Comparative Literature Studies 41.1 (2004) 1-9
[Access article in PDF]
To World, to Globalize--comparative Literature's Crossroads
The onus is on us, the practitioners of comparative literature, to examine the degree to which recurrent patterns of historical coincidence, between what we do and what is happening in the world, might entail a necessary complicity on our part. While we cannot deny that we are in the world, we can and do differ on how we are of it. A continuous self-examination and critical alertness to our place in the world is our only glimpse into our relationship to the world. Such reflection is also what defines what we do and the nature of the consequences of our doing it.
Comparative literature is neither a subject, nor an object, nor is it a problem. Comparative literature is a practice. It is what its practitioners do. These practitioners are subjects, they objectify their material, and their practices may well be problematic. But foremost comparative literature is defined not by a corpus, a subject matter, an object, or an immutable set of problems. Rather, comparative literature takes on its significance by what is done in its name and by how those practices become ascertained, instituted, and managed.
The verb "to manage" spans a wide register. It reaches from husbanding and cultivation to command and control to maintaining a level of precarious sustainability, especially when uttered in the future tense and in the first person plural, i.e., "we'll manage." There are fields defined by practice and fields defined by the corpus or object on/in which that field's practitioners operate. An example of the first would be the dancer and of the second the physician; dance is defined by the acts of performance, medicine by the body or physic on which the physician works. One could say that literature is a corpus on and in which the comparatist performs, but literature's corpus [End Page 1] is itself an outcome constituted by acts of management and negotiated processes of cultivation. As such, literature is a product of practices with identifiable practitioners and definable consequences. Management in fields defined by practice gravitates toward the more precarious end of the manageability spectrum. Perhaps this is the inevitable result of the toll exacted by the need to constantly scrutinize and justify the practices themselves, as well as actually practicing them. Such dual action is more imperative at historical junctures when the practitioner of comparative literature senses the convergence of certain historical processes with his or her own practices. We are now, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, at such a juncture. Hence the need for us to examine what our role might be between what is happening in the world and our intensified focus on world literature. The re-emergent conjunction between the globalization of the world from decidedly local and uncontestable sites of power and self-interest in ways that fit the pattern of imperial hegemony, on the one hand, and the upsurge of a discourse of/on world literature and globalization among practitioners of comparative literature, on the other hand, is a coincidence that bears examination.
In pursuing this examination, it might be apposite to the discussion of world literature and globalization to take the word "world" as verb, and to read globalization not as boundless sweep but as bounding circumscription. To world and to globalize, then, would have to be parsed in light of their subject agencies and their object predicates. World and globalization, thus, would be imputable actions, rather than anonymous phenomena. The virtue of imputability resides in the prospect of being able to trace responsibility and consequence, not as mechanical cause and effect necessarily, but as motivation and outcome in an object relation of subject agency as it affects a phenomenon and makes it a/the world.
Literature, as already noted, is itself the outcome of cultural practice, and to world literature is to give it a particular historical density. Globalization is a process that binds a sphere by the circumference it describes. In the case...