“Heaven Rained Millet and the Ghosts Wailed at Night”: The Invention of a Genre Socialist Science Fiction

by Milan Reynolds

It was a red-tinged evening in late October, students and faculty gathered to hear Virginia Conn read and speak about her first chapter – the beginning of a compelling dissertation about socialist science fiction in the People’s Republic of China and the Soviet Union (1918-1986). Virginia proceeded to give a fascinating presentation on the linguistic roots and narrative particularities of sci-fi within each country and the ways in which politics and literature reciprocally shaped each other. Beginning from a point of analysis that asserts socialist sci-fi is qualitatively different from non-socialist sci-fi as well as the more widely recognized genre of socialist realism, Virginia described how those differences produced material effects and constructed individual and national consciousness in specific ways.

The constraints imposed on writers by both socialist governments included limiting the scope of works to a “near-future reality” of roughly fifty years and ensuring the plausibility of scientific speculation. Virginia also traced the origins of the genre through the multiple translations that the word “sci-fi” went through in its passage between countries. In fact, China was using the genre category of science fiction before its popular adoption in English literature. These strict writing guidelines served specific functions within the construction of each nation and often caused the literature to be dismissed as propaganda, but Virginia made the compelling argument that it cannot only be viewed as such. The works analyzed display a distinct utopian socialist praxis, predicated by science – romantic, revolutionary, and exceeding the bounds and stigma of pure propaganda.

Linking these themes, Virginia brought a modern term into the mix borrowed from Winfried Pauleit: the photographesomenon. Coming from film theory, it describes the surveillance camera image – an “objective view” of the past whose meaning is then written by the future. This illustrates the way that socialist sci-fi evacuated the past by creating subjects defined by an anticipatory “collective view”. One compelling example Virginia drew on was the use of illustrated guides in China that showed how to grow crops and other quotidian, valuable skills that lead to collective autonomy. She argued convincingly that such texts could be linked to socialist sci-fi in its utopian, near future agenda. This led to interesting questions about how socialist sci-fi complicates the genre category of sci-fi. In many cases, the literature used “science” as an educational tool, and “fiction” as a way to draw interest from a wide audience of readers, including using visual materials for populations with mixed levels of literacy. Soviet and Chinese socialism used sci-fi to self-define towards a collective utopian goal. 

The presentation moved into several questions from guests about the trajectories of the genre within each country and how they paralleled or diverged from each other. Virginia emphasized the dynamic exchange of ideologies and tropes while noting their differences and separate progressions as well. Other questions brought up the tension between science and fiction, at least commonly positioned as opposing elements, and how this was navigated in a socialist setting. As the colloquium came to a close, smaller conversations were sparked over food and drinks, everyone coming away with a richer understanding of the history and possibilities of socialist science fiction. Congratulations to Virginia on an amazing presentation!

The Inter-Asia Cultural Studies Summer School

By Rudrani Gangopadhyay

The Inter-Asia Cultural Studies Summer School this year, set in Kolkata (previously called Calcutta), was titled “Calcutta: City/Contemporaneity.” I returned to my hometown in June to attend this summer school, incidentally hosted by my alma mater, Jadavpur University. Aside from being my hometown and one of the foci of my own research, Calcutta/Kolkata is also one of the most important urban centers in South Asia, and particularly India. As the erstwhile capital of undivided British India, the city had been at the heart of some of the core debates surrounding colonialism, nationalism, partition, refugeehood, and has consequently also been central to articulations of the same through literature, theatre, and cinema. Even in the decades after the nation’s violent shift to postcoloniality, the city has continued to occupy a unique space in the national sociopolitical and cultural imagination.

Summer school poster

The multidisciplinary summer school focused on contemporary debates informing Calcutta’s intellectual traditions as much as it took note of the physical spaces of their action and their lived reality: streets, coffee houses, bazaars, universities. The summer school format included lectures by notable scholars in the morning, and a seminar style discussion featuring the summer school participants and the scholars where the lecture as well as pre-circulated readings were discussed. The evenings were dedicated to film screenings, live performances, round table discussions, or walks through diverse neighborhoods of the city to get a sense of the urban landscape. The modules of the intensive summer school were ‘The City and the Urban Landscape’, ‘Calcutta/Cinema/City’, ‘City Histories: Deposed Kings, Mobile Labour’, ‘(In)visible Publics’, ‘City and Literature: Printed Worlds’, ‘City and Literature: Voices of the Outsiders’, and ‘The Question of Urbanity.’

Trash in the city

My own favorite module was that on ‘Calcutta/Cinema/City’, featuring lectures by scholars I deeply admire: Kaushik Bhaumik, Moinak Biswas, Subhajit Chatterjee, Madhuja Mukherjee, and M. Madhava Prasad. One of the fascinating aspects of Calcutta and its representations in cinema that have emerged in recent years recognize much of the city through absences of lost times and places. This nostalgic recognition of change in the city is made visible by use of certain set tropes that are becoming increasingly symptomatic of this genre of films: the locations are mostly the same older colonial parts of the city, the buildings are Victorian mansions from these parts of the city, and they emphasize a certain kind of antique object-oriented art design within the interior of said mansions, etc. If these reel tropes evoke and re-manifest certain memories of a particular time in Calcutta, they also ruthlessly erase the present-day lived reality of Kolkata that exists beyond this cinematically codified Calcutta. The conversations about the city and cinema in the summer school surrounding the city’s vexed relationship with space, time, and history were really relevant to my own work.

Calcutta 71 Film Poster

It is the city’s strange inability to be located in a singular place and time at any given time that resonated through the lectures framing the summer school, which opened with a lecture titled ‘When is Calcutta?’ by Partha Chatterjee and closed with one titled ‘Where is Kolkata?’ by Sukanta Chaudhuri. Both lectures made way for more questions than answers perhaps, but certainly opened newer avenues for the research of all those who attended them.

Sukanta Chaudhuri lecturing on ‘Where is Kolkata?’

Aside from the enriching learning experience that were the lectures and seminars, perhaps what I appreciated most are the spaces the summer school created for informal discussions between participants and scholars, during which I got a chance to discuss my own work as well as theirs. I suppose it is unsurprising that this should be the case in a city like Kolkata, a city characterized by adda, endless conversations over tea or coffee that effortlessly goes from one subject to another, traveling through history and around the world without moving in time or space.

Adda at Calcutta Coffee House

I am thankful to the Rutgers Program in Comparative Literature as well as the Cinema Studies Program and the South Asian Studies Program for supporting my trip to Kolkata to attend the summer school.

 

Decolonial Research Methods in Latin America and the Caribbean

By Paulina Barrios

A couple of weeks ago, on October 25th the Rutgers Advanced Institute for Critical Caribbean Studies with the sponsorship of the Center for Cultural Analysis and the Program in Comparative Literature held a series of activities focused on decoloniality in South Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean. The final activity for the day was the book presentation of: Smash the Pillars: Decoloniality and the Imaginary of Color in the Dutch Kingdom and Kuxlejal Politics: Indigenous Autonomy, Race, and Decolonizing Research in Zapatista Communities. This was held at the community center headed by Lazos America Unida in downtown New Brunswick. The center was organized to accommodate everyone around tables with Mexican sarapes (colorful cloths) and the session was able to start on time at 4.30 pm with an introduction from Prof. Nelson Maldonado-Torres. After speaking to the importance of the work that Lazos does with the Mexican immigrant community in New Brunswick, Prof. Maldonado-Torres presented Prof. Mariana Mora, from the Center for Research and Advanced Studies in Social Anthropology in Mexico City, Prof. Melissa F Weiner from the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts, and Prof. Antonio Carmona Báez, President of the University of St. Martin, St. Marteen.

Prof. Mora began with a brief presentation of her book Kuxlejal Politics: Indigenous Autonomy, Race, and Decolonizing Research in Zapatista Communities published by University of Texas Press in 2018. Her main motivation with this book was to understand what decolonial strategies Zapatista communities mobilize to fight against the Mexican state’s neoliberal and racialized policies and assert their autonomy. She went on to describe how, despite the state’s denial to speak of race and racism, indigenous peoples are constantly living under violent and racist conditions. For example, indigenous peoples often either work a land they have no ownership over or face state and private actors that value their land over their lives and livelihoods. Prof.  Mora contends that this structural violence and continuous plundering led to the political moment where indigenous peoples from Chiapas decided to rebel against the state.  Embeded in the conversation was also a recognition that this structural violence is a remnant of colonial power and economic structures, such as the plantation system.

She then went on to explain how the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (Zapatista Liberation Army, EZLN) transitioned from an armed struggle and its declaration of war against the Mexican state in 1994 towards a focus on defining and defending their autonomy. This led to building autonomous institutions and a full break from all public systems, including health and education. Prof. Mora was involved in the effort to define autonomous pedagogical methods and educational programs with other academics and members of Zapatista communities. Therefore, for her book she returned to Zapatista communities to co-design her methods with community members and generate a research project that would answer her questions and the communities’ needs. The result of this collective work was a focus on autonomy and the politics of a collective life, tied to a territory and nature, in her own words: “when you are fighting against genocide, the political is the fact that we are alive”.

Prof. Weiner followed this presentation, thanking the invitation and emphasizing how happy both she and Prof. Carmona Báez were to present this book in a non-academic space. She explained that since Smash the Pillars: Decoloniality and the Imaginary of Color in the Dutch Kingdom is about decolonial struggle and resistance she found it extremely important that people beyond the academy become involved in the conversation. She started her presentation by linking New Brunswick itself, and even Rutgers University, to the Dutch colonial past and slavery. Since the book focuses on Dutch colonialism and the struggle to decolonize its narrative and memory, she emphasized the direct connection it has to this Dutch colonial history and its ties to slavery, which are often silenced or ignored. Prof. Carmona Báez then added a personal perspective to this history by drawing on his own experience as a Protestant Puerto Rican from New York and being “spiritually conditioned by the Dutch and Calvinism”. With this context both editors then turned to the book itself, starting with an explanation of the title. They explained how Dutch society was built on specific pillars framed under religion. Thus, Protestants and Catholics each had their own banks, schools, and churches. Other pillars were added in the 19th and 20th centuries based on workers and women’s movements, broadening the definition of identities in the Netherlands. However, all of these pillars were designed to exclude. Similar to Prof. Mora’s description of Mexican racialized institutions and policies, these pillars did not include enslaved peoples or the indigenous peoples whose lands they took. As the title suggests, these pillars should be broken down to liberate the different narratives, histories, and bodies that have been silenced.

They went on to describe a growing movement from the past eight years that focuses on raising consciousness of racism in the Netherlands, despite the constant negation of this reality, and the need to learn these other histories. Both local and international struggles have come together at this particular juncture in cases such as the fight against black face tied to the Dutch Christmas figure Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) and Black Lives Matter in the United States. The editors presented this juncture as an example of how colonial pillars are being smashed across the world. They then turned to the structure of the book and how they consciously went against the traditional structure of having theorists first and then activist authors. As part of their decolonial method in the first section they center activists’ fight against racism with specific suggestions from activist students on how to decolonize the university. The second section is more theoretical and focuses on decolonial thought in the context of Dutch colonial history. They closed by turning their focus to ‘the imaginary of color’, defined as the collection of narratives, (hi)stories, and art expressions, that counter the official story, that counter the pillars. The decolonial imaginary of color is also transatlantic and emphasizes a historical trajectory that reaches up to today. Hence, both these books spoke to the need to smash the concept of a unique History, colonial power structures that remain, and racist pillars that are designed to exclude.

Koreanness Beside Itself: Queer Mobility and Diasporic Belonging

by Duncan MacKinnon

The Decoloniality Workshop held its only meeting of the fall semester on October 17th, 2018, to discuss Haruki Eda’s (Sociology PhD candidate, Rutgers University—New Brunswick) dissertation chapter entitled “Koreanness Beside Itself: Queer Mobility and Diasporic Belonging.” The chapter examined how some diasporic Koreans in the U.S. draw from embodied, sensorial, and emotional experiences in political organizing and forming a sense of community. In particular, it examined the role of queer diaspora as a modality of community organizing in articulating a different sense of Koreanness that creates other possibilities than those offered by hegemonic, heteronormative, nationalist figurations.

In his presentation, Eda contextualized the chapter and explained further its place within his dissertation project. His dissertation is an ethnography of Korean American community organizing, drawn from fieldwork with a number of community organizations who do largely transnational work (such as taking trips to Japan and Korea to meet with local organizations there and to build solidarity between the movements in U.S., Korea, and Japan). While these grassroots organizations were not formally labeled as queer or feminist organizations, a majority of the members were Korean women and queer people who brought their experiences and critical points of view into their organizing. The project tracks ways in which these organizations resist reifying national boundaries and nationalist identification to instead be more expansive in recognizing those who are seen as less Korean because of their differences, such as being diasporic, LGBTQ, or Zainichi Koreans (the communities of Koreans in Japan). This project instead turns toward the embodied experience of being Korean as at the intersection of the discursive and materialist in grounding the reality of being Korean.

Jeong Eun Annabel We (Comparative Literature PhD candidate, Rutgers University—New Brunswick) served as discussant for this meeting. In her comments, she first highlighted the special atmosphere that the chapter had in its writing, and how this is experienced powerfully in reading it. She noted how the queer Korean organizers of Eda’s ethnography undergo transformations in their understandings of both queer and Korean identities beyond the hegemonic narratives that they couldn’t see themselves in. In light of these processes of redefinition for the participants, she suggested giving more space in the chapter to exploring the moments of realization and transformation. She also asked about the role of ceremony and ritual in this chapter, and how certain practices and spaces within these organizing communities take on spiritual, ceremonial, and ritualistic characteristics. One particular example of this was the way in which the poongmul drumming practice that Eda analyzes in the chapter transforms a political rally space and enacts a collective and spiritual enactment of non-human agency or intersubjective agency.

With these insightful questions opening the conversation, the workshop then had a vibrant discussion of a range of questions and comments about Eda’s chapter and project as a whole. Some of the major features that came up in this discussion were Eda’s methodological contributions in approaching this project in the way that he does, reflecting on the theoretical engagements in the project, suggestions of different literature to bring into the project, and the project’s place within sociological scholarship.

The Decoloniality Workshop is an interdisciplinary space for scholars in training to present work in progress in a relaxed academic setting committed to the transformation of standard academic practice. Please visit https://decolonialityworkshop.wordpress.com/ for more information about past and future events.

Mariana Mora and Antonio Carmona Báez on ‘Decolonizing Knowledge and Research in ‘Latin’ America and the Caribbean’

By Amanda González Izquierdo

For the fourth event of the “What is Decoloniality?” speaker series, the Rutgers Advanced Institute for Critical Caribbean Studies, the Center for Cultural Analysis, and the Program in Comparative Literature were proud to host Dr. Mariana Mora (Center for Research and Advanced Studies in Social Anthropology, México) and Dr. Antonio Carmona Báez (President, University of St. Martin, St. Maarten). On the morning of October 25, Dr. Mora and Dr. Carmona Baéz gave a talk titled “Decolonizing Knowledge and Research in ‘Latin’ America and the Caribbean.” This was the first talk in the speaker series that featured two scholars in conversation and listening to them side-by-side allowed us to understand that even though there are commonalities in the experience of colonization, we should be careful not to make generalizations and should instead be mindful of the nuances and particularities of the distinct modalities of colonialism and their effects on different communities. 

Dr. Carmona Baez, co-editor of Smash the Pillars: Decoloniality and the Imaginary of Color in the Dutch Kingdom (2018), focused on St. Maarten, a constituent state of the Dutch Kingdom. He opened the discussion by highlighting the dichotomy of servitude vs. ownership that he has witnessed at the University of St. Maarten. The university specializes in hospitality, which is directly related to the fact that revenues from tourism are the backbone of the island. However, the business program is growing steadily because students are interested in owning corporations. This is due in large part to colonial powers and investment banks creating a market for international entrepreneurs.  This is often followed by the emigration of qualified students, which Dr. Carmona Báez describes as a brain drain to the island, or, unsustainable recovery and development. To offset that, Dr. Carmona Báez proposes a decolonial sustainable recovery and development, which is based on brain gain. This means creating the conditions for the “return of the diaspora”:  the return of the knowledgeable people that have left the island. He also proposes the use of local research and community-based development. He closed his portion of the talk by talking about jollification: a celebration of collective efforts. This celebration occurs as members of a community build houses and the elderly sit with children to tell them their histories. For him, a big part of decolonial recovery and development is precisely this kind of activity, where action and celebration happen not separately but simultaneously and, most importantly, in community.

Dr. Mora, author of Kuxlejal Politics: Indigenous Autonomy, Race, and Decolonizing Research in Zapatista Communities (2017) discussed the form her research took in writing her recently-published book. Dr. Mora opened by saying that academia is not absolved from neo-colonialism and explained how academic research has colonial overtones: it is seen as an extractivist knowledge wherein base/raw material that takes the form of oral histories provided by subjugated peoples is provided to a researcher, who then makes meaning out of that information by classifying and systematizing it in writing. Though the Zapatistas accepted that Dr. Mora do research in their communities, they redefined the terms of that research. First, they rejected Dr. Mora’s plan to conduct individual case stories in favor of a collective story in the form of group interviews. They also rejected Dr. Mora’s proposal to do a deep study of two communities, since they believed that this would silence the rest. Instead, they required that she go to at least twelve of the thirty-five municipalities. In their most decolonial action, they subverted the notion of extractivist knowledge. During Dr. Mora’s interviews, the Zapatistas themselves prepared their own synthetizations of their own histories, which they then read out loud, thus destabilizing the oral/written dichotomies and the suggestive power of the binary. This allowed them to have an active role in the production of knowledge and in the process situated themselves as subjects of their own histories. 

The exchange challenged us to think about coloniality and decoloniality across geopolitical frameworks and reminded us that the effects of colonization are still being felt and require radical praxes. It also provided us with original, context-sensitive responses from agents actively fighting colonial epistemes and redefining knowledge in their day-to-day lives.  

 

My experience taking the Ph.D. Qualifying Exams (Part Two)

By María Elizabeth Rodríguez Beltrán

Now onto the topic of scheduling my writing, you might already be wondering how I went about writing the exams. I followed what I found to be a very systematic but easy approach given to me by Carolyn. This is the way she did her exams and so did a few people after her. So I thought, if it worked for them it should work for me as well—and it did! Let me remind you that this approach is meant to fit the two questions, 10–20 page each answer, four-day weekend structure of the Rutgers Comp Lit exam, but I think that the system could work in other cases with a bit of readjustment. Now, in our program, the exam questions are given to us on Friday at 9 am. That Friday, I had plugged in my backup hard drive into my computer. Then, within ten minutes of receiving the questions, I drew a three-column table thinking through the ways to approach each question. This helped me narrow down and select two of the questions. The important thing here is to select the two questions you want to answer right after you receive them and stick with them. Hesitating between the three or dwelling on how to answer each and every one of them can create doubts in your preparation and waste valuable time that could be used for writing.

After I chose my questions, I continued to follow Carolyn’s advice, and I dedicated the whole Friday to outlining each essay. Shawn had emphasized that each outline should be detailed enough for me to (mostly!) not need to go back to anything else to write the essays. Thus, using the Pomodoro technique, I spent half of the day outlining one of the essays, and the other half of the day with the other essay, with a two-hour lunch and a one-hour dinner break in between. I also made use of the Pomodoro breaks for snacking and showers. I used the app called Focus Keeper on my phone, which already has the 25-minute work and 5-minute intervals preprogrammed, but there are many great free apps that you can use to follow the Pomodoro technique.

Along with the thesis for each essay and my focus when answering each question, each of my outlines included the few quotes from the texts that I was planning to use. They also included the division of the essay into sections and the connections I was to make between the sections, as well as things to remember while writing each piece. Some of those things were: to remember to include the page number of the quotes so that I would not have to search for it later; a specific spelling of an author’s name that I kept getting wrong, and to remember to include page numbers in the document itself. These were simple things, but also things that I knew I would probably forget at the editing stage when I would already be running low on time and energy.

After sleeping enough hours, I woke up early for the second day of the exams, which was dedicated entirely to writing both essays. Carolyn and Shawn had told me that I should be writing both essays at the same time because finishing one first and then the other would make one of the essays stronger than the other, and I wanted to give the same amount of time and effort to each question. Therefore, sticking to my Pomodoro method, I dedicated half of the day to one essay, and the afternoon into the evening to the other—the same number of hours for each essay.

When the timer was approaching the end of a writing block, I made sure to include a sentence or two stating what I was to write next time I came back to that essay. These sentences allowed me to keep writing as soon as I got back from breaks and stopped me from spending time re-reading or editing what I wrote. Saturday and Sunday were meant for writing, so editing without having finished the essays would only make me waste writing time.

On Sunday, I did the same as the previous day, but given that most of the writing was done on Saturday, I dedicated the first half of the day to finishing writing both essays, and the last part of the day to editing the essays and making sure that the structure and ideas made sense. On Monday morning, the exams were to be submitted by noon, so I woke up around 6 am to make sure I was able to work on grammar, spelling, and punctuation for both essays, and to double check that each works cited page included all the quoted texts and were formatted correctly. I also had enough time to read each essay out loud twice, which is a method that helps me to edit and which I recommend.

I double-checked the instructions for submission, created a new document where I joined the two essays, and made it into a single PDF file. I sent it to the assigned administrator and cc-ed my advisor and program chair so that they all had a record of the submission. I also added another one of my e-mail addresses to make sure that the submission went through on time. After I sent them, it was around 11 am, so I packed my things and had my celebratory/farewell lunch at Easton’s Nook at noon. I went home later and informed my friends and family I was finished with my written exams.

After my committee read my essays and my oral exam date was reconfirmed, I continued to prepare for the third question and reread my responses. Every oral exam is different because it depends on your committee, your questions, and your written essays. My oral exams were two delightful hours. I was able to have an enriching conversation with my advisor and my two committee members, discuss my ideas with them, respond to their questions, and hear their thoughts while we were all in the same room, an opportunity I will not have again until my dissertation defense. My few recommendations for the oral exams are:

  • Be prepared by going back to your notes on the different texts and your essays.
  • Take extensive notes on your committee’s comments during exams
  • Be confident in your knowledge. At the end of it all, you are the expert on your project, and as my advisor, Dr. Yolanda Martínez-San Miguel, told me at the end of my orals, “you are the driver of this plane,” so you decide where the plane will land.

Lastly, after orals are done, make sure you celebrate. For many, the celebration has to be planned weeks in advance, but if you don’t have time to plan it, just do something for yourself right after, even if that just means getting to sleep a few more hours than usual.

The process of qualifying exams tends to be mystified, not only by many faculty members but by students ourselves, who tend to forget how we went through the process and succeeded. This is often due to the anxiety that exams provoke and how much we want to distance ourselves from the process after it is over. However, if we talk about it more, and share different strategies amongst ourselves and with other students in other programs, the qualifying exam process could not only be useful for the dissertation project, but even be enjoyable or at least less frustrating. Reader, I encourage you to continue making these conversations a regular practice within your graduate programs, as another way to keep helping each other as a community.