The irony of the moment is not lost on scholars on China and Russia: Understanding both places is more crucial now than ever. But just as their expertise is more valued, gaining firsthand insight could become much more difficult.
One of these buzzwords was tangping (躺平, ‘lying flat’).
As I read about this concept for the first time in the spring of 2021, I immediately felt connected to the term as I had started lying flat after completing my PhD in Chinese Studies in 2018. My life in China from 2012 to 2015 had shifted my understanding of the world and undermined my ambition to become an academic. After receiving my PhD, I decided to quit my academic career as an act of rebellion against both the labour market and a system in which knowledge had become an instrument of domination. The unemployment benefits granted by the French Government allowed me to lie flat to ponder the world’s problems and attempt to imagine a new way of life beyond the capitalist imaginary. The emergence of the lying-flat attitude in China and the way it echoed my personal experience revealed the universality of the phenomenon among younger generations who struggle to cope with the disintegration of the meaning of life at this stage of late capitalism.
Submerged in a new project: teaching a new generalist undergraduate course on modern and contemporary Asian history. Weeks fly by. Nice to remember how preparing a new course can be so demanding and gratifying. For the first time I have included a couple of comic books as part of the required readings: Kanikosen and Tian’anmen 1989.
Mental note: next time I attend an international conference, every time someone mentions how nice it must be to live in Barcelona I will attach this piece as supplementary bibliography to my conventional answer (Americans Head to Europe for the Good Life on the Cheap). And I will also make sure to emphasize the last part of its subtitle: “Home sales to Americans have increased significantly, giving them a chance to enjoy a lifestyle they could not afford in major U.S. cities, but the influx risks upsetting local residents.”
Great ALTER seminar with Caio Yurgel and Xiang Zairong (Duke Kunshan University). They presented their project “At the Margins of Data: The Histories of Translation Between the Chinese-, Portuguese-, and Spanish-Speaking Worlds”. Interesting discussion about the potential of large, quantitative findings, and the challenges of turning raw data into significant qualitative analysis.
Back to Barcelona. Still ruminating and digesting last week’s AAS conference. It was great to reconnect with friends and colleagues. The experience was generally positive and productive. Etcetera.
Then, a coincidence: precisely during this trip I bought a copy of Disorientation by Elaine Hsieh Chou. On page 5:
She even attended a pricey international conference in New York in the hopes of gently plagiarizing some Argentinian or Swedish scholar’s paper.
Indeed, I have recently come across a few cases of scholars based in first-world institutions using research done by scholars from other parts of the world without acknowledging it. I never thought about this as a generalized practice–until I found it in Elaine Hsieh Chou’s novel… (Still not sure what is worse, though: that they use previous research without citing it, or that they just genuinely ignore it, or decide to ignore it.)
In any case, the truth of the matter is that academic conferences are becoming an industry that charges at levels that are not always affordable for scholars working outside of first-world academia. And that this discrimination may reinforce the insularity and/or the arrogance of certain kinds of scholarship.
Just attended the AAS conference in Boston over the weekend. I shared some ideas from Secondhand China in the panel “Conditioned Solidarities: Relay Translation between China and the World.” Gal Gvili, Clara Iwasaki and Yang Peiyu talked about their recent books on the topic too. We were very honored to have Michael Gibbs Hill and James St André as discussants.
Now I write from Ithaca–an express visit to Cornell to participate in China in Place: Locale and China Studies after 2020. This event has been a superb opportunity to organize my scattered thoughts about China, China studies, and the Sinophone today. Best thing of all: contrasting my own views with the ideas and experiences from Nick Admussen, Ding Fei, and Jack Zinda. I learned a lot and feel very energized.
9. The humanities are not doomed or close to the end. Rather they are experiencing a contraction that results from capitulating to the idea that college is solely to train for labor skills. Until the humanities find an argument to push back against that effectively, the downward turn with continue.
Still figuring out how to coexist with ChatGPT and other AI developments that will come sooner than later. I guess I mostly agree with Christopher Grobe in Why I’m Not Scared of ChatGPT: most of the discussion is based on how it will impact assessment–not learning per se. So if we focus on learning, then perhaps it is not such a big deal?
But if we treat learning (not distinction) as the goal of education, then generative AI looks more like an opportunity than a threat.
I came across Segalen’s novel while working on Secondhand China. I found it absolutely fascinating. The specific idea for the piece emerged after some discussions with the ALTER folks during our project on taphonomies of cross-cultural knowledge. My fascination continued, so I decided to translate the novel into Catalan too–it will be published soon.
Very happy to have participated in the midway assessment of a superb doctoral project at the University of Olso. Very grateful to Jorge Locane and Ana María Ramírez for their invitation and hospitality. I learned many things–and, most importantly, my reading list increased significantly.
Whether officially or unofficially time-capped, these positions in aggregate make up a colossal infrastructure of postdocs, fellowships, visiting assistant professorships, preceptorships, and lecturer positions that contribute to a system of turnover many dub “the churn.” New faculty members are brought into an institution at low pay just as senior ones, at slightly higher pay, are unceremoniously ushered out the back door.
Recent chats with human colleagues have mostly been about Chat GPT, of course. But about other topics as well. For example, about a professor who decided to charge for his manuscript reviews for journals that later charge for access. Or about another mock paper accepted by a predatory journal–the title of the paper, by the way, was “Get me off your fucking mailing list”.
Great ALTER online workshop with Nick Admussen, who shared with our research group his work in progress. A very inspiring example of formal experimentation in academic writing. Nothing beats the face-to-face format, but online meetings are easier to arrange and can be productive and stimulating too.
The folks at CCCB tell us this is the first activity they schedule back at Sala Mirador after the pandemic–the only way to get there is through a set of small elevators and access was still restricted.
Trying to structure my new project and align it with my research group’s new collective project. Lots of planning and strategizing. Perhaps too much? I bump into James C. Scott’s views on his own intellectual trajectory:
The very attempt to summarize some of what I have written over several decades is likely to convey a false sense of purpose and unity—a teleology even. (…) There are connections between different things I have written, and more than once, I have been both startled and convinced that a close and perceptive reader had discerned a thread of thought that was obviously there. The simple point is that these were rarely connections that I was aware of at the time. I was, instead, simply stumbling, like a crow or magpie, from one shiny object to another. Maybe the phenomenology of my journey is beside the point, but I confess that my guiding ethic was one of intellectual hedonism; I turned my attention to whatever seemed to offer the most intellectual fun. And when I had squeezed as much fun from it as I could manage, I looked around for another playground.
Coincidence: on the very same day I learn about the release of a new translation of 1984 into Catalan by Albert Nolla and listen to The Daily‘s summary of the World Cup–with the following reference at around 22:40:
Sabrina Tavernise: And what does that [purest form of] FIFA land look like for you? I mean, you’ve been living in it for the past month.
Rory Smith: There’s a lot of fences everywhere because you’re not allowed to walk in certain directions at certain times. There’s lots of vaguely vapid slogans like “now is all” and “together” that are meant, I think, to inspire you, but it feels just a little bit 1984. There’s music everywhere. Just there is no point at which it’s quiet or still or restful.
In my graduate courses I often have students who enrol without any background in literary studies. They tend to interpret novels mostly as realistic depictions of the world. To help them understand the power of rhetorical devices and literary techniques such as irony, I usually point them towards Yu Hua’s article The Spirit of May 35th. The recent protests across China have brought more updated examples.
One of the most brilliant moments of Particle Fever is when, during a Q&A, physicist David Kaplan is asked about the potential economic return of the (at the time forthcoming) experiments at the LHC. He gives the following answer–which I will no doubt try to adapt when in the future someone asks me something similar related to literature… (although I assume that, not being a physicist myself, I shouldn’t expect the same applause in return.)
Question: Let’s assume you’re successful and everything comes out okay. What do we gain from it? What’s the economic return? How do you justify all this? By the way, I am an economist…
Answer: The question by an economist was, “What is the financial gain of running an experiment like this and the discoveries that we will make in this experiment?” And it’s a very, very simple answer: I have no idea! We have no idea. When radio waves were discovered, they weren’t called radio waves, because there were no radios. They were discovered as some sort of radiation. Basic science for big breakthroughs needs to occur at a level where you’re not asking, “What is the economic gain?” You’re asking, “What do we not know, and where can we make progress?” So what is the LHC good for? Could be nothing other than just understanding everything.
For me, the last few years provide arguments for both buoyant optimism and abject despair. They have made me more mindful of the inescapable challenge of uncertainty when it comes to projecting the future, and the necessity of nevertheless operating within it.
Talking with a colleague about the need to rehearse before talks–of any kind. How is it possible, for instance, that so many people have so much trouble adjusting to the allotted time? I always use the same example: if (according to David Remnick) Bruce Springsteen at sixty-two still rehearsed obsessively for all his concerts, I honestly don’t see why we shouldn’t…
Reading about Chinese architect Xu Tiantian, her work, and architectural acupuncture. In an interview I find this answer–which should be applied the other way around too:
Question: Is there anything that you would like to change in the university system?
Answer: To be more open. Especially for the students in their early years of architecture education, it is really important to open up their minds, to see more architecture and look beyond architects. There’s a lot of inspiration from others, from art, from culture, from literature, from everything, from life in general. So you need to get that as your foundation when you start in architecture.
Organizing my notes from the past few weeks. In Joanna Page’s wonderful presentation during the Ciencia y Caridad Conference, I discovered Eulalia de Valdenebro’s work. Can’t stop thinking about her series Heterogéneas/Criminales. Is it because the contrast between the two rows looks to me like the perfect illustration of the world literature problem?
It is no wonder that the hills are alive with the sound of presentism. Absent a serious space for reflection, debate, and deliberation in or on the actually existing present, it becomes easy to claim that my history is bigger than yours, or more ethically relevant, or more marginalized. In this weaponized sense everyone is in the history business, and it is only in the relative calm of graduate programs, annual meetings, journal submissions, and the recruitment of professional historians that the soothing hum of sources, chronologies, periods, and methods can still be heard.
Mental note: recommend Patrick Radden Keefe’s Empire of Pain to graduate students and, in fact, to anyone dealing with complicated writing. The book combines a scientific topic, tons of data, very intricate politics and legal stuff, complicated threads… And yet it is all explained so clearly–as if it was so simple. Even if it is not a scholarly book, it could be a great source of inspiration for academic writing.
It was my first in person conference after the pandemic and I enjoyed two really stimulating days among great colleagues and students. The conference was based on Picasso’s Ciencia y Caridad. The painting’s allegorical potential spurred excellent presentations and discussions about science, the humanities, and the global challenges that lie ahead.
A few days ago, I talked about Secondhand China with Suvi Rautio. Our chat has just been released in New Books in Chinese Studies. As an enthusiastic subscriber of the New Books Network (a terrific resource I always recommend to students and colleagues) I am so glad to be now an episode in the channel!
Week that feels truly post-pandemic. Today, I presented Regresar a China in Madrid. I enjoyed a wonderful discussion with a group of superb readers. On Friday, my first face-to-face conference after the pandemic.
Back to teaching very soon. Going over syllabi, class notes, and teaching logistics. And gathering drive and stamina to wrangle time for writing and research during a busier weeks. Perfect timing for Rebecca Schuman’s reminders in 3 Practical Approaches to Writing While Teaching.
Pankaj Mishra’s book recommendations. Very happy to find references to the English translations of Mercè Rodoreda’s La plaça del diamant (as a book hardly any reader in English has heard of) and Josep Pla’s El quadern gris (as “a hypnotic record of the author’s life in the Catalan provinces and Barcelona in the first half of the 20th century, and I found myself wishing this very long book to go on forever”).
More on reading around. I find this interview to the great writer and historian Robert Bickers. Question: “What’s the best advice you ever got about history?” Answer: “Read, read, read, read, read, read, read. And read anything and everything.”
Not yet fully adjusted to this new phase between projects. Feeling quite anxious, in fact. I search for advice in a senior colleague I admire very much. He says he loves this phase and hopes I enjoy it too. “It’s a parenthesis of pure potential, when you can read around and wait for some kind of lightning to strike.” I do my best to absorve this good piece of wisdom. But: what if there is no lightning?
In a letter to his wife on January 15, 1918, Victor Segalen writes what could have been written by one of those academics who became very productive during the lockdown…
Je me suis fêté hier ma quarantaine, que je porte, ma foi, fort bien… J’ai trois drames, dix romans, quatre essais, deux théories du monde, une poétique, une exotique, une esthétique, un traité des Au-delà, une vingtaine d’ouvrages inclassables, et quatre mille soixante-trois articles de deux cents à deux mille lignes à donner avant de prendre ma vraie retraite. Après quoi, je préparerai une édition entièrement contradictoire de mes oeuvres–afin que l’on choisisse.
Summer break. Having read this last year, I turn my out-of-office reply and promise myself that this year I will do as say in the automatic message: check email only sporadically and reply upon my return.
I sort of do it. I make only one exception and reply an email from a colleague I admire. He has asked me to send him something and I basically tell him I will have to deal with that in early September, etc. He writes back: “Thank you so much, and safe travels! Vacation is important!”
Mental note: we should make the importance of vacation more explicit–especially to young colleagues.
Finishing up a translation project that has been (intermittently) in the making for quite some time now. Definitely a very different kind of intellectual gymnastics–compared to the usual academic writing. I like how they supplement each other.
A PhD student files and gets a decent job: that this is spectacular news (and not just a normal concatenation of events) tells about how difficult it is to become a professional academic nowadays.
Dilemma: Should we then keep on training young researchers (help them select a dissertation topic, dialogue with the field, become generous and dedicated scholars) if there will be almost no decent jobs after they file? Would any other profession do that–train someone for a non-existent job?
I have also received very warm comments about the Acknowledgements section. Some colleagues have told me that they will share it with Anglophone friends. One even told me he will circulate it in a course he teaches on scholarly publishing for graduate students, who (in his program) are almost never first-language English speakers. Most interesting: a British colleague suggested that it may not be (only) a question of Anglophone speakerism but (also) about the parochialism of North American academia–as even the “other” Anglophones find their work outside the canon. I am so happy my reflections can help making these issues more visible.
One month since Secondhand China was officially released. It has been a joy to share the book with colleagues. I have also shared with family and non-academic friends a FAQ document to “explain” the whole book’s project in Catalan language and without scholarly jargon. I must confess I was a bit reluctant to share this at first. But from their responses I see that it was really worthwhile!
ACLA 2022 in Taiwan yet unfortunately in a virtual format… Took part in a 3-day panel on translation and future contexts. Great pleasure to co-organize this with Nick Admussen. Superb range of papers! I learned a lot about different ways of engaging with translation. I “returned home” thankful, happy and energized.
Young professor arrives at a new department. No one really knows him: this is an old department in one of the old disciplines in the humanities and this new guy works on China stuff. They do not care much about the topic and they do not pay much attention to him. Of course, he is assigned to teach the first-year introductory courses no one wants to teach. The new professor does not complain: he does his job and keeps a low profile.
Four years later, the new professor (not so new by then) is finally invited to present his research at one of the monthly brown bag talks organized by the department. These seminars are advertised widely and are open to all the academic community, but they usually gather about 8-10 old faculty members.
The day the new professor gives his talk, more than 50 students show up too.
David Bromwich interviewed by Len Gutkin. At one point, Bromwich says:
I know of faculty, both here and at other universities, who are major personalities on Twitter. They tweet links to articles, and they tweet instant reactions, off the cuff, sometimes witty and sometimes not. And there is some demagoguing. On occasion, they are compelled by an inward or outward pressure to delete their tweets.
To me, this simply goes against the vocation of being a scholar. Let’s not be too high and mighty, but still — we are understood to be people who deliberate, who take some time to get at what we believe to be the truth. The whole ethic of snap reactions goes against that. In the long run, it’s going to reduce the prestige of professors. It makes us more like everyone else, which a lot of academics have wanted to be all along. That’s part of the problem — the idea that we should try to erase the distinctions that separate university life, academic life, from society.
Bromwich’s views were taken (in Twitter, of course) as antidemocratic, etc. But I think these criticisms miss Bromwich’s larger point. I agree with Gutkin’s later remark:
But academics are not like everyone else — or at any rate, academe is not like the other professions. The conviction that scholarship is in some sense an autonomous sphere is probably not one that scholars can do without, at least not if they want to retain the foundational privileges of academic freedom and the tenure system. Those institutions are oriented toward a vocational ideal of the academy; they do not exist in other professions, because they would make no sense there. Corporate lawyers might be rich, but they are bound by golden handcuffs. Dentists don’t have dental freedom. To dissent from Bromwich’s insistence that academic life is different from other kinds of professional life — to imagine that that conviction is simple snobbery — is to abandon academic freedom in any of its senses. (…) When Bromwich refers to the threatened “prestige of professors,” his concern is not that they won’t be accepted to the country club. His concern, precisely, is that they won’t continue to be granted, by the wider society, the freedom to do their jobs.
We need time to read. The cognitive load of the pandemic, with its attendant stresses in our work and nonwork lives, has made the simple act of reading a considerable challenge for many faculty and staff members. Being able to make reading a priority — to immerse ourselves in the latest works in our scholarly and professional fields — would have a profound effect on our ability to rejuvenate our research and development agendas.
Very interesting reference found in Dora Zang’s Is There a Future for Literary Studies? Zang mentions Rachel Sagner Buurma and Laura Heffernan’s The Teaching Archive: A New History for Literary Study (The University of Chicago Press, 2020). I quote:
Examining materials ranging from T.S. Eliot’s lecture notes from his classes at an extension school for working adults to Simon Ortiz’s efforts to establish a Native American-studies curriculum at the College of Marin, Buurma and Heffernan show that many of the key methodological developments in literary studies over the 20th century have developed in and through the classroom. This startling claim counters the familiar idea that the discipline’s theories and practices are pioneered by scholars at a handful of elite institutions “only later to ‘trickle down,’” as Buurma and Heffernan put it, “to non-elite institutions, students, and teachers.” It also challenges classic disciplinary histories like those by Gerald Graff and John Guillory, which characterize the history of literary studies as a series of “method wars,” whether between belletrists and philologists at the turn of the 20th century, or formalists and historicists towards that century’s end.
For me, the most interesting thing in Williams’ book is how he moves the criticism of informational technologies away from the typical individual spots and pays attention to the larger (and far more dangerous) social and political consequences.
We face great challenges today across the full stack of human life: at planetary, societal, organizational, and individual levels. Success in surmounting these challenges requires that we give the right sort of attention to the right sort of things. A major function, if not the primary purpose, of information technology should be to advance this end.
Yet for all its informational benefits, the rapid proliferation of digital technologies has compromised attention, in this wide sense, and produced a suite of cognitive-behavioral externalities that we are still only beginning to understand and mitigate. The enveloping of human life by information technologies has resulted in an informational environment whose dynamics the global persuasion industry has quickly come to dominate, and, in a virtually unbounded manner, has harnessed to engineer unprecedented advances in techniques of measurement, testing, automation, and persuasive design. The process continues apace, yet already we find ourselves entrusting enormous portions of our waking lives to technologies that compete with one another to maximize their share of our lives, and, indeed, to grow the stock of life that’s available for them to capture.
Faculty members, as unhappy as many of them are, are largely staying put. What has changed is how they approach their jobs. (…) For them, the Great Resignation looks different. We would describe it as disengagement. They are withdrawing from certain aspects of the job or, on a more emotional level, from the institution itself. Faculty members are not walking away in droves, but they are waving goodbye to norms and systems that prevailed in the past. They are still teaching their courses, supporting students, and trying to keep up with basic tasks. But connections to the institution have been frayed. The work is getting done, but there isn’t much spark to it.
An excellent piece of advice for PhD students in Tom Mullaney, Impostor Syndrome: The Secret to PhD Sanity: read less books and more dissertations. I often offer the same advice–even to MA students on their way to write MA dissertations.
Very honored to have shared a very interesting conversation on the relations between China and Spain with Carmen Cano, Jordi Quero and a bunch of excellent students. The roundtable was part of Current Issues in Spanish Foreign Policy, a course organized by the Centre for International Studies and the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
End of a very stimulating week: “Universal versus Particular in the 20th century”, an online international workshop on the interactions between the universal and the particular in the global context. It was organized by our ALTER colleague Etienne Lock, who gathered a wonderful, truly interdisciplinary set of presenters.
In my concluding remarks, I highlighted a few ideas that, I think, were shared by most of the presentations: language as a political issue, the productivity of truly interdisciplinary conversations, the scalability of these discussions, the importance of ethics in approaching these issues, and teaching as a much-needed substantiation of more abstract reflections.
Very productive ALTER seminar today: “Discussing Scale, Taphonomies and Circulation in Global History”, organized by our colleague Mònica Ginés-Blasi and with Christian G. De Vito (BCDSS, University of Bonn) as special guest.
Going over the mail that arrived at my office during the lockdown, etc., and that I ended up receiving only quite recently. For example, past issues of the JAS. In vol. 79, no. 4, November 2020, interesting reflections by Gail Hershatter, Tamara Loos and Geeta Patel on the afterlives of Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble in Asian Studies. Followed by a wonderful reply by Butler herself–which includes an interesting personal reflection on translation:
Nearly thirty-one years after the publication of Gender Trouble, I no longer think of translation as a secondary act. In fact, the category of gender is unthinkable without translation. For too long, those working in Euro-American frameworks have assumed that whatever is said about gender is true if it is conceptually clear within those vocabularies and grammars. They have (we have) failed to note that gender itself is an English coinage, emerging in the 1950s, that does not always travel well, and which meets resistance for reasons that are not always suspect. If a theory of gender seeks to be generalizable, then it has to pass through translation. (…) There can be not theory of gender without translation, and translation is the condition for a global understanding of gender and a differentiated sense of gender studies. (…) A text like Gender Trouble has to lose its authority to still do any work in the world. Torn up and rightly plundered, it produces still, I hope, some parts that can be reappropriated for a use that I could not have imagined. This is perhaps the greatest gift, to find that what one has put into the world has a life of its own, enters the life of others and is thus given life in ways that could not have been imagined.
A good contribution to what has already become a genre–China scholars trying to cope with a new context for dealing with China: Todd Hall (University of Oxford) hosts Biao Xiang (Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology), Ingrid d’Hooghe (Leiden Asia Centre) and David Ownby (Université de Montréal): Understanding China in Uncertain Times, organized by the University of Oxford China Centre.
A colleague of mine, Eric Baldwin, vice president for student development at the University of Lynchburg, summarized it like this: “Gallup shows us that students need two basic things to feel like they belong. They need to know someone on campus has their back, and they need a chance to do something really meaningful to them at least once a week.”
Found out that Jim Svejda retires after 43 years at Classical KUSC. I’ve been listening to his shows for about half that time. Given the time difference, I used to catch half of The Evening Program as I started my work day. Will miss his commentaries–and his voice and (dramatic) pauses.
Very interesting conversation between Jaume Subirana and Xènia Dyakonova on writing and translation at Diàlegs Humanístics UPF. Spectacular collective goose bumps after Jaume recites his Catalan translation of W. B. Yeats’s An Irish Airman Foresees His Death.
Another chain of happy coincidences. I am introduced to the professional indexer who will work on Secondhand China. Then I listen to this podcast and find out about this sensational book about indexes: Dennis Duncan, Index, A History of the. Then I find out that the indexer who will index my book has, in fact, reviewed Ducan’s book for the The Washington Post!
Interesting ALTER seminar with María Íñigo and Roger Sansi. They share with us their early ideas for a great project on the restitution of colonial objects. They should definitely publish an ethnography of the whole process: all the difficulties they are encountering to include non-EU partners illustrate very well how the decolonial project is very difficult to put into practice within our current academic and institutional structures…
Later, we circulate this text. As one of my colleagues mentioned, it could work as a creative plan B should everything else fail…