Comparative Relativism Colloquium


Please see the following announcement for the Comparative Relativism colloquium to be held at the IT-University of Copenhagen on 3-4 September 2009. Key note speakers include Barbara Herrnstein Smith (Brown University & Duke University), Isabelle Stengers (The Free University of Brussels), Marilyn Strathern (Cambridge University) and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro (Museo Nacional, Rio de Janeiro). Pre-register here (max. 100  participants on first-come, first serve basis). PhD students can also sign up for short intensive discussion sessions with one of the keynote speakers.

This workshop puts in conjunction the two unlikely terms “comparison” and “relativism.” On the one hand, comparison, in the most general sense, involves the investigation of different contexts in order to elucidate their similarities and differences. Relativism, on the other hand, often involves the assumption that contexts exhibit radically different, incomparable or incommensurable traits. Thus comparative studies are required to treat their subjects alike, by providing general and external measures by which can be established what is shared and not between cultures or practices. Relativism, however, indicates the limits of this stance, by suggesting that the observation of the similar and the different depends on an outside position from which comparison can be made. And, of course, relativism is sceptical of the possibility to establish such an outside position.

“Comparative relativism” could be taken to imply not only the different forms of “relativism” (however the term or position is understood) but also the multiple uses, functions, effects, and personal, historical, and/or institutional contexts–precisely, “ecologies”–of its invocation or deployment. This, also, would encourage a questioning of what happens if prominent Western/scientific notions of comparison are put in (relativistic) comparative perspective. The analytical purchase would be to get some new grasps of what “we” compare things “for” and how, and how that relates (or not) to how and why other people compare.  In bringing these terms together, the workshop thus proposes that the tension between the comparative and the relativistic bears rethinking and recontextualization.

Even if the analytical potential of a comparative relativism is granted it is quite uncertain what follows. For example, does comparative relativism allow for rethinking and engaging with urgent concerns of the day–technological or environmental, ethical or political? Does it provide some different entry-points for engagement with other actors? Where, how, and at which “levels” might such engagement take place?  The workshop encourages reflection on the conceptual-political-practical implications of comparative relativism, with the ambition to understand how to get a “comparative” grasp on the increasing and increasingly varied aspects of culture, science and politics that seem relativized-–in theory and practice simultaneously — across the contemporary ecology of practice.

[Reproduced from Colloquium website]


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