Comparative Literature Studies 41.1 (2004) 116-125
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The Object of Comparison
My title is inspired by a remark that belongs to Harry Levin, a revered teacher and one of the founders of the discipline of Comparative Literature in the States: regarding the subject of Comparative Literature, Levin never tired of repeating that it is not a subject but an object, "an attempt to pool the resources of the variously related literatures, to cross the linguistic barriers that confine them within the framework of national histories, and provide an area for the consideration of their common features and underlying forces." 1 At the same time as Levin voiced his faith in Comparative Literature as a discipline that had the object of viewing literature as a world system, he directed his fellow comparatists' attention to Goethe's celebrated 1829 statement that "poetry is the universal possession of mankind," and that "National literature is now an unmeaning term; the epoch of World Literature is at hand, and everyone must strive to hasten its approach." (Levin, 73.)
Recently, another eminent comparatist, Franco Moretti, in an article entitled "Conjectures on World Literature," reiterated Goethe's call for Weltliteratur as he made a series of interesting, albeit controversial, proposals regarding the studying of world literature and the necessity of coming up with categories that have to be different. Moretti, problematizing what for Levin was an object, says that "world literature is not an object; it's a problem, and a problem that asks for a new critical method: and no one has ever found a method by just reading more texts. That is not how theories come into being; they need a leap, a wager—a hypothesis, to get started." 2 [End Page 116]
Moretti makes his wager that consists of two parts—both quite radical. The first is "distant reading." Since it is quite impossible for any one person, or even a group, to read "the great unread" of world literature, Moretti proposes that we rely on the readings and assessments of those who have already studied the works with which the West is not familiar . The second part of the wager is to come up with generalizations, perhaps even "laws" that might reveal a system, a system of world literature made up of variations ("Conjectures," 64). Having surveyed what the critics of the various countries of the third world concluded concerning the "rise of the novel" in their respective cultures, Moretti believes he has enough evidence to confirm an observation by Fredric Jameson to the effect that the third world novel rose as a formal compromise. This observation Moretti raises to the status of perhaps a law, what he calls the law of formal compromise, and states that "If seen as a system of variations, the Western European novel is not a rule but an exception" ("Conjectures," 61).
I had responded to this article in 2000, at a conference on world literature in Zurich where I objected to "the law of formal compromise" and argued that the rise of the novel necessitated a formal compromise everywhere. Recently, another response to Moretti's article, this time by Jonathan Arac, was published in the same journal. Arac objects to Moretti's proposal of distant reading by claiming that such theoretical endeavors that aim at establishing laws through generalizations do so at the expense of close scrutiny of the particular and are, therefore, uncritical. Arac's reminder that neither Auerbach, nor Said did such things, as opposed to Frye, Lukacs, and Weber who did do such things, is expressed almost as a warning. Such theoretical ambition will not only end up encouraging totalizing generalizations; it will also lead to a "covert imperialism" by furthering the hegemony of the English language in the globalization and the comparison of literatures. 3
So, Arac's objections may be summed up around two points. One is that theorizing is hegemonic and uncritical because it neglects the specific. The other is that theorizing in the English language is doubly hegemonic because of the status of that language. He fails to note, however...