From one perspective, comparative literature is often cited by university officials as the pinnacle of academic achievement. In looking beyond the ghettoization of departments and even schools, they provide their (often wildly productive) little groups of comparatists with an institutional boost. As might be expected, however, this is not the only perspective. Anthropologists promote linguistic work, medical faculties speak of narrative representation of disease, law faculties invoke literary themes, and Jewish Studies programs hire specialists in Yiddish and Hebrew poetry, all of which was an outgrowth of comparative literary work. Thus, the marginal program of comparative literature, the little grouping that ties diverse scholars together, becomes an unnecessary appendage, another competitor for scarce college funds which apparently exists only to do what is already being done elsewhere, regardless of whether or not its members are the vanguard for such work. Comparative Literature is from this standpoint another little program, like cultural studies, area studies, or even women’s studies, whose guidance seems increasingly superfluous in an era when every department recognizes the comparative importance of considering culture, race and gender issues in their work.
And yet, maybe comparative literature does not offer the power of literature to all domains that have been tempted to exceed the boundaries of their own abilities by proposing frameworks and approaches that are wildly ambitious in their claims and objectives. Philosophy has been tempted to offer answers in the place of questions, sociology to propose models for human behavior, actual or desirable, political science to imagine itself as just that, a science. Literature does not do anything, in particular, but it keeps academics in line, by standing, as it were, askance, or, more likely, by wavering and occasionally plunging into its own body to discover its own mortality and beloved weakness. But contemporary comparative work needs to avoid the nostalgia for worlds in which its place was clearly-defined, such as the Cold War context, where it found its cross-wall abilities, and it might also benefit from expanding its own sense of corporeal self.
There may well be a purpose for some kind of comparative literary studies apparatus that exceeds literature by proposing bridges, through language or narrative practices or particular literary tropes, between realms that might otherwise feel disconnected, such as literature and medicine, or literature and computer sciences. Comparative literature is well equipped because it takes as its starting point a comparative perspective, a set of strong heuristic and methodological tools, but also, because of its history of linking together disciplines and departments and encouraging movement across appropriate boundaries in the quest for useful knowledge, examples or tools. If it were to assume this role institutionally, comparative literary studies would likely be more of an ad hoc committee, employing a director, a group of advisers and consultants and some auxiliary staff to discuss, promote and coordinate comparative work throughout the university. In that form, comparative literary studies could become a champion for newfound questioning beyond traditional boundaries, and as an official body to breach department and program barriers.
So perhaps the answer depends upon the setting, rather than the specific content of comparative literary studies; few people doubt the value of what comparative literary work has done, and the multidisciplinary approach it has taken is now, if nothing more, at least the theoretical modus operandi of most intellectual work. But for those institutions that have already surpassed these objectives, in ways similar to the sense in Canada that the society has outgrown its formal multicultural legislation, then we might at least keep it on standby for when units, fearful of extinction, move towards closing themselves down to outside worlds from which they so clearly could benefit.
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