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University of Oregon

Afterlife of a Discipline
Author(s): Emily Apter
Source: Comparative Literature, Vol. 57, No. 3, Responding to the Death of a Discipline: An
ACLA Forum (Summer, 2005), pp. 201-206
Published by: Duke University Press on behalf of the University of Oregon
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EMILYAPTER

Afterlife of a Discipline
As many have noted, the title of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak'sbook Death of a
Discipline operates as a provocation, for it contains a key omission-which discipline?-that requires the reader uncertainly to provide the answer: "Comparative
Literature?" Having supplied such an answer, the reader is then invited to draw
the inference that Comparative Literature, as a viable branch of the humanities,
is dead and done for-brought down by the economics of academic book marketing, technological literacy, or the irrelevance of traditional literary culture to
the greater sum of world cultures. But we should not be beguiled by this first pass
through a title. As a text, Death of a Discipline attends to how a particular discipline-understood to be Comparative Literature but not necessarily so named
-has remained as relevant as ever to rethinking the humanities. This is a book
about how to make literary criticism and theory resilient during tough economic
and intellectual times. Its ostensible pessimism is belied by Spivak'smanifest commitment to new trajectories within literary studies.
Death of a Discipline sets out a program for how to define Comparative Literature
in response to successive "Reports on the State of the Discipline" put out by the
American Comparative Literature Association in 1965, 1975, and, most notably,
1995, the year in which the Bernheimer Report was published along with an
array of responses as ComparativeLiteraturein theAge ofMulticulturalism.In assessing the fallout of the Bernheimer Report some ten years hence, Death of a Discipline assigns renewed importance to the potential contribution of Area Studies
to reconfigurations of the humanities and argues in favor of a discipline flexible
enough to respond to shifting demographic realities-what she calls emergent
"multicultural empires" or para-state collectivities" (15). Though the Bernheimer
report recognized the relevance to Comparative Literature of cultural and ethnic studies (as well as popular culture or forms of cultural production that are
not necessarily literary-epitaphs in cemeteries, for example), Spivak sees the
attempt to incorporate cultural studies as productive of new kinds of problems.
Cultural studies frequently reproduces stereotypes of identity and ethnicity; as a
result, the literary specificity of indigenous cultures gets lost. Area Studies fares a
bit better (despite its imbrication in Cold War politics), for Comparative Literature and Area Studies
canworktogetherin the fosteringnot only of nationalliteraturesof the global Southbut also of the
writingof countless indigenous languagesin the world that were programmedto vanishwhen the
mapswere made .. the languagesthatwere historicallypreventedfrom havinga constitutedreadership or are now losing readership might be allowed to prosper as well even as the writers contribute to our need for languages. (15)

Spivak is concerned less with remapping imperiled, struggling, or emerging lan-

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guages onto the literary canon than with offering them "the solidarity of borders
that are easily crossed, again and again, as a permanent from-below interruption
of a Comparative Literature to come, the irony of globalization" (15-16).
Death of a Discipline sits amidst a number of problematics and approaches that
have shaped the field in recent years-World-Systems Theory, the new World Lit,
the Problem of How to Name a Language, Theoretical Capital, Translation, and
Technological Literacy, among them. World Lit, an old chestnut of the field, has
come back into play, refurbished by a world-systems theory borrowed from the
work of Immanuel Wallerstein. Franco Moretti has been the leading proponent
of this approach, riding high on a model of "distantreading" that relies unabashedly on translation, secondary source material, evolutionary models of literary
history, and positivistic measures of literary markets. Moretti's Atlas of European
Literature,based on economies of scale, forms a marked contrast to the more
modest approach used by David Damrosch in his book Whatis WorldLiterature?
Emphasizing a set of reading strategies, Damrosch isolates criteria for defining
World Lit as an elliptical refraction of national literatures (showing how works
continue to bear the marks of their national origin even after they circulate
through the host culture); as writing that gains or loses in translation (as opposed
to nonliterary language, which typically does neither); and as a mode of reading,
a form of detached engagement with worlds beyond our own place and time
(281). Damrosch offers a rich way of thinking about what and how certain works
are read, but skirts the thorny (and by now perhaps overly rehearsed) issue of
canon selection: how certain traditions and movements (classicism, romanticism,
modernism, postmodernism), forms (lyric, stream of consciousness, haiku, protest verse), or styles (realism, naturalism, abstraction) gain international currency.
His pragmatism leaves room for further reflection on the criteria by which languages and nations come to be affiliated and disaffiliated.
Such reflection is provided by Sam Weber,who, in an essay on Benjamin's "Task
of the Translator,"adopts a nominalist approach to the problematic slide between nation and language in the way languages are designated-the slide between, say,"French"referring to the language and "French"referring to the nation
or people. Linguistic appellations-English, Chinese, Spanish, Swahili, Russian
-impose a homogeneity of identity where none exists and ignore the variety of
"Spanishes,""Englishes,"or forms of Chinese proliferating both within and beyond national borders (66). Weber provides the theoretical terms for defining
Comp Lit as the differential between language and nation. Extrapolating from
his argument, one might try to imagine ways of naming languages differently so
that they denote both multidialectal pluralism and the diasporic locations of
their users. For now, Comp Lit may be the disciplinary name for this non-nationally marked linguistic pluralism.
If Damrosch is the pragmatist and Weber the nominalist, Haun Saussy is arguably the discipline's economist of symbolic capital. In his draft report on the
state of the discipline, commissioned by the American Comparative Literature
Association in 2003-4, Saussy notes that Comparative Literature departments are
in less than robust shape-not, as one might expect, because of their failure to
generate new trajectories in literary studies, but rather because of their success

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AFTERLIFE
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in generating them. Known for "theory,"at least since the glory days of deconstruction, Comp Lit has been usurped by the national literature departments, its
theories absorbed into the mainstream, its singular raison d'etre dissipated. Saussy
also sees as a problem for Comp Lit's future its absorption, in turn, of disciplines
other than literature: anthropology, history, sociology, political science, feminism,
race and gender studies. These other disciplines situate literature, but resist allowing literature to situate them. In yielding disciplinary autonomy, Comp Lit
risks becoming little more than an area of application for the "other"disciplines
that define it. How to transcend this bind? By refocusing energies inward? By
reasserting the literary? Or by redefining what Comp Lit does so that it becomes
more distinctive? Obviously translation studies answers the challenge of this last
question: few single-language departments, with the exception of linguistics perhaps, specialize as much as Comp Lit does in multilingual approaches to literature and culture. Strengthening the comparative language focus, especially in
universities with a large pool of international students and children of immigrants who may have a language other than English but who have not thought of
using it in their studies, makes a lot of sense for Comp Lit if it wants to develop a
broader base.
Death of a Discipline addresses all of these issues in its vision of a new geopolitics.
Spivak's Comparative Literature to come will not only touch "the older minorities (African, Asian, Hispanic), but also take into its sweep the new postcoloniality
of the post-Soviet sector and the special place of Islam in today's breaking world"
(84). It is perhaps for this reason that a subsequent book will focus on "other
Asias."Asia in the plural becomes a way of displacing what she calls, "the older
postcolonial model--very much 'India' plus the Sartrean 'Fanon"' (85). Spivak
also offers an implied critique of World Lit models in imagining a "planetary"
comparative criticism that "deals with heterogeneity on a different scale" and
relates "to imperialisms on another model," one that takes stock of "the financialization of the globe" (85):
I propose the planet to overwrite the globe. Globalization is the imposition of the same system of
exchange everywhere. In the gridwork of electronic capital, we achieve that abstract ball covered in
latitudes and longitudes, cut by virtual lines, once the equator and the tropics and so on, now drawn
by the requirements of the Geographical Information Systems. To talk planet-talk by way of an
unexamined environmentalism, referring to an undivided "natural"space rather than a differentiated political space, can work in the interest of this globalization in the mode of the abstract as
such. ... The globe is on our computers. No one lives there. It allows us to think that we can aim to
control it. The planet is in the species of alterity, belonging to another system; and yet we inhabit it,
on loan. (72)

This passage alerts us to how attempts to globalize literary studies have erased
the planet and its peoples and languages. Planetarity suggests a critical politics of
the Idea capable of lending credibility to comparatisms among languages and
cultures habitually located at an intractable remove from one another or remotely
seated in Area Studies. Spivak takes a dim view of the globalizing trend sweeping
through university curricula in every field, and though she may not specify how
planetarity will be kept clear of veering into globalism, she seems intent on forging a model that will impede globalization's monolithic spread, its "financialization
of the globe" and proselytism of orthodoxies of likeness and self-same. Planetarity

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implies a "transnational literacy" that assumes engagement with world politics


and an ethical vigilance against environmental catastrophism in an age of remote responsibility. Planetarity understands the subject as a provisional placeholder on this earth.
Death of a Discipline's geopolitical critique redounds to two other important
problematics previously mentioned: translation studies and media theory. Spivak's
seminal work on translation has been crucial to my own efforts to rethink Comparative Literature in terms of a new translation studies. The idea here has been
to bring translation forward from its early incarnation (within Renaissance humanism) as the core of humanistic translatiostudii into an age of postcolonial
language politics and technological literacy. The role of mistranslation in war,
the question of Anglophone dominance and the emergence of other languages
and other Englishes in the network society, the fate of humanism, and the definition of new orders of literacy and literariness are among the issues that have
emerged in my own work as a result of defining translation in an extended sense.
The new translation studies brings postcolonial comparatism (with its links to
Area Studies) and media theory into combustive alignment. Postcolonial theory,
then, is urged to take on current issues such as Internet imperialism, while media theory is enjoined to consider the power differentials embedded in cyberliteracy, international language policy, and the politics of translation (see my
Literature).
forthcoming TheTranslationZone:A New Comparative
Given the importance of Spivak'scontribution to translation studies, both within
and beyond the confines of Deathof a Discipline,I would like to trace a "red thread"
through her oeuvre, teasing out a translation book that has never been framed
as such. From her translator's preface to Jacques Derrida's Of Grammatology,
to
the important "Politics of Translation"essay, published as a chapter of Outsidein
the Teaching Machine (1993), to "A Translator's Preface" and "Afterword" to
Mahasweta Devi in The SpivakReader(1996), to "Translation as Culture,"which
appeared in Parallax 14 (2000), to "Questioned on Translation: Adrift" in Public
Culture13 (2001), through to Death of a Discipline and an essay, "Translatinginto
English," published in Nation, Language, and theEthics of Translation(2005) the
theory and politics of translation have commanded Spivak'shighest creative attention. Death of a Discipline foregrounds translation as a focal point of the humanities and social sciences in an era in which monolingualism and arrogant
unilateralism go hand in hand in foreign policy. Spivak writes: "In order to reclaim the role of teaching literature as training the imagination-the great inbuilt
instrument of othering-we may, if we work as hard as old-fashioned Comp Lit is
known to be capable of doing, come close to the irreducible work of translation,
not from language to language but from body to ethical semiosis, that incessant
shuttle that is a 'life' " (13).
One way to unpack Spivak'scomplex idea of "translation from body to ethical
semiosis" might be to understand the full ramifications of her idea of cultural
translation. In Spivak'searly essay "The Politics of Translation,"translation is never
isolated from the scene of power, nor is it used as a baggy, all-purpose term for
any act of cultural transference. Rather, it is a model of intellectual labor that
places the aesthetic and the political in continuous contact.

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Cast both as an act of love and as an act of disruption, translation becomes a


means of repositioning the subject in the world and in history, a means of rendering self-knowledge foreign to itself, a way of denaturalizing citizens, taking them
out of the comfort zone of national space, daily ritual, and pre-given domestic
arrangements. The experience of becoming proficient in another tongue delivers a salubrious blow to national narcissism. The simple act of putting one's mouth
and breath in different positions in order to produce the sounds of a language
not one's own effects a shift from bodily to ethical semiosis. And though it is a
truism, it must be said that the experience of being lost in translation affords
great insight into the ultimate impossibility of ever being truly understoodeven among speakers of a common language. Translation failure demarcates the
limits of intersubjective communication even as it highlights that "eureka"spot
where consciousness crosses over to a rough zone of equivalency or crystalizes
around an idea that belongs to no one language or nation in particular. Translation is thus a unique medium of subject re-formation and political change.
Judith Butler expands the parameters of Spivak'snotion of cultural translation
(introduced in Spivak's '"ATranslator's Preface" and "Afterword"to Mahasweta
Devi) yet further in her critique of Hegelian universality. Cautioning against the
implicit formalism of efforts "to establish universality as transcendent of cultural
norms," Butler claims that Hegel's universal is fettered to the substance of cultural norms (Sittlichkeitor custom). "IfHegel's notion of universality is to prove
good under conditions of hybrid cultures and vacillating national boundaries,"
Butler writes, "it will have to become a universality forged through the work of
cultural translation" (20). This new form of "universal"cultural translation, Butler continues, is based on neither "apresumption of linguistic or cognitive commonness nor a teleological postulate of an ultimate fusion of all cultural horizons,"
but rather on "cultural location," as exemplified by Spivak'snotion of a "'violent
shuttling' between discourses that show the sharp edges of all available discourses
of collectivity" (37).
The image of this "violent shuttling" recurs frequently in Spivak's translation
theory. It surfaces in a passage in Death of a Discipline that is itself a self-citation
from the earlier essay "Translation as Culture." This shuttle metaphor leads, as
we have already noted, in the direction of "cultural translation,"but it also swings
out onto a path leading to a theory of what might be called programmed or
informatic translation:
The human infant grabs on to some one thing and then things. This grabbing (begreifen)
of an
outside indistinguishablefrom an inside constitutesan inside, going back and forth and coding
everythinginto a sign-systemby the thing(s) grasped.One can call this crude coding a 'translation'.
In this never-endingweaving,violence translatesinto conscienceand viceversa.Frombirthto death
this 'natural'machine, programmingthe mind perhapsas genetic instructionsprogramthe body
(where does body stop and mind begin?), is partlymetapsychologicaland therefore outside the
grasp of the mind. Thus 'nature' passes and repasses into 'culture', in a work or shuttling site of
violence ... ("Translation as Culture" 13)

In what is a rather surprising turn in her work, Spivak, drawing on the work of
Melanie Klein, takes up the idea of programmed thought. Here, translation performs the heavy work of forming the mind-as-computer, becoming the name for
the yes-no, on-off, good object-bad object choice that coincides in digital pro-

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gram with the alternance between ones and zeros. Spivak'semphasis on the link
between subject formation ("ethical semiosis") and programmed genetic instructions argues implicitly for supplanting traditional notions of language with a universally applicable notion of programmed code. And when she writes of "coding
everything into a sign-system,"she imagines a code that is good to go across the
porous borders of mind and body, genetic and linguistic instructions, thought
and ethics.
In "Translating into English" this idea of "programming" is used with reference to Kantian reason rather than Kleinian shuttling. Kantian reason, in Spivak's
account, squares the transcendental and the intuitive via reason (with reason
understood as "programmed structure"):
Translation is not just the stringing together of the most accurate synonyms by the most proximate
syntax. Kant's "Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason" is written with the presupposition
that mere (rather than pure) reason is a programmed structure, with in-built possibilities of misfiring, and nothing but calculation as a way of setting right. Since the eighteenth century, English
translators, not resonating with Kant's philosophical presuppositions, have psychologized every noun,
making Kant sound like a rational choice, bourgeois Christian gentleman. Kant's insight could have
taken on board today's major problem-Can there be a secularism without an intuition of the transcendental, of something that is inscrutable because it cannot be accessed by mere reasoning? Kant's
project, to protect the calculus of reason by way of the transcendental as one parergon among four,
was counterintuitive to his English translators. ("Translating into English" 93)

Spivak's speculations about the nature of programming-as a violent shuttling


of cultural translation, as a violent shuttle of mind-are rife with implications for
the future of translation studies and for the afterlife of a discipline called
Comparative Literature. In setting up the conditions for a rapprochement between
two orders of knowledge often kept separate-the cultural and the technicalSpivak establishes the terms for imagining a politics of cognition and linguistic
expressionism that positions Comparative Literature center stage.
New YorkUniversity
Works Cited
Butler,Judith. "Restaging the Universal: Hegemony and the Limits of Formalism." Contingency,HegeDialogues on the Left. ByJudith Butler, Ernesto Laclau, and Slavoj
mony, Universality.Contemporary
Ziiek. London: Verso, 2000. 11-43.
Damrosch, David. Whatis WorldLiterature?Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003.
Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty.Death of a Discipline.New York:Columbia University Press, 2003.
"Translation as Culture."Parallax 14 (2000): 13-24.
-

. "Translatinginto English."Nation, Language,and theEthicsof Translation.Ed. Sandra Bermann


and Michael Wood. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005. 93 -110.

Weber, Samuel. "ATouch of Translation: On Walter Benjamin's 'Task of the Translator.'" Nation,
Language,and theEthicsof Translation.Ed. Sandra Bermann and Michael Wood. Princeton: Princeton
University Press, 2005. 65-78.

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