Category Archives: Faculty and Staff

“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.

Brown Bag Lunch on “Istanbul 1940 and Global Modernity”

by Rudrani Gangopadhyay

Comp Lit’s Brown Bag Lunch series returned this Spring on February 14th with Professor Efe Khayyat (CompLit, AMESALL) presenting his brand-new book Istanbul 1940 and Global Modernity: The World According to Auerbach, Tanpinar, and Edib. The book poses —and answers—a question about who else was in Istanbul at the same time as Erich Auerbach, and what alternate genealogies of Comparative Literature could have been traced on the basis of their work, had the one tracing back to Auerbach not been institutionalized by the Academy. In interpreting Auerbach’s work against that of his colleagues at Istanbul University in the 1940s, Ahmed Hamdi Tanpinar (1901-1962) and Halide Edib (1884-1964), Khayyat’s book simultaneously sheds new light on Auerbach’s work and on modernity in the non-European world.

Auerbach’s work, of course, draws upon Western literary cultures and Christianity, demonstrating a clear genealogy that can be traced all the way from the Gospels to Virginia Woolf. One of the things that Khayyat’s book sets out to do is to see how the genealogy looked from the Muslim world, and if there could be similar continuities between the Quran and modernist poetry. To do this, the book turns towards Auerbach’s illustrious Turkish colleagues—Tanpinar was a critic, poet, and novelist, and Edib was a feminist, a humanist, a soldier, a novelist, and a historian—and their works, which focus on Islamicate cultural histories in the Middle East and South Asia. Auerbach’s interest was in realism, and he went all the way back to The Bible to find a humanistic origin for it. Similarly, from Tanpinar’s perspective, there was a way one could, and should, read the Quran as literature that shows a continuity between it and contemporary literature. Edib, on the other hand, was interested in a comparative view of the literary histories of South Asia and the Middle East.

Interestingly, even though these figures were working together at the same university at the same period of time and were covering literatures of a large part of the world, they do not mention each other in any of their work. Khayyat’s book brings these three figures together and interprets their works as part of a collective. Thus, he opens up new dimensions to conversations about comparative literature, literary modernity, translation, and world literature. Congratulations to Professor Khayyat on this important and timely intervention!

Discussing Keywords in Sound: A look into second session of the Sound Studies Reading Group

by Coco Ke Xu

On the morning of February 22nd, the sound studies reading group held its second meeting on the sixth floor of the Academic Building. Led by Prof. Carter Mathes from the English department, Prof. Eduardo Herrera from Musicology, Prof. Andrew Parker from Comparative Literature and Prof. Xiaojue Wang from East Asian Languages and Cultures, the reading group gave graduate students from Rutgers a chance to think and discuss together key issues concerning the emerging field of sound studies from a multidisciplinary perspective.

Following the initial meeting held on January 25, the second meeting of the reading group continues the discussion on a recent edition of the anthology Keywords in Sound (Duke, 2015). The book covers twenty key words in sound studies, including: acoustemology, acoustics, body, deafness, echo, hearing, image, language, listening, music, noise, phonography, radio, religion, resonance, silence, space, synthesis, transduction and voice.

During the discussion, professors and graduate students from different disciplines contributed their unique perspectives and offered up new ways in thinking about sound related subjects. When discussing the wireless nature of radio, Prof. Wang pointed out that during the early years of Chinese diaspora radio served as a means to unite different dialect-speaking Chinese communities through broadcasting the same material in different Chinese dialects at different timeslots during the day. Prof. Parker brought up the nostalgic tone of Walter Benjamin’s “The Storyteller” and proposed a none-logocentric reading of broadcasted sound. As a nice segue into the next key word “religion”, Comparative Literature PhD candidate Virginia Conn noticed that church services in foreign languages sometimes bring up similar feelings in people and noted the difference between “religious” and “spiritual” reactions towards sounds. Connections are also made between different keyword entries. When looking at the word “silence”, Prof. Herrera reminded us to think back at other entries like “deafness” and “echo”. The new sound projecting as well as active noise cancellation technologies open new possibilities for us to reflect on the critical relationships between silence, sound and noise.

The meeting concluded with a catered lunch from Delhi Garden, during which discussions continued in a casual atmosphere. The remaining two meetings of the group for this semester will take place on March 22 and April 26 respectively, with more focus on how scholarship on sound studies informs and inspires individual works of group members. Anyone who is interested in the topic and would like to join the conversation should reach out to Prof. Carter Mathes, who will be arranging individual presentations for the next meeting.

Relational Undercurrents: Contemporary Art of the Caribbean Archipelago

A report on the Brown Bag Lunch by: Yuanqiu Jiang

On January 17, 2018, the Program of Comparative Literature hosted its first Brown Bag Lunch of the spring semester. Professor Michelle A. Stephens, Dean of Humanities, also an affiliate faculty member of the program, gave a talk on the book she newly coedited with Professor Tatiana Flores (Art History and Latino and Caribbean Studies), Relational Undercurrents: Contemporary Art of the Caribbean Archipelago. Along with the book, an exhibition was curated by Professor Flores for the Museum of Latin American Art (Long Beach, CA).

Both the book and the exhibition focus on contemporary visual arts produced in the Caribbean islands, around which a conceptual framework is built. This framework, Professor Stephens suggests, challenges traditional area studies such as American Studies and Caribbean Studies. In addition to posing “a critique to the continental,” Relational Undercurrents also pushes Caribbean Studies to reconceptualize the Caribbean itself: it is more than ex-colonies; and compared with only taking the relations between ex-colonies and the respective metropoles into consideration, the assemblage of seas, continents, and islands enables us to investigate ties and associations that look beyond those defined by colonialism. Through its internal complexity and inexhaustible particularity, the Caribbean, as an assemblage, makes possible a variety of new perspectives. In turn, new understanding of places beyond the Caribbean would also emerge.

Professor Stephens further introduced the four main sections of the book. The first is conceptual mapping. A personalized mapping of landscapes articulates a Caribbean that modifies, counters, and challenges the cartography imposed by colonial powers. The second is perpetual horizons, the horizon being a shared theme and trope among many of the artists. Different artists mobilize the horizon differently: some may view it as a symbol of freedom, others may focus on its function of bridging the islands. The third is landscape ecologies. Rather than (re)presenting a romanticized or exoticized landscape, what emerges in artists’ visualizations are wild, messy, sometimes even uncanny. In a move that de-familiarizes paradise and beach tropes often ascribed to the Caribbean, harsh realities such as oil drilling and garbage in the sea are shown. The last section, on representational acts, addresses the figuration of the human body, including race and gender. The political and interactive staging of the impacted body is an essential component in the visualizing and theorizing of contemporaneity.

The talk was followed by an extremely lively discussion. Scholars from different disciplines shared their experiences and critical understandings of the term “archipelagic.” Professor Stephens pointed out that oceanic studies share a similar conceptual framework with continental studies, which is why the assemblage mentioned before is important: it disrupts these studies materially and metaphorically. The discussion also demonstrated that “archipelago” does not designate a locale-fixed notion, nor is it a term solely used in Euro-American academic discourses, suggesting its far-range applicability.

The book, the talk, and the discussion all gave manifestation to the comparative and collaborative (frame)works Professor Stephens presented on. Thank you to all participants, and congratulations to Professor Stephens and Professor Flores!

Conversations on anti-colonialism

By Paulina M. Barrios

This past Monday, October 30th, Prof. Ania Loomba and Prof. Nelson Maldonado-Torres participated in a public conversation coordinated by Prof. Anjali Nerlekar with the support of the Comparative Literature and South Asian Studies Programs. The title of the conversation was Anti-colonialism and its trajectories: Postcolonial and decolonial thought, where both professors spoke of their professional trajectories and how they intersected with postcolonial studies and decolonial thought. Both had different ways of presenting their main arguments leading to a lively and dynamic conversation, provoking occasional laughter or thoughtful looks and speedy note-taking. The framework of the conversation was the course offered this semester by Prof. Nerlekar Introduction to Literary Theory, where graduate students discuss leading theorists and aim to establish a theoretical framework for their own projects.

With this in mind, Prof. Maldonado-Torres decided to move beyond the texts and trace his interactions with postcolonial studies. He began with an anecdote of how his anglo-American writing tutor in graduate school suggested that he must know postcolonial studies, leaving him feeling a bit perplexed about the assumption, and marking his first contact with its authors and theory. Moreover, he pointed out that postcolonial theory helped him frame a response to the provincialism of Western philosophy and a critique of the eurocentrism present in Puerto Rican nationalism. Similarly, Prof. Loomba was told to read postcolonial authors by a fellow academic, once her PhD studies had been completed in England. In speaking of her own trajectory she explained her parents were Marxists, described herself as a political child and a feminist from the second wave of feminism in India. It was in England that “I discovered race for the first time and realized how terribly colonialized I was, the peculiar thing in India is that you don’t see race, which now I would say is exactly the coloniality we were all taught”.

However, both argued that Postcolonial theory has limitations that may be pushed further. Prof. Maldonado-Torres focused his critique on four general limitations; it did not fully address eurocentrism, it was a theoretical movement that wasn’t grounded on current social movements, and it excluded lived experience. He tied his final critique with his own analysis of Puerto Rican nationalism, “I realized that the provincialism of Puerto Rican nationalism was matched by the complicity with colonialism of forms of knowledge that used criticism as refuge of the closed forms of repression”. Prof. Loomba responded first by emphasizing that she is not a postcolonial specialist, and that the work she has published on postcolonial studies has been as someone who uses this theory and engages with it in a critical way. She further pointed out that she would separate Edward Said from the other theorists, however, she used him to point out how postcolonial theory sometimes simplifies its analyses by not including the “traditions of patriarchy, race structures, and class structures that predated colonialism”.

Both professors closed their discussions by presenting their own proposals on how to engage with both the limitations and useful elements of Postcolonial Studies. Prof. Maldonado-Torres discussed his work in area studies, spoke against what he termed “the infantilization of area studies”, and supported the project of an academy linked to social movements. He then presented the background of the end of the Cold War and indigenous movements in the 90s as key for leading to Anibal Quijano’s term of coloniality and “to the notion that modernity and coloniality are a global system of power that orchestrates relations between different countries but also inside the different countries”. Prof. Loomba framed her response by pointing towards elements that should be rescued, such as the idea of multiple histories. However, she stated postcolonial studies were too presentist, and didn’t go sufficiently far back in their analyses. She also spoke against the American academy’s obsession with creating new fields and asked to move beyond the term ‘postcolonial studies’. She strongly urged for an inclusion of ideas that are emerging within the Third World and not use the same 4 or 5 authors, “that are taken up by American presses and canonized here”.

At the end of both presentations, there was a short question and answer session. One example of a question that came up focused on how this discussion might translate into pedagogical tools or strategies to bring decoloniality into the classroom. Both professors answered by stating two options: the first focused on strategies in the classroom, such as, working with students on a more horizontal level and leading creative efforts within the classroom; the second focused more on content, bringing in authors that are not generally discussed in American academia or constantly integrating discussions surrounding race and/or gender into courses. Both professors  ended the conversation leaving the room buzzing and inspired to productively question our own colonialisms/colonialities.