Tag Archives: dissertation

Rafael Vizcaíno “On the Postsecular and the Decolonial”

by Yingnan Shang, with editorial input from Rafael Vizcaíno

On Wednesday Nov. 28th, 2018, students and faculty from the Program in Comparative Literature convened on the fourth floor of the Academic Building for the second and final colloquium of the fall semester on secularism, postsecularism, and decoloniality by doctoral candidate Rafael Vizcaíno. Having just returned from a short stay at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) as part of the inter-university Critical Theory in the Global South initiative (itself part of the International Consortium of Critical Theory Programs, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation), Rafael began by sharing his experiences concerning the ongoing dialogues between critical theory and decolonial thought and practice on both sides of the border.

These initial comments were appropriate prefatory remarks for Rafael’s presentation. It focused on part of a chapter of his dissertation on the theoretical relevance of philosophical, literary, and theological production of 20th and 21st century Third World thinkers and intellectuals of color, particularly women of color, around the question of epistemic decolonization. Rafael’s broader work investigates the discourses and practices of decolonization across disciplinary and categorical frameworks. The goal of his project is to systematize a transverse engagement across disciplines and beyond the institution of the university. Through this approach “new epistemic, methodological, and categorical frameworks can be crafted to understand the world-historical processes of today, in a way that such alternative scholarly practice does not reproduce the coloniality of knowledge, which has forged the academy as the sole producer of valid critical or scientific knowledges over the last five centuries.”

Rafael mentioned that the spark that ignited his research on the postsecular has been the rise of visibility and the connections between what is often called religious fundamentalisms and conservative political movements all over the world. Hence, his chapter is not a study on these recent historical developments, but a questioning of the epistemic frameworks used to talk about these and other related processes, such as processes of modern secularization. In particular, Rafael asked what it could mean to “decolonize” the conversation on the roles of religion and secularism in contemporary global social and political processes. Given the aforementioned rise of religious movements as political actors in the global public sphere, Rafael argued that scholars across the social sciences and humanities have accordingly started to re-think the idea that western modernity is no longer (if it ever was) “secular”. Many of these discussions have fallen under the umbrella of what has come to be known as “the postsecular turn” in method. While they have been very productive in unmasking the disciplinary and methodological limitations of secularity as an implicit presupposition of scholarly practice, according to Rafael, these discussions have had almost nothing to say concerning the connection between such disciplinary secularity and the “coloniality of knowledge”. This gap has allowed Rafael to position his own work as providing a decolonial intervention into the analysis of the postsecular.

For Rafael, perhaps no other intellectual formation has made as many strivings towards a decolonial critique of secularism as women of color feminisms have done. Accordingly, the second half of his presentation engaged the work of the Chicana lesbian writer Gloria Anzaldúa, particularly her concept of la facultad and the performative way in which it is theorized in her Borderlands/La Frontera. Rafael sees in Anzaldúa’s work an explicit attempt to make a “politically-committed and spiritually-rooted scholarly practice that dismantles the secular/religious divide in a process of epistemic decolonization that aspires to theorize and bring forth new forms of being and knowing beyond those available in modernity/coloniality.” In the work of Anzaldúa and other women of color thinkers such as Jacqui M. Alexander and Sylvia Wynter, Rafael sees a conceptual redefinition of the postsecular from the perspective of epistemic decolonization. In their works the connections between secularity and coloniality are made in a way that being postsecular necessarily entails decolonial thinking and doing. This is different from how postsecularity is discussed by mainstream European and North American philosophers, sociologists, and anthropologists.

Rafael’s talk was followed by a one-hour session of questions and answers where several topics were raised, such as the relationship between religion and spirituality, the secularity of close reading and its relation to decolonial and postsecular disciplinary practices, as well as the relationship between spirituality and irrepresentability. After a lively discussion and many insightful inputs from professors and colleagues alike, everyone proceeded to a table of food and wine and carried on with the philosophical ruminations. Many thanks to Rafael on bringing a revelatory topic to the evening, and congratulations to him on a very successful colloquium!






When the Divine Wind Blow On Ye: The Spirit of Bandung and Transpacific Becoming

By Virginia Conn

As the official Imperial Japanese Navy marching song from the Second World War played in the background, Comp Lit students and guests took their seats around the table, greeting each other and settling in for the third and final graduate student colloquium, one of the last big events of the semester. Comp Lit students had a chance to happily catch up with each other’s memories of the last few weeks. As Annabel would go on to explain, the marching music was used to mobilize the imperial troops during World War II, which tied into her paper’s overall discussion of military mobilization.

For Comp Lit’s third colloquium, Jeong Eun Annabel We presented an in-work chapter from her dissertation, titled “When the Divine Wind Blow on Ye: The Spirit of Bandung and Transpacific Becoming.” While resisting the easy joke that we were all blown away, I think it’s safe to say that everyone present was extremely impressed by the depth and breadth of Annabel’s research, to say nothing of the deftness with which she wove together numerous and disparate weighty concepts.

Focusing on the novel The Typhoon by Ch’oe In-Hun, Annabel explained that her dissertation, broadly construed, was about how the effects of military mobilizations are used to control movement, affect, and bodies, and situates the novel at a crossroads of thinking about decolonial movements across the transpacific. While Cold War structures have continued to exist long past the ostensible thaw—structures such as the military occupation of the Pacific and East Asia, the peninsula’s division into South and North Korea, and the cyclical threats of nuclear devastation that continue to this day, among others—the Pacific region continues to be erased even as it is strategized upon. Annabel’s dissertation, then, asks, what kind of work has to be forged out of imperial militarization towards decolonizing knowledge production?

Beginning with the invocation of a curse from Shakespeare’s The Tempest to consider the wind as a colonial curse that brings one into conflict, The Typhoon returns to the 1940s to cast new light on 1970s Cold War regimes and, in doing so, decenters neoliberal modes of knowing and engages with the recruitment of colonial populations that were previously imperially mobilized. Written in Korean in 1970s South Korea, the novel is a work of speculative fiction/alternate history about an alternative historical trajectory that critically maps the nature of political and military mobilization.

Annabel’s intervention into this novel and its place within the process of decolonial praxis was to situate it at the forefront of several separate and significant political scripts. Each rewritten script functions as a theory of movement, performing the dual task of assessing the coloniality of military mobilization and offering transpacific becoming as an alternative movement towards decolonization and Korean reunification.

This literary analysis in and of itself would have been fascinating enough, but Annabel went on to situate the novel within and against the backdrop of the spirit of solidarity and decolonial movements (such as the Afro-Asian People’s Solidarity movement, Asian-African conference on Women at Colombo, Non-Aligned movement at Belgrade, etc.) inspired by the Bandung Conference in 1955. While both the political spirit wrought by the conference itself and the project attempted by Cho’e each had their limits, Annabel invited us to see how they both challenged historiography. The presentation concluded with the question: how could one have lived as if one has no regrets for the fact of one’s mobilization? Annabel suggested that the task is that of thinking mobility in the postwar juncture.

Organizing Your Writing Projects: A Review of Scrivener

By: Shawn Gonzalez

If you’re looking for a practical holiday gift for the dissertation-writer in your life (or yourself), consider the word processing software Scrivener. Scrivener is designed for drafting large, complex projects that involve frequent revision and rearranging. It differs from other word processors by allowing the writer to easily move between the note-taking, planning, and drafting stages of a project.

Most word processors offer a single way of looking at a project: sequentially, from start to finish. However, Scrivener allows writers to compile a variety of documents related to a single project and look at those documents from different perspectives. In Scrivener, you can easily shift between notes, outlines, draft sections, and comments within a single window. The program also offers a variety of split-screen options that are particularly useful to writers working on smaller computer screens.

I would particularly recommend Scrivener to students just beginning the first draft of a dissertation. The ability to compile all of your research and notes in a single location is especially helpful when trying to figure out where to start. My one caution would be to avoid doing a lot of formatting in Scrivener, because elements like footnotes sometimes transfer poorly when you export your completed document to another program.

Scrivener offers an extended free trial, and then costs $40 to download. It is available for Mac and Windows.

Comp Lit Alumni: Vaughn Anderson

Vaughn Anderson graduated in 2015 with a dissertation titled “Disappearing Acts: Octavio Paz, John Cage, Haroldo De Campos, and the Silent Turn in Contemporary Poetry.”

Since I lugged my last suitcase of books back to Alexander Library almost a year ago (my final act of closure), I’ve spent a lot of time writing and thinking about graphic musical notation. This so-called “eye music” was a brief fad in the 60s and early 70s. Composers, painters, and poets created scores where any act of musical interpretation first demands formal analysis of visual elements and close reading of text, often in several languages. Performance requires multiple competencies. And what I quickly discovered, when I sat down to piece together a critical bibliography about these works, is that almost nobody has written about them. Everyone seems to assume that this is someone else’s area of specialty.

This is what’s made my formation as a scholar unique: not that I’m more widely competent, but that I’m more comfortable venturing outside and between my areas of concentration. Throughout my time in Comp Lit, I was allowed and encouraged to change. I started as a scholar of urban studies, and then moved to science fiction. At various points my passions included eco-criticism, literary translation, graphic novels, intermedia, and avant-garde poetics. I took grad courses in Spanish, Portuguese, Art History, and any number of other cross-listed disciplines. Eventually I wrote a dissertation that focused on hemispheric American poetic networks during the Cold War, but it drew life and inspiration from all these other areas. I take pride in trying to wear my entire hat collection all at once, and I’m glad I surrounded myself with people who thought this was a good look for me.


[Cover image: a score from Cornelius Cardew’s Treatise Handbook, 1967]

Mellon Summer Fellowship: An Interview with Josué Rodríguez

Josué Rodríguez, 3rd year Ph.D. student, has just been awarded a Mellon Summer Fellowship to conduct pre-dissertation research in Santiago, Chile. Here is what he told us about the importance of visiting the Vicente Huidobro Foundation for his current project.

What are you going to do this summer thanks to the Mellon Summer Fellowship?

The Mellon Summer Study Grant will allow me to travel to the Vicente Huidobro Foundation in Santiago, Chile. There, I hope to analyze Huidobro’s literary journals, magazines and other collaborative texts, and trace the way they reflect and respond to avant-garde activity both across Latin America and in Europe. The networks of artists, poets, and thinkers these texts form, as well as the essays, manifestos, and poetry they circulate are important in conceiving the complex trans-Atlantic relationship between movements like French Surrealism and Huidobro’s Creacionismo.

The foundation itself performs a variety of roles in addition to being both museum and archive. It has benefitted from the membership of prominent poets like Octavio Paz and Nicanor Parra and scholars like Saul Yurkievich and René de Costa. It contains over 8,000 archived records, including manuscripts, photographs, first editions, and personal documents. Some of these documents include letters and photographs that catalog Huidobro’s relationships and with artists and intellectuals like Pablo Picasso and André Breton who are central to the avant-garde. Ultimately, through a wide variety of available materials, the Fundación makes a great effort to contextualize Huidobro and his work within his multifaceted historical and cultural milieu. I feel very fortunate to be able to visit and explore this unequaled site of research.

How do you think the Mellon Summer Fellowship will help you develop your dissertation?

Primarily, I am interested in examining how Surrealism’s conceptualization of authorship, politics, poetry, and art was appropriated, rejected, and/or otherwise reconfigured by Latin American vanguard poets in the early to mid 20th century.

As a result, at this early juncture of my research, the Mellon Summer Study Grant will allow me to begin formulating research questions for my prospectus around one of the prominent voices of Latin American vanguard poetics, the Chilean poet Vicente Huidobro. Focusing on the literary journals founded by Huidobro will help reveal the constant shifts in his aesthetic and political goals. Huidobro’s participation in avant-garde activity between 1916 and 1925 in Europe is crucial to his later re-articulation of what Latin American vanguard poetics should be in method, politics, style, and tone. As a result, studying these documents at the Foundation will provide important framing for a broader theorization of a Latin American poetic identity and its relationship to trans-Atlantic movements like Surrealism.

What professor(s) are you working with and what role did they have in helping you with shaping your research interest and/or in writing a competitive application for the Fellowship?

I have been fortunate enough to find a number of professors here at Rutgers who have influenced my thinking and continue to help develop my focus around these subjects. I am currently working with professors Marcy Schwartz and Karen Bishop from the Department of Spanish and Portuguese, and Nicola Behrmann from the German Department.

With respect to the Mellon Summer Study Grant proposal, both Karen Bishop and Andrew Parker offered very helpful advice on how best to communicate my project. Proposal writing can be a dramatic shift from other academic styles of writing, so their input and experience were instrumental in helping me clarify my goals efficiently and effectively. A warm and sincere thank you to them for all their help!

Mellon Dissertation Fellowship: An Interview with Carolyn Ureña

Carolyn Ureña, 5th year Ph.D. candidate in Comparative Literature and GradFund Advisor, has just been awarded a Mellon Dissertation Fellowship to complete her very promising interdisciplinary project. We asked her a few questions about her current work, her experience at Rutgers, and the application process.


Could you tell us a little about the topic of your dissertation and what professors you are working with?

Working at the interface of literary studies, decolonial theory, and disability studies, my dissertation draws on literature and film across a variety of genres, including fiction by Ralph Ellison, Gabriel García Márquez, Toni Morrison, and Junot Díaz, to demonstrate how literary narratives about illness and disability contribute to understanding racial formations and ameliorating colonial wounds. The dissertation develops a critical framework for understanding the ways in which a sustained encounter between critical race studies, disability studies, and the medical humanities can generate new conceptions of health and healing. I accomplish this through a reassessment of the writings of decolonial theorist Frantz Fanon, a physician who used narrative case studies and ethnography to illuminate the imbrication of race, illness, and disability. By introducing a decolonial perspective to the study of narratives of illness and disability, this project not only challenges the medical humanities and disability studies to consider the experience of race and the effects of colonialism, but also foregrounds questions of disability and illness within the fields of race theory and postcolonial studies, where they have until now received minimal scholarly attention.

Throughout my time at Rutgers, I have been very fortunate to have the opportunity to work with scholars who have encouraged me, helping my project grow in new and unexpected ways. My dissertation chair is Ann Jurecic, and my committee is comprised of Nelson Maldonado-Torres, Susan Martin-Márquez, and Michelle Stephens. Together these professors bring expertise in narratives of illness and disability, decolonial thought and Frantz Fanon, film, and trauma, and the critical feedback and unwavering support of my committee have made the dissertation writing process fun and intellectually rewarding.


How would you relate your dissertation project and its critical focus with the intellectual environment you found at Comparative Literature? 

I have experienced a wonderful synergy between the interests I brought to Rutgers and the way they were nurtured and developed while here. I arrived at Rutgers interest in the medical humanities and so immediately identified Ann as a potential advisor – I even emailed her before I got on campus to ask her advice on books to read! As I dove into illness narratives, I re-encountered the work of Frantz Fanon, first with Susan in her “Embodied Cinemas” course, and then again with Nelson in a course on “Caribbean Theorizing.” Re-reading Fanon in a film course centered on the body and then again in a decolonial context allowed me to develop ideas about Fanon as a doctor, phenomenologist, and cultural critic who cared deeply about healing, and in retrospect I feel that the collision of these ideas could have only happened at Rutgers. The more faculty members I engaged in my project, the stronger it became. My advice to graduate students would be to talk to as many people as possible about your project, at every stage. You never know when someone will suggest a book or article for you to read that will help shape your ideas.


Can you briefly describe the application process to the Mellon Dissertation Fellowship? Based on your experience, when do you think a student should apply and why?

The application for the Mellon Dissertation Fellowship consists of a 25 word “abstract” of your project, a 500-word project statement, and two letters of reference. This may seem straightforward, but as with all competitive applications, it takes a lot of thought and revision to get this genre right!

As a Fellowship Advisor at GradFund, the graduate fellowship advising office of the Graduate School-New Brunswick, I would recommend applying for dissertation completion fellowships when at least half of your dissertation is complete. This is important because in your project statement you should directly state how many chapters you have written as well as how you will complete your dissertation during the fellowship year. It is also key that your statement be legible to scholars across various fields, not just literature, and this is precisely where sharing your drafts becomes essential! I shared my drafts with my committee, with professors in Comp Lit who I knew had served on review panels in the past, and, of course, with GradFund. The fellowship advisors at GradFund are trained to read across the disciplines, and before working there I frequently took advantage of their summer mentoring programs and individual meetings to improve my grant writing skills and figure out the best time to apply – I cannot recommend them enough! By getting a variety of perspectives on your work you will have a better chance at hitting that jargon-free sweet spot.

I should also mention that the year that you apply for the Mellon Dissertation Fellowship you should also be applying to external completion fellowships, such as the Ford, the ACLS/Mellon, and, if applicable, the American Association of University Women, to name a few. These applications have deadlines in October and November, which will also put you in a good position to apply for the SAS Mellon, typically due in December. I recommend beginning the drafting process in the summer before the application deadline to ensure you have enough time to receive feedback and revise your essays multiple times. My experience at Rutgers Comp Lit has been one of genuine collaboration between colleagues, classmates, and professors, and I look forward to continuing that process during my fellowship year.