Monday, 27 August 2012

Haun Saussy’s essay ‘Exquisite Cadavers Stitched from Fresh Nightmares’ – An Overview

“Comparative literature supplies the instructions, the labour, and the glue. Our many “modes of reading” fix on texts from elsewhere, transform them, then send them out again. If part of our “selflessness” derives from not having a national “home,” another part derives from our identification with the processes of interchange, our investment in methods rather than in subject matter.”

Comparative Literature – A global phenomena
Haun Saussy begins on a congratulatory note for he observes that never before has comparative literature shown its omnipotence this clearly. It has even manifested itself in coffee room chat and the study transnational literature is now certified as worthy of attention. Authors and critics who write in foreign languages are now read and comparative teaching and reading are gaining institutionalized form. Thus, the long held controversy is over, comparative literature is relevant. But this is the very thing that brings in fresh nightmares for how really relevant is the comparative literature of mass consumption that globalization has brought to birth?

“Comparative literature is not only legitimate: now, as often as not, ours is the first violin that sets the tone for the rest of the orchestra. Our conclusions have become other people’s assumptions.”

It is indeed wonderful that what comparatists have gifted to the world has been now assimilated by so many people that we find everyone to be a comparatist. This inevitably cuts back on quality for while everyone can spin an armchair theory (without a fluency in three or more languages) there are few who will have made it their sole job. The omnipotence of comparative ideas does not call for a huge university department for the discipline for it shows that comparative literature as a discipline is transdepartmental in nature. 
The nightmare starts here, for though comparative literature plays the donor and has its conclusions taken up for use in varied fields it is an unknown one. There is no patent on its theories or conclusions which makes it vulnerable in a world that strives for recognition on a more material plane. On the other hand, one can’t say comparative literature is on the decline for its presence is felt across departments and disciplines. And it might even be the case then comparative literature is pollinating itself in different sources and may one day spring up all over with a vengeance. But comparative literature needs no department – what it needs is that its way of thinking (comparative reflex) is not tainted.

The genesis – languages in contact
The comparative literature as a term defined and put into practice is more of a product of the 19th century but literature has always been comparative in the sense that it has been an amalgamation of different elements. By studying a literature in awareness of other literatures one can see what sets them apart and also study the languages by themselves and notice their individual differences. Thus, you get to see something from a new and fresh unthought-of perspective. 

“Not just influence, but consciousness of difference and relation, is at work in these collisions. ‘Languages in contact’ spawn hybrid forms – translations, pidgins, creoles, bilingual villages – and stake out the points of view that allow languages and literatures to be known as (that is, as if they were) things in themselves. The logic of comparative literature is as old as literature itself.”

 What is paradoxical indeed is the rise on the thrust of poetry with the era of German and French nationalism. Contrastive literature was a reflection on the national differences that came about in themes, attitudes, genres, devices, styles and occasions of imaginative writing. Like Herder, most believed that each nation had its own distinct culture and values glorified through its literature.
World Literature

Goethe as early as 1820s foresaw the coming of what he termed “world literature” due to the increased commerce and travel between nations and the rapidly increasing human interaction. He also mentions the mass-consumerism of certain types of literature that will make popular literature possible which is more of a focus on the distribution of works than a methodology. It is with Meltzl in 1877 that the future of an institution specifically for comparative literature is predicted in his article “The Present Tasks of Comparative Literature”.
But this does not tell us what comparative literature is supposed to undertake. “Vergleichende Literatur” was a statement calling people to respond to a new dimension of looking at literature which was still on shaky soil as far as objectives or methodology went.

“In proposing to consider world literature as “an elliptical refraction of national literatures,” “not a set canon of texts but a mode of reading,” David Damrosch reminds us that there will be as many world literatures as there are national or local perspectives, that world literature is not a rival but an object, even a project, of comparative literature. But comparative literature does not own world literature.”
Due to globalization, transnational cultural and literary interests have caused a thrust to be placed on the translation of texts and the study of the correlations in myths and folklore across the globe. Comparative literature though cosmopolitan in nature is not merely dealing with this traffic of cross-national interest though it is one of the contributing factors to the concept of world literature.

What comparative literature was
In 1877 “comparative” meant multiple programmes rolled into a single word. A new revival followed that caused the barbaric Beowulf, Nibelungenlied and the rest of the non Greek and Latin epics to be considered worth poring over seriously for the first time. These were study for the myths and the insight they provided into societies and cultures of the old world along with how they influenced development. The Grimm Brothers through their extensive study o myth and folklores created a new cultural heritage with distinctive Germanness.

What people failed to understand was that the comparative method wanted to transcend national frontiers and so it was through comparative studies into the differences and similarities between different languages that it was found Germanic, Romance, Celtic, Slavic, Persian and Indic family languages all were the root forms of the same language.
Then we find the comparative similarities like Michel Breal in 1877 proposed the Ramayana and Iliad may be based on the same premise. While the Odyssey, the Aeneid, the Nibelungenlied and the Shahnameh all contain literary episodes retelling the same story under different names.

Historical methods seek to reconstruct the original face of a text by its subsequent version while the comparative method on the other hand, dissolved identities into a common source. “One discipline seized on differences in order to pare them away; the other did so in other to neutralize them.”
Meltzl in his conceived program of comparative literature announces the principle of polyglottism where he suggests that every comparatist worth his mettle ought to know the basics of German, English, French, Icelandic, Italian, Dutch, Portuguese, Swedish, Spanish and Hungarian though obviously this has its limitations. One thing meritable out this list is that it makes comparative literature more than “a science of origins”.

This led comparative literature to now ask what ought to be included in literature. The nature of the times was leading it to incline more towards a Goethean horizon in which world literature that transcends national borders is whatever people consider literature to be.
Since, comparative literature was not a science of origins it was focal for it to find its objectives a methodology even while in 1877 there was a striving towards literature written in a national language as we can see in Meltzl’s case where his notion of comparative literature makes a nation of Europe.

The truth is that literature is a contested term much like justice, truth or beauty and so making its study comparative would be embracing it in a wider scope. “Comparative literature contests the definition of literature as well as aesthetic norms, genre definitions, literary-historical patterns, and the rest) by throwing examples and counterexamples at it. Founded in the era of national and historical scholarship, comparative literature is neither.”
Objectives and Methods of Comparative Literature

“Comparative literature is engaged with specificity and relation: the specificity of the object whereby it exceeds established models of discourse, and the relations that a new reading creates among its objects.”
When making a career in literary studies it is quite possible to do so without researching actual literary works as aesthetic theory, literary history, reception are all subjects that are independent fields. In a field composed of examples and merely theories of what these examples are of cannot be soley independent. Since it is a method of research you cannot limit its field of study.

Formerly the scope of comparative studies was considered literary foreign relations and perhaps also the discovery of obligatory stages in the evolutions of literary traditions. Another factor on this front is that there has been a conscious attempt over a period of time to locate this object of study.
When studying other comparative sciences like philology and anatomy there is a common reference point found to be their last shared ancestor. In such comparison to use Aristotle’s metaphor, the researcher is led to “solve for” the common shared factor called the tertium comparationis or ground. In cases where the third term is too remote or missing we find the meaning lost and the comparison falls through. As seen in the cases of languages in contact comparison enables one to discover the events in the past that have produced changes or branching and it reads difference as differentiation which shows the process of how the past is laid over time.  

But what is comparative literature discovering? Some say that the trunk that is discovers is the universality of human experience through this is only the crust of the matter. When studying literature from a comparative perspective it is not only the universality of themes that is looked at but also how this theme is carried to fruitation in different works. In the case of poetry this is even more difficult and in works of translation it is possible that nothing of the original has survived – the translator turned traitor. This poses the question of how one should read a text.
“No longer apologetic for teaching works they do not read in the original, some comparatist even present this necessity as a virtue, the consequence of a willingness to deal with remote traditions and to take collaborative risks.”

Thus, thematic content is not where comparative literature lies. Perhaps then it is what these works mirror or teach that is more in tune with the comparative perspective. Alexander Veselovskij (19th century) and Viktor Zhirmunskij (20th century) look literature to be the expression of the conditions in the society and believed this was the comparative perspective for they juxtaposed this to historical sequences.
The search for literariness

On the other hand, literariness (literaturnost) was a term coined by Tynjanov that is supposed to be the goal of all literary studies and a common factor in every literary tradition. Considering this, it is not surprising that this is the goal of comparative research as well.
Paul de Man redefined literariness to be, “the rhetorical or tropological dimension of language… can be revealed in any verbal event when it is read textually”. When we consider literariness as a differential concept linked to ordinary language we have an object of research fit for comparative literature as literariness too differs with the different uses of language and so does its message. “Literariness emerges from contexts and methods of reading, rather than being a property of literature, and it suggests a category-slippage between a disciplinary product and a restricted class of objects.”

Strangely when looking at the history of the comparative approach towards this object of literariness we find it was then labeled rather loosely as “theory”. Therefore, by default everyone who made or applied Theory was a comparatist due to the fluctuations of theory in the vocabulary.
Comparative literature is not as just a reading of literature but reading it literarily with intent study and scrutinity.

Age of Multiculturalism
‘Comparative Literature in the Age of Multiculturalism’ a report published in 1993 by the ACLA’s describes the position of comparative literature in the new millennium as a field of fields which’s scope can help crossing national boundaries. Due to the surge of cultural contact there is now the possibility to study it at the levels of Western and non-Western cultural productions and also that of pre- and postcontact cultural studies of productions by colonized peoples along with those based on gender constructions or sexual, racial or ethnic works.

In the field of cultural production, literary works are just another field of production. Considering this comparative literature can analyse the varied possibilities of cultural expression and also the socio-economic and political aspects. Culture along with literature has now joined into one of the objects that help define the scope of comparative literature. Previously comparative literature through its cross-border approach has done away with national literary history which dealt narrowly with traffic only within the nation and attempted to minimize cross-boundary interchange. But that was in the 50s and 60s. Now with the world becoming a global village, a new objective has to be sought.
“The historical pattern of comparative literature’s declared objects of study (always migrating, always retreating) gives no reason to think that the typical objects of cultural studies lie beyond its powers. We certainly can (and should) ‘do’ cultural research, provided only that its topics are not handed to us as ready-mades in black boxes but can be subjected to the kinds of analysis, critique, and contextualization that the discipline has taught comparatist to perform.”

A shaky discipline
The main reason comparative literature still is threatened as an institution is due to this lack of set objective that is permanent in nature. Over the decades we have seen the shifts in objectives as far as comparative literature goes and with the age of multiculturalism it has shifted its focus to this new cross-cultural and trans-national phenomenon. Mary Louise Pratt believes multiculturalism is the product of three transformations that have come about over the past few years, namely: globalization, democratization and decolonization.

However, now as we see it, globalization has turned a complete opposite to multiculturalism as the hegemonic power exercises a McDonaldisation effect. What this brings into focus is the fact that it was during the age of multiculturalism that comparative literature found its feet and now the whole world situation has shifted to bi-polar from multipolar. This is now the age of globalization and so with this new age, comparative literature will have to find a way to reach out to the masses again.
Globalisation and the comparative perspective 

Due to political circumstances a new breed of peoples have emerged who may be said to be comparatist by birth. In the case of immigrants and colonized people, they are comparatist in a daily sense for their lives exist between two scales of values, vocabularies and idioms. Thus, we see what W.E.B. DuBois termed as “double consciousness”.
“Thus, the meaning of comparative literature changes as the frames of reference shifts; although people share a disciplinary space, that space is organized differently for each.”

Comparative perspective in an era of inequality
Due to the global I.T. revolution we have information explosion like never before as noted by Claude Levi-Strauss who notes, “Every verbal exchange, every line printed, establishes communication between people, thus, creating an evenness of level, where before there was an information gap and consequently a greater degree of organization”.

The fact is, globalisation is what has made this reflection of inequality more glaringly obvious. Comparative literature has focused on differences but as far as inequality goes; it is a foreign concept for difference as it exists in the comparative vocabulary is not that stemming from such factors.
In the case of hybridity, we risk obliterating specific interactions by a refusal to look intently on what is presented. Multiculturalism attempts to gloss over inequality by granting all an equal status which in itself is self deceiving. Due to the amount of information surrounding us the value of information seems almost nil for there is so much worthless data scattered around. It seems that only in the past did minute details matter for there were no other reference points and so, to illustrate:

It mattered when in the 1631 reprinting of the Authorised Version of the Bible gave the seventh commandment as “Thou shalt commit adultery,” but the massive array of data points in a digital photograph could drop much more than three pixels without anyone’s noticing.
Considering literature in this world we find that to study a text would be slowing down the pace at which this world goes as intent study means to quibble over every word presented that would frustrate the attempt of the modern information system in which faster is better. Thus, with every search you run on Google you do get a message flashed calculating in how many seconds your search result was given to you. And yet, one cannot escape this world of information but literature makes one selective and thus, resistive of this poor quality matter. But this resistance can only be felt internally for it in no way curtails the thousands of worthless half-baked essays on Shakespeare that abound on the internet.

To sum up
It is the interdisciplinary aspect that is comparative literatures most enduring trait and one that it excels in. We can’t define comparative literature through a positive relation but through what it is not. Due to this lack of clear cut perspective there is one blessing that it allows which is its ability to make comparative research a test bed that can help to order the ceaseless flow of knowledge both inside and outside the field of humanities.

And so to conclude, comparative literature is a give-and-take between fields and strives to look at a text minutely in a world that is more interested in merely judging the information from its speed of availability. 

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