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University of Oklahoma

Productive Comparative Angst: Comparative Literature in the Age of Multiculturalism

Author(s): Linda Hutcheon
Source: World Literature Today, Vol. 69, No. 2, Comparative Literature: States of the Art
(Spring, 1995), pp. 299-303
Published by: University of Oklahoma
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/40151140
Accessed: 05/08/2009 03:13

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Literature Today.

Productive ComparativeAngst:ComparativeLiterature in the Age of

By LINDA HUTCHEON The currentexplosion from the Americanizationof the workof those post-
of interestin the state war Europeanemigrephilologistsand literaryhisto-
of the disciplinecalled rians, through to the domestication of what was
comparative literature may be a sign of institutional called "theory"when it was housed in comparative
anxiety or intellectualexcitement - or perhapsboth. literaturedepartments,to the currentquestioningof
The rapidpublicationof the book Comparative Lit- the centralityof the "Lit" in CompLit. Tellingly,
eraturein the Age of Multiculturalism^ edited by perhaps,the first two were called reports"on stan-
CharlesBernheimer,1is more than a tribute to the dards";the most recent one has been amendedby
efficiency and publishing savvy of the Johns Hop- the ACLA to bear the title of a reporton "the state
kins UniversityPress;it is a sign of the urgencyfelt of the discipline."
by comparativiststo rethinkand even to reconfigure The second section of ComparativeLiteraturein
their affiliationsin the light of recent intellectual the Age of Multiculturalism contains the three re-
and academic realignments.Within a year of the sponses to the BernheimerReport- by K. Anthony
December 1993 Modern Language Association Appiah, Mary Louise Pratt, and Michael Riffa-
convention,at which the newest public debate for- terre- that were presented for debate at the 1993
mally began, this collection of essays has made MLA convention. The third and largest section is
availablefor even wider discussion the American given over to thirteen "position papers" from re-
ComparativeLiteratureAssociation's 1993 Bern- spected comparativistsof several generations, re-
heimer Report entitled "ComparativeLiteratureat spondingin turn not only to the reportsthemselves
the Turn of the Century."Following on books like but also to the very differentstances taken in the
TheComparative on Literature:
Perspective Approaches threeMLA papers.Chosen for the "diversityin crit-
to Theoryand Practice?this volume joins a host of ical perspective and institutional affiliation" (xi)
others3in examiningwhat it calls the "anxiogenic" they represented,these scholarsoffer a wide range
state of comparativeliteraturein the United States of opinion and position. In short, if you come to
(and elsewhere)today. Comparative Literaturein theAge of Multiculturalism
This state of anxiety may well feel familiar to looking for a single answer to any of your worries
those who recall Rene Wellek's 1958 worries (in about the discipline, or if you are not comfortable
"The Crisis of ComparativeLiterature")4 about the with the postmodern-lyplural and contingent,you
lack of both subject matter and methodology in will not find your anxieties lessened by your read-
what many referto by the contraction"CompLit." ing. This is not a book for the faint of (metanarra-
Indeed, as Bernheimernotes in his introduction,the tive) heart.
variousshifts in the discipline'sfocus "since World It is, however, a book for provoking thought,
WarII can be viewed as a seriesof attemptsto cure, specificallythought on four majorareas of concern
contain, or exploit the anxiety of comparison"(3). for comparativiststoday, as reflected in the Bern-
The most recent in this series of attempts was heimerReport:1) the historicalEurocentrismof the
brought about by that new ACLA document: just CompLit traditionand its relationto the multicul-
like the Levin Report of 1965 and the Greene Re- tural reality of the present; 2) the continuingcon-
cerns about the desirabilityof reading- and com-
port of 1975, the 1993 BernheimerReport is un-
avoidablythe product of a particulargenerationof paring- literaturesin their original languages and
not in translation;3) the position of theory in the
comparativists.5The reprintingin this volume of
these three reportsmakespossible the kind of com- disciplinetoday; 4) the debate between what might
be calledthe "formalists"and the "contextualists" -
parison that clearly reveals the generationalshift
or, in institutionalterms, literarystudies versus cul-
Linda Hutcheon is Professorof Englishand ComparativeLit- Few would deny that the history of comparative
eratureat the Universityof Toronto. She is the authorof eight
books, the latest of which is Irony's Edge: The Theoryand Politics
literaturein North Americais the historyof its Eu-
of Irony (1995). ropean emigrefoundingfathers;for some, that past

has lived on as a kind of cosmopolitan, "poetic parativeliterature,by its very nature, is alreadya
Euro-chic"6that may still be worn as a " 'classy'de- particularly "hospitable space" for what Mary
signerlabel"today.7While even the 1965 Levin Re- Louise Pratt calls "the cultivationof multilingual-
port stressed the need to transcend that cultural ism, polyglossia,the artsof culturalmediation,deep
limitationand the 1975 Greene Report emphasized interculturalunderstanding,and a genuinelyglobal
the "global"nature of literature,the disciplinehas consciousness"(62). This Utopianview of CompLit
nonethelesslargelyremainedbased in Europeanlit- as the "site for powerfulintellectualrenewalin the
erary and historical traditions. The essays in this study of literatureand culture" (62) is part of its
volume thoughtfullycombat any knee-jerkrejection history too, in a way: in the nervouspostwaryears
of this fact, however. K. Anthony Appiah urges: of its North Americanfounding,it was seen as rep-
"Studythese interconnectedEuropeanliteratures,I resenting"the spirit of peace, sincerity,reasonable-
say. They make sense together.They were made for ness, and hope."11Inherentlypluralist,CompLit is
each other."8However, he goes on, study as well argued to be "awareof but not defined by Differ-
other interconnectedbodies of writing that cohere ence in all its powerful forms: language, religion,
aroundother culturalnotions in other parts of the race, class, and gender."12This idea of the discipline
world.David Damroschalso remindsus that, in the as "a theoreticalfree space and a more cosmopoli-
face of the enormous scope of comparativelitera- tan environmentfor multilingualand multiaccentu-
ture's "mission,"workingwithin only the European al community"13goes a long way toward making
languages may have been, for European-trained comparativeliteratureinto the "humanitiescounter-
scholars,"less a matterof culturalimperialismthan partto internationalrelations."14
it was a melancholyacceptanceof unbridgeablelim- The dissentingview in the volume is that of those
its."9 like Emily Apter who suggest that CompLit's day
The earlyconstructionsof the field- like those of may in fact have passed, that now is the time for
other fields of literarystudy- have now been called postcolonialand not comparativestudies: "Withits
into questionbecause of their omissions, omissions interrogationof culturalsubjectivityand attentionto
made more evidentthroughthe increasinglydiverse the tenuous bonds between identity and national
demographicsnot only of North Americansociety language, postcolonialism quite naturally inherits
but of the North Americanacademyitself. As an in- the mantle of comparative literature's historical
ternationalist discipline, comparative literature legacy."15 WhileApterand othersrejectthat implied
could not remain untouched by the pluralisticde- consensualor Utopianmodel in favorof a dissensual
mands for canon revisionand the ethical considera- one that would confront First with Third World
tions vis-a-vis minoritizedgroups that were part of cultures, Rey Chow offers an importantreminder:
the contested academic and intellectualclimate of "Insteadof being a blankspace readyto be adopted
the 1980s. In fact, it has faced particularand partic- or assimilatedby comparativeliterature,non-West-
ularlytroublesomeproblemsbecause of its compar- ern languageand literatureprogramshavebeen sites
ativefunction.These includedproblemsas different of production of knowledgewhich function along-
as accusationsof implied universalism,on the one side United States State Departmentpolicies vis-a-
hand, and, on the other, chargesof essentializingin vis the particularnations and cultures concerned"
the face of the mimeticimperativethat often accom- (108). From anotherangle, David Damroschstress-
panies notions of authenticity. There have been es the need to historicizeand contextualizeimperial-
problems caused by geopolitical complexities and ism. Empire is not a recent phenomenon;it is not
the historicalprocesses of globalization,democrati- only a Europeanone (126).
zation, and decolonization that are collectively Postcolonialworkis, of course,being done in na-
changinghow literatureand culture have been un- tional literaturedepartmentsas well, largelybecause
derstood and studied.10And, of course, there have of its frequentlyunilingualfocus: the culturalpower
been problemscausedby the image of the compara- of colonialismlives on in language.This bringsme
tivist as colonizingimperialisttakingover individual to the second source of anxietyfor comparativists -
linguisticand literarydomains. the familiarone of linguisticcompetenceand of the
The BernheimerReport'sadvocacyof "a plural- pedagogicand ethical issues involvedin "engaging"
ized and expanded contextualizingof literarystud- two or more literaturesadequatelyin their original
ies" (11) is one responseto these diverseproblems, languages.The question of the use of translations
one to which I will returnshortly.But a number of has provokeda predictable"elitistversus populist"
the contributorsto this volume suggest that com- debate.16However, multilingualism,as we are re-

minded in this volume, is in itself trans-ideological torical, gay and lesbian (and queer) theorists to
in the sense that it can "as easilyservethe agendaof make ideology an unavoidableissue in literarystud-
reactionary politics as it can serve progressive ies, comparativeor otherwise.One of the results of
ones."17Thus., its intrinsicpositive value (assumed this shift of focus has been the rise of a North Amer-
in the Levin and Greene Reports) is called into ican version of what in Britain had been dubbed
question,even as the limits of unilingualismare rec- cultural studies. The BernheimerReport expresses
ognized:not all literaryconcernscan be satisfactori- this shift in quite cautiousterms as a broadeningof
ly investigatedthroughtranslations.ElizabethFox- the field of inquirythat "does not mean that com-
Genovese takes a strong stand on this issue, urging parativestudy should abandonthe close analysisof
the seekingof alternativesto the use of translations rhetorical,prosodic, and other formal featuresbut
with its implicit throwingup of hands because "we that textuallyprecise readingsshould take account
are too limited (read imperialist)to appreciateit in as well of the ideological,cultural,and institutional
the original"(135). A sensible and attractivealter- contexts in which their meanings are produced"
nativeis the one offeredby Damrosch:collaborative (43).
work for scholarsand collaborativetrainingfor stu- This may sound like a safe-enoughcompromise,
dents (132). but the strong reactionsof contributorswould sug-
The issue of translationmergeswith that of Euro- gest otherwise. While accepting that formal and
centric critique in the third area of common con- contextual studies are necessarily complementary,
cern among the contributorsto Comparative Litera- Michael Riffaterreassertsthe need to "decontextu-
ture in the Age of Multiculturalism. The ready alize" and focus on the esthetic features of litera-
availabilityof English versions of the European ture.18Peter Brooks protests the "abjectlyapologic
structuralistand poststructuralisttheorists'workhas tone" of the Reportwhich suggeststhat the teaching
threatenedCompLit departments'housing of theo- of literatureis "an outmoded mandarinpractice"
ry: national literaturedepartmentsof all kinds can (99) instead of the study of the "processesby which
now "do" theory. There is little doubt that the rise meaning is made, the grounds for interpretation"
and fall of the institutionalpower and cohesion of (101). Warningof the dangers of interdisciplinary
the Yale ComparativeLiteraturegroup has left its amateurism,Brooks eloquently argues that "real"
mark on the discipline and, many would argue, interdisciplinarity"comes when thought processes
upon the very process of reading. The compara- reachthe point wherethe disciplinaryboundaryone
tivistswho writefor this volume, however,are divid- comes up againstno longermakes sense- when the
ed in their views of the continuing importanceof internal logic of thinking impels a transgressionof
theory to CompLit's self-definition.Yale's current borderlines.And to the extent that this is teachable
chairof ComparativeLiterature,Peter Brooks,feels at all, it requiresconsiderableapprenticeshipin the
theory is still the lingua franca of the discipline disciplinethat is to be transcended"(102).
(103), and Elizabeth Fox-Genovese feels it would Many contributorsattest to their belief in what
"be difficultto imaginecomparativeliteraturewith- one calls the "valuablespecificity"of literature.19
out theory, not least since the mere posing of the For some, this is a reasonfor remaining,in Brooks's
comparative problem is inherently theoretical" terms, a "viable interlocutorto cultural studies,"
(139). Appiah, on the other hand, while agreeing one that can insist that "contextualizationsof litera-
that theory has been important historically to ture in ideologicaland culturalterms remainaware
CompLit, does not see it as either the goal or the of literature'sinstitutional definitions and of the
defininguniquenessof the discipline(53). uses of poetics and rhetoric in understandingthe
The theories of textuality that the Yale School ways in which literaturecreatesmeaningsthat both
representedare not, of course, the only components resemble and differ from those produced in other
of what we lump together these days as "theory," discourses" (103). But need CompLit's position
and that comes throughloud and clear in the posi- here merely be one of interlocutor?Has any com-
tion paperspublishedin this book. With the increas- parativist,even the most formalist,ever reallyread
ing importanceof feministtheoryin North America, literatureoutside of some context, as not inextrica-
a majorinterestin context- social, cultural,histori- bly embedded in a vast set of cultural practices?
cal, political context- was added to the concern This is not a rhetoricalquestion;nor is it an utterly
with textuality.The impact of feminist work dove- naive one, despite appearances.It points to my gen-
tailed with the theories of Foucault, Bakhtin, and uine puzzlementover what feels like a false dichoto-
Benjamin,and of Marxist, postcolonial, New His- my.

The disciplinarytrainingof a comparativist,like preciselywhat the emergingfield of culturalstudies

that of any scholarwho studiesEnglishor Frenchor could most profitfrom. And the seeming expansion
Koreanor Nigerianliterature,teaches us all that in- of the scope of the discipline to include not only
terpretationdoes not happenin a vacuum, that it is high art but also popularcultureis maybemore ap-
always relationaland dynamic. Our literarydisci- parent than real: minimalhistoricizingis needed to
plines may well traffic,not in politicalwisdom, but remind us that Shakespeare'splays were not what
in "metrics,narrativestructure,double, triple and we would now call high art for the entire audience
quadruplemeanings,"as StanleyFish has argued;20 of the Globe Theater, and that writerslike Rabelais
but the analysis of, say, narrative structure just deliberatelychose to write in the vernacular,not in
mighthave to deal with the fact that storiesare writ- Latin.24The monolingualand often parochialnature
ten- and read- in certainways for certain reasons of much cultural-studieswork in the recent past
(conscious or unconscious reasons) in certain con- need not stand as the final definitionof this emerg-
texts at certaintimes. These are the insightsthat our ing field. The additionof the workof comparativists
formaltrainingallowsus to carryforwardto the in- could serveto expandit in significantways.
terpretationof other culturalartifactsor other dis- Comparative literature's major disciplinary
courses. We never stop being comparativeliterature strength and major intellectual attractionhave al-
trainees;our "deformationprofessionnelle"is per- ways seemed to me to lie in a positive version of
manent.At least it is if we have had that training. what Emily Apter considersits "unhomely"quality
(90) and what Bernheimercalls its "qualityof dis-
possession - a kind of hauntingby otherness"(12).
The ACLA documentis not only a reporton the
I remain as worriedas ever, both in pragmaticand
state of researchin the disciplineas it now stands;it
in political terms, about its vast scope- even vaster
is a provocativechallengeto broaden the scope of
in this new definition "chargedwith the study of
what we teach in CompLitdepartments.Like many discourses and cultural
of us, the Report's authorswere formed and "de- productions of all sorts
throughout the entireworld."25 1 also sharemany of
formed"as comparativists;they have that to build the contributors'worriesabout the
possible institu-
upon and to deploy in new areas. The inevitable tional consequencesof a move outwardfrom the lit-
danger for our students in broadeningwhat is al- erary:in these days of financialconstraints,unstable
ready an impossiblybroad discipline is the loss of disciplinaryboundaries can mean unstable fund-
any useful and distinctivetraining,even in skills of ing.26Of course, the inherentversatilityof compara-
interpretation.The result, lamentsAppiah,may not tivists can also mean the kind of institutionalflexi-
be interdisciplinaritybut "an unstructured post- bilitythat could spell survival.27
modernhodge-podge"(57). This is a warningwe as If you have evertaughtor been taughtin a Comp-
teachersmust heed- for our students' sakes. But I Lit program,you will know that comparatistsmay
still do not think the institutionalor pedagogic an- appearto have little in common with one another:
swer is to leave culturalstudies to the nationallan- "As a discipline with no common body of knowl-
guage and literature departments - where cultural edge other than literarystudies, and without a cen-
specificitymay indeed make such a focus logical. tral purpose except to carry out its astringentor
This is JonathanCuller's solution, one that would stimulantmotions, comparativeliteratureappearsto
leave comparativiststo study "literaturecompara- invite misunderstandingeven from its own familyof
tively"and attempt"to attend to its global manifes- scholars."28But what ComparativeLiteraturein the
tations."21But the question of cultural specificity Age of Multiculturalism revealsis that any such mis-
will not go awayso easily- eitheras a problemor as understandingis part of the intellectualvitality of
a temptation- for those engagingmore than one lit- the field and part of the continualself-criticismof a
erary or culturaltradition.22 Culture is no more or protean discipline that has never been willing (or
less "translatable" than literature.Culture,like liter- able) to fix its self-definition.That is what is frus-
ature,is a matterof form as much as of content.23 tratingabout CompLit,but it is also what attracted
The BernheimerReport had advised caution for many of us to it. The ACLA, as an importantpro-
comparative literature vis-a-vis cultural studies, fessional voice for comparativiststudies, has pro-
"wheremost scholarshiphas tended to be monolin- voked productiveand continuingdebate on the fu-
gual and focused on issues in specific contemporary ture of the discipline through the Bernheimer
popular cultures"(45). But the historicalcommit- Report. This is not the last word, of course. There
ment of comparativestudies, conjoined with the can, luckily,be no last word on this subject.
archival work of historians themselves, might be Universityof Toronto

ComparativeLiteraturein the Age of Multiculturalism, ed. questionswhethersuch a worthysocial aim, however,is an ade-
CharlesBernheimer,Baltimore,JohnsHopkinsUniversityPress, quateor even appropriatefoundationfor a discipline.
1995. Most page referencesto this volumewill appearin paren- 12Ed Ahearnand Arnold
Weinstein,"The Function of Criti-
thesesin the text. Subsequentreferencesin the notes will use the cism at the PresentTime: The Promiseof ComparativeLitera-
abbreviationCL. ture,"in CL, p. 78. They go on to note: "Thereis no periodor
2 The on Literature: to Theory
Comparative Perspective Approaches place of artisticproductionwhich is not similarlymixed, cross-
and Practice,eds. Clayton Koelb and Susan Noakes, Ithaca, cultural,cross-pollinated.Virginliteratures,like the virginland,
N.Y., CornellUniversityPress, 1988. are a myth. Comparativists arethe peopletrainedto bringus this
3See Borderwork: FeministEngagements withComparative Liter- news"(79).
ature,ed. MargaretR. Higonnet,Ithaca,N.Y., CornellUniversi- 13
Mary Russo, "Telling Tales Out of School: Comparative
ty Press, 1994; Buildinga Profession: Autobiographical
Perspectives Literatureand DisciplinaryRecession,"in CL,p. 189.
on the Beginningsof Comparative Literaturein the UnitedStates, 14AhearnandWeinstein, 81.
eds. Lionel Gossmanand MihaiI. Spariosu,Albany,N.Y., State 15
Emily Apter, "ComparativeExile: CompetingMarginsin
Universityof New York Press, 1994; and the recent translation the History of ComparativeLiterature,"in CL, p. 86. Further
by ColaFranzenof ClaudioGuillen'sbook TheChallenge of Com- pagereferenceswill appearin parenthesesin the text.
parativeLiterature,Cambridge,Ma., HarvardUniversityPress, 16See Elizabeth
Fox-Genovese, "BetweenElitism and Pop-
1993. ulism:WhitherComparativeLiterature?" in CL, p. 134. Further
4Rene Wellek, "The Crisis of
ComparativeLiterature,"in pagereferenceswill be in parenthesesin the text.
Concepts ed. StephenNichols, New Haven, Ct., Yale
of Criticism, 17Chow, 110.
UniversityPress, 1963. 18Michael Riffaterre,"On the
Complementarityof Compara-
5For a detailed considerationof these tive Literatureand CulturalStudies,"in CL,pp. 67, 70.
see RolandGreene,"TheirGeneration,"in CL,pp. 143-54. 19FrancoiseLionnet,
"Spacesof Comparison,"in CL, p. 172.
6Peter Brooks,"MustWe
Apologize?"in CL, p. 97. Further Furtherpagereferenceswill appearin parenthesesin the text.
referenceswill be in parenthesesin the text. 20
StanleyFish, "WhyLiteraryCriticismIs Like Virtue,"Lon-
Rey Chow, "Inthe Name of ComparativeLiterature,"in CL, donReviewofBooks,10 June 1993, p. 12.
p. 107. Furtherpage referenceswill appearin parenthesesin the 21JonathanCuller,
"ComparativeLiterature,at Last!"in CL,
text. p. 121.
8K. 22See the
AnthonyAppiah,(iGeistStories,"in CL,p. 54. importantpoints madeby MarjoriePerloff,"'Litera-
9David Damrosch,
"LiteraryStudy in an EllipticalAge," in ture'in the ExpandedField,"in CL,p. 180; Damrosch,p. 123.
CL,p. 130. Furtherpage referenceswill appearin parenthesesin 23See Siebers, 196-97.
the text. 24Lionnet, 172.
10 25Culler, 117.
MaryLouisePratt,"Comparative Literatureand GlobalCit- p.
izenship,"in CL, p. 59. Furtherpage referenceswill appearin 26See Perloff, 182.
parenthesesin the text. 27Russo, 193.
11Tobin Siebers, 28Greene, 145.
"SincerelyYours," in CL, p. 195. Siebers p.

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