Berkeley English Faculty

Steven S. Lee

Steven Lee

Associate Professor

Wheeler Hall, Room 415
Spring 2020: By appointment

Professional Statement

My research interests include twentieth-century American literature, comparative ethnic studies, and Soviet and post-Soviet studies.  After graduating from Amherst College, I was among the inaugural group of Fulbright students to conduct research in the Central Asian Republics, where I compared Soviet Korean and Korean American literatures and histories.  I went on to receive my doctorate from Stanford's Modern Thought and Literature program, spent a postdoctoral year at NYU's Center for the United States and the Cold War, and began teaching at Berkeley in 2009. I am also an affiliated faculty member at the Center for Korean Studies and the Institute of Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies. 

The Ethnic Avant-Garde: Minority Cultures and World Revolution
The Ethnic Avant-Garde: Minority Cultures and World Revolution

Co-winner of the Modern Language Association’s Aldo and Jeanne Scaglione Prize for Comparative Literary Studies, 2016 Shortlisted for the Modernist Studies Association's First Book Prize, 2016 During the 1920s and 1930s, American minority artis....(read more)

Selected Publications and Papers Delivered

“Harlem via Mexico-Uzbekistan: Race and Sex from the Peripheries of Revolution.” English Language Notes 53, no. 1 (Spring/Summer 2015).

“Langston Hughes’s ‘Moscow Movie’: Reclaiming a Lost Minority Avant-Garde.” Comparative Literature 67, no. 2 (Spring 2015). 

“Chinese Communism, Cultural Revolution, and American Multiculturalism.” Ethnic Literatures and Transnationalism: Critical Imaginaries for the Global Age. Ed. Aparajita Nanda. New York: Routledge, 2014.

Borat, Multiculturalism, Mnogonatsional’nost’.” Slavic Review 67, no. 1 (Spring 2008).

  • Translated into Chinese and republished in Journal of the National Academy of Art 35, no. 2 (Hangzhou, 2014).
  • Translated into Russian and republished in Newsletter of Korean Studies in Central Asia 8, no. 16 (Almaty, 2009).

“‘Cultural Pluralism’ and ‘the Self-Determination of Nations’: Towards a Dialogue Between American Multiculturalism and Soviet Mnogonatsional’nost’.” Translated into Georgian. Georgian Journal of American Studies 4 (Tbilisi, 2006).

Current Research

Edited Volume: Comintern Aesthetics

It has long been common practice to see Western metropolises like Paris and New York as centers of global modernism and a “world republic of letters.” Comintern Aesthetics (co-edited with Amelia Glaser) seeks to provide an alternate mapping of world culture, one that decenters the West through an emphasis on the now-defunct realms of “really existing socialism” (a.k.a. “the Communist Bloc”), as well as on what might be called “diaspora socialisms.” More specifically, this edited volume will join scholars across national and regional contexts in order to re-assemble cultural and revolutionary circuits that once connected Moscow with, for instance, Beijing, Havana, and indeed, Paris and New York. The common thread is a shared encounter with leftist vanguards and avant-gardes—that is, artists and writers committed both to modernist experimentation and international revolution.

The Soviet Union of the interwar years provided the template for this convergence of party politics and cultural history. However, the goal of the project is to trace how this template was adapted and reworked around the world. In 1919 Vladimir Lenin founded the Third Communist International, or Comintern, to coordinate world revolution, with a particular emphasis on Asia. At the same time, the experimental works of writers and artists like Kazimir Malevich, Vladimir Mayakovsky, and Vladimir Tatlin made it possible to assert Russia, not France, as the center of cutting-edge modernism. (Indeed, Tatlin’s famous proto-constructivist Tower was planned as both the Comintern’s headquarters and a counterpoint to the Eiffel Tower.) The key ingredient was the idea of revolution—the Soviet avant-garde’s union of artistic and political rupture; its ill-fated embrace of the Bolshevik vanguard.

This convergence of vanguard and avant-garde—and, in particular, the Soviet turn from iconoclasm to socialist realism—has been thoroughly studied in works like Susan Buck-Morss’ Dreamworld and Catastrophe and Boris Groys’ The Total Art of Stalinism. What has been less-studied are the ways in which configurations of Comintern policies and radical aesthetics resonated and still resonate around the world. As Katerina Clark and others have shown, the Soviet Union of the interwar years attracted such luminaries as Lu Xun and André Malraux; Soviet Writers Congresses inspired India’s anti-colonial Progressive Writers Association; and socialist realism helped spur the creation of magical realism in Latin America. By emphasizing the shared, Soviet routes of these far-flung circuits, the project recaptures a long-lost moment in which cultures could not only transform perception, but also highlight alternatives to capitalism—namely, an anti-colonial world imaginary foregrounding race, class, and gender equality. Though the project highlights both the political and cultural missteps in the attempt to form a unified Comintern Aesthetics, it also shows how this alternate imaginary still circulates through such forms as postcolonial novels and films, as well as contemporary art and activism. In short, the volume will provide a comprehensive account of the rise, fall, and afterlives of Comintern Aesthetics. The result will be a literary atlas of sorts—a new world map based on shared historical paths not overtly taken.

Recent English Courses Taught