A number of WLC faculty have recently received Research Grants through the ISU Center for Excellence in the Arts and Humanities. Below, Professors Kevin Amidon, Tonglu Li, Rachel Meyers, and Aili Mu discuss their CEAH-funded research projects.
Kevin Amidon, Associate Professor of German Studies. “Politics, Finance, and Risk: A Critical History of Twenty-First Century Political Subjectivity.”
In today’s political thought and policy discussion, risk has become a central concern. Many of the most contentious issues of the last decade in the United States have focused on varied and complex perceptions of risk. Financial markets mitigate risk, but create new systemic structures that seem themselves risky. Debates over climate change, and other environmental and sustainability issues, regularly hinge on the potentially disastrous consequences of inaction. The controversies over the Affordable Care Act in the United States even brought the concept of the “risk pool” into the public square: risks are only insurable when large pools of resources are available to compensate those who have experienced negative events.
Academic studies, characterized as they are by disciplinary structures that divide discussions of these issues between experts with widely divergent methods and vocabularies, have thus not explored significantly how and why “risk” functions as a concept uniting many approaches to politics, economics, and society. My work, the first stage in a book project intended for both scholarly and general readers, seeks to answer that need by exploring the historical development of theories of political subjectivity from the Reformation to today through their understandings of risk and risk pooling.
Tonglu Li, Assistant Professor of Chinese. “The Issues of Belief and Violence in Mo Yan’s Novels.”
With the support of CEAH Research Grant that I received in 2014, I finished and submitted for review several journal articles. The first article, “Writing Beyond the Nation-State: The Divine Mother Figure and the Historical Violence in Mo Yan’s Big Breasts and Wide Hips (1996),” discusses the Nobel Laureate Mo Yan’s most famous work. Through analyzing this highly sophisticated and controversial novel, this article reimagines the connection between the individual and the universal beyond the concept of the nation-state that constricts the literary production and consumption in modern China. It argues that the novel concentrates on the ways in which the mother figure in the novel pursues a spiritual life while enduring the historical violence. With the nation-state in brackets, the article explores alternative approaches to Chinese literature. Rather than taking Mo Yan’s novel as totally representative of modern Chinese history, it proposes that we conceive of it as separate pilgrimages to the sources of individual life’s meaning.
Another article, forthcoming in June 2015 in Frontiers of Literary Studies in China, is entitled “Trauma, Play, Memory: Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out and Mo Yan’s Strategies for Writing History as Story.” This article analyzes Mo Yan’s other novel and its three layers: (1) the evolving mechanisms of violence that condition the formation of personal trauma in the Mao era and afterward; (2) the theatrical manifestation of the state-endorsed violence during the Mao era, and its loss in the post-Mao era; and (3) the rationalization of the tragicomic past through the dialectic of remembering and forgetting. Built one on the other, these layers constitute the very dynamic stage on which the individuals interact with the violent and absurd world to negotiate the meaning of their life, make sense of historical trauma, and insist on driving historical change.
Lastly, I also finished revising another article entitled “’Stay Loyal to the Earth’: The Transcendental, the Teleological, and the Quotidian in Zhou Zuoren’s (1885-1967) Reflections on the Construction of Modern Life.” This study begins by invoking Wang Ban’s comments, inspired by Tang Xiaobing’s book, that the Chinese modern has been structured by the “dynamic tension” between “the heroic and the quotidian” and uses it as a starting point from which to explore Zhou’s intellectual investment in “everyday life.” Given Wang Ban’s suggestion that the “heroic” is the purview of the “political Community,” in contrast to the “everyday enclaves of private life,” the essay is concerned with Zhou’s resistance to political ideologies that replicated the transcendental and or teleological aspects of religious or philosophical thinking. The essay seeks to answer the questions like “what ideal of modern life did Zhou want to establish,” and “how this ideal forms a dynamic tension with the mainstream understanding.”
Rachel Meyers, Assistant Professor of Classical Studies. “Imperial Representation and Civic Benefaction: Roman Spain in the Antonine Age”
Understanding the polysemous nature of Roman cultural identity in one region of the ancient Roman Empire is at the heart of my project. I bring together my expertise in Roman imperial portraiture, architecture, inscriptions, and coinage with my interest in municipal philanthropy and propaganda in order to examine the life and culture of ancient Roman Spain in the second century. My resulting book, Imperial Representation and Civic Benefaction: Roman Spain in the Antonine Age, will explore the portraiture of the emperor and his family next to images of the local elite within their original contexts while also accounting for the total visual landscape of these Roman towns. The research is motivated by such questions as: How was the imperial family represented in Spain and who paid for their statues? How did the local elites portray themselves? What can we learn about the nature of the cultural identity of this region, as far as the influence of culture emanating from Rome but mixed with native, pre-Roman culture?
Portrait busts and portrait statues of the emperor and his family were set up in Rome and around the Roman Empire starting with the first emperor Augustus. While in Rome the emperor often set up statues of himself, in the provinces town councils or wealthy individuals took the initiative of paying for statues in honor of the ruler and his family members. Portraits were set up in a variety of locations throughout the city, and the archaeological record at times makes it clear that portrait busts or statues were set up in groups of various members of the imperial family. These dynastic groups have been uncovered in theaters, town council houses, fora, bath houses, and other well-traveled areas of the town.
In addition to the portrait statues of the imperial family that populated provincial cities and towns, there were busts and statues set up in honor of members of the local aristocracy. These images of the wealthy elite often occupied the same contexts as those of the imperial family, and in certain instances, a benefactor set up statues of his own family alongside those of the imperial family. In this book, I gather the portraits and statues of members of the second-century Antonine imperial family set up in the Spanish provinces of the empire along with the portraits and statues of the local elite from the same region. I will examine numerous portraits and statues within their architectural contexts in order to expose trends in Roman cultural identity in Spain compared with Rome and other cities via the portrait statues and the benefaction activities of local elites. While a few studies have examined Antonine imperial portraits in general or only the private portraits in certain places, these works do not take into account the complete visual landscape of a given town or even the architectural settings of the statues themselves. Thus my project is distinctive because it pulls together a large body of material to compare contemporary imperial and private portraits in one region within their visual landscape – other statues set up in a town, large public monuments, inscriptions, and also coinage – with the objective of understanding the idiosyncrasies of the cultural identity of these places.
Aili Mu, Associate Professor of Chinese. “Moments of Truth: Cross Cultural Literacy and the Short-short Genre.”
Familiar western concepts and theories are inadequate and often misleading when applied to peoples and/or regions of different historical and cultural experiences. With literature as a point of departure, my book manuscript argues that culture, like literature, does not cross boundaries sufficiently. As individuals of limited experiences and views, our particular understanding always already closes meaning/writing with specific familiar signification(s). This book claims that the goal of cultural literacy education should be sensitizing learners to other worldviews and ways of life. It argues that it requires both scholarly investigation and learning to feel the source cultures in contexts to achieve the goal. The chapters to be completed with the CEAH grant demonstrate critical approaches and analysis that embrace both.
The simple objectives of the manuscript are to help understand contemporary China and to help gain a better understanding about where it is headed. Contemporary China comes from 5,000 years of culture and traditions. Today this culture and traditions are mostly rooted in the everyday lives of its people. The literary genre that gives best expression to everyday lives is, arguably, the short-shorts. Averaged at 1,500 characters per story, the formal properties of short-shorts make them relatively easy to manage to both writers and readers. The eight stories included in the volume are all from non-professional grassroots writers—a farmer, a teacher, an office-holder, a migrant worker, a security guard, a civil servant, a TV producer, and a business owner—whose works have gained national recognition in the past few years. They represent a bottom-up view of China’s diverse values, methods of reasoning, rhetorical tendencies, views of government, and ways of life. Scholarly studies of Chinese literature and culture usually give attention to celebrity writers, popular media, fashionable trends and subjects of political significance. This volume introduces the much-valued aesthetic dimensions of Chinese life at the most fundamental level for a change. It hopes to help shift critical attentions to a more meaningful and significant locus.