The Indiscipline of Comparison


Doppelmayr, Atlas coelestis, “Astronomia comparativa,” 1. An image from Haun Saussy’s contribution to the exchange with David Damrosch in the special issue.

I’m delighted to announce the publication of “The Indiscipline of Comparison,” a special issue of Comparative Literature Studies. Many thanks to the contributors, David Damrosch, Rita Felski, Haun Saussy, Shu-mei Shih, Karen Thornber, and Zhang Longxi. My heartfelt thanks also go out to CLS editor, Thomas Beebee, and to editorial assistant Kendra McDuffie. Thanks also to the University of Otago’s Asian Migrations and Comparative and Cross Cultural Studies Research Themes and the Humanities Division’s De Carle Lectureship whose generous support brought several of the contributors  to Dunedin.

Here’s a brief extract from my introduction:

Are we similarly entering an age of post-discipline comparison? Or at least, would it be fruitful to think of comparative work as having no discipline but the singular set of rules and constraints that constitute the work and that define its relation to a range of disciplines? The articles here collectively make the argument for the work of comparison not as a single discipline but as a discursive strategy for engaging and rethinking disciplinary relations. The key test for such work would be not just whether it changes the rules of the game within a discipline but whether it alters the relationship between disciplines, surprising us into a new way of seeing the world.

You can view the issue on Project Muse here or on Jstor here.

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The Uses of Postmodernism


Plywood mural covering earthquake-damaged building, by Michael Hewson (Christchurch, New Zealand).

Postmodernism might seem dreadfully passé, but my new essay and the special issue of which it is a part argue that it still has its uses. My article on “The Uses of Postmodernism” is online here, and below I reproduce its conclusion. In his eloquent summary of the special issue, Brian McHale questions my emphasis on “the disparities among different national postmodernisms.” (I discuss Chinese, US, Russian, and New Zealand postmodernism.) For McHale, despite their differences, all these postmodernisms share a “space-clearing gesture” in their respective contexts. However, rather than expressing “discontent with the malleability of period concepts” or “national disparities,” I have aimed in my essay to show how the disparities and temporal and spatial hierarchies in the uses of postmodernism reflect not so much a space-clearing as a space-contesting gesture, specifically the contestation of local, national, and global space.

We might date the death of postmodernism as a term that is used, rather than merely mentioned, in literary studies in English to around the year 2000. Its demise is marked, for instance, by the publication of Susan Stanford Friedman’s “Definitional Excursions: The Meanings of Modern/Modernity/Modernism” in 2001 and Marjorie Perloff’s 21st-Century Modernism the following year. Both Friedman and Perloff articulate and contribute to the turn away from postmodernism in the Anglo-American academy and both do so through an expanded account of modernism. Friedman and Perloff argue that modernism encompasses everything supposedly associated with postmodernism, including the “embrace of chaos…the crisis of representation, fragmentation, alienation…indeterminacy, the rupture of certainty – material and symbolic” (Friedman, “Definitional Excursions” 494). A few years later, in attempting to make the case for the term’s ongoing usefulness, Brian McHale would nevertheless accept this understanding of postmodernism – already present in Hassan’s and Antin’s essays from the early 1970s – as merely another form of modernism: “ ‘postmodernism’ signifies the full range of possibilities…available before a normalizing modernism had made its choices, and which became available again after normalized modernism had run its course” (x).

As the titles of these works by Friedman and Perloff suggest, the decline of interest in the postmodern in the early 2000s was matched by the rise of what Douglas Mao and Rebecca Walkowitz dubbed the “new modernist studies.” The new modernist studies offered an expanded sense of modernism that appeared to render postmodernism irrelevant. Why do we need postmodernism when we can just as easily call it twenty-first-century modernism, as Perloff asked over a decade ago?

My proposal to reexamine the uses of postmodernism in literature and literary studies draws on the kind of historicizing and comparative work that has made modernist studies such a dynamic field over the past couple of decades. These historicizing and comparative approaches suggest that postmodernism deserves a place in any literary and cultural history of the last seventy years.

Seen historically and comparatively, postmodernism is the sum of its uses or misuses. One might argue that these uses bear an underlying common conceptual form – a wave that is diffracted as the concept passes through different places and cultural conditions at different times and is inflected by local contexts. But this would be to accept too easily the constraining habits of periodization: the center-periphery model of originality and belatedness through which postmodernism itself was frequently imagined. Amongst other things, such a model posits the existence of a relatively stable wave of meaning that undergoes change as it passes through various cultural contexts. When we consider the widely various uses of postmodernism even in the small sampling surveyed here, no such stability exists.

Nevertheless, some common threads emerge in the uses of postmodernism. First and most obviously, postmodernism was used to attack diverse versions of modernism. Second, postmodernism was used negatively as a proxy term for globalization. Third and somewhat contradictorily, postmodernism was used positively as a term to mark a work’s, a country’s, or, and especially, a theorist’s up-to-date position vis-à-vis the global literary and cultural marketplace. Postmodernism was a term through which one could assert theoretical sophistication in the period of literary theory’s ascendance and the up-to-date-ness of the literary culture of an individual or country.

These contrary uses – along with postmodernism’s association with anti-universalism – enabled the term to embody both sides in the unfolding tension between globalization and localism. Postmodernism could be used to claim an advanced position in the global cultural field and to dismiss nationalisms and other localisms as hopelessly theoretically naive or outdated. Yet it could also be deployed to assert cultural relativism and so the singularity of a national or local culture.

The story of postmodernism’s uses describes no coherent theory or period but rather illuminates the struggle to come to grips with changes both local and global in the final decades of the twentieth century. While postmodernism might indeed be useless as a theoretical concept or periodization, it remains a key term in the history of twentieth-century thought.

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The Copy in Global Modernism

new-vocab-for-global-modernismIs “make it the same”––and not “make it new”––the true catchphrase of modernism? So I argue in my contribution to A New Vocabulary for Global Modernism, just out from Columbia University Press. Although I’m still awaiting a hardcopy, I’ve been able to preview the rich offerings that Eric Hayot and Rebecca Walkowitz have assembled through JSTOR. Below are some edited extracts from the introduction to my essay on the “Copy”:

“Make it new.” The original, the foreign, the idiolectic—modernism has been told as a story of novelty, strangeness, and singular genius. And this story has been given new inflection as scholars have sought to emphasize the variety and global reach of modernisms in the plural. Yet “make it the same” might equally serve as the catchphrase of modernism. Modernism emerged out of a vast increase in copying, to which it responded through repetition, appropriation, and remixing, from Eisenstein’s montage, Duchamp’s ready-mades, Stein’s repetitions as insistences, Picasso’s and Braque’s collage, Joyce’s pastiche, Melville’s Bartleby, Borges’s Menard, and Burroughs’s and Gysin’s cut-ups to Xu Zhimo’s translations and versioning, Gandhi’s printing press, Sergei Tretyakov’s newspaper as twentieth-century epic, and Kamau Brathwaite’s audio and computer-graphic remediation and self-rewriting. Even the slogan status of Pound’s phrase “make it new” is the product of later critical appropriations, and the phrase itself is a translation, a copy of a centuries-old text that was probably mistranscribed from a far more ancient source. The copy’s centrality to modernism is increasingly legible in the early twenty-first century, when reproduction triumphs over production in the billions of everyday acts through which we produce and consume links and likes on Facebook, Twitter, Weibo, and other social media.

Modernism has often been seen as a site of resistance to the emergence of the copy as a cultural dominant. The emphasis in Anglo-American modernism on making it new has been influentially read as deriving from the need “to produce something which resists and breaks through the force of gravity of repetition as a universal feature of commodity equivalence.” Yet by attending to modernist works that radically foreground copying and by recognizing similarly repetitive structures even in works that seek to resist sameness through strangeness, we can complicate the opposition between mass reproduction, consumer capitalism, and globalization, on the one hand, and modernist aestheticism, on the other. The copy thereby provides a way to negotiate the ongoing rift between readings of modernism—and between parts of modernist practice—that emphasize sociological, technological, political, and economic context and those that stress the particularity and singular genius of modernist works.

The copy—more than its apparent cousins, influence, imitation, mimesis, adaptation, and translation—also offers a means to question global modernism’s temporal and spatial hierarchies these terms, to write of non-Western, peripheral, or global modernism is to articulate this mimetic desire “to speak in the other’s language in order to be recognized by the other” that is the West. Within the “make it new” rhetoric of modernism, mimetic desire “imposes a historical lag between the other’s behavior and one’s own. To be caught up in mimetic desire requires one invariably to be ‘behind the times.’” The copy, by contrast, does not “privilege being temporally ‘first.’” Hence the “strategy of re-writing” not only attempts, as in some avant-garde practice, “to short-circuit or interrupt the text’s own representational construction”; it also undoes the structure of mimetic desire that shapes the way we think modernism transnationally. Just as the “anti-theatrical” theater of Brecht and other modernists was a means of “keeping under control and mediating the theatrical mimesis,” so copy works to denaturalize the framework of originality, innovation, and mimetic desire in approaches to global modernism.

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Lucas Klein on A Common Strangeness and Cosima Bruno’s Between the Lines

I am delighted to see that Lucas Klein’s review essay, “Addressed and Redressed: World Literature and Reading Contemporary Poetry in Translation,” has just been published in Comparative Literature Studies. Klein’s essay discusses A Common Strangeness alongside Cosima Bruno’s wonderfully insightful book Between the Lines: Yang Lian’s Poetry through Translation, which I have previously mentioned on this blog. Klein’s review begins:

Civilizationally and politically otherized from the point of view of the West, yet never colonized except incompletely and piecemeal, China occupies a privileged position in current discussions of world literature, standing as a test case for many of our notions of the category. Meanwhile, translation—upon which, of course, world literature, however defined, builds itself—has been undervalued and under-attended to in our current discussion of the Weltliteratur predicament. These are, in fact, related problematics: in Between the Lines, Cosima Bruno quotes a scholar devaluing translation to the effect that “poetry has traditionally been built of words with a particular history of usage in a single language—of words that cannot be exchanged for other words” (2), which scholar at the same time posits Chinese literature, as Jacob Edmond discusses in A Common Strangeness, as a case of national literature par excellence failing to withstand the onslaught of globalization and the “end of history” after the Cold War (95–124). The brilliance of the books under review here is how they address and redress both issues, showing how translation can not only ease the tension between Chinese and world literature, but also build a world literature with room for Chinese literature.

You can read the rest of the essay here (requires a subscription to Project Muse).

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Prigov’s Video Performance with Newspapers

In my essay “The Geopoetics of the Newspaper from Tret’iakov to Prigov,” just out in Slavic Review, I was able to illustrate my discussion of some of Dmitri Prigov’s work with a number of images. I couldn’t, however, reproduce Prigov’s extraordinary Video Performance with Newspapers (1989). I am therefore posting the video here along with the commentary from my essay.

Prigov’s Video Performance with Newspapers (1989) begins with a close up of his face. He appears to be lying on a pile of newspapers with an edition of Pravda carefully arranged behind his head. For the first minute or so, Prigov silently mouths words apparently read from the newspaper. Then he begins to read aloud as the camera pans out to reveal him lying on a couch of newspapers with further sheets of newsprint engulfing what appears to be an apartment. Prigov then rolls about in the papers, picking up, apparently at random, various items of news, including an article about Gorbachev speaking on perestroika, which Prigov reads with rising volume and agitation.

By placing his performance piece in the interior of an apartment, Prigov emphasizes the newspaper’s role as a liminal object between the domestic realm and the outside social and political world, ironically recalling Benjamin’s earlier emphasis on the Soviet elimination of the public/private divide and Sergei Tret΄iakov’s insistence on the power of the press to reach “every corner” of the Soviet Union. After reading the article on perestroika, Prigov spends several minutes searching through deep piles of newspapers that at one point threaten to submerge him completely. His search illustrates that the newspaper is composed not just of public information but also of dreams, desires, and other feelings that were given new voice by glasnost and that are here experienced spatially and bodily. Prigov’s body touches, is seemingly soothed then roused by the newspapers, whose crinkling white noise matches the confusing and overwhelming verbal noise produced by glasnost and by the rise of previously suppressed nationalisms. Prigov registers these competing nationalisms and their challenge to Soviet spatial unity by reading, in an increasingly hysterical voice, the Central Committee’s condemnation of the August 23, 1989 protests in the Baltic States as “nationalist hysteria.” The disordered newspapers and seemingly disordered mind of the speaker produce a sense of proliferating fracture and dispersion that matches the diverse opinions found in perestroika-era newspapers and the confusion of Prigov’s newspaper-strewn apartment.

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Svetlana Boym

BoymMemorialI was deeply shocked and saddened to learn last year of the death of Svetlana Boym. A few weeks ago, at the American Comparative Literature Association annual meeting at Harvard University, I joined colleagues, friends, and family for a session of “Readings in Memory of Svetlana Boym.” Below is my brief contribution to the commemoration of a brilliant scholar.

I first encountered Svetlana’s work, while writing my honours dissertation on Osip Mandelstam and Vladimir Mayakovsky. Her book Death in Quotation Marks was, at that time, a revelation. It opened my mind to the complex intermingling of everyday life and literary fact in Mayakovsky and in Russian literary theory from Viktor Shklovsky to Lidiya Ginzburg and Yuri Lotman. Svetlana’s book also introduced me to the field that would become my own: comparative literature.

I spent the 2003–4 academic year at Harvard University, where I was closely connected to the Slavic Department and so was finally able to meet Svetlana. My book, A Common Strangeness, owes a great deal to her response to a talk I gave that year and to her subsequent invitation to me to contribute to a special issue on estrangement that she edited for Poetics Today.

In my talk, I quoted a passage from Svetlana’s essay “Estrangement as a Lifestyle” where she writes of Shklovsky harbouring “the romantic and avant-garde dream of a reverse mimesis: everyday life can be redeemed if it imitates art, not the other way around.” She commented afterwards that she had come to revise her view. Indeed, in The Future of Nostalgia, she adds a qualification: “Yet estrangement does not allow for a seamless translation of life into art, for the aestheticization of politics or a Wagnerian total work. Art is only meaningful when it is not put entirely in the service of real life or realpolitik, and when its strangeness and distinctiveness is preserved.” Here, Svetlana echoes Walter Benjamin’s caution against the aestheticization of politics, while also worrying––as a child and student of Soviet culture––about the politicization of art for which Benjamin called in the same breath.

In my memory, I can still see Svetlana sitting in Café Pamplona just off Harvard Yard engaged in an intense and raucous discussion with conceptual artist and poet Dmitri Prigov, who famously turned his own life into a literary fact. This memory might lead me to speculate that Svetlana lived life with the same persistent questioning of everydayness and strangeness that I find in her writings––from the Russian opposition between everyday grind and spiritual existence to the relationship between artistic and political freedom. “But,” as Svetlana warns, “responsible theorists should not speculate about unrealized twists of plot. They only try to see how fiction is made, not how life is made.”

I’m glad that Svetlana did not heed her own half-serious admonishment. Without her exploration of the relationship between strangeness and everydayness, art and life would be much the poorer.

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New Zealand Modernist Studies Consortium

The first 2016 meeting of the New Zealand Modernist Studies Consortium will take place at the University of Otago, Dunedin, on Friday 19 February, between 10am and 5pm.

Participants in our February 2016 meeting may choose to contribute a paper for discussion (max. 4,000 words; max. of four papers to be discussed in the day), but we also welcome participants who will read and provide feedback on the circulated papers.

If you are interested in participating, please write to Jacob Edmond:

The NZMSC is open to academics and independent scholars working on any aspect of modernism, broadly defined. For further information, see the NZMSC website.

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