The Point of Comparison

We invited five people from different faculties in Oxford to offer initial thoughts about what comparative literature means to them, or what comparative criticism might mean, or what the current challenges and excitements of the field(s) seem to them to be. What followed was a wide-ranging discussion, sparked by contributions from Mohamed-Salah Omri on comparative literature and area studies; Elleke Boehmer on postcolonial critical concepts in the Netherlands; Ben Morgan on comparison in film; Nicola Gardini on comparative literature and rhetoric; Nick Halmi on comparative Romantic studies.

Below, there are recordings of all the talks and conversation, and brief accounts (by Matthew Reynolds) of the issues raised.

Mohamed-Salah Omri discussed the disciplines of ‘Area Studies’ and ‘Comparative Literature’ as they apply to the Middle East and north Africa. People in Area Studies typically have good linguistic expertise, but their work usually discounts literature and focuses on understanding the sources of terrorism (‘terrorology’, he called it). People in Comparative Literature tend to be less skilled in languages and in consequence to avoid close reading of literary texts. The challenge for Comparative Literature here is to become more knowledgeable about Arabic literary-critical traditions, and more attentive to form.

Elleke Boehmer took postcolonial studies in the Netherlands as a case study of failed interaction between postcolonial and comparative perspectives.  In the Netherlands, university teaching is generally done in English, and postcolonial criticism focuses on Anglophone texts (for example, Rushdie’s Fury was the featured book for the theme of ‘Writing between Cultures’ in Netherlands Book Week 2001). This is despite the Netherlands’ own long colonial history and its current multicultural condition. Postcolonial critical concepts need to be taken out of the anglophone classroom and brought to bear, in a comparative way, on the Netherlands’ postcolonial scene. For instance, ‘interaction between different migrant communities in the outlying districts of Amsterdam […] raises interesting possibilities as to how postcolonial critical concepts might be not only translated but generated and regenerated within these unfamiliar contexts.’ A comparative perspective can help this regeneration of postcolonial concepts to happen.

Ben Morgan argued that European films needed to be studied comparatively because they always had some sort of relation to Hollywood. Hollywood established the vernacular in which and against which they were working. He illustrated this point with the openings of Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows and Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Angste essen Seele auf (Fear Eats the Soul). A standard move would be to set Fassbinder up in opposition to Sirk; but a more nuanced mode of comparison recognises that both filmmakers are participating in a tradition in a way that involves both continuity and difference: ‘we can see, by comparison, something of the shared situation and shared resources’.

Nicola Gardini argued that the field of comparative literature needn’t involve comparison: it is ‘a general approach to literature, that is one that transcends national constraints and traditional academic partitions.’ A good alternative term for this area of research would be ‘rhetoric’, in the sense of ‘a bag of elemental categories whereby language is made to express thinking and produce knowledge’. He described a book he had been writing about lacunae in western literary texts. It was attentive to genre and history, but more fundamentally it was a gathering of illuminating examples of ‘lacunosity’. ‘I was not comparing anything, but I was doing comparative literature.’

Nick Halmi explored different formations of the study of romanticism, starting from de Man’s contention that to undertake a theoretical analysis of texts—one that involved comparison—meant renouncing their historical study, at least as that had previously been done. Romanticism was early conceived as a pan-European phenomenon, but there were other strands of thought that tied it to national histories: for instance, Pater excluded Heine from romanticism because he was too ‘French’ (for which read Jewish). Later, Wellek’s typological definition of romanticism—whatever the objections to it—at least provided a basis for comparative study. However, more recently the dominance of historicist criticism, and the institutional assimilation of romantic studies to Victorian studies, has led to an emphasis on ‘localised artefactual production and consumption’, and a dearth of comparative work across languages or between literature and philosophy. A few individuals have engaged in this sort of research, but it does not have the methodological confidence that (say) new historicism or deconstructive criticism used to have.

In discussion, we teased out some detail about the different presentations. We also explored the fundamental question of whether Comparative Literature is itself a discipline, or rather a space in which established disciplinary structures become visible and can be questioned. The mid-twentieth century idea of the polymathic scholar, expert in several languages and working in them alone, needs to give way to a conception of a realm of enquiry in which no-one is sufficiently expert, and in which collaboration is therefore essential. Is ‘indiscipline’ the right word for this? (Barry Murnane) Perhaps we should trust in the integrity of the individual doing the work (Nicola Gardini). We should respond to the text in front of us using any means available (Ben Morgan), and should not be limited by a determined method (Robin Ostle). There are disadvantages as well as advantages in attaching yourself to a school (Oliver Taplin). Still, everyone has an anchor somewhere (Mohamed-Salah Omri, Matthew Reynolds). Should we say that we are simply studying ‘literature’? (Barry Murnane, Gail Trimble). But mightn’t this position downplay the degree to which ‘literature’ is a culturally specific category? Returning to the idea of Comparative Literature without comparison, should we not see that any criticism that moves from text to text is implicitly comparative because its terms of analysis are progressively reshaped by the material that it discusses? (Xiaofan Amy Li)

A recording of this event is available here.