Boundary Work

Death of a Discipline – SPIVAK


Since 1992, three years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the discipline of comparative literature has been looking to renovate itself. This is presumably in response to the rising tide of multiculturalism and cultural studies. The first pages of Charles Bernheimer’s Comparative Literature in the Age of Multiculturalism tell a story that those with experience of national level professional organizations at work can flesh out in the imagination into a version of the Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns.


We are going to redo Comparative Literature, then, looking for our definition in the eyes of the other, as figured in the text. Easier said than done, for literature is not a blueprint for action. The question “Who are we?” is part of the pedagogic exercise. In the previous chapter, I spoke of the disciplinary fear that seems to me to permeate Comparative Literature at the crossroads. Insofar as Comparative Literature remains part of the Euro–U.S. cultural dominant, it shares another sort of fear, the fear of undecidability in the subject of humanism.¹


All through these pages I have suggested that literary studies must take the “figure” as its guide. The meaning of the figure is undecidable, and yet we must attempt to dis-figure it, read the logic of the metaphor. We know that the figure can and will be literalized in yet other ways. All around us is the clamor for the rational destruction of the figure, the demand for not clarity but immediate comprehensibility by the ideological average. This destroys the force of literature as a cultural good. Anyone who believes that a literary education should still be sponsored by universities…

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