Academic journal article The Comparatist

Comparative Literature versus World Literature

Academic journal article The Comparatist

Comparative Literature versus World Literature

Article excerpt

Recent theories and pedagogies of alterity such as multiculturalism and postcolonialism have had a significant impact on the discipline of Comparative Literature and the teaching of World Literature. They have, in many institutions, taken over the activity of comparative analyses between cultures and literatures and have achieved this importance in venues that preempt the traditional role of Comparative Literature. Goethe's call to form a Weltliteratur and enrich one's own culture through the acknowledgment of other models of artistic expression, such as Sanskrit kavya, may seem anachronistic and naive to us today. However, we should not forget that the discipline of Comparative Literature was formed from just such a cosmopolitan desire to embrace diversity. Comparative Literature began by seeking to engage the known world, albeit with very insufficient tools. Over time, it became institutionally far less global in its perspective. However, even in its most Eurocentric and isolationist moments, it is preferable to the cynicism that often motivates the market-based consumerism that has come to define present-day academic encounters with the Other.

In American institutions today, it seems that we engage the world less out of curiosity than because of marketing concerns. Marketing in this context is twofold. First, there is marketing to and through university administrators who buy into the idea that alterity initiatives are the most advanced and "logical" approach to the miasma of competing cultures and ethnicities. In such cases, engaging the other easily degenerates into the diversity of college catalogues and state- or corporate-managed United Colors of Benetton pluralism (Shohat and Stam 6). Through such initiatives, institutions can recruit and pretend to "restructure" with supposedly radical responses to new socio-economic realities. One such recent restructuring can be seen in the development of new programs in World Literature. I wonder if the recent rediscovery of World Literature, a field often housed in Comparative Literature departments, and its establishment as free-standing programs of study might not be conceptualized as the latest avatar of the theories and pedagogies purporting to engage alterity that have sprung up on campuses in the last three decades. If the recent revival of World Literature is a reflection of identity studies as currently configured in American academe, what, if any, common features does it share with other recent attempts to engage the Other? What effect do pedagogies of alterity have on our field and how do we train students to engage the world?

The practical reason for this packaging of alterity, whether it be a newly-minted World Literature departments, Multicultural or Postcolonial Studies programs, is obvious: all these "specializations" are relatively easy. They do not involve in-depth knowledge of another culture or demand learning foreign languages. In such pedagogies, each text preserves its own heritage as long as it speaks English (Prashad 112). Such pedagogies also feed American isolationism. In the Internet age, when the globalization of English has contributed to diminishing the need to learn languages, the Other can in these formats be consumed "on the cheap." Furthermore, such celebrations of otherness and diversity in no way compromise American tendencies to cultural provincialism, triumphalism, or indifference to the world. Like those popular ethnic fairs one finds in the States, World Literature, like Multicultural and Postcolonial Studies, allows students to taste other cultures without digesting them. The resounding global education that such pedagogies offer a literature student can consist of nothing more than snippets from endless recycled "representative" authors writing or translated into the English language.

Moreover, within such pedagogical initiatives, there is a real incentive not to respect the intellectual history or genealogy of an area of study. …

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