Comparative Becomings

Studies in Transition

by Michael G. Kelly (Volume editor) Daragh O'Connell (Volume editor)
Edited Collection VIII, 280 Pages
Series: New Comparative Criticism, Volume 4


The comparative gesture performs both the act and the question of transition between the terms compared. Understood as an intercultural practice, comparative literature may thus also be understood as both a transitive and a transnational process, creating its own object and form of knowledge as it identifies and analyses lines of relation and exchange between literary cultures. When navigating between languages, the discipline becomes critically engaged with the possibility and methods of such navigation. Interdisciplinary and intermedial versions of comparative studies likewise centre around transitions that may themselves remain under-analysed.
This collection of essays, with contributions ranging from medieval literature to digital humanities, seeks to illuminate and interrogate the very diversity of comparative situations, with their attendant versions of comparative discourse. The volume as a whole thereby reflects, however fragmentedly, a field of study that is itself faced with the reality of transition. As both a thematic and formal concern in comparative work, transition emerges, within any historical period or other configuration in which it is charted and analysed, as key to the renewed relevance of comparative literary scholarship and study today.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction: Framing Transition(s) in Comparative Studies (Michael G. Kelly)
  • Works Cited
  • 1 ‘Denti Alligator’: The Dantification of Popular Culture (Daragh O’Connell)
  • Introduction
  • Critical Postures
  • Serial Dante
  • Works Cited
  • 2 Creating New Myths in the Fifteenth Century: From Ovid’s Medea to a Lustful Nun from Barcelona (Gemma Pellissa Prades)
  • Introduction
  • A Brief Biographical Note
  • Plot of Faula de Neptuno i Diana
  • The Influence of Metamorphoses
  • The Influence of Tragédia de Caldesa
  • Interpreting Alegre’s Fable
  • Conclusion
  • Works Cited
  • 3 Looking for Lucian’s Locale: The Case of ‘Cuairt ar an nGealaigh’ (Jack Fennell)
  • Introduction
  • Lucian’s True History
  • Translation Complications
  • Conclusion
  • Works Cited
  • 4 Kissing the Earth and Defining Space: Transitions between Folklore, Religion and Literature (Emilia Di Rocco)
  • Works Cited
  • 5 The Language of Birds: Valente, Scholem, Benjamin (Manus O’Dwyer)
  • Valente and Scholem
  • Scholem and Benjamin: Reading Kafka
  • Voice
  • Conclusion
  • Works Cited
  • 6 Becoming Nonmodern: Transitory States in Gustav Meyrink’s Der Golem (1915) (Kerstin Fest)
  • I
  • II
  • III
  • IV
  • V
  • Works Cited
  • 7 The Animal Metamorphoses of the Artist in Paul Durcan’s Intermedial Poetry (Cathy Roche-Liger)
  • Animal Metamorphoses in Self-Portraiture
  • Glorification of Art and the Artist through Animal Imagery
  • The Shape-Shifting Snail-Butterfly Poet
  • Works Cited
  • 8 ‘dude I have alts’: Computer Technology and Poetic Innovation in John Redmond’s MUDe and Geoffrey Squires’ Two New Poems (Kenneth Keating)
  • Computer Technology and Irish Poetry: A Contextual Overview
  • Geoffrey Squires (1942–) and John Redmond (1967–): Career Overviews
  • Form, Content and Computer Technology in MUDe and Two New Poems
  • Conclusion
  • Works Cited
  • 9 How to Play a Film: The Game-Like Pleasures of Digital Home Media (Cathrin Bengesser)
  • New Media – New Pleasures
  • Light-Years from the Holodeck
  • Immersion
  • Navigation
  • Puzzle-Solving
  • The Problem of Agency
  • The New Media Pleasures of Social TV and Second-Screen TV
  • Did You Watch It, or Did you Play It?
  • Works Cited
  • Films, Games and Television Programmes
  • 10 ‘Near Documentary’ as Post-Bressonian Aesthetic: Cinematographic Dialoguing between Jeff Wall’s Adrian Walker and Ben Rivers’ Two Years at Sea (Dara Waldron)
  • Wall, Bresson and ‘Near Documentary’
  • The Ethical Intervention
  • The Post-Bressonian Method: Non-Fiction in Transition
  • Works Cited
  • 11 D’un château l’autre: Authorship, Individuation and Utopia in Pola X and De la guerre (Michael G. Kelly)
  • Spatialising (Cinematic) Individuation
  • Châteaux
  • Melville’s Paradigm
  • From Authorship to Utopia
  • Works Cited
  • Notes on Contributors
  • Index
  • Series index

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This volume has its origins in part in the first international conference of the Comparative Literature Association of Ireland on the theme of ‘Transitions in Comparative Studies’ held in June 2012 at University College Cork. Thanks to all involved in the organisation of that event, both on the CLAI steering committee and at UCC. Particular mention goes to Kerstin Fest, who acted as joint local organiser for the 2012 conference, and to Brigitte Le Juez, Founding President of CLAI, for her and the Association’s encouragement of this publishing project.

The publication of the volume was made possible by support from the Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Limerick, and from the Publication Support Fund of the College of Arts, Celtic Studies and Social Sciences at University College Cork, for which we are grateful. That support underlines the ongoing commitment at both institutions to the development of comparative literary and cultural studies, and recognises the collective effort of colleagues at both UCC and UL involved in and committed to that development over the past several years.

Warm gratitude is due to Zachary Formwalt for his kind permission to use a still from his video installation In the Arc of the Light as our cover image, and for very helpfully providing us with the still featured. Sincere thanks also to Hannah Godfrey, Jasmin Allousch and Alessandra Anzani at Peter Lang, for the practical and moral support provided at various stages in the production process, and to series editor Florian Mussgnug for welcoming this volume to the ‘New Comparative Criticism’ series.

On a personal note, the editors are grateful to their former departments (French and Italian) at University College Dublin, for giving them the start as assistant lecturers early in the present millennium, and affording them a year-long opportunity to indulge each other’s penchant for idle metaphysical speculation and cultural and sporting commentary in its hallowed precincts. We are delighted that serendipitous alliance appears to have borne some fruit slightly later in the day.

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Introduction: Framing Transition(s) in Comparative Studies

Frame 1: across two large opposed screens inside a disused condensed milk factory on the outskirts of a small Irish city, in the early summer of 2014, a video installation on the construction of a Stock Exchange in Shenzhen, PRC, by an American photographer and video artist based in Amsterdam, goes through its loops.1 The installation obliquely but methodically charts the emergence, at the other side of the world, of a physical space dedicated to facilitating, legitimising and institutionalising the evermore global, virtual circulation of capital. The activity of building – the transformation of physical space – is thematised as a prelude to the generalisation of immaterial capital movement. Here, we sense, are the largely unpeopled images of a global community in transition, available, though barely offered, to any attention prepared to dwell upon them. It feels appropriate to encounter them inside the walls of a precarious postindustrial space, with a ‘For Sale’ sign at the gate, a space in suspension, only provisionally occupied by artistic practitioners. As if the cognitive and cultural processes whereby the complexity of a world in transition might be grasped could themselves only be barely tolerated by that world. But suggesting also confirmation that the processes which enable critical responses to the inexhaustible framing question – that of where we are – may require multiple derealisations, delocalisations, and displacements. All of us – contemporary subjects, cosmopolitans, consumers, critics, and even ← 1 | 2 → critical cosmopolitan cultural consumers – are implicated in such systems of relatedness and their associated processes, no matter how established or protective our institutional and disciplinary premises appear.

Frame 2: a presentational meeting, at some time in the last two years, in any number of European universities, on the funding ‘horizon’ represented by a supranational programme associated with the resonant date at the end of the present decade. The presenters’ insistence is on the general imperative of collaborative research across disciplinary areas. Viability depends on the possibility of articulating a utility for any project in terms of specific kinds of societal outcome. Legitimacy is a matter of impact, itself the subject of specific kinds of measurement. An apparent sense of common purpose is grounded on the unquestionable institutional fact that the primary new intellectual virtue consists in finding a discursive toe-hold within the criteria of the funding authorities. Those who fail to successfully adapt the use of their ‘intellectual freedom’ in this respect are liable to find the university an ever more inhospitable place. The paradox of an extremely aggressive form of economic and social individualisation (radically incentivised competition for ever scarcer resources) driving the marginalisation of the figure of the individual critical thinker as a creative knowledge source, is one that researchers in the humanities in particular are bound to reflect upon. At another institutional level, the not-unrelated precarisation of individuals and entire disciplines means that the very subjectivities which attempt to maintain and inhabit this landscape find themselves in what feels, at a practical level, like a permanent state of transition.

Frame 3: in March 2013, while advocating the liberalisation of national rules on the use of English as an official language of teaching and research in French institutions of Higher Education, Geneviève Fioraso, the then Minister for Education and Research, defended her measures from their critics with the deeply symptomatic observation that, should linguistic arrangements continue unaltered, the isolation of French education and research would reduce it to (in her image) a handful of people around a table, discussing Proust.2 The French example can, in this respect, be read ← 2 | 3 → as paradigmatic. The modern state within the conditions of globalisation retains, among its last vestiges of difference and specific cultural influence, its cultural production and heritage; and it is arguably in literary and associated cultural fields alone that linguistic difference continues to be envisaged and explored, not as an obstacle, but as an invitation to enhanced intercultural understanding. Paradoxically here also, however, the greater the amount and diversity of relations between cultures, the more pressing the drive towards a common language in which all can be made to appear to converse – and, arguably, to converge. Indeed, many tolerably good round tables on Proust already occur in English … But this paradox is all the more active for research which would draw on objects from more than one linguistic tradition. It poses the question of a genuine cultural and linguistic plurality (both referential and performative) in the comparative space.

Frame 4: we read and watch every day, as people die en masse in the Mediterranean sea, the mediating transitional space from which a great deal of what we experience and recognise as ‘cultural’ emerged. We view high-resolution videos online showing the deliberate destruction of key vestiges of a common ancient heritage, rationalised with invocations of cultural and religious purity. We wrestle with the details of multiple overlapping conflicts and crises, actors and agendas, while at the same time confronted with the urgency of situations which strenuously engage individual and collective ethical self-perceptions. The complexity of transition as a pattern in human affairs, and the deep human ambivalence towards it, dominate the world we find ourselves obliged to inhabit. ← 3 | 4 →

This volume is concerned with the question of transition, less as a motif of unifiable meaning than as a recurrent thematic and theoretical problem across a wide range of comparative cultural research. The ‘comparative’ here has its origins in comparative literature – a discipline itself engaged in the open-ended questioning of its parameters and premises,3 and thus the constant reframing of the question of disciplinarity. Slightly more than half of the work collected here was presented in earlier forms at ‘Transitions in Comparative Studies’, the first international conference of the Comparative Literature Association of Ireland (CLAI), held in University College Cork in June 2012. In her prefatory remarks to an initial publication related to that event, Brigitte Le Juez has recently emphasised the pertinence of the transition motif for the evolving space of comparative practices:

L’approche comparative met en pratique et interroge le principe même de la transition, que celle-ci représente une transformation ou un passage entre divers motifs, genres, langages ou méthodologies. L’analyse comparative représente donc un processus essentiellement comparatif – également transnational et transdisciplinaire – qui crée sa propre forme de connaissance par l’identification de relations et d’échanges entre les cultures littéraires. Cette connaissance est constamment remise en question par la nature même des études comparées, mais elle est aussi constamment affinée dans l’espoir de faire progresser la discipline aussi bien au niveau de l’enseignement qu’à celui de la recherche.4 ← 4 | 5 →

The comparative gesture performs both the act and the question of transition between the terms compared. Understood as an intercultural practice, comparative literature may thus also be understood as both a transitive and transnational process – creating its own object/form of knowledge as it identifies and analyses lines of relation and exchange between literary cultures. When navigating between languages, it becomes critically engaged with the possibility and methods of such navigation. Meanwhile, interdisciplinary and intermedial versions of comparative studies likewise centre on transitions which may themselves remain under-analysed.

Comparaison n’est pas raison – as the adage warns: though the construction of a comparison is always an implicitly theoretical gesture, its establishment and completion provide no guarantee of worthwhile critical insight. Comparative acts have no in-built auto-foundational virtue. It is in this respect that the question of comparative criticism and critique becomes essential: demanding a critical writing which emerges from the identification and pursuit of necessary comparison-based readings. Transition, in this respect, appears doubly worthy of critical interest: not just for what may be revealed of each of the terms in a comparison, the compared elements – but for the underlying significance and properties of the transition(s) framed. The transitional quality of the comparative gesture confronts its agent with the contingency of the proposition that is being fashioned. It dramatises the uncertainty of meaning, but also the potential creativity of critical energies.

The aspectual nature of transition is thus central to the present volume’s title. Comparative Becomings gestures towards the development of added insights – new knowledge – through the practice of critical comparison. The comparative act frames its chosen objects off-centre.5 Reading them ← 5 | 6 → within specific relations it initiates a process of developmental unsettling. The environment in which thinking about signifying processes and cultural production occurs is itself one which exemplifies the ferment, bordering at times on turmoil, of which we speak. To enter this environment is to be bound up in a transitional process, exposed to its uncertainties, messiness, anxieties – and to be forced to look outwards for new bearings in the search for understanding. Indeed, uncertainty appears as a fundamental property of this problematic – establishing and experiencing transition being profoundly less secure than its retrospective mapping, as Jonathan Levin has cogently observed with respect to the relations of American Modernism and Pragmatism in his Poetics of Transition:

Transition is thus that state of fluidity in which maps of reality are as yet unavailable. To think transition is thus to work, in a sense, without a map; to try to build a picture, however fragmentary; to describe and clarify connections.7 The methodological and definitional nature of transition in comparative literature resonates urgently, furthermore, with the transitional processes in motion around the world at the present time. As a thematic concern in comparative work, transition – a phase or duration in which previously established patterns no longer hold – is thus also, within whatever historical period or other configuration it is charted and ← 6 | 7 → analysed, key to the renewed relevance of comparative literary and cultural reflection and scholarship today. Hence, also, our reference in the title to comparative studies. This is not to claim particular breadth of purview for the collection of essays presented here, but to acknowledge the critical porosity of a contemporary practice committed to comparative thinking.

Our ‘framing’ of transition as a generalised theme here suggests an affinity between critical comparative ‘study’ and the processes of ‘cognitive mapping’ – the development of a critical understanding of ‘where’ exactly one ‘is’ within the system(s) of the real world. Fredric Jameson’s construction of postmodernism places great significance on this task as an ongoing critical project,8 but the problematics of cognitive mapping can be seen to transcend the specific properties of that cultural moment. Understood generally, cognitive mapping as critical process could be argued to be very centrally concerned with the uncertainty of transition in its many forms. Thus, Marshall Berman, drawing on canonical readings from the nineteenth century, had already written of modernity itself in a comparable vein – in terms of an unrelenting dissolution of apparently established forms, an insuperable tension between the established and the emergent. This, it could be argued, frames the modern essentially in terms of a new permanence of the transitional – so that to be ‘modern’, wherever the term is used, is to be challenged to think transition as a defining feature of lived reality.9

António Sousa Ribeiro and Maria Irene Ramalho have argued that the challenge of the emergence of a cultural studies paradigm for specifically literary studies, once essentialist positions are abandoned, is that of avoiding a complete dissolution of the ‘literary’ – as both disciplinary field and object of reflection – within the broader set of the ‘cultural’.10 This state of ← 7 | 8 → disciplinary transition may also be apprehended as an example of ‘literary’ ideas and concepts transcending their disciplinary origins. As Massimo Fusillo has pointed out, elsewhere in the Revue de littérature comparée issue already mentioned, the porosity of practices, theories and concepts generated within and in respect of literature makes it both impracticable and undesirable to limit the questions emergent through comparative literature to traditional literary objects. Literature’s direct cultural stock appears imperilled at a time, precisely, when its paradigmatic values are becoming ever more generalised:

This conjoined sense of existential threat and accrued general pertinence has the makings of a crisis in disciplinary terms precisely because it calls disciplinary boundaries into question at a time when the drive to perform enabled acts of critical reflection appears evermore urgent. In this respect, it is necessary to interrogate the very concept of a scientific or intellectual discipline. A key thinker in this regard by any measure, Michel Foucault, in his inaugural lecture at the Collège de France, placed the definition of a discipline in opposition with the practice of textual commentary (commentaire):

[D]ans une discipline, à la différence du commentaire, ce qui est supposé au départ, ce n’est pas un sens qui doit être redécouvert, ni une identité qui doit être répétée ; c’est ce qui est requis pour la construction de nouveaux énoncés. Pour qu’il y ait ← 8 | 9 → discipline, il faut donc qu’il y ait possibilité de formuler, et de formuler indéfiniment, des propositions nouvelles.12

Many of the essays collected in this volume contain elements of the practice of commentary (which Foucault opposes to discipline), in that they identify and expand upon meanings available in the works ‘read’ and engaged with – not simply in the sense of a reiteration of the already plain, but in terms of how works speak to a contemporary perspective. In this light, it could be argued that the writing presented here is less wholly ‘disciplinary’ than variously interdisciplinary and collectively pre-disciplinary in nature. This is not unproblematic. Writing within the disciplinary context of ‘comparative literature’ in the mid-1980s, Claudio Guillén urged caution in moving from the recognition of analytical possibilities across and between artistic fields towards an extension of ‘comparative literature’ per se:

At a certain level of abstraction we may conceive of a morphology capable of encompassing various arts simultaneously (or a thematology […]). But such ideas cannot be interesting or fruitful unless we first clarify our thinking about the structure of each single form of art in question, its stratification, limitations, and so on. That is, we must enter the terrain of aesthetics.13 ← 9 | 10 →


VIII, 280
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2017 (November)
comparative literature intercultural studies interdisciplinarity
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2017. VIII, 280 pp., 1 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Michael G. Kelly (Volume editor) Daragh O'Connell (Volume editor)

Michael G. Kelly lectures in French and comparative literature at the University of Limerick. Daragh O’Connell is a lecturer in Italian Studies at University College Cork.


Title: Comparative Becomings