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  • The Orientalist Photograph:An Object of Comparison
  • Ali Behdad

It is indeed a great honor to be speaking at the inaugural session of the Milan Dimić Lecture Series in Comparative Literature at the University of Alberta. As a distinguished comparativist, Dimić was a champion of intercultural awareness and understanding, so to name this lecture series after him strikes me not just as commendable but as particularly appropriate given that, at the present moment, the word culture is arguably used most commonly in association with the term clash, suggesting an unfortunate continuity with the Cold War era in which Dimić and his fellow comparativist Northrop Frye began their academic careers as scholars of comparative literature in Canada. Also, naming this lecture series after Dimić, particularly in light of the fact that the two great comparative literature programs founded by Dimić and Frye at the University of Toronto and the University of Alberta, respectively, have narrowly escaped their attempted curtailment by the higher administration thanks to the concerted efforts of students and faculty at these universities, makes one hopeful indeed about the future of comparative literature. For comparative literature as a discipline and critical approach does matter, especially in the context of a multicultural and multilingual country such as Canada. As Dimić, in his 1996 “Preface: W[h]ither Comparative Literature?” presciently observed, the triumph of English as a global language and as a department since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union has undermined other language departments and non-European cultural and literary traditions. To the extent to which “Comparative Literature has always been concerned with alterité” (8) as Dimić insisted, departments of comparative literature have a crucial role to play in working against such linguistic and cultural conformism by questioning the truths of commonly monolingual, English-speaking North America. I should add that in my paper I am very much inspired by Dimić’s astute observation in his “Preface” that “Comparative Literature means the [End Page 265] recognition of and the engagement with ‘the Other’ whether that is ‘non-canonical’ text (i.e., popular literature), the ‘other’ arts, or the literary and cultural aspects of another race, gender, nation, etc.” (7).

I: Comparative Literature in Crisis, Again

Comparative literature departments, like many other academic units in the humanities, are facing two sets of interrelated challenges in the present moment. One set is intellectual in nature and has to do with the field’s changing self-understanding in the face of radical transformations in the pursuit of literary knowledge wrought by the globalization of literary studies and information technology. The second challenge is professional and has to do with rearticulating the place of humanities training in the twenty-first-century academy amidst reported declines in undergraduate enrollment and what Louis Menand has called “the PhD problem.” These challenges were prominently on display during the recent prospectus defense of one of my graduate students at UCLA. After the student had successfully defended her interdisciplinary, and important, dissertation on the relationship between literary representation (specifically novelistic fiction) and photography in the antebellum US with a focus on race and racialization, a senior member of the department voiced concerns during the deliberations about both her focus on a single literary tradition and her viability as a candidate for advertised positions in comparative literature. “Although I very much admire her great prospectus,” this colleague remarked, “I am not convinced that this is a true comparative literature project since it focuses only on American literature. What worries me most is the fact that she will never be employable in a comparative literature department with a dissertation on a single literary tradition.” At that point, a more junior colleague intervened, reminding our more senior colleague of the paucity of job opportunities in comparative literature—for anyone. This younger colleague confessed that he now regularly trains his graduate students in comparative literature in such a way that they will be able to compete for English department jobs. As chair of the committee, I was grateful not to be obliged to voice an opinion; in all honesty, I felt confused about which side to take since both colleagues seemed...


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