- One More Division
It is one thing to be invited back to one's Alma Mater for a talk facing one's former teachers and a new generation of students. It is with some apprehension that one commonly accepts such an honor, for the question looms, will one be able to live up to the expectations of the institution by which one was formed that are represented by such an invitation? But it is an altogether different thing to be honored by one's own institution and the colleagues with whom one has worked ever since one arrived. Yes, of course, by being shown such an honor, one's institution acknowledges that one has met the trust that it has put in you by inviting you to become a member of its faculty. It is the acknowledgement that one has kept one's promise, and, consequently, there seems to be nothing to worry about. And yet, if one trembles a bit, it is not only because in accepting this honor one has one more time to prove that one deserves the trust that one's own institution has placed in one, but also because today's event is not only an internal affair. The presence here of two distinguished scholars from two distinguished [End Page 31] institutions—University of California at Berkeley and DePaul University in Chicago—makes this quite clear.
I cannot say how grateful I am to Tim Dean, Director, and Carrie Bramen, Executive Director of the Humanities Institute, for having made today's event possible, and for having invited scholars as distinguished as Suzanne Guerlac and Michael Naas to comment on my work. Let me also take this opportunity to express my gratitude to the State University of New York at Buffalo (UB), and in particular to my department, Comparative Literature, which for many years now has offered me an environment like no other to pursue my work. I consider it a great privilege to be in Comparative Literature at UB, because this department, and the way it is made up, has made it possible for me to engage in a kind of work that I could not easily have done in European academic institutions, and in only a very few places in this country, namely to grow, at my own rhythm and pace, and more or less on my own terms, into the profession. I am deeply indebted to my colleagues who have been extremely supportive over the years, but also to all my students who have diligently borne with me. They are honored today as well.
But there is more to be grateful about being a member of the Department of Comparative Literature here at Buffalo. Let me explain: comparative literature is an academic discipline like any other, with its own field, methodologies, tradition, and history, even though the national philologies have always looked upon this discipline with great suspicion, to say it mildly, for pretending to ground its comparative project in the knowledge of several philologies, something that they consider questionable, if not even impossible. When furthermore, in the seventies and eighties the discipline became overtly theoretical, it became an even more suspicious entity, and its representatives were charged with abandoning the study of literature entirely and encroaching on other disciplines in which they had no training either, such as linguistics, semiotics, psychoanalysis, but above all philosophy, and to crown it all, continental philosophy, the most unserious kind of philosophy, especially when French, that is, frivolously and mystifyingly playful. Not easily identifiable, comparative literature, then, has often been seen as no discipline at all, and as having no discipline whatsoever, in short, an academically unjustifiable haven for incompetent and dilettante dabbling in extra-literary domains. [End Page 32]
I will not deny that, in the name of "French theory," aberrations of all sorts have taken place, not only in Comparative Literature departments, but in many other literary departments throughout the country as well, and, as Michael Naas has recalled, I have explicitly taken issue with this. But what I would like to emphasize today is that what has empowered me in such criticism, and to insist persistently on the specificity of...