In defence of Radical Inquiry in Comparative Literature, Translation and the Study of Language(s) – 4: A Tribute

We are grateful to receive this contribution from Timothy Mathews for the series of posts based on the LINKS event that took place on 13 June 2022.  A description of the occasion can be found here. Further related posts will be published over the next few days; for previous ones, please scroll down.


A Tribute

to the creativity of Goldsmiths researchers in the field and the practice of Comparative Literature.

What does it mean to think about literature in its broadest terms? In part it’s to think about why literature matters at all; about what lies embedded in acts of communication. To think about literature is to ask what’s involved when people relate to each other, whether in generosity or conflict.

In Goldsmiths such questioning has brought to light, for example, how Modernist innovations and practice have been a vehicle for racial stereotyping and oppression, and their continuing poison in the social relation. Another illumination has involved the way fiction not only opens up people’s imagination, but also closes it down by appealing the most aggressive desires for security, and the suppression of any sense of otherness. In such circumstances, what hope is there for owning an identity and a body, and constructing an inclusive society? Other enquiries at Goldsmiths on why it matters to investigate literature include re-considering The Aeneid as a moving account of migration, and in general how literature explores the human cost of colonial development and exploitation. Further enquires explore migration and exile in a range of transnational contexts; and the psychological as well as cultural border crossings in the experience of identity in all its complexity.

But Comparative Literature is also a practice, and a pedagogy. Researchers and students alike are invited as a matter of day-to-day work to think about, and to try and address the conditions of their own experience, thought-processes, and ways of relating to others. This is translation in its broadest sense, with all its promises and dangers – promises of inclusivity, dangers of appropriation. I was fortunate enough and proud to be a UCL rep at the time of establishing LINKS, and retain very powerful memories of students and lecturers working together to develop critical idioms able to address devastation in the social relation, as well as the many possibilities of building a caring society. I don’t think there was a time when it was clearer to me why it matters to think of the work of people as a process, and not just in terms of immediate profit, however appealing.

On the Goldsmiths website the following aspirations are listed in the Statement of Mission, Values and Strategy:

  • Pursuing intellectual curiosity
  • Encouraging the highest standards of research and practice
  • Building our diverse strengths through interdisciplinary imagination
  • Maximising the interaction of teaching and research
  • Cultivating a unique and creative approach to all our subjects
  • Daring to think differently and to challenge the norms
  • Embracing new ideas with energy and reflection.

My immediate thought as I write this, is that the pursuit of profit as the guiding principle of a successful educational establishment is not an idea that’s very different from what we hear in many walks of life, and that it does little to ‘challenge the norms’.

But more generally, and in the light of the sketch I’ve given of the work in Comparative Literature at Goldsmiths, and on translation and the transnational, the question that comes to my mind is, how can such work be thought not to be meeting those aims stated in the Mission? And if this work does meet those highly aspirational and yet achievable aims, why is this work not being nurtured, but brutalised instead?

I do understand that there are many ways to pursue intellectual innovation and pedagogical inclusivity. But if the work in this area of Goldsmiths staff is thought an inadequate response to these aims, I wonder what the overall strategy is for ensuring that the Mission is pursued with greater clarity? What is the overall idea or strategy for developing Goldsmiths’ identity, and its practices of teaching and research? Financial prudence is clearly a necessary, but by no means sufficient part any strategy, especially a strategy that would dare to ‘think differently’. I look forward with my colleagues to hearing from Senior Management and the Council what their vision is of the future activity, creativity and purpose of Goldsmiths; and what their conception is of Goldsmiths’ ‘interdisciplinary imagination’ and ‘diverse strengths’.

Timothy Mathews
Emeritus Professor of French and Comparative Criticism