Spotlight Interview with CICI Faculty Director Debarati Sanyal

Bex Sussman

BCSR was delighted to speak recently with Professor Debarati Sanyal, the new Faculty Director of the Center for Interdisciplinary Critical Inquiry (CICI), which supports BCSR. She is Professor of French and affiliated with Critical Theory, The Center for Race and Gender, and European Studies. Her research and teaching interests include critical refugee studies; aesthetics and biopolitics; human rights and humanitarianism; postwar French and Francophone culture; transcultural memory studies; Holocaust studies; critical theory; and 19th-century French literature. Sanyal’s first book, The Violence of Modernity: Baudelaire, Irony and the Politics of Form (Johns Hopkins, 2006), reclaims Baudelaire’s aesthetic legacy for ethical inquiry and historical critique, pursuing it in later authors, including Rachilde and Despentes. Her second book, Memory and Complicity: Migrations of Holocaust Memory (Fordham, 2015), addresses the transnational deployment of complicity in the aftermath of the Shoah (from Primo Levi, Albert Camus, Alain Resnais, and Jean-Paul Sartre to Jonathan Littell, Assia Djebar, Boualem Sansal and Giorgio Agamben). She is currently completing a book on migrant resistance, biopolitics and aesthetics in Europe’s current refugee “crisis,” with the support of a Guggenheim Fellowship (2021-2022). 

As Faculty Director of the Center for Interdisciplinary Critical Inquiry supported by the Dean of Arts and Humanities, Sanyal will be supporting The Program in Critical Theory, Berkeley Center for the Study of Religion, Berkeley Democracy and Public Theology Program, International Consortium of Critical Theory Programs, Asian Pacific American Religions Research Initiative, Berkeley Arts and Ideas, and Digital Humanities at Berkeley.

BCSR: Could you start off by telling us about what originally inspired you to pursue your fields of study? 

DS: I’ve always loved literature, and as an undergraduate, I marveled that literary devices ostensibly pulling us away from historical events and embodied beings could teach us so much about how the world works, how bodies are fashioned and recognized in it, and how personhoods are made and unmade. This interest in embodiment and disembodiment, with discipline and autonomy, may have something to do with my early years of training in Indian classical dance, which I left behind in college when I discovered I felt more at home in the dislocations of literature.

BCSR: In your experience engaging with your research interests within universities in the United States and in Europe, would you say that you have encountered any interesting differences depending on geographic area?

DS: There is an intensity of field-specific erudition prized at European universities, which of course also exists in American institutions, but in my experience I’ve found a bit more disciplinary flexibility at the university, especially at UC Berkeley, and in part thanks to the multidisciplinary programs housed in CICI. 

BCSR: How long have you been an affiliated member of Critical Theory? Could you tell us how you became interested in the Center for Interdisciplinary Critical Inquiry and what work you’ve done so far under the umbrella of the Center? 

DS: I’ve been an affiliate member of Critical Theory for several years, and have also had the good fortune of being invited to co-convene an International Consortium for Critical Theory Programs conference on memory and politics in Johannesburg, South Africa, one of the most memorable experiences in my professional life. This then led to a special issue of Critical Times called “Entanglements and Aftermaths: Reflections on Political Time.” 

BCSR: Could you share some of your goals and hopes for the Center for Interdisciplinary Critical Inquiry as the new Faculty Director, for both the students and faculty on campus and also for our broader initiatives?

DS: The Center houses some of the most transdisciplinary, transnational, and transformational programs on campus, and I’m eager to support its existing programs as well as explore potential collaborations between them. My plans include conversations on environmental humanities, but also on digital platforms and misinformation, psychedelics and humanities, borders and migration, pandemics and racial justice, and rethinking the “human” in the humanities. I look forward to CICI becoming a place for conversations across disciplines and divisions, on the Berkeley campus and beyond, in the form of conferences, research projects, and eventually, perhaps, labs for undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty members. 

BCSR: Could you talk specifically about how your background in French and modern and romance languages will inform your work with CICI?

DS: Well, one conversation I’m envisioning is on Great Replacement Theory—a racist conspiracy theory on the invasion and displacement of “white, native” populations in Western countries by racialized populations. A lot of its rhetoric was forged in France by authors such as Jean Raspail and Renaud Camus and has since migrated across the globe (to countries such as New Zealand and the US). So that’s one specific example. I imagine my background in languages and training as a literary scholar will inform my work in all sorts of ways I don’t yet foresee.

BCSR: I’m interested to learn more about your forthcoming book. How did you arrive at its topic? I see that in the book’s description, you put quotation marks around the word “crisis” [in “Europe’s current refugee ‘crisis’”]. Could you speak about this stylistic/grammatical choice?

DS: My book looks at aesthetic representations of migrant testimonies and practices at Europe’s borders. I argue that these expressions and their representations resist the EU border’s violence, historicize the refugee “crisis,” and convey practices of becoming and belonging that have yet to be recognized. I’m especially interested in how migrant practices and expressions, as well as their representation in different media, challenge the rhetoric of “crisis” when it comes to refugees and migration—a rhetoric that dehistoricizes and depoliticizes what is currently happening at borders.

BCSR: Has anything surprised or especially challenged you over the course of your research for the manuscript? What has most excited you about the process?

DS: One challenge is the contemporaneity of the issues I’m studying—the landscape of migration, borders, and refugees keeps changing, and in devastating ways. The war in Ukraine, for instance, is revealing the racial operations of borders and their differentiation between migrants deemed assimilable or inassimilable. But it’s also showing us the West’s capacity for extending sanctuary, contrary to historical claims of not being able to welcome all “the wretched of the earth.” It’s been an inspiration to spend time trying to closely read testimonies by migrants at various border crossings as they’re registered in various media. 

BCSR: Your work has engaged deeply with the concepts of memory, witnessing, and testimony, particularly in the aftermath of tragedies such as the Shoah and in the midst of processes of migration and sites of detention. In what ways do you see modern recording technologies (visual, auditory, etc.) modulating our collective experience and understanding of these concepts?

DS: That’s a fabulous but incredibly broad and complex question that would take hours to discuss! I think that modern technology has put us in the front row of tragedies, shuttling us to places and perspectives we’d never otherwise see or have. This can educate us and energize our commitments, but it can also lead to overidentification, slacktivism or compassion fatigue. Right now, I’m especially interested in artists working in virtual reality to address refugee border crossing, detention, or encampment—only they use the immersiveness of the medium to actually hold us at a distance and make us think, as well as feel.

BCSR: What do you like to spend your time doing when you’re not at work?

DS: I love to take dance classes in various styles, and recently I’ve been singing in a jazz band.