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Varieties of Decolonial Thinking and Organizing

by Rafael Vizcaino and Paulina Barrios

Over February and March of 2019, the Rutgers Advanced Institute for Critical Caribbean Studies “What is Decoloniality?” speaker series held two events sponsored by the Department of Latino and Caribbean Studies and the Program in Comparative Literature. Audiences from both Rutgers and New Brunswick were exposed to a wide range of ideas concerning the decolonization of theory, activism, and institutions from the Dominican activist-scholar Yuderkys Espinosa, the French-Algerian political activist and writer Houria Bouteldja, and the decolonial organizers from the movement Decolonize This Place.

On Friday February 1st, RAICCS welcomed Yuderkys Espinosa for a talk in Spanish titled “Decolonial Feminism in Abya Yala” and a workshop on “Black Decolonial Feminist Epistemology”. During her talk, Espinosa first recognized the disconnection between communities, grassroots activism, and academia. She argued it is precisely decolonial feminism that builds these connections and systematizes knowledge produced by communities and spaces that are generally left out of academic discussions. She invited us to reflect on what a young indigenous activist said when asked if she thought of herself as a feminist: “I am not a feminist because I do not save myself on my own”. This young activist went on to explain that she had no investment in an individualist project, which was how she saw feminism. She further explained that although she felt compelled by some of the feminist scholars and activists, she could not fully align with a movement that she felt separated her from her community. Espinosa emphasized that decolonial feminism must listen to these voices and that it could avoid individualistic leaderships by amplifying its focus and emphasizing collective action and scholarship. As a specific example she spoke of co-authorship and mentioned the book by Catherine Walsh, a scholar-activist based in Universidad Andina Simón Bolivar, and Juan García Salazar, an Afro-Ecuadorian elder keeper of oral tradition, “Pensar sembrando/sembrar pensando con el Abuelo Zenón” (Thinking as we sow/Sowing as we think with Grandfather Zenon). Espinosa ended her talk by arguing that decolonial feminism must analyze when and where it is replicating power dynamics and modern projects based on authenticity and truth.

 

After her presentation, Espinosa held a workshop focused on black decolonial feminist epistemology within the production of knowledges and practices in activism and the academy. She established two main aspects as the most important:

  • A focus against the androcentrism of scientific knowledge. This androcentrism is based on male heterosexuals who come from a space of privilege and argue for objectivity and universality that aren’t ‘polluted’ by experience. She argued that this pretension of objectivity and universality doesn’t really exist. Further, a decolonial black feminist methodology implies being self-critical and coming to terms with one’s privilege and positionality. This leads to the possibility of establishing and producing one’s own knowledge and categories, moving beyond the idea of universal concepts.
  • Following feminist knowledge production methodologies. This is based on self-experience and the understanding that all knowledge comes from subjectivity, which leads us to abandon the preference of objectivity. This includes also adding value to what happens outside the academy, including different strategies, dialogues between different knowledges, intergenerational dialogues, as well as with indigenous and afrodescendent universities. She also emphasized that this process involves negotiations and clear communication among people who are generating collectives and decolonial ways of producing knowledge.

Following these two events, on March 14th and 15th, RAICCS welcomed Houria Bouteldja, a well-known French-Algerian political activist and writer focusing on anti-racism, anti-imperialism, and Islamophobia. Bouteldja began with a lecture (in French, with live English translation) titled “About White Innocence in General and French Innocence in Particular.” In this lecture, Bouteldja offered a devastating analysis of the ways in which current French left politics advance a white supremacist project. Bouteldja discussed how the progressive vision of leftist politics in France only encompasses white people, continuing the racist imaginary and state apparatus from centuries of colonial practices that were never properly decolonized. For instance, the French political status quo often deploys Islamophobia in the name of secularism. This practice targets largely Muslim migrants from France’s former colonies, who are not treated as political subjects but people to be saved at best (for the liberal) or as poison for the French nation at worst (for the fascist). Against this racist status quo, Bouteldja put forth a decolonial anti-imperialist politics of “revolutionary love” by spearheading the political organization of the Parti des indigènes de la République.

 

The next day, Nelson Maldonado-Torres moderated a discussion titled “The Spirit of Bandung Continues: Roundtable on Decolonial Organizing with Houria Bouteldja, and with Nitasha Dhillon, Amin Husain, and Marz Saffore from MTL+ and Decolonize this Place, as well as Teresa Vivar from Lazos America Unida.” The gathering brought together organizers from different conjunctures to share reflections on failures, successes, tactics, and goals. Vivar, a community organizer from New Brunswick, expressed her concerns on developing natural leadership skills of Indigenous migrant women in New Brunswick, a task that is made difficult by the everyday oppressions coming either from police repression in the community (ICE) or from the community’s own internalized racism and misogyny. Dhillon, Husain, and Saffore spoke about the many efforts that have led to the work they are now doing in New York City under the auspices of Decolonize This Place, “an action-oriented movement centering around Indigenous struggle, Black liberation, free Palestine, global wage workers and de-gentrification.” In their model of organizing, direct actions generate what they call “movement-generated theory” that targets institutional power. Bouteldja likewise shared the pre-history that led to the founding of the Parti des indigènes de la République. For Bouteldja, liberalism’s complicities to white supremacy are seen in the greater volume of criticism that decolonial thinking is currently receiving in the French academy than that of the criticism of the resurgent far-right racist/fascist politics.

 

These events, as part of the ongoing “What is Decoloniality?” speaker series, addressed the varieties of decolonial positions, tactics, and approaches that exemplify the breadth and possibility that decolonial thought and praxis offer across social positions and in different institutional settings. The speakers exemplified how decoloniality can be a strong analytic lens to be implemented in our research and teaching. Perhaps most importantly, however, their activist orientations let us know that decoloniality is also a practice that targets patterns of oppression in ourselves and the institutions that we inhabit.

Framing a Socialist Face: Studio Photography in Late Mao China

By Penny Yeung

On Monday, March 26th, Professor Nicole Huang, chair of comparative literature at the University of Hong Kong, delivered a talk on her research project in progress, titled “Framing a Socialist Face: Studio Photography in Late Mao China.” The talk was held at the Alexander Library Pane Room and is part of the ongoing China Lecture Series organized by Asian Languages and Culture.

One of the driving questions behind Prof Huang’s research is, in her words, “What constitutes a Chinese socialist face in visual representation, particularly in photographic portraiture, during the late Mao period?” Prof Huang began by highlighting issues of periodization and her specific choice of the “late Mao period”—which spans the 1970s and the early 1980s—to delimit the temporal scope of her study. Typically, the year 1976 is cited as a turning point in contemporary Chinese politics and has served as an anchoring date for much research in the social sciences. But as cultural practices rarely change overnight, Prof Huang argued that looking at the late Mao period allows for a better account of the changes in patterns of cultural production and consumption. Three essays by Georg Simmel, published in 1901, 1903, and 1908 respectively, on physiognomy and the aesthetic significance of the human face in modernity provided additional framing. Prof Huang pointed out that for Simmel, the “face flourished and circulated at a wider level at the onset of modernity.” The human face was often glorified, as the “coherent [wholeness]” it embodied and symbolized stood in as foil to the forces of fragmentation and alienation wrought by modernity. Her research asks whether Simmel’s insights are translatable to the late Mao context.

Prof Huang then shared from the part of her research that focuses on commercial photography. To investigate how practitioners apprenticed themselves to the trade and developed a set of aesthetics, Prof Huang conducted extensive interviews with commercial photographers who had worked during that period. Her talk led the audience through a fascinating account of how commercial photography grew and thrived as an industry during turbulent sociopolitical times; in fact, commercial photo studios saw the “largest increase during the Cultural Revolution.” As she explained, because the Red Guards had ransacked studio settings and backdrops in 1966, the dearth of accessories led photographers to turn to light as the predominant element which they could manipulate in their trade, and later, their art.

Prof Huang’s talk spotlit one photographer in particular—Zhu Tianming, an eminent practitioner and theoretician to come out of that period. Like most commercial photographers, Zhu began his career through apprenticeship in the 1930s and had no formal training or education in the arts, but by the 1960s his theorizations had begun to be circulated by the national photography society and came to constitute some of the earliest Sinicized theories of photography. Zhu theorized about the use of lighting, tones, and contrast to “sculpt the Chinese face.” He also differentiated between the kinds of gradation used to photograph male and female subjects. Zhu’s practice informed his theory, and yielded portraitures that are unmistakably inflected by elements of race, gender, nation, and class. The locale of Shanghai, where Zhu was based in his later years, adds another dimension to this study. As a hub of film production, the city provided a milieu where commercial photographic practices experienced a cross-fertilization with cinematic techniques; as a result, some of Zhu’s work, too, bears a “Hollywood imprint.”

While the Socialist face, like the body, could be politicized, trained, molded, and aestheticized, Prof Huang argued that the “highly tempered Socialist face was set loose a bit in the experiments of Zhu” during the transitional period. In time, the techniques Zhu experimented with and which were disseminated through his writings solidified into a new orthodoxy. Prof Huang emphasized that the consolidation did not transpire in a linear fashion; practices in their earlier guises could still be observed late into the transitional period. It is also important to note that with practitioners setting the standards, the new orthodoxy encompassed practices of individual agency rather than developing as a set of state-sanctioned norms.

Prof Huang’s rich lecture sparked many questions and comments from the audience. The lively Q&A touched on issues including how discourses of nation and nationalism may have played a role in influencing aesthetics; regional and national variations; the place of racial minorities; the relationship between aesthetic shifts and the politics of the transitional period; and possible parallels and divergences from other sociopolitical contexts.

Vicente L. Rafael’s Book Talk: “Motherless Tongues: The Insurgency of Language amid Wars of Translation”

By: Gabriel Bamgbose

On Tuesday, October 25 2016, Vicente L. Rafael, a professor of History and Southeast Asian Studies at the University of Washington in Seattle, graced Yolanda Martinez-San Miguel’s Comparative Literature graduate seminar, Introduction to Literary Theory: From World Literature to Pluriversality, with his visit to discuss his latest book, Motherless Tongues: The Insurgency of Language amid Wars of Translation, published by Duke University Press this year. The conversation took place in the Comp Lit Seminar Room. Yolanda opened the floor with an introduction of the guest, his intellectual project, and a question of how the book came into being. Rafael explained that the book was rather accidental, unlike his previous book projects, which were well conceived as a unified project and followed through as such. By this he meant that the book was a product of series writing for lectures and invitations. Moreover, it was a product of several years of involvement with Translation Studies. He talked enthusiastically about how his involvement with the Nida Institute and the Summer Institute of Linguistics had been instrumental in his intellectual project in Translation Studies. He provided a general background on the complicated linguistic and cultural context of the Philippines, which he explained as a plurilingual world. Of importance is the historical “fact” that there was no monumental culture (as opposed to the situation of China or India) in the Philippines, until the arrival of the missionaries and colonialism–of course multiple colonialities–that produced an environment of political instability, economic dependency, lack of ideology or, ironically, excess of ideologies, and identitarian undecidability as an existential condition, which should not be seen as a mark of shame but as a critical resource to draw on.

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With the background provided, the stage was set for students in the class to engage him with questions. The conversation glided from the concept of the accidental, the uncanny, and the repressed in the context of language, translation, and identity as central themes of the book; the notion of the literary and the gift of language with its force in his writing style; the issues of language and power relations, and the status of slang as a subversive language belonging to no one, yet available to everyone; the question of translation, conquest/war, untranslatability, and machine translation; the hegemonic status of English, the “wildness” of accent, and the semiotic power of sonic monstrosity; translation and the practice of self writing; language, memory, code switching, and creolization; to the idea of mistranslation as a structural necessity, the condition for the possibility of translation, as well as its continuity and change in different contexts. The conversation vigorously benefitted from putting Rafael’s ideas in critical conversation with the work of other scholars in Translation Studies and Comparative Literature, especially with the work of Emily Apter. The conversation, colored with wide-ranging ideas that drew on the diverse interests of the students, began at 2:00 pm and ended at 5:00 pm.

Everyone working on the politics of language and translation will find Rafael’s Motherless Tongues a very useful resource. And the fact that it presents powerful arguments crafted in a beautiful language also makes it an enjoyable read!

 

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.”

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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.