Arid zone

After a few days in Arizona (beautiful sunlight, sharply-outlined mountains, constant reminiscences of Wile E. Coyote), I recall how many times the newspaper and conversations overheard around me attested to a general meanness. People talked about an “invasion” on the southern border as a matter of course. As if folks like them had not once been invaders! And grumbled about Californians “invading” as well, with their strange clothing and mores. The newspaper brought news of the state legislature attempting to get legal cover for punishing cities or districts that passed any local ordinances that ran counter to state policies. Or rather, not “any,” but specific ordinances seeking to protect migrants, undocumented people, minimum-wage-earners, and otherwise vulnerable humans. The state seeks to mandate meanness. A kind of absurd climax was provided by a proposed act that would disqualify most kinds of “emotional support animal” on public transport. “Owning the libs” at its finest. I would advocate separating people from their emotional support firearms in every context but the national defense, how about that? It wouldn’t even be mean.



From Joep Leersen’s Comparative Literature in Britain: National Identities, Transnational Dynamics 1800-2000 (Oxford: Legenda, 2019), 165-166:

Most critics seem to concur that the great value of literature is its power to make us think differently: to empathize, to imagine how life feels to others…. The internationalist climate of the post-war decades was obviously congenial to such a literary and critical stance. The decline of internationalism after 1990 has affected political and academic life alike (most notably in the dwindling funding for cross-national teaching and research in the humanities); it has coincided with a decline in foreign language teaching, a key competence for comparatists. Conversely, neo-nationalist populism is hostile to such educational and research practices that involve empathetic or critical thought, and instead thrives on anti-intellectualism, fake news, fact-free politics and post-truth memes….

[T]he spread of populist neonationalism… has occurred in tandem with the institutional decline of the humanities, including Comparative Literature, with their emphasis on transnationalism and on the power of the human mind–critical, empathetic, imaginative. The pedagogical need for people trained to think clearly and critically, and transnationally, has been proved beyond all doubt in the negative, much as the need for vitamin C was proved, in the negative, by scurvy. …

The pedagogical need to train personalities in transcending ethnocentric or narrow national tunnel-vision, in imaginative and critical flexibility of mind, in transcultural literacy and competence, is, then, made obvious by the very failures we are witnessing in the national and international political field over the last decades.


What Is Comparative Literature?

I thought you’d never ask.

Comparative Literature is the study of cultural expressions across languages, periods, genres, and disciplines. Experts in the field acquire familiarity with several languages, frame theories to enable connections among disparate domains, and propose new ways of understanding that arise from considering similarities, differences, and relationships encompassing these diverse objects. 

It is important to observe that Comparative Literature is an open project, not a discipline grounded on a single archive or method. It can be defined by contrast with such fields as English, philosophy, literature-in-translation, anthropology, linguistics, etc.— all of which it can include, but none of which circumscribe it. There are examples of Comparative Literature, but no definitive rulebook. We discover what it is by doing it. 

For more detail, you might like to look into:

Are We Comparing Yet? On Standards, Justice, and Incomparability. Bielefeld: transcript verlag /Bielefeld University Press, 2019 (Open Access copy available here).

César Dominguez, Haun Saussy and Darío Villanueva. Introducing Comparative Literature: New Trends and Applications. New York: Routledge, 2015. Spanish translation: Lo que Borges enseñó a Cervantes: Introducción a la literatura comparada. Trans. David Mejía. Madrid: Taurus, 2016. Arabic translation: Taqdiym al-adab al-moqarān, itijāhāt wa tatbiyqāt jadīdah. Trans. Fuad Abdel Motteleb. Kuwait: National Council for Arts and Literature, 2017. 

Comparative Literature in an Age of Globalization: The 2004 ACLA Report on the State of the Discipline. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006.

“Comparative Literature?” PMLA 118.2 (2003), 336-341.

“The Dimensionality of World Literature.” Neohelicon 38.2 (2011), 1-7.

“Comparisons, World Literature, and the Common Denominator.” 60-64 in Ali Behdad and Dominic Thomas, eds., A Companion to Comparative Literature. Oxford: Blackwell, 2011.

“Axes of Comparison.” 64-76 in Rita Felski and Susan Stanford Friedman, eds., Comparison: Theories, Approaches, Uses. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013. 

“Cosmopolitanism.” American Comparative Literature State of the Discipline report, 2014, available at http://stateofthediscipline.acla.org/entry/cosmopolitanism

“By Land or by Sea: Models of World Literature.” 61-69 in Jean Bessière and Gerald Gillespie, eds., Contextualizing World Literature. (New Comparative Poetics, 35.) Brussels: P. I. E. Peter Lang, 2015.

“Poetry — Universal? Progressively So? On World Poetry.” Comparative Literature and World Literature 1:1 (2016), 3-9.

“Trying to Make It Real: An Exchange Between Haun Saussy and David Damrosch.” (Including “Compared to What?” “Comparison — La Petite Phrase de Vinteuil,” and “Conclusion: L’ Inégalité des Dalles.”) Comparative Literature Studies 53 (2016): 660-693.  

“Comparative Literature: The Next Ten Years.” 24-29 in Ursula Heise, chief editor, Futures of Comparative Literature. New York: Routledge, 2017. 

“The Three Futures of World Literature.” Canadian Review of Comparative Literature / Revue canadienne de littérature comparée 44 (2017): 397-406.

“A Poetics of Global Trolling.” University of Toronto Quarterly 88 (2019): 112-124.

That may not be enough, but it’s the best I can do now.


Adam Smith against multitasking

“A man commonly saunters a little in turning his hand from one sort of employment to another. When he first begins the new work he is seldom very keen and hearty; his mind, as they say, does not go to it, and for some time he rather trifles rather than applies to good purpose. The habit of sauntering and of indolent careless application, which is naturally, or rather necessarily acquired by every country workman who is obliged to change his work and his tools every half hour, and to apply his hand in twenty different ways almost every day of his life, renders him almost always slothful and lazy, and incapable of any vigorous application even on the most pressing occasions.”

The Wealth of Nations, book I, “Of the Division of Labour”



My rare close associates and I sometimes joke about our propensity to join or form cults. By that we mean tightly-knit groups of people who share some belief, attitude or proclivity not shared by the general public. Being a member of a cult will set you up for some harsh treatment by members of the bigger cult that the smaller cult defines itself against. That’s to be expected.

You could probably define me as the intersection of a certain number of cults. The larger the number, the sharper the focus on the individual. C’est la vie. If the Monster is sniffing down the Venn diagram maps, looking for me, this is where I am to be found. Why not make the Monster’s work easy?

The cult of poetry: Oops, just excluded 99% of the literate public (which is not 100% of the public, by any means). “I would die for poetry,” said my friend Lazik one day in 1994 or so, and I couldn’t find anything to say but: Yes, of course.

The cult of steel road bikes: Once upon a time, if you wanted to ride long distances and relatively fast, there was only steel. I rode several times from Brittany to Istanbul and beyond on an old steel bike, probably a Peugeot but painted over (why?) when I bought it; and then on a Bertin, the geometry of which was much better suited for getting one across the rocks and potholes. Already at the time carbon-fiber bikes existed, but solely for pro riders and bankers on holiday. Now carbon fiber saturates the market and it’s only the stubborn old-schoolers who ride steel, despite ample evidence that steel is better for you, holds up under rough treatment, can be whanged back into shape after a crash, etc. In this cult, my particular chapel is that of Rivendell bikes, beautiful creations that float across the gravel or pavement leaving behind an impression of “noble simplicity and simple greatness,” as the fellow said. When I have some spare change, it tends to go to them, unless there is an initiative going on at:

Partners In Health, an organization somewhere between a petition and an order of chivalry, that has been wearing down the jerks and assholes of this world for forty or so years with the notion that no human life is more deserving than any other of care, preservation, and prolongation. In a decent world PIH would not be the looney fringe but the uncontested consensus. Goes to show you.

Deconstruction, another of my observances, a word too oft used in vain to mean “vaguely throwing mud in the direction of something.” In the day I discovered and instantly joined this crew, it was used gingerly, because we were aware of the very real possibility that, like bomb crews, we might think we had defused the monsters of Western civilization but had only unscrewed their outer shells and perhaps carried them into the hiding-places of our opposition, where they might subsequently explode. It was never a safe assumption that anything had been adequately or indeed at all deconstructed. Since I was hanging out with epidemiologists during much of that era, which was also the era of AIDS, the two modes of wariness intertwined in my thinking as I realized that some diseases can only be managed, never cured. At any rate, the company of people who would go to any lengths to wrestle a metaphysical assumption to the ground gave me courage to go on and do whatever odd stuff the task of the moment seemed to require, though well-attested epistemologies might say it was impossible or worthless. The pleasure of confuting common sense was non-negligible.

Other affinities: … well, I would bore you. Let’s say there’s a pattern and leave it at that.



I’m an impatient person. And I write impatient books, as it occurs to me on looking back over the series so far. They’re on the short side: except when doing anthologies, I like a book to occupy the thin edge of whatever wedge it is driving. They’re also written amid unending interruptions. The narrative voice (at least, the one I hear in my head whenever I reopen one of those books) is in a hurry: come on, get to the point, why do we need to know this, what’s the consequence? It is not the leisurely voice of a narrator who likes the sound of his own voice and expects that you have all day to listen.

Another aspect of the impatience: don’t tell me what I already know. I would hope that when you open these books you get, despite the relatively slender page count, a high ratio of novelty per page, per paragraph or per sentence. It would distress me to write pages that just endorse a consensus view. If there’s a consensus, I ignore it unless there’s a chance of unsettling it. This makes for a somewhat grouchy, chip-on-the-shoulder tone, I admit.

The impatience I confess to as a writer doesn’t mean that my process is rushed. It usually takes me years of drafts and reworking to get a book into shape. Its eventual form is usually a compromise between two or three story lines that arose independently. (The advantages of multiplexing: why buy a book on Zhuangzi and a book on translation theory when you can get two-in-one?) The major impatience is to get it said, get it out there, shed that skin and slither on to the next irritant.

In fact, each book has a different subject from the preceding one and usually a different archive lies behind it. This may indicate a plurality of interests or may indicate a fatal inability to do what the academic career path wants you to do, which is to build (or dig) repeatedly in the same spot until you have become the Expert In Something. I am sure I will one of these days become some kind of expert, but it will be in an X that has yet to be solved for and which intersects all my investigations. Just possibly, this X is something I can’t know and only someone else can, and perhaps it is ludicrously simple and obvious to everyone who is not me (cf. Kafka’s “Investigations of a Dog”). No, it’s not “Rosebud.”

I would like to tell you that my books are all sunshine and marshmallows, but I’m not made that way and neither are they.

But there’s no excuse for giving a slapdash reading to an impatient man’s books. Look at the chronotope, if the Bakhtinians will forgive me for borrowing the term. An impatient man’s book is broken into moments that are different from one another and impelled from A to B. No moment is just A or B. The journey, not the destination, matters, to quote that corny inspirational poster that hangs on your xerox-room wall.

So it’s rather disappointing to run, by chance, across an article in Comparative Literature Studies that relies on my work to make its argument about Du Fu’s poetics but gets me completely wrong. The person who wrote that piece apparently believes that if I quote someone else, it is because I agree with that person. Is there no such thing as doing the Problemsgeschichte, or a polemical set-up? The method of working through the previous scholarship in order to controvert its assumptions is one I share with Aristotle, Aquinas, and countless lesser figures; I’d have thought everyone over the age of twelve had encountered an argument framed in this way. Unable to detect the line of argument, despite the fact that I signal quite explicitly that my inquiry is framed, not as “what is X,” but as “how did there come to be a problem of X,” the author then scores a number of easy points that go completely beside the mark. I’m a bit shocked that people can get to such an advanced stage and still not know how to read. Well, I guess I can go back to being impatient about something else now.


Nominalism in extremis

These days bring back a memory of the Reagan years, an interval most of which I spent out of the country, disgusted by the beginnings of the legitimation of waste, brutality and greed that have become our new normal. A newspaper at the time reported that in anticipation of an all-out nuclear attack a new airborne command center had just been ordered for the White House: a Boeing jumbo jet with special transmission capacities, hardened against radiation, with room aboard for the President and a few dozen of his close collaborators. On the sides of this expensive new plane were painted the words, THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA. It immediately occurred to me that in the event of its use, the meaning of those words would no longer be, as it usually is, “This airplane represents (belongs to and bears the livery of) that federation of fifty states and three hundred million individuals that goes by the name of ‘The United States of America’”; rather it would be “The United States of America,” or all that would be left of them. 

I’m usually no enemy of nominalism, but wouldn’t like it to prevail on these terms.


Blank space on the map

Xavier Briffault, La fabrique de la dépression (The manufacture of depression; Paris: Armand Colin, 2010), is a useful book. It compensates for the individualism of DSM-style psychological symptomatology by devoting chapters to the social conditions that contribute to people experiencing depression; on the other end, it lays out evidence of the bio-chemical underpinnings of the thing. Both the social and the chemical angle bring relief from the self and from the insistence on thought reform, what I might call the orthopedic bias of the psychiatric trade. But here’s something one can’t help noticing in Briffault’s chapter on personality disorders. It includes a table pointing to an 80% lifetime prevalence of depression among people with a diagnosis of avoidant personality disorder — the highest rate of prevalence, the runner-up being borderline personality disorder with 61%. You might think, then, that a book entitled “the manufacture of depression” would spill some ink on those unfortunate people cursed with a Cluster C avoidant makeup. But no! Briffault goes into a detailed discussion of the more colorful borderline and bipolar patients, forgetting completely the population with the highest prevalence. A keyword search shows a similar feast-vs.-famine pattern in psychological research generally. Is Avoidant Personality Disorder simply not interesting, or does its symptomatology too closely track that of depression in general? Or have psychologists figured out that the avoidant aren’t going to make a big fuss if they’re ignored, but will just shrink back into the curtains? I wonder why the experts are so quick to avoid the avoidant.


It’s Out and there’s something wrong with it

I’m happy to announce the appearance of a new book by me, Are We Comparing Yet? The publisher has thoughtfully made it available in Open Access digital form.

I’m unhappy to announce that a sentence in a footnote, which I had hoped would be a moment of pleasant recognition for somebody, was erroneous. On p. 107, footnote 15, please correct “In 1990, the Moscow high schools” to “In 1988, some Moscow high schools.” The fuller story to which I referred (through memory’s fog) may be found here.

Mea culpa.


Telling the sheep from the goats

The New Yorker recently ran an excerpt from an intellectual biography of Clarence Thomas. Near the top is this set of claims:

By consensus, Thomas is the most conservative member of the Court. So it’s surprising that the central theme of his jurisprudence is race. 

Why is it “surprising” that it should be so? When I read that sentence, it became obvious to me what presuppositions the author was working with: that the people who talk about race do so in order to complain about or repair the injustices inflicted by the majority on minorities. Thus to speak about “race” is implicitly to advocate for oppressed people, and to deny the category is to affirm the existing order. In other words, it is “surprising” only if all the people you know are SJWs within an affirmative-action context. That actually isn’t how the category of “race” operates in Thomas’s story, and the lesson might be, rather, that it is utterly unsurprising that a man obsessed with the mission of keeping the races separate is also a “conservative” by many other measures. Indeed, you don’t have to scratch a conservative very hard to get down to a racial ideology, whether that conservative goes around in a black or white skin, in a blue collar or a black robe, whether they natter on about hard currency or the missile gap or the graffiti on the subways.

Continue reading

All of the Above

A dream the other night, traceable I think to a discussion I’d read on Metafilter, one of those absurdly Millennial Moments that the medium delivers.

I was sitting in a courtroom waiting to testify as an expert witness. It seemed that the accused had ignored a “MEN WORKING” sign and driven a car straight into a worker, who happened to be a woman. The lawyer for the defense was mounting the argument that the sign was contractual and did not include or imply women workers, therefore no offense had been committed. To hold otherwise was to identify women as men, an intolerable injustice to women and to men alike. I was expected to testify for the prosecution on the history of pronouns in various languages, demonstrating through the magic of philology that gender identification is not primordial to having existence as a person.

The worst of it is that when I woke up, I figured that a majority of the present Supreme Court would probably think that the defense’s sophistry was a pretty cool way to deny an injured person benefits and damages.


Deferred Maintenance

When I went to Yale in the early 1980s, I remember going to Geoffrey Hartman’s office hours one rainy day and seeing a bucket on his desk, receiving the regular drops from the ceiling. The 1890s neo-Gothic tower was showing its age. And we thought this was normal. Nobody complained. A sense of impending doom was widely shared, but the feeling wasn’t one of crisis or outrage; it was just the way things were. We entered New Haven through a cement-block tunnel that ended in a galvanized-metal shed because Metro-North had closed the Beaux-Arts station for indefinite repairs. The gym had squash courts, to be sure, but the idea that a college is supposed to be a spa or a cruise ship had not yet dawned in the rusty Northeast. Anyway, the college students were better treated than we were. The point of coming to Yale was not to be pampered but to be initiated into a way of thinking and seeing that admitted the nitty-gritty, the uninspiring, and the fact that it’s not all about you. One of our teachers had said:

The dynamics of the sublime mark the moment when the infinite is frozen into the materiality of stone, when no pathos, anxiety or sympathy is conceivable; it is, indeed, the moment of a-pathos, or apathy, the complete loss of the symbolic.

(Paul de Man, “Kant’s Materialism,” in Aesthetic Ideology)

And as we looked into the future, the loss of the symbolic seemed a good bet.

Technically correct rhetorical readings may be boring, monotonous, predictable and unpleasant, but they are irrefutable… consistently defective models of language’s inability to be a model language.

(“The Resistance to Theory”)

“Consistently defective” just about summarizes the world we entered when we took up residence in New Haven. We knew that there were other schools where the plumbing worked and the faculty entertained you. We just didn’t think that that was the way to face the apocalypse, the end of the book and the beginning of writing, late capitalism, the collapse of the Imaginary into the Real, or (choose your own adventure).

Many episodes later, here I am again confronting the consequences of deferred maintenance to house and body. The end of summer has brought us up to baseline, or so I permit myself to hope. The cracked flashing has been sealed, the water damage it caused (peeling surfaces and bulging woodwork) scraped, filled and repainted, the hinky plumbing has been repiped, the upstairs bathroom retiled, some circuits rewired. My hearing, disastrously defective in the upper registers, is now supplemented by a pair of sporty and expensive hearing aids. The second of two teeth I cracked by biting on the wrong things has received the titanium post for its implant. I wouldn’t exactly say that all’s right with the world, but the bucket is momentarily off Mr. Hartman’s desk, and my checking account is a good bit lighter. On to the next challenge, entropy be damned!


One Word Theory

It should have surprised nobody that the “gay gene” doesn’t exist. I’m probably what might be considered a member of the control group, a heterosexual, cis-male individual with no particular fetishes, practicing the mid-century American model of serial monogamy, currently partnered, trauma history unremarkable, libido neither too low nor too high, still in procreative age — and I find sex extremely complicated, with at least four hundred little switches that must be turned on or off, together or in sequence, for the slightest sexual act or even frisson of interest to occur. (And that’s just on my side!) So how could there be one master switch to set somebody’s system on a definite path (one which branches infinitely anyway, like all other life paths)? The simple-mindedness of such assumptions reminds me of the bartending lady in The Blues Brothers, who, asked what kind of music is played in her club, answers, “Oh, we have both kinds — country and western.”

Something analogous happens in the world of humanistic studies, and it’s been annoying me for decades. This is the “one word” pattern of academic renown. Okay, one word or one phrase. People become famous for a three- or four-syllable expression that serves as synecdoche (or replacement) for their body of work. Laura Mulvey? “Male gaze.” Gayatri Spivak? “Subaltern.” (Actually that was Gramsci, but few remember.) Derrida? “Différance.” Tom Gunning? “Cinema of attractions.” Walter Benjamin? “Aura.” Jürgen Habermas? “Communicative rationality.” Edouard Glissant? “Relation.” Jacques Rancière? “Distribution of the sensible.” Alain Badiou? “Event.” Bruno Latour? “Actor-network theory.” Franco Moretti? “Distant reading.” And so on. It’s not that these bumper-sticker-sized labels are wrong — they can, after all, be discovered in the published writings of the authors they attach to — but that the word or phrase as unit of thought is static, unsubtle, makes people think that to utter the magic word is as good as following the path of argument, and that’s never true. Nonetheless, I see that people who are trying to make a reputation for themselves strive to coin a phrase or hit on a word that will do this magic for them. You want to be the man or woman who can be identified with just such a little tag — and so famous for that tag that people are freed of the requirement to read more of your work than the ten or fifteen letters it contains.

It seems to me a big and important ethical task, if we are going to keep the enterprise of complex thought going, to refuse such handy little tags. Trace the activity of the phrase or the word through the person’s corpus, if you must, take it as a tracer molecule, but don’t suppose that it will tell you what you need to know. The habit of expecting every argument to undermine itself at some point (usually the point where it becomes most urgent), the fated resurfacing of ambiguity, is the correct reflex for the critical mind. Basically, I say, if you can fit it on a T-shirt, it’s spinach and to hell with it. You need to pursue a thought beyond the noun phrase, beyond the sentence, through labyrinths of paragraphs and examples that will challenge and baffle you, or you are throwing away all those years of education for a style of speech that consists of brandishing pennants of conformity. All right, Wittgenstein, “what can be said at all can be said clearly,” but you can’t test an expression for truth or falsity unless it is at least a complete sentence, and it takes more than one sentence to get past the zone where merely grammatical tests of wellformedness fade away and leave us to wrestle with the way things are.

I would even say that the failure to come up with a fetish-word is a qualification, not sufficient of course but plausibly necessary, for interestingness. Or at least that is where my unfinished education leaves me today.


North and South

Insomnia sets you up for some funny discoveries. A few weeks ago I was reading through a literary history of China (not entirely off my own bat; it was a commissioned review) and came across this quaint piece of type-casting:

“Chinese civilization resulted from the gradual fusion of multiple sources . . .  however, the Yellow River Valley culture obviously played a dominant role” (pp. 1–2). “Harsh living conditions” in the north compelled the members of that culture to “gather their dispersed people together into large and powerful communities”; thus “the ideology of the state reached maturity there far earlier than in other regions” (p. 2). 

“In the Yangtze valley, the climate was hot and humid . . . it was relatively easy to lead a simple existence there. Consequently, even though there was a similar need to form large, powerful communities, it was . . . by no means as pressing as that in the north. Thus, in the Yangtze valley . . . the ideology to preserve social order and strengthen community power through restraining the individual was not as well developed as that in the north” (pp. 4–5). In the culture of the North, “music, dance and singing were regarded as the means to regulate community life and to carry out an ethical purpose. . . . The main functions of the arts of Chu are represented, however, in providing the satisfaction of aesthetic pleasure, and in this way fully display the dynamism of human emotions” (p. 33).

I’m quoting from A Concise History of Chinese Literature by Luo Yuming, translated by Ye Yang (2 vols., Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2011).

I already sent in my review, but insomnia led me to read Yen Hsiao-pei’s dissertation on paleontology in China. Splendid dissertation, by the way. And in it one finds this:

In his famous article, “Why Central Asia?” of 1926, [Henry Fairfield] Osborn presented a full picture of his idea of human evolution. Developed on Matthew’s framework, Osborn argued that “in lowlands in tropical and semi-tropical regions, where natural resources were abundant, the process of evolution was hindered and even retrogressive; only dry and open regions could stimulate the development of intelligence. The dry uplands of Mongolia and Tibet in Central Asia offered the perfect invigorating environment for the evolution of our ancestors.”

So now you see the measure of academic progress. A theory propounded on racist grounds (for Osborn was eager to refute the out-of-Africa hypothesis about human origins, hence he preferred the dry uplands of Asia as our original homeland) in the 1920s survives as the armature of a literary history in the 2010s. There must be a higher standard.


Poet and Person

Philip Larkin was a nasty man. Sylvia Plath was ambitious. Robert Frost could be a jerk. Ezra Pound… well, no need to state the obvious. Robert Lowell, nuts. Sam Johnson was a sweet and kind guy, but we wouldn’t know that were it not for Boswell, who drank too much and was lecherous. Literary biography leaves few looking good, and the funny thing is, in the case of poets a nicely scandal-ridden volume can outsell the complete works of the poet by a factor of a thousand or so. How many who know about Larkin’s racism and misogyny from the bios also own a book of his poems?

Iggy Pop said it well. Iggy Pop doesn’t have a lot to hide.

Pop has never imagined a traditional domestic life for himself. (In 1969, when Pop was twenty-one and living in Ann Arbor, he had a son, Eric, with Paulette Benson. Eric was brought up by his mother, in California, and lives in Berlin now.) In part, this is why it matters so much to him that his work remain vital. “It’s gotta be fucking good,” he said. “This is what you’ve sacrificed a lot of things for, dude, and this is what you were doing when you weren’t always there for other people, so it’d better be good.”


What Does a Hongkonger Want?

As with the famous question posed by Freud (“What does Woman want?”), the best answer is always “Ask one.”

光復香港 is one of the things they want. The Guardian translates it as “Reclaim Hong Kong,” which at least has the advantage of not being particularly inflammatory, but misses the point, the flavor and the jibe.

I should mention that some 1.7 million people, about a quarter of the population of Hong Kong, were out in the street peacefully supporting this and a few other slogans this past weekend. That’s quite a turnout.

Various persons who seemingly have an interest in making the protesters’ demands unacceptable have been turning the slogan into something it’s not. “Secession,” they make it say, and mutter darkly about how an independent nation of Hong Kong would be easy prey for the capitalists to recolonize, and so on.

That way of putting things makes China the protector of helpless little Hong Kong, unable to detect where its true interests lie, and the bulwark against the opium-peddling gweilo. But a closer acquaintance with Chinese and Hong Kong history marks that fantasy as dishonest. Even if the alternatives are imperfect, Hong Kong people know enough to choose.

And that’s exactly the point of using guangfu 光復 in a slogan. Go to your dictionary. It means “recover [as in lost territory or lost reputation], restore.” Ever since 1949, one of the mottoes of the Guomindang on Taiwan was guangfu dalu 光復大陸, “recover the mainland,” a prospect that became less and less likely as the years went on. One of the stated policy aims of the People’s Republic since the same time has been to guangfu Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan, seen as colonies violently severed from the motherland. Reportedly in 1997, owing to a handover agreement, the PRC did just that. There was rejoicing in Beijing and a much more measured response in Hong Kong.

It’s not that Hong Kongers have gloried in the title of “Crown Colony” or sought to be dominated from afar. They are sick and tired of being a pawn in someone else’s game. What they are asking is to be let alone: to keep the system of relatively accountable government under law, fairly large freedoms of speech and association, and pluralism in other sectors of life, that they have become accustomed to. They are not eager to join such aspects of the “China Dream” as one-party rule, non-reviewable judicial decisions, broad definitions of sedition and subversion, and integration into the pending system of “social credit.” They would like to elect their own representatives from a genuinely diverse spectrum of opinion and manage their own affairs to a greater degree than either Great Britain or China has ever conceded them.

Guangfu Xianggang turns the Chinese-patriotic slogan around in precisely this way. It means “Let Hongkongers recover Hong Kong for themselves.” A high degree of regional autonomy is absolutely possible under the Basic Law of 1997. It’s even guaranteed by it. Beijing, on the other hand, has an interest in portraying differences of opinion as disloyalty and making them punishable. For if Hong Kong got to expand its envelope of democratic rights, what would happen to the rest of China? Isn’t it unthinkable that Shanghai, Chongqing or Urumqi would enjoy such basic rights?

It’s not unthinkable. But it takes a lot of imagination.


Gone is that Muzak

I’m still living with the inverted timezones that you get after a couple of weeks in Hong Kong: sleepy in the afternoon, unstoppable at 3 am. And my fondness for that place, its umbrellas and fearless kids in black, is unaffected one way or the other by distance. Here’s a little homage by Hong Kong to itself. Normal getting and spending suspended (sorry, Bally and Dior, you have prices but no value), the tacky Muzak aufgehoben, even the air conditioning, I imagine, overcome by gasps of astonishment. Seid umschlungen, 7.2 Millionen!



An essay of Nima Bassiri’s calls me back to an episode of my past.

Still, Foucault’s real impact for historians of science has been mediated through the work of history-adjacent scholars like Ian Hacking and Nikolas Rose.

I moved to Los Angeles in 1990. The boom in housing prices was taking off steeply, and an assistant professor’s salary would get you a two-room house thirty miles away from my workplace by freeway. Having grown up as a relatively prosperous person in Nashville, with a few years of no-frills but comfortable existence in New Haven, I was unprepared for the demands that California would make on the pocketbook. It was then that I learned the construct [proper-noun]-adjacent, as used by real-estate people. “Beverly-Hills-adjacent” meant a house on an alleyway, facing the garbage cans of a luxurious restaurant, but separated by an imaginary line from the city of Beverly Hills, its glories and fleshpots (including the right of admission to BH High). You can always dream, from across the line!

So Nima’s construction makes me imagine Ian Hacking, who for forty years has been for me the guy I wish to be when I grow up, as a renter whose last pennies every month go to keeping up the appearances of being, almost, a resident of the realm called History, where the grass is green and the living is easy. Save your bottle caps, Ian! One day you will walk in Ferragamos.

(No shade cast on Nima. All in good fun, people.)


“Literature With And Without Borders” 有/無國界文學, Part 3

Progress without freedom? Is that a willful paradox? Certainly not: we should by now be familiar with the changes in the social fabric around the world that promised freedom to people who would cast off their old ways, and delivered some technological and economic advances that had at best an extremely indirect, and sometimes a contradictory, relation to freedom. I don’t lay the responsibility for this lamentable situation at Goethe’s feet; after all, he was born in 1749, and the world of his adult years was just discovering the concept of progress. But I do note that his model for the inevitable progress of world literature is entangled in a family of concepts that has been put to extremely dubious political and social uses.

            Comparative literature, as has been observed countless times by people present here, their teachers, their teachers’ teachers, etc., has long been intertwined with the idea of world literature. Is comparative literature indissolubly wedded to it? Do we have an alternative genealogy, a different schema to orient our research and our action in the world?  

            We do. Not that we need to claim an ancestor for every idea we put forth, but the fact that someone else conceived of the work of comparison in different ways, as enabling different consequences, should give us heart. Many of you know of Hugo Meltzl de Lomnitz, the German-speaking comparatist who together with the Hungarian-speaking mathematician Samuel Brassai founded the first comparative literature journal in 1877. I do not think it has been adequately noticed to what degree Meltzl’s programmatic editorials are directed against the notion of world literature as put forth by Goethe and his successors. This was, alas, necessary: many of those who praised Weltliteratur in the years of the resurgent Prussian Reich saw in it the triumphant advance of specifically German literary culture to cover first Europe and then the globe.

Meltzl attached comparative literature to what he saw as the interests of humanity in preserving cultural diversity from imperial oppression and the tyranny of bigness. He states:

a journal such as ours makes in principle allowance for every still minor literature, or every literature that is still counted as minorIndeed, from the comparative-literary standpoint, the importance of one literature at the expense of others ceases completely; – they are all equally important, whether they be mental creations belonging to European or non-European, or cultured or so-called savage, peoples. Indeed, for the languages and folk-song culture of certain small tribes of Europe, which are hated, derided, or, in the best case, regarded with indifference by the larger peoples of Europe with a race-antagonism that can otherwise only be observed in relation to the savages of exotic countries, the comparative principle will offer asylum to the oppressed, and it will be just as accommodating and helpful to all others. [Here we mean especially Jews, Armenians, Gypsies, Chizeroths and Burins (in France), smaller Slavic dialects, Finnish and other Turanian tribes, such as Laplanders; also the dispersed fragments of greater nations, such as: Csángó-Hungarians in Moldavia, and Transylvanian Saxons etc. etc.] In these small and minute folk literatures … there often lies hidden a complete and magnificent world of the most informative and primeval ethnological-literary-historical reminiscences and similar treasures.

As Meltzl observes elsewhere, for a linguist there are no unimportant languages, and a literary scholar should not let hierarchies of value and restrictive notions of genre be the excuse for ignoring vast domains of human history and intellect. His frank hatred of nationalism blends into his contempt for Eurocentrism in such passages as this: “One cannot say that any nation is inferior to another. Cannibals, for example—are they any worse or any poorer than we are? Certainly not, my skeptical friend; they are to be ranked above us Europeans who are so good at murdering each other with the utmost refinement of our torpedoes, our Krupp guns, etc., and equally good at ruining each other with the most shameless usury.” Meltzl’s journal aimed to create awareness and appreciation of writing in Hungarian, an island of difference among the other interrelated literary languages of Europe. Offering translations from the Hungarian, essays in Hungarian, and arguments in German for the value of this supposedly minor literature, Meltzl’s journal demonstrated some of the tendencies of its time in Austro-Hungary, the moment after 1867 when the Kingdom of Hungary got its own parliament back and the notion of relative national autonomy within a federative empire was in the air. Conflicts around ethnic leadership continued to plague Austria-Hungary; in that context, the first comparative literature journal’s policies appear firmly on the side of openness and equality. It frequently published translations of and articles on poetry in dialects, such as Sicilian, Provençal, and Scots, that were being pushed off the map of newly unified and standardizing nations. In a time of pogroms and anti-Jewish hysteria, it celebrates manifestoes of tolerance like Lessing’s drama Nathan der Weise, the object of a special number in 1879.

There is however one noticeable exclusion among the calls for openness. Meltzl refused to count Russian among the ten languages to be used in his journal. Given that the 1870s and 80s were a time of tremendous creativity in the Russian language, with Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Turgenev and Chekhov all active, this exclusion may seem perverse, and Meltzl offers no explicit reason for it. We can however read fairly clearly between the lines of his editorials, when he says on the one hand that “a very significant political role fell to Russian among the Slavic languages: but this is completely irrelevant in relation to purely literary and comparative-literary-historical matters. Classical and truly universal creations of the mind precisely cannot be created through diplomatic or undiplomatic, through bloody or peaceful, military campaigns.” More energetically, in the second part of Meltzl’s editorial he protested against the tsarist government’s suppression of the “little languages” of the empire. 

Our secret slogan is rather: let nationality, as the individuality of a people, be holy and inviolable! … For a human population, however unimportant it may be from the political standpoint, is and remains from the standpoint of comparative literature no less important than the biggest nation. Just as the most imperfect remains of a language can offer the most precious and instructive examples for comparative philology, so is it as well with the spiritual life even of peoples without literature(as we call them), whose national individuality we not only must refrain from disturbing with our missionary meddlesomeness, but which we are obliged to preserve by every honorable means and maintain in the most unaltered condition. (From this comparative-polyglot point of view, the previously mentioned order of the Russian Interior Ministry of May 16, 1876, forbidding the literary use of the Ruthenian or Belorussian language, must still be accounted no less a sin against the Holy Ghost if it had been perpetrated against the folksong traditions of an obscure Kirghiz tribe, instead of against a nation of 15 million.)

With language, of course, went culture, religion, group identity, and the basis for demanding political autonomy; and in 1877, as you’ll recall, the Poles, Finns, Lithuanians, Latvians, Belorussians, Ukrainians, Moldavians, and a host of other nationalities, not to forget the Jews, were held tightly and uncomfortably in the grip of Greater Russia. In order to halt the process of nation-building, the minority-language press in Russia was tightly controlled when not, as in this case, simply closed down. Meltzl deems this a “sin against the Holy Ghost,” I suppose because the Holy Ghost is said to inspire both prophecy and translation, and because it is written in the Gospel of Matthew (13:21) that blasphemy against the spirit shall not be forgiven—strong words for Meltzl to be using against a tsar who liked to invoke the will of God as backing for his autocracy. In terms of cultural accomplishment, there was little to distinguish Ukrainians from Meltzl’s Hungarian neighbors: two peoples with a long history of writing and publishing, with libraries, churches, philosophers, poets and dramatists, only one people was subjugated to a harsher empire than the other. But Meltzl’s point is that even if directed against a tiny group with an exclusively oral culture, the offense is equivalent. With his sensitivity to this sort of injustice, Meltzl, I think, would feel quite at home in our age of species extinction, language death, the tyranny of majorities, and the clear-cutting of small cultures.

I would go as far as to say that Meltzl’s little, obscure text offers a cure for Goethean world-literature. Rather than telling us that literature is a competition where bigger will always be better and the weak go to the wall, Meltzl’s vision is of a democracy of letters where nobody is too small to count. 

What goes wrong, I think, in the discussion of comparative and world literature is the confusion of cosmopolitanism with bigness, power, wealth, fame, and success. Marx and Engels were not the first, nor the last, to point out how similar the Goethean model is to patterns of global trade and colonization. A similar slide is noticeable in the scholarship. Studies of world literature quickly become studies of the circulation of literature, which means literary markets, the pursuit of prestige, the competition for market share, and that absurd prize they used to give away every year in Sweden. All that is worth knowing and part of the reality of literature, but the literary critic who’s not careful will get swept into “seeing like a state,” as James Scott put it, into thinking that the knowledge that maximizes power is the knowledge that’s naturally most desirable. I am now in a position to define what I meant by “literature with and without borders.” The Goethean program, too, is directed towards a goal that would be a literature without borders. But it would result in one huge literary culture with global circulation, a culture that had surpassed the now obsolete national literatures (“Nationalliteratur will jetzt nicht Vieles sagen.”) Meltzl’s picture of comparative literature disregards the borders because it knows that within and across every border are cultural units that are not accounted for by the borders—the Kirghiz, the Bielorussians, the peasant cultures that he evokes merely schematically; alien cultures surrounded by majority cultures that think of them as backward and undeserving. Previous scholarship on Meltzl has tended to catch itself on the two horns of universalism and nationalism.

But the model of Meltzl’s undertaking is actually somewhat more complicated than is indicated by such polarities and paradoxes. It can be exemplified concretely—I’ll start doing so with an analogy. By drawing up my title as I did, I wanted, of course, to pay homage to Médecins sans frontiers (Doctors Without Borders), the medical charity originating in France and now active in many parts of the world. We probably think of what we do as Literature Without Borders. Yes, but how do we get that way? It’s not enough to pretend to disregard borders, or to apply a psychological eraser to them. Borders are a pesky fact, and for doctors in particular—for doctors are educated in national medical colleges, licensed and renewed by national medical associations, they apply treatments and prescribe medicines according to national schedules, and so forth. Doctors, in short, are very much withborders in the normal way of things. The exception involves a story. Médecins sans frontières began in a crisis. Between 1967 and 1970, the Nigerian government was dealing with a rebellion in the southern province of Biafra, where much of the country’s oil wells were located. They used military raids and blocked the entry of food and supplies, resulting in a disastrous, intentionally-caused famine. A few French doctors sent by the International Red Cross to attend victims of the famine were shocked by what they experienced and when they returned home, broke the tradition of professional discretion, not to mention the carefully maintained neutrality of the Red Cross, and denounced what they did not hesitate to call a genocide. Expecting trouble from the Red Cross, they founded a new organization in 1971 that became Médecins Sans Frontières. Throughout the history of the organization—well chronicled by Peter Redfield—the mandate to serve populations and to testify to their oppression have been in tension. It has often happened that the MSF mission in a country is expelled for what is termed political meddling, a meddling that the MSF personnel feel is necessary in order to prevent greater injustice and suffering. 

This schematic history shows us something rather different from the merely categorical or dialectical transcending of a conceptual limit. A crisis occurs, as in Biafra, when people within a set of borders are being deprived of the protections they need to survive. People outside those borders notice. They offer support, guided by the idea of a common humanity or a shared potential that everyone has. And in offering that support they may incur the wrath of the authority that polices the original border and that was causing the deprived population to suffer. This pattern, as I’ve put it in the broadest outline, is common to the origin-story of MSF and to the origin-story of comparative literature if we take Meltzl’s editorials as our canon. The Bielorussians and Ukrainians of 1876 were deprived of their spiritual-material basis, their language and literature; scholars outside the Russian Empire, even though unable to read anything written in those minority languages, rally to the support of the oppressed speakers and writers; and although nothing concrete may be achieved thereby (the ukaz against minority languages was not lifted until 1905), a bond of common humanity is affirmed and the support network is readied for the next time a group of people are barred from speaking and writing in their language, whatever that language may be. If Goethean Weltliteraturhas often been likened to the organs of international commerce, Meltzl’s comparative literature has the profile of an NGO. The latter suggests an identity for Comp Lit that is a little less like Coca-Cola and more like Amnesty International. 

Though Amnesty was created in the depths of the Cold War and Médecins sans frontières emerged from the interethnic struggles that followed decolonization, NGOs were a product of the nineteenth century. They go on being necessary even as the element that gave them some leverage—public opinion—fades to insignificance. They will be needed as long as borders are used to block communication, exclude undesirables, and frustrate transparency. The tyrants of the nineteenth century were nothing to those of the twentieth and twenty-first. The prohibitions against which Meltzl rails so vividly—“sins against the Holy Ghost” and so forth—resulted in the deaths or banishments of a few thousand Poles and Ukrainians. That is already too many, but if you think about the means that were put in the hands of the successor states of the tsarist empire, and of other empires and confederations around the world, they shrink in comparison. Nobody, I suspect, in 1877 could have imagined the extermination campaigns, forced resettlements, and forced assimilations of the twentieth century, or that a million or so people could be herded into concentration camps, pressed to forsake their language and culture, and watched at home and in the street by means of human and mechanical spies for any sign of suspected disloyalty; we have made possible an entirely different scale of brutality. So, to sum up: The topic of “world literature” usually goes in the direction of opposing nationalism to cosmopolitanism, the particular to the general. But the emergence of institutions “without borders” has typically involved a different logic: a detour through the subordinated or unwilling national, in the name of whom a cosmopolitan public can be summoned to action or sympathy. Just as Médecins sans frontières arose to confront that form of modern biopolitics that consists in the deliberate abandonment of populations, so Comparative Literature included among its beginnings advocacy for writers muted by national language policies. Though he is infinitely less famous, writing in an obscure self-published periodical for fellow specialists, Hugo Meltzl deserves some of the fame and attention that has gone to Goethe for his statements on “world literature,” and by tracing their different paths we can better understand the powers of our discipline. It is, moreover, Meltzl’s model that stands the better chance of raising “questions that can only be addressed by expanding the repertoire.”