Tag Archives: colloquium

Puerto Rican Blackness through a Cuban Lens: A Colloquium Presentation by María Elizabeth Rodríguez Beltrán

by Phil Yakushev

Comparative Literature hosted its first colloquium on April 1, when María Elizabeth Rodríguez Beltrán presented “Puerto Rican Blackness through a Cuban Lens” and contextualized this talk within her dissertation-in-progress. María Elizabeth’s project seeks to challenge what she identifies as a common tendency in studies of African diasporas—a centering of Anglophone spaces which, in turn, leaves the Spanish Caribbean at the periphery of this field. Her presentation, structured around two 19thcentury Spanish Caribbean texts, not only directly resisted this dynamic of African diaspora studies but also showed how love practiced by black and mix-raced women, as agents, can challenge the constraints of the nation and establish community.

María Elizabeth used two works to build her case: Puerto Rican playwright Alejandro Tapia y Rivera’s La Cuarterona, and Cuban novelist Ciriollo Villaverde’s Cecilia Valdés. These texts share several similarities, making them useful for a comparatist who traces how literary characters and black subjectivities in the Caribbean were shaped by their recognized relationship to slavery and how these recognitions effected social relations. Both works were written in the late 19thcentury by authors who were renowned in their spaces; their plots proceed around racially ambiguous female characters of African descent who fall in love with white men in times of slavery; both feature incest; and, perhaps curiously, both works are set in Habana. María Elizabeth used the latter similarity to illustrate the complex relationship between black subjectivities in the Spanish Caribbean, the family and the nation, and love and incest. Tapia most probably did not set his play in Cuba out of ignorance of how race operated on his own island, and María Elizabeth summarized the scholarly debates around question of setting. As she argued, Rivera places La Cuarterona in Cuba to present the “audience with a transnational perspective that allows for connections between isolated spaces and bring to light a pressing issue,” that of blackness and slavery.

For María Elizabeth, this transnational perspective is vital. Overall, she “seeks to study blackness as a way of being that centers relationships and community, instead of addressing the nation which has established modes of love that constrain black subjects.” Both nation and language act as constraints even in the study of African diasporas, with conventional approaches being less willing to engage with black experiences in the Spanish Caribbean and Brazil, where myths of “racial democracy and mesizaje are foundational and place an impediment” to a conventional discourse on blackness in which slavery is critical. María Elizabeth’s work, then, seeks to push African diaspora studies in at least three ways: broadening scholarship beyond Anglophone spaces, exploring the role of the nation in constructing racial ideology within the Spanish Caribbean itself, and showing how black and mixed-race women characters can challenge the dominance of the nation and its foundational unit, the family, by building their own communities. While love, in the texts María Elizabeth is working with for her dissertation, often takes on forms often identified as perverse—such as incest—she was careful to stress that, for characters in these literatures, love often does not ultimately fail. Rather, love becomes a way to form relationships among colonized communities, with instances of unconventional love creating “cracks on the concrete of coloniality, as fissures that challenge to break the colonial version of the family unit.”

After discussing these texts and introducing her analytical frames, María Elizabeth previewed the rest of her dissertation, and its themes and structure. The project, as a whole, will juxtapose and compare the black subjectivities produced, and reproduced, in literatures of the Hispanic and Anglophone Caribbeans. Other chapters in her work will explore Michelle Cliff’s Abeng and the limits of creole solidarity in Jamaica, as well as Tiphanie Yanique’s Land of Love and Drowningand how love and relationships in the Virgin Islands can function outside of the colonial-sexual matrix. María Elizabeth hopes that her comparatist approach will not only expand African diaspora studies beyond the Anglophone but, relatedly, disrupt a potentially paralyzing centrality of slavery within the field. As she said, “Despite the long-lasting damage that slavery has left on peoples of the Afro-Diaspora, our ability to love affirms our ways of thriving, our ways of moving forward, and beyond, trauma as framework.” As a whole, then, María Elizabeth’s work seeks to highlight how literature can unleash the ability of love to serve as praxis and “heal the wounds of enslavement.”  Her colloquium presentation provided a powerful and fascinating preview of this critical endeavor.

Rafael Vizcaíno “On the Postsecular and the Decolonial”

by Yingnan Shang, with editorial input from Rafael Vizcaíno

On Wednesday Nov. 28th, 2018, students and faculty from the Program in Comparative Literature convened on the fourth floor of the Academic Building for the second and final colloquium of the fall semester on secularism, postsecularism, and decoloniality by doctoral candidate Rafael Vizcaíno. Having just returned from a short stay at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) as part of the inter-university Critical Theory in the Global South initiative (itself part of the International Consortium of Critical Theory Programs, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation), Rafael began by sharing his experiences concerning the ongoing dialogues between critical theory and decolonial thought and practice on both sides of the border.

These initial comments were appropriate prefatory remarks for Rafael’s presentation. It focused on part of a chapter of his dissertation on the theoretical relevance of philosophical, literary, and theological production of 20th and 21st century Third World thinkers and intellectuals of color, particularly women of color, around the question of epistemic decolonization. Rafael’s broader work investigates the discourses and practices of decolonization across disciplinary and categorical frameworks. The goal of his project is to systematize a transverse engagement across disciplines and beyond the institution of the university. Through this approach “new epistemic, methodological, and categorical frameworks can be crafted to understand the world-historical processes of today, in a way that such alternative scholarly practice does not reproduce the coloniality of knowledge, which has forged the academy as the sole producer of valid critical or scientific knowledges over the last five centuries.”

Rafael mentioned that the spark that ignited his research on the postsecular has been the rise of visibility and the connections between what is often called religious fundamentalisms and conservative political movements all over the world. Hence, his chapter is not a study on these recent historical developments, but a questioning of the epistemic frameworks used to talk about these and other related processes, such as processes of modern secularization. In particular, Rafael asked what it could mean to “decolonize” the conversation on the roles of religion and secularism in contemporary global social and political processes. Given the aforementioned rise of religious movements as political actors in the global public sphere, Rafael argued that scholars across the social sciences and humanities have accordingly started to re-think the idea that western modernity is no longer (if it ever was) “secular”. Many of these discussions have fallen under the umbrella of what has come to be known as “the postsecular turn” in method. While they have been very productive in unmasking the disciplinary and methodological limitations of secularity as an implicit presupposition of scholarly practice, according to Rafael, these discussions have had almost nothing to say concerning the connection between such disciplinary secularity and the “coloniality of knowledge”. This gap has allowed Rafael to position his own work as providing a decolonial intervention into the analysis of the postsecular.

For Rafael, perhaps no other intellectual formation has made as many strivings towards a decolonial critique of secularism as women of color feminisms have done. Accordingly, the second half of his presentation engaged the work of the Chicana lesbian writer Gloria Anzaldúa, particularly her concept of la facultad and the performative way in which it is theorized in her Borderlands/La Frontera. Rafael sees in Anzaldúa’s work an explicit attempt to make a “politically-committed and spiritually-rooted scholarly practice that dismantles the secular/religious divide in a process of epistemic decolonization that aspires to theorize and bring forth new forms of being and knowing beyond those available in modernity/coloniality.” In the work of Anzaldúa and other women of color thinkers such as Jacqui M. Alexander and Sylvia Wynter, Rafael sees a conceptual redefinition of the postsecular from the perspective of epistemic decolonization. In their works the connections between secularity and coloniality are made in a way that being postsecular necessarily entails decolonial thinking and doing. This is different from how postsecularity is discussed by mainstream European and North American philosophers, sociologists, and anthropologists.

Rafael’s talk was followed by a one-hour session of questions and answers where several topics were raised, such as the relationship between religion and spirituality, the secularity of close reading and its relation to decolonial and postsecular disciplinary practices, as well as the relationship between spirituality and irrepresentability. After a lively discussion and many insightful inputs from professors and colleagues alike, everyone proceeded to a table of food and wine and carried on with the philosophical ruminations. Many thanks to Rafael on bringing a revelatory topic to the evening, and congratulations to him on a very successful colloquium!

 

 

 

 

 

“Heaven Rained Millet and the Ghosts Wailed at Night”: The Invention of a Genre Socialist Science Fiction

by Milan Reynolds

It was a red-tinged evening in late October, students and faculty gathered to hear Virginia Conn read and speak about her first chapter – the beginning of a compelling dissertation about socialist science fiction in the People’s Republic of China and the Soviet Union (1918-1986). Virginia proceeded to give a fascinating presentation on the linguistic roots and narrative particularities of sci-fi within each country and the ways in which politics and literature reciprocally shaped each other. Beginning from a point of analysis that asserts socialist sci-fi is qualitatively different from non-socialist sci-fi as well as the more widely recognized genre of socialist realism, Virginia described how those differences produced material effects and constructed individual and national consciousness in specific ways.

The constraints imposed on writers by both socialist governments included limiting the scope of works to a “near-future reality” of roughly fifty years and ensuring the plausibility of scientific speculation. Virginia also traced the origins of the genre through the multiple translations that the word “sci-fi” went through in its passage between countries. In fact, China was using the genre category of science fiction before its popular adoption in English literature. These strict writing guidelines served specific functions within the construction of each nation and often caused the literature to be dismissed as propaganda, but Virginia made the compelling argument that it cannot only be viewed as such. The works analyzed display a distinct utopian socialist praxis, predicated by science – romantic, revolutionary, and exceeding the bounds and stigma of pure propaganda.

Linking these themes, Virginia brought a modern term into the mix borrowed from Winfried Pauleit: the photographesomenon. Coming from film theory, it describes the surveillance camera image – an “objective view” of the past whose meaning is then written by the future. This illustrates the way that socialist sci-fi evacuated the past by creating subjects defined by an anticipatory “collective view”. One compelling example Virginia drew on was the use of illustrated guides in China that showed how to grow crops and other quotidian, valuable skills that lead to collective autonomy. She argued convincingly that such texts could be linked to socialist sci-fi in its utopian, near future agenda. This led to interesting questions about how socialist sci-fi complicates the genre category of sci-fi. In many cases, the literature used “science” as an educational tool, and “fiction” as a way to draw interest from a wide audience of readers, including using visual materials for populations with mixed levels of literacy. Soviet and Chinese socialism used sci-fi to self-define towards a collective utopian goal. 

The presentation moved into several questions from guests about the trajectories of the genre within each country and how they paralleled or diverged from each other. Virginia emphasized the dynamic exchange of ideologies and tropes while noting their differences and separate progressions as well. Other questions brought up the tension between science and fiction, at least commonly positioned as opposing elements, and how this was navigated in a socialist setting. As the colloquium came to a close, smaller conversations were sparked over food and drinks, everyone coming away with a richer understanding of the history and possibilities of socialist science fiction. Congratulations to Virginia on an amazing presentation!

When the Divine Wind Blow On Ye: The Spirit of Bandung and Transpacific Becoming

By Virginia Conn

As the official Imperial Japanese Navy marching song from the Second World War played in the background, Comp Lit students and guests took their seats around the table, greeting each other and settling in for the third and final graduate student colloquium, one of the last big events of the semester. Comp Lit students had a chance to happily catch up with each other’s memories of the last few weeks. As Annabel would go on to explain, the marching music was used to mobilize the imperial troops during World War II, which tied into her paper’s overall discussion of military mobilization.

For Comp Lit’s third colloquium, Jeong Eun Annabel We presented an in-work chapter from her dissertation, titled “When the Divine Wind Blow on Ye: The Spirit of Bandung and Transpacific Becoming.” While resisting the easy joke that we were all blown away, I think it’s safe to say that everyone present was extremely impressed by the depth and breadth of Annabel’s research, to say nothing of the deftness with which she wove together numerous and disparate weighty concepts.

Focusing on the novel The Typhoon by Ch’oe In-Hun, Annabel explained that her dissertation, broadly construed, was about how the effects of military mobilizations are used to control movement, affect, and bodies, and situates the novel at a crossroads of thinking about decolonial movements across the transpacific. While Cold War structures have continued to exist long past the ostensible thaw—structures such as the military occupation of the Pacific and East Asia, the peninsula’s division into South and North Korea, and the cyclical threats of nuclear devastation that continue to this day, among others—the Pacific region continues to be erased even as it is strategized upon. Annabel’s dissertation, then, asks, what kind of work has to be forged out of imperial militarization towards decolonizing knowledge production?

Beginning with the invocation of a curse from Shakespeare’s The Tempest to consider the wind as a colonial curse that brings one into conflict, The Typhoon returns to the 1940s to cast new light on 1970s Cold War regimes and, in doing so, decenters neoliberal modes of knowing and engages with the recruitment of colonial populations that were previously imperially mobilized. Written in Korean in 1970s South Korea, the novel is a work of speculative fiction/alternate history about an alternative historical trajectory that critically maps the nature of political and military mobilization.

Annabel’s intervention into this novel and its place within the process of decolonial praxis was to situate it at the forefront of several separate and significant political scripts. Each rewritten script functions as a theory of movement, performing the dual task of assessing the coloniality of military mobilization and offering transpacific becoming as an alternative movement towards decolonization and Korean reunification.

This literary analysis in and of itself would have been fascinating enough, but Annabel went on to situate the novel within and against the backdrop of the spirit of solidarity and decolonial movements (such as the Afro-Asian People’s Solidarity movement, Asian-African conference on Women at Colombo, Non-Aligned movement at Belgrade, etc.) inspired by the Bandung Conference in 1955. While both the political spirit wrought by the conference itself and the project attempted by Cho’e each had their limits, Annabel invited us to see how they both challenged historiography. The presentation concluded with the question: how could one have lived as if one has no regrets for the fact of one’s mobilization? Annabel suggested that the task is that of thinking mobility in the postwar juncture.

Junot Díaz’s Place-Based Imagination and the Scales of World Literature

A report on Gabriele Lazzari’s colloquium presentation
by Rudrani Gangopadhyay

On March 19th, Gabriele Lazzari presented the first colloquium of the spring term on Junot Díaz’s place-based imagination and the scales of world literature. Gabriele explored how, in Díaz’s fiction, the local gets inscribed in multiple sites whose boundaries are blurred, leading to a complex shifting spatial imagination that constantly transitions from the microcosm that the characters inhabit to the macroscopic scale. Díaz’s fiction and historical imagination, Gabriele argued, is “place-based but not place-bound,” suggesting that while his works are deeply site-specific, they are not deterministically attached to places.

Díaz’s fiction, as well as his own unique position within larger frameworks of institutional and publishing geographies, redefine the binary of the global and the local. His book belongs to the New York–based publishing sector; his educational background, too, is predominantly North American. These factors would usually shape his readership in a certain way. However, one of the unique things about Díaz is the invocation of multiple readerships in his works. On the one hand, he addresses readers who understand the smatterings of Spanish in his writing as well the Dominican cultural specificities. On the other hand, however, his works also invoke a kind of reader who treats literary objects as anthropological souvenirs. These multiple readerships complicate the already vexed dichotomy between the categories of the local and the global in Díaz’s works, which constantly oscillate between local groundedness and global circulation.

Another way in which Díaz’s fiction redefines the scales of what should be considered local and global is by the ways in which he locates narrative and political histories. A single correlation of story-location is impossible in his fiction, as the Dominican Republic and the United States are relentlessly connected. Spaces cannot be thought of in isolation because they are a part of a larger entangled narrative totality—a spatially and temporally expansive whole. Personal histories and acting global forces become a way for narrative movements to be articulated in spatial terms, while the condensation of centuries of history within a single sentence does so in terms of temporalities. The use of historical depth and geographic expansiveness in the narrative marginal also naturally accompany questions of scale. In his presentation, Gabriele puts forth a question about how texts themselves are involved in scale-making. This happens in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, for example, where the narrative transitions between the microgeography of the home to the regional geography of New Jersey—as continents become inextricably linked with the archipelagic connection of Dominican Republic—lead to a kind of decontinentalizing in Oscar Wao’s world. The use of the Fukú americanus curse, so central to Díaz’s narrative, becomes an epitomization of the spatio-temporal expansiveness of his writing. Acting as a chronotopical force, it connects Africa, Latin America, United States on the one hand, and blurs the distance between Paterson and Santo Domingo on the other. The lines between the personal and the systemic too are blurred in the process.

Gabriele concluded that Díaz’s mode of temporal imagination does away with place-bound essentialism despite having a place-based consciousness. His fiction articulates the rejection of nativist ties with places that Amir Mufti and Rebecca Walkowitz write about. Going beyond monoculture and monolingual notions of belonging and existing simultaneously in different cultural and linguistic geographies, Díaz represents these disruptions formally by creating intertwined fictive universes which are filtered through the voice of the localized narrator. Ultimately, Díaz’s place-basedness allows for a rethinking of the categories used to think of contemporary fiction.

The presentation was followed by an enlightening round of questions and answers, pertaining particularly to multiple readerships as well as to multilingualism and translingualism. Gabriele also answered questions about whether Díaz should be considered a singular example of this particular kind of intervention in our understanding of the local and the global, or if he is part of a larger trajectory of contemporary writers. According to him, other writers like Bolaño might be a part of such a larger line-up, but Díaz is a very particular case because of his biographical position as well as they way in which he uses language in his works.

Congratulations to Gabriele on his excellent presentation! We are very thankful to him for sharing with us a slice of his fascinating work, and we look forward to hearing more about it.

‘El Hermoso Juego’, or ‘The Beautiful Game’: Vicente Huidobro’s Creacionista Poetics and the Translation of Surrealist Automatic Poetry

A Report on Josué Rodriguez’s Colloquium Presentation
by Rudrani Gangopadhyay

On November 30th, Josué Rodriguez presented the second colloquium of the 2017-2018 school year on Vicente Huidobro’s Creacionista Poetics and the Translation of Surrealist Automatic Poetry. He began by providing a brief introduction of his dissertation project, tentatively titled “In Search of the Magic Equivalent: Colonial Critiques and Stylistic Appropriations of Surrealism in the Latin American Vanguards,” and then moved on to present his first chapter. Josué’s presentation on Creacionista poetics delved more into questions of influence, originality, and translation, rather than literary history.

Creacionismo was a short-lived experimental literary movement among Spanish writers in France, Spain, and Latin America, founded by Vicente Huidobro (1893 – 1948) in Paris around 1916. Huidobro was a Chilean poet who was simultaneously a Romantic, a surrealist, a cubist, a futurist, and was described as “a translator of European aesthetics and avant-garde influences”. For followers of Creationism, the poet’s role was to create a personal imagined world rather than describing the world of nature. This was achieved by bold juxtaposition of images and metaphors, and an use of original vocabulary consisting of idiosyncratically combined words. Josué argues that this movement, engaged inherently with notions of originality and genealogy of poetry, is one that translates other movements and therefore renders poetry as truly transnational and translinguistic.

Surrealism is an important influence on the Creationist movement, and in fact, Huidobro claims ownership of the surrealist style of automatic writing. Josué envisions Creacionismo as a part of a long-term teleological arc engaged with other avant-garde movements, and as a natural continuation of the larger movement of poetry. Like Walter Benjamin, Huidobro believed the task of the translator is to carry a text beyond borders and languages, and aimed to achieve precisely that in his own work. Josué shared  fascinating images of the first issue of the Creacion magazine (1921), and Huidobro’s statement in the same. The issue contained various kinds of texts (poetry, prose, musical scores) in different languages, and was truly a global text that aligned well with the universal scope of Creacionismo as imagined by Huidobro.

Josué concluded his presentation with a very interesting close reading of one of Huidobro’s short stories, ‘El Hermoso Juego’ or ‘The Beautiful Game’. The story, which is a sly criticism of surrealism, never explicitly mentions the movement, but its presence is easy to detect. In an audacious move, Huidobro engages with surrealism in a way that simultaneously critiques and celebrates it. The use of automatic poetry within the story is one of its noteworthy aspects. The use of automaticity as a strategy for textual production here allows a sense universal accessibility to the process of creation to prevail. The story also uses tropes of order and plays in deeply interesting ways that correlate to theorizations about creation as well as translation. Josué’s work focused on Creacionismo’s inherent need for translation rather than notions of originality and periodization. Huidibro’s work, he argued, is fundamentally not one movement but rather a synthesis of multiple avant-garde movements.

The presentation was followed by an enlightening round of questions and answers, pertaining particularly to anti-mimesis, and how it may relate to the process of translation. Josué also answered questions about theories of originality as well as about whether Creacionismo is somehow limiting. He stated that he would place poetry and translation in equal measure at the heart of poetry. Surrealism is a testimony to the fact that there is no such originality.

Congratulations to Josué on his excellent presentation! We are very thankful to him for sharing with us a slice of his fascinating work, and we look forward to hearing more about it.