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.)
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 minor. Indeed, 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.”
But in the reading of all these dissertations, manuscripts, drafts and articles, we can’t help noticing the same names coming up. Homer. Quixote. Hamlet. Jane Austen. Proust. Kafka. And the tradition of criticism and theory has its all-stars. Benjamin, Deleuze and Guattari, Derrida, just to stay in the register of those who have already passed on. And within those critics’ long list of publications, just a few items come up for repeated citation. Indeed, we comparatists have our model organisms and we are often content to keep on extracting new information from them. But whatever the “incredible advances” that may have come from reading and rereading the same books, isn’t it also worth finding out if there are, as Professor Patel promises in his realm of study, “questions that can only be addressed by expanding the repertoire of animals”—sorry, works of literature—“that are studied”?
Here though we get into a different realm of problems. For once we have admitted that we really ought to study a more diverse range of literary works, the suggestions come pouring in, for many among the thousands of neglected works have their advocates. (There is a school of thought that says we should hand off the unread works to computers, to graduate students, or to native informants to read for us, but I reject that as being inequitable and a sure way of keeping the existing hierarchies in place.) Should we sort the available reading material by authorial gender, skin color, religious affiliation, citizenship, class status? Fine; but are those criteria created to suit the picture of the world we already have, or are they apt to disturb the pre-existing categories? There are national interests promoting the Great Writers of this or that country, as allegedly there are delegations sent to lobby the committee members of the Nobel Prize for literature. There’s some justice in this. Here we are talking about the issue of literary cosmopolitanism in a Special Administrative Region of China. It would not be a bad thing if every member of the ICLA had spent at least a week reading the great poets and novelists of China before coming. I don’t know if that has happened. I recommend it though. However, even if you acquire those works in translation or spend a few years learning enough Chinese to read them in the original, you will still have to work out the conceptual apparatus with which you’re going to handle these texts. What in them strikes you as good or bad may not have much to do with the good or bad as judged by Chinese readers of different eras. What seems meaningful or artful to you may not have ever caught the attention of a Chinese reader. Not that the non-Chinese reader must abide by the judgments of Chinese readers; but when you’re dealing with a different intellectual world, I think you should at least figure out what the local expectations are, even if in the end you depart from them. Or imagine that you are a Chinese student embarking for the United States or Poland or Egypt to study literature. You have in your bag the eighteenth-century novel Story of the Stone (also known as Dream of the Red Chamber), a well-worn copy that you’ve been reading since you were a teenager. To explain to your teachers and fellow students in that foreign land what you’ve found precious about that book will be no easy task, as the terms of value you’re used to using don’t have easy equivalents. You may have to fall back on the most general sort of recommendation (“read it, it’s great, we all love it”). Or you can describe it in the terms circulating in the classrooms where Homer, Proust, Defoe and the gang are taught, an alienating and possibly exciting experience. Translators, of course, have to use the terms of the language they translate into. The same goes for interpreters. David Hawkes, the extraordinary English translator of the first two-thirds of the Story of the Stone, tried to express something of what he had experienced by reading and thinking about that novel for several decades when he dubbed it “a Symbolist novel.” Now of course the literary histories will tell you that Symbolisme is a particular outgrowth of certain cultural and intellectual trends in Europe, etc., and that the application of the term to a Chinese document can only be a kind of analogy. Nonetheless, if you know what Symbolism is, Hawkes’s use or misuse of the term directs you to certain properties of the novel that are at least more interesting as a description of its world than would be, say, “realist,” “romantic,” “allegorical,” or a handful of other words that have been offered as blanket descriptions of this tremendous and internally variegated book. Hawkes did what he could and his can never be the final word. But the imperfections of his strategy remind us that it’s not enough to read exotic books, we have to have a new or at least an open-ended terminology, a poetics, with which to understand them. You would not get much out of Chinese drama if you came to it with the expectations of a person familiar only with Greek, Shakespearean, or Brechtian drama; the conceptual vocabularies afforded by that prior experience would not get you far, and you would need to learn more from the plays and from the people who have given them their attention over the years. Not only what to read, but how to read must be controversial; and in choosing how to read we can’t be led by authorities, for the same national, class, religious, gender and other partial interests are just as eager to impose on us the official way to read as a woman, as a Korean, as a nomad, as a proletarian, and so forth. Since disagreements make the life of culture, let us not, in the name of diversity, imprison ourselves in a new type of uniformity. Now what does this mean for practical undertakings? What should I tell you to do? (As if a room full of highly-accomplished, autonomous people will ever do as they’re told.) What would be good for the field, what should we encourage and what should we stop doing? I don’t think we need to mandate diversity, require people to read more texts from previously under-discussed cultures, though doing so is beneficial. Nor should we stop giving prizes for books about Proust; I’m sure there are still great books about Proust to be written. This kind of diversity slating involves a predefined set of criteria and can be gamed, like any diversity mandate, to achieve results that are only superficially diverse— what one of our confrères has called “a compromise between foreign [i.e., European] form and local materials.”
If it has to be a compromise, I would prefer it the other way round. What we should reward is reading that seeks to make discoveries, to put what’s known on one side, to circumvent the inherited definitions. This desire admittedly puts us on boggy intellectual ground: if we can’t be sure that we have a definition of literature that is cross-culturally valid, how do we shepherd the examples into the Noah’s Ark of comparative literature? The vague rule of thumb that seems to operate permits the continued recruitment of poems that look like those of Goethe or Wordsworth, novels that look like Trollope’s, and so on. Let’s imagine a more abstract definition and see what it includes. You know such previous attempts at an abstract definition as Shklovsky’s, Tynianov’s and Eikhenbaum’s, definitions that could contain quite a lot of phenomena that were not recognized as suitable objects of study by faculties of literature in their time. Maybe these can serve as opening moves in our attempts to find what we can learn from the verbal culture of this or that non-mainstream population. What are the uses of language in culture X that cause it to do more than proffer information or convey demands? What specific kinds of relation obtain between the merely functional acts of speech and those that are memorable or impressive for some other reason? What is the biggest scope of variety that we can anticipate among cultures X, Y, Z and on to infinity? On what scales, with what instruments, can we recognize our new model organisms?
I see these perplexities about what to read and how as being already inscribed in that foundational text for many of us, the conversation between Goethe and Eckermann in 1827 that launched the term Weltliteratur, “world literature.” I’m sure you already know it and so I can be brief in outlining the problem areas. Eckermann finds Goethe reading a Chinese novel and says, oh, how strange that must be, and Goethe replies that it’s actually not a bit strange, but quite like the novels of Richardson and the like: tales of civilized conversation and flirtation between men and women, only of course with a lot of unusual cultural background. And then Goethe goes on to predict that the age of world literature is at hand, and that national literature is already rather meaningless: everybody does and should read books from all around the world. So far so good. Then Goethe seems to take a step back, because he says that where aesthetic criteriaare concerned, the only way is to take our bearings from the ancient Greeks, who were and are the true classics. “We must not think that the Chinese are the thing, or the Serbians, but in our need for something exemplary we must always go back to the old Greeks…” All right then! The inventory of things to read is wide open, but the methods, the standards, the how and why to read—those we have already in the form given us by the ancient Greeks.
Reassuring, isn’t it, as a program for world literature? You can read anything, but you won’t have to learn any fundamentally new tricks. In fact, if you are tempted by the norms and modes of Chinese, Serbian, etc., literature into thinking there may be some new aesthetics and hermeneutics out there worth acquiring, you should strenuously withstand that temptation. The true image of humanity in its beauty, says Goethe, has been discovered once and for all. Other nations can at most provide quaint diversions; only the Greeks can be our guides. So enjoy diversity from the safe harbor of uniformity. As a description of what people actually do, I think this is not far off, but it doesn’t describe what I think we should do if we want to enlarge our repertoire of “model organisms.” And something else in this Goethean program is as if calculated to get my back up. That is the rhetoric of the inevitable march of history, the subsumption of local differences into a unity, the consigning of what local, idiomatic and specific to the past: “National literature is now nearly meaningless… the age of world literature is at hand… everyone must contribute to hastening its approach.” Such language has, to my ear, a tyrannical ring, the chant of progress without freedom. “There is no alternative” (Margaret Thatcher); “we will bury you” (Nikita Khrushchev); “resistance is futile” (the Borg, from Star Trek); bigness wins and wins absolutely.
The South China Morning Post calls them “anti-government protestors.” Le Monde calls them “des militants prodémocratie.” These terms are not necessarily convertible, of course. But it matters how you frame a thing.
(ICLA Congress keynote address, Macau, July 2019)
I’ll begin, as I often do, by looking over at what the scientists are doing. Or at what some scientists are doing, as they notice what other scientists have been doing and not doing. My text for this exercise is short and non-technical. It comes, in fact, from the announcement of a talk given recently at the University of Chicago Center in Hong Kong, by one of my colleagues, Nipam Patel who runs the Marine Biology Lab. So although we work at the same institution, thanks to the incredible diversity of academia, a lot separates us. He’s in the water whereas I’m in the air; he’s on the beach for work, whereas I go to the beach on vacation; and there as many other contrasts as you can imagine. Still, I feel that he and I are bothered by the same things. Here is the announcement of his recent talk:
Scientists often depend exclusively on so-called model organisms, such as fruit flies, mice, and frogs, for their research. While investigation of these animals has led to incredible advances in both basic and translational biology, they represent only a tiny slice of the diversity of life on earth. Professor Nipam Patel will explore questions that can only be addressed by expanding the repertoire of animals that are studied.
You might be misled by the phrase “model organisms.” It doesn’t necessarily mean that these are the best examples to study, the most exemplary organisms, or the ones other organisms should aspire to emulate. The natural scientists I know are ticklish about questions of value and feel more comfortable concentrating on what is. “Model” is not here a normative term, as often in the humanities (if I say in a letter that my student has written a model dissertation, that’s strong praise and you should hire her right away). The word “model” is used here neutrally to refer to an empirical, historical fact. Organisms become model organisms not because of some intrinsic quality but simply because they have already been studied in depth, they’re well understood, and the results of this research are available for the whole scientific community to explore. The reasons for selecting these organisms come down, usually, not to their utility for pure science, but for other reasons: because of their accessibility (that’s the case for the fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster, with its mere four sets of chromosomes and its speedy reproductive cycle; it was first identified as a useful laboratory animal in the 1880s) or because of their economic utility to humans. If tobacco and corn were not basic to large profitable industries, I am sure their biology would not be nearly as well-known as it is, and as it happens more is known about tobacco and corn than about almost any plant. Although “model” is used in the natural sciences, as I have said, in a way that does not have the same strong connotations of perfection and desirability as it does in the humanities, there are still some value-based factors behind the choice of objects of study. We value our time, so we should start with organisms that are simply to understand, plentiful, or easy to deal with in a laboratory setting; and because we value things that make our lives possible or enjoyable, or that promise huge fortunes, it’s understandable that we would direct attention selectively toward the plants that serve such functions.
There’s no problem with the fact that a few organisms get all the attention, as long as we don’t suppose that those are therefore the organisms that deserve all the attention. And Professor Patel’s point is precisely that attention can and should be distributed more widely. To quote the abstract once more: “While investigation of these animals has led to incredible advances in both basic and translational biology, they represent only a tiny slice of the diversity of life on earth. Professor Nipam Patel will explore questions that can only be addressed by expanding the repertoire of animals that are studied.” All right then! Here’s where I climb onto the coattails of my eminent colleague. For we in literary studies too have our “model organisms.” If I say the word “tragedy,” or “lyric,” or “novel,” you will certainly be able to come up with a description or even a definition of those genres, and because you are comparatists, you’ll have more than one example, from more than one period and language, for each; but at the back of our definitions is usually an example held by the people in our subfields to be the typical, or the most rewarding, or the most complete case of the thing we are talking about. Otherwise the conversation we are always having, the comparing and evaluating and appreciating, can’t happen. The model examples of our model examples are easy to locate. For the word tragedy, most of us will think back to Aristotle’s meticulous investigation of that Greek genre which took Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex as the ideal example. For epic, where would we look but in Homer? If, however, we extend our consideration to epics from other times and places, for example Indian or Turkic or Tibetan epics, we’ll soon be discovering the limits of our comparison-case. Not every epic behaves like a Homeric epic, and the differences are not necessarily flaws. It is surprising that, three hundred years and more after regular cultural communication among the educated people of the various continents has been opened, we are still reasoning about epic, lyric, drama, the novel, the Bildungsroman, the pastoral, ekphrasis, and so on, on the basis of a really very small set of examples. As a result, generic definitions are often either brittle or shallow. If you want to talk about the world novel, you have to start from the implication that a novel is something like Quixote or Pride and Prejudice or War and Peace, or else by positing a primordial shift from the epic mode of narration to the novelistic one, or some such gesture that gives you a basis whereupon to recruit your examples. There’s also often a claim of inheritance: the novel of 1800, or the novel in Indonesia, can be explained as an effect of emulation of the novel of 1700 or the novel in Spain, France, or England. The embarrassment is that among the world’s great novels there are quite a few that originate separately from such genealogies, don’t entirely fit the models provided by the traditions that are familiar to people working in European languages, and can in fact call into question the usefulness of the category “novel”: such as the Tale of Genji, the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and so forth. This is what I mean by brittleness and shallowness: either your definition of the novel clings so tightly to a few examples that it will break if you try to detach it from them, or it covers all possible instances at the price of saying not very much about them. I’m not very happy about this condition of the critical language, and I’ve tried to deal with it as I can, in the same way many of us do, by putting in modifications. These modifications tend to segregate and specify. A good example is Walter Benjamin’s study, now nearly a hundred years old, on what he called Trauerspiel or “mourning play,” which is translated into English in the title of his famous book as “German Tragic Drama.” From the moment we read those words we know that we are not embarking on a discussion that puts those 17th-century German plays in the lineage of ancient Athenian tragedy, mostly because, put up against those classic examples, the German plays will sound awkward, contorted, corny, even comical. So by affixing a new name to this genre Benjamin could declare their independence from the classical models, and investigate them as a body of works having their own aesthetics, purposes, and effects.
What is wonderful about this way of proceeding is that, after Benjamin had made strong claims for the singular qualities of these admittedly strange plays, his readers began to see the classical tradition in a different light. You might realize that, in their way, the plays of Aeschylus are Trauerspiele. Seneca might be aiming at effects that the German closet dramatists achieved as well. We see new things in familiar works, non-classical things in classical works. The intensive scrutiny that Benjamin gave to his model organism did in the end bring to literary studies what Professor Patel calls “incredible advances in both basic and translational biology.” Or rather—I quoted a little too much in the literal mode—“incredible advances in both theoretical and programmatic poetics.” Benjamin showed us, through his eccentric choice of model organism, how to value certain kinds of writing, previously undervalued, and how to outline ways of responding to drama that had not been tried yet but that might be exactly what certain writers and audiences needed.
We all read a lot of dissertations, a lot of manuscripts submitted for journals, a lot of drafts by friends and colleagues. And you know just by being a member of a field what the “model organisms” permitting analysis and generalization in that field are. No one in American literature can escape the necessity of referring to the many analyses, including some classic analyses, of Walden, or Moby-Dick, or The Sound and the Fury. In your apprenticeship as a member of that field you study previous dissections of those corpora in order to learn how to do it yourself on the same or different corpora. No one in Chinese poetry can avoid analyzing Guan juor Qiu xing ba shou or Qian hou Chibi fu, or drawing on the canonical previous interpretations of them. These are the organisms that are best known, and that therefore make possible the smoothest and richest communication among people who share that knowledge. An unintentionally humorous reference to this practice occurs in Goethe’s novel The Sufferings of Young Werther, when Werther and Lotte stand together at the window watching a thunderstorm.
The thunder was passing by and a wonderful rain was falling on the land, filling the warm air with the most refreshing fragrance. She stood there resting on her elbows, gazing deep into the country about us; she looked to the heavens, and at me, and I saw there were tears in her eyes; and she laid her hand on mine and said ‘Klopstock!’ At once I remembered the glorious ode she had in mind…
It takes only one word, one poet’s name, to make a rich and dense communication possible: that’s the value of a shared model organism. It would have been better academic form, however, if she had said “cf. Klopstock.”
(There’s more, but this seemed like a good place to stop.)
(AILC/ICLA International Forum, Shenzhen, July 2019)
Pushkin’s self-epitaph “Exegi monumentum” imagines that his voice will live on in the many tongues of the Russian empire; post-mortem, he will be spoken anew by the Poles, the Finns, and by “the Kalmyk, friend of the steppes.” Pushkin knew a bit about the edges of empire, having been exiled to the Caucasus for irreverent speech. In his travels he had encountered members of the nomadic Mongol lineage known as the Kalmyks. Sixty years earlier, Ji Yun had been summoned by the Qianlong Emperor to compose an extempore ode on the return of the Torghuts, another branch of the same lineage that had wandered west, settled on the banks of the Volga, and eventually migrated back to China in order to resettle the frontier areas of Xinjiang depopulated by Qianlong’s campaign against the Zunghars. Taken together, these examples of “frontier poetry” stage a quasi-encounter in verse between the imaginations of the expanding Russian and Qing empires, at the expense of nomad groups that could hardly find recognition except as vehicles of that expansion.
I happened to be reading the Federal Register and came across this choice gem. The Trump Administration’s Department of Health and Human Services is poised to modify Obamacare in a curiously Trumpian way. It is withdrawing health care facilities’ mandate to serve people who speak little or no English. No more multilingual placards. No more mail in a patient’s native language. No more translators to tell staff what a patient is saying and vice versa. This will make it much harder for people who know little English to find appropriate and safe health care, to be informed about the care that they are getting, and to give informed consent to that care.
The draft legislation, which is about 400 pages, can be found here:
At the top of the document is a big green button saying “SUBMIT FORMAL COMMENT.” Do it. Push that button, and write your heart out about about the inequity of treating people with limited English as pariahs, the false economies given as support for such treatment, and the consequences of letting someone into the ER who has Ebola who can’t tell you because he only speaks French and there’s no interpreter.
The closing date and time for comments is August 13th at 5:00 PM EDT. As of this writing, you have 16 days to submit a comment.
I sometimes think the Guardian exists to make us feel that voting is useless and there are no differences among candidates. Witness today’s article about Lori Lightfoot, the newly-elected major of Chicago. Lightfoot hasn’t been sworn in yet and won’t be for another six weeks, and Arwa Mahdawi is already trying to push her into the political graveyard.
Don’t let us catch you doing anything constructive, earthlings!
Is the Grauniad in a sulk? Or are they on a mission to teach us all learned helplessness?
Who will guard the Guardian?
People are jumping to conclusions about the Mueller report– which hasn’t been released yet. Trump supporters are, of course, spinning it their way, which is that the whole thing was a smokescreen and everyone who was expecting Trump to be indicted should go to jail instead. That’s what you’d expect from a bunch of people who have made no secret of their contempt for journalism, investigation, science, and rationality in general. But it’s more discouraging to see anti-Trump people turn bitter and pretend that they never expected it to be anything but a whitewash.
The crucial, the one crucial, fact is that the public has not yet seen the report in its entirety. Nothing less will do. Get on the phone right now, as I did, and call your Congressional representatives to demand that the report, the whole report, and no substitute in the form of a William Barr letter be put in the hands of every citizen with the patience to read it.
“Nullius in verba,” the Royal Society’s motto from the beginnings of the Scientific Revolution, means “We don’t take anyone’s word for it.” A good word to go on.
Please allow me to say that I stand fully behind Professor Immanuel Kant in his conflict with the Russian Navy,
The shortest Yiddish curse I know, excluding epithets, is “Geh’ in drerd!” It’s the equivalent of “Drop dead!,” but if we expand it a little, it means “Go into the earth! Die and be buried!” And that is what I wish for George Herbert Walker Bush. “Go into the earth!” He will not get a week of mourning, a month of mourning, or eleven months of mourning. All he gets is this day, which is nearly over. Tomorrow, the mail comes.
Somebody sent me this from a page called “Libertarian Catholic.” I gather that it was supposed to be snark. But I don’t think any Anglican is going to be offended. That’s one of the advantages that comes with not lying about your group’s history.
I thought it was funny enough. The Defenders of the Faith have been a pretty rum bunch from the get-go.
I’ve been thinking about the Sokol2 hoax, in which various conspirators sent improbable manuscripts to twenty journals of “ethnic/identity studies.” Seven journals went ahead and published the manuscripts even though the manuscripts’ contents were avowedly nonsense. This builds on the work of Alan Sokol, who tried the same thing with literary theory journals, “showing” that their discourse was likewise nonsensical. Both of these moves attempt to discredit an entire class of journals by targeted attacks on a small sample of journals; the intended principle is contamination. This principle may not be applicable; there are those of us who have taken a brown spot out of an apple and eaten the rest.
I am helping a faculty member with a paper in an ethnic studies journal; there are four pages of painstaking comments from the editor, along with the mostly positive comments from two reviewers. I disagree with the editor, but I don’t think anything got by him; he had the extraordinary virtue of finding everything that was wrong or could be construed as wrong. I find it completely impossible that a nonsense article could have gotten by him. He would have rejected it, period, and it probably wouldn’t have gotten through peer review, either. The peer reviewers were pretty sharp, and one pointed out a legitimate hole in the argument that needed patching.
What was lacking from the ethnic/identity studies journals that published the Sokol2 papers? One guess is that they didn’t have enough money to hire a good editor with subject matter expertise and relied on an overtaxed board member to vet the article. But I have another guess.
Peter Elbow spoke of a reader who might play one of two games: the Doubting Game and the Believing Game. The editor whose commentary I was looking at was playing the Doubting Game at grandmaster scale – characterizing writing by what you can find wrong with it. This will induce fear and shame in the author, and the author will revise the paper ruing how bad it was. The faculty member whom I was working with had resubmitted the paper four times, and each time had gotten back pages and pages of withering “advice.” So, that’s one game. In the Believing Game, you focus on what’s right with someone’s writing. You err on the side of charity. You see what the author is getting at, and you help the author to get there. I am guessing that with some of these journals, one of the principles is to get the thoughts of underrepresented voices out in the world, and charitable principles mean a greater chance for the author to be heard. Sokol2 exploited this charity and used it as a weapon to attack the credibility of the journals and the views they stood for.
So, do we have to worry about Sokol3 perpetrators gaming more journals to disparage them? Yes. Should the journals spend an extra $90K a year on a master editor? (There aren’t that many of them around.) Should they play the Doubting Game to make themselves impregnable? Do they want to strike fear and shame into their authors, so that the authors regret having written anything at all? Or do we simply say that the Sokol2 perpetrators are like WWI German submarines: very effective at sinking ships, with very advanced torpedos, but sinking ships is in no one’s interest but theirs. No one is going to claim that the Lusitania was a legitimate target because she presented a very broad attack surface underwater.
Alas, there are no metaphorical depth charges that can be dropped on the perpetrators, and neither can the Humanities declare war against them. Probably the most solid defense against the perpetrators is PR — some kind of damage control operation, as used by rich people and corporations to mop up the consequences of their dirty business. Perhaps the MLA can put them on retainer. Nullify the PR explosion by investigating the perpetrators and publicly making clear what they have to gain. Explain the principles by which the journals stand. The perpetrators’ fraud will vanish into the dustbin of history. That is where fraudsters go; quick, without a Google search, who was Yi-Fen Chou?
Nous ne sommes pas, hélas! dans une époque d’ironie. Nous sommes encore dans le temps de l’indignation. Sachons seulement garder, quoi qu’il arrive, le sens du relatif et tout sera sauvé (Camus, Actuelles I, 1944, p. 40).
“Funny,” said my German teacher yesterday. “When you’re talking about eighteenth-century China, your vocabulary and syntax are perfect and I can follow everything you say. When you talk about daily life, I have to labor to figure out your meaning from the words you use and the sentence structures you begin but don’t complete.”
Said I, “That’s because eighteenth-century China doesn’t stress me out.”
The delights of the DSM. Reading about one’s problems in language so alien to the experience-near perspective that it calls to mind Sartre’s man “who sees people as ants.”
Consider this series of pearls (stating the obvious in language that makes it obtuse):
Seeking to change another person might be especially likely to be associated with hopelessness. As explained previously, change agents continue to want change even though their attempts to achieve it have been unsuccessful (Caughlin & Vangelisti, 1999). Melges and Bowlby (1969) argue that hopelessness occurs when people see themselves as incapable of achieving their goals but are unable to detach themselves from these seemingly unachievable goals. Recent research has demonstrated why people do not disengage (Hadley & MacLeod, 2010). Individuals high in hopelessness tend to engage in conditional goal setting such that they link a current goal to larger life goals such as being happy, fulfilled, or having a sense of self-worth. Therefore, they feel that if they disengage from an unattainable goal, they also are giving up other important life goals. Individuals in relationships may see their goal of changing the other person as important to their overall relational satisfaction and therefore keep wanting change even though they feel incapable of causing change…. Change agents might engage in relational disengagement behaviors as a coping mechanism for the hopelessness experienced in the conflict (Driver et al., 2003; Horton-Deutsch & Horton, 2003).
(Courtney Waite Miller, Michael E. Roloff, & Rachel M. Reznik, “Hopelessness and Interpersonal Conflict: Antecedents and Consequences of Losing Hope,” _Western Journal of Communication_ 78.5 , 563-585)
Hilarious. Now, a word about the assumed fit between this generalizing language and particular cases. It may seem that the unfortunate “individuals in relationships” who want to “change the other person” are in a bad racket: manipulators and self-deluders. Of course, you’re thinking of a marriage in which one person wants the other to do or be something against the second person’s will. But what if the relationship is between parent and child? Namely, a relation based on the duty of the parent to shape the child’s personality and behavior, insofar as this can ever be done, in a positive way, so that the child can be a happy and productive member of society? If you, as parent, disengage from this goal as unattainable, you are indeed giving up on other important life goals, and that’s why saying “Stop hitting your brother” two hundred times a day to someone who responds with “You’re mean and stupid and I hate you” is soul-destroying.