Image of Christophe Litwin

Interview with the new Early Cultures Director, Professor Christophe Litwin by Sami Ilan

1. What is your educational background? What led you to this position and did your path change from something you first wanted to pursue? 

Henry Hill in Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas famously says that “as far back as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to be a gangster.” In my case, I’ve always wanted to be a teacher. This was by far my favorite role-play as a child since I started reading and writing. At the age of seven, of course, I had no understanding of what it is to be a scholar, nor any idea of how the things one teaches require research and scholarship. Scholarship is something I began to learn about while studying German idealism as a philosophy MA student in Paris, and I’ve come to enjoy it more and more ever since, as it continues to fuel my passion for teaching.

My educational background in the humanities has been both cross-disciplinary and cross-national, taking me from France to both coasts of the US. I was trained in European Philosophy and in French literature at the Ecole Normale Supérieure of Paris, and completed a dual-PhD in both disciplines, at the Ecole des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris and at New York University. I then did a three-year postdoc in the Humanities at the Society of Fellows in the liberal arts at Princeton (2013-16), before my appointment as Assistant Professor of Early Modern French literature at UCI in 2016. Since 2023, I’ve been a professor in two departments at UCI, European Languages and Studies, and Philosophy. This “double” home is a good reflection, I think, of where my teaching and research interests take me. In any case, I’m much better off here than wherever the gangster life of Henry Hill could have brought me to creep!


2. What are your goals for the Center for Early Cultures at UCI and how do you plan to shape its direction and impact?

Over the years, directors of the Center for Early Cultures have succeeded in building a collegial community of graduate students and faculty who, across various disciplines, and beyond fixed geographic and temporal boundaries, share a common interest in studying, and learning about, earlier periods in different cultures. With the support of the Humanities Center, we have been fostering this community in the Center for Early Cultures by organizing lectures and conferences proposed by our graduate students and faculty. I plan, of course, to continue to support such initiatives and to develop these activities.

I also want to reactivate regular research luncheon talks by UCI as well as non-UCI scholars (something the pandemic unfortunately forced us to pause) on subjects that reflect the Center’s interdisciplinary interests. I am working on next year’s schedule together with the Center’s new Program Director, Luiza Osorio G. Silva, an archaeologist and art historian who is an expert on Ancient Egypt.. These talks are also a great opportunity to invite recently appointed UCI professors whose research focuses on early cultures to present and introduce their work to peers. In fact, the School of Humanities has recently hired several new faculty who I hope will both attend and speak at our luncheon talk series.

In my view, it is also important for a research community, beyond its shared interest in a diversity and plurality of topics, to work together in person on specific common research projects. In UCI’s Center for Early Cultures, such research projects should be comparative and interdisciplinary, but they can nonetheless center on a common question or object. Provided we can gather enough graduate students and faculty around such a project, I would like to start next year a regular EC seminar that would later lead to a conference and perhaps a publication. I have ideas of possible topics, but I want to consult first with current members about their interests and possible proposals.


3. Why do you think studying early cultures is important and how can it broaden people's horizons? What does studying this subject have to teach us today? 

I believe the Center for Early Cultures’ roles are to decompartmentalize knowledge, to present us with different possibilities that were enshrined in the early cultural productions, representations, and living experiences of various societies; and to expose us to the unfamiliar familiarity of such early cultural productions, representations, and experiences. Whether popular, material, literary, artistic, or philosophical, I think the early productions, representations, and experiences of different cultures can teach us surprising and thought-provoking things about the paths we have taken or chosen historically, as well as about the ones we didn’t, couldn’t, wouldn’t, or sometimes failed to pursue. They can teach us a lot about our world as it is, for better or for worse, as well as about alternative ways to conceive of it, to fashion it, and to face contemporary challenges. So, I look at the Center for Early Cultures as aiming towards an emancipatory conception of self-knowledge, which I would place at the core of an education in the Humanities.


4. The study of literature involves engaging with diverse cultural perspectives and voices. How will the center promote inclusivity and diversity in its exploration from around the world?

The epithet “early” is commonly associated with the retrospective notion of early modernity, which can arguably result in bias and Eurocentrism. In focusing rather on the plurality of early cultures, the Center’s founding members, who perhaps for the majority qualified as “early modernists” attempted to challenge this bias, to enlarge the scope of the Center’s cultural objects, and to promote cultural inclusivity and diversity. I think this defines the Center’s project. Our past and present activities have always demonstrated real attention to diversity both in terms of speakership and in terms of topics. Our April 27 spring conference on Early Cultures Gender Frames and Experiences, organized by historian Nancy McLoughlin, is just the latest testament to this commitment. Last year’s conference, organized by Matthew Canepa and Ph.D candidate Nastasya Kosygina from Art History, was about embodied practices of world making—how humans engaged with demonology, tantric practices, and decorated objects as ways of conceiving their mental worlds—in the early Mediterranean and Central Asia. We’re also co-sponsoring this year’s Visual Studies Graduate Student conference on Rethinking Surface (May 16), as well as upcoming talks on Ancient Egypt, on India… These are just examples that give a sense of the Center’s range.

One reason I invited Luiza Osorio G. Silvato serve as Program Director is because it matters to me to have as a constant interlocutor a colleague with a very different background and training who can help broaden cultural, historical, geographical perspectives in the Center’s activities.


5. Literature encompasses a wide range of genres, styles, and traditions. What are some key literary movements or themes you regularly research?

I work on a large historical period ranging from late-16th-century to early-19th-century Europe, especially the French context. Since as early as my doctoral dissertation, I have been inquiring into an early modern dispute about the passion of self-love that emerged between Augustinians and humanists in the context of European wars of religion. Modern devoutly Christian followers of Saint Augustine interpreted self-love as the sinner’s original corruption of the love of God, something that mankind cannot remedy without the Christian gift of faith. As a result, they regarded all human virtues outside of Christian charity as false. Humanists, though, influenced by their reading of classical philosophers that were largely rediscovered at the Renaissance, regarded self-love as the corruption of an originally good and natural love of self (“amour de soi”) from which actual human virtues are derived. I am interested in how an originally theological debate has shaped gendered theories of the modern moral and political subject as well as literary depictions of the self. This part of my research has focused a lot on the works of La Boétie, Montaigne, Pascal, and Rousseau.

My familiarity with these authors has prompted me to approach their works from other angles as well. For instance, I do genetic research on Rousseau’s manuscripts (such as his political project for the revolutionary republic of Corsica in the middle of the 18th century). I also try to track the early modern history of notions such as “second nature” or “growth”.

I am currently working on a more long-term multi-disciplinary research project I call the Enlightenment and the interpretation of pain. What interests me is how, in their radical critique of the Christian dogma of original sin, Enlightenment thinkers decoupled the notion of pain from its theological interpretation as a divine punishment of humankind for the fault of Adam and Eve. I see this as playing a key-role in major shifts within medical and judicial theories and practices (think of surgeries without anesthetics or justifications of the use of torture for interrogation) that have been described by scholars like Foucault. I am also interested in how this Enlightenment critique of Christian theology has affected our own way of valuing the experience of pain. Very simply put, if pain in general ought not to be interpreted religiously anymore as a divine punishment, what meaning, if any, can or should one give to the experience of suffering? I am particularly interested in how this problem reverberates in post-Enlightenment European literary works (Goethe, Sade, Georges Sand, Leopardi, Dostoevsky among others). 


6. What are some of your favorite things about teaching at UCI?

I have learned a lot, as a teacher and an international scholar, from teaching at UCI. The thing I enjoy the most here is the real economic, social, and cultural diversity of our student body: many universities claim to combine excellence with diversity, but one thing I have learned from my experience studying and teaching in the US and in France is that, more often than not, colleges operate as platforms for social reproduction rather than as springboards for social and generational mobility. UCI is largely an exception in this regard, which makes teaching here especially meaningful and rewarding.