Sunday, 9 September 2012

From Comparative Literature Today toward Comparative Cultural Studies – Steven Totosy de Zepetnek- An Overview

“While earning her M.A. in comparative literature, Louise Raftkin never imagined that she’d end up cleaning houses for a living.”

Zepetnek like most comparatist, find himself faced with an irritating fact. Cultural studies are purported to have an innovative approach but Zepetnek begs to differ when he points out that the same areas have infact already been the subjects of study in comparative literature. Popular culture and film studies are not new in the study of comparative literature though in cultural studies the theories, terminologies and content may vary to some extent.
He attempts to find a way to enrich both these fields of study and bring about a union through what he terms to be “comparative cultural studies”. Comparative cultural studies are an approach that is to be weaned into a full-fledged framework that will focus on theoretical content in three areas:

(1)    To study literary texts or systems keeping in mind cultural contexts in the study of literature

(2)    In the field of cultural studies to study literature consisting of element borrowed from comparative theories and methods

(3)    In comparative  cultural studies, to study culture and its parts and not merely focus on one culture but to be multi-cultured

Comparative Cultural Studies Defined
It is a field of study where selected tenets of comparative literature are blended with certain tenets from cultural studies (study of culture and its products). This field isn’t restricted to literature alone but moves on to embrace communication, art and the media. The methods and approaches are plural as well as interdisciplinary with a contextual and rational construction which requires team work.

It mainly studies the processes of communicative actions in culture and how they constitute the main objectives of research and study though textual analysis too is present. Comparative cultural studies is thus, a broader, more empirical and systematic study of culture.

Comparative Literature Today
Comparative literature has a rough road ahead for cultural studies and English literature have serious diminished its subject matter of study and affected the institutional stability. Comparative European literature has developed and comparative literature has been “Americanised”. New media have presented new avenues for the growth of comparative studies, e.g. the internet.

In Steiner’s paper presented in 1994 he talks of how every act of reception of works in language, art or music  is a comparative process. He attributes this to their inceptions; works of art are from their very nature comparative. He mentions components that occur in such work that can be overlooked if not given detailed attention and so comparative literature helps zero in on these components. Knowledge of foreign languages according to him is essential for any comparative scholar.
While Steiner focuses on the knowledge of foreign languages and the fact that translation is defeated by comparatist, Zepetnek is more interested in the cumulative feature of comparative literature. The blend of its characteristics and precise methodology is what makes it tick in his opinion.
Hugo Dyserinck on the other hand writes of comparative literature at another level in 1985. In his opinion comparative literature deals with a comparative history that involves mutual relations and the similarities as well as the differences between individual literatures.  He also has a view of individualistic approach to comparative literature where theories, methodologies and criticism each correspond.

Comparative European Literature
Nationalistic feelings and the premise of national literature can be seen in the need felt for European literature. In a way, this may help lessen the Euro centricity attributed to comparative literature. But the problem with seeing European literature in this Comparative framework is that hierarchies will continue to exist. If comparative literature were to study all the European literatures then such Eurocentricism will be diminished. Some levy the charge of Eurocentricism in the light that the International Comparative Literature Association wants to maintain English and French as official languages then why not Spanish, German, Chinese and the like?

It is a common failing to be more interested in literature of one’s own nation than those of others, comparative literature though suffering biases to some extent, yet gives a common platform to different nations’ literatures. 

East/West Comparative Literature
Comparative Literature has not yet shaken off its Eurocentricity and so the inclusion of the Other (the term in itself implies discrimination) has always been problematic. It is not right to say that Orientalism can be best studied by an Oriental as that implies an exclusion based on culture which means a person from the Orient cannot deal with a Western text and vice versa. The Orient and Occident as points of discrimination should not exist in the comparative perspective. In fact, in either case, scholars of that particular culture can aid foreign scholars on points they may not be that clear off thus, creating a more healthy system.

Ten principle points for a better study of Comparative Cultural Studies

(1)    Since culture is defined as all human activity that results in artistic production it is not what should be studied but rather how things should be studied that matters. Methodology is of consequence and a comparative approach lends a mode of investigation and analysis that is less partial than other systems. It is the method that is of prime focus in comparative studies be it culture or literature.

(2)    There has to be a dialogue or interaction between various cultures, languages and also disciplines. The comparative perspective deals with an interest towards different cultures and so nationalistic claims of superiority or single culture studies are alien to comparative studies. Since, Eurocentrisim is still prevalent for a more universal approach, a cultural give and take and some dialogue is a must.

(3)    The scholar must take pride in his/her work and also be competent in more than one language and discipline. Parallelisms in approaches are only possible when a scholar is fully grounded in different theories and methodologies.

(4)    Culture must be studies in its parts as well and so literature, arts, film, the popular culture, theatre and the like need to be dealt with. The only objection in bringing in interdisciplinary factors and other fields is that it becomes difficult to keep to a methodological framework.

(5)    English should receive special attention as though it may be rooted to the British culture and though and have its influences in German and French, it is the lingua franca. English as a means of communication and access to information is in no way Eurocentric in nature. It is due to the fact that it has become a language for business and international trade and relations that it needs to be studied. The new global situation demands it for English is an international language.

(6)    Evidence based research and analysis too is important as it is the methodology that has made comparative studies so multifaceted and so in moving towards systematic and empirical studies, research and evidence is required. This does not mean than it consists of merely metadata but rather, comparative cultural studies is attributes pluralistic value from such methodology.

(7)    Attention and insistence on methodology is crucial with regards to interdisciplinary study and it should focus on three levels :Intra-disciplinary (dealing with research and analysis within humanities), multi-disciplinary ( the work of one scholar employing another discipline in the fields of analysis and research) and pluri-disciplinary (deals with team work of analysis and research from various disciplines).

(8)    Content is vital and in the contemporary scenario there is a paradox of globalisation versus localization. While we have globalisation as seen in technology, communication and industry there are yet the forces of exclusion that can be seen in law, gender, nationality and race. Comparative cultural studies should be global, inclusive and multi-disciplinary to counteract these forces.

(9)    Vocational commitment is the ultimate test that demarcates a mere comparatist from a comparative literature scholar. In-depth knowledge of several cultures is needed in order to include the Other and so knowing different languages and cultures is a prerequisite that does not leave the luxury of alternative opportunities. Merely spinning theories does not count and so this cannot be a part-time endeavour.

(10) This deals with the intellectual and institutional state of the humanities situation in general with is on rather shaky ground at present. It has been oft termed a socially irrelevant field ad so comparative cultural studies can help check further marginalisation.    

1 comment:

  1. i appreciate your "friendly" view of my work; what i am writing about is that my surname is "totosy de zepetnek" and not zepetnek

    with best regards,

    steven totosy de zepetnek phd professor
    *editor, clcweb: comparative literature and culture
    *series editor, purdue books in comparative cultural studies &
    8 sunset road, winchester, massachusetts 01890 usa 1-781-729-1680