Category Archives: Faculty and Staff

We Are Not Drowning, We are Fighting: Pacific Poets against Environmental Racism

By: Xingming Wang

On February 20, the Department of French hosted Dr. Anaïs Maurer for her lecture and job talk: “We Are Not Drowning, We are Fighting: Pacific Poets against Environmental Racism”. As the title of the lecture indicates, Oceanian literary voices have been contributing to protests against environmental racism­­—an ideology, in Maurer’s words, constituting “structural discrimination that racializes people affected by environmental issues”. Racial discrimination underlies the environmental injustice against pacific islanders. As the U.S. nuclear testing sites, many pacific islands are threatened by climate change, water contamination, and species extinction. To put it in Maurer’s own words, pacific islanders are subject to “dispossession, displacement, displacement, and death”. In the face of the environmental destruction and the loss of homeland, academic discourse like “resilience” and “sustainability” sound too conservative to address the issue. In fact, Oceanian people’s reactions should be described as a heroic struggle of survival. Rather than surrendering to helplessness, they display a rebellious spirit through their voice and literature, which can be captured in the title of this lecture: “We are not drowning, we are fighting”.

Maurer points out three major consequences coming out of the environmental racism against pacific islanders—the threat of mass migration, the destruction of multi-species society, and the annihilation of racism. Yet in response to each threat, pacific islanders are not helpless victims but proactively act against the discriminating ideology. In the face of the rising sea level threatening the Marshall island, the poet and climate change activist Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner claims, “who do you think will be next? I’m taking you with me”. The poetic articulation reserves the role of pacific islanders as passive victims with a powerful declaration of fighting to the end. The rebellious and emotional response also challenges the western apathy towards the environmental destruction in the pacific islands. Pacific poets refuse the destiny of “invisible disappearance”. Instead, they call into question the very ideological foundation of environmental racism.

Elaborating on pacific poets’ voices against environmental racism, Maurer also brings into light the philosophical significance of their reaction, namely resistance to “Islandism”. As Maurer discerns, islandism is an extension of Orientalism, in which the island represents the opposition of modernity—a place frozen in time and outside of civilization. Therefore, people of the island are seen as barbarians that could be sacrificed or even wiped out for the progress of modernity. The ideology of islandism thus justifies the displacement of violence imposed upon the pacific islanders, and it should be abandoned. Therefore, Maurer puts forward “Oceanitude” as a competing ideology as to challenge islandism in Western thoughts. The shift from islandism to oceanitude intends to bring back emotion, unsettling the dominance of reason in scientific discourse that facilitates environmental racism. Maurer also points out the necessity of realizing this historical instance of environmental destruction so as to avoid such tragedies.

The Q&A section features intriguing dialogues between Maurer and professors and graduate students in the Department of French and Comparative Literature Program. Here is a list of questions worthy of further thinking: how do the environmental studies inform the reading of canonical texts? What is the function of emotion in environmental literature? How does the study of pacific literature expand the definition of French literary studies? How to go beyond print literature and exert a wider influence? Is the philosophy of oceanitude applicable to other disciplines like indigenous studies? I especially enjoy Maurer’s response to the last question. Addressing the philosophical significance of oceanitude, she responses, “the sense of being an islander has always emerged in co-constitution with the sense of living in an endangered environment”. Environment, in her view, becomes a new identity. Let us remember the resonantvoice of the pacific poets while exploring the connection between environment and our own identity.

 

Dr. Maurer has accepted a tenure-track appointment as  Assistant Professor of French and Comparative Literature. Starting Fall 2020, she will be teaching courses on Francophone/Pacific literatures and in the environmental humanities more generally.

“Dante, Franciscan Poverty, and the Donation of Constantine” Professor Alessandro Vettori – Brown Bag Lunch, April 18, 19

by Milan Reynolds

Ahi, Costantin, di quanto mal fu matre, non la tua conversion, ma quella dote che da te prese il primo ricco patre! (Inf. 19.115-17)

 Ah, Constantine, what wickedness was born— and not from your conversion—from the dower that you bestowed upon the first rich father!

Several students and faculty had the pleasure of hearing Professor Alessandro Vettori’s presentation on Dante’s Divina Commediaand its relation to Franciscan poverty and the Donation of Constantine. Beginning with a brief encounter in Canto 19 of Inferno, Vettori recounted how Dante locates Constantine with the simonists, members of the clergy who are corrupted by money. In order to understand Dante’s critique, we had to travel to the 3rdcentury. Constantine was the first “Christian” ruler of the Roman Empire though he was only baptized on the eve of his death. Along with unifying the Eastern and Western halves of the empire and moving the capital to Byzantium (renamed Constantinople), he played an influential role in the Edict of Milan and the Council of Nicaea, which made Christianity legal and established a set of principles for the faith.

After sketching this history of Christianity’s first steps, Alessandro turned to a document known as the Donation of Constantine. This text recounts how the Emperor, after being infected with leprosy, was miraculously cured by Pope Sylvester I and, in thanks, donated the city of Rome and the western half of the Roman empire to the Church. For those of us unfamiliar with medieval studies, it came as a surprise when Alessandro promptly informed us that the document was a fake written more than 400 years after Constantine’s death. It was not until the 15thcentury that it was argued to be false however, and in the meantime had been used by the Papacy to consolidate and acquire power and wealth.

Dante, who was influenced by the newly formed mendicant orders such as the Dominicans and Franciscans, was critical of the Church’s wealth. He articulated this in many ways but also by calling into question the Donation of Constantine itself, arguing it was illegitimate because the Church was not entitled to receive property. Alessandro then drew some intriguing connections between Dante’s experience of exile from Florence and his affinity for Franciscan values of poverty. In particular, a coterminous text narrating the marriage of St. Francis with Lady Poverty as a spiritual allegory, shares similarities with Dante’s Divina Commedia. This literary journey was supplemented by several works of art Alessandro had chosen, representing the Donation of Constantine at different moments in time. The project, as Alessandro put it, is still in the early stages, but everyone attendant looked forward to hearing more about the topic.

 

 

 

Brown Bag Lunch on “Comparative Worldings: The Case of Indian Literatures”

by Thato Magano

On April 8th, the Program in Comparative Literature’s Brown Bag series hosted Professor Preetha Mani (Comp Lit, AMESALL), who presented a paper from her upcoming book, where she takes up questions concerning Indian literatures as forms of comparative literatures. In her talk, excerpted from the first chapter of the book, Prof. Mani reflected on the conceptions of Indian literature that came to the fore in the 1930s and how these conceptions sought to unite Indian people in a common vision, as a corollary to ideas of a national language. Central to her meditation were questions of what constitutes world literature and how Indian writers of the time challenged the aggregative models of world literature by creating alternative conceptions of the world as constitutive to their practice.

Taking us on a temporal journey and describing the ways writers formed cohorts and circles to explore and debate questions of translation, uncovered was an appreciation of the ways these writers took up translation questions in world literary production, thus placing translation at the forefront of anti-imperialist efforts. There was also a consideration of how these writers defined literariness as a way of interrogating the status of world literature, and as such, performing acts of worldings that created alternative standards of literary value.

Following her query “Is a text translatable because it is literary or is it literary because it is translatable?” the answer is found in the ways worldliness is defined. Showing some of the challenges with theories of world literature and their aggregative borders that apply European standards to mark what belong and what doesn’t, Prof. Mani’s impulse is to define a new methodology of what constitutes worldliness. “What if literature is something more than a single literary discourse? What if literary processes of worlding have different origins? Can we see these as distinct processes informed by specific socio-political processes?” Prof Mani uses the case of Tamil writers and how they addressed these questions, showing how these writers welcomed foreignness and untranslatability in the face of changing world literary standards and norms. These writers embraced contaminated language, using multiple languages to defamiliarize Tamil literature and mark it as part of the worlding project and still part of the Indian literary and language project.

Thus, worlding is a multi-scalar approach that considers the meta literary approaches that shape which texts are considered world literature. As such, worlding is a useful ontological category for Prof. Mani as it enables a way of engaging or producing a kind of human community that ties us all through language, yet is still broader than just language as it also produces conceptions of what can be defined as literary.

Brown Bag Lunch on “Istanbul 1940 and Global Modernity”

by Rudrani Gangopadhyay

Comp Lit’s Brown Bag Lunch series returned this Spring on February 14th with Professor Efe Khayyat (CompLit, AMESALL) presenting his brand-new book Istanbul 1940 and Global Modernity: The World According to Auerbach, Tanpinar, and Edib. The book poses —and answers—a question about who else was in Istanbul at the same time as Erich Auerbach, and what alternate genealogies of Comparative Literature could have been traced on the basis of their work, had the one tracing back to Auerbach not been institutionalized by the Academy. In interpreting Auerbach’s work against that of his colleagues at Istanbul University in the 1940s, Ahmed Hamdi Tanpinar (1901-1962) and Halide Edib (1884-1964), Khayyat’s book simultaneously sheds new light on Auerbach’s work and on modernity in the non-European world.

Auerbach’s work, of course, draws upon Western literary cultures and Christianity, demonstrating a clear genealogy that can be traced all the way from the Gospels to Virginia Woolf. One of the things that Khayyat’s book sets out to do is to see how the genealogy looked from the Muslim world, and if there could be similar continuities between the Quran and modernist poetry. To do this, the book turns towards Auerbach’s illustrious Turkish colleagues—Tanpinar was a critic, poet, and novelist, and Edib was a feminist, a humanist, a soldier, a novelist, and a historian—and their works, which focus on Islamicate cultural histories in the Middle East and South Asia. Auerbach’s interest was in realism, and he went all the way back to The Bible to find a humanistic origin for it. Similarly, from Tanpinar’s perspective, there was a way one could, and should, read the Quran as literature that shows a continuity between it and contemporary literature. Edib, on the other hand, was interested in a comparative view of the literary histories of South Asia and the Middle East.

Interestingly, even though these figures were working together at the same university at the same period of time and were covering literatures of a large part of the world, they do not mention each other in any of their work. Khayyat’s book brings these three figures together and interprets their works as part of a collective. Thus, he opens up new dimensions to conversations about comparative literature, literary modernity, translation, and world literature. Congratulations to Professor Khayyat on this important and timely intervention!

Discussing Keywords in Sound: A look into second session of the Sound Studies Reading Group

by Coco Ke Xu

On the morning of February 22nd, the sound studies reading group held its second meeting on the sixth floor of the Academic Building. Led by Prof. Carter Mathes from the English department, Prof. Eduardo Herrera from Musicology, Prof. Andrew Parker from Comparative Literature and Prof. Xiaojue Wang from East Asian Languages and Cultures, the reading group gave graduate students from Rutgers a chance to think and discuss together key issues concerning the emerging field of sound studies from a multidisciplinary perspective.

Following the initial meeting held on January 25, the second meeting of the reading group continues the discussion on a recent edition of the anthology Keywords in Sound (Duke, 2015). The book covers twenty key words in sound studies, including: acoustemology, acoustics, body, deafness, echo, hearing, image, language, listening, music, noise, phonography, radio, religion, resonance, silence, space, synthesis, transduction and voice.

During the discussion, professors and graduate students from different disciplines contributed their unique perspectives and offered up new ways in thinking about sound related subjects. When discussing the wireless nature of radio, Prof. Wang pointed out that during the early years of Chinese diaspora radio served as a means to unite different dialect-speaking Chinese communities through broadcasting the same material in different Chinese dialects at different timeslots during the day. Prof. Parker brought up the nostalgic tone of Walter Benjamin’s “The Storyteller” and proposed a none-logocentric reading of broadcasted sound. As a nice segue into the next key word “religion”, Comparative Literature PhD candidate Virginia Conn noticed that church services in foreign languages sometimes bring up similar feelings in people and noted the difference between “religious” and “spiritual” reactions towards sounds. Connections are also made between different keyword entries. When looking at the word “silence”, Prof. Herrera reminded us to think back at other entries like “deafness” and “echo”. The new sound projecting as well as active noise cancellation technologies open new possibilities for us to reflect on the critical relationships between silence, sound and noise.

The meeting concluded with a catered lunch from Delhi Garden, during which discussions continued in a casual atmosphere. The remaining two meetings of the group for this semester will take place on March 22 and April 26 respectively, with more focus on how scholarship on sound studies informs and inspires individual works of group members. Anyone who is interested in the topic and would like to join the conversation should reach out to Prof. Carter Mathes, who will be arranging individual presentations for the next meeting.

Relational Undercurrents: Contemporary Art of the Caribbean Archipelago

A report on the Brown Bag Lunch by: Yuanqiu Jiang

On January 17, 2018, the Program of Comparative Literature hosted its first Brown Bag Lunch of the spring semester. Professor Michelle A. Stephens, Dean of Humanities, also an affiliate faculty member of the program, gave a talk on the book she newly coedited with Professor Tatiana Flores (Art History and Latino and Caribbean Studies), Relational Undercurrents: Contemporary Art of the Caribbean Archipelago. Along with the book, an exhibition was curated by Professor Flores for the Museum of Latin American Art (Long Beach, CA).

Both the book and the exhibition focus on contemporary visual arts produced in the Caribbean islands, around which a conceptual framework is built. This framework, Professor Stephens suggests, challenges traditional area studies such as American Studies and Caribbean Studies. In addition to posing “a critique to the continental,” Relational Undercurrents also pushes Caribbean Studies to reconceptualize the Caribbean itself: it is more than ex-colonies; and compared with only taking the relations between ex-colonies and the respective metropoles into consideration, the assemblage of seas, continents, and islands enables us to investigate ties and associations that look beyond those defined by colonialism. Through its internal complexity and inexhaustible particularity, the Caribbean, as an assemblage, makes possible a variety of new perspectives. In turn, new understanding of places beyond the Caribbean would also emerge.

Professor Stephens further introduced the four main sections of the book. The first is conceptual mapping. A personalized mapping of landscapes articulates a Caribbean that modifies, counters, and challenges the cartography imposed by colonial powers. The second is perpetual horizons, the horizon being a shared theme and trope among many of the artists. Different artists mobilize the horizon differently: some may view it as a symbol of freedom, others may focus on its function of bridging the islands. The third is landscape ecologies. Rather than (re)presenting a romanticized or exoticized landscape, what emerges in artists’ visualizations are wild, messy, sometimes even uncanny. In a move that de-familiarizes paradise and beach tropes often ascribed to the Caribbean, harsh realities such as oil drilling and garbage in the sea are shown. The last section, on representational acts, addresses the figuration of the human body, including race and gender. The political and interactive staging of the impacted body is an essential component in the visualizing and theorizing of contemporaneity.

The talk was followed by an extremely lively discussion. Scholars from different disciplines shared their experiences and critical understandings of the term “archipelagic.” Professor Stephens pointed out that oceanic studies share a similar conceptual framework with continental studies, which is why the assemblage mentioned before is important: it disrupts these studies materially and metaphorically. The discussion also demonstrated that “archipelago” does not designate a locale-fixed notion, nor is it a term solely used in Euro-American academic discourses, suggesting its far-range applicability.

The book, the talk, and the discussion all gave manifestation to the comparative and collaborative (frame)works Professor Stephens presented on. Thank you to all participants, and congratulations to Professor Stephens and Professor Flores!