My work is located at the intersection of cultural anthropology, comparative literature and intellectual history, and is broadly concerned with movement of ideas between social worlds (especially between Europe and South Asia). My other interests include the enduring relevance of Romanticism to social theory, postcolonial criticism, the legacy of structuralism, contemporary aesthetics, migration, and the modernist critique of realism.
I am currently revising my manuscript, City of Letters, which examines the ascendance of Berlin to the status of a global capital for world literature, as well as the political consequences of this story for writers and readers living in the city. In Germany, literature’s historically privileged status as the most enduring symbol of a national spirit has meant that migrant intellectuals have been afforded, at least nominally, rights to the city where others have been more visibly excluded. The book provides a fine-grained ethnographic account of the interlocking, everyday lives of new literary arrivals, including those from the postcolony who are frequently made into signs of Germany’s, and especially Berlin’s, embrace of culture of welcome (Wilkommenskultur) in the wake of Chancellor Merkel’s declaration that multiculturalism had failed, and meant at least in part as reparation for the crimes of the 20th century. At the same time, this discourse has encouraged waves of relatively privileged would-be migrant artists from places like the U.S., southern Germany, and elsewhere in Europe, drawn to Berlin for its low costs of living and importance in global circuits of cultural production. It also impacts Berliner raised in the former East Germany, who increasingly find themselves strangers at home. Rather than reproduce categorical binaries like the European and her Other, City of Letters explores the intersections of these different trajectories, and especially their entanglements.
Along with my colleague Clara Han at Johns Hopkins University, I am finishing a book entitled Through the Eyes of the Child, which examines the genres through which stories of catastrophic violence are inherited by children and grandchildren of survivors. Turning to our own childhood memories, we argue that memory – especially of world-annihilating violence like that experienced during the Korean War and the Holocaust of European Jews – is stitched into the making of kinship itself, and not simply something that stands outside our relations, such that it might be passed down along genealogical paths. This work has also led to my involvement with The International Research Network (GDRI) on Forms of Life, on a project concerning the figure of the child in literature, philosophy and ethnography.
With Marco Motta at the University of Toronto, I am editing a collection titled Life with Concepts, which explores new terrain in anthropological debates about the “real” and its relationship with the production of concepts. Instead of thinking of concepts as neutral tools through which a particular order is imposed on the world, the contributors to our book think of concepts as having a life, and of life as lived with concepts.