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Making a Place To Take a Stand: Jonathan Z. Smith and the Politics and Poetics of Comparison'

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image of Method & Theory in the Study of Religion

The work of Jonathan Z. Smith represents perhaps the most intelligent and persuasive approach to the problem of comparison in the history of religions; yet it is also one that remains surprisingly undeveloped, leaving many troubling unanswered problems. The first problem is that one of Smith's finest insights is also one of the most theoretically confused-namely, his insight that comparison works essentially like a metaphor. Comparison, for Smith, does not tell us "how things are"; rather, it playfully juxtaposes two different things, manipulating their similarity and difference in order to open up fresh insights into both. Yet rather strangely, Smith's notion of metaphor relies on a problematic model. The second, more troubling, problem is Smith's central idea that the historian "has no place to stand"-that is to say, scholars have no fixed, normative position in relation to their data. Yet any reader of Smith's work quickly realizes that Smith does in fact have a real normative and interested "place to stand." Instead of a "placeless comparison," this paper argues for an interested and placed comparison one that renders the scholar's own political interests as explicit as possible from the outset, while at same time submitting them to scrutiny, critique and the Possibility of change.


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