Most of the great European literary historians and intellectual historians of the past century compose their works in response to Communism, fascism, or both. The concerns of the present are in many respects different and accordingly encourage different responses. One option is to investigate the explanatory role of culture, a project that requires the rejection of the standard association of culturalist explanation with conservative politics. A second alternative to the mid-century historians is the recent interest in world literature. Though its conditions of possibility have always included imperialism and international inequality, it does not follow that scholarship on the subject needs to replicate—rather than challenge—the order of things. By attending to language’s formal properties, literary critics might contribute to the advancement of both knowledge and cross-cultural understanding.
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