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Social relations in and of Africa are being reconfigured in the 21st century as a new set of actors contest political power structures, re-imagine African histories, and forge alternative visions of development on the continent. While in the 20th century it was possible to imagine that Euro-American institutions dominated discourses on African societies and their desirable futures, today this hegemony has been fractured by new actors and processes. Today’s discursive landscape is characterized by increasing social differentiation within African countries, movements of people and ideas across social and geographic boundaries, deepening economic linkages, and profound shifts in the global geopolitical order. New actors are playing increasingly visible and assertive roles, including transnational diaspora, business networks, new religious movements, urban youth, rural producers, and organizations championing South-South cooperation. Yet this challenging of the post-colonial order tells us little about the historical significance, trajectory, and implications of new actors and processes. Building knowledge that responds to the contemporary requires thinking comparatively and connecting emerging empirical findings with social theory.

This reading group proposes that new actors in African society and development call for renewed social theory; in order to analyze current political, economic, and cultural shifts and assess the roles of particular actors, we need to re-examine social theory of and for African societies and states. Rather than dismissing historical theorizations as out-of-date, we propose a dual approach: reading contemporary trends with a view to historical continuities and disjunctures (for example, comparing contemporary discourses about social and economic transformation with late-colonial projects of modernization), while also examining how the contemporary sheds new light on historically-situated bodies of theory (for example, highlighting contestations already underway during periods of colonial and post-colonial ‘order’). Through this reading, we will look for salient questions that are under-addressed in classic theory. A historicized and comparative approach will help us to identify how social theories exist in convergence, tension, and resonance with contemporary social dynamics on the continent.

Although African and Africanist scholars produce increasingly rich and diverse forms of knowledge, most course syllabi are limited to a single discipline, and African theorists are particularly neglected. To respond to this challenge at Cornell, we will bridge dispersed communities working on African states and societies, drawing together students and professional staff from the Departments of Development Sociology, Government, Law, and Romance Studies. There are currently no upper-graduate-level courses at Cornell that bring together interdisciplinary social scientists with active research agendas who seek to employ African and Africanist social theory. This reading group responds to this gap, while tapping into the rich conceptual and empirical material offered by the present moment. In our initial meetings we have already identified areas of congruence across our work. At the end of the reading group, we will present our work with ICM, and explore opportunities for a collaborative event with the Africana Center and/or the Center for African Development. Our aim is not only to create a lively venue for discussing social theory, but also to contribute to an enduring space where interdisciplinary theoretical engagement around African societies continues in future.

Janet Smith – Department of Development Sociology
Samel Ndungu – Law School
Alex Dyzenhaus – Department of Government
Amanda Hickey – Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management
Cosmas Emeziem – Law School
Connall Cash – Department of Romance Studies
Ewan Robinson – Department of Development Sociology


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Our group seeks to understand the influences of Enlightenment Cosmopolitanism on how postcolonial thought—namely the work of Franz Fanon, Edouard Glissant and other contemporary thinkers following up on their work—have theorized and challenged the concepts relationality and difference. While open to the new directions that such interactions can bring, we currently imagine our reading group to confront the centrality of Enlightenment Cosmopolitanism for liberal thought and empire through Immanuel Kant’s Perpetual Peace. A key innovation of the group will be to then further approach the legacies of Kant’s work, and other formative texts of liberal/colonial empire, first through two key Western thinkers critical of this tradition who also are vital for examining relationality and difference: Martin Heidegger and Jacques Derrida. After that, we plan to complicate these essential postcolonial thinkers and their specific work on relationality and difference: Franz Fanon and Edouard Glissant. All of these readings will be supplemented with secondary readings.

Accordingly, the more specific contemporary problems that motivate our readings include a concern with how to re-coordinate relationalities within a homogenizing Marketworld, which employs “powers that organize life, even the powers that differentially dispose lives to precarity as part of a broader management of populations through governmental and nongovernmental means, that establish a set of measures for the differential valuation of life itself” (Butler 2015, 196). The extension of market rationality (i.e. practices, discourses, norms of behavior that are properties of the market) to all spheres of existence, where it construes all social agents as accountable, entrepreneurial, and (recently) financialized subjects that are ranked, rated, and evaluated in a competitive environment, is the contemporary normative ground that determines the terms of relation and the negotiation of difference in both Western and, increasingly, postcolonial contexts. What we aim with this reading group is, beginning with Kant and working our way to Glissant, to find ways of challenging those terms, and more importantly exploring the ways of negotiating the terms of our cohabitation or belonging together—to explore relational norms that would govern our collective life in forms of relationality that always already presuppose navigations of difference.

Indeed, the theory of relation that Glissant articulates is also related to his desire to promote a concept of Antilanité, Caribean-ness, which provides the perfect destination for our shared preoccupation with multilingualism and cultural diversity. Diversity becomes the enabler of Poetics of Relation, as its celebration and recognition will be approached as a way of seeing the Other as equal while maintaining a relation of difference. In this regard, diversity is imagined by Glissant as ‘the quantifiable totality of every possible difference’ and attributed the position to be the motor driving universal energy, and productively expand the Enlightenment Cosmopolitanism, as it further transforms the duality of Hegelian dialectic into a generously inclusive multicity, just as the conflict between opposites as the driving force is replaced by affirmation and working together of the differences.

Hence, a shared focus on how the concepts of relationality and difference work in contemporary postcolonial and neoliberal contexts structures the work of each member of our group. We include graduate students from AAP Architecture Art Planning, History of Art and Visual Studies, South Asian Studies, Comparative Literature, and Government.

Jonathan Davenport – Department of Comparative Literature
Kaitlin Emmanuel – Department of Asian Studies
Lara Fresko – Department of History of Art and Visual Studies
Aslihan Günhan – Architecture, Art, and Planning
Nazli Konya – Department of Government
Asli Menevşe – Department of History of Art and Visual Studies
Jacob Swanson – Department of Government


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This group will investigate the currents of colonial history in late twentieth and twenty-first century speculative fiction. Coined by writer Robert Heinlein in 1847 to refer to science fiction’s capacity to extrapolate from known facts, the term “speculative fiction” has come to signify a range of genres, including science fiction, fantasy, alternate history, supernatural fiction, and magical realism, that explore what does not exist in our current known world—the what if? In the past few years, critical works such as André M. Carrington’s Speculative Blackness: The Future of Race in Science Fiction (2015) and Ingrid Thaler’s Black Atlantic Speculative Fictions: Octavia E. Butler, Jewelle Gomez, and Nalo Hopkinson (2010) have insightfully theorized race through speculation, while anthologies like Grace Dillon’s Walking the Clouds: An Anthology of Indigenous Science Fiction (2012) have suggested that speculative fiction can be a useful way to conceptualize and resist settler colonialism.

Taking as our starting point the critical thrust of the extrapolative and the exploratory, we will hone in on two strands common in speculative fiction—the figure of the ghost and the trope of the dystopic future—to ask several intertwined questions: How do ghosts (literal or otherwise) fit into futuristic or dystopian fiction? How do speculative texts think through history, especially historical trauma and atrocity? What is the connection, in other words, between the spectral and the speculative? And if we take the ghost, further, as a liminal figure, between life and death as well as between disparate time frames, how might the ghost help us to think about identity, hybridity, and transnational movement in the context of a (post)colonial world? Finally, how do ghosts and dystopian futures, both tropes that involve temporal displacement, speak to the temporality of race and colonialism? What new insight and understanding does this temporal speculation grant us?

By way of these questions, and by way of a range of texts including poetry, short stories, novels, and critical works, we hope to theorize the relationship between history and speculation. We will consider how speculative genres might be uniquely situated to look back at the colonial past as well as look ahead to the potentially postcolonial future. In particular, we take seriously the idea that speculative texts (especially ones which reconfigure the past or the future) should be treated as objects of historical inquiry that might usefully rethink (post)colonial historiography. Bringing together approaches from British and American studies, comparative literature, Asian studies, and history, we will also consider how speculative fiction, which often questions our demarcations of the world into units such as continents and countries, helps us (dis)locate colonialism in a global context. Our chosen texts, from a wide range of writers, some well-known and some less so, are bound by a concern for thinking colonialism across time-spaces—and for imagining unexpected possibilities for the future.

Gabriella Friedman – Department of English
Stephen Kim – Department of English
Ji Hyun Lee – Department of English
Jahyon Park – Department of Asian Studies
Vinh Pham – Department of Comparative Literature
Aye Thant – Department of Asian Studies
Brianna Thompson – Department of English
Kelsey Utne – Department of History


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Amidst the discourse and realities of “seamless” globalization and realtime interconnectivity, this reading group takes as a starting point the question of borders in the contemporary world. We will explore this theme by studying various types of borders and processes of boundarymaking and unmaking—(geo)political, sociocultural, environmental, material—across space, time, and academic disciplines. In conversation with scholars who have investigated border as method (Mezzadra and Neilson 2013), the production of space (Lefebvre 1991, Massey 2013), boundaries between ecological zones (Helmreich 2009, Rozwadoski 2005), and distinctions between bodies and social groups (Barth 1994, Barth 1969, Tucker 2012), we consider how borders are created, maintained, contested, and dismantled in our era.

Taking border as method (Mezzadra and Neilson 2013) as our departure point, we will first inquire into border not only as a research object but also as an epistemic framework. We then inquire into disciplinary borders and interdisciplinarity (Gieryn 1999, Jones 2008, Lamont and Molnár 2002, Star and Griesemer 1989). How do the borders between our academic disciplines, and our imposition of academic categories, contribute to conceptual breaks in our understanding of the world and its borders? Alternately, what are the possibilities for scholarship in redrawing boundaries in meaningful and politically effective ways?

We will consider borders and processes of boundary creation, maintenance, contestation, and destruction in spatial, technical, and historical terms. We will consider how history itself is divided and bound in particular ways, and how certain temporal boundaries inform our understandings and theories of history (Carter 1987). Geopolitical borders, and of the nationstate in particular, will be another central theme of our investigation. How do such borders figure into geopolitical imaginaries, shape nationalist versus globalist discourses, and how are they experienced by people in their everyday lives and struggles, for example through walls and fences (Alvarez 1995)? We will then delve into reformulations of the classic division between the rural and the urban. In considering the city, we will be drawing on the theoretical lenses of architecture (De Certeau 2002) and urban ethnography (Farquhar and Zhang 2012) to examine the everyday physical boundaries of our built environment. We will also explore how infrastructures bound off social and technical as well as global and local systems (Star and Ruhleder 1996).

Turning to the “natural” environment, we explore the notion of ecotones—the transition area between two ecological communities—such as that between land and sea (Rozwadoski 2005; Hau'ofa 1994). How do scientists contribute to our understandings of these boundaries? And how do scientific discourses and representations of these ecotones map onto a nature/culture dualism or indicate the unsustainability of such a binary? We then turn to an exploration of how social boundaries are built between bodies through racial, ethnic and gender distinctions (Tucker 2012) and at interfaces between human and nonhuman animals (Alaimo 2010).

Guiding our investigation of borders is the notion of borderlessness (Jackson 2005), which is invoked by discourses of global commerce and trade, earth stewardship, and the connection made possible by information and communication technologies. Amid these discourses of global connection and inclusion, how are borders contested in new ways, and how can sites of friction in an age of globalization (Tsing 2004) help us understand how the world’s borders get dismantled, rebuilt, and reimagined? How do new technological zones (Barry 2006) and digital worlds (Burrell 2012) bring the world together in new ways and also maintain longstanding divisions? With this comparative lens, and through motifs such as interdisciplinarity, ecotones, and infrastructure, our investigation will shed light on the changing role of borders in a global world, and the role of academic inquiry in understanding these transformations.

Rachel Odhner – Department of Anthropology
Hilary Faxon – Department of Development Sociology
Maggie Jack – Department of Information Science
Jennifer Goldstein – Department of Science and Technology Studies
Lauren Kilgour – Department of Information Science
Brian Clarke – Department of Science and Technology Studies
Fernando Galeana Rodriguez – Department of Development Sociology


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As scholars working in Anglophone, Francophone, Hispanophone, and Turkish-language literature covering the Americas, as well as Caribbean, African, and Middle Eastern spaces, the terminology and methodology of Diasporic Studies informs each of our approaches to literary and critical thought. In this reading group, we intend to survey the works and schemas associated with three major axes of analysis: Indigeneity, Creolization and Fugitivity. While at times these frameworks are employed in tandem, we observe more readily the ways in which they exclude the terms of each other, as they concern anti-colonial and postcolonial cultural production.

Diasporic subjects may not be indigenous to the lands to which they move, but they are in fact indigenous to a somewhere. Or, perhaps, more specifically, they do in fact originate in a somewhere. The relationship to this somewhere, though, is often left outside of critical engagement. It is as if the point of departure is relevant insofar as it provides the starting point from which to measure a subject’s distance from their own authenticity. However, indigeneity provides a way to think proximity and distance not to authenticity but to power. Its invocation is a necessary part of understanding the complex ways power unevenly constitutes us all. Thinking indigeneity as a praxis—rather than a mere qualifier of relative origin—is a necessary part of an intellectually honest diaspora discourse.

Relatedly, it is helpful to think about the conceptual modality of fugitivity—described by Fred Moten as, among other things, a disruptive, iconoclastic pathogenic force perturbing normativity; an "anoriginal lawlessness" that is predisposed to break hegemonic laws and "is immediately disrupted by an incapacity for law, an inability both to intend the law and intend its transgression." What happens, then, when those diasporic subjects, originating somewhere, transgress that somewhere and their some"here" through their movement through liminal spaces, through their praxis of indigeneity in, we might say, sites of foreignness? We might argue, indexing Moten's fugitivity as “The air of the thing that escapes enframing,” that diasporic subjects open up new possibilities for subjectivity, for being and becoming. Fugitives un-fix normative categories and present the very opportunity for possibility—and, as Judith Butler has made clear, "possibility is not a luxury; it is as crucial as bread."

While the diasporic referents are always origin, filiation, and exile, creolization occasions an understanding of diaspora that accommodates aleatory and non-cooperative historical exchanges, such as métissage. For Glissant, contamination rather than autonomy and origin provide a way of thinking the reality of racial confrontation in the history of Atlantic World colonization. From the philosophical framework of cultural autonomy it is difficult to speak of “cultures, whose composition did not result from a union of “norms” but, rather, was built in the margins…thrust headlong into the world by necessity, oppression, anguish, greed…” (Poetics, 91). The highest value of refused creolization is to organize and dispense existence and non-existence (which is to say social life and social death).

We are interested in interrogating both long-standing and ascendant conceptual frameworks in Diasporic Studies pursuant of what they facilitate, foster, negate, foreclose, or confound, as well as the material and philosophical conditions of these frameworks. By analyzing the contours and the limits of different methodological approaches, we hope to gain a deeper discursive fluency for thinking the material and metaphysical determinations of slavery, apartheid, and colonization across our respective domains.

Marquis Bey – Department of English
Jackqueline Frost – Department of Romance Studies
Katryn Evinson – Department of Romance Studies
Magdala Jeudy – Department of Romance Studies
Mayowa Willoughby – Department of Africana Studies
Kristen Wright – Department of Africana Studies


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Our reading group centers around foundational paradigmatic shifts in trauma theory today. We therefore propose an investigation into the following three major interventions in trauma studies: postcolonial perspectives, theories of diasporic identity and neurological philosophy. Traditionally, trauma theory has privileged European contexts and examples—the Holocaust being the most prevalent. Furthermore, there has been a general privileging of catastrophic or exceptional events and little attention has been paid to quotidian, mundane or everyday forms of trauma. Turning to the postcolonial, we ask the following questions: how does what Achille Mbembe calls the “time of entanglement” intersect with thinking around traumatic histories? How do we read psychoanalysis as itself entangled with a colonial project and immanently providing a language to think critically about that colonial project? How does the temporality of traumatic histories affect our understanding of race, embodiment and gender?

Catherine Malabou, a student of Jacques Derrida, has been a leading figure in the effort to understand the relation between neurology, philosophy and psychoanalysis. In her book The New Wounded: From Neurosis to Brain Damage she has argued that the encounter between psychoanalysis and neurology calls for a consideration of “identity without precedent.” What, Malabou asks, can we make of the neurological wound that emerges without a preceding drive? How can we understand wounding—such as sever brain damage—that has no capacity to return?

Turning to the question of trauma theory and diaspora, we ask: do Freudian insights on trauma provide us with a language to think about non-european diasporic forms of identity? Here we are inspired by Edward Said’s suggestion in Freud and the Non-European that within Freudian thinking we find an aspiration to conceive of ‘identity without repression.’ Said finds in Freud’s Moses and Monotheism a possibility to think about Jewish identity not as formed by or constituted through the repression of its otherness—the murder of the Non-Jewish and Egyptian born founder Moses— but as the inability to repress this otherness at its foundation. Instead of reading repression as having a constituting capacity in psychoanalytic thought Said pushes us to see a radically diasporic tradition in which psychoanalysis seeks an unbinding and undoing of its founding repressive narrative. Similarly, Hortense Spillers in her essay “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book” reminds us that the ‘body and flesh’ is always becoming undone and it is this unbecoming that marks the diasporic afterlife of slavery. How do we think about traumatic experience at the level of the body and flesh? How do these shifts allow us to reread Freud’s work? What voice emerges when we think of psychoanalysis as actively seeking the destruction of its own foundational frame?

Valeria Dani – Department of Romance Studies
Ji Hyun Lee – Department of English
Gustavo Llarull – Department of Romance Studies
Nasrin Olla – Department of English
Fernando Galeana Rodriguez – Department of Development Sociology
Katherine Thorsteinson – Department of English


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