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Syllabus: Comparative Literature 305

Prospects for a Comparative Poetics.

What are the prospects for comparative work with poetry and poetics beyond genre? Is there a role for formalism without historicism? Is it possible or desirable to dispense with ethical and political dynamics? We will read a series of theoretical interventions and histories of literary criticism, we will talk about developing our own tools, and we will experiment with them on poetry from all kinds of contexts.

Progress and Schedule:

Week One:

* The structural importance, for the attempt to make poetics work anachronistically, of maintaining a split between criticism(/theory) and literature (/art).

* The genealogies of those labels.

* Maintaining this distinction leads to clarity about the difference between genres of criticism and genres of literature.

* We experimented with ad hoc critical practice, which threw up three distinct reading practices: formalism, phenomenology, and affect.

Week Two:

* Joseph North reminded us about the importance of politics.

* And about the stakes and risks involved with a critical project that reiterates the importance of politics as both a frame and an end.

* And about the opposition between aesthetics and historicism as critical approaches.

* And about materialism: does it represent a vector in both aesthetic and historicist criticism? Is it a synecdoche for certain political commitments?

* And about education: is it the inevitable destination for a criticism that is politically engaged?

* We encountered a version of the canon problem when deciding on the poetry that we should read as we test our ability to cross-pollinate criticisms.

Week Three:

* Caroline Levine showed us what large-scale high-stakes formalism can look like.

* We saw how this led to forms that had to be malleable and dynamic to allow for human agency.

* Levine’s genealogy for her use of forms also pulled up the question of causality.

* And Susan Wolfson’s Formal Charges gave a genealogy of form that included its European relation to content (the dynamism of that content then became an issue).

* We tentatively concluded that our selections of poetry inevitably had to be either “scholarly collaboration as intervention” or “just what I know.”

Week Four:

* ʿAbd al-Qahir al-Jurjani gave us a vision of formalism that was more capacious than anticipated. It had space for, inter alia, Amaru, John Ashbery, Eileen Myles, and Wallace Stevens - all poetry that involves conscious use of language, imagery, and predication.

* But there are things that Jurjani did not deal with: enjambment as itself a metaphor, for example, or mysticism/soul/life-force.

* Jurjani’s formalism (if we want to call it that) was cognitive and small-scale. While there are no necessary barriers to expanding it from single clauses to whole poems, it does seem like he doesn’t help up much with narrative units.

* Jurjani’s formalism also went against North and Levine’s assumption that all criticism connects (deliberately or not) to social and political stakes. While some of his arguments in the philosophy of language have theological import, he didn’t see the act of literary criticism as political.

* Kamal Abu Deeb’s great book on Jurjani is now out of print it seems. But we have a copy in the library.

Week Five:

* Toril Moi’s Revolution of the Ordinary showed how European theory’s unspoken dependence on Saussure can lead to webs of signs and concepts that remove human agency from language usage. We noted that the converse position, in which human intent is brought back, is itself predicated on a metaphysical assumption about self and other.

* Reading (the late) Wittgenstein as an attitude, as Moi does, enables his conclusions to be scaled up (cf. North). The same is true of the move to bring human usage back in.

* Precedent (whether enshrined as a lexicographical warranty or not) is not Wittgenstein’s primary concern (although it is not antithetical to his thought; a series is dependent on its own mini-history, see PI #142f). But precedent is fundamental to poetics: rhetorical figures and intentional different use of language are not possible without precedent - something to be different from.

* Wittgenstein PI #533: the statement that it is only in the act of literary criticism that our assumptions about (meaning and) understanding come out.

* Even if we break out of the post-Saussurean picture of language, non-European poetics still reminds us that a boundary such as that between meaning and affect is contingent/non-necessary.

* David Larsen’s “Meaning and Captivity” showed us what a methodology that takes the critical assumptions and preferences of a distant context seriously (etymology, root meanings of words). It also showed how Anglophone semiology could help (rather than hinder, as Moi implies). Larsen helps answer the challenge: “is their account of how language worked not actually how language worked for them?”

Week Six

* We decided that our mini canon of poems was impeding our work, and decided to ditch it. It served its purpose of reminding us of the dynamics of poem selection (we pick what we know/like/value in a world already shaped by canons).

* We considered the conceptual vocabulary resources available in German: Poetik vs Poetologie.

* This led us to consider the available labels in English: literary criticism vs. poetics, and then formalism as a subdivision thereof. We noticed that we keep identifying poetics with formalism, and that this tends to exclude hermeneutics of a certain scale: there is no space for a hermeneutics of suspicion in formalism, for example.

* A receptiveness to critical suspicion might be the moment when hermeneutics reaches a scale that leads formalism to exclude it: formal analysis does deal with meaning at the level of syntax, and with intention (agency) at the level of syntactic form, but at this small scale hermeneutics tends not to suspect.

* We noticed that our formalism, an Anglophone formalism, also tended to exclude the turn to lexical precedent and an accounting for the bundle of ideas that come with each word. It felt illegitimate, and the only way it could come in would be through historicism (although formalism often excludes that, too).

* Cody’s reading of Emily Dickinson’s “Except to heaven, she is nought,” with its focus on an inversion of predication that codes the logical categories (universal: she is nothing / particular: she is something to heaven) by placing the particular in the universal slot, was close to Jurjani’s method - minus the lexicon.

* We cast around for critical precedent for a focus on the lexicon and ended up with the New Critics (again) and their opposition of semantic precedent and deliberate allusion.

* Bronner, Shulman, and Tubb’s Innovations and Turning Points: Toward a History of Kāvya Literature (and the Kitabkhana forum on Innovations and Turning Points in CSSAAME 38:1) gave us a poetics in which innovation and originality were aspects of beauty, and a critical debate about the value and use of deliberate complexity (yamaka and granthi).

* Shulman’s equation of gaps, space, and breaks in form with the time scale of kingly reigns reminded us of the way Caroline Levine used a formalism to connect small-scale literature to large-scale politics.

* Innovations and Turning Points is a history: this makes it a good (historicist) primer for comparison - but it also means that it is fighting a battle about how to tell history (innovation versus stasis).

Week Seven:

* Lea Goldberg’s “Answer” and Paul Celan’s “Threadsuns” gave us occasion to note the conditions under which form became part of our reading. It was only the comparison with Celan, and the artificial constraints imposed by the class, that brought out formal aspects of Goldberg (other than the basic frame of the question). Conversely, while Celan’s poem shared a great deal of context and content with Goldberg’s, it easily allowed (if poems allow!) formal readings to take center stage and appear self-sufficient. Goldberg’s “Answer” also made immediate claims on historicism: “in our era … in the twentieth century.”

* Earl Miner’s Comparative Poetics: An Intercultural Essay on Theories of Literature was aware of the difficulties of getting outside the Western frame of reference but still fell into the trap of elided Western constraints and concerns.

* For example, one could read his diagram of the concerns of poetics on 16 (Poet-Work-Text-Poem-Reader) as an unconscious history of Anglophone literary criticism: from Poetic biography to Reader response via New Critical focus on the Work and death-of-the-author focus on the Text/Poem.

* We asked whether poetics was detachable from either poems or history. Miner thinks not: poets are either consciously or unconsciously informed by their culture. He also assumes the existence of distinct cultures. He sees literature as universal but absorptive of difference.

* Translation, of course, proves that conceptual vocabularies are different - which might point to a degree of non detachability.

* Caroline Levine’s remarks on p.13 of Forms are relevant here: her understanding of form is that it is universal and migrates across contexts - in contradistinction to genre. Miner’s comparative poetics is a poetics of genre (drama/lyric/narrative) - it therefore struggles with history and culture.

Week Eight:

* Benjamin Harshav’s Three Thousand Years of Hebrew Versification provided us with a comparative project centered on Hebrew and structured around the Bible. Harshav tells a persuasive story of poetry’s development from the figures, rhythms, and sounds of the Bible, of the dialectical progress of poetry through free verse back to the Bible (table 4.1 page 145), and of the comparative interactions between pre-20th C. Hebrew and other - spoken - literatures. (For origins in the Middle East, @Safaitic)

* Harshav is committed to keeping politics out of his story, and to ensuring that agency remains with poets and critics rather than with the world around them.

* Meter is the epitome of a formal scheme. Is it poets’ twist on the patterns of ordinary language (Hass and Harshav) or is it the diagnosis of an immanent pattern in ordinary language by the critic (Harshav)? With the patterns of speech this central, can we make the analytical move to detach meter from ourselves? To maintain the theory/art binary, we would have to.

* Harshav’s model for how sound creates meaning (page 26f) is both language-specific and universal. Like Levine’s affordances, it does not prescribe an essential meaning, but shapes a set of potential responses.

* Harshav understands the meaning of sound as a non-lexicalized, non-codified, process (pages 31 and 39). This allows us to notice that lexicalization (the process of managing meaning through iterative and recorded precedent) is an important vector in formal criticism: some formal analyses can work without it (Vendler), other formal analyses require it (Jurjani). Some approaches even lexicalize sound (Ibn Jinni, pace Harshav).

Week Nine:

* New Criticism, with the internal diversity that De Man elides, shares a reaction to historicism (and does not engage with performance).

* New Criticism helps us give an account of a certain kind of formalism, which helps us decide what we mean by formalism: Richards, Wimsatt & Beardsley, and Brooks all deal with the unity of the poem, as opposed to the line/image/syntactic unit. With this scale (looking at patterns of resolved stress across a poem, for example) can come the consideration of irony - although there is no necessary reason that irony could not exist in the poem in a single line or phrase. It’s a matter of critical scale/scope.

* New Criticism (especially Richards) refuses to separate thought/meaning/hermeneutics from affect/presence/erotics. Sanksrit and Classical Arabic share this; for them it is not a question with which to engage - this is a matter of incommensurable conceptual vocabularies (Kuhn).

* Readings: “The Analysis of a Poem,” an essay by I.A. Richards from Principles of Literary Criticism (1924), “The Affective Fallacy,” by Wimsatt and Beardsley (1949), from Cleanth Brooks’s The Well-Wrought Urn (1947): “Yeats’s Great Rooted Blossomer” (on “Among School Children”) and “The Heresy of Paraphrase.”

* Cf. De Man “Form and Intent in the American New Criticism” (p.32): “The lesson to be derived from the evolution of American formalist criticism is twofold. It reaffirms first of all the necessary presences of a totalizing principle as the guiding impulse of the critical process. In the New Criticism, this principle consisted of a purely empirical notion of the integrity of literary form, yet the mere presence of such a principle could lead to the disclosure of distinctive structures of literary language (such as ambiguity and irony) although these structures contradict the very premises on which the New Criticism was founded. Second, the rejection of the principle of intentionality, dismissed as fallacious, prevented the integration of these discoveries within a truly coherent theory of literary form.”

Week Ten:

* Helen Vendler on Seamus Heaney provided an example of “formalist” criticism that nevertheless can be read as “tak[ing] into account, in the consideration of the world, the referential function of language.” (De Man, “Resistance to Theory” p.8). Vendler talks of the “cognitive and moral import [in the world?] of the parts of speech” (p.67). However, when Vendler selects nouns to think about them, as she does with Heaney, she is no longer following the syntax time (Jurjani) of the poem (patterns of resolved stress, Brooks).

* Susan Wolfson is trying to recapture organic form: “the level of orderliness … in the poem” (p.417-418). This is from the perspective of the reader, whereas Hass makes the claim that forms are forces, with an energy in composition. This is from the perspective of the poet.

* Kramnick & Nersessian provide a useful pragmatic approach to the problem of defining form: it is whatever a conversation needs it to do. But the move they make from form as a “turn away from history without shame” (Sandra Macpherson) to form as “fundamental … the ground upon which individual examples and instances depend and to which they reduce” seems to be not quite right (p.656). As soon as form is fundamental in this way, it leads to false oppositions: form is either flexible (Levine) or at the bottom of everything (Wolfson) (K&N p.660).

* Alternatively, we could see form as the kind of process universal that Judith Butler advanced in the early 2000s: when we use the word “form” we make a claim of universality that is conscious of its dependence on a necessarily unfinished, iterative, and contingent critical process. (Butler, “Restaging the Universal: hegemony and the limits of formalism” in Contingency, Hegemony, Universality: Contemporary Dialogues on the Left.)

* The real universals are located in the poetry, not the criticism. This becomes apparent when, in comparative poetics, we break the poetry-criticism symbiosis and then inevitably replace it with a new symbiosis between a particular type of (“formalist”) criticism and specific moments in poetry that are identified and explained by that criticism. This move includes the claim that those moments are universal aspects of poetry.

Extra Resources:

* John Freccero “The Fig Tree and the Laurel: Petrarch’s Poetics” [more evidence of how criticism can be rooted in assumptions about both signification and metaphysics. Question: can this kind of criticism work in a world without the sign? Or, conversely, do you have to believe that the sign has purchase in reality in order to make that move?]

* Terry Eagleton, “Ideology and Literary Form

* Jonathan Kramnick and Anahid Nersessian, “Form and Explanation,” Critical Inquiry 43, no. 3 (Spring 2017): 650-669.

* Sandra Macpherson, “A Little Formalism.” ELH  82, no. 2 (Summer 2015): 385-405.

Related workshop in November:

* (news report)

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Join the colloquy

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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