Brown Bag Lunch: AI and Genre

By: Virginia Conn

Lauren M.E. Goodlad, professor of English and Comparative Literature at Rutgers University, asked the following provocative question at Comp Lit’s inaugural Spring 2020 Brown Bag Lunch: how did a study of genre and the longue durée end

 

up addressing artificial intelligence in the present day? She began by postulating that the pronouncement of billionaire investor Mark Cuban is typical of the zeitgeist today: “AI is going to change everything. There’s nothing that AI won’t impact.” Whether AI so conceived is just the latest speculative bubble—or rather the end of life as we know it—is a question Goodlad ponders at the close of her essay, “Genres that Matter: The Long Afterlives of Nineteenth-Century Fiction,” which is forthcoming this fall and upon which her talk was based.

To historicize and situate the impact of artificial intelligence, machine learning, and big data on the question of genre, Goodlad referred to four touchstones for her work: Fernand Braudel’s claim that the work of the longue durée historiographer is to cultivate awareness of temporal plurality; Franco Moretti’s effort to theorize genre by drawing on evolutionary biology to conceive genres as coherent types that vie with one another in a bid for survival of the fittest; Wai Chee Dimock’s claim for deep time, which conceives generic transtemporality by analogy to fractal geometry; and Ted Underwood’s move towards genre analysis through machine-generated scatterplots. Notably, all these longue durée analyses conceive genre as a relatively fixed and transparent object: for Moretti, a macro-category for tracing the DNA of dominant types of cycles, for Dimock, a neutral vehicle for fractal forays into the past, and for Underwood, a fundamentally lexical object ideal for statistical analysis. As such, none of them offer the nuanced genealogy or transtemporal comparativism that might encourage rapproachment between the formal and historical methods that is the focus of Goodlad’s work.

She recuperates the idea of genre as something that doesn’t exist in a vacuum, as there can be no “horizon” without circulation, nor “expectation” without perceiving subjects. Genre, therefore, is as much about the legibility of conventions for particular readers as about authors’ intentions or critics’ taxonomies. Her point during the talk was not so much that these works create problems for distant reading as that distant readers who single out this one scale of analysis create problems for themselves. A strong genre theory, much like an influential genre itself, operates at multiple scales. As such, genres so theorized not only operate supratextually as the articulation of types and intertextually (as in the influence of old forms on new), but also intratextually.

What does this ultimately mean for literary and digital humanists? Goodlad suggests that DH modelers clarify their statistical assumptions: not because quantitative tools are necessarily untrustworthy, but because DH computationalists cannot be both conventional data scientists when arguing for robust results and postmodern experimentalists when rejecting the mantle of statistics, empiricism, or positivism. Plainly put: overstated claims on the part of computational theorists play into the hype and confusion about AI, data, and enhance the tremendous economic and cultural power of those who most benefit already. As humanist researchers and teachers in the 21st century, we have more important things to do than protect tech bros from their own hubris.

 

“Voices,” Italian Graduate Society’s bi-annual graduate conference

by Yingnan Shang

On November 22-23, the Italian Graduate Society held a graduate conference on the theme of “voices.” Bringing together different perspectives and fields of study, the forum hosted graduate students and scholars from multiple academic disciplines adopting a wide variety of approaches in their research. Presenters and attendances from UChicago, UPenn, UMichigan, Harvard, Univ. of Virginia, Columbia, Princeton, CUNY, and Rutgers contributed their research and skills from the fields of animal studies, anthropology, cinema studies, education, media studies, medical humanities, medieval studies, musicology, oral history, performance studies, philosophy, postcolonial studies, religious studies, sound studies, translation studies. Keynote speakers were Jenny McPhee from New York University and Diana Garvin from the University of Oregon. The event was co-sponsored by Rutgers Department of Italian, Comparative Literature Program, Medieval Studies Program, Spanish and Portuguese Department, the School of Graduate Studies, and the Graduate Student Association.

The conference invited researchers interested in the issues of the complex present within the contexts of their own listening. The questions regarding the voice and voices have been profoundly enquired and explored in the works of contemporary thinkers including Jacques Derrida, Hélène Cixous, Alice Lagaay, Giorgio Agamben, and Adriana Cavarero. Important works of literature, theories and philosophy have often reflected the concern of “voices” occupied in artistic and cultural debates: from mythologies to confessional narratives, from rhetorical treatises to forms of vocal performances, opera, and media of digital and mass communication, voices are constantly contested and intricately negotiated. They have been celebrated and silenced, studied and standardized, as well as regarded as the place of both private and public expression. Questions the participants asked which may guide our reflection, amongst many, are: is the singular “voice” still a valid philosophical category? Should it be replaced altogether with its plural counterpart, “voices”? How have these concepts changed throughout the centuries? How do human, non-human (e.g. animal, nature), and post-human voices interact? Do digital forms of communication empower the voice? Are there still voiceless groups of people in the era of the internet? What are the ethical, political, and philosophical implications of turning voices into aesthetic objects? What is the role of voices in artistic and social performances? How have voices been represented in literature? What is the relationship between the voice of the author and the voice of the translator?

Three graduate students of Rutgers CompLit also presented their works: Milan Reynolds’s “Hearing Voices: Relations of Language, Gender, and Power in Angela of Foligno’s Memorial,” Amanda González Izquierdo’s “A Voiceless Response: Gazing as Declaration of Being,” and Gabriele Lazzari’s “The Voices of the Somali Diaspora: Dialogic Reaccentuation in Ubah Cristina Ali Farah’s Madre Piccola.” I am much impressed by the richness and diversity in my colleagues’ researches, and this conference has provided me a wonderful opportunity to learn from their works.

On Black Motherhood: Reporting on the Social Justice Teach-In by the “Mothers of the Movement” at Rutgers

by María Elizabeth Rodríguez Beltrán

On Thursday, November 14th, 2019, the Douglass Residential College at Rutgers University hosted the Mothers of the Black Lives Matter movement, ten black women whose sons were victims of gun violence. The mothers present on the stage were, Marion Gray-Hopkins (Gary Hopkins’ mother), Gween Carr (Eric Garner’s Mother), Lesley McSpadden (Michael Brown’s mother), Wanda Johnson (Oscar Grant’s mother), Valerie Bell (Sean Bell’s mother), Kadi Diallo (Amadou Diallo’s mother), Greta Williams (Kevin Cooper’s mother), Gwen Wesley (Cliff Wesley’s mother), Hawa Bah (Mohamed Bah’s mother) and Montye Benjamin (Jayvis Benjamin’s mother). The venue where it was held, Vorhees Chapel, seemed more than an appropriate location as these women expressed how their different religious beliefs and spiritual practices motivated them to search for ways to honor their sons through community work and activism.

Associate Dean Elizabeth Gunn, as the moderator, started the conversation by asking them to share qualities about these young black men that did not come out in the media. The mothers shared things ranging from how one of their sons was very skilled in many things but very bad at swimming (Kadi Diallo, about her son Amadou), to how their sons were mentors, peacemakers, and leaders in their communities. Gween Carr, for instance, chronicled how the media has portrayed her son Eric Garner’s murder in a way that attempts to justify the unjustifiable but that she knows, and many witnesses have attested, that Eric “was there breaking up a fight between [two of his] friends” and not selling cigarettes in the streets as has often been said.

Through different testimonies, the mothers expressed how they are not “anti-police but against brutality.” Moreover, when asked by the audience about practical things to do to support the movement they called to action in these ways:

*Ask your community leaders to hold a town meeting with the police officers in your community as a way to create a closer relationship with them. The police body should get to know the people they are policing, and “we should know who is policing us.”
*Inform yourself (do your research!) about the present laws and proposed bills coming up in congress about policing and gun laws and call your representatives to ask them to stop or push them forward.
*Go to jury duty, do not try to get out of it! “We need a group of our peers.” The mothers expressed how, in many of their cases that made it to court, the jury was not representative of their peers.
*“Get your phones out” when you see any injustice, but especially when there is any interaction with the police. They warned, “stay at a safe distance, but make sure you record it.”
*If stopped by the police, try to memorize their badge number and info, but more importantly, “try to get home safe.”

At the end of the section on the “practical recommendations” the mothers were emphatic about this last part: that in order to continue the fight and before taking any action, people need to “get home safe.” They repeated that all measures need to be taken to survive any interactions that can place one’s life at risk.

When asked another harrowing question about when it is appropriate to have “the talk” with black and brown children about police violence against people of color, the speakers shared some of the conversations that they and their families have had about the police and potential dangers. They remembered how some were having these conversations with their kids as early as seven years old. These activists also reminded the audience that even when the parents of white children should also teach them about police brutality and its effects on society, they should be aware that the parents of black and brown children are having a completely different conversation. These conversations –more often than not— rest on a question of life and death, and that this is not the case for all children.

The audience was also able to learn more about these women when they were asked about things that they do outside their activism that they enjoy. Their answers covered things like walking barefoot on the grass, dancing and spending time with their families, as well as cooking (and not cooking!), traveling, talking to youth in their communities, and “doing my nails and looking cute!”

Closer to the end of the event, the mothers were asked that if they could describe their sons in one word, what would that word be, and they said (in the order they were seated):

For Kevin Cooper-Loving
For Gary Hopkins- Humorous
For Sean Bell- Strong
For Eric Garner- Generous
For Cliff Wesley- Precious
For Amadou Diallo- Wisdom
For Mohamed Bah-Helpful
For Michael Brown- Courageous
For Oscar Grant- Leader
For Jayvis Benjamin- Loving

And thus, responding to the call of these mothers, I invite you to remember these young men as the loving, wise, humorous, and strong leaders they were, to be courageous and stand against injustice and help generously in any way we can.

For other reports on this event, see here, here and here.

Comparative Literature Alumni Reunion

by  Amanda González Izquierdo

On November 8, 2019, the program in Comparative Literature at Rutgers University hosted its first alumni reunion. The chair of the program, Andrew Parker, organized a lunch that brought together faculty, current undergraduate and graduate students, and undergraduate and graduate alumni.

The lunch began with a few words from Dr. Parker welcoming everyone and speaking to how moving it was to see alumni come back to campus, which he described as a testament to the impact that their time at Rutgers has had on their professional and personal lives. Then, everyone in the room briefly introduced themselves, and we learned that the student body that has made up the program from its beginnings has included people representing all parts of the world, including Pakistan, China, Mexico, and Canada. Dr. Parker then proceeded to introduce two notable guests: Barbara Lee, Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs, and Barry Qualls, Professor Emeritus of English and former Dean of Humanities in the School of Arts and Sciences. They both spoke about how the campus has changed since some of the alumni graduated, highlighting the caffeine molecule sculpture in front of the chemistry building in Busch campus and the Sojourner Truth apartments in the College Ave campus. They also both spoke about the importance of the humanities, the passion that Comparative Literature students exhibit for literature and language, and how the program is characterized by its continuous crossing of boundaries.

After the talks, everyone started to form or join conversation groups around the room. Some people were getting to know each other for the first time, while others were reconnecting. In these conversations, we learned about what alumni have been up to since their graduations. Some of those who earned their PhD at Rutgers have retired after fulfilling careers in the professoriate, while others hold teaching positions at universities throughout the US, including neighboring colleges like Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, NJ. A great number of the undergraduate alumni are in the process of applying to graduate school, considering PhD programs in Comparative Literature and Women and Gender Studies. It was wonderful to witness the meetings between current graduate students and undergraduates who were in their classes semesters ago. One senior undergraduate told fourth-year PhD candidate, Rudrani Gangopadhyay, that he will be writing his thesis on a work he first read in a class she taught.

The lunch was also a wonderful opportunity to catch up with fellow current graduate students. Since all of our research interests are so diverse, and since many people are already past the coursework phase, it becomes difficult to see each other as often as we would like to. It was great to talk to people in their final years of the program about how their dissertations are shaping up and new interests that are emerging during the writing process. PhD candidates also kindly offered advice to those who have just started teaching or will begin soon on how to handle the nerves of being in front of a class, how to create a syllabus, and how to moderate discussions. We also spoke about the biennial graduate student conference which will be taking place on April 3-4, 2020 in conversations that touched upon our collective excitement for the theme, plans on how to move forward, and the stresses and felicities of getting to the point of publishing the call for papers.

The reunion lunch was a wonderful way to catch up with old friends, meet new people, and talk about our interests and plans. It will certainly not be the last time the program organizes such an event bringing together former and current Comparative Literature students.

Graduate Student Summer: Academic Exploration in Senegal and Kenya

By Paulina Barrios

Being a rising third year graduate student is a stressful moment for many of us; we are transitioning from coursework to thinking about our research project more seriously. The process of defining something has always been a daunting task to me, it is riddled with choice, with the pressure of truly understanding whatever it is you must define. When defining our research we must read or engage with all previous definitions, balance our interests with what is in our capacity to actually do, and so on and so on. This involves also preliminary research, which may vary from reading a gazillion texts to field work or archival research. All this can become extremely overwhelming, particularly when one is strained for resources.

Two moments were particularly challenging in my case: obtaining sufficient funds to do all the field work I ambitiously wanted to cover this past summer; and performing the interviews and participant observation once I was there (particularly because I am mostly trained in the humanities). I was able to respond to the first challenge through mobilizing resources within Rutgers University with the support of my program and my professors’ letters of recommendation when necessary. The second is a challenge that continues as I plan for longer field work in my fourth or fifth year, but the methods and tips obtained through qualitative methods classes and informal conversations with my friends trained in social sciences were there to guide me and will continue to frame my work.

In Nairobi National Park June 2019

Thus, my work this past summer was framed under the goal of granting more clarity to my project and stemming this tide of anxiety. Thanks to the Comparative Literature Program, the Center for African Studies, and the Off-Campus Dissertation Development Award through the School of Graduate Studies at Rutgers, I was able to fund an ambitious 5-week stay in Dakar, Senegal and Nairobi, Kenya. These funds were crucial for me to perform this much needed field work. Summer research funds for graduate students are central to developing research questions, collecting material for analysis, and broadening our networks.

As such, my time was divided between Nairobi and Dakar with a focus on reaching out to activists, scholars, and writers. For the first two weeks and a half I stayed in Nairobi where I took intensive private Swahili lessons to improve my knowledge of the language, volunteered at a non-profit advocacy organization, interviewed scholars in African arts and literatures, spoke with feminist and queer activists, as well as attended a spoken word performance. My stay in Dakar began with the 5th International Conference of the Dakar Institute of African Studies where I met a diverse group of graduate students and professors based in Senegal for their own research. Additionally, I was able to meet with professors working in Postcolonial African literature at Cheikh Anta Diop University and interview activists. During my last days in Dakar I was able to attend a slam poetry performance and meet with local artists. In both cases part of my goal in visiting these cities was to buy local publications, in Kenya I bought texts in Swahili to continue studying the language and in Dakar I bought local children’s literature and a novel by Calixthe Beyala, a Cameroonian writer, in French. These materials are often difficult and expensive to obtain in the United States, if not outright impossible to find.

Gorée Island June 2019

Therefore, my short time in both cities, although insufficient, was highly productive. It helped me obtain materials, both written and oral, that may become part of what I engage with directly in my dissertation. It also pushed me to improve my interview praxis and integrate the sociological methods I learned from courses in Sociology, both during my Masters in Mexico and my PhD here at Rutgers, as well as feminist knowledge production practices I learned in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Department at Rutgers. It forced me to reflect on what it implies to combine social science and humanities methodologies in a research project centered under Comparative Literature. Speaking with such a varying group of people helped me broaden my network of contacts, whom I aim to remain in contact with. This summer was a first exploration of how I might engage Latin American and African feminist literatures and I am now excited to further frame and develop my research.

This brief and quick summary would be incomplete without recognizing the invaluable support from Prof. Ousseina Alidou in helping me plan my stays and sharing her networks with me; Prof. Fred Mbogo based in Nairobi and Prof. Saliou Dione based in Dakar who were both extremely kind and helpful by presenting me to colleagues and activists, as well as offering bibliographic references; Ms Gacirah Diagne, President of Association Kaay Fecc, who made invaluable suggestions on who to contact in the world of dance, hip hop, and theater in Dakar; and Ms. Catherine Nyambura, Gender Advocacy Lead at the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) Kenya Forum, with whom I collaborated during my stay in Nairobi and was extremely helpful in opening up Nairobi’s activist networks to me.

Reading with Jhumpa Lahiri

by Milan Reynolds

I had the privilege of attending a talk with Jhumpa Lahiri on October 3rd, with Professor Andrea Baldi gracefully moderating the event. A Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Lahiri spoke with those gathered about the recently published Penguin Book of Italian Short Stories. As the editor of the collection and translator of several of the stories, Lahiri described her experience and the methodology behind curating and gathering the texts. For those who might be unfamiliar with Lahiri’s projects, she is known for her creative output as a novelist (The Namesake, The Lowland), short story writer (The Interpreter of Maladies, Unaccustomed Earth), and essayist, as well as her autobiographical work In altre parole (In Other Words), which details her experience learning Italian. Currently, she is working on translating her most recent book, Dove mi trovo, into English while teaching creative writing at Princeton University. For me, Lahiri’s choice to adopt Italian as a literary language is incredibly brave and troubles the implicit assumption of monolingual authorship. It also pushes the question of translation to the foreground of writing, and at the same time affirms it as an indispensable part of life.

Much of the discussion was in fact devoted to the multilingual identities of many of the Italian authors included in the collection. Italy as a country is relatively recent (the Risorgimento, or unification, began in the 19th century) and as such, retains a strong sense of localities, dialects, and cultural specificity. Lahiri talked about her choice of authors in relation to their many registers of language, their attention to place and environment, and their engagement with translation as a reciprocal practice necessary to writing. She imposed two interlocking constraints to focus her task: the authors chosen were primarily from the past century, and none of them were living. She described sifting through libraries, combing tables of contents, and consulting the advice of many friends. Without having a specific theme in mind, Lahiri allowed the collection to develop as an organic substance; her own interests certainly surfaced but she also admitted to being surprised by the encounter as well.

The attention to female authors in the collection is particularly important as a challenge to the canonization of Italian male voices. Lahiri also spoke at length about the role of writing and translating functioning as a political act, particularly during fascist rule. If authoritarianism is based on the idea of a singular truth, translation works to decentralize meaning at the level of the word (and in some cases, alphabet) itself. The stories are arranged by author, but in reverse alphabetical order.

There was also some time devoted to encompassing the audience in the discussion through the form of written questions collected beforehand. One particularly interesting theme was the role of names within Lahiri’s creative work. The discussion was based on the idea that The Namesake, Lahiri’s earlier novel turns on the concept of naming, while her most recent work’s narrator in Dove mi trovo, lacks a proper name altogether. This suggestion was eloquently encircled by Lahiri’s thoughts on identity, metamorphosis, and the potentiality of redefinition.

I also had the opportunity to attend an informal talk in Italian with Lahiri and several graduate students in the Italian and Comparative Literature departments. We got to hear a little about the companion volume to the Penguin Book of Italian Short Stories that was also recently published: Racconti Italiani.

 

Readers may find excerpts of Lahiri’s work here:

https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/602664/the-penguin-book-of-italian-short-stories-by-edited-by-jhumpa-lahiri/

https://www.guanda.it/libri/jhumpa-lahiri-racconti-italiani-scelti-e-introdotti-da-jhumpa-lahiri-9788823523173/