What happens to the ideal or ideology of

28 May

What happens to the ideal or ideology of the particular, of which self-referential literariness offers a notable example, when a particualr society refuses the apparent privilege of exemption from the norm and demands instead that the norm’s promises be fulfilled? This is the question that the African anthropologist James Ferguson directs against the phrase alternative modernities. Modernity is probably the most notorious of those terms, like the novel, which set a Eurocentric standard the non-European cultures can then be judged by their failure to achieve. Alternative modernities has thus become the rather successful slogan of an all-cultures-are-equal escape from this mandatory norm. Yet this slogan has been less popular in Africa than in East Asia, Ferguson says, because Africa, unlike parts of East Asia, is still waiting for its share in modernity’s material benefits. Equality of cultural respect is no substitute for what Africans themselves might recognize as equality: equality of living standards, equality of access to the goods of the earth. There is no excuse, he concludes, for focusing on the “happy story about plurality and nonranked cultural difference” to the neglect of a second, much less happy story that results in “relatively fixed global statuses” in a “world socio-economic hierarchy” (179). We would do well, with Ferguson, not to jettison the overt, self-declared normativity that underlies this Asia-Africa comparison. For only this norm allows us to appreciate the fact that the government of China has managed to raise its population’s average standard of living despite a simultaneous rise in inequality between Chinese rich and Chinese poor. There can be no ethically responsible discussion of either Africa or China without a transnational comparison of living standards. The standards and how they are arrived at will always require scrutiny, and from more than one viewpoint. But without them, important stories (e.g., stories about economic inequality) simply cannot be told. (1648-49 Bruce Robbins, “Afterword”, PMLA 122.5, October 2007, 1644-1651).

“Owen’s point is made more systematically by Rey Chow in her recent book The Age of the World Target: self-Referentiality in War, Theory, and Comparative Work. If the generic categories that make comparison possible always favour one national literature over another, as Chow suggests, then perhaps comparison itself has to be revalued. “These days,” she writes, “the term ‘comparative’ is often used in tandem or interchangeably with such words as ‘diverse,’ global,’ ‘international,’ ‘transnational’…and the like, in ways that once again conjure the signature aspiration of…going beyond restrictive national boundaries” (72). Chow is right to suggest that comparison has come to serve as a stand-in for cosmopolitanism, and right again to suggest that we should not take this substitution at face value, as if the intellectual operation of comparing were as innocent and inevitable as it looks and as if the same held therefore for cosmopolitanism’s dissociation from the nation. It bears repeating that cosmopolitanism is always partial, in both major senses of the term, and sometimes far from strategic. If you want Americans now to apologize for what other Americans did to the Indians, if you want reparations for slavery, if you even want to defend what remains of the welfare state, then you need not more cosmopolitan detachment but a stronger sense of national belonging – if perhaps also a temporally and politically different one.” (1646-1647)

Ferguson, James. “Decomposing Modernity: History and Hierarchy after Develeopment.” Postcolonial Studies and Beyond. Edited by Ania Loomba, Suvir Kaul, Matti Bunzl, Antoinette Burton, and Jed Esty. Durham: Duke UP, 2005. 166-81.


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