Divyani Motla: JNU-SPECTRESS fellow at the Institute for Social Movements, Ruhr University, Bochum, Germany.

I boarded my first airplane ever when I flew to Ruhr University, Bochum, Germany in May-2017, as perhaps the youngest SPECTRESS fellow. My academic host was Prof Stefan Berger, the Director of the Institute for Social Movements at the Ruhr University.

SPECTRESS, a project about cultural trauma, was as far from traumatic for me as imaginable. The most important dimension of this project was the exposure to many different cultures and people from all across Europe, the exposure to the histories of various nations, the conflicts and compromises and the resulting traumas that shape each of those nations. Europe, for me, was a living embodiment of history, and the confluence of the medieval infrastructure with modernity was intriguing. I had never felt this close to the medieval ages than I did while travelling and exploring the centuries old remnants of medieval architecture, especially in Cologne, Gent, Prague, Zadar and Durovnik. I was more than impressed with the multiculturality of these nations that originated around ‘one language and one culture’, and the ever-friendly people.

My fellowship kick-started with the ‘SPECTRESS Summer School on Cultural Trauma’ organized by the University of Zagreb in collaboration with the IUC at Dubrovnik. In addition to understanding the traumatic national self-perception in context to Croatia and neighboring states, the interaction with the participants and the professors helped me to re-think and re-consider the silhouettes of post-colonial trauma in India. The Summer School was brilliantly productive and entertaining, also the first time I ever saw a sea!

In Bochum, I attended a few seminars, and a conference about ‘History, Memory and Social Movements’, organized by the ISB. Those in addition to my interactions and meetings with Prof Berger contributed extensively in the cultivation of my research ideas and questions. In our interactions we both also helped each other better understand the conflicts and traumas that consume our respective societies. Prof Berger was also very kind to ask a young scholar like me to deliver a talk (‘Khalistan: The ‘Unrealized’ Nation Within a Nation’) discussing the post-colonial conflicts in India, attended by senior research scholars, professors and students, where we tried to understand the strengths and weaknesses of a post-colonial democratic nation through several traumatic ruptures. I also had extensive discussions about the ‘trauma’ of caste and gender in India with many academics and laymen.

To understand better, I delved deeper into memory of traumas in Germany. I had many interesting discussions people with about the memory of the Second World War (in Bochum), Communism, the Unification of Berlin (in Berlin), etc. I also visited some Sikh temples in Germany to find out more about the Sikh diaspora’s participation in and the memory of the ‘Khalistan Movement’. Furthermore, my travels to Gent, Berlin, Cologne, Prague, Zadar and Dubrovnik made me wonder and analyze if and how each one of us is a product of traumatic pasts- national, regional, ethnic, racial, cultural, socio-political, familial, etc. Berlin and the Holocaust Memorial were the most thought-provoking visits for me, since that’s where I felt the eeriness of certain traumas, which were otherwise distant to me both spatially and temporally- the Jewish holocaust and the conflict between the Communists and Capitalists in Berlin.

I can write endlessly for there was so much that I felt, learned, experienced and miss, but before I conclude it is imperative that I express my absolute delight and love for the food and beer in Europe. I am also very grateful to the lovely friends I made on this exchange- Cristian, Pia, Verena, Niklas, Ivi, Andy, Zrinka, Kosta, Rebecca, and Prof. Nebojsa and Prof. Tomislav, for welcoming me with open arms and helping me understand the European ‘other’ better; friends back home- Aakash, Steve, Afzal, Sim, Ravinder, and my family for their constant support and belief in me, all of which made this a truly wonderful experience.

Special thanks to Dr. Jennifer Edmond, to Professor Stefan Berger and to Prof. Aditya and Mridula Mukerjee, who made this life-changing experience possible.


Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University

New Delhi, India

(I am a pre-doctoral research scholar at the Centre for Historical Studies, JNU, exploring the themes of- nationalism, minority politics, space and violence, and the memory of political as well as cultural traumas, in a state of India called Punjab, which witnessed a secessionist movement for the establishment of a Sikh-republic called ‘Khalistan’ between 1975-95.)

LEFT: Outside the Institute for Social Movements, RUB (Before delivering the talk on ‘Khalistan’); RIGHT: Next to the big bell, displayed at the Paris World’s Fair in 1867, in front of the Bochum City Hall.

Divyani (3)

With Prof. Nebojsa and Kosta Bovan in the lanes of Dubrovnik (attending the Summer School on Cultural Traumas)

Divyani (4)

                                    Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Berlin

Divyani (5).jpgInside the Prague Castle, in front of the Kohl’s Fountain

Divyani (6)

Lecture delivered at ISB, RUB

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Katarzyna Trzeciak: JU SPECTRESS Fellow at JNU New Delhi, India

My story about first experience in New Delhi (which was, as I see, a demanding place for a first stay in India) had a very conventional beginning. It was tough. And even tougher, because of the many culturally mediated visions of India which I already had. So yes, at the very beginning I found how challenging the new urban space can be and how demanding are the most obvious aspects of everyday life.

But New Delhi became mainly the great challenge for my Western mindset, based on really strong fantasies about Indian spirituality, gender habits, social and religious inequalities. As a scholar with some academic background, it should be obvious that my experience is entangled in a various narrations about India, but even though I was fighting every day with my own feeling of reality, that cannot be conceptualized in my former vocabulary.

But of course, my three-month secondment had nothing in common with such a dark, and hyperreflective work on concepts, and vocabulary. I met many people who gave me a great opportunity to have a fantastic time in Delhi. I was visiting a few universities, where I gave lectures, and had at least a few inspiring discussions about the role of our cultural imagery on material experiences. I had also found a great interest among students for Polish language and art, which was really unexpectable opportunity to see my own culture from a distant perspective.

So, somewhere between competing with cars as a proud but irresponsible pedestrian, and confronting Western fantasies about ‘authentic’ India, I found a marvelous experience of being temporary local not in my own land.

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Rebecca Carr: TCD SPECTRESS Fellow at Yale University

Nothing says “Welcome to New Haven” like snow! I began my three month secondment at Yale University in January 2017 and I found the weather to be a drastic change from the milder climate at my home university, Trinity College Dublin. The precipitation and low temperatures did not dampen the excitement of studying at the prestigious home of cultural trauma theory. It was evident from the license plates of the cars parked around campus that people had come from all over the United States to attend this Ivy League school. Prior to commencing the secondment, Dr Jennifer Edmond and Deirdre Byrne, with infinite patience, provided me with updates and information about procedures to ensure I could hit the ground running.

While the winter weather impeded more leisurely strolls around the campus collage of New England colonial-style buildings and brutalist icons, each Monday I attended a seminar taught by Professor Ron Eyerman. The module, “Social Theory, Trauma and Memory”, was based in the sociology department but attended by graduate students from several disciplines and undergraduates with permission. The number of students was small, but the variety in backgrounds was vast, making for profound dialogues informed by history, psychology, cultural studies and knowledge of specific cultures such as Russia, South Africa, and Argentina. My doctoral dissertation, “The function of myth in cultural trauma films of Southeastern Europe” benefited hugely because the module defined, explored—and challenged—what was necessary for a collective or a community to exist and continue existing after a trauma had occurred. I came to Yale well-versed in mythology and film studies, but I sought the vocabulary to describe a community and the processes it undergoes and this seminar provided me with it. The experience was never going to lead to a definitive formula for cultural trauma, because human nature does not permit for such clarity, but I made advances in the analysis and structuring of methodology to such cultural upheavals.

Similar analyses where the only aim was improvement took place on Fridays at the sociology workshop in which both staff and students received feedback on their work. As a group devoid of pretence or hierarchy, each attendee witnesses that everyone, and their writing, is a work in progress. A more independent, but equally effective way of improving one’s work was to attend the campus writing center. Research in the humanities is rarely tidy, so even reading my work aloud to a trained tutor and fellow student helped me realize where I needed to elaborate on terms and when I was heading down a proverbial rabbit hole!

I will be forever grateful to Dr. Edmond, Professor Eyerman, the SPECTRESS programme, Trinity College Dublin and Yale University for the opportunity to immerse myself in cultural trauma literature with fellow researchers and wish for anyone on secondment at Yale to have as an enriching time as mine.

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Kadri Naanu: UT SPECTRESS Fellow in São Paulo

I am a PhD student from the University of Tartu, Estonia. The SPeCTReSS programme gave me an opportunity to spend three months in the spring of 2016 in the University of São Paulo, Brazil, and do research on cultural trauma. Since then the concept has become one of the central theoretical terms of my doctoral thesis that concentrates on the depiction of slavery in African American and serfdom in Estonian literature. The concept of cultural trauma enables me to view how certain shocking events or time periods acquire a traumatic meaning central to identity creation of a collective in a complicated process of (re)presentation and (re)interpretation. It allows me to explain the function of literary texts that have chosen slavery or serfdom as their central subject matter in a particular culture.

The majority of my time was spent in the Humanities Library of the University of São Paulo with countless research articles on the topic as my trusted companions. I also had the opportunity to take part in two seminar sessions. On April 15th, Spectress scholars Prof. Luiz Fernando (University of São Paulo) and Prof. Vitor Blotta (University of São Paulo) presented the research they had done within the programm and on May 13th Prof. Davor Dukić (Zagreb University) and myself presented ours. These seminars with other Spectress scholars were very interesting and gave me an understanding on the variety of topics that use the concept of cultural trauma to gain a better insight into the processes that interpret traumatic events in cultures and societies around the world.

In São Paulo I was received by professor Laura Izarra and her doctoral student Eda Nagayama. Together they introduced the university facilities to me and gave me a tour of the campus. Eda was also kind enough to show me around the city and introduce me to many local people, therefore allowing me to get to know São Paulo outside an academic setting. Eda also invited me to participate in an event hosted in a local community center that introduced cultures of refugees that had come to Brazil to escape various conflict situations from around the world. The event I visited on March 27th concentrated on Congolese culture and I had the opportunity to hear traditional Congolese music and learn traditional Congolese dances. This event allowed me to see how the concept of cultural trauma is not only significant in researching historical traumas but it also can function as an important tool to understanding conflicts in contemporary societies that are currently unfolding.

This impression was strengthened even more because my secondment coincided with a very tumultuous time in Brazilian society. At the time, president Dilma Rouseff was involved in a political scandal and the public demanded for her impeachment. There were large scale protests in the city where millions of people came to the streets to demand for a less corrupt government. Seeing the protest first hand and having many conversations with locals on the topic gave me an impression that this might be a cultural trauma unfolding in front of my eyes.

As my research concentrates on the depiction of slavery and serfdom, I also visited the Afro-Brazilian museum in the Ibirapuera Park to become better acquainted with the local heritage of slavery in Brazil. The museum offered a very nicely structured exhibition that gave an overview of the journey of African people to Brazil and the influence their culture has had on Brazilian culture.

Overall the experience was an interesting and a challenging one at the same time. Thanks to the Spectress programm, I had a chance to take a significant step forward in my research and I hereby would like to thank everyone who made the experience possible.


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Alexander J. Schwitanski: RUB Research Fellow at JNU New Delhi, India

For me it was my first time in Delhi and India – and outside of Europe at all. Unsurprisingly, my secondment in Delhi was a challenge which taught me a better understanding of space and time as social categories.

Delhi is an urban space incommensurable to European cities. I would say that there is no real centre and no structure and certainly, Delhi is not made for pedestrians. Of course, there are sidewalk, but sooner or later there is a hole, a booth, some flower buckets or temporary beddings forcing the pedestrian onto the street. On the road, pedestrians compete against cars, motorbikes and auto rickshaws for the next empty meter and at least motorbikes and auto rickshaws are usually quicker. Therefore, walking in Delhi is an exhausting activity.

For me it was a completely new and disturbing experience not to be free to move within a town because there is no structure to do so. I was dependent on taxis and auto rickshaws and to use these means meant new efforts and discontent. Fares had to be negotiated, because the required use of the taximeter is as rarely adhered to as the traffic regulations. But the chaotic traffic and its services are now given order by an app, Ola, the Indian counterpart to Uber. The virtual space, constructed by the app, is quite a relief in the chaotic system of the physical traffic and for the first time in my life, I understood the value of a modern mobile device.

Another surprise for me was the spontaneous appropriation and functional conversion of space. It happened to me twice that places I considered to be arranged for secular historical education (a room in the national museum and an open-air memorial sheltering a stone with an inscription by Ashoka) became places of religious worship. But this is, I have to admit, just the reversion of a process very common to Europeans. After all, in Europe famous religious places are used as secular points of interests for tourists, every day. Only my western perspective and custom was challenged.

Not only the traffic stretches and contracts time, but also the omnipresent bureaucracy: train tickets, library cards, access to archives: everything needs forms, photocopies of documents, signatures. I failed to buy tickets for the railway at the tourist office in New Delhi station after two hours of waiting, filing forms and dealing with the clerk: “No Sir, you are not entitled to buy a tourist ticket. You have a research visa…” I am still waiting for the SMS which should have given me access to the on-line system of the states railway company, after I fed the system a lot of personal data. But again, there is help from the private sector. Via Red Bus, a modern on-line system, it is easy to get tickets for the intercity bus. The buses are rather cheap and comfortable, and the bus terminals are even not as crowded as railway stations are.

The next lesson I learned is that bureaucratic procedures can be shortened, and closed doors may be opened by social relationships. That is certainly true for Europe and elsewhere as well, but I never experienced it intensively. I was lucky and grateful to meet many kind and interested colleagues in Delhi and Chandigarh, to where I was invited for lectures. In discussions and talks, I learned a lot about different views on the archival system in India, but moreover, I got lots of hints to persons and institutions I should have visited and talked too. Unfortunately, there was too little time for so many things I could have done.

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Jan Balbierz: JU SPECTRESS Fellow at New Delhi, India

The “Indian experience” was not new to me. The first time I came to Delhi was in winter 1990. The world I have lived in was about to change – everyone was talking about the first free elections, the opening of the borders and the abolishing of censorship. For the first time in my life – at the age of 25 – I had a passport and some money to spend for traveling. I decided to go to India and Nepal. Suddenly I found myself in a place where our problems were  unimportant to anyone. Most people I have met had not even heard of the country I came from.

In the next decades I went to India many times but living at the JNU campus was an entirely different way of visiting the country. Most things were simple and straightforward, morning coffee in the Indian Coffee House, library work, watching  the peacocks and the nil antelopes that occasionally came by, the cooperative milk and curd shop, cool evening walks, psychedelic rickshaw  rides to the New Delhi station in the wee hours of the morning.  

In the city itself I found places far away from the tourist trail. In the mosque in Hazrat Nizamuddin I spent many evenings, listening to the quawwali music or just watching the people praying on the graves of the Sufi saints, coming with alms and incentive sticks and gathering on the big courtyard before evening prayer. I used to browse the shops in the booksellers district at Ansari Road. Behind Quatar Minab there were new streets with galleries and tea houses. 

It was a privilege to become a temporary citizen of this great, ancient city. 
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Nicholas Johnson: TCD SPECTRESS Fellow at Yale University

The SPECTRESS network supported me to spend May – July 2016 at the Centre for Cultural Sociology at Yale University, developing a new dimension of research for my ongoing multi-disciplinary and multi-output project The Way of the Language, which explores voices from the so-called “War on Terror” and views post-9/11 artworks through the lens of cultural trauma. The three main benefits of this encounter were: 1) what I learned and how I connected interpersonally (through direct contact with the colleagues there), 2) how my work evolved methodologically (cultural trauma as a new dimension of my ongoing performance research), and 3) what I gathered bibliographically (through access to Yale’s library, fellow researchers, and research visits to New York City). The focussed time and change of scene were enormously beneficial for my own working practices, allowing a degree of focus that Dublin’s heavy commitments rarely allow. Additionally, the location afforded a direct connection to the Ground Zero site, memorials, and museums in New York. Though this was not a sabbatical appointment and therefore largely took place in the summer, when many CCS students/researchers were away, I was able to make a preliminary visit during Yale’s term-time to present my work and get useful feedback. I spoke at the 3 March 2016 CCS “Supper Club”, giving a paper entitled “The Way of the Language: Excavating Silence in the Documentary Theatre.” This paper is currently being developed for publication in TDR (The Drama Review), the performance studies journal (based out of NYU) where Jeffrey Alexander has frequently published (and sits on the editorial board). This is the most immediate and likely first output that will come out in print from this secondment; the large scope/physical scale of the further materials I gathered over that summer, it quickly emerged for me, likely need to be part of a monograph (or at least a co-authored/co-edited book-length output) on the topic of 9/11 as cultural trauma (provisionally entitled The Monument of Air). The productive conversations in 2016 with Ron Eyerman and Jeffrey Alexander, and the conversations since with many other researchers within the network, suggest that this is a feasible and worthwhile goal; my own self-evaluation of my research schedule, however, suggests that the work’s development could easily require another several years. In the meantime, I have sought to maintain contacts within the network by inviting Jeffrey Alexander to speak about the cultural trauma methodologies as part of the School of Creative Arts Research Forum (in autumn of 2016), and by serving as a peer reviewer for performance-related articles on the American Journal of Cultural Sociology (based at Yale). Since undertaking the secondment, I have seen much greater coherence than I first expected between my own approaches in performance studies and those in cultural sociology, and this has enriched my teaching and research since; there are students, especially dissertation supervisees, I am now sending toward the work of cultural sociologists. I am enormously grateful for the opportunities provided by the SPECTRESS network and anticipate extensive impact on my ongoing research.

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