Ten years ago to the week in which I wrote this, “http://thefacebook.com">thefacebook.com” went online, offering those with university affiliations the opportunity to craft, in prose and in lists, what Judith Butler might not call “an account of oneself.” But accounts they were, initially expressed through discrete profiles to be visited, and becoming gradually more social: in “news feeds,” a feature added in 2006, the profiles began to talk to each other, establishing etiquette and ethics, co-negotiators of a social contract determined less by subjects encapsulated within identities than by a flow of images, events, language. The profile mutated into a Wall, in 2008, a tabula rasa on which Lockean consciousness might inscribe its remarks, and then into a Timeline, in 2011, through which Shandean consciousness could broadcast the inadequacy of linear biographical narration. In 2009, news feeds became public and statuses promotable – this latter because, as everybody knows, Facebook has yet to determine how best to monetize its assets. The company’s difficulty underlines what is already obvious to every user of Facebook: that, far from enabling the self-expression of its users, the news feed has acquired a life of its own – we run things, but the things also run us. It is a glossary for a text that could not exist, un dictionnaire des idées impossibles. More vaguely, and truer: the short-form “status updates” that it comprises feel as far away and as near as a Barthesian haiku:
You are entitled, says the haiku, to be trivial, short, ordinary; enclose what you see, what you feel, in a slender horizon of words, and you will be interesting; you yourself (and starting from yourself) are entitled to establish your own notability; your sentence, whatever it may be, will enunciate a moral, will liberate a symbol, you will be profound: at the least possible cost, your writing will be filled.(Barthes 70) Some thoughts emerge from this narrative that might have bearing on the discipline of comparative literature in 2025 – without it being necessary to assume that the decoupling of the profile from the news feed is irreversible. But before mentioning a few, I will just declare that I treat as axiomatic that the word “discipline,” designating as it already does a socialized process of individuation, 72must include not just the quasi-public objects with which we are beginning to grapple (Twitter, para-academic blogs, the online version of this ACLA report) but also the quasi-private objects that we generally prefer to let rest unexpressed (Facebook, the hotel bar). This axiom might have some general applicability, but it is especially important for the discussion of comparative literature. First, the social conditions out of which our methods emerged have been privileged objects of study themselves at various points in our history. As Haun Saussy puts it, “If the specific object of comparative literature is not found in the thematic content of works, perhaps it lies in a dimension of which works and their contents are only symptoms” (14). Auerbach’s Mimesis is not just a study of the canon but also an account of the conditions under which any canon might be recognizable as such – an ideological finesse that partly explains why the idea of a canon remains indispensable decades after it has been, apparently, discredited. Recent debates over world literature (Apter; Hayot) and over the viability of comparison as grounds for argumentation (Cheah; Felski and Friedman) situate the methodologies of literary studies in relation to histories of empire, emigration, professionalization.