State of the Discipline

Linda Hutcheon


“It was the best of times,

it was the worst of times,

it was the age of wisdom,

it was the age of foolishness….”

Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities


It is no exaggeration to say that the discipline of Comparative Literature has gone through the best and the worst of times – sometimes simultaneously. I know of no other discipline that has responded to the intellectual and political world around it as sensitively as ours, perhaps because few are so completely, and by definition, globalized. We long ago institutionalized self-scrutiny in the form of the American Comparative Literature Association’s (ACLA) regular “Reports on the State of the Discipline” – published in 1965, 1975, 1993 and, most recently, in 2006. Whether responding to the academic rise of theory, cultural studies or world literature or else adjusting to the realities of multiculturalism and postcoloniality, Comparative Literature has consciously (and self-consciously) engaged with its plural challenges as opportunities for change. 

It is a sign of strength, I believe, that the discipline’s origins have recently been so hotly debated and so fiercely contested.[1] Of course, it is not exactly a sign of strength that Comparative Literature has also been declared defunct.[2] Yet it appears to live on, despite serious threats to its institutional existence over the last year. The front page of Canada’s national newspaper, the Globe and Mail, announced on July 13th 2010: “U of T plans to shut down Centre for Comparative Literature” (Church 1).[3] That was not the ‘best of times.’ In a cost-cutting measure, the Faculty of Arts and Science of that university decided to disestablish the Centre that Northrop Frye had founded in 1969 – and along with it, the East Asian Studies Department, the Centre for Diaspora and Transnational Studies, the Centre for International Relations and the Centre for Ethics. This was clearly not the ‘age of wisdom,’ for the closing of these interdisciplinary and non-Eurocentric units was interpreted (and not only locally) as a step backwards from a past characterized by a vibrant interdisciplinarity and a lively intellectual environment of cultural exchange. 

The national and international response to the news of the disestablishment of the Centre for Comparative Literature was intense: over 6,500 people signed an on-line petition, over 90 letters of protest to the administration were written, defending the discipline in general and the Centre in particular, by comparative scholars from around the world and by the executives of various professional associations.[4] It is from precisely these responses that I take not only to heart, but also to my sense of the state of the discipline today.

In a passionate historicizing of the literary humanities, Françoise Lionnet, the President of the ACLA, articulated the role of Comparative Literature in offering an alternative to nineteenth-century nation- and nationalism-based concepts of literary study. Ours, she argued, is “the main humanities discipline capable of opening the door to the views of our world advanced by writers, thinkers, and critics who themselves make it a priority to see the whole world as one rather than focus on a singular national linguistic or ethnic cultural milieu” (n.pag.). And yet, this very act of seeing the world as one requires the kind of serious study of individual cultures, as pointed out by Haun Saussy, editor of the ACLA’s latest state of the discipline document Comparative Literature in the Age of Globalization (2006):  “As the study of interactions and interchanges, this field reflects on historical and cultural specificity; it does not negate them. Comparative Literature needs a diverse and vital community of specialists in the different languages and literatures in order to be successful: otherwise the commonalities that it discovers will run the risk of being banal or provincial” (n. pag.).

From the moment of its academic institutionalization in North America, Comparative Literature risked being seen as endangering the position of the already established national language and literature departments. Today, as literary studies (and the humanities in general) come under scrutiny – and threat – and as globalizing imperatives the world over forcibly broaden our perspective on our shared intellectual and educational mission, we know we have to work together. Just as those so-called national language departments have needed to take into account the cultural impact of immigration and diaspora, so too Comparative Literature has moved to include not just European but also East/West and North/South models and foci of comparison. In fact, as my colleague Victor Li put it, “the most significant enterprise in the humanities today” is “the study of comparativity itself in a world that can no longer afford to be ‘centric’ in any way, ‘Euro-’ or otherwise” (n.pag.).

Happily, the Centre for Comparative Literature at Toronto has been saved, and its director, Neil ten Kortenaar, is working to consolidate and expand its mandate, but at the same time, the program at the University of British Columbia has been told to stop accepting students.There is obviously no room for complacency in the one rescue. In the United States and the United Kingdom, as well as in Canada, the humanities at large feel as though they are under siege in a political climate where economic utility and employment credentials (rather than intellectual growth and cultural knowledge) are perceived as the only funding-worthy goals of education. However, worse is the fact that what is most needed in our strife-torn world is what is being seriously undervalued: the kind of intercultural investigation of difference and commonalities that constitutes the foundation of our discipline.

One of the most cogent definitions of this important continuing function of comparative study has come from a scholar who has watched the discipline develop and change over a long period of time and has had an important role, herself, in its shaping: Eva Kushner.[5]  “Comparative Literature,” she has written, “through its history of transformations – not devoid of storms – has served the Humanities by its constant often innovative and epistemologically conscious reflection upon the ways in which the cultures of the world project themselves, interact and communicate, in many languages, through the creations of imagination” (n.pag.) In short, our discipline is not defunct or even out-of-date; on the contrary, in a time that is far from ‘the best,’ it finds itself thrust to centre stage in a globalized world where the need for cross-cultural understanding is crucial. As the discipline’s erstwhile undertaker, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, herself eloquently put it, what Comparative Literature teaches is the importance of “depth of imaginative training and an other-directed reading practice – an inhabiting of other worlds and cultures” (n.pag.). In short, it teaches what we all might need to learn in order to live in communal harmony in the twenty-first century – and that’s quite a state for a discipline to be in.


Works Cited


Church, Elizabeth. “U of T plans to shut down Centre for Comparative Literature.” Globe and Mail 13 July 2010: A1. Print.

Kushner, Eve. “Dear David.” 13 July 2010. Web. 27 July 2010.

Lionette, Françoise. “Dear President David Naylor.” 19 July 2010. Web. 28 July 2010.

Saussy, Haun. “Dear President David Naylor.” 27 July 2010. Web. 29 July 2010.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “Dear President David Naylor” 15 August 2010. Web. 22 August 2010. 




Linda Hutcheon, University Professor Emeritus of English and Comparative Literature, is a specialist in postmodern culture and critical theory (especially irony, parody and adaptation), on which she has published 9 books. She has also worked collaboratively in large research projects involving hundreds of scholars, including the multi-volumed Rethinking Literary History – Comparatively. She is guilty of having indulged in interdisciplinary work with Michael Hutcheon, M.D. on the intersection of medical and cultural history, studied through the vehicle of opera. After three books on topics such as disease, death and the body, they are now working on one about the late style and last works of long-lived opera composers. She is currently working on a book on the ethics, economics and politics of reviewing in the electronic age.



[1] See Shaden M. Tageldin’s “One Comparative Literature? ‘Birth’ of a Discipline in French-Egyptian Translation, 1810-1834” in Comparative Literature Studies (2010). In this article, Tageldin challenges other birth moments and places: the USA in 1871 (see Natalie Melas’s All the Differences in the World: Postcoloniality and the Ends of Comparison [2007] ); 1877 Central Europe (see Haun Saussy’s “Exquisite Cadavers Stitched from Fresh Nightmares: Of Memes, Hives, and Selfish Genes” in Comparative Literature in an Age of Globalization [2006]); 1933 Istanbul (see Emily Apter’s “Global Translatio: The ‘Invention’ of Comparative Literature, Istanbul, 1933” in The Translation Zone: A New Comparative Literature [2005]).

[2] See Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s The Death of a Discipline (2003).

[3] It was also reported on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, both on radio and in the online report, 13 July 2010. An article by Carson Jerema appeared in Macleans  magazine on 28 July 2010 called “Academic Vandalism.” The Chronicle of Higher Education reported on the closures as well on 13 July 2010. Many bloggers also discussed the issues: e.g., 23 August 2010.

[4] All these can be read online. The professional associations whose officers wrote included the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences, the Association of Literary Scholars, Critics and Writers, the American Comparative Literature Association, the Canadian Comparative Literature Association, Association des professeurs de français des universités et collèges canadiens and The Canadian Association of Hispanists.

[5] As the founder of the Canadian Comparative Literature Association and the president of both the International Comparative Literature Association and the International Federation for Modern Languages and Literatures.



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