Edited By Jean Bessière and Gerald Gillespie
The Well-Tempered Relativism, Or How to Compare the Incomparable
The University of Bucharest
Towards a Critical Approach to the Territorial Reason
The object of comparative literature, as defined by Goethe, was territoriality: die Welt. Born in a centrifugal frame of reference, it pushed forward a prestigious source of models which were to be emulated in the most remote peripheral areas. In the much wider horizon of a centre-oriented geo-political world, the comparative practice developed towards crafting a coherent spatial symbolism, rich in cartographic metaphors.
However, we must admit that, despite all its forays off-track, traditional comparative literature did succeed in avoiding the virtual Babel-like difference which would have legitimated adages such as: “To every literature its theoretical discourse and its particular practice of research.”
The new-born discipline initially strove to build a frame of reference within which similarities were easy to spot whilst differences became objects of study. Eventually converted into an essence, universalism – its key category and main theoretical tool – ended up in an uncomfortable synonymy with (the oppressive) eurocentrism.
Behind a steady deconstruction which claimed to be an attempt at reversing the standards in the field by emphasizing the openness of their object of study towards the global, contemporary comparatists have steadily camped in a sort of metaphorical neo-territoriality. I will list a few examples below, to illustrate this methodological turn, boosted by the so-called Bernheimer Report (1995) in the United States.
For Michael Riffaterre, the theoretical rehabilitation of...
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