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How Adab Became Literary: Formalism, Orientalism and the Institutions of World Literature

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AbstractLamenting that “the concept of literary study is broadened . . . so radically that it becomes identical with the whole history of humanity,” René Wellek implores scholars instead to “face the problem of ‘literariness’.” This essay considers Wellek’s formalist conception of literariness alongside what might appear its counterpoint: the historically situated understanding of Adab. Just how universal is Wellek’s concept of literariness? In what ways does Adab reaffirm or undermine its pertinence across textual traditions? Rather than present Wellek’s formalism and Adab as opposites, this essay notes their common grounding in the pedagogical and ethical registers of the term literature—understood less as a canon of texts than as a set of practices and disciplines. Moving between the institutional foundations of modern literary study in Egypt, a footnote from Jirjī Zaydān’s literary history, and reflections on literature by the Orientalist H.A.R. Gibb, the various subsections consider how emergent definitions of literature and Adab turn on assertions of how to read, respond and relate to texts. In the end, this shifted emphasis posits world literature less as an amalgam of particular textual traditions than as the disciplines and practices that inscribe how literature comes to matter.

Affiliations: 1: University of Oregon, URL:


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