Comparisons, Intersections and Margins

July 10, 2015

Comparative Literature is an intellectual field that requires a combination of research from more than one disparate fields. It is interesting to think about Comp Lit in relation to the Great Books. Mortimer Adler created the Great Ideas in hopes of having a searchable, navigable reference when looking at big issues that affect human civilization. Big ideas are, generally, generated by those facing a big problem. Therefore, solutions generally fit a specific issue at a specific time and involve a specific population. Each solution will offer information which may enable us to find better and better solutions as we learn the full argument. Likewise, the field of Comparative Literature arose in the nineteenth century at a time when intellectuals' began to inquire about the best types of literature for reading and education. These intellectuals were interested in man's transition from the existence of solitary family units to city dwellers and citizens. Comparative Literature, much like the Great Books, then, is a study of transitions.

In the twentieth century, Mortimer Adler first introduced the Great Ideas to the world. He worked for ten years to understand and trace the Great Ideas through all of western literature. From there, Encyclopaedia Britannica published Adler's extensive (and expensive) Syntopicon. With this rigourous endeavor, Adler was attempting to solve a problem that Francis Bacon had pointed out much earlier. Bacon (among others) had noted that large topics of discussion centered around specific arguments which were essentially the same, but these could be difficult to trace due to the every changing terminology. Bacon also believed that to understand the idea, one must come to terms with all possible sides of an argument. Bacon states, “I understand those differences of opinions touching the principles of nature, and the fundamental points of the same, which have caused the diversity of sects, schools, and philosophies, as that of Empedocles, Pythagoras, Democritus, Parmenides, and the rest...yet to those that seek truth and not magistrality, it cannot but seem a matter of great profit, to see before them the several opinions touching the foundations of nature” (Advancement of Learning 48). In this very same vein, Adler proposed 102 Great Ideas, traced through years of literature, philosophy, natural science and social science in order to better understand human civilization. The big questions regarding humanity may always exist and there are innumerable ways of approaching them.

Students of Comparative Literature undertake great questions from seemingly odd communities. Take, for example, the life of a mushroom, as Anna Tsing (professor at UC Santa Cruz) does in her research. She studies mushrooms with an ethnographic eye, one that gleans details about the earth and the people on it through the mushroom itself. In a recent blogpost (, she writes, “Domination, domestication, and love are deeply entangled. Home is where dependencies within and among species reach their most stifling. For all its hyped pleasure, perhaps this is not the best idea for multi-species life on earth. Consider, instead, the bounteous diversity of roadside margins. Consider mushrooms.” She instructs us to see the small as a very vital piece of the large. Much like Bacon, she believes that by focusing on details, we can build a more informed picture.

Fellow professor Mara de Gennaro discusses Tsing's mushrooms as a point of entry into the complex web of life. On a recent American Comparative Literature Association blog*, de Gennaro writes, “I want to close by reflecting on another word that very often recurs in multispecies ethnographies: 'entanglement.' With the burgeoning of transnational approaches to literary studies over the last decade and more, the metaphors we favor for challenging inequality have been changing. In Globalectics, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o asks us to imagine works of literature and orature as points on a globe where 'there is no one center; any point is equally a center' and all the points are 'balanced and related to one another by the principle of giving and receiving' (8, 61). Shu-mei Shih also advocates a 'relational method' of comparison, arguing that 'relational comparison is not a center-periphery model, as the texts form a network of relations from wherever the texts are written, read, and circulated' (96).” The challenge is to trace an argument without a center. The scholars of Comp Lit departments as well as those involved in the Great Books dialogues prove that this can be done.

Furthermore, these ideas, as generated from the question of a single mushroom's purpose, mirrors arguments made by Kimberlé Crenshaw regarding intersectionality. She states, “[T]he failure to embrace the complexities of compoundedness is not simply a matter of political will, but is also due to the influence of a way of thinking about discrimination which structures politics so that struggles are categorized as singular issues. Moreover, this structure imports a descriptive and normative view of society that reinforces the status quo” (“Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race” 48). She speaks of the compoundedness of nature, the complexities of life, as it labels us, creates our communities. These scholars look to broaden our understanding of life in general, beginning with a small detail and tracing its path through to the larger picture.

Complexity is inherent to the ideas that we study. We pursue these large questions despite title, genre or form. The large questions that affect society are complicated and intermingled. Mortimer Adler understood this as he created the Syntopicon. It is not meant to be the consummation of the argument, but a single reference point from which to begin.

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