Blesok no. 28, September-October, 2002

Words on Comparative Literature
or On the Survival of a Discipline Today

Jean Bessiere

     I will speak to you a bit about comparative literature. It will be a banal topic. I will not try to give you a definition of comparative literature, or the regulations of comparative literature. The demand to give definitions and propose recipes, eventually, is a trap set by others – the representatives of other disciplines. I will also not try to enter debates on the crisis of comparative literature and literary studies, because the diagnoses of the crisis are very different. I will try to speak to you about what can the function of comparative literature be today. I will offer but a few options. I will do this starting from what I have heard at AILC (International Association of Comparative Literature).

Note: The text was read at the conference “Comparative Literature: Theory, Methodology, Hermenautics” – Skopje, 1 December 2000.

     In what I have heard at various meetings of AILC I feel that there are four topics present in the studies of comparative literature:
     – cultural and literary identities and transfers;
     – synchronous readings of various literary periods, various language areas (regions), various cultures;
     – literary and cultural history of various regions;
     – meta-criticism.

     I will specify the position of each of these topics with an aim to determine their specific features.
     (1) When we speak of cultural and literary identities and transfers, the issue is not the doubt in identities, but the mutual relations of identities. Therefore, the cross-cutting within a certain culture is just a type of an existing identity, and not un-recognition, as it is usually said, of identities. Thus, literatures can be representing of the relations of identity. The crossing appears as something that carries within and illustrates in itself the relations of identities.
     (2) As far as the synchronous readings of various literary periods, various language spheres, various cultures are concerned, the issue is not to reach conclusions that will have positive or empirical character, but to create categories that will provide a common reading of those periods, those cultures. Virtual models that are means of this common reading are elaborated.
     (3) Concerning the literary and cultural history of various regions, there is the question and need to overcome the sharp national divisions to regions with an aim to understand literary histories as histories of regional communities. These regional communities manage the design of the new critical, cultural and sociological paradigms. These literary histories are necessary because the reality and our perception of the regions are changed. A comparative literary history is the best introduction to a really updated literary thought of these regions.
     (4) As far as the meta-criticisms are concerned, it is known that our epoch is no longer inclined to develop the heart of the literary theory. This does not mean that there should be no meta-criticism at all. The issue is double. Is there a theory that is really a transversal of various literatures? Is it possible to pay attention, within the same theory, both to literary artefact and the recognition of the literary artefact? We know that these two questions surpass the field of the contemporary aesthetics. Aesthetics does not offer clear answers. We can see what the answers to these questions are in various cultures and literatures, to mark the common knowledge that these two questions give us: knowledge that allows us to review various answers to these questions.

     What I just said imposes an initial conclusion. We have constituted transversal, cultural, historical and meta-critical models of literature, of literatures. We know that these models are subject to revision to an extent that they should allow us to move from one to another difference. To see the difference as such has no point. It would be as if it was treated outside of any co-relation, and subsequently, to destroy the conclusion on the difference itself. Thus, is there anything more difficult than shaping the literature of travel (travelogue literature), unless its characterisation of a tautology is reduced: the travel literature is the literature that speaks of travel and the banalities of the discourse of meeting the other. Despite this, it is possible to avoid this banality. This tautology and this banality can be avoided, but only if we understand the travel literature as a presentation of a mutual knowledge that the travellers should acquire in their meeting with the other.
     If we move in this direction that I propose, three false generalisation, that are usual these days will be avoided, and for which I will give you three examples:

1. The construction of the critical model and the consideration of the model, when used for their own goals, become a movement of thought that eventually marks only itself. This is illustrated in all deconstructivist theses. These theses express a generalisation only by the endlessness of their own demonstration;

2. The construction of a critical model can lead to reification of the model. The critical models that introduce the terms power and alienation should be cited, as they lead to reification of these terms. In this perspective, several examples can be given. I will only take and point out one of them. The identification of the modernity with the power of reason itself turns us into heirs and cognitive slaves of 18 century. This is a reification that makes the contemplating of the cognitive, aesthetic and literary rationality nowadays more difficult. Such a criticism of rationality, when it becomes support of the literary criticms, is, indeed, another false generalisation.

3. It is difficult to deny the interest and importance of literary formalisms, the approach of literature per se. But is should be stressed that these formalisms, to the degree they are reified, lead either to positivism – what I call, for example, literary narratology positivism – or towards subjectivism – once the formal conclusions are placed, literature is studied subjectively. Gerard Genet is a good illustration of this double movement, which ends in the no-way-out/blind alley of subjectivism. This reification and this paradox of an approach per se, of literature, has its origin: the difficulties to consider literature when there is a simple conclusion made: we don’t write any more, we don’t read any more, we don’t research the literature inside the fixed traditions and homogenous absolutes. We should decide what a literary subject is, and what the way we read it is. The reification and false generalisation are the consequences of the fact that this contradiction of the formalist literary criticism and its reasons are not researched enough.

     These reminders and this small disagreement with several dominant courses in the modern literary criticism have the aim to enable us to see what can the construction of the Comparative Literature models be.
     One of the features of the four topics of research that I characterised is that they treat literatures starting from the borders of literatures, identities starting from the borders of identities, critical thesis – starting from their (critical) borders. Borders are understood as distinctions between objects, as limitation or bordering in a logical sense. It is a limitation because we can not round up a single analysis of out literary subjects of research, which is fully turned towards itself.
     This game at the borders of literatures, cultures and critical thesis, should not be mixed up with what is called inter-literature, inter-culture, inter-criticism. Practices that are close to this “inter” often correspond to the way of critical syncretism. In many works, the Bakhtin references are limited to numberless citations of the words inter-discourse and inter-culture.
     In our construction that starts from the borders we already mentioned, we being from a certain assumption on the contents of our model and we try to find the appropriate context. The context that will match the model is the one of the borders of literatures, cultures and the one of recomposing of these borders.
     Comparative literature marks in essence the cognitive areas that have mutual common points (intersections) and which, via these intersections, indicate the possibility for a mutual knowledge of literature. This mutual knowledge is, eventually, the cognitive context that allows taking into consideration simultaneously different literatures. This cognitive context is a subject to revision if it is followed by a new intersection of the cognitive areas, the ones that are typical of the various approaches to literatures, cultures.
     The construction of the inter-literary, inter-cultural and inter-linguistic critical models has no other function but to determine the borders of our knowledge, the insights of our cognitive areas and propose a figure of general knowledge, which allows us to return to the various literatures in a specific way again. The validity of the model is in the range and scope of its applications, its contextual effects; the context, it is at the same time the various literary and cultural objects, as well as various researchers.
     I am in a situation to desert the term comparison. I prefer to say that the comparative literature is a method that constructs models that give the biggest number of contextual implications, starting even from the borders of the contexts.
     So, it is possible to specify the term mutual knowledge: knowledge that we share; knowledge that makes us be able to share contexts in an epistemic (paradigmatic) way; knowledge that leaves contexts to their differences.
     Of course, this common knowledge is constantly a subject to revisions, because of two reasons: the first that is already mentioned – the new borders of the objects, new matches (intersections) of the cognitive areas that should always be marked; the second reason will be specified now: this mutual knowledge can not be valid/confirmed by thoughts. If we undertake such a confirmation, it would return us to the false generalisations that I have already mentioned. This mutual knowledge, is thus opposite its own check and its own reform. I propose, as a matter of fact, a wise solution so that the researches of the comparative literature become valid. It is now only about checking Comparative Literature via a positivist approach, nor refusing it for that, because only it can not return to the objects in a strict way typical of any more local research. This is about confirming via its power (of the comparative literature) to contextualise and with a wider co-ordination of the literary studies that it consequently implies.
     I would give a wider formulation on what I said before: to contribute that every critical model allows that a bigger number of literary contexts are read; to provide that the various contexts are constituted by a reinvestigation of the mutual knowledge. To make our critical models, that come from this movement, to provide us, by induction, to open new contexts – as broad as possible.

     What I propose can be understood as part of a methodological contemplation. It can also be understood as a way that Comparative Literature faces several modern literary and cultural realities.
     So, the game of the borders of literature nowadays does not stop varying and being recomposed in a broader way.
     It is enough to say that globalisation and its conversion, which is also as real as globalisation – multiplication of the nation states and multiplication of the affirmations of identity, often inseparable from the geographical and cultural areas. It is here that it should be concluded that the hypothesis of a possible cultural homogenisation does not go without multiplication of the borders of cultures, literatures.
     There is a literary translation or explanation to all of this. It is enough to think of Africa and ask the question – what is, under these circumstances, an African comparative literature? We could give many similar examples. I will only give one more. It is obvious that the comparative literature of the European literatures should be partially reviewed again, after Europe is constituted into one (European) community and maybe constituted in a federation. Geopolitics can suggest a different image of mutual border of literature here than the previous one.
     As far as Africa or Europe is concerned, this reorganisation of our knowledge is a reorganisation that does not cancel previous knowledge. This reorganisation is first of all a research of the new possibilities of contextual reading. These new possibilities assume this common knowledge that excludes the reification of knowledge, design of cognitive contexts.
     As a matter of fact, I have the intention to indicate a function of the comparative literature: to mark the literary contexts today, in the paradox that I indicated – globalisation and multiplication of the nation states, nation states and multiplication of the regional connections inside the frames of the nation states –, in a way that these borders will be mutually readable, but without causing reification of the globalisation, or reification of the difference. There is a critical function of the comparative literature here – this mutual reading I talked about.
     I will conclude these items with a small comment starting from Derrida. Derrida once said that comparative literature is an indeterminate discipline. It was of course a condemnation of comparative literature. The condemnation is strange because it comes from the one who has developed the philosophy of l'indécidable. But maybe he criticised the comparative literature for making the wrong conclusions – for example, for making quasi-essences of literature. We should recognise that comparative literature in the past did not hesitate reifying its objects – whether it was thematic research or abuse of the references of nations, which were often turned into a kind of a nationalistic criticism.
     Nevertheless, it sib worth reviewing again the terms indetermination and indefinition. Comparative literature is indeterminate if it tries to reify its objects, its methods, because it that case it will miss the game of the borders of literature and the mutual introspection of the cognitive contexts. Comparative literature is indeterminate, not in the meaning of deconstruction, but in the meaning where Comparative literature knows that it can construct indetermination, valid models of literatures and cultures. Its efficiency is therefore completely in this indetermination which is a dynamic indetermination. This means a indetermination and unfinishing that does noes stop throwing out the conclusion of the intersection of cognitive contexts again, and via it, the co-operation that means mutual knowledge. We do not have the need of radical indetermination or reification of the knowledge and literary and cultural objects.
     I give these explanations to indicate, finally, two things. The first one is related to the way literary variety can be treated. The second one is related to the way Comparative Literature, literary studies, humanistic research can be situated.

     First Thing.
Against various positivisms and against various reifications, that I stressed, against a hierarchical vision of literatures – whether it is domination or resistance to domination – against the reflexive movement that is matched by an approach to literature per se, which finally closes the reflexive game and leads to paradoxes, against the thought endlessness of the deconstruction that has destroyed the pertinence of each contextualisation of an analysis, it should be said that each literature, each culture, each literary object and each cultural object constitute a fixed point and if one starts from these fixed points, there can be a change (variation) made of the critical models. The expression fixed point indicates ‘reasoning that is not monotonous’, that is part of the logic. A fixed point is a value that the logical and cognitive operations can not alter, whatever the norms of the operation are. Assimilating the literary and cultural objects in the fixed points, diversification of the critical models does not ignore and does not alter these objects. It marks these objects and transfers them to the cognitive area we laid down. This type of understanding and conclusive characterisation of the critical models are a feature of the open cognitive procedures/approaches.

     Second Thing. To redefine the indeterminate in this way offers another benefit: to be able to give Comparative Literature an appropriate place in the current critical debates. What is at many places called crisis of literary research or crisis of humanitarian disciplines is but a progressive erasing of the model of literary research established in Europe in 19 century. This model was, symbolically and ideologically, a mixture of tradition, universalism, nationalism and positivism. Most of the modern critical schools still work on this heritage. To modify it, to try and destroy it – we should deconstruct it.
     The crisis of the humanistic disciplines corresponds to the fact that they can no longer decide on their coherence, after the organisation of their parts, ideological, symbolic and cognitive is no longer functional. The selection of the inconclusiveness by deconstruction is just a response to this situation. One of the possible ways of getting out of the crisis is to preserve our many and varies objects of research, is to promote the idea of a dynamic indetermination. This dynamic indetermination that knows it is not separable from the general knowledge, from research, by obtaining as broad as possible contexts. It is the dynamic indetermination that knows it is inseparable from the way Comparative literature treats literatures and cultures – keeping the borders of literatures and cultures.

Translation from Macedonian to English: Elizabeta Bakovska

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