A Forum for ICLS

Thoughts on literature

Dr Paolo Bartoloni
Founding Director of ICLS

The study of literature is the study of the imagination at work; of the serious and consistent routine through which imagination comes to have a linguistic form and structure. Literature is the place where imagination wants to know what imagining is all about. It is this thing that simultaneously wishes to possess and know, to hold and question. As practitioners of literature we are bound in the same predicament. The interesting thing is that imagination and work, by way of combining, become gradually indistinguishable and literature turns into the sweetest of business where recreation is also knowledge and pleasure is the result of an infinite number of skills at work.

International and comparative literature is the necessary and inevitable internationalization of this imagination at work. To talk about literature today means to compare, relate and discuss connections and exchanges across different cultures and languages. Literature today can only make sense when it enables us to see and experience the many different ways in which people imagine and work, and the many different ways in which countless forms of imagination and work differ or resemble, encounter each other. This is the real knowledge that literature can pass on to the 'coming subject".

Why 'International AND Comparative Literary Studies'

Past Director of the International and Comparative Literary Studies program
School of Languages and Cultures

‘International’ means ‘between nations’ and ‘comparative’ means that something is compared with something else.

Would the term ‘comparative literature’ then not cover both?

Well, yes and no.

Historically, comparative literature as a discipline (or subdiscipline, or 'interdiscipline') developed out of the idea of 'World Literature' (originally conceptualised within a European framework). World literature simply meant that one studied 'great books of the world', the 'world' being thought of as made up of (mostly European) nations. So one studied canonical works from various national literatures, the idea of a national literature in itself being tied to the political project of nationalism. There was not necessarily anything 'comparative' about such study.

Today, one can still study the great literatures of the world without necessarily considering them in dialogue with each other or without comparing them. In any case, for there to be comparison, there first has to be something to compare, and a language in which to articulate such comparison. So, in order to move beyond the nation and consider literature across nations and cultures, one first has to learn something about these various nations and cultures. One could say that just as the nation is the necessary basis for considering the international, the international in turn is the necessary basis for opening comparative literary conversations.

Hence, 'international AND comparative literary studies'. Study of (some of) the world’s literatures - their canons, their theories, their traditions, their innovations - is a necessary prerequisite to comparing them.

But then, this carries further assumptions. For comparative literature to be comparative literature, does the material have to come from different countries and be written in different languages? Can we compare Greek Australian literature and Indigenous Australian literature, for example, and call this ‘comparative literature’? Both literatures are in English, both literatures are written in Australia. There is some cultural difference, but at the same time the literatures are produced within an Australian cultural context, which will inform their themes, their style, their assumed audience. What of Greek Australian literature and, say, Greek American literature, and ‘Greek-Greek’ literature? How about Modern Greek and Ancient Greek literature? Or is this just ‘literary history’ and not comparative at all? What if I compared modern French theatre and ancient Greek theatre? Would this still be ‘just’ literary history? Does comparison imply contemporaneity? Can I compare colonial(ist) French literature with postcolonial Algerian literature written in French? Is this just more literary history? What if I compare Algerian and Moroccan literature? Am I doing ‘comparative literature’ or ‘simply’ postcolonial studies?

Does greater apparent cultural difference lend greater validity to the idea of ‘comparison’? How different does it have to become? Does it have to be the same genre? Can I compare apples with grapefruit or only with oranges? Or indeed, only with other sorts of apples? Can I compare Japanese manga as easily (or with as much difficulty) with French bandes dessinées as with US Marvel comics? Can I compare it with contemporary Chinese poetry? On what basis would I do so? On what basis would I compare Restoration comedy with Molière? Can I do so more easily than with Japanese theatre from the same period? Could I also compare it with seventeenth century French novels? Why, or why not?

The boundaries around the ideas of the ‘comparative’ and of a coherent national or cultural zone in which literature is produced (or the point at which literature becomes something other than literature: plays or performance poetry for example) have been repeatedly challenged during the development of the discipline: first, challenges to Europe from across the Atlantic and from former colonies of Europe, as well as from the Middle East and Asia; second, challenges from feminists, postcolonial theorists and queer theorists to the idea of the ‘canon’ and to literary theory more generally; third, challenges from the regional, the multicultural and the transnational to the idea of a homogenous ‘national’ literature emanating from one culture and written in one national language; and finally, challenges to the traditional Western idea of ‘literature’ itself from Indigenous studies, performance studies, film studies, popular culture and cultural studies, and so on.

The politics of nation, culture, history, race, class, gender, and indeed genre, all thus impact on definitions of comparative literature and on our methodologies for studying it.

Even if nation and culture keep returning as the key criteria for establishing dialogues and comparisons, establishing the demarcation lines across which one can ‘compare’ is not always straightforward, especially in a post-Eurocentric, globalised, multiculturalised world. Comparative literature is thus, perhaps more than many other (inter)disciplines, constantly in a state of becoming.

Why comparative literary studies?

Australian Literature
Department of English
School of English, Art History, Film and Media

I have been asked to set out in a paragraph or two the principal reasons why I think comparative literary studies are important. That is easy. I think there are many reasons, but the main ones are clear and preeminent. I don't pretend to present them here in order of importance, or even to try to work such a thing out.

Firstly, these are perhaps the only studies that are in accord with the way in which most writers write. The writer takes his or her materials, lessons and inspirations from wherever they wish and wherever they find them. They do not feel compelled to stay within the boundaries of their own language or literary tradition, and any study which approaches their work strictly within such boundaries - which insists upon keeping Borges within Spanish confines, or approaching James Joyce exclusively through an English - language tradition - will be wearing blinkers (how read Joyce without Dante, de Maupassant, Flaubert?). Worse, it will simply be getting a number of very important things wrong.

Secondly - and this is closely - related idea I borrow from Ezra Pound, who speaks of writing with the full palette - every language and literary tradition, and every age or era within them, will have perfected certain techniques and inflections of voice for expressing the frames of mind and spirit that have been most important to them. Together they form, in this respect, a great warehouse of literary possibilities. The writer who wishes to speak with his or her fullest voice - and this is perhaps particularly important in a post - modern age - will go far and wide to gather the repertoire most suitable to their needs. If, as writers and creators, we restrict ourselves to what our own cultural localities can provide us with, we will be denying ourselves access to a vast repository of human potential.

Thirdly - for this is the country where I write, and where this message will be read - Australia is a multicultural society, the overwhelming majority of whose people is made up of immigrants. Although English is its official language, it is not Australia's only literature. Australian Literature - surely one of the healthiest in the world, with strengths quite disproportionate to its size - is written in numerous languages, and draws upon numerous traditions: one of the finest Greek poets alive is also an Australian poet; one of the finest contemporary Chinese novelists is also an Australian novelist. The study of Australian Literature, from this perspective, is a comparative literary study. Arguably, without it, we will never truly know ourselves.

Comparing literature

Department of French Studies
School of Languages and Cultures

The adjective comparative in 'Comparative Literary Studies' allows a discursive sleight of hand which occludes the agent: what is being undertaken is the comparing of literature, an activity performed by a particular agent, from a particular viewpoint with a particular set of theoretical materials. Such a re - statement is not news, of course, to practitioners in this field, but makes it possible perhaps to think about the limits and possibilites of the project of comparing literature and the similarities that exist between literary and comparative literary studies.

There is a strong sense in which all activities around literature: writing, reading, journalistic and academic criticism, constitute comparative literature. The writer never writes and the reader never reads without drawing on their numerous previous experiences of literature : to identify (rightly or wrongly) the genre to which a text belongs, for example, is to develop expectations and conjure up the framework which makes reading possible; from the most naïve and inexperienced reader to the most sophisticated theorist, their activity is impossible without numerous explicit or implicit acts of comparison. To acknowledge this basic fact is to recognise the active role that all play : reader, writer, theorist, critic, in interpretation, through comparing and labelling... Labelling : literary studies are replete with labels: 'romantic', 'modernist', 'symbolist', 'post modernist' - all these labels depend on acts of comparison that identify similarities and differences in works across time, culture, space.

Labels and categories… nothing is as powerful or as dangerous. Which characteristics of a work 'count' in a process of categorisation and which are left aside ? which works are selected for study? which don't 'fit' the 'canon'? As Bourdieu points out in an early article ('Le marché des biens symboliques'), the interpretations of literary works furnished by academics, critics, journalists, not only influence the reception of work by the public, they may encourage the authors themselves to see similarities, to define their own work in certain ways, and to adapt, perhaps unconsciously, to meet audience and critics' expectations. Bourdieu's example concerns the way French novelists of the fifties and sixties were grouped under the label 'nouveaux romanciers'; a contemporary example could be the label 'postcolonial', an interpretative category that may constitute 'symbolic violence' when applied to a wide range of works produced in many different contexts.

In the past, the discipline of comparative studies often compared across nations: generalisations were made about 'national literatures' to which were ascribed particular 'national' characteristics. If this approach has been (at least overtly) abandoned, the literary text today bears an ambiguous and uncertain relationship to its origin (regional? national? international ?) because of the changes brought about by globalisation and the 'radical juxtapositions and imbrications of a postmodern world' (Allen Carey - Webb, Making subjects). Amongst the many effects of globalisation are the speedy exchange of cultural forms, the increased access to international publics (including by 'third world' writers who may end up writing more for Western elites than for their own people), the rapid dissemination and exchange of ideas through new technology. As John Pizer argues: 'literature is becoming inherently global, […] individual works are increasingly informed and constituted by social, political and even linguistic trends that are not limited to a single nation or region. Thus it has become increasingly difficult to regard contemporary texts as simply the products of, for example, German, Nigerian or Chinese writers, or even of European, African and Asian authors. ('Goethe's World - Literature Paradigm and Contemporary Cultural Globalisation'). Increasingly a global literature is being created in a global literary field. Pizer announces a new field of study: 'transnational literary studies'.

Comparative literature has to take into account the changing nature of the national and transnational fields of literary production, that is to say, has to identify the institutions and practices that define the possibilities open to agents entering the field (Bourdieu, Les règles de l'art), has to recognise inequalities of access, monopolies in publishing, the power of cultural intermediaries in determining what gets published and thus what becomes a potential object of study. If the search for publishing markets in the vernacular contributed to the forging of national consciousness in Europe and elsewhere, according to Benedict Anderson, today's transnational publishing houses, in their search for the widest markets, have fostered the transcending of national boundaries.

An essential component of the field of transnational literary production is comparative literary studies itself. The revised title, 'Comparing literature' reminds us that the critical context has changed: new academic disciplines and divisions have been created, departments and researchers in 'third world countries' have entered the field: the institutional framework within which comparative literature is undertaken has been transformed and has brought new perspectives, theoretical tools, labels, canons.…We have, then, to undertake a genuinely reflexive and self - reflexive approach to a practice of comparing literature which in the past was mired in nationalist prejudice and ethno/euro - centricity, and is always at risk from the selective, generalising and essentialising practice of the theorist.