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Elitism or eclecticism? Some thoughts about the future of comparative literature.

Before considering the direction which the next generation of comparatists is likely to take, it will be helpful to contextualize those thoughts by briefly retracing several key moments in the history of the (graduate) discipline of comparative literature since the Second World War. This brief survey will highlight the following influences on comparative literature, which were subsequently assimilated to varying degrees by the discipline: 1) canonical literary history, 2) literary theory, 3) multiculturalism, 4) cultural studies. This overview makes no claim to exhaustiveness. Chronologically, the movement from literary history to cultural studies is steadily in the direction of increasing disciplinary eclecticism.

The more distant origins of comparative literature lie in the early nineteenth century, in Goethe's concept of Weltliteratur (world literature) and in European philology. John Pizer's characterization of the Goethean paradigm of Weltliteratur as "grounded in the dialectical relationship between cultural unity and multiplicity, universality and particularity" is illuminating for the humanistic coloration of comparative literature in its early, post-World War II phase (2006, 114). Although comparative literature was studied in this country in the 1920s, the postwar incarnation of comparative literature as an American academic discipline is heavily indebted to European, predominantly German Jewish, exiles fleeing totalitarianism and repulsed by nationalism, as has often been elaborated. Among competing traditions which came together in Istanbul and other exilic centers, the model that prevailed and was imported to the American academy by refugees like Erich Auerbach was the humanistic curriculum, comprised of modern and classical European languages and literatures. In writing about the "invention" of comparative literature by Leo Spitzer in 1930s Istanbul, Emily Apter shows that the exile culture in Istanbul was considerably more cosmopolitan and multilingual than Auerbach portrayed it to be. Concomitantly, as she also notes, Auerbach largely blocked the transmission of non-Western traditions to the U.S.

The humanistic curriculum, embraced by American scholars who were frequently of German/German Jewish descent themselves and whose cultural formation was therefore receptive to such a model (Harry Levin is a notable example), became the foundation of a Eurocentric comparative literature based in literary history and the comparative study of canonical literary texts in their original languages. Hence in this early stage, the discipline is elite, both by virtue of its "high" subject matter and in the sense used by Gerald Gillespie in writing of the "elitist metanarrative" of comparative literary history, where "elite" points to the intense degree of specialization of each practitioner.

It is impossible to overestimate the impact of theory--which at first usually meant philosophy-on comparative literature. This development can be regarded, in simplified terms and at least during the 1970s, as an intellectual version of the Harvard-Yale game: the work of Derrida burst onto the scene at Yale, while Harvard's Department of Comparative Literature remained for the most part devoted to the study of literary texts and literary history. In this counterpoint schema, the Department of Comparative Literature at Yale--teaching literary theory, especially deconstruction--stands as representative of programs at Hopkins, UC Irvine, and Cornell, to mention a few, just as Harvard's department--stressing literary history--was at the time typical of comparative literature programs at UC Berkeley, Indiana, and Stanford.

In his essay in Haun Saussy's collection Comparative Literature in an Age of Globalization about the influence of philosophy on literary theory, the philosopher Richard Rorty emphasizes in particular the impact of Derrida and Foucault, as well as that of Nietzsche and Heidegger. Rorty--who was himself carried by the theory wave from one institution to another--speculates that the time for theory was simply right in the early 1970s: people were bored with New Criticism and Freudian thought, he writes, and the work of Derrida was exciting and energizing for the study of literature (2006, 64). But now, Rorty claims, this "subdiscipline" has had its day: "People in literature departments are beginning to suspect that all the juice has been milked out of the Nietzsche-Heidegger-Derrida intellectual tradition" (63). Whether this is widely true or not, I think most would agree that the engagement with theory has forever altered the way we approach literary texts. Moreover, theory from many non-literary disciplines, including not only philosophy but psychoanalysis, Marxism, music, art, and film studies, has been embraced by comparatists for several decades and has served as the foundation of interdisciplinarity.

Under the impact of multiculturalism, the purview of comparative literature is expanded further yet. Multiculturalism is a politically motivated ideology whose original impetus can be found in the civil rights movements of the 1960s, as well as in the liberation of territories around the globe from their colonial rulers. Multiculturalism is perhaps best understood in terms of the dichotomies characterizing its contradistinction from monoculturalism, which in this context denotes the social, political, and pedagogical predominance of whiteness. Whereas monoculturalism confirms tradition, multiculturalism challenges established norms; while monoculturalism valorizes the univocal and the singular, multiculturalism advocates the pluralistic and anti-hegemonic; where monoculturalism upholds segregation and marginalization, multiculturalism supports integration and diversity. In sum, multiculturalism seeks to replace repressive homogeneity with a democratic heterogeneity. (1)

The influence of multiculturalism on the academy came to be most clearly felt during the 1980s. The Chicago Cultural Studies Group observed in 1992 that "For its adherents, multiculturalism increasingly stands for a desire to rethink canons in the humanities--to rethink their boundaries and their function" (1994, 114). The revisionary influence of multiculturalism on the humanities is perhaps nowhere more notoriously evident than in the case of the Western Culture and Western Civilization curriculum at Stanford. In the spring of 1988, students demonstrated against the required freshman courses in Western Culture and Western Civilization on the grounds that these courses overrepresent white male authors of European origin; the students argued in favor of including more non-European and women writers. Stanford responded by replacing the Western Culture and Civilization courses with a series of multicultural courses called "Cultures, Ideas and Values," or CIV. Whether one views the result positively or negatively, it was inevitable: as formulated by Klaas van Berkel, "Homer and Virgil have had to make way for non-European voices" (1993, 4).

By definition, comparative literature always has been multifocal, engaged in the study of multiple literary traditions. Inflected by multiculturalism, however, comparative literature moves beyond its original Eurocentric orientation. Literary works from the U.S. and Europe are no longer hegemonic, but make way in the curriculum for texts from around the globe. This development constitutes what could be called a postcolonial turn: writers from former colonized nations or territories become as worthy of study as writers from former colonial powers. Yet this transition, often involving languages absent from even sophisticated foreign language curricula, can present comparatists with unavoidable linguistic challenges. Charles Bernheimer offers a suggestion. In his report on the status of the discipline written in 1993 and published two years later, Bernheimer recommends that it is preferable to teach minority literatures in English translation rather than to neglect writers because we lack access to their native language (44). This observation evokes an association to world literature, a largely undergraduate discipline which can be seen to exist alongside rather than within comparative literature. (2)

In his "Report," Bernheimer further advises that the purview of the comparatist should not be limited to literary phenomena: "[T]extually precise readings should take account as well of the ideological, cultural, and institutional contexts in which their meanings are produced" (43). This recommendation anticipates the increasingly eclectic nature of comparative literature, on both the administrative and the scholarly levels, since Bernheimer's "Report" appeared in 1995. Administratively, I am not referring to the pairing of comparative literature with another national literary tradition, most commonly English, as in a Department of English and Comparative Literature such as exists at Columbia, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and formerly UC Irvine (where it was split into two autonomous departments). Nor am I alluding to cases in which institutions without doctoral programs in the smaller national literatures--German, Russian, even French--offer the Ph.D. in comparative literature with emphasis in German, Russian, or French. These structures all have a literary orientation; regardless of what is administratively combined with comparative literature, the foundation is literature, whether English or non-English.

Rather, the growing eclecticism of the discipline is reflected in the systematic coupling of transliterary fields with comparative literature, a policy which has been in evidence for decades but has become more prevalent in recent years. One well-known example is that advocated in Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak's Death of a Discipline: a "Comparative Literature laced with Area Studies" as a potion to revive the ailing discipline (2003, 84 and passim). At times, the thinking appears to be: if you don't know where else to place a program, house it with comparative literature. Such mergers are increasingly occurring with film studies. Sometimes the relationship is purely administrative, as in the Department of Cinema and Comparative Literature at the University of Iowa, where undergraduate and graduate degrees are conferred in either the one discipline or the other. But elsewhere the connection is academic, as in programs in which film studies constitutes a track within the comparative literature major. All these linkages suggest the extent to which the boundaries of comparative literature are frequently viewed, consciously or unconsciously, as porous.

The perceived or actual eclecticism of comparative literature is perhaps most fully apparent with regard to the last of the influences on the discipline that we are considering here, cultural studies, where the humanities and the social sciences intersect. Lawrence Grossberg, Cary Nelson, and Paula Treichler offer a useful definition:
   [C]ultural studies is an interdisciplinary, transdisciplinary, and
   sometimes counter-disciplinary field that operates in the
   tension between its tendencies to embrace both a broad,
   anthropological and a more narrowly humanistic conception of
   culture.... Cultural studies is ... committed to the study of
   an entire range of a society's arts, beliefs, institutions, and
   communicative practices. (1992, 4)

As this broad definition indicates, cultural studies has moved beyond the specifically political impetus of its British, Marxist origins, yet in general it remains committed to social transformation and cultural change. The influence of cultural studies on comparative literature has been palpable.

In a paper called the "The Marriage of Comparative Literature and Cultural Studies" which I presented at the annual meeting of the American Comparative Literature Association in 2005, I singled out the Department of Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature at the University of Minnesota as a rigorous example of what can result from such a merger. Although students in this department pursue a graduate degree in either Comparative Literature or Comparative Studies in Discourse and Society, the fact that most departmental faculty work in both programs reflects the strong interaction between them. A similar linkage informs Steven Totosy de Zepetnek's edited volume Comparative Literature and Comparative Cultural Studies and his online journal, CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture, both of which are international and interdisciplinary in nature. But this kind of disciplinary coupling, epitomizing the increasing eclecticism of the influences that I have surveyed here, can be threatening to the integrity of comparative literature. Already in 1992 Bernheimer cautioned comparatists against identifying with cultural studies because of its emphasis on contemporary popular culture and its monolingualism (1995, 45). Following the progression in comparative literature from a focus on canonical European literature, in the original and often of the past, to the inflection of literature by theory and interdisciplinary perspectives to a broadening of the field through multiculturalism, the marriage of comparative literature and cultural studies could potentially lead to an overemphasis on the present, on popular or mass culture, and on the local, or Anglo-American, with English as the lingua franca. As Brenda Schildgen writes in underlining the roles that philology and history can continue to play in comparative literature, "Two interests seem to have dominated comparative literature in recent times: a focus on epistemological and theoretical cultural studies and a rapid narrowing of the period studied to the second half of the twentieth century" (2003-04, 27). Such a state of affairs is far removed from what the founders of comparative literature envisioned.

What, then, should be the next step? Do such pronouncements portend the decline of comparative literature? How should the next generation of comparatists be trained? Because theorizing and speculating about the future of the discipline and the training of the next generation can only go so far in answering these questions, it seemed that empirical data was called for. I took as a representative sample of the next generation of comparatists the twenty-four students enrolled during 2006-07 in the graduate comparative literature program at the University of California, Davis, where I teach, to whom I sent the following email message in fall 2006 (along with an explanation of why I was sending it): "Could I ask you to send me your ideas about where you think Comparative Literature is going/should go in the next decade and accordingly, how the next generation of comparatists (yourselves) should be trained and prepared? Any thoughts are welcome, in any form." The students who answered spanned the entire spectrum of graduate studies, from first-year to the level of Ph.D. Qualifying Examinations to the dissertation stage.

What is most striking about the responses I received is that all of them mention foreign language study, and all advocate placing the study of literary texts in the original, from more than one linguistic tradition, at the center of the discipline. (3) The differing perspectives from which the students approach this issue are instructive. Shannon Hays, who was at the time preparing to take the Ph.D. Qualifying Examination, observes that the comparative and theoretical methodology once central to our discipline is being adopted by a range of other programs--the national literature departments, cultural studies, film studies, and above all the "megalith that is English" (1 November 2006; all quotations from students are from email messages).

The phenomenon to which Hays refers is vividly exemplified by the current English Department at UC Davis. As described by then-departmental chair Margaret Ferguson in an article in the campus faculty and staff newspaper, the English faculty are now studying and teaching "subjects that span a broad definition of 'literature.' Think Arthur Miller plays, lesbian critiques of marriage in literature, early silent American film--and comic books. And the authors being studied? They span the English-writing globe--India, Pakistan, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the Caribbean, not to mention Great Britain and the United States" (Rockwell 2006, paras. 7-8). This curriculum might be mistaken for that of a comparative literature program, were it not for the phrase "English-writing globe." On the face of it, then, the study of nonnative literature in the original is regarded as the major distinguishing feature of a comparative literature program. As Hays writes, "If Comparative Literature is to maintain its hold as its own entity, perhaps what needs to be emphasized are the very skills and methods touted by the discipline's founders[: a] return and renewed commitment to the study of and research in original languages" (1 November 2006).

Elisabeth Lore, who at the time of my poll was in the first year of the program, does not doubt the importance of foreign languages in the study of comparative literature but points to the very practical difficulty of learning several of them with reasonable proficiency in a limited amount of time, particularly if one's native language is English and if the standard of linguistic proficiency is set by students from a national literature department who devote themselves to a single second language for the duration of their graduate career. Most students and faculty of comparative literature are familiar with this phenomenon--the suspicion and even scorn with which comparatists focusing in a nonnative language are sometimes regarded by members of the respective language department. These sentiments are epitomized in the expression Complitdeutsch, which I once overheard a faculty member in a German Department, himself a native speaker of German, use with reference to the German language skills of an American comparatist of his acquaintance who specialized in German. But Lore offers a concrete suggestion toward solving this problem: awarding credit to graduate students for study abroad (15 October 2006). This idea is rich with possibilities and deserves serious consideration.

Belen Bistue at the time a dissertation student in the program, stresses in responding to my poll the desirability of collaboration among comparatists, invoking the model described by David Damrosch in his contribution to Comparative Literature in the Age of Multiculturalism. Damrosch advocates here what he calls an "elliptical mode of scholarly work ... a process by which two (or more) scholars serve as the focal points for a single project, generating discussion and analysis between them" (1995, 132). Noting the suitability of Damrosch's model to her research on collaborative translations, Bistue speculates that collaboration is particularly appropriate for comparatists:
   [Collaboration] may be an opportunity for decenterings and
   double readings, and conversation across disciplines, for
   which comparatists are well prepared--since they learn
   different languages and deal in different literary and critical
   traditions; also because they can work with originals and
   translations, they may be aware of the possibility of multiple
   interpretive positions that translation opens. (2 November

In this case again, then, a member of the next generation of comparatists calls attention to the decisive importance for our enterprise of studying foreign languages and literatures. Her nuanced reasoning is compelling.

Finally, I quote a joint response from Shawn Doubiago and Elizabeth Wing-Paz, who were then advanced dissertation students at the job application stage. Historically contextualizing their remarks, they express the awareness that the discipline of comparative literature is often criticized today because there is less emphasis on the learning of foreign languages than in the past. Their response to this criticism is worth citing in full:
   We would argue that graduate students still maintain a strong
   appreciation for and place great importance on language, as
   well as on literature in the original. Perhaps the difference
   now is that there is a broader range of languages that we see as
   just as important and "acceptable" as the European languages.
   Today a comparatist is one who [commands] Japanese,
   English, and Latin, or Chinese, Spanish, and Arabic, as well as
   what before was more common when one [commanded]
   Greek, Latin, and French, or Latin, Spanish, and German.
   Another way to see this shift positively is to say that now
   graduate students develop in-depth knowledge of various
   discourses and disciplines in the same way that in the past,
   languages were emphasized. (28 October 2006)

This quotation touches on a paradox that bears mentioning, one that we might call the paradox of globalization. The crossing of borders inherent in the comparative enterprise on the one hand brings home the extent to which the English language has become globally dominant. But on the other hand, the development of the Middle East as a crisis area, along with the progressive shrinking of the world brought about by the power of the Internet and the global permeation of the media, has increased awareness of "critical" languages such as Arabic. Even colleges and universities with a fairly limited number of foreign language programs are beginning to add Arabic language instruction to their curricula. In other words, not the narrowing but the widening of the range of foreign languages taught might serve to answer the question I posed some years ago in an essay on the interrelationship between German studies and comparative literature: "How do we keep our bilingual or polylingual heads when all those around us ... are losing theirs?" (Finney 1997, 264).

In terms of the dichotomous model described in the first part of this essay, all the responses I received from the next generation of comparatists, as microcosmically represented by the graduate program in comparative literature at UC Davis, in essence support a humanistic curriculum based in literary history and the comparative study of canonical literary texts in their original languages--but this curriculum has been renovated. Not only has the spectrum of cultures and languages studied become global rather than solely Western; disciplines other than literature also find a place in the curriculum, as indicated in the last point made by Doubiago and Wing-Paz. No one would venture to write a prescription for training the next generation of comparatists. But in light of the responses I received, I concluded--somewhat to my surprise--that the recently revised Ph.D. program in comparative literature at UC Davis can serve as a broad template, allowing both flexibility and rigor to a degree satisfactory to most. According to its guidelines, students are expected to command one literary tradition from its earliest texts to the present, a second tradition in a particular period of specialization, and either a third literary tradition to a comparable degree of expertise or a so-called special topic, such as a particular theme, genre, or interdisciplinary focus within a chosen period. In each case the student is required to take seminars in the original language of the respective literary tradition.

If this program sounds fairly traditional, it should be noted that students must also take seminars on the history of critical theory, both twentieth-century and pre-twentieth-century. Furthermore, in addition to the special topic option, which can lead to a considerable degree of theoretical expertise and interdisciplinary work (a number of our students choose for example to focus in a particular area of film as their special topic), students' non-literary training is further augmented by the so-called Designated Emphases, or DEs. These are tantamount to graduate minors, since students typically take four seminars in each. Nearly all students in comparative literature complete at least one DE; roughly half fulfill the requirements for two. Designated Emphases which students in comparative literature have pursued include Critical Theory, Feminist Theory and Research, Second Language Acquisition, Studies in Performance and Practice, and Native American Studies.

All things considered, this kind of graduate program in comparative literature can be seen to represent a middle ground between elitism and eclecticism. Students in such a program are not required to command (to varying degrees) four foreign languages and three literary traditions, as was the case with some doctoral programs in comparative literature during the 1960s and 1970s. At the other end of the spectrum, our students today systematically familiarize themselves with the theoretical apparatus of one or more non-literary disciplines or bodies of thought, things of which graduate students in those enormously comprehensive programs thirty-five years ago were virtually ignorant, preoccupied as they were with literary texts and literary history. No single graduate program in comparative literature can do it all-give students comprehensive training in language, literature, literary theory, and a non-literary discipline--even if the time to degree is ten years. Choices have to be made. In my view, a hybrid program, integrating the study of literary traditions and texts read in the original with training in literary theory and in at least one other related discipline, will best serve our students in the twenty-first century.

A final word about what graduate studies in comparative literature can offer the next generation is found in the statement formulated by Shawn Doubiago and Elizabeth Wing-Paz, the two advanced dissertation students responding jointly to my poll:
   Given the complex state of the world today, the "humanism" ... of
   Comparative Literature is timely; it provides us with an ethical
   standpoint from which to teach, do research, and be active
   intellectuals. A comparative perspective lets us see the potential
   and possibilities that lie in difference, the importance of
   connections, and the dangers of ethnocentrism, fanaticism, and
   historical short-sightedness. (28 October 2006)



Apter, Emily. "Global Translatio: The 'Invention' of Comparative Literature, Istanbul, 1933." The Translation Zone: A New Comparative Literature. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2006. 41-64.

Association of Departments and Programs of Comparative Literature. "2005 Report on the Undergraduate Comparative Literature Curriculum." Profession 2006: 177-97.

Bernheimer, Charles. "The Bernheimer Report, 1993: Comparative Literature at the Turn of the Century." Comparative Literature in the Age of Multiculturalism. Ed. Charles Bernheimer. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 1995. 39-48.

Chicago Cultural Studies Group. "Critical Multiculturalism." Multiculturalism: A Reader. Ed. David Theo Goldberg. Oxford: Blackwell, 1994. 114-39.

Damrosch, David. "Literary Study in an Elliptical Age." Comparative Literature in the Age of Multiculturalism. Ed. Charles Bernheimer. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 1995. 122-33.

--. What Is World Literature? Princeton: Princeton UP, 2003.

Finney, Gail. "Of Walls and Windows: What German Studies and Comparative Literature Can Offer Each Other." Comparative Literature 49 (1997): 259-65.

Gillespie, Gerald. "Comparative Literary History as an Elitist Metanarrative." Neohelicon 30.2 (2003): 59-64.

Goldberg, David Theo, ed. Multiculturalism: A Critical Reader. Oxford: Blackwell, 1994.

Grossberg, Lawrence, Cary Nelson, and Paula A. Treichler, eds. Cultural Studies. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Kundera, Milan. "Die Weltliteratur: How We Read One Another." The New Yorker (8 January 2007): 28-35.

Pizer, John. The Idea of World Literature: History and Pedagogical Practice. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 2006.

Rockwell, Susanne. "English Opens New Chapter." Dateline (27 October 2006).

Rorty, Richard. "Looking Back at 'Literary Theory.'" Comparative Literature in an Age of Globalization. Ed. Haun Saussy. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 2006. 63-67.

Schildgen, Brenda. "The Legacy of Erich Auerbach and Edward Said: Philology and History in the Future of Comparative Literature." Yearbook of Comparative and General Literature 51 (2003-04): 2741.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. Death of a Discipline. New York: Columbia UP, 2003.

Totosy de Zepetnek, Steven, ed. Comparative Literature and Comparative Cultural Studies. West Lafayette: Purdue UP, 2003.

van Berkel, Klaas. "Multiculturalism and the Tradition of Western Self-Criticism." Multiculturalism and the Canon of American Culture. Ed. Hans Bak. Amsterdam: Vu UP, 1993. 1-15.

(1)See for example David Theo Goldberg (1994), especially 3-41.

(2)The emergence of world literature as a discrete field stems in no small part from the work of David Damrosch, both as a theorist of world literature and as an editor of global anthologies. For Damrosch, world literature is less a set body of texts than a dynamic process of circulation and reception. The student of world literature is sensitive to the ways in which texts interact with or are "refracted by" cultural contexts other than their own (2003). A significant dividing line between world literature and comparative literature is that most comparatists endeavor to work with at least some texts in the original languages, whereas the wide scope of world literature--both geographic and temporal--often prevents this (though not in the case of Damrosch himself). Milan Kundera (2007) casts a different light on this distinction, applauding the increased exposure afforded by translations of world literature as opposed to the "provincialism" of literature professors who continue to identify with the culture of foreign works which they study in the original.

(3) The emphasis on foreign languages at the graduate level parallels the results of the extensive survey of American undergraduate programs in comparative literature that was conducted by an Association of Departments and Programs in Comparative Literature committee under the chairmanship of Corinne Scheiner. See Association of Departments and Programs of Comparative Literature (2006).
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Author:Finney, Gail
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Date:Jan 1, 2008
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