Comparative Literature is comfortable with the inclusion of Arabic in its scope. But ours is also a discipline with a persistent concern for its own identity. What can one unpack from this combination of comfort and concern? What has happened since the first Comparative Literature hires were made in Arabic over the last few decades? Is there an interface between the anxiety about disciplinary identity and the steady integration of Arabic into the comparative conversations? Will this process be finished by 2025? These short remarks track one of the old, pre-Arabic, Comparative Literature concerns – the development and use of theory – in order to test answers to some of those questions.
In 2014, Emily Apter, Jacques Lezra, and Michael Wood published their English translation of Barbara Cassin’s 2004 Vocabulaire européen des philosophies: Dictionnaire des intraduisables. The new Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon was a paradigmatically “Comparative Literature” endeavor. It updated a French engagement with a European tradition into an English work of Anglophone theory, cognizant of a further decade’s work on the philosophical ideas in play, engaged with theory in dialogue with the original Francophone philosophie, and gesturing with intent towards the rest of the world. The 2014 introduction mentioned other translations of Cassin into “Arabic, Farsi, Romanian, Russian, and Ukrainian” and diffusion of her work in “Asia, South Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America” (vii, ix). Apter, Lezra, and Wood were commendably frank about their project both having roots in Cassin’s vision of a forward-looking Europe in touch with its Indo-European and Semitic neighbors, and now taking place in Anglophone “literary theory and comparative literature” (xi). They talked in the introduction of removing reference to Europe from the title whilst being “worried” about the “difficult call” because “the European focus of the book is undeniable.” (ix).
Part of the front page of Acta Comparationis Litterarum Universarium.
This is the combination of anxiety and acceptance with which I am concerned. Apter, Lezra, and Wood are aware of and engaged with the banal truth that our discipline is of and in the whole world, not just Europe and North America. They worry that their work excludes that world at the same time as they try to include it and also catalyze its further engagement. There is not even a shred of doubt about whether or not the rest of the world, including Arabic, should be part of Comparative Literature. There is no harkening back, even between the lines, to Hugo Metzl’s nineteenth-century world of European connections (the ten official languages on the front page of the journal Metzl founded, Acta Comparationis Litterarum Universarium, are an assortment from Europe and Scandinavia with a Hungarian center). Arabic must of course be part of Comparative Literature and yet it isn’t, quite. Comparative Literature can never ignore Arabic, or Korean, or Nigerian Pidgin (three languages represented in the Junior Faculty Writing Group of which I am a part at Stanford), but it remains worried about the mechanics and power relationships involved in their inclusion. What is holding us back? Will it be solved by 2025?
To stay with the Dictionary of Untranslatables a little longer, one simple issue is that our conversation has definitive conceptual roots in Europe. The big names of theory, several of whom were born or died back when the Californian coast from which I write belonged to the politics and culture of the Ohlone, still appear in the pages of Comparative Literature, shaping our reading and thinking. It is hard to explain to students in Palo Alto in 2014 exactly why and how Judith Butler writes that G.W.F. Hegel is “the modern source of the understanding of Otherness” (Undoing Gender 2004, p.240) without resorting to either an invocation of the contingency of institutions, or some pained, hedged, and uncomfortable version of the great man theory of the history of ideas. Nevertheless, just like the even older Aristotle, Hegel is part of the story that establishes the tools we bring to our texts. Tension comes from the question of whether or not Hegel is an optional part of the story. Nevertheless, it is Hegel’s story with which the Dictionary of Untranslatables engages so profitably, while at the same time gesturing towards an expansion of that story which might enable it to live up to its universal aspirations.
In the Dictionary itself, beyond short and interesting notes from Souleymane Bachir Diagne on the copula, interpretation, and the Quran (103, 945, 1152), Apter, Lezra, and Wood are not able to do such actual expanding of the field of theory. And indeed, the curation of Diagne’s notes by the editors of the Dictionary reflects an interesting variation on the reason Cassin had given for her inclusion of Arabic in the Vocabulaire: “[w]e have taken as our object symptoms of difference, the ‘untranslatables,’ among a certain number of contemporary European languages, returning to ancient languages (Greek, Latin) and referring to Hebrew and Arabic whenever it was necessary in order to understand these differences.” (xvii). Unlike Cassin, the choice of Apter, Lezra, and Wood was not to add what they call “central keywords in Arabic” with Diagne because rābiṭah, ijtihād, and qurʾān (copula, interpretation, and the Quran respectively; note that one of the three needs only transliteration and no translation) had to be present in order to make sense of the larger entries in which his contributions are situated (Sein, Belief, and On Translation respectively). Instead, they chose them, perhaps unconsciously, because they symbolize the important roles that Arabic has played in European accounts of Europe’s development (Lucas Klein’s remarks elsewhere in this Report on the problems Chinese literature encounters in comparative work are relevant here). The copula signifies Arabic transmission of Greek logic into Latin, ijtihād references Islam’s failure to reform itself as Christianity did, and the Quran represents the monolith of textual religion from which the East remains unable to extricate itself as the European State has done from its Church. Hegel would be happy with both the content and the form of this dialectic!
This is all a little unfair to Apter, Lezra, and Wood. They know, and reference, the postcolonial theory developed around Comparative Literature departments throughout their careers, theory so well-established that it has in many cases become orthodoxy, and then been challenged. But postcolonial theory’s insight, dating from the 1980s and 1990s, is that exactly these sorts of appropriations that take place in the Dictionary with Diagne and Arabic are a risk. Hence, anxiety.
The legitimacy of the presence of Arabic is therefore never under pressure from within the discipline of Comparative Literature in 2014. Being an Arabist elicits only acceptance. It is the achievement of full participation of Arabic inside Comparative Literature that remains an unfinished task. Expressions of surprise on hearing of my field sometimes come tinged with excitement and sometimes with concern, but they never come from colleagues within Comparative Literature. They often come from colleagues working on Islam in religious studies departments, or in area studies departments such as the one in which I was trained (Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations alongside comparative Semitists, scholars of Modern Hebrew, archaeologists, and more). The anxiety in those departments is of a very different sort from that in Comparative Literature. It is often an anxiety about survival or enrollments, and in the case of Arabic, an anxiety about the institutional and political status of being an enemy language and the impact this has on the students we meet and the lessons we want to teach them. One of my mentors once told me, not quite entirely joking, that the job of an Arabic professor was to take students committed to careers in diplomacy and the military and, by teaching them Arabic and its literatures and cultures, change their minds about their targets.
With the human stakes so high, there is less anxiety about the conceptual borders of the field. Theory, in the sense that Apter, Lezra, and Wood use the term, “an imprecise catchall for a welter of postwar movements in the human sciences” (viii), makes appearances in the introductions of area studies doctoral dissertations, but it does not shape the conversation in the way that it does in Comparative Literature. There are plenty of gross generalizations in the preceding sentences, but one could still say that many of the fields in my department of doctoral study remain engaged in the struggle to understand the texts they are reading.
Will this struggle be over in 2025? For Arabic at least, I think not. So much remains unfound, unedited, and unread. One reason for the intensity of the struggle to read these other literatures is that the texts concerned are often very old (for some of my colleagues in the Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations department, they are literally scratches on rocks). With more recent texts, the task might be somewhat easier. And indeed, the achievement of Arabic integration into the discipline of Comparative Literature becomes tangible exactly with modern Arabic literature. The modern Arabic novel is a creature of world literature, written by authors who read widely in the Western canon, and increasingly now translated into English shortly after being published in Arabic (a look over Marcia Lynx-Qualey’s Arabic Literature (In English) is always instructive). Scholars inside and outside Comparative Literature departments have been doing substantial and substantive work on these texts and their movements for well over a decade. And the Arabic novels themselves, in translation, have by now established themselves on syllabi and in conversations about world literature. For scholars of mediaeval Arabic, it can be a shock when our colleagues with backgrounds in social criticism and East Asian literature introduce us to Arabic books from this global canon.
In 2025, one can imagine that this process will have advanced substantially. It will also have moved further, just as Classics departments are inexorably moving towards, a future in which all the most popular texts have been translated, all the known texts have been edited, and all of the most well-known authors have been the subject of at least one doctoral dissertation. Arabic is several centuries behind Classics on this road, but the next 11 years will see progress. It will take place in both Modern Arabic Literature (which will continue to be produced both inside and outside novels) and in older literature. Just as institutional structures have employed professors of Arabic and Islamic Studies across the United States and Europe as a result of the enemy status of the language in the twenty-first century, so in the Arabian Gulf different structures will continue to produce both conventional (and often confessional) editing work (heavily funded in Saudi Arabia by the regime) and Anglophone translation and commentary (the Library of Arabic Literature, funded by the New York University Abu Dhabi Institute, is emulating the Loeb Classical Library). Will the availability of more texts in English put the 2025 generation of Apters, Lezras, and Woods in a position to profitably revise the Dictionary’s engagement with Arabic?
The answer is that it depends on what the texts do when they come into the discipline. Will they provide us with a new testing ground for our theories, or will they provide us with new theories, their own theories, the theories they developed on their own before we came along, theories we could use?
There is a difference between the alterations made to a theory when it is exercised on a new proving ground, and the impact of an entirely new theory charging across well-known fields. The difference here is between a conception of theory as a tool for framing human practices, and a reading of theory as one of those practices understood in terms of its own development (elsewhere in this report, Ban Wang provides an engagement with this question that argues for a potential universal aesthetics combining traditions understood on their own terms). It is only when Arabic, or Korean, or Nigerian Pidgin are giving us new ways to read the Victorian novel (or each other) that the work of Comparative Literature will be done! Before such a process is complete, the risks that make the discipline so justly anxious will remain. Those Arabic texts that fit into existing Anglophone conversations, such as the novels of Modern Arabic Literature, will flourish. Those Arabic texts that require the creation of new conversations, or the large-scale reworking of existing categories, will attract less attention even if they are available in translation.
The inertia of prior theoretical conversations and conventions is substantial. Even though our current theoretical conversation, with its roots in Europe, is now a creature of the whole world, shaped by global literature, inclusive thereof, and trained to be aware of the problematics of power, core, and periphery therein, Arabists are still in no position to advocate for the inclusion of Arabic thinkers on our departments’ theory reading lists. What could one claim should be added? A work from a genre that doesn’t have a name that makes sense in English? A work with no Church, no State, no Enlightenment and little Plato in its genealogy? A work that no-one has translated into a European language yet?
If in 2025 the current anxiety in Comparative Literature about the world outside Europe is justified, then the comfortable acceptance of the place of that world inside Comparative Literature will be jeopardized. If the Apters, Lezras, and Woods of 2025 remain unable to successfully expand the conversation, then the conversation will be less likely to expand. Only when the entire theoretical underpinning of Comparative Literature is divided, according to some appropriate weighting scheme yet to be devised, between the theoretical resources available in all world languages from all times in world history will the discipline be able to escape from Europe! An undergraduate who suffered through some of my attempts to teach these problems in Comparative Literature 101 remarked that such a programme risks only admitting literatures that are useful, which may not be the same thing as literatures that are valuable, or enjoyable. She was right to identify a certain instrumental valorization of theory in my plans for the future of the discipline, a valorization that comes with risks.
What sort of steps would need to be taken? What would they look like? I recently spent some time reading around in the Indian philosophy of language and noting the efforts of previous generations of scholars to get their readings of that non-European tradition into the philosophical and theoretical conversations of the Anglophone institutions in which they were working. These efforts, at the remove of a decade or two, do not appear to have been particularly effective. One identifiable reason could be the prominence of transliterated non-English terminology. It is a legitimate choice, the decision to transliterate rather than falling into the morass of cross-cultural epistemology, but it puts tremendous pressure on the reader to, in effect, learn a new language composed of English syntax and hitherto unknown foreign nouns. We are back with the problems of the Vocabulaire and the Dictionary. A word needs a tremendous amount of Anglophone scholarship to be able to settle, provocatively and productively, in English (think of Sein, the entry in which Diagne’s discussion of the Arabic copula was included). A second reason could be that the Indian theory did not contribute solutions to Anglophone problems, but rather to that Indian theoretical conversation’s own problems, which is something reasonable for it to have done, but limiting. A third reason might be the contingency of institutional context to which I appealed earlier. In all cases, work remains to be done, but the rewards of cross-cultural theory, with all the inevitable chance meetings of languages and texts involved, can be substantial.
A crossing of theory requires its users to talk not just about contingency of context and production, but also about the hegemony of genres and cultures over each other, and about universality – does a theory that works for the literature to which it has been transplanted and for the literature for which it was developed thereby prove that literature is universal? What happens to theory in translation? (See Rebecca Walkowitz on “foreign reading” elsewhere in this report.) Those signification mechanics that determine whether (and how) two words in different languages might point at the same thing have more work to do when the thing they are pointing at is a mechanism designed to explain things other than itself. The challenge of broadening Comparative Literature’s theoretical tool box, and of providing Arabic theory solutions to Latin American translation problems, remains before us. Fingers crossed for 2025!
I would like to add a final note of apology and self-exculpation. It is traditional for pieces on the state of the discipline of Comparative Literature, and there are many, to rely on a strong autobiographical component. The ideas I have sketched out here for Comparative Literature bear more than a passing resemblance to my own work plans for the next decade or so, and the texts that I have noted as under-studied are rather closely related to the texts I am currently reading. Nevertheless it is my claim, and this is of course a matter of comparison, that the challenges faced by the Classical Arabist are a metonymy for those of Korean or Nigerian Pidgin, and that my argument in favour of more theory holds for all literatures outside Europe and North America.
 G.F.W. Hegel was born in 1770, and in the spring of 1772 a Spanish expedition was the first contact the Ohlone had with Europeans. Alan K. Brown “The European Contact of 1772 and Some Later Documentation” in The Ohlone Past and Present: Native Americans of the San Francisco Bay Region. Edited by Lowell John Bean. Ballena Press, Menlo Park: 1994.