The historical roots of the Literature Program at Duke University are in Comparative Literature. Before the Literature Program was founded, Duke had a small major in Comparative Literature. The great programs in comparative literature were founded after World War II, as an attempt to escape purely national boundaries for the study of literature. The two epochal works of the late 1940s, Wellek and Warren’s Literary Theory and Auerbach’s Mimesis, defined the field as Western, literary and literary-historical, but also as theoretical and international.
Since 1985, under the leadership of Fredric Jameson, the Literature Program at Duke University has renewed the tradition of comparative literature. Literary history has given way to broadly historicizing and interdisciplinary approaches to cultural phenomena, with an emphasis on the period from the late eighteenth century to the present. Literature has now become one of many different cultural phenomena that students and faculty work on, alongside film and video, and alongside cultural studies broadly conceived. The traditional commitment to purely literary theories has been richly supplemented by a broad range of theoretical and philosophical projects concerning art and culture, and the traditional commitment to the comparison of different national literatures has given way to global and transnational perspectives.
The Literature Program seeks to rethink what comparison might mean in a world rapidly being altered by complex forces of economic and technological integration. Although a focus on language, literature, and aesthetics continues to ground our work, we have pioneered by drawing together philosophical and theoretical reflections on the status of “literature” and “culture” with work in history, political economy, the sociology of culture, anthropology, visual culture, and cinema studies, all of which seeks to make sense of the complex factors affecting the historically changing nature of the relationship between society and culture. Literature has, in short, employed philosophical critique to interrogate and mediate our relationship to the social sciences thereby modeling a new kind of program in global studies from the perspective of the humanities, a program that recognizes that literature and culture are always crucially important agents in the understanding, definition and alteration of social formations.