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Simpson Center for the Humanities

Scholars at Work

By Rachel Arteaga

In recent weeks, writers, scholars, and other readers have turned to their shelves, pulling down and dusting off works like Albert Camus’s The Plague (1947) and Katherine Anne Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider (1939), or turning to the relevant sections of the diary of Samuel Pepys, who survived the plague of 1665, a calamity that shuttered London and felled thousands of its residents. Our minds have gone immediately to the citations filed under the many names for this particular calamity: plague, pandemic, outbreak, contagion. We have searched these texts for their insights, and talked with friends and colleagues about how we might best apply that knowledge to the situation we now face. “The only means of fighting a plague is common decency,” Camus writes, and we take note.

Literature is the place where humanity keeps its reference points for events that we cannot individually imagine, because they are beyond our own personal experience. Most of us, in the United States, have not survived a plague—though there are lessons we can draw from listening to those who have. So we turn first to depictions of plague, to see how novel diseases move not only through bodies but also through cities and societies, through families and communities, through registers of understanding, which include the emotions. We want to know: what does a pandemic do? How does it strike, and how does it inflict damage? How can we mitigate its harm, overcome its frightening power over our lives, and rebuild our worlds—or build new ones in its wake?

We are right to...

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The Columbus Dispatch photo of an anti-social-distancing protest in Ohio. (Joshua A. Bickel/AP)

By Denise Grollmus

The last time I spoke with English Professor Eva Cherniavsky was in October, when we were filming the “Neoliberalism” video for Keywords, in which she discussed how zombie apocalypse narratives offer us a lens through which to think about the logic of neoliberalism. Since then, we’ve found ourselves in a pandemic that many are comparing to their favorite zombie films, comics, and novels.

Listening to Cherniavsky’s prescient observations about how zombie apocalypse narratives reflect and refract the logic of neoliberalism, I was struck by how much they resonated with our current moment. She kindly agreed to jump on Zoom and chat a bit further about how her work might help us think through the peril, politics, and possibilities of Covid-19.

A lot of people have been talking about the pandemic in relation to zombie apocalypse narratives, which is something you’ve been thinking and writing about for two decades now. How have you been thinking about our current moment in relation to the work you’ve done?  

It’s really been making me think about the different iterations of zombie narratives in the genre. There is a really bleak one, where the zombie apocalypse happens, the dead rise, civilization collapses and yet it turns out that the collapse of civilization delivers us right back into a world of hyperbolic survivalist individualism. The collapse of organized social order just sort of catapults into a neoliberal nightmare of every man for himself. Jane Eliot has written about this in really interesting ways, she calls it the microeconomic mode: my survival depends on your demise. It’s always about the cost-benefit analysis. It's about hoarding. It's about necropower. That’s one version of the zombie apocalypse narrative that, in my darker moments these past few weeks, I've thought about. 

But even as the economy shuts down, here we are in this moment where the air is breathable again. We actually walk in a quiet city breathing breathable air. There are these pastoral interludes at the same time that the shutdown seems to have exacerbated that sort of survivalist mode. I heard Arundhati Roy interviewed and she talked about the crisis as a portal, a moment of transformation that opens this field of possibilities.

Both of these versions are true. What I think is so affectively charged about the present moment and feels so profoundly distracting—the reason I can't turn off my news feed, I can't look away...

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By Caitlin Palo

Shortly after we closed the Simpson Center’s physical offices and moved to working remotely, I packed up all my library books into wine boxes and lugged them into the trunk of my car. Parked in front of my apartment building, I put my head on my steering wheel. I’d finished all but the edits on my last dissertation chapter and the final draft of my introduction. After years of struggling to find a rhythm, my Simpson Center office had become the one space where I’d managed to develop a regular and fruitful writing routine. How was I going to develop a new one on the fly and so close to the finish line? And in the midst of a pandemic, no less? Should I even try?

[See Inger Mewburn’s post on the Thesis Whisperer, “Should you quit (go part time or pause) your PhD during Covid-19?” for thinking through some of the logistical questions.]

As I unpacked my books at home, I reached for Helen Sword’s Air & Light & Time & Space: How Successful Academics Write.  I first bought Sword’s book when I was worried about how to finish my dissertation while also working a 9-5. I was intrigued by her critique of the common recommendation to ‘write everyday’—something I knew I’d never be able to do alongside my new job, because I’d already tried and, like most, failed. Sitting among the stacks of books in what would become my new, makeshift office, I began to reread Sword’s compelling take on productivity and how to make space to write.

Over the past few weeks, I return to her book every time I start to feel overwhelmed by the emails promoting productivity and the social media memes slapping back against the same.  Buffeted by these ‘should I/shouldn’t I’ debates, and the necessary bureaucracy of figuring out possible defense timelines, Sword provides no answers to my “should I” questions. Instead, she provides much needed solace, largely because Sword orchestrates the voices of scholars who have always been writing ‘apart together,’ at their desks and kitchen tables all over the world. By sharing their diverse practices, Sword invites her readers to “[do] away with should and focus instead on may, a lovely old fashioned auxiliary verb that connotes possibility and permission.”

The Particularities of Productivity

The author's workspace before (above) and after (below)Unlike other academic success and productivity books that set out to prove a hypothesis (usually a variation on the theme that daily writing is the key to success), Sword starts with curiosity about what successful academics actually do. She found that,...

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In Time’s recent special issue on the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.—which coincided with the opening of the immersive virtual exhibit The MarchHaley Professor of Humanities (UW Tacoma) Michael Honey contributed an article titled “What Happened to Martin Luther King Jr.’s Dream of Economic Justice?

His article emerges, in part, from his recent book, To the Promised Land: Martin Luther King and the Fight for Economic Justice, which was published by Norton last year and for which Honey conducted research as a 2011-12 Society of Scholars fellow. UCLA Professor and a previous Katz Distinguished Lecturer Robin D. G. Kelley writes of Honey’s work: “This is a dangerous book.” According to the publisher’s website, To the Promised Land goes beyond the iconic view of Martin Luther King, Jr., as an advocate of racial harmony, to explore his profound commitment to the poor and working class and his call for “nonviolent resistance” to all forms of oppression, including the economic injustice that “takes necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes.”

Aside from his piece in Time, Honey has published a number of other public-facing pieces that emerge from his scholarship on racial and economic justice. This fall, the website Portside: Material of Interest to People on the Left published his article, “Evil in the Delta: Elaine, Arkansas, 1919,” which recounts the 1919 massacre that took place during a gathering of 100 African Americans who were organizing the Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America.

Honey also recently directed, wrote, and produced the documentary film, Love and Solidarity, an exploration of nonviolence and organizing through the life and teachings of Rev. James Lawson, who provided crucial strategic guidance while working with Martin Luther King, Jr., in southern freedom struggles and the Memphis sanitation strike of 1968.

Illustration by Olaf Hajek for The New York Times, 2012

In this time of upheaval and vulnerability, the Simpson Center is committed to fulfilling its mission of fostering crossdisciplinary exchange and building intellectual communities across the UW and beyond, while also working to secure much-needed resources for our faculty, students, and staff in the present moment. The current crisis has, in so many ways, laid bare the mutuality and interconnectedness of our well-being towards which the humanities so often gesture. 

I am in admiration of the spirit of collaboration and inventiveness on the part of our faculty and graduate students who have embraced the commitment to online instruction and generously shared their resources and knowledge with the wider teaching community. I can also report that our intrepid faculty have turned to imagining new ways of recasting the in-person research conferences and workshops they had planned for this spring. We have postponed the majority of our spring events until next academic year, including the visit of Ruth Wilson Gilmore as our Katz Distinguished Lecturer. But this quarter at least four events will be moving online, enabling us to learn how best to create and support remote as well as hybrid events in the future, drawing inspiration, too, from the Ecology and Religion in Nineteenth-Century Studies Conference we hosted this past September.

At the Simpson Center, we envision our space as one that brings people together to think through pressing concerns and lines of inquiry shared across disciplinary boundaries. Sometimes we transcend them—in enlivening conversations that are themselves events of research. We did so this past February when the anthropologist Anna Tsing was here, inviting us to think with her about world-building projects. “It takes concrete histories to make any concept come to life,” she writes in her intellectually exhilarating and sobering book, The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins, which offers an anthropology of “always–in-process collaboration” among humans and non-humans in what Tsing describes as the “more-than-human” Anthropocene.

I think of the mushroom book, as it is affectionately called, and Richard Powers’s magisterial novel The Overstory as companion species, books to carry with us in our minds and as memories. Both portray a sprawling and interconnected posthuman world. Tsing and Powers share a deep feeling for forests and believe trees serve as protectors of humankind—and other species—even as they are at terrible risk of mutilation and murder, subject to clear-cutting for so-called economic development that can contribute to disastrous unintended effects, including events like our current pandemic.

I think of these two books themselves as protectors, gifts of the humanities, offering us equipment for living—renewing our...

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#UWtranslators is a series of interviews with translators by the UW Translation Studies Hub.

By Jesús Hidalgo

Aria Fani is Assistant Professor of Persian and Iranian Studies. His research focuses on modern Persian literature and traces transnational literary connections, particularly between Iran and Afghanistan. He also engages in social advocacy for non-citizen Americans, particularly Mexican and Central American asylum seekers. 

Tell us about your research in the NELC Department.

I am working on my first book project, tentatively titled Making Persian Literature: Iran and Afghanistan in the Age of Romantic Nationalism. It analyzes the historical inauguration of literature as a discourse of nation-building in early twentieth-century Iran and Afghanistan. It draws from a largely unexamined corpus of Persian-language newspapers and literary journals from 1890s to the 1940s. What is at stake for me in this project is to critically put two so-called non-Western case studies in conversation. In doing so, I hope to move away from the tired model of influence that traces the transmission of knowledge from an active and undifferentiated source (West) into a passive recipient (East).

For me, “influence” as a category of analysis —or even of description— is vague and meaningless; some fields have done a better job of displacing it than others. My readers might disagree with some of my conclusions, but I sincerely hope that they come to rethink this period in Persian literature as an age of intellectual inventiveness and collaboration across national and linguistic boundaries. The project’s bottom line is simple: literature did not become a social enterprise in national contexts that are sealed off from one another. We need to continue challenging methodological nationalism through collaborative and comparative work across national and disciplinary contexts.

How do you use Translation Studies in your classes?

I am amazed by how vastly diverse the field of Translation Studies is, especially if you consider studies that deal with translation’s extended metaphorical meanings and its relation to discourses of power. In my classes, I insist on a pedagogical model of translation —its theory and practice— that highlights the most salient aspects of humanistic inquiry: the notion that there is no such thing as unmediated knowledge and the idea that an act of interpretation is decidedly a labor of intellectual and empathic engagement with a given text and culture, not the outcome of being rooted in an ethno-nationalist community.

One particular book that really gets me excited in class is Finbarr Flood’s Objects of Translation (Princeton University Press, 2009). Flood employs translation as an analytical model to better understand...

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As we find ourselves in the throes of social distancing, we asked Simpson Center-affiliated scholars and staff what books they recommend. Here's what they suggested:  

Dan Berger, Associate Professor, Comparative Ethnic Studies, UW Bothell:

"I am reading two book of great political urgency: 

A Planet to Win by Kate Aronoff, Alyssa Battistoni, Daniel Aldana Cohen, and Thea Riofrancos is a concise, hopeful look at the ambitions of the Green New Deal. The writers examine a maximalist version of what a Green New Deal could mean for energy, labor, development, and internationalism.

I am also reading the posthumously published anthology of writings by scholar Cedric J. Robinson, who coined the term racial capitalism. Covering everything from global historiography to Blaxploitation cinema, media criticism to organizing against police violence, the essays showcase the stunning depth of Robinson’s ideas. His approach to Black studies was always global, democratic, and transformative."

Jesse Oak Taylor, Associate Professor, English: 

"I recently finished Kim Stanley Robinson's Green Earth (2015), the omnibus version of his "Science in the Capital" trilogy. Weighing in at 1000 pages, it's a hefty tome, at home on a shelf next to Dickens or Tolstoy. It's also spectacular—the most ambitious (and successful) work of 'cli fi' I've read to date, insofar as it explicitly takes up the challenge of modeling the Earth System in fiction. While KSR is known for science fiction, what I love about this novel is its realism: despite some improbable events, it also seems so very plausible. Indeed, while reading it, I found myself forgetting that the political mobilization to address the climate crisis it describes was *only* happening in the novel, and wondering why they weren't cropping up in The Seattle Times. As such, it makes for fabulous reading during an election cycle when we all need a little help imagining that response -- and the planetary future that goes with it -- into being."

...

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The Simpson Center for the Humanities is pleased to announce that Gozde Burcu Ege and Mediha Sorma will be joining the Mellon Sawyer Seminar on Humanitarianisms: Migrations and Care through the Global South as pre-doctoral fellows for 2020-21. Led by Arzoo Osanloo (Law, Societies & Justice) and Cabeiri Robinson (Jackson School of International Studies), Humanitarianisms seeks to decolonize the rhetoric and understanding of humanitarianism by examining the histories of forced migration and practices of humanitarian care for forced migrants, including both ‘conventional’ and ‘humanitarian refugees’, that developed outside of Europe and North America.

Burcu Ege is in the Interdisciplinary PhD Program in Near and Middle East Studies. A Fulbright-Hayes DDRA fellow, Burcu’s research examines how Palestinian refugee-citizen youth who have long been conceived as recipients of humanitarian aid are themselves practicing voluntary care and relief work in a context new waves of refugees coming to the long-established refugee camps of Jordan. Her dissertation, “From Crises to Ordinary Precarity: Palestinian Youth as New Practitioners of Humanitarian Governance in Amman, Jordan,” focuses on local humanitarianism in the context of long-term displacement. Her project challenges the assumed link between refugees and aid by examining how refugees themselves engage in forms of humanitarian practice under condition of long-term displacement and precarious legal status.

Mediha Sorma is a PhD candidate in the Department of Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies. Her dissertation, “Subaltern Mothering and Political Elsewhere: Militant Mothers of Kurdish Resistance Towards a Stateless Freedom,” is a study of Kurdish women’s reproductive and mothering practices as a form of care-based resistance in contemporary Turkey, where war and state violence figure as a normative social condition for Kurdish people instead of a state of exception. It examines gender and sexuality as central to the construction of migrant subjectivities and seeks to understand how Turkey manages its humanitarian obligations with its drive to extinguish Kurdish autonomy “within” its borders in ways that are different than the biopolitical logics of the Anglo-European liberal nation-states.

Both Burcu and Sorma will be in residence at The Simpson Center for 2020-21, working on their dissertations and participating in the Sawyer Seminar Series, which is made possible by a generous grant from the Mellon Foundation, with support from the Simpson Center for the Humanities and the Graduate School.

Congratulations to Burcu and Mediha, and our warm thanks to...

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#UWtranslators is a series of interviews with translators by the UW Translation Studies Hub.

By Jesús Hidalgo

Trained in Southeast Asian history, European intellectual history and anthropology, History Professor Vicente Rafael's research interests include language and power, the politics of translation, comparative colonialisms and nationalism, the social history of media and mediation, critical theory and anthropology, empire, race and gender. Much of his writing has been on the colonial and post-colonial Philippines and the United States.

How did you become interested in the Translation Studies field?

My interest lies less with translation studies as a field and more with translation as a historical practice. I got interested in it starting with my first book on the role of translation in the Christian conversion of Tagalogs during the early Spanish colonization of the Philippines.

How is your work in the field of Filipino Studies connected with Translation Studies?

Filipino Studies is a very interdisciplinary field that involves a plurality of languages and long, unfinished histories of colonial rule that also involve multiple languages. To track and analyze this history, one needs to take translation seriously, both as a way of reading documents and as a way of understanding how people deal with plurilingual worlds.

How do you use Translation Studies in your classes?

By talking about language as a whole or history as a series of discursive regimes.

Why are Translation Studies still relevant in our contemporary society?

The question should be: why is translation at all still relevant? Or better yet, could there be a society where translation did not exist?

Do you have any upcoming projects related to Translation Studies?

Yes, a project on the role of English in the production and maintenance of linguistic hierarchies in Southeast Asia and the United States; and the emergence and role of creole languages in disrupting linguistic hierarchies.

What translated works are you reading nowadays?
Gina Apostol, "Insurrecto"

By Kathleen Woodward

The numbers have mounted every day since China first began announcing them. As I write this, the New York Times reports that in China deaths from the coronavirus—named COVID-19 by the World Health Organization—have reached at least 1113, with the number of cases confirmed rising to 44,653. Where can we turn for an informed and compelling perspective on what will almost surely become a pandemic? I recommend science writer David Quammen’s Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic, a book written for a broad public that was published in 2012.

The foundational questions of Spillover are these: Where do these diseases come from? Can they be predicted? Why do they subside? Drawing on the conventions of the detective story and citing academic research, Quammen explains the science in an intelligible voice, patiently introducing us to vocabulary I suspect is unknown to most of his readers (reassortment, reservoir hosts, anthroponosis). He devotes the chapters of his book to outbreaks of specific diseases around the world—Hendra, Ebola, Lyme disease, and AIDS, among them, with influenza taken up primarily at the end. He tells us about people who have died from these diseases and introduces us to people who have survived them, including scientists pursuing research and medical personnel caring for those who fell sick. He vividly illuminates the threat of diseases that are zoonotic— that spill over, jumping from animals to humans. Through the very accumulation of these stories, he shows us that these diseases are significantly on the increase. It’s a big book. Read it from beginning to end. But ignore the threatening image of a crazed primate on the cover. Designed to elicit fear and sell copies, it doesn’t resonate with the tone of the book whose purpose is to engender heightened understanding and informed concern.   

Throughout his book the word risk rings like a bell. But it is the concept of unpredictability—the unpredictability of catastrophic global biological risk—that is at the heart of his book. Spillover is a history of the present and a speculation about our biological future. But in fact, it offers not so much speculation as a confident prediction that there will be—there is in David Quammen’s mind no doubt about it—an outbreak of an infectious disease devastating to humans.

Crowded Conditions

Quammen argues persuasively that we are in a new era of ever-emerging zoonotic diseases. Over the course of Spillover, he builds a powerful case that outbreaks of pathogens—his emphasis is on viruses— are growing more and more common around the world. This elevated risk, he argues, is due to increased...

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