- Comparative Literature:Can This Marriage Be Saved?
Let me start this essay with a disclaimer. I loved Comparative Literature (CL). It was a late blooming romance. I did not even know CL existed. I wanted to study a number of things, including religion, myths, anthropology, folklore, French literature, the Classics, and Indian philosophy. I had not felt fully at home in these places; then some bureaucrat at the University of Chicago thought I might be a comparatist. It was love at first sight. What entranced me was that, unlike so many other fields, CL was not dogmatic. One could really do whatever one wanted, as long as one did it seriously. In the 1980s, CL was the place to go to be your own person.
Because I was slightly more mature, I approached this relationship in a more discriminating manner. I had known other loves and tried to keep a level head about me in this new romance. I particularly kept my eyes open for any hint of betrayal. Indeed, as time went on, my initial infatuation dwindled as CL flirted unabashedly with so many theories. However, I must admit that my love for CL never abated. Over the years, I have learned to tolerate CL's dalliances with other disciplines, and have even resolved, despite all the infidelities, never to divorce CL. For one thing, I am a Catholic, and it is too late for an annulment. Besides, CL has yet to exhibit those "irreconcilable" differences that warrant a definitive separation. But CL has strayed in its affections so many times and its flirtations have become so excessive that I have begun to wonder whether this relationship can really be saved. In what follows, I hope to outline my observations of how CL has strayed and why.
A paradigm shift in literary studies from the aesthetic to the political occurred in the final decades of the last century, in part due to a radicalization of theory. At some point in time in the late 1970s, many scholars began to view literature as an outmoded form of cultural capital belonging to the bourgeoisie. An important stage in this process of radicalization involved the rejection of the canon of dead white males [End Page 420] in favour of what one might term the cultural studies model. It soon became apparent that dismantling the canon often had less to do with installing a more immediate and less conservative hierarchical format, and more to do with establishing a new authority, grounded in identifying with and marketing marginalized populations. In the case of American2 universities, these commodity populations were packaged and marketed first under the rubric of identity studies, then under the rubric of multi-culturalism, and finally under the umbrella of postcolonial literatures. They are now marketed as American World Literature (WL). In order to situate these trends and clarify the political issues involved, we must begin our investigation with this transition from literary analysis to identity studies.
The early 1970s in the United States saw the emergence of Black Studies and Women's Studies programs, devised to represent the experience and cultural production of then-underrepresented blacks and women in academia. One important thing to note is that these programs were usually staffed with African-Americans and women, respectively. The representation of underrepresented groups expanded over time to include other minorities (Hispanic, Native American) and hyphenated ethnicities (Asian-Americans). Identity Studies was thus born as a discipline. It was subsequently institutionalized as multiculturalism (MC), and was supported by a theoretical superstructure devised to justify its inclusion. MC thus entered the curriculum in the United States as a bureaucratic structure purporting to foster minority rights, and was marketed as an outgrowth of the movement on American campuses to revamp the canon. It claimed to open the canon and the university up to subalterns, exiles, and others. Ideally, it sought to facilitate canonical (i.e. dead white male) authors being supplanted in the curricula by authors from underrepresented groups (writing in English). As a corollary benefit, dead-wood white male professors would ideally be supplanted by women and minorities in the classroom. This latter goal succeeded in the hiring of a...