Tag Archives: Comp Lit Events

Scholars Gather to Contemplate Radicalism, Revolution, and Freedom in the Caribbean

By: Carolyn Ureña, Fourth Year PhD Candidate & Rafael Vizcaíno, First Year PhD Student

For two days in mid-April, Rutgers faculty, graduate students, and guest scholars of the Caribbean gathered together for the first annual Critical Caribbean Studies Symposium. The conference theme, “Radicalism, Revolution, and Freedom in the Caribbean,” inspired conversations around slavery, diasporic identity, transnational politics, radical historiography, creolization, language, ethics, and love in the Caribbean imaginary, served as a testament to the growing interest in and import of scholarship on the region at Rutgers and beyond.

Critical Caribbean Studies (CCS) began in 2011 as an initiative spearheaded by Professors Nelson Maldonado-Torres (LHCS & Comparative Literature) and Michelle Stephens (English & LHCS), who applied for a grant through the President’s Office to fund projects and events that promote scholarship on the Caribbean. The conference was organized by Professors Carter Mathes (English) and Yolanda Martínez-San Miguel (LHCS & Comparative Literature), both of whom emphasized the value of creating spaces for such conversations to take place. With this in mind, Mathes announced plans to expand CCS into an advanced institute through which larger scale projects, including a graduate certificate in Critical Caribbean Studies, would become possible. Audience members were very excited by this sneak peek and eagerly anticipate forthcoming news on this front.

CCS symposium photo 2The symposium began with a brief screening of “Contra las Cuerdas” (Against the Ropes), a documentary film about race in Cuba—the first of its kind— and a Q&A session with Cuban filmmaker Amílcar O. Cárdenas. The first day also included a graduate student panel on reimagining Caribbean Studies from a contemporary political and diasporic perspective. The second day included presentations by invited guests as well as Rutgers graduate students. Professor Zita Nunes (English and Comparative Literature, University of Maryland), analyzed the multiple lived experiences of James Bertram Clarke, who wrote about the experience of racism in nine different countries under several different names so as to advance a transnational anti-racist struggle. Carolyn Ureña, Fourth Year PhD Candidate, served as a respondent for Professor Nunes’s presentation.

ccs symposium photo 3

Professor Ada Ferrer (History, New York University), presented her latest research on revolution in the early 19th century Caribbean, with a particular focus on a now-lost book of illustrations and other difficult to decipher symbols created by black Cuban revolutionary José Antonio Aponte. By focusing on the “negative presence” of the book, Ferrer’s work aims to explore the contingency of the archive and its role in revolutionary intellectual history. Professor Don E. Walicek (English, University of Puerto Rico), presented a paper on creolization in Anguilla. Despite being a marginal colony due to not having a plantation system, Professor Walicek argues that creolization still had an important role in the linguistic life of Anguilla. Yolanda Martínez-San Miguel (LHCS & Comparative Literature), as respondent, interrogated whether Maroon communities in Anguilla could also be seen as sources of creolization. The last panel of the conference was composed by Nidia Bautista (Third Year PhD Student in Political Science), who presented an analysis of the location of the intellectual within a community, paying attention to issues regarding the ethics of scholarship, and Carolyn Ureña, who presented a chapter of her dissertation on Toni Morrison and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Rafael Vizcaino served as moderator and Professor Carter Mathes (English) was the respondent.


Overall, the symposium offered an exciting opportunity for scholars to share their work and engage in energizing discussions about the past, present, and future of the field, solidifying Critical Caribbean Studies as a space where students interested in the Caribbean can find support and collaboration beyond their own disciplinary boundaries.

Comparative Literature’s Biennial Conference: “The People of the Book, People of Books”

By: Gabriele Lazzari, First Year Ph.D Student

On April 23rd and 24th 2015, the Program in Comparative Literature hosted its biennial international conference at Alexander Library Pane Room. The general topic of the event was the relation between literature and religion. The conference was the culmination of a seminar, offered during the spring semester, in which graduate students had the opportunity to prepare for the conference by reading and discussing the works of the invited speakers. The seminar was taught by Professor E. Efe, who also organized the conference by drawing together scholars from different countries and cultural backgrounds, whose research has focused on the complex entanglement between literature and religion.

After the welcome address by Professor James Swenson, Dean of Humanities, Professor Efe introduced the series of subtopics of the conference, perfectly condensed in the title “The People of the Book, People of Books:” people as communities who live by the book (the religious book), or by books; that is to say, the chosen people versus the modern readers of books in general. But also national, secular, and religious communities built on what remains fundamentally literary. Finally, real people created by books—as in the case of the “Orientals”—and fictional characters created by real people. As Professor Efe remarked, the conference was thought as an opportunity to delve into these questions and into their multiple historical and political connections from different perspectives.

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The keynote talk was delivered by Professor Gil Anidjar (Columbia University), who presented a paper titled “Sparta and Gaza (What Have They to Do with One Another?).” The paper was part of Anidjar’s future project, which stems from the surprising absence in literary and religious scholarship of “weaponology,” that is to say, a science of weapon. Drawing from religion, philosophy, and literary theory, Anidjar discussed the weapon in its complex stratifications of meaning: a weapon as a tool, as both the doer and the deed, as a means and a medium of description—words as weapons—and destruction. From the first Biblical murder of Cain to the wall of Gaza, Anidjar explored the question of what a weapon is, where it begins and where it ends, how it can be conceived as proper of man, in all its oblique and diversified materialization. Rather than from the perspective of vulnerability, Anidjar’s provocative talk was meant to be a reflection on how the human constitutes itself through offensive and aggressive practices.

Professor Emily Apter (New York University) presented an essay titled “Theopolital Fragments: Auerbach, Benjamin, Derrida, De Man” in which she engaged with the conundrum of sacred language as something un-understandable, hence untranslatable. Starting from the notion of “theotropic allegory,” a concept invented by De Man to indicate sacred figurative language, Apter focused on the theorization of figural language by Auerbach and on De Man’s reading of Benjamin’s essay “The Task of the Translator.” Through an acute analysis of secular and religious language and of Benjaminian messianism and nihilism as commented by De Man, Apter’s talk demonstrated the relevance of a theotropism, of the unintelligible and the untranslatable in opposition to the supposed transparency of secular and utilitarian language.

Professor Amon Raz-Krakotzkin (Ben Gurion University) delivered the third and last talk of the first day (“The Bible, the Oral Torah and the Messiah”), in which he discussed another potential kind of Messianism, based on the Mishnah, which established an imagined community of the Jewish Law: most importantly, a community that rejected nationalism for a peculiar notion of exile within the land. Through the articulation of this counter-Messianism (without a Messiah), Raz-Krakotzkin proposed it as an alternative to Zionism, that is to say, to the Christianization and secularization of Messianism that continues to prove its complicity with colonialism.

The first day was concluded by a vibrant roundtable, in which the speakers were joined by Talal Asad (CUNY). The questions raised during the day became an occasion to discuss their relevance for contemporary conflicts, not only in the Middle East. Although everyone agreed on the impossibility to think of the sovereign state without the sovereign subject, different opinion on whether the absence of the sovereign can still be imagined contributed to a fecund and stimulating conversation.

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The second day of the conference, April 24th, coincided also with the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide, as Professor Marc Nichanian (Sabanci University) pointed out before giving his lecture, titled “The Subject and the Survivor.” The discussion that concluded the precedent day and the remembrance of one of the several catastrophes of modernity constituted the background of Nichanian’s talk, in which he expounded upon the figure of the survivor after the revolution of the subject (between Rousseau and Kant), which gave birth to the formation of the modern sovereign individual. By reading George Bataille’s oeuvre vis-à-vis Maurice Blanchot’s The Madness of the Day, Nichanian called for a phenomenology of the survivor. In particular he contrasted the survivor as a witness—and a sovereign subject—to the absolute survivor, who withdraws from its own sovereignty by refusing to speak and to offer its testimony to the historian or the philologist. This last man, this absolute survivor, fictionalized in Blanchot’s novel, was proposed by Nichanian as a strictly literary alternative to the modern ways of commemorating genocides and catastrophes.

Professor Sarah Hammerschlag (University of Chicago), in her talk titled “Literature and the Political-Theological Remains,” investigated the intersections of philosophy, literature, and politics in Derrida, suggesting that his work offers a literary alternative to political theology by proposing a form of politics that rejects sovereignty. By focusing on two essays collected in the book Rogue, Hammerschlag identified literature as a practice able to divest itself of authority, as an interruption of sovereignty, and as a suspension of violence.

The following roundtable, in which the speakers answered several questions from professors and students participating in the conference, delved into questions of sacralization and secularization in their substantial political implications. The discussion of art (and literature) as the condition of mythology and, vice versa, mythology as the origin of art, cemented the connection already examined in the precedent day between the religion of art, the birth of sovereignty, and the national state.

The two day conference proved to be a successful attempt to put in dialogue scholars from different disciplines around a core topic—literature and religion—that allowed for diverse directions of inquiry. Thanks to the acute reflections of the speakers and to the attentive response of the public, the conference demonstrated the importance of understanding the religious basis of modern subjectivity and contemporary politics, as well as the decisive role of literature within the complex dynamics of their interaction.

Ghosts in the No Man’s Army: The Fit Women in Jinhwa Lee’s Potluck Colloquium

By: Josué Rodriguez, Second year Ph.D. candidate

“Get Behind the Girl He Left Behind Him: Join the Land Army” – WLA Recruitment Poster


Our second and final potluck presentation for the semester here at Comparative Literature was given by fifth year PhD candidate Jinhwa Lee, who presented an engaging draft of her dissertation chapter, entitled “Queer Crisis of WWI: Performative Supplement of the Literary.” Jinhwa took us through her readings of The Return of the Solder, a 1918 novella by Rebecca West, and the short fiction piece “Miss Ogilvy Finds Herself,” written by Radclyffe Hall in 1926 but published in 1934.



Her reading focused on the First World War’s impact on England’s national self-image, or, more specifically “the ways in which the national war project exposes a nation’s constitutive rupture in its mobilization of normative bodies.” In this context, the use of these texts as “performative supplements” mentioned in the subtitle of Jinhwa’s chapter becomes important, for she expressed a desire to look at the texts as “alternative historiographies.” As such, not only do the war strained bodies and amnesiac minds offer examples of “queer temporality,” but the way these texts are constructed offers a more ethical attitude of reading, one “that embraces the idea that queer(er) future is possible.”
In her reading, we were able to discuss the shifting expectations of a national idea of maleness that is cyclically broken and mended, only to be broken again by the constant return to the front line. An initial framing for this sense of brokenness within the nation as masculine ideal was the idea of the “No Man’s Land” as borrowed from Gilbert and Gubar.

In Jinhwa’s reading, not only were the trenches themselves a vast abyss of annihilation, but this was also “a symbol for the state, whose nihilistic machinery [the citizen] was powerless to control or protest” (Gilbert and Gubar). As a result, English women were being invited to take on occupations and places in society that were traditionally exclusive to men. In this way, “No Man’s Land” also speaks to this new, if temporary, shift in gender norms. As some recruitment slogans expressed, in wartime, “Every man is a soldier, every woman is a man.”

land army

In fact, some of these slogans from the VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment), the WAAC (Women’s Land Army), and the WLA (Women’s Land Army) recruitment posters figured central in our ensuing discussion that night. For instance, some of us offered interpretations of one poster’s slogan, “Every fit woman can release a fit man.” While some read this “release” as women’s enabling men to join the battlefield by taking their place in civil society, others noted that the word implies a kind of giving “birth,” which would then serve as a re-integration of women’s traditional role as “mother” within this new national context even while the woman herself is physically represented as a kind of substitution for traditional maleness. Ultimately, Jinhwa’s elegant combination of sharp, critical analysis, evocative music, and memorable images served as enlivening reinforcements to an already promising project.

Hunger Satisfied, Two Ways: Lina Qu’s Graduate Colloquium

By: Carolyn Ureña, Fourth Year Ph.D Candidate

One of our most cherished traditions at Rutgers Comp Lit is the graduate student colloquium. Held twice a semester, the evening consists of a potluck dinner to which both faculty and graduate students make culinary contributions, followed by a scholarly presentation by an advanced graduate student. Whether it consists of an excerpt from an upcoming conference paper or a dissertation chapter-in-progress, the colloquium is a much anticipated rite of passage and an opportunity to socialize with friends and faculty outside of the classroom. Given the wide range of topics studied by folks in Comp Lit, the bi-semester colloquia call us “home” from our various commitments, courses, and projects across the campus for a night that highlights the collegiality of our program.

“Hunger is a tough topic, especially when you’re hungry” – Lina Quimage

First up this semester (Spring 2015) was fourth year Ph.D. candidate Lina Qu, whose presentation “Hungry Women and Women’s Narratives of Hunger” could not have been a more fitting subject after enjoying a delicious meal together. The multicultural fare included homemade arroz con pollo, falafel, mattar paneer, roasted cauliflower, and a beautiful fruit and custard tart, among other sweet and savory additions.

The intellectual main course was Lina’s presentation in which she discussed the metaphorics of hunger in contemporary Chinese literature. Drawing on the tendency to universalize images of third world starvation in politically expedient yet problematic ways, Lina’s work offered a “historicized and gendered reading of Chinese women’s storytellings about their experiences with starvation,” thereby shifting our attention toward women’s understanding of their own subjectivity. By honing in on the representation of women’s hunger – be it for food (as in Lina’s presentation) or intimacy and self-care (as in her project at large) – Lina’s work sought to illuminate how gendered and classed conceptions of who is allowed to take on the social roles of providers or consumers ultimately serve or subvert Chinese nationalist and collectivist discourses.
Lina’s attention to the ways embodied experiences of hunger manifest in literature and film drew many interesting questions from her audience, including how we might define the boundary between need and desire, as well as the perennial question for comparative literature scholars: why literature? And why this literature? Both concerns usefully linked back to Lina’s discussion of the eroticization of female hunger, for as she reminded us, not only is the open mouth a conduit to the stomach; it also serves as a portal for stories about oneself. That women’s stories about themselves remain a threatening prospect, across cultures, was something we could all sink our teeth into.