“I Used to Love Plants More Than Books” – 5in10 with Yoav Di-Capua

Yoav Di-Capua. Photo: private

Yoav Di-Capua is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin, where he teaches modern Arab intellectual history. His recent book, No Exit: Arab Existentialism, Jean Paul Sartre and Decolonization, was published by the University Press of Chicago (see a conversation with Margaret Litvin on this book here). Yoav is a EUMECNMS Fellow of the Alexander von Humboldt-Stiftung at the Forum Transregionale Studien in the Academic Year 2017-18.

What was intriguing to you when you were a child? What is it that you always wanted to know about the world?

I was curious about birds and plants and that was more or less all of my world. If there was a concrete world beyond that it was the one from which birds migrated through my home to Africa and back twice a year. I grew up in the southern part of Jerusalem which, unlike today, was not at all developed. I spend my childhood in the mountains and nourished a modest specialty in medicinal plants. These useful weeds were all over the place. I remember starting reading about the subject more seriously and buying with my own money one of my first books on the topic. It was a beautiful book from which I have learned a lot about the Palestinian medicinal tradition. Following it, I presided over a collection of dozens of labeled film canisters stuffed with dried plants. I will self-medicate freely and as needed. It was obvious for me that my life would continue in the field of biology and as a teenager I was welcomed to attend a class in the Hebrew University. Tragically, my world of plants collapsed the instant I stepped into the laboratory and was asked to follow strict scientific procedures for hours on end…

 Which stations of your academic journey were particularly formative to you?

I often look with regret on my professional upbringing and, had I had a chance, would do it quite differently. I mourn the fact that I did not spend at least 2-3 years in French academia and another year somewhere in North Africa. Notwithstanding these and other professional regrets, I benefited from solid and largely free education. As an undergraduate in the Hebrew University I was introduced to a strong tradition of empirical research that to this day influence the way I do business. Later, at Tel-Aviv University, I was lucky to work with Israel Gershoni who introduced me to the field of Arab intellectual history. Under his supervision, I realized that my fascination with abstractions actually have a name, a method, a discipline and hence a trajectory. In late 1999 I went to Princeton but, unfortunately, could not identify with the model of scholarship that was offered to me. To be honest, I could not stand my department and since the feeling was quite mutual I spend most of my time in their amazing library. It was very unpleasant but I did learn two important lessons there. The first was that the academic world is an open network and that I can seek mentorship outside my department and, especially, outside the university. I owed my graduation to several established scholars who took me under their wings. The second thing I discovered was that writing and thinking “against” the scholarly tradition of Princeton’s department of Near Eastern Studies was very fruitful. With the exception of their commitment to sound empirical research my first book was everything they were not. In the long run, however, such intellectual life are not sustainable and I was eventually lucky to find a true home. My last and current station is the amazing history department at the University of Texas at Austin. I owe my colleagues much more than they can ever imagine.

 Do you think that academic mobility changes the way in which research projects are conceptualized? What are your personal experiences in this regard?

Yes, of course. It goes without saying that it does. The profession is global and we all move a lot. Increasingly, our scholarly subjects are becoming transnational in nature. Since I participate in it I also realize that it is somewhat of the new ideal, something we all celebrate. But it also makes me reflect about the privilege of our class. My recent book in the field of Global Intellectual History is completely in debt to this mobility and I had great time writing it. But when I realized that the cost of research and writing exceeded $140,000 I was quite shocked. We have colleagues in the Middle East that cannot travel, have no research funds and cannot even afford to purchase our fancy new books. Measured in Dollars, Euros or any of your favorite global currencies, this gap is not simply monetary but also an ethical one. Though not as severe as in the hyperbolic international market for art, there is a level of separation and alienation that comes with this mobility and this, too, needs to be part of our conversation. EUME, by the way, is one of the few places world-wide that are mindful on this reality and that strive to constructively address it.

Which key insights from your research do you consider to be the most surprising for general audiences? Why do you believe this to be the case?

I’ll start by saying that I am not the go-to-guy for public engagement. I don’t blog, I am not on social media and I write for the wider public only twice or thrice a year. That’s more or less what my dear wife and many of my colleagues accomplish in an afternoon. So I’ll admit that there is much room for personal improvement and that I should overcome my difficulty in imagining the “general audience” as a concrete organism. However, this past year I did get the chance to give several “book talks” to the general public. In as much as I was able to deliver one, I found my audience thirsty for a good story, one with deep context, nuanced actors and no hidden political agenda. They took quite an interest in Arab thought of the 1960s and in the many intellectuals that toiled to create a brave new world in harmony with the world rather than in opposition to it. Specifically, they were surprised to learn that during the 1950s and 1960s the Arab world boasted the most vibrant existentialist scene outside of Europe and that Sartre was their hero.

Which publications or academic events (workshops, conferences, lecture series…) did inspire you recently?

Though I have amazing colleagues, I have very hard time concentrating during conferences and get easily distracted. I would almost always prefer to read a paper than listening to it. Having said that, I recently attended a conference in Cambridge University on the Arab Left. Rather than simply presenting to a caffeine infused captive audience, we were asked to translate and pre-circulate an Arabic text of our choice. This original arrangement automatically subverted the traditional hierarchy between established and aspiring scholars and let the curatorial quality of each participant speaks for itself. Whether you published 12 books prior to this conference or none, mattered very little and indeed young scholars excelled in this conference. I found myself taking more notes than ever before and got a master class form several graduate students who, in a more traditional setting, would have probably been pushed to the margins that reflected their rank. It made me think of the need to experiment with more daring forms of scholarly exchange in addition to the traditional conference format which became somewhat of a default.



Citation: “I Used to Love Plants More Than Books” – 5in10 with Yoav Di-Capua, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 01.08.2018, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/11065.

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