Comparison itself cannot but be a contested force-field of unequal production relations and power relations. We have seen how comparisons ha...

Comparative Literature, Political Economy, and the Question of Decolonization: A Quick Note || Azfar Hussain

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Comparison itself cannot but be a contested force-field of unequal production relations and power relations. We have seen how comparisons have inundated the field of Bengali literary criticism in all sorts of ways: for instance, Plato and Patanjali, Shakespeare and the indigenous Bengali form of theatre called "jatra," Pound and even Khayyam, Eliot and Bishnu Dey--just to mention but a few--have been compared with high-voltage zeal and enthusiasm.
Of course, such comparisons might look very exciting. But arguably they do not always do justice to the "differentia specifica" of sites, subjects, signs, and scenes characterized by unequal production relations and power relations.
Indeed, comparison is no neutral or innocuous practice. Comparison itself may mystify and even reinforce and reproduce asymmetrical power relations between different subjects and sites and scenes. To provide a quick example from my own part of the world: It is still customary to compare the Bengali revolutionary poet Qazi Nazrul Islam to Byron and Shelley and to even Rudyard Kipling, as the comparatist Buddhodev Bose and his acolytes, among many others, so uncritically did, so as to be able to account for Nazrul's “greatness,” while of course directly or indirectly indicating that those canonical white literary figures continue to constitute the standards or yardstick whereby the other can be evaluated--respected or denigrated or whatever, and that the 'West" is the measure of all things literary and artistic. Unequal exchange here? Yes.
But it is important that we confront, challenge, even unsettle and dismantle the Eurocentric protocols of comparative literature. One may surely look for alternative ways of doing and even decolonizing comparative literature.
Against the grain of identity-and-difference-fetishizing alterity discourse that continues to characterize multiculturalist comparative criticism even today, one may look for a dialectically engaged comparative approach to see what comparative literature itself can learn from Marx’s value theory. For value theory itself brings up the questions of comparison, exchange, equalization, and erasure all at once under capitalism. For instance, a comparative approach may demystify how the very capitalist law of value—governing what I wish to call the “M-C-M'-ization of the world” (M stands for money, C for commodity, and M' for more money or capital in the famous Marxian circuit of capital [Marx Capital Vol. 1])—always subordinates use value to exchange value, and, for that matter, erases concrete labor in favor of abstract labor in the process of valorization. Thus it erases differential particularisms and reifies abstractions that not only affect society at large but also even one’s mode of comparison as a literary and cultural practice, ideologically inflected as it is. I think it is possible to make the conceptual resources and analytical apparatus of the Marxian critique of political economy internal to comparative criticism itself.
Of course, a comparative approach may call attention to both similarities and differences among writers and may make even revealing connections among them. But at the same time one’s approach should remain attentive to their historical specificities and to actually existing unequal production relations and power relations that characterize the entire mode of cultural production on a planetary scale, governed as it is by the globalized law of value. Thus this approach may help us to see how these very relations of production variously inform, inflect, structure, and texture creative works as well as the ideological orientations of their authors. Further, comparison may serve as a means to rendering visible already-existing insurrectionary and anti-imperial solidarity among different anticolonial, socialist writers across the tricontinent. A whole host of creative figures ranging from the Bengali poet Qazi Nazrul Islam to the Caribbean poet-activist Aimé Césaire to the Kenyan writer-activist Ngugi wa Thiong’o accentuated the need for such solidarity on more occasions than one.
[Here's a link to a television discussion in Bengali--one in which I bring up a few of the above issues in some specific contexts and configurations:]


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