by Joseph R. Slaughter
Review of Sarah Brouillette’s UNESCO and the Fate of the Literary (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2019)
The misfortune is that the forces of change are not always able to express themselves because they do not possess the means of expression.
In April 1974, Houari Boumédiène, the Algerian Secretary General of the Non-Aligned Movement, opened a special session of the UN General Assembly with a blistering speech describing and denouncing the world system of neocolonial exploitation that continued to disadvantage and despoil the newly independent postcolonial states. “[T]he colonialist and imperialist Powers accepted the principle of the right of peoples to self-determination,” he asserted, “only when they had already succeeded in setting up the institutions and machinery that would perpetuate the system of pillage established in the colonial era” (Boumédiène 6). Sarah Brouillette’s important new book, UNESCO and the Fate of the Literary, offers a similarly searing account of Third World efforts to capture the institutional machinery of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and to redirect its work for the mass benefit of disenfranchised peoples everywhere, and of how those efforts were ultimately frustrated. Brouillette is concerned with “how cultural production emerges in relation to the real economy” (2). By “grounding the critical discourse of world literature in the political economy of global literary institutions and markets,” she places UNESCO at the center of a revealing story about the production, consolidation, and distribution of world literature in the post-war international order (2).
Because, as Brouillette insists, the economic world system overlaps with, and to a great degree determines, the cultural world system, it seems helpful to sketch here the broader Third World legal efforts to decolonize international law and the administrative organs of the UN that provide background for Brouillette’s account of UNESCO’s historical role in shaping our current neoliberal assemblage of world literature. The 1974 UN special session that Boumédiène opened was convened to consider the problem of “raw materials and development”—namely, that “The Third World possesses 80 per cent of existing raw materials, but its share of overall industrial production is under 7 per cent” (Bedjaoui 27). The session culminated on May 1st with the Declaration on the Establishment of a New International Economic Order (NIEO), which sought to “reverse the effects of colonialism” (Anghie 199) by establishing a framework for “the economic advancement and social progress of all peoples . . . . which shall correct inequalities and redress existing injustices” (United Nations). The NIEO Declaration, adopted without a vote by a greatly expanded General Assembly in which the postcolonial states now constituted a substantial majority, intended to rectify the growing “gap between the developed and the developing countries” by (among other things) insisting on the “self-determination of all peoples,” “permanent sovereignty of every State over its natural resources,” the right “to restitution and full compensation” for colonial exploitation and “foreign occupation,” the “extension of active assistance to developing countries,” and guarantees for “developing countries [of] access to the achievements of modern science and technology” (United Nations).
It is not entirely clear which specific “machinery” in the “system of pillage” Boumédiène had in mind when he suggested that old colonialist and new imperialist economic powers lay in wait for the postcolonial right of self-determination like its own doom. In 1965, however, Kwame Nkrumah had already famously recognized the trap of postcolonial self-determination conditioned by neo-colonialism: “the State which is subject to it is, in theory, independent and has all the outward trappings of international sovereignty. In reality its economic system and thus its political policy is determined from outside” (ix). Boumédiène similarly implies that the nominal right to political self-determination was undermined by the economic fact that “the developed countries have virtual control of the raw materials markets and what practically amounts to a monopoly on manufactured products and capital equipment” (6). (As Brouillette’s work has consistently shown, a similar dynamic of market domination in the global publishing industries operates in our current world literary system, effectively obviating any romantic or purist idea of cultural self-determination.) In his seminal study of the centrality of colonialism to the history and development of international law, Antony Anghie describes the provisional and partial nature of what he calls “Third World sovereignty,” whose “porous character” ensures the political and economic subordination of newly-independent states and their subjection to Euro-American international law that coalesced to legitimate the continuing exploitation of non-European peoples and their resources (269).
The doctrine of permanent sovereignty over natural resources (PSNR), first examined at the UN in 1952 by the Commission on Human Rights in relation to a prospective declaration on the right of peoples to self-determination, was formally adopted by the General Assembly in 1962. Resolution 1803 on Permanent Sovereignty over Natural Resources declared the right of nations and peoples to explore, develop, and dispose of their natural wealth in the interest of “national development” and “the well-being of people of the State concerned.” One of the pillars of the NIEO in 1974 was the strengthening of the “[f]ull permanent sovereignty of every State over its natural resources and all economic activities” (United Nations). However, as Anghie shows, among the legal machinations by which “the West . . . negated Third World attempts to use the General Assembly as a means of transforming colonial international law” (222) was the creation of “a new legal framework, suggested by the term ‘transnational law’, to further undermine the economic [and political] sovereignty of the new states” (222-3). Indeed, as early as the 1950s Western-based multinational corporations were turning to “a complex combination of domestic law, private international law and public international law” in order to pursue (and impose) their economic interests in the emerging Third World (223). Thus, in a classic example of forum-shifting, a system of “transnational law” developed that shifted focus and force away from traditional international law and from the standard international legal forums of the United Nations system toward emerging frameworks for private arbitration between sovereign states and multinational corporate finance capital over rights and access to resources (223).
Thus, one of the sad ironies of the Declaration of the New International Economic Order advocated by Boumédiène in 1974 is that in so many ways it, too, was too late: the newly-independent states were fighting the proverbial last war. By the early 1980s, the old and new imperial powers of Europe and the U.S. had by various means largely beaten back the radical Third World challenge that the NIEO posed to their historic hegemony. Indeed, as the postcolonial nations were claiming custody of and exercising some control over international law, the institutions and machinery of neocolonial exploitation were either already in place or were being erected elsewhere by the time of the NIEO’s declaration. In other words, the Third World’s major gambit to reverse colonial international law was in the process of being reversed by the creation of an alternative framework of “transnational” law that would itself perpetuate the system of pillage established in the colonial era by other means.
The story of the NIEO in the 1970s, like the like the story of the hijacking of human rights that I’ve discussed elsewhere, is part of the more general history of the rise of neoliberalism and what Walden Bello has called the “rollback”: “the structural resubordination of the [Global] South within a U.S.-dominated global economy” (3). The Euro-American rollback was effectively a revanchist reversal that, among other things, undermined Third World efforts to capture the means of international legal expression. It set adrift the meaning and utility of a number of key political and legal terms in the lexicon of international affairs. Indeed, the growing pressure of decolonization through the 1970s (and reaction to it) instigated a dramatic lexical shift in some of those concepts, when a number of the most “fundamental principles of the international order . . . reversed polarity” (Slaughter 2018, 770). Among the many reversals of lexical fortune, self-determination doubled as “a neo-colonial tool for comprador elites in the Third World who colluded with Western neoliberal capital to dispossess the people of their rights and resources”; “permanent sovereignty over natural resources became a lever for multinational corporations to acquire concessions from newly independent states”; terrorism shifted from naming what states do to their own people to a label used to discredit ongoing national liberation movements; and “the Third World went from being a generative source of energy and inspiration for human rights[, a more just international order, and international law] to becoming a development problem and job opportunity for the new humanitarianism” (my emphasis 771).
In Brouillette’s account of the “fate of the literary” under UNESCO policy, rollback and reversal also characterize the reactionary responses of the major economic powers to democratizing developments at the cultural wing of the UN. Indeed, in light of UNESCO and the Fate of the Literary, it is possible to see how “cultural development” also suffered the fate of reversal of those other key principles of international affairs, shifting from being on the side of cultural nationalist agendas of newly independent states to providing the policy rationale for the globalization of predatory intellectual property law. In her book, Brouillette astutely reveals how ideological, institutional, and economic forces effectively defused and disciplined efforts at radical reform in the fields of global cultural production, intellectual cooperation, and international communications policy through the politics and programs of UNESCO. Covering seventy years of its institutional history, that story spans the eras “from liberalism through decolonizing left-liberalism to neoliberalism” (2). Brouillette’s discussion of the changing fortunes of “the literary” in the signature programs in each of those periods intends to give “a deeper sense of how the logic of instrumentalization [of literature and culture] has changed with the tides of global economic development and integration” (9). Indeed, Brouillette’s book is written not only against the old Arnoldian “sweetness and light” thesis of literary value that still circulates, more or less surreptitiously, in much world literature discourse. It also challenges what she characterizes as its heir and antithesis: “the idealization of literature as a potent site of noncommercial humanistic social formation” (7). This latter ideal, she chastisingly suggests, is the refuge of some postcolonial and marxist approaches to world literature. By contrast, Brouillette plots the story of UNESCO (and with it, the fate of “the literary”) as a tragedy—in David Scott’s, if not Aristotle’s, sense.
Brouillette divides the history of UNESCO into three distinct “phases,” with three different policy agendas and corresponding cultural programs that she sees as typifying the prevailing ideology of the period and instantiating the power relations among the states active in UNESCO at the time. In her account, the first period, from 1945 to the 1960s, was “dominated by a liberal cosmopolitan worldview” that promoted cultural understanding among nations as an antidote to fascism and totalitarianism (10). It produced the translation project of the UNESCO Collection of Representative Works that proposed to disseminate widely the world’s literary classics. The second phase, from the 1960s through the 1970s, was dominated by the economic and cultural development agendas of the newly independent postcolonial states who emphasized, through projects associated with International Book Year (1972) and proposals for a New World Information and Communications Order (NWICO), the role of knowledge, technology, literature, and literacy in “humanized development” and the redistribution of “cultural wealth” (16). The final phase, from the 1980s to the present, corresponds to the rise of neoliberal globalization and the rollback of the Third World agenda that I described. Literature, and culture more generally, is treated as a resource commodity requiring enhanced property protection. For Brouillette, the “Cities of Literature” program emblematizes this period and the “neoliberal governance” logic that “utterly transformed UNESCO,” which, in the third phase, began to promote “cultural programming mainly to prop up local industries and generate tourism and trade” (17).
The first phase of UNESCO’s history that Brouillette identifies is probably the most familiar from the perspective of literary studies. It is also the subject of another very insightful book from 2019, Miriam Intrator’s Books across Borders: UNESCO and the Politics of Postwar Cultural Reconstruction, 1945-1951 (Palgrave / Macmillan). Under the direction of Julian Huxley, UNESCO pursued its mandate to “increase the mutual understanding of peoples” through projects such as the Collection of Representative Works, which sought to identify, translate, disseminate, and promote literary “classics.” While the project had big ambitions, as Brouillette observes, the Collection “turned out to be largely an incorporative canon. The world’s various literatures were absorbed into English and French, which were thereby solidified in their roles as the languages of expert adjudication of the merit of literary works from any region” (34). In Brouillette’s assessment, because of the institutional eurocentrism of UNESCO, the Representative Works project ultimately was part of the machinery of cultural domination, serving to “secur[e] the former imperial powers’ ongoing trusteeship and dominant position in anchoring and orchestrating [post-war] global development” (33).
The most illuminating parts of Brouillette’s book deal with the second and third phases in her history of UNESCO cultural policy. If the first phase proceeded under a colonialist/universalist ideology of cultural diffusionism, the second phase of UNESCO programs broadly reflected the Bandung spirit of political, economic, and cultural decolonization—what might be anachronistically called “decolonial” today. In what Brouillette describes as “its most radical phase” (59), UNESCO sought to use cultural policy throughout the 1960s and 70s to “humanize development” (68), to encourage local cultural production and a sense of collective identity, and to defend against cultural imperialism (or “Americanization”) and capitalist globalization (or “commercialization”) (59). Under the rubric of “cultural development,” as Brouillette shows, the newly-independent nations that dominated this period at UNESCO (demographically and ideologically, if not financially) pushed “not just for the expansion of publishing industries but for the right to tell their own stories and be heard” (13)—what the Senegalese Director General of UNESCO, Amadou-Mahtar M’Bow (1974-1987), characterized as “possess[ing] the means of expression” (M’Bow 212). M’Bow is a key figure in Brouillette’s account. Under his direction, UNESCO pursued the ideal of “a vast democratization of access to information and to the means of production of information” (91) through (among other things) its advocacy for the New World Information and Communications Order (NWICO), the cultural companion to the NIEO. Even as the writing was on the wall for the aspirations of the NIEO by the late 1970s, UNESCO continued to push against the tide of globalization and against Western hegemony over information and technology—eventually, as Brouillette suggests, prompting the U.S. and the U.K. to leave the organization in the mid-1980s. That reaction of forum-shifting set the stage for the third phase in Brouillette’s history and for the reversal of the Third World agenda at UNESCO.
In Brouillette’s story, the second phase of UNESCO’s history amounted to something like a third-world interregnum that was undone by the third phase, dating roughly from the early 1980s, when “UNESCO had to win back its major funders” (10). As Brouillette argues, under the new regime, culture is neoliberalized as a market resource, “conceived as a form of wealth that, properly husbanded, protected, and promoted, results in job creation and economic development thanks to growing visitor and creative economies” (101). For Brouillette’s history, this third period is characterized by UNESCO programs, such as “Cities of Literature,” that promote “adherence to copyright and intellectual property laws and conformity with protocols set out by the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) and in the General Agreement on Tarriffs and Trade (GATT)” (100-101). Thus, according to Brouillette, rather than advocating for the liberalization of intellectual property rights and the redistribution of cultural wealth and the means of expression (as it had done during its first two phases), “UNESCO is now regularly concerned with enforcing intellectual property regimes and copyright. . . . World Book Day is now World Book and Copyright Day” (130).
One of Brouillette’s important insights that deserves special emphasis is her linking of the decline of UNESCO’s more radical cultural development agenda with the tightening of intellectual property regulation globally. This is a crucial connection for understanding the cultural politics and policies of UNESCO today, and it has important ramifications for contemporary literary studies. Indeed, I have argued previously that, although there is a clear “overlap in world-literary and world-intellectual-property space,” literature scholars have largely failed to appreciate the implications of intellectual property law on the field (and formation) of world literature and literary studies today (Slaughter 2014, 43-4). UNESCO and the Fate of the Literary goes a very long way towards remedying that lack, and Brouillette’s three-phase schema of UNESCO history is immensely helpful for beginning to chart the interaction of international cultural policy and intellectual property enclosure. Even so, like all periodizations (including my own above) it necessarily overstates some aspects of an organizational agenda as complex as UNESCO’s, while overlooking others. Moreover, the disciplinary lens of “literature” (or “the literary”) in Brouillette’s study misses some important legal maneuvers that took place outside the frame of UNESCO and distorts somewhat the picture of the organization’s third phase, since the World Heritage Sites program (rather than the Cities of Literature and Creative Cities Network) has arguably been the signature project of UNESCO over the past few decades. Likewise, some of the literary texts seem to have been selected (and bent) expediently to serve the historical narrative.
As Brouillette tells it, the economic interests of the “producer nations” (97), who also provide the largest share of UNESCO’s budget, ultimately won out over the ideals of information democracy and more global and equitable access to the “means of expression” by subaltern classes everywhere. She writes: “A powerful minority, protected by an international intellectual property regime that favored producer nations, had a clear interest in ensuring that the developing nations would continue to be net consumers of culture” (97). That trajectory seems indisputable, but I would suggest that the story of the subversion of the NWICO looks more like the subversion of the NIEO than is apparent in Brouillette’s account, because the U.S. and other “producer nations” (or, more specifically, nations with major corporate intellectual property producers) could not simply turn to existing intellectual property law for the broad monopoly protection they desired. Rather, they had to reinvent that law and then get the rest of the world to “agree” to be regulated by it.
In the 1980s, when “the content-producing, copyright-holding nations” (110) left UNESCO, they withdrew their funding and took their business elsewhere, turning away from the cultural politics of the UN organization in part to pursue their economic interests in culture and knowledge through trade agreements and the World Trade Organization. In a forum-shifting strategy that parallels the creation of “transnational law” that helped to undermine the NIEO, the U.S. (primarily U.S.-based pharmaceutical, information technology, and media companies) worked the levers of the WTO to convert cultural production and exchange into a trade issue, as they steered the Uruguay Round of GATT toward the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) that came into effect in 1995 and continues to regulate international intellectual property relations today. Thus, like the NIEO, the NWICO was not only rebuffed (by the withdrawal of funding from UNESCO); it was also undermined by forum-shifting to trade councils, where new forms of intellectual property and cultural wealth were created under a stricter legal regime of intellectual property designed to protect the monopoly interests of “developed-world producers” (110).
Thus, by the time the major donor nations returned to UNESCO and its heritage agenda in Brouillette’s third phase, the new “system of pillage” was already in place. In fact, one effect of the shift to trade-related intellectual property rights was the reification of an old colonial binary division between tradition and modernity that largely left cultural property, traditional knowledge, and cultural identity to the minor heritage industry at UNESCO, while taking the much more lucrative intellectual property economy to the transnational offices of patent attorneys and the arbitration forums of the WTO. This division of cultural assets ultimately reflects and reinforces “one aspect of the property bias built into the [current] system of world literature: individual intellectual property for us [the West]; collective cultural property for them [the rest]” (Slaughter 2014, 54). This, in turn, has knock on effects for the fate of “the literary” that Brouillette tracks.
My supplement to Brouillette’s discerning account of the role of copyright in undoing the second-phase dreams of UNESCO and NWICO is intended as a friendly amendment; moreover, it is testament to how productive it can be to think with her provocative new book, which spurred me to revisit some of the original UNESCO sources and to reconsider my own understanding of the role of intellectual property in the neoliberalization of world literature. Brouillette offers salutary complication to the easy affirmative (and often ahistorical) discourse around “world literature” that has dominated literary studies (especially in the U.S.) over the past two decades, which tends to treat politics, economics, law, republics, the international, and the world itself (the list goes on) as mere metaphors. For instance, Pascale Casanova refers repeatedly to “the international laws” (94) that are said to govern world literary relations, but “law” in her world is mostly a metaphor. In fact, there is, somehow, no UNESCO in the World Republic of Letters, which is perhaps especially surprising given that Paris (its mythic capital) remains the UN organization’s institutional headquarters. For Brouillette, law and economy are not easy metaphors tossed around to make the work feel important, as with so much literary criticism today. Rather, law and economy are real, which makes the work of the literary critic so much harder but also so much more rewarding and explosive when, like Brouillette’s book, it successfully draws genuine links between economics and cultural production.
Brouillette’s book will (and should) be important and influential for contemporary literary studies, but it does have some limitations that are worth acknowledging in order to advance more fully on its best insights. For one thing, in toggling between sociological analysis and literary textual explication, Brouillette confronts the constant interdisciplinary challenge of reading between law and literature—or, more precisely, between law, policy, economics, and literature—without deciding the methodological question in favor of one over the other. Topically, the book is broadly interested in, as Brouillette says, the “logic of instrumentalization” (9) of literature in UNESCO policy. Methodologically, however, it raises tacit questions about the instrumentalization of literature in literary studies today—especially of so-called non-Western literature in contemporary literary criticism. (This problem is particularly acute in light of what I see as continuing disciplinary efforts in literary studies, parallel to those in international law and economics, to contain the third world challenge to Eurocentrism: the ongoing rollback of postcolonial studies by the expansionist fields of world literature, global modernisms, and others.) Most of Brouillette’s chapters end with readings of literary texts offered to illustrate the logic of UNESCO policies; within the framework of the book, it seems that all third world texts must necessarily be read as UNESCO policy allegories. When the text fits, the allegorical reading wears well—as with Tayeb Salih’s famous early short story, “The Doum Tree of Wad Hamid.” However, if, under UNESCO cultural policy, the fate of the literary is to be instrumentalized, in literary criticism, too, it seems, the fate of literature is to be instrumentalized for other ends. Brouillette’s own analytical mode implicitly raises some basic questions that many of us in literary studies today are grappling with: not only what is literature for, but also what, in the world, is literary criticism for?
I suppose that most readers will not be coming to Brouillette’s book for the literary readings; still, those familiar with the literary texts, especially the novels by Zakes Mda and NoViolet Bulawayo, are likely to find her textual analysis intriguing, but somewhat forced and flat. These readings might have been made richer and more robust by considering and citing some of what the many critics and specialist scholars of those books have said about them, but the flattening is also an effect of the topical pressure of Brouillette’s driving interests. For example, under allegorical reading pressure, Mda’s multilayered novel Heart of Redness is reduced to a whitepaper on cultural development policy in South Africa—an approach that not only weirdly conflates Mda’s personal experience and attitudes that Brouillette imputes to him about cultural development with those of one of his fictional characters, but also loses sight entirely of the novel’s sharp ironic sensibility. Irony does not belong to whitepapers, of course, but in Mda’s novel, the promise of economic development that is to come from commodifying a people’s historical culture for heritage tourism is one more of the likely-to-be-failed prophecies of future plenty that are the subject and theme of the novel. In other words, rather than “justif[ying] contemporary cultural policy making” (114), the novel makes cultural development policy produced by international institutions an object of its satire, intimating that it may consist of little more than false hopes and empty promises. Furthermore, in its heavy intertextual (some say plagiaristic) reliance on prior written histories of the Xhosa Cattle Killing, Mda’s novel raises interesting and relevant questions about intellectual and cultural property that are unexplored by Brouillette and that might have further complicated her reading and historical narrative.
Like many sociological accounts of institutional systems and power relations, UNESCO and the Fate of the Literary is written largely in the anonymous, hedging voice of intellectual history. So much happens outside the purview of the passive sentences that report on the action and the worldly effects of ideas and ideology. To give just one example (of many): “The new liberal internationalism and humanism, enshrined perhaps above all in the United Nations’ 1948 Declaration of Human Rights, were precisely directed against the old modes of unthinking domination and cultural erasure. Instead, the preference was to imagine a new international order built on mutual respect, individual rights, and a shared desire to preserve monuments to authentic human diversity” (41). As certain about history as the passage may be, it is by no means clear exactly who does or wants what, who directs, who unthinks and erases, who prefers, or who shares. This is a common challenge for marxist accounts of political economy, for discourse analysis, for intellectual history and ideology critique. I note it, because the passive voice seems to encourage and license overstatement and dubious claims for the purposes of polemic. For example, it is simply not true, in any categorical way, that “[t]he field of contemporary Anglophone African literature relies on private donors . . .” (125).
In this book about institutional contests over the means of expression, I have to wonder if the passive voice does not also contribute to the irksome sense of defeatism that emerges from its pages: the sense that “Western” power is generally successful, and “non-Western” efforts inevitably fail in the face of faceless capitalism and neoliberal globalization—that resistance, third world or otherwise, is finally futile. Brouillette’s sympathies are clearly with the futile, but the narrative mode makes it seem as if cultural policy rarely, if ever, misfires or backfires. Maybe it is the case that culture actually and effectively does what cultural policy organizations and cultural theorists think it will do—whether that is “helping to discipline subjects” or, as Brouillette is inclined to see it, serving as a “de-commodifying” branch of “governance, where concerns about the needs left unmet by capitalism are articulated and worked out” (69). However, culture and its effects seem more unreliable than that, and such a view leaves little room for grasping the ways in which people and peoples maneuver within and manipulate for themselves the policy frameworks (not to mention “culture” itself) that, in Brouillette’s narrative, otherwise seem to dominate and determine everything.
Brouillette’s book is a vital contribution to the fields of Cold War cultural studies, postcolonial studies, world literature, and a globally-minded history of print culture. She has managed to synthesize the messy business of an international political organization in a way that both paints a convincing picture of UNESCO as a central forum and force in the world economy of literature and also paves the way for deeper examination by other scholars of specific moments, movements, and actors within that literary economy. I conclude with a final observation, in order to amplify one of Brouillette’s more offhanded provocations. Reviewing some of the literature from the massive bibliography of work on “books in development,” some of which were “backed by UNESCO” (79), in the 1960s and 70s, Brouillette singles out for special commendation the huge body of scholarship by Philip Altbach. As she notes, Altbach studied (among other things) “the Western bias of the international scholarly community,” and she suggests that perhaps it was “this same bias that placed research like his on the outskirts of the field . . . [of] book history” (79). I could not agree more about the importance and underappreciated value of Altbach’s work and other like-minded “studies of the book in the developing world” (79) that were produced during the decades of development. UNESCO and the Fate of the Literary, too, should take its place at the center of book history. Brouillette usefully sketches an alternative route for the field, pointing us back to a path not taken, but one that is certainly worth following her down.
Joseph R. Slaughter teaches postcolonial literature and theory, cultural studies, human rights, and third-world approaches to literature and international law in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. He is currently completing two books: New Word Orders, on intellectual/cultural property and world literature, and Hijacking Human Rights, on the rise and fall of international law, from colonialism to neoliberalism.
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