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  • Writer's pictureCeren Usta

Whose World Literature? Whose Rhetoric?

The cover of Guamán Poma's El primer nueva crónica y buen gobierno

What is the connection between Rhetoric and Composition, literacy, and cosmopolitanism? The questions posed by scholars excavating the colonial history of Rhetoric and Composition Studies have turned to critical theory, most notably postcolonial theory, to understand the connections between colonialism, literacy, Western-European intellectual tradition, and the invention of the global market economy. Damián Baca responds to this question by emphasizing that there is no such thing as a “global turn” in the field, that “globalization is not something that is happening to Composition. Globalization is something that Composition is doing, and has been doing for some time” (231). The global turn, therefore, is not a recent phenomenon for Baca, but an event with a five hundred year history, starting from 1492 (231). I would like to take this question a step further by adding the component of cosmopolitanism, both a consequence and manifestation of globalism––a phenomenon only possible as a way of being, thinking, and relating rather than an abstraction with the advent of the global market economy.

Cosmopolitanism is not a new concept, with its roots stretching back to Socrates and Plato. However, the term took on its contemporary significance only in the 19th century. Cosmopolitanism’s definitions vary, ranging from “having wide international sophistication” to “having worldwide rather than limited or provincial scope or bearing” (“Cosmopolitanism” Merriam Webster). The emphasis, however, does not change: of belonging to the world as opposed to a limited part of it. In the definition itself, worldly and provincial are set up as binary constructs of one another to convey the sense of belonging to many as opposed to one––one may even argue, a general sense of unbelonging. Such a (un)belonging, of course, can only happen under a specific kind of political economy: the global market economy. This connection of cosmopolitanism and capitalism is reiterated in the definition provided in Oxford Dictionary itself: “The first entry under ‘cosmopolitan’ in the Oxford English Dictionary, from John Stuart Mill’s Political Economy, suggests one reason why left-wing critics have recoiled from it: ‘Capital,’ Mill writes in 1848, ‘is becoming more and more cosmopolitan.’ Cosmopolitanism would seem to mimic capital in seizing for itself the privilege (to paraphrase Wall Street) of ‘knowing no boundaries’” (Robbins 171). Of course, the absence of boundaries that capital was seeking and producing was not limited to political economy; culture (in the Arnoldian sense) followed suit. Goethe would soon declare the death of national literature and the dawn of a new era, that of Weltliteratur: “National literature is now a rather unmeaning term; the epoch of world literature is at hand, and everyone must strive to hasten its approach”. Goethe would further argue that a global literary culture would be produced by a “commerce of ideas among peoples”. A cosmopolitan literature would emerge through a cultural and spiritual commerce whose terms and conditions are unremarked upon by Goethe. Indeed, what would determine the new cosmopolitan literature, the “world republic of letters”, would, again, be the global market economy. Texts from certain parts of the world would get published, translated, distributed and incorporated into the literary culture according to the rules and demands of the literary market. And as Edward Said has made it clear in relation to the discourse of Orientalism, culture is not limited to a domain of cultivation and refined traditions; it is just as much connected to the material interests and production: “Culture, of course, is to be found operating within civil society, where the influence of ideas, of institutions, and of other persons works not through domination but by what Gramsci calls consent. In any society not totalitarian, then, certain cultural forms predominate over others, just as certain ideas are more influential than others, the forms of this cultural leadership is what Gramsci has identified as hegemony, an indispensable concept for any understanding of cultural life in the industrial West” (15). Circling back to the initial definition of cosmopolitanism, it becomes clear that the distinctions between provincial and center are not obliterated with cosmopolitanism under the global economy, but rather, reproduced according to the needs of capital, the metropole, and of course, the empire.

How is any of this related to Rhetoric? What is the connection between ideas of a world literature and citizenship and the art of persuasion? At this point, I find myself having to dive deeper into Baca’s explanation of the civilizing mission of Rhetoric. As I’ve pointed out in the very beginning, the global turn is not a recent by-product of late capitalism composition scholars have begun to observe in their classrooms according to Baca; it is one of the essential technologies that make globalization possible to begin with: “When European combatants invaded they were equipped first with an enduring Aristotelian syndrome, the rhetorical art of reinventing the cultural Other as a periphery that is declared as such from the colonizing center” (230). The process or reinventing the cultural Other is not only framed as a “rhetorical art”, but is accompanied by the overwhelming insistence Western-European understandings of composition, literacy and culture: “As a ‘necessary corrective’, the first campaign of alphabetic composition was waged in the Western Hemisphere against a backdrop of territorial expansion, flows of capital and human flesh across national borders, massive cultural transformations, and new technologies” (Baca 231). If rhetoric can be defined as a way of ordering the world through expression and communication, then Baca makes it clear that other distinct ways of ordering the world were repressed or altogether erased by the hegemony of the Roman alphabet, literacy, conventions of writing and literary genres. If Baca provides one example in terms of composition systems through tlaquilolitzli, the Mesoamerican practice of “spreading of colors on hard surfaces” (230), Mary Louise Pratt provides another in auto-ethnographic writing, such as Guamán Poma’s New Chronicle, as an outcome of the “contact zone” where “people undertake to describe themselves in ways that engage with representations others have made of them” (35). Such undertaking can be read as an expression of agency, albeit taking place under highly asymmetrical power relations. However, it is impossible to note that these descriptions are rendered through the Roman Alphabet, in writing, as a manuscript––technologies imposed by the colonizer. Then, one must ask: to what extent can we talk about agency under such conditions? To what extent can we talk about communication, about rhetoric, if the playing field hasn’t been equal for a long time? And to what extent can we talk about the possibilities of a world literature and world citizenship, where one belongs to the whole world and not the province, if the province stopped existing long ago? If the production of a world literature as imagined by Goethe is made possible by the technologies of the Roman alphabet, art of rhetoric rooted in Aristotelian definitions, and literary genres produced by the needs of the global market economy, one cannot talk about cosmopolitanism as belonging to many and not one. Rather, one can talk about how the many have been dominated, coerced, and changed by the one. An understanding of rhetoric and composition only situated in the Greco-Roman context, I believe, is bound to remain a reproduction of cosmopolitanism that does not take into account the material conditions of being a world citizen, both in our multicultural writing classrooms and outside of them.


Baca, Damián. “Rethinking Composition, Five Hundred Years Later.” JAC, vol. 29, no. 1/2, JAC, 2009, pp. 229–42,

Pratt, Mary Louise. “Arts of the Contact Zone.” Profession, Modern Language Association, 1991, pp. 33–40,

Robbins, Bruce. “Comparative Cosmopolitanism.” Social Text, no. 31/32, Duke University Press, 1992, pp. 169–86,

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