Academic anorexia? Some gendered questions about comparative literature

Academic anorexia? Some gendered questions about comparative literature

Higonnet, Margaret R

Before I address the “anorexia” of my title, I want to indulge in a brief personal reminiscence. When I was growing up, we were four girls, close in age, a female community somewhat like that of Little Women. Afternoons (that is, I suppose, after homework), we helped prepare supper-patting dry the ingredients for boeuf bourgignon, or chopping nuts for apfelkuchen, linzertorte, etc. We satiated ourselves on reading recipes. Only now-preparing this talk-do I understand how many of these recipes were born of ingenuity in response to wartime or postwar shortages, substituting dried eggs for fresh, for example; we made constant adjustments to the local conditions of the cupboard and icebox. Food was invested with the pleasures of sociability, with conversation, with stolen tastes, and with comparative sampling. At the table, however, a Calvinist spirit reigned: here the regime required at least one spoonful of everything such as eggplant or meat, and when it came to desserts, two was the limit. To be sure, this still left room for comparison: two linzertortes, one with raspberry, the other with apricot jam. But only two. Not one with raspberry and almond paste, another with raspberry and a teaspoon of cocoa in the dough, followed by apricot or orange-marmelade experiments.

This was probably the most ordinary of households, but it is to this schizophrenic structure in part that I attribute my later entry into comparative literature. In a spirit of rebellion, the rule became not “two is the limit,” but “two is the minimum.” At the very least two or more languages, texts, national traditions, arts, or eventually disciplines. I even had two Doktorvater, Rene Wellek and W.K. Wimsatt. Comparative literature opened up a cornucopia of goods, of great works to be consumed-for that was the language we used in those days.

The hunger for plenitude, of course, leads to what has been called the “perpetual crisis” of comparative literature, its bulimic pathology. Or one could say that this push to compare in order to test all the ingredients of our literary hypotheses creates the productive tension between gourmandise and measure that I like to think defines the field. It is just this tension between systolic and diastolic that played out into the recent dispute in comparative literature over the Bernheimer report of 1993 on “Comparative Literature at the Turn of the Century,” published first in the ACLA Newsletter and subsequently in the 1995 Johns Hopkins volume. Like the allegorical Fattypuffs and Thinifers in a 1930’s children’s book by Andre Maurois and Jean Bruller, Patapoufs et Filifers (1930), the revisionists and traditionalists contested the merits of broadening our definition of comparative literature to “encourage extradisciplinary migrations and crossovers” (Bernheimer 47). To exaggerate: on one side were to be found “lean and mean” definitions, on the other, loose and cool ones.

Assuming a conservative stance in the Bernheimer volume, Jonathan Culler warned that the project in its hubris threatened to gobble up all other departments. The result of opening the door to cultural productions or discourses of all sorts would be “a discipline of overwhelming scope” (117). Culler proposes that we resist the rush into cultural studies, recovering in the end as our own territory “the study of literature as a transnational phenomenon” (119). Peter Brooks likewise warns against a “borderline suicidal” embrace of cultural studies that is “amateur social history, amateur sociology, and personal ideology” (100).

Like Mario Valdes in his speech at the Puerto Vallarta meeting of the ACLA, Culler and Brooks point to the need for a core, a defining structure, or to take another dietary metaphor, a regime. And just as the corset of the sonnet can produce the intensest of poetry, so too there springs from intense focus within a limited repertoire the possibility for inventiveness. As Erich Auerbach wrote, Mimesis owed its existence to the narrow holdings of the library at Istanbul (557).

But as many respondents pointed out, the changes called for in the Bernheimer report seemed already to have taken place. Mary Louise Pratt’s refrain, “Why not?” reverberated with the excitement of letting down fences, and the relish of exploring newly accessible territories in a field transformed by the globalization of information and cultural production, decolonization of the relationships between First and Third Worlds, and the democratization of institutions of higher learning (59). She finds it “astonishing” (and so do I) that controversy over “Eurocentrism, canon formation, essentialism, colonialism, and gender studies” might be reserved for an “occasional” reference in advanced courses (60).

As a critic working in the area of gender studies, I align myself with the revisionist camp. I believe that what Pratt calls the democratization of our institutions may be at stake today in the economic crisis we all face. The democratic opening up of the academy and the professoriate in the United States goes back to the G.I. bill following World War II; it was then massively extended by the civil rights movement and the women’s movement. As Pratt points out, this demographic shift triggered a diversification of intellectual agendas, and made possible challenges to structures of exclusion that governed intellectual hierarchies.

My position outlined in the Bernheimer volume was that gender-conscious literary study, because it examines the cultural construction of gender, necessarily engages more than one discipline. At the same time, as Gail Finney also argues here, over the last two hundred years comparative literature itself has embraced not only esthetic theory and interart studies, but the study of political, economic, even anthropological factors that determine “time,” “place” and “race,” to borrow a nineteenth century catchphrase.

I don’t in fact believe that gender studies and comparative literature inflected toward cultural studies lie that far apart. True, they may seem to have been following inverse trajectories in the last two decades. Gender studies were rooted in interdisciplinary encounters; at first they seemed to follow the policy, “add women and stir.” There has been a strong historical, even archival thrust in gender study, retrieving neglected texts and changing our primary materials. Initially gender study also focused on thematic issues; thus a collection edited by Susan Suleiman, The Female Body in Western Culture, viewed the body from an international and interdisciplinary perspective. That kind of focus continues to be productive today, leading to studies like the papers given at Puerto Vallarta on Salome by Charles Bernheimer and on nuns’ performance of their beliefs through their bodies, by Nicholas Watson. At the same time, increasingly sophisticated textual and rhetorical analyses have transformed our understanding of “theme,” forcing us to recognize that the textual and physical body are both constructed.

By contrast, comparative literature as a discipline took shape under the influence of New Critical formalism. In recent decades, it has been moving toward greater interdisciplinarity, incorporating the insights of anthropology, “new historicism,” etc. It has been engaging these fields in order to interrogate the framing (ostensibly “neutral”) concepts of comparative literature and to expose their ideological baggage. Comparative literature has increasingly focused on theory, and on the modern.

Each, then, can learn from the other. In spite of a drive toward multiculturalism, feminist literary study sometimes still seems insulated and insular, lacking in comparative input, uninformed about the range of women’s (and men’s) experiences and cultural practices. In my own work, I see this particularly in the repetition of stereotypes about women’s behavior during World War I. Institutionally, however, gender study has pursued the democratization of its structures. Demographic diversity has become a principle, grounded in the thesis that enabling different voices to be heard really does make it possible to challenge the structures of exclusion that govern every intellectual hierarchy. Comparative Literature meetings and institutions could learn from this practice; they fall very short today.

Such democratization could help Comparative Literature to question its own methods. How do cultural forms, for example, fit into the cultural economy of our own academic institutions? As students quickly learn, dangers lurk in every choice of topic. A hierarchy of subject matter persists. Studies of “major” authors remain more prestigious than those of “minor” authors, of “major” genres more so than of “minor” genres. Within living memory, Bella Brodzki was told that Hebrew could not satisfy the classical language requirement; and David Damrosch was told that on the job market the study of Nahuatl and Egyptian hieroglyphics would be less useful than a thesis about canonical texts.

I don’t want to make exclusive claims for the accomplishments of NAFTA (or New Approaches to Feminist Teaching in the Academy) but we can see parallel changes. As a result of feminist theory-along with poststructuralist theory, multiculturalism, cultural studies and so forth-we no longer accept familiar definitions of rudimentary terms and their implied values. Here are some of the questions raised over the last decade or so: What constitutes a text? Is autobiography a genre of the same weight as tragedy? Does the complex authorship of testimonios undo their literary status-or do the class tensions between speaker and transcriber, between speaker and audience produce a powerfully ironic, new form? Do family photographs produce a narrative? And what kinds of narrative will we focus on? What qualifies as intertextuality- allusions to a private code, evanescent references to consumer culture, or non-canonical references to children’s iterature? After the death of the author, do poststructuralist challenges to identity-theory also lead to the death of the character? How do the gendered conventions of narrative generate different forms of comedy? Now that we are rethinking the nation-state as an imagined community or “brotherhood,” can we also rethink the boundaries of the national “body” or “brotherhood” of literature? Do cultural studies actually reinforce the national boundaries within which we tend de facto to operate, or do feminist cultural studies break down those boundaries, at least making them more ragged?

Questions like these are, I think, grounds for optimism. At the end of the last century, creative writers and thinkers suffered from the malaise of a world that seemed exhausted. The laurels had all been cut, or so many thought. All that could be done was to reweave them. Today, we face a different kind of problem. My many questions suggest to me the richness of the critical options facing students of comparative literature-whether they turn to incorporate bodies of literature that have been neglected, or explore the intersections of discourses in ways that reveal their common structures and strategies.

Feminist studies, I think, will continue to complement comparative approaches. Feminists often operate at interstices-they use gender (along with race and class) as an instrument, a probe, to find gaps that have simply been sutured by previous explanations and commentaries. Thus the classic study of the female Bildungsroman, The Voyage In, took the established paradigm and showed that it did not accommodate female protagonists. In some ways this kind of approach starts from resistance to syntheses, whereas the traditional thrust of comparison has been to move from individual cases up (a value laden direction) toward syntheses and theory. But the planting of depth charges in the interstices can also transform theory.

So far I have been speaking out of the conviction that comparative literature offers an economy of plenty. But as any one of us can vouch, we are living through an institutional economy of dearth. The shrinking of Federal and other funds have put the university or college on a Spartan diet. Even more sinister, there is now an established institutional pattern of enticing the intellectual elite of students to study in the field-and not coincidentally to do the grinding work of teaching repetitious introductory language and literature courses-with very little expectation of jobs to follow. This is Hansel and Gretel with a vengeance.

It is difficult to avoid pessimism. Universities are paying top administrators swelling salaries at the same time that they are stripping away the so-called unnecessary programs. Positions are not filled-the smaller foreign language programs thus can be eliminated silently. Where will this leave students? While they are still students, they may increasingly obtain their language instruction from part-time non-tenure-track instructors. One consequence is a divorce between language instruction and literary, rhetorical analysis. For serious literature courses, students may be forced to commute in order to draw on strengths scattered through a consortium. (And many students already commute, in order to pick up enough teaching to support themselves). When they complete their dissertations, these same students are finding that the projected boom in jobs for the 1990s simply vaporized. The impact of lost lines is compounded by the voluntary restriction of programs to a traditional core of instruction, for this anorexic regime also excludes some of the most innovative work being done by junior colleagues entering the field.

Is Comparative Literature going to be subsumed into larger “Modern and Classical Literature” departments or into centers for “Interdisciplinary Study in Humanities”? Today, when academia is suffering from anorexia, what would such agglomerations mean, given the gourmandise of comparatists? As we spread out our interests, paradoxically, are we spread too thin?

Perhaps we can build on our strength. Departments may increasingly be looking for teachers who can satisfy needs in more than one department, more than one language and literature program. In the job market, right now, concentration rather than diversity is construed as a strength. Consequently, we need to make sure that our students build dossiers with a strong focus in a clearly defined literature or area such as Latin American studies, a growth field. But we also need to market our traditional qualities of diversity and theoretical sophistication as strengths. As departments shrink, we need to resist the pigeon-hole theory of historical coverage. We are bricoleurs by vocation, and we need to remind ourselves that herein lie possibilities of survival in a cold climate.

Comparatists have traditionally relied on self-education, a process that takes place as research unfolds. The student is an autodidact who shapes tools as each task demands. This has always been the way we teach: our students have to synthesize the practices put on display by their assorted teachers from different departmental home-bases. They may be apprentices at the bench of masters, learning by imitating, but they also become tool-and-die experts, learning to make what is new.

This assimilative bricolage has its dangers institutionally. When we are mentoring junior colleagues, we need to consider the double bind that Comparative Literature often finds itself in, just as women’s studies programs or African-American studies programs do. For the faculty who come up for tenure confront review by more than one master in many cases; they deal with multiple sets of departmental politics. And their multiple commitments may be judged as lesser commitments, their ties to senior faculty looser. Hence we could learn, I think, from Annette Kolodny’s advice to administrators about setting up formal programs to mentor junior faculty (25-27). The support mentors can offer to junior colleagues may seem self-evident: an ear may sometimes be as valuable as a guide. Some help lies in simple steps such as suggesting journals to which articles might be sent, offering guidelines in sending out book prospectuses, or visiting classes in order to write letters of recommendation.

One of the lessons of feminism is that “Sisterhood is Powerful.” Can we apply this in the institutions where we work? Because of its dependence on collaboration among departments, Comparative Literature, I believe, has always depended on networking.

In the last-minute correspondence about the Puerto Vallarta meeting, David Damrosch found himself defending the principle of the workshop meeting over three sessions, in response to participants who had not chosen their partners. Perhaps one factor is that a conference is a place to meet old friends and catch up on their work. But the issue suggests that we have difficulty building impromptu, collaborative structures of intellectual inquiry. Is one reason for the resistance our continuing pleasure in the rhetorical power of “stars”? Can we see the workshop as a site of analytic practice that lies in between the classroom (where in the first days of class an imagined community is formed) and the strange tangential lines of productivity that emerge in research centers gathering scholars at work on assorted topics?

This kind of teamwork, or sisterhood, is harder in a time of dearth. Surely the overwhelming problem that the academy in general and interdisciplinary programs in particular face right now is money. In a year of dearth, the school brings out “number, weight, and measure,” as Blake says. The cascade of cutbacks from the federal to the local level has created greater competition for scarce funds within universities. Administrations have accordingly less freedom to hold some funds for work that takes place in the spaces between departments and programs. There is very little loose cash to pay for comparative literature teaching assistants who wish to teach in other departments, departments that are usually intent upon funding their own students. There is little money to pay for team teaching, one of the most effective ways to launch students into interdisciplinary work. And when a course is created between two departments, there is a scramble to capture the student credit hours as a measure of faculty productivity for the individual departments. There are quarrels over who will pay for faculty time when it is spent outside the department. Money (or the lack of it) thus creates an institutional drag that resists interdisciplinary practices.

One step we could take to shelter our work between disciplinary boundaries would be to lobby administrations to create free-enterprise zones, like the pilot programs referred to in William Moebius’s report, where minimal funding would have great potential for creative transformation of the academy. Even without funding, as faculty, we need to sustain our work across disciplinary and departmental boundaries. Can we build our connections in the many fields our students need? Can we increase the level of our team-teaching? Can we make better use of our websites to foster professional expertise, and to enhance job placement? Whatever we do, we must not let the harshness of this political moment discourage us from our task of feeding the future.

Works Cited

Abel, Elizabeth, Marianne Hirsch, and Elizabeth Langland, eds. The Voyage In: Fictions of Female Development. Hanover: University Press of New England, 1983. Auerbach, Erich. Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature.

Trans. Willard R. Trask. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1953. Bernheimer, Charles, ed. Comparative Literature in the Age of Multiculturalism. Baltimore:Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995. Brooks, Peter. Must We Apologize?” Bernheimer 97-106. Culler,Jonathan. “Comparative Literature, At Last!” Bernheimer 117-21. Higonnet, Margaret. “Comparative Literature on the Feminist Edge.” Bernheimer 155-64.

Kolodny, Annette. “Paying the Price of Antifeminist Intellectual Harassment.” Antifeminism in the Academy. Ed. VeVe Clark, Shirley Nelson Garner, Margaret Higonnet, and Ketu H. Katrak. New York: Routledge, 1996. 3-33. Maurois, Andre (Emile Salomon Wilhelm Herzog). Patapouf et Filifers. Illus. Jean Bruller (Vercors). 1930. Paris: Nathan, 1964.

Pratt, Mary Louise. “Comparative Literature and Global Citizenship.” Bernheimer


Suleiman, Susan, ed. The Female Body in Western Culture: Contemporary Perspectives. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1986. Weisstein, Ulrich. “Lasciate ogni speranza: Comparative Literature in Search of Lost Definitions.” Yearbook of Comparative and General Literature 37 (1989)

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