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Diacritics 29.4 (1999) 3-18

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Grounds of Comparison

Pheng Cheah

Reflection is born of the comparison of ideas, and it is their variety that leads us to compare them. Whoever sees only a single object has no occasion to make comparisons. Whoever sees only a small number and always the same ones from childhood on still does not compare them, because the habit of seeing them deprives him of the attention required to examine them: but as a new object strikes us, we want to know it, we look for relations between it and the objects we do know; this is how we learn to observe what we see before us, and how what is foreign to us leads us to examine what touches us.

Apply these ideas to the first men, you will see the reason for their barbarism. Never having seen anything other than what was around them, they did not know even it; they did not know themselves. They had the idea of a Father, a son, a brother, but not of man.

--Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Essay on the Origin of Languages

In recent years, the comparative study of cultural formations has undergone critical reinvigoration. The quasi-exponential globalization of all aspects of human existence, which has brought territorially divided or geographically bounded units such as states, national economies, and cultures into an unprecedented and jarring proximity to one another, is, no doubt, an important material condition of possibility of this heightened interest in the cultural branch of comparative studies. For comparison is today no longer a matter of intentional choice. The gradual defamiliarization of our daily lives by globalizing processes has made comparison an inevitable and even unconscious perspective.

Indeed, the grounds of comparison have changed. Comparative work is generally understood as a mode of analysis that begins from one given national or cultural case of a subject of legitimate interest, X, which is the basis for forming a provisional hypothesis or working idea about this subject that serves as the tertium comparationis. One then proceeds to examine a range of other cases of X. Discovered similarities confirm or amplify the various essential features of X that were initially posited, and recognized differences serve to modify our working idea about X. A ground of comparison is therefore both the empirical or objective basis from which comparison begins as well as the interest or principle of reason that motivates each particular activity of comparison.

In the past, the grounds of comparison were undeniably Eurocentric. Not only was the material starting point of comparison always from Europe or the North Atlantic; comparison also had a teleological aim. Whether explicitly or implicitly, the interests of comparison in canonical texts such as Hegel's Aesthetics; his Lectures on the Philosophy of History; and Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion; or Max Weber's sociology of world religions served to affirm a certain idea of Europe as a world historical model. For Hegel and Weber, other cases merely provided the mise-en-scène for the appearance and Bildung of this idealized, universalized figure of Europe. Today, in the humanities [End Page 3] and interpretive social sciences, this old framework for comparison has been challenged by critiques of Eurocentrism and Orientalism, by postcolonial studies, and also from the more parochial perspective of multiculturalism. One can no longer nonchalantly or dogmatically start a comparative endeavor from Europe or the North Atlantic. But the problem goes deeper. Many theorists and some funding bodies, including the Social Sciences Research Council (SSRC) of the USA, have recently suggested that post-Cold War transnationalism has rendered obsolete the traditionally bounded areas of area studies. If this is so, the claim to begin from any area outside the North Atlantic has also become problematic. In other words, if comparison has always presupposed geographical or cultural areas that are a priori distinct and to be compared, how must the grounds of comparison be reenvisioned?

The work of Benedict Anderson stands in an oblique relation to such recent trends in humanistic studies. Although Anderson is an area specialist, a Southeast Asianist trained in political studies, his...