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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!

Brown Bag Talk with Louis Sass. “Lacan: The Mind of the Modernist”

By Rudrani Gangopadhyay

 

Professor Louis Sass (Rutgers GSAPP, Clinical Psychology) delivered the first Brown Bag Lecture of the year on “Lacan: The Mind of the Modernist”, much of the material of which came from his 2015 essay by the same name, published in Continental Philosophy.

Prof. Sass’s lecture was primarily aimed at providing an intellectual portray of Lacan by focussing the incorporation of modernist perspectives in the French psychoanalyst’s work. As a contrast, Professor Sass provided a background on Freud, who was anchored in a pre-modernist vision and was much more Cartesian and Kantian in his approach. Lacan, on the other hand, was far more skeptical of the naturalist preferences associated with Freud, and chose instead to transform as well as supplement the latter’s work.

The lecture focussed on two general issues with regards to Lacan’s work: the first being Lacan’s appreciation of the paradoxical nature of the human experience, as demonstrated by his concepts of the Self as well as that of Desire. The second issue was that of “transcendental subjectivity” in Lacan, consisting of the “Imaginary”, the “Symbolic”, and the “Real”, which together make up his Triad of Registers. In trying to offer a synthesis of both the dynamic and the ontological dimensions of the human condition in his idea of the conflicted yet interdependent Registers making up his Triad, Lacan also demonstrates a need to be understood in Heideggerian terms.

In contrast to popular belief, Prof. Sass’s lecture also repeatedly emphasized Lacan’s affinities with phenomenology, contradicting the widespread belief that Lacan is a deeply anti-humanist thinker. Rather, Lacan’s work seems to demonstrate an influence of hermeneutic forms of phenomenology, following Heidegger’s ideas on the ontological modes of Being.

Brown Bag Talk with Jeffrey Shandler

On April 20, Jeffrey Shandler, Chair and Professor of Jewish Studies, presented a paper that will be part of a future project on the representation of Jewishness in contemporary American theater. The title of his talk was “Making and Unmaking Jewishness on the Contemporary American Stage.”

Shandler’s discussion focused on two recent productions that raise crucial questions about the the socio-historical and cultural negotiations involved in today’s performance of Jewish identity. The first work he focused on is Clifford Odets’s Awake and Sing, performed last year by the National Asian American Theater Company. Shandler discussed how the performance of this classic Yiddish play by an Asian American cast, in complicating a stable representation of ethnicity, asks for a redefinition of what constitutes both “Jewishness” and “Asianness.” The visual and embodied co-presence of these two identities complicates the distinction between what Shandler defined as “ethnic appearance” versus “ethnic essence,” or “ethnicity by consent” as opposed to “ethnicity by descent.”

shandler

The second production discussed was Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman translated into Yiddish, with English super-titles in the background, by New Yiddish Rep. The company’s goal is to resist the disappearance of East European Yiddish theater. According to Shandler, their operation is vertical, since it is meant to recuperate a lost tradition from historical oblivion. At the same time it performs Yiddishness for a contemporary, often non-Yiddish-speaking audience (hence the necessity of English super-titles). Shandler defined the mode of this play “post-vernacular,” and discussed how the choice of performing it in Yiddish is a claim, on the part of the company, about the importance of language and ethnic performance over plot and content.

In conclusion, Shandler remarked how both plays flaw conventions of performing ethnicity and “seek to stimulate artistic and socio-cultural change.” The talk was followed by a discussion about other productions addressing related issues and potential areas of developments for this very promising project.

Brown Bag Lunch with Caroline Godart

On December 14, Comp Lit alum Caroline Godart returned to Rutgers to discuss the publication of her new book The Dimension of Difference: Space, Time and Bodies in Women’s Cinema and Continental Philosophy. She provided a brief overview of her project, connecting the analysis of space, time, and bodies in cinema with the work of philosophers Luce Irigaray, Henri Bergson, and Gilles Deleuze, and explaining her approach to theory-based feminist film criticism. She described the chapters, each of which focuses on the relationship between a theoretical concept and a film. In particular, she discussed two films by Claire Denis, Beau Travail and Trouble Every Day, at length, explaining why she chose to write about Denis’ most popular and least popular films side by side. She also explained the process of revising her dissertation for publication. An engaged discussion followed the presentation. Participants talked about Bergson’s concept of intuition and the relationship between intuition and identification as modes of approaching Hollywood or art films.

Ryan Kernan Brown Bag: Langston Hughes in Translation

On Wednesday October 14, Ryan Kernan, Assistant Professor of English and Affiliate Faculty in Comparative Literature, presented his research at a Brown Bag lunch. Professor Kernan approached the recurring question of the relationship between Langston Hughes and Nicolás Guillén through the figure of Cuban writer, translator, and political activist José Antonio Fernández de Castro. By focusing on Fernández de Castro, Kernan argued for a comparative reading that does not fetishize difference by promoting untranslatability but rather uses intertextuality to read the political resonances of translated texts.

Kernan brown bag

The presentation began with a reading of a political cartoon that established the terms of racial debate in Cuba in the period before Hughes’ Spanish translations. Then, Kernan focused on Fernández de Castro’s pseudonymous translation of Hughes’ “Brass Spittoons.” Kernan close read the poem in English and Spanish translation in order to identify the places where Fernández de Castro deliberately chose words that diverged from Hughes’ version in order to recast the poem with an explicitly proletariat political orientation. By considering the importance of Fernández de Castro’s work on this translation as well as his larger orchestration of the poetic relationship between Guillén and Hughes, Kernan’s comparative reading traces the way that black internationalism was formulated in a specific local context. Kernan argued that when critics claim that something is untranslatable or incomparable, this claim often reveals a lack of imagination. In contrast, his reading of the differences that emerge in Hughes’ Spanish translations offer fertile sites of comparative work on black internationalism.