This introduction to comparative literary study at the graduate level will also be a seminar on how to read what Michel Foucault calls “obscure life.” Foucault uses this phrase to refer to what he takes to be the object of “literary discourse” as we know it, a discourse whose emergence he locates (debatably) at the end of the seventeenth century. The aim of this discourse was, Foucault writes, “to bring into view that which doesn’t, which can’t and mustn’t, appear.” He is thinking of the secret, the anonymous, the historically insignificant, and the everyday, but he also has in mind what has been forcefully removed from public view: the experience of the minoritized, the marginal, the “mad,” the incarcerated, and the criminal. As we consider a range of recent and ongoing debates in comparative literature, we’ll ask how, if at all, the field has responded to these latter “obscure” forms of life. How, more generally, have comparativists’ understandings of their archives and “proper objects” changed over time?
We’ll begin the semester with a careful reading of Foucault’s essay “The Lives of Infamous Men,” which we’ll study alongside Jorge Luis Borges’s Universal History of Infamy. In very different ways, these texts both consider the relationship between literature and policing, the continuities and discontinuities between aesthetic forms and state archives. These are also at the center of several recent studies, including Sal Nicolazzo’s Vagrant Figures, about early modern vagrancy laws and the prehistory of the police, and Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, “an archive of the exorbitant” that records forms of kinship and community developed by young Black women living in U.S. cities in the early twentieth century. We'll learn from these books' arguments and methods, and we'll bring them into conversation with earlier works of comparativist scholarship. These works will let us address subalternity, minor languages, queer subcultures, nightlife and dreamwork, lyric obscurity, and “demotic” cultures of reading. Throughout the term, as we read across genres ranging from short fiction to “critical fabulation” and from lyric poetry to the prison notebook, we’ll experiment with a range of voices, forms, analytical approaches, and archival and counter-archival practices in our own writing.