- You and Me:Relational Ontologies in Canadian Comparative Literature
The momentum of this commentary comes from Julia M. Wright’s recent work “Professionalism, Citizenship, and the Problem of University Governance” as published in MLA’s Profession and my own interests in decolonizing professions in the university and the university as an historically situated institution.
Amidst our current crises, we are all as professionals, professors, and part of the community of scholars worried about our roles in programs, departments, and disciplines because they are so intimately tied up with feelings of identity, trust, and obligation, or as Mary Douglas writes, “feelings of loyalty and sacredness” (1). Much comes together in these worries. Not to mention, we have spent a long time getting ‘here.’ And wherever ‘here’ is for Comparative Literature in Canada, ‘here’ is less a space than a series of relations. My own relations, of course, run through comparative literature, and wherever it might be, I know to whom I relate through it.
Insofar as Comparative Literature in Canada ostensibly provides a framework for critical and collaborative labour, it is also a crucial space for decolonization and the indigenization of university curricula and modes of research production. Decolonizing curricula and indigenizing research methods do not elide existing paradigms. They, rather, provide comparatists with a necessary adjustment to research practice: that of reframing (Smith 153). And yet, in order to be able to reframe, we must also be able to collaborate. The problem is, the idea of reframing that we may use as professionals in the classroom or as researchers is more effectively put to work administratively to reframe the discipline rather than our thoughts. Rather than reframing our specialized knowledge, we are instead reframed in our labour communicating it-the lifelines of our departments are being subordinated to the administrative and bureaucratic procedures of institutional power. With the budgetary cutting block so well-populated, how do we press home our relevance to today’s [End Page 187] globalized, indeed glocalized, world? Seen one way, comparison is a world matter, and it would seem that world matters are ‘area’ matters. Seen another, comparative organizations become world organizations, and by proxy area organizations. We begin in messy collaboration and end in tidy division. A reliance on area studies can prove detrimental to the radical retooling necessary for critically collaborative work. The epistemological construct of area studies is deeply in bed with the movement and directional flow of transnational (and translational) capital, but we don’t want to know this, and we are too worried about the job market (in Canada?) to speak of it, that is, if we even see beyond our place in it. Shades of Said and spectres of Spivak abound.
Comparison entails speaking truth to hegemonic power (or at least it should), and comparison should be innovative and always a function of resistance. Comparative Literature in Canada should yield a productive power by virtue of being unafraid. But to remain daring requires a continuous self-examination of what it means to compare and to collaborate, or in other words, to bring down imposed binaries and, if we dare say it, the division between ‘areas.’ It is opening oneself unto others. But speaking of areas, we need a space-not the place of power, but places to sit, work, teach, and actually exist: a department unfolded. We run the risk of retreating into our area and worshipping the idols of our territory, but comparison by its nature interrogates and opens collaborations between difference, which defers the stable meanings that make such self-concealment possible.
But those are disciplinary matters, or we may say they are styles of knowledge. Or we might better say they are neither-they are administrative matters, matters of professional work. Wright argues that the “gap between bureaucratic operations, in which faculty members safeguard academic standards and processes, and professionalism, in which they are subordinated to an employment structure, is ideological” (n.pag). That is to say, budget allocations ideologically fold programs and purposes as “things” not intimate relations, social enterprises, or radical decolonizations. This is most certainly disciplinary concealment without the collaborative praxis of comparison. Said another way, we may wish to see...