“As far back as I can remember, I have loved stories” – 5in10 with Michael Allan
Michael Allan is Associate Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Oregon, where he is also program faculty in Cinema Studies, Arabic and Middle East Studies. He is the author of “In the Shadow of World Literature: Sites of Reading in Colonial Egypt” (Princeton, 2016) and of articles in venues such as “Modernism/Modernity”, “Comparative Literature Studies”, “Early Popular Visual Culture”, “The International Journal of Middle East Studies”, and the “Journal of Arabic Literature”. He was guest editor of a special issue of Comparative Literature (“Reading Secularism: Religion, Literature, Aesthetics”), and, with Elisabetta Benigni, of an issue of Philological Encounters (“Lingua Franca: Towards a Philology of the Sea”). He earned his PhD in the Department of Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley, under the direction of Judith Butler, Saba Mahmood and Karl Britto, and his BA in History and Modern Culture and Media at Brown University. He is currently a Fellow of Europe in the Middle East—The Middle East in Europe (EUME) at the Forum Transregionale Studien in Berlin.
What was intriguing to you when you were a child? What is it that you always wanted to know about the world?
As far back as I can remember, I have loved stories. In my French school, I recall writing in books I filled with proto-sentences and scribbles during playtime, and I recall listening attentively to stories read aloud to us by our teacher. A few years later, as a reader, I was drawn to the sorts of stories that allowed me to imagine my world differently. Not entirely sophisticated, these were often stories that focused on warrior princesses, dying dogs, unicorns or Care Bears. More than teaching me something about the world, these stories intrigued me for the invitation they offered into the lives of imagined characters. I was less invested in a sort of knowledge based on discovering a fundamental truth than I was in the possibilities that stories offered for revealing the world anew.
How would you explain your current research to a stranger in an elevator?
Were a stranger to approach me in an elevator, my first instinct might be to flee the situation. And yet, if forced, I would likely explain that my current research traces the travels of the Lumière Brothers camera operators across North Africa and the Middle East from 1896-1903. Confronting the rival nationalist narratives that pit the American Edison Company against the French Lumière Brothers, I follow instead the complex histories of the camera operators themselves—from Gabriel Veyre in the United States, Mexico and Morocco, to Alexandre Promio in Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Palestine and Lebanon. What does it matter that basic principles of film form become visible at particular sites? Each chapter of my project couples one of these early films with a formal question: the close-up at the Jaffa Gate in Palestine, the question of framing in colonial Algiers, and duration at the pyramids in Egypt. In this sense, my research is an intervention meant to complicate the conventional account of film history and to consider more critically the role of North Africa and the Middle East in theories of film form.
As I study this global archive of fifty-second films, I am also led to consider a vision for cinema prior to the emergence of Hollywood code, prior to the understanding of cinema as a tool for storytelling, and prior to the synchronization of sound and image. In these films, I confront a dream actualized at the end of the nineteenth-century—a dream of a sort of universal language of images that transcends the particularity of a specific linguistic tradition. In the emergence of early film was the fantasy of a universal script without a code, an imprint of the world intelligible across national, linguistic or regional boundaries, a display stunning to audiences literate and illiterate alike. In as much as I am interested in the various sites these films depict, so too am I drawn to the implications these globalized films have as a transnational aesthetic form and the theorization of a new visual literacy.
Which stations of your academic journey were extremely formative to you?
This may read as an advertisement for EUME, but I consider myself deeply formed by the fusion of transnational history, area studies and cultural analysis integral to its vision. In the summer of 2004, I had the opportunity to participate in a summer academy in Alexandria, Egypt. At the time, I was working on a comparative project between Algeria and Quebec, and I was struck by the inspiring discussions fostered in this collaborative setting. Many of the friends I made at that time remain close interlocutors for me even to this day. In 2006, I participated in another summer academy in Beirut, Lebanon, and in 2011-2012, I was fortunate to spend a year in Berlin as a EUME Fellow. Ever since then, I have worked with colleagues at CNMS in Marburg and helped organize summer academies in Cape Town, Rabat, Cairo and Tunis.
I would go so far as to say that the Forum for Transregional Studies has become a second home to me. The imagination and structure of its programs are integral to how I conceptualize my own research and even my place in my field of Comparative Literature. I have benefitted in many ways from discussions and collaborations with my colleagues in Zukunftsphilologie, and conversations with friends in Art Histories have come to impact how I think about globalization and aesthetic form. Most generally speaking, I consider my first book to be deeply indebted to the encounters facilitated during my stay in Berlin in 2011-2012, and I am hopeful that my second book will benefit as richly from my current stay.
How is it to do research in Germany?
Part of the richness of researching in Germany stems from the resources at the Staatsbibliothek, Free University and Humboldt University, but also from the intellectual communities fostered by the Berliner Seminar, the Institute for Cultural Inquiry, the American Academy in Berlin, and the Haus der Kulturen der Welt. I have drawn inspiration from the academic conversations that these venues make possible, but also from the numerous musical, filmic and artistic resources. I have also been grateful for the time I have spent at the CNMS in Marburg, where discussions and conversations have directly shaped my current project.
If you had one wish, what would you wish for the further development of your subject?
I am not sure if I am articulating a wish or my support of a set of transformations already underway. Comparative Literature has historically been understood to encompass a classical humanistic canon—with assumed fluency in French, English, Italian, and German, as well as Greek and Latin. I am committed to a vision of our discipline that extends beyond this classical model and takes seriously the rigorous linguistic, historical, and cultural study of non-Western literatures, texts, and traditions. As a home for scholars not necessarily represented by distinct language departments, Comparative Literature, at its best, offers a symbiosis between literature, media and area studies. In the contemporary moment, it is impossible to imagine Comparative Literature without the presence of programs in Latin American Studies, East Asian Studies, South Asian Studies, African Studies, Ethnic Studies, Women and Gender Studies, and Middle East Studies. I am hopeful that an engagement with these fields and with various literary, philosophical and religious traditions will further inform and transform the literary and cultural theory for which our discipline is known.
Citation: Michael Allan, “As far back as I can remember, I have loved stories” – 5in10 with Michael Allan, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 04.04.2017, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/6370