For the 2009-2010 academic year ICM awarded three grants for the Graduate Reading Group Program. Each group is provided with a subvention of $1,000 for books and copying and a comfortable meeting space at the ICM’s Toboggan Lodge.


Group Members:
Julie Ajinkya, Department of Government 
Carl Gelderloos, Department of German Studies 
Onur Ulas Ince, Department of Government 
Pinar Kemerli, Department of Government 
Anthony Reed, Department of English 
Faculty Advisor: Barry Maxwell, Department of Comparative Literature 

In our prior study of the colonial encounter, we sought to problematize the privileged notion of modernity as a continuous, progressive process predicated upon the notion of a transhistorical (Western) subject and the developmental unfolding from a single, uncontaminated origin. This new study offers a more refined elaboration of specific moments of rupture, for which we propose the term “crisis.” Crisis seems to be the necessary narrative condition for the construction and maintenance of hegemonic ideologies and practices. To name a crisis, that is, invokes a state of normalcy (“business as usual”), underwritten by typically under-scrutinized processes of framing, inclusion, and exclusion. This naming involves hierarchization—some crises are more urgent than others—and predication: crises may be humanitarian, economic, political, moral, and so on. Crises emerge as the loci around which capitalist modernity tells a story to itself about itself.

Our new study asks whether, and to what extent, crises of modernity are crises at all, as opposed to symptoms of the suppressed or obfuscated exploitation, structural inequalities, and exclusions upon which the sense of "normalcy" rests. We will inquire into the management, in the form of narrative framing and political containment, of crises. What counts as a crisis, and who decides on its presence? On whose lives does the crisis make a claim, and what are its extents? Why are some crises labeled political, whereas others are humanitarian or moral? In other words, what are the narrative stakes of naming crises in certain ways, what are the practical implications, and who gets to profit from those decisions? What makes some crises more urgent pressing than others?

Our project is inspired by such phenomena as the inordinate weight given to the imaginary destruction of an American city as against the actual destruction of Japanese or Iraqi cities; the means through which America is granted and grants itself exemplary status in the face of the exempted and exempts itself in times of economic crisis from the interventions of such regulatory agencies as the International Monetary Fund; and the celebration of the Iraqi elections as democratic expression versus the construal of Hamas' victory in the Palestinian elections as democratic crisis. Our reading will examine the Weimar Republic in interwar Germany, the Great Depression, the American Civil Rights movement, the growing international AIDS crisis, the crisis of representation after the Holocaust, and related historical moments. Thinking through such crises, we hope to move toward developing an alternative genealogy of modernity rigorously mindful of our own tendencies to prioritize certain events and the tacit hierarchies our narratives of modernity might produce.


Group Members:
Lawrence Chua, History of Architecture and Urbanism 
Pamela Nguyen Corey, The Department of History of Art and Visual Studies (History of Art) 
Carter Higgins, Department of Asian Studies (Asian Religion) 
Andrew Alan Johnson, Department of Anthropology 
Quentin A. Pearson III, Department of History 
Mirabelle Yang, Department of Development Sociology 
Jonathan Young, Department of Asian Studies (Asian Religion) 
Faculty Sponsor: Iftikhar Dadi, Department of History of Art and Visual Studies

The impetus of this reading group is a desire to find new categories for labeling that which is distinctive about modernity and to gauge the conditions of the possibility of the modern beyond inherently homogenizing definitions predicated on specific political and economic changes. In keeping with the Kantian analogy, we hope to identify the characteristic features of modernity as it shifts from the colonial through the postcolonial periods in South and Southeast Asia through the changing human perceptions of space and time. Invoking diverse disciplinary perspectives, we will explore the manifestation of modernity in an array of “texts,” from the historiographical to the literary, from the texts of visual culture to the very spaces we inhabit. We will employ various methodologies across our respective disciplines to examine how chronological and spatial shifts have served as key sites for the production of multiple expressions of modernity. 

The following are the three principal areas that we wish to investigate, with the understanding that they are non-discrete themes that must be examined in dialogic relation to one another:


A particular focus of our group is the production of space, both symbolic and physical, and its connection to the mapping of geographies and histories. Our understanding of the productive space of modernity is not limited to simply the rural and urban landscapes that have accrued shifting meanings through time. Rather, we recognize the importance of using interdisciplinary approaches to the analysis of our “texts,” whether we read topographies as texts or historiographical writings as spatial structures. In regard to physical landscapes, we plan to look at how their embedded historical and cosmological meanings have been remapped as their topographies have been shaped by economic, social, and political processes during key moments of modernization.

Historical Narratives 

Exploring the conceptual features of modernity involves an incursion into the intellectual sphere, where the mind imposes order—however uneven and fragmentary—on the flux of the social and material world. The hope of identifying specifically modern aspects of a new human experience in the world with respect to the perception of time and space relies on our gaining access to the privileged confines of mental life. We plan to pursue these elemental changes, the shifting scales of space and time perception, in diverse narrative forms, such as literary, historiographical, and even pedagogical texts. Such texts are plotted against the implicit spatial and temporal axes of an author’s sphere of experience, and alteration of these axes over time constitutes evidence of epistemological change.

Belief Systems

From the colonial encounter to the era of nationalism and internal colonization of the “others” within, belief systems in South and Southeast Asia have transformed and been transformed. Our third area of focus within this reading group will be to examine the impact of modernity on structures of belief, both those labeled “religion” and otherwise, recognizing that ethical systems, mythological systems, and folklore have had a profound impact on political systems in South and Southeast Asia, an impact that has not been diminished by the transition to modernity. In this section, ethnographic accounts form a key focus, as through reading ethnography, we explore how people interact with, interpret, and construct belief systems in ways that are not pre-ordained by theoretical models (e.g. models derived from Western theory or religious orthodoxy).


Group Members:
Dambar Chemjong, Department of Anthropology 
Andrew Curley, Department of Development Sociology 
Brandy Doyle, Department of Anthropology 
Janice Gallagher, Department of Government 
Sara Keene, Department of Development Sociology 
Brian Thiede, Department of Development Sociology 
Blanca Torres, Department of Anthropology 
Simon Tu, Department of Government 
Faculty Advisor: Fouad Makki, Department of Sociology 

Our group approaches the comparative study of modernity through the exploration of political rights and cultural difference. Specifically, we wish to understand how the recognition of difference has been addressed in liberalism, a political philosophy founded on the universality of individual rights, and how liberal thought has been challenged by other visions of rights and differences. We are primarily interested in indigenous critiques and in challenges brought by social movements, two arenas in which claims to collective rights have disrupted the universality of liberalism’s reach. 

To explore these questions, we will begin with classic readings in liberalism (Locke 2003) and move to critiques that historicize liberal thought in the context of empire (Arneil 1996, Mehta 1999). From there, we will consider how the question of indigenous rights has been variously addressed by liberal thinkers (Kymlicka 1995, Taylor 1994). We will examine indigenous responses to liberalism (Turner 2006) and alternatives to liberal conceptions of rights, such as sovereignty (Alfred 1999, Bruyneel 2007, Ivison 2008). We will also examine how indigenous citizenship and “multiculturalism” have been imagined in different states and historical moments (Povinelli 2002, Hale 2006, Yashar 2005). 

Similarly, we approach the study of social movements with questions of collective rights, citizenship, and the challenges inherent in new forms of political action (Mohanty 1998). However, we also wish to consider how indigenous and social movement critiques of liberalism are not only linked to questions of identity and recognition, but also how they are rooted in alternative epistemologies of ecological and local knowledge(s). How do claims to local and indigenous forms of knowledge unsettle liberalism’s universalizing project? What kinds of knowledge resist generalization, and what are the political consequences of such resistance for social movements? We will read both theoretical and ethnographic works that address these questions (Bebbington forthcoming; Cruikshank 2005, Escobar 1998, Kirsch 2006, Tsing 2005, and West 2006). as well as works that evaluate liberal claims to scientific knowledge against other ways of knowing the world (Kirsch 2006 and Smith 1994). 

As a group of anthropologists, sociologists, and political scientists who share a common interest in the politics of difference, we hope to use this opportunity to deepen our understanding of the multiple articulations of liberalism, and ways in which indigenous and social movement critiques have challenged liberal thought with alternative conceptualizations of rights, knowledge, and difference.