Comparative Literature Studies 41.1 (2004) 49-79
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Disciplinary Memory as Cultural History:
Comparative Literature, Globalization, and the Categories of Criticism
That complit, as a discipline, should be witnessing its institutional decline, here in North America, just when to go global seems to be the most common imperative for literary studies, is one of the unexamined ironies of the current cultural and critical climate. Strangely unexamined: for, in the vicissitudes of complit departments and programs are condensed quite large chunks of the unsaid history of recent criticism. And perhaps, ultimately, this is the crux of the matter, the real rub: the ironies remain unexamined because the unsaid history they direct us towards is actually unsayable, is an inconvenient history, a history that would require some fuller, more complete self-reflexivity than we can tolerate or are capable of, one that would bring the meandering and very genteel rhetoric of contemporary critical debates back home, where it hurts.
Indeed the most immediately palpable of these ironies points towards the most specific of possible homes. It has to do with complit's own internal, self-made trajectory, with the family's primal scenes and skeletons in the closet. You get the feeling, in retracing the steps today, that the problems that the discipline is experiencing now, at the beginning of the third millennium, are already foreshadowed in one of its basic documents, the fateful article on "The Crisis of Comparative Literature" written by René Wellek in the 1950s. In these pages, Wellek identified "literariness" as "the central issue of aesthetics, the nature of art and literature" 1 and defended that notion against "many eminent men in literary scholarship and particularly in comparative literature" who were not really interested in literature but in "second-rate writers... translations, travel-books, 'intermediaries'" 2 [End Page 49] or " in the history of public opinion, the reports of travelers, the ideas about national character—in short, in general cultural history." 3 Wellek's stand carried the day in this continent, and probably was instrumental in shaping the early academic fortune of complit, which went on to become one of the institutional smitheries of literary theory. At the same time his strictures, along with those that followed, diverted the discipline's energies away from another just as crucial rendez-vous, the critical and theoretical encounter with those developments—cultural studies, globalization, traveling theory, the discourse on diaspora, exile and migration—which would have in the long run further strengthened the discipline's position and more fully and solidly entrenched it within the university curriculum. As it was, once theory was embraced by all and sundry within literary studies, and the novelty wore off, even complit's pedagogical difference—the differently accented variety of theory it could lay claim to, thanks to its openness vis-à-vis non-native traditions—did not suffice to spare it from the marginalized, bare-subsistence level of presence to which it is now consigned.
Of course, to put it this way is to simplify, to do little justice to the complexity of the relation between criticism and the institutional fate of the discipline. Ostensibly, Wellek's polemic was aimed at the French School, which tied comparison proper to a rapport de fait—some kind of demonstrable contact—among literary works. The real target was positivism and its complit offspring, the view that the final objective of literary criticism—to apprehend literature in its world-wide extensions—could be reached only through quantitative analysis, the canvassing of all existing individual literatures and their interaction, or lack thereof. Wellek reversed the priorities. He gave precedence to the noun "literature" over the adjective "comparative" and made comparison dependent on strictly literary categories, rather than historical evidence. He did so on premises he had expounded on a few years before in the influential Theory of Literature (co-authored with Austin Warren) and which neatly divorced aspects that are "intrinsic" to literature—and merit the attention of literary critics—from those aspects that, being "extrinsic" to literature, should be the...