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  • Comparative Literature Without Borders:A Decennial Taking of Stock1
  • Jerry A. Varsava (bio)

There's nothing quite like the review of a program or of a department to focus the attention, and to induce alternating bouts of exhilaration, dread, and even occasional panic. While the bylaws of the American Comparative Literature Association (ACLA) do not require periodic reviews as such, they do mandate the issuing of decennial reports on the "state of the discipline," which bring with them their own stresses and joys. Founded in 1960, ACLA has generated four such reports to date: 1965, 1975, 1993, and 2004, the most recent presented here in Comparative Literature in an Age of Globalization, along with eleven position papers on specific sub-fields and various issues as well as seven "responses." (The story goes that the person responsible for the 80s report was so dissatisfied with it that he never released it; these things happen, even in the best of associations.) It should be noted for clarity that a preoccupation with the discipline's American formation is evident in the first three reports, tendered under the chairmanship of, respectively, Harry Levin (1965), Thomas Greene (1975), and Charles Bernheimer (1993), and this is largely true of the report authored here by Haun Saussy, even as the latter departs from tradition in offering not a consensus report as such, but rather a self-styled "multivocal" "dissensus," a Heraclitean collocation of views on comparative literature (CL) that differ widely among themselves and present, in aggregate, a portrait of an extremely vibrant, responsive discipline (vii).2 And so we [End Page 331] have the volume before us, which will inevitably set in motion anew a sequence of reviewing and of much-needed discussion within the discipline and in its senior undergraduate and graduate seminars.

Comparative literature's precursors, its patron saints, include a distinguished line of eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century Western Europeans who, in one way or another, sought the "big picture," a kind of cosmopolitan generosity of spirit and scholarship that ran against the strongly nationalistic tide of the day, by professing a respect for cultural difference and aesthetic-cultural relativity, as demonstrated in now-canonical works by Madame de Staël and Goethe, not to mention others by certain eighteenth-century antecedents, especially Herder and, somewhat more obliquely, Vico. While appropriate genuflections are made in the direction of the latter and early nascent attempts to define the discipline—Saussy mentions in particular Hugo Meltzl de Lomnitz, founder of the first, if short-lived, journal of comparative literature (Comparative Literary Journal/Acta comparationis litterarum universarum [1877–1888])—the emphasis of the essays here lies on comparative literature today, even if globalization per se is not always the context of a given discussion at hand, as I shall presently take up.3

Comparative literature has always been very much an all-of-the-above discipline, striving for inclusivity, even if it has often abjectly failed to achieve this entirely exemplary aim, whether through tactical evasions or plain ignorance or bald ethnocentrism. Over the course of its history, the ambit of its endeavors has slowly expanded geographically from a (mostly Western and Central) European focus—Christopher Braider cites in particular the "Iron Triangle of nineteenth- and twentieth-century English, French, and German"—to include, ever so slowly, the US, Central and South America, the Middle East, Asia, and (post)colonial nations the world over (160). Thematically, its preoccupations have expanded from typically male, universalistic themes to include virtually every imaginable domain of identity politics in virtually every permutation, and often with a heavily theoretical overlay. And it has indeed gone beyond literary studies to consider other artistic media—film, music, painting, TV, cartons, comic books, etc. And the latter move is tied of course to cultural studies, whose promotion was a key (and often controversial) recommendation of the 1993 Bernheimer Report.4 The discipline has become in the early twenty-first [End Page 332] century something of a United Nations of the human sciences—and one can argue over who might serve on this Security Council, and who, if anyone, might have veto power—generally promoting an altogether exemplary ecumenism. In short, CL is today...


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