- Shake Up, not Shake-Down:Comparative Literature as a Twenty-First Century Discipline
“Let’s Shake up the Social Sciences,” writes Yale professor Nicholas A. Christakis in the Gray Matter column for The New York Times, in July 2013. Christakis is calling for greater interdisciplinarity in social sciences research, in order to respond to the challenges of the 21st century. He argues that while the natural sciences have transformed over the last twenty-five years, introducing whole “new fields of inquiry, as well as university departments and majors...the social sciences have stagnated.” This is not only “boring”, he goes on to say, “but also counterproductive, constraining engagement with the scientific cutting edge and stifling the creation of new and useful knowledge.” According to Christakis, this stagnation “helps explain why the social sciences don’t enjoy the same prestige as the natural sciences.” But does it? Christakis’s arguments, or ones that are very similar, have been repeatedly leveled at the arts and humanities, despite the fact that his challenge for greater innovation across the disciplines defines the work of many Comparative Literature scholars.
Scholarship that addresses 21st-century problems is being conducted by comparatists in a variety of subject areas. As co-director of the Petrocultures Research Group, I am best situated to comment on the way that my comparatist colleagues from around the world are addressing new research problems related to oil, energy and culture: colleagues such as (listed alphabetically) Peter Hitchcock at CUNY, Stephanie Lemenager at USCB, Graeme MacDonald at Warwick University, Imre Szeman at the University of Alberta, Jennifer Wenzel at the University of Michigan, and myself, are only a few names in a continually expanding intellectual community.
As comparatists, we bring valuable perspectives to and insights into 21st-century problems about how societies have been organized around specific forms of energy, namely oil. We also question discourses that falsely naturalize current conditions as the unavoidable end result of oil: after all, oil is only one resource in a complex social, [End Page 226] economic and political matrix.
My own research examines the discourses circulating around oil as they intersect with gender, race, human rights and other related issues. I’m also interested in how these discussions are now orienting around ecology, often in ways that perpetuate existing inequities, as opposed to fulfilling the claims of cultural innovation commonly linked with new energies.
Collectively, comparatists dare to imagine other ways of mobilizing and organizing societies. Engaging with scholars and scholarship from across the disciplines, including the natural sciences, we also work in concert with public intellectuals, activists, artists and other communities. This type of investigation into the most pressing issues of our time is what Stephanie LeMenager and Stephanie Foote have termed “sustainable humanities”, and what Dominic Boyer and Imre Szeman call “energy humanities.”
Given that comparatists are successfully addressing the challenges of the 21st century, Comparative Literature should be flourishing in Canada. Its relevance in Canadian academia at this particular juncture would seem to be undeniable, when SSHRC currently supports “research that bridges more than one discipline or that requires the skills of several disciplines.” Comparative Literature requires, as it always has, robustly interdisciplinary academic engagement that exceeds national borders and linguistic boundaries. As a discipline, it has historically been recognized for producing theoretically grounded multilingual and cosmopolitan scholars addressing interdisciplinary queries. Think, for example, of the overarching contributions made by Northrop Frye, and the ongoing work of comparatists in the international sphere, such as Gayatri Spivak, David Damrosch, and Frederic Jameson (to name just a few). In fact, the ultimate SSHRC goal, where possible, is to encourage collaborations between SSHRC scholars and “researchers in fields other than the social sciences and humanities, such as the natural sciences and engineering” (SSHRC)—something many of us are actively pursing.
But, let’s face it: while the research excellence of many comparatists speaks for the value and relevance of the discipline, the state of its programs and administrative units in most Canadian universities is precarious at best, obliterated at worst. Over the past 25 years, financial shake-downs in Canadian academia—periods of administrative appraisal resulting in bureaucratic reorganizations for the proclaimed purposes of greater...