Sie sind auf Seite 1von 7

Modern Language Association

Comparative Literature?
Author(s): Haun Saussy
Source: PMLA, Vol. 118, No. 2 (Mar., 2003), pp. 336-341
Published by: Modern Language Association
Stable URL:
Accessed: 16/08/2009 04:17

Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use, available at JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use provides, in part, that unless
you have obtained prior permission, you may not download an entire issue of a journal or multiple copies of articles, and you
may use content in the JSTOR archive only for your personal, non-commercial use.

Please contact the publisher regarding any further use of this work. Publisher contact information may be obtained at

Each copy of any part of a JSTOR transmission must contain the same copyright notice that appears on the screen or printed
page of such transmission.

JSTOR is a not-for-profit organization founded in 1995 to build trusted digital archives for scholarship. We work with the
scholarly community to preserve their work and the materials they rely upon, and to build a common research platform that
promotes the discovery and use of these resources. For more information about JSTOR, please contact

Modern Language Association is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to PMLA.

theories and

this article should appearin a series so entitled), though theories and
methodologiesaplentyoccuras partof its typicalbusiness.Is there,or can
therebe, an objectof knowledgeidentifiableas "comparativeliterature"?

The Rule of Three

When I began hearingaboutcomparativeliteraturein the middle 1970s,
there was a fairly straightforwardmeans of distinguishingcomparative
literatureon the universitycampuseswhere it was done. The Englishde-
partmentpursuedknowledgeof languageand literaturein one language;
the foreign language departmentspursued similar studies in two lan-
guages (typically English, assumed to be most students' native lan-
guage, plus the foreign tongue); and comparativeliteraturecommittees,
programs,or departmentscarriedout literaryanalysis in at least three
languages at once. The three-languagerule identified the discipline as
something apartfrom English, national-languagestudies, or studies of
literaturein translation;it set up a criterion of eligibility for new en-
trants,thus laying a basis for the discipline'scontinuedsocial reproduc-
tion; but it did not always specify the three languages or dictate the
substance of what was to be done in them. Now, in geometry three
points make a plane, and three dimensions make a solid; Thirdness,in
Peircean semiotics, makes signifying possible as a mediation between
Firstnessand Secondness (Peirce 387-90); but in comparativeliterature
the effect of addingthe magicalthirdelementis more elusive.
The third-languagehurdleassured,demographically,thatcompara-
HAUNSAUSSY,authorof The Problemof
tive literatureprogramswould not expandto cover all the territoryof the
a ChineseAesthetic(StanfordUP, 1993)
humanities(if anyonewas worriedaboutthat),but it did not go fartoward
and GreatWallsof Discourseand Other
Adventuresin CulturalChina (Harvard answeringthe question,Whatis, or is not, comparativeliterature?The rule
U Asia Center, 2001), is professor of definedthe social membershipof comparativeliteraturebetterthanit did
Asian languages and comparativeliter- the object of study. (And even in its influence on membership,the rule
ature at StanfordUniversity. could be appliedinconsistently:for lack of relevantprogramsor person-


I I 8.2 2 Haun Saussy 337

nel, a studentfluentin English andCantonese,or ter to productionand consumptionin every
in BretonandQuechua,mighton manycampuses country....Theintellectual
creationsof individ- 00
be in the same position as a strictlymonolingual ualnationsbecomecommonproperty. National
student.) This all made for a fragile discipline, one-sidednessandnarrow-mindedness become
one whose definition dependedcrucially on the moreandmoreimpossible,andfromthenumer-
ous nationalandlocalliteratures,
therearisesa C*
definitionsof the institutionalcells surrounding
worldliterature. (MarxandEngels38-39)
it; andin pragmaticterms,this fragilitywas real- 3

ized in the status of most comparativeliterature r

Or as the systems theoristNiklas Luhmann o
programsas epiphenomenalgroupings without
putsit, "Undermodemconditions... only one so-
permanentfunding. In North America at least, cial systemcan exist. Its communicativenetwork
from the 1970s onward, comparativeliterature (A
foundits disciplinaryobjectin, andbasedits case spreadsoverthe globe ... A pluralityof possible _5
worlds has become impossible" (178). If dis-
for institutionalindependenceon, an alwayscon-
tinctions areno longer meaningful,comparison
troversialset of practicesknown as literarythe-
becomes the likening of like and like, a hollow
ory. To hearsome people tell it, the comparatists
were no producers, but an army of Soldiers of gesturewith a predeterminedoutcome.Reduced
to the scale of the university campus, a global
Theory bent on occupying otherpeople's fields
andreducingthemto tributarystatus. economy of communication makes compara-
tivistsof us all,as"nationalone-sidedness"andthe
The interveningyearshave broughtchanges
to comparativeliteraturein all its registers, not consequent"pluralityof possibleworlds"become
least because the neighboring disciplines have "impossible"evenas a scholarlyconcentration.
changed. We see more and more bilingual stu-
dents, with instant repercussionson the idea of Comparative? Literature?
"foreign languages." The departmentsdevoted
to "major"languagesare increasinglyinterested So, then,now morethanever:comparativelitera-
in and permeable to their less prominent rela- ture?If the specificity of our enterpriseis wear-
tives (ex-colonial creoles, new Englishes, pid- ing away through its banalization, we need to
think once more about what comparatistshave
gins, dialects, and sociolects). Languages once
considered "less commonly taught"now often done to see if thereis anythingfor the discipline
boast higher enrollments than some "more to keep on doing.Whatwerethe models for com-
commonly taught" languages. Theoretical ap- parative work, and what lessons do they teach
thatmay still applyin changedcircumstances?
proacheshave long since naturalizedthemselves
in English departments.In comparative litera- The name of the field-"comparative"-
ture programs, too, the scope of the term lan- once denoteda methodand,behindthatmethod,
guage is no longer self-evident:a medium such a theory of how literaturewas organized.Com-
as film or music now often substitutes for the parativereligion, comparativelaw, and the other
thirdlanguage.Whatdefinedcomparativelitera- comparative disciplines that arose in the nine-
ture twenty-five years ago no longer distin- teenth centuryunderthe strangedual patronage
guishes the field, positively or negatively, by of comparativeanatomyandcomparativephilol-
referenceto its membershipor object of study. ogy all began as whatone mightcall tree-shaped
Anothermenace to comparativeliterature's disciplines, organizing historical and typologi-
fragileidentitycomes fromtheveryconditionthat cal diversityinto a common historicalnarrative
madethe disciplinepossible:cosmopolitanism. with many parallel branches. Difference be-
came differentiation,the subjectof a historical-
Thebourgeoisiehasthroughits exploitationof developmental account. Throughthat account,
theworldmarketgivena cosmopolitancharac- morphologybecamereadableas genesis.
338 ComparativeLiterature? PMLA

,1 Indeed, one of the cornerstones of the de- was needed. Historicalstudies (influenceand re-
velopment of comparative literature in this ception) could carry on in various sections of
.C country, E. R. Curtius's European Literature the tree withoutworryingaboutthe existence of
and the Latin Middle Ages, makes exactly this a trunk. Studies cast in the mode of difference
sort of claim. Reaching back to a time before and similarity could disregard it, taking for
E the national separation of the languages and grantedsuch generally applicableterms as they
Io their increasing mutual opacity, Curtiusrecon- found necessary. "Theory,"never a compact
structsa common basis for the majorEuropean philosophical system, migrated from case to
literatures in Latin authors and topoi.1 The case or let itself be carriedwith the broadening
Latin basis was there all along, hidden in the acceptance of certain historical narratives or
"one-sidedness" of the national languages; methodologicalmetaphors.
scholarship restores it to view, elucidating the Perhaps the best thing about comparative
differential paths taken and leading them back literatureis its failureto live up to its name. Un-
to the source. Curtius'smode of comparisonis a like the other comparativedisciplines, this one
phylogeny. But surely in many other contexts is not principally about the relation of sub-
this would be a naive or impossible way of sidiary phenomena to an original or ancestral
puttingone's comparativeclaim. source. And unlike Aristotelian comparison, it
Although new tools such as genetics and is not about discovering the "third thing" on
ethologyconfirmedthe usefulnessof tree-shaped which two other things stand as on a common
comparativism for the biological sciences, in groundof identity.It must then have an unusual
most of the human sciences the narrativespro- logic. Perhaps a "rhizomatic"logic (Deleuze
viding the substantivegroundfor differentiation and Guattari6-8)?
sooner or later broke up. General evolutionary
paradigms (as in Maine, Morgan, or Frazer)
In and And
could not be maintained without begging too
many questions aboutthe universalreach of the Some literary scholars have a penchant for the
categories employed. Only in linguistics, my- prepositionin, some for the conjunctionand. In
thology, and manuscriptfiliation are distal trees suggests thata readingis a matterof observation
still importantargumentativetools. In compara- and inventory;and, that a readingis a collision.
tive literature,the typologicaltree of writtencul- A papertitled "Renunciationin Mahabhdrata,
ture was never more than a vestige anyway. Huckleberry Finn, and Der Rosenkavalier"
Actual comparativestudies covered only small claims to discover a common thread"in"a body
pieces of the literaryrecord,rarelyventuringso of writings;a papertitled "MansfieldParkandA
far afield as to challenge the applicabilityof the Theory of Justice" tells you to think about one
discipline's terms;moreover,when widely sepa- thing in relationto another.Comparativelitera-
ratedliterarytraditionswere involved, compara- tureis largelya disciplineof the and type. It does
tists wroteas if little could be done to explain(as its workbest as a chain of ands: this relationand
opposed to reciting) the typological differences that relation and that relation . .. .each and
amongthe traditions. modifyingthe sense of those thatcame before.
Comparativeliteraturewas thus a discipline The and is comparativeliterature'sanswer
with a branchinglogic, but the brancheslacked to the tree model. Lackinga common substance
a trunk.Thattrunkmight conceivablyhave been to which the differences among its objects
furnishedby a universalpoetics, a historicalori- might be reduced, comparative literature has
gin of all literarytraditions,or an ultimatetypo- grown,not from the roots upwardlike a tree,but
logical category such as literariness.2But none as the InternationalSpace Stationdoes, through
I I 8.2 2 Haun Saussy 339

the lateral construction of linking elements. gether. The job of every comparativeliterature 7PO
Leaving aside Curtius's"Romania,"with its ori- book is to find that out, and rarely do two an- 0
entation toward historical recovery, the model swers coincide. Metalepsis (the positing as ac-
texts of comparativeliteraturelink togethersets complished of something yet to occur) is the
of examples whose mutualcoherence is not ob- structuringtrope of these speculativeinvestiga-
vious in advanceof their combination.It is as if tions, which spin the rope before them as they
the readerwho asks, "Whatdo X, Y, and Z have walk on it. The willingness to toleratereadings 2

to do with one another?"could only get the an- that produce, rather than discover, meanings 7
swer,"Nothing-up to now." brings a risky,experimentalqualityto compara-
ErichAuerbach'sMimesisproffersa histor- tive literatureand shows why its virtues are in-
ical narrative(the growth of realism) but does separablefrom its questionablelegitimacy.
not substantivelydevelop realism or give it the
role of a protagonist who might lead the story
towardits outcome. (For that type of story, see The Rule of Three Revisited
Lukacs.)Rather,Auerbachbeckons us to exam- What might be called a third-language effect
ine a series of sample passages-touchstones- helps to explain comparativeliterature'spast in-
in historical sequence, each different from the tellectual affinities and to markwhat keeps the
others, each exhibiting a different mode of de- field open for particularkindsof innovation.The
tail, each contributing indirectly to a mode of three-language rule precipitated (i.e., contrib-
seeing that is also the critic's (the eye for just uted to causing withoutnecessarily entailing) a
what makes this text a new turningfor literary kind of questioningthatthe then-currentstateof
representation).3This is and criticism: but read practice in national-literatureprogramsdid not
it as in criticism, and the thing in all the exam- satisfy, and the moving frontiers of the disci-
ples is a thin threadindeed. pline should continuerespondingto similardis-
In Qian Zhongshu's work, comparability satisfactions now that so many of comparative
is the point to be made. Recognizing the utter literature'sformer specialties have been taken
dominancein Chinese scholarshipof the kind of up by others.One cannotsay thatit always hap-
literaryhistory thatreduces a text to the general pened, but often and ideally the addition of a
circumstancesof its period-and therebydenies third language made it necessary to appeal to
that the relation between two texts can be any- theoreticalconsiderationswhere taste, common
thing but historical-Qian answers this under- sense, or a shared literary history would have
standing of literaturewith a model of meaning told the practitionersof English or a single for-
as open-ended translatability.In a tacit rebuke eign literaturewhat was significant, beautiful,
to historicaldeterminism,his essays simplyjux- predictable, necessary, or controversial about
tapose passages or motifs from Chinese classi- their objects of study. Just as Anaxagoras, ac-
cal literaturewith "equivalents"in Latin,Greek, cordingto Aristotle(1071), attributedthe intelli-
English, French, German, and Spanish litera- gence of humanbeings to theirhavinghands,so
ture-an empirical but experimentalchallenge perhapsin comparativeliteraturethe third lan-
to the assumptionof Chinese uniqueness. guage as an organcreatedits own functions.
Comparative literature books may be as Most relations of influence that can be for-
elaboratelystructuredas NorthropFrye's Anat- mulated historically (the original problem for
omy of Criticismor Paul de Man'sAllegories of comparativeliteratureto resolve;see Schulz and
Reading or as loose as Qian Zhongshu'sor Leo Rhein) occur, like the standardmodel of trans-
Spitzer's essay collections, but they all must lation, between two poles, with a source and a
raise the question of what glue holds them to- target.Typological considerationsreduce to an
340 Comparative Literature? PMLA

exchange between a type case and a candidate NOTES
token. If a two-languagepatternis adequatefor 1On Curtius'svision of a
0 culturallyunified Europe, see
formulating and answering most questions of Menocal 133-37.
historicalinfluenceor typological similarity,the 2 A tension between folklore or
0 linguistics and literary
Jc thirdlanguage,like an uninvitedguest, points to study structuressome phases of the field's development.See
- the encyclopedic projectof Chadwickand Chadwick,mod-
the thingsthata two-languagepatternleaves out. eled on folklore and diffusionisthistory;see also the differ-
Whatis going on, even in a dyadicrelation,thata ing accounts of "literarylanguage" produced by the New
dyadic explanation leaves unaccounted for? A Critics and the inheritorsof Slavic linguistics and folklore
relationoccurs underparticularconditions:what (Ransom;Jakobson).
3 On the peculiarities of Mimesis as a historical narra-
L. are those? What is the relation about;what in it
tion, see the essays in Lerer.
illuminatesrelationsnot now underdiscussion?
In my experience,the thirdlanguageor field fur-
nishes counterexamples.It frustratesthe progress
to universal literature-to the delivery of the
Aristotle. "Partsof Animals." The CompleteWorksof Aris-
same thing in differentlanguages, ad infinitum.
totle. Ed. JonathanBarnes. Vol. 1. Princeton:Princeton
Because it is preciselynot a tertiumquid,it keeps UP, 1984. 994-1086.
thingsfrom settlingdown.The space of this third Auerbach,Erich.Mimesis: The Representationof Reality in
language-a space analogous to the yet-to-be- WesternLiterature.Trans.WillardR. Trask.Princeton:
PrincetonUP, 1953.
constructedrelationand opposite to the missing
Chadwick, H. Munro, and N. Kershaw Chadwick. The
trunk-might be held by an indefiniteset of enti- Growthof Literature.3 vols. Cambridge:CambridgeUP,
ties. Whateveroccupies thatspace mediatesless 1932-40.
thanit interferes,as signifiersdo, andits interfer- Curtius, Ernst Robert. European Literatureand the Latin
ence producessomethingnew. MiddleAges. Trans.WillardR. Trask.Princeton:Prince-
ton UP, 1948.
What is specific to comparativeliterature,
Deleuze, Gilles, and Felix Guattari.A ThousandPlateaus:
as distinguished from investigations into na- Capitalism and Schizophrenia.Trans.Brian Massumi.
tional literaryhistories or from literaturetaken Minneapolis:U of MinnesotaP, 1987.
as a single mass, is its propensity to construc- de Man, Paul. Allegories of Reading: Figural Language in
tion-a technical term on which sociologists Rousseau, Nietzsche, Rilke, and Proust. New Haven:
Yale UP, 1979.
and geometers idiomatically cohabit. It would
Frazer,JamesGeorge.The GoldenBough:A Studyin Magic
be a mistake,then, to seek to definecomparative and Religion. Abr.ed. New York:Macmillan,1951.
literature through its objects of knowledge or Frye, Northrop.Anatomyof Criticism:FourEssays. Prince-
methods;lacking exclusive title to any of these, ton: PrincetonUP, 1957.
it is rathera practice, a way of constructingob- Jakobson,Roman. "Linguisticsand Poetics." Style in Lan-
guage. Ed. ThomasA. Sebeok.Cambridge:MITP, 1960.
jects. As in surveying,every completionof a tri- 350-77.
angle makes measurement,and thus conclusive Lerer,Seth, ed. LiteraryHistory and the Challenge of Phi-
knowledge, possible; but the apex of the trian- lology: The Legacy of Erich Auerbach. Stanford:Stan-
fordUP, 1996.
gle just determinedis also a point from which a
Luhmann,Niklas. Essays on Self-Reference.New York:Co-
new angle opens up for measurement. "The lumbiaUP, 1990.
suitabilityof the figures [used in surveying]de- Lukfcs, Gy6rgy. Studies in EuropeanRealism. New York:
pends to a greatextentupon the shapeof the fig- Grosset, 1964.
ures selected. Angles near0? or 180?are subject Maine,HenrySumner.AncientLaw. London:Murray,1861.
to large computational errors and are avoided Marx, Karl,and FriedrichEngels. Manifestoof the Commu-
nist Party. Selected Worksin One Volume.New York:
when possible"("Surveying"615).
Intl., 1968. 35-63.
Menocal,MariaRosa. Shardsof Love:Exile and the Origins
of the Lyric.Durham:Duke UP, 1994.
118.2 Haun Saussy 34I

Morgan, Henry Lewis. Ancient Society. New York:World, Ransom, John Crowe. Beating the Bushes: Selected Essays
1877. 1941-1970. New York:New Directions, 1972.
Peirce, Charles Sanders. Values in a Universe of Chance: Schulz, Hans-Joachim,and Phillip H. Rhein, eds. Compara-
Selected Writingsof Charles SandersPeirce. Ed. Philip tive Literature,the Early Years:A Collection of Essays.
P. Wiener.Stanford:StanfordUP, 1958. ChapelHill: U of NorthCarolinaP, 1973.
Qian Zhongshu. Guan zhui bian [Essays of the Pipe and Spitzer, Leo. Essays in Historical Semantics. New York:
Awl]. 4 vols. Beijing:Zhonghuashuju, 1979. Vanni,1947.
-. LimitedViews:Essays on Ideas and Letters.Trans. . Linguistics and LiteraryHistory: Essays in Stylis- 0
Ronald Egan. Cambridge: Harvard U Asia Center, tics. Princeton:PrincetonUP, 1948. Fo
1998. o
"Surveying."EncyclopaediaBritannica.1964 ed.