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Riddle me this, riddle me that: Why does the Comparatist have a bee in his/her hat?


I should perhaps begin with explaining the title for this article. Inspired by the character of the Riddler form the Batman Comic Books (who incidentally wore a bowler hat), the title is an allusion to oft emphasised “anxiogenic” nature of Comparative Literature as a discipline. I remember thinking about this through my years as an undergraduate student. I remember thinking as I leafed through page after page of this or that history of the discipline and coming across the word “anxiety” or “anxiogenic” repeatedly. So great was this anxiety, that one was almost inclined to think of Comparative Literature as one of those very highly-strung (probably with an eating disorder) prima donnas—anxious , circumspect, herself being a usurper, hence distrustful, of all new comers.

It has been a while since Siddharth has asked me to write about my views on Cultural Studies for Tinpahar. I, of course, have been reluctant. The last time he asked me I explained to him, that if he was looking for an introduction to Cultural Studies then I was absolutely the wrong person to come to. As wrong as wrong can possibly be! But he persisted, and here I am writing about Cultural Studies.

Now, to return to the title, Cultural Studies and other forms of academic engagement emerging out of the logic Cultural and Identitarian Criticisms have in recent times been termed, as Chanda puts it, the Comparatists “Pet Peeve” (Chanda 2003). Most of us, as practitioners of Comparative Literature, have never minced our words when it comes to articulating our opinion on the matter of Cultural Studies. There is a general divide even within Comparative Literature in the general attitude to Cultural Studies. Some of us have made enthusiastic attempts to “Self” this “Other” under formulations like Comparative Cultural Studies, while some of us have kept both our promise and our distance. What promise you ask? One would assume that it would be our commitment, as practitioners of Comparative Literature, to the study of Literature.

As a tongue-in-cheek remark, I had said somewhere that the Comparatist should, if he/she could, look upon Cultural Studies not as a Foucauldian “Other”, but instead more along the lines of a Levinasian “Other”. But, humour aside, it is imperative to state, as clearly as one possibly can, that Comparative Literature and Cultural Studies (Comparative or “Otherwise”) are entirely different academic practices. They are distinct forms of academic engagements driven by distinctly separate persuasions. I am not going to go into the inception-histories of either discipline here. I will not discuss the debates of one being more fruitful than the other either. To each their own! One can’t say the discovery of Nuclear Energy was better than the discovery of the Human Immunodeficiency Virus. They are two entirely different things! How exactly does one compare the two?! So I will steer my course clear of comparisons between Comparative Literature and Cultural Studies. I will however argue that one cannot replace the other. It is not as dramatic as say- ‘One can’t live while the other survives’, but it can be argued that one cannot think in terms of Cultural Studies as being more meaningful or replacing Comparative Literature in the foreseeable future.



Radhakrishnan provides us with a very thorough analysis of the rise of Cultural Studies in India in his 2008 report on the subject (Radhakrishnan 2008). Radhakrishnan’s report and a work that he cites; Tejaswini Niranjana’s ‘Desire for Cultural Studies’, link the rise of the discipline in India to a political crisis.

While Niranjana’s engagement is more oblique, Radhakrishnan’s is more direct in the fact that he actually mentions issues like the 1975 Emergency, the Mandal Commission and the Babri Masjid Demolition (ibid 2). The mentions of these three events in the context of modern Indian history are in fact very telling. Niranjana, choosing instead to use the idea of an emergent critique of nationalism or nationhood, avoids getting into the nitty-gritty of it all (Niranjana 2012). The 1975 Emergency was, in many ways, a huge blow to India’s commitment to the ideals of Democracy, the Mandal Commission revealed the in-equalities underlying the ideals of Equality and finally it goes without saying that the Babri Masjid Demolition was effectively Indian Secularism’s Odessa Steps. These events, as we can see, shook Indian national identity or what Niranjana calls it “‘national’ cultural traditions” (ibid) to their very core and thus facilitated the grounds for the kind of interrogation of these ideas that both Niranjana and Radhakrishnan speak of.

Niranjana however seems to postulate that Cultural Studies in its Indian avatar served to interrogate the assumed premise of an essential “Indianness” that seemed to govern studies in the Arts and the Humanities in India of the late 20th century (ibid). If we look at what both Niranjana and Radhakrishnan have to say, we will understand that, in essence, they are stating the same thing. Within the fold of Cultural Studies one could freely talk politics and other issues that had hitherto been taboo in the general sphere of the Arts and the Humanities in the Indian context. Issues like marginalisation, deprivation and discrimination; issues of identitarian politics that had been apparently brushed under the rug by the established practices and disciplines in the Arts and the Humanities would then become Cultural Studies’ ticket to fame in the Indian context.

This seems to be in congruence with the kind of renovation of Comparative Literature through liaisons with Cultural Theory and the Area Studies frameworks that Spivak speaks of (Spivak 2001). She sees this new Comparative Literature that is based on ideals of Social Justice and Agency as the future of not just Comparative Literature as we know it, but also the future of education in the Humanities as a whole (Lopez 2003). Thus the way Spivak sees it, an education in the Humanities would be directed towards realising a kind of Cultural Activism (Vigilantism? Vanguardism may be?) (ibid).

But if we take a closer look we see that this brand of activism is based on the politics of identity, representation and something Spivak explains as taking recourse to a kind of “strategic essentialism” (Spivak 1988). Now this is, of course a different kind of essentialism we are speaking of. It is not the kind of essentialism we see in statements like ‘all women have maternal instincts’ or ‘all people of African origins are musical’ or in more theoretical enunciations of essentialism that we find in the likes of Samuel Huntington’s famous book explaining civilizational difference (Huntington 1996).

How is it different though? Is it different because it is “strategic” or is it different because of the noble cause it seeks to achieve? Diana Fuss’ assessment of Spivak’s critique of Subaltern Studies might be helpful here. Fuss writes that Spivak reads the collective’s humanistic ambitions to locate a subaltern consciousness as a “strategic use of positivist essentialism in a scrupulously visible political interest (Fuss 1989). This, of course, may in turn be read as a ‘provisional gesture to align oneself with the very subjects who have written out of conventional historiographies’ (ibid). Thus Spivak’s endorsement of essentialism, one might say, may be read as the activation of humanism in the service of the subaltern (ibid). In other words, this kind of essentialism at the hands of the “dispossessed themselves” can be potently “displacing and disruptive” (ibid).

Now, I see no point in probing further into the histories of the place of essentialism and/or its place in Cultural and Identitarian Criticisms and the various forms of academic engagement emerging out of the logics of these Criticisms. The question that one ought to ask as a practitioner Comparative Literature is this- Where is literature in this scheme of things? What is its place? How is it approached and dealt with? Now, for disciplines emerging out of the logics Cultural Criticisms, the whole of the manifest (and maybe even un-manifest) world reality seems to be their academic playground. I say this not as a jibe, but as we have seen in recent times just about anything can be used as a “Text” for the purposes of academic analysis, engagement and study. That this is not a bad thing is something that must be emphasized with great gusto, and no mean achievement to boot. But what is this engagement put in service of? Is it not (if not entirely) put in service of something that lies outside the “Text” itself? A convenient “didactic aid” perhaps (Spivak 2001)?

So as not to stir-up a hornet’s nest, let me explain what I mean when I say this. It has often been said that Comparative Literature is more committed to understanding the “how” of literature rather than the “what”. What this means (now more so than ever) is that the practice of Comparative Literature is committed to understanding the process of literarization.

Of course Comparative Literature is concerned with issues of identity, culture, politics, representation etc, but it is not concerned with them for their own sakes. These are no doubt functions or factors that condition the creation/production of literature. When one says that Comparative Literature is concerned with the “how”, what one means is that it is concerned with the literarizations of these issues. We seek to understand not the issues as an end in themselves, but rather understand how the issues play out within literature and not vice-versa. It is what Dev calls the “from below” approach that defines our method (Dev 1989). Literature is the object of our study and in doing so we do not feel the need the put it in service of one or the other theoretical/political proclivity.

The difference in this is that one allows a text to give all that it has to offer rather than holding it hostage until such a time that it yields to our ‘Desire for’ a particular meaning. Literature- neither theory nor activism- is what we are committed to. This does not mean that we subscribe to a long ossified notion of literary studies. What we do believe in is the centrality of literature and literary processes to our endeavours within the Arts and the Humanities. Doing this, as Chanda argues, requires locating both text and reader in the interstices of literary and extra-literary systems that form the context of its production (Chanda 2003). As opposed to the willy-nilly colonization of a text in the name of theoretical/political “holy wars” that seem to be playing out in the Arts and the Humanities in recent times.





This should have made clear (even if not amply enough) that Comparative Literature and Cultural Studies are two entirely different forms of academic engagement. Now, to answer the question that we began with- Why does the Comparatist have a bee in his/her hat? This is not to say that most of us carry boulder-sized chip on our shoulders when it comes to Cultural Studies (or do we?). But in recent times we have seen that the two disciplines have been projected as antithetical and perhaps even oppositional. There is this notion of a turf-war between Comparative Literature and Cultural Studies that has in recent times found a sympathetic host in, as Chanda points out, in “forward looking” English Departments. The ‘Desire for Cultural Studies’ can also be read as a desire to reinvent oneself using Cultural Theory in order to stave off extinction for a few more years. The issue, as Lopez accurately estimates, is one of survival, but to what end? How different are we from Senor Quijote who battled the mighty windmills, if we engage in a turf war with a discipline that seeks to redeem the world by translating it? It has been repeated ad nauseam, that India’s specific multi-lingual and pluri-cultural context makes it supremely conducive to the cause of Comparative Literature. Thus, I see no point in arguing the relevance of the discipline in the Indian context based on that account all over again. But one might however concede that Cultural Studies is a cause for concern to the Indian Comparatist.

The concern as I hinted at in the beginning is simple enough. The concern, I will not go as far as calling it anxiety, is caused by some of our own who embrace new models like Comparative Cultural Studies. I might sound orthodox, conformist, perhaps even uncompromising or inflexible in asking this question- What is Comparative about Comparative Cultural Studies? Is it the application of the methods of studying Comparative Literature to the other forms of cultural expression? Or is it, as Majumdar suggests, a convenient escape route into looser formations that do not require the rigours that a discipline like Comparative Literature demands (Majumdar 2004). He observes that in recent times the literary domain in particular and literary texts in particular have become the primary sources of research in the Social Sciences (ibid). This on its own is fine. Who is anybody to say who can and cannot read or study literature as they deem fit. That is not the problem. The concern is not one that stems from without, but rather from within. Majumdar laments that some of our own bests have surrendered to the allure of these forms of academic engagement that claim to study Muliticulturally (ibid). This, as Majumdar explains, does strike one as odd, because Comparative Literature as praxis is per force inter-cultural (ibid). What then is so new, at least for Comparative Literature, about transcending “national anchoring” and “honouring” cultural and linguistic difference? The signs of these, at times subtle and at others not so subtle, changes are becoming growingly evident within Comparative Literature in India- we now have our fair share of “theory-savvy” and “jargon-armoured” scholars (ibid). We find a proliferation, in our midst, of theses and academic writing on issues of identity and identitarian criticism that, despite “using” literature, show an utter disregard for its specificities, processes and the rigours that go into its study. We see in our midst a swell in the ranks of those who speak in the jargons of Cultural Vanguardism. Surely there is more to “marginal literatures and cultures” than their very marginalization? And yet we see around us scholars spouting Foucault, Derrida and Fanon in their analyses of Dalit Literature. Is that not cause enough for concern? Is that not reason enough to be anxious?

At the risk of sounding terribly mawkish, I would like to conclude with an oft culled Biblical Metaphor. Jesus said to John: “The house of my Father hath many mansions”. This is oft interpreted to mean that God’s heaven has room for all. But what is oft left implied is the fact that one needs to accept the Lord as one’s shepherd; one’s saviour in order to find salvation in him. That is all the Lord asks of one. That said it is also true that an act of Faith does not come easily. It requires constant commitment and great moral courage. Faith is not acquired overnight- it is a way of life.

Comparative Literature -especially for the Indian Comparatist, as Chanda states, is a way of life (Chanda 2003). Comparative Literature too is a house with many mansions. We do not seek to construct a Tower of Bable, because we are oblivious to the possibility of speaking just one language. To us manyness is neither a challenge nor a curse. We have plenty of room and everybody is welcome. All we ask for is Faith. All that is required to do Comparative Literature is a commitment to the study of literature. As for the rest, we can respectfully agree to disagree.






Works Cited

  1. Chakravorty Spivak, Gayatri. Death of a Discipline. Calcutta: Seagull Books, 2004. Print.
  • “Subaltern Studies : Deconstructing Historiography”. In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics. Eds. Ranajit Guha and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988 197-221. Print.
  1. Chanda, Ipshita. “Can The Non-Western Comparatist Speak?” Literary Research/ Recherche littéraire. 20.39-40(2003): 58-68. Web. 20 Nov. 2013.
  2. Dev, Amiya. “Literary History from Below.” Comparative Literature Theory and Practice. Eds. Amiya Dev and Sisir Kumar Das. New Delhi: Allied Publishers, 1989 319-327. Print.
  3. Fuss, Diana. Essentially Speaking. New York: Routledge, 1989. Print.
  4. Lopez, Alfred. “Repeating the Apocalypse: Magic Realism and the Future(s) of Comparative Literature”.  Literary Research/Recherche littéraire 20.39-40 (2003):  69-80. Web. 20 Nov. 2013.
  5. Majumdar, Swapan. “Multiculturalism: Forced or Natural A Comparative Literary Overview”. The Jadavpur Journal of Comparative Literature 41 (2003-2004): 139-144. Print.
  6. Niranjana, Tejaswini. “Desire for Cultural Studies”. Creativity and Academic Activism: Instituting Cultural Studies. Eds. Meaghan Morris and Mette Hjort. Aberdeen: Hong Kong University Press, 2012 25-40. Print.
  7. Radhakrishnan, Ratheesh. “Cultural Studies in India A Priliminary Report on Institutionalization”. Higher Educational Cell Centre for Study of Culture and Society Bangalore(2008):1-16 <http://www.cscs.res.in/dataarchive/textfiles/textfile.2008-07-04.3578111600/file> Web. 29 June 2013.
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