- On the State of Comparative Literature in Canada
The way Comparative Literature has been bloated during the last few decades in order to cope with the threat of being usurped by some of the newborn disciplines is not only surprising but also what fundamentally defines Comparative Literature today. The question concerning how to produce and disseminate knowledge on discourses of literary comparison, while at the same time both alluding to interdisciplinarity and resisting a mere simplistic additive (X versus Y) comparison, has called for forging links with other state-of-the-art disciplines within the Humanities and Social Sciences. While acknowledging that Comparative Literature, as a discipline, renders disjunctive temporalities, and multiple vernacular iterations, in other words, different ‘paradigms’ in which comparatists in different places and time work, what I see Comparative Literature in Canada falling short of is its commensurability with disciplinary practitioners when it comes to conversing within paradigms.
Academic disciplines are never monoliths, and for the sake of their own existence need to reorient themselves periodically with respect to the trends and developments in other disciplines. Say, for example, a paradigmatic shift away from classical to quantum physics would invariably fuel interest in microbiology; otherwise, the disciplinary foundation of Biology would be at stake. Accordingly, with the establishment of what we now know as Area Studies in North American universities in the 1970s, Comparative Literature had to reconfigure itself, feeling the need to put thrust on the linguistic Other lest it be usurped by the Area Studies. What I am pointing to is the fact that in parts of the world where Comparative Literature did not have to go through a negotiation with Area Studies (or, later, Cultural Studies); it has had a long “afterlife” if we are to believe Spivak’s proclamation of the “death of a discipline” in North America.
The agenda of Comparative Literature in the 1970s, therefore, had been to distinguish [End Page 213] itself, both in terms of methodology and the objects of study, from the single literature or national literature programs, and in so doing put stress upon the need for finding “common ground in language” (American Comparative Literature Report). Around the turn of the century, when Cultural Studies programs started to usurp some of its domains, Comparative Literature responded “in the style of a smorgasbord at bargain rates” (American Comparative Literature Report). Since Cultural Studies “neither possessed a well-defined methodology nor clearly demarcated fields for investigation” (During 1), the task before Comparative Literature was to reconcile between having clearly-defined methodologies of literary analysis and bringing on board a Cultural Studies-style ‘smorgasbord’ as the field of inquiry is concerned. The problem here, however, is that Comparative Literature did not have (like Cultural Studies) the politico-emancipatory agenda of decanonizing literary/cultural texts—what During calls “uncoupling of ‘culture’ from the ‘society’” (3)-nor could it afford to zero in on a narrow field (as with Area Studies).
With its efficacy as a discipline being questioned, Comparative Literature started to function under the basic axiom that “humanities and social sciences must supplement each other” (Spivak 27). Thus interdisciplinarity became a buzzword for a discipline that forged links with most of its Humanities and Social Science cousins in order to rearticulate itself in contrast to Area Studies and Cultural Studies in particular. While interdisciplinarity came to be understood as deploying tools and conceptual apparatuses of another discipline from within the boundary of one’s own, the ‘common ground’ of the coalition became language. In other words, it has been easier for a comparatist to enter into a dialogue with a neighboring colleague-say, for example, from history or philosophy-than a fellow comparatist elsewhere.
Take, for example, the concept-note of the Comparative Literature Program at the University of Alberta, which serves for me as a case study of the point I am trying to make. The program’s website reads: “Explore the interrelationships between literature and areas such as ideology and colonialism, cultural studies, film and other visual arts, gender studies, religious studies, political thought, and the natural and social sciences...Comparative Literature is dedicated to the study of literature in the broadest possible framework: interlingual, intercultural...