Welcome to the latest edition of the LRCCS Spotlight. In this edition, we sat down with LRCCS Tang Junyi Post-Doctoral fellow Sonya Ozbey, where she discusses the links between Daoism, animality studies, and social justice - among other interesting tidbits about her growth as a scholar.
LRCCS: Where do you call home?
Dr. Ozbey: I saw that question in some of your other interviews and was already dreading it.
LRCCS: It’s always a complicated one.
Dr. Ozbey: It is indeed! I’m a traveling academic, so it’s hard to call a single place home. I grew up in Turkey and studied in the States. Home is the people who support you intellectually and emotionally, so you can either say I have no home or I have multiple homes—depending on how you look at it.
LRCCS: When did you start getting interested in China?
Dr. Ozbey: It’s always been people who got me interested in something; in the case of China, it was my PhD advisor Frank Perkins. Originally I wanted to do my PhD on French feminism.
Dr. Ozbey: Yes, that was indeed a big shift. In my first week of grad school, I sat in a class taught by Franklin Perkins that was on Daoism, and that’s when the shift began. Then I started going to conferences, I started learning literary Chinese, and several senior academics around me encouraged me to pursue graduate work in Chinese philosophy.
LRCCS: How did you make the shift from French feminism to Chinese philosophy?
Dr. Ozbey: Well, that is the beauty of grad school. I had the luxury of being able to change my research field early in the process. I was taking a class titled “body in Daoism.” The topic wasn’t completely irrelevant to me because discussions on body and materiality are prevalent in contemporary feminist literature; but of course I didn’t initially think that early Chinese philosophy would later be my main area of research. I just fell in love with the field.
LRCCS: What interests you so much about Daoism?
Dr. Ozbey: I’m interested in early Chinese texts in general. I believe many of the questions addressed in these texts are still relevant today—which, I guess, you can say about majority of the canonical texts, regardless of the tradition they represent. Of course there are always differences in the ways these questions are formulated in texts that belong to a different temporal and intellectual milieu, which I also find fascinating. Sometimes changing the way you formulate a question could be more revealing of insights than all the answers you try to give to the initial question. By formulating the question differently, you already start seeing the issue in a different way.
LRCCS: What are you working on right now?
Dr. Ozbey: I just finished translating the Dao De Jing into Turkish, which I think was really overdue.
LRCCS: Was there not a translation into Turkish before?
Dr. Ozbey: Actually, there was this really good sinologist who did a translation in the 60s, before the Mawangdui (马王堆) and Guodian (郭店) excavations. That translation is no longer on the shelves. What you see in bookstores now are all translations from other European languages.
I once taught a class in Turkey on the Dao De Jing, and though we used an English translation, the students wanted to be able to read it in their mother tongue as well. They brought me all these different Turkish translations sold in bookstores and they were all translations of translations. So I decided to do it myself.
Currently I’m also working on two papers. One is on the Zhuangzi and radical politics. The other is on the motif of the petty person in the Xunzi and the extent to which the trope of animality informs descriptions of petty people.
LRCCS: What do you mean by animality?
Dr. Ozbey: Well, I’m not really interested in the figure of the animal in its own right, that is the biological animal, in my research. I instead look into the metaphors of animals – for example, descriptions “uncouth” people as having the demeanor of “birds and beasts,” which is a case of using the human/animal distinction to set up social distinctions.
LRCCS: What interests you about this particular topic?
Dr. Ozbey: I’m personally interested in understanding how different structures of oppression inform each other. Ultimately it relates to issues of social justice, which fuel my thinking.
LRCCS: Do you want your research to contribute to social justice in some way? Is that what motivates you?
Dr. Ozbey: That’s a big claim. I’m aware that academic works are read mostly by other academics. I would like my work to be read and heard by other academics working on similar issues. I want my research to be in conversation with other contemporary works. That intellectual exchange is enough of a motivation for me. Of course, it’s my humble opinion that animality studies is an emerging paradigm of social critique and that ultimately these so-called academic discussions do leak into everyday speech and practice, and vice versa. The speed and extent of that leakage is always beyond our control though. But, independently of my research as a single individual, I do certainly want to see the field to gain broader recognition.
LRCCS: How does the trope of animality play out in the texts you study?
Dr. Ozbey: Well, one pattern that I sometimes see is this parallel between the amount of investment a text has in conventional, policy-oriented politics and its engaging in normative discussions on humanity, often defined in opposition to animality. Perhaps that is why we don’t see the trope of animality figuring negatively in a text like the Zhuangzi. It is not a coincidence that the text not only levels social distinctions, but it also often considers perspectives of different beings on par with each other—human and animal.
LRCCS: So like the guy dreaming he was a butterfly?
Dr. Ozbey: Right, so the dreamer doesn’t care if in reality he was indeed a butterfly or not. What’s most important there is the quality and character of the experience, not who is having the experience. The story not only undermines personal boundaries, but also species boundaries. It’s a great and famous story—and famous for a reason.
Thanks for reading! Stay tuned for our next Spotlight with Post-Doctoral fellow Yasmin Cho!