In defence of Radical Inquiry in Comparative Literature, Translation and the Study of Language(s) – 7: Pluralism and Vulnerability

We are delighted to publish Florian Mussgnug’s final contribution to this series of posts based on the LINKS event that took place on 13 June 2022.  A description of the occasion can be found here. For previous posts, please scroll down.

 

On Pluralism and Vulnerability in the Arts and Humanities

In my brief intervention, I would like to stress the positive importance of pluralism in the Arts and Humanities.1 Instead of championing a single definition of the Arts and Humanities, I wish to emphasize the positive ambivalence of these fields and the interdependence of arguments, attitudes and styles that are in play; the irreducible complexity of political, social and cultural situations that will not be settled by neat solutions that focus on one interpretative category alone. In other words, I wish to suggest that the social importance of the Arts and Humanities cannot be stated in purely economic or institutional terms. It also stems from the artist’s and the scholar’s ability to query the human from diverse angles, including the position of its least privileged and most vulnerable designations. This ability, I propose, must continue to serve as a bedrock for reasoned and respectful dialogue, in academic criticism and in wider cultural and political exchanges. It can give shape to communities and projects that invite resourcefulness, generosity and kindness.2

The colleagues who have gathered for this event know that Goldsmiths has long been a vibrant home to traditions of critical practice that are not defined exclusively by the application of rigid protocols of knowledge. These traditions view scholarly inquiry as a patient and open-ended scrutiny that goes hand in hand with curiosity and care. Like the musician’s skill or the ability of the experienced craftsman, it develops from practice, through success and disappointment alike. It achieves neither conclusion nor perfection, but can offer illumination and fulfilment.

Goldsmiths’ research strategy underlines the importance of vibrancy, boundary-crossing, and inventiveness. These terms carry a positive tenor in the numerous disciplinary and cross-disciplinary frameworks that give shape to discussions in the modern languages, comparative literature, film and media studies and creative writing, among others. They hold a privileged place in structures of argumentation that have become deeply familiar to researchers in the Arts and Humanities, and that are often employed to defend their work against external attack.3 As a result, these terms have become near ubiquitous in recent scholarly debates. They are, in the words of anthropologist Marilyn Strathern, attractors: they hold the power to engage other terms and concepts, draw in values, and disseminate feelings “exactly as though everyone knew what was meant”.4 We may use them without quite knowing what they mean. But if we take them seriously, they compel us to understand academic research as a set of immanent, ever-modulating force-relations, which emphasize both relatedness and interruptions in relatedness, across space and time.

Do we still need research in the Arts and Humanities? It would be easy enough to respond to this question if we simply chose to posit the importance of our work in terms of institutional orientations. The work of the literary and cultural critic, then, could be said to consist in the systematic pursuit of specialist expertise and comprehensive knowledge. Specialism, accordingly, might be imagined, as a gradual homing in on an object of study: a progressive, discursively and epistemologically monolinear approximation that is ultimately rewarded by complete and definitive understanding. Once this understanding is achieved, the project has reached its conclusion.

As philosopher Raymond Geuss has shown, this conception of specialism is central to many academic knowledge practices, especially in the West. For example, it holds a powerful grip over analytic philosophy, where it functions, in Geuss’ words, as a culturally constructed myth “to which we have a strong tendency and perhaps a deep commitment – a commitment so deep that it generates an illusion of necessity”.5  The same can be said for literary and cultural studies, where the pursuit of specialist knowledge has found expression, in recent decades, in the rhetorical and epistemological conventions of critique: a mid-Twentieth Century style of analysis that postulates the reader as an expert, whose scrutiny serves to interrogate and decode certain qualities of a given work of art that are not readily apparent to the non-specialist.6 I wish to interrupt this orientation and sketch a different response.

Comparatists at UCL and Goldsmiths joined forces with their colleagues at King’s College London, twelve years ago, to create the London Intercollegiate Network for Comparative Studies (LINKS). In more recent years, the network has also been joined by our distinguished colleagues and friends at Royal Holloway, Queen Mary University London, SOAS, Birkbeck and at the London School of Advanced Studies. What we have experienced together, over more than a decade, is the power of a community that resists the strictures of competitor-thinking and disciplinary silos and that celebrates experiences of aesthetic encounter, research, and creative critical practice that serve to unsettle the singular authoritativeness of specialist knowledge. We do so not because we wish to dismiss the importance of specialist knowledge but because we want to open the debates in our disciplines to more diverse orientations, subjectivities and narratives. From the perspective of hegemonic regimes of evaluation and assessment, this renders us vulnerable.

But vulnerability is crucial to our experience of scholarly community. Social Anthropologist Tim Ingold describes research as a state of vulnerability, not unlike the experience of being in love:

What the thinker and the lover have in common is that they are uniquely vulnerable. They are in a condition of surrender whether to the idea or to the beloved. But the condition is far from passive; on the contrary, it is passionate, an affectation of the soul that calls mind and body to contemplation.7

I wish to take this opportunity to thank colleagues and friends, at Goldsmiths, across LINKS institutions and elsewhere, who continue to take risks, and who champion practices of writing and teaching that are not restricted to established registers of expression or modes of scholarly attention. In this way, they point our attention beyond prescriptive regimes of production and assessment, disciplinary protocols and organisational structures.8 They remind us that reflections about art are ultimately reflections about life, and vice versa. They alert us to vulnerability and beauty that are shared by humans and non-humans on this living, unpredictable and wondrous planet.


1 For a more comprehensive discussion, see “Prelude”, in Florian Mussgnug, Mathelinda Nabugodi and Thea Petrou, Thinking Through Relation Encounters in Creative Critical Writing (Oxford: Peter Lang 2021), pp. 1-17. I am grateful to Peter Lang for permission to republish some passages from this text here, in revised form.


2 This argument is informed by Doris Sommer, The World of Art in the World: Civic Agency and Public Humanities (Durham, NC, and London: Duke University Press, 2014).


3 See, for example, Martha Nussbaum, Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2010).


4 Marilyn Strathern, Relations: An Anthropological Account (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2020), 2.


5 Raymond Geuss, Who Needs a World View? (Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London: Harvard University Press, 2020), xv.


6 For an important introduction to this concept, see Elizabeth S. Anker and Rita Felski (eds), Critique and Postcritique (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2017).


7 Tim Ingold, Correspondences (Cambridge: Polity, 2021), 2.


8 We recognise the importance of institutional practices and policies in higher education that foster a space for creative critical exchange, such as the PhD in Creative Critical Writing, which was developed and run by Timothy Mathews at University College London. It is important to emphasize, however, that creative critical research, by definition, will and should exceed the scope of such initiatives, even where it is facilitated by them.

In defence of Radical Inquiry in Comparative Literature, Translation and the Study of Language(s) – 6: On Translingualism and Multilingualism (A Tribute to Tamar Steinitz)

We are grateful to receive Francesca Orsini’s contribution in this series of posts, based on the LINKS event that took place on 13 June 2022.  A description of the occasion can be found here. The final post in this series will be published tomorrow. For previous posts please scroll down.

 

I come from an institution, SOAS, that has recently gone through a similar restructuring to what is happening at Goldsmiths, and is now looking to regrow after downsizing mostly its Languages & Cultures department, and particularly “smaller” languages and the higher-level courses that require and encourage an engagement with texts. In fact, I was part of the down-sizing, though I chose to jump before I was pushed.

I want to focus today on the brilliant scholarship of Tamar Steinitz, who has been targeted by the cuts at Goldsmiths. Her work on translingual poets has been cutting-edge. And her own research trajectory shows how Comp Lit’s engagement with the formal and linguistic aspects of texts leads not just to finding appropriate critical frameworks that become useful for students and scholars working in quite different context. This engagement can be revelatory, showing realities that otherwise remain unseen.

Tamar’s first book, Translingual Identities (2013), starts from a “traditional” comparative reading of the works of two exiled Jewish writers and shows how switching to writing in another tongue is the result of quite different stands – a rejection of German contaminated by the Nazis for Jakov Lind, while for Stefan Heym it came from his political engagement during WWII in the US and the desire to act as a cultural mediator. Her analysis is firmly grounded not just in theory but also in the historical context of Nazi Germany and Jewish exile and post-WWII politics, and explores the relationship between self, language, and writing across different genres (the historical novel, the satirical novel). As someone working on Indian literature, I was intrigued in the “curious” phenomena like writing one’s autobiography in another language—a distancing choice adopted by some colonial Indian writers as well.

In the best tradition of Comp Lit, the close reading of authors and texts opens up to broader and deeper questions: [I quote from her Conclusions] “I have charted two models of translingualism and literary creation. On the one hand, translingualism can be a form of alienation … where identity is split and reality is destabilized. On the other hand, translingualism is … a productive doubling of perspective, allowing the author to move freely between cultures and languages, setting them in dialogic relations and allowing them to illuminate and complement each other.

The role of translingual writers as cultural mediators, reflecting the concerns of minority populations—exiles, migrants, refugees, and diasporic communities—is of particular interest as the crossing of national and linguistic borders becomes increasingly common, giving rise to a growing body of work by transnational authors. The movement between languages internalizes and reflects both the freedom associated with geographical mobility and the emotional price it inevitably entails.”

These possibilities are taken up in Tamar’s second book, co-edited with Rachael Gilmour, on Multilingual Currents in Literature, Translation and Culture (Routledge, 2018)

This book is concerned with the circuits of language in the contemporary world, and with their implications for our understanding of literature now. While making no claims for a new global linguistic order entirely ruptured from those which came before, it argues that existing literary paradigms ill equip us to understand the complex forces that shape language in the present as they impact upon the production and circulation of literature. In tracing these forces, it takes up questions which, in many ways, define the current moment: the impact of accelerated patterns of migration precipitated by war and conflict, economic pressures, and environmental degradation; the relationship between national and supranational political formations and ideologies; and the transformative effects of transnational flows of culture, capital, electronic media, and technology. As we argue here, literature is sensitive and responsive to these developments, registering new kinds of linguistically and symbolically complex contexts and cultures.

This is a great volume, with some of the best people around as contributors, and offering a wide range of approaches (the polyphonic, multilingual city, region or transnational space; interlingual writers; born-translated texts, songs and diasporic subjectivity, films and novels “creating public”). It is also the kind of collegiate intellectual work and collective meeting ground that probably did not count towards the REF.

Tamar’s own work on the bilingual Hebrew/Arabic poetry of Almog Behar shows, again in an exemplary fashion, how lexical choices in the poet’s craft provide possibilities for thinking about language and identity in new ways. The choice not to translate Arabic words, or to offer specific phrases in both languages and scripts, speaks to a self that does not want to subscribe to the nationalist logic of separation and the Zionist narrative of a Jewish-Israeli identity and that finds the resources to do so.

Work on bilingual or translingual authors can appear niche within niche: bilingual Hebrew-Arabic within contemporary Hebrew poetry. But this is a wrong assumption. One of the most powerful aspects of working on and with bilingualism, multilingualism, translingualism is how widespread it actually is; how it often exists below the surface of literary texts, and literary cultures and markets, and how painful the relationship between language(s) and self often remains in this age of “global English”.

This was brought to me particularly strongly in a small literary festival called Multilingual London that my MULOSIGE project co-organized with the Museum of London in 2019 (which had to move online).

The idea behind Multilingual London was to highlight the presence of a literary London beyond English and to train the spotlight on artists who have or work in more than one language, but beyond the framework of seeing them as “community writers”. Another aim was to try and shift the conversation about languages beyond paradigms that are purely hierarchical or antagonistic, and to recognize the affective and aesthetic pull of idioms, songs, poems, and stories in languages otherwise considered “minor” or “less important”.

We had panels on languages in families and across generations (which threw up the useful coinage of “grandparent’s language” instead of mother tongue), and on writing and living across languages and places. And we had a poetry session in which poets only recited in their language of choice (Amharic, Arabic, Chinese, Hindi, Somali), giving others the chance to hear the poems while reading the translation on slides. The response, by writers and by audience members, was overwhelming. Selma Dabbagh’s confession about feeling an “outsider” to Arabic despite her heritage and lifelong attempt to learn it “properly” found a wide echo among the listeners, and highlighted the persistent but often painful and frustrated “language longing” among first/second/third generation speakers.

Recognizing that London is a multilingual city also in literary terms may seem obvious, but to the writers themselves it was revelatory and quite empowering. Shephali Forst, one of the poets featured, later wrote that “As a Multilingual writer in Hindi and English, in all honesty, until now I had envisaged that my writings in Hindi would not be of interest to the wider world audience. At the ‘Verses in Many Voices’ [poetry] event, I observed listeners eagerly imbibing translations, together with the rhythmic beauty of international voices, and it changed something inside me”. “There was something magical about hearing the different global musicalities of poetry across cultures”, the host Malika Booker wrote, and she added, “I was able to get access to poets and cultural poetics that are never featured on the British Literary scene.”

“I noticed everyone struggled with the same questions and anxieties”, writer Shazaf Husain commented, “but getting writers together like this helped to pool together people who deal with this problem creatively and turn it into an opportunity. It really made me less nervous about my multilingual identity, to be honest, and also removed many preconceptions I had in my mind about how academia treats other languages.”

And Aamer Hussein, “I was pleased to see many of us represent our different tongues and double heritage, and I thought the increased focus and intimacy that Zoom allows ultimately worked to our advantage. I think the session allowed many viewers apart from us to think through the question of the languages that surround us and I received enthusiastic responses from more than one monolingual member of the audience. Above all we were made aware, as Londoners, of the immense riches of our literary cultures and the realisation that so many of us chose to continue to write in our own languages while we address an audience that, in our new home, can only read us in translation.”

It strikes me that, as Goldsmiths prizes itself as a cultural hub of multicultural London, Tamar’s work on bilingual and translingual writers fits the remit perfectly. Her trajectory, as a comparatist from an English Department whose work increasingly speaks to debates about literature and language that are cutting-edge in academia and find such profound echo among artists and publics, seems to me exemplary. This is precisely the kind of work that we should cherish and hold up as a model.

… we propose to refocus the department on Creative Writing and on the study of Global Literature. This would support the centring of creativity, diversity and critical thinking in the department’s identity […]

We therefore propose to reduce FTE from areas such as Comparative literature, Translation Studies and Linguistics, whilst preserving the teaching of areas such as creative writing, Black British and Caribbean literature and world literatures, and critical thought.

(from Goldsmiths “consultation” document on the proposed redundancies, 10 October 2021)

Francesca Orsini

In defence of Radical Inquiry in Comparative Literature, Translation and the Study of Language(s) – 5: The non-hierarchical university

We thank Rosa Mucignat for her contribution to this series of posts arising from the LINKS event that took place on 13 June 2022.  A description of the occasion can be found here. For previous posts, please scroll down; further posts in the series will be published over the next couple of days.

 

LINKS and the non-hierarchical university

The threat to Comparative Literature at Goldsmiths was a shock for all of us who teach and research in this growing field. Comparative Literature is a relatively new discipline in the UK and has a longer tradition in Europe and America. But in the last 20 years, CompLit programmes have been opened and expanded in a number of British universities. In London, King’s, UCL and Goldsmiths were the first three institutions to offer comparative studies degrees, swiftly followed by Queen Mary, Birkbeck, Royal Holloway, and SOAS (in no particular order). Even in the aftermath of the financial crisis, when many sectors of Higher Education faced harsh cuts, Comparative Literature kept growing. It was in the context of this post-crisis buoyancy that LINKS was born. LINKS, or London Intercollegiate Network of Comparative Studies, is the brainchild of Kaja Marczewska, then a brilliant MA student in Comparative Literature at King’s, now Head of Collections Research at the National Archives.

In 2009 she approached me with the idea of organizing a graduate conference that would bring together MA students from other Comparative Literature programmes in London, as a way of creating a community in what was still a fragmented field.

UCL’s Florian Mussgnung, Lucia Boldrini of Goldsmiths and I jumped at the opportunity and devised the model of an itinerant annual meeting that would be hosted by each institution in turn. Kaja and I organized the first conference at King’s, and Goldsmiths ran it in 2012, followed by two more iterations as the circle of LINKS associates widened. In 2014, LINKS found its ideal institutional home at the Institute of Modern Languages Research at Senate House, where it organized a public seminar series, now part of the Convocation Seminars in World Literature and Translations, led by Joseph Ford.

LINKS emerged as an informal network in a father fortuitous and unplanned manner. But perhaps this is the reason for its lasting success: we have often worked in the interstices of our respective institutional structures, sometimes below the radar, coming together as individual researchers and students in a space free from the dictates of marketing, branding, impact and public engagement as university managers understand it. And we have offered exceptional value for money – our eagerness to bypass institutional channels and economize extending to the purchase and transport (in Lucia’s smoothly wheeled suitcase) of food and drinks.

LINKS is a true network, built from the bottom-up in a collaborative spirit, with no hierarchies and out of a shared interest and investment in our discipline. As universities increasingly adopt market strategies based on competition, low-cost, high-yield business models, and customer satisfaction, LINKS has stood for a different paradigm: the university not as a service provider but a community of scholars and students that collaborate with and challenge each other, invested in the creation and sharing of knowledge, and open to the public. As we know, this transversal, self-determined flow of ideas and people is vital to the advancement of a field of study, especially one that is interdisciplinary in nature like CompLit. The cuts at Goldsmiths affect us all – they will mutilate and disfigure the networks we rely on to keep our discipline alive.

Rosa Mucignat
Reader in Comparative Literature

In defence of Radical Inquiry in Comparative Literature, Translation and the Study of Language(s) – 4: A Tribute

We are grateful to receive this contribution from Timothy Mathews for the series of posts based on the LINKS event that took place on 13 June 2022.  A description of the occasion can be found here. Further related posts will be published over the next few days; for previous ones, please scroll down.

 

A Tribute

to the creativity of Goldsmiths researchers in the field and the practice of Comparative Literature.

What does it mean to think about literature in its broadest terms? In part it’s to think about why literature matters at all; about what lies embedded in acts of communication. To think about literature is to ask what’s involved when people relate to each other, whether in generosity or conflict.

In Goldsmiths such questioning has brought to light, for example, how Modernist innovations and practice have been a vehicle for racial stereotyping and oppression, and their continuing poison in the social relation. Another illumination has involved the way fiction not only opens up people’s imagination, but also closes it down by appealing the most aggressive desires for security, and the suppression of any sense of otherness. In such circumstances, what hope is there for owning an identity and a body, and constructing an inclusive society? Other enquiries at Goldsmiths on why it matters to investigate literature include re-considering The Aeneid as a moving account of migration, and in general how literature explores the human cost of colonial development and exploitation. Further enquires explore migration and exile in a range of transnational contexts; and the psychological as well as cultural border crossings in the experience of identity in all its complexity.

But Comparative Literature is also a practice, and a pedagogy. Researchers and students alike are invited as a matter of day-to-day work to think about, and to try and address the conditions of their own experience, thought-processes, and ways of relating to others. This is translation in its broadest sense, with all its promises and dangers – promises of inclusivity, dangers of appropriation. I was fortunate enough and proud to be a UCL rep at the time of establishing LINKS, and retain very powerful memories of students and lecturers working together to develop critical idioms able to address devastation in the social relation, as well as the many possibilities of building a caring society. I don’t think there was a time when it was clearer to me why it matters to think of the work of people as a process, and not just in terms of immediate profit, however appealing.

On the Goldsmiths website the following aspirations are listed in the Statement of Mission, Values and Strategy:

  • Pursuing intellectual curiosity
  • Encouraging the highest standards of research and practice
  • Building our diverse strengths through interdisciplinary imagination
  • Maximising the interaction of teaching and research
  • Cultivating a unique and creative approach to all our subjects
  • Daring to think differently and to challenge the norms
  • Embracing new ideas with energy and reflection.

My immediate thought as I write this, is that the pursuit of profit as the guiding principle of a successful educational establishment is not an idea that’s very different from what we hear in many walks of life, and that it does little to ‘challenge the norms’.

But more generally, and in the light of the sketch I’ve given of the work in Comparative Literature at Goldsmiths, and on translation and the transnational, the question that comes to my mind is, how can such work be thought not to be meeting those aims stated in the Mission? And if this work does meet those highly aspirational and yet achievable aims, why is this work not being nurtured, but brutalised instead?

I do understand that there are many ways to pursue intellectual innovation and pedagogical inclusivity. But if the work in this area of Goldsmiths staff is thought an inadequate response to these aims, I wonder what the overall strategy is for ensuring that the Mission is pursued with greater clarity? What is the overall idea or strategy for developing Goldsmiths’ identity, and its practices of teaching and research? Financial prudence is clearly a necessary, but by no means sufficient part any strategy, especially a strategy that would dare to ‘think differently’. I look forward with my colleagues to hearing from Senior Management and the Council what their vision is of the future activity, creativity and purpose of Goldsmiths; and what their conception is of Goldsmiths’ ‘interdisciplinary imagination’ and ‘diverse strengths’.

Timothy Mathews
Emeritus Professor of French and Comparative Criticism

In defence of Radical Inquiry in Comparative Literature, Translation and the Study of Language(s) – 3: In Praise of Ignorance

The following is Lucia Boldrini’s contribution to the LINKS event that took place on 13 June 2022. A description of the occasion can be found here. For the previous post, please scroll down. Further related posts will be published over the next few days.

 

In Praise of Ignorance (against “excellence”)

In 2011 we held the second LINKS MA conference at UCL, with the title “Comparative Literature: Beyond the Crisis”.

That “Beyond” was a hopeful looking ahead, after the financial crash, the start of austerity by the Tory-LibDem coalition government, and their introduction of the £9,000 university fees. Having been through a year – or three – of crisis at Goldsmiths and seeing redundancies announced in many other universities, the word “Beyond” sounds naïvely premature. Re-reading the thoughts I offered at our roundtable in 2011, I’m struck by how much (too much!) they still apply today. So my contribution is a re-run of those thoughts. I’ll skip several sections, but I decided not to update my notes from 2011; they appear in blue font.

In The University in Ruins, Bill Readings described the history of the modern university as a trajectory from the University of Reason to the University of Culture to the University of Excellence. “Kant”, he writes, “envisioned the University as guided by the concept of reason. Kant’s vision was followed by Humboldt’s idea of culture, and more recently the emphasis has been on the techno-bureaucratic notion of excellence”(Bill Readings, The University in Ruins, Harvard UP, 1996, p. 54).

In the Kantian University of Reason, the conflict is between tradition and rational inquiry. Philosophy is at its centre because it is the ground for the rational interrogation of the foundations of each discipline.

Humboldt’s University of Culture gives body to this pure Reason by locating it in a historical and ethnic cultural context. Tradition can’t be simply abandoned but must be studied and worked through to be understood, because that is what founds identities; culture, as Readings puts it, names an identity (the knowledge that is the object of study) and a process of development (the process of inquiry that studies and develops it), making the University of Culture the synthesis of research and teaching, the individual and the institution, the process and the product (pp. 63-64). Because language and literature are at the centre of culture, these are also at the centre of university education.

However, it is the latter phase described by Readings that we are now in. The University of Excellence is a bureaucratic model where accountability becomes accounting (think of the credit system, linked to number of hours required to read a certain number of pages; of the effectiveness of courses and their value measured through student evaluation and choices; of quality offices determining curricula; of research becoming “accountable” through regular research assessments for which academics have to produce a certain number of items; and so on). The central figure of the university now is the administrator rather than the professor; the university’s tasks are described in terms of a logic of accountability in which excellence must be pursued, but the concept of excellence is emptied out, it stops meaning anything. (Florian Mussgnug, in the post that will be published shortly in this blog, will talk, instead, of the necessary, productive vulnerability of the thinker.)

This notion of “excellence” is linked to globalization and the weakening of the nation state:

The economics of globalization mean that the University is no longer called upon to train citizen subjects […] The University is thus analogous to a number of other institutions – such as national airline carriers – that face massive reductions in foreseeable funding from increasingly weakened states, which are no longer the privileged site of investment of popular will. (p. 14)

Sadly arresting words, these, in 2022, when Brexit is seen as “the will of the people” that should return power to the state (“taking control of our borders”, repatriating laws) while making the state a global power (“Global Britain”).

In 2011, at this point I turned to some quotes from a letter by the then Minister of State for Universities and Science David Willets and the Business Secretary Vince Cable:

Our universities and colleges are hugely important to this country, and our world class HE system is a great asset. […] We need higher education to flourish, in the interests of economic growth, social mobility and of course because of its inherent worth.

– the last point sounds a bit of an afterthought. Shortly after, they add: 

Less funding will be routed to institutions as grants via the Funding Council. These changes will […] support a more diverse sector, where the choices of informed students provide a constant drive towards high quality teaching and efficient use of resources.

The key point here is the massive change in what and where value resides. If in the “University of Culture” value resided in the idea of learning that supports the nation’s identity and self-understanding, now the value of education means the monetary gain that it can add to the salary of the graduate: to drive up quality, institutions must publish “information about graduate salaries as a matter of urgency.” (There would be much to say, in 2022, on how this has become an ever bigger stick to beat Arts and Humanities with, or on how the interest on student loans is predicted to hit 12% next year.)

Value has become something quantifiable in terms of salary and in terms of hours, of time saved by for example reducing degrees to 2 years instead of 3 (this did not happen, or hasn’t yet, but that was the thinking: as if the knowledge to be transmitted were a finite quantity and not, as Humboldt said, a process, and if you can cram in more hours you save time and therefore money).

After a section that I’ll skip for space, in 2011 I then turned to the value of ignorance as an antidote to “excellence”.

Doesn’t it happen to you that the more you study something, the more you read around something, the more you think about it, the less you feel you know? That may be frustrating, but it is also what keeps us sane even when we think we’re going insane, what keeps us from believing we know it all, that knowledge is finite and can be compressed into fewer hours or years or pages. It pushes us to continue inquiring.

Those of you that know me will know that one of my favourite descriptions of the comparatist is of someone who is ignorant in several subjects. Of course, by being ignorant I do not mean being incompetent, nor do I mean knowing nothing at all. I mean it rather in the sense in which Socrates says in The Republic that all I know is that I know nothing; or in the sense in which Virginia Woolf says, in “On Not Knowing Greek”, that we cannot know the Greeks, what they meant when they used a certain word, or form, because we live in England and where we see luscious green, they see rocks and scorching sun; and we inevitably reconstruct the world of the Greeks according to our imagination of what it must have been, and through our knowledge of Shakespeare and of Jane Austen: we remain ignorant even when we know we are; knowing it is what matters.

But she goes further, and asks an important question: are we not reading into Greek poetry “not what they have but what we lack?”

In comparative literature, working across times, languages, cultures, we multiply our ignorance. And we can use this ignorance, or rather: we can transform into ignorance what we believe we know: look at it harder, as it were, until it stops making the sense we thought it made, until it becomes foreign; until “what we lack” comes to the fore.

Literature is one of the principal ways in which a culture examines itself, its past, all aspects of its identity, including the darkest ones, including the way its identity is formed in the encounter with others. Comparative literature (the study of the linguistic and cultural products of different cultures in relation to one other, including how they relate to ours) is an essential part of this examination. Employing the training of the comparatist to read within a literature or a language is equally valuable: it forces us to acknowledge a difference – call it a foreignness – within our language and literature that we disregard otherwise; to place ourselves in a position of ignorance towards something that we thought we knew and understood and therefore did not think about much: something we didn’t know we lack. It is in this sense, too, that I would like the praise of ignorance to take precedence over the empty notion of “excellence”, which is a practice of ticking the right boxes of what we already know and know how to do, so that we think we don’t really need to learn anything.

I turn from my 2011 notes back to the present: in 2022, we’re in a worse crisis than we were – not just at Goldsmiths but in too many other places; I think for example of University of the Arts which is cutting its languages programme even if it is profitable: somehow those profits are not “scalable” enough. In the humanities and the arts, we always knew that we were going to be hit hard by a notion of monetary value as opposed to the values of education.

But saying this seems to exonerate Goldsmiths’ management from blame, because the crisis appears to be entirely a consequence of government policy. I certainly won’t exonerate the governments that have pushed these policies over the years, and then doubled down with Brexit, and now want to stop more disadvantaged students going to university. But I can’t exonerate my institution’s management who have said things like the following, in the “consultation” document on the redundancies in our department:

… we propose to refocus the department on Creative Writing and on the study of Global Literature. This would support the centring of creativity, diversity and critical thinking in the department’s identity [… as if creativity, diversity and critical thinking hadn’t already been central to everything we do!]

We therefore propose to reduce FTE from areas such as Comparative literature, Translation Studies and Linguistics, whilst preserving the teaching of areas such as creative writing, Black British and Caribbean literature and world literatures, and critical thought.

An astounding lack of logic: reduce comparative literature, translation and the study of language, in order to refocus on the World and the Globe! What an imperialist view of an Anglophone, mono-cultural, homogeneous globe where linguistic and cultural differences are irrelevant and do not need to be paid close attention to – which is what the comparatists, the linguists, the translators do – because we assume that already understand it. We don’t need to look at others and see our lack – we can’t risk it, as discovering our lack would send that model into a crisis, revealing its vacuity.

This is the university of ignorance in a very different sense from the “ignorance” I described in 2011, where the acknowledgement of our not knowing was the prerequisite for the acknowledgment of the contribution that diverse others make to our identity, our wellbeing, and yes, also our economy.

Comparative Literature, Translation and Linguistics are still here at Goldsmiths – indeed this crisis has given us an even stronger sense of purpose – but not all our colleagues’ jobs will be here if the redundancies go ahead, and that’s why we are still fighting them. And this is why I thank all colleagues and students for their amazing support, over the last months, now, and as we look ahead, beyond the crisis, to wrestling the university (not just Goldsmiths but the University as a whole) back, as a place of genuine radical inquiry.

Lucia Boldrini
CCL Director

In defence of Radical Inquiry in Comparative Literature, Translation and the Study of Language(s) – 2: A Letter

We are delighted to publish Ruth Cruickshank’s contribution to the LINKS event that took place on 13 June 2022.  A description of the occasion can be found here. Further related posts will be published over the next few days.

In Defence of Radical Inquiry in Comparative Literature, Translation and the Study of Language

Supplementing the upcoming posts of my LINKS colleagues, I am sharing a copy of the letter bearing witness to, celebrating and defending the work of our colleagues at Goldsmiths: ‘In Defence of Radical Inquiry in Comparative Literature, Translation and the Study of Language’.

This was read and discussed at the event organised by Dr Joseph Ford of the IMLR on behalf of LINKS (London Intercollegiate Network for Comparative Studies). It was subsequently signed by more than 40 LINKS collective members and colleagues from across the Comparative Literature community, and sent to Dinah Caine (Chair of Council); Frances Corner (Warden); Elisabeth Hill (Deputy Warden and Pro-Warden Academic); David Oswell, (Pro-Warden for Research and Enterprise); Jilly Court (Registrar and Secretary). Demonstrating our solidarity, we copied in Stephen Graham, Head of the School of Arts and Humanities and Jane Desmarais (Head of the Department of English and Creative Writing).

 

14 June 2022

As we dedicate our 13 June 2022 event ‘In Defence of Radical Inquiry in Comparative Literature, Translation and the Study of Language’ to support our colleagues and students of Comparative Literature, Linguistics and Translation at Goldsmiths, we, members of the LINKS collective (London Intercollegiate Network for Comparative Studies), write to reiterate our ongoing concern about proposed cuts to posts in English and Creative Writing at Goldsmiths. Our speakers and discussions are inspired and underpinned by the long-running and ongoing critical and radical agendas in Arts and Humanities research at Goldsmiths. The excellence and importance of the work of our colleagues at Goldsmiths reminds us that Goldsmiths was the first College of the University of London to introduce a BA degree in Comparative Literature; boasts the internationally successful research Centre for Comparative Literature; and is held in international esteem for the vibrancy of the research and teaching in Comparative and World Literatures, Critical Theory, Linguistics, Languages, Translation and Creative Writing.

As LINKS celebrates, supports and defends them, we are also particularly mindful of how the expertise, energy and ethics of our colleagues at Goldsmiths have been fundamental to the founding, growth, and ongoing development of LINKS. Our reach is from London to the global community of scholars and students whose work spans Comparative and World Literatures, Translation, Linguistics and Languages. It was from Goldsmiths, Kings and UCL that idea for LINKS came in 2010. Instead of perpetuating patterns of institutional competition, a dynamic network has been created. LINKS brings together MA students, postgraduate researchers and scholars from departments where Comparative Literature is studied and researched, not as competitors, but to explore together the evolving fields of Comparative and World Literature. This collective is founded on an ethos of collaboration outside the rhetoric of markets or hierarchies, and to promote instead the values of questioning, inclusion and exploration.  These actively pursued values chime resonantly with the radical inquiry and intersectional progressive political agendas of the research, engagement and teaching work of colleagues at Goldsmiths.

Fuelled significantly by the energy of colleagues from Goldsmiths, LINKS has grown in strength, proactively inviting SOAS, Birkbeck and Royal Holloway to join. Together, we co-organise seminars, panels and roundtables, open to all. We invite speakers from across the field – and the world. Participants range from international figures such as Haun Saussy and César Domínguez and colleagues involved in the network to emerging postgraduate talents, bringing new, interdisciplinary approaches to the fore.

Just ten years ago, the third LINKS MA conference was hosted by Goldsmiths, proactively interrogating the politically critical potential of ‘Comparative Literature in a Fast-Changing Global World’. LINKS co-founder, Goldsmiths’ Lucia Boldrini has played a key role in developing such LINKS MA conferences. These are non-hierarchical spaces whereby colleagues support PhD students to curate a conference of MA speakers from across the University of London and foster discussion and re-thinking of intercultural ‘links’, by approaching literary and non-literary texts comparatively. Students and staff from across the University of London join force providing MA students with a unique opportunity to exchange ideas, and develop their networking, presentation and discussion skills. A further highlight of these conferences is another highlight of LINKS MA conferences are the round tables, which bring together a vast range of scholarly expertise. It is characteristic of Lucia’s intellectual generosity and the breadth of her research interests, spanning Heterobiography; Comparative and World Literatures; Joyce, Dante and Modernist Medievalism; and Mediterranean imaginaries that she is always at the table for round tables, including those ranging over topics such as ‘Identity and Otherness in Comparative Literature’; ‘Literary Cosmopolitanism’; and ‘Inside/Outside Comparative Questions’. And, just ten years ago, Lucia Boldrini and Goldsmiths colleague Carole Sweeney led a roundtable reflecting on the challenges of comparative literature in the global world: the challenges it faces, and, crucially, the challenges world and comparative literary scholarship and teaching continue to pose.

From our many LINKS events, we remember Carole Sweeney drawing on her expertise on political contexts of gender, race and class in contemporary writing for a brilliant timely and wide-ranging panel, ‘Outrage: Offensive and Offended Sentiments, from Libertinage and Colonial Calcutta to 21st-century France’. Tamar Steinitz has also deftly helped steer LINKS, and her work on translingual identities, multilingualism, literatures of the Middle East and diasporic Jewish identity and the politics of translation is more urgent than ever. We are continually struck by the engagement and potential of the students from Goldsmiths who attend our events and contribute so valuably to them, and fear how adversely proposed cuts would affect them.

Like our colleagues at Goldsmiths and as our research evolves in response to – and ahead of new challenges: neoliberal, postcolonial, supranational and climate catastrophic – the collective endeavour of LINKS continues to develop. In 2020, LINKS entered a new collaboration with the IMLR. These online events have expanded our reach yet further, with a two-year series of ‘Seminars in World Literature and Translation: Beyond Multilingualism’, exploring some of the latest developments in our growing fields. These have brought together international attendees and speakers to engage in critical explorations of the roles of Comparative and World Literatures in questions of translating environmental threats; museum cultures; theoretical resistance; postcolonial experiences; and indigeneity. After a hiatus of in-person gatherings, we look forward to taking up Lucia and the team’s characteristically proactive invitation to work with Goldsmiths’ students to resume our LINKS MA Conferences at the Centre for Comparative Literature in 2023.

Such ongoing engagement in urgent contemporary questions reflects and underscores the importance of the work of our Goldsmiths colleagues. As a collective which works non-competitively to examine critical value, we urge you to ensure that the intersectional progressive political agendas of the engagement and teaching of colleagues at Goldsmiths may continue to provide the space for radical inquiry to which we bear witness today.

In defence of Radical Inquiry in Comparative Literature, Translation and the Study of Language(s) – 1: Introduction

 

In defence of Radical Inquiry in Comparative Literature, Translation and the Study of Languages: an event in solidarity and support of our colleagues at Goldsmiths

Organised by members of the London Intercollegiate Network for Comparative Studies (LINKS) this event will celebrate and showcase the importance of teaching and research in Comparative Literature, Creative Writing and Languages inspired and underpinned by the critical and radical agendas in Arts and Humanities research at Goldsmiths. Speakers include: Lucia Boldrini (Goldsmiths), Ruth Cruickshank (RHUL), Rosa Mucignat (KCL), Timothy Mathews (UCL), Florian Mussgnug (UCL), Francesca Orsini (SOAS), Rachel Scott (RHUL).

Thus read the advertisement of the event organised and chaired, on behalf of LINKS, by Joseph Ford of the Institute of Modern Languages Research, on 13 June 2022, after a full academic year when staff at Goldsmiths were threatened with redundancy and comparative literature, translation and the study of language were especially targeted.

The Centre for Comparative Literature, the MA pathway in World Literature and Comparative Criticism, the two MA programmes in Sociocultural Linguistics and in Multilingualism, Linguistic and Education, and the MA in Translation are still very much alive and kicking. However, three staff members in the Department of English and Creative Writing (where the CCL and these MA programmes are located), as well as several members of the department of History and of the College’s professional staff, received notices of redundancy, and are, as we publish this, still fighting for their posts. Among these is Tamar Steinitz, member of LINKS and of its steering committee, as well as postcolonialist Mairi Neeves (who recently chaired one of our CCL events on Postcolonial ghost plays) and International Surrealism specialist Jacqueline Rattray.

The colleagues who spoke at the event have generously agreed to send us the written versions of their contributions to be published as a series of posts on our CCL blog. They will appear at brief intervals, starting tomorrow with Ruth Cruickshank’s presentation of the letter sent on behalf of LINKS to Goldsmiths’ Senior Management and Chair of Council. Next, “In Praise of Ignorance” is an updated re-run of my contribution to the roundtable at the LINKS MA Conference on “Comparative Literature: Beyond the Crisis” which took place at UCL in 2011. This is followed by Tim Mathews’ searching questions about what the institution calls its Mission and how it justifies its decisions, and then by Rosa Mucignat’s recollection of how LINKS started, from the bottom up, and of its collaborative non-hierarchical ethos. Francesca Orsini pays tribute to our colleague Tamar Steinitz and her work on multilingualism, reflecting on why this work is so important. Florian Mussgnug closes this series of posts with his thoughts on the crucial importance of pluralism in the Humanities and on the necessity of taking risks, of making oneself vulnerable through thinking differently, outside of the often too-rigid rigid structures of academia.

All of us at the CCL would like to express our warmest gratitude to the colleagues that came together to support us – those that spoke, all those that attended, asked questions, made suggestions, and expressed their solidarity. As I said at the event, I was moved more than words could say. I still am. Thank you.

Lucia Boldrini,
CCL Director, 14 July 2022.

How to think plurality?

We gratefully receive these thoughts from Professor Ipshita Chanda. They feel very relevant to the season, and we share them on Christmas day.

 

Put some salt in water – and look! Watch the fun
What name will you give salt, when the mixing’s done?
Thus guided by the Prophet submit your self to god
What name will you call self, when self and god are one?

The poet is the Sufi master Khwaja Banda Nawaz GesuDaraz, who lived in the early 15th century and is credited with introducing Sufi tariqa to the Deccan in southern India. This verse can easily be interpreted as referring to the state of fanaa, the union with god towards which the Sufi practitioner is journeying through living this life following the way of a master. In the state of fanaa, the seeker abandons the self and becomes one with god. The state of erasing difference, however, must needs be preceded by acknowledging its existence – hence the need to see it in its infinite variety in every grain of salt. That is the ground for the question, “how to think plurality?”

And so, we may begin with the writer of the lines quoted above.

GesuDaraz wrote in Persian and in Dakkhni, a language used in the southern part of India. It spread over a vast area thanks to teachers and seers of various Sufi orders who crafted and used this language to spread their message to the common people who did not understand Persian. The local languages of the South belong to a language family unfamiliar in the northern part of India, and so, the language developed across the area of influence of the saints and seers combined at least two language families, or to put it more exactly, variations of two language families. Dakkhni combines vocabulary, cultural references and usage from Persian with the same from languages of the Indo Aryan and of the Dravidian families. GesuDaraz travelled across the Deccan and spent his last years in Gulbarga, now in Maharashtra, close upon the border with the neighbouring state, Karnataka. The variety of Dakkhni he used combined the local languages Marathi and Kannada, Hindustani, common to Northern India, and the philosophical and spiritual vocabulary of Sufism in Persian.

Dakkhni, however is not an “official” or scheduled language, that is, it is not recognised by the Indian constitution’s VIII Schedule, where 24 official languages are listed. Why is this so?

The idea of having no single language as official or national when a variety of languages was spoken and the languages were so closely related, indicates a desire on the part of the policy makers to foster this natural plurality, thus acknowledging and preserving both the systemic relations and the difference between the languages and cultures included within the geopolitical area demarcated as India. But perhaps under the influence of the colonial idea of language standardisation, instead of taking cognisance of the relational dynamics between plural languages characterised by “fuzzy boundaries”, an atomist model of languages prevailed. In this model, each language was seen as a complete unit, closed off from other languages, even while they all coexisted within geographical space. Dakkhni could not be thus standardised. It does not fit into an atomist model as it remains a confluence of many language families and cultures, and it cannot be ascribed to any specific linguistic state as it is spoken across three states.

If, indeed, we had been able to think of plurality as entities-in-relation rather than as many self-contained discrete entities, we would have begun to question the very idea of single- language literary systems as sealed off from each other. Literature as a human activity would then be constituted by our relation with the world and with others through language, the “medium of our intersubjectivity”, the medium of our “intentional relation to the world” (Syed A. Sayeed, “Dismantling the Political”, in Mangesh Kulkarni ed., Interdisciplinary Perspectives in Political Theory, SAGE India, 2011).

If we are ready to grant this as a perspective, a place from where we see, a sensible and conceptual world coordinated through language, let us call our perspective pluralist. From this perspective our existence is seen as a set of relations to a plural world, in which there are others, entities and objects of endless variety. Our lives comprise expressions of our own and translation of others’, thoughts and feelings into actions and responses. Our actions cannot be absolute or isolated, they are directed and intentional – as acting embodied consciousness, we each take responsibility for our actions. A relational perspective is, therefore, a dynamic one. It means a concrete, continuous engagement, much like existence itself.

The necessity for understanding becomes even more urgent and commonplace when we think of our existence as being in relation with: therein lies the radical irreducibility of an other: any and every other. So, thinking plurality entails thinking that alterity is irreducible, but essential to human existence.

Thereafter, the choice is ours.

If we intend to willingly make that choice, thinking plurality requires that we look at two objects in relation within a frame, a perspective, without introduction of a value hierarchy. This is a pluralist perspective, from which we can see the relation between entities rather than entities alone.

And this brings us to the ethical question which underlies any relation between subjects: how to understand the other without reducing it to our assumptions, our obsessions and our prejudices? What becomes of these in the encounter with an other?

And who can predict that, infallibly or even randomly?

The very being of difference demands that the enigmatic remain so, inciting in us the sense of wonder and perhaps discomfort and adjustment that all human encounters have to surmount or contain in order to occur.

So to think plurality we have travelled from language to world view. With little effect. Because at least where I am located, despite this being a daily reality, we have yet to see it clearly enough to start recasting our thinking towards it, though we live immersed in it.

And to thank you for walking through my thoughts with me, I offer you some lines from the introduction to Padumavat. Malik Muhammad Jaysi wrote the Padumavat in1540. Jaysi followed a Sufi master, but he uses allegorical imagery drawn from the beliefs of the Gorakhpanthis, a sect of yogic practitioners based in northern India. They are followers of Gorakhnath, who learnt the truth of creation from his master Matsyendra, who overheard Shiva himself telling it to his wife Parvati. Jaysi was the first known poet of Awadhi, part of the collection of linked languages prevalent in west and central India, known as Hindustani and used by Tulsidas to write Ramcharitmanas, his retelling of Valmiki’s Ramayan. After the hamdnaat, or introductory invocation marking his obeisance to Allah, Jaysi writes:

Turki, Arabi, Hindawi, whate’er be the tongue you speak
All the world will praise your words, if the path of love you seek.

In a world burdened by the ravages of identity, can we consider his exhortation?

 

Ipshita Chanda is Professor of Comparative Literature at the Department of Comparative Literature, The English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad, and translates between Hindi, Bangla, Urdu and English

Multilingualism and Global Humanities in the Time of Covid-19 Pandemic

Professor Wen-Chin Ouyang reflects on the crisis of the humanities and how they are necessary to our lives

London. Sunday. 24 October 2021. Morning. For the first time in years I open my eyes to sunshine filtering through the bedroom curtains. I grabbed my mobile. 9:16 am. I am 16 minutes late calling my mother in Taipei. There have been earthquakes here, my mother says as soon as she picks up the phone, of magnitude 6.5 on the Richter scale. I turn to The Guardian on my iPad and look for more details. My heart sinks as I read ‘New university job cuts fuel rising outrage on campuses’. Goldsmiths has announced 52 compulsory redundancies among professional staff and academics, the latter all in English and the humanities. I heard about the job cuts from friends at Goldsmiths’ Centre for Comparative Literature but reading about them in The Guardian I am glad in a perverse way that the crisis at Goldsmith has made national news. Perhaps it is time for us to stare the crisis in languages and humanities in the eye. SOAS recently went through a similar experience. Despite the rigour of our research and the recognition of the importance of languages and humanities in our daily life, funding cuts and low recruitment in many of our academic programmes, exacerbated further by the Covid-19 pandemic in the past two years, have led to massive job cuts accompanied by curriculum reform. Many languages have disappeared or are disappearing from school and university curricula and literature offerings are greatly diminished. Looking at the Arabic Programme(s) at SOAS from the prism of what I knew when I first moved to London in 1997, I see ruins of what once was. The MA Arabic Literature was withdrawn together with most of the advanced BA and MA literature modules. Our language modules are reduced in intensity. It is becoming increasing difficult to graduate students with high levels of language proficiency, cultural literacy, and literary skills, just as the world needs them even more than ever. I am reminded of the opening lines of a long qasida poem (translated by Suzanne Stetkevych) by Labid, a sixth century Arab poet, who stood before the campsite of his departed beloved and lamented:

Effaced are the abodes,
brief encampments and long-settled ones;
At Mina the wilderness has claimed
Mount Ghaul and Mount Rijam.

Then I stopped and questioned them,
but how do we question
Mute immortals whose speech
is indistinct.

Stripped bare where once a folk had dwelled,
then one morn departed;
Abandoned lay the trench that ran around the tent,
The thumam grass that plugged their holes.

But I do not wish to lapse into melancholy. Rather, I want to dare to hope against hope, to will a rebuilding from the abandoned dwellings starting from left behind traces, for the Covid-19 pandemic has paradoxically shown us how instrumental languages and humanities are in the ways individuals and communities are responding to the challenges posed by the new coronavirus. A team of SOAS colleagues have been gathering information about the ways in which different linguistic communities in London are responding to Covid-19. Their work on “cultural translation and interpreting of Covid-19 risks” is a UKRI/AHRC Covid-19 research project. From the statistics published to-date, we can see that multilingualism is at work in how migrant communities access information. Most migrant communities access information outside the UK and in languages other than English. And the information they read comes from “formal” news channels (the BBC and the recognized news papers) as well as social media, tabloids, and “collective wisdom” inherited from a history of managing pandemics going around in their global communities through, let us say, chats on their mobile phones. Just as the new coronavirus has connected the “fate” of the entire globe, multilingualism and technology have also brought the globe into one “destiny.” We are struggling together to contain the spread of Covid-19 and at the same time to work out our individual and collective code of conduct under the circumstances of global entanglement.

This has been that space where similar issues have been raised, interrogated and “translated” into everyday conduct. Ibn Butlan, a Christian physician from Baghdad, who left behind a work on medicine and another on his travels in the Middle East, chose to write in the adab tradition pioneered by Ibn al-Muqaffa‘, and in a literary form, the classical Arabic maqama, about the attitudes of the physicians towards illness, and particularly the plague of 1154-55, and their patients, and more importantly “truth” about the plague. Ibn Butlan does not deign to tell us what “truth” is, but by dramatizing the politics of “truth,” the details that go into each version, and the cost of these in actual lives lost (to the plague), he makes visible and tangible the consequences of each thought and each action on individuals and their community. This is the role the humanities have always played, and can still play, if we adjust our academic approach to them.

As early as 2008, Rita Felski examined in Uses of Literature the paradox pervasive in academic study of literature. Critics justify the importance of their work by focusing on the “uniqueness” of the literary work, and by doing so privileging “distinctiveness,” “difference” and “otherness.” For, in the view of many, “the otherness of literature” is precisely “the source of its radical transformative potential”. However, “separating literature from everything around it, critics fumble to explain how works of art arise from and move back into the social world.” Felski goes on to say, “highlighting literature’s uniqueness, they overlook the equally salient realities of its own connectedness.” By calling her book “uses of literature” she proposes pluralizing reading practices, to include the familiar political and ideological and at the same time to go beyond these “to engage with the worldly.” The four part process of textual engagement she delineates, “recognition,” “enchantment,” “knowledge” and “shock” brings literature back to “configurations of social knowledge.” And this “social knowledge” tailored for the Covid-19 situation is what we need now and what world literature and the global humanities can offer.

My thoughts return to Goldsmiths and my mother in Taipei. I will be going to Taipei for the 2022 ACLA annual meeting. Being in my mother’s time zone will alleviate my anxiety about staying in touch with her, but taking part in a comparative literature conference will not, I am sure, calm my fears about the future of languages and the humanities. But we must find a way to show our funders and students the importance of languages and the humanities. That instead of cutting we should be strengthening, expanding and proliferating our offerings in these. For what needs working out is not just decisions about vaccination but also details of our everyday living.

Wen-chin Ouyang, FBA, is Professor of Arabic and Comparative Literature at SOAS, University of London. Born in Taiwan and raised in Libya, she has a BA in Arabic from Tripoli University and a PhD in Middle Eastern Studies from Columbia University.

Psychoanalysis and the Challenge of Islam

Hanan Jasim Khammas, Visiting Doctoral Scholar at the CCL, reviews Fethi Benslama’s Psychoanalysis and the challenge of Islam (trans. by Robert Bononno. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009. 272 pp. ISBN 978-0816648894)

Fethi Benslama is a French-Tunisian psychoanalyst, a Parisian academic, and the author of several pieces on political Islam. His seminal work Psychoanalysis and the Challenge of Islam (2002) was translated into Arabic by the author’s sister, the Tunisian scholar and feminist critic Rajaʾ Benslama, who is also interested in the psychoanalytic deconstruction of gender and sexuality in Arab and Muslim cultural heritage. Both authors are a must-read, given the poor attention psychoanalytic circles have given to the questions of Islam and its historical development.

In Psychoanalysis and the Challenge of Islam, Benslama addresses mythical, theological, and literary textual accounts if the Islamic genesis to provide an explanation of what he calls the crisis of Islamic radical fundamentalism. The later Un furieux désir de sacrifice. Le surmusulman, published in 2016, seems to provide a clearer and easier reading to the subject; nevertheless, the earlier volume already offers an insightful body of analysis to address many of the big questions of Islam. Reviewers have claimed that the outstanding originality of this work lies in the author’s observation that the Islamist discourse is “tormented” by the question of origin, and that Islam, unlike the Judaeo-Christian tradition which symbolised God as father figure, “denies”, as Benslama put it in an interview with Gabriela Keller (“Islam and Psychoanalysis: A Tale of Mutual Ignorance”, June 13, 2006), “any connection between God and a father figure”. In fact, “God is far removed from humanity because he may not be compared in any way with the idea of mankind” which makes for an “abstract religion” and “abstract God”. This observation is substantiated in the book in a thorough comparative analysis of the history of monotheism, between the Judeo-Christian tradition and Islam. This leads to what I believe is the book’s strongest claim, the explanation of the origins of violence against women in that “the ‘torment’ of origin manifests itself in Islam in the suppression of the feminine, which combined with the absence of the divine paternal, accounts for Islam’s extreme masculine monotheism and political extremism” (as Mahdi Tourage puts it in his 2012 review of Benslama’s book for Contemporary Islam (6): 201-203). Benslama reaches this conclusion through the analysis of the role played by Khadija – the prophet’s wife; and Hagar – mother of Ishmael, Abraham’s son, the progenitor of Arabs. According to his analysis, both Khadija and Hagar represent feared figures for having access to knowledge about what cannot be known, and what is impossible to have access to – God. Hagar could see and hear God (81-83), and Khadija confirmed Mohammad’s prophecy even before he knew he was a prophet. When visited by the Archangel Gabriel, Khadija lifted her veil to show the prophet that if the angel leaves, then he is a divine angel sent by God, if he stays, then he is an evil demon. For Benslama, both stories show that women seem “possessed of a ‘negativity’ that can be used to prove the truth of the Other. The veil separates truth from its negation”; and that “[m]an is inhabited by the Other but does not recognize it. Without the woman’s unveiling, and therefore without the veil, he would have remained indecisive, living but doubting god” (135). Thus, the necessity for the veil and the suppression of the feminine come from not the demeaning attitudes towards women, but rather from an existential demand governed by fear.

As refreshing and enlightening as this may sound, one cannot but wonder how Islamic feminism responds to this, for such analysis posits both the exegesis and women-scholar’s reading of the Qurʾān into a questioning examination, or as put forward by Slavoj Zizek in “The Power of Woman and the Truth of Islam” (ABC, May 19th, 2012): “One thus cannot simply oppose the ‘good’ Islam (reverence of women) and the ‘bad’ Islam (veiled oppressed women). And the point is not simply to return to the ‘repressed feminist origins’ of Islam, to renovate Islam in its feminist aspect: these oppressed origins are simultaneously the very origins of the oppression of women. Oppression does not just oppress the origins; oppression has to oppress its own origins”.

In addition, even though the genesis of Islam had excluded God from the symbolic order, maintaining Him in the domain of the un-symbolised – the real –, the analysis does not address the fact that Islamist fundamentalism thrives on the promise of the reunion with the creator and an eternity of living under his blessing in heavens. What is the significance of this ultimate fantasy in the articulation of desire?  Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, the analysis also ignores the role of orientalist misrepresentation in the formation of radical fundamentalism. Throughout history, the orientalist imagination and its enacting institutions have created images of Islam and Muslims which have also intervened in the reconfiguration of the subject’s interconnected triad of registers: imaginary, symbolic and the real. Let us recall the Syrian thinker Ṣādiq Jalāl al-ʿaẓm, who argued in “Orientalism and Orientalism in Reverse” (1980, reproduced in in Orientalism: A Reader, ed. by A. L. Macfie, EUP, 2000; also available at https://eutopiainstitute.org/2021/05/orientalism-and-orientalism-in-reverse-sadik-jalal-al-azm/) that Ontological Orientalism – “the foundation of the image created by modern Europe of the Orient” – had “left its profound imprint on the Orient’s modern and contemporary consciousness of itself” (pp. 230-231). How does the image created by Ontological Orientalism participate or intervene in the construction of the Islamic fundamentalist psyche, which al-ʿaẓm described as Reversed Orientalism?

The radical investigation that this work presents connects different complex areas, some of which are left untouched, but this can only mean that Benslama has opened for us a path full of questions which comparative literature can definitely bring answers to.

 

Hanan Jasim Khassam is completing her Doctoral research at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona on the representation of the body in contemporary Iraqi fiction. As part of her residency at the CCL, Hanan has organised the short seminar series Remnants of the Iraq Wars: Iraqi Literature Twenty Years after 9/11; she chaired the first event, Iraq: Corporeality & Memory. Iraqi literature, 20 years after 9/11 (7 September 2021) and discussed her research in the second, Aftermath Bodies: Corporeality in Contemporary Iraqi Fiction (22 September 2021). Video recordings of both are available on the events’ page. This is Hanan’s second blog post, written as part of her visit at the CCL – the first one was on The Banality of Violence: Art and the narrative of victimisation.