“As I Worked More in Academia, I Have Come to Realize that Each Methodology Has a Cost.” – 5in10 with C. Ceyhun Arslan

C. Ceyhun Arslan is Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature at Koç University and Fellow of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation at the Forum Transregionale Studien and Saarland University. His works have appeared or are forthcoming in journals and edited volumes such as Journal of Arabic LiteratureThe Routledge Handbook of Arabic Poetry; Middle Eastern Literatures; Cambridge History of Middle Eastern ModernismComparative Literature Studies; Journal of Mediterranean StudiesMiddle Eastern Literatures; Routledge Handbook to Global Literature and Culture in the Romantic Era; Sea of Literatures: Towards a Theory of Mediterranean Literature; Utopian Studies; and Convivium: Exchanges and Interactions in the Arts of Medieval Europe, Byzantiumand the Mediterranean. His first book, The Ottoman Canon and the Construction of Arabic and Turkish Literatures, has just been published by Edinburgh University Press. He is working on his second book project entitled Becoming Mediterranean: Views from Arabic, French, and Ottoman Literatures.

C. Ceyhun Arslan

1. How would you explain your research to someone who is not an expert?

While I have written works that address different fields and disciplines, they all delve into texts and art works to envision new and emancipatory ways in which individuals and communities situate themselves in the world.

Take for example my first book, The Ottoman Canon and the Construction of Arabic and Turkish Literatures, which just came out in March 2024. The book studies how texts cultivate communities. We tend to assume that communities, often nation-states, produce literary traditions that then become our object of study. I wanted to turn the table around and study how, for instance, the Abbasid poet al-Mutanabbi’s poems contributed to the formation of not only Arab or a global Arabized community but also what some Ottomanists have called the Ottoman literati. The book also called for overcoming the tendency to see the nineteenth century as the moment that witnessed the stark divide between classical and modern literatures. It argued that the earlier focus on this divide has habituated us to think of Arabic and Turkish national literatures as analytical categories that have existed since time immemorial. I examined the Ottoman canon to flesh out and then reassess the current concepts, categories, and theories that have shaped Ottoman studies, Middle Eastern studies, and postcolonial studies.

During my time at EUME, I am working on my second book project, tentatively entitled Becoming Mediterranean: Views from Arabic, French, and Ottoman Literatures. The book examines literary and narratives sources on different parts of the Mediterranean, such as Alexandria, Beirut, Algiers, and Malta. It focuses on sources from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when the national identities started to take shape in the region. I want to look at how authors of the texts I analyze made a claim on the Mediterranean as they also forged their national visions. I also study literary texts from different languages to re-envision geopolitical and temporal boundaries imposed on the Mediterranean.

2. What intrigued you when you started your academic journey?

I would not exaggerate if I say that my courses in literary and cultural theory had a therapeutic effect when I was going through difficult times. I was drawn to abstract ideas and concepts because they helped me break free from the suffocating constraints of the mundane life and gave me new vantage points from which I could charter my life anew. Probably, this played a key role in my decision to pursue a career in humanities.

Later, the rich and nuanced scholarship on the nahda (sometimes rendered as “Arab modernity”) inspired me and shaped my academic trajectory. I wanted to deeply think about the experience of modernity because I witnessed how dangerous it is to categorize people who lived “modern” lifestyles as people who lost touch with their “roots” and hence did not deserve to exist since they were not “authentic” enough. I also observed the discrepancy between the utopian visions that late Ottoman texts upheld and the dystopian realities that many Middle Eastern intellectuals experienced. As I discuss in Chapter 3 of The Ottoman Canon, I did not want to take what these texts claimed at face value but instead reflected on how these texts could have prepared the ground for what I observed in my country and the region more broadly. To put it simply, the chapter claims that these texts could have circumscribed our vision of what “tradition” and “modernity” should look like. 

3. What were formative encounters or challenges?

I always find it a challenge to carve out a space for myself in the Eurocentric discipline of literary studies. Fortunately, the past few decades have witnessed more works on Arabic and Turkish literatures in comparative literature. At the same time, critics who work on non-Western traditions are still expected to solely discuss the traditions they study while those who work on Western European and/or Anglo-American traditions can be given the leeway to make larger theoretical claims by studying Western traditions only. For example, critics of German literature or U.S-American literature can often publish a book titled Theory of the Animal or Theory of the Novel and provide theories on animals or the novel genre by giving examples only from German or U.S-American texts. However, a critic of Arabic literature would find it much more difficult to publish books with these titles. Institutional constraints, like the job market and the academic publishing market, would likely force that critic to write books like The Novel in Arabic Literature or The Animal in Arabic Literature. This inevitably creates many inequalities and hierarchies in the academic landscape as it affects citation counts, job placements, and ultimately the major theories that shape humanities. Not to mention that most institutions do not have resources to support researchers who wish to study non-Western languages; therefore, researchers may likely have to exert extra underpaid labor to attain reading proficiency in these languages.

Likewise, I find it a challenge to draw upon multiple methodologies. As I worked more in academia, I have come to realize that each methodology has a cost. For example, archival research forces many researchers to seek travel funding and go through an excruciating visa application process. Critical theory sometimes uses an experimental style that helps us question and move beyond the constraints of everyday language, but this style usually sounds alienating to those who are not used to it. Philology pays attention to minute details in old texts but this attention to detail may not seem worth the effort for some social scientists who only seek generalizable theories. All these approaches prove valuable, but when I draw upon them in a single article and book, I have learned that I cannot please all the strong adherents of different disciplines and their methodological inclinations. That is why my work openly discusses my methodological choices and the costs that these choices entailed.

4. What do you consider to be the role of the humanities and social sciences in times of upheaval, fragmented publics, and authoritarian transgressions?

This is a question I reflected upon and discussed in my forthcoming article in Utopian Studies. This article claims that literary texts do not have to be seen as objects that critics masterfully deconstruct; critics can “think along” with these texts to flesh out new ways of living together that do not serve the kind of Eurocentric and exclusionist discourses of Western universalism or humanism that I described in my answer to the question above. Postcolonial theory and area studies have put emphasis on the incommensurability of different cultures in order to criticize these discourses. This emphasis could have initially been a good strategy; however, I think that this strategy can now backfire when authoritarian regimes can justify their discriminatory practices as they appropriate insights from postcolonial theory and categorize anyone who criticizes these practices simply as pawns of Western imperialism. Therefore, a key aim for humanities is to find new vantage points from which intellectuals can simultaneously criticize both hegemonic discourses of Western universalism and sexist, Islamophobic, chauvinistic, homophobic, and racist practices that they observe in their communities. I have become recently interested in Mediterranean studies partly because I want to find ways in which intellectuals can criticize exclusions of Western universalism without contributing to rising isolationist discourses that perpetuate discriminatory practices.

5. What book, article, film, exhibition or song would you recommend, and why?

I recommend Sea of Literatures: Towards a Theory of Mediterranean Literature (2023) as it maps out possible future methodological directions for Mediterranean literary studies. I would also recommend Critique and Postcritique (2017) and Context in Literary and Cultural Studies (2019) because both works help me rethink my disposition and responsibility as a critic towards literary texts and artworks. I think both works further convince me that literature does not solely reflect social hegemonies and inequalities; it also provides a space in which we can think the world anew.

The next book in my reading list is Maha AbdelMegeed’s Literary Optics: Staging the Collective in the Nahda (2024). Even though I have not started the book yet, I recommend it with great enthusiasm. I listened to Prof. AbdelMageed’s lecture in Orient-Institut Istanbul, and I genuinely felt intellectually enlightened since it provided so many new insights for my research on the nahda. I am very excited to start Literary Optics soon.

Citation: “As I Worked More in Academia, I Have Come to Realize that Each Methodology Has a Cost.” – 5in10 with C. Ceyhun Arslan, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 09.04.2024, https://doi.org/10.58079/w6rt

Diesen Blogbeitrag zitieren
Forum Transregionale Studien (2024, 9. April). “As I Worked More in Academia, I Have Come to Realize that Each Methodology Has a Cost.” – 5in10 with C. Ceyhun Arslan. TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research. Abgerufen am 23. Mai 2024, von https://doi.org/10.58079/w6rt

Forum Transregionale Studien

The Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien promotes the internationalization of research in the humanities and social sciences. It provides scope for collaboration among researchers with different regional and disciplinary perspectives and appoints researchers from all over the world as Fellows. More...

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