“After the World: New Possibilities for Comparative Literature” II
The 11th Quadrennial International Conference on Comparative Literature
Comparative Literature Association of the Republic of China
Tamkang University, December 13-14, 2013
“The Future of Comparative Literature”
Moderator: Yu-cheng Lee
Institute of European and American Studies, Academia Sinica, Taiwan
Department of English/Department of Comparative Literature, Harvard University, USA
I also don’t worry too much about the future of comparative literature because I’m not sure I care that much about it in this form. I love comparative literature, my expertise is in comparative literature. I think it’s great. I don’t hear anyone making an argument for national literatures or anything like that. But what I really worry about is the literature part of comparative literature. I think we need to come up with better arguments about why it’s important that we study literature in the first place, comparatively or in some other fashion. So, that is why, for me, a rethinking of what we teach and how we teach literature is really crucial for the survival of teaching literature. We can make these strong arguments, but I think we can make them—or, it will be easier to make them—only if we displace certain cherished notions about literature that I already indicated in my talk—for example, that literature is arts, is an aesthetic of appreciation. I think literature is way older than art, and more important, more powerful. Many aestheticians are saying that art is completely powerless, but I think we have been in the thrall of this kind of eighteenth-century ideas about aesthetics for two hundred years now. While comparative literature has done very important work to criticize the Eurocentrism of the earliest traditions of comparative literature, to expand the canon of literature, I think we have been curiously stuck, hung up on these eighteenth-century European philosophies of aesthetics that have told us that the great thing about art is that it is without utility, that we cherish this kind of original aesthetic experience that goes on in artworks, and that the original is untranslatable, and so on and so forth. And that is not—in my experience at least—an approach to teaching literature that resonates very much with students. This is why I think we should look at the whole history of literature and think about it more as something like a cultural code that is immensely powerful. Some literatures are aesthetic, some are political—for example, recent foundational texts like the Declaration of Independence and the Communist Manifesto. All of these are part of the purview of literature. If we foreground that, then it is much more obvious to students and to others why what we do has an immense power.
So this is sort of my vision of teaching comparative literature. On the first day of the conference we talked about service teaching. I think it’s really important that we switch more to the so-called service teaching or general education teaching, because I think that is really what forces you to make these arguments. There is a movement across the United States: the one part of literature departments that is growing is creative writing. It’s not just because students feel they want to express themselves (they want to do that and be critical of that), but they actually learn to [yield?] the instruments of literature through that. So, on the one hand, service teaching; on the other hand, creative writing. And on the historical side, there are reflections on the importance of the cultural technology of literature, above and beyond the narrow emphasis on aesthetics that I think has hampered our ability to make strong arguments for literature in the future. So that is my little manifesto.
Department of German/Avalon Foundation Professorship in the Humanities, Northwestern University, USA
I agree with Martin that the future of comparative literature as a discipline will depend on better arguments. The problem is the argument has to be broken down into two different kinds of arguments. No argument is going to be effective if it doesn’t convince decision makers. On the other hand, an argument, to be effective, also has to be able to present something distinctive, something like a discipline called comparative literature. You do have to convince people, but you also have to be thinking about what can go on, what can be transmitted to this discipline that isn’t going to be a repetition of what is going on elsewhere, for example in social sciences, in history, etc. So, we come back to the questions raised by several speakers today and before, that is, the literary dimension. How is that going to be interpreted, and how is that going to be defined? The various presentations we had in the last two days were very impressive in demonstrating the tendency of comparative literature to extend its scope beyond what is traditionally considered literary canon—for instance, into photography, into cultural material techniques, using philosophical meditations of various kinds. However, we have to be realistic here. Ali Behdad indicated in his own experience one aspect of the problem you must face here. For example, if you are going to write a book on photography, you have to deal with possible objections from those who consider that their purview, such as art history—or one could extend that to a vast series of others: history of science, history of technology, philosophy, media studies, film studies, etc. They are going to normally react by saying, “This is art. What are you doing here?” So I think it is very important for people working in comparative literature and in literary studies generally to rethink and reflect on the history of the discipline, in order to project the future, in order to figure out what is distinctive about what has gone on in literary studies generally and comparative literature particularly. That would enable an extension of the objects of study and present us something that isn’t being done in the same way.
There are a number of moot points that have distinguished comparative literature from other literary disciplines. The first one is that it has traditionally discussed problems and objects that are not limited to one so-called national literature, and this enables it to deal with problems in a larger scope. But more than that, it seems to me very important that in these last decades it did this in a way that wasn’t just accumulative but that was differential. In other words, when you are working with different languages, you are not just accumulating perspectives, but you are accumulating a sense of differential perspectives. So it’s a comparison, but a comparison that doesn’t level. The word that is used today is incommensurability—and in that sense untranslatability. It is not the fact that one doesn’t translate. If translatability is understood as a precise repetition or reproduction of meaning, then in that sense there are differences that don’t translate, that are frustrating, but are extremely stimulating and important. They are particularly important given the homogenizing tendency today, or what’s called globalization, which is driven to some extent by economic considerations that tend to be based on something called the general equivalent or the universal equivalent. For example, we are perfectly happy that English is the language of communication today and not worried too much about what might get lost in the translation into English from other languages. What is very important, I think, is that translation goes on within languages and not just between languages. It goes on in your discourse with others, in your discourse with yourself, in the reading process as well.
That brings me to the two focal points that I take to be very important in thinking about the future of comparative literature. One is the status of language, and the second is the role of reading in that. In other words, comparative literature—at least a certain comparative literature—puts an emphasis on the constitutional role of reading: reading is not just a reproduction of something out there; it is an interaction, an interpretation. This distinguishes what has gone on in comparative literature from other disciplines. Even in reading the same text—we can take the text of Marx, for example the Communist Manifesto, and read it in a different way from the way it is generally read. I think these two elements are very important.
I’ll just add another very important point, that is, there is a reflection on language that was initiated in the wake of structuralism and poststructuralism. What came out of that was a reflection on the necessary but always relative and problematic significance of systematization. There is a famous phrase of Karl Kraus’ that Walter Benjamin quotes, “The closer you look at a word, the more distantly it looks back at you.” I think this is true of everything. The more closely you scrutinize a word, a name, a sentence, a paragraph, a text, or so-called language, the more complexly and remotely it looks back at you. This is an experience that has enormous consequences in our rethinking what kind of knowledge is produced by this kind of reading. Is it the same kind of knowledge that we have in scientific disciplines or in other social-scientific disciplines? I think there is a possibly real difference here. It’s not so much the presence or absence of the object out there or something called fiction that is important; it’s the way in which perceptual and cognitive objects are experienced, in the sense of reading them as part of the text that is always going to be interrelated with other texts but always have to be reduced at the same time. So you get an awareness of something like the Nietzschean element of closure that is inevitable but also problematic. This is for me the element of constitutive openness. It’s not that everything is open—nothing is open in that sense. But the closures, the determinations that we have to make are made perhaps somehow differently with an awareness of language as a signifying process. And this is something that goes on in literature more than in other areas.