Tag Archives: conference

Grad Student Summer: Tepoztlán Institute

By: Enmanuel Martínez

This past summer, I traveled to Mexico in order to participate in the 2015 conference meeting of the Tepoztlán Institute for Transnational History of the Americas. The small but celebrated town of Tepoztlán, Mexico (accessible via a two hour car or bus ride south of Mexico City) has historically served as the site for the annual, interdisciplinary conference. I first attended the Tepoztlán Institute in the summer of 2014 as a graduate assistant to that year’s conference co-directors, which included Rutgers University Professors Yolanda Martínez-San Miguel and Ben Sifuentes-Jáuregui, both core faculty members in the Program in Comparative Literature. The conference theme for the 2014 meeting was “Capitalism from Below.” A week-long conference, the 2015 meeting of the Tepoztlán Institute ran from Wednesday, July 22 to Wednesday, July 29. This year, the conference theme was “Migration and Diaspora.” Over 75 persons attended this year’s conference meeting. The participants represented an even mixture of advanced graduate students and college and university professors (plus some family members) from Canada, the United States, and various countries in Latin American and the Hispanic Caribbean.

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Founded in 2003 by Dartmouth College History Professor Pamela Voekel and Lewis & Clark History Professor Elliott Young, for twelve years the Tepoztlán Institute has, to cite the Institute’s official website, worked to “facilitate an intensive dialogue between North American and Latin American graduate students and junior and senior faculty members.” At each year’s conference, participants come together for “real exchange among US and Latin American scholars—typically a very fraught relationship for obvious reasons; and second, to dispense with the professional politicking that reduces so many conferences to livestock shows.” In short, the Tepoztlán Institute represents a unique, annual, transnational, non-hierarchical and interdisciplinary academic union—one such that actively confronts the ideological and geopolitical dichotomies that often pit the spaces of the Global North against the Global South and that separate theory from practice and research from activism. As a participant of the 2014 and 2015 meetings of the Tepoztlán Institute, I have had the privilege of meeting and working with many phenomenal and generous graduate students and faculty members that I would never have met within the national context of the United States or the disciplinary field of Comparative Literature.

Unlike most academic conferences, the Tepoztlán Institute differs in that everyone arrives to the annual meeting having already read the papers of the conference participants, as well as a shared set of theoretical readings that speak to that year’s particular conference theme. The theoretical readings and papers are distributed ahead of time electronically to all conference participants. All the more, paper presenters are encouraged to utilize the theoretical readings in the work they submit to present at the Institute itself.

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Conference mornings are dedicated to group discussions of the assigned theoretical readings. The theoretical readings connect the conference participants across their disparate academic and disciplinary fields, for these readings serve as the shared intellectual base upon which the conference participants go on to discuss and debate the conference theme and their research. Given this year’s theme of “Migration and Diaspora,” the list of theoretical readings include the work of such scholars as: Edward Said, James Clifford, Julio Ramos, Stuart Hall, Brent Edwards, Juan Flores, Elana Zillber, Inés D’Ors, Pekka Hamalainen and Samuel Truett, Paul Gilroy, Saidiya Hartman, Manuel Delgado, and Shona Jackson. Conference afternoons, on the other hand, are dedicated to paper presentations panels. Since conference participants arrive to the Tepoztlán Institute having already read the work of the other paper presenters, presenters are able to utilize their time to do so much more than simply read their work out loud to a potentially cold audience. Instead, the panels take the form of two-hour workshops where the designated presenters are able to receive generous and substantive feedback and criticism from other conference participants.

My panel was scheduled for Thursday, July 23 (the first full day of the conference), and I was fortunate enough to present alongside a good friend of mine, Joan Flores, a current Ph.D. candidate in the NYU History Department. Our panel was titled “Archive Matters / Cuestiones de archivo.” Joan presented a working paper titled “‘Freak Letters’: Finding Diaspora in the Imperial Archive,” while I presented a paper titled “Basement Refrigerators, Cassette Tape ‘Letters’: Reading the Domestic Caribbean Archive in Simone Schwarz-Bart’s Ton beau capitaine (1987) and Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2008),” My paper represented a draft of the first half of my first chapter of the dissertation project. University of Massachusetts History Professor Sarah Cornell served as our panel moderator, while Georgetown University Professor of English Ricardo Ortiz, Augustan College Professor of Spanish Araceli Masterson and University of Pennsylvania Professor of English David Kazanjian served as the three respondents. After Ortiz, Materson and Kazanjian delivered their respective comments, the conversation transitioned to a dynamic intellectual exchange between me, Joan and the other twenty-plus attendees.

Without the fear of judgment or ridicule (something that seems almost impossible to avoid at other national literature conferences), I was able to use my time at the 2015 meeting of the Tepoztlán Institute to openly discuss my concerns regarding the scope and direction of my first dissertation chapter. With my panel respondents and attendees’ feedback in mind, I am now working on completing the second half of the first chapter of my dissertation, which represents an analysis of scenes of domestic archiving in contemporary Caribbean literature through the lens of contemporary archive theory. I am now looking forward to showcasing my research at my Program in Comparative Literature graduate student colloquium presentation, which is scheduled for the evening of Tuesday, November 3, 2015. Until then!

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.

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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.