Approaches to Comparative Literature
Comparativism in Counterpoint
This course introduces students to key theories and methods in comparative literature. As we study a range of critical frameworks, we’ll read “contrapuntally,” pairing old with new approaches and foundational with ongoing debates in the field. We’ll begin by reading selections from Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis (1946) alongside J. Daniel Elam’s World Literature for the Wretched of the Earth (2021), which both revisits and renews long-standing debates about the meaning of “world literature.” Taking our cue from Elam’s offbeat pairing of Auerbach and Frantz Fanon, we’ll stage a series of other comparative encounters—conversations that bring apparently distant figures and texts into contact with one another, and that look beyond Europe and North America. We’ll ask what critical insights and perspectives these conversations can afford. What can they make audible that might otherwise remain unheard? And what does it mean to see comparative work as a compositional practice, even a matter of musical “counterpoint,” as Edward Said urged?
For Said, “contrapuntal reading” was not only a name for the making of harmonious wholes; it could also lead to the creation of “atonal ensembles.” In another context, Stefania Pandolfo notes that “modern counterpoint disfigures the harmony of the ensemble, and confronts us with ‘the paradox of a multivoiced music without a community.’” We’ll experiment with the arrangement of voices and the gathering of ensembles of various kinds, both in class and in our writing across registers and genres. In the process, we’ll attend to literature’s changing relationships to its “others,” including politics, the economy, empire, race, gender, sexuality, and the social. This will mean engaging with developments in Marxism, psychoanalysis, feminism, queer theory, Black studies, and anticolonial, postcolonial, and decolonial thought. Invited guest speakers will guide several of these engagements.