Ways of Knowing: Comparative Literature and the Future of the Humanities

Prof. Elaine Martin
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For once, the accusation that comparative literature is constantly in crisis has turned out to be something positive. The dynamic nature of this discipline — a discipline that importantly rejects the division of knowledge into "disciplines" — has contributed to its continued vitality and its ability to metamorphose, along with the larger culture within which it exists, into new and provocative forms. I would argue that comparative literature has a potentially unique role to play in the humanities as a natural locus for new, restructured paradigms of knowledge. Philosopher Richard Rorty has written that "in the humanities at least, the whole idea of 'disciplines' is pretty dubious, and so is that of 'interdisciplinarity'" ("Looking Back at Literary Theory"). Lacking a clear disciplinary identity or even a fraught identity has worked to the advantage of comparative literature over time, freeing its practitioners to explore freely new juxtapositions that give rise to fresh insights and interpretations. The "comparative" in comparative literature has come to mean literature and something else or literature in relation to something else. In the early days of the field this characteristically meant the investigation of two literary texts or two authors, but now the "something else" may derive from anthropology, psychology, religious studies, art, philosophy, even medicine and law. As David Damrosch writes: "World Literature has exploded in scope during the past decade" ("World Literature in a Postcanonical, Hypercanonical Age").

The fact that this field's very identity has been contested since its inception has produced a lively and ongoing debate about the role of literature in cultural production more broadly. The constitution of the American Comparative Literature Association mandates that a committee of scholars create a report on the "state of the discipline" every decade. The report currently in production (and available in draft form on the Association's website: www.acla.org), unlike the previous two reports, offers us 12 individual essays and five responses rather than the usual unified single report emerging from committee discussion. Among other things, this phenomenon suggests that the elasticity of self-definition inherent to this field has moved beyond the possibility of a unified perspective. The range of topics, from feminism and postcolonialism to terrorism and the visual arts also suggests that, comparatively speaking, this field embraces the juxtaposition of widely different scholarly concerns for the purpose of mutual enrichment and the generation of broader contextual frameworks. In the remainder of the paper I investigate selected papers from the ACLA 2004 State of the Discipline Report to show how comparative literature offers a venue for rethinking and restructuring existing paradigms of knowledge. Specific essays will be discussed.

Keywords: Comparative Literature, Knowledge Paradigms, Postcolonialism, Feminism, Terrorism
Stream: Literature, Literary Studies
Presentation Type: Paper Presentation in English
Paper: A paper has not yet been submitted.

Prof. Elaine Martin

Professor and Program Director, Program in Comparative and World Literature Box 870262 University of Alabama Tuscaloosa, AL 35487 USA, University of Alabama

Ref: H05P0354