Notes & Comments April 1994
Exit comparative literature, enter “cultural productions”
According to a State of the Discipline report issued recently by the American Comparative Literature Association, it has now been decided by this august body of (former?) literary scholars that “‘literature’ may no longer adequately describe our object of study.” A committee of ten disaffected comparatists, chaired by Charles Bernheimer, professor of what is still called “comparative literature” at the University of Pennsylvania, has decided to dump what is described as the “restrictive Eurocentrism” that formerly determined the boundaries of this field of study in favor of—well, the usual politicization of practically everything. Or, to quote directly from the ACLA report:
The notion that the promulgation of standards could serve to define a discipline has collapsed in the face of an increasingly apparent porosity of one discipline’s practices to another’s. . . . 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 post-contact 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. These ways of contextualizing literature in the expanding fields of discourse, culture, ideology, race, and gender are so different from the old models of literary study according to authors, nations, periods, and genres that the term “literature” may no longer adequately describe our object of study.
“Literature,” according to this report, is now a word best used between quotation marks, and what it once described is now to be referred to as “literary phenomena” or “high literary discourse,” as in the following sentence from the ACLA report: “This suggests, among other fundamental adjustments, that Comparative Literature departments would moderate their focus on high literary discourse and examine the entire discursive context in which texts are created and such heights are constructed.” What “the entire discursive context” means, of course, is equal time—and maybe something better than equal time—to non-literary texts, or should we say non-literary productions, for they need not be texts (as we used to think of that term) or even writing. Indeed, they may be non-literate. The report helpfully points out that “anthropological and ethnographic models for the comparative study of cultures may be found as suitable for certain courses of study as models derived from literary criticism and theory.” Which is to say, more suitable, since what was once called literature is now demoted to the status of ethnographic production.
The space of comparison today involves comparisons between artistic productions usually studied by different disciplines
And what are the members of the ACLA invited to busy themselves with now that literature, comparative or otherwise, has been consigned to oblivion? “Comparative Literature departments,” the report recommends, “should play an active role in furthering the multicultural recontextualization of Anglo-American and European perspectives.” As if that project in the deconstruction of the of the Western literary tradition were not enough, what were once called comparative literature departments are also urged to “include comparisons between media, from early manuscripts to TV, Hypertext, and Virtual Realities.”
This brings the writers of the ACLA report to the subject of—er, books. You know, what writers write and readers read. The report urges, in effect, that we no longer afford them what is inevitably called a “privileged” status.
The material form that has constituted our object of study for centuries, the book, is in the process of being transformed through computer technology and the communications revolution.
Thus what is recommended for study—rather than literature, that is—is “the business of book-making [and] also the cultural place and function of reading and writing and the physical properties of newer communicative media.” The new breed of post-comparatists are also warned against teaching undergraduate students “just Great Books,” and urged to offer instruction in “how a book comes to be designated as ‘great’ in a particular culture, that is, what interests have been and are invested in maintaining this label.” As dressing for this salad, teachers of college undergraduates are also urged to offer the now standard mixture of “Eurocentrism, canon formation, essentialism, colonialism, and gender studies.”
What this report on the State of the Discipline in Comparative Literature amounts to, then, is an obituary for one of the most exalted traditions of literary and humanistic study in the American university. We are told that the discussion of the report by ACLA members was “passionate” and “many-sided,” and that the report should not be taken to represent any sort of “consensus.” Yet the fact is that the report has been issued, and the opposition to it—supposing it to exist—has, as of this writing, remained inaudible. And the report itself already makes clear that what is “recommended” in this report has already been put into practice throughout comparative literature departments the country over. Once again, literature has been assassinated, and radical politics has emerged victorious.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 12 Number 8, on page 1
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