In Comparison a Disappointment Dwells

The title of this post is stolen from J.Z. Smith, particularly from a chapter titled “In Comparison a Magic Dwells,” in his Imagining Religion.  In it, and in his uniquely erudite, yet frightfully frustrating tangential style, Smith constructs the argument that ‘comparison’ is an endeavour that leads, inevitably, to theoretical disappointment.  As he states toward the end:

[…] comparison is, at base, never identity.  Comparison requires the postulate of difference, as the grounds of its being interesting (rather than tautological) and a methodological manipulation of difference, a playing across the ‘gap’ in the service of some useful end. (35)

In the contextual realm of identity construction, comparison becomes a necessary evil, the utilitarian acknowledgement of the way we identify ourselves in relation to others, how they recognise us as different to themselves, how that then dictates a two-pointed acknowledgment of opposed ‘selves,’ how we then recognise those ‘selves’ within groups, both similar and different, and in opposition to opposing groups, and vice versa, etc., in ad nauseam.

Beyond this condition, however, difference becomes, as Smith points out, ‘problematic.’  In comparison, we find ourselves not only seeing the difference between things, but how that difference reveals a bias we might have inherently developed about something we might consider ‘established.’

Here’s a good example:

In 1960, the novelist Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird was published.  In the fifty-five years since then, it has become almost exclusively ingrained in the American discourse, a fictional representation of a darker and more racially sinister nation, told from the perspective of a naive young girl, known as ‘Scout.’  Today, Lee’s second novel, Go Set a Watchman, will be released.  Written before To Kill a Mockingbird, but held from publication, and while a ‘sequel’ in the sense that the characters within her narrative are chronologically and philosophically developed versions of those represented in To Kill a Mockingbird, it is a very different sort of novel.  One major difference, as pointed out by a number of seemingly disappointed critics, is the ‘racism’ and ‘bigotry’ of Scout’s father Atticus, whose stalwart and passionate fight for justice created the moral backbone of To Kill a Mockingbird.  In this iteration, he is apparently, and bluntly, a very different man.

To mark this difference, and via a clever combination of two popular narratives having been recently ‘re-written’ for a new audience, the New Yorker published this cartoon:

new yorkerWhat perhaps intrigues me the most about the outcry over Atticus’ bigotry, revealed to Scout (now referred to by her real name: Jean Louise) via her sudden, almost shocked realisation that the moral compass against which she has shaped her own perception of the world is now a representative of the Southern bigotry of the 1950’s, is that I don’t think it is surprising at all.

This is where comparison comes in.

Atticus is the construction of Lee’s imagination, meaning that though we might have collectively elevated the character to the level of a paragon, a representation of a ‘good man,’ perhaps this is the Atticus that has existed all along.  That is, as the creator of the text, Lee’s notion of Atticus is really the only ‘true’ description.  Beyond that, and as readers, all we are capable of doing is perceiving that individual via the text ‘as it is.’  In other words, the shocking revelation that Atticus is a bigot, which works a wonderful magic for us as we empathise with the narrative’s protagonist, shouldn’t be all that shocking unless we have ‘established’ this character’s description in a particular way, such as Jean Louise has done.  Which reveals our inherent problem.  In our comparison of these two Atticuses (Attici?), we reveal our bias, our perception of an individual who, for the last fifty years, has meant ‘one specific thing,’ when in actuality, he’s always been this way, both in Lee’s imagination, and for the fact that Go Set a Watchman was written prior to To Kill a Mockingbird.  We are ‘shocked’ because we have betrayed our bias.  Our use of comparison has exposed our collective opinion that this individual, this fictionalised exemplar, is no longer represented in the way we had unanimously decided.

In this way, comparison breeds disappointment, simply because one thing compared with another reveals the fact that we might have been ‘wrong’ in our crystallised notion that this character was supposed to be a certain way.


Here’s a comparative example:

In 1922, Bronislaw Malinowski’s classic text, Argonauts of the Western Pacific, was published.  This text so ideally described the ‘doing’ of anthropology, not just in regard to the proper process of fieldwork, but in how that fieldwork should be translated into a realist text representative of a whole culture via select detailed parts, that it became something of a primer.  Soon, anthropology-in-general was conducted not only via his method, but his style was replicated to the point of exact duplication.  Most pertinent, perhaps, was the strict objectivity he prescribed, a complete removal of one’s opinion and voice, the evacuation of subjective notions for the benefit of objective facts.

The post-Malinowski era represented a rigorous and strict methodological paradigm: the placement of the anthropologist amongst his or her subjects, removed from his or her own culture; an immersion that required the learning of that subject’s language, their beliefs, customs, and rituals; a participant observation wherein the ‘imponderabilia,’ the native’s day-to-minutiae, would become first-hand experienced knowledge.  Moreover, this would then infect the textual representation later constructed to illustrate this subject’s culture, an omniscient and equally objective text focused with exact precision on providing the reader a vivid snapshot of another way of life.

In 1967, forty-five years after the publication of Argonauts, the anthropological advocates of this methodological precision would find themselves disappointed by comparison.

In a series of unfortunate circumstances, this year brought the publication of Malinowski’s personal diary, recorded during his time amongst the Trobriand natives.  Though he had died twenty-five years prior, and because we will never know whether he had ever intended for these personal reflections to have become publicly accessible, the content could only ever be read ‘as it is,’ and thus without his personal commentary.

Thus, A Diary in the Strict Sense of the Term was quite shocking.  Not only did we learn of his bizarre medical and psychological eccentricities (including an odd obsession with reading, while subsequently hating, fiction), we also came to find that he, the originator of anthropological objectivity, had a number of rather disparaging opinions about his subjects.  On certain occasions this would turn to an almost detailed hatred, not only of his subject’s way of life, but of their strange customs and culture.  Here, for the first time ever, was a subjective perspective from the paragon of an ‘objective observer.’

The result of this publication proved effectively critical to the notion that the ‘doing’ of anthropology was isolated to Malinowski’s prescribed method, to the point that over the next thirty or so years, the strict objectivity of both observing and textually representing one’s subject transitioned to a number of experimental products, including the fictionalisation of one’s fieldwork in the ‘ethnographic novel,’ and the reading of fiction ‘as ethnography,’ the latter of which I myself am guilty of exploiting.

Like my example above concerning Lee’s novels, the comparison here once again leads to disappointment, which then leads to a series of adaptations, shifts made in order to not only pacify the idea that something we once thought established has been ‘undone’ by a new perspective, but by the idea that in comparison our revealed biases must be re-established.

With both these examples, Smith’s notion of comparison, and thus the larger notion of determining a ‘difference’ between two things, reveals not just a bias on the part of the comparer suddenly disappointed by that comparison, but an impractical approach to the study of two things interrelated by an inherent similarity (such as his issue of the terms ‘history’ and ‘religion’ in his own description of himself as an ‘historian of religion’).  Thus, by comparing these two issues of comparison, we are reminded that any sort of comparison inevitably leads to disappointment, sending us further toward the need to adapt, pacify, and even re-establish our perceptions of that which we study, and further complicating the process as a whole.


BUT WAIT, you might ask, isn’t what you’ve done here just another comparison?  Did you not just compare the disappointment of Atticus’ bigotry in Go Set a Watchman with the disappointment felt by anthropologists after Malinowski’s Diary was published?

Yes, I did.  And isn’t that disappointing?

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Based on ‘Real Life’

In mid July of this year, we, as a collective human society, will have one more book to read by the novelist Harper Lee.  Written before her famous To Kill A Mockingbird, Go Set a Watchmen is a ‘sequel’ to the former, set twenty years later.  While the publication of this book has brought with it a renewed interest in her writing, it has also inspired a bit of scepticism about the legality, even morality, in publishing it (considered problematic given Lee’s presumed health issues).  Within the former category, a recent article in the New York Times caught my attention, particularly in how the author, Laura Tavares, makes use of To Kill a Mockingbird in a way that elevates it above the restrictions of mere aesthetic media.


As a contribution to the New York Times’ “The Learning Network Blog,” under the category of ‘Text to Text,’ a cross-textual discussion that links similar textual entities via shared interests, Tavare’s article associates Chapter 15 in Lee’s novel with an article on the recent Equal Justice Initiative’s report on Lynching in America: “History of Lynchings in the South Documents Nearly 4,000 Names.”

Her intention, as described at the beginning, is to elucidate for instructors (who might be reading the article for the sake of using it in their classrooms) how such a novel might ‘speak’ to ‘real life:’

To encourage students to make these important connections, we’ve chosen to pair an excerpt from Chapter 15 of the novel with The Times’s article on the Equal Justice Initiative report, “History of Lynchings in the South Documents Nearly 4,000 Names,” with the goal of helping students more deeply understand “Mockingbird,” the world of the novel, and our own world.


Here’s a ready example.  In his “The Author as Anthropologist: Some West Indian Lessons about the Relevance of Fiction for Anthropology,” in Eduardo P. Archetti’s Exploring the Written: Anthropology and the Multiplicity of Writing, Thomas Hylland Eriksen distinguishes between two ways in which the novel might function ‘as an ethnography:’

First, novels may serve as ethnographic sources and may to this effect rank with informant’s statements. At this level, the author—whether he is a Mittelholzer or a Naipaul—more or less unwittingly reveals aspects of his society. As Bakhtin and many others have reminded us, the author is a prisoner of his own time. The author, known through the novel, is here seen as an aspect of the production of society. 

[…]

Second, novels may be read as ethnographic descriptions; that is, the formation conveyed may be taken more or less at its face value, as a kind of ethnographic documentation. (191)

In this way, he continues, the novel and the ethnography are ‘relevant’ to each other, but they are not the same thing.  To further delineate his meaning here, he states:

[Novels] cannot be used as plain ethnography since they do not profess to represent the truth and because their relationship to social reality is ultimately uncertain. Besides, if they are to be exploited as ethnographic sources (and not as evidence), the reader must be familiar with the society at the outset of the reading. They cannot, therefore, replace the ethnographic footwork either. It therefore seems a paradox that some of the best anthropological writings extant on Trinidad are works of fiction (cf. Melhuus, infra, for a Mexican parallel). In order to asses their validity, a reader must have first-hand experience of the society. (190)

However, and though his distinction here between the ‘source’ and the ‘description’ is a useful one in determining the differences between the way fiction might ‘function’ in a way exclusive of its existence as an aesthetic piece of entertainment, I would argue that he is incorrect in his strict separation between the ethnography and the novel.  This is especially the case with his opening remarks about the ‘simple distinction’ between the two forms of writing:

Fictional accounts, then, present persons and events which have been invented by the writer. Anthropological texts try to present a few aspects of social reality as accurately as possible, taking account of the limitations entailed by fieldwork, ‘cultural translation’ (or, if one prefers, cultural reduction) and attempts at linguistic representations of society.  Lies and deliberate misrepresentations are banished from anthropological scholarship, which should additionally—unlike fictional writing—try to present empirical material systematically and comprehensively and distinguish between description and analysis so that the reader may draw his or her own theoretical conclusions. (168-169)

I would further argue that he is quite mistaken here, particularly concerning the difference between ‘fictional’ and ‘anthropological’ accounts.  Both are artifice, meaning both are designed and dictated by choice.  Likewise, both are the result of a textual process, a ‘storytelling’ wherein the author has tried to re-create a discourse in a way that represents his or her subject in a manner ‘true’ to his or her interpretation.  In fact, I would agree in many ways with Clifford (1986) that ethnography is, in fact, a type of ‘fiction:’

To call ethnographies fictions may raise empiricist hackles. But the word as commonly used in recent textual theory has lost its connotation of falsehood, of something merely opposed to truth. It suggests the partiality of cultural and historical truths, the ways they are systematic and exclusive. Ethnographic writings can properly be called fictions in the sense of ‘something made or fashioned,’ the principal burden of the word’s Latin root, fingere. But it is important to preserve the meaning not merely of making, but also of making up, of inventing things not actually real [emphasis in original]. (Clifford, “Introduction,” Writing Culture, 1986, 6)

Beyond mere etymological determination, I think Clifford is correct here mainly because I think any and all textual representations are ‘fictional’ by their inherent ‘artificial nature.’  Eriksen can argue all he wants that fiction represents ‘lies’ or ‘deliberate misrepresentations,’ but I would again contend that this is equally a problem for the ethnographer for no other reason than the fact that he or she is, as Malinowski stated, ‘creating’ or ‘describing’ his or her subjects.  As intermediaries between subject and reader, the ethnographer is just as much an author of ‘fiction’ as the novelist inventing his or her own subjects.


Which brings me back to Tavares and Eriksen.  In my opinion, the former’s use of Lee’s novel and the latter’s differentiation between the novel as a source or description of ethnographic ‘truth’ share the same DNA.  In fact, I’d even go so far as to state that they are both siblings of the parentage between Ethnography (texts designed to present a cultural or historical representation of a certain people, time, and place) and the novel (a text designed to present a fictional creation of an author intent on representing a particular individual or individuals in the certain time and place).

However, this also brings forth an issue that I believe is perfectly exemplified by the image I used for this weeks ‘feature image:’

Screen Shot 2015-04-28 at 18.19.10

While I am quite willing to blatantly claim that all textual representations are fiction by means of their ‘artifice-ness,’ this of course brings us into a discourse where, like the notion of ‘everything is fiction,’ we get somewhat distracted by what might be ‘based on real life’ and what might be a story assumed by some as the same.  This is not equal, however, to a declaration that the story of Noah, which might be defined as both, either, or neither a myth and truth, is definitively one of these things.  Rather, my point of having it here, and the point of this post in general, is a reminder that when we declare ‘everything’ as fiction because of the role that artifice plays in the creation and presentation of interpreted ‘things,’ a movie about Noah and a movie about William Wallace are equally ‘based on real life.’  In other words, the distinction between what is ‘fact’ (quantitative data about lynchings in the US) and what is ‘fictional’ (Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird) might blur into a perception where they become equal representations of some type of ‘truth.’

I, for one, am ok with this.