Category Archives: Summer Graduate Research

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.

 

Literary and feminist summer in Mexico and Brazil

By Paulina Barrios

Looking back to this summer seems so far away it is hard to think that it only happened a few months ago. The first thing that comes to mind is sunshine and walking around different cities. I started the summer at home, enjoying warm weather and dog-sitting, as I planned out the field research I would do. My general goal this summer was to reconnect with colleagues across feminist movements in Mexico and visit feminist collectives and organizations that use literature in their projects. However, I was also interested in establishing new contacts and learning more about cartoneras and decolonial thought. As a follow up on my class on Spanish American short stories with Prof. Marcy Schwartz, and thanks to her support, I contacted cartonera groups and interviewed them about their work. I wanted to understand if there were any connections between self-narrative and storytelling efforts and self-publishing. Additionally, following a recommendation from Prof. Nelson Maldonado-Torres I applied to the summer school on Decolonial Black Feminism in Bahia, Brazil and was accepted. Although I had initially planned to do research in 8-9 cities in Mexico it slowly became clear that this was overly ambitious considering time and funds. For example, I hadn’t factored in time for transcribing and processing the data, traveling more than two or three times a month would be unrealistic. I also needed time to reach out to people and buy plane tickets that were quickly escalating in price. Therefore, in May I set up my geographic trail for the summer; between June and July I would visit five cities in Mexico, and end the summer at Bahia and Sao Paulo in Brazil.

San Cristobal, Chiapas

I loved my summer work since it gave me the opportunity to watch independent theater productions, learn how to make books out of cardboard, speak with activists, visit new places, and rethink my research project. My time in both countries added new concepts and ideas to my incipient dissertation project such as space, race, self-publishing, decolonial feminisms, and positionality. I was particularly struck by the origins of cartoneras (simply put, these are editorial groups that make cardboard-based artisanal books) and the different aspects that inspire their work: independent editing, responding to editorial monopolies, socioeconomic issues in Latin American countries, the aim to socialize literature that would otherwise be inaccessible to people, bringing literature and craft together, participating in youth-driven projects, etc. In addition to visiting groups in Mexico I was able to speak with Dulcineia Cartonera in Sao Paulo, which is located next to a recycling site. Seeing the different spaces that cartoneras work in (editor’s homes, small bookstores, rooms/offices next to recycling sites, loaned spaces, etc) made me think of the centrality of space in literary production and activism. This relates in part to the physical space of where cartoneras do their work and hold their workshops, for example, but also space as related to performance and theater.

Space also came up when I spoke to theater companies or LBTQ collectives and organizations that use theater as part of their creative and activist work. In some cases these groups choose to use public spaces and the street. In others, part of their activism involves having a space of their own for their and others’ performances and theater productions. Hence, this experience led me to rethink the concept of space, and the practical elements attached to having a physical space for activist groups. In some cases, groups do believe that having a physical space benefits their work, and in others they see their mobility as a positive aspect. Not only this, but many groups spoke about the threat of shrinking space for both cultural projects (specifically in the case of Guadalajara) and feminist or human rights activist work. Thus, space arose as both an issue and an opportunity regarding physical space and the concept of space in a less tangible fashion.

The final element of my summer, the decolonial feminism school, was a crucial addition to my research project’s theoretical framework. Held from August 6-10 in Cachoeira, Bahia (Brazil), the Decolonial Black Feminism Summer School is described on their website as “an initiative exploring Black Feminist Thought from a Trans-American perspective”. They further aim to generate a regional discussion surrounding black feminisms that have risen out of the continent, reframing intersectionality around race and inequality, as well as adding decolonial analyses of capitalism and patriarchy. The sessions focused on black feminist thought in the United States taught by Prof. Kimberle Crenshaw, Brazilian black feminist history taught by Prof. Angela Figueroa, and Latin American decolonial feminisms taught by Prof. Karina Ochoa. In addition to the academic training, the personal exchanges between participants was a wonderful experience, and I had the opportunity to meet fellow graduate students, activists, and professors. The school also included afternoon or evening walks throughout Cachoeira, meeting

Memorial das Baianas in Salvador, Bahía

local cultural and activist groups, as well as a samba presentation-invitation to participate. The spiritual element of the exchanges and learning is difficult to put into words but made this into one of the most thought-provoking experiences of my life.

The funds granted by the Program in Comparative Literature, the Center for Latin American Studies, and the Off-Campus Dissertation Development Award were crucial for my work in Mexico and my participation in the summer school in Bahia. After this summer I was left with many questions, new ideas, and a conviction that academy and activism should be in constant communication and that we need more ‘South-South’ exchanges. My summer work has already extended into my second year under the PhD program in Comparative Literature, inspiring many of my classes and triggering conversations around my future dissertation project. In the future I hope to maintain a constant communication with decolonial and black feminisms, further my understanding and use of ‘space,’ as well as continue to put Brazil and Mexico into conversation.

Graduate Student Summer: Institute for World Literature 2018 Session at Tokyo

By Penny Yeung

From July 2 to 26, I attended the Institute for World Literature (IWL), hosted at the Hongo campus of the University of Tokyo. This year, IWL gathered over 120 scholars from different stages of their research careers, from advanced undergraduates, to graduate students, post-docs, and faculty. As the program coincided with UTokyo’s regular academic session, everywhere we went, we met with students going about their routines. The buzz on campus made me feel as though for the four weeks, we were integrated into the pulse of university life.

Group photo in front of the General Library

Over the four weeks, IWL participants attended two out of a choice of ten seminars. For the first two weeks I took “The Avant-gardes in the World” with Professor Christopher Bush (Northwestern University), during which we discussed conceptual definitions of the avant-garde and examined the political and aesthetic dimensions of varying movements in their cultural localities. The second seminar I attended was “From Comparison to World Literature: Readings and Conceptual Issues,” taught by Professor Zhang Longxi (City University of Hong Kong). In this seminar we looked at East-West studies through the lens of utopian and anti-utopian literature, raising questions about the place of comparison in redressing Eurocentric frames of analysis. The diverse research backgrounds participants had brought different insights to bear on the conversations. I came away with more contextual understanding of the different literary movements and theoretical tools with which to think about my project.

“The Avant-gardes in the World” seminar

Participants were also assigned to different colloquia, a weekly occurrence that offered the opportunity to present our work and receive feedback in a more intimate setting. In my colloquium, “World Literature and Translation,” I presented on An Atlas: An Archaeology of an Imaginary City, a work by Dung Kai-Cheung, a Hong Kong–based author. I spoke about the aesthetics of translation at work in the paratextual elements of and within the novel. I explored several ways in which such an aesthetic troubles definitions of placedness, and further, intervenes in spatialized constructions of world literature by making it difficult to pinpoint the “point of origin” or “cultural origins” of a work. The colloquium provided not only an occasion to learn about the research projects fellow program participants were undertaking but also a venue to dialogue broadly on theories of translation.

“World Literature and Translation” colloquium

IWL also ran a series of faculty lectures and panels, with topics ranging from world literature, to contemporary Chinese science fiction and posthumanism, ecocriticism, and translation in modern Japanese literature. In addition there were a number of events that broke down the boundaries between the theoretical and the creative. One presentation featured Seoul-based Young Hae-Chang Heavy Industries, whose body of work has been acquired by Hong Kong’s M+ museum this year. Combining poetry, music, and visuals, the work the duo presented gave a dynamic and wry questioning of “What is World Literature?” Later in the program, we were also treated to multilingual poetry readings by Yoko Tawada and other locally-based poets, and the “New Japanese Voices” panel featuring contemporary Japanese writers introduced me to literary vistas I had not been familiar with.

“New Japanese Voices” event

This July was one of the hottest in Tokyo’s records. Some days we sought respite in the air-conditioned quiet of UTokyo’s library, but the sweltering heat did not deter us from venturing out. I had been to Tokyo before but never for such a long stay. This time, I enjoyed experiencing the city at a slower pace, biking around the neighborhoods, seeing the programs on offer at its many cultural institutions. Organized excursions by the IWL took us to Asakusa, the Hama Rikyu Gardens, Ueno Park, and the Tokyo National Museum. 

Of course, no trip to Tokyo would be complete without tasting its impeccable culinary fare. And I’d like to think that food and academics do harmonize: some of the most memorable moments from the summer are the conversations had outside the classroom over kara-age or a sizzling plate of monjayaki. IWL provided a rare opportunity to interact at length with student-scholars undertaking research at institutions in other parts of the world, and it was interesting to learn about how their programs are structured and exchange thoughts on how we see cultural and institutional dimensions playing a role in shaping our projects.

I am not sure what metaphors we gravitate towards to describe cultural encounters these days—the old tropes of surface and deep encounter or immersion seem to fall short. Perhaps I will borrow from Spivak, who, in her essay The Politics of Translation, talks about the “language-textile,” its selvedges “[giving way and fraying] into frayages and facilitations.” For now, perhaps this is the closest metaphor I can think of to speak of the experience, one of weaving myself into the texture of daily life in Tokyo. I am thankful to IWL for the wonderful programming and to Comp Lit for making this summer possible through funding. A special shout-out also to Tokyo-based students, who, despite their busy schedules, took it upon themselves to be our translator and facilitator to all things local.

Rapport d’Été 2018

Par: Thato Magano
Où: Dakar, Senegal
Quand: Juin 28 – Août 12, 2018

Pour l’été, J’ai visité le Sénégal pour apprendre le Français à l’Institut de Français pour les Étudiants Étrangers (I.F.E) de l’Université Cheikh Anta Diop de Dakar (UCAD). Le cours était un cours intensif pour débutants, offert du lundi au vendredi, de huit heures du matin à midi et demi, pendant six semaines. Parallèlement aux études de langues, j’ai effectué des recherches sur les Cultures Matérielles de l’Afrique de l’Ouest ainsi que l’activisme des droits des LGBTQ/Queer. Mon voyage au Sénégal est venu d’une étude indépendante sur la Migration Bantu avec le Professor Ousseina Alidou au Printemps l’année dernière. 

[For the summer, I visited Senegal to learn French at the French Institute for Foreign Students (I.F.E) of the Cheikh Anta Diop University of Dakar (UCAD). The class was an intensive beginners’ course, offered Monday to Friday from 8 am to 12:30 for six weeks. Along with language study, I did research on the Material Cultures of West Africa and LGBTQ/Queer rights activism. My trip to Senegal came from an independent study on Bantu Migration with Professor Ousseina Alidou in the Spring last year.]

The study explored how cultures, customs, traditions, and languages of the Bantu gave rise to similar or distinct markers of community and citizenship, and to determine if and how these markers have endured the legacies of colonialism in order to provide space for comparative study of sub-Saharan African life in contemporary time. As a result, I began to reconceptualize my conception of comparative studies as it related to Africa, increasingly thinking about what is lost culturally and what remains across time, space and history as a result of this balkanization. 

J’ai choisi d’étudier le Français against this backdrop of history, understanding how French and Portuguese colonization continue to impact the borders of the continent, and the reach of French as a language on the continent in order to access the breath of literature produced in parts of Francophone Africa for the purposes of comparative study. The Postcolonial Laboratory project at UCAD hosted me while I was at the university, and former Rutgers Fulbright Fellow, Professor Saliou Dione’s hospitality was indulgent in its allowance. Each day, after class, the schedule was different as I mainly invested my time in investigating the cultural similarities to be found between parts of West Africa (Senegal, Gambia, Guinea Bissau, Mali) and Southern Africa (the ethnic groups of the Zulu, Xhosa, Tsonga, Vhavenda, Ndebele in South Africa, Zimbabwe). 

“….

What is the price of water when your family’s history is still unaccounted for, lying at its source from the beginning of colonial time only to find you walking around with bottles of Kiréne to your hearts content?

In Flint, Michigan, the water from their taps is golden. 

It’s a metallic luminance that marks their graves with names borrowed from the South. 

Children die in multiples in Bolivia while Nestle is maximizing profits and expanding its footprint

….”1

At the Postcolonial Laboratory, I was involved with organizing the third annual African and Postcolonial Studies Laboratory International Conference, themed “Migration, Literature, Society”, and I also presented my paper, “Fucking [With] The Family: The Queer Promise in Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions.” I also attended the West African Research Center’ (WARC) 4th International Conference themed, “Bridging the Gap: Black Studies Across Social, Geographical, Epistemic, and Linguistic Lines” where an array of presenters across the diaspora spoke to the kaleidoscope of the experiences of racialization and race across temporal and geographic planes. I also delivered a lecture to the Year III Baccalauréat Postcolonial Studies, titled ‘‘Overview of South Africa’s Literary Landscape: An Alternative Archive.’’ 

Visiting Musée Theodore Monod d’Art Africain de l’Ifan Cheikh Anta Diop de Dakar (Musée IFAN), which houses the largest permanent collection of customary ceremonial artefacts of the Bantu, ranging from the observation of fertility rites, circumcision and marital initiation, and harvest time celebrations, en conversation avec le conservateur Malick Ndiaye, I explored the parallel and complex philosophies of being human as it relates to the uses of the artefacts. I also learnt about Senegal’s involvement in the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. It seemed not coincidental then that musée IFAN is located in the arrondissement Dakar-Plateau, next to Assemblée Générale, dans un quartier appelé, PLACE SOWETO. South Western Townships (SOWETO), is arguably South Africa’s most famous anti-apartheid resistance symbol, being the site of the 1976, June 16th Student uprising, and home to the Mandela and Tutu families, and many anti-apartheid activists. 

“…

What does unhappiness look like in an unspoken country?

…”2

J’ai aussi visité les archives nationales to investigate the masquerade cultures of the Diola, and how the cultural significance of the Kumpo Masquerade forms a long-standing tradition of collapsing the gendered taxonomies that have been imposed on the body, as well and its role in mediating the metaphysical, as the Kumpo represents an encounter with the divine. I was also fortunate to witness a Kumpo ceremony in the South of Dakar and fully participate in the cultural symbolism of the encounter. I was also able to visit Monument de la Renaissance Africaine, standing at 49 meters, atop Collines des Mamelles outside of Dakar, it is the tallest monument in Africa currently. Overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, depicting a family negotiating the future and the past, the monument is a remembrance of the lives lost to the Atlantic Slave trade. Perhaps the grandest highlight of my time in Dakar were my successive visits to Île de Gorée, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that houses Maison des Esclaves, built by the Afro-French Métis family, estimated between 1780–1784. Maison des Esclaves is deemed one of the oldest houses on the island and is now a tourist destination that shows the horrors of the slave trade throughout the Atlantic world.

“…

In my father’s house there’s a chain in a cabinet whose strings tighten my feet from moving. 

The neck braces mutilate my throat when I look into the Atlantic. 

I want to scream, like the little boy, I want to purge my heart, but my eyes refuse to let my mouth open. They muffle my screams into dried sockets that hold their tears from the wooden floors refusing to make them shine. 

My grandmother says if I even let one escape, master will come pleasure himself so now I keep smiling and taking photographs with my sunglasses on and I write on the walls stitching broken pieces to hold myself together

3

J’ai aussi visité au Musée Léopold Sédar Senghor, Ancien Président de la République du Sénégal et au Président Poète. A personal highlight was watching two world renowned Senegalese musicians in concert, Youssou N’Dour and Ismaël Lô, and meeting the renowned Burundian singer, Khadja Nin, whose music formed a substantive soundtrack to my formative years in Bophuthatswana, before South Africa’s homelands were integrated into the landscape of its provinces upon its first democratic vote in 1994. My encounter with Khadja Nin was in attendance at the Universite Populaire de l”Engagement Citoyen (UPEC, The Peoples University of Citizen Engagement), themesd “Citoyenneté et Droit Décider”, a five day conference that focused on citizen movements and popular forms of activism across the continent, to create a space for activists to share best practices and community for issues ranging dictatorship, neoliberalism, corruption and media freedom. The South African started, anti-neo liberal and colonial university movement, #FeesMustFall, was represented. I had the opportunity of sharing the activist collection I co-curated with two other activists in South Africa, Publica[c]tion, which is now freely available for download on Amazon. 

“someone is calling my name at the edge of the earth

my mother said I must never respond to these voices 

because, I will never come back to her if I do

I’ve resisted for so long, I lost my body in her eyes 

now in the water I can see what my face was meant to look like 

when I put my foot in the water, the sky commands the earth and a storm is brewing

the strikes of lightning charge into my veins and overwhelm my body, and my heart stops for minutes I do not know how to count

 

my friend once told me that often while driving, they imagine what the impact of crashing against a wall would feel like on their body 

I wake up in the deep of the water and I scare myself at how I delight at my death every time this happens.”4 

Avec l’apprentissage du Français, j’ai écrit de la poésie de la lourdeur de visiter l’Île de Gorée,

which I share with you, embedded in this reflection. All of my extra-curricular learnings and meetings with Professors was facilitated by the hospitality of former Rutgers Fulbright Fellow, Professor Saliou Dione, and the Postcolonial Laboratory project at Cheikh Anta Diop University. Je veux remercier ma famille d’accueil, Madame Cisse et ses enfants, qui m’a permis de saisir le langage aussi vite que je l’ai fait. I also thank the Rutgers Center for African Studies and Program in Comparative Literature for their generous support with funding to undertake this project. 

 

Notes
1   Magano, Thato. 2018. Water as/is Commodity. Unpublished.
2   Magano, Thato. 2018. Spoken Silences. Unpublished.
3   Magano, Thato. 2018. The House of Métis. Unpublished.
4   Magano, Thato. 2018.The End of the World is Pleasure. Unpublished. 

 

Material Cultures in Ancient China

By Yuanqiu Jiang

After a six-week summer course of reading knowledge in German at Rutgers, I headed back to China to research further on material cultures in ancient China. The modifier “ancient” itself renders “China” as a geographical and political entity hard to delineate; hence the term is used solely for the purpose of expediency.

Fig. 1 Pottery Figures in The Oriental Metropolitan Museum (Nanjing)

The main focus of my research was put on women’s apparel, which, along with its owners, is a popular theme in classical Chinese poetry. Based upon the Confucian ideology “Interactions between Heaven and Mankind” 天人感应, “abnormal” clothing sometimes was believed to be ominous. The dress in Fig. 1 might be an example of “frugal upper [body], affluent lower [body]” 上检下丰, criticized in the Book of Song 宋书 as an emblem of “weak emperor (upper) and licentious courtiers (lower)”. Early Tang, arguably the only period throughout Chinese history when a group of women were visibly at the top of the dynasty’s power hierarchy, was an easy target for historians to make a moral judgment on women’s apparel, using the term “clothing anomaly” 服妖. Fig. 2 is a concrete example of this type of clothing anomaly.

Fig.2 Pottery Female in Men’s Clothes in the National Museum of China (Beijing)

Besides gender, ethnicity also played a central role in terms of marking people(s) physically. For example, one feature associated with Yue 越 people is “sheared hair, tattooed body” 断发文身. Erica Brindley includes “an ancient image of a so-called ‘Yue’ person at the Zhejiang Provincial Museum” (Figure 6.2, p. 159) as a possible illustration of this ancient stereotype (I was not able to find the same statue or anything similar in this museum) in her book Ancient China and the Yue. Not surprisingly, these physical markers reflect the center-periphery relation between the northern empires and their southern others. Fig.3, from the perspective of porcelain-making, gives a glimpse of the conflicts among different peoples: “ . . .  the centralized empire despised the economies and cultures south to Yangtze River, damaging the once flourishing production of the Original Porcelain 原始瓷 in the Yue state . . . ”.

Fig. 3 A History of Conflicts from the Perspective of Porcelain-Making in the Zhejiang Provincial Museum (Hangzhou)

On the other hand, it was also interesting to see how the National Museum of China incorporated the ethnic cultures into the “unified multi-ethnic” regime (Fig. 4), silently erasing the conflicts among different peoples and the sometimes violent process of sinicization.

Fig. 4 A Short Introduction to Ethnic Cultures in the National Museum of China (Beijing)

The research on material cultures in ancient China has made me reflect further on “Chinese” aesthetics. Combining gender and ethnicity together, (imagined) female personae from peripheral regions (Chu/Xiang, Yue, Wu, etc.) have fascinated Chinese poets for centuries. Given the tradition that male writers often write in a female voice, the performative aspect of literature has come to the surface. In addition, I’m also pondering on the possibility of exploring the performativity of gender and ethnicity more literally. In other words, how poetics is attired in the texture of gender and ethnicity, and vice versa.

A Particular Place and a Particular Time: Communism, Science Fiction, and their Co-Constitution

In his contentious 1972 description of science fiction as “a literary genre whose necessary and sufficient conditions are the presence and interaction of estrangement and cognition, and whose main formal device is an imaginative framework alternative to the author’s empirical environment,”¹ Darko Suvin ushered in an era of renewed debate about the classificatory role of an historically malleable genre. Yet, the central tenant of this categorization—estrangement of cognition from the known—is drawn from the Russian остранение (ostrenanie, or defamiliarization), itself already a central tenant of Russian Formalism as a genre. Ostrenanie, a central concept in Russian Formalism’s attempt to describe and define what constitutes literaturnost’ (литературность, or literariness), already functioned as a linguistic neologism with the double meaning of “making strange” and “putting aside.” To embody literariness at the level of the text is to inherently make strange and to decenter, to make the art itself recognizable as such. Thus the terminology of definitions utilized by Suvin already glosses its origins and, in doing so, elides any new formal definition of SF as a genre in and of itself, existing outside of—if contingent on—the realm of literature formally defined. To locate SF’s defining characteristic in the exact same categorization schema as those outlining literature as a whole, without allowing for additional classificatory markers, allows SF as a genre to remain in the liminal genre periphery that no amount of theorizing has yet been able to satisfactorily crystallize into a rigorously-definable framework. If, then, the defining features of SF as such are estrangement from the known taking place within a framework outside the author’s extant circumstances, then such estrangement may occur at the level of text, through technological extrapolations, or by transgressing or presenting unfamiliar national boundaries.

  Each of these potential avenues for estrangement—textual, technological, national—were explored, analyzed, and problematized at the first annual International Conference on Science Fiction and Communism, held May 26-27, 2018 at the American University in Bulgaria (AUB) in Blagoevgrad, Bulgaria. The conference’s focus on communism as a modifier of and literary foundation for the development of science fiction offered an ideological avenue into the question of estrangement—if we in the West are used to thinking of SF as an inherently Western genre, what happens when we decenter it from those national, linguistic, and ideological boundaries? How does it change the nature of the questions being asked or the methods used to analyze its output, reception, and conditions?

As a unifying framework, the conference postulated SF not as an outcome of state policy or propaganda, but rather as an active agent in a complex and (in many cases) ongoing relationship between various communist regimes and public reception. As a genre often credited with voicing political and social critiques not possible in more “realist” genres, the conference took as its a priori theoretical positioning that SF is uniquely positioned to directly engage with the polemics of ongoing clashes between capitalism and communist ideology.

Yet it is not only the case that SF was and is uniquely positioned to comment upon ideological regimes, but also, numerous conference presentations recognized that as a mediated ideology, communism itself borrowed heavily from futuristic and technologicized visions of alterity, utilizing SF images, metaphors, and tropes to position itself as “the bearer of a bright future that had already arrived.” In adopting SF as a source of political discourse and as a framework for the communication of political ideals, various communist regimes were complicit in popularizing the genre itself. 

In addressing such a broad spectrum of interests, the conference—which was a multi-city affair—opened in Sofia, the capital city of Bulgaria, a country with a surprisingly science fictional history of robotics and cybernetics. To celebrate the opening of the conference, a cocktail party was held at a downtown gallery, including a meet-and-greet with local academics, science fiction experts, writers, artists, and fans. The exhibition on display was appropriate for setting the mood; “Fantastika in a Time of Communism” displayed archival and artistic SF works from the socialist period in Bulgaria. There was also space wine!

Following the close of the first night’s party, participants were transported two hours outside of Sofia to Blagoevgrad, a city in southwestern Bulgaria that is home to the American University in Bulgaria’s campus. Over the following weekend, participants presented on a variety of fascinating panels, beginning with “Science Fiction East and West: Communication or Divide?,” “Soviet Science Fiction,” “Space Conquest in Communist Children’s Literature,” “The Film Perspective,” and “No God in Cosmos.” Perhaps of most interesting note during the first day was a notable divide between those participants who took it as a given that communism as a system was irredeemably corrupt (if not outright evil) and their occasionally vocal clashes with the conference hosts, who attempted to steer the discussions towards a recognition of the ways in which communism was (or could be) beneficial despite the harm that its implementation had caused in the past. Disagreements along these lines led to volatile and exciting exchanges between participants.

Following a productive first day of presentations, the second day opened with a panel on “Narrowing the Dialogue: Case Studies” and concluded with “Science Fiction and Ideology.” I’m biased, of course, since this panel included my own presentation, but obviously they saved the best for last.

My presentation—“The Quotidian Utopia of China’s Lian Huan Hua”—was unique in that it was the only conference presentation dealing with a communist regime outside of the Soviet and Eastern European context, focusing instead on literary ephemera popular in mid-20th century communist China. As an explicit tenant of Mao’s modernization strategy during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, literary strictures produced a mode of narrative utopianism that Nathanial Isaacson has identified elsewhere² as a “quotidian utopia.” The quotidian utopia was a mass-produced vision of a utopian future brought about through decidedly non-fantastical means and promulgated to the public as a mode of implied development, rather than a narrative centered around an advanced technological system—that is, a utopian future for the nation was not described nor presented to the public as science fiction as such, yet retained its eye for future progress through quotidian means. 

What’s important to note here is the fact that such literatures have not, historically, been recognized as belonging to the strictly-defined genre of science fiction because their setting is firmly in the present. One valuable example of this mass production of quotidian utopian literature were the serialized booklets known as lian huan hua (连环画) or “linked serial pictures.” The lian huan hua were used as a tool of education and propaganda in the state’s move towards modernization, and as a result there were innumerable examples of the impact of trains, mining, agricultural improvements, electricity, telephone lines, and shipping techniques on the development of the country and on individual lives. By combining public health and public works propaganda with narrative and images, the lian huan hua were used as pedagogical tools for children, peasants, and the illiterate, and as such the narratives being presented are idealized in the extreme. This does not detract from their value as historical artifacts, however, and indicates the method by which the publishers sought to establish and shape mass opinion of the nation-building process.

In my presentation, I argued that the lian huan hua are no less science fictional simply because their future utopian dreams now seem to us to be rather commonplace for having (largely) been achieved; on the contrary, their use of innovative technologies to bring about a scientifically-advanced modern Communist society and their wide dissemination to the people renders this brand of quotidian utopian fiction an unparalleled attempt to bring the masses to the future through literary means. The fact that much of this body of text is dismissed as propaganda or not treated as worthy of academic investigation is an oversight on par with the dismissal in the Western canon of science fiction as an inconsequential genre literature. The shift in emphasis to the utilization of mass technologies exemplified by the lian huan hua is symptomatic of a still-extant utopian drive in Chinese Communist literature that, despite increased state crackdowns on the freedoms afforded authors and the broad social denigration of non-realist imaginaries condemned as bourgeois, the science fictional imaginary continues to produce.

Finally, the conference concluded with a keynote speech by Darko Suvin himself. Professor Emeritus at McGill University, Canada, Darko Suvin is widely recognized as one of the most prominent figures in the development of science fiction studies, and as previously noted, is responsible for the development of cognitive estrangement as a method of categorizing and analyzing science fiction as a genre. Over a conference call, he engaged with many of the papers that had been presented and additionally shared some of his own thoughts. As had by now become characteristic of this conference, the exchanges were often contentious—both intellectually-grounded and deeply emotional, many participants had significant personal stakes in their ideological positions. For many, the realities of extant communist regimes could not be discussed with any sort of cognitive dissonance—far from being fictional, they were real, lived experiences that, no matter how strange or estranging they might be, did not offer insight into a world that wasn’t, but a world that had been and continued to be a possibility. Their arguments served as a reminder that what makes something strange or fantastic is often as much a matter of historical positioning as technological development. 

A complete video of each panel can be found at the American University in Bulgaria’s website here: https://www.aubg.edu/news/aubg-hosts-inaugural-science-fiction-and-communism-conference-1465 or on youtube here: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLJhqXzj2SATibzhnJ8KOE1RL6GgpR_s2i

Notes
¹ Suvin, Darko. Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1979)

² Isaacson, Nathaniel. “Science Crosstalk in China’s Shifting Cultural Field.” Talk given as part of the Science Fiction and Asian Histories panel at the 2016 ACLA Conference. Harvard University, 2016.