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Anatoly Detwyler

June 22, 2016
Photograph of Anatoly Detwyler.
Anatoly Detwyler

Tell us about your current life as a visiting fellow at Penn State.

I’m part of Penn State’s new Center for Humanities and Information, a two-year position which allows me to continue my research on modern Chinese culture and to teach a few courses in the Department of Asian Studies.  Before coming here, I was in Taipei for a year attending the International Chinese Language Program in Taipei, and then spent eight years earning my PhD in New York City and Beijing—places I never dreamed of living in when I was growing up in Wisconsin. Now, State College offers a nice change of pace, and in my spare time I go out to the local disc golf courses to work on my game.

What do you love about what you do?

There are a lot of pleasures of working in a research environment—notwithstanding the serious retrenchment that the humanities are currently experiencing—so I feel very fortunate to be here. On the one hand, I get to converse with people who are a lot smarter than myself and who variously challenge me to think differently about my own work. It’s very humbling and edifying. On the other hand, I also get to teach, which gives me the opportunity to—I hope—“pay forward” some of the great experiences I had as an undergraduate student. But probably more than anything else I love the challenges and surprises of fieldwork—that is, traveling around China and Taiwan for research.

What did you like best about your experience in the Asian languages & literatures (ALL) department at the University of Minnesota?

I took my first ALL class, First Year Chinese, in the fall of 2002 to fulfill the CLA language requirement. The following spring, I found myself attending Joe Allen’s course on the Book of Songs. It was a seminar, so it was in an intimidatingly small classroom and the students were mostly graduate students. But I loved the intensity and the intimate atmosphere—and Joe was a captivating professor. That semester I decided to switch majors from psychology to ALL. In retrospect, that year epitomized my broader experience in the department: the fantastic access to faculty in the department, the joy of studying a foreign language and supplementing it with cultural exploration, and the development of a strong respect for specialization (in which I discovered that depth and breadth of learning are two sides of the same coin).

How do you think your experiences in the department prepared you for your future?

In my case, the ALL degree went full circle because I continued the training through grad school and more or less became a member of the scholarly community. I’m a lifelong devotee, so to speak. More generally, the integral parts of an ALL degree, namely a foundation in an Asian language and some cultural literacy, continue to serve me in good stead by allowing me to cross linguistic borders, exchange ideas, and experience social difference in meaningful ways. It may sound like a cliche, but the abilities to translate texts and to make connections with people abroad are indispensable in today’s world. They allow one to “look under the hood” of the social costs of globalization (Also a plus: these skills are fundamentally human, and won’t be automated anytime soon).  As an ALL major, I probably would have been happy going into nearly any field that requires travel and bilingual contact, and which isn’t fundamentally unethical.  

What projects are you currently working on?

Broadly speaking, I’m working in two different directions. The first is the transformation of my PhD dissertation into a book. The project examines how authors, artists, and critics of Republican China (1911–1949) began using the lens of “information” to explore the meaning and experience of modernity. This resulted in a number of very interesting topical and formal experiments, which in turn helped to transform the history of modern Chinese literature and art. What’s surprising—and perhaps most relevant—is the degree to which these works closely anticipate many of the anxieties and fantasies around information practices in China (and elsewhere) today. Take, for example, the 1930s exposé literature of Mao Dun, which details the manipulation of information at the Shanghai stock exchange—a phenomenon which has reappeared in force today! However we think of today’s information era, we need to acknowledge that its roots stretch both beyond the dawn of digital computing, and into a number of important non-western contexts such as China.

Second, I’m also collaborating with two scholars at the University of Chicago, Rich So and Hoyt Long, on several “digital humanities” projects which analyze culture using large sets of literary data. DH is very trendy right now, but until recently little has been done in the field of China studies, so we spend a fair amount of time doing basic work like corpus-building and databasing publication metadata (who published what, in which journal, when). Nevertheless, our initial forays have yielded some pretty exciting results. For example, we have mapped out nearly the entirety of the literary field in 1920s and 1930s China in order to examine the shapes of underground communist literary networks that formed in response to state censorship and oppression. Another of our projects conducts a large-scale analysis of different literary genres in 1920s China and Japan to show the co-evolution of repetitive language and the emergence of an “I narrator.”  Such DH projects help identify previously overlooked areas in need of scholarly attention.

What advice would you have for undergraduate students of ALL? Graduates?

Foremost, take advantage of the opportunity to learn from the world-class scholars in the program! This includes visiting your professors during their office hours. Second, make flashcards and use a paper dictionary for at least two years. Our screen-based gadgets make learning convenient, but one risks using them as a crutch, so it’s integral to learn the more basic architecture of characters and to really memorize a decently sized set of vocab. There’s something beautiful about a well-worn tool. My first Chinese-English dictionary ended up with a duct-tape spine. Finally, for those students who are just beginning to study a foreign language: it’s an undertaking that will change you forever, but you need to be committed. Responsible fluency takes more than a few years and a few classes. ALL will open the door to a kind of real privilege, that is, meaningful contact with and understanding of another people and culture, but you still have to go and spend a year or two there. I guess the underlying theme of all three points is to continually challenge yourself to get outside your comfort zone, because that’s the only way you’ll ever expand it.

What books or blogs are you currently reading? Recommendations?

Three sources which I regularly check are MCLC (Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, out of Ohio State), ChinaFile, and Bill Bishop’s Sinocism. When it comes to books, I try to maintain a fairly eclectic reading list, which sometimes results in surprising creative leverage. For example, I just finished a book on camouflage in the natural world, which has inspired me to begin thinking about the role of camouflage in the predator/prey dynamic of literary authorship under state censorship during Maoist China. I’m currently reading Rich So’s excellent study, Transpacific Community: America, China, and the Rise and Fall of a Cultural Network, which is very relevant for understanding the cultural and intellectual connections between China and America in the 20th century. I highly recommend it!