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Laws of the New Empire

Paolo Angelini limns the legal history of medieval Slavs

Posted on Oct 23, 2017 03:11 PM by Bailey Trela |
Laws of the New Empire

Paolo Angelini, a postdoc in Roman law and legal history at the University of Leuven, is a fellow in Byzantine Studies in fall 2017. His research focuses on the transmission and interaction of legal systems in the medieval world. On October 2, Angelini delivered his research report, “Introduction to the Medieval Legal History of the Southern Slavs,” which traced the adoption of Byzantine and Roman law systems by nascent Slavic states.

Q&A with Paolo Angelini

Talk more about the connection between commerce and law in this period, especially as it relates to Slavic cities on the Adriatic Sea, which you mentioned in your talk.

The idea I’m working with is that the Slavic population really came into civilization after it enacted a codification of laws—because it’s popularly supposed that only after codification can you be considered a developed civilization. Otherwise, before that, you have customary law, and so on. The case of coastal cities is really interesting because you can actually see how the development of trade with places like Venice, for example, improved their legislation. There’s always a very practical factor driving these changes. If you think about the Marxist concept of the superstructure, and how law is enacted—justice is a very noble idea, but it’s also enacted in order to improve trade activities, because it’s much easier to trade if you have common institutions.

 

You discussed the feud system in Slavic customary law, and specifically the concept of “vražba,” or the debt paid to make up for a crime. How does this concept compare to other feud systems?

Well, the Slavs share this concept—this common, or customary, system of blood revenge—with Germanic populations. While the Slavs have vražba, the Germans have wergild, but the system works the same way. For both populations, you have pecuniary compensations for homicide, rather than a death penalty imposed by the state. This is of course when we’re speaking of customary law. Among the Slavic tribes, these elements are really common. What I find interesting is that I was speaking with someone recently about the shared origins of the Slavic and Germanic tribes. And you know, during the Second World War, the Slavs were among those considered Untermenschen, subhuman, by the Nazis. But here you see the Germans and the Slavs share cultural elements, and—why not?—maybe roots. Of course, we don’t know, we’re speaking about very old times. This is just a hypothesis based on a few elements in the legal texts.

 

How does the adoption of legal systems in this period relate to Bulgarian efforts to form their own imperial identity?

It starts between the ninth and tenth centuries, as Byzantium’s strength begins to diminish. The Bulgarian emperor adopts the Greek term basileus Rhomaíōn, emperor of the Romans. It’s the same thing Charlemagne did at the beginning of the ninth century when he was proclaiming his own empire. Of course, there is a sort of competition to take this title. Simeon I uses it, but the Byzantines don’t agree with this. Once Bulgaria has become a strong state, however, and enacted a codification of laws, they claim the imperial title. It’s sort of the best way of self-legitimizing. The Bulgarians adopt a lot of Byzantine titles, and eventually the titles are used for rulers across Europe.

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Difference and Home

Jerry Moore investigates domestic architecture in ancient South America

Posted on Oct 18, 2017 11:01 AM by Bailey Trela |
Difference and Home

Jerry Moore, a professor of anthropology at California State University, Dominguez Hills, is a fellow in Pre-Columbian Studies at Dumbarton Oaks this fall. His academic and archaeological work focuses on prehistoric cultural landscapes and built environments. On September 25, Moore delivered his research report, “Ancient Andean Houses: Dynamics of Domestic Space in South America.”

 

Q&A with Jerry Moore

Could you give an overview of the relationship between ethnicity and architecture in the ancient Andean world, at least as it relates to your work?

That’s a tough place to start, because ethnicity is just one kind of identity that gets expressed in people’s homes. I think the starting point for an inquiry like this is to just be attentive to how much happens in the home. Rather than thinking of any example of domestic architecture as a straightforward and unproblematic reflection of a given dimension, like ethnicity, I’m trying to look at the multiple intersections between social dimensions and the different materials in Andean houses.

One of the things I wanted to make sure everyone understood in my talk is just how diverse the Andes are. The Andean cordillera stretches from the tropical Caribbean all the way to the sub-Antarctic Tierra del Fuego, so it should come as no surprise that there is a lot of diversity in the houses Andean people create, and the different materials they use—materials that come with their own properties. There are certain things you simply cannot do with a house made of bamboo that you can with a house made of stone, so your ability to use the house as an expression of ethnicity or social identity or whatever encounters that material limit. That’s why I think it’s so important to understand houses from a multifaceted perspective, rather than focusing exclusively on ethnicity—or any other factor, for that matter.

 

As for your archaeological approach, what kind of evidence are you looking for?

It differs by the material, and it also varies in counterintuitive ways. For example, I’ve worked in two different regions on the coast of Peru: the Casma Valley, an irrigated strip with arid desert on both sides, and the Tumbes Valley, a region of dry tropical forest. The houses in the Casma Valley were made of river canes, while those in Tumbes were in many cases wood, with really durable upright posts. If you think about that, you’d expect a much more robust archaeological signature to be left by the wooden house than the cane house, but it turns out that in fact the opposite is the case. The reason is that that wood tends to get reused and recycled by other people. The cane walls get eaten by termites and sandblasted, but the stubs of the walls are all left, because what are you going to do with that?

 

In your talk you mentioned an association between modular housing and enforcing ethnic anonymity. I was hoping you could speak more about that.

In my talk, I was trying to ask, did the Inca empire employ a modular housing strategy simply because that was an easy way to get buildings built, or was it part of a strategy to erase the distinctions between forcibly relocated populations? These are populations whose differences were actively signaled by different hairstyles, clothing, and whatnot, but for some reason they seem to have been largely erased when it came to building houses. I’m really intrigued by that. Why would the home be the target of that strategy? Why would you do it there and not, for example, require everybody to have exactly the same headdress, or the same clothing? I don’t have an answer to that; I’m only about twenty-five percent into the project, so there’s a lot of questions that I still don’t have answers for—but that’s the way the process works.

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The Tastes of Youth

Hartmut Troll traces the development of Germany’s first “English” gardener

Posted on May 11, 2017 12:44 PM by Bailey Trela |
The Tastes of Youth

Hartmut Troll, a landscape architect and honorary professor at Heidelberg University, is a fellow in Garden and Landscape Studies at Dumbarton Oaks in spring 2017. In his recent research report, “Nature as Model, Taste and Convenience as Measure: The Position of Friedrich Ludwig von Sckell within Garden Theory,” Troll described his work studying the garden pioneer, who is considered the founder of the classical English gardening tradition in Germany.

Brief Q&A with Hartmut Troll

In the late eighteenth century, Sckell visits France and England as part of his apprenticeship. What is the gardening milieu that he moves in?

So, this is all taking place around the time of the Enlightenment, which brings a large shift in the general attitude to nature. I tried to emphasize in my talk that even with the late French garden, the attitude to nature is different, evolving. Nature comes first; art follows on its heels.

In England, the new attitude, or taste, finds its expression in a new manner of gardening that has its model in painting. The first attempts in England to develop this style are what we would call today a transition style. It still has avenues, but less symmetry, and more free-flowing elements begin to creep in—there are some passes that wind like a serpentine, and eventually they stop cutting and trimming the trees, to gain another natural feature.

But it’s one thing to have a different attitude, to say, “My interest goes beyond the border of the former garden, it has started to bore me, there are beautiful images outside of the garden, I want to get closer to this idea.” It’s another thing entirely to create that idea, to bring it into physical existence. The first person who develops what we might call professional rules that determine how this new style should be laid out is William Kent, a professional painter who adapts the rules of painting to the act of gardening.

But Sckell goes to France first. Officially, he’s sent to learn the science of botany, how to cultivate the famous fruit trees of France. The physiocratic idea behind it is to return and make the country more beautiful, even more edible, to make it richer in terms of farming and food production. While there, he also gets in touch with the gardens of the genius Le Nôtre, and till the end of his life he never loses his appreciation. He loved the magnitude, the magnificence of these allées and avenues; to him, they are great, and when he begins to develop his own concept of landscape he adapts their monumental scale. But we have to recognize, at the time he’s interacting with Le Nôtre’s gardens, they’re almost one hundred years old. The trees have changed and grown, so have the plants—it’s a different appearance to the French classic period.

And afterward he went to England, and there’s a certain perspective that Sckell brings to his observations. He was ordered to be trained in the new manner of designing gardens in accord with the principle of nature. And of course, Sckell comes from a gardening family, and I think his interest in adapting new gardening knowledge derives from this tradition, this lineage. All in all, travel is incredibly important for a gardener. If you are not sponsored, you’ll often pay for your own travels—it creates a sort of professional pedigree, allows you to secure a better job, to become the chief court gardener, rather than simply a worker in the gardens.

 

Your research centers around the book that Sckell writes at the end of his life—how does this book relate to what he experiences in England?

Sckell is in England in the late eighteenth century, when new styles are developing freely. Lancelot Brown, the English garden landscape designer, is at the peak of his career. He was the first true professional, the one who got closest to the pattern of nature. William Chambers, his coeval, is in competition with him—so you have a swirl of theories, of competing viewpoints. Almost fifty years later, in the theoretical text that he writes at the end of his life, Sckell refers to this exact conflict; he quotes Chambers’s criticism of Lancelot Brown, and it runs for almost two pages. This, I should say, is an extraordinarily rare rhetorical move, because Sckell never quotes, except a little poetry here and there. Though he refers to almost thirty artists, painters, poets, architects, and garden designers, it’s always in a thematic way. Sckell designs the parameters of his art along Chambers’s criticism, and it’s a key point of his position that also illustrates the differences, and similarities, that his work shares with painting.

Part of my research involves analyzing Sckell’s writing and determining who is influencing him, and when. If you look at the text, you see that it’s exactly the discussion that’s occurring when Sckell stayed in England as a young gardener. But when he comes back to Germany, it seems that he doesn’t adapt his English-affected knowledge to his work with landscape gardening. He doesn’t interact with the ongoing English discussion; it doesn’t touch him at all. After he leaves England and the famous battle between Chambers and Brown, there takes place the even more famous struggle about the so-called picturesque garden place, but this is ignored by Sckell to some extent, even though these arguments are very important for the aesthetic and theoretical developments of the English garden.

And what this means is that his theoretical preferences were formed very early in his career, his aesthetic sense was forged at this relatively early stage in the English landscape debate. So he leaves England, and begins his career, and forty years later, when he sits down to write his theoretical book, the theory of art he espouses is very much tied to those formative years. There are many ways to prove this—for instance, he refers to William Hogarth and his ideas on beauty, which are still relevant in the later 1700s, when Sckell is in England, but have begun to seem outmoded by the time Sckell is writing his book. His theory seems to be affected by these early theoretical positions but is mainly based on, and develops from, his own long-term experiences as a landscape gardener. It is the high-grade personal position of an artist at the end of his life.

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In the Shadow of a Cathedral

Nicolas Beaudry investigates a lived space of Byllis, Albania

Posted on May 11, 2017 12:43 PM by Bailey Trela |
In the Shadow of a Cathedral

Nicolas Beaudry, a professor in the Department of Literature and Humanities at the University of Quebec at Rimouski, is a fellow in Byzantine Studies at Dumbarton Oaks in spring 2017. For more than a decade, Beaudry has worked on the site of Byllis, an ancient city located in modern-day Albania. His recent research report delivered an archaeological study of the city’s episcopal quarter, examining the everyday uses of a space adjacent to the city’s cathedral, which included production of goods like wine and oil.

Brief Q&A with Nicolas Beaudry

What’s it like to work with the same site for such a long period of time?

Working long-term on a site is a different experience from working for a few seasons. Not only are you learning about the site—obviously your knowledge of the site is going to increase—but your perceptions of the site are also changing over time, and so are your research questions, your methods and your strategies. You are changing too, the people around you are changing and keeping a team together for a long period may be a challenge. But I had the privilege of working with a team of dedicated colleagues and we all have learned a lot from each other.

 

How is the space in the episcopal quarter divided up? Is that a common structure? The courtyard structure, the cathedral?

Bishoprics have been studied mostly as religious centers, as seats of power, or as architectural features in the urban landscape. The layout of the episcopal quarter is not necessarily unique. It’s not that surprising to find habitat and production facilities adjoining a cathedral, which is what we have at Byllis, but the areas where they concentrate lie in the shadow of monumental architecture. What we’re focusing on are spaces and functions that have not received all the attention I think they deserve.

 

What’s the evidence for winemaking, or other processes of production, that you’ve found? How do you determine what’s being made in this space?

Most production processes are known from textual sources, ethnography, and archeology. Architectural features can be the most obvious clues to the function of a space: a building which includes treading vats, a fermentation tank, and containers for fermentation and storage was obviously a winery. But the archaeological record may also include the tools, the raw materials, the products, and the waste of production activities. The production of olive oil at Byllis is attested by an olive mill, by press weights, and by botanical remains, while animal husbandry is documented by architectural features and faunal remains. A whole range of material evidence confirms that one of the rooms was devoted to the preparation of food.

 

I’m interested in the divide between social archaeology and monumental archaeology. How did you get into social archaeology and why do you find it interesting?

Classical archaeology has a long tradition of focusing on monumental architecture. But monuments are social productions and they are agents of social life, so an archaeology focused on monuments and an archaeology focused on social issues are not mutually exclusive. In Byllis I worked on an episcopal complex, but backstage, at the opposite end of the monumental façade of the cathedral, where the life and work of a small society maintained the bishopric as a social and economic agent. This is where discrete, mundane daily practices occurred, this is where lives were lived; investigating these practices is a way to relate to and understand this past society.

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Divided No More

Ryan Clasby revisits the Andean-Amazonian divide at Huayurco

Posted on Mar 24, 2017 09:50 AM by Bailey Trela |
Divided No More

Ryan Clasby, who has worked as an adjunct professor at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, Saint Louis University, and Webster University, is a fellow in Pre-Columbian Studies at Dumbarton Oaks in 2016–17. His recent research has focused on Huayurco, a site in the province of Jaén in Peru, where he has worked to unearth evidence of long-distance interregional trade between Andean and Amazonian cultures during the Formative Period (roughly 1800–200 BC).

A Brief Q&A with Ryan Clasby

What is the state of scholarship on the Andean-Amazonian divide? Has there been a recent reevaluation of interactions between the two regions? Is the understanding more fluid now, or more rigid?

A little bit of both, I think. In the forties and fifties, people were treating them as very separate cultural areas that didn’t have a lot of interregional movement or exchange going on. But in modern times, the archaeological data really overturns all those prior assumptions. You can’t just rely on these rigid cultural areas anymore. You have to actually look at the data that’s coming out, and the amount of exchange that was going on. At the same time, though, you still have archaeologists who aren’t consciously or actively excluding the Amazon—but it’s not quite on their radar in terms of importance. Ideally, the new research will shed light on why we need to study this particular area.

 

In your talk you discussed Pedro Rojas, who did interesting excavation work in 1961, but then there was a lull. Why was there no follow-up to his work?

So, Pedro Rojas wasn’t principally a field archeologist. He was the person that did all of the drawings for Julio Tello, who’s considered the father of Peruvian archaeology. Early on, Tello had spent a lot of his time working on the Chavín culture, but his theory was that Chavín had its origins in the eastern slopes. When Tello died in the late forties, Rojas wanted to keep working with this hypothesis; in particular, he’d found examples of stone bowls in local museums that he was very interested in. So Rojas did a three-year expedition, but after that you only see a small amount of very ephemeral projects that were not in any way sustained.

Why is that the case? I think the Rojas findings weren’t exactly well published, and when they were, they were just given a brief mention in certain books. You do have archaeologists (particularly those who were students of Donald Lathrap) who continued to do work in the Amazon, but they tended to focus on other areas.

There was also another major factor: For a long time, Peru and Ecuador were involved in a border war, and they couldn’t decide where the boundaries were, and this created a sort of no-man’s-land that deterred investigation. Certainly, it made it more difficult for both Peruvians and foreigners to conduct research within the region. 

 

How does your work relate to this history?

The fact is, since Rojas excavated, these stone bowls do seem to have been ignored in the literature. And you really do see them a lot during this particular period—in fact, Dumbarton Oaks has one from the North Coast of Peru in its collection. So one of the things I wanted to do was explore this idea, which Tello, Rojas, Donald Lathrap, and Richard Burger proposed, that Huayurco is producing all these items as a way of participating in these long-distance exchange networks. Because most of what has been suspected of coming from the Amazon is highly perishable material that’s not going to be preserved at all, this was one of those few chances to really explore what was going on.

When I started to do original surveying, going into this area and going to the local museum collection, I realized that what Rojas found wasn’t a novelty—they were producing these stone bowls on a large scale. I think I said there are over 250 examples in the local museum. Not only were they producing these bowls, but the production seems to have been particularly unique and precocious for this specific area. Even in other places where you do see stone bowls, they don’t seem to be producing them to quite the same degree as they are at Huayurco.

 

Read more interviews in our ongoing series.

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Revisiting the Codex

Lori Diel Parses the Images and Enigmas of the Codex Mexicanus

Posted on Jan 09, 2017 09:20 AM by Bailey Trela |
Revisiting the Codex

Lori Diel, a fellow in Pre-Columbian Studies at Dumbarton Oaks in 2016–17, is an associate professor in art history at Texas Christian University, where she has taught a variety of courses on Mesoamerican, South American, and Mexican art from preconquest times to the present. She has also written articles on the representation of women in Aztec art.

Much of Diel’s recent research has centered around the Codex Mexicanus, an early colonial Mexican pictorial manuscript currently held in the Bibliothèque nationale in Paris. Richly illustrated and ripe for interpretation, the codex lends itself to a variety of studies, as Diel demonstrated in her recent research report, “An Aztec History Painting in the Codex Mexicanus.”

Brief Q&A with Lori Diel

You were a summer fellow at Dumbarton Oaks in 2012, and you were working with the Codex Mexicanus then as well. How has your work with the codex changed over time? How have your perceptions of it altered?

Well, I had just started working with it in 2011, so when I was here in 2012 I was still trying to figure out what was important. Usually you have to have a theory when you start working with an object, and at the time I had a lot of assumptions about the codex.

For one, I thought it had been made in Tlatelolco, but the more time I spent with it the more I realized that Tlatelolco was the wrong city—there were more signs telling me it had been made in Tenochtitlan.

You just have to spend so much time with the object, there’s so much to learn, especially in a codex of this size, and after you’ve spent a while with it you begin to notice certain things. Early on I was focusing more on the Christian elements of the codex, but now I work more with the Aztec parts, and I’d say broadly speaking, since 2012, I’ve become more interested in the historical aspects of the codex and the context of early colonial Mexico.

 

The Codex Mexicanus contains a royal genealogy that is exclusive—it makes a claim about an ancient and exclusive tradition. But the Christian images the codex contains seem to suggest an element of inclusion, of cultural synthesis. What’s the dynamic at work here?

Well, the creators of the codex were Christians, and I think they were fully converted, in that they wanted to embrace this tradition and incorporate it into their culture. At the same time, they didn’t want to forget their own tradition, so there was an effort to maintain it.

What’s interesting is that at the time the codex was made the native nobles had really lost control of the government, so emphasizing this royal genealogy was an attempt to build up that tradition and restore it. And of course, they were comparing the Aztec past to Spain, which had the Habsburg line—in a sense, they were exalting their own sphere of power.

 

How was the codex produced? Was it a workshop-type environment, with strong organization, or something more diffuse?

Well, that’s the big mystery. We don’t really know the logistics of its creation.

I suspect it was produced in a workshop, but the interesting thing is, it’s clearly been updated over time. There’s one section, the zodiac section, that appears to have been added in, and the community knew that whoever was in charge of the codex could consult it and run the charts if someone were sick or if any information was needed. So really it was a living document.

We don’t really know its whereabouts for many years, until about 1820 to 1840, when a French collector is traveling through Mexico and picks it up and eventually sells it in France—and then of course it ends up at Bibliothèque Nationale.

 

Read more interviews in our ongoing series.

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The Beads of Las Orquídeas

Eric Dyrdahl Investigates Pre-Columbian Craft Production in Ecuador

Posted on Jan 05, 2017 04:50 PM by Bailey Trela |

Eric Dyrdahl, an archaeology graduate student at Pennsylvania State University, was a junior fellow in Pre-Columbian Studies at Dumbarton Oaks in fall 2016. His dissertation research focuses on craft production in the Late Formative period (about 800–400 BCE) in the Imbabura region of Ecuador. In addition to working in Ecuador, he has conducted obsidian characterization research in central Mexico.

Dyrdahl’s research report detailed the history of the Las Orquídeas site and his work excavating it. In the course of his research, Dyrdahl has unearthed countless beads, ceramics, and ornaments made from animal bones and shells in different stages of production—evidence of a complex and systematic approach to the creation of craft items that Dyrdahl intends to study in greater depth.

A Brief Q&A with Eric Dyrhdahl

In your research, you work with fragments—beads, ceramics, and so on. What are the other sources you’re using to make sense of this welter of crafts?

So, beyond artifactual remains? Well, it’s about two thousand years later, but there are ethnohistoric accounts of traders in Ecuador, especially in the area where I work. So I’m certainly looking at those models, and thinking archaeologically, “How would these appear? What kind of evidence are we going to have depending on this model?” And I’m testing those against the actual evidence that I have to see which seems most plausible.

But otherwise . . . well, in some of the other research reports we’ve seen recently, the fellows have analyzed codices and other things. I don’t really have anything like that to bring to bear. What I’m working with is a little too old.

 

In your talk you mentioned recognizing craft items that have shown up in other regions after what was probably a laborious process of transference. How do you trace these crafts? What makes them unique and identifiable?

It’s the form, primarily. One of the things that I need to do going forward, which I haven’t been able to do as much of as I would like, is to actually see these materials from other areas in person and compare production techniques, to see if they’re using the same methods for perforating beads and forming edges and so on. That would be the best indicator of shared production.

But the unfortunate truth is that, for so many of these types of artifacts, we know so little about their origins and the full spread of production. Las Orquídeas is one area where these things are being produced, but there could be a lot of other sites that we simply haven’t found yet. So there’s a lot of network analysis that needs to be done before we can understand the connections between the sites that have been studied from this period. From there it would be much easier to look at forms and production techniques and begin to connect the dots.

 

You mentioned that your site contains a lot of different artifacts at different stages of production, that there’s a fair bit of standardization to the process of production. But you also discussed a whalebone artifact, which is a bit of an anomalous material. How did the artisans react to working with this strange material? How did it fit into the process of production?

One of the nice things about studying the process is that there are a number of tasks that actually overlap. So if you know how to work shell, and you can perforate shell, you can perforate stone. Similarly, if you know how to work with animal bone—and they’re making animal bone tools— you can work with this whale ivory. That’s one of the reasons I’m taking a more holistic approach in thinking about the whole range of artifacts, versus just picking out the Spondylus beads, for instance. Once we take this broader perspective we start to see the great overlap between a lot of these tasks, and that a lot of these crafts aren’t actually indicators of some kind of specialization—the idea that, well, this person knows how to work whale ivory, and so only this person can do it.

One of the things I do is experimental archaeology, so I try to replicate some of the things I find. I’m not the best artisan in the world, that’s for certain, but you begin to understand that even though these things are important and impressive, they wouldn’t necessarily have required much specialized knowledge. Working with these materials, even though it would have been tedious and difficult, does not necessarily mean that the process of producing these artifacts was complex.

 

Read more interviews in our ongoing series.

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The Networks of Paradise

Jan Haenraets Discusses the History and Preservation of Mughal Gardens

Posted on Jan 05, 2017 04:50 PM by Bailey Trela |
The Networks of Paradise

Jan Haenraets, a fellow in Garden and Landscape Studies at Dumbarton Oaks in fall 2016, is a landscape architect and preservation specialist. In addition to serving as Head of Gardens and Designed Landscapes of the National Trust for Scotland, he was recently appointed as a professor at the Preservation Studies Program at Boston University. Previously he was a postdoctoral fellow at the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at MIT.

Much of Haenraets’s academic research has focused on the Mughal gardens in Kashmir. At Dumbarton Oaks, he has been examining the wider context and significance of the valley-wide network of the gardens, a substructure that, he contends, has largely been ignored in past studies. Haenraet’s research has often abetted his work advising conservation and preservation projects.

Brief Q&A with Jan Haenraets

In your talk you described a “network” that has been lost and forgotten, which goes against traditional conceptions of the Mughal gardens. What are some other common conceptions about the gardens that you’ve encountered in your work?

So, with the idea of the network, I’m basically trying to correct history, because a lot of scholars have strong preconceptions about gardens as single, or singular, things. People think they stand on their own, and though a city might have a lot of gardens, we don’t know how they’re connected to each other. In some cases we might have an idea, but in Kashmir, where a lot of my work is focused, we don’t really know. That’s why I’m fascinated by the bigger picture; there’s almost a need to rewrite the history of the Mughal gardens in the whole subcontinent.

That was the focus of my lecture, but there are of course things I didn’t speak about, like the link to paradise. If we look at any book on Islamic gardens and their tradition, there’s a strong reference to the representation of paradise. Many of these gardens are in desert areas, or very arid dry regions, and so if you have within that region a secluded little island, walled and irrigated, with some green lush vegetation, that becomes a kind of paradise.

In the case of Kashmir, the interesting thing is that when you arrive in the valley, because it’s so fertile, it’s almost as if you’re already in a paradise. Why would you need a garden? So it’s a little ironic with Kashmir.

In the history books, when people write about Islamic gardens, the standard idea is of a rectangular garden with a cross axis—the tomb garden is a typical example—with a design that very much looks inward. You look inward to the central tomb which stands above the rivers, and it’s all very symbolic.

But when you look at Kashmir, this conception doesn’t necessarily apply, because they don’t often strictly implement the charbagh [quadrilateral garden layout] anymore, because of the topography of the region. Instead they start stretching it and working with it, and the garden becomes a platform from which you look outward, into the paradise around you, and the landscape outside.

 

You’re actually involved with the preservation of some Mughal gardens. How has your research into these lost networks affected your preservation work? Has it facilitated it, impeded it?

Well, it has made it more difficult in a sense. I should say, I started working in Kashmir by assisting INTACH, the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage, which has chapters throughout India. I started helping the Kashmir chapter, and they were doing some conservation work for the government, which runs the well-known sites. So they have these walled-off, well-known sites which they can ticket for about ten rupees or so; it’s very accessible to the common man.

The local chapter was focusing on some of these famous sites, employing architects on some of the key structures, and then around that the department of floriculture did its floriculture-flowery thing, which, I should say, is very European and bright, like British planting beds. And so that’s their focus, and when I was asked to assist with some of the famous sites, to give them some ideas about what they should do in the wider garden, they didn’t even realize how big that garden was. They’d asked me to give some input about what should be planted in the garden, and I complicated that, I said, “We can’t just answer that question without understanding more.” So in that sense it makes conservation more complicated, because we don’t have a few gardens, we have so many more, a network.

That’s why I’d like to tell this story in book form, to capture the bigger picture, because I think it needs to be understood and reintroduced into the traditional history and understanding of the Mughal gardens. I think right now a lot of preservationists don’t have the expertise to deal with the network of gardens, and there’s also a fairly corrupt system which allows the demolition of even protected areas. So what will really happen with the gardens? I can’t say. But it’s a typical argument, that if we don’t understand the issue we’ll never be able to solve it.

I hope at some point there will be a certain recognition, that conservation will become less complicated—I mean, if you look at some of the sites I discussed, today, there are local people just growing vegetables there, and they have an orchard on the side. And I think they’re the most charming ones.

Of course there are issues with things falling apart, the building not being maintained, but in some way it’s still a form of low-key preservation, while with the famous sites they’re overdoing it, they’re turning these sites into tourist attractions. They’re developing things, they’re destroying things, they’re polishing these buildings up in a way that they never would have looked, so that history is unreadable. Dereliction, after all, is a very beautiful layer of history, which is interesting to preserve as well. If you’ve had three hundred years of dereliction or slow decline, why would we need to erase that?

It might be wishful thinking, but I would like conservationists to understand the significance of this network of sites and to try to retain that in a simpler way. They shouldn’t feel forced to turn everything into a tourist attraction, or subject it to museumification and beautification with all these flowers and so on. They’re spending so much time implanting little floral arrangements, cutting the lawns and so on—there’s no need, they never would have gotten on like that in the past. It would have been wild flowers or something much simpler. And I guess, in that sense, my research could make conservation a little easier.

 

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The Bug Market

Deirdre Moore on Cochineal Insect Cultivation in Eighteenth-Century Mexico

Posted on Nov 28, 2016 10:20 AM by Bailey Trela |
The Bug Market

Deirdre Moore grows her own bugs. On the broad, mitt-like pads of prickly pear cacti, carefully cultivated fuzzballs house the illusive insect known as the cochineal. On October 31, Moore, a 2015–17 Tyler fellow in Garden and Landscape Studies, delivered a talk entitled “Indigenous Knowledge and Breeding of Cochineal Insects in Eighteenth-Century Colonial Mexico,” which traced her research into cultivation practices and the economics of the cochineal market.

As Moore explained, cochineal were valued in centuries past for the red dye extracted from their ground-up bodies. Throughout the eighteenth century, the cochineal was aggressively grown in Mexico, especially the province of Oaxaca, which boasted one of the few climes favorable to large-scale cochineal farming. Eventually, it became one of the first truly transcontinental cash crops, dying everything from Oaxacan wool to the red coats of the British military.

Yet northern European understandings of cochineal were only hazy at best. The intelligentsia hotly debated whether the cochineal was a bug or a plant (the dried insect resembles a crunchy, long-deceased pea). Moore’s research has sought to compare Oaxacan expertise in cochineal farming with the bevy of European misunderstandings wrought by the cochineal trade.

A Brief Q&A with Deirdre Moore

What is the actual ink-making process like? There’s a long period in which it’s a really popular dye—but are there any evolutions in the process during that time?

There were three traditional ways of curing these insects. You can boil them—killing them by immersing them in hot water and then drying them—or you can toast them as you would normally toast your corn, or you can dry them in the sun. Different areas within the Oaxacan region preferred different methods -possibly for climatic reasons. During the eighteenth century, there was pressure from colonial authorities to try to standardize the way cochineal was cured. Archival records indicate that these colonial authorities preferred cochineal to be dried in the sun because they thought there was less opportunity for fraud and adulteration of the end product. But drying in the sun often ended up being a more lengthy curing process. Also, if you dry cochineal in the sun, sometimes the insects will give birth to their babies before dying. Then the product is less valuable since the weight decreases and it is mixed with baby cochineal dust. So there was a certain amount of resistance from some growers. Of course, the concerns about fraud and adulteration were also real. Some people even made fake cochineal by passing wet clay through a fine mesh, drying the result and then mixing it with cochineal to bring up the weight of their product. Various types of adulteration were common during the eighteenth century.

In terms of the actual dyeing, I was surprised when I watched the process. I assumed it would be a fairly set recipe, but it was very ad hoc. The local weaver and his wife whom I visited, ground up their dried cochineal and then appeared to add things at whim. They were mostly using baking soda as a mordant but it was not measured out with the precision one might imagine dyeing textiles would involve. They also disagreed with each other frequently about what shade of red they wanted and how much of this and how much of that to put in to dye their wool. There were a couple of hours where they were periodically adding fistfuls of things. They were changing the color as it developed. Every batch they make ends up being a different shade of red. The colors they ended up with were beautiful.

The other thing that surprised me was that they were using copper and various other metal implements, and of course metals can affect the colors of dyes. When I asked them about this they said, “No, no, not at all,” the types of metal weren’t going to have any kind of effect. But they did tell me that a women once came to visit while they were dyeing with cochineal. When they put the wool in the pot it turned brown instead of red. So they asked this woman, “Are you pregnant?” And she said yes, and they asked her to move further away. They dipped the wool again, and it turned orange. Then they asked her to leave altogether, but they said they never got a good red on that occasion. This kind of scenario does appear in a variety of texts in other places in the world—the idea that an unborn baby has an effect on the dyeing process.

 

A question that came up after your talk asked about the social aspect of cochineal production. What are the social issues or changes that spring up along with the market?  

Well, from the very beginning of the colonial period, right after the conquest in the early 1500s, a lot of social problems arose around cochineal. You have people who were previously subsistence farmers suddenly making an extraordinary amount of money selling cochineal to the Spaniards. In the tradition of the newly wealthy everywhere, they’re carrying on poorly, buying all sorts of alcohol, getting drunk on Sunday, wearing all the best clothes, and buying the best thick chocolate. There’s even an anecdote—that these get-rich-quick folk were served the thin chocolate more commonly drunk by the lower-classes—and threw it out on the ground in front of their hosts. The moral outrage from their social superiors, who recorded these behaviors, is still palpable over four centuries later.

Moving on into the eighteenth century, you see a continuation of the social problems caused by cochineal wealth. It’s a cash crop, and people are making a bit of money off it comparatively. Many farmers chose to grow less corn since cochineal was more profitable. There are entire areas where the authorities complain that locals are not growing food. With the arrival of a larger market some people stopped growing corn altogether, because they could buy food with the profit they were making off the cochineal and still have money left over. There was a manuscript that I mentioned in my talk in which a priest tells his bishop in the eighteenth century, “I can’t even get the children to come to school, because they’re all growing cochineal.” Cochineal is widely assumed to have had a significant long-term effect on the history of Oaxaca. Currently, Oaxaca remains the area of Mexico with the most indigenous people still living on their traditional lands and speaking native languages. That is less common in many other states in Mexico. In many cases people had to move away from their traditional areas much earlier on for economic reasons. Cochineal was a cash crop that was viable and lucrative even when it was grown on small plots with poor soil. In certain cases, those circumstances allowed people to stay on their land.

 

What is the spread of cochineal today? Where are they located? Where are they still being farmed?

Currently, the vast majority of cochineal is being grown in Peru, and—this is interesting—a large proportion is still coming from smaller areas of cultivation. There is a large plantation in Chile. A much smaller proportion of the global supply of cochineal comes from the Canary Islands, Botswana, and other areas. Very little comes from Mexico these days. There are two lines of thought on domesticated cochineal in Mexico. One is that it arrived in Mexico—that it evolved in Peru and somehow was transferred in the Pre-Columbian period. But one of the strongest arguments for cochineal evolving in Mexico rather than Peru is that domesticated cochineal has a lot of coevolved parasites preying on it that are local to the southern Mexican landscape. Frequently, when you see a relationship like that it indicates that the biological entity evolved over a long period of time in the same area as its parasites. This is also why it is often easier for plants and insects to flourish, or even become invasive, in areas where they are not native. Competition with a large population of parasites makes it much more difficult to grow and tend to cochineal in Mexico. There was a lot of skill involved in knowing how to grow native cochineal and deal with the many parasites of cochineal in the Mesoamerican landscape. During the early nineteenth century, people started trying to develop an industry of domesticated cochineal in Guatemala. Certain reports indicate that the venture did not succeed until native Oaxacans were sent along with the cochineal to teach the local population insect growing skills. They kind of end up stealing Oaxaca’s thunder. Guatemalan exports of cochineal surge and Oaxacan exports slump. The viability of growing cochineal in other areas eventually caused Oaxaca to lose its monopoly. I’m fascinated by the transfer process because it involved local knowledge and understanding of the life cycle and predators of cochineal.

 

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Reading the Notemakers

Andrea Cuomo on Greek Scholia and Byzantine Pedagogy

Posted on Nov 10, 2016 10:25 AM by Bailey Trela |
Reading the Notemakers

Andrea Cuomo, a fellow in Byzantine Studies at Dumbarton Oaks in 2016–17, is a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute for Byzantine Studies at the Austrian Academy of Sciences. On November 2, he delivered a research report entitled “The Editing of Greek Scholia and the Study of Medieval Greek Literature,” in which he examined elite educational practices in Byzantium during the Middle Ages.

An essential component of elite education was learning to read, write, cite, and allude to Attic Greek, a task that was aided by editions of the classics bearing detailed scholia, or annotations. In his talk, Cuomo described the production of scholia and their use as learning mechanisms in the Byzantine Empire. Contending that the Byzantine schooling system represented neither sterile erudition nor a cult of the past, he questioned how Byzantines used and related to this tradition, and how modern scholars might go about producing critical editions of these texts.

A Brief Q&A with Andrea Cuomo

In your talk you spoke about the grammarian Manuel Moschopoulos. For the layperson: who was Moschopoulos? 

Unfortunately, Moschopoulos—the author whose textbook I am trying to edit—is a shadow figure. He’s known to classical philologists because we know that he worked on all the classics, and we can infer something about his life from his work. So we know he was teaching at the school at a monastery in Constantinople, when suddenly, in the first decade of the fourteenth century, he disappeared. And we don’t know what happened. We know that he was probably involved in some conspiracy against the emperor, because he was imprisoned, and in 1306 he disappears, either because he died, or . . . well, we really don’t know. Like I said, he’s really a shadow figure, and we only know what we can infer from what’s left.

 

What exactly are scholia and why are they important?

They are important for two reasons. At that time, for the Byzantines, scholia were central because the Byzantines wanted to learn Attic Greek—the Greek of the Greek classics. Since they were learning it as a foreign language, they needed the scholia—just like if you want to learn Shakespeare, you need not only the text, but also a gloss for every word. Unlike glosses, though, scholia were a little bit longer than just a synonym. They sometimes rephrased difficult passages, but always with the aim of providing students with good examples to imitate when writing on their own. So really, they were useful tools with the pragmatic, tangible, concrete target of learning.

Sometimes, and this is probably what’s more interesting for our sensibility, these scholia give us parallels, or they’ll say, for instance, “Don’t imitate the style of this person,” and they quote an author. So we can also begin to grasp Byzantine aesthetic judgment on literature.

For us, they’re important because they tag a lot of words and a lot of syntactic constructions, so to speak, and if we follow the tagging as a contemporary Byzantine tagging system, we can end up interpreting Byzantine texts in an interesting way. For instance, if I have the text of a Byzantine author, who I know used scholia to learn Greek, then we can verify whether he was following these rules. And we can also tell whether he was switching into a lower or a higher register, always following this contemporary tag. So, our interpretation will be not anachronistic.

And the scholia can even help us classicists, or other people in the humanities, to understand the status of education: Whey would a grown-up society like Byzantium in its last two centuries learn this language? They knew that they were studying the past, but they actualized it, and they said, “It’s important for us; we are that.” So in a way, we can also use this kind of research to explain the importance of classics nowadays—I don’t necessarily like this approach, but at least I understand it can be useful.

 

When you have this group of people, almost a workshop, producing one set of scholia, what does that do to the idea of authorship? Is it a joint authorship? What is interesting or exciting about trying to discern the individual scholiasts behind the words?

It’s a very difficult question, because we all imagine the idea of authorship, and for many kinds of works it is easy to understand the concept—for a historiographic work, for a novel—but for this material it’s very difficult. So there are a couple of things we need to consider. First, they were comments that originated in a school—and as I tried to point out in my talk, this school had a chair, who was Maximos Planoudes, and he had his assistant, and they all surely promoted and contributed to the creation of this scholiastic corpus. Books were very rare then, and I think that if there was one, they annotated it jointly. That’s the first part: already at the very beginning of this corpus there was a joint authorship.

But really, for us, it doesn’t matter who wrote exactly which scholia. What’s more interesting to know is how they were transmitted, which is the second part of authorship. Scribes were more autonomous when they had to copy material. For example, when they copy Herodotus, they are very faithful, as if they were copying the Bible; but when they copy scholia, they may decide to omit or add one scholion, and so in a sense the scribes are also our authors. The question is: If I produce a critical edition, should I publish only what is original, or should I give you the idea of every single manuscript? To answer your question, I don’t believe the individual authorship matters with scholia. The point is how these scholia worked and their impact on learning. 

 

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Ecologies of the Former World

Adam Goldwyn Pushes Ecocriticism Back to Byzantium

Posted on Nov 01, 2016 01:00 PM by Bailey Trela |
Ecologies of the Former World

Adam Goldwyn, a fellow in Byzantine Studies at Dumbarton Oaks in 2016–17, is an assistant professor of medieval literature and English at North Dakota State University. His intellectual interests include classical reception and comparative approaches to medieval literature, though recently he has begun to work with a new theoretical approach to the past: ecocriticism.

As Goldwyn explained in his talk, “Byzantine Ecocriticism: Humans, Nature, and Power in the Medieval Greek Romance,” he first came to be interested in ecocriticism while teaching a literary seminar. After analyzing Homer’s description of the shield of Achilles in the Iliad, a student asked Goldwyn whether the Greeks had had greater imaginations than modern people; it was difficult for him to imagine the cosmos carved on a shield, and when he looked at the stars he saw only dots. In attempting to answer the student’s question, Goldwyn read up on light pollution and its effects on the night sky; the melding of literary and environmental concerns catalyzed his interest in ecocritical studies.

Goldwyn began his lecture by explaining the basic tenets of ecocriticism and the related school of ecofeminism. As an approach to literary analysis, ecocriticism seeks to interrogate the ideological underpinnings of humanity’s interactions with the natural environment. Though initially developed as a framework for understanding industrial and postindustrial societies Goldwyn has sought to push its reach backward in time by applying an ecocritical approach to classical and medieval texts, including Ho Polemos tes Troados, a Greek translation of the Old French Roman de Troie, in an attempt to develop an understanding of Byzantine environmental ideology.

A Brief Q&A with Adam Goldwyn

During your lecture, you did some rereadings of myths from an ecocritical perspective: Medea as an environmental shaper, Jason as a pillager who steals the natural resource of the golden fleece. Are there other myths or texts that you’ve had intriguing ecocritical readings of, or that you thought lent themselves well to the theory?

One of the things that makes myths so interesting is that they’re often about these very early human-nature encounters, before the relation has been solidified by society. So you have things, for instance, like the labors of Hercules, which is a man wearing a lion skin, going around and imposing a human, civilized order on the world through, among other things, the killing of really powerful monsters or unusual kinds of creatures. So I think that the Hercules myth, as the human conquest of nature, is one. I certainly think that Ovid’s Metamorphoses is quite interesting—and recently controversial, because of some of the issues around divine-human sex and the issue of consent. But people transforming back and forth between animals and humans, and between humans and plants, makes you think about the borders between humans and gods. It turns out the borders between these seemingly fixed categories are very fluid. I think that that opens up a lot of space for thinking about ideologies, value systems, and what it means to be a plant, an animal, a certain kind of animal—a monstrous animal or a cute animal or a dangerous animal—or a god or a human. I mean, what’s human about animals, and what’s divine about humans?


One of the main tenets of ecofeminism as you described it is that oppression based on things like race, class, gender, and sexuality stems from the tendency to oppress nature. Is there a goal in ecocriticism to return to a state where the boundaries between humans and nature aren’t as clear?

That’s a tough question, and I think it’s helpful to talk about humanism. Before, you had God at the center of the universe—this is like the geocentric model of the universe—and then Galileo comes along as a humanist, and humans become the center of the epistemological world. Humanism is, in a sense, the study of humans at the center of things. Ecocritics point out that we can move away from thinking about humans as the center, and instead think about humans as part of a linked network of equally important and equally autonomous creatures. And we come to realize that something as small as a honeybee turns out to be a cornerstone of global ecology. So, post-humanist thinking, or transhumanist thinking, decenters the human and thinks of the world more as a networked web of symbiotic interconnections.


You’re pushing ecocriticism into the past and using it to study Byzantium. What is the backflow? How can Byzantium end up affecting ecocriticism?

There are a couple of things I can think of. One: Ecocriticism has largely been a project of the West, and predominantly of Anglophone scholarship. So even in ecocriticism, you have mostly scholars in the U.S. or England writing about ecocriticism from their own perspective, and writing mostly about contemporary or even medieval English literature. So we can end up bringing in a comparative context.

I think another thing that’s really important is to see how much ecocriticism suffers from a presentist view. Of course we’re in a new environment, or moment, because of anthropogenic climate change, but when we push back and develop Byzantine and medieval ecocriticism, and ancient ecocriticism and Biblical ecocriticism, and see how far we can push it back, we begin to see that the ideologies that underlie these things in fact go quite far back. We’ve inherited a system of environmental beliefs and attitudes that may not have been so bad when they developed, when you only had a couple hundred thousand humans and all they had were stone tools. You could have an ideology of deforestation then because you didn’t really have the technological means to accomplish it. But now, we have the same ideology, but the consequences are radically different, because you can cut down hundreds of acres of rain forest in a day or a week. Trying to push back the chain of ideologies that got us to where we are is really important for thinking about the contemporary moment.

 

A lot of the textual excerpts you read that were about Medea mentioned her education in magic—I believe one even referred to “liberal studies.” I’m wondering if you could talk about this connection between education, magic, women, and ideologies.

The etymology of liberal arts is, basically, the education that a free person would have needed, so in some sense of course education is that which a free man—and emphasis on the man when we’re talking about Rome—would need. One of the things that ecocritics and ecofeminists often discuss is the different environmental ideologies between men and women, and how nature itself is often given a feminine gender. And there’s a problematic but somewhat commonplace binary that men have an environmental ideology of exploitation (think hunting), whereas women have an environmental ideology of sustainability or care (think of gathering, or gardening, as opposed to hunting). I mean, it’s a little bit of a gender-essentialist perspective, but by educating women, by bringing them into environmental discourse, I think that we can shift from a certain kind of male-dominated narrative about how we should treat the environment to one that’s dominated more by care, nurture, and sustainability. 

 

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Theories of Ritual

Pre-Columbian Studies Junior Fellow Jessica MacLellan on Maya Stone Platforms and the Organization of Community

Posted on Oct 23, 2016 12:35 PM by Bailey Trela |
Theories of Ritual

Jessica MacLellan, a junior fellow in Pre-Columbian Studies at Dumbarton Oaks in 2016–2017, is a PhD candidate in anthropology at the University of Arizona. In her research report, entitled “Households, Ritual, and the Origins of Social Complexity,” MacLellan provided a brief summa of Mayan archaeology—its past, aims, and current state—before segueing into a description of her fieldwork with the Karinel Group, a suite of settlements in Ceibal, Guatemala.

At the Karinel Group, MacLellan has helped to unearth evidence of stone platforms, carved from the bedrock of the region, that seem to have served a number of purposes. While some evidently formed the floors of homes, others appear to have been used as stages for the enactment of rituals. MacLellan intends to use these platforms, along with other archaeological evidence from the site, including pottery caches, to answer a number of questions about the links between domesticity, ritual, and ancestor worship.

A Brief Q&A with Jessica MacLellan

When you were laying out the theoretical basis of your research, you said that ritual, specifically the way you’re looking at it, can be both inclusive and exclusive. Could you elaborate on that?

Sure. So one of the main traditional focuses in anthropology, archaeology, history, is studying ritual as a means to bring people together—I think Durkheim is the main theorist on that, and then there’s this idea of “communitas,” which is Victor Turner—but basically, a lot of people see ritual as bringing communities together. And yet, at the same time, whenever you have these formal ritualized practices, there have to be individuals with specialized knowledge of the rules and special responsibilities. So the idea is that, even from the beginning, in very simple egalitarian societies, there are people who are ritual specialists, and as societies become more complex, there’s a potential for those people to move up in the hierarchy, so that eventually you end up with things like divine kingship, which the Maya have, which is kingship based on ties to the gods and the ability to communicate with the gods, with commoners supposedly lacking that direct link.

 

In your talk, you focused on the connection between permanent settlements and ritual. What explains that connection?

Well, the way that I look at ritual, it’s not really tied to simpler or mobile societies versus settlements—you can actually see ritual even today in our modern societies—and the main theorist that I use are usually sociologists, so they’re actually looking at the much more recent past. Ritual can mean a lot of different things, and it’s kind of an intentionally vague term, but it’s appropriate when we don’t want to use the word “religion.” This is useful during the time period I’m working with: I don’t have any texts, and I don’t want to impose beliefs or meanings on the people because I don’t know what they were thinking, obviously, we just have little bits of their trash and their architecture. But by focusing on the physical actions they took, on their interaction with the material world, on rituals—well, it’s a little bit easier than focusing on meaning, on symbols, and I think we can avoid putting our own western perceptions on people by focusing more on their actions. So I don’t think that ritual is necessarily tied to this idea of sedentary groups, or not sedentary groups, but you definitely expect changes in ritual when you have changes in social structure.

 

I’m curious about how the carving of the stone platforms occurred. What tools were being used? What processes?

That’s a good question. We haven’t actually been able to see this happen ethnographically, but it does seem to have happened at a lot of archeological sites in the Maya area, and we do know that they didn’t have any metal, so obviously they wouldn’t have metal shovels or hoes or rakes. They would have probably been using wooden tools made out of the trees around them, or possibly stone tools. It must have required a large group of people, so again we have this idea of bringing the community together, of creating a community through work. And something like creating a plaza could be a very ritualized act, and they also created house platforms that way, so it probably required somebody organizing them. This again gives you the idea that there’s somebody who’s maybe gaining a higher position in this society, because they can bring together these groups of people and start this process. But why they wanted to do it? I still don’t know.

 

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“The World Upside Down”

Byzantine Studies Fellow Eleni Kefala on Byzantium and America before and after the Age of Reason

Posted on Oct 12, 2016 12:05 PM by Bailey Trela |
“The World Upside Down”

Eleni Kefala, a fellow in Byzantine Studies at Dumbarton Oaks in 2016–2017, is associate professor in the School of Modern Languages at the University of St Andrews. Though her previous research has centered on Spanish American literature and the visual arts, her work at Dumbarton Oaks will attempt to bridge, for the first time, Pre-Columbian and Byzantine studies in the context of her new interdisciplinary project “Byzantium and America before and after the Age of Reason,” which itself builds on her latest monograph, Five and One Theses on Modernity.

In her research report, titled “The Vanquished: Byzantium and America before and after the Age of Reason,” Kefala first established a complex and guiding theoretical framework. Citing a long list of writers, philosophers, and cultural theorists that included Immanuel Kant, Fredric Jameson, Enrique Dussel, and Edward Said, Kefala provided a cultural critique of concepts like modernity, progress, and enlightenment, and of discursive constructions of Byzantium and Pre-Columbian America in order to explain the rationale of her project.

A Brief Q&A with Eleni Kefala

In your presentation you displayed a complex theoretical apparatus. Now that you’re at Dumbarton Oaks, how do you come down from that apparatus and start digging around in the particulars?

The idea of a comparative study of Byzantium and America came as I was writing two theoretical chapters on “modernity” and its “others” for the purposes of a monograph I’ve just finished, Five and One Theses on Modernity. What I presented at Dumbarton Oaks was a rough summary of the most relevant findings of the first part of the book, which I call “Excursus on Modernity.” So what I was aiming at, and basically what I’m interested in, is what the moderns, while trying to define their own “modernity,” had to say about Amerindians, on the one hand, and Byzantium on the other. The ultimate end of this investigation is to explore the discursive mechanisms whereby these civilizations were epistemically and culturally subalternized, especially (but not only) during the Enlightenment, and seeing to what extent these mechanisms are actually with us today. What I will be doing here at Dumbarton Oaks is something slightly different, which is going to be, hopefully, the first chapter of a monograph on Byzantium and America before and after the Enlightenment. Although the book will be about how the west discursively constructed those “premoderns” from the Renaissance on, the first chapter will actually look at the point of view of the Byzantines and the Amerindians—that is, the point of view of the defeated, how they saw the conquest. For instance, the Aymara in what is today Bolivia and Peru referred to the so-called “discovery” of the Americas as Pachacuti, meaning “the world upside down.” So I want to look at the perspectives of the people who were conquered in both cases.

 

You talked about trauma theory and memory studies, a lot of which seems to develop in the twentieth century. So how do you adapt these studies to the fifteenth century, to very foreign cultures?

You always have to be very careful. If we go back to the term theory, what does it mean? Theōria—from theōreō, meaning to consider, to observe, to theorize—gives you the opportunity to look at something in a more comprehensive way. Theory, as Deleuze once said, is a box of tools. So I would like to look at particular instances of “postmemory”—Hirsch’s idea, which she’s using with reference to the Holocaust to explain how cultural trauma or memory can be transmitted from generation to generation through texts, images, and behaviors, but which I think could be a useful tool when it comes to looking at poems written by scholars or anonymous people after these conquests. For instance, I’d like to look at issues of cultural trauma, memory, and postmemory in the thrēnoi, or laments, for the fall of Constantinople in 1453 and in the Cantares mexicanos, especially the icnocuicatl, the “songs of sorrow,” which were composed by Mexica poets soon after the fall of Tenochtitlan in 1521. The same applies to theories of hybridity and cultural translation.

We should use these terms with caution, but we can use them, because the mechanisms of cultural production—whether this is now or during the Roman Empire, or the Byzantine Empire, or the Ottoman Empire, etc.—the way that culture is produced, has not changed much. Culture can be the product of dialogue, or clash, but it’s definitely the product of the encounter between different cultural systems, which produces something new. This “new” is then essentialized, its identity becomes identifiable, and then it meets and clashes with something else to produce some other newness, etc., etc. Of course, each case comes with its own specificities, both in terms of time and space, but this is how culture moves, how culture changes, let’s say. So yes: caution. But I don’t think that we should be terrorized by the idea that one could use contemporary theorizations to shed light on previous periods, in the same way that we are not terrorized by the idea that theories of the past can still be useful and relevant to us today. For example, during the discussion I borrowed Borges’s theorization of “thinking” as selection and abstraction. I could see that many colleagues in the audience immediately appreciated the reference. Borges talks about this in a story called “Funes the Memorious,” which was published in 1942. Is what he says less useful or relevant to us today just because he said it in 1942?

 

There was a lot of focus in your presentation on scientific advances, medical advancements, and the idea of progress. Where did that emphasis come from?

If you are interested in the concept of “modernity,” as I was when writing the “excursus,” you eventually have to look at what comes before it, and what comes before it, in time, is the middle ages. In terms of space, it’s the non-European cultures—in this case, obviously, the Amerindian civilizations, since I agree with scholars like Dussel that modernity begins in 1492 with the conquest of America. Now the idea of progress is fully fleshed out during the Enlightenment, with thinkers like Kant and Fontenelle, who eventually breaks with the cyclical notion of history, and progress is seen in the future, not in the past. And then you start looking at the real notion of progress—what did they mean by progress? Even a strong supporter of the idea of progress like Fontenelle says that he doesn’t believe in the idea of moral progress—who can ever argue that we’re morally more advanced than people that lived in previous times? And then the notion of artistic or aesthetic progress also is very difficult to grasp—who can say that our aesthetic tastes today are more advanced than, for instance, the abstraction of Byzantine art? So once you try to disentangle this whole literature about progress, then you can only end up with the notion of technological and scientific progress. And then you have to problematize the moderns’ view that the idea of scientific and technological progress, or sometimes even the thing itself, was absent from premodern or non-modern cultures, as was supposedly the case of Byzantium.

 

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