chapter  2
“Tiger’s leap into the past”: comparative temporality and the politics of redemption in The Orphan of Asia
Pages 26

In his recent article “Why Compare?” R. Radhakrishnan (2009) sets out some of the ethical dilemmas for the discipline of comparative studies. Radhakrishnan starts with an anecdote of a seemingly innocuous encounter with a local Indian autorickshaw driver, disputing whether the rigor of an orderly lane system is superior to the disorderly creativity of Indian roads, where the driver’s way of life is expressed through the freedom of driving in the form of the aggressive overtaking of other vehicles. Who, of those of us who have grown accustomed to the rule of law and regulation, would prefer the latter to the former? As Radhakrishnan himself acknowledges, his intuitive response, a preference of the former to the latter, is already a mode of comparison, both tendentious and combative. Though the story recounted by Radhakrishnan has an aspect of quotidian

banality, its stakes are high for comparative studies. The encounter illustrates two fundamental dilemmas about comparison. The first involves a recognition of comparison mired in an uneven structure of dominance. A ground of comparison is required for things to be comparable. Ideally, it should be an even ground, but it is safe to say that the reverse has often been the case. The developmental epistemology in modernization theory, for example, has shown that comparison is less about comparing A and B on an equal footing than subjecting B to the homogenizing logic of A. As a result of this developmental scheme, B’s coevality is denied and it can only play a latecomer’s game of catching up, a game that has already subscribed to a universal modularity that fits all. Then “How can ‘equal comparisons,’” Radhakrishnan asks, “be undertaken in an unequal world?” (2009: 462). The task of comparison is always caught in a fundamental dilemma

between generality and particularity. Without an even ground, comparison becomes a value-laden judgment. Yet, even with an even ground, we are running the risk of decontextualization and the erasure of particularity. This dual demand of generality and particularity gives rise to an aporia at the heart of any comparative enterprise, leaving us wondering whether there are ways to negotiate between the cognitive demand of generalization in order for

things to be comparable and the ethical demand of recognizing each entity’s specificity or whether they necessarily exclude each other.1