What’s good about institutions is what’s good about concepts: by excising from the realm of consciousness the immense diversity of the possible, they allow one to concentrate on a small enough set of mental data to begin the process of acting, or thinking. The negation at the heart of the concept and the institution is the negation of any form: a bracketing that opens up, paradoxically, the possibility of a certain freedom, a possibility whose exemplification in literature includes not only the self-aware jokers of the Oulipo school but also anyone who’s ever written a sonnet, a one-act play, a novel.

Or for that matter a piece of literary criticism. For criticism, writing, too, has its forms; it is, also, an institution. Though we do much, together and separately, that is not writing, the profession’s most prestigious economies flow through the structures, institutional and formal, that govern its published prose. The process whereby those structures shape our writing begins before the university, in the reproduction of national rhetorical styles. The tendency of different linguistic and state formations to generate their own rhetorics of academic nonfiction is perhaps something those of us in Comparative Literature know especially well, since we encounter it in the work of our colleagues and our students. Anyone who has ever had to unteach a graduate student the normative rhetorical formalities of his or her home culture, and thus to inculcate a new embodiment of the particularly American style—different, let us agree, from the styles in other Anglophone spaces, most obviously those in the UK—has immediately understood the way that writing consolidates itself as an institutional form.

The institution has media-specific forms. You cannot, most of the time in Comparative Literature, have a fifty-page idea. Almost no one will publish a fifty-page idea. You can bring it down to thirty pages or so (PMLA’s limit is 9,000 words); or, if you are famous enough, you may bring it up to ninety, and make it into a small book. For everyone else fifty pages makes at best a book chapter—but of course that assumes you’re willing to write the other 150 pages that it would take to publish the fifty-page idea as a chapter; and that the fifty-page idea would not be changed by that context, becoming, in effect, no longer a fifty-page idea. And so what you write, when you write, is before the fact operating within a set of constraints—the constraints of the article format, yes, the constraints provided by the rhetorics and logics of writerly practice, also—but here minimally a set of constraints that say: ideas can be this long, or this long; otherwise it’s too long, or not long enough.

Do we really think that ideas only come in a limited number of sizes? Obviously not. And yet… it would be perfectly reasonable for someone from the outside to accuse us of so thinking. These are the constraints of the institution, and we reinforce them constantly: in, for instance, our evaluations of journal articles, including the ways we count them for tenure; but also, say, in the normal length of the normal end-of-term graduate seminar paper, which is merely a proxy for its potential future as a journal article. Like all forms these mediatic restrictions come to us from an outside that is also, like all outsides, an inside; indeed the institution always comes to us that way, which is why the institution is so often the site of our feelings of historical helplessness, or worse, complacency; why so often the institution appears the immutable nature or ground of the rhetorics, logics, and patterns of action we, in its indifferent embrace, deploy. 

The institution of writing in literary studies is, therefore, what Christian Jacob has called a lieu de savoir, a site of knowledge. Not a site in which knowledge is produced, but an aperture, a context, like all apertures and contexts also shaped by the things that pass through it—but which tends to appear to us in a simple, fixed, form, as the natural framework for the production and consumption of humanistic knowledge. The only thing I want to ask is: is it too much to spend some of the same attention we spend on literature on the institutional, rhetorical, and logical parameters of our own prose? Is it too much to spend time wondering whether, in fact, knowledge about literature is best produced in 9,000-word chunks, or, what it means that we have built ourselves an institution that acts, most of the time, like it is? Would it be crazy to wonder what would happen if we treated ourselves with enough respect as writers to imagine that our prose was capable of more, sometimes, than the communication of the results of our research? Do we really think—as we honestly seem to, if you look at the way we behave—that our writing is somehow exempt from the theories of language that we apply so easily to literature? Is it because we think that we’re doing “science”? We mostly don’t believe science is doing “science”…

Listen: I am not saying, let’s all do collaborative writing online, let’s blow up the tenure system, let’s have the blog post I write on the new Dungeons and Dragons ruleset count the same as my article on enjambment in Celan, or whatever. All those ideas are fine but they miss the point, I think, by being too big, too “revolutionary” to notice that even the most minimal change to the system within which we write might alter the kinds of things it is possible for us to talk about, or know. The dramatic is the enemy of the simple. What if, in the context of the work we do now, we could also publish five-page, or ten-page articles? What would knowledge look like in that context? What if, likewise, an edited collection did not include only one type of essay—that is, what if what one imagined as the totality of a work could be composed of material in different genres, and not just a string of 30-page essays? What if a single-authored book were so composed?

Listen:  I am not saying, either, down with all institutions, let’s make every project a nonce project; let everyone invent her own form; let everyone set down, as though for the first time, the uncreated conscience of his race. I am asking what would happen if we had more than the three or four institutional forms we have now. Like six, or seven.  

The critique goes for historical periodization, as I’ve shown elsewhere (see Hayot); it also  goes for graduate education. It is not clear to me that the best way to teach someone how to become a professor—and these remarks are directed mainly at my colleagues in the United States—is to have them take courses in groups that last between ten and fifteen weeks for two to three years. Maybe it is. And I certainly understand that there are some logistical conveniences here. But: why is that the best way to do things? Is it the best way to do things? Again, listen: I’m not saying that every student needs a uniquely tailored plan of study, that we have to reinvent the pedagogical wheel anew each time; just that it would be nice merely to have a few different systems at work, or to imagine what it would look like if you said, “Ok, we’ve got six years to get this person a Ph.D. and make them eligible for employment: what’s the best use of their time?”… instead of what happens now, which is that more or less every school runs more or less the same pedagogical system. What has determined that inside the nation the pedagogy of the graduate program ought to look more or less everywhere the same? Is that good for students? Is it the product of serious thinking?

All this amounts not to a critique of institutions, of form as such, then, but merely to a critique of bad or impoverished institutionalism, the kind of institutionalism that doesn’t think much about itself, that doesn’t have much truck with experiments, that complains about institutions in general so as to avoid thinking about them in particular. That such an institutionalism—by which, I should be clear, I mean not the institutions as such but the ways in which we think about and respond to institutions as academics and university professors—is at some level inevitable, the product of having institutions, of having forms, at all, is true enough. But it does seem especially ironic that several generations of intellectuals weaned on Foucault have not for all that integrated a kind of self-reflexive practice into their own institutional patterns, into their production and reproduction of epistemologically and pragmatically determining sites of knowledge.

We need to institutionalize institutional innovation.[1] Such a proposal only feels contradictory if you have a bad theory of institutions—if you imagine, that is, the institutional as somehow hors-texte, as something that you have no duty toward because it is either (a) too big and too impossible to change or (b) too dirty or too stupid or too restrictive to be worth changing at all. How can we proceed as though we were so certain that we had figured out the best ways to produce knowledge, either as teachers or as writers? And would that certainty be more or less sure of itself—would it be more or less theorized, more or less the product of a certain close reading, or of a serious philosophical consideration  of the concepts involved—if it were subject to the same levels of intensity and thoughtfulness as the forms of culture studied elsewhere in the building?

On the ACLA Report

Some twenty  years ago Tobin Siebers wrote an essay I very much admired. In it he wondered if any of us really knew what we were doing in the classroom, if in fact what we are doing is in any serious way knowable. He said that it wasn’t clear to him whether in fact he wouldn’t just be better off reading to his students aloud, that he had seen research suggesting that the latter was just as good as discussing a text. Since then I have on occasion simply spent a class period reading aloud to students. I have no idea if it works but some of them seem to like it more than regular class, which is not, I suppose, nothing.

Siebers’s essay appeared in Comparative Literature in the Age of Multiculturalism, the third major report on the state of the discipline commissioned by the ACLA, published as a collection edited by Charles Bernheimer. The structural differences between that report and the two that preceded it can be read as products of an institutional step forward. While the previous two reports (from 1965 and 1975) were issued as single-authored documents signed by a committee, Bernheimer’s report is best known via its inclusion in the edited volume from 1994, which includes not only the committee-generated report but a number of responses to it. In some respects the “report” that came from Charles Bernheimer and his committee included, then, not only a series of definitive statements about the field, but also the responses to it. In this way it became something more like a conversation.

 That conversational model held for the report that succeeded Bernheimer’s, though again we can observe institutional differences at work. Haun Saussy wrote, not a report, but a forty-page essay on the history of the field; it was one of twelve essays collected under the book’s “Part I: The State of the Discipline, 2004.” These twelve were followed by seven more essays designated “Part II: Responses.” Though there is some tendency to refer to Saussy’s essay as the “report,” the book allows it to occupy that position only formally, by virtue of its scope, its position as the first essay in the edited volume. Like Bernheimer’s the report oriented itself towards the present with a title that imagined Comp Lit as the potentially beleaguered occupant of an age that was not exactly its own: Comparative Literature in an Age of Globalization.

It was with these things in mind that the ACLA Board came, two years ago, to the consideration of the latest report on the state of the discipline. The decision to do things this way, this time, came out of the fact that the Board asked itself some of the questions I have asked here about the nature of institutional form. What is, after, all a “report,” and what parts of the discipline do we refer to? The 1965, 1975, and 1994 reports treat at length the expected structure of graduate and undergraduate programs—students should know this many languages, should take a survey of literary theory, and so on. But in the responses to the 1994 report we see developing a model that comes full flower in the 2004 report: pedagogy disappears, the undergraduate program disappears (or is relegated to a single section of the whole). This happened not I think because the report is dismissive of teaching but because the only mode in which teaching had been discussed in the earlier reports was via a series of prescriptive recommendations. But the result of this understandable discomfort with prescriptions is that the 2004 report treats the discipline as primarily an act of scholarly research, and imagines the state of the discipline largely as an effect of the intellectual history of the field.

The current report attempts to alter or undermine those patterns. We have done so not by excluding them, but by making a place for them amidst a wider umbrella of formal structures.. I will point out, as only one example of the way things have already changed, that the report you are currently browsing already includes for the first time contributions from people located professionally outside the United States; second that it includes, also for the first time, contributions from not only graduate students, but even—gasp!—assistant professors; and only for the second (and third and fourth times) contributions from associate professors as well (until now the only Associate Professor who had participated in the report was Rey Chow, who was still an associate in 1994). It does seem to be a fairly clear instantiation of the kind of institutionalism I have been criticizing so far that the previous two reports, both written in the throes of any number of claims about the need for comparative literature to reach out to its others, to expand its global reach, to help resolve problems of classism and injustice, didn’t manage to include anyone who wasn’t already at or near the peak of the profession. As though the state of the discipline were somehow only visible from, or only taking place in, the ethereal reaches of its institutional mountaintops. 

This isn’t class warfare. This is epistemological warfare: I am talking about how institutions make truth possible. How is it possible to say true things about the state of something if one only talks about, or includes the perspectives of, the state of its smallest, most powerful part? It is not. That is all I am saying. It is not a question of affirmative action for the benighted and the impoverished but of actually trying to understand what this discipline is in all of its forms of practice—all of them.

We know this, when it comes to literature—in fact it is perhaps the most basic thing we come to understand through the serious practice of literature, or the reading of theory. And we don’t know this, when it comes to our institutional practice. Neither in the reports nor in the modes of writing that we teach and enforce. Nor in the graduate programs; nor, also, in the periodizing structures of the undergraduate curriculum, nor in the structure of the job market.

Works Cited

Cooper, Mark Garrett and John Marx, "Crisis, Crisis, Crisis: Big Media and the Humanities Workforce." differences 24.5 (2014): 127-59.

Hayot, Eric. “Against Periodization; or, On Institutional Time.” New Literary History 42.4 (2011): 739-756.

Jacob, Christian. Lieux de savoir (Paris: Albin Michel, 2007).


[1] Echoes here of, "Crisis-obsessed humanists characteristically fail to appreciate the extent to which institutionalization and experimentation are interlinked," from Mark Garrett Cooper and John Marx (131). The relationship between the kind of institutionalism I'm describing here and the more general announcements of a crisis in the humanities is too large to be taken on here; reading Cooper and Marx has given me some sense of its likely parameters.