Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Haiyan Lee reviews How Things Count as the Same

Adam B. Seligman and Robert P. Weller. How Things Count as the Same: Memory, Mimesis, and Metaphor. New York: Oxford University Press, 2019. 241 pp.

Review by Haiyan Lee

26 February 2019

This is not the first time the two authors of this book have shared a byline, but How Things Count as the Same hits the high watermark of an intellectual quest jointly undertaken by a religious studies scholar and an anthropologist. A throughline in Adam Seligman and Robert Weller’s decade-long conversation is how societies and cultures––past and present, near and far, high and low––have coped with the twin conditions of human existence: change and difference. The three books (the first two are Ritual and Its Consequences: An Essay on the Limits of Sincerity [2008] and Rethinking Pluralism: Ritual, Experience and Ambiguity [2012]) that have grown out of this felicitous meeting of minds are stunning in philosophical brilliance, breathtaking in disciplinary adventurousness, and dizzying in empirical reach. Sharing Bruno Latour’s conviction that we have never been modern (and rivaling his ambition for system building), the trilogy renders visible the specters that we think we have banished to the unenlightened past but in fact are still pulling the levers of modernity: ritual, make-believe, play-acting, and the art of ambiguity. Their flickering shapes come into focus when anchored to their more robust and self-confident doubles in the vast historical records and ethnographical storehouses which the authors seem to have at their fingertips.

This latest entry in the trilogy contemplates the miracle of how we establish continuity and common ground in a world of constant change and bewildering difference, or, in the authors’ language, how we “count” things that are inherently different “as if” they were the same. We have recourse to three modus operandi: shared memory encoded in myth and tradition (which denies temporal change), mimetic repetition in ritual (which bridges gaps in time), and metaphorical conjuring of likeness that both recognizes and disavows difference between two things. The third one, metaphor, is most creative and playful, but also most destructive and ephemeral, and therefore needs to be stabilized by the conservative forces of memory and mimesis. Ultimately, the authors contend, the only way truly to live with plurality and cultivate empathy without giving up our freedom is through “playful opening to lived experience” (p. 177). As such it is a surprisingly sensible rejoinder to empathy skeptics like Paul Bloom: Sure empathy is flawed and mercurial, but that is how it should be, like all things human. It also strikes a much needed dissonant note in the resurgent interest, spurred by advances in brain science and evolutionary and cognitive psychology, in our shared neurobiological equipment. Seligman and Weller make us appreciate anew that sameness––identity, continuity, solidarity, empathy––is a cultural achievement.

As a literary scholar who has drawn much intellectual substance from anthropology and related disciplines, I immediately want to see if the book could shift the ground of literary studies. Already, I can see how “world literature” could be recast as an enterprise that both mobilizes memory, mimesis, and metaphor and militates against their respective parochialism, ossification, and volatility. When a work of fiction transcends its place of origin both temporally and geographically, it is essentially forging new communities of memory (consider the global memory of the Cultural Revolution on the basis of bestsellers like Wild Swans), enacting mimetic continuities (as when Shakespeare festivals the world over harken back to the Bard), and building metaphorical bridges of empathy (as when people say “that’s so relatable” or “that’s just like when . . .”). When readers catapult themselves into fictional worlds, aren’t they being consummate players, refusing to draw a line between knowledge, meaning, and experience?