Rey Chow and Comparative Literature

29 May

While the command of multiple languages should remain one of comparative literature’s disciplinary concerns, it should also be possible for students who do not necessarily have a deep knowledge of language other their native ones [sic] to be introduced to comparative literature through the study of poststructuralist theory, simply because one of the key pedagogical aims of poststructuralist theory is the scrutiny of language itself. In he case of North America, where many students have English as their first language, this is crucial because of the multiple languages and cultural enclaves that already exist within English – precisely owing to the ‘international’ history of British and American imperialism. Instead of asking our students to learn Arabic or Chinese in place of the more traditionally revered French or German, what about asking them to study black English, English as used by writers in British India, or English as used by present-day Latin American and Asian American authors?…

        In other words, just as multilingualism does not necessarily prevent one from becoming an intellectual bigot, so monolingualism does not have to mean that one’s mind is closed. Instead of having students add on languages without ever questioning the premise of language-as-power, we could also, within comparative literature, teach students how to be comparative within ‘single’ languages. (113-114;  Rey Chow, “In the Name of Comparative Literature”, in Comparative Literature in the Age of Multicultualism ed. Charles Bernheimer, Baltimore, Maryland: John Hopkins Univ. Press, 1995), 107-116

This reminds me of a typically excoriating passage in another Rey Chow book I’ve enjoyed for many years, Writing Diaspora:
“The widening of our curriculum to include such things as the ‘third world’ and minorities, and the extension of job opportunities to African American, Hispanic, and Asian scholars are part of an ongoing program of instrumentalizing language and culture. Indeed, we can say that the current ‘cultural studies’ programes in institutions of higher education are homological entities to the ‘literacy campaigns’ that are aimed at the lower strata of American society. While the poor need to learn how to read and write, the educated need to read and write other cultures. The universalist ambitions by way of terms such as ‘culture’ and ‘discourse’ belong therefore to a market economy in which ‘culture remains a force but largely of social control, a gratuitous image drawn over the face of instrumentality.’ ”
(Rey Chow, Writing Diaspora: Tactics of Intervention in Contemporary Cultural Studies. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana Univ. Press, 1993, 129.

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