The problem of the nature of comparability is rendered more acute by the shift of comparative literature from a Eurocentric to a global discipline, though that may not appear to be the case. We are now in a phase, it seems, where the problem can apparently be set aside, because a good deal of new work in comparative literature is focusing on cross-cultural contacts and hybridity within postcolonial societies and within the literatures of colonizing powers. There is a sense in which the most exciting work in the field is based on a modernized version of the study of sources and influences: insofar as comparative study is based on the diverse literary and cultural influences at work in Derek Walcott's Omeros, or Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses, or Ousmane Sembene's Les bouts de bols de Dieu, or Rodolpho Gonzalez's I Am Joaquin / Yo soy Joaquin, comparison is based on direct cultural contacts and traceable influences. But in principle the problem of comparability remains unsolved - more acute than ever. What, in this newly globalized space, justifies bringing two or more texts together?
In this brief paper I can scarcely do more than pose the problem, but I propose to approach it obliquely, in homage to a brilliant young comparatist, a teacher in the Departement de Litterature Comparee at the Universite de Montreal, who was killed in the crash of an American Eagle plane outside Chicago in the fall of 1994. His name was Bill Readings. Educated at Oxford, he had taught at the Universite de Geneve, Syracuse University, and the Universite de Montreal. If I approach my topic by asking what Bill might have said about it, I do so with the realization that in losing Bill Readings we have lost someone whose response to a particular topic could not be predicted, except that it would be enormously shrewd and interesting.
At the time of his death Bill was finishing revisions to a book on the university - not the most exciting of topics. Most books about the university are written by retiring university administrators and seem destined for the remainder table even as they come off the press. And perhaps this one will be no different, but it does take as its point of departure the fact that today the tone of self-satisfaction that has marked so many books on the university, from Jacques Barzun to Jaroslav Pelikan, is no longer available. Today, Readings writes, "No one of us can seriously imagine himself or herself as the hero of the story of the university, as the instantiation of the cultured individual that the entire great machine labors day and night to produce.... The grand narrative of the university centered on the production of a liberal, reasoning subject, is no longer available to us."(1) This is in part, of course, because we have come to see that the subject is gendered, racialized.
Kant gave us the model of the modem university organized by a single regulatory ideal, the principle of Reason. Humboldt and the German Idealists replaced the notion of Reason with that of Culture, centering the university on the dual task of research and teaching, the production and inculcation of national self-knowledge. But now the model of the University of Culture, the university whose task was to produce cultured individuals, citizens imbued with a national culture, has in the West been replaced by what Readings calls, in a phrase that resonates for those of us in the American academy, "The University of Excellence."
The crucial thing about excellence, he points out, is that it has no content (there need be no agreement about what is excellent). In that sense, it is like the cash nexus. It has no content and thus serves to introduce - here we come to my topic - comparability. As Readings explains, "Its very lack of reference allows excellence to function as a principle of translatability between radically different idioms."(2) As British and American academics hear endlessly from administrators these days, every unit of the university, from Classics to Transportation and Parking, can and will be judged by its success in achieving excellence. And excellence is determined not by intrinsic characteristics of one's activity, nor by a relation to some external purpose, but, most often, by something like polls: ratings of some sort, where people supposed to be more or less knowledgeable, usually other administrators, are asked to produce rankings based on their perceptions of excellence. And if you are asked to fill out such a survey, you are likely to do so (however much or little knowledge you may possess) by asking yourself, "Well, let's see now. Which are the departments in my field that people generally think are the best?" Excellence is determined by what people think other people might think excellent.
I am reminded of a remark in George W. S. Trow's wonderful book In the Context of No Context, which deserves to be better known as a guide to our condition. Trow identifies as a crucial though unrecognized watershed in the history of American modernity "the moment when a man named Richard Dawson, the host of a program called 'Family Feud,' asked contestants to guess what a poll of a hundred people had guessed would be the height of the average American woman. Guess what they've guessed. Guess what they've guessed the average is."(3) This about our invention of processes of producing rankings while evading problems of knowledge and referentiality.
In the University of Excellence the question becomes, "Are you in the top ten or twenty or fifty of whatever it is you are?" - judged by criteria that need not be specified, so accustomed are we now to this abstract, nonreferential idea of excellence. (Even surveys that seek to be more serious by refining their questions must, in order to retain comparability, make them essentially empty of reference to any specific standard. Thus a question about the excellence of units and programs might be broken into questions about the excellence of faculty, the excellence of students, the excellence of facilities, and so on.) The idea of excellence enables us to make comparable entities which have little in common as to structure or function, input or output. But that is only half of its bureaucratic usefulness. It also makes possible the avoidance of substantive arguments about what teachers, students, and administrators should actually be doing. Everyone's task is to strive for excellence, however that might be defined.
For example, our Department of Transportation and Parking at Cornell received an award for excellence from its professional organization, apparently for its success in discouraging parking on campus (success in "decreasing demand," they call it) by charging increasingly higher fees and progressively eliminating convenient parking spaces. But it is not utterly impossible to imagine that excellence here might have been assigned precisely the opposite content: excellence might conceivably consist of making it easier for faculty to park on campus, though I agree that this is not very likely.
At the moment I am serving on a task force on graduate education, with representatives from the schools of law, business, veterinary medicine, engineering, and hotel administration on my campus. We have very different ideas, I would guess, about what the goals and means of education should be and about what sort of things our graduate students should be doing, but all this seems to be bracketed as irrelevant as we all agree that "excellence" should be our goal and (alas!) that everybody should be reviewed to see that they are working toward it. As Bill Readings writes, "Excellence shares with Machiavelli's virtu the advantage of permitting calculation on a homogenous scale." It is a principle of accounting and bureaucratic control. Bureaucracy works more efficiently if it can avoid becoming involved in arguments about the contents of various activities with people who know more than the administrators, if it can operate at the level of the quantification of excellence, where the comparability it establishes provides justification for the allocation of resources. As a principle of unrestricted accounting, excellence draws only one boundary, writes Readings, "the boundary that protects the unrestricted power of the bureaucracy."
But it is important to stress, I think, that excellence is not an idea foisted on universities by corporate management and its representatives on boards of trustees. It has, on the contrary, come to be the way in which the university, in the United States, achieves the self-consciousness supposed to guarantee its intellectual autonomy. Unlike business, which is interested only in the bottom line, we in the university are defined by our pursuit of excellence. A thousand reports and brochures tell the same tale. Contentless excellence - our comparability.
I am interested in the relationship between the comparability of comparative literature and the comparability instituted by excellence, which, to sum up, has the following characteristics: 1) it purports to have content but actually does not; 2) it grants groups considerable freedom (it doesn't matter what you do so long as you do it excellently), which is crucial to bureaucratic efficiency; but 3) ultimately it is a mechanism for the reduction or exclusion of activities that do not succeed by this measure. How does the comparability of comparative literature compare with this?
The intertextual nature of meaning - the fact that meaning lies in the differences between one text or one discourse and another - makes literary study essentially, fundamentally comparative, but it also produces a situation in which comparability depends upon a cultural system, a general field that underwrites comparison. The meaning of a text depends on its relations to others within a cultural space, such as that of West European culture, which is in part why comparative literature has been so much inclined to remain Western and European in its focus. The more sophisticated one's understanding of discourse, the harder it is to compare Western and non-Western texts, for each depends for its meaning and identity on its place within a discursive system - disparate systems that seem to make the putative comparability of texts either illusory or, at the very least, misleading.
What sort of comparability, then, could guide the transformation of comparative literature from a Eurocentric discipline to a more global one? There is a difficult problem here, it seems to me. On the one hand, as my colleague Natalie Melas argues, comparison such as justifies a discipline consolidates a standard or norm which then functions to give value to works that match up to it and to exclude those that do not, so that comparison - the principle of comparability - rather than opening new possibilities for cultural value, more often than not restricts and totalizes it.(4) But, on the other hand, as we try to avoid this imposition of particular norms, we may risk falling into the alternative practice, which Readings's account of excellence describes, where the standard is kept nonreferential - vacuous - so that it is not imposing particular requirements but where, in the end, it provides a bureaucratic rather than an intellectual mechanism for regulation and control.
The problem of comparison is that it seems inevitably to generate a standard, or ideal type, of which the texts compared come to function as variants. And comparatists today are eager to avoid this implicit result of measuring one culture's texts by some standard extrinsic to that culture. Yet the more we try to deploy a comparability that has no implicit content, the more we risk falling into a situation like that of the University of Excellence, where an apparent lack of concern for content - your department can do what it likes, provided it does it excellently - is in the end only the alibi for a control based on bureaucratic rather than academic and intellectual principles.
The virtue of a comparability based on specific intellectual norms or models - generic, thematic, historical - is that they are subject to investigation and argument in ways that the vacuous bureaucratic norms are not. One solution, then, is to attempt to spell out the assumptions and norms that seem to underwrite one's comparisons, so that they do not become implicit terms. A model here might be Erich Auerbach's conception of the Ansatzpunkt: a specific point of departure, conceived not as an external position of mastery but as a "handle" or partial vantage point that enables the critic to bring together a variety of cultural objects. "The characteristic of a good point of departure," writes Auerbach in his essay "Philology and Weltliteratur," "is its concreteness and its precision on the one hand, and on the other, its potential for centrifugal radiation."(5) This might be a theme, a metaphor, a detail, a structural problem, or a well-defined cultural function. I can imagine basing cross-cultural comparison on linking principles whose very arbitrariness or contingency will prevent them from giving rise to a standard or ideal type, such as comparing works by authors whose last name begins with B, or works whose numerical place in a bibliography is divisible by thirteen. I confess, though, that this is scarcely the sort of thing Auerbach had in mind and not a general or principled solution to the problem of comparability. A further possibility is to attempt to locate the comparative perspective geographically and historically: instead of imagining the comparative perspective as a global overview, one might stress the value, for instance, of comparing European literatures from Africa, for their relations to the cultural productions of a particular African moment. Better such points of departure that impose criteria and norms than the fear that comparisons will be odious. The danger, I repeat, is that comparatists' fear that their comparisons will impose implicit norms and standards may give rise to a vacuousness that is as difficult to combat as is the notion of excellence which administrators are using to organize and reorganize the American university.
The difficulty of the problem makes me regret the more that Bill Readings, who might have had enticing suggestions to offer, is no longer with us. I hope that his book will help us to think about comparative literature as well as about the institutions in which we labor and to which he devoted so much energy and intelligence.
1 William Readings, The University Beyond Culture: The Idea of Excellence, Cambridge, Ma., Harvard University Press, forthcoming. The quote is from page 17 of the manuscript.
2 Further quotations are all from "The Idea of Excellence," chapter 2 of The University Beyond Culture.
3 George W. S. Trow, In the Context of No Context, Boston, Little, Brown, 1981, p. 58.
4 See Natalie Melas's paper, "Versions of Incommensurability," elsewhere in this issue of WLT.
5 Erich Auerbach, "Philology and Weltliteratur," tr. Marie and Edward Said, Centennial Review, 13:1 (Winter 1969), p. 15. I owe this reference to David Chioni Moore's stimulating discussion in "Comparative Literature to Weltkulturwissenschaft: Remedying a Failed Transition," a paper for the Twentieth Southern Comparative Literature Association meeting, October 1994. See also his unpublished Duke University dissertation, "Geo/graphy Without Borders: Metaphors of Structure in 20th Century Word Literature and Culture."
JONATHAN CULLER is the Class of 1916 Professor of English and Chair of the Department of Comparative Literature at Cornell University. Author of On Deconstruction and other books on critical theory, he is at work on A Very Short Introduction to Literary Theory for Oxford University Press and a longer study of Baudelaire, The Devil's Part: Baudelaire's Poetry.
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|Title Annotation:||Comparative Literature: States of the Art.|
|Author:||Culler, Jonathan D.|
|Publication:||World Literature Today|
|Date:||Mar 22, 1995|
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