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Comparative Literature Undergraduate Research Symposium draws national attendance, inventive conclusions

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APRIL 21, 2023

On April 15, blazered bookworms from Berkeley and beyond gathered in Dwinelle Hall for the comparative literature department’s 10th annual Undergraduate Research Symposium. Sponsored in collaboration with the English, geography, rhetoric, German and ethnic studies departments, the symposium aimed to showcase compelling undergraduate research from across the country. The event lasted nearly 12 hours, attracted students from more than 10 universities and featured more than 25 speakers. 

“(Re)Imagining the Body: The Abject, the Peculiar and the Other” served as this year’s theme, attracting more than 60 applicants. The selection process began in the fall, as the symposium’s committee reviewed papers containing research from every corner of comparative literature, or comlit. 

Committee member and comlit student Layla Nasseri noted an imaginative approach to planning, telling The Daily Californian, “Our committee chair, Pearlin Liu, was extremely organized and managed our time very well, so the committee got to take a lot more creative liberties with planning the event than in previous years.” 

Their hard work paid off, with some students flying in from across the country to attend the event. Rachel Kamphaus, a student at Brown University in Rhode Island, arrived in Berkeley the night before. “It’s my first conference and I’m just really excited to be here,” she shared.

Kamphaus presented as part of the symposium’s “The Abject: A Body and Its Parts” panel, discussing liminality, abjection and acceptance in Anne Carson’s “Autobiography of Red. In her own words, “This paper analyzes the ways in which the protagonist is rendered liminal or ambiguous in terms of his gender and sexuality, then it engages with Kristaven notions of abjection to argue that this sort of in-betweenness makes the protagonist abject and sort of others him from society. It finally works in scholarship from queer scholars to argue that a liminal position can be a source of empowerment and liberation rather than just otherness.”

In addition to discussions of abjection, the symposium featured research panels such as “Relationality and the Body,” “The Other: Affect, Appropriation and Colonialism” and “(Re)Imagining the Physical Body,” some held in-person and some over Zoom. The event also included a graduate panel with Mary Mussman, Gemma Tronfi and Jiahe Mei.

Professor Poulomi Saha, known for teaching a cult class of its own English 24, “Cults in Popular Culture,” delivered the keynote address. Titled “Chasing Bliss & Changing Race,” the presentation combined discussions of the Hare Krishna (also known as the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, or ISKCON), American ‘yogis’ and orientalism. 

“Krishna consciousness strips away self consciousness,” Saha argued. “This is one of the canonical dangers of what we think of as cults.”

Saha went on to discuss the history of ISKCON from its emergence in 1966 to its modern-day presence in the East Bay. Of this sort of spirituality, Saha described “an experience of limitlessness that is not limitless; the chant will end, you have to go home from the park.” 

They explained the felt-transformative nature of the Hare Krishna’s methods and how this ties in with the strict Indian caste system from which many of its practices derive. “It is to become intimate, related to, descended from the godhead himself and to affect a sort of racial transformation,” she analyzed.

In a section titled “Namaste, Bitches,” Saha explained the link between these trans-racialist leanings and today’s American yoga-inspired movement (though Saha stressed adamantly that they had no intention of shaming anyone for finding spiritual or physical meaning within it). She described the 40 million Americans who practice yoga: “These rituals offer a timeless fantasy that you can be part of a historic lineage. To share in this practice is to align yourself with this history.”

After the lectures, the panels and a reading from “Flights” by Olga Tokarczuk, attendees gathered in Ishi Court for dinner and discussion. 

“At an institution like Berkeley where STEM is highly prioritized and recognized over other fields of academia, especially the humanities, my only hope from this event is that those who are not part of the liberal arts community will learn to value and appreciate the labor that we do as much of that of their own disciplines,” Nasseri reflected. “I often feel like students in the humanities have to fight for our place in academia and I walked away from this event feeling satisfied that we had asserted this much: The humanities are alive, well and thriving, even if it is in relative obscurity.” 

With dozens of participants and 100 RSVPs, though, the Comparative Literature Undergraduate Research Symposium is shining that much needed light on the humanities. 

Contact Sarina Bell at 


APRIL 21, 2023