2018-2019 GRADUATE READING GROUP GRANT RECIPIENTS

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DALIT STUDIES AND THE QUESTION OF CASTE

In 2015, IIT Madras—one of the premier educational institutions in India—banned the Ambedkar-Periyar Study Circle, a group primarily studying, reading, and discussing the work of anti-caste thinkers. This act of de-recognition of the Study Circle by the university highlighted the government’s surveillance of intellectual spaces in India and affirmed the very political nature of an Ambedkar-Periyar reading group. The idea of a few student getting together to talk about caste disturbed the university and the State, revealing how anti-caste thought interrupts the monopoly of knowledge production and challenges existing structures of power. If one reading group meant to understand caste is seen as a site of learning and resistance, the presence of a reading group at Cornell University calls for an important intervention to build on the assertions and critiques that make this resistance possible.

The question of caste opens avenues to study localized power structures particular to India; it also captures the energies and anxieties of various societies’ engagements with issues of race, disability, gender, sexuality, class, etc. In this group, we would like to explore how understandings of caste and anti-caste movements have shaped (and in turn been shaped by) different social locations. In addition to foundational materials by B.R. Ambedkar, Jyotirao Phule, and Periyar that set the tone for a larger discussion of anti-caste political movements, we will also read manifestos of radical groups such as the Dalit Panthers that provide insight into how people visualized and concretized the political ideologies of anti-caste struggles in their fight against state violence. We will take up, alongside these texts, works on caste and colonialism, feminist critiques of caste, queer theories of caste, and studies of caste as a legal construction. Our conversations will attempt to think the history of caste formation and anti-caste struggles in India as they converge with questions of land reform, criminality, and indigeneity. In doing so, we will trace the ways in which caste functions as a day-to-day transaction.

The members of this group represent many different approaches to the study of caste, which range from anthropology and political ecology to literary analysis and feminist theories of science and technology. Understanding the assertions, critiques, and histories of caste scholarship necessitates an interdisciplinary approach capable of engaging theoretically and politically with the entanglements of caste and questions of structural violence, power, kinship, and nationalism. Moreover, it is important that our work adopt a comparative framework to avoid the careless reproduction of colonial knowledge-power relations that constitute the everyday violence of casteism as an object of study that is uniquely “Oriental” and timeless. Utilizing the tools of comparison, we aspire to situate critiques of caste and anti-caste political movements within broader transnational contexts, such as the linkages forged by expressions of solidarity between African-American and Dalit activists. It is our hope that the shared endeavors of this group will produce several interventions into and re-framings of caste and Dalit studies at Cornell and at other educational institutions.

MEMBERS
Martin Abbott – Department of City and Regional Planning
Shrey Kapoor - Department of Development Sociology
Xavier Robillard-Martel - Department of Anthropology
Aparajita Majumdar – Department of History
Palashi Vaghela – Department of Information Science
Xavier Robillard-Martel -   Department of Anthropology
Lavanya Nott -  Department of Asian Studies

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FOOD, AGROECOLOGY, JUSTICE, AND WELL-BEING COLLECTIVE

The Food, Agroecology, Justice, and Well-Being Collective was formed in 2016 to establish a forum for critical, interdisciplinary engagement with literature on the interrelated crises present in our food system: unsustainable agricultural production; inequality, injustice, and structural racism; power disparities; industrial agrichemical hegemony; gender discrimination; cooptation of indigenous knowledge; and malnutrition. Drawing from a broad range of literature on the four main themes of agroecology, food sovereignty, food justice, and nutrition, the goal of our collective is to develop interdisciplinary analytical perspectives on the relationships embedded in food and agrarian systems and their socio-cultural, political, economic, and ecological implications.

A substantial amount of research on agroecology, food sovereignty, food justice, and nutrition in the United States (U.S.) is ahistorical, apolitical, and largely devoid of meaningful engagement with race, ethnicity, and gender. This is highly problematic. Beginning with the transatlantic slave trade (e.g., Carney and Rosomoff, 2011) and the historicization of injustice in the U.S. food system, we aim to explore these omissions by contextualizing contemporary problems through black feminist thought and black foodways (e.g., Collins, 2008; Williams- Forson and Sharpless, 2015; Witt, 2004), concluding with a reimagining of the U.S. agri-food system in which communities are empowered to exercise sovereignty over the production and consumption of their food (e.g., Fairbairn, 2012; Navin and Dieterle, 2018; White, 2017).

We intend to ground our exploration of the four main themes in black feminist theory (e.g., Collins, 2008), intersectionality theory (e.g., Crenshaw et al., 1996), political ecology frameworks (e.g., Rocheleau, Thomas-Slayter, and Wangari, 1996), and black geographies of food (e.g., McKittrick, 2006; Williams-Forson, 2006). These theoretical frameworks will allow us to synthesize disparate agri-food literature and improve our understanding of contemporary issues in the food system. Epistemology will also be an important framing tool as we work through these readings.

To actualize the transdisciplinary, participatory, action-based approach of agroecology, our collective will help plan, organize, co-host, and present at the biennial Farm to Plate Conference in 2019. Eschewing the white, elitist “foodie” culture of local food that is pervasive among many farm to plate conferences, the collaborative conference in 2019 will bring together food system scholars, farmers, local organizations, and eaters. Importantly, the conference will provide an inclusive venue that invites critical discourse centered on race, gender, and exploitation in the food system.

The graduate students in our collective will alternate leading the regular meetings, which will include such tasks as selecting the readings and facilitating the discussion. All graduate students will also help develop the conference presentation. The additional groups members will take a more supportive role, contributing to group discussions and conference planning while providing space for the graduate students to develop leadership skills.

Efforts to scale out agroecology in the U.S., expand food sovereignty movements, and dismantle structural barriers in the food system will fail without interdisciplinary partnerships among many diverse stakeholders. We hope to address these complex challenges and, in doing so, take a step towards becoming scholar-activists for a more just and sustainable food system.

MEMBERS
Rachel Bezner Kerr – Department of Development Sociology (faculty)
Stephanie Enloe – Department of Development Sociology
Katie Fiorella – Department of Population Medicine and Diagnostic Sciences (faculty)
Aaron Iverson – Department of Entomology
Jeff Liebert -- Soil and Crop Sciences Section, Integrative Plant Sciences
Sidney Madsen – Department of Development Sociology
Ibukun Owoputi – Nutritional Sciences, Human Ecology
Tess Pendergrast – Department of Development Sociology

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GLOBAL FRACTURES: CRITICAL INTERVENTIONS TO COMPARISON

Our proposed reading group converges around a shared concern for the political, theoretical, and disciplinary stakes in modes of thinking and reading that we call “global.” Through our collaboration, we will therefore examine literary, cinematic, and theoretical texts that adopt comparative frameworks to move beyond the concepts of area, nation, and border, instead turning to spaces of fracture and disjuncture.

Bringing together approaches from gender studies, area studies, comparative literature, critical race studies, history, anthropology, and critical theory, our reading group is committed to making this project of global fractures truly interdisciplinary. We seek to shift, redefine, and translate our literary, theoretical, cinematic, and historical archives away from provincialized notions of language, race, ethnicity, and nationality, instead, rethinking disciplinary conventions to find, in our readings, critical interventions that emphasize comparison at the site of the fractures of the global.

Taking as our point of departure the notion of “global fractures,” our reading group investigates the ways in which literature, theory, and cinema may share a language for attending to the following questions: How do literatures that cannot fit into national literary categories disrupt the concept of the “area” as it is dispersed along geographical, political, or disciplinary space? How does working in transregional and transcultural frameworks unearth productive venues for the future of Humanities scholarship? How do comparative methodologies and theories expose the violent legacies of colonialism and capitalism within contemporary scholarship itself?

This concept of “global fractures” constitutes a thread of thinking that we will interrogate through diverse materials, including literary fiction, cinema, and art, and contemporary interventions in critical scholarship. We hope to incorporate, for example, a discussion on Tawada Yōko’s novel The Naked Eye and its resonance with Rey Chow’s work on cinema and postcoloniality alongside the approaches to theorizing borders, encounters, and communities in Sandro Mezzadra and Brett Nielson’s Border as Method, and Sara Ahmed’s Strange Encounters. Our collaborative analyses will be furthermore inflected by discussions on “the global” across notions of creolization, universality, postcolonialism, and translation in the work of theorists such as Susan Buck-Morss, Walter Mignolo, Shu-mei Shi, Denise Ferreira da Silva, Lisa Lowe, Naoki Sakai, and Étienne Balibar.

The subvention from Institute for Comparative Modernities will not only fund the purchase and distribution of readings among members of the group, but also support our plans to bring at least one outside speaker to campus. Indeed, our meetings will culminate in a workshop with an invited scholar during the spring of 2019, during which we will extend our dialogue on critical comparative scholarship by engaging other scholars from the campus community. We firmly believe that our interdisciplinary collaboration will be intellectually rewarding and look forward to implementing our work with the ICM within our own critical interventions to comparative work in the Humanities.

MEMBERS
Shu-Mei Lin -- Department of Comparative Literature
Mary Jane Dempsey -- Department of Romance Studies
Kun Huang -- Department of Comparative Literature
Yu-Han Huang -- Department of History
Paul McQuade -- Department of Asian Studies
Andrea Mendoza -- Department of Asian Studies
Vinh Pham -- Department of Comparative Literature
Krithika Vachali -- Department of English

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THE POETICS AND POLITICS OF STORYTELLING

If you want to change people's obedience then you must change their imagination. - Paul Ricoeur

Nobody minds short chapters, especially where there are longer ones ahead. - Harry F. Wolcott

We tell stories every day. They enter into classroom debates, fall into digital networks, and spring up from the page. They provoke action and spur thought. They stop dead us in their tracks.

A story is unique and singular, yet also general and shared. Stories exists between order and disorder taking on different forms at different times for different people. They are thus political and ethical, sometimes enjoyable.

Is the enjoyment of a story political? Can an attractive story/telling do things that an ugly one cannot? Does a story’s affect affect its politics?

We will explore these questions as we read stories about stories (the act), stories (the thing), stories (the time), and stories (the place). The aim is to learn how stories are put together and to then test them in our own work. We will read and discuss sci-fi, novels, ethnographies, writing guides, and essays. We will also write, edit, rewrite, present, read, and act in dialogue with the authors we read.

The group will meet twice each month during the semester where a different theme will be explored [a total of twelve meetings will be held across the 2018-19 academic year]. The first session of each month will center on discussions of what we have read. The second session of each month will be augmented by a focus on putting the methods / crafts / theories into creative practice through storytelling exercises and workshopping. Group members have committed to discuss the readings and to produce a short piece of writing or storytelling to share in our meetings. Each member will also suggest readings for and lead at least one session. A bibliography that has been collectively put together by the group is appended below.

In the spring semester, we will plan a storytelling event for Cornell and the wider Ithaca community where we will present some of the work we have produced. We also intend to work towards producing a publication of selected works at the end of the year.

MEMBERS
Martin Abbott – Department of City and Regional Planning
Daniel Large – Department of Natural Resources
Laura Leddy –Department of Anthropology
Mary Kate Long – Department of Asian Studies
Joshua Mitchell – Department of Anthropology
Liam Murphy – Department of Anthropology
Ranjit Singh – Department of Science and Technology Studies

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QUEERING THE CAPACITY OF ONTOLOGY

New Approaches in Archival Studies | Language, Image, Body

This interdisciplinary reading group brings together the fields of African Diaspora Studies, Indigenous Studies, Chicanx/Latinx Studies, Literary, Visual & Performance Studies, Art History, and Queer Theory to raise questions about the limits of Eurocentric criticisms in representing queer subjects. We focus on the relationships between the body, race, gender, sexuality, and time in literary, visual, and art historical discourses to challenge conceptions of the past and limits of the present, that gesture towards a decolonial and queer future. Moving beyond questions of representation, this reading group studies the structure of the archive—its rhetorical architecture and silences—and presents new possibilities for engaging with race, gender, sexuality, and ontology as it relates to processes of documentation and memorialization.

The reading group will engage decolonial theories of the body, women of color feminisms, and critical approaches in archival studies that center black/chicanx/latinx/ and indigenous subjects. We will examine how time is embodied in literary, visual, and cultural imaginaries by working across themes of: eroticism, desire, futurity, spatio/temporality, scale, recovery, injury, loss, (post)blackness, archival silence, institutional erasure, and decoloniality. From our readings, we investigate decolonial methods for re/imagining “captured” bodies of/in time and work towards creating new archival praxes that evaluate the possibilities of being in the future—as queer, black, latinx/chicanx, and indigenous bodies that have historically been unacknowledged as subjects that maintain affective and intersubjective relations that are queer and unruly.

We will begin with post-colonial theorizations of time, place, space and subjectivity, grounded in the cis-male heteronormative frameworks of thinkers such as Frantz Fanon, Subcomandante Marcos, Anibal Quijano, and Edward Said. Then we move to the queer and feminist works of Jose Esteban Muñoz, Zoe Todd, Audre Lorde, Kobona Mercer, and others to re/center narrative, performance, and representational theory as ways to re/create ontology, epistemology, and cosmology, and imaginations that have been lost, erased, neglected or overlooked in Western and post-colonial time and space. We then flesh out the distinctions, convergences, and sites of incommensurability that emerge among scholarship and movements that take on settler-colonialism, decoloniality, and anti-colonial struggles. The work of Stuart Hall, Gloria Anzaldua, Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang, and others will be key for this complex task. We also seek to understand the limits of articulation and memorialization of the archive, and therefore turn to cultural workers such as Kara Walker, Kerry James Marshall, Amalia Mesa-Bains, and Nao Bustamante to understand the ways that the visual/body lets us imagine and disrupt ways of being and being captured. In the visual, we seek to analyze how collage, archival footage, and moving image allow for a disordering of time and space as well as the generation of new agencies for historicizing the movements of bodies. Finally, we turn to literature to bridge the gaps in what cannot or has not been rendered in the visual. In particular, we look to literary works for decolonial futurities (afro and Indigenous), radical imaginings, and re/creations of space as they exist in sci-fi, comics, black surrealism, and magical realism.

MEMBERS
Amaris Brown – Department of Africana Studies
Mwanzaa Brown – Department of Architecture
Breanna Leslie-Skye –Department of English
Joseph Miranda – Department of English
Gilda Posada – Department of History of Art and Visual Studies
Bruno Seraphin – Department of Anthropology

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TEMPORALITY

Time functions as a fundamental social metric in organizing, periodizing, and rendering commensurate/incommensurate the heterogeneities of modern life. This reading group intends to study the various ways time is deployed to make sense of, contest, value, and transform social phenomena. We intend to explore temporalities both in their historical and analytical valences, drawing on different theorizations and experiences that disrupt authoritative constructions of temporality in modernity.

As a reading group, we aim to explore conceptual possibilities for deploying “temporality” as a central analytic by collectively interrogating key readings with peers tackling its theoretical and historical complexities in their respective research engagements. Crucial to this is the formulation of David Scott might call a new “problem-space” that is adequate to our political present – how might questions of the past, historical memory and progress be critically examined in terms of the pasts they invoke, and the serviceable futures to which they are being put to use? This is not merely a rhetorical provocation, but an intellectual dilemma which might begin from a critical re-engagement with what Johannes Fabian terms the “secularization, spatialization and naturalization” of time in modernity.

Another aspect we wish to explore in relation to temporality is the quotidian and its rhythms, especially in terms of how it both conceals and concedes contradictions of uneven and combined development. We will pay attention to how the temporalities of the everyday mediate broader processes and narratives of historical transformation and transitions: postcolonial developmentalism, postsocialist transition and urbanization, for example. In particular, we want to interrogate how rhythms and cycles working at different temporal scales confound or reformulate the above-mentioned processes and narratives, taking them in unexpected directions, rendering these processes non-teleological and revealing new contradictions. In addition, we want to explore how events and ruptures to the routinized practices of the everyday can create new horizons for understanding these processes, and catalyze social and political continuities and discontinuities.

We believe that each of us can draw on our ongoing research in the following areas to expand our understandings of temporality: economic development and rural-urban transition/translations; labor and migration; financial markets and the imaginaries of financial actors; postsocialist and neoliberal transition; disaster and resilience; queer bodies in space and time; and scientific knowledge production. We hope that the insights about temporality that we gain from this interdisciplinary reading group can help us engage more critically with received notions of temporality our various fields of research, and to imagine alternative social and political futures.

MEMBERS
Daniel Ferman-Leon – Department of Anthropology
Delilah Griswold – Department of Development Sociology
Xinyu Guan – Department of Anthropology
Sampreety Gurung – Department of Anthropology
Mushahid Hussain – Department of Development Sociology
Austin Lord – Department of Anthropology
Lavanya Nott – Department of Asian Studies
Sahar Tavakoli – Department of Science and Technology Studies

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UNPACKING SCIENTISM: DYNAMICS, MANIFESTATIONS, AND REFLECTIONS

Science has been a central component of Western notions of modernity. Yet despite the overwhelming success of science in producing global modernizing technologies (think internal combustion, electricity, and the Internet), we must remind ourselves that modernity as achieved by science is only one of many possibilities. The reification of science as objective, universal, and therefore the best knowledge system for understanding reality has led to the problem of scientism. While the term “scientism” has multiple meanings to unpack, we begin our discussion with Stenmark’s definition of scientism: a belief that “there is nothing outside the domain of science, nor is there any area of human life to which science cannot successfully be applied” (15). How does scientism contribute to the Western hegemony of “credible” knowledge systems? This reading group will draw from literatures in science and technology studies, development studies, and postcolonial history among others to answer this overarching question.

At its extreme, scientism is the belief that basic and applied science and its resulting technologies—as conceived predominantly by Western philosophical traditions—can eventually solve all social, political, and moral problems. Elon Musk’s desire to colonize Mars in order to save humanity exemplifies extreme scientism. There are still, thankfully, major barriers to Musk’s extraterrestrial plans of domination. However, there are more subtle, pernicious forms of scientism that continue to subjugate the expertise of non-Western knowledge systems. For example, the belief that health knowledge systems must pass the rigors of the scientific method in order to be credible has relegated the healing practices of many cultures to the subaltern position of “alternative” medicine. On a fundamental level, scientism has fooled many to believe that universal objectivity in knowledge production is attainable; that quantification can be value free; and that the scientific method exceeds all other epistemologies in understanding reality.

The issue of scientism is deeply personal for us. Each member of this reading group comes from a non-Western tradition. Our backgrounds and experiences span across Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Each of us also represents a discipline in the basic and applied sciences, social sciences, and humanities. Yet as graduate students at an elite institution like Cornell, we must grapple with how scientism has permeated into nearly every aspect of our academic journeys. As students of color, we are especially aware of our own positionality within the academy. The ivory towers were not originally built for us. As such, we must challenge the epistemic assumptions of our academic fields. By focusing on scientism, our proposed readings will encourage us to interrogate one of the biggest problems haunting the Western academy.

We will begin by engaging with various definitions of scientism. Next, we will examine how Western quantitative epistemologies support it. Finally, we will focus on three specific areas where scientism collides with other knowledge systems: scientizing race, racializing science, and “alternative” sciences. In each area, we will ascertain how scientism is operationalized, and how different communities challenge its credence.

MEMBERS
Idil Ali – Department of Information Science
Tien-Dung Ha – Department of Science and Technology Studies
Wanheng Hu – Department of Science and Technology Studies
Lissette Lorenz – Department of Science and Technology Studies
Enrique Rojas Villalba – Department of Earth and Atmospheric Science
Tinakrit Sireerat – Department of Asian Studies