Forum on World Literature (III)

The Institution of Comparative Literature -- in Theory and After it

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

posted under , by Unit for Criticism
Written by Eleanor Courtemanche, English

One of the reasons this topic is so fascinating is that in the last 10 or 20 years, comparative literary work has been defined by a paradox. On the one hand we live in an age of globalization, of increased interest in the international cross-currents that influence the production of art and knowledge, and of new attention to the complex material histories of that culture. We call the nation-state and traditional periodicity into question and seek to embed our studies in concrete descriptions of imperial adventures and pluralized identity positions. On the other hand, comparative literature as a discipline—which arguably pioneered these analytical trends—seems to be in relative decline. No longer do historians, sociologists, or philosophers of science come calling to borrow its portable ideas of narrativization, thick description, politicized close reading, ideology critique, constitutive blindness, or fluid subjectivity; the traffic these days is all in the other direction, toward archival work and data collection. The vector of analysis has changed, and with it the shape of literary arguments.

More concretely, given the shrinking size of comparative literature departments across the country, there may be professional pressures against certain kinds of comparative work, especially for graduate students. In attempting to tally up some of the gains and losses that come with this new arrangement, I’d like to suggest two different interpretive frameworks: comparative literature’s disciplinary association with that international set of ideas called “theory,” and the way new historical methodology can ironically make comparative projects more difficult.

1) In his recent essay “Comparative Literature, At Last,” Jonathan Culler defines the contemporary moment for comparative literature as one of bitter triumph. When comparative literature was the site of the introduction and creation of new kinds of literary theory (at least in part, I’d argue, because American philosophy departments have been hostile to Continental philosophy), it became one of the cutting-edge disciplines in the humanities. If it is no longer so, it’s because “so many people in other departments have jumped on these bandwagons, or gradually come around to the views of comparatists”; comparatists have become “universal donors” (255). However, the departments themselves are shrinking, and most new jobs are in national language and literature departments. Like feminism, comparative literature is everywhere but in name.

Now there are many new names for the internationalist impulse that used to find a home in comparative literature departments: transnational studies, transatlantic studies, diaspora studies, postcolonial studies, and globalization theory, among others. Haun Saussy’s 2004 ACLA report on the state of comparative literature foresees that comparative literature might become the home both of something called “world literature,” and of analysis of other kinds of cultural forms. Culler acerbically points out that comparative literature might become a site for the widely felt need to teach American students about the world in which their country plays such an ambiguous role – though he adds this is more of a teaching project than a research project (266). The fact remains that despite these cosmopolitan intellectual pressures, and despite the slow evolution of traditional disciplines to encompass them, graduate students in literary fields must continually keep in mind the horizon of a job market in which most positions are identified by national literature and period. You can “flavor” your work with some of these internationalist ideas, but it’s safer to do so within a recognizable disciplinary context. I would argue that we are not currently in a moment of great interdisciplinary creativity – and that the antifoundational urges of the cultural studies movement that were visible in the famous 1992 Cultural Studies anthology come across as positively quaint within the current climate of retrenchment. Is it really true that when a discipline lacks money, a recognizable identity, and hiring lines, it’s more likely to retain its political edge?

2) But surely we cannot return to the days of aestheticist high theory! Poetics? Narratology? Reading foreign literature in the original languages? Such things are no longer sexy (though amazingly, they once were). Can’t we imagine a way forward that will create a safe space for innovative new methodologies while still retaining some foothold in material history?

Another way of putting this question is whether we are still interested in studying literature as anything other than as a symptom of history. I think it is undeniably true that the recent turn to historicism in the literary fields has produced a lot of readable and solid work, and much of it seems better written and frankly more rewarding than the effusions of the 1980s. But I also think we close the door on fruitful pathways of inquiry by not treating literature as something weird and special in its own right, something that can only tell the truth by lying, something people seek out to satisfy their unreasonable desires as well as their reasonable ones.

One difficulty with comparative work today is that we no longer believe in making purely formal connections between literary works produced in different places and times. The decline of interest in aesthetics, oddly enough, seems to have taken out comparative literature along the way. The stale myth of the “timelessness” of literature is gone, but now we have no easy way of making indirect connections between art produced in different locations, despite the fact that many readers get their most vivid impressions of the past and of other countries from literary works.

The case of 19th century comparatism can be taken as an illustration of these unintended consequences, since the turn to materialist kinds of inquiry also seems to have made it more nationalistic. Victorian studies has long been somewhat self-sufficient, replicating the image of a Britain splendidly separate from its peers – and the current historicist mood has opened up all kinds of new fields to inquiry, most notably religion, economics, and imperial relations. Yet as Sharon Marcus points out in a 2003 essay, “New Historicism has militated against comparative literary approaches precisely because of its emphasis on national and chronological specificity” (680). Even postcolonial studies unwittingly reinscribes British national hegemony when we “remain focused on works written and translated into English, and thus primarily explore English perspectives on England’s imperialism” (681). Without the Foucauldian crutch of the power-knowledge nexus, in other words, we have no way of reading relations between countries that are not actively subjugating each other. Marcus argues that though the dynamism of transnational studies can inform the traditional comparative paradigm of nations as “parallel” (682), it also lacks some of comparative literature’s “linguistic and hence conceptual range” (681). So we’re learning more about colonial possessions, but less about other European countries, much less connections to the United States. Though there are certainly exceptions – such as recent work on British idealization of nationalist uprisings in Greece, France, and Italy—this remains a blind spot in Victorian studies.

The classic way of reconciling materialist internationalism with close attention to literary form, of course, is Marxism—of a kind practiced by Fredric Jameson and Raymond Williams, or even the later Lukács. I’ll leave it to the comments section to consider whether Marxism is comp lit’s only hope, whether internationalist disciplines really need a separate institutional space to thrive, or whether my desire to reconsider aesthetics is merely a feature of my class-based identification with a dying form of cultural capital.

Works Cited

Culler, Jonathan. “Comparative Literature, At Last.” The Literary in Theory. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2007. 254-268.
Grossberg, Larry, Cary Nelson, and Paula Treichler, ed. Cultural Studies. New York: Routledge, 1992
Marcus, Sharon. “Same Difference? Transnationalism, Comparative Literature, and Victorian Studies.” Victorian Studies 45.4 (2003). 677-686.
Saussy, Haun, ed. Comparative Literature in an Age of Globalization. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2006.


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Ratul said...

Great stuff from Eleanor, Michael, and Matt. I was wondering if the crucial fact that very soon the North Atlantic world will not be the epicenter of practices in English (it will shift to India and China even more decisively) should force us to rethink notions of natality, organicity in culture, multiculturalism, and the transnational.

Very good thoughts. Please keep them coming.

Anustup Basu

Rob Rushing said...
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Rob Rushing said...

I have, of course, a particular interest in the fate of comparative literature, and I think that Eleanor's post raises some very interesting issues, such as her insightful point that a decline in interest in aesthetics seems to have "taken out" comp lit at the same time. Even while comparative literature was perhaps best positioned to make sense of transnationalism, globalization or diaspora, it was also (and often still is) tied to "the great Western tradition." I did want to point out, however, that even while comparatists often have precisely the research skills to do historically detailed work in multiple languages and with deep knowledge of multiple and interacting cultures, our teaching bread and butter is--surprise!--the Western tradition and great books. Rejecting that teaching mission would, at some universities, be tantamount to disciplinary suicide, and so comp lit can find itself in an awkward position. Core methodological practices in comparative literature are reading in the original and a rigorous commitment to situating literary and cultural phenomena in a larger (and multi-lingual) context--but freeing those practices from a tradition of poetics and a "great books" tradition may be difficult, if not impossible.

I have to object, however, to several ideas--first, I believe that only a plurality of theoretical and methodological approaches (which might include some that are not exclusively or even primarily historical in nature) can help the humanities survive and flourish. Marxism via Jameson, Williams and/or Gramsci can and should be one of those ways (although it is notably rare in comp lit departments), but Zizek is a rather different figure who also consistently reconciles "materialist internationalism with close attention to… form." But in general, I think every historicist could learn something from a reconsideration of aesthetics or the unconscious.

More polemically, I also have to wonder about the conventional wisdom that so many disciplines have "jumped on the bandwagon"--since, without having learned the languages of the cultures they are studying (and they usually haven't), I'm not sure what bandwagon scholars think they have jumped on, but it's not comp lit. In many universities, English as a discipline has rather unproblematically taken on the Western tradition as its own--in translation. In other cases, world literature has essentially come to mean "literature written in English" or "literature I was able to find in translation." And regardless of whether we find "reading foreign literature in the original languages…sexy" (although I was sure that that's where
my chili peppers
on came from), I take it as a given that multilingualism is increasingly a necessity in a globalizing world (it is only a luxury in certain, and more affluent, locales such as the US), and that we take research work more seriously when the scholar doing it has a strong competence in the language(s) of his or her archive(s).

I have a problem writing short sentences.

Michael Rothberg said...

Rob makes some interesting points in response to Eleanor. A few thoughts in return:

Why does the "Great Books" curriculum/"Western" tradition remain Comp Lit's bread and butter? Is than an inevitable fact of nature? Aren't there ways of remaking the curriculum without losing the audience? (Anustup's comments about the reconfiguration and decentering of English studies is also relevant here--and I'll have more to say about the category of "the West" next week.)

Also, while I also subscribe to the importance of a multiplicity of theoretical and methodological approaches, I'm curious to hear more discussion about the implications of Eleanor's proposal that Marxism provides a particularly valuable articulation of internationalism and formalism--and I'd point out that Zizek is coming out of this tradition as well. When I was a grad student in the early 1990s, we had the opportunity to interview Zizek for our cultural studies journal Found Object. I proposed (in what I thought was a cleverly Zizekian mode) that while the common understanding of Zizek's importance was that he was bringing Lacan back at a moment when psychoanalysis was seeming passé, what he was actually doing was smuggling Marxism back in in Lacanian drag. His response at that time: "I am 100% Marxist!"

Ratul said...
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Ratul said...

Very Important point Michael. I am reminded of Jameson's famous rejoinder to Said, arguing that Marxism is the only thoery that can 'travel', basically going wherever Capital goes.

Anustup Basu

martha webber said...

I found Eleanor's question about whether Marxist theory, in particular the kind practiced by Jameson amongst others, was comp lit's "only hope" interesting as well.

Literary criticism (comparative or otherwise) isn't my primary field of study so I'm reticent to offer my advice for a field that has so many thoughtful people working within it, but I would say "no, Marxism isn't its only hope" for two reasons:

1) Thinking about Jameson's contribution to the field directly, I'm reminded of his claims in "Third World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism" that "a certain nationalism is fundamental in the third world" where "the telling of the individual story, the individual experience cannot but ultimately involve the whole laborious telling of the experience of the collectivity itself" (85-86). Now, I don't know how/if he has modified these claims since he wrote this in 1986, but his argument here is seriously problematic. First, it smacks of essentialism. But Aijaz Ahmad provides a much more nuanced critique of Jameson's essay in "Jameson's Rhetoric of Otherness and the 'National Allegory'" published the following year in Social Text.

2) Again, I'm not familiar with the phases/turns that comp lit has gone through, but Marxist theory has been challenged in interesting ways in looking at development outside of the West/global North. Philip Huang, for example, identifies a process of semi-proletarianization in his book The Peasant Economy and Social Change in North China that challenges Marxist understandings of [economic] relationships.

But it seems Eleanor's question/post was guided by an interest in something that could look beyond an analysis that is based upon economic relationships/conditions of production/accumulation of capital at all. What about looking towards phenomenological aesthetics or building on something like event theory from anthropology (such as in Marshall Sahlins or Veena Das' work)? Surely contemporary anthropological theory "travels".

martha webber

Rani said...

Nice post