Ten years ago to the week in which I wrote this, “thefacebook.com” went online, offering those with university affiliations the opportunity to craft, in prose and in lists, what Judith Butler might not call “an account of oneself”. But accounts they were, initially expressed through discrete profiles to be visited, and becoming gradually more social: in “news feeds”, a feature added in 2006, the profiles began to talk to each other, establishing etiquette and ethics, co-negotiators of a social contract determined less by subjects encapsulated within identities than by a flow of images, events, language. The profile mutated into a Wall, in 2008, a tabula rasa on which Lockean consciousness might inscribe its remarks, and then into a Timeline, in 2011, through which Shandean consciousness could broadcast the inadequacy of linear biographical narration. In 2009, newsfeeds became public and statuses promotable – this latter because, as everybody knows, Facebook has yet to determine how best to monetize its assets. The company’s difficulty underlines what is already obvious to every user of Facebook: that, far from enabling the self-expression of its users, the newsfeed has acquired a life of its own – we run things, but the things also run we. It is a glossary for a text that couldn’t exist, un dictionnaire des idées impossibles. More vaguely, and truer: the short-form “status updates” that it comprises feel as faraway and as near as a Barthesian haiku: “You are entitled, says the haiku, to be trivial, short, ordinary; enclose what you see, what you feel, in a slender horizon of words, and you will be interesting; you yourself (and starting from yourself) are entitled to establish your own notability; your sentence, whatever it may be, will enunciate a moral, will liberate a symbol, you will be profound: at the least possible cost, your writing will be filled.”[1]

Some thoughts emerge from this narrative that might have bearing on the discipline of Comparative Literature in 2025 – without it being necessary to assume that the decoupling of the profile from the news feed is irreversible. But before mentioning a few, I’ll just declare that I treat as axiomatic that the word “discipline”, designating as it already does a socialized process of individuation, must include not just the quasi-public objects with which we are beginning to grapple (Twitter, para-academic blogs, this report) but the quasi-private objects that we generally prefer to let rest unexpressed (Facebook, the hotel bar). This axiom might have some general applicability, but it is especially important for the discussion of CompLit. First, because the social conditions out of which our methods have been, at various points in our history, a highly privileged object of study themselves: as Haun Saussy puts it, “If the specific object of comparative literature is not found in the thematic content of works, perhaps it lies in a dimension of which works and their contents are only symptoms”.[2] Auerbach’s Mimesis is not just a study of the canon, but an account of the conditions under which any canon might be recognizable as such – an ideological finesse that partly explains why the idea of a canon remains indispensable decades after it has been, apparently, discredited. Recent debates over world literature (Apter; Hayot) and indeed over the viability of comparativeness as a grounds for argumentation (which is a major theme in the essays collected by Felski and Friedman; also Cheah, Robbins) situate the methodologies of literary studies in relation to histories of empire, emigration, professionalization. Quite right: but in an age where those histories are formalized through what I have called the quasi-private, so should be the institutional critique. And then the private should be especially important to members of this Association because of a source of pride and anxiety for the ACLA – the extraordinary recent growth of its conference. The event called “ACLA” draws together scholars from a variety of different fields, periods, and language traditions – and so, it is sometimes argued, risks losing its principle of cohesion. The growth appears to some a kind of newsfeedification of the academic conference: no longer mapping out a social space as a series of discrete profiles, these events take on a life of their own in which the temporary cohabitation of social space becomes the reason for gathering. I am quite comfortable – maybe more comfortable than not – with a conference which fails to subjectivate me, but places me in conversation (literal, not figurative!) with scholars I’d otherwise never meet. Just as well because that, I suspect, is part of the future of comparative literature.

Still, more with a descriptive than a normative aspect, some modes of comparative literary study that I take to be in the ascendency:

i. Distractions

We evoke delay when discussing reading practices: we “tarry”, we “stay with”, we “maintain close contact with”; the textual effect may “remain”, may be a “trace”. These words are legacies of a deconstructive critical practice that entailed (and perhaps valorized) an aesthetics of immobility, and found in various evocations of slowness a responsible textual politics – such, in John Guillory’s argument, was the rhetorical style that encoded theory speak as professional expertise. But they operate differently in the moment of multi-tabbed browsing and social media – where the difference between tarrying with something and rushing headlong into it is increasingly difficult to determine. Flipping between documents and tabs is a cognate form of channel surfing, which in fact pulls us away from the deconstructive mode of delay-as-aporia, and into a mode of distraction and disinclination. Though Wai-Chee Dimock understands the “weak theory” she elaborates in a recent article as an inheritance from Robert Boyle, one might see argumentative “leakiness” as a product not of seventeenth-century empiricism, but of a writing subject that can’t stop itself from dissolving into Facebook from time to time. And this, too, is a comparative mode, if by “comparative” we mean non-singular, non-sovereign: describing two leaky chains of literary-historical association (Colm Tóibín à Henry James; James à W. B. Yeats) Dimock writes, “my hope is that, in attending to both these networks–as equal probabilities distributively scattered, not linearly entailed, and not hierarchically ranked either–literary history might be more easily conceived as a nonsovereign field, with site-specific input generating a variable morphology, a variable ordering principle”.[3]

ii. Hashtags

In 2013, the hashtag became a common function of indexical speech, but it also, in some sense, arrived. Last was not the year in which the term first appeared –Wikipedia tells me that it originates from the C programming language, developed in the late 1970s. But it was the year in which the word was spoken out loud, across a wide array of cultural spaces, and attained a highly unusual status in spoken English: from a common noun, it morphed into a punctuational phoneme, a voiced paratext. A commercial for Subway’s Tuscan Chicken Melt sandwich encapsulated why this was important, for comparative literature and for the institutional structures that support it.[4] A white, button-down-shirted Subway’s customer on his lunch break is so excited about his sandwich that he Instagrams it, and vocalizes his hashtags as he enters them into his smartphone. “Hashtag delicious, hashtag low-fat”, he witters on for seventeen inglorious seconds, irritating both the viewer and his Asian-American companion, apparently a co-worker with whom he is passing a lunch break. Our annoyance is directed partly at the adoption IRL of a glossary best suited to an online discourse, but also because it reproduces diachronically (droning on) a literary method best experienced synchronically (at a glance), as if publicizing the fact that the adverts themselves are felt as aporetic dead time, interruptions in the program you’re trying to watch. The man’s time-wasting phone-fetishism is a good example of procrastination – that is to say, hashtagging represents an activity indispensable to the reproduction of academic labor, and indeed that of the increasing number of white-collar laborers who “work from home” , with whatever attendant sense of post-spatial mobility, bedsit isolation, social deprivation, egoistic self-determination... Within the diegetic frame, though, the character meets a more practical comeuppance: we see, long before he does, that his Asian-American colleague has taken the sandwich off the table and is eating it himself. The cat that got the cream, this second man then declaims the moral to the first, and the viewer: “hashtag you snooze you lose!”

At first glance, this was nothing but a paranoid fantasy about Asian productivity and American decline: everything is usurped in the zero-sum game of the labor market: not only the commodity, but also the textual forms of American corporate culture – “you snooze you lose”. The Asian sidekick figure reveals himself as the surreptitious protagonist, just as Asian capital assumes the threatening role it did in (to take a memorable and recent example of a long-standing trope of American Orientalism) Mitt Romney’s “Stand Up to China” commercial, in which a voiceover claims that under Obama, “China is stealing American ideas”.[5] But that first reading will only get us so far. What the Subway commercial formalizes is a new form of nostalgia that plays with and as the hashtag: not an imaginary nostalgia for a time one never inhabited – as with the sitcom Happy Days – but a prospective nostalgia that precedes, and can therefore prohibit, consumption. This form of longing looks a bit like Freudian cathexis – it produces high-intensity pleasure and inhibits longer-duration intimacy. But it is distinct. The glory of the commodity, crucial though it is for the Subway’s customer’s affect, is less rich to him than the admiration that his friends (let’s say, technically, co-workers) will express in response to the photograph, and which will vicariously transfer onto him. What he wants is fundamentally social, and closer to an anal neurosis than a narcissistic one: his <3 belongs to Instagram. Notice that from this perspective, it doesn’t matter in the least that the sandwich was taken away. If anything, it makes his plot more interesting and furnishes him with more online prestige. The attention economy, with its own archive (“big data”) and its own methods of generating value, refashions the desires, and so the neuroses, of its incorporated nodes.

iii. Wikipedia

OK, this one is normative: by 2025, I hope, we will have collectively worked out how best to use, and cite, Wikipedia. Our refusal to do so can only be predicated on the assumption that knowledge-production requires, if not an actual author, at least a figure whose author-function can be provisionally stabilized. That assumption is no longer defensible for any humanistic discipline, but surely not one of which “what most needs to be preserved […] is metadisciplinarity”, as Saussy so aptly claims. (23) It was a rather depressing moment when I realized that there was almost no subject on which I knew more than Wikipedia – there might be a handful of pages, and then a larger number of topics about which I know something, but for which there is at present no entry. I’m not overly bothered about it any more. My disciplinary training has furnished me with plenty of advantages over an online encyclopedia, and I have learned to live with the castration of my social performance of expertise. But given the work Wikipedia does for me, in my research as well as my teaching, and given how rewarding and pleasurable that work frequently is, time to give the devil his due.

iv. Minimal criticism

Against the minimally persuasive empiricism evoked by Dimock via Boyle, one might set the maximally persuasive empiricism evoked by Franco Moretti via Darwin. Maximally persuasive, but minimal nonetheless. Moretti says, everywhere, that change is incremental, contingent, and slow – a loooooot of work will yield precious little workable analysis. One does not find in any of his books, as is sometimes irresponsibly claimed against him, any kind of data-fitting; his Eurocentrism, if that is an appropriate term, is as critical as it is polemical. But what James F. English so beautifully names “Morettian picaresque” inheres within its optimistic, gamesome attitude towards data: “things can be counted on to go wrong”, says English, “but never so wrong as to deter the protagonist from embarking on further adventures”.[6] Note, then, that the maximalism of Moretti – that sublime, exhilarating feeling he cannot not generate – derives neither from the enormity of his data sets, nor from any emphasis placed on one or another claim. The claims themselves are always midpoints in an extensible series. And we must also avoid simplistic oppositions of quantitative and qualitative modes of analysis. After all, Freud’s “oceanic feeling” is properly speaking a feeling of quantity, an aesthetic cognition that closely relates the full experience of a perceptual object to the experience of its essential irrelevance in a larger field. On the other hand Moretti insists on the relevance of the part to the whole, even and especially as that precise relationship becomes increasingly difficult to describe.

I have been describing an institution that exists in a number of different places, whose institutional viability is derived from both its diffuseness and its tendency to become more diffuse. There would be those for whom such a literary studies would be affectively marked as lethargic – as for the Bruno Latour of “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?” There would be others, such as the Lauren Berlant I heard give a talked named “Structures of Unfeeling”, for whom this minimal criticism might afford particular access to the flat political affects of the post-industrial, and indeed post-financial, global arrangement of power. Partly in order to distinguish minimal criticism from a lack of criticism, then, let me finish with this: that there is something sickening loathsome, about this exercise – chasing one’s thoughts down another decade in which most will grow older and the rest will die. The very corporate slogans I have been evoking, the brand names I have been using, are slightly revolting to me – think of a book stitched from human faces, or imagine your voice coming from a bird’s throat, a tweet from your own. Icky, though, rather than terrifying. If the first decade of the twenty-first century was, as so often asserted, the era of apocalyptic dystopia – of The Matrix, Left Behind, and No Future – then this second would be the decade of queasy futurity – of Iron Man, Her, and Cruel Optimism. And while the suggestions listed above are entirely falsifiable – which was part of the point –I do think we overestimate the ephemerality of technological forms, the rapidity with which they are replaced. Hashtags, again, are older than me. The neoliberal narrative of permanent acceleration is one that comparative literature, with its tendencies towards recondite formalism and its intimate affective habitus, is capable of resisting.


[1] Roland Barthes, Empire of Signs, trans. Richard Howard, (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1982) p. 70.

[2] Haun Saussy, “Exquisite Cadavers from Fresh Nightmares: Of Memes, Hives, and Selfish Genes”, in Comparative Literature in an Age of Globalization, ed. Haun Saussy (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006) p. 14.

[3] Wai-Chee Dimock, “Weak Theory: Henry James, Colm Tóibín, and W. B. Yeats” in Critical Inquiry, Vol. 39, No. 4 (Summer 2013), p. 738.

[6] James F. English, “Morettian Picaresque” in Franco Moretti’s “Distant Reading”: A Symposium, https://lareviewofbooks.org/essay/franco-morettis-distant-reading-a-symposium .