“Comparative Literature: The Last Ten Years”

(Round table talk at the ACLA/MLA panel of the same name, Chicago, Jan. 11, 2014.)

I don’t know about you, but I’ve had a busy ten years. I approach today’s assignment in the spirit of the chastened soothsayer. Since I’m on record as having said a few things, in my section of the ACLA’s 2004 State of the Discipline report, about what Comparative Literature is, has been, and should be, I might now look back at which of those statements held up and which ones were dead in the water.

The first part of my essay there was yet another tour of the question, what is comparative literature? After reading so many previous attempts at defining it, I came down saying that the discipline is essentially non-identitarian. It is more like a set of occasions for trying out some methods than it is a defined subject matter or way of proceeding, I said, and that is actually a good thing, the great good thing about this field to which we are somehow allowed to continue contributing.

But wait a minute. Did I say “essentially non-identitarian”? Would that be the same thing as saying “essentially non-essentialist”? Isn’t that both self-contradictory and immodest? Well, of course it is, and the combination of oxymoron and self-promotion tells us that it is really a matter of positing an ideal. In this case, I thought it was worth proclaiming the curious emptiness of Comp Lit, its peculiar Zen, as its great virtue rather than something to apologize for. There’s another benefit to proceeding in this way. The beauty of making essentialist statements is that they are unfalsifiable, by virtue of the old “No True Scotsman” argument. If things don’t turn out in a way that confirms your description of comparative literature, you can always throw up your hands and say, well, what I was speaking of is the true, the genuine article, Comp Lit as it ought to be, and if the facts of the matter don’t correspond, too bad for the facts!

In my 2004 essay I tried to claim that because of its lacking a definite subject matter or methodology, Comp Lit was doomed to improvise and to proceed fitfully, occasion by occasion. That, however, was meant to flip over into its compensating strength, for Comp Lit could therefore become a temporary refuge for disciplinary collisions, unlikely topics, things without a name, artforms without a nation. It could, like some border-crossing NGO, take on dynamics transcending national and linguistic boundaries such as growing inequality, the prevalence of information, the transformation of institutions under market pressures. And it could do these things more readily than disciplines that had been built up to serve a particular nation, language, artform or period.

How far have these hopes been realized? Well, the anecdotal foxhole from which I report is bound to look out on a somewhat different landscape from your foxhole’s, and I don’t claim omniscience or objectivity. I do have some awareness of recent hiring in the discipline, as well as of the difficulties graduates face, as do graduates in most other language and literature fields; I’ve been noticing the ways applicants to graduate programs present themselves; and I occasionally read a book or journal. It seems to me that the field as a whole is retreating from its wilder, bolder, atypical projects and hunkering down with safer alternatives. Several years ago Sheldon Pollock, invited to give the plenary speech at the ACLA meeting, gave us a good scolding. Although we claim to be limited only by the dialectical conditions of possibility and to welcome works from every imaginable language, time and tradition, Shelly showed, numbers in hand, that about 95% of the PhD dissertations written in the field and a similar share of the articles in our main journals are about English, French and German literature between 1800 and 1960. I would say, again anecdotally, that when departments go looking for candidates the shortlists are very likely—95% likely? perhaps—to be composed of people working in those very fields and centuries. If people interested in writing about more exotic traditions aren’t discouraged at the early stages, they often find themselves hanging around for a long time waiting to be taken seriously enough to begin teaching at a full-time job. The situation for people who are making non-canonical combinations of fields or disciplines is likewise grim. On the other hand, approaches to comparative literature that offer a historical narrative of the diffusion of cultural capital from Europe to the less fortunate areas of the world find a hearty welcome, because such globalization stories, although eminently questionable on historical grounds, comfort the provincial biases of the institutions that for the moment tolerate us. You know of course the big success of the book Lolita in Teheran. (I’m not actually discussing it but using it as a geographical marker for a kind of comp-lit narrative.) Imagine how little of that success would come to the author of a far more interesting, to my mind, but thus far unwritten book called, say, The Shahnameh in Bloomington.

Comp-lit departments are not alone in fearing to make risky appointments. All language and literature departments today are on short rations and behaving like a freezing mountaineer, reducing supply of blood to the extremities, as they perceive them, in order to keep the core warm. But as the adventurous projects and the adventurous young people continue to find little support, the discipline is impoverished and loses its way, if I may say such an essentialistic and prescriptive thing.

As you know, the teaching of language and literature is broadly speaking under attack. Under budgetary attack, under cultural attack. I’ll leave the budgetary problem and focus on the cultural. Hardly a day passes that some journalistic bloviator fails to curse liberal-arts graduates for being spoiled, expensive, useless people, and to call on students to think twice before even having the very idea of majoring in a language, literature or history field. Of course the so-called practical majors are no better at guaranteeing a stable income than the so-called impractical ones, but we’re talking about ideology here, not facts. Amid the supposedly wasteful and self-indulgent bad decisions you could make, surely comparative literature ranks at the top, for in order to wear that feather in your cap you must first acquire two or three languages (boo), read a lot of books (boo), and acquire a lot of fancy theory (triple boo). A new resentment against anything that could be described as élite combines with traditional American suspicion of foreignness and fancy thinking to make Comp Lit a fairly toxic cultural value in the United States standing in the shadow of the Great Recession and the Tea Party. We have to stand up for ourselves, first by championing the so-called national language departments without which we don’t survive except as providers of general-education literature-in-translation courses, second by reminding the culture around us of the value there is in being able to synthesize complex and discrepant information that was never designed to be drawn together, and third by demonstrating how far-fetched, improbable and provocative we can be while still making sense. That is how we can keep Comp Lit’s specific difference open in an increasingly consolidated and shrinking humanities domain.


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