Comparative Literature and Cultural Studies

in Article
Published on: 11 November 2016

Judhajit Sarkar

Judhajit Sarkar is a Research Scholar, Department of Comparative Literature, Jadavpur University

A discipline is defined on the basis of the method that it brings to the material it aims to study. In the process of adapting the method to the material, one may have to refashion the method, incorporate certain new conceptual elements within it while doing away with certain others. Allowing the method to be illumined by the shifting nature of the material may attest to the flexibility of the method, and by implication of the discipline which uses that method. But that still does not contradict the claim that it is method rather than content which defines a disciplinary field. For example, social scientists may use the Ramayan for understanding something about the changing social and cultural practices within which the adikavya was born. They may find ‘history’, in the sense of empirical knowledge about the past, carefully woven in the various layers of the text. Thus, their understanding of this ‘embedded history’ may end up supplementing the existing historical knowledge about the period which gave birth to the earliest epic of the Indian subcontinent. But a literary scholar’s treatment of the Ramayan will follow a different route, since his objective is not to use the text as a source of historical knowledge, but to understand how the text came into being, what literary resources went into the making of its craft, and how it came to be identified as the first work of kavya in Indian literature, the impact of which continues to be felt even in modern times. The same text, therefore, can be used for completely different purposes depending on the method that is used to read it. Hence, when a discipline is called to embrace the logic of another discipline, or even asked to merge itself with that other discipline, one needs to examine on what basis that demand is made. Is it because there are some serious gaps in the methodological framework that the discipline uses? Has that framework proved to be inadequate for understanding the objects of one’s study? Or, have those objects changed so considerably that one needs an altogether different method to read and understand them, a method that the discipline in its current form is unable to provide? If the answer to all the above questions is an unequivocal ‘yes’, then the proposed renovation of the discipline is indeed a necessity of the moment. But if it seems that the answer cannot be posed in terms of an unequivocal yes or no, then one must look elsewhere for the reasons behind such a proposal. What follows here is a search for those reasons.


Recent debates and their implications

In the last 20 years or so, there have been quite a number of debates, beginning mainly in the Anglo-Saxon academia and then moving to other parts of the world, about the diminishing relevance of Comparative Literature and the need for it to transform itself into Cultural Studies. The arguments against Comparative Literature have concerned themselves with (a) the Euro-U.S.-centric bias of Comparative Literature and (b) the hierarchy maintained within Comparative Literature between literary art and other forms of cultural production. It has been argued that so far Comparative Literature has only dealt with a set of canonical writers from different European languages and paid attention only to the trends and movements which have played a dominant role in shaping the European literary heritage. Thus, it has willingly neglected not only literatures from other parts of the world (for example, literatures written in the ‘postcolonial’/‘third world’ countries) but also the popular forms and trends within Euro-U.S culture itself (for example, films, television shows, pornography, graphic novels, videogames, popular lyrics etc.). This has made Comparative Literature at once Eurocentric and elitist. Hence, the need to renovate it, if not to discard it totally.


These charges against Comparative Literature were further exacerbated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s pronouncement in her book Death of a Discipline (2001) that Comparative Literature as it had been practiced in the U.S since the time of the Second World War had long lost its relevance. Her solution was that ‘old’ Comparative Literature could save itself from dying by opening its doors to Area Studies and Cultural Studies and becoming what she designated as the ‘new’ Comparative Literature. Cultural Studies, according to her, could provide Eurocentric Comparative Literature with a political corrective, while Area Studies could extend its geographical frontiers by bringing within its ambit literatures from the non-European languages. 


One would notice that the charges made against Comparative Literature in this context are overwhelmingly content-oriented. It is pointed out that Comparative Literature (and here one needs to keep in view the location of its practice, the United States) did not deal with this or that material earlier, that it did not engage with literary traditions other than the European ones, and even when it engaged with European literary traditions, it undervalued the popular/marginal/underprivileged forms by conflating literature with high culture. But even in the context of the United States, these charges seem to be a little misplaced, given that Charles Bernheimer’s Comparative Literature in the Age of Multiculturalism clearly stated, almost a decade before the publication of Death of a Discipline, that Comparative Literature had always been accused of dilettantism by single language-literature disciplines for its apparent zeal to incorporate as many literary traditions and as many kinds of cultural production within its syllabi as possible. In fact, the difference of the American ‘school’ of Comparative Literature from its French counterpart lies precisely in the former’s introduction of ‘Literature and other Arts’ in the practice of the discipline. From Bernheimer’s report it seems that earlier the main accusation against Comparative Literature was that its students tried to know everything and ended up knowing nothing which, from the perspective of the single literary disciplines, meant that Comparative Literature students did not know the canon of a particular language well enough. The accusations changed over time but not their nature. Even in the demand for a ‘new’ Comparative Literature, the explicit and implicit charges made against this discipline remain content-based, that is Comparative Literature is favoured or disfavoured simply on the basis of what it studies, its content, and not how it studies, its form or method.


Stephen Totosy de Zepetnek finds it irritating as a comparatist ‘that approaches and subject areas in cultural studies purport to be innovative when in fact the same areas have been studied under similar terms in comparative literature.’ Despite this, he suggests a turn towards what he designates as Comparative Cultural Studies because of the increasing financial difficulties faced by Comparative Literature in Anglo-Saxon academia, and the flowing of grants towards and establishing of chairs in Cultural Studies. While such a suggestion clearly shows the concerns of a practitioner sincerely devoted to the cause of Comparative Literature, it is not clear if there is some concrete reason, apart from the pressing financial ones, for which a turn towards Cultural Studies is in fact necessary for Comparative Literature.


The Indian context

In the context of India, the situation is a little different and a little more complex. In India, during the late 1980’s and early 1990’s two significant changes started surfacing and were given almost immediate institutional sanction in two different realms. These realms may appear disparate but are, in reality, inextricably linked. Faced with the crisis of the balance of payment and domestic neo-feudal rent-seeking (Singh and Murari 2011), the Indian state shifted its emphasis from mixed to neo-liberal economic policies by opening up its boundaries for the ‘free flow’ of global, ostensibly transnational, capital. India was now the new-found laboratory of global capitalism, having ‘equality of opportunity’, ‘crossing borders’ and ‘multiculturalism’ as its slogans. A change with similar slogans was simultaneously burgeoning within the Humanities. English departments across the country suddenly woke up to the existence of literatures written in English outside Britain and America, thus proceeding to an unprecedented aesthetic and ethical reshuffling of syllabi. In the process hoards of ‘postcolonial’ literatures written in English and strangely, literatures not written, but translated into English were also incorporated into the English studies canon. The answer to what method was used in this process of the rearrangement of syllabi and what method was to be used to study the newly incorporated material was invariably Cultural Studies. The crucial question remained unanswered: what is it that one can identify as the ‘method’ of Cultural Studies? The question seems necessary since the presence of method is essential for the formation of a discipline. And when Comparative Literature is asked to align itself with Cultural Studies, one needs to examine what lesson the former has to learn from the method of the latter. A brief history of Cultural Studies may give us a few hints here.


Brief history of cultural studies

Cultural Studies first emerged as a discipline in the U.K in the attempts of the early Birmingham scholars as a response to the prevailing orthodox attitude of English Studies. In its early phase the relationship between Cultural Studies and English Studies was visibly oppositional. Cultural Studies seemed to raise questions that English Studies had not found worthwhile to ask in its over-enthusiasm to maintain the sanctity of the canon. Raymond Williams, often invoked in this context, observed that there existed no discipline that allowed the questions he wanted to ask; questions about the non-canonical, the ‘popular’, questions pertaining to the ‘present’. Hence, Culture Studies. The apparent elitism of English Studies clearly perturbed the early Cultural Studies scholars. Curiously though, all these scholars, Williams and Richard Hoggart included, were themselves products of English departments and some of them continued to teach in English departments for the rest of their academic careers, with, of course, the crucial difference of hailing from working-class backgrounds. The absence of any attempt within the existing disciplinary structure to address the said background and texts located in it is what went into generating a form of disciplinary flux that facilitated questioning without necessarily challenging the epistemological assumptions of the existing disciplinary logic. As aimed, new objects of study were ‘discovered’ and incorporated. But this incorporation did not take place on the level of the guiding rationale of the syllabi. If it did, there must have occurred some fundamental change in the existing method of English Studies. But since it did not, the new material remained as ‘add-ons’ to the existing canon of writers and works. This bracketing of the ‘other’, of making a separate place for it outside and away from the established canon instead of allowing it to alter the nature of the existing disciplinary praxis has remained, contrary to claims, the hallmark of Cultural Studies. It is worthwhile to listen to the contention of Mieke Bal in this context:

…while one of Cultural Studies’ major innovations has been to pay attention to a different kind of object, as a new field averse to traditional approaches, it has not been successful (enough) in developing a methodology to counter the exclusionary methods of the separate disciplines…While the object—what you study—has changed, the method—how do you do it—has not. (Bal 2003)


Raison d’être of Comparative Literature

This inability of Cultural Studies to devise a coherent method is the principal problem in imagining it as a separate discipline since, as contended earlier, it is not the content but the method of study that defines disciplinary practice. A body of haphazardly selected texts and writers (no matter how radical the selection itself is) is clearly not adequate for the establishment of a different discipline. This makes the task of conceptualizing a possible relationship between Comparative Literature and Cultural Studies all the more difficult because Comparative Literature, ever since the time of René Wellek’s famous ‘Crisis of Comparative Literature’, has been striving to define its methodological grounds for comparison in as clear terms as possible. This does not mean that Comparative Literature has a fixed, unchanging methodology which remains unaffected by the data to which it is applied. On the contrary, it is in allowing the method to be refashioned each time one has fresh data that the raison d'être of Comparative Literature primarily lies. Amiya Dev, one of the foremost practitioners of Comparative Literature in India, famously designated this as ‘Comparative Literature from Below’. Written in the context of the growing importance ascribed to continental theory in Comparative Literature in the latter half of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s, this pronouncement was a warning (at least) to the Indian comparatists against the temptation to straitjacket given literary data into a preconceived theoretical model. It tried to envisage the future of Comparative Literature with respect to its ability constantly to reflect on the formation of method precisely by making the method encounter new data on a regular basis.


Dev’s vision of Comparative Literature as encapsulated in his ‘from below’ approach has other significant implications as well. Perhaps the most fundamental among them is the acceptance within this vision of the fact that neither the form nor the content of Comparative Literature is ever fixed. A ‘comparative canon’, or the content of Comparative Literature, can only be characterized by its ever-changing nature. The necessity of this change arises mainly from the location of the discipline and its practitioners in time and space. So, for example, when Comparative Literature is practised in India, its practice is bound to take into cognizance the vast body of written and orally transmitted texts available in all the Indian languages across a vast period of time. Thus the plurilingual and pluricultural situation of Indian life and literary expression becomes the fundamental disciplinary impulse of Comparative Literature in the Indian context. A shared history, both linguistic and cultural, that characterizes literatures composed in the Indian languages can therefore be considered the primary focus of Comparative Literature in India. These literatures are products of a dynamic exchange between local/desi and translocal/margi (Sanskrit, Persian, English) cultural traditions, making the history of Indian literature a plural one. An often-invoked example of this plural history is the Bhakti movement, which spanned almost a millennium and forged a shared idiom of devotion that in most of the modern Indian languages questioned existing hierarchies in social organization. Hence, making this plural history the focus of his attention can help the Indian comparatist notice the contact and resulting exchange between individual Indian literatures as well as between Indian literatures and literatures coming from ‘outside’.


Likewise, the method of Comparative Literature, which gives the discipline its specific form, is also not a fixed one. Its contours keep adjusting themselves to the needs and demands of the constantly changing data. Following this acceptance of the flexibility of the content and form of Comparative Literature, some of the recent moves within this discipline have returned to the originary question of literary studies, ‘what is literature’, and tried to understand the relevance of the comparative method with respect to the plurality of answers that it offers. In a way, the history of Comparative Literature in India, spanning over six decades, is testimony that the discipline has never understood ‘literature’ in the limited sense of writing. Studies of oral techniques in the composition of the foundational texts of Indian literary cultures (the Ramayan for instance) abound in the early scholarship in the discipline in this country. Evidence shows that at least this particular strain, of paying heed to the variety of media in which verbal art has been practised in the subcontinent, has remained with Comparative Literature through all its disciplinary ups and downs in the six- decade–old history of the discipline in this country.


A ‘complicated’ relationship?

On this level too, a possible relationship between Comparative Literature and Cultural Studies remains a difficult proposition. A lack of method in the latter is one reason that we have already elaborated. Another reason which heightens this difficulty, also previously hinted at, is the historically unverifiable claim of Cultural Studies to have unearthed completely new data which would radically alter the practice of Humanities in India. This claim may hold true in case of the traditionally conceived English departments of this country, not certainly in the case of Comparative Literature. To provide an example cum anecdotal digression, the Department of Comparative Literature at Jadavpur University was the first and the only place where Gabriel Garcia Marquez and his distinctive aesthetic was taught at the beginning of the 1980s, long before ‘magic realism’ became an international catchword and was subsequently appropriated by the publishing industry and mainstream literary studies alike. Therefore, there is a fundamental difference in the existing conditions under which Cultural Studies flowered in the U.K. and in India. If Raymond Williams is to be believed when he said that there existed no discipline which allowed him to ask the questions he wanted to, then there was in fact a material need for Cultural Studies in the U.K. In India, however, Comparative Literature, which emerged in an atmosphere of anti-colonial struggle in an educational set up imagined as an alternative to the colonial educational model, had long provided that space. That the utilization of this space remained restricted for a long time is not because of any epistemological lacuna in the existing disciplinary matrix but because the practice of Comparative Literature was itself viewed with suspicion from traditional quarters until very recently. That certainly cannot be the reason to ask a discipline to metamorphose itself into something else, especially where there is no strong methodological ground for such a demand.


But, above all, what makes problematic the task of integrating Cultural Studies in the practice, even the fundamental spirit, of Comparative Literature is the former’s often-evident submission to identity politics. This is one trait that Cultural Studies seems to have imbibed from its American experience (Figuiera 2015) where the rhetoric of ‘multiculturalism’ has become a sanctioned way of papering over the deep cracks of a racially, ethnically and culturally divided society. Under the umbrella of multiculturalism, albeit a forced one, the ‘other’ is too easily recognizable, too easily knowable and therefore, too easily appropriable. In the case of India, take for instance the incorporation of Dalit literatures in the traditional literary studies syllabi. While the necessity of this incorporation is not in question, in fact because this incorporation is such a pressing necessity, one needs to see in what way the incorporation is being made. The claim of Cultural Studies of having given Dalit literatures their rightful place in Indian academia follows a reductionist paradigm in which literatures written by Dalit writers become important not because they force us reconsider the existing boundaries of the ‘literary’ but because there appears a direct, unmediated link between those literatures and the identitarian question surrounding Dalithood. This fundamentally identitarian leaning of Cultural Studies is radically at odds with both the ideology and method of Comparative Literature which proposes to approach the ‘other’ with hospitality and care. So, it realizes the need to integrate literatures written by the Dalits in the overall study of Indian literary cultures so as to evidence how diverse and heterogeneous the concept of ‘literary’ itself is in the context of Indian cultural practices. Thus, an interplay between identity and difference is recognized and accommodated in the practice of Comparative Literature. Cultural Studies may have come to realize this after its existence in this country for the last two decades. As far as Comparative Literature is concerned, this has remained its basic disciplinary premise since the very beginning, making it unnecessary for Comparative Literature to learn this lesson from another discipline.


Comparative Literature in India in its current phase is engaged in outlining its disciplinary horizon with respect to the multilingual and heterogeneous texture of Indian life and literature. If Cultural Studies helps Comparative Literature to accomplish this task by seeking a much-needed clarification of the relationship between culture and art, more specifically culture and verbal art, then it may be a worthwhile enterprise for Comparative Literature to borrow insights from Cultural Studies. Otherwise, it will be a highly political act of submission for Comparative Literature which it can afford only at the cost of losing sight of its fundamental objective:  the understanding of the pleasures of verbal art across time, space and culture.              



Bal, Mieke. 2003. ‘From Cultural Studies to Cultural Analysis: “A Controlled Reflection on the Formation of Method”’, in Interrogating Cultural Studies: Theory, Politics and Practice, ed. P. Bowman. London: Pluto.


Dev, Amiya. 1991. ‘Comparative Literature from Below’ in Jadavpur Journal of Comparative Literature 29. Kolkata: Jadavpur University, pp. 319–328.


Figueira, Dorothy. 2015. The Hermeneutics of Suspicion: Cross-Cultural Encounters with India. London: Bloomsbury.


Singh, Mahendra Prasad and Krishna Murari. 2011. ‘The Impact of Neoliberalism on the Indian Polity’, Social Sciences, August 27.


Wellek, René. 1963 [1959]. ‘The Crisis of Comparative Literature’, in his Concepts of Criticism. New Haven: Yale University Press, pp. 282–95.