Category Archives: Comparative Literature Events

“Dante, Franciscan Poverty, and the Donation of Constantine” Professor Alessandro Vettori – Brown Bag Lunch, April 18, 19

by Milan Reynolds

Ahi, Costantin, di quanto mal fu matre, non la tua conversion, ma quella dote che da te prese il primo ricco patre! (Inf. 19.115-17)

 Ah, Constantine, what wickedness was born— and not from your conversion—from the dower that you bestowed upon the first rich father!

Several students and faculty had the pleasure of hearing Professor Alessandro Vettori’s presentation on Dante’s Divina Commediaand its relation to Franciscan poverty and the Donation of Constantine. Beginning with a brief encounter in Canto 19 of Inferno, Vettori recounted how Dante locates Constantine with the simonists, members of the clergy who are corrupted by money. In order to understand Dante’s critique, we had to travel to the 3rdcentury. Constantine was the first “Christian” ruler of the Roman Empire though he was only baptized on the eve of his death. Along with unifying the Eastern and Western halves of the empire and moving the capital to Byzantium (renamed Constantinople), he played an influential role in the Edict of Milan and the Council of Nicaea, which made Christianity legal and established a set of principles for the faith.

After sketching this history of Christianity’s first steps, Alessandro turned to a document known as the Donation of Constantine. This text recounts how the Emperor, after being infected with leprosy, was miraculously cured by Pope Sylvester I and, in thanks, donated the city of Rome and the western half of the Roman empire to the Church. For those of us unfamiliar with medieval studies, it came as a surprise when Alessandro promptly informed us that the document was a fake written more than 400 years after Constantine’s death. It was not until the 15thcentury that it was argued to be false however, and in the meantime had been used by the Papacy to consolidate and acquire power and wealth.

Dante, who was influenced by the newly formed mendicant orders such as the Dominicans and Franciscans, was critical of the Church’s wealth. He articulated this in many ways but also by calling into question the Donation of Constantine itself, arguing it was illegitimate because the Church was not entitled to receive property. Alessandro then drew some intriguing connections between Dante’s experience of exile from Florence and his affinity for Franciscan values of poverty. In particular, a coterminous text narrating the marriage of St. Francis with Lady Poverty as a spiritual allegory, shares similarities with Dante’s Divina Commedia. This literary journey was supplemented by several works of art Alessandro had chosen, representing the Donation of Constantine at different moments in time. The project, as Alessandro put it, is still in the early stages, but everyone attendant looked forward to hearing more about the topic.

 

 

 

Brown Bag Lunch on “Comparative Worldings: The Case of Indian Literatures”

by Thato Magano

On April 8th, the Program in Comparative Literature’s Brown Bag series hosted Professor Preetha Mani (Comp Lit, AMESALL), who presented a paper from her upcoming book, where she takes up questions concerning Indian literatures as forms of comparative literatures. In her talk, excerpted from the first chapter of the book, Prof. Mani reflected on the conceptions of Indian literature that came to the fore in the 1930s and how these conceptions sought to unite Indian people in a common vision, as a corollary to ideas of a national language. Central to her meditation were questions of what constitutes world literature and how Indian writers of the time challenged the aggregative models of world literature by creating alternative conceptions of the world as constitutive to their practice.

Taking us on a temporal journey and describing the ways writers formed cohorts and circles to explore and debate questions of translation, uncovered was an appreciation of the ways these writers took up translation questions in world literary production, thus placing translation at the forefront of anti-imperialist efforts. There was also a consideration of how these writers defined literariness as a way of interrogating the status of world literature, and as such, performing acts of worldings that created alternative standards of literary value.

Following her query “Is a text translatable because it is literary or is it literary because it is translatable?” the answer is found in the ways worldliness is defined. Showing some of the challenges with theories of world literature and their aggregative borders that apply European standards to mark what belong and what doesn’t, Prof. Mani’s impulse is to define a new methodology of what constitutes worldliness. “What if literature is something more than a single literary discourse? What if literary processes of worlding have different origins? Can we see these as distinct processes informed by specific socio-political processes?” Prof Mani uses the case of Tamil writers and how they addressed these questions, showing how these writers welcomed foreignness and untranslatability in the face of changing world literary standards and norms. These writers embraced contaminated language, using multiple languages to defamiliarize Tamil literature and mark it as part of the worlding project and still part of the Indian literary and language project.

Thus, worlding is a multi-scalar approach that considers the meta literary approaches that shape which texts are considered world literature. As such, worlding is a useful ontological category for Prof. Mani as it enables a way of engaging or producing a kind of human community that ties us all through language, yet is still broader than just language as it also produces conceptions of what can be defined as literary.

Puerto Rican Blackness through a Cuban Lens: A Colloquium Presentation by María Elizabeth Rodríguez Beltrán

by Phil Yakushev

Comparative Literature hosted its first colloquium on April 1, when María Elizabeth Rodríguez Beltrán presented “Puerto Rican Blackness through a Cuban Lens” and contextualized this talk within her dissertation-in-progress. María Elizabeth’s project seeks to challenge what she identifies as a common tendency in studies of African diasporas—a centering of Anglophone spaces which, in turn, leaves the Spanish Caribbean at the periphery of this field. Her presentation, structured around two 19thcentury Spanish Caribbean texts, not only directly resisted this dynamic of African diaspora studies but also showed how love practiced by black and mix-raced women, as agents, can challenge the constraints of the nation and establish community.

María Elizabeth used two works to build her case: Puerto Rican playwright Alejandro Tapia y Rivera’s La Cuarterona, and Cuban novelist Ciriollo Villaverde’s Cecilia Valdés. These texts share several similarities, making them useful for a comparatist who traces how literary characters and black subjectivities in the Caribbean were shaped by their recognized relationship to slavery and how these recognitions effected social relations. Both works were written in the late 19thcentury by authors who were renowned in their spaces; their plots proceed around racially ambiguous female characters of African descent who fall in love with white men in times of slavery; both feature incest; and, perhaps curiously, both works are set in Habana. María Elizabeth used the latter similarity to illustrate the complex relationship between black subjectivities in the Spanish Caribbean, the family and the nation, and love and incest. Tapia most probably did not set his play in Cuba out of ignorance of how race operated on his own island, and María Elizabeth summarized the scholarly debates around question of setting. As she argued, Rivera places La Cuarterona in Cuba to present the “audience with a transnational perspective that allows for connections between isolated spaces and bring to light a pressing issue,” that of blackness and slavery.

For María Elizabeth, this transnational perspective is vital. Overall, she “seeks to study blackness as a way of being that centers relationships and community, instead of addressing the nation which has established modes of love that constrain black subjects.” Both nation and language act as constraints even in the study of African diasporas, with conventional approaches being less willing to engage with black experiences in the Spanish Caribbean and Brazil, where myths of “racial democracy and mesizaje are foundational and place an impediment” to a conventional discourse on blackness in which slavery is critical. María Elizabeth’s work, then, seeks to push African diaspora studies in at least three ways: broadening scholarship beyond Anglophone spaces, exploring the role of the nation in constructing racial ideology within the Spanish Caribbean itself, and showing how black and mixed-race women characters can challenge the dominance of the nation and its foundational unit, the family, by building their own communities. While love, in the texts María Elizabeth is working with for her dissertation, often takes on forms often identified as perverse—such as incest—she was careful to stress that, for characters in these literatures, love often does not ultimately fail. Rather, love becomes a way to form relationships among colonized communities, with instances of unconventional love creating “cracks on the concrete of coloniality, as fissures that challenge to break the colonial version of the family unit.”

After discussing these texts and introducing her analytical frames, María Elizabeth previewed the rest of her dissertation, and its themes and structure. The project, as a whole, will juxtapose and compare the black subjectivities produced, and reproduced, in literatures of the Hispanic and Anglophone Caribbeans. Other chapters in her work will explore Michelle Cliff’s Abeng and the limits of creole solidarity in Jamaica, as well as Tiphanie Yanique’s Land of Love and Drowningand how love and relationships in the Virgin Islands can function outside of the colonial-sexual matrix. María Elizabeth hopes that her comparatist approach will not only expand African diaspora studies beyond the Anglophone but, relatedly, disrupt a potentially paralyzing centrality of slavery within the field. As she said, “Despite the long-lasting damage that slavery has left on peoples of the Afro-Diaspora, our ability to love affirms our ways of thriving, our ways of moving forward, and beyond, trauma as framework.” As a whole, then, María Elizabeth’s work seeks to highlight how literature can unleash the ability of love to serve as praxis and “heal the wounds of enslavement.”  Her colloquium presentation provided a powerful and fascinating preview of this critical endeavor.

Rafael Vizcaíno “On the Postsecular and the Decolonial”

by Yingnan Shang, with editorial input from Rafael Vizcaíno

On Wednesday Nov. 28th, 2018, students and faculty from the Program in Comparative Literature convened on the fourth floor of the Academic Building for the second and final colloquium of the fall semester on secularism, postsecularism, and decoloniality by doctoral candidate Rafael Vizcaíno. Having just returned from a short stay at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) as part of the inter-university Critical Theory in the Global South initiative (itself part of the International Consortium of Critical Theory Programs, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation), Rafael began by sharing his experiences concerning the ongoing dialogues between critical theory and decolonial thought and practice on both sides of the border.

These initial comments were appropriate prefatory remarks for Rafael’s presentation. It focused on part of a chapter of his dissertation on the theoretical relevance of philosophical, literary, and theological production of 20th and 21st century Third World thinkers and intellectuals of color, particularly women of color, around the question of epistemic decolonization. Rafael’s broader work investigates the discourses and practices of decolonization across disciplinary and categorical frameworks. The goal of his project is to systematize a transverse engagement across disciplines and beyond the institution of the university. Through this approach “new epistemic, methodological, and categorical frameworks can be crafted to understand the world-historical processes of today, in a way that such alternative scholarly practice does not reproduce the coloniality of knowledge, which has forged the academy as the sole producer of valid critical or scientific knowledges over the last five centuries.”

Rafael mentioned that the spark that ignited his research on the postsecular has been the rise of visibility and the connections between what is often called religious fundamentalisms and conservative political movements all over the world. Hence, his chapter is not a study on these recent historical developments, but a questioning of the epistemic frameworks used to talk about these and other related processes, such as processes of modern secularization. In particular, Rafael asked what it could mean to “decolonize” the conversation on the roles of religion and secularism in contemporary global social and political processes. Given the aforementioned rise of religious movements as political actors in the global public sphere, Rafael argued that scholars across the social sciences and humanities have accordingly started to re-think the idea that western modernity is no longer (if it ever was) “secular”. Many of these discussions have fallen under the umbrella of what has come to be known as “the postsecular turn” in method. While they have been very productive in unmasking the disciplinary and methodological limitations of secularity as an implicit presupposition of scholarly practice, according to Rafael, these discussions have had almost nothing to say concerning the connection between such disciplinary secularity and the “coloniality of knowledge”. This gap has allowed Rafael to position his own work as providing a decolonial intervention into the analysis of the postsecular.

For Rafael, perhaps no other intellectual formation has made as many strivings towards a decolonial critique of secularism as women of color feminisms have done. Accordingly, the second half of his presentation engaged the work of the Chicana lesbian writer Gloria Anzaldúa, particularly her concept of la facultad and the performative way in which it is theorized in her Borderlands/La Frontera. Rafael sees in Anzaldúa’s work an explicit attempt to make a “politically-committed and spiritually-rooted scholarly practice that dismantles the secular/religious divide in a process of epistemic decolonization that aspires to theorize and bring forth new forms of being and knowing beyond those available in modernity/coloniality.” In the work of Anzaldúa and other women of color thinkers such as Jacqui M. Alexander and Sylvia Wynter, Rafael sees a conceptual redefinition of the postsecular from the perspective of epistemic decolonization. In their works the connections between secularity and coloniality are made in a way that being postsecular necessarily entails decolonial thinking and doing. This is different from how postsecularity is discussed by mainstream European and North American philosophers, sociologists, and anthropologists.

Rafael’s talk was followed by a one-hour session of questions and answers where several topics were raised, such as the relationship between religion and spirituality, the secularity of close reading and its relation to decolonial and postsecular disciplinary practices, as well as the relationship between spirituality and irrepresentability. After a lively discussion and many insightful inputs from professors and colleagues alike, everyone proceeded to a table of food and wine and carried on with the philosophical ruminations. Many thanks to Rafael on bringing a revelatory topic to the evening, and congratulations to him on a very successful colloquium!

 

 

 

 

 

“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!

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.