Mahshid Mayar, Chair of American Studies, Department of British and American Studies, Bielefeld University
What do actors do when they compare? This was the broad question with which the International Kickoff Conference of the SFB 1288, “Practices of Comparing: Ordering and Changing the World”, opened. The conference was held in Bielefeld from 5th to 7th October, 2017, and was organized with the objective of expanding the SFB’s international network and further connecting its research endeavors to other scholars across the globe working with comparative practices in history, sociology, political science, art history, philosophy, literary studies, historical image studies, and law. The program included two keynote lectures by Ann Laura Stoler (New School for Social Research), and Haun Saussy (University of Chicago), as well as 18 panel presentations by junior and senior researchers from Europe, Asia, and the United States.
The conference began with a talk by ANGELIKA EPPLE (Bielefeld) that offered a careful examination into the roots of the concept of ‘whiteness’. To this end, her talk examined the 18th-century scientific debates in western Europe over polygeneism and Johann Friedrich Blumenbach’s and his students’ fascination with and their attempts at measuring, comparing, and classifying human skulls. Throughout her talk, Epple pointed at two aspects of the SFB’s engagement with historical practices of comparing: first, to understand the nature of comparative practices in their historical – far from neutral, and more often than not colonial – contexts; and, second, to develop ways to analyze their potential to shape ensuing practices of comparison, such as the art and aesthetics of seeing in the centuries that followed.
The talks in Panel I visited the question of international rankings. LEOPOLD RINGEL and TOBIAS WERRON (Bielefeld) delved into the topic of rankings in order to establish a historical sociology of rankings. Part of a larger SFB research project on rankings in arts, sports, and among universities and nation-states, their talk began by asking whether to rank is a uniquely modern practice. Following their talk, MATTHIAS KRANKE (Politics and International Studies, Warwick), gave an account of international benchmarking as yet another instance of ranking nation-states. Reporting on the results of a joint research project at Warwick, his talk focused on the power and pathologies of contemporary global benchmarking practices.
Throughout the conference, many presentations raised questions about practices of comparing, their potential and their limits. ANN LAURA STOLER (New York) set the stage for this discussion with her keynote lecture ‘AT THE LIMITS OF COMPARISON’. Throughout her talk, Stoler offered a careful inspection of the eventful outer limits of comparison – the historical borderlands left mostly unexplored due to comparisons’ capacity to sustain attention to their seeming transparence and benevolence at the center. Zooming in on historical colonial practices of comparing, Stoler reviewed colonial comparisons and their omniscient ‘relational force’ in marking boundaries, producing concepts, and justifying and substantiating colonial governance. She defined colonialism in terms of comparisons by calling them ‘networks of calculated comparisons,’ rampantly at work in the guise of journalism, education, demographics, punitive practices, etc. across the colonial board. In conclusion, Stoler cautioned against overlooking comparisons’ power to create commanding normative regimes of knowledge, theory-driven models, and persistent imperial myths.
The second day of the conference included three panels and two individual talks that drifted between empiricism and conceptual considerations. The discussion of practices of comparing in the realm of literature by WALTER ERHARD (Bielefeld) brought the focus of the conference to language and literary utterances, devices and forms. Erhard shared reflections on the questions ‘is literature a comparative practice?’ and ‘how does literature work when it compares?’ Erhard’s talk operated as a critical odyssey through the various reincarnations, transferences, and literary comparisons made to the story of Odysseus as a pretext and a departure point for future acts of comparing in western literature where metaphors create narratological ‘regions of meaning’.
Meanwhile, in Panel II, HARTMUT VON SASS (Zurich) picked up the conceptual discussions on practices of comparison in a talk that explored incomparability and/in contrast to non-comparability in an attempt to arrive at a model for practices of comparing. The second paper was delivered by CARLOS SPOERHASE (Bielefeld). His research revisited the question of rankings, tracing its historical roots back to (and pinpointing the centrality of numeric comparisons in) as unlikely a field as European arts and literary criticism in the 18th century.
Panel III refocused on practices of comparing in the art scene: comparative seeing, connoisseurship and curatorial practices from the 18th to the 20th century. The panel consisted of three talks by art historians PETER GEIMER (Berlin), JORIS CORIN HEYDER (Bielefeld) and BRITTA HOCHKIRCHEN (Bielefeld). The talks engaged, respectively, with comparative seeing, comparative making of artistic taste, and comparative viewing. Addressing the ethics and limits of artistic comparability, its curatorial potential in traversing physical geography, and its physical and material contextualizations, the talks promised further nuanced findings regarding the acts of collecting, curating, comparing, and looking at art in early-modern and modern times.
The discussions on the differences between audacious and odious acts of comparing in the world of art history were followed by a talk on the research potential offered by digital humanities in discovering, annotating, sampling, interpreting, illustrating and representing practices of comparing in the SFB’s various subprojects. SILKE SCHWANDT and ANNA-MARIA KOMPRECHT (both Bielefeld) introduced the project INF of the collaborative research center and further talked about the ways in which digital tools have changed our research practices, including how we compare and analyze comparisons.
Panel IV focused on comparative practices in Renaissance and early modern France. ANDREA FRISCH (Maryland) gave a talk on the challenges of doing comparative history in European Renaissance by pointing to numerous translation projects from ancient Greek and Roman works during the Renaissance in order to make sense of the present degeneracy in the light of an ideal past. Following Frisch’s discussion about durability, mutability, and dynamicity of comparative practices along the axis of time, KIRSTEN KRAMER (Bielefeld) looked into practices of comparing along the axis of space. Examining 18th-20th century French travel writing in its attempts to measure, document and ultimately colonize the world at large, Kramer’s talk evaluated comparative narratives and their power to ‘construct worlds,’ and to encourage competitive imaginings of nature vs. civilization, savage vs. civilized, and the Americas vs. the Orient within these worlds of imagination.
The second keynote lecture was delivered by HAUN SAUSSY (Chicago). Saussy’s, ‘ARE WE COMPARING YET? AN ASIANIST REVISITS MARCEL DETIENNE’, entailed a careful reading of Marcel Detienne’s “Comparing the Incomparable” from 2008, drawing distinctions between comparisons (apples and oranges are comparable as they both belong to the continuum ‘fruit’) and dogmatic practices of incomparability (comparing oranges to apples in terms of their ‘apple-ness’). Through detailed examination of various examples (translation, comparative anatomy, and comparative linguistics), Saussy drew a number of foundational conclusions about what it means to compare: comparisons are stepping stones on our way to reconceiving the known in terms of the unknown; comparisons made with the sole purpose of evaluating and of passing judgements are non-reflexive and prejudiced; we need to collect as many points of view before we can offer a comparative critique of the phenomena at hand (and passing any judgements); and, finally – in response to the question posed in the title of Saussy’s talk – we are always ‘almost there’ with our comparisons for it is not in the nature of comparisons ever to be over.
The third day of the conference opened with a talk by ALEXANDER MARTIN (Notre Dame). Focusing on cartography and landscape painting, Martin gave an account of the ‘Russian soul’ in the 18th and 19th century in terms of Russia’s perceived distance and difference from the West. Martin demonstrated how comparisons, imitations, and ultimately the search for the Russian vernacular away from Europe helped shape the Russian soul in terms of geography and culture. Placing Marco Polo’s travels to China in various historical moments between the 15th and the 18th centuries, LONGXI ZHANG (Hong Kong) pointed at the various ways Enlightenment Europe compared its habits, values, and practices to their Chinese counterparts in terms of social mobility, religiosity, meritocracy, etc. in order to understand, criticize, and improve itself. In a similar spirit, GARY SHAW (Wesleyan) paid attention to the slippery and at the same time rich nature of comparisons in a talk that focused on medieval practices of comparing in England. The panelists agreed that practices of comparing – powerful tools in the service of ideologies, colonial projects, and religious systems of thought – have historically been viewed with ambivalence: they have been temporarily resorted to, revisited or entirely resisted by actors who could not fully denounce comparisons and yet did not hail it all as sacred either.
Not unlike previous talks during the conference, Panel V examined the politics and paradoxes of comparisons in three talks: a pair of papers by THOMAS MÜLLER (Bielefeld) and PEER VRIES (Amsterdam) revisited practices of comparing in the neighboring worlds of military might and economic prowess, respectively. Thus, Müller explored the role that the so-called ‘battle of booklets’ played in the 1980s in sustaining the fragile balance of power during the Cold War era before the practice stopped in 1991 (resumed this past summer by the new US government under President Trump). Peer Vries’ talk, on the other hand, rewound the historical tape back to the turn of the 20th century and focused on the significance of comparing as Meiji Japan attempted to modernize itself in the image of the West. The final talk was delivered by KIRILL POSTOUTENKO (Bielefeld) who teased out the paradoxes and patterns of recognizing and earmarking comparison in poetry, political speech, and religious pamphlets via a glimpse into the initial attempts in the SFB’s subproject C03.
Throughout the conference, several papers addressed practices of comparing as tools of colonial governance, inclusion and exclusion, knowledge production, and benchmarking racial, national, cultural, economic, and military differences. Together, they underscored comparisons’ métier, perniciousness, omniscience, and slipperiness and triggered discussions about in- and non-comparability and the outer ends of comparisons (absolute incomparability vs. universalism). Thus, not only did the conference call attention to the relevance of practices of comparing and comparative utterances, it also triggered interest in the instances where comparisons prove infertile or are actively avoided by agents of comparison.
Angelika Epple, (Bielefeld) Practices of Comparing as a New Research Paradigm: the Anatomy of White People
Panel I: Comparing and the Emergence of International Rankings
Tobias Werron / Leopold Ringel (Bielefeld) The Emergence of Rankings: On the History and Institutionalization of a Modern Practice of Comparison (1700-1980)
Matthias Kranke (Warwick) Practices of International Comparison and the Indirect Power of Global Benchmarking
Ann Laura Stoler (New York) At the Limits of Comparison
Walter Erhart (Bielefeld) Odysseus, Blackbirds, and Rain Barrels. Literature as a Comparative Practice
Panel II: Artistic Achievements compared: The Margins of Commparisons
Hartmut von Sass (Zürich) The Non-Comparable. A Report from the Margins of Comparing
Carlos Spoerhase (Bielefeld) The Quantification of Comparison. Practices of Ranking Artistic Achievement in Early Modern Europe
Panel III: Comparing Art and the Art of Comparing
Peter Geimer (Berlin) What Happens Between Two Pictures? On Comparative Seeing
Joris Corin Heyder (Bielefeld) “Goût de comparaison”. Practices of Comparative Vision in 18th Century Connoisseurship
Britta Hochkirchen (Bielefeld) Genealogies of Modernity. Curatorial Practices of Comparing in
Twentieth-Century Art Exhibitions
Project Inf: Data Infrastructure and Digital Humanities
Silke Schwandt / Anna-Maria Komprecht (Bielefeld) Comparing in the Digital Age: about the Transformations of Practices
Panel IV: Comparing in Early Modern Literature and History
Andrea Frisch (Maryland) The Challenge of Comparative History in the European Renaissance: the Case of Louis Le Roy
Kirsten Kramer (Bielefeld) Comparing Worlds. Modern French Travel Writing and World Literature
Haun Saussy (Chicago) Are We Comparing Yet? An Asianist Revisits Marcel Detienne
Panel V: The Making of ‘Comparata’ across Periods
Alexander Martin (Notre Dame) Venice' on the Baltic, 'Amazons' in Crimea, 'Columbus' in Siberia: the Use of Transnational Comparisons in the Construction of Imperial Russian Culture
Longxi Zhang (Hong Kong) Comparison and East-West Encounter in the Seventeenth and the Eighteenth Centuries
Gary Shaw (Middletown) The Weight of Comparison across Periods: some Medieval English Evidence
Panel VI: Politics and Paradoxes of Comparisons
Thomas Müller (Bielefeld) Assessing and Negotiating Military Balances: the Politics of “Force Comparisons”
Peer Vries (Amsterdam) Comparing the Wealth of Nations: the Case of Meiji Japan
Kirill Postoutenko (Bielefeld) Paradoxes and Patterns of Comparison in Poetry, Political Speeches and Religious Pamphlets