Professor Tölölyan is a Professor of English and Letters, and the Founder and Editor of “Diaspora,” a journal of transnational studies.
The Argus: There are obviously quite a number of books on your shelf, so the question “What’s on your bookshelf?” might be rather hard to ask.
Professor Khachig Tölölyan: Well, I can tell you what’s on my bookshelf in the sense that there are really several categories. All the books behind you are what we call literary criticism and theory books. The books behind me are what I’m currently doing research in. To the right are both academic journals that I have subscribed to over the years and library books that I have here because I need to read something in each one. So those are the categories—and then the computer is full of scanned articles.
A: So what are you reading right now?
KT: I’m reading this book: “Immanuel Wallerstein and the Problem of the World: System, Scale, Culture” (edited by David Palumbo-Liu, Bruce Robbins and Nirvana Tanoukhi).
A: What’s it about?
KT: Well, sixty years ago this gentleman named Wallerstein, who is now in his 80s, invented the idea of a world system, which is one of the most productive ideas that has driven or powered research in sociology, history, and certain ways of thinking about globalization today. This is an idea that, as we say, “has legs”—it survives and keeps on being interesting. I know the idea, but I like to see what new people are saying about it. Some ideas can persist, but they mean slightly different things to slightly different generations of thinkers.
A: Are you reading it for a research project?
KT: I am very interested in what’s called “world literature.” That is to say that a lot of people want both teaching and research to move more in the direction of not just a national literature, whether it’s American literature or Brazilian literature, but in the direction of world literature. But no two people agree on what that is—this is an area that the Center for the Humanities, for example, spent an entire semester thinking about: for example, issues having to do with world literature and world cinema, and what that means. I am very interested in this topic—that is to say that I work on certain aspects of that, and think about and hope to write about it.
A: How’s this project going so far?
KT: It’s going very slowly because I have other tasks to attend to, but my hope is that—well, the first hope is that I understand what people are saying, and the second hope is that I will have something to say that the others aren’t saying already. Scholars learn about each other by reading each other’s work, by going to conferences and writing new things; I’m hoping to teach a course next year called “Theory for a Global Age,” and that is a course that would supplement a course I teach normally called “Reading Theories.” This would be the second step in a move towards global, what we call “traveling” theory, theories that are developed in one country (and often but not always those countries are France, Germany, or the United States) and how they travel around to other peoples.
A: Your faculty page says that you specialize in a number of topics—American literature, Thomas Pynchon, diasporas, and narrativity, as you mentioned. Could you tell me how you became interested in these topics?
KT: My dear, there’s no short answer to a question like that. You don’t start out being interested in all these things. You start out as a young man or woman, and you’re going to graduate school; you have interests and as you follow them—and that is to say, as you take courses, read books, and read scholarly journals in which advanced thinking is published—you start finding out what you think is going to be your mission—not for the rest of your life, but for the next five or six years. So you have to either be able to do a PhD dissertation or that kind of thing—I wrote mine on problems of narrative, considering the novel as a category of the larger category of narrative. And since then I’ve always been interested in narrative, and what “narrative” means is different—it doesn’t just mean the American novel, or the English or French novel, but it means the quality of what is sometimes called “narrativity,” the qualities of narrative that have to do with complications of story-telling. That was my original specialty, and although I don’t publish articles on that anymore, I still teach a course that has narrativity in it, and I’m very interested it.
A: Outside of this bookshelf, what would be your bookshelf at home, your personal bookshelf?
KT: Right, well, I own about a thousand books of Armenian literature, which is my native language-—so one part is Armenian literature and culture, the national literature of my people. The other part? Like a lot of academics, I have a very large collection all sorts of novels, including popular novels. For example, I’m very fond of popular genres like thrillers, detective novels, mysteries, and action thrillers, those you just read for fun.
I also read a lot of somewhat specialized histories that interest me, or biographies. Well, today I went to the library, and that might give you a few ideas. [Shows several books about Badiou, Derrida, Michel Foucault, and various books on narrative.]
These are the scholars I teach, so I know and have a good basic knowledge of these things, but people keep on interpreting and reinterpreting what they said and applying it to new issues. So it’s not enough to say, “Well I read it, so that’s it.” Your understanding of things changes over time because of what other people say. So a text is never just itself, it’s the text as—we use the word technically—“mediated” by its reception all the time. Thus, I don’t just read “The Odyssey”, I know “The Odyssey” through a whole of bunch of articles and books I’ve read over a lifetime, which actually have shaped the way I understand “The Odyssey.”
A: Is there question with which you’d like to end?
KT: Well, a question you could ask me… You could ask if I’ve dramatically changed direction in my work and therefore my reading over the years… And yes, at one time I read many, many more recent contemporary American novels, and criticism of those novels, because I used to teach them in regularly scheduled courses for twenty-five years. So, I would say that I know less about the American novel now than I ever have in my life because instead I’ve started doing work in other things.
And there are some other topics, like the novelist Thomas Pynchon—I used to be a very wellknown expert on Pynchon. I’m still known enough that someone just sent me their German translation of his work, but I’m no longer a Pynchon scholar because I don’t keep up with it. I also used to study things like terrorism, which was not in my field, but I used to study it anyway, but no longer.