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  • Introduction:Garnering Diversities in Comparative Literature
  • Jessica Tsui-yan Li

Diversity is a fundamental premise in the discipline of Comparative Literature, which is characterized by its emphasis on multilingualism, interdisciplinarity, transmedia, and transnational and transcultural thematic or stylistic convergences, paradoxically based on the assumption of linguistic and cultural divergence. The promotion of diversity in Comparative Literature can be traced to la littérature comparée in France in the eighteenth century, Goethe's Weltliteratur in the 1820s, Leo Spitzer and Erich Auerbach in Turkey in the early twentieth century, European intellectual refugees fleeing totalitarian regimes for North America in the mid-twentieth century, and the polarization of the Cold War era (Spivak, "Rethinking" 609). In more recent decades, this discipline's focus on diversity has been further enhanced as a response to multiculturalism, postcolonialism, and internationalism within the globalized context.

Among the major principles of Comparative Literature are its transcendence of national and linguistic boundaries and its embracing of diversity. Its historical development, however, leads to its favouring European traditions of both literary analysis and theoretical discourses, which risks homogenization and complacency as literatures and theories from the rest of the world are studied in an undifferentiated category of the other, the so-called "non-European," as a negative counterpart of the European status quo (Chow, "The Old/New Question" 295). Such Eurocentrism is, moreover, inherently hierarchical, as some European countries have historically been more culturally or politically dominant than others (Hutcheon 161). Comparative Literature, with its expansion and focus on multiple languages, literatures, cultures, and theories from different parts of the world, may be a countermeasure against Eurocentric imperialism.

Globalization plays an important role in enabling Comparative Literature to accommodate the ideal of diversity by accelerating the mobility of information, [End Page 191] commodities, and people in the contemporary world, thus transcending physical, linguistic, and cultural borders. Mary Louise Pratt argues that Comparative Literature has been transformed by "globalization, democratization, and decolonization" (59), providing platforms for cross-cultural interaction. Literature from less significant geopolitical territories gains opportunities to move from the periphery to the centre in a globalized market, which gradually transforms the bona fide literary standard (Weninger xv). By reinforcing intercultural literary and theoretical exchanges, globalization theoretically allows Comparative Literature to pursue its goal of promoting diversity.

In practice, however, in recent decades globalization has frequently been criticized for tending toward homogeneity rather than diversity. Globalization is often associated with Americanization "in the shaping of economic and political decisions on a world scale by the perceived needs of the United States" (Saussy 25). In Death of a Discipline, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak argues that the anthologies of world literature published in the United States are in English translations, selected and mediated by American culture (xii). In a dialogue with Spivak, David Damrosch counter-argues that those world literature anthologies have only been published in North America because the demand elsewhere in the world is insufficient to compensate for the costs of global copyright. However, he admits that such a selection favours literature from the United States, with little or nothing from Canada (Damrosch and Spivak 457). The anthology question is an example of how, even though globalization enhances international and intercultural dialogues in Comparative Literature, more powerful cultures still often, and perhaps inevitably, dominate subalterns.

Comparative Literature continuously encourages the diversity of not only languages and cultures, but also theoretical approaches from various parts of the world and different academic and intellectual traditions. Meanwhile, literary studies of the diversity of local cultures and subcultures within regional traditions must also be supported (Damrosch 326). As Rey Chow argues, "however trivial or odd, any human being's life story deserves to be received as an organically whole work with its self-originating, self-validating, and, as [Ivor Armstrong] Richards writes, 'self-supporting' value" ("Close Reading" 115). While respecting and analyzing minute differences embedded in individual narratives, comparatists formulate commonalities based on broader range of literary and theoretical discourses, as expressed in the Chinese idiom qiutongcunyi 求同存異 (seek common ground while retaining difference). As both a discipline and an institution, Comparative Literature has provided an interstitial space for scholars from different linguistic, cultural, and disciplinary backgrounds to contemplate and offer critical perspectives on...


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