Category Archives: Workshops and 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.  

 

Ignacio Infante on the ‘Specter of Translation’ and Filipino Modernism

By Josué Rodriguez 

Rutgers Comparative Literature was proud to host its former alumni Ignacio Infante for his talk, “The Specter of Translation: The Comparative Poetics of Filipino Modernism,” an excerpt from his forthcoming book, A Planetary Avant-Garde: Experimental Poetics, Transnational Literature Networks, and the Legacy of Iberian Colonialism (1909-1929).  

The book’s broad goal is to examine the historical avant-gardes that exist outside of the European canon by reading the legacy of Spanish and Portuguese colonialism in the early part of the 20th century. Within this context, Ignacio’s selected chapter began by isolating Benedict Anderson’s translation of Filipino revolutionary José Rizal’s phrase, “el demonio de las comparaciones,” into “the spectre of comparisons.”  While the phrase is used by Anderson to title one of his books, it is originally used by Rizal to describe how looking at the verdant Filipino landscape nevertheless recalled the European gardens of his past travels. This notion of “spectrality” recalls Derrida’s Specters of Marx, wherein, “what surpasses the senses still passes before us in a silhouette of the sensuous body that it lacks or nevertheless remains inaccessible to us.”

The political tension in Rizal’s characterization above highlights the rapid transition in the Philippines from being a Spanish colony conquered by Catholic priests to becoming an American colony. Infante stressed that more attention is needed to understand this period’s “double-rupture” and the overlapping linguistic subtexts that inform writings between and beyond colonial languages, as well as the way relatively few social elite have participated in the writing and reading of texts in English and Spanish. 

Infante then trace networks of relation between several global modernisms. Using provided handouts, we first read work by poet Claro Recto (1890-1960). His Spanish-language lyric poetry exemplified, for Infante, Recto’s need to translate his sense of cultural loss into the style of the “new” language of Spanish modernism, or modernismo. Infante also pointed to the work of José Garcia Villa (1908 – 1997), a prominent Filipino poet who credited Angela Manalang Gloria (1907 – 1995) as an important influence. In reading Manalang Gloria’s cinquains, Infante claimed that her poetry carves out a new space in global modernisms for women by challenging the prevailingly male, Western, modernist canon and pushing Ezra Pound’s Imagist style beyond the boundaries of gender and culture.  Her poem “To a Mestiza” personifies a sense of harmony between traumatic historical tensions and multiple colonialities in the Philippines. 

Comparative Literature’s graduate students and long-time faculty alike are grateful for Ignacio Infante’s illuminating and engaging visit, and we wish him continued success! 

June Jordan’s Radical Pedagogy and the Decolonization of the University

By Rafael Vizcaíno

As the opening event of the new “What is Decoloniality?” speaker series, organized by the Rutgers Advanced Institute for Critical Caribbean Studies, on September 13, 2018, Dr. Danica Savonick (Asst. Prof. SUNY Cortland and a Rutgers Comp Lit alumna), gave a presentation titled “How to Begin is also Where: June Jordan’s Place Making Pedagogy.” Grounded on the radical pedagogical experiments of the 1960’s and 70’s, Savonick’s presentation focused on how the teaching methods of the Caribbean-American poet, essayist, teacher, and activist June Jordan, empowered her students to become not recipients of knowledge, but co-creators of a knowledge that would allow them to be critical thinkers and their own communities’ leaders. Analyzing syllabi and student’s written materials from Jordan’s courses at the City College of New York, Savonick explained how Jordan allowed her students to shape the content and form of her courses to make these more useful to the pressing needs of her students, most of which were Harlem’s Black and/or Latinx youth. These and other actions are part of a student-centered pedagogy that Savonick seeks to make relevant for our own historical context in the era of the neoliberal corporate university.

One concrete example that materializes Jordan’s radical student-centered pedagogy is the publication of anthologies gathering her student’s written assignments. Doing place-based research in their own social contexts, e.g., on public housing conditions, health, or economic inequality in New York City, students were not encouraged to write the standard final paper for the professor to read alone. Instead, Jordan pushed her students to write for a broader audience, effectively treating them as writers capable of creating original and important contributions to research and public opinion. Jordan would collect these pieces and publish them as an anthology with an introduction written by herself, which made the anthology publicly attractive given her well-known status as a writer. This entire process, from classroom discussions where students shaped the method of her courses to the students’ research and the subsequent publication of their work demonstrates the potential that all students have in creating another educational model, and by extension, another world. In this sense, Jordan’s pedagogy shows the incoherence of the argument (widely held in the 1960s and sadly not entirely gone today) that explains the underperformance of Black and Latinx students due to “individual deficiencies.” The problem instead is the structural failure of educational institutions to connect with the lived-experiences and worldviews of these students.

During the discussion part of Savonick’s presentation, a rich exchange took place that put the burden on us as professors and scholars (especially those of us in-training, i.e., graduate students) to not continue reproducing problematic methods and pedagogies in the classroom. While mindful to the differences in embodied positionalities as teachers across gender, race, ability, nationality, and other markers of social difference, the exchange that took place led to a need to challenge today’s privatization of knowledge and to be more thoroughly self-reflective about the ways in which the university as an institution and also ourselves as individuals inside the university often reproduce the social inequalities that on paper we purport to contest. This is part of the many discussions and actions currently going on under the heading of the “decolonization of the university.” Savonick’s answer to this question is a positive one: what kinds of worlds could be created if students are actually heard?

Decoloniality Workshop Series: “Kusch en el trópico: Phagocytosis and Transculturation in the Work of Irka Mateo”

By F. Joseph Sepúlveda with editorial input by Rafael Vizcaíno

Before the end of the Spring 2018 semester, the Decoloniality Workshop held its fourth meeting of the year, where Professor Carlos Decena (Latino and Caribbean Studies, Women and Gender Studies) gave a talk titled “Kusch en el trópico: Phagocytosis and Transculturation in the Work of Irka Mateo.” Professor Decena started his discussion by contextualizing how his current research project, which seeks to attend to “needs that are not scholarly,” follows up on his previous work Tacit Subjects (Duke University Press, 2011). An intervention within Latinx and sexuality studies, the tacit subject resists the dominant paradigm of “coming out” and visibility within North American queer theorizing. In Professor Decena’s work in progress, this framework is deployed to understand how Dominicans experience the sphere of the sacred/divine, beyond a Judeo-Christian understanding.

Grounded on ethnographic experiences in rural Dominican communities, Professor Decena spoke of how some people retain the memory of indigenous Taino figures (e.g. Anacaona) through a relationship with the land which could be understood as tacitly sacred. Professor Decena presented imagery showcasing elaborate religious shrines inside Dominican homes, which include a ritual practice of the “feeding of stones” that is often associated with Afro-Caribbean Santeria. These practices, however, also point out the persistence of indigenous Taino beliefs within Dominican culture, against the dominant historiography within the island.

Professor Decena specifically addressed the musical/visual production of Irka Mateo, a Dominican folk musician whose work seeks to retrieve the importance of indigenous symbols and practices. Mateo’s work illuminates and strives to remedy a long-standing belief in the total annihilation and disappearance of the indigenous population within the Dominican Republic. Professor Decena’s focus on figures like Mateo points to the multiplicity of Dominican racial identity and permits rethinking Dominican racial and cultural heritage as more complex than previously imagined. This has the potential to challenge some of the island’s most repressive national mythologies, including what Dominican historian April Mayes calls the Hispanist nationalism of the Dominican elites.

The Decoloniality Workshop is a space for junior scholars to present work in progress and receive constructive feedback in a relaxed and committed community setting. In the Fall of 2018, Haruki Eda (Sociology) will open the 2018-2019 line-up. Please visit https://decolonialityworkshop.wordpress.com/ for more information about past and future events.

Love in Translation: The Conference

A Report by Thato Magano, Paulina Barrios, Shawn Gonzalez, Rafael Vizcaíno, Rudrani Gangopadhyay, and Penny Yeung

On March 2nd and 3rd, 2018, the graduate students of the Rutgers University Program in Comparative Literature organized their biennial conference on “Love in Translation.” The co-chairs, Rudrani Gangopadhyay and Penny Yeung, hoped that the conference theme would foster conversations about how love figures in and is transfigured by translation by way of thinking about how love disrupts and transforms the ways in which literary imagination functions across languages, time, space, borders. Some of the questions the conference hoped to (and did) address were the following: How is love translated? Can love be a methodology in translation? Is it a hindrance or is it generative? Is love a theme or a product of translation?

The first panel of Friday, on the “Poetics of Translation,” commenced after introductory remarks by the conference co-chairs, by the Program Chair Prof. Andrew Parker, and the Graduate Director, Prof. Anjali Nerlekar. The first paper was by Paul Franz, a doctoral candidate at the Department of English at Yale University. His paper, “To leave my love – alone: Alliances and Realignments in Geoffrey Hill’s versions of Anne Hébert,” examined the complex history of the English poet Geoffrey Hill’s translation of a poem by the French-Canadian poet Anne Hébert, by studying the affiliations between Hill and Hébert as an effort to create an international counterpublic resistant to American hegemony. Paul explored the fact that Hill typically performed Hébert’s poem alongside Shakespeare’s Sonnet 66, which employed a similar litany structure, yet which introduced the key term—“love”—absent from Hébert’s account of popular resistance to Fascist authority. The other two papers were presented by Rutgers Comparative Literature’s own doctoral students, Josué Rodriguez and Penny Yeung. Josué’s paper, ‘The Ethics of Translation in Vicente Huidobro’s “El Hermoso Juego,” or “The Beautiful Game”’,  examined Vicente Huidobro’s microficción, or micro-fiction, “El Hermoso Juego,” or “The Beautiful Game,” (1940) as an example of how Huidobro’s movement, Creacionismo, is able to performatively render Surrealism’s aesthetic, cultural, and political codes in its playful appropriation of automatic writing. Huidobro’s familiarity with the stylistic and cultural codes of the French movement allowed him to playfully build what Gayatri Spivak called an inhabitable textual world for the other in her 1992 essay “The Politics of Translation.” This ultimately embodies a shift from the ideals of revolutionary love towards an ethical relationship to the other, one that foregrounds a text’s access to all through its universalized translatability.The last paper of the panel, presented by Penny, was titled “Partial Translation and World Building,” and argued in favor of “partial translation” through theoretical and creative engagement, by way of her own translations of several poems lifted from French academician Dany Laferrière’s book, L’art presque perdu de ne rien faire (The Nearly Lost Art of Doing Nothing), an untranslated work. By considering Dennis Tedlock’s proposition of a poetics of translatability in his eludication of Mayan poetics, and KE Bishop’s argument that a relationship of metonymy and contiguity, and not metaphor and comparability, underlies a written text and its invisible, unwritten text, she argued that rather than destroying networks of signification, a partial translation can partake in a more hopeful endeavor of world-building.

The second panel of the conference, titled “Queerness” saw two presentations from Duncan McKinnon, a Rutgers University senior in the Comparative Literature and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies programs, and Lubna Abdul-Hadi, a PhD student in the Translation Instruction and Research Program at Binghamton University. The panel kicked off with Duncan’s paper “Feeling the Erotics of Queer Diaspora: Translating the Sensorial in Zami by Audre Lorde and The Book of Salt by Monique Truong.” Duncan’s paper explored how the sensorial, as a medium that exceeds the discursive, can be translated to understand the meanings and experiences between bodies and subjectivities in relation to love and lovemaking in the texts. For Duncan, because the protagonists are often failed by the discursive as a result of the social and economic conditions that impact their lives, they see translating the sensorial facilitating an escape of the limitations in their experiences across linguistic, national and racial difference. Lubna’s paper “Love, Hatred, to Love Again – Translating Female Same-Sex Relationships in Medieval Arabic Literature” explored how the translation of Western hegemonic categories of identification presented limitations of language for non-normative sexualities in the Arab-Islamic community. Exploring the limitations of the western norms of sexuality identification as they have come to be understood under the banner of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans- gender, Questioning/Queer, + (LGBTQ+), Lubna turned to Medieval texts exploring female same-sex sexuality to show the expansive vocabulary that existed to think through and identify same-sex sexuality. Her work then, propositions how a turn to the past might be productive to contemporary conversations in the Arabic world in relation to same-sex sexuality. Prof Preetha Mani was the discussant for the panel and spoke to the interconnecting themes of both papers as it relates to translation. In one sense, there is an investment in translating what cannot be easily translated as it demands bringing the inexpressible to the fore, while in the other, there is a recognition of the limitations of bringing to the fore that which is translated. Prof Mani further inquired on what queering translation might look like and how scholars might relate to the practice of translation approached from a queered perspective. The panel engaged in a lively debate around temporality and periodization, translation in the Arab world and how translation might enable a return to the self. 

The third, and final, panel for Friday focused on the “Ethics and Politics of Translation.” The panel included presentations from three different graduate students: Coco Xu from Rutgers University presented ‘On the Ethics of Translation’; Ali Almajnooni from Binghamton University presented on ‘Empire, Drones, and the End(s) of Translation’; and Tuhin Bhattacharjee from New York University presented on ‘The Tragic in Translation: Planetarity and a New Ethics of Reading’. The three presenters shared thought provoking works that questioned the role of translator, how they build bridges, but also constitute threats; translation as an inter-cultural interaction, part of a ‘politics of love’; as well as reflections on temporality and translation. Ali began with his presentation, which focused on an analysis of the drones the United States has been using in the Middle East and how this may be a reflection of a transition from using translation as a form of conquest of ‘the other’ towards a complete rejection of comprehension, an annihilation of ‘the other’. Coco’s presentation followed, which sought to respond to the pessimism and frustration that oftentimes accompany translation studies with a refocus on curiosity. She focused on the idea of translation as hospitality, world construction, and productive curiosity. Thus, considering translation as the moment of reaching a new world and inhabiting ‘in-betweenness’. Tuhin closed the table suggesting a move towards a format of comparative literature that would be planetary instead of global. Through this focus connections with ‘the other’ would be through love and tragedy, with translation as part of this risk and tragedy surrounding the ethical and political connection with others. After the presentations, Prof. Janet Walker congratulated the presenters on their papers and followed with some comments on the panel as a whole, as well as specific observations for each of the presenters. She began by reflecting on how ethics surrounds translation, translators, and the praxis itself. Related to Ali’s reflection on empires, US imperialism, and language, Prof. Walker stated that his link to drones as well as the hierarchy and distancing from the other they establish was particularly interesting. She added also how critical languages are constantly being defined by the State Department and how U.S. citizens are incited to learn them, thus emphasizing the politics behind language. Regarding Coco’s work she linked the element of curiosity to subversiveness and how it was viewed as dangerous by empires throughout the world, connecting this text to the first presentation. Finally, she ended with comments on Tuhin’s use of Spivak, bringing in the tragedy of knowledge, the pessimism of the intellect, and optimism of the will. The questions and discussion that ensued were a testament to the quality of the presentations, focusing on broad topics such as machines/drones, mediation and distance in translation, the specificity of translation, audience and translation, bilingualism and self-translation, ethics surrounding translation, linguistic choice and the politics behind this, among many others.

The first day of the conference concluded with a keynote lecture by Sandra Bermann entitled “Love in Translation: Let Me Count the Ways.” Professor Bermann’s lecture centered on tracing several trajectories for considering the relationship between love and translation. She began by introducing a poetic perspective on this issue through readings of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, W.H. Auden, and Adrienne Rich. Then, she introduced a translation studies perspective, considering the role of love and gender in the work of various translation theorists. Next, she approached this question from the perspective of recent changes in the field of comparative literature. This portion of the lecture challenged the audience to question how translation has been marginalized by the field’s commitment to reading in the original and to reconsider the role of translation in future directions of the discipline. After establishing these different trajectories, Professor Bermann proposed migration both as a way of theorizing translation and of imagining how translation can contribute to the future of comparative literature. This case study drew on the previous trajectories to consider the role of love as a hopeful response to the contemporary linguistic landscape. Professor Bermann’s presentation was followed by a lively discussion that considered how these ideas related to the day’s other presentations. These questions continually returned to the role of translation in graduate students’ teaching, research, and plans for their careers.  

The first panel of the conference’s second day was titled “Transgressions.” Amritha Mohan from the University of Hyderabad (India) presented a paper titled ‘Love in the Call of God: A Translation of Sithara S’s Daivavili’ where she analyzed the task of translation as a “manifestation of the creator’s madness” and sought “to emphasise on the importance of translating non-mainstream love narratives, putting into context the resistance they face from the mainstream Malayalee society, thereby making them as an act of protest in itself.” Karen Jallatyan from the University of California Irvine presented a paper titled ‘Diasporic Love: Writing the Impossibility of Translation in Krikor Beledian’s The Palimpsest Man’, where he illustrated the “the impossibility of fully encountering, thus translating, the other.” For Jallatyan, “Beledian’s work suggests that in the face of catastrophe, love, as enchantment with, faith in and dependence on the other, consists in liberating the alterity of the other in one’s self and in others.” At last, our very own Maria Elizabeth Rodriguez Beltrán presented a paper titled ‘Decolonial love in the US Virgin Islands’, where she asked, “what happens when incest becomes a symbol of liberation from colonial powers and opens the possibility for decolonial love?” For Rodriguez Beltrán, Tiphanie Yanique’s Land of Love and Drowning “makes use of several Biblical figures and transforms them by feminizing and reversing them as a way of decolonizing western religion.” The subsequent discussion, moderated by 4th year PhD Candidate Rafael Vizcaíno and started by the sharp commentaries of Professor Nelson Maldonado-Torres, centered on the issues of love in the time-space of catastrophe, diasporic subjectivity, and secularism.

The last panel of the conference’s second day was titled ‘Task of the Translator’. Kiawna Brewster from the University of Wisconsin-Madison presented a paper titled ‘Censoring Love in Translation: In Defense of the Translator’s Preface’, where she illustrated the importance of the Translator’s Preface by considering its role in rewriting the course of literary history and promoting cultural understanding. She examined the Prefaces to Lara Gochin Raffaeli’s translation of Gabriele D’Annunzio’s decadent Italian novel Il Piacere in order to illustrate the morality of translations. Raffaeli tries to introduce the 19th century text for the first time without sanitizing or purging it in any way, thereby undoing the problematic liberties taken by translators. Mariam Rahmani from the University of California Los Angeles presented a paper titled ‘What to do when sexuality doesn’t translate? The Pitfalls of Pronouns and Other Questions’. Ther paper presented an excerpt from a work in progress —an authorized translation of Mahsa Mohebali’s award-winning novel, Don’t Worry (originally in Persian: Negaran nabash, 2008) —and reflected on the difficulties of translating with attention to the politics of gender and sexuality. Some of the questions she explored through her reading include: how English gendered pronouns limit narrative possibilities and unwittingly force an identity-based framework on texts that do not adopt such a conceptualization of gender and sexuality in the original? How does a translator negotiate questions of distance and familiarity? The final paper was presented by Jan Steyn from Cornell, whose paper was titled ‘The Conjugal Translator’. Steyn’s paper explored the Maryse Condé-Richard Philcox author-translator marriage, and reflected on how Philcox’s textual philandering shows how he justifies his infidelity through his conjugality. The subsequent discussion, moderated by 2nd year PhD student Rudrani Gangopadhyay, and was started by the sharp commentaries of Prof. Anjali Nerlekar, centered around the questions of the presence of translator as well the translator’s gender. Questions that came include: can the notion of conjugality in translation degendered? How can slangs and curses be translated? What is the role of paratexts in translation? 

The conference concluded with a translation workshop led by Professor Susan Bernofsky. Professor Bernofsky led the group through a series of activities that engaged participants in thinking about translation from various angles. In one activity, sets of two texts—one original and one its translation—were placed side by side but unidentified, and participants were tasked to determine which text was which. More often than not the group was divided in opinion, and having access to both the source and target languages did not necessarily make the evaluation easier. This sparked lively discussion on what marks a translation, while also providing ample examples that counter the notion of translations as inferior texts. Another activity simulated the operations of an editorial board. The group was given different translations of the same text to look at and had to decide which was the preferred version as well as what editorial changes might be made to improve upon them. It was later revealed that all the versions were drawn from published translations of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. The group compared the strategies employed by different translators and reflected upon the varying aesthetics these decisions created. Professor Bernofsky also shared learning moments from her own wealth of experience as a translator, such as how to deal with rhythm, wordplay and repetition, and the glossing of untranslatables with no direct equivalent in the target language. The three-hour workshop provided a forum for conference attendees to reflect on translation theory through its praxis, and for those who are practicing and aspiring translators, it was an occasion to brainstorm strategies to deal with the many practical challenges of the craft.

 

Framing a Socialist Face: Studio Photography in Late Mao China

By Penny Yeung

On Monday, March 26th, Professor Nicole Huang, chair of comparative literature at the University of Hong Kong, delivered a talk on her research project in progress, titled “Framing a Socialist Face: Studio Photography in Late Mao China.” The talk was held at the Alexander Library Pane Room and is part of the ongoing China Lecture Series organized by Asian Languages and Culture.

One of the driving questions behind Prof Huang’s research is, in her words, “What constitutes a Chinese socialist face in visual representation, particularly in photographic portraiture, during the late Mao period?” Prof Huang began by highlighting issues of periodization and her specific choice of the “late Mao period”—which spans the 1970s and the early 1980s—to delimit the temporal scope of her study. Typically, the year 1976 is cited as a turning point in contemporary Chinese politics and has served as an anchoring date for much research in the social sciences. But as cultural practices rarely change overnight, Prof Huang argued that looking at the late Mao period allows for a better account of the changes in patterns of cultural production and consumption. Three essays by Georg Simmel, published in 1901, 1903, and 1908 respectively, on physiognomy and the aesthetic significance of the human face in modernity provided additional framing. Prof Huang pointed out that for Simmel, the “face flourished and circulated at a wider level at the onset of modernity.” The human face was often glorified, as the “coherent [wholeness]” it embodied and symbolized stood in as foil to the forces of fragmentation and alienation wrought by modernity. Her research asks whether Simmel’s insights are translatable to the late Mao context.

Prof Huang then shared from the part of her research that focuses on commercial photography. To investigate how practitioners apprenticed themselves to the trade and developed a set of aesthetics, Prof Huang conducted extensive interviews with commercial photographers who had worked during that period. Her talk led the audience through a fascinating account of how commercial photography grew and thrived as an industry during turbulent sociopolitical times; in fact, commercial photo studios saw the “largest increase during the Cultural Revolution.” As she explained, because the Red Guards had ransacked studio settings and backdrops in 1966, the dearth of accessories led photographers to turn to light as the predominant element which they could manipulate in their trade, and later, their art.

Prof Huang’s talk spotlit one photographer in particular—Zhu Tianming, an eminent practitioner and theoretician to come out of that period. Like most commercial photographers, Zhu began his career through apprenticeship in the 1930s and had no formal training or education in the arts, but by the 1960s his theorizations had begun to be circulated by the national photography society and came to constitute some of the earliest Sinicized theories of photography. Zhu theorized about the use of lighting, tones, and contrast to “sculpt the Chinese face.” He also differentiated between the kinds of gradation used to photograph male and female subjects. Zhu’s practice informed his theory, and yielded portraitures that are unmistakably inflected by elements of race, gender, nation, and class. The locale of Shanghai, where Zhu was based in his later years, adds another dimension to this study. As a hub of film production, the city provided a milieu where commercial photographic practices experienced a cross-fertilization with cinematic techniques; as a result, some of Zhu’s work, too, bears a “Hollywood imprint.”

While the Socialist face, like the body, could be politicized, trained, molded, and aestheticized, Prof Huang argued that the “highly tempered Socialist face was set loose a bit in the experiments of Zhu” during the transitional period. In time, the techniques Zhu experimented with and which were disseminated through his writings solidified into a new orthodoxy. Prof Huang emphasized that the consolidation did not transpire in a linear fashion; practices in their earlier guises could still be observed late into the transitional period. It is also important to note that with practitioners setting the standards, the new orthodoxy encompassed practices of individual agency rather than developing as a set of state-sanctioned norms.

Prof Huang’s rich lecture sparked many questions and comments from the audience. The lively Q&A touched on issues including how discourses of nation and nationalism may have played a role in influencing aesthetics; regional and national variations; the place of racial minorities; the relationship between aesthetic shifts and the politics of the transitional period; and possible parallels and divergences from other sociopolitical contexts.