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Comparative Literature Studies 41.1 (2004) 37-48

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Is a Non-Global Universe Possible?
What Universals in the Theory of Comparative Literature (1952-2002) Have to Say about It

Didier Coste
Université Michel de Montaigne—Bordeaux 3 (France)

Although a vote has not been taken, I guess that most of us, ordinary people, citizens and subjects, at planetary scale, would rather have one world than two or more conflicting ones. It is also fairly obvious that huge sectors of the population of the world are not ready or nearly ready to pay the price of a single economic, political or symbolic model in order to achieve such unity. Understandably, any such model is immediately branded "imperialist," except by the minority of agents who identify with it and are actively or passively engaged in propagating it. In other terms, we do want one peaceful world, but it should be like a public space, an open forum, a playground, a maidan, 1 not an ecclesia or community of beliefs such as the one best exemplified by the actors of the Wall Street stock exchange, we want it varied, multifarious, not ruled from above by common principles of behavior and representation (such as a shared grand historical narrative).

Some of us still or again deem art to be the aesthetically enjoyable traffic of self-representation that human societies have taken upon themselves to delegate to relatively autonomous individual or collective agents. It is no wonder that those few of us who, whether out of sheer luck or staunch commitment, persist in making serious sense of literature and art, aspire to a peaceful unhampered flow of values and images across an open field at anthropological scale. At the same time, even when we are invested with the magic gifts of the English language and up to date theoretical subtleties, we are not always ready to dissolve all differences into insipidity by boiling down to stock the shock of meaningfulness in a standard can of Campbell soup. This is to say that the present predicament of Comparative Literature should not be dismissed lightly as alien to wide ranging political [End Page 37] and ethical concerns. Joseph Hillis Miller rightly stresses that the substitution of Cultural Studies for Comparative Literature not only acquiesces in the "smaller and smaller role (played) worldwide (by literature) in the new globalized cultures," 2 it "can function as a way to contain and tame the threat of the invasive otherness the new technologies bring across the thresholds of our homes and workplaces."(145) A containing and taming, he adds, that, while rebuilding firm boundaries, has also the additional unfortunate side effect of reducing radical otherness to sameness.

Three lectures originally dealing with "the new Comparative Literature," delivered by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak in May 2000, were to be published in May 2003 under the title Death of a Discipline. Despite Jean Franco's claim that "Death of a Discipline is not a lament but a promise " since "Professor Spivak invites us to imagine an inclusive Comparative Literature freed from its traditional national anchorings, a border-crossing discipline," 3 there is nothing innocent about the new sinister title when, in Spivak's posted lecture summaries, she denounced as a severe threat both the "current humanist and universalist backlash in the discipline " and "humanism's seduction in the face of a seemingly uncontrollable plurality." 4 Must Comparative Literature be killed in order to be reborn in a body endowed with a better "political agency,"—and if so, should we trust its self-appointed executioner ? Is there not a risk that a non-cultural and deconstructive concept of collectivity—whatever it means—may bring with it, for opposite reasons, the demise of that mutually respectful alterity that major theorists born at the beginning of last century saw in dire straits due to the overwhelming pressure of a babelian market-place ruled by the iron laws of profit and competition?

Exactly fifty years ago, Erich Auerbach already noted that the "visionary concept" of...


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