By Invitation
“Neither Arabic nor Persian literature has an originative poetics per se.”
August 3, 2020

This short note first appeared on the UC Press Blog in November 2018.

“Neither Arabic nor Persian literature has an originative poetics per se.” With that 1990 footnote, repeated by its author Earl Miner in 2000, and then again by Jonathan Culler in the opening paragraph of his 2015 Theory of the Lyric,[1] any claim of Arabic or Persian poetics on our attention is rendered null ab initio.

One is left with a choice: to carp about the blind spots of one’s fellow comparativists, or to attempt to rebuild the originative Arabic material in English and thereby make clear that Arabic – and then Persian – have poetics worthy of our attention.

Language Between God and the Poets starts that process with a book-length study of two important words: ma'na (roughly equivalent to “meaning”) and haqiqa (roughly equivalent to “correct”). It winds back through linguistic and scholarly precedent in Arabic from the eleventh century to the seventh, and it shows how one great moment in Arabic poetics (the literary theory of 'Abd al-Qahir al-Jurjani) was built on work that was being done in lexicography, theology, and logic – all in Classical Arabic. All the scholars in Language Between God and the Poets wrote in Arabic, and they all spoke Persian at home. They lived in what is now Iran, right at the moment when New Persian literature was developing in symbiosis with New Persian criticism.

There are many things here that are foreign to Anglophone poetics. First among them is the outside presence of the lexicon, the dictionary. The lexicon was a warranty for meaning, a knowledge-backstop, existing in the physical form of vast complex dictionaries, with its development iteratively managed by the discourse and discipline of lexicographers. The guarantee that the lexicon gave to theory shaped Islamic theology, and the questions raised in theology about language bled into the great reworking of Aristotelian philosophy by Ibn Sina (Avicenna).

To make this argument, one must translate. It was the absence of translated Arabic or Persian literary theory, alongside the presence of translated Arabic and Persian lyric in English, which led Miner to make his original slip. But translation of theory comes with its own problems, distinct from the dynamics of the translation of literature. Language Between God and the Poets argues that all translation must, always and already, contain a theory of language – a philosophical set of commitments to how language works that are almost always left unsaid. The commitments that inform my translations of Classical Arabic come from a mixture of Wittgenstein and Kuhn: Wittgenstein helps establish a methodology in which we track usage instead of mapping reference, and Kuhn helps explain how hard it is to translate theoretical vocabulary. For ma'na is not the same as “meaning” at all; it is its own story.

[1] Earl Miner, Comparative Poetics: An Intercultural Essay on Theories of Literature (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990), 82 n.1; Jonathan D. Culler, Theory of the Lyric (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015), 1.




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Comparing Literatures: Arabic, Hebrew, Persian, Turkish, Urdu

Comparative Literature has spent the last few decades expanding its focus beyond Europe and the Anglophone Americas. But has it succeeded? Departments around the world include scholars working on Hebrew, Persian, Arabic, and to a lesser extent Turkish, Urdu, and other non-European languages. But the desire for coverage remains a chimera, always tempting with the prospect of inclusion: "if only we had somebody who did…" What would success, even if we subscribed to such teleology, look like?


One answer is that we would simply know more. We would have more information, more data, to answer the questions with which the discipline is concerned. Some of those questions are older: What is literature and what does it do? and some are newer: What happens after/beside humans? A representative selection of questions can be found in the 2014-15 Report on the State of the Discipline from the American Comparative Literature Association. Doubtless, information from outside the Anglo-European sphere is improving this conversation.

Is it enough to know more and ask the same questions? What happens if there are different questions? It is hardly a surprising observation that literatures outside Europe have different constitutions and concerns. Trying to render them in a vocabulary intelligible to European or Anglophone audiences is a translation problem, and it becomes sharper when the ideas being translated are themselves self-conscious theories, attempts to carve reality at different joints from those at which Comparative Literature is accustomed to cut.

These observations push us to realize that the direction of travel is critical: do we build theories in European languages and then test them on the world, or vice versa, or neither?

This goal of this Colloquy is to ask and start to answer these questions: what should it mean for Comparative Literature to engage outside Europe? Where is the field now, and what could change? What does Comparative Literature look like when thought through the literatures of Persian, Arabic, Turkish, Hebrew, or Urdu?

The languages of this Colloquy broadly reflect the interests of the participants, many of whom come from a constellation of literatures with roots in a part of the world given various names: the Middle East, the Near East, the Islamic world, the Islamicate world, West Asia, and so on ad nauseam. The nausea comes from the inevitable problems of power and agency: the East was only Near or Middle for European colonialism, and academic neologisms such as Islamicate or West Asia scarcely have the power to hold sway within the ivory tower, let alone outside where the words people use have their own genealogies. Our aim in this Colloquy is not to readjust all the names and labels but rather to start with the literatures we know, and ask questions of our disciplines (literature, anthropology, translation) in the hope that some answers may prove useful when we think of other literatures around the world.

The Colloquy includes conversations that took place in recent years, book chapters and articles, and current think pieces—in addition to original scholarship, translation, and performance. It is open to new submissions.

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