Comparative Literature in the 21st Century

Dennis Redmond © 2003


For decades, Comparative Literature has existed at the margins of the academic mainstream, floating between disciplines as diverse as Cold War area studies and 20th century philosophy, and practices as diverse as translation and linguistics. Yet this history of rootlessness has resulted not in theoretical stasis or cultural provincialism, but an extraordinary track record of cosmopolitanism and innovation. From its mid-20th century foundations in Auerbach and Wellek, to its late 20th century blossoming in the work Gayatri Spivak, Edward Said and Fredric Jameson, Comparative Literature has pursued questions of form ("what is the comparative") with the same rigor as questions of content ("what is the literary"). Comparatists are inveterate border-crossers and interlopers, who regard every boundary as a potential opening, and every terminus as a potential beginning.

This does not mean that Comparatists disrespect those boundaries or the work of their disciplinary counterparts in any way. Ironically, Comparatists are often more appreciative of the efforts of their academic co-workers than the official institutions of those fields themselves. Hegel once stated, in a magnificent dictum, that to think a limit is already to transcend it; in like manner, to be a Comparatist is to insist that no cultural question is worth asking which already knows its answer. This may help to explain the curious contradiction that Comparatists fiercely resist any attempt to enclose or freeze their field in place, while at the same time holding unshakeable attachments to specific local materials. Said's interventions in postcolonial theory, for example, are grounded in the twin realities of the Arab-American experience and the Palestinian diaspora, while Jameson's work on postmodernism is similarly grounded in Western European critical philosophy and the Northamerican media culture.

Such attachments are by no means archaic holdovers of the disciplinary specializations. Rather, they are the necessary corrective on the commitment to openness. Whereas openness honors the generality of the aesthetic cognition or interpretation, i.e. the fact that works of art are capable of transcending their time and place, the attachment upholds the particularity of the work of art -- the fact that each is indissolubly anchored to a unique time and place. What is true in the field of interpretation is even more relevant at an institutional level: where most literary departments are content to replicate the existing intellectual division of labor, Comparatists dare to rethink this division. Where most disciplines perpetuate the symbolic capital of teaching positions, publications and media coverage, Comparatists set this symbolic capital in motion towards the labor of the concept. Where most fields construct canons, and invent jargons to keep visitors out, Comparatists assemble libraries -- and invite the public in.

This is not to argue that Comparative programs are somehow a substitute for the traditional disciplines, any more than these disciplines are a substitute for the various post-1968 multicultural and identity movements (cultural studies, queer theory, women's studies, ethnic studies, etc.). To borrow a metaphor from the information activists, Comparative Literature is a key commons of 21st century intellectual production and cultural exchange. Feminism, culture studies, critical philosophy, queer theory, ethnic studies and postcolonialism are not competitors fighting for intellectual market share within the Comparative field. Rather, each occupies a structurally unique position within the commons. One of the defining features of the commons is the automatic preclusion of conceptual hierarchies or monopolies of knowledge of any kind; otherwise, the commons would revert to mere privatized intellectual property -- the Information Age equivalent of the preindustrial dogma or extinct canon, a set of texts artificially exempt from debate and critique. The incomparable strength of the commons is its ability to draw upon the collective resources of the entire community at once: the conceptual labor of each discourse informs (and is informed by) the work of all its counterparts.

This bedrock egalitarianism is, to be sure, deeply scandalous in a world dominated by unequal exchange and hierarchies of all kinds. One of the basic contradictions all Comparative scholars wrestle with is the fundamental ambiguity of their institutional role as professional culture-workers. Every Comparatist is part Swiss banker and part global justice activist, with one foot in a deeply exploitative cultural marketplace, and the other foot in the struggle for free and fair cultural exchange. Such contradictions impel Comparatists towards the thinking of history and the conceptual labor of historicization. Some of the most significant and underappreciated work of Comparatists takes place at some distance from the formal aesthetic sphere, in the archeological dig into different time-periods, or the speculative excursion of sociological, juridical or economic materials. At their best, Comparatists are inveterate curators of the Old as well as tireless detectives of the New.

It is therefore one of the consummate ironies of history that Comparatists, for so long the fringe radicals of academe, have become the ultimate insiders of 21st century cultural studies. The reason is that the long-running dual crisis of the US national literature department -- its external or economic crisis, and its internal or disciplinary one -- is rapidly approaching the point of no return.

Higher Education in Crisis

To understand the true dimensions of the economic crisis, it's worth reviewing some of the longer-term trends in the US university system as a whole. During the 1950s and 1960s, rampant military spending plus the expansion of the welfare state financed a seemingly permanent boom in the higher education sector. College enrollments boomed, while the total number of Ph.D.s more than tripled in per capita terms from the late 1950s to the early 1970s. The turning point came in the early 1970s, when the Federal government began to pull the plug on the university system, for a variety of reasons. For one thing, military spending declined due to detente and the lessening of Cold War tensions. For another, the mass university had become the nerve center of progressive political movements during the 1960s, which drew the ire of conservative groups. Most worrisome of all, foreign competitors had begun to give US firms serious headaches in basic manufacturing industries, resulting in the end of the Bretton Woods system of fixed exchange rates and the dramatic decline of the dollar vis-a-vis the currencies of Western Europe and Japan.

Faced with internal political crisis and the incipient signs of external economic decline, US elites chose to reassert their authority over the university system on three levels. First, the Reagan Administration slashed public support for education and other social programs, while boosting military programs. Second, as David Bollier's excellent Silent Theft has documented, the academic infrastructure of basic science and research began to be privatized for the benefit of monied interests, via the Bayh-Dole Act and other outrageous giveaways to big business.1 Third, the pursuit of education, teaching, and learning in general was delegitimated by the ever more shameless pursuit of money.

One of the most striking results of this three-pronged assault on the educational sector was the virtual halt in the per capita numbers of Ph.D.s produced after 1973 -- a stagnation which conceals a remarkable transformation in the national composition of Ph.D.s.2 The first graph shows the number of US citizens who earned Ph.D.s from 1969 to 1999, divided into six major academic categories. Note that the educational and humanities sectors fared as poorly as the physical sciences, which were hard hit by the end of lush Pentagon research subsidies. Contrary to free market orthodoxy, private capital did not rush in to fill the breach left by the loss of state support. In fact, the only sector to hold its own was the life sciences field, which continues to draw significant funding from the public via the National Institutes of Health:

Annual PhDs by field, US citizens





















Annual PhDs by field, non-US



















Though many of these foreign Ph.D.s chose to become permanent residents of the United States, the long-term trend is clear: the US was getting dumber while the rest of the planet was getting smarter.

The Literary Job Market

The subsection of the humanities called the field of literary studies has been especially hard hit by the post-1973 marketization of academia. Between 1975 and 2001, total college enrollment increased 41%, while the number of annual full-time positions advertised by the MLA dropped by 8%. Based on data from the MLA and the US Census Bureau, the numbers of new Ph.D.s as well as the production of full-time English and foreign language positions have lagged far behind the increase in the total student population. The first chart shows the relative indices of total college enrollment versus new jobs and new Ph.D.s in literature since 1975, while the second provides an index of the number of these jobs per enrolled student:

Index of jobs, enrollment, PhDs


















New Jobs per student
















The job market stumbled badly in the late 1970s, recovered smartly during the late 1980s, and then fell off a cliff in the 1990s. After the brief recovery of 1998-2000, the peak of the Wall Street Bubble, the market is once again in free fall. Just as clearly, the problem is not the overproduction of new Ph.D.s in English and foreign languages. Since 1975, the annual number of such graduates has fallen from 2,114 to 1,596, with no discernible effect on the job market. The problem is the underproduction of new jobs. Full-time professors are being replaced by cheaper graduate instructors, temp workers and adjuncts. To make a long story short, the literary field is being polarized, just like the rest of Northamerican society, into a few upscale theory-marts and a huge mass of glorified composition-farms. Given the massive budget cuts at US state universities, and given the fact that US states are in their worst fiscal crisis since the Great Depression, the situation is going to become inconceivably worse before it ever gets better.

To make a long story short, the external or economic crisis of the literary field is part and parcel of the larger restructuring of US academia for the exclusive benefit of the marketplace. This means that the only effective antidote to the savagery of that marketplace is the solidarity of all educators, everywhere. Clearly, we need a national campaign to pressure the states and the Federal government to reinvest in higher education. This will require a political coalition capable of bridging the divide between universities, research foundations, the hard sciences and the soft sciences, the academic disciplines and the institutes, as well as ordinary scientists, teachers, educators and students. We must make the case that investing in education is no longer an option, it is an acute necessity for high-technology, service-sector economies. Investing in education is investing in the future, and countries which do not invest in the future -- will not have one.

Rise of the Multinational

In some ways, the external economic crisis of higher education is easier to diagnose than the internal or disciplinary crisis of the literary field. One of the cruelest ironies of the present era is that while the institutional infrastructures of the literary field is under attack, the economic, political and symbolic importance of literary and cultural studies has never been greater. The reason is the rise of a bourgeoning and astoundingly diverse multinational culture, everywhere from the mass media to the information commons. This The rise of multinational does not mean that nation-states or national cultures have disappeared, any more than urban cultures vanished after the city-state was superseded by the nation-state. Nor is this a license to defund the teaching of national languages, or to ignore the emergence of new national cultures.

The point, rather, is that the various national cultures have become as interlinked and interdependent as the national economies themselves. No single nation-state controls the 21st century world economy, nor does any single national culture dominate the cultural realm -- a polite way of saying, the era of US economic, cultural and political supremacy is gone for good. While certain features of the American Century will continue to exist, most notably business English and Hollywood films, the cultural sphere has gone irrevocably multinational. To point to only the most obvious examples, the European Union has a thriving information and media culture all its own, the East Asian countries lead the world in animated features and videogames, while the global information commons has accelerated the circulation of films, videos, texts, musical works and texts from the most remote corners of the earth.

This is why NLDs (national literature departments) cannot hope to stem their decline by rebranding themselves as outposts of the service economy, or training centers for the global tourist industry. Rather, NLDs must transform their historic mandate to teach a small number of national cultural literacies into a much broader mandate to teach multinational cultural literacies. The teaching of national languages and aesthetic traditions needs to be supplemented (not replaced) by the teaching of informatic, mediatic and theoretical skills and discourses. In programmatic terms, this will take the form of interdisciplinary appointments and research projects, a plethora of new cooperative ventures linking universities around the world, as well as long-term links to local immigrant communities. Instead of engaging in fratricidal competition for diminishing resources, NLDs must cooperate to grow the pie for everyone. Here are three general guidelines for such a project:

1. Practice regional solidarity. First, Western European language departments should take their cue from the European Union, and band together to support existing programs. Second, the roster of languages needs to expand to include the languages of Eastern Europe, Maghreb and Mashreq (specifically, the languages of the new members of the European Union, as well as Russian, Arabic, Turkish, Ukrainian, Romanian, Bulgarian, Serb, Croat and Hebrew). The more established East Asian national departments (Chinese, Japanese and Korean) ought to do the same for their East Asian neighbors (Vietnamese, Thai, Javanese, Malay, Tagalog, Khmer, etc.).

2. Leverage the demographic. Non-European language groups located outside of the European Union and East Asia, and not listed in the preceding paragraph, should argue that size matters, and leverage the media cultures of those language groups to mobilize the necessary resources. Ranked by populations of native speakers, the ten largest groups are Hindi, Arabic, Bengali, Panjabi, Javanese, Bihari, Telagu, Tamil, Marathi, and Farsi. Smaller languages should argue that rarity has its own indispensable value.

3. The best defense is a good offense. NLDs need to forge long-term coalitions and alliances with other humanities programs, particularly sociology, politics, history, etc. Certain branches of the natural sciences have developed powerful and effective Big Science coalitions capable of shaking loose public and private funds; culture-workers must form their own "Big Humanities" coalition to do the same. The amounts of money involved are trivial: creating 1,000 new full-time literature and language positions would cost a mere $75 million, a pittance in a $10 trillion economy.

Towards The Multinational

We Comparatists have an especially important role to play in the multinational era. Simply, no other discipline has our navigational and diplomatic skills, our structural capacity to mediate between disciplines, periods, histories and languages, or our sheer theoretical breadth. As a result, we are uniquely qualified to be the guardians of the theory-commons -- a privilege which comes with a weighty responsibility. Not only must we create concepts and heuristics capable of mapping, thinking, and teaching the multinational, we must also disseminate these concepts to our fellow humanities co-workers, our students, and allied culture-workers. Here are four specific areas or interdisciplinary situations where Comparatists are urgently needed:

1. Thinking the multinational. The Cold War landscape of postcolonial nation-state formation and state-autarkic industrialization has given way to a high-tech matrix of diasporas, developmental states, neocolonialisms and information capitalisms. We urgently need theories of the European Union, the world's first multinational superstate and a continent-sized laboratory of multinational culture, democracy and civil society. We also need analyses of late 20th century nation-state formation, as well as theories of East Asia's regional integration. Finally, we need theories capable of analyzing the wide-ranging convergence of postcolonialism (a.k.a. Third World globalization) and postmodernism (a.k.a. First World globalization).

2. Building the theory-commons. The various programs in Ethnic Studies, Cultural Studies, queer and gender studies, women's studies, media studies, critical theory, and the national language departments are all key components of the Comparative commons. This commons needs to be expanded and enlarged, via a range of new cooperative ventures, and an expanded division of labor. This is especially important when dealing with inherently interdisciplinary aesthetic forms, such as the information and videogame culture.

3. Preserve the past by embracing the future. Given the tidal wave of mediatic and informatic works washing over the globe, it's important to balance the reception and critique of multinational forms with the exploration and preservation of local and regional languages, literatures and cultural documents. The New is not a threat to the Old; in fact it is the absence of the New which permits the destruction of the Old. Each is the indispensable corrective upon and index of the other.

4. Uniting the culture-workers of the world. Given that the literary and cultural fields have become interwoven as never before with the marketplace of the mass media, we need new forms of multinational solidarity between authors and teachers, professors and students, and media artists and audiences, all across the world. This will require defending all the traditional forms of regional, national and linguistic literacy, while propagating new types of mediatic and informatic literacy.

The Wachowski brothers dubbed 2003 the Year of the Matrix, and 2004 is looking more and more like the Year of the European Union. Let's make 2005 the Year of the Comparatists!

End Notes

1. See especially Chapter 9, "Enclosing the Academic Commons," (135-146). David Bollier, Silent Theft. Routledge: New York, 2002.

2. All data is taken from the Survey of Earned Doctorates, based on data from the NSF, NIH, USED, NEH, USDA and NASA.