Some Reflections on Comparative Literature in the Age of Multiculturalism
Jeffrey T. Schnapp
Some years ago I was invited by a friend in the English Department of the
University of Bologna to present an informal talk to her colleagues and students on the current state of comparative literary studies in North America. Long defined by abiding methodological commitments to
philology (even, to a surprising degree, during the decades when semiology and structuralism were all the rage) and by the close coupling between modern literary studies and studies of ancient Greek and
Latin, Italian literary studies have proven resistant to the intrusion of Comparative Literature, whether to its most traditional variants or to the so-called "theory" revolution. To this day only a handful
of comparatist chairs exist in the entire country and some of the trademark
traditional forms of comparatist inquiry—the thematic study, for example—are singularly absent from a scene where philology is
still considered by many the ne plus ultra of "theory." Such was the context within which a small but lively contingent of younger colleagues had sought to break the local logjam and to persuade the
university administration to authorize the creation of a new chair and program (a task they eventually accomplished, to their enormous credit).
My talk played no special role in this process, but, while it
stimulated a lively discussion and entertained, I wondered afterwards whether its content was to a degree unwelcome. "Unwelcome" because instead of filling the disciplinary box known as "Comparative
Literature" with either a traditional description like that contained in the Levin report or with a vintage-1970s "theory" definition, a box that needed to appear full in order to persuade the local academic
authorities, I came to talk about and, indeed, to celebrate the virtues of an empty box. My title was "Nè letteratura, nè letteratura comparata"
("Neither Literature Nor Comparative Literature"): a provocation, to be sure, but one whose aim was to ask some questions both about the normativity and history of the concept of "literature" and about the descriptive adequacy of the adjective "comparative" with regard to the emerging realities of the field. Comparative Literature, I argued (and believe), is little more than a utopic space in which certain types of intellectual projects, grounded in the study of literature, can be accommodated, projects that the fluctuating rule-sets governing other disciplines exclude, whether for historical reasons or contingent ones of a local or global nature. In this light, I examined the increasing absorption within departments like my own of significant areas of continental European philosophy that have only recently been pushed out of philosophy departments where what prevails is Anglo-American analytically grounded work. I also itemized the disconnected and discontinuous intellectual projects that characterize the most intellectually vigorous Comparative Literature departments, from research into the material history of literature to the study of diasporic cultures to cultural history to intermedia studies—projects that sometimes involve only very limited connections to one another. Last but not least, I tried to sketch out what, in some regards, may be characterized as a Wittgensteinian view of the concept of "discipline": namely, that far from constituting a discrete natural unit, every discipline is reducible to a mostly arbitrary set of "counting rules" according to which certain objects are included and privileged and others excluded and diminished within a potentially infinite field made up of innumerable overlappings. The situation of Comparative Literature is not exceptional in this regard; only more radical, inasmuch as its traditional position as a kind of meta-discipline vis à vis the nation- and language-defined literary fields is a more inherently unstable one, for there are fewer external referents, fewer sponsoring agencies, fewer institutions out there in the world to stabilize, constrain, or police its rule-sets. Like other disciplines, Comparative Literature is simply a shell, though a distinctively capacious and mutable one.
All of the above predisposes me to feel sympathy for the overall critical drift of the May 1993 ACLA report on "Comparative Literature at the Turn of the Century" and at least tolerance for its conceptual
fissures and moralizing appeals. Troping the unified character of their understanding of the discipline, the 1965 Levin and 1975 Greene reports were more orderly in their exposition and far more elegantly
written. They read like the product of a single magisterial author who towered above a committee immune to dissidence. They were backward looking even when they looked to the present and the future. And they
were about "standards." Which is to say that they established clear borders and set about policing them. The 1993 Bernheimer report, on the contrary, is about "guiding ideas" (47). It also flaunts its
collective authorship—the we of the committee—and although it puts forward a unified front, discordant notes are not hard to find (like the statement on page 45 to the effect that "even Italian literature,
with the exception of Dante, is often marginalized," which amounts to an argument that the so-called "lesser taught languages" deserve inclusion in the canon of minority literatures—a position at odds with
the anti-canonical thrust of much of report). It presents less a comprehensive vision of "Comparative Literature at the Turn of the Century," as its title promises, than a future-centered (though
present-saturated) wish list: a hodge-podge variously mixing curricular matters with issues of institutional and disciplinary policy, moral injunctions with polemical position-taking, all unfolded in
Some of the items on its laundry list seem indisputable: that high-brow literature is no longer the exclusive concern of the discipline; that the long-standing taboo against the teaching
and study of literature in translation may need some rethinking; that foreign language study must remain a core disciplinary feature; that the non-Eurocentric turn in recent American literary studies will
probably continue to reshape operations of "comparison" (however understood). Others are not indisputable: that a further "moderation" of the focus on "high literary discourse" is needed (is this really the
case? Not in my neck of the woods); that questioning and resisting the dominance of Western perspectives is equatable with multiculturalism (when it might well be argued that nothing is more saturated with
distinctively American values than multiculturalism itself); that encouragement of graduate students to "broaden their linguistic horizons to encompass at least one non-European language" is feasible and/or
would enhance the quality of discourse in the field (perhaps in some irenic polyglot paradise where undergraduates spend ten years in college and graduate funding is unlimited). Many of the latter points are
indicative of a broader preachiness that renders the report grating at times and less satisfying to ingest, not to mention to digest, than its two predecessors, for all their conservatism. Take the
following characteristic plea for inclusiveness: "Attention should also be paid to the role of non canonical readings of canonical texts, readings from various contestatory, marginal, or subaltern
perspectives" (44). Like much of the wish list, this one is lifted off yesterday's menu. The sentiment it expresses is honorable; no less honorable than the promise that the comparatist version of
multiculturalism will "be approached not as a politically correct way of acquiring more or less picturesque information about others whom we don't really want to know [!] but as a tool to promote significant
Missing from both quotations (and missing from the report), however, is any acknowledgment that once one enters the domain of pragmatics there is no escaping the issue around which its
1965 and 1975 counterparts were built: namely, standards (or, as I would prefer to call them, counting rules). What are the criteria that ought to be employed in order to distinguish readings and texts that
count from ones that do not (canonical or not), insignificant from significant reflection, a messy pluralism that is pedagogically and intellectually productive from a shitty pluralism that embraces all
readings, texts, and opinions as equal, no matter how jejune? The classroom and the department, after all, are both zero-sum environments. They do not typically provide an infinitely expandable context where
everything can be included and nothing need be excluded as a result. Students come and go according to whether their perceived needs are being met, needs that they not improperly identify with gaining access
to that distinctive category of pleasure and knowledge we refer to as "literature." The addition of a media studies position may well entail the loss of a medievalist, and not every Comparative Literature
department will be able to clear a space for a Koreanist, an Arabist, a Swahiliist, a Catalanist, and a Balkanist. Moreover, in a world of spreading monolingualism, where the majority of speakers of European
languages reside outside the European continent, why ought European or non-European, Western or non-Western be considered useful markers at all? I, for one, would have preferred a list that, in the place of
blithe talk about total inclusiveness and multicultural "sensitivity to difference," bit the bullet and advocated a limited but rigorous approach to building the discipline's traditional European,
literature-based core. An approach that, for instance, might set as a goal the in-depth development of a single area of "non-Western" expertise and excellence in every comparative literature program, the
area in question being chosen according to local strengths in language programs, demographics, and/or university resources. (Also on my practically-oriented wish list would have been some hard-headed talk
about graduate training: a critique of the persistence of total coverage models, with their lengthy fixed reading lists—a recipe for superficiality—in the name of period or other in-depth specialization
models; advocacy of high selectivity at the entry phase of graduate careers and criticism of the use of attrition as a selection mechanism.)
This brings me to a final comment which concerns the glue that
holds together much of the report: the concept of comparison. And what a viscous glue it proves. The report appears front-loaded with a definition (that is, in reality, a de-definition):
The space of comparison today involves comparisons between artistic productions usually studied by different disciplines; between various cultural constructions of those disciplines; between
Western cultural traditions, both high and popular, and those of non-Western cultures; between the pre- and postcontact cultural productions of colonized peoples; between gender constructions defined as
feminine and those defined as masculine, or between sexual orientations defined as straight and those defined as gay; between racial and ethnic modes of signifying; between hermeneutic articulations of
meaning and materialist analyses of its modes of production and circulation; and much more. (41-42)
The prospect of there being much more is truly a dizzying one within a context where operations of "comparison" encompass so much of everything that they quickly reveal themselves "as" or "to be" an empty
set. From the cognitive standpoint, to "compare" artifacts belonging to two distinct media is surely a rather different operation from "comparing" two gender constructions. In the first case, the material
facticity of differences in medium require a cognitive act whose point of departure is an ineradicable unlikeness, an untranslatability that cannot easily or automatically be overcome. In the second case,
the two constructions are so tightly wound together that the act of "comparison" amounts to the examination of a single system that marks differences where, materially speaking, there are similar bodies. In
neither of these two cases, however, does "comparison" seem to signify the identification and study of formal or structural analogies (two other recurring definitions). Nor, strictly speaking, do these
definitions converge with what comparison means throughout much of the rest of the report: namely, the "contextualization" or "re-contextualization" of literature "in the expanded fields of discourse,
culture, ideology, race, and gender" (42). Whatever it is that this last operation describes, whether it be understood according to spatial or temporal metaphors, one thing remains clear: the concept of
comparison here is in no way distinctive to the discipline, as historically constituted, of Comparative Literature. It covers operations carried out in every field of the humanities and social sciences that
deal in some way or other with literary texts. Which is to say that if, as the report concludes on page 47, "'comparison' as defined here represents the wave of the future," the report is hung on an oddly
hollow claim. An empty shell much where I expected to find one; but one less sharp and shapely than I might have hoped.
On the Bernheimer Report
Russell A. Berman
The Bernheimer report is a fine articulation of the state of the field, and of the humanities more broadly: confused, disheartened, and adrift in a sea of ambivalence. Boasting its
multicultural virtue, it never really musters the courage to face up to the past. Convinced of comparative literature's elite position, it barely notices the crisis of the humanities in American
Advocating broader horizons, it fails to cast a single glance at the cultural state of the nation. Shall I fault the authors for ignoring "extrinsic" issues? Let a mournful sigh suffice.
Like good soldiers just following the orders of "the age of multiculturalism," they have crafted a document in order to offend no one, risk nothing, and challenge even less. What prose hath this committee
Labeling the Zeitgeist an "age of multiculturalism" and drawing conclusions for the discipline, the authoring committee has boldly taken a politically correct turn, positing some joyous diversity,
up with which, so to speak, a slovenly scholarship must catch. It conjures a heroic scene of integration, in which the old, bad comparative literature is scripted as the redneck blocking the ivy-covered
doorway, while the good, the new, and the other clamor for admission into the marble halls. An engrossing drama indeed, made for television or for a faculty meeting, but it misses alas the real scoop, our
very own whodunnit, the plummeting student interest in the humanities. Witness, if you dare, the decline in all the literature (and history) majors—and so many of the few majors that are left (count them on
your fingers) are border-line social scientists, more interested in questions of society and politics than in writing or cultural expression. Nor is this declining interest restricted to higher education.
Did the authors of the report on "Comparative Literature at the Turn of the Century" give a moment of thought to a decade of vocal public opposition to the humanities, in the attacks on the NEH and the NEA?
the collapse of public funding, which is to say public support and interest, for the arts? the political mobilizations against foreign language learning? Some "age of multiculturalism." It looks instead as
if the committee, these notables of the profession, the leaders in deed and in print of the humanities, have been snoozing at the wheel, ignoring the secular transformation of American culture, while
presenting instead an at best tepid description of a sorry status quo. With another sigh: how ridiculous it is to imagine that a reader might come away from this report—inspired.
Nor is this failing an
accident of a committee's style, for the report is telling evidence of a scholarly culture anxiously avoiding the sort of inspiration and excitement that was once associated with literature and the arts, now
replaced by template thinking, curricular mandates, and one-dimensional minds. Far from representing an "untimely" alternative to the surrounding society, such academic "radicalism" conforms, confirms, and
participates in a routinization of experience. This comparative literature is a symptom of cultural malaise, not its cure. For all the adulation of the other, it is a scholarship that precludes ecstasy,
intellectual or literary. No wonder then that undergraduates would rather major in some social science, where they have at least a small chance of finding a breath of fresh air.
The committee shows its
colorlessness through the avoidance of the language question: while non-European texts are called for, we are also told we could teach them in translation, even though, if we like, we might learn the
language. Tweedle-dum, tweedle-dee: the committee missed a chance to insist emphatically on the importance of alterity, which means other languages and the knowledge of them, in order to teach texts
honestly. Instead we have multiculturalism as monolingualism. Let me be clear: programmatically teaching without an ability to engage in the original text is fraudulent. If students lack the language skill,
at least we should uphold the desideratum of a literate instructor. If the text in the "remote" language is so important for the curriculum, then the instructor should bother to find the time to learn to
read the language. Otherwise we end up with World Lit Lite.
Having waffled on languages, the committee makes matters worse when it continues with more tired attacks on eurocentrism. The critique of
eurocentrism once made limited sense for a brief moment in the troubled history of decolonization, particularly for Latin American intellectuals proposing indigenist alternatives. Picked up by North American
imitators, anti-eurocentrism has contributed enormously to the dwindling appreciation of what was once canonic literature. Our culture is poorer and dumber after this purge. In the Spanish field,
anti-eurocentrism may have shifted the center of attention away from peninsular literature to important Latin American traditions, although the separation from the Iberian legacy is surely artificial and
ideological. Elsewhere however it has just ended as know-nothing eurobashing, fully compatible with the standard insularity of U.S.American identity. At the very latest, by the "1993" of the Bernheimer
Report, anti-europeanism had become just one more piece of the nativism, xenophobia, and anti-immigrant mood sweeping the country.
Finally, one is left nearly speechless by the Bernheimer Report's
dismissal of literature. Comparative literature, it announces gleefully, is a general project of "comparison," whatever that might mean. Tout comparer, c'est rien compendre,
hardly a pardonable offense. No passion for literature, no Eros of imagination, no drive for the illumination which poetry announces: instead a dreary program of comparison of what? for what? why? The inability to answer comes as no surprise from an intellectual caste terrified of making qualitative distinctions for fear of being accused of elitism. It is no longer just the canon of the past that is decentered and disappeared, but literature in general, dissolved into the infinite chatter of discourses. But once literature is sacrificed, surely comparative literature will soon die, as in the Trial, "like a dog." If literature is as unimportant as the Bernheimer committee would have it, then we should not be surprised that pre-meds enroll in other departments. The conclusion one must draw is clear: we need another report, before the turn of the century, since the Bernheimer report is simply inadequate. We need a report that makes the case for literature, not for its capitulation. Or would that require too much discipline and too much will?
Some Thoughts About the Bernheimer Report
The recommendations of the Bernheimer Report sound irreproachable—and
that is precisely the problem. The major proposals of this 1993 report—to treat literary texts as only "one discursive practice among many others" (42), to engage in "reconceiving the canon" (44), to pursue
multicultural perspectives, to investigate "comparisons between media" (45)—represent what, for some years now, has been very much on the agenda not only of comparative literature departments but of many
English and foreign-language departments. Had this report been published ten years before, many of us would have muttered "Amen" and prided ourselves on the fact that once again comparative literature was
telling us how literary study was to be conceived and practiced in North America.
Just as the early comparative literature programs that developed after World War II sought to break down the provincial
biases that separated various language areas and to train students to feel at home in what T. S. Eliot had once called "the mind of Europe," so the more progressive programs from the late 1960s onward took
the lead in promoting the theory revolution that ultimately changed the course not only of literary study but of neighboring fields within the humanities such as art history and musicology. The
recommendations of the Bernheimer Report represent the achievements of the decade preceding the report: whether or not comparative literature deserves the credit for instituting these changes would take more
historical investigation than I have been able to do at this point.
But reports of this sort are scarcely manifestos that can provide real leadership. As one reads through the reports to the American
Comparative Literature Association of 1965 and 1975, one notes that cautionary admonishment far outweighs any encouragement to exercise innovation. Indeed, one would never guess from the 1975 report that its
committee chair was at that time a member of the comparative literature department most conspicuous for advocating the centrality of theory in a literary education. Hopefully, the Bernheimer report, like its
predecessors, is at best a codifier of reigning practices. Meanwhile, one wonders what (if any) programs in comparative literature are at present creating an agenda that literary study, indeed, humanistic
study as a whole, can employ during the coming years.
What is Comparative Literature anyway?
V. Y. Mudimbe
Some years ago, when Charles Bernheimer was preparing his
Comparative Literature in the Age of Multiculturalism, published in 1995 by The Johns Hopkins University, he approached me about his project. In response to his invitation, I hastily dictated a text
which, however, was not accepted by him. Now, William Egginton, one of the editors of this volume, has forced me to read the book edited by Bernheimer, and I find myself in an awkward position: that
anguished perspective that confuses what Heidegger, in his Discourse on Thinking, distinguishes as a calculating thinking from a meditating thinking, or a waiting.
The real question might be simple: is there a future for the comparative literature inherited from the nineteenth century?
My colleagues and students in the U.S.A. are in two comparative literature
departments: one at Stanford and the other at Duke. In Mexico City and Paris, where I teach on a regular basis, they are in anthropology or in sociology. Should I be obliged to recite departments with which
I have been associated or worked closely the last thirty-three years, the list would include anthropologists, classicists, ethnologists, historians, philosophers, musicologists, romanists, and even
This apparent disorder, which would have qualified as a suspect dispersion some fifty years ago and, in some quarters, is still regarded as a potentially dangerous interdisciplinary
experiment today, might be, nevertheless, the best key to a re-examination of what comparative literature is and is not today and, at any rate, what it should not be in the next century. I suggest three
points of entry into this question: the first, a journey that will analyze critically the Belgian model, a remarkable synthesis of the French and the German systems of education. This analysis will focus on
an old way of channeling the desire for the letter and its capacity for both comparison and cultural integration that is the aim around which a will to truth and a cycle of intellectual power could inscribe
themselves. The second approach will try briefly to situate the paradox of literature as science by relating it to both its history and the reflections of the models that made it thinkable. Finally, as a
conclusion, the last point of entry will face a rather difficult question: is there a future for literary studies and, if so, what might be their comparative dimensions?
The three points of entry posit
literature as a given. The image that comes to mind is that of a Greek statue, a body, and it is feminine: it is, precisely, a Muse. Literature is a "she." Yet, what is the real foundation for such a major
symbolic sign that brings together a body of texts (and the work on them) and a female persona? On the other side of the question, there is a surprise: the object produced by the relation supposes and
indicates radical exclusions—this is a "she"; this is not—thus separating types of bodies. One is canonically female, beautiful, offering itself to the norms of aesthetic representation; an other, perhaps
also female—but who cares?—signifies the lack of perfection and, in this sense, actualizes concretely what literature or beauty is not. Thus, instead of theorizing, after Sartre, on what literature is, let
us, instead, face the real issue with Serge Leclaire, who, in Psychoanalyser
(1968), notes that, in the "it is not she," a denegation transmutes itself in a dislocation: "it is very properly the name of the mother that, under the effect of a refusal—or the impossibility—of accepting reality, 'explodes.'" The name of the mother, the name of a tradition.
This metaphor, in its violence, redeems both the confusing polysemy of the word, literature, and its ambiguous sociological implications. In effect, literature—before meaning written works with an
aesthetic ambition corresponding to the expectations of the most educated people in a culture—
signifies simply writing, erudition, and, more importantly, a totality of knowledge, a Weltanschauung
or vision of the world that allows a culture to live and reproduce itself. The shift from the primitive meaning to the more aristocratic one would account for the fact—at least in France—that, since the nineteenth century, literature also designates what is inauthentic and superficial as in the expression popularized by Verlaine which has become a proverb:
"et tout le reste est littérature,"
and everything else is literature, i.e., nonsense. To these two moments, one may add a third, in which we are today, very concretely, struggling about the meaning of comparative literature. Our predicament was clearly put by Paul Valéry, for whom literature is just a development of a number of properties of languages.
A 1960s young Belgian graduate from a Greco-Latin college (that is, a high school staffed by a Catholic Religious Order) could be used as an "exemplum."
During six years of training, generally in a boarding school, (s)he has been thoroughly introduced to the essentials of a variety of disciplines. They include, besides a systematic religious education, three main types: (1) mathematics (arithmetic, geometry, algebra, etc.) and sciences (anatomy, botany, chemistry, physics, and zoology); (2) social sciences such as geography and history; and, finally, (3) languages and literatures. These include, first of all, the two national languages (French and Flemish), classical languages (ancient Greek and Latin), and at least one contemporary foreign language (generally, the choice is limited to English or German). The pedagogic objective of such a thorough training obeys a number of projects easy to name. First, and most obviously, it refers to the old Jesuit conception of a Christian humanism which qualified itself for centuries in a "dishonest" reversal of a lazy Latin joke, which, re-adapted by Jesuits, became a paradigm in their grammars of the Latin language:
non scholae sed vitae discimus, "it is not for the sake of school but for life that we study." The principle duplicates not only the vocation of a humanist curriculum, but the central mission of the
new type of schooling. One has only to refer back to another paradigm proposed by Simonidès of Ceos (born in 557 B.C.) at the end of the mythical and poetic age of Greece, itself the foundation of a critical
history: Polis didaskei andra
(it is the city that educates men). Commenting on a cultural memory, individual as well as collective, this paradigm questions a religious tradition and substitutes for it a verb, dokein
(to teach)—thereby magnifying the pertinence of what goes with it in the city—a noun, the doxa. Secondly, we should note that, in the College curriculum, the emphasis on the complementarity of
Christianity and classics goes along with a privileging of a literary canon. In actuality, College students are not exposed to real originals but rather to edited and carefully censored versions of
originals. As for contemporary literature, they approach it through anthologies, chrestomathies, and thesauruses. For their writing exercises, they work each week on a vicious treatise of Stylistics by a
certain Hanley, which was a bestseller for decades, which included French classical texts, albeit in a vitiated form. It was left to the students to recreate the lost perfection. Finally, it might by now be
clear that the two preceding dimensions—a humanism and a literary stylistic canon—are inscribed on another model of extreme importance: history. In the humanistic formation of a young person, history, as
discipline and as memory, articulates itself in six year-long sequences. It begins with the history of the Egyptians and the Middle East people, continues through the history of Greece, Rome, the Medieval
Period, Modern Times, the Contemporary Period, and ends with the National History of Belgium.
The journey represented by such an education is an intellectual and spiritual inscription in the historicity of
a culture and its nightmares. Indeed, such a necessary conversion indicates its own aims: to explain a cultural destiny, to constitute in the body and in the mind of the student a "distinction" that will
make him or her a potential member of the elite, whose habitus or unconscious feelings of the game, to use Pierre Bourdieu's terms, will bear witness to a heaven of values. At any rate, three years of
exercises in rédaction and three in the practice of dissertations should, moreover, have submitted the young mind to a "Cartesian" way of thinking, writing, and, in general, communicating. To stabilize such
a specific objective, the Napoleonic reconstruction in the nineteenth century and its laicisation of the Jesuit model created, at the end of the French high school, the class of philosophy, that is a
one-year long curriculum in correct thinking as the supreme step in the strengthening of a cultural and an intellectual orthodoxy. A national examination, the baccalauréat, would, from now on, sanction
merits and distinction according to a normative table controlled by the State.
One could, then, think of establishing links between the model just described and what, à propos of the panopticon, Michel
Foucault says, in Discipline and Punish, about the army, the hospital, and the school. In fact, Foucault, in his chapter on "Docile Bodies," comments aptly on this very issue, describing the geography
of Jesuit colleges in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, whose organization duplicated a Roman model as an "ensemble of compulsory alignments" determined by age, performance, and behavior.
instead, follow our Belgian graduate to the University. If (s)he wants to major and specialize in comparative literature, everyone will advise her or him to prepare, before anything else, a licence (a four
years' curriculum) in one of the major "philological" disciplines (Classics, Romance Studies, Germanic Studies) and only afterwards to consider a doctoral degree in comparative literature, rooted in and
expanded from one of these intellectual spaces. Should (s)he choose Classics or Romance Studies, (s)he would have to, besides exposing herself/himself this time to the originals in Greek and Latin, study
modern languages and literatures. In the case of Romance Studies, these include the most important, such as Italian, Spanish, Portuguese; as well as a sound knowledge of the so-called minor ones, such as
Catalan, Romanian, Provençal, etc. (S)he should also study systematically the historical and comparative grammars (phonetics, morphology, syntax, and lexicology) of these languages. The curriculum will
impose, moreover, a number of compulsory classes in philosophy (metaphysics, ethics, modern currents), as well as in history (ancient and modern). Should (s)he, after the licence, decide to specialize in
comparative literature, new linguistic demands will impose themselves: first, a perfect command of English and German (which was already supposed for the licence, but around which there is no way of
negotiating now); the mastery of foreign languages, no matter how remote (Bantu languages, Russian, Chinese, or Japanese) should they be related to the research project. Etiemble, at the Sorbonne, in the
1950s and 1960s, and Willy Bal, at the Louvain in Belgium in the 1970s, were living examples of such an inhuman discipline.
What this model for the education of a comparativist spells out is a reference to
a philological problematic that emerged from German research on languages at the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth centuries. To grasp its full meaning, it will suffice, first, to pay
close attention to a silent yet permanent grid, and particularly to the pervasiveness of Darwin's hypotheses in the nineteenth century, and, second, to notice that the constitution of a comparativist
philological perspective is then doubled in Europe by reflections on the nature of society. I cite the following three examples as concrete illustrations: August Schleicher (1821-68), a naturalist by
education, applied the teachings of Darwin to the study of languages in his Die darwinische Theorie und die Sprachwissenschaft (1863), and one can observe its echoes in Morgan's analysis of
Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity of the Human Family (1871), as well as in his Ancient Society (1877). Second, the theses of Max Müller (1823-1900) as expounded, for instance, in
Lectures on the Science of Language (1861, 1864) are simply incomprehensible without reference to Schleicher's work on Stammbaumtheorie, or a genealogical tree theory that claims to account for
how languages come to life, develop, and eventually die, thus submitting to implacable natural laws. The Compendium der vergleichenden Grammatik der indo-germanischen Sprachen
(1861) demonstrates this thesis, which will haunt almost all anthropological works during the nineteenth century and the first part of our century. Finally, there are obvious connections between the thesis of diffusion of cultural facts of W. Schmidt of the Vienna School and the
Wellentheorie expounded by another Schmidt, in Germany. The latter, against Schleicher's Stammbaumtheorie, insisted, in Die Verwandtschaftsverhältinisse der indo-germanische Sprache
(1872), that linguistic phenomena expand from their original milieu like waves on the surface of water, thus invalidating the idea of an absolute purity of any linguistic and cultural area. This daring thesis announces, at its inception, another one, which, contrary to what a facile analysis might suggest, is one of the most distressing of our problems: that of
Sprachmischung, elaborated by Hugo Schuchardt (1842-1927), which marginalizes the principle of causal laws and emphasizes the reality of cultural mestizo spaces
(which Jean-Loup Amselle, in France, à propos of his ethnological researches on West African cultures, has named a Logique métisse
and which, at Stanford University Press, with the collaboration of a Canadian colleague, Bogumil Jewsiewicki, we are promoting in a new series, whose mission statement amplifies Schmidt's and Schuchardt's propositions).
All utopias of a unitary field of knowledge have become suspect. Diversity is not only a fundamental component of life but a major perspective of both our identities and our knowledge. We are, all of us,
—biologically, culturally, and, at any rate, intellectually and historically. Thus, a fundamental element of our present situation and its major difficulties is a need to negotiate universalization and particularization. These reinforce and stimulate each other without being stable terms of a dialectical equation that could lead to a synthesis. Our realm, from now on, consists of encounters between the particular and the universal, which reproduce each other without absorbing each other. Ethnicities, nationalisms, regionalisms, sexualities, and minority identities are not fading away; they are becoming stronger in the face of contemporary cultural globalization. Mass media culture allows them to blossom, and their prosperity demands a continuous universalization of culture and circulation of goods and people.
Paralleling philological explorations, comparative literature, in the nineteenth century, stood firmly on the basic organicist model of biology.
Dangerously, it transplanted this model to cultures and
literatures by inferring a relation of interdependence between theoretical aesthetic norms and the
sociocultural functions of literature as art. Moreover, it instituted technical codes for qualifying as
exemplary and beautiful those texts which—according to the ideals of a history magnified by the singularity of its Greco-Roman, Judeo-Christian, and Germanic heritages—rendered best and in appropriate style
the rules of a past and the projects of a present and its becoming vis-à-vis real or imaginary conflicts and their fatality. Marxists such as Lukács, and in France, a Goldmann or a Macherey; in England, an
Eagleton; and in the United States, a Jameson, for example, have tried to move from the biological organicist model to an economic one and, in doing so, to bring literature and its comparison to the lives of
real beings and the predicaments of their liberties.
Yet, as a scholastic system, in its height and authority, comparative literature was still administering signification to speech and narrative, relating
them in terms of value to a prioris erected as both tlèma es aei
(lesson for eternity) and canons of beauty. Do and can these dogmas and the discipline they have developed over the last two centuries really teach us about the laws of literary dissent, the meaning of revolution, the despair of not knowing how to comment on Kant's sublime?
The project got confused with a crisis that had existed since the 1960s and was encapsulated in the strident polemics that opposed Professor Picard of the Sorbonne to Roland Barthes of the
École des Hautes Études
in Paris à propos of what literature and its good usage are, a debate in which a linguistic model had been surreptitiously introduced. Rapidly, it was followed by a wave of new perspectives (semiological, hermeneutical, psychoanalytical, deconstructionist, etc.) and, after this irruption, no one seemed to know any longer what literature—much less comparative literature—was about.
Is there a future for literary studies in a comparative perspective?
In 1964, I took a course in comparative literature with an eccentric Belgian savant, Herman Dopp. That year, he was teaching
Herman and Dorothy
in the original German. He invited us, as an exercise, to establish, ourselves, our own connections and invoke whatever intellectual discipline we were fluent in. His challenge has marked me. I had submitted to the traditional procedures with suspicion because I had no choice. Then came real life and, throughout more than thirty years of teaching over three continents, it is a myth of another century that I have been facing. It has its charms, indeed, the way beautiful statues have. It has an appeal and, certainly, still attracts very demanding young minds who, in order to become comparativists, would be ready to undergo any sacrifice even if this would signify, for them, a masochism expiating for the past errors of the discipline.
It is obvious that the discipline, in its initial ambition, is gone forever. The Belgian system no longer produces graduates from Greco-Roman Humanities. The French have revised several times the
curricula of the lycée, as well as that of the University. Instead of the powerful and permanent question that has haunted the exegetical space of philology and comparative literature—is she or is she not
there?—a masterful legacy faces us from the vantage of the practices of our intellectual forebears and presents us with the challenge: if we are, all of us, mestizos, which discipline or method will help us
to comprehend this fact and, finally, could our work have an impact on our real present, that is, on the contradictions of our everyday lives, sustained by a dialectic between our modes of production and our
social relations of production?
In conclusion, the obvious should impose itself. My introduction, with what appeared as an arrogant digression, bears witness, in actuality, to the reality of a new academic
configuration in which we have been living since the early 1970s. Disciplinary barriers have collapsed. Looking around me, the fact of the matter is that I am not exceptional at all. Other colleagues live
more daring trans- or interdisciplinary explorations. For example, I could note that, in the United States, departments of economics and political science are more and more dominated by mathematicians.
Additionally, our best U.S. departments of philosophy are today intellectually so closely connected with biology, physics, or mathematics that this simple fact goes a long way toward explaining why, for
example, the best French philosophers—and why not cite Michel de Certeau (by the way, was he really a philosopher?), Vincent Descombes, or Jacques Derrida—have been associated with literature departments,
comparative or national. Finally, the French invocation seems to me an invitation to mention just three names that have made a difference in our intellectual lives in this country: Claude Lévi-Strauss, the
founding father of structuralist anthropology is, by education and academic references, a philosopher and a student of law who converted to ethnology; Michel Foucault, the original philosopher on our
campuses, was, until the moment of his tenure as Chair of the Department of Philosophy at Vincennes in the aftermath of May 1968, a professor of psychology; finally, Pierre Bourdieu, the master thinker of
contemporary sociology, who currently dominates the intellectual scene in terms of what I would call a philosophical reflection on sociocultural "distinctions," was trained as a philosopher, having converted
first to anthropology before becoming the inspiring sociologist he is today. What these examples promulgate is the evidence of a new intellectual space that no longer, at least in terms of what it claims its
intellectuals should be, reproduces the old nineteenth century model with its rigid walls separating specializations.
One could, indeed, react by asking: is not this a French or a European malady?
Interestingly enough, a European, or more precisely a Portuguese Foundation—the Gulbenkian Foundation
—decided some years ago to understand the future of the Social Sciences—and forced me to see the obvious in the United States. In any case, in my two Universities, Stanford and Duke, rare are professors who do not teach students from departments which are not theirs and, in my two programs of comparative literature, rare are colleagues who, officially, are not at least in two departments. On the West Coast, at Stanford, mentioning at this time only my French and Italian colleagues, Jean-Pierre Dupuy, Professor of French, is also a member of the Department of Political Science and, in France, Professor at the
and Director of a Center in Applied Epistemology within the CNRS; Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht teaches in French and Italian, in Spanish and Portuguese, and in Comparative Literature, and regularly directs seminars on continental philosophy; and Michel Serres, a member of the French Academy, reconciles, without problems, his duties as a professor of history of sciences at the
and teaches in our French and Italian Department. On the East Coast at Duke, Stanley Fish teaches in Comparative Literature, in English, and at the Law School; Barbara H. Smith teaches in Comparative Literature, and in English, and directs a Center for Interdisciplinary Studies in Sciences and Cultural Theory; and Fredric Jameson teaches in Comparative Literature, in Romance Languages, and in German Studies, and directs a Center of Critical Theory.
These cases are, indeed, exemplary; yet, they are not rare, at least any longer. First of all, let us be clear that they are not predicated by economic reasons or by any structural downsizing project that
would overuse some professionals in order to save money for the institution. They simply bear witness to a period and an intellectual atmosphere that, all over the world, has been coalescing since the late
1960s and the early 1970s. The "Report of the Gulbenkian Commission," Open the Social Sciences
(1996), confirmed this fact by confronting the false divides between disciplines, and suggesting ways of preparing a different type of collaboration between them. It suggests for a successful debate four minimal requirements: (1) the expansion of institutions within or allied to the universities, which would bring together scholars for a year's work organized around specific urgent themes; (b) the establishment of integrated research programs within university structures that cut across traditional lines, have specific intellectual objectives, and have funds for a limited period of time (say, about five years); (c) the compulsory joint appointment of professors; and (d) joint work for graduate students.
All our scientific practices today, from the most specialized domains in medicine, in physics, or in psychiatric studies to highly detailed studies in history, in philosophy, or in literature end up as
discursive practices whose predicament concerns the truth and validity of propositions. Secondly, the interaction between disciplines or, more precisely, the demands of an exhaustive bank of data à propos of
any topic—whether in the "soft" sciences or in the "hard" ones—no longer require the consideration of disciplinary walls inherited from the German model of university specializations. To a specific
bibliographic question concerning a singular type of neurosis, for example, that any scholar might have, a computer will deliver an overwhelming list of information including neurological, psychiatric,
theological, and even literary and philosophical references. From the preceding, it becomes easy to grasp the real nature of our predicament: namely, our academic politics do not accord with the reality we
are already living. For administrative reasons, personal calculations, or simple laziness, most of us do not wish to face reality and prepare our students for a radically new interdisciplinary space—that of
their future. A new epistemological dimension is challenging us already hic et nunc
in our minds and in our professional practices; and we continue to speak of anthropology, of psychoanalysis, or of comparative literature as if they were eternal heavens of values in themselves and by themselves.
What is comparative literature anyway?