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Comparative Literature Studies 41.1 (2004) 10-36

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Ghosts in the Disciplinary Machine:
The Uncanny Life of World Literature

Vilashini Cooppan
Yale University

Six years ago I arrived at Yale with a fresh Ph.D. in comparative literature in one hand and a newborn son in the other, to begin my first job. During the course of a welcoming lunch my chair asked me what I imagined was a hypothetical question: "do you think comparative literature departments should teach world literature?" "Yes," I replied, not really thinking too much about it. "Good," he said. And before I knew it, certainly before I had fully absorbed the enormity of the task, he and I were designing Yale's first undergraduate survey course in "World Literatures." That course, now required for literature and comparative literature majors and part of a larger program of study that includes courses in narratology, literary theory, and "World Cinema" and encourages the interdisciplinary study of literature, is presently in its fourth year. In his fourth year that newborn—now a ripe six—asked me one day if I knew everything about, in his inimitable phrasing, "the whole ball and world of space and the universe. You teach in a university, so you must know about the universe." Apart from serving as a salutary reminder of how large we loom in the eyes of our children and how great our subsequent fall, my son's etymology has something to say about the task of criticism at the present time. With admirable economy he has identified the space-time imperative of contemporary knowledge: namely, you have to know it all and you have to know it now. This boundaryless imperative, the very mark of early childhood, is also a good description of the world globalization has made. The constitutive flows of goods, persons, capital, ideas, information, and technologies have shrunk our contemporary world, rendering geographic borders less distinct and placing cultures in deeper contact with one another. At the same time, the very flows that [End Page 10] shrink the world also expand the universe of what there is to be known. More places, more people, more languages, more cultures, more texts all clamor for a place at the table of institutional knowledge, and each asks to be thought in its own, local terms too. Now as never before, we live under the burden of having to know something like "the whole ball and world."

There's nothing like being handed the world, or even just world literature, to make you feel the utter smallness of your own expertise. And yet there's nothing like the challenge of thinking big to remind you of why we're all in this business—to learn what we don't know as much as to profess what we do. I am, I'll confess, something of a generalist. I think we have to learn to say this without shame, to realize that to aspire to generalism need not mean that we disavow particularism or local knowledge or specialization, all of which I value highly and to which I hope I lay some claim. To adopt generalism is to redefine it, not as the not-so-secret vice of comparatists, those dilettantes of the academy, but rather as a surprisingly timely kind of critical method, the intellectual corollary of globalization and an answer to the urgent problem of thinking big. I like to envision the world literature course as one kind of response to my son's query, an attempt to think the "whole ball and world" precisely through a sustained and ongoing encounter with its local points and global forms: local literatures, let us say, and the global processes of textual migration and intertextual transculturation that create them. Seeing literature as a system operating on the principles of movement and exchange means comparing and connecting one text, time, and place with another, and hearing the echoes of one, or indeed many, in the voice of another. This is what I would call reading literature in a worldly way, and it...


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