In Inventing Afterlives: The Stories We Tell Ourselves about Life after Death (Columbia University Press, 2018), Regina Janes (PhD ’72, English and American literature and language) writes that “death, of course, has everything and nothing to do with the afterlife.” Her study is not about belief, but rather about imagination, creativity, and language. Janes, a literary critic, is interested in afterlives as fictions and stories about what follows death told by the living and how the afterlife narrative “overcomes death, dominates it, and reintegrates death and the dead into the continuing self-conceptions of the living.” In these terms, what happens after death, is a one of the most existential forces of literature. Janes traces the form and language of afterlife narrative beginning with ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts and The Epic of Gilgamesh, then turns to the afterlives imagined by a range of Asian texts, including the Vedas and the Buddhist dharma. The book’s pivot comes with the Enlightenment construction of eternal life as happiness and closes with readings of contemporary representations of the afterlife in texts including J. M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello and the movie Being John Malkovich. Ultimately, Janes argues that “afterlives required inventing:” Rather than being universal, afterlives serve cognitive, ideological, and social purposes and have a cultural and literary history.
In The Conflicted Superpower: America’s Collaboration with China and India in Global Innovation (Columbia University Press, 2018), Andrew Kennedy (PhD ’07, government) analyzes the forces influencing US policies on innovation and in the process illuminates the economic and political dynamics of globalization. Although the US remains the world’s leading tech innovator, maintaining single-state leadership of the technology sector hinges on cross-border flows of brainpower from China and India to the US at the same time that US-based multinationals are offshoring R&D in both countries. This mobile circuit of people and knowledge leads to more interdependent economies and a paradoxical tension: Research suggests that globalization will lessen international conflict, but openness to cross-border flows of people and technology—the very openness needed to maintain US supremacy—could also accelerate the rise of emerging powers, namely China and India.
Kennedy poses the term “contested openness” to describe the US policymaking dynamic whereby American multinational tech companies and research universities, motivated by the global nature of their enterprises, vie for liberal policies regarding R&D and immigration of foreign students and skilled workers, but are met with resistance from labor or citizens groups, resulting in the relative openness or closedness of US cornerstone policies regarding technological innovation.
Yiddish Empire: The Vilna Troupe, Jewish Theater, and the Art of Itinerancy (University of Michigan Press, 2018), by Debra Caplan (PhD ’13, Near Eastern languages and civilizations), is the first book to chronicle the Vilna Troupe’s contributions to 20th-century theater. Created by refugees expelled from the Russian Empire during World War I, the company was entirely itinerant and embraced the vernacular language of Eastern European Jews as the foundation of modern, transnational Jewish theater. At a time when theater was a national enterprise, Caplan argues that the troupe’s global influence originated in a radical embrace of itineracy “as its organizing principle, ideology, and marketing strategy.” The Vilna Troupe became a “global brand” during the interwar years and created a transnational network of Jewish performers with 10 companies performing a shared repertoire. Constant movement made it a “major transatlantic and transhemispheric conduit for repertoire.” The company became known worldwide for The Dybbuk, the now-iconic play that combined ethnography and religion with avant-garde aesthetics. By the 1930s, the Vilna Troupe faded from view: Assimilation, anti-Semitism, and the Holocaust were all contributing causes, but the “genius of the Vilna Troupe,” Caplan concludes, “is that it dramatized the struggle for Jewish cultural legitimacy in a public forum.”