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Comparatism as a Critical Approach

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  • ISBN: 978-2-406-06522-7
  • ISSN: 2103-5636
  • DOI: 10.15122/isbn.978-2-406-06524-1.p.0019
  • Éditeur: Classiques Garnier
  • Date de parution: 20/10/2017
  • Langue: Anglais
Accès libre
Support: Numérique

as a critical approach

In July 2013 the University of Paris-Sorbonne welcomed the twentieth Congress of the International Association of Comparative Literature (ICLA). In a world where humanities, especially literature, are discredited, in a world where comparatism is everywhere but Comparative Literature is institutionally more and more threatened, at least in the places of its historical development in Europe and in the West, it seemed essential to all those who invested time and energy in organizing this Congress1 to assert the importance of Comparative Literature in order to think critically. What was at stake was to assert the place and the presence of Comparative Literature, not in view of a corporatist defense of the discipline but in order to defend the idea that comparatism constitutes a critical approach –“Comparative Literature as a Critical Approach” was the title of the Congress and is the title of the present series of volumes. What was at stake, however, was not simply to focus on Comparative Literature but also and at the same time to open up a space for literature to enter into dialogue with other disciplines, such as law or so-called “hard” sciences, disciplines that also often rely on 20a comparative approach. Furthermore, in a more and more global and globalized world, where the relevant scale for thinking in most fields today is that of the globe and where distant communication “networks” proliferate, allowing very many parts of the globe to be in contact, it also seemed important to create the space and the setting for an actual and physical encounter of scholars coming from all over the world in order to confront their (often very different) approaches to Comparative Literature and Comparatism. Indeed, the Congress gathered over fifteen hundred participants among whom the Chinese and Indian delegations were in important numbers and among whom participants from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Turkey or Ethiopia figured for the first time in the history of the Associations Congresses in such numbers.

The goal of this publication, which includes in roughly equal numbers texts published in the two official languages of the International Association of Comparative Literature, French and English, is twofold2. First, these six volumes testify to the richness and diversity of the papers given during the Congress. Obviously, they only represent a small portion of these papers, since among the five hundred texts that were submitted for publication after the Congress only a hundred and seventy were selected through double-blind peer review, about one tenth of all the papers delivered at the Congress. This sample, however, does reflect the vitality and the new directions taken by the discipline, both in terms of the geo-cultural origin of the contributions and in terms of approaches and methods. Both these criteria were among those used by the readers who made the selection –of course, they came after the number one criterion of scholarly quality and originality. Second, the volumes also testify to the on-going discussions and theoretical debates that followed the Congress and its plenary lectures in the form of a regular seminar entitled “Comparatism as a Critical Approach”, held during 3 years, at the University of Paris-Sorbonne in the context of its Research Center in Comparative Literature (CRLC – Centre de Recherche en Littérature Comparée). The papers delivered in this seminar have been included and contribute, along with the plenary lectures, to give the volumes their global structure3.


Are these volumes just a new set to be added to an already voluminous amount of books that intend to (re)think the stakes of comparison and comparatism, the foundations and the renewal of the discipline of Comparative Literature in the diversity of its forms and practices? Indeed, in the past few years, individual and collective volumes have flourished, meant to assess the state of the discipline and/or to advocate for its evolution or renewal. One does not need to go as far back as the early 2000s with the pleas for a redefined comparatism written by Marcel Detienne (Comparer lincomparable, 2000) or Gayatri Spivak (Death of a Discipline, 2003) in order to notice that in the past three or four years, many critical essays, collective volumes and manuals devoted to “comparison”, its theories and approaches, as well as to the state of Comparative Literature as a discipline have been published4. These publications, it should be noted, come out not only of presses located in places traditionally associated with the origins of Comparative Literature (Europe and the West) but also, and more and more so, from presses located in non-Western areas, especially from presses and/or authors from China and India5.


The present set of six volumes differs from all the above-mentioned books both by its size and by its ambition. The ambition of these nearly two hundred texts is not to present a State of the Discipline, be it on a national or international scale6. Moreover, none of these texts pretends to “compare comparatisms”, to use the expression chosen by Maya Burger and Claude Calame as the title of their co-edited volume on the different ways of thinking and using comparison in religion sciences7. Some articles do indeed take a stand on such or such evolution of the discipline and many of them echo or respond to each other, at a distance and without any prior concertation. The ambition the texts share is, more or less explicitly and firmly asserted, a comparative approach, not only in literature but also in disciplinary fields that exceed the literary one since some texts concern comparative law, biology and so-called “hard” sciences. All the essays also share their more or less direct inscription in a specific context of “crisis” of Comparative Literature. The notion of “crisis” may be considered to be inherently linked to the discipline, hence permanent, so that today we would merely continue to traverse this perpetually on-going crisis: one remembers that on the occasion 23of the second Congress of the International Association of Comparative Literature, René Wellek already discussed the “crisis” of the discipline to which the Congress contributed to give its institutional foundations8; one also remembers that the subtitle of Comparaison nest pas raison, Étiembles defense of the discipline and plea for it renovation in the second half of the twentieth century, is “the crisis of Comparative Literature9”; and that it is in terms of the “death” of a certain vision of the discipline that Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak discussed this crisis about forty years after Étiemble10. Whatever the permanency of this crisis of the discipline11 and whether or not one should consider that what the field is going through today is indeed a crisis, what is undeniable and what is common to all the texts in these volumes is their historic specificity, that is, the historic specificity of the contemporary context: economic globalization affects the book market as a whole as well as the economy of the arts and culture; the development of internet and of new technologies of information and communication forces us to rethink drastically the status of the author, of the text and of the reader; and with the rise of nationalisms, which has occurred at the same time as the development of liberalism and economic globalization, such crucial notions from a comparative perspective as those of foreignness and otherness are called into question. In this context, it is obvious that comparatism does not exist in the singular and that there is no one and only comparative method but that there are indeed comparatisms in the plural. The variations in approaches and methods to be read in the present volumes provide a way of measuring the effective diversity in comparative practices and they give concrete documentation for a comparison of comparatisms. The different paths that readers will choose to follow in the volumes 24will allow them to construct such a comparison, or rather comparisons –comparison of the ways objects of study are constructed, comparison of the ways the stakes of the approach are elaborated, comparison of procedures…

In order to facilitate the reading, the body of texts selected from the twentieth ICLA Congress and coming from the seminar that followed has been organized in six thematically autonomous volumes that are coherent as separate units. This organization, which has not been determined a priori but emerged on the basis of the texts selected by the editorial board, is in itself very telling of a state of questions and topics privileged by comparatists today. These include: articulations between modern or contemporary texts and periods on the one hand and classical and early-modern ones on the other (volume 1: Facing the Past); relations among literature, arts and the social sciences (volume 2: Literature, the Arts, and the Social Sciences); questions concerning the definition of objects, methods and practices (volume 3: Objects, Methods, Practices); stakes of translation and cultural transfers (volume 4: Translation and Transfers); questions raised in an era of globalization between local and global scales of approach (volume 5: Local, Global: Circulations); and relations between literature and experimental, biological, technical or “hard” sciences (volume 6: Literature, Knowledge, Science, and Technology). Within each volume, the reader will find both sections that were constructed as such for the 2013 Congress12 and also sections that have been constructed for the publication as a result of the overall organization of the selected texts.

The first volume, Facing the Past, brings together essays that focus on so-called “past” periods (that is, anything prior to the nineteenth century), texts that analyze the relations between “antiquity” and “modernity”, between contemporary theories and texts from early periods, as well as studies of appropriations of old myths, topoï and stereotypes. Given the important number of articles focusing on “past periods”, given also the importance of the theorization regarding the articulation between contemporary literary theory and texts from the early periods, it made sense to constitute a coherent volume with this body of essays. This does not mean that the reader will not encounter, in other volumes, articles 25dealing with, say, Shakespeare or the One Thousand and One Nights. This, however, means that such articles do not primarily focus on what modern and contemporary approaches do to classical and early-modern texts. And this also means that the first volume entirely focuses on a three-term articulation: comparatism, classical and early-modern periods, modernity and contemporaneity. Véronique Gélys essay “Comparatisme et antiquité”, which introduces the volume, begins by noting that, in France and in Europe, Comparative Literature as an academic discipline grew in an alternative position to classical studies while at the same time comparative research was rooted in a humanist philological tradition directly anchored in Antiquity. From there, she shows how the various comparative uses of Antiquity have oscillated between two apparently contradictory but in fact inseparable programs – universalism and euro- or occidento-centrism –, and she ends with suggestions for the critical renovation of the couple “comparatism and antiquities”.

Jean-Paul Costa, President of the International Institute of Human Rights, Foundation René Cassin, and former President of the European Court for Human Rights (2007-2011), opens the second volume with “La méthode comparatiste en droit”, the text of the plenary speech he delivered at the Congress. Starting with apparently simple questions – “Why does one need comparative law? What do comparisons bear upon? What methods (in the plural) are used in order to make and use comparative law?” –, Jean-Paul Costa stresses the fact that if the “need for comparative law” is very old, it has increased greatly in the past thirty or forty years in the context of globalization, and it represents a very efficient political and judiciary tool – international comparisons function on a political level as sources of inspiration or, on the contrary, as counter-models, and comparative law regularly nourishes judiciary debates. Literary comparatists will be extremely interested by his presentation of the objects and methods of comparatism in law: indeed, many of his comments intersect with questions that literary scholars are familiar with in their own domain, concerning the nature of the objects of study, what makes them comparable or not, and the limits, difficulties and stakes of the comparison. This presentation of comparatism in law provides a first frame to the second volume of the series, which is meant to address, from a comparative perspective, questions pertaining to the relations between literature and fields in the arts and social sciences 26that are a priori outside it. Entitled Literature, the Arts, and the Social Sciences, the volume is divided in two sections, the first one focusing on the relations between literature and the social sciences (mainly philosophy and anthropology) and the second one focusing on intermediality and the relations among the arts (comparative literature and music, literature and the arts of image and sound). Bernard Francos essay, “Le comparatisme comme humanisme moderne”, constitutes a second frame for the volume, after that provided by Jean-Paul Costa. In order to link Comparative Literature to its humanist heritage, Bernard Franco reflects upon the notions of “humanism”, “humanities”, “human sciences”, upon their relations and upon their articulation to knowledge in general as well as to disciplines belonging to “social sciences” or “comparative literature”. Disciplinary designations and the relations that disciplines have to each other vary depending on the national traditions that Bernard Franco confronts. “Human sciences” do not simply designate a modernization or an extension of the “humanities”. They also involve a different relation to knowledge than that of a Humanist, for whom knowledge is inseparable from a moral stance. Comparative approach and method create an intermediate space between the spheres of literary studies and of the human sciences.

Introduced by essays by Ute Heidmann (“Pour un comparatisme différentiel”) and Haun Saussy (“La lecture, pratique dissidente”), the third volume, Objects, Methods and Practices, first interrogates comparatists objects (Part One: “Comparing?”), raising the question of “comparable” and “incomparable” objects as well as that of conducting a comparative approach not among several texts or objects but within a single one. The second section (“Archeologies of comparatism”) is then devoted to certain concepts at work in Comparative Literature and to the epistemology of such comparative fields as the relations between literature and psychoanalysis or childrens literature. A methodological plea in favor of a “differential method” for a “differential comparatism”, Ute Heidmanns text goes against approaches aiming at generalization and looking for universals, in order to privilege the work of differentiation in literary and cultural practices, especially in the fields of myths, autobiography, the (re)configuration of tales and childrens literature. Stressing the work of differentiation is a tool, used to show the dialogism of generic forms and practices: it is from their relation to practices in other languages, 27literatures and cultures that these generic forms and genres draw their ability to create new effects of meaning. After Ute Heidmanns, Haun Saussys text constitutes another methodological plea in favor of “close reading”. Through a reconstruction of the “career of the detail” in the interpretive practice of the different critical schools in the anglophone world, Saussy stresses the subversive potentialities of close reading. Neither the kind of “distant reading” that Franco Moretti advocates nor the new “digital humanities” whose success is currently growing have any relevance if they are not combined with and rooted in close reading, a type of reading that respects the detail of the text and specifically the “contradictory” detail, i.e. the detail that is “hard to assimilate”.

The fourth volume, Translation and Transfers, is divided in two sections: the first one focuses on translations and translation studies (translation in its relations to questions of reception; the specific role of translation in certain literary traditions, especially the Arabic literary tradition; the blurry frontiers between translation and creation), and the second one is devoted to cultural transfers (transfers of Western literary concepts towards the East as well as transatlantic transfers). Three texts introduce the volume and provide a theoretical frame for questions linked to translation and cultural transfers. In “Non-Equivalent, Not-Translated, Incommensurate: Rethinking the Units of Comparison in Comparative Literature”, Emily Apter suggests displacing the criteria of linguistic and literary comparison. Following her reflection in Against World Literature. On the Politics of Untranslatability (2013) and her coordination of the Dictionary of Untranslatables. A Philosophical Lexicon13 (2014), she suggests making a shift from the notion of “equivalence” considered as a standard of comparison towards the notions of “equality” and “inequality”, and placing the emphasis on the construction of the non-equivalent, the non-translated and the incommensurate, in order to think translation-in-equality and as a medium of defining equaliberty. The question of the violence of translation, which Emily Apter broaches in her essay, is at the very heart of Tiphaine Samoyaults study in “Traduction et violence”. Rather than consider translation through the “positive paradigm” that sees it as a place of encounter and sharing between languages and a site for an experience of plurality, Tiphaine Samoyault situates her 28approach on the side of that which, in translation, resists this positive paradigm. She distinguishes between a kind of violence that is internal to the very act of translation (at several levels: that of the text to be translated, that of the translator, that of the language of the translated text) and a kind of violence that is external and results from the fact that translation is present in situations of historical violence. After examining how these two types of violence – the ontological violence and the historical violence – can be linked, she suggests some methodological consequences that result from taking into account this articulation. After these questions of translation addressed by Emily Apter and Tiphaine Samoyault, Manfred Schmelings essay, “Entre transfert et comparaison: réflexions sur un problème méthodique de la littérature comparée”, concentrates on the relations between Comparative Literature – and the notion of “comparative approach” the discipline puts forth – and Cultural Studies – and the notion of “transfer” they privilege. Coming back to the critiques addressed to Comparative Literature by the proponents of cultural transfers – Comparative Literature being accused of looking for universals, of practicing static comparisons, of insufficiently contextualizing its objects, of promoting an interdisciplinarity with no substance, of using a very narrow concept of culture… – Manfred Schmeling shows that these critiques lack nuances and that they hardly take into account the permeability of some frontiers between Comparative Literature and Cultural Studies. Manfred Schmelings essay concludes with an analysis of the relations between a comparative approach and the process of cultural transfer.

Florence Delay, from the Académie Française, opens the fifth volume, Local and Global: Circulations, with “Paysages et pays”, the poetic and comparatist journey she offered as a plenary lecture for the opening of the Congress in July 2013. From Brittany – in the series she co-authored with Jacques Roubaud, Graal théâtre –, to Japan – in Roubauds Mono no aware ou le sentiment des choses –, from André Gide to Walt Whitman, from Aimé Césaire to Federico García Lorca, or else from Julien Gracq to Marcel Proust, the journey is in itself a plea for a comparatism that privileges the modalities of passage and “in-betweeness”, rather than the binarism of coordination (“x and y”) or the gesture of confrontation. Valery Larbaud, man of passages and translator, is, for Florence Delay, an exemplary figure of these modalities, a figure to whom she pays a vibrant and 29poetic homage. Following these “landscapes and countries”, the volume focuses on circulations, on various scales, within circumscribed spaces and between these spaces. While the first section, “Literature and Space in a Global Context”, investigates the relations between Comparative Literature and World Literature as well as the status of some globalized figures (characters or authors), the second section focuses on the relations between the Oriental and the Occidental worlds (“Oriental/Occidental: Beyond Essentialism”). The third section, “Eastern, Western, Oriental, Occidental: What World?”, opens with the question raised by Dorothy Figueira, “Whose World Is It Anyway?” and offers on the one hand a series of essays on the cultural and literary relations among India, its neighboring countries and the world and, on the other hand, another set of essays on the relations between the East and the West.

Neurobiologist Jean-Pierre Changeux, from the Institut Pasteur and the Collège de France, and from the Academy of Sciences, opens the sixth volume, Literature, Science, Knowledge and Technology, devoted to the relations between literature and the arts on the one hand and, on the other, the so-called “life” and “hard” sciences. The plenary lecture given during the Congress has become an essay, co-written with Suzanne Nalbantian and entitled “A Neurobiological Theory of Aesthetic Experience and Creativity”. Jean-Pierre Changeux presents the broad lines of the research he has been conducting for many years in order to bring closer biological sciences and human sciences, so as to construct a neurological theory of artistic experience. Brain research and knowledge concerning the brain, which have made important progress in the past decades, can bring responses to questions raised about the functioning of the brain when it contemplates a work of art and about the functioning of the artists brain when it elaborates the work of art. Relying on precise artistic examples among which Leonardo da Vincis Virgin and Child with Saint Anne, Salvador Dalís The Image Disappears as well as Henri Matisses Romanian Blouse, Changeux thus explains the chemical and electrical mechanisms at work during the production or the contemplation of a work of art.

To think the specificities of comparatism as a critical approach leads to a shift in the nature of the debates around Comparative Literature –from questions traditionally centered on the permanent “crisis” of the discipline and, more generally, of literary studies, or on supposedly 30irreconcilable differences among various forms of comparatism (“French Comparative Literature” vs “American Comparative Literature” vs “German Comparative Literature”…), or else on disciplinary evolutions and the new fields of research that emerge according to different chronologies depending on national traditions… towards questions focusing on the basis and grounds involved in a comparatist criticism and an authentically comparatist literary criticism. The ICLA twentieth Congress and the present volumes that come out of it certainly do not claim to be the first ones to open such a debate; they, however, hope to contribute to nourishing it.

Anne Tomiche

Centre de Recherche
en Littérature Comparée
(CRLC – EA 4510)

Université Paris-Sorbonne

Merci à Fériel Younsi, Yalin Gao, Kush Sengupta, Alena Tchoumak et Makoto Uesugi pour leur aide dans la relecture des passages en arabe, chinois, bengali, russe et japonais.

1 Organized at the University Paris-Sorbonne (Paris 4), thanks to the Research Center in Comparative Literature (Centre de Recherche en Littérature Comparée, CRLC), the Congress was made possible thanks to the scholarly as well as financial contribution and partnership of thirty-five institutions – French universities and research centers (Paris 3, Paris 7, Paris 8, Paris 10, Paris 13, Paris Est, Amiens, Aix-Marseille, Artois, Bordeaux 3, Clermont-Ferrand, Corse, Dijon, École Normale Supérieure Ulm, École Normale Supérieure Lyon, Franche-Comté, Grenoble 3, Haute-Alsace, Lille 3, Limoges, Lyon 2, Montpellier 3, Orléans, Poitiers, Reims, Rennes 2, Rouen, Saint-Étienne, Strasbourg, Tours, Valenciennes), and also universities in Switzerland (Lausanne) and Germany (Sarrebrücken), as well as the French National Research Agency (Agence Nationale de la Recherche française) and the Institut Universitaire de France. The financial contribution of the French Comparative Literature Association (Société Française de Littérature Générale et Comparée, SFLGC) and of the International Comparative Literature Association (ICLA) was also very helpful and essential.

2 Editing and publishing these volumes have been made possible thanks to the financial support of both Paris-Sorbonne and the ICLA.

3 The plenary lectures given during the Congress are available on The lectures given in the seminar “Comparatism as a Critical Approach” are available on Canal U, the site of the French Ministry for Higher Education and Research:

4 To give but a few examples, in different languages and coming from different places of publication: Pedro Aullón de Haro, ed., Metodologías comparatistas y Literatura comparada, Madrid, Dykinson, 2012; Rüdiger Zymner and Achim Hölter, eds., Handbuch Komparatistik, Theorien, Arbeitsfelder, Wissenspraxis, Stuttgart and Weimar, Metzler, 2013; Rita Felski and Susan Stanford Friedman, eds., Comparison: Theories, Approaches, Uses, Baltimore, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013; Piero Boitani and Emilia Di Rocco, Guida allo studio delle letterature comparate, Rome, Editori Laterza, 2013; Anna Opiela, ed., Territoires comparatistes. Mélanges offerts à Zbigniew Naliwajek, Varsovie, Wydawnictwa Uniwersytetu Warszawskiego, 2013; César Domínguez, Haun Saussy, and Darío Villanueva, eds., Introducing Comparative Literature: New Trends and Applications, London, Routledge, 2015; Yves Chevrel, La Littérature comparée, Paris, PUF, latest revised and updated edition in 2016. For a state of the art coming from France in 2014, see Véronique Gély, “Comparaison et comparatismes: regards actuels”, Revue de littérature comparée, no 4, 2014. This state of the art finds its place in an issue entitled “Comparatismes à travers le monde I” (“Comparatisms throughout the World I”), which announces an ambitious project, planned over several years, in order to sketch an overview of the discipline throughout the world, and which concentrates, for its first issue on the topic, on Europe and more precisely on what the editor calls “the historical cradle” of Comparative Literature (Great-Britain, the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, Spain, Italy, Portugal and Slovenia).

5 See, for example: Steven Tötösy de Zepetnek and Tutun Mukherjee, eds., Companion to Comparative Literature, World Literatures, and Comparative Cultural Studies, New Delhi, Cambridge University Press India, 2013; E.V. Ramakrishnan, Harish Trivedi and Chandra Mohan, eds., Interdisciplinary Alternatives in Comparative Literature, New Delhi, Sage Publications, 2013; Dorothy Figueira and Chandra Mohan, eds., Literary Cultures and Translation: New Aspects of Comparative Literature, Delhi, Primus Books, 2016. From China: Cao, Shunqing, 迈向比较文学第三阶段 (Toward the Third Stage of Comparative Literature), Shanghai, Fudan UP, 2011; Li, Qingben, 跨文化美学:超越中西二元论模式 (Cross-Cultural Aesthetics: Beyond the Model of Sino-Western Dualism), Changchun, Changchun Publishing, 2011; Wang, Xiangyuan, 中国比较文学百年史 (History of a Hundred Years Development of Chinese Comparative Literature), Beijing, China Social Sciences Press, 2014; Cao, Shunqing, The Variation Theory of Comparative Literature, Heidelberg, Springer, 2013. Since 2011, a series entitled Dangdai Zhongguo bijiao wenxue yanjiu wenku (Library of Comparatist Studies in Contemporary China) comes out of the University Presses of Fudan; it already includes about twenty volumes, on almost all fields of the discipline. Moreover, in recent years there have been many new editions of Chinese masters in Comparative Literature (Qian, Zhongshu; Yang, Zhouhan; Ji, Xianlin for example).

6 The volumes do not constitute a State of the Discipline such as those the American Comparative Literature Association regularly draws (Comparative Literature in the Age of Multiculturalism, ed. Charles Bernheimer, 1995; Comparative Literature in an Age of Globalization, ed. Haun Saussy, 2005) or such as those the French Comparative Literature Association (Société Française de Littérature Générale et Comparée) has drawn (La Recherche en littérature générale et comparée en France, ed. Daniel-Henri Pageaux, 1983; La Recherche en France en littérature générale et comparée en 2007, ed. Anne Tomiche, 2007).

7 Maya Burger and Claude Calame, eds., Comparer les comparatismes. Perspectives sur lhistoire et les sciences des religions, Paris, Milan, Edidit Archè, coll. “Histoire de lhistoire des religions”, 2, 2006.

8 René Wellek, “The Crisis of Comparative Literature”, in W. P. Friederich, ed., Comparative Literature: Proceedings of the Second Congress of the ICLA, Chapel Hill, University of Carolina Press, 1958, vol. 2, p. 149-159.

9 Étiemble, Comparaison nest pas raison. La crise de la littérature comparée, Paris, Gallimard, 1963.

10 Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Death of a Discipline, New York, Columbia University Press, 2003.

11 In 1984, in his State of the Discipline and in his analysis of its evolution, Ulrich Weisstein suggested that Comparative Literature goes through a “permanent crisis”: “Doù venons-nous? Que sommes-nousOù allons-nous? The Permanent Crisis of Comparative Literature”, Canadian Review of Comparative Literature / Revue canadienne de littérature comparée, June 1984, p. 167-192.

12 These originated in group sessions that took place in July 2013; the coordinators of these group sessions have gathered and organized the selected texts from their session and they present them in the present volumes at the opening of the relevant book sections.

13 The Dictionary of Untranslatables is the translation of the Vocabulaire européen des philosophies. Dictionnaire des intraduisibles edited by Barbara Cassin in 2004.