U Views Digging in the Depths of Definitions

Dorris Hambuch


While preparing for my MA degree in the English Department at Saarland University, I was oblivious to the other department—Comparative Literature—that was housed in the same building and indulging in research very similar to mine, until it was time to invite an external reader for the thesis titled “Geographie in der Lyrik Elizabeth Bishops und Derek Walcotts.” Partly to make amends for my ignorance, I became a PhD candidate in Comparative Literature at the University of Alberta and joined the majority of comparatists who, according to Susan Bassnett’s observation, arrive at the discipline comparatively late (1). Having learned to define this discipline as the study of storytelling in spoken, printed, painted, performed, screened, or programmed form with a particular interest in the manifestation of literary imaginations in different parts of the world, I become disgruntled when fellow comparatists are not prepared to use ignorance constructively, the way I did when in transition between graduate degrees. Sympathizing with Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s sentiment that Comparative Literature should be “world embracing” (383), I argue, in the following paragraphs, that a serious striving for the kind of “in-between-ness,” which Zhang Longxi deems to be the position of anyone involved in Comparative Literature, should dominate future orientations of the discipline (230). This in-between-ness, as I understand it, depends on the embrace rather than mere inclusion of perspectives positioned outside the centers of the current global lingua franca.


In their introduction to A Companion to Comparative Literature (2011), Ali Behdad and Dominic Thomas caution that “with student interest in the traditional national literatures rapidly declining as evidenced by a shrinking number of majors, the field of Comparative Literature is quickly emerging as the natural site around which to organize modern language and literary studies” (1). Two decades ago, Bassnet pointed to the decreasing interest in Comparative Literature during the 1970s, a time when programs in Cultural Studies, Film and Media Studies, and Women’s and Gender Studies were thriving. Unlike the editors of the Blackwell Companion, Bassnett indicates that she is assessing the situation in what is commonly understood as “the West”: North America, Western Europe, and Australia/New Zealand. In “the East,” on the other hand, Bassnett sees the importance of the discipline increasing. Behdad and Thomas by no means ignore the problem of centricity. They summarize this problem much later in their introduction as follows:

At the same time that the discipline has provided openings to a consideration of a multiplicity of literary cultures, it has also participated in the solidification of a world literary system in which the collective cultures of “the West” have functioned as the center, the interpreter, and the point of reference for all others. (6)

It would seem that, since only two of the 34 contributors to a seminal collection of disciplinary discourse such as the Blackwell Companion are based outside the US/UK (and those two in Amsterdam and Paris respectively), the present perfect used in this sentence is not likely to change to past tense in the near future.


Behdad and Thomas continue with a reference to the comparatist whose spirit looms large over the challenge of simplistic divisions of the world and resulting misrepresentations. It is worth emphasizing that Edward Said was able to use the past tense in the passage from Culture and Imperialism that Behdad and Thomas cite: “To speak of comparative literature therefore was to speak of the interaction of world literatures with one another, but the field was epistemologically organized as a sort of hierarchy, with Europe and its Latin Christian literatures as its center and top” (qtd. in Behdad and Thomas 7). Culture and Imperialism shares the date of publication with Bassnett’s Comparative Literature: A Critical Introduction, 1993, and Said is looking back a few decades in the quoted sentence. In the years since 1993, much progress has been made in the field of Comparative Literature to alter the hierarchical disposition towards objects of study that Said castigates. The future developments of the discipline should aim for similar progress with regard to subject positions.


Said called his memoir Out of Place (1999), a location or concept generally perceived as discomforting. To appear out of place is to not fit in, to lack a sense of belonging. However, when one considers the consequences of what Said describes as displacement or misplacement, especially in light of Longxi’s notion of in-between-ness mentioned in my introductory paragraph, the condition becomes desirable. Incidentally, Said ends his autobiography with the conclusion that he had “learned actually to prefer being not quite right and out of place” (295). This is, of course, an individual’s realization in a very personal context. I suggest, however, that a more general scrutiny of the phrase “out of place” is useful for considerations of Comparative Literature as well. To be out of a place, in the sense of “my place” or “your place,” is to elide connotations of possession along with the idea of there being only one specific place. It further eliminates the idea of ranking, as in “first place” or “second place.” The former connotation is not present in all European languages I am familiar with, which happen to be the languages of the colonial powers. Neither the German “Platz,” nor the Dutch “plaats,” nor the French “place” are used to refer to a person’s accommodation. The Spanish “lugar,” however, may be. There is the German phrase “ein Platz an der Sonne,” “a place near the sun” to describe an appealing destination one wishes to occupy. Finally, the word is the stem of the verb “platzen,” which means “burst” or even “explode” and thus adds a destructive element to the etymology. The second connotation, the ranking or value judgment, applies to “Platz” as much as to “plaats,” “lugar,” and to the French “place.” Such value judgment is an essential element of any kind of “centrism.” Certain authorities typically consider whatever happens in the centre superior to what happens elsewhere. It is the aim for positions in-between, outside one specific place, a place one possesses, which creates venues for constructive encounters with unfamiliar perspectives.


Said had the good fortune to grow up with more than one “first” language, which is already indicative of in-between-ness, as well as conducive to research in Comparative Literature. Although the construction of the Arabic translation خارج مكان is closer to the English “out of place” than, for example, to the German “unplatziert” or “fehl am Platz,” the idea of a misfit does not exist in the former. Neither is مكان used in the context of competitions. Instead of a preceding possessive pronoun, Arabic adds an ending to the noun. Thus, مكاني means “my place,” but the term is much less commonly used in the context of accommodations than, for example, بيتي, “my house.” The prominence of “place,” then, with the various discussed connotations is unique to English. One may then read the phrase “out of place” as an assertion of freedom from material as well as from competitive confinement and pressure, since these accompany possession and ranking. One may take the thought further to the connection between “out of place” and one of the most enticing compliments that can be paid to something or someone, “out of this world.” I want to use this as a cue to return to my plea for the confrontation with and incorporation of perspectives from varied parts of this world, from off the beaten academic path, so to speak.


In my introductory paragraph, I provided the working definition of Comparative Literature as the study of storytelling in spoken, printed, painted, performed, screened, or programmed form with a particular interest in the manifestations of literary imaginations in different parts of the world. Some may argue that the definition of “literature” does not include “film.” Others may argue that a scholar of Comparative Literature lacks the expertise to include paintings in her or his research. I would argue that the work presented in the section of the Blackwell Companion titled “Disciplinary Intersections” contradicts these doubts effectively, not to mention Said’s studies of music. The Department of English Literature at United Arab Emirates University currently includes Minors in “Language and Literacy,” “Drama,” “Film,” and “Fine Arts.” I like to think of a recently designed course in Animation Filmmaking or a special focus on the Graphic Novel in an elective seminar as productive outcomes of these institutional circumstances. Ultimately, institutional conditions are always the result of a complex interplay between a scholar’s qualifications, the dynamics between this scholar’s colleagues, the decisions of administrators, and the larger economic picture. They are accidental in a sense. To join what was then the Department of Comparative Literature, Religion, Film & Media Studies at the University of Alberta gave me access to expertise available only because of the specific institutional circumstances there. Although this department no longer exists, the journals Inquire, Imaginations, and CRCL are excellent proof of the fact that related research continues to be undertaken.


In my opinion, the greatest potential of Comparative Literature lies precisely in its ceaseless efforts to re-define itself, efforts which position the discipline in a constant state of in-between-ness, neither merely here nor there, and thus in steady anticipation of self-criticism. Prominent scholars who have offered the latter in a constructive manner include everyone referred to in this paper. The May 2013 issue of PMLA dedicates the “theories and methodologies” section to the question “What Does the Comparative Do?” This issue provides further compelling examples of updated criticism. It is my conviction that such theorizing of the discipline’s inevitable transformations enhances its practices. The theorizing stands to benefit from the decentralization of what should serve as cross-continental discourse.


Works Cited


Bassnett, Susan. Comparative Literature: A Critical Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell, 1993. Print.

Behdad, Ali, and Dominic Thomas, eds. A Companion to Comparative Literature. Hoboken: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011. Web. 4 August 2014.

Damrosch, David, Natalie Melas, and Mbongiseni Buthelezi, eds. The Princeton Sourcebook in Comparative Literature: From the European Enlightenment to the Global Present. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2009. Print.

Longxi, Zhang. "Penser d’un dehors: Notes on the 2004 ACLA Report." Comparative Literature in an Age of Globalization. Ed. Haun Saussy. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2006, 230-36. Print.

Said, Edward. Out of Place. London: Granta, 1999. Print.

Saussy, Haun, ed. Comparative Literature in an Age of Globalization. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2006. Print.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. "Crossing Borders." The Princeton Sourcebook in Comparative Literature: From European Enlightenment to the Global Present. Eds. David Damrosch, Natalie Melas, and Mbongiseni Buthelezi. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2009, 380-98. Print.



Doris Hambuch is assistant professor and coordinator of the Minor in Film Studies at United Arab Emirates University. Her publications include articles on Caribbean literature, ecocriticism, and film analysis. She is a contributor to The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Postcolonial Studies and to the Routledge Who is Who of Contemporary Women Writers. She is currently co-editing a special issue of Imaginations: Journal of Cross-Cultural Image Studies on Caribbean cinema.


Inquire: Journal of Comparative Literature

Brought to you by Graduate Students from the Program in Comparative Literature
at the University of Alberta

ISSN 1923-5879
Email: inquire [at] ualberta.ca

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