Tag Archives: Comp Lit Events

“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!

Decolonial Research Methods in Latin America and the Caribbean

By Paulina Barrios

A couple of weeks ago, on October 25th the Rutgers Advanced Institute for Critical Caribbean Studies with the sponsorship of the Center for Cultural Analysis and the Program in Comparative Literature held a series of activities focused on decoloniality in South Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean. The final activity for the day was the book presentation of: Smash the Pillars: Decoloniality and the Imaginary of Color in the Dutch Kingdom and Kuxlejal Politics: Indigenous Autonomy, Race, and Decolonizing Research in Zapatista Communities. This was held at the community center headed by Lazos America Unida in downtown New Brunswick. The center was organized to accommodate everyone around tables with Mexican sarapes (colorful cloths) and the session was able to start on time at 4.30 pm with an introduction from Prof. Nelson Maldonado-Torres. After speaking to the importance of the work that Lazos does with the Mexican immigrant community in New Brunswick, Prof. Maldonado-Torres presented Prof. Mariana Mora, from the Center for Research and Advanced Studies in Social Anthropology in Mexico City, Prof. Melissa F Weiner from the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts, and Prof. Antonio Carmona Báez, President of the University of St. Martin, St. Marteen.

Prof. Mora began with a brief presentation of her book Kuxlejal Politics: Indigenous Autonomy, Race, and Decolonizing Research in Zapatista Communities published by University of Texas Press in 2018. Her main motivation with this book was to understand what decolonial strategies Zapatista communities mobilize to fight against the Mexican state’s neoliberal and racialized policies and assert their autonomy. She went on to describe how, despite the state’s denial to speak of race and racism, indigenous peoples are constantly living under violent and racist conditions. For example, indigenous peoples often either work a land they have no ownership over or face state and private actors that value their land over their lives and livelihoods. Prof.  Mora contends that this structural violence and continuous plundering led to the political moment where indigenous peoples from Chiapas decided to rebel against the state.  Embeded in the conversation was also a recognition that this structural violence is a remnant of colonial power and economic structures, such as the plantation system.

She then went on to explain how the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (Zapatista Liberation Army, EZLN) transitioned from an armed struggle and its declaration of war against the Mexican state in 1994 towards a focus on defining and defending their autonomy. This led to building autonomous institutions and a full break from all public systems, including health and education. Prof. Mora was involved in the effort to define autonomous pedagogical methods and educational programs with other academics and members of Zapatista communities. Therefore, for her book she returned to Zapatista communities to co-design her methods with community members and generate a research project that would answer her questions and the communities’ needs. The result of this collective work was a focus on autonomy and the politics of a collective life, tied to a territory and nature, in her own words: “when you are fighting against genocide, the political is the fact that we are alive”.

Prof. Weiner followed this presentation, thanking the invitation and emphasizing how happy both she and Prof. Carmona Báez were to present this book in a non-academic space. She explained that since Smash the Pillars: Decoloniality and the Imaginary of Color in the Dutch Kingdom is about decolonial struggle and resistance she found it extremely important that people beyond the academy become involved in the conversation. She started her presentation by linking New Brunswick itself, and even Rutgers University, to the Dutch colonial past and slavery. Since the book focuses on Dutch colonialism and the struggle to decolonize its narrative and memory, she emphasized the direct connection it has to this Dutch colonial history and its ties to slavery, which are often silenced or ignored. Prof. Carmona Báez then added a personal perspective to this history by drawing on his own experience as a Protestant Puerto Rican from New York and being “spiritually conditioned by the Dutch and Calvinism”. With this context both editors then turned to the book itself, starting with an explanation of the title. They explained how Dutch society was built on specific pillars framed under religion. Thus, Protestants and Catholics each had their own banks, schools, and churches. Other pillars were added in the 19th and 20th centuries based on workers and women’s movements, broadening the definition of identities in the Netherlands. However, all of these pillars were designed to exclude. Similar to Prof. Mora’s description of Mexican racialized institutions and policies, these pillars did not include enslaved peoples or the indigenous peoples whose lands they took. As the title suggests, these pillars should be broken down to liberate the different narratives, histories, and bodies that have been silenced.

They went on to describe a growing movement from the past eight years that focuses on raising consciousness of racism in the Netherlands, despite the constant negation of this reality, and the need to learn these other histories. Both local and international struggles have come together at this particular juncture in cases such as the fight against black face tied to the Dutch Christmas figure Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) and Black Lives Matter in the United States. The editors presented this juncture as an example of how colonial pillars are being smashed across the world. They then turned to the structure of the book and how they consciously went against the traditional structure of having theorists first and then activist authors. As part of their decolonial method in the first section they center activists’ fight against racism with specific suggestions from activist students on how to decolonize the university. The second section is more theoretical and focuses on decolonial thought in the context of Dutch colonial history. They closed by turning their focus to ‘the imaginary of color’, defined as the collection of narratives, (hi)stories, and art expressions, that counter the official story, that counter the pillars. The decolonial imaginary of color is also transatlantic and emphasizes a historical trajectory that reaches up to today. Hence, both these books spoke to the need to smash the concept of a unique History, colonial power structures that remain, and racist pillars that are designed to exclude.

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.  

 

A Talk on Translation Studies Initiatives

By Coco Xu

On October 15th and 16th, Dr. Yopie Prins, chair of the Comparative Literature department at the University of Michigan and former president of the American Comparative Literature Association, visited Rutgers and gave two talks on the history and current state of Translation Studies at UM.

Dr. Yopie Prins developed her academic interest in translation studies from her Dutch-English bilingual experiences and studies at the University of Amsterdam, where she was influenced by James S. Holms’s book, The Name and Nature of Translation Studies. As chair of the Comparative Literature department at UM, she is committed to promoting critical translation studies at both the undergraduate and the graduate levels. Dr. Prins believes that translation moves not only between languages, but also between different media, disciplines, and cultures.

Utilizing multilingual resources among students as well as faculty members, UM Comp Lit launched a translation semester to publicize translation on campus in 2012, with $20,000 in funding from the humanities dean’s office. The translation semester featured courses, lectures, as well as other translation-themed activities. During the semester, the department offered an undergraduate course—“22 Ways to Think about Translation”— which encouraged students to think about translation across disciplines and in their daily lives. Events that took place during the semester included a global Arabic poetry reading, a public screening of the film “Speaking in Tongues,” the staging of a performance play called “Translations,” and translation contests. In order to make translation visible not only on campus and within language and literature departments, translation semester reached out beyond literary translation and included topics like machine, scientific, and professional translations. A panel  titled “Words without Borders” invited students to discuss translation for a digital age, and a talk by Josh Estelle, lead developer of the Google Translate project and former graduate from UM, culminated in a translation competition between live translators and Google Translate.

Collaborating with language programs and the Language Resource Center, Comp Lit at UM was able to carry out translation projects including the Language Bank, Translate-a-thon, and community translation services. While language programs brought the Language Bank into language classrooms, the Language Resource Center acted as a matchmaker to connect community organizations with student translation volunteers. The Translate-a-thon, a working group for collaborating translators from all departments across campus to meet weekly at Comp Lit, allowed translators to team up and work together to utilize their unique linguistic expertise. The Translate-a-thon at UM proved to be a great success; drawing both graduate and undergraduate students from different departments and disciplines, it grew from the initial 30–40 to over 200 regular participants in just a few years. It has also reached beyond the immediate community, through engaging international Fulbright scholars via Skype and maintaining a support team on an online forum.

Following the successful translation semester, UM Comp Lit launched a Translation Studies minor in 2014. Open to students from all departments, the TS minor builds translation into the language department curricula and promotes more advanced level work in critical translation studies. Through required capstone projects, it promotes experiential and engaged learning and extends efforts of community outreach. According to TS minors, the program has provided them with not only relevant internship experiences but also a chance to reflect on their translation practices.

Beyond the undergraduate level, UM Comp Lit also extends its initiatives in critical translation studies to the graduate level. Absinthe—a magazine published by the University of Michigan Press—provides the platform where graduate students propose thematic issues and publish their translations and critical reflections on translation. The magazine also gives interested graduate students a chance to develop professional skills in editing and networking with writers and publishers. UM Comp Lit also houses a graduate translation workshop centered around a translation club called “Cannon translation review”. Through these working groups and clubs, UM Comp Lit connects area studies departments to form intra-departmental and extra-departmental collaborations among graduate students through translation studies. Similar to the undergraduate minor in TS, a graduate certificate program in TS is offered. Moving forward, UM Comp Lit is experimenting with a post-doc position in critical translation studies and hopes to collaborate with their law school to develop TS projects on translation in the multilingual midwest and translation in and outside of universities.

Dr. Prins’s talk drew faculty and students from all humanities departments at Rutgers. In the Q&A session, Prof Andrew Parker from the Comp Lit program at Rutgers pointed out that over 54% of the student population here at Rutgers speak a different language at home with their parents/grandparents. Learning from the successful experience of the critical translation studies initiatives at the UM, Rutgers humanities departments is also thinking about ways to address the multilingual backgrounds of our population and interests in critical translation studies here in New Jersey.

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?