Abstracts for the 2007 MLA Session on “New Comparative Methodologies: Rethinking Difference”

3:304:45 p.m., Ontario, Sheraton Chicago Hotels and Towers

Program arranged by the American Comparative Literature Association

Presiding: Robert H. Doran, Middlebury College (

1. “Diasporic Patterns: A Complex Systems Approach to the African Diaspora”

 Renee Barlow, Indiana University Bloomington (rebarlow@indiana.edu)


The study of complex non-linear dynamical systems has a strange history as it stands on the cutting edge of theoretical physic and mathematics. The equations which constitute this area of study demonstrate the emergent properties associated with all life systems, and the claim has been made that these equations model the complex and dense relations of physical life systems. It is my project in the humanities to study the interconnections of these systems with cultural formations and the articulation of identity structures, as these are also complex life systems.

Recent academic interest in the African diaspora stems from the intersection of studies on globalization and critical race studies. The list of prominent theorists who use the terms of non-linear dynamical systems and fractals is quite extraordinary, ranging from Apparudai to Gilroy to Glissant. Although not always used in coherent ways, these mathematical tools have important implications for our understanding of all transnational structures, particularly globalization and the African diaspora. Having formulated a theoretical lens which intertwines post-colonial and globalization theory with the language of physics, I propose an investigation of Glissant and Gilroy’s ideas on the Black Atlantic and “chaos-monde”.

Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic, comes out of the Birmingham Centre and engages with articulation theory as one of its key theoretical underpinnings. This exciting theoretical venture derives its methodology from a specifically historical/political model, wherein the relationship between culture and politics is explicitly marked and described. Although not denying the importance of the local/particular, Gilroy’s model relies heavily on the idea of the larger Atlantic and the boat which traverses it.

From a radically different perspective, Edouard Glissant’s recent book entitled Poetics of Relation takes an aesthetic approach to the subject of the Black Atlantic. This perspective on the African diaspora stems from Glissant’s position as poet, dramatist and theorist. In this seminal work, he argues for the unique perspective offered by the communities of the Black Atlantic on many Eurocentric concepts of culture stemming from Modernity. Glissant’s poetics, as Gilroy’s study of historical figures does in a different sense, challenges traditional ideas of culture, aesthetics, politics, the place of the intellectual , and the meaning of historical time itself. By privileging relation over containment, movement over rootedness, Glissant’s aesthetic vision offers a complementary, if individualized, approach to Gilroy’s description of the Black Atlantic, which is more historically grounded in a traditional sense.

These radically different approaches to the same topic seem distantly relevant to one another, but the problem of scale is not an easy one to overcome. Despite this basic difference, both theorists express important aspects of the same patterned system. It is through the language and structure of non-linear dynamics that these theorists can be thought together, and we can begin to truly grasp the elusive, yet ever present structure of the diasporic identity.

2. Rethinking the Turn to Comparative Analysis in American Ethnic Studies

Lou Freitas Caton, Westfield State College (lcaton@wsc.ma.edu)

Currently, many ethnic studies programs, aware of postcolonial concerns, are moving towards comparative analysis.  Much of that change Johnnella Butler surveys in her collection Color-Line to Borderlands.  However, if one reads those essays alongside Charles Bernheimer’s Comparative Literature in the Age of Multiculturalism or Haun Saussy’s Comparative Literature in an Age of Globalization, it becomes evident that this academic transformation generates a philosophical problematic that should cause some academic anxiety.  Both books feature essays that underscore the difficulties around comparative studies.  Certainly in a broad context, comparative approaches to literature seem transparently positive and encouraging.  Few, if any, have registered concern over this change from a “stand alone” single-ethnicity coursework to a course of study that mixes ethnicities under a global organizing theme.  But what are the theoretical implications when an emphasis on self-examination gives way to larger issues of community and border crossings?  Previously, programs may have been organized under Lyotard’s infamous dictum that all “we can do is gaze in wonderment at the diversity of discursive species” (26). Under Lyotard’s interpretation each culture exists apart without a common “criteria” (his word) for communication.  One can see it as a type of hyperreality that at times informs Bernheimer’s essays (more than Butler’s) as when Rey Chow claims an expanded canon does nothing to end the exoticism of “otherness” (109). 

Is comparativism an effort to end “exoticism” in a postcolonial era?  Some of the writers in the Butler collection may suggest this; however, no one theorizes the necessary encroachment of border transgressions and universalisms when abstractions like the “larger” community get deployed.  That is, to foster comparisons is, at least, minimally to invoke a humanistic community of like-minded souls.  When Stanford decided in 1996 to integrate all ethnic area studies into their “Institute for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity” program, they wanted to emphasize the “global dimension” of the American experience.  Such a term resonates with a kind of cosmopolitan recognition while at the same time suggesting a de-emphasis on the postcolonial and an emphasis on the transcultural.  For example, a Stanford course on “Rites of Passage” must assume enough universality within various ethnic groups in order for this rubric to work.  Is an ethnic group already encouraging a prejudicial viewpoint when a teacher claims it to have a comparable phenomenon like a “Rite of Passage”?  Is that implicit acceptance just inevitable “common- sense,” or one worthy of examination in terms of the postcolonial?

               My paper, then, will critique this change as a needed invocation of a limited universalism within the environment of the postcolonial.  I will advocate for this acceptance, but only if programs and departments consider changing titles like “Comparative Ethnic Studies” to “Comparative Ethnic Theories.”  I will relate ethnic studies to comparative literature departments in that both demand cross disciplinary efforts but should do so under a pressure of high theory.  These moves toward a larger vision of community are abstract and necessarily vexed, demanding more emphasis on theory rather than the complacency brought on by the supposed transparency of terms like “community,” “inter-communication,” and “peoples of color.”



3. “Essayism; or, Comparison in Time,”

Brian Lennon, Penn State University - University Park (blennon@psu.edu)


This paper proposes “essayism” as (a) a name for the effect of “theory” on U.S. literary-critical and scholarly research practice;(b)the object of a sometimes sincere and sometimes malicious mourning, in pronouncements on the so-called death of theory; (c) a name for the future of comparative literary studies in its reconvergence with Creative Writing. I will argue that “essayism” marks the disciplinary antinomy of “musical logic” (in Adorno’s oft-cited formulation, a method “methodisch unmethodisch”), and that its reception as Theory was a perfectly symptomal instance of form — that which links the writing of literature to the writing of literary criticism and scholarship — reappearing as content.


“He’s not really saying anything.” If this was heard everywhere in the bygone days of Derrida’s star, that was only because his “essayistic” confusion of philosophy with writing had already won over so many who felt that their work as scholars was also — writing. The “death of theory,” I will suggest, is really the death of this assent: and it is real. “Theory” is still here, but this theory-effect is gone. For if Derrida’s U.S. reception gave us, among many other things, the idea of “research” as writing — as an activity, and a sequence of products of that activity, lived in time — this is still more widely accepted as a theoretical position (when it is not repudiated outright) than it is practiced.


Nowhere is this more apparent today, I will suggest, than in the struggles of the disciplines of comparative literature and American studies to renovate themselves by finding or creating more links between previously segregated disciplinary “areas.” What this struggle shows us is, among other things, a pattern of institutional conflict pitting literary and cultural criticism as a practice of writing that creates relationships against literature as information and research object, whose autonomous relationality is “discovered” by literary historiography or literary science. In the pages of Profession and MLA Newsletter, debate over tenure evaluation and the place of creative writing among the disciplines is now taking place contiguously with a debate about monolingualism and multilingualism in U.S. humanities training. I will suggest that these debates are linked by something more than coincidence, and that the reconvergence of literary studies and creative writing proposed by Marjorie Perloff, Kelly Ritter, Stephanie Vanderslice, and others is mirrored in the reconvergence of “culturalist” with “functionalist” models of language acquisition, in a way that shows us that “science wars” are still raging — if not (mercifully) in the epistemological diversions of postmodern hoaxes, then in humanists’ struggle for control of paradigms for their own professional evaluation and self-reproduction.