Sites of South Asian Studies April 28-30, 2016

This conference celebrates the 50th Anniversary of the Department of South Asian Languages and Civilizations, one of the earliest South Asia area studies centers in the United States. 2016 is also, not coincidentally, the 60th anniversary of the Committee on Southern Asian Studies (COSAS), a unique body that serves as an academic and institutional umbrella for all scholars working on Southern Asia at the University of Chicago.  We take the occasion of these anniversaries to reflect collectively upon the relationship between area studies and the particular disciplines in which a large and visible number of scholars at the University of Chicago carry out their research and teaching endeavors, among them Anthropology, History, Literature and Language, Music, Law, Business, Economics, Religious Studies, and Philosophy.

History and Background

COSAS and SALC emerged out of many of the same impulses.  Both bodies were a crystallization of shared academic and political commitments of scholars pursuing the study of Southern Asia at the University of Chicago.  South Asian Languages and Civilizations was founded as a new department within the Division of the Humanities in 1966, a year after the South Asia Language and Area Center had been transferred from the Social Sciences to the Humanities Division.  COSAS, for its part, was established in 1955 through the concerted efforts of a group of scholars who drew inspiration from Robert Redfield’s discussions on the concept of civilizations.  This happened at a time when the College had no offerings in non-western civilizations, and the Regenstein had no South Asia collection nor any South Asia related bibliographic and reference services.

The past sixty years have seen massive shifts in the Southern Asian Studies, following the linguistic turn, the advent of cultural studies, Saidian critiques of Orientalism, postcolonial studies and other critical theoretical interventions, not to mention the rise of feminism and subaltern studies. Presently we offer eleven South Asian languages at the doctoral level at the University of Chicago. Our students work with these languages to write dissertations that address concerns of literary cultures, history, philology, art history, religion, philosophy, postcolonial and feminist theory, anthropology, sociology, and music.

Objectives and key questions

We encourage conference participants to consider to what extent the sense of crisis that besets the humanities in the fields of South Asian studies similarly afflicts the social sciences, or whether the challenges of shifting conditions of research have affected the disciplines differently. Our focus on “sites” is an invitation to participants to consider some of these issues. We have requested speakers to reflect on the implication of South Asian studies as a site of such confluence. In sum, our call for papers on the theme of “Sites of South Asian Studies” seeks to understand the concept of “site” in the broadest possible terms—as a geographical entity, as an interdisciplinary location, as a pedagogic slant, and as an archival orientation.

Speakers invited to the conference will be requested to consider a set of questions: what imaginations have animated the constitution of South Asia as a site of academic inquiry, historically as well as in the present? What is the relationship between the disciplines and area studies? The conference seeks to highlight the critical shifts that the concept of area studies has undergone over the half a century during which we have been in existence.  While the end of the Cold War liberated area studies from being the language-training arm of the nation state, new concerns have resurfaced since Sept 11, 2001.  What is the relationship between these national/statist concerns and the pursuit of deep philological training? Where do we stand as a hub of knowledge production at a critical historical moment at which the status of the humanities in South Asia is under threat (so much so that language and literature departments are rapidly becoming extinct, while the academic study of religion has never been established in modern South Asia)? What is the contemporary relevance of area studies in a globalizing world?