Tag Archives: brown bag

“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!

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.”


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.