- From Here to There:Diversity and Interdisciplinary in the Practice of Comparative Literature
Diversity looms large as a formidable presence in contemporary social discourse. Within the span of a single generation, the concept has attained a position of uncommon standing in modern culture. Notwithstanding this prominence, however, a certain lingering sense of unease persists as to what, exactly, diversity is, and this despite the familiarity that comes of the concept's expansive normative and descriptive reach across a range of domains of social life. As a term, diversity shares a certain familial resemblance within a cluster of such related concepts as "multiculturalism," "transculturalism," "interculturalism," "métissage," "creolization," "cultural pluralism," "identity politics," and various others, all of which seek to conceptualize facets of, and responses to, the heterogeneity of social life. Yet, as a social ideal, a discourse, and above all as a practice, diversity is something apart from these less conspicuous family relations. For one, diversity has far outstripped each of them in its penetration into the major institutions that regulate social existence. We educate ourselves according to ideals of diversity; our chosen pronouns give linguistic expression to an understanding of diversity; our courts dispense justice mindful of diversity; our museums and public spaces are curated to reflect diversity; our systems of governance strive to represent diversity; our arts are validated according to their depiction of diversity; our tourism and hospitality industries market their attractions on the basis of diversity; our religious affiliations are shaped by doctrinal responses to diversity; and, last but certainly not least, our corporate sector manages our economic existence according to profit and loss calculations of diversity. In Canada, multiculturalism may be constitutionally anchored in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, but we go to school, pursue our careers, and choose the Oscars under the sign of diversity.1 In acknowledgment of this range of influence, Yudhishthir Raj Isar has proposed that in contemporary culture, diversity has evolved from "a given of the [End Page 197] human condition" to a "normative meta-narrative" of societal understanding (372). Likewise, and in a resonant turn of phrase, Steven Vertovec reports a convergence of critical opinion regarding diversity which would suggest that our society is experiencing a "diversity turn" (287). Students of Comparative Literature, experienced in "turns" of the cultural imaginary, cannot help but ponder the extent to which a putative "diversity turn" might mimic—both in its emergence and in its development—the trajectory of previous linguistic and cultural turns.
In the following, I would like to offer a series of preliminary thoughts on the phenomenon of diversity and its possible relations with the discipline of Comparative Literature. To do this, I will proceed via a brief account of the origins and contours of diversity in its modern form before advancing to some thoughts on selected linkages between diversity and Comparative Literature. I propose that literature and comparative literary study share with diversity a defining concern for difference, and that literature and its study may indeed serve the institutional goals of diversity, broadly conceived. More specifically, I will suggest that Comparative Literature intersects with diversity at the institutional level, in terms of the discipline's positioning as an institution capable of influencing the creation of values and meanings amenable to the aspirations of diversity, and as an approach to the critical understanding of texts, with regard to an interrogation of the ideology of diversity as it finds aesthetic representation in text and image. Despite an apparent facility of alliance between the concept and the discipline, however, and although literature may give fictional form to the ideals of diversity, Comparative Literature will—and must—always remain independent of complete identification with the ideology of diversity as a "normative meta-narrative," and indeed will necessarily test the aspirations and limitations of diversity as they are depicted in literature and art.
Although it is predominant in contemporary discourse, diversity is, of course, nothing new; heterogeneity is a constant of human existence. It remains, moreover, an open question whether the sum of human diversity is in fact increasing as a result of the proliferation of socially sanctioned categories of difference, or whether it is decreasing in the face of...