Tomaž Toporišič # 7
From Local to Global and Vice Versa: Comparative Literature as a Plural Discipline
Abstract: The paper starts with the assumption that Nicolas Bourriaud’s newly coined term altermodernism as “the in-progress redefinition of modernity in the era of globalization, stressing the experience of wandering in time, space and medium” can speak also about dilemmas of comparative literature today. It reflects on the situation that has arisen and tries to find a platform for a different, plural, “altermodern” comparative literature based on new cosmopolitism that admits otherness and peculiarity. With this cross cultural approach, consciousness of dialogical relation between cultures comparative literature can integrate relevant theories into a transitory whole, a provisionary methodological tool that will enable it to interpret cultural phenomena. In this sense each branch (national, methodological …) of this plural and polyvalent comparative literature will establish a mutual relationship with other ideas, artistic practices, cultural phenomena and theories on the ground of equality and inter-exchangeablility, but it will not lose its own identity.
Key Words: altermodernism; comparative literature; creolisation of cultures; plural discipline
When Nicolas Bourriaud coined the term altermodern and altermodernism as London Tate Triennial 2009’s exhibition curator and a cultural theorist he pointed out to the specificity of contemporary art and art market: In his Altermodern manifesto he wrote:
“If twentieth-century modernism was above all a western cultural phenomenon, altermodernity arises out of planetary negotiations, discussions between agents from different cultures. Stripped of a centre, it can only be polyglot. Altermodernity is characterised by translation, unlike the modernism of the twentieth century which spoke the abstract language of the colonial west, and postmodernism, which encloses artistic phenomena in origins and identities.” (Bourriaud 2009: “Atermodern Manifesto”)
It is not our aim to enter in a discussion whether his new term is a breakthrough in the current discussions about new post-postmodern era of globalization. What we would like to stress is the fact that with his definition of altermodernism as “the in-progress redefinition of modernity in the era of globalization, stressing the experience of wandering in time, space and medium” he could be speaking also about the dilemma comparative literature has been facing during the last decades.
I will list some of the dilemmas in a series of questions they arise:
This paper attempts to reflect on the situation that has arisen and tries to find approaches that seek ground for a different, plural, »altermodern« comparative literature based on notion of cosmopolitism that admits otherness and peculiarity.
I will proceed with a comment on the situation of Modern Chinese aesthetics, written by Wang Keping in a paper Interactions between Western and Chinese Aesthetics. I quote:
“Modern Chinese aesthetics has evolved out of the conflict and interaction between Chinese and Western cultures and is therefore always accompanied by comparison between Western and Chinese aesthetics in different forms. This comparison requires an academic vision of cross-cultural study, consciousness of dialogue based on equal footing, erudite knowledge of both Western and Chinese cultures, and the capacity to assimilate different ideas and methods. Only by so doing is it possible to realize innovation and transcendence by integrating relevant theories into a whole.” (Wang Keping 2006 : 118-119)
Wang Keping’s arguments could apply also to cultural studies or comparative literature both in China and Europe. Perhaps more than ever today we need to adapt a dialogical approach to any cultural phenomena, a specific “academic vision of cross-cultural study” in order to – and here I will use a term of Nicolas Bourriaud 2005) – translate the cultural values and to connect them to the network of cultural studies or comparative literature. We have to fight the new form of hegemony that seems to have replaced the of Western literature, namely that of Western theory that largely remains hegemonically one way, leading monodirectionally from Western metropolitran hubs to the universities and academies of non-Western countries. The crucial question for today’s comparative literature is therefore: when will we be ready and willing enough to take and read up on the poetological and theoretical traditions of the Middle East, the Far East? It is only with a new cross cultural approach, consciousness of dialogical relation between cultures based on equality, that we can integrate relevant theories into a transitory whole that we can use as our provisionary methodological tool to comment on and interpret cultural phenomena.
But we have to act with extreme caution, not to adapt any colonial or postcolonial attitude that would damage the “creolisation of cultures, their fight for autonomy and their production of singularities in a more and more standardized world. And we should also avoid bad conclusions, as the one Spivak talks about, when stating “that the idea that the United States is the custodian of Western culture is obviously not to be entertained”. Because it simply does not hold true due to the fact that US are “not a white country and everybody should be able to see that” (Spivak 1991: 75) and therefore it cannot stand for Western Culture. We should be aware that the very notion of “world literature” carries in itself the historical apriorism, which tries to unify world literature from the point of view of western literary studies. It can, off course, be dealt with a multicultural approach of cultural studies, which reveals mechanisms of power and the hegemony in former constructions of (pro-Western) knowledge, but it nevertheless bears in itself a new tension of an absolute unification.
We all know but keep forgetting that the notion of interpenetration of cultures is nothing very new. It had rather, as Wolfgang Welsch points it out, “already been typical of culture in the past, only to a lesser degree. And not only in Europe. Just consider the case of Japanese culture: it can certainly not be accounted for without taking Chinese and Korean, Indian, Hellenistic or modern European influences into account.” (Welsch 2004) So, we should not feed ourselves with illusions that the 20th century invented new, unseen paradigms.
Along with the shift from the predominance of western discourse to creolisation of cultures comparative literature has to adapt itself to the new situation following what I will call the poststructuralist turn in philosophy. The result of this turn was what Alain Badiou calls “both a transformation of philosophical expression and an effort to shift the frontiers between philosophy and literature.” Literary theories as well as comparative literature have to find new strategies to deal with results of this displacement of “borders between philosophy and literature, between philosophy and drama.” We should most probably not strictly follow the goals of French philosophy “to construct a new space from which to write, one where literature and philosophy would be indistinguishable; a domain which would be neither specialized philosophy, nor literature as such, but rather the home of a sort of writing in which it was no longer possible to disentangle philosophy from literature.” (Badoiu 2005) But we should nevertheless widen our perspectives of the concept of what Badiou calls “a literary life” that transcends the boundaries of literature and hybridizes its discourse with that of another art, philosophy, science, religion, or politics. As we should accept the co-existences of both absolutely different interpretations of subjects of our studies as well as a concept of plural, many co-existing literary studies that replaces English cosmopolitan with a planetary namely that of the planet as “a species of alterity”. Thus we can – in the words of Spivak – “imagine ourselves as planetary subjects rather than global agents” (Spivak 2003: 73) And we can reach what Spivak calls “the new comparative literature”, namely a discipline “persistently and repeatedly undermining and undoing the definitive tendency of the dominant to appropriate the emergent.” (ibid: 100)
My conclusion about the future of Comparative literature in a globalistic mediatized society will be very near to the conclusion our colleague Gao Jianpeng made when writing about the future of Chinese aesthetics in the age of globalization (Gao Jianping 2004). I sincerely doubt the possibility of establishing a common and universal comparative literature studies, but I do believe in the development of mani voiced literaty theory and comparative literature within different national, cultural and intercultural contexts. We will nevertheless witness a common development of comparative literature in a globalizing world in the sense that aesthetics from different nations and cultures will strongly translate each other or, to put it more classically, influence and stimulate each other. In this sense each branch (whether nationa, whether methodological) of this plural and polivalent comparative literature will establish a mutual relationship with other ideas, artistic practices, cultural phenomena and theories on the ground of equality and interexchangeability, but it will not lose its own identity. On the contrary, each particular comparative literature approach should be able to make its own contribution to the comparative literature of the world by keeping its own characteristics.
Badiou 2005: Alain. The Adventure of French Philosophy. In New Left Review 35, September/October 2005: http://www.lacan.com/badenglish.htm, last seen on July, 6th 2009.
Bourriaud 2009: Nicolas. “Altermodern Manifesto”. http://www.tate.org.uk/britain/exhibitions/altermodern/manifesto.shtm, last seen on July, 2nd 2009.
Gao Jianping 2004. Chinese Aesthetics in the Context of Globalization. In: International Yearbook of Aesthetics, Aesthetics and Globalization. Volume 8, 2004. Edited by Aleš Erjavec; http://www2.eur.nl/fw/hyper/IAA/Yearbook/iaa8/Gao.doc
Keping 2006: Wang. »Interactions between Western and Chinese Aesthetics«. In Hussain, Mazhar and Wilkinson, Robert eds. (2006). The Pursuit of comparative aesthetics: an interface between the East and West. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate: 113-127. http://www.aeschina.cn/comparativeaes/HTML/823.html
Spivak 1991: Gayatri Chakravory. Reflections on Cultural Studies in the Post-Colonial Conjuncture: An Interview with Guest Editor. In: Cultural Studies: crossing boundaries, 1991.
Spivak 2003: Gayatri Chakravory. Death of a Discipline, New York: Columbia University Press, 2003.