By Lydia Tuan
Last July, I had a conversation with a British customs officer that went something like this:
“Oh, so you’re a student? What do you study?”
“What is that?”
“Literature… that you compare… with other literature.”
“So if I read a pamphlet on airports and another one on fixing aeroplanes, would that be considered Comparative Literature?”
My sudden unwillingness to correct a figure of authority forced a very brief, yet shockingly incorrect response to be uttered at that very moment: “Yes.”
The customs officer, having just conquered all understanding of Comparative Literature on his first try, looked pleased with himself and welcomed me into the UK. At least I was not asked what I was going to do with my major.
Comparative Literature is difficult to define. Of course, sources like Wikipedia give the reductionist definition of ‘dealing with literature of two or more cultural groups.’ The major here at the university is structured so that students can compare world literatures that are read not in translation, but in the original language: French with English, Italian with Spanish, German and Russian, or other creative and less expected combinations. Engaging more theoretically, Comparative Literature can also be the comparison between primary and secondary texts, critical texts and their primary texts, or texts from another discipline and literary texts. These definitions are generally thought to represent Comparative Literature in the most straightforward sense of the term.
As a student of literature, I do not hold enough authority to define the limits and boundaries of the discipline. If we are to stand by the most widely accepted definition of ‘comparing national literatures across nation-states, languages, cultures, and centuries,’ then we could even say that a paper I wrote for a Comparative Literature seminar on narrative theory of 19th to 20th century (mostly) French literature last semester can hardly fall into the defined boundaries of the discipline. In that paper, I subjected the following citation to an analysis following the conventions of literary theory. Hold your enthusiasm:
“MEEOW…. Me. mew Mew. MEOW. Meow meooow me meoow meow meeooooow me meeeoow; mew me Mew. MEOOW me meeeow me meeeeow.” –MEEEEOW’M MEEEEEEOOW
For those unfamiliar, I have just cited a computer-generated version of Moby Dick: the product of an algorithm that has taken each word in Melville’s canonical text and rewritten it in the form of a randomized variation of the word “meow.” Does analyzing a ‘literary work’ of 50,000 meows, produced from lines of code, and comparing those ‘meows’ against computer-generated “poetry” count as a valid contribution to the field of Comparative Literature? Briefly returning to what I may — or may not — have falsely confirmed at the UK border a few months ago, can a pamphlet about airports actually be considered a work of literature?
What is literature?
Some conservative scholars in the discipline might contest that “MEEOW…. Me. mew Mew. MEOW.” is not literature in any general, widely accepted sense of the word and that by analyzing that sort of text, I have not produced any sort of academic, or even remotely fruitful, literary criticism. Critics might even argue that computers cannot write literature and that they never will — that only humans can write and contribute to the humanities, the literary canon, the great oeuvres of literature — or that creativity is exclusively human: it begins and ends with human beings.
But does it really? Can creativity be computer-generated, and can what we understand to be humanity be computer-generated? I remain optimistic and wishful that Comparative Literature, as an academic discipline, can eventually move into the territory of acknowledging computer-generated text as literature, forcing us to rethink the inescapable presence of science not only in the creation of literature but also in the way in which we define humanity.