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A Grand Day Out: Celebrations and Presentations

Whilst theoretically outside the parameters of The Absolute Word, my attendance at the 10th Anniversary of Comparative Literature at the University of Glasgow is something that I feel is connected to the business, under the umbrella of education, literature and presentations.

Professor Michael Syrotinski, a key figure in the College of Arts, had organised the event as a way of celebrating a decade of the delivery of the undergraduate course in Comparative Literature at Glasgow, and the launch last September of the Master's programme in the same field, of which I am a student.

Keynote speakers were Professor Susan Bassnett (University of Warwick), Professor Nicholas Harrison (Kings College London), and Professor Haun Saussy (University of Chicago), as well as our own beloved Programme Convenor, Dr. Laura Martin, and it was certainly a great privilege to be asked to deliver a presentation to them and the rest of the audience on my thoughts on the field of Comp. Lit in the world today. I can't say I wasn't somewhat nervous, rather like a teenager about to meet One Direction, as to be able to listen to some of the forerunners of the field in person was a lot for my nerves just in itself, but to discuss my own theories and critical viewpoint in front of them in a formal and prestigious setting was quite an intimidating prospect.

I spent some time deciding on the subject matter of my talk, as mine was placed at the end of the afternoon, and I knew that I needed to maintain people's interest more so than usual: energy levels would be dwindling like a flame reaching the last few millimetres of a wick, so I had to choose something that would sustain the audience for the last little while. In the end, I opted for a summation of Comparative Literature generally and its place in the world today, particularly in relation to current affairs. I entitled my presentation, 'Eurocentric Comparative Literature, the Western Canon, and consequential Orientalism in contemporary society'. Sounds bouncy, huh?

Essentially I wanted to look at the way the last few hundred years of the field have focused predominantly on European texts, and established within that focus a hierarchy of texts called the Canon. The Canon bugs me. I am absolutely for our future generations studying the great works of our cultural history, but my problem with it is that it excludes a good deal of knowledge and literature from cultures of further afield, whose history is intertwined with ours, and is no less important or relevant. I also feel that if we only place generally Western texts in importance, it reiterates a sense of 'us' and 'them', which is known, essentially, in the Comp. Lit. world as 'Orientalism'; this is a division that, in my mind, can then be seen manifesting itself in the world around us, particularly in more right-wing ideology influencing current opinions on the integration and discussion of Islamic culture, creating an ignorance and sweeping generalisations in the media and society. Obviously, a lack of a broader curriculum is not the only reason behind this, but it certainly could be argued that it reflects this issue.

My theory led me to the assertion that Comp. Lit. ought to be much more wide-ranging in its approach, relinquishing out-dated hierarchies of colonial times and embracing a more philosophical and integrated methodology, whereby rather than grouping texts with labels of geographical and cultural points of reference, we group them more according to the message, themes, language and emotions they convey, and so thus promote a more holistic and human viewpoint. As firm in my argument as I was, and despite several years presenting to large audiences on a daily basis, (albeit in the classroom!), I was still incredibly nervous in case what I had to say was outlandish or unclear, especially as I am a novice in this field and I was presenting to three renowned experts.

However, my presentation and those of my three postgraduate classmates were received very well, and whilst there were questions from the audience, including the aforementioned experts, they were much more of a curious and developmental nature rather than a critical or antagonistic one, so it was with great relief and celebration that we all repaired to The Ubiquitous Chip on Ashton Lane and continued our discussions informally over a few much-needed pints! Which was nice.


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