Micol Siegel, "Beyond Comparison: Comparative Method after the Transnational Turn”, 2005

The transnational turn in history over the past few decades served to undermine tropes of American exceptionalism but also methodologies that undergirded numerous histories of previous areas. For Micol Siegel, the comparative method, long problematic, no longer provides a feasible way to pursue historical inquiry. Finding inspiration in the anti-colonial/post colonial struggles/intellectuals [thing Franz Fanon], Siegel argues “that this body of thought contains an implicit critique of comparative method.” (62) For Seigel, comparative histories bent under “overtly political comparisons that have helped produce the very notions, subjects and experience of national difference that in turn attract further comparative study.” (63)

The recent proliferation of transnational works should not lead one to conclude that the field only recently emerged. Instead, fueled by the anti-colonial fervor and its global “webs of resistance movments” illustrated the “metropole’s” dependence on its colonies, a relationship believed to uni-directional found itself challenged by an interdependent reality. The work of anti and post colonial intellectuals crystallized around such issues as many enacted a daily existence on the transnational level often living, writing, learning in first world cities. This creation of identities and knowledge served to displace the centrality of the nation-state in historical inquiry, “it posits social definition as a boundary setting process that ties identity categories together in the specular play of subject-formation familiar to scholars in many fields.” (64). Comparison’s focus on the international, often the centrality of the nation-state, appears to miss key aspects of transnational movements. The benefits of the transnational focus includes seeing through the myopia of borders, seeing the diversity within “monolithic groups”, and the “multivalent conversations and negotiations in any human interaction, even those distorted by gross inequalities.” (65). Thomas Bender might suggest this approach adds a “thickening” to our understanding of history. Comparison, even when wielded as dissent, unwittingly reinforced American exceptionalism, witness the efforts of the cold war era consensus moment. Comparative history struggles to locate truly equivalent examples, hence, reifying the difference that has been used for centuries in western discourse to separate the “West and the Rest”. Ultimately, the comparative method obscures as much as it reveals, wiping away historical processes replacing them with “difference” or as Siegel argues “comparisons are empty vessels, waiting for readers to endow them with meaning.” (71)

Historical works comparing Brazil and the United States’ respective race relations serve as central example of the comparative method’s inherent weaknesses. Comparative methods may wish to deconstruct race, gender or national difference but by focusing on those very subjects they perform a reification, reinforcing their influence. For example, utilizing Roosevelt’s presidency as one moment in which this comparison illustrates this dynamic, Siegel notes “the contrast between racial harmony in Brazil and purity in the United States helped explain and defend exceptionalisms on both sides: U.S. civilization, modernity, industry, practicality, and progress, and Brazilian cordiality, shortsightedness, sensuality, passivity chaos, and the masses’ need for discipline. Brazil-United States comparisons served to prove Jim Crow segregation appropriate and necessary in North American contexts, and to validate proposals for the whitening of Brazil.” (71) A later example reveals that debates between white supremacists and anti-racists of the 1920’s rested on shared assumptions of racial purity that promoted racial essentialism., “Positioning U.S. purity and Brazilian mixture at the furthest ends of the possible restricted the entire scale to an essentialized, biological definition of race.” (73) Moreover, as comparisons suggest a one to one juxtaposition, they reinforce binaries as the previous episode reveals, racial thought limited itself to ideas of blackness and whiteness but little else, while also “imparting the racial landscape they describe to the entire nation.” (74) When evidence of growing diasporic identies emerged, the threat of such developments caused some writers such as E. Franklin Frazier to limit its “radical suggestions in comparative frames.” (75)

The transnational turn for Brazilian history peeled away the ideological curtain that suggested Brazil had solved its racial issues, that Afro-Brazilians always enjoyed equal citizenship. Racial democracy serves as another outgrowth of the transnational development, “racial democracy is a concept forged in transnational and comparative context, and one deeply influential in the United States.” (76) [ this is a point I believe Robin Kelley also makes … makes sense when you think about relational identity i.e. Chicano movement’s appropriation of third world solidarities, Vietnam etc.] Twenty first century comparisons that have flipped the old argument of Brazilian racial unity contrasting with America’s virulent racism into the reverse such that the U.S. now looks southward believing it to be more racially tolerant. This anti-racist rhetoric, reinforced through the comparative method obscures a much more complex and nuanced present, while erasing a painful history of racial conflict.

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