If the titles of the two most recent State of the Discipline reports (Comparative Literature in the Age of Multiculturalism, 1994; Comparative Literature in the Age of Globalization, 2006) function as a signature of anything, it is certainly that the field of Comparative Literature, along with literary studies more broadly, has now come to encompass an exponentially wider breadth than was institutionally legible only a few decades ago. This radical expansion has opened up the possibilities of comparison dramatically, and yet, I would suggest, the push Comparative Literature has made to expand method at a scope resembling anything close to its expansion in content has been, at best, minimal. Comparative work is still largely practiced as a traditional mode of setting one text or author in relation to another, where variation is found along the lines of critical perspective, and such perspective is itself usually varied according to the contextual emphasis of the texts at hand. Yet, as Ali Behdad pointed out in the 2015 Presidential Address to the ACLA, “literature should be secondary; we are [first] comparatists” (“A Comparative Frame of Mind”). With this in mind, he suggests that the primary practice of our discipline is “engaging or realizing ideas through a comparative frame of mind.” Behdad is careful to note that he does not intend to suggest that literature should never function as the primary object of study in any given project; his goal, rather, is to challenge us to consider the potential of framing our work in such a way that our method of approach, and not solely our content of choice, drives our research. I read this suggestion as one pointing toward the larger project of the humanities: to study and wrestle with the experience of being human across the multiple contexts and scales of existence. Literature is of course a wonderfully fruitful domain within which to take such an exploration, and it has become only increasingly so in our field, given the expansion mentioned above. But when the study of literature is not necessarily for the sake of literature itself, when it instead feeds some larger question, so too does the role of literary study expand.
Approaching literature as a window into human experience is, of course, nothing new. But as such a window, literature has the opportunity to reveal specific types of content beyond the literary, and I think pushing these boundaries is where comparative work, as Behdad characterizes it, currently holds the most potential. One such domain for expansion—one that carries important implications for how we frame the study of other content-types across our field’s geographic and temporal landscape—is the study of human structures of knowledge. Walter Mignolo provides a useful example of such work, where he has shown that the European Enlightenment-based epistemology structured on the logic of rationality and linear progress produced a sort of feedback loop that cultivated a fantasy of North Atlantic cultural superiority and prominence, a fantasy that had emerged during the Enlightenment in parallel with its epistemological counterpart (The Darker Side of Western Modernity). However, Mignolo argues, once the structure of knowledge that grounds such a belief is dismantled, the degree to which five hundred years of such superiority and prominence is indeed a fantasy is made clear; he shows that not until the nineteenth century was North Atlantic culture the globally prevalent force it was often imagined to be. Yet as long as such an epistemology prevailed in the cultural discourse of the North Atlantic, so too did this Eurocentric fantasy, as was the case far into the twentieth century. This example of Mignolo’s work demonstrates that the specificities of an epistemological architecture, or structure of knowledge, dramatically shape human experience and the beliefs and ideologies that arise from such experience.
However, the geographic and temporal expansion of the scope of content that Comparative Literature has embraced in recent decades not only provides an opportunity to study structures of knowledge previously considered “peripheral,” and largely unknown to a Euro-American audience; it also, because of the relief such structures put those of Euro-American knowledge into, allows us to become much more attentive to epistemological difference as such, and as a result, we might become more attentive to the nuances of difference within the structures we are perhaps more accustomed to in our current American context. In order to highlight where I think Comparative Literature holds the most potential in this regard, I would like to suggest that 1) Comparative Literature would benefit from expanding the scope of its direct engagement with structures of knowledge , and 2) it would benefit from more deeply articulating such structures themselves, rather than merely gesturing toward them in service of some other claim.
Most sustained comparative work on structures of knowledge has been conducted at a rather broad temporal scope. Perhaps the most legible example of this is found with large-scale periodization claims, such as, for example, when the evolution from the structure of medieval European knowledge to that of modern European knowledge is characterized as a move from the mystical to the rational. Much of this kind of temporally based comparative work is left to these kinds of reductive claims, and they are only now being challenged and overturned, as with Andrew Cole’s recent work (The Birth of Theory). Comparative work of a more nuanced sort is found increasingly in a geographic scope, though much of it is currently housed in the field of Cultural Anthropology, as with Arturo Escobar’s work on indigenous South American epistemologies of the “pluriverse” (“Sustainability”). And even while Foucault’s work often functions as our go-to remedy for such deficiency in literary studies, when we look back to the “Foucaultian turn” to New Historicism, we find that the emphasis of most epistemologically-oriented work has been on the production and circulation of knowledge through temporal and geographic spaces, not on the structures of these knowledges themselves. This emphasis provides us with valuable information regarding the “who,” the “where,” the “when,” and the “why,” but with little as to the “how”—what, in my estimation, is an important gap.
And yet, while Foucault’s meta-discussions of methodology in The Archeology of Knowledge and The Order of Things are very instructive, his deployment of this method throughout his work generally follows the move from one epistemological architecture to another, such as in France the move from the structure of classical knowledge to that of modern knowledge. This is important work, but functions along a familiar linear temporal trajectory. While this mode in and of itself is not problematic, the question I am more interested in, now that Comparative Literature has undergone the above mentioned expansion and thus has the opportunity to engage human experience in a more nuanced and varied way, is how might we imagine new or alternative comparative models for studying structures of knowledge, as a way of facilitating our engagement with them?
I would like to submit my own method of research as one possible alternative—one that I do not regularly encounter in today’s scholarship, particularly in regard to western structures of knowledge. We are all familiar with the nineteenth century western epistemology of progress, the notion that as time proceeds, humanity comes closer to realizing its teleological potential—disproportionally, but nonetheless progressively, thanks to new forms of economy, state, and technology. Yet by the late nineteenth century, at least in an Anglophone context, where my research focuses, a competing epistemology emerged—one not oriented toward an ever increasing base of knowledge, and therefore toward a cultivation of human potential, but one oriented toward the fact of unknowability itself. This orientation did not supersede the other, however, and they instead ran parallel, both temporally and geographically, often intertwining in curious ways. This is perhaps most evident by the example of the Chicago World’s Fair of 1933, which, while named “The Century of Progress,” also exhibited technologies related to the new science of quantum mechanics and its orientation to the unknown, such as one of the first public displays of television. The intertwining of contradictory epistemological architectures such as these was not necessarily recognized at the time, and it is interesting how in some cases in the early twentieth century one (particularly in regard to emerging electronic technology and statistical models of finance) was regularly deployed in service of the other, while in other cases, these orientations came into direct conflict, as found with the confrontations between anarchist methods of ad hoc, non linear political action and Capital’s unwavering belief in and discourse about linear progress. Without a “comparative frame of mind,” and a look beyond the literary, this curious intertwining of contradicting structures of knowledge might have escaped notice.
It is important to note that when conducting comparative work as suggested in the example above, comparison actually functions at two levels. At the historical level, such an analysis suggests two differing orientations to knowledge. Such a claim is still largely abstract, however, until the analysis begins to work within the specific domains of knowledge that such orientations are circulated. To continue drawing from my own work, as an example, I let the epistemological domain of literature function as a sort of starting point, as something with a familiar discourse from which to launch an analysis. Joyce’s Finnegans Wake and Woolf’s To the Lighthouse provide some of the most distinct examples of alternative knowledge structures in Anglophone modernism. Drawing on the body of literary scholarship we already have about these texts, it is clear that they function along an epistemological orientation different from the rhetoric of linear progress that dominated public discourse at the time. The texts challenge this discourse and directly posit an alternative view, a knowledge structured as a multiplicity of consciousness, perspective, time and space, where these domains are largely entangled and often collapse into one another. Scholarship has traced a similar rejection of the dominant orientation to knowledge throughout modernist aesthetics, and so with literature we can already see the first level of comparison gesture toward an historical claim.
Yet literature, in this example, functions mainly as a launching point. The second level of comparison is at the scope of literary analysis, but considers various disciplines and domains of knowledge side by side. Toward this end, my work that begins specifically with the examples of Joyce and Woolf moves on to consider the period’s physics scholarship as a way of understanding the epistemological architecture of the period’s emerging science of quantum mechanics. As it became clear that space and time function very differently at the quantum level, the idea that time and technology were the only constraints to total scientific knowledge began to change. Statistical probability became the necessary mode of approximating the position of particles, as they could not be located with certainty, and it was found that observation impacted their behavior. Scientific knowledge, at least at the quantum level, was thus a knowledge based on possibility with an inherent recognition of the unknown. Quantum mechanics showed that at certain scopes there are finite and demonstrable limits to what we can possibly know. And so across two distinct domains of knowledge—literature and physics—not only was the concept of a singular trajectory of understanding challenged, but it was set against an alternative structure of multiplicity—experience, perspective, particle location, probability of behavior—and inherent unknowability. Other disciplines and domains of knowledge developed similar alternative orientations in this period, but comparing even literature and quantum mechanics alone begins to show that the structure of knowledge itself was no longer fixed for the modernist mind.
What I wish to suggest with this example is that how an epistemology is structured matters, and that working comparatively between such structures can allow us to see the representation of human experience in a fuller light. I have suggested some examples of how this work is already being performed, but it seems that the moment is ideal for Comparative Literature to expand further in this direction, and it will only be that much more productive and interesting to do so, given the expansion it has already undergone in recent decades.
Behdad, Ali. “A Comparative Frame of Mind.” American Comparative Literature Association Annual Meeting. Seattle Sheraton Hotel, Seattle, WA. 26 March 2015. Presidential Address.
Bernheimer, Charles, ed. Comparative Literature in the Age of Multiculturalism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1994. Print.
Cole, Andrew. The Birth of Theory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014. Print.
Escobar, Arturo. “Sustainability: Design for the Pluriverse.” Development 54.2 (2011): 137–140. Print.
Mignolo, Walter. The Darker Side of Western Modernity: Global Futures, Decolonial Options. Durham: Duke UP, 2011. Print.
Saussy, Haun, ed. Comparative Literature in the Age of Globalization. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2006. Print.