Moving institutions: world history and its beginnings in theory

World literature got its start as a field of scholarly discourse in the years after the Napoleonic wars. The discourse persisted thereafter, though it became marginal with the relentless growth of nationalistic outlooks, and some of its debates were taken up within the study of comparative literature. The 1950s marked renewed interest in world literature, with the real resurgence happening in the 1990s. Meanwhile world history, with antecedents going back over 2,000 years, inched forward through the appearance of occasional compendia and narratives by venerable scholars, followed by the rise of pedagogical texts in the nineteenth century and culminating with explicit scholarly discourse in the mid-twentieth century. Are there obstacles that have made debate more difficult to launch for world history than world literature? For history, surmounting the frameworks of nation, empire and civilisation with conceptualisation at the global level has come slowly; clarifying temporal and topical scales as well as scales of aggregation has come even more slowly. The continuing analytical reliance on diffusionism in historical thinking slows the effort to understand the complexity of historical interactions. In its current form, world literature appears more fully developed as a field of theory and criticism than world history. The point of this essay is to explore the possibility that contemporary world history may expand its strength in theory, relying on inspiration from world literature.