Faculty Highlight: Blake Smith

Doan: How did you decide to pursue a PhD in history?

Smith: I did a PhD because I needed the money! As I was finishing college and anxiously facing the future, the prospect of several years of guaranteed income and health insurance was very appealing… I went into history specifically because every other disciplinary mode of thinking about human action seems, to me anyway, unloveably remote from the way we actually are; i.e., from the way we make the world together as we tell each other stories about it and ourselves. History lets you make a living out of the elementary pleasure of gossip, of being fascinated by the way even apparently trivial actions, as we narrate and re-narrate them, reveal and acquire new meanings. I think in that sense we are all natural historians, in a way that we not natural sociologists or biologists — history is just a kind of unmethodological intensification of our everyday fascination with other people’s business!

Doan: What advice would you give to academics who have recently finished their PhD and are entering the job market?

Smith: The only advice I can offer is: remember that whatever happens ‘on the market’ is not an assessment of your intellectual and moral worth, but only another arbitrary outcome of an ever-more broken and cruel system that, for almost all of those who labor in it, betrays the promise of the life of mind. Any ‘young scholar’ of my age has seen brilliant, accomplished friends fail to get even mediocre jobs — and has felt how academia bends its initiates’ psychologies towards cynical careerism or bitter self-marginalization. There is something tragic in the conditions both of the ‘winners’ and the ‘losers’ of this game.

Doan: You’ve published two articles since 2019 – In 2019/2020: “Translingualism in South Asian Francophone Writing,” Esprit Créateur, vol. 59, n. 4, p. 68-80; and “Tenais and Zeliska: A South Asian Racial Utopia in the French Revolution” Utopian Studies v. 30, 1, p. 8-24. Can you give us a brief summary of your articles?

Smith: These two articles are a sort of digression away from my main line of interest in the history of ideas into the study of literary texts — they’re the academic side of my recent work translating eighteenth-century and contemporary francophone writing that deals with South Asia and the Indian Ocean world. In the article for Esprit Créateur, I build on Vijaya Rao’s work to explore how francophone Indian writers like Toru Dutt and K. Madavane played with different South Asian languages in their work. In the article for Utopian Studies, I analyze a play from the French Revolution set in an imaginary Indian kingdom where racial prejudice has been abolished—and I show how fantasies about a ‘post-racial’ society have been part of modern democratic ideology since its eighteenth-century inception.

Doan: You are working on a translation of Pondicherrian author Ari Gautier’s novel Le Thinnai that has been accepted for publication next year with Hachette Book Group. What is the process of translating an already written work?

Smith: My experience (translating the poetry and letters of the eighteenth-century writer Evariste de Parny, and the fiction of the contemporary francophone Indian authors K. Madavane and Ari Gautier) is that it takes much more time than expected, and in the end, if all goes well, the translator disappears behind the text. I think translating is at best a kind of ascesis undertaken out of love for an author’s work — and probably isn’t worth doing otherwise.

Doan: What are some challenges you have encountered with the above project?

Smith: Translating Ari Gautier’s work — and writing about it — is a bit strange for someone who’s used to working on dead people. Unlike Ari, they can’t disagree with what I say about them!

Doan: What other projects have you been working on?

Smith: Because 2020 disrupted my planned projects (conferences, archives), and because our government’s disastrous response to the pandemic seemed to demand a deeper attention to the underlying problems in our society, I’ve spent a lot of time this year reading political theory (Foucault, Arendt, Shklar, etc.) and writing about what I’m reading for non-academic audiences. I’m not sure it’s helping anyone, exactly, but even if I’m not doing an exemplary job, I do think it’s vital for humanists not to leave public debates to scientific experts, moralizing ideologues, and professional politicians.

Doan: What is something you are looking forward to next year?

Smith: It would be wonderful if 2021 could see the return of conference travel — which I always used to complain about! There is a kind of intellectual excitement that I think can only happen in the physical presence of other people — especially when you’re ‘playing hooky’ over a drink from the presentations and official circuits of professional sociability.

Lauren Doan is the Programs and Operations Manager at the Committee on Southern Asian Studies.

Blake Smith is a Collegiate Assistant Professor at the University of Chicago.