U Views: World and Comparative Literatures in Winter

Ken Seigneurie


When asked, “What can the undergraduate degree in World Literature do for today’s students?” we usually discuss, in recruitment mode, career options in NGOs, diplomacy, journalism, publishing, international business, law, grad school, etc. Or, we emphasize personal development, the insights gained in reading about intercultural encounter, the skills acquired in critical thinking and compelling writing. We don’t often think of the social role of World Literature; some might even say that the discipline’s orientation to the world unsuits it for service to the modern nation-state. I am inclined to respond, intemperately, that only World Literature can save us from mass melancholia, but like all good comparatists, I like to think I have learned restraint and will ask simply: How can World Literature promote civic virtue?

It comes down to comparison and World Literature’s filial relation to Comparative Literature. Under today’s globally integrated economic, political and cultural clouds, information slants in from every angle. To evaluate it, we must exercise discernment, which implies the fraught practice of comparison. In an article from 1996 entitled, “Why Comparisons Are Odious,” W. J. T. Mitchell voiced the most often unstated ambivalence toward comparison. He noted three kinds of comparison: perceptual, “the noticing of similarities and differences between things”; discursive, “verbalizing comparative propositions” in figurative language; and disciplinary comparison, the “systematic and methodical establishment of unifying principles according to which judgments can be made” (322). The three-fold definition served the purpose of preserving the kinds of comparison (perceptual and discursive) that one could not do without for thinking, while leaving disciplinary comparison open to attack: “Comparison becomes a problem when it sets itself up as a theory, as a foundation for knowledge, or a methodological guarantee of cognitive discovery” (323). It is always a good thing to maintain disciplinary self-consciousness, but to foreclose the theoretical development of comparison in this way is to exonerate the academic self for the many sins of comparison at the price of hobbling a human faculty. Imagine a similar statement relating to another problematic mode of knowing: “Cause and effect reasoning becomes a problem when it sets itself up as a theory, as a foundation for knowledge.” Such over-scrupulousness no doubt springs from compunction over the intemperate claims of theory made during its heyday in the 1960s and 1970s. Be that as it may, in an atmosphere of institutional freezing, downsizing and elimination of humanities (and especially of Comparative Literature) programs throughout North America, the humanities brief needs no further thinning. So Mitchell’s admonition, like so many others chastening the errors and excesses of comparatism, should be taken as a useful caution but not as a reason for pusillanimity in the polis. Indeed, the danger today is not the excesses of disciplinary comparison, but the comparatist’s abdication of the responsibility to compare judiciously in the face of others who display no such coyness.

The thriving online alternative news networks of the Left and Right alike employ comparison adventurously in a kind of wildcat hermeneutics of suspicion. They seek to blow away the media-generated Potemkin villages of news and information that surround us to reveal subtending truths, usually of a sinister nature. Slavoj Žižek calls it the “passion to penetrate the Real Thing (ultimately, the destructive Void) through the cobweb of semblances that constitute our reality” (269). They operate according to an ostensibly non-ideological, guerilla-style skepticism articulated through comparison. Consider Brasscheck, named from Upton Sinclair’s 1920 The Brass Check. One of the more daring of alternative news sources, with some strikingly cogent comparisons to its credit, Brasscheck recently compared the beating and arrests of Occupy Wall Street protesters in New York on 24 September 2011 to the Arab Spring. It published a video montage juxtaposing footage from these events with U.S. government statements in support of the Egyptian, Libyan and Syrian citizens’ movements. The video begins with U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton affirming U.S. support for the human rights aspirations of the Arab peoples, then cuts to a street-to-sky view from among skyscrapers in New York. The words “Hypocrisy has its own elegant symmetry” appear in the sky as the camera begins to turn on its axis and the skyscrapers appear to revolve against a mounting background of desperate voices and screaming. The image cuts to a ham-fisted police response that injured numerous protestors.1 The seven-minute video goes back and forth, juxtaposing footage from the New York protest to numerous official U.S. government statements in behalf of the people of Egypt, Libya and Syria. The title of the piece is: “Repression’s Ugly Face at Home.”2

As with so much else in the modern world, it was Charles Baudelaire who understood the melancholy of indiscriminate comparison in his great triptych of poems: “Le Cygne,” “Les Sept Vieillards” and “Les Petites Vieilles” (“The Swan,” “The Seven Old Men” and “Little Old Women”):

Paris change! mais rien dans ma mélancolie
N’a bougé! palais neufs, échafaudages, blocs,
Vieux faubourgs, tout pour moi devient allégorie
Et mes chers souvenirs sont plus lourds que des rocs. (“Le Cygne” 29-32)

Paris changes! but naught in my melancholy
Has stirred! New palaces, scaffolding, blocks of stone,
Old quarters, all become for me an allegory,
And my dear memories are heavier than rocks. (Trans. William Aggeler)

Baudelaire would have understood how the allegorical equivalencies between the police response to Occupy Wall Street and the actions of the security apparatuses of Egypt, Libya and Syria, not to mention those of Algeria, Tunisia, Bahrain and Yemen, could evoke deep melancholy. Cairo, Tripoli and Hama (“and many more!” Baudelaire would add) are all New York for Brasscheck. Take one of those cities: Hama is the Syrian city where the state security forces under former President Hafiz al-Assad, father of the current president, killed between 10,000 and 40,000 citizens in 1982 in response to a perceived threat to his regime on the part of the Muslim Brotherhood. More recently, it is also the city where a young man, Ibrahim Qashoosh, led a jaunty chant in late June 2011 calling for current Syrian President Bashar Assad’s ouster. It was a clever and inspired song that clearly galvanized the assembled crowd. The lyrics, rhythm and especially the energy and courage that course through Qashoosh’s voice are stirring even if one knows no Arabic. Shortly after the demonstration in Hama, thugs kidnapped the young man, ripped his vocal cords from his throat and left him dead in the street. Another artist, the caricaturist, Ali Farzan, survived his kidnapping, but his torture included the mangling of both hands. Children are inexplicably prized targets in the crackdown. Hamza al-Khatib, a thirteen-year-old participant in a demonstration, was also kidnapped, gruesomely tortured and returned to his parents a bloody corpse. The problem of equating the confused New York City police and those who murdered Qashoosh, al-Khatib and upwards of 3,500 other Syrian citizens (in addition to hundreds of others throughout the Arab world) since January 2011, is not that the NYPD actions were excusable or unharmful. It is that the redness of the New York apple is so bright and its size so great in the eye of the comparer that the independent value of the Syrian orange is lost. The Syrian struggle, the Egyptian revolution and the Libyan civil war are wrapped into one commodity whose exchange value is the claim that Obama is responsible for the NYPD’s mishandling of a protest. Melancholy!

Yet Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring on which it is ostensibly modeled can be compared.3 Both movements are opposed to corruption and entrenched, systemic inequalities. Both employ the same methods – peaceful protest and social-media-based cultural mobilization.4 Both eschew larger-than-life leaders and dogmatic ideologies. Finally, both have historical antecedents in other movements such as the Lebanon’s 2005 Independence Uprising, the East European “Color Revolutions” of the early 2000s, and going back, to Mahatma Gandhi’s nonviolent protest movement. Yet, these are not the kind of comparisons that go viral.

Awash with 24-hour news, endless Twitter feeds and hyperlinked texts, we yearn for the burning light of the epiphanic comparison that resolves a welter of phenomena into One Synoptic Truth. Yet, how are we to distinguish the bold and cogent from the zany and devious? After all, if the Brasscheck comparison is fatuous, others are not. The Unimpeachables once took for granted that Nelson Mandela was a terrorist, that the U.S. would never parlay guns and money between Iran and the Nicaraguan contras and, today, that the United Nations isn’t big enough to accept a Palestinian state. Comparing Nelson Mandela and Thomas Jefferson as freedom fighters is today feasible; comparing Palestine and Iceland as sovereign states is not – yet.

Back in the twentieth century, theoretical frames – typically those inspired by Marxism, structuralism or psychoanalysis – buttressed symptomatic reading and broad comparisons spanning the cultural, political, social and personal realms. Today, no theoretical approach is widely acknowledged for its validity. Theory remains useful, but in the same way that junk cars are useful to backyard mechanics. Scavenger-theory provides a more supple means of grasping context-specific situations and avoids dogmatism, but is by the same token local and adventitious. The increased flexibility of theory goes hand in hand with a more varied cultural production across numerous media. It is hard enough to make valid local comparisons in the cultural realm much less broad comparisons across disciplines. The methodological modesty of today’s comparatist is an historical necessity. Abdication is not.

Consider, in light of the rash of rash comparisons, whether it is not desirable for young people to enter the world of work having studied literatures comparatively across language barriers and national borders. Is it implausible that such study might develop a steady eye for evaluating intercultural comparisons? Likewise, perhaps the World Literature paradigm of studying how literatures travel from one place to another can serve as a corrective to the notion that everything emanates from, and goes back to, a New York of the mind? To be sure, it takes no specialized knowledge to expose Brasscheck’s lack of background on events in the Arab world, but factual knowledge is not the problem. Nobody forgets how the erudition of nineteenth-century comparative anatomy was pressed into the service of social Darwinism. Today’s comparatist, chastened by history and aware of irresponsible comparison all around, can bring to civil society not only intercultural knowledge but knowledge of the dangers and the potentials of comparison. In a globalizing world of intercultural frictions and informational overload, the patient and coherent study of World and Comparative Literatures can conceivably develop the faculty for cogent comparison and a resistance to the logocentric urge to project the self as normative.

Somewhat ironically, social scientists are often more forthright than humanists about the value of literature and, implicitly, comparison. In an article entitled, “The Fiction of Development: Literary Representation as a Source of Authoritative Knowledge,” three authors hailing from the London School of Economics and the Brooks World Poverty Institute, make a broad argument for the value of literature as a complement to traditional methods of social science:

Fiction is arguably to a large extent frequently about the very issues that at a basic level are the subject matter of development studies: the promises and perils of encounters between different peoples; the tragic mix of courage, desperation, humour and deprivation characterizing the lives of the downtrodden; and the complex assortment of means, motives and opportunities surrounding efforts by outsiders to “help” them. (Lewis, Rodgers and Woolcock 201)

The article cites dozens of works of World Literature, arguing essentially that literature can provide a means of resisting projection and assimilation in the social sciences.

Some in our profession will be reluctant to support such a concrete civic function for literature. Perhaps it’s the whiff of Old Historicism about it. Nobody wants to play Hippolyte Taine to the modern genius, flattening literature into an indicator of social reality. More to the point, comparison remains a touchy subject even today after its widespread use to support European imperialism’s darkest moments. Disciplinary comparison must be flexible enough to permit incongruous but plausible comparisons – a willful example would be comparing a Baudelaire poem and online political commentary – but self-disciplined enough to avoid unreflective self-projection.

Susan Stanford Friedman, again an eminent practitioner in a cognate field to Comparative Literature, this time English, makes a case for comparative methodology. In a recent PMLA article, “Why Not Compare,” Stanford Friedman inventories numerous ways in which comparison can be retheorized to minimize the dangers of “invidious comparison.” In particular, she writes of comparison that puts self and other into dialogue while resisting the assimilation of otherness: “This reciprocal defamiliarization unravels the self-other opposition that reproduces systems of epistemological dominance. Politically speaking, a defamiliarizing comparison can enhance reciprocal understanding and coexistence” (759). In the case of New York and the Arab Spring, if the Brasscheck comparison had underscored the defamiliarizing differences between the cases before positing similarities, could it have so blithely equated the 24 September 2011 incident in New York and the months of bloody repression and lives lost in the Arab world?

In the classroom, reciprocal defamiliarization can unfold as a part of a coherent reading practice. The student who has studied the Syrian Mustapha Khalife’s novelized prison memoir, al-Qawqu’a (“The Shell”), would be unlikely to commit Brasscheck’s blunder. From a comparison between “The Shell” and, for example, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, the student might explore questions that could also be asked of the North American carceral society Malcolm X writes about: What does it mean to be “cleansed by blood”? Does dignity have to be earned? On the other hand, some questions and their responses relevant to “The Shell” would be more defamiliarizing to a North American reader: What are the stakes in wearing the clothes of the dead? What is sacred about bread? What is the point of making an effort to stand next to a corpse? Exploring the text’s responses to these questions and comparing them to defamiliarizing questions and responses from The Autobiography of Malcolm X would provide a plausible way of understanding the similarities and differences between the Syrian and American situations.

For many of us, this is what we do when we teach undergraduate World and Comparative Literatures. We could do worse than to remember this social function of our profession the next time we have the opportunity to present our case to the community and to the university. A self-reflexive comparative reading practice is a strong component of civic virtue, even if it falls short of staving off world-wide mass melancholia. 


Works Cited


Baudelaire, Charles. “Le Cygne.” Les Fleurs du Mal. Trans. William Aggeler. Fresno, CA: Academy Library Guild, 1954 . 29-32. Print.

Friedman, Susan Stanford. “Why Not Compare.” PMLA 126.3 (May 2011): 753-62. Print.

Lewis, David, Dennis Rodgers and Michael Woolcock. “The Fiction of Development: Literary Representation as a Source of Authoritative Knowledge.” Journal of Development Studies 44:2 (2008): 198-216. Print.

Marceau, Guillaume. “Arab Spring Inspired ‘Occupy Wall Street’ protest.” Forbes India. 11 November 2011. Web.

Mitchell, W.J.T. “Why Comparisons Are Odious.” World Literature Today 70.2 (1996): 321-24. Print.

Žižek, Slavoj. “Welcome to the Desert of the Real.” The Universal Exception: Selected Writings, Volume Two. Ed. Rex Butler and Scott Stephens. London: Continuum, 2006. 267-88. Print. 




Ken Seigneurie is Associate Professor and Director of the Program in World Literature at Simon Fraser University – Surrey.  His most recent book is Standing by the Ruins: Elegiac Humanism in Wartime and Postwar Lebanon (2011). His previous book is Crisis and Memory: The Representation of Space in Modern Levantine Narrative (2003). 



1.  More video of the New York protests is available on the web

2. Brasscheck is not the only online source comparing Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring, even if it is the most irresponsible I have seen. See also “Arab Spring Inspired ‘Occupy Wall Street’ protest,” an interview with Gillaume Marceau, Forbes India, posted 11 November 2011; Peter Apps, “Wall Street Action Part of Global ‘Arab Spring’?” Reuters, posted 11 October 2011.

3. Guillaume Marceau notes in “Arab Spring Inspired ‘Occupy Wall Street’ protest,” “The Arab Spring inspired the tactic. Occupy a public space and hold it for as long as it takes. The spirit of Mahatma Gandhi is felt tremendously here. The community here has gone to great lengths – to great success – to reconfirm every day its commitment to non-violence. Speaking for myself, I have been following Anna Hazare’s efforts, and I am tremendously inspired by them.”

4. The Arab movements became increasingly militant largely in response to regime violence.



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

Join the Discussion