112th Annual Conference - Riverside Convention Center, California
Friday, October 31 - Sunday, November 2, 2014

This page is about the 2014 conference. For 2015 conference info, go to PAMLA 2015.

An Inquiry into the Object of Comparative Literature

Brenda Machosky, University of Hawai`i, West O`ahu

This paper inquires about the object of Comparative Literature, asking the fundamental questions, “what is the literary object?” and “what is literature?”  We tend to define literature as what it is not, using a tacit and inevitable allegorical structure.  We should not let these appearances take the place of the literary object.


Although all academic disciplines perhaps squabble about the borders of their field, most have no problem agreeing on the object of study -- with the notable exception of literature departments.  What should be the object of study, the literary canon, has always been itself a fiction, and over the past few decades, that fiction has been exposed and reimagined (several times over).  The skills of the literary scholar enable close readings of all kinds of texts, including film, popular culture, art, and society.  While lacking a limited “object” of study, that has enabled a wide range of scholarship, this limitlessness has its limits.  In the institutional setting, the undecidability of its object has been literature’s bane.  If we, within the discipline, cannot agree about our object of study, how can it be compared to the other objects of study (and integrated into academic programs)?  If literary study is historical, or social, or cultural, how does it define itself as different from disciplines like history, social science, or anthropology?  Much valuable work has been done under the auspices of these interdisciplinary approaches to the literary object.  My query is whether the literary becomes objectified in something that it is not.  This may not be a bad thing.  In fact, perhaps literature needs this structure, which is an allegorical structure.  The literary can only appear in what it is not.  However, we should not let the appearance replace/represent the thing that is present behind it. 

The literary object has always been a problem.  In the Republic Plato reduced the object of literature to the problem of a moral imperative.  Literature, taken literally, taught a lot of bad lessons.  Philosophy claimed to be more didactically effective, but Plato knew quite well that he was playing a shell game – philosophy is just as objectionable as literature.  There is something opaque about the literary object.  This is its gift and its bane.  Because the literary object is ultimately unknowable (ungraspable, incomprehensible as Friedrich Schlegel suggested), it never runs out of things to say, or to provoke things to say about it.  Because of its refusal to be transparent and fixed, the literary object is often treated in ways that make it meaningful and stable.  Literary interpretation, academic disciplines, social responsibility.  In these treatments, the actual literary object recedes, and it is not the object of study at all any longer.  The great gift of Comparative Literature is to wrestle with the literary object as such.  This paper advocates that we continue to ask the fundamental question, “what is literature?” and resist the temptation to define literature by what it is not.