- No Discipline:An Introduction to “The Indiscipline of Comparison”
comparison is not a method or even an academic technique; rather, it is a discursive strategy—Benedict Anderson, A Life beyond Boundaries
In the run-up to Brexit, Martin Amis hailed the coming splendid isolation of the United Kingdom as quite proper to the English language’s proven literary superiority: “there’s no earthly reason why anyone in the Anglosphere should desperately want to learn a foreign language,” because English is “a much more evolved language, with something like five times the vocabulary of Spanish.”1
Amis presents a caricature of the layperson’s view of our discipline: comparative literature as the ranking of the world’s literatures—a project on a par with the ever more pervasive global rankings of everything from universities to hamburgers. Yet in his literary chauvinism and appeals to proven literary value, Amis comes a poor second to Russian conceptual writer and artist Dmitrii Prigov, who a decade earlier published his more mathematically precise literary world rankings:
Если достоинства русской литературы обозначить через 1, то китайская потянет на 0,99. Немецкая на 0,89. Английская на 0,87. Французская на 0,785. Испанская и итальянская на 0,75 каждая. Я потяну на 0,31. Отсвет от русской литературы, могущий быть оцененным в 0,05, дает в сумме с моим личным показателем 0,36—что совсем неплохо. Даже чистый нуль у нас, учитывая отсвет в 0,05, имеет положительное значение.2 [End Page 647]
(If the worth of Russian literature is defined as 1, then Chinese reaches 0.99. German 0.89. English 0.87. French 0.785. Spanish and Italian each reach 0.75. I reach 0.31. The reflected glory of Russian literature, which might be valued at 0.05, summed with my personal figure gives 0.36—which is not bad at all. Even a pure zero in Russia, taking into consideration the reflected glory of 0.05, has a positive value.)
Prigov builds his absurd ranking system by conjoining literature with mathematical figures and with the banal national and linguistic chauvinism that Amis reiterates. Prigov takes Amis-like literary chauvinism and border guarding to self-undermining extremes. He thereby transforms evaluative nationalistic comparison into comparative national chauvinisms, generating humor through the reader’s familiarity with such assertions of national superiority—be they Russian or English. Prigov’s border-collapsing humor equally relies on the faux precision of his figures; in other words, on his application of the quantitative language of mathematics to a traditionally qualitative discipline.
If Prigov humorously collapses borders and imagines, like John Lennon, a world with “no countries,” he equally rewrites Lennon to offer a world without disciplines.3 Just as Prigov intertwines national with disciplinary border crossing, so the premise of this special issue is that these two kinds of border crossing are constitutive of comparative literature, or at least of comparison as we might imagine it.
To the fantasy of a world without constraint, however, we have Jean Ricardou’s cool riposte, published in the same year as Lennon’s song: “if everything is allowed, nothing is possible.”4 Literature deploys constraints of vocabulary, letters, line numbers, layout, medium, and so on. Prigov’s text, for example, is built from a simple rule that combines national literatures with numerical figures. Likewise, any discipline, even a discipline like comparative literature, requires norms, standards of evidence, agreed objects of inquiry, measures of quality, and modes of delineating the field. We need constraints, norms, shared disciplinary frameworks, and standards in order to say anything and in order to be understood. In freedom, limits; in limits, freedom.
As a leading writer and theorist of the nouveau roman, however, Ricardou’s contribution to literature was anything but about repeating old disciplinary norms. The same is true of his compatriot Oulipo writers, who similarly emphasized constraint over freedom. While the Oulipo writers did seek inspiration from tried and true forms of constraint—the sonnet, the villanelle, the sestina—their most important contribution to literature was [End Page 648] their invention of new constraints, new rules by which poems and stories could be written. The Oulipo writers imagined literature not as a set of texts following generic and disciplinary norms, but as a process of continuously rewriting the rule book. Oulipo writers arguably located the creative act not primarily in the writing of new literary works but in the writing of new constraints.5 Literature, in other words, doesn’t just need indiscipline: indiscipline is...