If Comparative Literature is a Global Positioning System, How Can We Move the Center?


by David Palumbo-Liu

Why would an investigation into the cartographies and timelines of literary production, and the contemporary histories of locating and placing people and peoples differentially and relationally within systems that call themselves “global,” matter to our understanding of ourselves, and our choices of acting one way, rather than another toward others?

Many years ago, Edward Said was invited to give the Ian Watt lecture at Stanford. He was introduced by none other than Ian Watt himself. Ian gave the customary academic introduction, but then added, “One of the things I most admire about Edward’s work is the lucidity of his prose, his use of the English language.” Watt attributed this to Said having received “a good English education.” I must not have been the only one in the audience who held their breath in anticipation of what Said, who in part grew up under the British Mandate, would say.

What he did say was both gracious and to the point. He thanked Watt for the introduction and then added, “But you know, Ian, some of us learned English in different ways – some of us were caned if we did not speak English correctly.”

What Watt chose to emphasize as a point of commonality, of sociability, was a discourse that allowed him to imagine Said as part of a particular fraternity. Watt’s pronouncement indicated that he and Said were brothers, not only in the English language but also in a particular usage of it within specific intellectual protocols. For Watt this bond transcended the particularities of how each came to write English. But for Said such an affinity could not so easily erase historical specificity, a specificity that challenged the notion of the seamless social bond produced by common language and a shared sensitivity about its proper use. [i]

One of the points I want to bring forward today is that any reputably “global” system is open to being incorporated into uncommon usage, and that by repurposing, its own claims become examinable in a new light. Not only that, but we must acknowledge the co-presence and uneven overlap of multiple “global systems,” whose actual more realistic and modest particularities are covered over by both real and aspirational differences of power.

In a well-known passage in his autobiography, Said elaborates the rather complex issue of his acquisition and practice of language. The way he does so is to lay before us the locating and positioning function of language, and languages, that ultimately “locate” him in an uncomfortable and unhomely terrain, one in which the “global” is explicitly denied:

With an unexceptionally Arab family name like “Saïd”, connected to an improbably British first name (my mother much admired [Edward VIII] the Prince of Wales in 1935, the year of my birth), I was an uncomfortably anomalous student all through my early years: a Palestinian going to school in Egypt, with an English first name, an American passport, and no certain identity, at all. To make matters worse, Arabic, my native language, and English, my school language, were inextricably mixed: I have never known which was my first language, and have felt fully at home in neither, although I dream in both. Every time I speak an English sentence, I find myself echoing it in Arabic, and vice versa.

When I read this I think of Anton Shammas’ brilliant novel, Arabesques, written by a Palestinian Christian, in Hebrew. At one point a character declares her love:

“You know, I’m half Arab,” Amira says, “because the creative side of my mind comes from Alexandria. I love you in a Jewish way, but I write about it in Arab style. I used to write to my father in Arabic, and he would answer me in French. But you could sense the smells of the beach at Alexandria behind his words. Also the smells of my mother’s kitchen. I didn’t understand everything he wrote, but the dried-up stream of his Hebrew somehow flowed into my Arabic” (93).

Now how to map that? How to center that?

The texts to which I will allude to take on the issue of location, and the dissonance created between the different systems in which they are positioned, temporally, spatially, historically, geographically. I will argue that the problematic of locating oneself in a global system is perceivable in local instantiations, and yet the position one occupies is reliant on multiple points of view and angles of perception.

I was never one of those critics or theorists who felt there is a literary “system.” If there is one, it is a very inefficient one for sure, designed by its very nature for failure, for in these and other texts we can find the straining of the very notion of systems. This stress factor, I argue, can be interpreted as the imprint of doubt, skepticism, critique, resistance, some of which is successful in challenging the system, some not. They all try to move the center. These texts gesture toward visions and aspirations to be other than systemic, or let’s say they point to a relation of tension between themselves and any binding systemic account of itself. They point to the strengths and weaknesses of the systems in which they are positioned.

Let’s remember how GPS works — one’s location is determined by the drawing together of at least three, if not four, satellite feeds, each one transmitting its position in the heavens to one’s minuscule little positioning device, that then synthesizes these different satellite positions and comes up with its location on the earth. My humble iPhone now attaches me to distant orbits and a system of references. I am located on earth but only by first drawing on multiple different positions from within this positioning system. I hasten to add that this system is one over which I have no control.

The location here on earth as determined by the positions of these satellites demands that we recognize that location on earth is derivable only by integrating ourselves into a global positioning system, and, if that is not mind-bending enough — our earthly location is knowable only by reference to something both outside ourselves and something we cannot possibly see. We simply blindly trust it. Here I’ll be asking us to imagine the work of contemporary literature as having something to do with both intuiting those invisible systems and also imaging otherwise, in extra-systemic ways.

Let me start with a literary allusion I am sure you all know: an instance of a young Irish lad puzzling out his status within the British Empire and the world. The way he will attempt to do so is through the vehicle of an aesthetic life that will take him beyond the geographies in which he is located. From that position he will launch his attempt to “forge … the uncreated conscience of [his] race.”

Let us not forget that the publication date for Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was 1916, the year in which the Easter Rising took place in Dublin. Joyce, then, was writing at a moment of immense historical and national crisis. And he was also writing a lyrical and aesthetic document of his personal perceptions of his time and place. Look now at the moves he makes in this famous early passage. Here Stephen conveniently disappears the British Crown, and in fact begins with an allusion to its former colonies. Here then is Stephen Dedalus’s global positioning system:

He opened the geography to study the lesson, but he could not learn the names of places in America. Still they were all different places that had those different names. They were all in different countries and countries were in continents and the continents were in the world and the world is in the universe.

He turned to the flyleaf of the geography and read what he had written there: himself, his name and where he was.

Stephen Dedalus

Class of Elements

Clongowes Wood College


County Kildare



The World

The Universe

There is a lot to comment on in this passage, but rather than dwell on this passage, I read it in order to get to another one, moving along the satellite feeds.

This one comes seventy years later, from another artist. She begins by likening herself to a bumblebee that has infiltrated her living room: “It is looking for what it needs, just as I am, and, like me, it has gotten trapped in a place where it cannot fulfill its own life.” How Joycean. The writer continues:

And I, too, have been bumping my way against glassy panes, falling half-stunned, gathering myself up and crawling, then again taking off, searching.

I don’t hear the bumblebee anymore, and I leave the front door. I sit down and pick up a secondhand, faintly annotated copy of Marx’s The German Ideology, which ‘happens’ to be lying on the table.

I will speak these words in Europe, but I am having to search for them in the United States of America. When I was ten or eleven, early in World War II, a girlfriend and I used to write each other letters which we addressed like this:

Adrienne Rich

14 Edgevale Road

Baltimore, Maryland

The United States of America

The Continent of North America

The Western Hemisphere

The Earth

The Solar System

The Universe

Rich follows with two sentences that take us to her global positioning system: “You could see your own house as a tiny fleck on an ever widening landscape, or as the center of it all, from which the circles expanded into the infinite unknown. It is that question of feeling at the center that gnaws at me now. At the center of what? As a woman I have a country; as a woman I cannot divest myself of that country merely by condemning its government, or by saying three times ‘As a woman my country is the whole world.’ Tribal loyalties aside, and even if nation-states are now just pretexts used by multinational conglomerates to serve their interests, I need to understand how a place on the map is also a place in historywithin which as a woman, a Jew, a lesbian, a feminist I am created and trying to create [my emphasis].” [ii]

Now, we can assume that Rich would know the resonances of Joyce that reside in her formulation of location. But not necessarily. Perhaps she chose precisely to not explicitly allude to Joyce’s text, perhaps these two efforts at locating oneself are different. What does it matter? For can’t we see these as two textual satellites that, whether or not they refer to each other explicitly, are now two points of reference for us, as our eyes dwell in the interlinear spaces of one or another of them?

Each text is joined to the common problematic of locating oneself, and, critically, from that point of orientation, acting in the world from that particularly located point in geography, gender, race, history, etc.. The issue set before us is that each poetic fragment is situated simultaneously in the local and the universal, the gradual movement of the line of reading does not erase the words before it, but rather gathers it into a simultaneity: we are both of 14 Edgevale Place and the USA and the World, and also at the same time at Clongowes College, County Kildare, the Universe. The global literary position merges both Joyce and Rich into the Universe (whatever that is), but they each bring with them their very local addresses and inescapable matters of concern. This means they are both contained within these spheres but also dynamic forces in the re-imagining of the precise nature of these universes, or globalities. And we as comparatists now weigh and measure anew what this system of positioning might be that has just been brought into existence.

Let me underscore, they become part of a positioning system that we take an active imaginative part in forming, as opposed to and differentiated from, at least provisionally in our pedagogical and intellectual spaces, as teachers and researchers of comparative literature, those other systems of power that position us in their informational grids.

This would oblige us use our imaginations to forge a discourse different from the one Denis Cosgrove describes in his masterful work, Apollo’s Eye. In a passage worth quoting at length, Cosgrove writes:

Overwhelmingly Western in both origin and access, these systems have been readily incorporated into the American globalist discourse initiated in the 1940s and elaborated in the rhetoric of the space race. In the 1990s, American Vice President Al Gore regularly represented information technologies as the foundation for global participatory democracy: “the Global Information Infrastructure (GII) will be an assemblage of local, national and regional networks… This GII will circle the globe with information superhighways on which all people can travel… the GII will be a metaphor for democracy itself.” … Similarly, Bill Gates… has celebrated a “frictionless capitalism…

In the great planetary marketplace, we as social creatures will sell, negotiate, invest, bargain, choose, discuss, stroll, meet.” Such proclamations stand squarely in the tradition of “universal association,” which from the time of Alexander the Great has followed the dream of imperium….

In projecting ideas and beliefs forged in one locale across global space, the liberal mission of universal redemption is inescapably ethnocentric and Imperial, able to admit “other” voices only if they speak and are spoken by the language of the (self-denying) center. Claims that cyberspace, the Internet, new hybridities, quasi objects, or cyborgs will offer genuine poly-vocality and equivalence must therefore be treated with some skepticism in the light of the genealogy of Apollonian vision. [iii]

In Joyce and Rich we have seen two early differential mappings of location and position, each marking a counter-vision to the one just mentioned by Cosgrove.

Two other examples of counter-imaginary mapping.

The first is from Amitav Ghosh’s novel, The Shadow Lines. Here the narrator conceives of an entirely different way of mapping the area of his country and its global relations by moving the Center.

The narrator begins by comparing the relative proximity of Khulna in Bangladesh to Kolkata in India, and then begins an experiment in redrawing the proximities and distances of numerous world cities, each drawn into the same-sized circle:

One day, when [Tridib’s Atlas] was lying open on my desk in my hostel room, quite by chance I happened to find an old rusty compass at the back of my drawer. It had probably been forgotten there by the person who lived in the room before me.

I picked it up and, toying with it, placed its point on Khulna [in southern Bangladesh] and the tip of the pencil on Srinagar [an Indian state of Kashmir].

Khulna is not quite 100 miles from Kolkata as the crow flies: the two cities face each other at the watchful equidistance across the border. The distance between Khulna and Srinagar, or so I discovered when I measure the space between the points of my compass, was 1200 miles, nearly 2000 km. It didn’t seem like much. But when I took my compass through the pages of that Atlas, on which I could still see smudges left by Tridib’s fingers, I discovered that Khulna was about as far from Srinagar as Tokyo is from Beijing, or Moscow from Venice, or Washington from Havana, or Cairo from Naples.

Then I tried to draw circle with Khulna at the center and Srinagar on the circumference. I discovered immediately that the map of South Asia would not be big enough. I had to turn back to a map of Asia before I found one large enough for my circle.

It was an amazing circle.

Beginning in Srinagar and traveling anti-clockwise, it cut through the Pakistani half of Punjab, through the tip of Rajasthan and the edge of Sind, through the Rann of Kutch, and across the Arabian Sea, through the southernmost toe of the Indian Peninsula, through Kandy, in Sri Lanka, and out into the Indian Ocean until it emerged to touch upon the northernmost finger of Sumatra, then straight through the tail of Thailand into the Gulf, to come out again in Thailand, running a little north of Phnom Penh, into the hills of Laos, past Hué in Vietnam, dipping into the Gulf of Tonkin, then swinging up again through the Chinese province of Yunnan, past Chungking, across the Yangtze Kiang, passing within sight of the Great Wall of China, through Inner Mongolia and Sinkiang, until with a final leap over the Karakoram Mountains it dropped again onto the valley of Kashmir.

It was a remarkable circle: more than half of mankind must have fallen within it. (226-27).

In this heuristic exercise, the narrator of The Shadow Lines imagines vastly different geocultural alignments and conglomerations, none necessarily more fantastic than the other. A whole new sense of region, of relation, is produced herein. And of course this exercise invites us to replicate or vary such imaginative acts ourselves, on our own atlas.

Finally, another novel by Ghosh. Not only it is a rich and elaborately intertwined novel, but it also has GPS at its core, or at least one of its dual cores. I am referring to his 2005 novel, The Hungry Tide. There is no way to convey the immense richness and complexity of this text, which might be said to follow two parallel projects: the mapping and chronicling of dolphins through the Sundarbans in West Bengal India, relying heavily on a GPS-equipped monitoring device, and the retrieval of the lost history of the Marichjhapi Massacre of 1979, when the newly-elected Communist Party of India government of West Bengal forcibly evicted thousands of Bengali refugees who had settled on the island of Marichjhapi.

However, the retrieval of that specific event necessitates an event deeper excursion into the cultural, linguistic, historical and mythic past of the region, just as the mapping of the movements of the dolphins requires a larger account of the general relation between human and non-human animals the natural and built environments. Ghosh thus pushes to the foreground precisely issues of position and systems — ecological, linguistic, mythic, historical, political.

The products of these investigations are contained in two objects, but Ghosh powerfully suggests that while they are necessary they are also pre-texts for sustained and committed work in the world.

The text in which both the pre-history of the region and the history of the massacre are embedded, a large journal kept by an old school teacher, is ultimately lost, but not before being embedded in the memory of the one man who inherits the document and incorporates that knowledge into his memory. It is no accident that he is a translator.

What about the dolphins? All the data patiently and meticulously noted down in a ledger by the scientist Piya has been lost as well in same storm that claimed the notebook. Yet her monitor is intact and as she explains to her friend, “This is connected to the satellites of the Global Positioning System. On the day of the storm it was in my pocket. It was the only piece of equipment that survived.” At the touch of a button the screen flickered on. Piya tapped a key to access the memory. “All the routes that Fokir showed me are stored here.”

Ghosh makes these moves at the end of his novel not simply to offer compensation for the loss of the notebook and ledger. Rather, the fact that the content of memory and information still remains, and is accessible, presents the receivers of memory with the obligation to be active agents in its being put into use. I would suggest that a good use of our energies might be to perform acts not unlike those found in all these texts — to imagine, and to actually actively construct, other worlds, perhaps by shifting the center a bit, or a lot. In sum, to return to Edward Said, we can newly meditate on how we engage the text, and the world, as critics.

Piece published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License | Creative Commons Licence


[i] See Palumbo-Liu, “The Morality of Form; Or What’s ‘Bad’ about ‘Bad’ Writing?” In Jonathan Culler and Kevin Lamb eds., Just Being Difficult? Academic Writing in the Public Arena (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003), 171.

[ii] “Notes toward a politics of location [1984]”.In Carole R. McCann and Seung-kyung Kim eds., Feminist Theory Reader: Local and Global Perspectives (New York: Routledge, 2003), 447-48.

[iii] Denis Cosgrove, Apollo’s Eye: A Cartographic Genealogy of the Earth in the Western Imagination (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 2001), 265-66.

About the Author:

David Palumbo-Liu is the Louise Hewlett Nixon Professor, and Professor of Comparative Literature, at Stanford University.