Tuesday, June 8, 2010

GW MEMSI funds field-shaping summer dissertation research


The GW Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute is happy to announce that we have been able to fund modestly five dissertation research projects this summer. This research is being conducted by our graduate students who have already completed their coursework and are now working in the archive and composing their theses. We believe that their projects, each of which will some day become a published book, will change the shape of medieval and early modern studies. We believe, in other words, that supporting these projects supports the future of the field.

A longterm study conducted by the Mellon Foundation found that summer support is integral to the timely completion of dissertations in the humanities: an intuitive discovery, perhaps (what scholar can dedicate summer months to doctoral research when he or she must work a summer job to pay for rent and food?), but scarcity of resources makes supporting graduate students in the summer impossible at many institutions.

Access to the Library of Congress and the Folger Shakespeare Library (where many of our funded students will be spending their summers) and an internationally renowned faculty give GW's graduate program the potential to be the best in the United States. That's not hyperbole: the only thing we're missing is sufficient longterm funding for the excellent graduate students who enroll here.

Here are our five such students and their projects.

Nedda Mehdizadeh
I have begun the process of composing the first chapter of my dissertation entitled Translating Persia: Safavid Iran and Early Modern English Writing. The chapter to which I plan to devote my summer research centers on the travels of the historical Sherley brothers – adventurers from England who go to Persia in the early Seventeenth Century. Though the Sherleys are a popular and famous family, scholarship has yet to provide a comprehensive and up-to-date bibliography about these figures. My intention is to foreground their narrative by creating a comprehensive bibliography and providing an analysis that interrogates the ways in which they have been discussed in scholarship to date. Because these figures are so crucial to English literature and history, I believe my work is necessary and relevant to current conversations circulating within scholarship about early modern travel. I will spend my time this summer at the Library of Congress and the Folger Shakespeare Library, both of which contain rich archives to study travel to Persia in the early modern period.

Jennifer Wood
The working title for my dissertation is “Sounding Otherness in Early Modern Writing” and I am considering various early modern travel narratives (specifically Smith, Scott, and Jean de Lery) that describe this New World in terms of its soundscape. What is of particular interest to me is what this soundscape does to these English or European adventurers, whether they experience terror or fear, or even rapture at the sounds of “New Worlds” located both in the east and the west. The term “Indian” is a fascinating one which can apply to the native peoples of the Americas, or the inhabitants of the eastern country India, and it is notable that Columbus died believing that he had reached eastern India. This spatial confusion is recapitulated in the musics of various non-Europeans or non-English peoples; just as the Indians of the Americas are conflated with the Indians of India, European reactions to “other-worldly” music display confusion about the space of these encounters which then becomes replicated on the stage. One example of this is Shakespeare’s Tempest, which is ostensibly a New World play, yet eastern or oriental sounds continually leak into it as well. A specific song within a play that also “sounds otherness” in both the Americas and the East is Ben Jonson’s “The Triumph” which appears in The Devil is an Ass, and mentions “the wool of beaver” (a novel New World commodity) and “the nard in the fire” (nard is a root of Himalayan origin) in the same breath. Another example of “otherness” that I hope to examine in greater depth over the summer is the otherness of the afterlife that gets represented sonically. Death is the anamorphic sound in all of Feste’s songs in Twelfth Night, while there were also many contemporary pieces of music that either mention death in the lyrics or were meant to sound like devils or witches through manipulation of the voice or instruments. I am fascinated by the fact that music or sound is the chief medium to express these representations of otherness, and plan to research collections of early modern ballads. Much of my research will be at the Folger Shakespeare Library.
Lowell Duckert
My dissertation maps new ways of thinking about landscape, materiality, and ecology in early modern travel literature and drama. Picking up on the theories of actor-networks and non-linear dynamics outlined by Bruno Latour, Michel Serres, Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari, and Manuel De Landa, I argue that landscape is a thriving meshwork of living matter -- places of constant connectivity, interminable possibilities, and creative desires between human and nonhuman actants. By reconceiving landscape as a place of ever-burgeoning activity, I depart from traditional modes of ecocriticism that cultivate an exclusively human interface with the environment, anthropocentric readings that tend to foster more negative ideas of "catastrophe" or "prevention." I hope that in reconsidering early modern landscapes as networks of coconstituitive things -- nature-cultures, (non)humans -- I offer new ways of thinking about our own complex ecological present and future, and, most importantly, provide positive means for reveling in our shared vibrancy with the natural world. Works included are Walter's Ralegh's voyage to Guiana (living rivers); Martin Frobisher's expedition to Newfoundland (moving land/glaciers); William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice (enfolding wool/Golden Fleece); and Mandeville's medieval Travels (wandering islands). I am currently completing the first chapter of my dissertation, "Hydrography of Desire: Wa(l)ter Ralegh's Discoverie of Guiana and the Early Modern Aquascape," highlighting the ways Ralegh desires to touch and be touched by the waters of Guiana, a powerful example of the desirable material connections -- and endless possibilities of being -- made available to us by aquascapes past and present. I am also planning an essay collection on ecomaterialism for the journal postmedieval. Much of my research will be conducted at the Folger.
Mike Smith
I'm starting my dissertation, tentatively titled "Vegetable Love: Desiring Plants in the Middle Ages." I'll be looking at human-plant encounters from the perspective of what Jane Bennett calls, in her book Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, "vital materialism," in which inhuman matter has a "vitality," or independent agency, that runs in and alongside human bodies. From this vital-materialist perspective, I explore how medieval writers such as Chaucer, Marie de France, and Mandeville might understand human desires as "vitally" connected, in some way, to plantlife. To do so, I'll organize each of the four chapters of my dissertation around a botanical concept -- chapters on vertu, poison, grafting, and quickening -- and will look at how these concepts might offer us ways of seeing human desire as (at least partly) tethered to the same inhuman forces that animate plantlife, as well as the larger world ("network") of non-human things. Chaucer expresses this vital connection between plant and human desires in the opening lines of the General Prologue, as the he traces the human desire to "goon on pilgrimages" to the same force ("Nature") that encourages the flowers to bloom, the crops to grow, and the birds to sing and build nests. In the Middle English Breton lay Sir Ofeo, the complicated (and often hybrid) identities and desires of Sir Orfeo's "Inglish" community is figured through the most important space in the narrative, under a "ympe-tree," a grafted tree, that serves as portal to the Underworld. And in Marie de France's Lais, human and plant desires are even burred, as she weaves romances about entwined human lovers, such as Tristan and Isolde, with the the similar romance between honeysuckle and hazel tree ("Chevrefoil")... With this grant, I will be able to begin my dissertation this summer; I'll start by researching and writing my first chapter on botanical vertu in The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, titled "The Vertu of Travel: Mandeville's Vegetal Approach to Difference." During this time, I'll be reading medieval pharmacological texts, which are treatises on the "vertus ("virtues") of plants and herbs -- or, in short, the efficacy that plant matter has on human (and sometimes non-human) bodies. As Mandeville often taps into this tradition of pharmacological vertu, reading the Travels from a pharmacological perspective will offer a unique approach to understanding how Mandeville might express human desire (for travel, for connection, for difference, etc.) as part of a much larger inhuman system.

Jessica Frazier
The working title of my dissertation is “Object-ionable Fashion: Material Agency, Hybridity, and Temporality in Transnational Early Modern Networks.” Drawing upon the Deleuzian assemblage and the Latourian actor network, this project investigates the way in which fashionable novelties—particularly those from the Orient and the New World—challenge the notion of the English subject as the consummate consumer and therefore the assertion of a singular national identity. In recent years, early modern studies has suggested the English proto-imperialism staged in the theater, pamphlets, and travel narratives as little more than the fantasy of Marlovian overreachers. Nevertheless, even those scholars to whom we can credit the dissipation of the myth of English supremacy continue to posit the consumption of foreign objects as a kind of proto-imperialism. In his important work Turning Turk, Daniel Vitkus writes, “Instead, the alternative path to power [for England] was through the acquisition of valuable commodities: gold, silver, and pearls taken from newly ‘discovered’ lands, luxury goods obtained through trade in Asia or the Mediterranean, or booty taken by privateers from Spanish ships in the Caribbean, Mediterranean, or elsewhere.” Such assertions, however, occlude objects’ fashionable forwardness. By following what Jane Bennett might term specific fashion “things” through the early modern archive, my project will suggest the consuming “English” subject and consumed “foreign” object as a dichotomy worth troubling. Indeed, an examination of feathers, diamonds, and hair gestures toward the stylistic possibilities of the (non)human ensemble. Each of the above objects will occupy separate chapters of my dissertation. Summer funding would enable me to pursue the whims of feathers, diamonds, and hair (and for these objects to, in turn, direct me) through the early modern archive housed in the Folger Shakespeare Library: I am particularly interested in the Folger’s extensive collection of Richard Hakluyt’s travel narratives. By the end of the summer, I hope to have identified works from a variety of genres in which feathers, diamonds, and hair present themselves. I will then be able with greater certainty to select the texts that I will explore in each dissertation chapter. As a result, I could more fully enter into early modern intellectual conversations by presenting portions of these chapters next year at the conferences for the Group for Early Modern Cultural Studies (GEMCS) and the Shakespeare Association of American (SAA). Summer funding would grant the time needed for rigorous scholarship—a privilege that would prove an impossibility should I need to seek nonacademic employment to support myself during the summer lapse of my graduate stipend.

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