On Thursday, November 15th and Friday, November 16th faculty, visiting alumni and graduate and undergraduate students converged on the Jerome Greene Annex and Casa Italiana for ICLS’ 20th Anniversary Symposium, Imagined Worlds: Politics, Literature and Theory Making, a series of conversations about institutional memory, comparison and the meaning and purpose of comparison.

The symposium truly began in Fall 2017 with a series of conversations between the directors about what an anniversary celebration might look like. Dates—November 15th and November 16th—were selected, rooms reserved and tentative plans to have a roundtable with the Institute’s former directors took shape. Lydia Liu reached out to the World Leaders Forum about the possibility of jointly inviting Ashis Nandy, scholar of political psychology, to give the ICLS Symposium’s Keynote Lecture.

Over the course of Summer 2018, ICLS Fellow in Academic Administration Matthew Teti conducted and transcribed interviews with former ICLS Directors. He scoured the ICLS drive for information about the center’s founding and process of becoming institute, and on the way, tracked the many events and initiatives launched over the past two decades. The long catalogue of ICLS events that Teti composed is a testament to the range of topics—from Occupy Wall Street to Global Language Justice—that the institute has broached over the years, and the scholarly and literary communities that it has invited to the podium.

In early Fall 2018, Lydia Liu, Anupama Rao, Sarah Monks and Kelly Lemons invited the planning committee for the 2019 ICLS Graduate Workshop (Chris Hoffman, David Borgonjon and Anayvelyse Allen-Mossman) to make suggestions about how to bridge the institute’s two home conferences of the academic year. To the already scheduled alumni talks, the Graduate Workshop committee asked to add a graduate response to the alumni contributions and a closing graduate and undergraduate-led series of break-out discussions. Logistically messy, these break-out discussions threatened to scramble the tightly coordinated order of the day and make coming to some sense of closure in an unstable and already fluctuating group more difficult; the discussion groups were added anyway.

 

Two Decades of Comparison

The first day featured a roundtable discussion, “20 Years in Retrospect,” between former and current ICLS Directors Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Stathis Gourgouris, Andreas Huyssen, Lydia H. Liu and Anupama Rao, moderated by Reinhold Martin. After brief opening remarks by Anupama Rao, Dean of the Humanities Sarah Cole kicked off the evening by sharing reflections about how ICLS allows for a return to “our central assumptions about how we think and approach the world around us” by pushing students (us) to speak, write, read and think in many languages, some of them not our own. The mood was jovial, despite the heavy snow.

During the panel, ICLS directors detailed their early careers and the kinds of comparative literature they saw taking shape around them in the wake of area studies. Huyssen and Chakravorty Spivak cracked jokes about their own hand in the creation of CCLS, smoothing over what later became clear were serious bureaucratic hurdles in establishing and funding the center. The other directors remarked on watching the center take shape as doctoral students at other universities, its step from center to institute, and the incompatibility of the ICLS project with departmentalization.

Reconciling Past and Present

The following day began with the World Leaders Forum Keynote Lecture. Ashis Nandy’s, “Cities of the Mind: Lost Cities and their Inhabitants” was introduced by Maya Tolstoy, Interim Executive Vice President for Arts and Sciences and Interim Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and moderated by Lydia H. Liu. Slightly more formal and inviting toward a broader, non-affiliated audience, the keynote lecture and ensuing discussion raised important questions about what, precisely, is in a city and what the contours of memory do to the idea of a place. Nandy’s deft storytelling opened novel paths into the urban history of cities lost to the ravages of colonialism, genocide and gentrification.

After a brief break for lunch and a breath of air, the symposium reconvened for a series of dialogues between ICLS alumni and current graduate students organized around the topics of pedagogy, politics and comparison. Madeleine Dobie, ICLS Director of Undergraduate Studies, Brent Edwards, ICLS Director of Graduate Studies, and Anupama Rao, Acting Director, served as moderators for a lively conversation. Conversations verged around comparative methodology when area expertise is not the objective; what an comparatist pedagogy can look like at the institutional level, in classroom and course policy, and on the syllabus; and that language-learning and working through multiple languages can be a switch into other modes of thought.

The symposium ended with chairs drawn into a circle and calls to join the discussion groups. ICLS faculty fled to the adjoining room for snacks. Students and alumni gathered in tight circles and tried to synthesize everything that had been said within the limits of our prompts. What materials were we talking about? Bits of conversations drifted across the room as we endeavored to hear, understand and get to know each other. The discussions carried over into the reception, out the doors and are still, in fact, ongoing.

To paraphrase Sarah Cole’s opening remarks, it’s difficult to tell if twenty years is a long time or just a beginning. Marking these two decades felt more like an introduction than a neat conclusion.