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This introductory, interdisciplinary reading group aims to unpack the specific relationships between postcolonial studies and space. Acknowledging its wide scope, we hope to expand on the two most identifiable branches of the term “postcolonial,” both as a historical period, as well as a set of theories.

We will read canonical texts by some of the most notable theoreticians—e.g. Frantz Fanon, Homi Bhabha, Gayatri Spivak, Dipesh Chakrabarty—as well as more recent work. With each reading, we will address how postcolonial perspectives inform architectural history, urban studies, city planning, and other approaches to space. This combination allows us to trace back these theories to their specific contexts—the postwar period when empires collapsed, colonies acquired independence and the nation states emerged—as well as in regards to their later influence in other discourses.

Although this group is organized by students from a wide variety of fields, and will cover several geographically determined questions, including Middle Eastern, Latin American, American Indian and Indigenous Studies, and South and Southeast Asian studies, the shared goal will be dismantling Eurocentric narratives to which theories in our fields have unquestionably been subjected. Our reading group will, therefore, speak to more inclusive methods of global histories and practices, which encompass transnational and cross-cultural approaches, detached from, or prior to, established notions of territory and nation-states.

With that goal in mind, we have organized our working bibliography into seminal and epistemological works, which we will then discuss through the interdisciplinary lenses of architecture, urban, and cultural studies. Meeting bi-weekly, we will continue to modify and update the bibliography as our discussions evolve. During some weeks, we will also invite faculty discussants/ guest speakers from our respective fields to provide us with additional perspective on some topics. The final weeks of our schedule will be dedicated to more contemporary essays that relate to each of our individual research interests. At the end of the academic year, we will organize a symposium where we will workshop papers incorporating postcolonial theory in our work.

Shoshana Goldstein – Department of City and Regional Planning
Aslihan Gunhan – History of Architecture and Urban Development
Jonathan Lohnes – Department of History
Mary Kate Long – Asian Literature, Religion & Culture
Michael Moynihan – History of Architecture and Urban Development
Ana Ozaki – History of Architecture and Urban Development
Dylan Stevenson – Department of City and Regional Planning
Nidhi Subramanyam – Department of City and Regional Planning

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In this reading group we would like to question the relation between fictional works and archives in queer history within the postcolonial context. We take our direction from the work of black lesbian director Cheryl Dunye. In her 1996 movie “The Watermelon Woman,” Dunye
films herself leading an investigation to discover the name of a 1930s black actress named “Watermelon Woman.” Indeed this woman is deprived of a proper name and existence of her own. She is only mentioned as the “watermelon woman” in the credits of the movies in which she appears. Therefore, through this documentary we discover that archiving queer and racial subjects has been an operation of erasure instead of inscription. How to build a history, to give a voice to a past, when the figure of the past is made nameless by the archive? Dunye’s answer is the production of a work of fiction. The documentary “The Watermelon Woman” is actually a story created by Dunye herself. The fiction functions in this case to give a face and a name to an erased past. But what is the status of this fiction? How can a work of fiction testify to a past that
has been erased?

In our reading group we would like to investigate these questions through a series of novels, films and photographs in order to understand how writers and artists deal with a palimpsestic archive. Jacques Derrida in Archive Fever discusses the origin of the word “archive,” which comes from the Ancient Greek arkhe. The etymology of the word reveals its dual meaning: the beginning and the commandment. Thus, from its own moment of conception, the archive is inhabited by a story of the origin and by a history of power, all written by the dominant group. As we have seen in previous work by postcolonial scholars, however, the presumed totality posited by such a project is neither possible nor defensible. We would like therefore to ask how we can read the archive when its status as a truthful document can no longer be sustained. If unsustainable, moreover, how can the archive itself be read as a work of fiction?

Through the work of novelists like Shani Mootoo, Monique Truong, or Arenas Reinaldo, we would like to discuss these questions in a postcolonial context. In what way do queer and postcolonial subjectivities intersect in the search for the archive? What is the status of this intersection? Does it expose erased stories, or does it perform them in order to give a name or a face to an origin that has disappeared? Our study of novels and other fictions will be combined with a study of films made by directors such as Cheryl Dunye, Wong Kar-Wai, and Paddy Breathnach. One of the main objectives of this reading group will be to weave these fictional works together with institutionally-sanctioned archival indexes, such as those of the British Museum or the Library of Congress. Finally, we will study the work of the photographer Zoe Leonard, who provided the pictures of the “Watermelon Woman,” in order to grasp the status of “fiction” in relation to the archive. We will consider the work of contemporary theorists like Gayatri Spivak, Cathy Caruth, Hortense Spillers, Anjali Arondekar, Roderick Ferguson, and others.

Stephen Kim – Department of English
Samuel Lagasse – Department of English
Austin Lilywhite – Department of English
Kelly Moore – Department of Romance Studies (Spanish)
Romain Pasquer Brochard – Department of Romance Studies (French)
Vinh Pham – Department of Comparative Literature
Hannah Thompson – Department of Romance Studies (French)

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Today, critical social scientific accounts routinely frame contemporary politics, cultures, and social processes in relation to a conjuncture described as “neoliberal”. The coherence of the neoliberal appears self-evident; academic and non-academic critics readily use the label to describe processes and institutions that have dominated since the Reagan/Thatcher era: structural adjustment in the South (and increasingly areas of the North), the spectacular acceleration of financialization, and the proliferation of discourses of entrepreneurship and self-help. Yet while invoking neoliberalism allows us to link these disparate phenomena, rarely do we evaluate the theoretical and methodological implications of the neoliberal as category. At present, the task of providing theorized and historicized accounts of neoliberalism appears all the more critical; the once seemingly-inevitable “globalized” world of neoliberalism appears increasingly splintered. Northern governments are reversing free trade treaties and rekindling discourses of ethno-nationalism, even as financialized institutions deepen their power and seek to commoditize environmental and social processes in the name of “empowerment through markets” and “the triple bottom line”. Processes once glossed as “neoliberal order” appear at once more fragmented and triumphant than ever before.

Given these apparent contradictions, it is more crucial than ever to understand the multiplicity of neoliberalisms that operate across a vast range of institutions, discourses, cultural formations, and social relations. This reading group focuses on theorizing neoliberalism in its multiplicity through interdisciplinary engagement. Core questions include:

1) How have diverse scholarly communities theorized neoliberalism in its multiple enactments and manifestations? What points of contention and debate have emerged?
2) How do we understand the relationships among the institutions, policymaking, knowledges, cultural practices, and subjectivities that constitute neoliberalism? What is revealed and occluded by linking these disparate processes?
3) How can we study particular institutions, cultural forms, and social processes in relation to neoliberalism? How can we situate the social sites and processes we study against the distinctive features of the current conjuncture in global capitalism?

This reading group will pursue these questions by engaging analytic accounts of neoliberalism, framed both as a totality and as a suite of social processes. We employ a tentative initial definition of neoliberalism as a loosely-linked amalgam of institutions, discourses, practices, and subjectivities, centering on the celebration of markets as the primary organizing idiom of society. By seeing neoliberalism both as amalgam and multiplicity, we seek to draw into conversation a range of social science and humanities communities, particularly in Anthropology, Sociology, Economics, and Political Science. At the same time, we aim to situate theories of neoliberalism alongside concrete empirical investigations of particular places, processes, people, and ideas, and to reflect on the methodological implications of working across these sites. Finally, we aim not only to read external diagnoses, but also accounts of neoliberal thinkers themselves, in order to examine neoliberalism both as material processes and a discursive project. In addition to scholarly writing, we will dip into popular manuscripts, media accounts, and films.
While various departments at Cornell offer coursework on neoliberalism’s associated institutions (Anthropology of Corporations), its politics (Sociology of Work; Parties, Movements, Populism), and its historical development (Historical Sociology of Development, History of Capitalism), no course draws together accounts of neoliberalism as institutions, discourse, and practices in an interdisciplinary setting. Through this reading group, we seek to open questions of how to theorize neoliberalism from diverse vantage points and through our scholarly practices.

Sena Aydin – Department of Anthropology
Geethika Dharmasinghe – Department of Asian Studies
Hilary Oliva Faxon – Department of Development Sociology
Karlie Fox-Knudsten – Department of Anthropology
Andi Kao – Industrial and Labor Relations
Shrey Kapoor – Department of Development Sociology
Austin L. Lord – Department of Anthropology
Ewan Robinson – Department of Development Sociology

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Over the last decades, scholars and activists have expanded their work on incarceration as social phenomenon and institution across disciplinary boundaries, but efforts towards developing an integrative, interdisciplinary cohort of scholars at Cornell University remain embryonic. Graduate students here study incarceration in sociology, anthropology, human development, city and regional planning, and law, but we have noticed a lack of coursework and academic structures that bring together researchers from diverse disciplinary backgrounds in this common research focus.

We, the members of this proposed group, represent a diverse array of backgrounds, research interests, and modes of engagement with the phenomena and processes of incarceration. With this diversity, we propose the formation of this reading group to facilitate interdisciplinary conversations in carceral studies broadly focused on the legal, procedural, material, spatial, demographic and psychological modalities of imprisonment. Foucault’s idea of the “carceral continuum” enables an analysis of prisons and incarceration that goes beyond a focus on particular institutions, and draws our attention to the circulation of mechanisms or technologies of control both within and beyond the walls of the prison. The framework of the carceral space as physical and social thus provides a useful entry point for a many disciplines. However, Foucault’s analytical framework has been critiqued for its tendency to be overly deterministic and its inability to address contextual specificities of varied prison settings. We will seek to move beyond the limits of his work by collaborating to build a cross-cultural, historically-situated approach to prison studies that engages technical considerations in the legal and methodological vein. A key objective of this reading group is to question the interdisciplinary durability and efficacy of concepts (e.g. “mass incarceration” or “the carceral state”) traditionally and often associated with carceral studies. We have begun as a group to identify conceptual convergences and divergences, but need to gain familiarity and literacy in one another’s disciplines in order to work towards building coherent, rigorous methodologies for researching prisons and incarceration that extend across the boundaries of specific academic fields. To facilitate these critical dialogues, our reading group will engage in in-depth exploration of ten methods, themes, or theoretical frameworks as we build our collective language, conceptual breadth, and methodological tool kits. The proposed reading group is designed first to situate the U.S. incarceration system in a global and institutional context and then progress through iteratively more micro-level dimensions of the carceral experience, moving from social identity and classification, to physicality, to psychology, and then concluding with a view to the world beyond punishment and criminal justice in the form of incarceration.

Within each of these themes and disciplinary perspectives, we will read texts that orient the group towards a particular disciplinary tradition, with the objective of equipping the group with the language, key theoretical concepts or frameworks, and, if appropriate, empirical
evidence that highlights that discipline relative to others. Across the themes and perspectives and over the course of the year, we will bring the disciplines in dialogue with one another with the intention of working towards the development of a cohort at Cornell of interdisciplinarily minded
scholars of imprisonment and carcerality.

Mariana Amorim – Department of Policy Analysis and Management
Amelia Hritz – Cornell Law School/Department of Human Development
Juan Carlos Melendez-Torres – Department of Music
Kevin Murphy – Department of City & Regional Planning
Trishna Senapaty – Department of Anthropology
Marisa Turesky – Department of City & Regional Planning
Youngmin (Min) Yi – Department of Sociology/Department of Policy Analysis & Management

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