Toward a New Literary History


Samah Selim

Department of African, Middle Eastern and South Asian Languages and Literatures, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, N.J.; e-mail:

The past twenty years witnessed a dramatic transformation in Arabic literature studies in the United States. In the early 1990s, the field was still almost exclusively a satellite of area studies and largely bound by Orientalist historical and epistemological paradigms. Graduate students—even those wishing to focus entirely on modern literature—were trained to competence in the entire span of the Arabic literary tradition starting with pre-Islamic times, and secondary research languages were still rooted in the philological tradition of classical scholarship. The standard requirement was German, with Spanish as a distant second for those interested in Andalusia, but rarely French, say, or Italian or Russian. Other Middle Eastern languages were mainly conceived as primary-text languages rather than research languages. Philology, traditional literary history, and New Criticism formed the methodological boundaries of research. “Theory”—even when it purported to speak of the world outside Europe—was something that was generated by departments of English and comparative literature on the other side of campus, and crossings were rare and complicated in both the disciplinary and the institutional sense. Of course, one branch of “theory”—postcolonial studies—made its way into area studies much faster than the more eclectic offshoots of continental philosophy, for obvious reasons. From nationalism studies to subaltern studies, from Benedict Anderson to Gayatri Spivak, the wave of postcolonial critical theory that swept through U.S. academia in the 1980s and 1990s sparked an uprising in area studies at large and particularly in the literature disciplines. One of the first casualties of this uprising was the old historical paradigm itself: narratives of rise and fall, golden ages, and ages of decadence. Slowly but surely, scholars began to question the entire epistemological edifice through which Arabic literary history had been constructed by Orientalism. It was through the postcolonial theory of the 1980s that Arabic literature came to a broader rapprochement with poststructuralism: Foucault, Derrida, Ricoeur, Jameson, and White, to name a few of the major thinkers who began to transform the field in the late 1990s.