Panel Information

“The Futures of South-South Comparison: Theorizing Emergent Zones of Exchange”  is a roundtable discussion that will take place at the 2014 MLA Annual Convention (Chicago, IL; January 9–12; date and time TBA).

Participants include: Joseph Slaughter (Columbia), Kerry Bystrom (Bard-ECLA), Jaime Hanneken (U of Minnesota), Leigh Anne Duck (U of Mississippi), Robert Colson (Brigham Young U), Laurie Lambert (UC Davies), Nienke Boer (NYU), and Magalí Armillas-Tiseyra (U of Mississippi); for detailed information about the participants, please see the “About” page.

Description of the Session

Several of the key critical turns of the last 30 years, including the rise of postcolonial criticism, diaspora studies, and the transnational turn, depend on the critic’s ability to move between different settings; that is: on the critic’s capacity to compare diverse texts and contexts. Comparison is also implicit (to varying degrees) in such large-scale literary and politico-geographical frameworks as World Literature or the Global South, as well as in their more distant cousins Commonwealth Literature and the Third World. The extension of comparison beyond the disciplinary confines of Comparative Literature—and in particular the discipline of Comparative Literature as it took root in the American academy in the second half of the twentieth century—has given rise to critical conversations not just about Comparative Literature in the disciplinary sense (Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s Death of a Discipline [2003] is an exemplary text in this regard) but about the epistemological, theoretical, and political implications of comparison, particularly as it moves out of a European frame. More recently, the potential and pitfalls of comparison have been explored in a special issue of New Literary History edited by Rita Felski and Susan Stanford Friedman, titled: “Why Compare?” (40.3; Summer 2009), and then re-examined by Friedman in a piece titled “Why Not Compare?” for the PMLA(126.3; May 2011), in which she concludes:  “in the end it is worse not to compare than to compare” (756). Such concurrent concerns about and appeals to comparison have also lately surfaced in the debate about the state of postcolonial studies in NLH (43.1 [Winter 2012] and 43.2 [Spring 2012]), where historical and geographical comparisons are used to argue for the broader utility of postcolonialism as a critical framework.  

With these antecedents in mind, this roundtable will explore the methodological, theoretical, and political implications of comparison the global South. In so doing, it aims to bring new light to these debates, precisely by addressing them from the perspective of scholars working on south-south comparisons, which only occasionally appear at the very outskirts of the larger conversation about comparison. Taking the specificity of our respective subject areas into account, the participants will ask: what are the conditions of possibility and impossibility for south-south comparisons? Must comparison limit itself to tracing material histories of exchange, such as the Middle Passage, or can it open itself to less concrete “resemblances”? How do we account for these more abstract axes of comparison? How far can the logic of analogy be pushed? What are the theoretical and political pitfalls—as well as potential—of attempting to establish equivalence? With the conference theme in mind: how do we attend to the particular vulnerabilities of texts from the margins, as well as the hierarchies that surface between different locations in the global South? Does a south-south perspective, ultimately, escape the pitfalls of comparison?

In turning to these questions, this roundtable brings together two emergent conversations: first, the theorization of comparison in our current moment and, second, the emerging field of south-south studies exhibited in such recent panels as “Thinking the South Atlantic: Africa-Latin America Exchanges” (2013 MLA Annual Convention), organized by Kerry Bystrom and “The Global South Atlantic” (2013 ACLA Annual Meeting) organized by Bystrom with Joseph Slaughter. Each of the participants is currently working on a project that explores multiple locations in the global South. They are also at different stages of their scholarly careers—the intent here is to showcase a variety of approaches to the practice of comparison. We will begin this roundtable by asking each of the participants to briefly (approx. 5 minutes) theorize the role of comparison in their respective projects and to suggest an answer to our central question: what does comparison look like from a south-south perspective?