Can We Imagine a Very Different World?

Portrait of Mari Jarris

“What are the possibilities of imagining a radically different future and implementing that?”

This may be a difficult question, but President’s Postdoctoral Fellow Mari Jarris has never been one for working inside the box. Even their graduate education defies expectations—they received dual doctorates in German literature at Humboldt University of Berlin and in comparative literature at Princeton University. By studying in both countries, they gained an appreciation for different approaches to teaching German and Russian literature and theory. 

Connecting Fields of Knowledge

Bridging gaps is at the core of Jarris’ work. Along with their expertise in German and Russian literature, they specialize in Marxisms, socialisms, feminist and queer theory, and utopianism.

This love of interdisciplinary work is what drew them to the University of Minnesota. Prior to taking this position, Jarris says they felt pressure “to choose either German or Slavic or, for example, teaching in gender studies… to me, those distinctions always felt kind of arbitrary. It meant leaving out certain perspectives or really important angles on the topics that I was teaching or researching.” However, the Department of German, Nordic, Slavic & Dutch (GNSD) gives them freedom to connect their fields of knowledge.

“What I was really excited about here is that from the beginning they encouraged me to do everything,” Jarris explains. This includes “German and Russian, but also queer theoretical approaches to literature.” They appreciate how the department shows “an openness and excitement about interdisciplinary approaches.” 

A Radically Different Future 

Postdoctoral fellows spend most of their time on research, and Jarris is no exception. Their current focus is completing a monograph that works with 19th- and 20th-century German and Russian literature to explore utopianism. They explain utopianism as a “constant rejection of the present and insistence on something better, as well as the changes that have to occur along the way.” For them, this concept is an answer to the opening question: How do we imagine and implement a radically different future? While they acknowledge that “utopia” may provoke images of a “static, boring state of perfection,” Jarris says that it actually represents a constant striving for growth and improvement. It’s a way to challenge what we think about gender identity, sexuality, labor, and so much more. 

Jarris conducted archival research in Amsterdam and Berlin for their book project. They also planned to do archival work in Moscow for the past three years, but that was impossible due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. They have adapted to working remotely with a research assistant in Moscow while navigating the difficult logistics of that arrangement. Such effort is worthwhile, though, for a topic that Jarris feels is especially crucial to understand in modern times, with “the war, the pandemic, the climate crisis and the rise of right-wing movements… we're at a breaking point.”

Lessons From the Past

Why, then, focus on literature from past centuries rather than more contemporary works? As it turns out, those eras have plenty to teach us about persistent modern issues. “There were radical Marxist and socialist thinkers who rejected the stigmatization of femininity and binary conceptions of gender,” Jarris explains. These writers provide a precedent for “moments when other possibilities have existed and have been achieved.”

Equally important is how those possibilities were to be brought about, as these past thinkers emphasized a “profound belief in the democratic core of [the] movement.” Although their works may not have the same terms or reside in the same world as modern writing, Jarris suggests they give “new perspectives on what we often assume to be stable categories.” By exploring literature from past eras, we can disrupt patterns of modern thought and explore bold new ideas.

Jarris’ monograph covers a wide range of topics and proposes ambitious goals. Some may doubt whether we can achieve them, but that’s part of utopianism—as Jarris explains, “its insistence on such radical transformation [means] that the aims can never be fully achieved.” Instead, it is the process that matters, through which we discover new ways of living that we can’t even imagine today. Jarris says that acknowledging this “turns utopia from an escape from reality to a necessary response to it.”

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