Nothing other than just understanding everything

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.

The inescapable challenge of uncertainty

David Wallace-Wells, Beyond Catastrophe: A New Climate Reality Is Coming Into View. A complete, balanced assessment that captures the complexity of the current situation:

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…

Openness as foundation

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?

Eulalia de Valdenebro, Heterogéneas/Criminales (2014)

Stop Weaponizing History

Arjun Appadurai, Stop Weaponizing History. On presentism, pastism and the traces of the future.

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.

Harlem Symphony

James P. Johnson, Harlem Symphony: 3. Night Club.

Inspiration for academic writing

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.

Ciencia y Caridad

Very honored to have been invited to give a keynote lecture at the Humanities Fall Conference: Ciencia y Caridad 科学与慈善, organized by Duke Kunshan University’s Humanities Research Center.

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.

New Books in Chinese Studies!

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!

Rodoreda and Pla

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”).

Read around and wait

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?

Ma quarantaine

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.

Vacation is important

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.

Very early drafts

Lunch with my PhD student–the one who recently filed and then got a decent job. So happy for her!

She confessed that the best thing I ever did during my mentorship was to share with her very early drafts of my own manuscripts–rough, messy, full of nonsensical ideas.

Intellectual gymnastics

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?

Post-publication (III)

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.

Post-publication (II)

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!

Tour d’ivoire

Thanks to Barnes’s work I come across this letter from Flaubert to Turgenev in 1872:

J’ai toujours tâché de vivre dans une tour d’ivoire; mais une maré de merde en bat les murs, à la faire crouler…

The Membranes

Glad to have read Ta-wei Chi’s The Membranes... as part of my duties as PhD supervisor!

(Strange feeling, though: to supervise a dissertation about a fellow graduate student back in those times… Makes me feel old!)

Translation in Future Contexts

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.

A True Story

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.

The freedom to do their jobs

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.

Time to read

Cate Denial, Clarissa Sorensen-Unruh, and Elizabeth A. Lehfeldt, After the Great Pivot Should Come the Great Pause.

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.

In and through the classroom

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.

Stand Out of Our Light

James Williams, Stand Out of Our Light: Freedom and Resistance in the Attention Economy.

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 Disengagement

Kevin R. McClure and Alisa Hicklin Fryar, The Great Faculty Disengagement. Indeed:

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.

Image: Pat Kinsella for The Chronicle


Roundtable at CEI

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.

Universal versus Particular

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.

Working on…

Wrapping up a few things here and there: sending a piece on Segalen for review, finishing up a chapter on Lu Xun and Spain. And then resuming (in good company) a fascinating translation project.

Gender Trouble in/and translation

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.

Morning Serenade

End of the quarter, book sent to print, relieved from a quite demanding academic service. Time to reset. Valentin Silvestrov, Two Dialogues with Postscript: III. Morning Serenade.

Have We Gotten Student Success Completely Backward?

Aaron Basko, Have We Gotten Student Success Completely Backward?, on “instead of fretting over why their students might leave, colleges need to make sure each one has a good reason to stay.”

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.”

Goose bumps

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.

Plan B

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…

Fortress besieged

It’s that time of the year again: receiving PhD applications and getting ready to assess them as a member of my department’s reviewing committee.

One more year I think about the fortress besieged effect: PhD applicants want to pursue a doctoral degree to get into academia, while tenured faculty want to get out of it.

Recent article on the former: Naomi Kanakia, Professors, Don’t Delude Yourselves: Your graduate students aren’t aiming for nonacademic jobs. Recent article on the latter: William Pannapacker, Tenured, Trapped, and Miserable in the Humanities: Why are so many tenured professors unhappy with their jobs yet unable to change careers?

Portraits of China in Western literature

Very honored to have participated in the conference The politics of Sino-Western relations, organized under the Project for Peaceful Competition. A very stimulating discussion of humanistic approaches and social sciences comments.

My paper was on the portraits of China in Western literature. It  summarized some aspects covered in Secondhand China. Happy to share this with such a distinguished audience.

Estudios asiáticos en España

It was a pleasure to share my thoughts on doing research in Asian studies in Spain with great colleagues such as Antonio J. Domenech and Pablo A. Rodríguez-Merino in a roundtable organized by Raúl Ramírez at Universidad Rey Juan Carlos. We met back in October and the video has just been made available here.

Highly involved parents

From Maggie Doherty, The Quiet Crisis of Parents on the Tenure Track:

The male academics I spoke to were highly involved parents who had used family leave to take care of children. While they appreciated that colleagues tended to be supportive of their decision to have kids — something a couple of them chalked up to gender privilege — some of them were frustrated that these same colleagues had assumed that they wouldn’t have any trouble balancing work and parenthood. Saul Zaritt, an assistant professor at Harvard with appointments in comparative literature and Near Eastern languages and civilizations, said that the message he got from older male colleagues who had been “particularly productive” on leave was that “it was easy to hold the baby and write the book.” But for Zaritt and other male academics who split child care evenly with their partners, it’s been far from easy. A child is “an enormous impediment to productivity,” said Parker, the assistant professor at Brown. The men I interviewed had many of the same worries about publishing and tenure as their female counterparts.

Who is the boss?

Just read Murakami’s conversations with Seiji Ozawa, Absolutely on Music, in the Catalan translation by Albert Nolla. I guess I learned more (about music) from Murakami’s interventions than from Ozawa’s… In one of their conversations, they refer to this:

Fraught Times

Emily Yeh’s Fraught Times on how “binary thinking and academic un-freedom threaten to foreclose the potential for geographers’ (and others’) research and teaching to make a productive difference toward a livable and dignified planetary future.”

Diari de Wuhan

Just found out that Fang Fang’s 武汉封城日记 (her series of blog posts published during the 2020 quarantine in Wuhan) has been translated into Spanish and Catalan from Michael Berry’s English translation. Will keep that in mind as a recent example for those who may object that the ideas I argue in my next book (that covers roughly from 1880 to 1930) do not apply today.

Back to FTI

Happy to be back at my alma mater to present Regresar a China to students in East Asian Studies at the Facultat de Traducció i Intepretació, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona. Heartfelt thanks to my colleagues Blai Guarné and Manuel Pavón for having organized this!

More capable than others

Agamben on Nietzsche via Traverso:

Those who are truly contemporary, who truly belong to their time, are those who neither perfectly coincide with it nor adjust themselves to its demands. They are thus in this sense irrelevant [inattuale]. But precisely because of this condition, precisely through this disconnection and this anachronism, they are more capable than others of perceiving and grasping their own time.

Working on…

Working on the first draft of an article. Having worked almost exclusively on the book project for so long, I feel out of place, out of pace. Like switching from marathon to 100 meters.

A bit relieved when looking at Fyodor Dostoevsky’s manuscript draft for The Brothers Karamazov:

Hands off our breaks

New academic year, transition to a new normal, back to a busy schedule with all sorts of meetings. Looking ahead, the academic calendar does not look good: early September to late July.

Quick message to administrators: Sarah Rose Cavanagh, Your Most Important Resource Is Eyeing the Door:

Some of the ideas for rejiggering the academic calendar are interesting. (…) But we need breaks to refresh, to renew, and to catch up on work. Professors have come to rely on official breaks for this rest since, unlike most professionals, we can’t take vacations for a week of our choosing during the semester. (…) If you mess with breaks, you also cut away at one of the few perks that an academic life has over other, more lucrative professions — namely, the flexibility of our work days. Teaching, scholarship, and service require long hours of effort. The benefit is that you may choose which hours you work and that you get scheduled breaks in between marathon stretches. As we transition to a new normal, we need to restore breaks during the academic year.

Passés singuliers

Enjoying Enzo Traverso’s very lucid Passés singuliers: Le “je” dans l’écriture de l’histoire. Loved the (ironic) personal preface to the Catalan edition (wonderful translation by Gustau Muñoz, by the way). Traverso narrates the frustrated trip to a conference in Spain that was at the origin of the book–his flight from Ithaca to Newark got delayed and then cancelled, etc. (My also ironic and personal immediate reaction was relief: it was wise, after all, to drive up to Ithaca and then back down to Newark on both our visits to Cornell…)

In all likelihood…

End of summer vacation. End of out-of-office reply as in Shit Academics Say:

I am currently away from the office and have intermittent access to email. If your email is not urgent I will in all likelihood still reply within 10 minutes due to ineffective self-regulation and an inability to maintain work-life balance.