Tag Archives: Summer Graduate Research

Decoloniality in China: A Sideways Gaze

By Rafael Vizcaíno

At the Great Wall, photo by Suzy Jung

While the first time I read Roland Barthes’s Travels in China I found it to be a cringe-worthy example of a type of postmodern orientalism, rereading it before my first trip to China led me to wonder if what he meant by the “sideways gaze” to look at China (neither Chinese nor Western) could instead be better understood as a type of decolonial gaze. After all, Chela Sandoval recovers Barthes and semiotics into the project of decolonization. From June 23 to June 29, I had the privilege of taking part in a scholarly and cultural exchange between Rutgers and Jilin University, where I presented my dissertation research and met humanities and social sciences scholars, graduate and undergraduate students from Jilin University. This exchange, as brief as it was, has further convinced me of the importance of strengthening South-South dialogues towards the development of that new gaze through which we can interpret our world-making practices beyond modern/colonial lenses.

Opening ceremony

The format of the scholarly forum consisted of concurrent colloquia across disciplinary boundaries. As the sole humanities scholar in the entire event, I was part of a group of psychologists and sociologists whose work analyzed how social identity markers of difference affect both the self-perception and the social role of marked subjects, e.g., biracial American college students or provincial Chinese women in urban settings. Such multidisciplinary audience was an ideal interlocutor for my work on the epistemic critiques decolonial thinking makes on method across fields and disciplines. Given the limited reception of decolonial thinking in that particular audience, however, I decided not to present my prepared paper on the coloniality of secularism and instead presented a contextualization of decoloniality vis-à-vis the historical formations of anti-colonialism and postcolonial studies. The ensuing discussion on the significance of importing foreign methodological frameworks to the analysis of an-Other socio-cultural and historical reality was very rich and conducive to future conversations across colonial/imperial differences, e.g., Latin American, African, and East Asian critiques of Western modern methodologies.

Talking about decoloniality, photo by Zhang Si

Besides the scholarly component of the forum, I had the opportunity of visiting several museums in the city of Changchun, as well as taking part in a cultural exchange with students from Jilin University where all of us learned about the educational systems of our counterparts. I found this event to be extremely fruitful because students’ questions about the American university system were honestly answered by Rutgers doctoral students. Among these included very serious and difficult questions, such as intellectual theft or other abuses of power like sexual harassment by one’s supervisors. After the event, there was an informal period of about ten minutes where we could have one-on-one discussions with each other. This proved to me to be the most enjoyable part of the forum, as I connected with many students interested in my areas of work, some of whom I remain in conversation today.

Warm welcome from Jilin University, photo by Zhang Si

The second part of the official visit consisted of a guided sight-seeing tour of Beijing not unlike the one Barthes describes in his Travels—indeed, I now laugh at the similarities. With a heat factor of over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, we visited Tiananmen Square, the Temple of Heaven, the Summer Palace, and the Great Wall over two days. The Great Wall is truly magnificent, and I hope to visit it again sometime soon. While I still cringe while reading Barthes’s descriptions of Chinese people, this trip has certainly given me new lenses through which to read his text, as well as concrete experience over what it could mean to look at China (and any other place of colonial difference for that matter) decolonially with a “sideways gaze.” I hope to continue building on these dialogues over the years to come.

My daily travel journal, a la Barthes

I would like to thank the Rutgers School of Graduate Studies and the Rutgers Global and China Offices for allowing me to take part in the Rutgers-Jilin Graduate Forum. Also, my gratitude goes to my student hosts at Jilin for their hospitality and incredible kindness.


Graduate Student Summer: Institute for World Literature 2017 session at Copenhagen

By:  Rudrani Gangopadhyay

 The 7th session of the Institute for World Literature (IWL) met at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark this Summer from July 3 through July 26, in joint partnership with Aarhus University. The four week-long program consisted of twelve two-week seminars taught by scholars trying to rethink and redefine world literature, guest lectures by Sara Danius and Madame Nielsen, colloquia for participants to share and workshop their current research, and panels on publishing and venturing out into the job market as well as working on projects with multiple scholars from varied disciplines. My own interest in the IWL arose because of its unique perspective towards the study of world literature with a global scope. Not only did my time at the Institute help me question existing notions of world literature and attempt to access it unprecedented ways, its format rendered itself particularly well to create for all the participants a thriving intellectual exchange between the attendees. as well as its institute format which I believed would render itself well to a thriving intellectual exchange between the attendees.

The two seminars I took were “Exilic Writing and the Making of World Literature” with Galin Tihanov (Queen Mary, University of London) and “Colonialism, a Multilingual Local and its Significant Geographies” with Francesca Orsini (SOAS, University of London).  Prof. Tihanov’s seminar on “Exilic Writing and the Making of World Literature” proved to be an excellent learning resource for my readings into movement, memory and identity, and enabled me to continue my inquiries into the study of cultural texts as mnemonic markers of a socio-cultural history of migration. The seminar questioned existing notions of cosmopolitans, of exilic memory, the language as well as the affective economy of exile, and tries to constitute a world literary network out of exilic writing.

Prof. Orsini’s seminar on “Colonialism, a Multilingual Local and Its Significant Geographies” was particularly relevant to my study of multilingualism and its varied impact on literary production, translation and circulation. The seminar was a way for Orsini to workshop the ideas of her ongoing project on ‘Multlingual Locals and Significant Geographies’ and see how the contents of the project could be brought into the interdisciplinary classroom. Taking the case of India’s persistent multilingualism and diverse traditions of literary production, Orsini tried to envision a system of world literature akin to Doreen Massey’s formulation on space as a “sphere of the possibility of the existence of multiplicity in the sense of contemporaneous plurality; as the sphere in which distinct trajectories coexist”. I found the focus of both seminars on concepts of cultural translation and its role in the making of what we understand as world literature particularly fascinating. What made the seminar experiences even more interesting was the varied backgrounds from which the students in the seminar came, and therefore the very different outlooks they brought to their study. The seminars required intense work, but it helped to have access to the University of Copenhagen libraries, which included the Royal Danish Library’s collections, including the Black Diamond.

The colloquium that I was a part of was on World Cinema. Our group was made of twelve graduate students in various stages of their work. While some workshopped their chapters or prospectus, others like myself, brought to the colloquium ideas about projects. I found the experience of the presenting my own work and listening to the research of others particularly stimulating, and enjoyed myself immensely. The colloquia were a good way to meet more people working on in similar areas, and forming networks that I hope we will continue to cherish professionally and personally.

IWL also arranged for tours around Copenhagen, on land and in the canals around the city. Aside from the historical walking tours around the beautiful city, we also went on trips to Roskilde (the old Viking capital) and to Helsingor (the real-life inspiration behind Shakespeare’s Elsinore). In the latter, we were fortunate enough to see their summer time performance of Hamlet which takes place around the castle. Everyone involved enjoyed these immensely!

I am very grateful to the program in Comparative Literature for the funding I received in order to attend the Institute. It proved to be the perfect opportunity to combine an exploration of  newer ways to think about world literature as well as interacting and networking with an exciting intellectual community over the summer (in a beautiful city). It has been an invaluable experience that would no doubt enrich my literary imagination going forward.

Graduate Student Summer: Black in Europe, University of Amsterdam, 2017

By: F. Joseph Sepúlveda

After spending a few weeks traveling throughout Europe, particularly Sweden and Spain, in early June, I ended up attending the 10-day summer school program “Black Europe”, at the University of Amsterdam. Held in the International Institute for Research and Education (IIRE) and in collaboration with the Center of Study and Investigation for Decolonial Dialogues (Barcelona, Spain), the program features mostly European and North American scholars who work on race, and focuses on the investigation of how race and immigrantion has altered European society and its legal, historical, and cultural institutions. The program was for me most productive as a way to gain insight into how race and racial difference is understood within European contexts, and learning from scholars like Stephen Small, David Theo Goldberg, and Kwame Nimako through daily lecture sections was beneficial for expanding my own understanding of how non-American nations speak about (or fail to speak of) the impact and importance of black and other immigrants to the formation of Europe (although I think the program would have been more useful if broken up by smaller workshops and group discussions). Stephen Small’s work, for example, explores Black Britain’s centrality in European discourses on black civil rights and visibility, and he nicely presented the fact that even in Britain, which has the largest black population, the percentage of blacks in the nation is never as large as in the American hemisphere. However, anti-black discourse in Europe, and in Britain especially, tends to hyperbolically imagine the nation as overrun by “too many” formerly colonial black subjects.

In general terms, the program was useful for teaching three fundamental ideas about the European relation with its black populations: 1. That most European countries regard anti-black racism as an American, and particularly US American problem, and so they adapt a legal and social discourse of color-blindness that prevents coalitions to redress issues through the category of race. 2. Europe has been relatively adept at keeping black migrants outside of its nations (even in Britain the black population resides in major metropolitan areas and constituted less than 5 percent of its national demographics in 2011). 3. Unsurprisingly, important European countries like the Netherlands and Sweden disavow their role in the Transatlantic Slave Trade despite benefitting greatly from it and bankrolling its success.

In sum, the program offered an intellectually engaging ensemble of scholars who spoke about the different European approaches to thinking and resisting race, linking racial discourse with decolonial theory, and showing how to methodically think about race in the modern world. This program thus provided me with suggestions about what a more expansive trans-Atlantic framework to thinking racial formations could look like.  

Graduate Student Summer: Studying in France and Japan

By: Penny Yeung

Find other posts by Penny Yeung here

Since my interest lies broadly in the 20th century novel, particularly in Chinese and French contexts, and also in considering the theoretical framework of global modernisms, one of my goals for this past summer was to learn more about the initiatives that brought Chinese youths in unprecedented numbers to France at the beginning of the twentieth century. With support from the Mellon Summer Grant, I was first able to spend two weeks in Lyon doing archival research at the Fonds chinois housed at the Bibliothèque municipale de Lyon.

The Fonds chinois has a fascinating origin. It came into existence in large part thanks to the library collection at the Institut franco-chinois de Lyon, a short-lived higher education initiative funded largely by the remittance of Boxer indemnity money. In its years of operation, between 1921 and 1946, 473 Chinese students matriculated at the institute. They pursued studies in a variety of disciplines from the natural and social sciences to the humanities, but also for those who, to the administrators’ chagrin, arrived on their doorstep demonstrating lackluster command of the language of instruction, high-school French. Among the wealth of documents available at the archive, there are individual student files and completed theses, correspondence between students and the administration regarding academic progress, sometimes lobbying for better student welfare, and occasionally, intriguing memos from the French authorities querying on the political involvement of individual students.

The Institut envisioned itself as contributing to the education of, to the farthest extent possible, a biculturally literate elite, much like similar initiatives already in place across the Atlantic, in the United States. In this regard, the Institut also distinguished itself apart from the Diligent Work–Frugal Study Movement, another means through which many Chinese youths at the time went to France. In fact, the institute’s policies caused disgruntlement among many a young worker who failed to gain admission and hence, in today’s parlance perhaps, to “switch (immigration) status”. My time at the Fonds allowed me to gain a better understanding of the Institut’s operation and its situation within a larger historical and political landscape. I was also able to peruse works written by and on several individuals who intrigued me particularly, including Maurice Courant, professor at the institute and whose prolific scholarship played a role in introducing Chinese, Japanese and Korean cultures to the French scholarly context; and the Chinese poet Dai Wang-shu, often regarded as one of the pioneers of Chinese literary modernism, who was a one-time student at the institute before his expulsion and whose translated works from the French include Paul Van Tieghem’s La littérature comparée (1931).

Following Lyon, I attended Middlebury’s French immersion program held in Paris. During the six weeks, I took three courses, on the History of French Cinema, Paris through 20th-Century Literary Mirrors, and the History of Paris in the 16th and 17th Centuries respectively. The program was composed on average of four hours of class time in the mornings; afternoons were spent in the library completing readings and assignments, and attending weekly topical workshops and city excursions. Among the various excursions offered, including historical and literary walking tours, my personal favorite was a guided tour at the Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF), located across from Bercy on the left bank of the Seine. Besides getting a look at behind-the-scenes operations such as how books are transported to the respective reading rooms, the tour provided a trove of informative fun facts. To name just two, I learned how the garden—the botanical centerpiece at the heart of the library complex—was effected by way of arboreal diasporic movement, and how the BnF’s upper deck, rendered notoriously slippery in the rains, became baptized as the Esplanade des Invalides. (And oh, there’s also a story about rabbits loose in the library.)

Finally, I am most grateful to the program in Comp. Lit. for the additional funding I received, which enabled me to wrap up my summer with two weeks of Japanese language study at the Yamasa Institute in Okazaki, Aichi Prefecture. As I continue to work towards fulfilling my language requirements, I look forward to the new literary imaginations and research pathways this may open up.

Graduate Student Summer: South-South Dialogues Towards Transmodernity

By: Rafael Vizcaíno

                                                           Picture by: Jeong Eun Annabel We

Continuing the decolonial dialogues of the previous two years (2015 CPA Summer School, 2016 Barcelona Summer School), during the summer of 2017, I traveled to South Korea with two main goals in mind: 1) to enter a dialogue with decolonial-oriented scholars in East Asia by participating in two international conferences on Latin American studies; and 2) to find out more about the influence that a current of Latin American thought (liberation theology) has had on the history of South Korean political activism. I met scholars from across the world, with whom I was united in our mutual commitment to decolonial praxis in research and activism. The ensuing discussions and encounters with them persuaded me of the necessity to frame my own work within a larger South-South planetary dialogue. I am now convinced that such dialogues across relational experiences of colonization are a requisite to understanding and overcoming the workings of modernity/coloniality – both the object of study and activist target of decolonial praxis – not in the disavowing sense of (post)modernity but in the transformative sense of transmodernity.

At the 9th Conference of East-West Intercultural Relations, subtitled “Global South, Latin America, and the Luso-Hispanic World,” hosted by Seoul National University in South Korea, several specialists and advanced students in Latin American and South Korean and East Asian relations were gathered to uncover the many ways in which the divergent elements of Latin American culture and history have been represented and assimilated into South Korean and East Asian cultural protocols – our very own Professor Nelson Maldonado-Torres was the conference’s keynote speaker. My participation in this conference concerned an analysis of the ways in which Caribbean women of color feminist thinkers such as Mayra Rivera and Jacqui Alexander complicate and challenge the academic secular/religious divide across disciplinary boundaries. These writers suspend our inherited onto-epistemic categories that presuppose a certain (modern/colonial) partitioning of lived experience. Through such a maneuver, their respective critical politico-intellectual projects, their similarities and differences notwithstanding, effectively puts forward a decolonization of the secular/religious divide within a liberatory framework. My aim in presenting this part of my work in South Korea was to lay the foundations for a critical understanding of Korea’s anti-colonial and anti-dictatorship politics in relation to similar politics in Latin America.

Such bridge building across experiences of colonization led me to take advantage of my stay in Korea to further investigate the extent to which Latin American liberation theology has influenced the history of Korean political activism. Born in the late 1960’s, liberation theology has been influential in post-colonial regions of the world and their diasporas. A fact that has yet to receive strong scholarly attention, however, is that Latin American liberation theology curiously manifested a strong impact in South Korean democratization struggles in the 1970s–80s, particularly over the ways in which South Korean Christian organizations and theologians read the Latin American theological project via their own socio-historical context, eventually resulting in the development of a Korean Minjung theology. My findings gesture towards the need to strengthen the intellectual, historical, and political, bridges that unite Latin America and East Asia as spaces of resistance against the impositions of the rhetoric of modernity and the logic of coloniality. This is a long-term project that is part of the larger South-South dialogues towards transcending the modern/colonial status-quo, including the secular/religious divide across disciplinary boundaries that thinkers like Alexander and Rivera so powerfully challenge.

 Rafael and Fadoua El Heziti (Hassan II University - Morocco)
Photo by: Nelson Maldonado-Torres

Before departing from Korea, I had the privilege of additionally participating in the Latin American Studies Association of Korea annual conference. This was an opportunity to deepen the focus on the dynamics of the ongoing efforts to construct South-South dialogues between Latin America and East Asia. At LASAK, I presented my work on the concept of double translation as articulated by Walter Mignolo, arguing that double translation is a practice that should be made explicit in South-South dialogues that seek both the affirmation of subjugated knowledges and ways of being in the world, as well as the transcendence of Western modernity as an experiential totality. Double translation accounts for a process of transculturation that takes place on a plural egalitarian horizon beyond the empty universality of Western modernity. Mignolo takes as an example the development of neo-Zapatista thought articulated by the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) in Southeast Mexico, formed by the mutual transformative encounter between Marxist and Indigenous cosmologies. Unlike the unidirectional translation model of Western modernity (e.g. Christian missionaries in colonial Latin America), double translation does not seek to absorb difference into the same, but instead enacts a pluriversal impetus illustrated by the Zapatista dictum “queremos un mundo donde quepan muchos mundos.” This entails that as we come together across different geo-historical positionalities towards the construction of an-other world, we need to be attentive to our categorical epistemic presuppositions, as well as to the hierarchies of power that exist within the protocols where these dialogues are taking place, such as the university. Otherwise our dialogues would not be premised upon an ethico-political equality and thus would collapse on the unidirectional model of translation.

I would like to thank Professor Maldonado-Torres and the remaining of my doctoral committee (Professor Yolanda Martinez-San Miguel and Professor Carlos Decena), for their intellectual support during this summer and the times a venir. I would also like to extend my gratitude to my interlocutors and new-found colleagues in South Korea and the rest of the world, for their generosity and hospitality – in particular, Professor Suk-Kyun Woo. Special thanks go to Professor Ji-Yeon Yuh, for encouraging me to pursue my comparative research on Korea.  At last, I am indebted to the Rutgers University Program in Comparative Literature, as well as the Rutgers University School of Graduate Studies for materially supporting my summer research and conference participations.