Rethinking Comparativism

Spivak, Gayatri C.

What is it that one “compare”-s in Comparative Literature?
Goethe’s Weltliteratur is usually invoked when talking about the
beginnings of a comparative literature. The other story is Leo
Spitzer and Erich Auerbach in Turkey. There is also the story of the rise
of the discipline of Comparative Literature to intellectual prominence
in the United States in the period following the Second World War,
largely as a result of the migration to the United States of a group of
noted European comparativists seeking asylum from totalitarianism.
This group had a great influence in fostering the theoretical transformation
of literary studies and in bringing about fundamental changes
in national literature studies. But to think of comparative literature as
comparative had something to do with the notion of la littérature comparée
in France—where comparison implicitly referred to the standards of the
French eighteenth century. This attitude is reflected in the fundamental
premises of Pascale Casanova’s work today. René Etiemble’s Comparaison
n’est pas raison attempted, in 1963, to combat that impulse in a manner
that is still favorably comparable to much that goes on in the Euro-U.S.
today. But in terms of the questions we are asking, it is still too much
within the internationalist side of cold war logic—going no further than
the front-line languages of India and East Asia, with a somewhat paternalistic
approach. Whatever the outcome of that debate, and whatever the
status of the classical traditions of Asia, Comparative Literature within the
United States remained confined to European literary regionalism. After
the cold war, the division between a Eurocentric Comparative Literature
and geopolitically oriented “Area Studies” seemed to have become less
tenable than before. But comparison in favor of the European tradition
has remained in place.


Also Published In

New Literary History

More About This Work

Academic Units
English and Comparative Literature
Johns Hopkins University Press
Published Here
March 17, 2015