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From Comparative Literature to Cultural Studies

Anne Chalard-Fillaudeau

Postcolonialism, postmodernism, multiculturalism… Does the future of thought, of science or faculty, lie in these “ism-disciplines,” or in new notions that thrive in the wake of cultural discourses? Indeed, this question matters since we must constantly decide the relevance of Comparative Literature as a discipline. Taking for granted that these “-isms” continue to permeate every faculty department, do we have to practise absolute comparativism, which dismisses the very possibility of a value judgement, just to prove that we are fully justified as cultural discourse? No. It seems to me this would be nothing but a formal justification or a sort of epistemological trick that would pervert both Comparative Literature as a discipline (which aims at producing sense about specific cultural backgrounds) and Cultural Studies as a discourse (which evaluates, describes the loss and the emergence of values, and points out what is unequal, unfair or worth staying). Is the only alternative, then, to abandon our specialty? Once again, I must answer “no,” as the common evaluating content of Comparative Literature and Cultural Studies demonstrates that both discourses can interconnect or intersect. What then? The question is complex, but every notional difficulty, every postmodern uncertainty notwithstanding, it appears we may be able to abolish the cruel dilemma between death and survival, in the possibility of a certain reciprocity, a common and mutual development. I will present evidence of this by sketching the context, then by showing how Comparative Literature is to recycle and, lastly, conclude by presenting ways in which Comparative Literature can influence Cultural Studies.

Comparative Literature: Endangered Discipline or Scientific Species?

We shall not be able to understand our Cornelian dilemma if we do not refer to the contemporary scientific context. In this regard one thing is sure: the faculty is destined to evolve and has already begun changing its internal mechanisms—whatever field we consider: curriculum, management, or coordination of the various disciplines—under pressure from Cultural Studies, which invades all departments and, moreover, hollows out every notion of a separate department. Indeed, Cultural Studies seeks to deliberate the ‘human fact’ under all its facets (that is, the Human in society and society as a human construction) and thus makes use of disciplines as diverse as ethnology, anthropology, history, sociology, semiotics, linguistics, psychoanalysis, and so on. In other words, Cultural Studies is not a strictly circumscribed or defined discipline but rather multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary, and transdisciplinary. As a result, every discipline has to rethink its composition and to ensure its “articulation” with other disciplines, as Stuart Hall, one of the founding fathers of British Cultural Studies, puts it. Articulation is a most telling word since it bears upon the necessary play of correspondences and non-correspondences, of connections and contradictions between faculty disciplines.

In the logic of this recomposition, Comparative Literature is threatened in diverse ways. One of the major threats is the risk of instrumentalisation which would endanger the integrity of Comparative Literature as a discipline. To see the danger in its proper perspective, Comparative Literature could well become a praxis among others, which actually means that it would lose its integrity as a specific approach to an important part of human culture with its own theories and methods. Comparative Literature would become a segment of Cultural Studies subordinated to the theoretical and methodological objectives of Cultural Studies. But the researcher may not agree with the goals or methodology of Cultural Studies or, more specifically, with the leftist orientation of this discipline which stands up for those who are culturally and politically, excluded or, let us say, society’s cast-offs. One may not want to abandon one’s neutrality or be forced into a research place under a permanent state of alert and siege!

Another threat is the risk of total dismissal or ethical interrogation since Comparative Literature might be seen as the archaic remnant of an elitist idea of culture. For Cultural Studies rejects any theory of culture viewed as the sublimated modalities of human expression: culture does not exclusively signify literature, arts or science, but it pertains to all the practices, rites, institutions and cultural, political, symbolic meanings of human societies. As Stuart Hall puts it, culture is “a whole way of life.” Cultural Studies substitutes the elitist concept of culture for an anthropological one and, consequently, focuses upon all the possible cultural spheres, whether they deal with the dominating culture or a subculture, high or low culture, popular culture, border culture, diasporic culture or homosexual culture—the list cannot be exhaustive. With regard to this, Comparative Literature is accused of abiding by an elitist idea of culture. Moreover it is accused of also serving hegemonic goals. In voicing past, if not reactionary, cultural concepts through the ranking of literary genres and authors in a hierarchy analogous to social classes, Comparative Literature is likely to foster the ideological ‘modelling’ of the social and cultural together according to classifications of ‘high’ and ‘low.’ Cultural Studies does polemicise a selective tradition which naturalises the moral order of the bourgeoisie. Furthermore, Comparative Literature may be cast out as a unilateral discipline, that is to say one which only addresses literary and cultural questions but does not conceptualise the social and political aspects of its research object. Whatever subject it broaches, it scarcely pays attention to the forms of social and cultural structure, to say nothing of the division and inequality in the production of culture. In addition, its researchers are problematic in the influence they exert upon the audience or their institutional position in faculty or the way their own social and cultural background interferes with their analysis. Comparative Literature can be seen as verging on reductionism.

Among all the possible threats we must take into account the supremacy of English that makes the spectre of a global English literature loom on the horizon, and could mean the end of the translator’s work. English would erase the idiosyncratic elements of a text so far as it cannot be the adequate linguistic medium for a culture which is rooted in another language.

Last but not least, Comparative Literature is threatened with being ousted somehow. In conjunction with the risk of overlapping instrumentalisation and dismissal, it might be eaten away, deprived of its scientific and disciplinary space and, at the very least, of its autonomy. Researchers in Comparative Literature are likely to be afraid of losing their right to specialisation—probably mistakenly, as it turns out that Cultural Studies does not censure specialisation as such but the compartmentalisation of specialties. The fear of one’s vanishing may feed unfounded, imaginary fears, and false views on a discourse that is more integrative than exclusive and that characteristically encourages participation. In this respect, participation is tantamount to a chance and certainly offers an opportunity to find new resources. Could we thus speak of a possible “recycling”?

Comparative Literature: a recycling discipline?

That researchers in Comparative Literature do not want to be turned into assistants is easily understandable. But, as important as the emotional factor may be, there is another factor which accounts for the survival of Comparative Literature or rather—the word “survival” is not so relevant—for staying dynamic and developing in new directions. We actually have to assume that, should the study of canonical texts disappear, it would be harmful to general knowledge. These texts are not only supposedly representative of the elite culture and as such blameful, but are also part of a national culture in all its forms. These texts reflect the thinking of one group or community and the diachronic ways of transliterating reality. They are an idiosyncratic product of human thought, just as Comparative Literature is an idiosyncratic product of every society that places value on written expression. Therefore, both the discipline and its research object are to be preserved as significant testimonies. But, what is more, Comparative Literature could gain a new relevance under the positive influence of Cultural Studies.

First, Cultural Studies can contribute to the theoretical redefinition of a discipline that no longer meets its context. Until the emergence of Cultural Studies, Comparative Literature rested upon the notion of literature as a corpus of representative texts; Comparative Literature amounted to confronting two nations and, immanently, two languages. Since then, Cultural Studies keeps on stressing that literatures or corpuses of texts can be written in the same language but stem from different nations or vice versa that literatures can stem from the same nation but be written in different languages. It demonstrates that, in a postcolonial context dominated by English, and in a global context characterized by permanent financial, intellectual and physical transfers, and by diasporic migrations, we cannot stick to the old notions of literature any more. It is certainly more judicious to split literature as a whole into a number of literary spheres which revolve around cultural belongings: for instance, the point at issue can be one regional literature compared to another, or the question of local literature, or the definition of diasporic literature. In the first case, when the language is the same but the cultural sphere is different, Comparative Literature may study how language is diversely used and for what purpose, where cultural and poetic boundaries are to be situated, etc. For example, would it not be appropriate for Comparative Literature to draw a comparison between homosexual literature and lesbian literature or between science fiction and cyber literature? The investigation would occur inside the same linguistic boundaries but at the same time, beyond these very boundaries. In the case of two literary corpuses stemming from the same nation or cultural sphere but written in different languages, Comparative Literature may explore its panel of texts as an identitary account of a specific idiosyncrasy. For example, it could try to confront Chinese literature in Chinese with Chinese diasporic literature in Thailand and American-Chinese literature in English and make all the kinds of cultural discrepancies and convergences stand out.

Added to that, Cultural Studies can contribute to fundamental topical changes. Comparative Literature has to produce substantive studies of the literature of two or more languages or literary cultures, and to study literary history or the sociology of literature. It can generalise its approach to embrace the study of popular culture texts normally expelled from the canons of high art and literature such as popular fiction. Likewise, it can enlarge its perspectives to include the study of canonical literature in relation to its social, historical and ideological context.

Finally—and this is in a certain way complementary—Cultural Studies incites Comparative Literature to exploit the possibility of a synergy with other faculty disciplines. Granted that this is no new practice for Comparative Literature, Cultural Studies could have a stimulating effect. It could encourage textual and literary criticism to systematise the collaboration or collusion with such new contemporary approaches as hermeneutics and reception theory, Marxism, feminism, semiotics, structuralism and post-structuralism, postmodernism or psychoanalysis.


Considering that the dangers can be transcended, we should invert the positions and raise the possibility of a positive influence by Comparative Literature upon Cultural Studies. Far from being a tool, Comparative Literature appears to be a precious adjuvant in that literary texts (its research object), are true and spontaneous cultural testimonies which can undoubtedly be useful for sociology and anthropology. It can also help to practise relativism against essentialism—relativism being more than just another –ism but an epistemological viaticum; for Comparative Literature is the assertion of differentiation. If essentialism is the assertion that all relations intrinsic to social and historical existence are necessarily the way they are, Comparative Literature is the welcome and striking illustration of the relativist paradigms of Cultural Studies. Comparative Literature investigates the contingency of cultural and political expressions, studies the trajectory of identities trough textual adventures, shows that hazardous and unpredictable modalities of literary differentiation are at the heart of a living culture. Therefore, the only major gap between Comparative Literature and Cultural Studies would be that the former can also produce reflections upon past cultures which enable everyone in general and help the latter to understand current living cultures. Such is the special destiny of Comparative Literature, straddling past and present and future through cooperation with Cultural Studies.

Dr Anne Chalard-Fillaudeau teaches German literature and civilisation at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes in Paris.