Blog Post

The State of Comparative Literature—and Arabic

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Images Flickr ( III ) 

I recently contributed to the ACLA's 2015 State of the Discipline report; it is the first time they have let assistant professors participate. My post is about what happens when the discipline of Comparative Literature lets Arabists participate.

If the Arabists in question work on the mediaeval period, there is a risk that they will want to take the theories of meaning, attention, literature, and poetics that they find in the texts - and test those theories on the contemporary world. I remember in the first few weeks of graduate school, asking Wolfhart Heinrichs (the late James Richard Jewett Professor of Arabic at Harvard and my advisor) whether the test for Western theory might be its application to the mediaeval Middle East. And if the Western theory I had picked up at undergraduate was true (as it claimed to be), then surely it must apply? What the intervening years, and the reading and writing involved, have led me to wonder is whether another naive test of theory might be more productive, and more appropriate to my disciplinary home of the past three years - the test of whether old Arabic theory works for the contemporary West, or for the future South. If it was true - it should work?!

This is how I start the ACLA piece:

"Comparative Literature is comfortable with the inclusion of Arabic in its scope. But ours is also a discipline with a persistent concern for its own identity. What can one unpack from this combination of comfort and concern? What has happened since the first Comparative Literature hires were made in Arabic over the last few decades? Is there an interface between the anxiety about disciplinary identity and the steady integration of Arabic into the comparative conversations? Will this process be finished by 2025? These short remarks track one of the old, pre-Arabic, Comparative Literature concerns – the development and use of theory – in order to test answers to some of those questions.

In 2014, Emily Apter, Jacques Lezra, and Michael Wood published their English translation of Barbara Cassin’s 2004 Vocabulaire européen des philosophies: Dictionnaire des intraduisables. The new Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon [discussed by Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker "Word Magic: How much really gets lost in translation?"] was a paradigmatically “Comparative Literature” endeavor. It updated a French engagement with a European tradition into an English work of Anglophone theory, cognizant of a further decade’s work on the philosophical ideas in play, engaged with theory in dialogue with the original Francophone philosophie, and gesturing with intent towards the rest of the world. The 2014 introduction mentioned other translations of Cassin into “Arabic, Farsi, Romanian, Russian, and Ukrainian” and diffusion of her work in “Asia, South Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America” (vii, ix). Apter, Lezra, and Wood were commendably frank about their project both having roots in Cassin’s vision of a forward-looking Europe in touch with its Indo-European and Semitic neighbors, and now taking place in Anglophone “literary theory and comparative literature” (xi). They talked in the introduction of removing reference to Europe from the title whilst being “worried” about the “difficult call” because “the European focus of the book is undeniable.” (ix).

This is the combination of anxiety and acceptance with which I am concerned. Apter, Lezra, and Wood are aware of and engaged with the banal truth that our discipline is of and in the whole world, not just Europe and North America. They worry that their work excludes that world at the same time as they try to include it and also catalyze its further engagement. There is not even a shred of doubt about whether or not the rest of the world, including Arabic, should be part of Comparative Literature. There is no harkening back, even between the lines, to Hugo Metzl’s nineteenth-century world of European connections (the ten official languages on the front page of the journal Metzl founded, Acta Comparationis Litterarum Universarium, are an assortment from Europe and Scandinavia with a Hungarian center). Arabic must of course be part of Comparative Literature and yet it isn’t, quite. Comparative Literature can never ignore Arabic, or Korean, or Nigerian Pidgin (three languages represented in the Junior Faculty Writing Group of which I am a part at Stanford), but it remains worried about the mechanics and power relationships involved in their inclusion. What is holding us back? Will it be solved by 2025? ..."

Keep reading at the ACLA site...

Since the piece went up on the ACLA website, I have been looking at the responses on social media and the 140-character re-framings on Twitter - most of the first ones emphasised the threat encapsulated in "the anxiety of acceptance" (to be fair this was the initial ACLA-provided title after I didn't produce one): "anxieties of including Arabic lit", and "the fraught position of Arabic studies in comparative literature". Most of the people who responded were in Arabic-related fields, which might match the identifications I was trying to make: Comparative Literature comfortably accepts Arabists, but those accepted Arabists remain anxious.

Subsequent conversations with more experienced colleagues, or colleagues more theoretically grounded in postcolonial studies, have suggested that the accepted Arabists might be right to feel this way! Is some form of double-bind inevitable? Is there any way to hire enough faculty to change the conversation's center of gravity? Is talking of hiring even appropriate? Both the other pieces on Arabic in the report, by Waïl S. Hassan on modern Arabic literature and the instrumentalist imperative and by Mohammad Salama on fundamentalism, address these issues to great effect.

I also changed the title from "The Anxiety of Acceptance" to "Arabic: acceptance and anxiety" - because I want the framing to be the combination of acceptance and anxiety, rather than a description of the acceptance as anxious. When initially forced by the 140-character limit, my own advertisment had picked comfort as a slogan over anxiety: "My Contribution to the ACLA 2015 State of the Discipline Report - Comparative Literature is comfortable..." But that tweet didn't attract much attention; perhaps it is fear that always proves most attractive!?

Edit 13 April 2015:

It strikes me, sitting this morning in a "Russian Formalism and Digital Humanities" conference, that the Comparative Literature analogue for Arabic theory is Russian theory. Slavic departments have a long, well-funded, history as the home of an enemy language in the Western academy - so they share an experience with Arabic (as a senior, more experienced, partner!). Russian Formalism is part of the tool-box of Comparative Literature. Known, recognized, and most importantly perhaps, taught to undergraduate and graduate students. Did Russian theory achieve this status because of its inherent productivity? Or through the structures that enemy-language status produces? Does the experience of Russian theory in the academy give Arabists cause for optimism? What sort of ironic optimism might that be, if the route to entry into the theoretical conversation is via a history of violence?

A less jaundiced reading might be that Russian formalism, when viewed as a genre with its own "structural trends and unpredictable contingencies," was in the right place at the right time to constitute (on Galin Tihanov's account) both a formalist language-centered response to philosophical asthetics, and a non-lingustic formalist bedrock for spectrally lingustic deconstructionism.

omparative Literature is comfortable with the inclusion of Arabic in its scope. But ours is also a discipline with a persistent concern for its own identity. What can one unpack from this combination of comfort and concern? What has happened since the first Comparative Literature hires were made in Arabic over the last few decades? Is there an interface between the anxiety about disciplinary identity and the steady integration of Arabic into the comparative conversations? Will this process be finished by 2025? These short remarks track one of the old, pre-Arabic, Comparative Literature concerns – the development and use of theory – in order to test answers to some of those questions.

In 2014, Emily Apter, Jacques Lezra, and Michael Wood published their English translation of Barbara Cassin’s 2004 Vocabulaire européen des philosophies: Dictionnaire des intraduisables. The new Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon was a paradigmatically “Comparative Literature” endeavor. It updated a French engagement with a European tradition into an English work of Anglophone theory, cognizant of a further decade’s work on the philosophical ideas in play, engaged with theory in dialogue with the original Francophone philosophie, and gesturing with intent towards the rest of the world. The 2014 introduction mentioned other translations of Cassin into “Arabic, Farsi, Romanian, Russian, and Ukrainian” and diffusion of her work in “Asia, South Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America” (vii, ix). Apter, Lezra, and Wood were commendably frank about their project both having roots in Cassin’s vision of a forward-looking Europe in touch with its Indo-European and Semitic neighbors, and now taking place in Anglophone “literary theory and comparative literature” (xi). They talked in the introduction of removing reference to Europe from the title whilst being “worried” about the “difficult call” because “the European focus of the book is undeniable.” (ix).

Part of the front page of Acta Comparationis Litterarum Universarium.

This is the combination of anxiety and acceptance with which I am concerned. Apter, Lezra, and Wood are aware of and engaged with the banal truth that our discipline is of and in the whole world, not just Europe and North America. They worry that their work excludes that world at the same time as they try to include it and also catalyze its further engagement. There is not even a shred of doubt about whether or not the rest of the world, including Arabic, should be part of Comparative Literature.

- See more at: http://stateofthediscipline.acla.org/entry/anxiety-acceptance#sthash.hz0DYcRF.dpuf

omparative Literature is comfortable with the inclusion of Arabic in its scope. But ours is also a discipline with a persistent concern for its own identity. What can one unpack from this combination of comfort and concern? What has happened since the first Comparative Literature hires were made in Arabic over the last few decades? Is there an interface between the anxiety about disciplinary identity and the steady integration of Arabic into the comparative conversations? Will this process be finished by 2025? These short remarks track one of the old, pre-Arabic, Comparative Literature concerns – the development and use of theory – in order to test answers to some of those questions.

In 2014, Emily Apter, Jacques Lezra, and Michael Wood published their English translation of Barbara Cassin’s 2004 Vocabulaire européen des philosophies: Dictionnaire des intraduisables. The new Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon was a paradigmatically “Comparative Literature” endeavor. It updated a French engagement with a European tradition into an English work of Anglophone theory, cognizant of a further decade’s work on the philosophical ideas in play, engaged with theory in dialogue with the original Francophone philosophie, and gesturing with intent towards the rest of the world. The 2014 introduction mentioned other translations of Cassin into “Arabic, Farsi, Romanian, Russian, and Ukrainian” and diffusion of her work in “Asia, South Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America” (vii, ix). Apter, Lezra, and Wood were commendably frank about their project both having roots in Cassin’s vision of a forward-looking Europe in touch with its Indo-European and Semitic neighbors, and now taking place in Anglophone “literary theory and comparative literature” (xi). They talked in the introduction of removing reference to Europe from the title whilst being “worried” about the “difficult call” because “the European focus of the book is undeniable.” (ix).

Part of the front page of Acta Comparationis Litterarum Universarium.

This is the combination of anxiety and acceptance with which I am concerned. Apter, Lezra, and Wood are aware of and engaged with the banal truth that our discipline is of and in the whole world, not just Europe and North America. They worry that their work excludes that world at the same time as they try to include it and also catalyze its further engagement. There is not even a shred of doubt about whether or not the rest of the world, including Arabic, should be part of Comparative Literature.

- See more at: http://stateofthediscipline.acla.org/entry/anxiety-acceptance#sthash.hz0DYcRF.dpuf

omparative Literature is comfortable with the inclusion of Arabic in its scope. But ours is also a discipline with a persistent concern for its own identity. What can one unpack from this combination of comfort and concern? What has happened since the first Comparative Literature hires were made in Arabic over the last few decades? Is there an interface between the anxiety about disciplinary identity and the steady integration of Arabic into the comparative conversations? Will this process be finished by 2025? These short remarks track one of the old, pre-Arabic, Comparative Literature concerns – the development and use of theory – in order to test answers to some of those questions.

In 2014, Emily Apter, Jacques Lezra, and Michael Wood published their English translation of Barbara Cassin’s 2004 Vocabulaire européen des philosophies: Dictionnaire des intraduisables. The new Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon was a paradigmatically “Comparative Literature” endeavor. It updated a French engagement with a European tradition into an English work of Anglophone theory, cognizant of a further decade’s work on the philosophical ideas in play, engaged with theory in dialogue with the original Francophone philosophie, and gesturing with intent towards the rest of the world. The 2014 introduction mentioned other translations of Cassin into “Arabic, Farsi, Romanian, Russian, and Ukrainian” and diffusion of her work in “Asia, South Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America” (vii, ix). Apter, Lezra, and Wood were commendably frank about their project both having roots in Cassin’s vision of a forward-looking Europe in touch with its Indo-European and Semitic neighbors, and now taking place in Anglophone “literary theory and comparative literature” (xi). They talked in the introduction of removing reference to Europe from the title whilst being “worried” about the “difficult call” because “the European focus of the book is undeniable.” (ix).

Part of the front page of Acta Comparationis Litterarum Universarium.

This is the combination of anxiety and acceptance with which I am concerned. Apter, Lezra, and Wood are aware of and engaged with the banal truth that our discipline is of and in the whole world, not just Europe and North America. They worry that their work excludes that world at the same time as they try to include it and also catalyze its further engagement. There is not even a shred of doubt about whether or not the rest of the world, including Arabic, should be part of Comparative Literature.

- See more at: http://stateofthediscipline.acla.org/entry/anxiety-acceptance#sthash.hz0DYcRF.dpuf

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Alexander Key is a scholar of Classical Arabic literature, working on comparative poetics.