the individual committed to a planetary Weltanschauung may see himself or herself, not unlike the Greek and Roman Stoics, as participating in a number of worlds and world orders while physically located in a particular polis. The planet is thus a critical world-measuring operator. It functions as a geodiscursive projection athwart—across, astride, and sometimes against—the one fixed on modern world maps by the absolute, “disciplinary” spatiality (as David Harvey would say) of the nation-state and, on another scale, of the global alike. In fact, spearheading as it does a cultural-imaginary remapping of the empirical world, the planetary messes deliberately with official cartography by opening up, de-limiting, and rearranging the topographic and geopolitical distribution of space on our road atlases, print and digital maps, and GPSs so as to challenge the worldviews of such neatly delineated, smooth, and “disciplined” spatial encodings. Along these lines, Cheah is right to point out that what we mean when we talk about the world’s mapping is not “world” but “globe” (30).

Masao Miyoshi was probably the first to make manifestly planetary, “epochalist”-epistemological claims of “paradigmatic” ambition in his 2001 article “Turn to the Planet: Literature, Diversity, and Totality.” Here, he suggested that a major change had been afoot for some time. As Neil Turnbull would venture a bit later, this change had “heighten[ed] the conceptual importance of the earth” (133) across all forms of material and cultural practice. “[T]he world,” he clarifies, “has moved back to [the] centre of political consciousness, not in the traditional sense of the ‘earth as garden,’ but as new technologically worlded and neo-stoic cosmopolitical percept of the ‘earth-as-planet’” (128). The same shift has been described, more often than not, in terms of high-gear globalization and global age. Insofar as the interconnectedness driving them is underpinned by global economics, both are “exclusionist,” as Miyoshi holds. In his opinion, to be genuinely global is to be inclusive, which the global is not. Its problem or paradoxical excess is a structural insufficiency, and so the global world is found wanting; it is indeed global—shared in, lucrative, accessible, enjoyable—but only for those whom relatedness benefits. Thus, the globalized world is not, nor is it likely to beget, a “true totality that includes everyone.” Neither is “the return to the nation-state” a realistic solution for the purpose of this inclusiveness. “There is,” however, says Miyoshi, “one such core site for organizing such an inclusiveness, though entirely negative at present: the future of the global environment. For the first time in human history, one single commonality involves all those living on the planet: environmental deterioration as a result of the human consumption of natural resources” (295). Acknowledging this “total commonality” as the premise for “map[ping] out our world and [for] engag[ing] in research and scholarship” leads to the recognition that “literature and literary studies now have one basis and goal: to nurture our common bonds to the planet—to replace the imaginaries of exclusionary familialism, communitarianism, nationhood, ethnic culture, regionalism, ‘globalization,’ or even humanism, with the ideal of planetarianism. Once we accept this planet-based totality, we might for once agree in humility to devise a way to share with all the rest our only true public space and resources” (295-296).

Intent on “us[ing] the planetary—if such a thing can be used!—to control globalization interruptively, to locate the imperative in the indefinite radical alterity of the other space of [the] planet[,] to deflect the rational imperative of capitalist globalization,” and thus “to displace dialogics into this set of contradictions,”[12] Spivak had already acknowledged, two years before Miyoshi’s article, her uneasiness with the leveling, totalist-universalist legacy of Western rationalism, whether in economic globalism or in cultural analysis. In her view, life on the planet is or must be “lived as the call of the wholly other.” If we lead it like that, then “we must also think” of our living “Space” or “individual home as written on the planet as planet,” in other words, across a “cosmopolitheia” in which the planet as astronomical body and astronomy more broadly are no more than a “defracted view of ethics” and where, accordingly, “Space” must be capitalized because it is another name for “alterity” (2011, 349).

5. Rethinking the World Planetarily

Highlighting planetary studies’ reorientation inside, against, and eventually away from global studies, the emphasis on ethics will remain characteristically crucial to the planetarity paradigm. To quote Spivak’s 1999 essay title, “the Imperative to re-imagine the planet” is profoundly ethical—and, I might add, inevitably ethical, insofar as the reorientation in question activates relationality, which in turn engages the problematic of otherness. An upshot of the “planet-as-planet” notion, the Spivakian “imperative” is non-totalist because the ontologized relatedness built into it and its ontology largely stand on and reaffirm a Levinasian, non-rationalizing ethics of alterity. In warranting descriptions of relational arrangements, planetary ontology by the same token calls for humility, sharing, and other ways of owning up to the otherness that made relationality possible in the first place. Spivak’s landmark contribution to planetary studies, Death of a Discipline (2003), takes the next step by offering up, farther and farther away from the epistemologically patronizing and analytically confusing proximity of “global,” “globalization,” and the like, the “planetary” as a remedy to the protracted crisis in comparative literature and cultural studies generally.

Since then, the planet, planetary, and their lexical-methodological cognates have made inroads into disciplines and debates old and new: world-systems analysis (Wallerstein and his followers); globalization studies with various foci and political-theoretical leanings from neoliberalism to antiglobalization and altermondialité; trans- and postnationalism in the “hemispheric” and “oceanic” context (Ralph Bauer, Robert Levine, Hester Blum, Yunte Hwang, Paul Jay, Paul Giles); ecocriticism, (neo)cosmopolitanism (Amanda Anderson, Bruce Robbins, Anthony K. Appiah, Rebecca Walkowitz, Jessica Berman, Seyla Benhabib), and their “eco-cosmopolitan” cross (Ursula  K. Heise); “world risk society sociology” (Ulrich Beck) and “network society” economics and communication theory (Castells, Steven Shaviro, Eugene Thacker and Alexander R. Galloway); human rights, ethics, and world governance; the “empire”/”new commons” critique of Deleuzian-Guattarian persuasion in the Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri vein; studies of (post)ethnicity and “voluntary affiliation” à la David Hollinger; some approaches within postcolonialism, drawn by how a planetary angle of vision might challenge the old colony/metropolis binary (Paul Gilroy); new comparatism, world literature (David Damrosch, Pascale Casanova, Emily Apter, Eric Hayot), “planetary literary history” (Frances Ferguson), studies of genre as world-system (Franco Moretti, Wai Chee Dimock), as well as new modernist studies (Susan Stanford Friedman) and “global modernism(s)” (Mark Wollaeger and Matt Eatough). The rise of larger topo-interpretive units, fields, and concerns in comparative cultural studies and, chiefly with Bertrand Westphal, the advent of geocriticism, also speak directly to the growing role played by the planetary as an analytical metaphor.

The list is surely incomplete. Historically co-articulated with the global lexicon and concerns as it has been, the planet model may be at this point well positioned to fulfill Spivak’s dream to “interrupt” or “overwrite the globe.” Ideally, such a critical operation would supplant globalization and globality by planetarization and planetarity, the global world-system by the planet’s own system—“which,” Spivak underscore, “we inhabit . . . on loan”—“global agents” by “planetary subjects,” and globalism’s rationality by planetary relationality or “planet-thought” (2003, 73).

This is fine but a little vague for my money. I would like to propose that, to complete this sequence of terminological-rhetorical, epistemological, and ethical-political displacements, renegotiate if not sever altogether its ties with the discourse of globalization, and possibly usher in a planetary, “postglobal age” in literary-cultural analysis, this “planet-thought” must formulate a planetary paradigm sufficiently emancipated rhetorically and theoretically from the global. The latter’s tutelage is still visible in Spivak, who routinely couches the planetary project in a language of cumbersome derivativeness. In her work, the global supplies the ground and the continuum, the metaphysical Grund and the sociocultural surface. Even when they are “written over” and “interrupted,” or perhaps especially when they are so, these terms tend to render such “oppositional” gestures mere accretions, accidents, and exceptions to an otherwise minimally impacted, and hence reconfirmed, status quo whose “overwriting” turns out in reality to underwrite it. At the same time, unable either to step outside the historical context that made it possible in the first place or, more specifically, to unwrite its own relational genealogy, the planetary is not likely to shed its derivative skin completely either. This guilt by association, this onto-conceptual hubris, should be recognized too. To the extent that it also rests on the relational, the planetary both critiques and gives the global, or at least a part of it, a new lease on life: reminiscent of deconstruction’s innermost aporia, this has been and will ever be its double bind. While the objective of the planetary with respect to the global remains emancipatory and thereby oppositional, the planet and the globe do not make up a crude opposition other than rhetorically, despite the impression critics like Spivak might leave. As Mary Lou Emery recognizes, the “planetary” is “[n]either equivalent to the global nor opposed to it” (49). The global-planetary connection is somewhat symbiotic, and the point is to revamp it critically, to remake it into a truly critical symbiosis. Like postmodernism, which, in its best aesthetic and theoretical-philosophical instantiations, did manage to speak against the dominant languages it had to speak (mimic, parody, etc.) in order to speak at all, planetarism can and has to ransom itself conceptually while rescuing the global, wholly or partly, from itself in the bargain.

To do so, I suggest, “planet-thought” needs to rethink the world planetarily. That is, planetarism must appropriate the global’s netospheric idiom of relationality so as to re-reinscribe critically—more precisely, ethically—the world qua reality, descriptive language thereof, and project. That is to say, thinking of planetary persuasion must come up with an apposite interpretive methodology, i.e., with a modality of reading aesthetic and cultural “symptoms” of planetarity. The workings of this modality or critical apparatus are germane to the planetary ethics of relationality. To be sure, “globe” and “planet” are both relational scripts. These scripts set in motion relational processes through which the world is “worlding,” but, depending on the relationality type they ultimately afford in the rising “worlded” world, they can bring about either “globalization” as defined (and indicted) by prevalent rhetoric or “planetarization.” This type, the actual content and outcome of being-in-relation hinges on relatedness management. Under the auspices of “globalization,” this management is indeed quite often quasi-managerial and, more broadly, falls under the purview of economics, finance, technology (primarily informatics), media, and communication. Driven by profit-taking, this handling of relation is orchestrated and understood in terms that rationalize the relational by subordinating it to a lucrative rationality. This rationality is interested in the non-lucrative, the (apparently) gratuitous, the nonpareil, the exception, the idiomatic, the ambiguous, the elusive, and ultimately in the cultural itself just as long as they can be coopted into the computing scheme that totals as much as it totalizes, squeezing the world’s face into unethical—simplifying, reductively explanatory—frameworks, charts, diagrams, and other data analysis format.

But the whole idea behind our work as comparatists is, I suppose, just not to do this; to account for and honor, instead, that which in a relation remains un-relatable, whose story stands beyond storytelling, narrative coopting, and summarizing, whose raison d’être lies, at least partially, beyond rationalization, and whose true measure may well be the incommensurable. If this is the case—if living culture is what we are talking about at the end of the day—then another relational concept, and approach thereto, is required, one that would re-world the world into planet by resetting the netosphere ethically rather than by discarding it. But how can we rethink being-in-relation beyond the nationalist, imperialist, and, of late, globalist nexus, beyond the relational logos that, for such a long time, has underlain the main form of mapping and linking up here and there, self and other, ours and theirs? And how are we, artists, critics, humanists, to embark on such a radical rebuilding of our epistemologies and deontologies so as to deal responsibly with the surging availability of the imaginary museum, of the planetary archive, of sites of life and culture suddenly handy, vulnerable, ready to be googled, disembedded and disemboweled, exposed, toured, and sampled, intertextually used and commercially abused? Can we even “stop and think” in the face of the world’s overwhelming and hyperexposed Heideggerian Bestand?

Proof that the world’s totalizing worlding is not irreversible and that the globe’s closed geometry is not geoculture’s destiny, the world’s relational reset as planet and subsequently fresh answers to the questions just raised are indeed possible. What makes them so, I maintain, is a planetary counterdiscourse susceptible to rethink the rationalization of relationality comparatively, namely, into its contrary—into or as a relationalization of rationality. Once ethicized, the impersonal, defacing, and equivalence-engendering relatedness of netosphere becomes nethospherical and in that particularly sensitive to formations, workings, implications, and imbrications of world relationality that escape or are disadvantaged by the serial, the formulaic, the routine, the “universal,” the easily or apparently translatable, categorizable, and profitable. Thus, in counter-distinction to the “globe” and “global,” I define the “planet” and “planetary” as a noun and an attribute, respectively, signifying and qualifying a fluid, multicentric, plural and pluralizing worldly structure of relatedness unfolding in the triple dimension of a geocultural space, discourse modality, and critical-imaginative framework or episteme, all of which are keyed to non-totalist, non-homogenizing, and anti-hegemonic operations existentially as well as culturally-cognitive in nature. As such, wherever and whatever the planet is ontologically, in the world—for it is neither the globe’s nor the world’s synonym—it is (it exists) because it is “in the species of alterity” (Spivak, Death of a Discipline 72), that is, underpinned by on an ethical infrastructure. Ontologically, as already existing reality, the planet is partially already in place and can be described as such. This partial presence is being augmented aesthetically and critically, as subject to a prescriptive or “aspirational” planetary imaginary that tries out various possibilities of fully worlding the world into planet.

6. Planetarity and Indebtedness

What makes this planetary ensemble ethical is the fundamental credit-debt nexus subtending it. The world qua planet is a geo-domain of indebtedness. It goes without saying—or perhaps it needs to be said at this turbulent juncture in the history of global finance—I am not talking about debt as a U. S. Department of Commerce official, a CEO, or, perhaps more modestly, an accountant might. My concerns are culture and the humanities as playground and full measure of the human. I will not expound at any length on morals either, although it is worth recalling that, in On the Genealogy of Morals, Friedrich Nietzsche reminds us that social enforcement of various moral codes implies a “guilt” concept that in turn rests on “the very material concept of debt” (44). The German Schuld, we will further remember, covers both English notions. Schuldig means “guilty” as well as “in debt,” owing something. It signifies an indebtedness that is as moral (or legal) as it is financial: you have been proven guilty, and you are going to pay for it. Christian sin is a debt, hence atonement as a pecuniary metaphor. Vice versa, indebtedness is sinful, wrong. In articulating this logic, Calvinism provides the foundation of frugal, “tighten-your belt,” “anti-plastic” modern capitalism.

Both morally and financially in the black, the economic ideal derived from this theology is, of course, just that: an ideal. Actually existing economics, complete with its lending apparatus, falls short of it as much as it does of divine glory. Nor does the Calvinist-sponsored, Protestant paradigm of culture fare much better, all the way to Romantic aesthetics and its models of authorship, of what it means to author, create, be creative and original. I say “models” rather than practices of authorship and authoring because, once again, as a generic or ideal type, the Romantic author—the genius—is the one presumably capable of living “within means.” Like Caspar David Friedrich’s hero in the 1818 canvas Chalk Cliffs on Rügen, he or she stands, aloof and debt-free, on said cliffs; fiscally and aesthetically, he or she does not go over. Give me liberty or give me debt: the choice could not be clearer. Intertextually on a string budget, this author may contain multitudes, but his or her books are cooked by an autonomist-exceptionalist ideology of self-containment that does not value those others inside, the indebtedness of form, style, and inspiration, the “influences,” the whole heterogeneity that makes the self possible. In Nietzsche, the suspicion of this debt is the basis of guilty—because indebted—consciousness, for the more we look inside ourselves, the more we distinguish those others. You inspect that abyss, which is exactly what another character in Friedrich’s painting does, and you see them. But, as Nietzsche adds in Beyond Good and Evil, since, by the same token, the abyss gazes into you, you see them “down there,” within yourself.

What planetary theory must theorize first is the worldwide mutuality of that gaze because, to a significant degree, planetary analysis—planetarily minded cultural analysis—is a “thick description” of the indebtedness that goes into the ecumenical manufacturing of originality. From this standpoint, planetary theory and the studies built on it make for a major, quintessentially comparative subset of cultural theory and of the cultural studies swirling around it. One thing the planetarity model of analysis attempts or should attempt, against the centuries-old doxa of morally “toxic” debt, is a revaluation of indebtedness, a reaccreditation of the discredited notions of credit and debt. I would contend that rethinking these categories from a cultural standpoint is urgent in the 21st-century, fast-globalizing world. Remember, apropos of this ethical and epistemological reassessment, the “greed is good” line? I do not know about greed—greed in the Wall Street sense—but I do know, I think, about debt, and what I know, or I would like to propose, rather, is that debt, in an important sense, is not a sin; debt is good. Debt is better, actually, because it is foundational to doing good, the premise of ethics and moral conduct rather than their breach. Moreover, debt, that thing that we lack and need, that absence (béance in Lacan), has constitutive force. What we call “subject formation” is nothing less than going into debt, to others. We would not be if it were not for that originating—and originality-spawning—deficit. This shortage, the stuff we do not have or are short of, is ontological. More accurately, it has ontological potential: we can be or become, make the “most of ourselves” if we live up to it. Otherwise, as Emmanuel Levinas insists, its nature is ethical: what that absence carves out inside ourselves is a space of otherness, and, we shall see a bit later, this has crucial implications: the debt accrues a duty, a responsibility in and to the world. In this light, it is important to realize that this debt is originary rather than supplemental to being. We do live on borrowed time ab origine. We do not incur debt after we have somehow made and spent our fortune or have blown away our “inheritance.” It is already in there before we set about being and expressing ourselves. Our “credentials” are predicated on this credit. As humans and humanists, we “rise up” to our potential from that abyss of alterity. This debt is, indeed, a precondition to being human and to all that human beings can be.

7. “Universal Debt” and Comparative Analysis

Giorgio Agamben says as much in The Coming Community. “The being most proper to humankind,” he glosses, “is being one’s own possibility or potentiality” (44). Our full humanity is something we achieve, something to come and to strive for. Being, at its fullest and “most proper,” Agamben also notes, implies not being-there, a being “devoid of foundation” (43). But this missing foundation is foundational, for we embark on the human adventure, we enact our humanness, if you will, without being “in possession” of that ground (43). And so, the Italian philosopher argues, “humans have and feel a debt,” leading their lives by taking out an ontological loan without collateral. “Humans, in their potentiality to be and to not-be, are, in others words,” he concludes, “always already in debt; they always already have a bad conscience without having to commit any blameworthy act” (43-44). Agamben’s take on “the doctrine of original sin” (44) pertains to theology as much as to ontology, ethics, and even to literary history. So, along these lines, can we think of post-Romantic culture and perhaps of culture overall as one big apology for our “blameless” guilt? Can we view poetry writing as a metaphorics of making amends, as apologizing “in style” for an expenditure of a credibility that has been credited to us to begin with, and in order to begin with it, quite literally, for the exercise of an authority with which we have been authorized, by others?

As Rabaté insists in one of his Joyce books, no authority is self-begotten. Unable to authorize itself, it must be accredited. Thus, it presupposes a credit, in other words, indeed, a credit in, or of, others’ words, texts, and representations, which, to their own credit, authors like Joyce do credit, so much so that their oeuvres turn on this ethical recognition, on this admission and citation of debt. Authoring books, then, hammering out paradigms, “inventing” concepts, setting up standards, speaking “with authority” on whatever subject—all this presupposes a debt. We come into our own, realize our “potential,” and become part of “our” communities through references to others and not before we find our “balance,” a way of owning up to what we owe them. The puns may be over the top, but they help stress how deeply embedded in language, and with it in culture, in our humanity, is this seldom acknowledged indebtedness; how so much accumulation and recording of debt, so much “bookkeeping” go or should go into our books as planetary writers and critics; and how, in speaking, reading, and writing, in cultural practice generally, this debit brings into play issues as linguistic and textual as ethical and political, an accountability beyond accounting, a debt-derived duty larger than words, figures, and accounts.

In his 1996 article “Dette mondiale et univers parallèle” (Global Debt and Parallel Universe), Jean Baudrillard zeroes in on a different kind of incommensurable debt: the financial sublime of the global age. It is world debt that further globalizes the world, for better or worse and everything in between. Increasingly shared one way or the other by the planet’s population—although by some of us more than others—this debt is practically infinite because impossible to pay off while still mounting ad infinitum, “beyond counting,” au-delà de toute comptabilité—beyond measuring and representation and without correspondence in reality, in “available capital.” This is why, Baudrillard claims, it is financially meaningless. Its only value is symbolic because this debt speaks to a “symbolic credit system whereby people, corporations, nations are attached to one another by default” (38-40). But the symbolic value of globalized and globalizing debt, I would argue, is not immaterial or meaningless. It was not in 1996, and definitely it is not today, even though the discrediting narrative has since then somewhat changed. World insolvency points, in an admittedly twisted way, to the very meaning of symbolic values in general at the dawn of the new millennium, to the concrete “attachments,” circuitries, and exchanges underlying them, in brief, to the global formation and reach of a cultural capital that grows as it finances—funds and founds, credits and authorizes—narratives, tropes, stances, trends, and values around the world and across traditional lines of indebtedness, influence, taxation, and jurisdiction, transnationally. Non-referential as it may be, unevenly distributed as it certainly is, global monetary debt nonetheless supplies a serviceable model for coming to terms with the worldwide circulation of symbolic capital and the swelling planetary indebtedness derived from it.

Cultural indebtedness, the indebtedness planetary analysis or comparative analysis with a planetary bent focuses on, is neither “sinful” nor virtual. Setting aside for now financial debt’s history, the banking and political practices behind it, how badly it sometimes affects us, and how bad we feel about it, one must come to terms with its reality, namely, with what it does to us all: its “credit lines” tie us together in real or quasi-real time and space; it “worlds” us, sets us side by side, “pairs” us up, “com-pares” us as we are credited so that, in turn, we can also “compare” the world, acquire it (another meaning of comparō), get a purchase on it aesthetically, as representation. Most notably, in this material landscape, the formation of cultural interconnectedness expands and becomes more and more visible. Here, money, a signifier of value, supplies a homology to a worthier axiology, and accordingly, here too debt is the other name of all-pervasive influence and the cultural métissage coming on its heels. Here, self and other farm their discourse out to one another frenetically, so we are all becoming more indebted to others elsewhere than we have ever been. These others and their locations hold liens on our times and spaces, on what we do and say in them, on our discourse. And vice versa: we ourselves are jump-off points, investments, “seed money” for cultural ventures thus inevitably joint, which come to fruition somewhere else. This applies to individual authors as much as to communities and traditions now more than at any other point in history. In the “compressed” space and time of interweaving world cultures, authority is increasingly “on loan,” authenticity and originality intertextual affairs, and “individual talent” and “personal tone” often echoes from afar, ventriloquisms.

This is not an unprecedented paradox. The phenomenon does not pertain solely to the emerging world network society and its relational rationality. However, it is in this society that relatedness and, stemming from it, mix, “impurity,” and the allogeneic have become staples of life worldwide. The cultural credit/debit arena is giving birth to a new, physical and non-physical (at-distance) proximity, to a culturally woven immediacy with my culture and yours intermingling and fostering new assemblages. It is within this exchange horizon that what I call the outsourcing of identity takes place, and it is within this world arena that planetary studies stakes out its territory. To clarify: whatever I am or become comes about under the impact of remote, heterogeneous sources, places, and styles. The familiar is less and less a function of the familial. More and more afforded by the alien, it does not exclude, as Wai Chee Dimock would say, a “distant kinship” (144-145). As a result, the economy of my being is hardly self-sufficient, depending as it does on others for “loans” and “parts”—myths, fantasies, stories, symbolic structures, and the like. Leaving behind a separatedness-based model shaped by the center/margin, “in here”/”out there,” our culture/theirs, and other similar disjunctions typical of coloniality, postcoloniality, and the earlier stage of multicultural awareness, this economy is moving toward a conjunctive or relational model informed by cross-cultural, cross-geographical, indeed, world-scale contacts, juxtapositions, borrowings, and barterings. Simply speaking, what it all comes down to is a relational dynamic wherein local, seemingly standalone, autonomous units become more apparently that which they have been, if less extensively and conspicuously, all along: “attachments,” relations, rumors of otherness, anchors in the elsewhere. This framework calls for a comparative approach, specifically, for a de- or, better still, trans-territorialization of literary histories. As appendices to various national histories and in that still indebted to a 19th-century mindset, these histories have been territorialized—defined and confined in terms of coverage—on the model of the nation-state. But the lines of cultural credit extended to, and distinguishable between, the lines of Thoreau, Melville, Emerson, Whitman—not to mention Eliot, Joyce, Pynchon, or Charles Johnson—cut across and reach far beyond the U. S. territory, through other countries and continents.

This is, of course, a reference to Dimock’s 2007 book, Through Other Continents: American Literature across Deep Time. In “Scales of Aggregation: Prenational, Subnational, Transnational,” Wai Chee Dimock’s introduction to the 2006 American Literary History special-topic issue on new models of historical analysis, and more extensively in Through Other Continents, she underscores the “diminished sovereignty of the nation-state” and the bearings of this process on the 21st-century humanities (219). While national borders and jurisdiction continue to exist, the way scholars map developments across the arts overlaps, she notes, less and less with the nation, more specifically, with the nation-state’s territorial identity. Thus, competing scales of aggregation—pre- , sub-, and transnational—challenge the classical paradigm of national territoriality. In other words, where U. S. literature “is,” where it “comes from,” where it occurs, and where it evolves may differ from the geographic location of the nation. Thoreau, for example, is “on three continents.” Margaret Fuller is, or was—and, in a sense, “was from”—Ancient Egypt and Italy before being from Cambridge, Massachusetts. In Charles Johnson’s novel Middle Passage, Louisiana is closer to West Africa than to Illinois. The same goes for Doctorow’s Ragtime and German literature: the former is the greatest late 20th-century response to Heinrich von Kleist and so belongs to German literature in no negligible degree and in a way that forces us to redefine belonging, affiliation, representativeness, and membership. What this new, cross-territorial, cross-cultural, and cross-linguistic scalarity helps visualize cartographically and appreciate critically is how much U. S. culture—pretty much like any other culture—has borrowed from world cultures and, accordingly, how much of the nation’s cultural fabric consists of credit lines, threads, strains, and investments from elsewhere. It is our job as comparatists to take comparative literature into the planetary era and read, accordingly, between and across these lines so as to assess both the investments and their returns. 




[1] See Sussman. On his “Prevailing Operating System” and its place in the author’s larger project, see Moraru, “Invisible, Ink.: Classics, Programmers, and the Reprogramming of Cultural History in the Aftermath of the ‘Book Crisis.’”

[2] On theory and the major shifts in the field in the globalizing world of the post-Cold War era, I refer the reader to my 2001 essay “The Global Turn in Critical Theory.” Also see Di Leo and Moraru; Leitch, Theory Matters, and The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 2nd ed.; Birns; Elliott and Attridge; and Lane.

[3] On “world” as transitive verb in relation to the “worlding” work of comparatists, see Kadir, “To World, to Globalize: Comparative Literature’s Crossroads,” and “To Compare, to World: Two Verbs, One Discipline.”

[4] “Shall I project a world?” Pynchon’s Oedipa Maas famously asks in The Crying of Lot 49 (64).

[5] For the evolving meaning of “world” as verb (welten) in Heidegger, with particular emphasis on the philosopher’s early work, see Dastur 129, 140.

[6] For a “one-world” argument on globalization and its ethics, see Singer 11-13.

[7] Jacques Derrida develops the haptical notion in On Touching—Jean-Luc Nancy (2005).

[8] See, most recently, Maus and Grausam.

[9] See Teilhard de Chardin 229, 270, 279, 321, etc. On Teilhard’s “globalist” terminology, the reader may rely on Bernard Sesé’s tellingly titled essay “Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, prophète de la mondialisation?”

[10] Chandra talks about the lexical perfection of “the ‘global,’” but, logically, her conclusion applies to “globe” before it does to any of “globe”’s relatives (4).

[11] The Planetary Turn: Relationality and Geoaesthetics in the 21st Century, ed. Amy J. Elias and Christian Moraru, forthcoming 2015. Some of the ideas advanced in this article are further developed in The Planetary Turn—both in its introduction and in the essay I contribute to the collection—as well as in my forthcoming monograph, Reading for the Planet: Toward a Geomethodology (Moraru 2015).

[12] See Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s article “Imperative to Re-imagine the Planet,” which has become chapter 16 in An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization (348).  


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