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Contemporary Developments

In some ways, "world" literature predates the nationalizing of literary traditions, since the classical and medieval period is quite polyglot and multicultural. But world literature and comparative literature were given new life in the late twentieth century by the awareness of the historical power of European imperialism and the rise of postcolonial literatures in India, Africa, South America, Asia, and the Middle East and later by the emphasis on globalization as a cultural phenomenon. The fate of specifically national imaginative literatures hangs in the balance. At the same time, two other critical perspectives on literature served to challenge once again what the term means. On the one hand, the Romantic idea of literature as the vehicle of aesthetic sensibility was called into question to emphasize the political function of the literary text, especially in terms of class, gender, and race. On the other hand, the idea that imaginative literature represents a kind of writing qualitatively distinct from philosophical writing or historical writing was also radically questioned. The paradoxical result is that the word literature at the beginning of the twenty-first century in many ways has begun to recover some of the inclusive significance that was lost when it was narrowed to fit nationalist and aesthetic sensibilities during the Enlightenment. Literature once again refuses to be confined to national borders or to be defined by the imaginative and the aesthetic. With the arrival in the 1990s of electronic literature, produced and consumed with the help of computers, the traditional medium of literature in print or manuscript—the book—acquired a potentially powerful rival. The root idea of literature as writing, that is, the scratching (or printing or typing) of marks into an impressionable material, may well be superseded by the flash of digital impulses across video screens.


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Vincent P. Pecora

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Linear expansivity to Macrocosm and microcosmLiterature - The Appearance Of Literacy, Literature In The Early West, By Way Of Comparison: Literature In Chinese