Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Ben Tilghman Lunch Seminar

On Friday January 27th at 12 PM, MEMSI will host Ben Tilghman, Professional Lecturer of Art History at GW. Lunch will be served. The event takes place in Rome Hall 771 (801 22nd St. NW). His paper, "The Enigmatic Nature of Things," will be available two weeks in advance. Please email Lowell Duckert [] to RSVP for the event and receive a copy.

Ben Tilghman’s research focuses on the art of medieval Europe, especially illuminated manuscripts and the early medieval British Isles. He is particularly interested in the symbolic aspects of ornament, the visual nature of writing, cross-cultural interchange in the North Sea basin, and phenomenological and object-oriented analyses of art. He has recently published essays in Word & Image and in the volume Insular and Anglo-Saxon: Art and Thought in the Early Middle Ages, edited by Colum Hourihane, and also has forthcoming essays in Manuscripta and The Journal of the Walters Art Museum. Before coming to GW, he previously served as the Zanvyl Krieger Curatorial Fellow at the Walters Art Museum, where he curated exhibitions on miniaturization in books and art, the Saint John’s Bible, and images from the Hubble Space Telescope.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Ecological Movement

GW MEMSI and the Graduate Program in English are pleased to announce "Ecological Movement," a panel to be held at GW next semester.

Come join us on Friday February 24th at 5:30 PM in Rome Hall 771 (801 22nd St. NW).

Our presenters cut across time periods and disciplines. Each will give a short paper, with a general Q&A to follow. Speakers include:

Stacy Alaimo is Professor of English at the University of Texas at Arlington, where she has won several teaching awards and has served as co-chair of the University's Sustainability Committee. Her primary interests are the environmental humanities, animal studies, posthumanism, science studies, new materialism, gender theory, cultural studies, and multicultural American literatures. She has published two books recently: Material Feminisms (edited with Susan J. Hekman, 2008) and Bodily Natures: Science, Environment, and the Material Self (2010). A book entitled Sea Creatures and the Limits of Animal Studies: Science, Aesthetics, Ethics is currently in the works. Please see her research page for more information.

Lowell Duckert is a doctoral candidate in the GW English program, finishing his dissertation on early modern waterscapes, actor-network theory, and ecocriticism. He has forthcoming articles on glaciers, the color maroon, rain, and Walter Ralegh's Discoverie of Guiana. Along with Jeffrey Cohen, he is editing a special issue of the journal postmedieval titled "Ecomateriality."

Jennifer James, Associate Professor of English and Director of African Studies Program at GW, specializes in African American literature and culture, with a concentration in the 19th century. She has a particular interest in theorizing the relationships among literary praxis, representations of blackness, and sociopolitical violence. She is working on two projects: Black Jack: Andrew Jackson and African American Cultural Memory, which traces the history three generations of ancestors enslaved by the President, and a cultural history of a little-known labor riot staged by black American miners during the “nadir.” A short list of her scholarship includes: “What Guano is Made of: Race, Labor and Sustainability ” (forthcoming, special topic issue of American Literary History on sustainability and American literature) and “Ecomelancholia: Slavery, War, and Black Ecological Imaginings” in Environmental Criticism for the 21st Century (eds. Stephanie LeMenager, et. al., 2011).

Eileen Joy is Associate Professor of English at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. Her main interests are Old English literature, cultural studies, embodied affectivities, ethics, and the post/human. She has published on many topics: Beowulf, suicide terrorism, and Emmanuel Levinas; historical artifacts and cultural memory; the Anglo-Latin Wonders of the East and the 2002 massacre of Muslims in Gujarat, India; the intellectual history of early modern bibliography; and much more. She is the co-editor of The Postmodern Beowulf: A Critical Casebook (2007), Cultural Studies of the Modern Middle Ages (2007), and postmedieval: a journal of medieval cultural studies. Her current research/writing project is on the Anglo-Latin and Old English Lives of Saint Guthlac and the queer erotics of unsettled inter-subjectivities, along with a monograph tentatively titled Postcard from the Volcano: Beowulf, Memory, History. You can also find her blogging on In the Middle and organizing future events for the BABEL Working Group.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

GW Today Interviews Professor Holly Dugan

The Memory of Smell

In her new book, Assistant Professor of English Holly Dugan investigates the influence of olfaction in early modern England.

Nov. 7, 2011

By Julia Parmley

The scent of mothballs and wet concrete may not be the most glamorous of smells.

But for Assistant Professor of English Holly Dugan, they conjure powerful, poignant memories of her late grandmother.

“I think we’re hard wired to associate smell with memory,” she said. “Smell is one of the most direct and unmediated sensory mechanisms.”

The memory of smell—and its role in everyday life—is a topic Dr. Dugan delves into in her new book “The Ephemeral History of Perfume: Scent and Sense in Early Modern England.”

The book looks at six scents—incense, rose, sassafras, rosemary, ambergris and jasmine—and their role in important cultural spaces of the time period, including churches, royal courts and pleasure gardens. For Dr. Dugan, the point of The Ephemeral History is to show what smell can reveal about life back then and how it hints at changes to come.

“Perfume is such a loaded object of study because we have so many assumptions about what it is, how it functions and who uses it,” she said. “It was fun to look back and see that before it was a commodity, it had all these other implications for culture, religion, politics, sexuality, religion and discovery.”

“The Ephemeral History” was based on Dr. Dugan’s graduate school dissertation on the role of smell in England’s playhouses and texts, but the idea to investigate smell first was born after a reading of William Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night,” where she noticed “tons of really gross jokes about smell.”

“I started reading old medical texts to learn about what smell meant during that time, and then began to look into smell of playhouses and metaphorical references to smells in London’s sewer systems and neighborhoods.”

Dr. Dugan found herself intrigued by differences in the uses and descriptions of smell. “I found the question of what life was like in the past really fascinating, and I think my research delves from that curiosity,” she said.

Her research continued in England and France, where she read about smell in London’s Museums of Health and Medicine and visited a perfume museum in Versailles. She immersed herself in what she calls “literature for the senses,” which at times revealed personal glimpses into the lives of early modern Englishmen and women.

“Literature for the senses—particularly olfaction—is a tremendous historical archive because you don’t just get description of scent but the phenomenon of experiencing it,” said Dr. Dugan. “Partly what I love about the early modern England time period is that the literature gets at personal experience that is also related to broader, shared stories about the culture.”

Dr. Dugan also found “weird, enormous amounts” of recipes in old cookbooks about how to perfume leather gloves, which “clued me in to how prevalent and important fragrance was in early modern life.”

In France’s perfume archives, Dr. Dugan was able to smell essential oils that were commonplace in early modern England perfumes. Ambergris, a substance produced in the digestive system of sperm whales, now usually only exists in modern day fragrances as a synthetic version.

“Actual ambergris oil and the synthetic version smell totally different,” said Dr. Dugan. “I got to sniff the essence of musk, civet and all heavy animal smells that don’t on their own smell good, but combined with other layers make great perfumes. That added another dimension to the book—what smells we can encounter from the past and what can be lost forever.”

The tender, familial role of sassafras was another surprising discovery for Dr. Dugan.

“I would read these moving descriptions about how people would make cradles out of sassafras wood because they believed that the scent would protect their babies from the devil,” she said. “It was a powerful smell.”

“The smells I thought would be the keys to perfume were not always the smells that in the past were the most poignant for their culture and for that cultural moment,” she added.

Other prevalent scents included jasmine in pleasure gardens and rosewater in the court of Henry VIII. Dr. Dugan discovered the king gave away more than 27 different bottles of distilled rosewater to his mistresses, which she said were made out of imported damask roses. These gifts gave Dr. Dugan a bit of insight into the king’s emotional life.

“When we gift perfume, it’s often a reflection of a beloved’s sense of his or her lover, but I think what Henry VIII was doing was saying, ‘Here’s a bit of me; I wear this and you can now wear this and through smell you are marked as mine,’” she said. “So in the book, I explore what olfactory references are associated with the court and what they mean. The Tudor rose is a powerful icon that signals royal lineage and I think the rosewater allowed King Henry VIII to apply that idea in a three-dimensional way.”

Dr. Dugan also came across unusual words that described smells at the time. Her favorite is “smeek,” which refers to something that both smokes and smells.

“There was a whole language to describe smells,” she said.

Dr. Dugan, who came to GW in fall 2005, called her position in the Department of English a “dream job.”

“The number of well-known faculty who have become my colleagues is sort of mind-blowing, and I found over the first year that I really loved teaching in Washington, D.C.,” she said. “I share the same passions that many of my students have about why they came to GW—it’s just an amazing place to learn.”

Dr. Dugan currently teaches an introductory course in Shakespeare and a graduate course on the space of the stage in early modern England. For both courses, Dr. Dugan utilizes the District’s cultural offerings—the Shakespeare Theatre Company, Folger Shakespeare Company and the Kennedy Center, among them—as well as multimedia in her classroom.

“There are all these great things that I’m showing in class and I’m learning alongside students,” she said. “We’re working together to figure out what these plays mean now. It’s been really fun.”

A recipient of a 2011 Bender Teaching Award, Dr. Dugan said the recognition is more reflective of the strength of George Washington’s Department of English as a whole.

“Most of what I do in the classroom I learned from my colleagues, so that award shows how lucky I am to be surrounded by really great teachers and really great students,” she said.

Dr. Dugan did not plan to pursue teaching as a profession until she went to college and discovered “a world of ideas” she never wanted to leave.

“I always say the classroom is a total utopian space,” said Dr. Dugan. “Utopia isn’t really achievable but the reach is there in that space, and in college I first discovered that.”

Although her book is on store shelves, Dr. Dugan is still pondering the significance of smell. She remembers a few years ago, on a crowded sidewalk in New York City, passing a woman whose coat smelled like mothballs. Dr. Dugan turned around and followed the woman for a few blocks, her mind filling with memories of her grandmother.

It’s these kinds of unexpected moments, she said, that reveal how powerful smell can be.

“I wasn’t consciously thinking that ‘mothballs equal grandma’ but in that moment I was instantly 10 years old, rooting through her closet for something,” said Dr. Dugan. “That’s what I think is so interesting about smell—I think the brain works in myriad ways to foster those connections, the meanings of smell in our lives.”

“My book tries to tell that story in a scholarly way, but it ends with thinking about that relationship of what the body is hard wired to do and how the meanings that we accrue over time show the spaces we’ve been and the places we’ve touched,” she added. “Strange things can happen just beneath perception.”

GW Today Interviews Professor Alexa Huang

Source: GW Today

The Global Influence of Shakespeare

Associate Professor of English Alexa Huang co-founded a video archive of worldwide performances inspired by the Bard’s works.

Nov. 28, 2011

With just a click of your mouse, you can travel to Brazil to view “Othello,” watch “Hamlet” in Egypt, attend “King Lear” in England, or see India’s take on “A Midsummer’s Night Dream.”

This virtual field trip is courtesy of Global Shakespeares, a free, open-access video and performance archive of 300 and counting Shakespeare and Shakespeare-influenced productions and clips from around the world.

“It’s sort of a YouTube for Shakespearians and theater and film enthusiasts, but with much better stability and scholarly foundation,” said Alexa Huang, co-founder of the archive.

A Shakespeare scholar, Alexa created the archive along with Peter Donaldson, Ford Foundation Professor of Humanities at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and fully launched it online in 2010. She came to George Washington in 2011.

The performances highlighted on Global Shakespeares can bring a breadth and depth to understanding the Bard and his work, said Alexa.

“Great ideas transcend historical and cultural boundaries and can be articulated in many different forms and languages,” she said. “Shakespeare lends himself to translation—many directors believe that Shakespeare in translation is more effective, more sexy and spicy than in his original text.”

Alexa added the cross-cultural interpretations can challenge assumptions about Shakespeare’s most famous plays. “Encountering these plays through refreshing performances in new contexts can reinvigorate our dulled senses,” she said. “Shakespeare in translation doesn’t take away from the Bard. Instead, it makes his work more relevant to a worldwide audience.”

The video archive first began 10 years ago as Alexa's collection of tapes from field research trips when she was studying at Stanford University. As her collection grew, colleagues began requesting the videos to expose their students to Shakespeare performances from around the world.

Mailing the tapes back and forth quickly became unmanageable and new technologies for the production and distribution of digital video were rapidly becoming more accessible to educators, so Alexa decided to bring the collection online.

“I thought, ‘Why don’t we take advantage of what is available technologically today, and really transform digital video to make it an integral part of the study of Shakespeare performance and a project to promote cross-cultural understanding?’” she said.

Global Shakespeares has been recognized as a valuable research source for scholars. It has been reviewed in major journals and newspapers, including Shakespeare Quarterly, the British Shakespeare Association’s Shakespeare and Asian Theatre Journal. The archive has also been indexed by the Modern Language Association’s bibliography, World Shakespeare Bibliography and other scholarly databases.

Each video on Global Shakespeares is posted with permission, is thoroughly researched and properly annotated, and contains subtitles when needed, said Huang.

Faculty at the University of California, Santa Barbara; Boston University; MIT; and universities in the United Kingdom, China, Switzerland, Korea and Brazil are using the project in their courses.
Analytics show Global Shakespeares has visitors from more than 88 countries—and these visitors used more than 55 languages to access the site, which features a dynamic map on which users can plot the trajectory of a touring production, interactive historical timeline, tabbed browsing and a variety of search options.

“You can find Shakespeare in places you might not even think of,” said Alexa. Almost every continent is represented on the site, including Asia, South America and Europe.

One of the most interesting aspects of Global Shakespeares is that users can view the same play performed in different countries to see firsthand how different cultures interpret and perform pivotal scenes.

One example is a scene from Shakespeare’s bloodiest play, “Titus Andronicus,” where Lavinia, Titus’s daughter, is raped and her hands and tongue are cut off. How should actors perform this scene on stage?

“If you do it literally, you run the risk of diminishing Shakespeare’s tragedy into parody. Too much violence can become comical and it’s unreal,” said Huang. “Too little and you fail to convey the weight of the tragedy.”

One director from Japan had a solution. Director Yukio Ninagawa used red silk streamers to portray blood flowing from Lavinia after the attack.

“It’s beautiful and eerie at the same time,” said Alexa. “This is one example of how different interpretations can transform our understanding of the play.”

There are also performances on Global Shakespeares that challenge widely accepted interpretations of Shakespeare’s better-known plays. For “The Merchant of Venice,” Alexa said plays from Japan and China focus more on the question of justice in a capitalist society and Portia—the beautiful heiress disguised as a male lawyer—than on Shylock and anti-Semitism, a theme that post-Holocaust and particularly post-9/11 Western versions usually emphasize. The play is often retitled “The Woman Lawyer,” “A Bond of Flesh” or “A Pound of Flesh” in Asia.

And Alexa noted “Othello” is a study of jealousy in many countries—and not of race. “Shakespeare as a global author has taken many forms since the building of the Globe in London,” she said.

“That’s the blind spot that our traditions can cast on us,” said Alexa. “When you look at Shakespeare in a global context you realize Shakespeare is much more capacious and profound and plays a very important role in the cultural life today.”

Global Shakespeares is not only a cultural resource but also a teaching one. Using VITAL—Video Interaction for Teaching and Learning, a video-centric course management system connected to Global Shakespeares— Huang’s students use performances on Global Shakespeares to create their own video clips and illustrate their own interpretations. She teaches two Shakespeare courses in the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences this semester.

“With VITAL, students play the role of a curator with films and video clips by critiquing them, circulating their film essays and commenting on one another’s video collections and essays,” said Huang.

“Once they make their first video clip, they’re hooked,” she said, adding that VITAL allows students to “slow down” by defamiliarizing the plays. “When students experience a speech such as Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be’ in radically new performance styles or in a foreign language, they can approach it without prejudice or learned reverence,” she said.

Alexa Huang, a member of GW’s Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute in the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences and the Sigur Center for Asian Studies in the Elliott School of International Affairs, holds a position as a research affiliate in literature at MIT.

She is widely published in the field of Shakespeare and early modern studies and has appeared on a number of media outlets, including the BBC, to talk about the fields of digital humanities and global Shakespeare. In spring 2012, she will be a fellow at the Folger Shakespeare Library.

Although many Shakespeare scholars prefer more traditional productions, Alexa said the more creative, out-of-the-box interpretations of Shakespeare plays are actually the ones that end up revealing the most about the Bard.

“The reason Shakespeare is still alive today is because he’s able to thrive in so many different environments,” she said. “No other playwright from any other culture has this ability.”

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Students Took to the Stage in a Debate about The Tempest

[By Tori Kerr, GW English major]

With the Republican debates taking up most of media’s attention in the month of November, it seems fitting that GW should have its own debate—only, this one wasn’t political. Students from both Prof. Holly Dugan’s and Prof. Alexa Huang’s Shakespeare classes took to the stage in a debate concerning the protagonist of The Tempest—the topic was: “Resolved that Prospero genuinely pardons his foes and is a model of true forgiveness and reconciliation.” Does he truly forgive his enemies or is it all an act? Four students from each class formed arguments complete with opening statements, rebuttals, and closing remarks.

I entered the event with my own opinion, which was that Prospero was certainly no model for forgiveness. I must admit, however, that the negative team had an advantage in the wording of the prompt: can a debator argue that any person, not only Prospero, is a model of “true” forgiveness? As the negative team pointed out, that would be like arguing that Prospero is Christlike; even on the cross, Jesus pardoned his enemies. It was this tricky word “true” that the negative team utilized in order to formulate their argument.

I knew the debate would get heated among the participants, but I didn’t expect to feel so excited just as an audience member. The argument quickly transformed from animated to passionate and then to fiery. Members of the opposing teams talked over each other, threw out sassy rebuttals and even waved fingers in the air to punctuate their speeches. While this sort of frenzy might not be acceptable for the GW Mock Trial team, state courtrooms, or the Republican preside ntial candidates, it made for a surprisingly exciting debate on The Tempest. I didn’t expect to enjoy the debate as much as I did. The debators’ energy clearly showed that Shakespeare’s plays were not written for only 16th century audiences—his themes are timeless. Revenge and forgiveness are topics for debate that will endure as long as humans (and politcal campaigns) do.

Graduate Teaching Assistant Molly Lewis for Prof. Huang's class was also impressed by both teams' performance. She wrote:

"The impassioned debaters were allowed an opening and an additional statement (both followed by cross examinations by the opposing team), as well as a rebuttal at the end of the debate. These vibrant “back and forth”s elicited strong reactions from their audience members, who eventually had to vote for which debate team they agreed with. In the end, though, many actually abstained from voting, a true testament to how well both debate teams performed."

Sunday, November 13, 2011

How to Make a Human, December 1 & 2

Please join us on Thursday December 1 and Friday December 2 for two events centered around critical animal studies.

On Thursday De
cember 1 we will hold a symposium on Karl Steel's important new book How to Make a Human: Animals and Violence in the Middle Ages (Ohio State University Press, 2011). The book is available for $40 in hardcover via Amazon, and $10 for an e-version on CD. If you plan to attend, please try to read the book ahead of time. The symposium features Julian Yates, Peggy McCracken and Tobias Menely, as well as Karl Steel. The event will take place from 4-6 PM (note change of time) in GW's Academic Center, 801 22nd St NW, Rome Hall 771. The symposium is free and open to all who wish to attend. It will be followed by an informal vegetarian dinner. The cost is $15 exclusive of beverages. If you would like to join us for dinner, you must register by Tuesday November 29.

Friday December 2 at noon is the date of our last seminar of the year, on Critical Animal Theory, with all the guests from the previous night's sy
mposium speaking about the field. You do not need to attend the Thursday symposium to participate in the Friday seminar. Some short readings will be distributed ahead of time. Lunch will be served. If you would like to attend, you must reserve a spot and secure the readings by emailing Lowell Duckert ( no later than Tuesday November 29. If you RSVP please come: we pay for every lunch reserved, and it is a shame when people hold a spot but do not attend the seminar.

Meet our presenters:

Karl Steel is Assistant Professor of English at Brooklyn College, City University of New York, where he specializes in medieval literature, intellectual history and social practice, and critical animal theory. How to Make a Human joins his impressive list of publications on animals, including an article written for the new collection Shakesqueer (2011) and a thematic issue of the journal postmedieval (co-edited with Peggy McCracken) called "The Animal Turn" (2011).

Peggy McCracken is Professor of French and Women's Studies at the University of Michigan. Her areas of expertise include medieval French and Occitan literature, gender and sexuality, and women's studies. Her most recent book is The Curse of Eve, the Wound of the Hero: Blood, Gender, and Medieval Literature (2003). She is currently writing two books: one on Marie de France and the other on animality and embodiment.

Tobias Menely is Assistant Professor of English at
Miami University, focusing on such diverse topics as eighteenth-century and Romantic literature, animal studies, climate and weather, time, and ethics and community. He recently published an article for the Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies: "Sovereign Violence and the Figure of the Animal, from Leviathan to Windsor-Forest" (2010). Right now he is finishing his book, The Community of Creatures: Sensibility and the Voice of the Animal.

Julian Yates is Associate Professor of English at the University of Delaware. His areas of expertise are medieval and Renaissance British literature, literary theory, material culture studies, and ecocriticism. His latest book is Error, Misuse, Failure: Object Lessons from the English Renaissance (2003), and he has published extensively on all things post/human: for instance, "Counting Sheep: Dolly does Utopia (again) (2004) and "It's (for) you; or, the tele-t/r/opical post-human" (2010).

Friday, November 11, 2011

Korean Tempest a Success

Co-sponsored by the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences, Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute, the Korean Embassy, and other units at GW, and co-organized by new GW English professor Alexa Huang and colleagues in History, EALL, and Anthropology the Korean Tempest event was a huge success this weekend, with over 100 people from the community and GW in the audience. The renowned Korean director and playwright of over 60 original plays Mr. OH Tae-suk visited GW and spoke at the colloquium on Saturday, November 5, to shed light on his methods of artistic creation and his vision for The Tempest. The filmed version of the performance in Edinburgh was screened in the Elliott School of International Affairs on Friday, November 4. Oh's Tempest won the prestigious Herald Angel Award at the Edinburgh International Festival this year (August 2011).

Oh's Tempest (Mokwha Repertory Company) opened with a bang with a storm scene that transported Shakespeare's The Tempest to 5th century Korea. Prospero's book of magic transformed into a multi-colored magical fan which he handed over to the audience at the end of the play. Caliban became a two-headed monster (played by two talented actors in one robe) who is sawn apart. Oh adopts a remarkably light, fun approach to a play that has routinely been politicized in postcolonial discourses and to the volatile political situation in the two Koreas today.

Video highlights are now available online with English subtitles:

The editor of Shakespeare Quarterly and Folger Shakespeare Library research division director Dr. David Schalwkyk gave brilliant opening remarks, and GW English professor Alexa Huang introduced the film on Friday. She gave a talk on global Shakespeare on Saturday.

Students who attended the event were impressed by the deep baritone drums and turbulent music. They wrote: "The stage bursts forth with color and white robed dancers elegantly gesticulating with beautiful white pieces of cloth." The audience, they said, was treated to "a jarring visual portrait of the stormy opening scene." They were fond of the Caliban as two-headed monster (or Siamese twin) "consisting of a normal-sized man and his 'little brother,' a figure of diminutive stature. By giving Caliban two heads, Oh Tae-suk gives added depth to the character that can now converse with itself and have two separate personalities. In Shakespeare’s original play Caliban maintains several child-like features and has been molded by Prospero’s teachings as a child. Oh maintains the child-like aspects of Caliban within the smaller Siamese twin, often referred to as “Little Brother.”


Thursday, November 10, 2011

Film Screening and Roundtable: Anonymous

Graduate students in English and students in Alexa Huang's and Holly Dugan's Shakespeare classes were treated to a pre-release screening of Roland Emmerich's controversial new film "Anonymous" on Tuesday, October 25 by Sony Pictures at the Regal Theatre Gallery Place in downtown DC. "Set in the political snake-pit of Elizabethan England," the film--with Shakespearean actor Derek Jacobi in the prologue--proposes that the Earl of Oxford Edward de Vere was the author of Shakespeare's plays. Along the way, the film dramatizes "cloak-and-dagger political intrigue, illicit romances in the Royal Court, and the schemes of greedy nobles hungry for the power of the throne were exposed in the most unlikely of places: the London stage."

Following the event, a roundtable was organized by Prof Huang on November 3 to combat the propaganda machine set in action by the film. In attendance were graduate and undergraduate students in English, Professor Jonathan Hsy, Alexa Huang, and Holly Dugan. Among the topics discussed were the social expectations and resistance of "geniuses," Hollywood's penchant for "conspiracy" and scandals, and--most importantly--how to set historical facts straight.

"Anonymous" calls to mind such films as Miloš Forman and Peter Shaffer's Amadeus. But there is one thing even undergraduates and non-specialist audiences do not buy. The film presented a very unconvincing picture of literary production. In the whole of early modern England, no one other than the Earl could write good poetry, and "Shakespeare," Jonson, and Marlowe stumbled over one another to beg (or threaten as the case may be) de Vere for an uninterrupted supply of manuscripts (which acts peculiarly as drugs). The film also misled the audience to assume that no other companies or performance venues mattered in Shakespeare's time.

The good thing that can come from "Anonymous" is that it can lead people to the real tour-de-force that is James Shapiro's fine book Contested Will (, Records of Early English Drama (, Early Modern London Theatres online (, and other vetted sources for further study.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Debating The Tempest 11/10

Debate on The Tempest: 6 pm, 11/10 (Thursday) in Funger 210

Topic: Resolved that Prospero genuinely pardons his foes and is a model of true forgiveness and reconciliation.

Debate teams from Alexa Huang's and Holly Dugan's Shakespeare classes.

Merchant of Venice Conversation 11/14

From Jenna Weissman Joselit, GW Judaic Studies:

In conjunction with The Merchant of Venice production and class that I'm team-teaching with Leslie Jacobson in TRDA, the law school will be holding a conversation next Monday, November 14th, at 3 p.m. in the Burns Faculty Conference Center (B505) of the law school, between Dean Paul Schiff Berman and Barry Edelstein of New York's Public Theater on the legal implications of the play. The conversation will be moderated by The New Republic's legal affairs editor and GW law professor, Jeffrey Rosen. It promises to be quite a lively occasion.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Korean Tempest @ GW 11/4


Adapted and Directed by Oh Tae Suk

Film of an Award-winning Korean Performance with English Subtitles

4-6 pm, Friday Nov. 4, 2011

Harry Harding Auditorium, Elliott School of International Affairs
1957 E St, NW


Thursday, October 27, 2011

GW MEMS Contribute to SIY

The Shakespearean International Yearbook

Volume 11: Special issue, Placing Michael Neill. Issues of Place in Shakespeare and Early Modern Culture

  • Imprint: Ashgate
  • Illustrations: includes 7 b&w illustrations
  • Published: November 2011
  • Edited by Graham Bradshaw, Tom Bishop, Alexa Huang, and Jonathan Gil Harris

The Shakespearean International Yearbook

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Updated MEMSI Events ... and More

We look forward to welcoming you to the panel "What Monsters Mean" with Asa Simon Mittman and Jeffrey Weinstock on Thursday October 27 at 4 PM (1957 E Street NW, Room 213). All are welcome to this panel presentation and open discussion; no RSVP is required. More information here:

On Friday October 28 at 12:15 PM (please note slight change of time), we will hold a seminar for students and faculty on "Monster Theory." Lunch will be served. If you plan to come, you must RSVP to Lowell Duckert ( by Tuesday October 25 to receive the readings and reserve a space. Please read the pre-distributed essays before you come, and if you do RSVP, please attend.

On Thursday December 1 we will hold a symposium on Karl Steel's important new book How to Make a Human: Animals and Violence in the Middle Ages
(Ohio State University Press, 2011). The book is available for $40 in hardcover via Amazon, and $10 for an e-version on CD. If you plan to attend, please try to read the book ahead of time. The symposium features Julian Yates, Peggy McCracken and Tobias Menely, as well as Karl Steel. The event will take place from 4-6 PM (note change of time) in GW's Academic Center, Rome Hall 771.

Friday December 2 at noon is the date of our last seminar of the year, on Critical Animal Theory, with all the guests from the previous night's symposium speaking about the field. You do not need to attend the Thursday symposium to participate in the Friday seminar. Some very short works will be distributed ahead of time. An email requesting an RSVP will be distributed next month, and lunch will be served.

AND, mark your calendar for these spring events:
Friday January 27 12 PM
Lunch seminar with Ben Tilghman (GW, Art History), "The Enigmatic Nature of Things" (precirculated essay)

Friday February 24 5:30 PM (note change of time)
Symposium on "Ecological Movement" with Stacy Alaimo, Eileen Joy, Jennifer James and Lowell Duckert. Rome Hall 771 (801 22nd St NW)

Friday April 13 9 AM
Breakfast seminar with Danna Agmon (University of Michigan), “Striking Pondichéry: Religion and Labor Disputes in an Eighteenth Century French Colonial City.” Introduced by Leah Chang (GW, French).

The spring semester will also feature a symposium on translation organized by Alexa Huang and Jonathan Hsy. Stay tuned for details.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

What Monsters Mean: 10/27 & 10/28

Plan to attend two monstrous MEMSI events right before Halloween. Two authorities will visit us to discuss what monsters mean:

Jeffrey Weinstock is Professor of English at Central Michigan University. His areas of expertise are popular culture, American literature, and literary criticism. Publications include Scare Tactics: Supernatural Fiction by American Women as a Form of Social Protest (Fordham University Press, 2008), in which he examines the differences in ghost stories told by male and female writers. Other interests are vampires, "gothic" music and culture, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Asa Simon Mittman is Associate Professor of Art History at California State University, Chico. He has written and co-written several books and articles on the subject of monstrosity and marginality in the Middle Ages, including Maps and Monsters in Medieval England (Routledge, 2006). He is also the president of MEARCSTAPA (Monsters: the Experimental Association for the Research of Cryptozoology through Scholarly Theory And Practical Application) and co-director of the Digital Mappaemundi, an extraordinary resource that changes the ways we study medieval maps and geographic texts. He is currently working on articles on Satan in the Junius 11 manuscript, the Franks Casket, and images of Jews on medieval world maps.

Join us for both events if you can:

Thursday October 27 at 4 PM, 1957 E St. NW Room 213

Professors Weinstock and Mittman will lead "What Monsters Mean," an informal discussion of the cultural significance of monsters from the medieval period to the present day. The event is open to all who wish to attend.

Friday October 28 at 12 PM, Rome Hall 771 (801 22nd St. NW)

GW MEMSI and the English Graduate Student Association (EGSA) are co-sponsoring a seminar on monster theory. Both professors will discuss selections from the work as well as the contours of the larger field. This lunchtime seminar is open to all interested faculty and graduate students, but you must pre-register with Lowell Duckert to receive the readings []:

1. Selections from Jeffrey Weinstock, Vampires: Undead Cinema. Wallflower Press's "Short Cuts" series. Forthcoming 2011.

2. Asa Simon Mittman and Susan Kim, "Anglo-Saxon Frames of Reference: Spatial Relations on the Page and in the World," Different Visions: A Journal of New Perspectives on Medieval Art, vol. 2 (2009), with Susan Kim.

3. Asa Simon Mittman, "Introduction: The Impact of Monsters and Monster Studies," Research Companion to Monsters and the Monstrous, ed. Asa Simon Mittman, with Peter Dendle (London: Ashgate, January 2012).
See you later this month!

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Fall Semester Events

GW MEMSI is co-sponsoring some fall semester events that might appeal to you.

To prepare for Halloween, two monstrous events to attend.
"What Monsters Mean," an informal discussion of the cultural significance of monsters from the medieval period to the present day by two experts in the field, will take place on Thursday October 27 at 4 PM at 1957 E St. NW Room 213. The event is open to all who wish to attend and features:

On Friday October 28 at noon in Rome 771, GW MEMSI and the English Graduate Student Association (EGSA) are co-sponsoring a seminar on monster theory. Jeffrey Weinstock and Asa Simon Mittman will discuss selections from their work as well as the contours of the larger field. This lunchtime seminar is open to all interested faculty and graduate students, but you must pre-register with Lowell Duckert to receive the readings (

November 4-5: As part of Staging Korea: Korean Theatre in Search of New Aesthetics, a day-long event celebrating the beauty of Korean performance traditions, scholars and directors will discuss the internationalization of Korean theatre.

This year's highlight is the visit of Master Oh Tae Suk from Seoul and the screening of the film of his production, The Tempest, which won the Herald Angel’s Award at the 2011 Edinburgh International Arts Festival. The screening is on November 4 at 4 p.m.; the audience will have an opportunity to interact with the director at a presentation on November 5. Both events at the Harry Harding Auditorium, 1957 E Street. The events are part of this year's Hahn Moo-Sook Colloquium in the Korean Humanities. This event is co-sponsored by MEMSI and co-organized by Alexa Huang.

Thursday December 1 4-6 PM in Rome 771: a symposium on Karl Steel's new book How to Make a Human: Animals and Violence in the Middle Ages. Responses from:
The symposium will be followed on Friday December 2 by a lunchtime seminar in Rome 771 on critical animal theory, co-sponsored with the GW English Department's 19th Century Studies cluster. Details of both these events will be circulated soon.

Finally, please mark your calendar for Friday February 24, when MEMSI and the Graduate Program in English will sponsor a symposium on Ecologies featuring
Stacy Alaimo.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Jessica Frazier Breakfast Seminar 10/7

Come join us for our first breakfast seminar of the year on Friday, October 7th. Jessica Frazier, doctoral candidate at GW, will discuss her paper called "Re-Orienting the Diamond: India, the Transnational Jewel Trade, and the Early Modern Theater.” A light breakfast will be served. We meet at 9AM in Rome Hall 771 (801 22nd St NW).

Her paper is pre-circulated ahead of time to allow for a fruitful conversation. Please RSVP to me [] and I will send you a copy.

Jessica recently participated in an NEH seminar at the Folger Shakespeare Library this summer: "Shakespeare: From the Globe to the Global." We posted her recollections earlier this month.

See you on the 7th!

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Jessica Frazier on "Shakespeare: From the Globe to the Global"

by Jeffrey Cohen

The GW Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute is proud of our graduate student affiliates. They give us many good reasons to brag! Recently we highlighted Nedda Mehdizadeh's inclusion in an NEH seminar on Re-Mapping the Renaissance. Very few graduate students are admitted to each NEH seminar, and so we take it as a sign of Nedda's great promise that she was invited to enroll.

But she is not the only GW graduate student to have been offered a place in a seminar. This summer Jessica Frazier was accepted to participate in “Shakespeare: From the Globe to the Global” at the Folger Shakespeare Library. It was my pleasure to compose a letter of endorsement for Jessica in which I wrote:
Jessica has been auditing my course on “Objects, Agency, and the Constitution of Life.” I treasure her presence in the seminar: she brings to the readings, both in theory and in primary texts, an eye attentive to the complexities of narrative and material detail. Her queries to her fellow students in the class advance our discussion exponentially. She can always be counted upon to make cogent connections among disparate works and to keep bringing the conversation around to how goods (especially clothing and jewelry) circulate within international networks of trade and prestige. This class has been my favorite seminar in 16 years of teaching, thanks in no small part to Jessica’s contributions ... Jessica’s dissertation excavates the global narratives behind clothing and luxury items, especially as these objects materialize contemporary interchanges between west and east. Jessica is especially interested in Oriental costumes worn on stage and in public: how the sartorial speaks identity; how the hybridity of English body in Eastern dress functions socially (what it disrupts, what it enables); how costume adornments like diamonds speak stories that cross national boundaries and intermix the foreign with the domestic; how novelty of dress and of self performance might function in a world where the ambivalences of colonialism already had a long history; how aesthetics might be a cross-cultural phenomenon. Notably, Jessica is interested at looking at contact zones from both sides: not just how the orient arrives in England, but what travels from the west into the east. Her research is nuanced, interdisciplinary, and innovative. One day it will be published as an outstanding book.
Now wonder then, Jessica writes the following report of her summer at the Folger. Congratulations, Jessica, on your achievement!


As the spring semester came to a close, I received word that I would have the opportunity to participate in an NEH Institute entitled “Shakespeare: From the Globe to the Global.” A few months earlier, I had begun to outline the direction of my dissertation project: an exploration of fashionable early modern objects and their movement through transnational networks. Thus, I had been drawn to the questions that were to guide “Shakespeare: From the Globe to the Global.” How did the Shakespeare of the London Globe Theater become a global enterprise? And how did the global inform the productions of the Renaissance English Globe? As the Institute organizers wrote so eloquently in their “Dear Colleague” letter, “How did Shakespeare emerge from an early modern London that was increasingly aware of an expanding world to become a singular voice and an icon of empire and Englishness, the most significant representative of a globalized literary culture, and the most popular playwright of the non-Anglophone world?” This was a conversation in which I very much desired to take part, and a conversation that I sensed would open up novel avenues for the project on which I was embarking. As I discovered, I was not to be disappointed.

Hosted by the Folger Shakespeare Library and directed by Professor Michael Neill (Professor Emeritus at the University of Auckland), the Institute followed a rigorous five-week course of study, beginning with an inquiry into the perception of the global in Shakespeare’s England and ending with an examination of Shakespeare as both a tool of British colonialism and as a mechanism to speak back to an imperial system. Each week brought leading scholars in the fields of English, history, and film and media studies to serve as guest facilitators. The early weeks of the Institute dealt directly with my area of study, and I acquired new perspectives on mercantile encounter in the period. As the weeks progressed, “Shakespeare: From the Globe to the Global” led me into less familiar, but equally valued, terrain, as I learned of contemporary, international cinematic productions of Shakespearean plays. During this latter portion of our study, Professor Neill challenged us to consider what makes these adaptations “Shakespearean”? This question now informs a film assignment on my syllabus this semester for “Introduction to English Literature.”

As one of three graduate students in the group, I was perhaps not entirely prepared for the kindness and spirit of camaraderie with which I was met by the other participants, many of whom are experienced professors. From them, I garnered encouragement and advice about both the dissertating process and academic life post-graduate school. But perhaps most importantly, they provided me with much insight about being a teacher. Teaching strategies, discussion techniques, and graded assignments that I am currently incorporating into my classroom bear their mark and influence. I know that the professor that I am becoming is and will hopefully continue to be inflected by my fellow participants’ gracious commitment not only to scholarship but also to their students. Professor Neill, the staff of the Folger, the Institute participants, the guest scholars—all of these components contributed to a summer that has helped to shape the path of my scholarship and the course of my profession. I am so grateful for it.

~ Jessica Roberts Frazier

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Digital Inquirers: GW MEMSI Welcomes GW Professor Alexa Huang and Folger Director Michael Witmore

We're overjoyed that two new scholars have entered the GW MEMSI community this fall semester:

1) Alexa Huang, GW Associate Professor of English, specializes in Shakespeare and globalization (especially Asia), Shakespeare and performance, and digital humanities. She is also Research Affiliate in Literature at MIT and General Editor of the Shakespearean International Yearbook (since 2010). As co-founder and co-editor of Global Shakespeares, an open-access digital video archive based at MIT, she recently served as the video curator of an exhibition on early modern and postmodern Sino-European cultural exchange at the Folger Shakespeare Library. Her research is more than just plugged-in: if you have not visited Global Shakespeares yet, do so immediately. Alexa has been busy and abroad this summer; she gave a talk at the Edinburgh International Festival, "All the world's a stage," that touched on touring theatre, festivals in 21st century cultural life, Shakespeare's global career, King Lear, and The Tempest. She then conducted interviews for the televised BBC 2 Review Show and for "Classics Unwrapped" on BBC Radio Scotland. During these programs, she discussed global Shakespeare, the Edinburgh International Festival, and what's at stake in performing Shakespeare today. Please welcome her personally at a GW MEMSI event this academic year.

Recent Publications

Alexa Huang, Chinese Shakespeares: Two Centuries of Cultural Exchange (Columbia UP, 2009), winner of the MLA’s Aldo and Jeanne Scaglione Prize, an honorable mention of NYU’s Joe A. Callaway Prize for the Best Book on Drama or Theatre, and the International Convention of Asian Scholars (ICAS) Colleagues’ Choice Award

Shakespeare in Hollywood, Asia and Cyberspace, co-edited by Alexa Huang and Charles Ross (Purdue UP, 2009)

2) Michael Witmore, Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and newly-appointed Director of the Folger Shakespeare Library. His research interests include Shakespeare, early modern intellectual history, and the history of materialism. He directs the Working Group for Digital Inquiry, a group of humanists who use computers to assist in traditional humanities research such as mapping the prose genres of Early English Books Online (EEBO). Take the time to navigate his blog, Wine Dark Sea. His most recent publication, Landscapes of the Passing Strange: Reflections from Shakespeare (Norton, 2010), was inspired by a painting in the library he now directs. You can read more about this work and his exciting new tenure in a Folger interview. We hope to have Professor Witmore headline an event for us in the near future.

Please welcome these two renowned scholars and "digital inquirers" to the GW MEMSI community!

Suzanne Miller Lunch Seminar 9/9/11

The first GW MEMSI Seminar of the 2011-12 year will feature the work of Suzanne Miller, an assistant professor in the History Department at GW. Her essay "Cycles of Violence and Penance: Crafting the Narrative of Venice's Adriatic Empire" is available for circulation immediately. Please email Lowell Duckert ( to obtain a copy of the paper and to RSVP for the seminar.

We meet in Rome Hall 771 (Academic Center, 801 22nd St NW, Foggy Bottom Metro) on Friday 9/9 promptly at noon. A light lunch will be served. The seminar is a conversation about precirculated work in progress, so please arrive having read the essay and ready to give feedback and join the conversation.

In order to ensure that there is enough food, you must RSVP to Lowell to attend; if you do RSVP, please do come.

Professor Miller's interests include the intersection of politics and cultural production, the construction of authority, and cross-cultural encounter. Her current research focuses on colonial endeavor and foreign rule within the medieval Mediterranean. Read more here.

We look forward to seeing you on the 9th!

Thursday, August 25, 2011

For the record ...

... we would settle for the .5 in that 113.5.

We're cheap, and easily made happy.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Oliphaunt Books

Oliphaunt Books, sponsored by GW MEMSI, is an impress of punctum press. The website is up, as is the Facebook page.

More soon!

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Nedda Mehdizadeh on Re-mapping the Renaissance

Two years ago the National Endowment for the Humanities altered the rules slightly for their prestigious summer seminars, enabling two advanced graduate students to attend each program along with the faculty members who form their main audience.

GW MEMSI is very proud of our two PhD students in English who have earned difficult to obtain spots in these seminars, Nedda Mehdizadeh and Jessica Frazier. I've asked them to each report on the seminars they have taken. Nedda's account follows below. But first let me state here how proud I am of her achievement: I've known Nedda since she enrolled at GW as a masters student, and have admired her rapid intellectual growth. In the letter of endorsement I composed for her application I observed:
What I love about Nedda's work is the reciprocal model of influence she employs: she is not interested in simply tracing how the West attempts to exert its power over an exoticized East, but looks attentively to how the East has already exerted a deep and compelling influence over the West. Focusing upon her keyword of translation, Nedda argues that these relations never break into binaries, but are instead complicated, interlaced, and ambivalent. She is a lucid writer and a diligent researcher with competence in the necessary languages. Whether she is examining patristic exegesis or early modern travel literature (and even Milton’s Paradise Lost as travel literature), she has an eye for compelling detail and a commitment to deep historical contextualization. Her work will someday yield an important book.
Congratulations Nedda and we look forward to your future successes!

-- Jeffrey Cohen

Last year, just as the parameters of my dissertation project were becoming clearer, I received an email notification about a summer seminar funded by the NEH and led by University of Maryland-College Park’s Center for Baroque and Renaissance Studies. This program, “Re-mapping the Renaissance: Exchange between Early Modern Islam and Europe,” described its aim as expanding notions of East/West encounter by re-thinking how those in Europe and those in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa interacted in the early modern period. Building on current trends in scholarship that work to re-imagine a binary opposition in which the West dominates the East, the seminar brought little known sources written and produced by the “East” to the fore. What we found was an East that informed processes of mapmaking, exemplified a mutual exchange of ideas, and inspired artistic trends in the production of fashion and artifacts.

Responsible for the wide-ranging program that was attentive to a variety of disciplines and cultures were the seminar’s two directors – Adele Seeff, director of CRBS and professor of English at UMD as well as Judith Tucker, professor of History at Georgetown University. The three-week schedule included cartography, travel narratives, and trade objects, and inspired a series of fascinating and productive conversations among the seminar’s 17 participants (15 professors/independent scholars and 2 graduate students). The disciplines represented spanned art history, architecture, comparative literature, English literature, history, and religious studies and research interests included matters concerning England, Spain, Portugal, Germany, North Africa, Georgia, Persia Turkey, to name a few.  During the three weeks of the program, we discussed assigned readings and attended presentations, and each conversation led us to long lists of references that accompanied the  new perspectives we were gaining. We also shared personal research developments we encountered during individual research time, giving us the space and opportunity to process information with our new colleagues and develop our projects in surprising ways. And the environment, no matter what the topic of discussion, was always congenial, warm, and helpful, as well as challenging.

The afterlife of the seminar has also been impressive, and this is a great credit to the wonderful organizers of the program. With the help of phone/email lists as well as our reliable !Ning site, we continue to collaborate and share as a community of scholars.

We have become friends and colleagues who read each other’s work, organize panels for conferences, or add to our growing list of resources with helpful recommendations. It is because of these accomplished scholars and wonderful people that I have been able to approach my project with a new perspective and renewed excitement. This seminar has reshaped the themes of my project, as I am reminded to be more attentive to the generative nature of encounter rather than focusing solely on the dangers so many have hitherto spoken of. It has taught me to consider the other side, inspiring me not only to include eastern-written documents in my upcoming Fall course, “When East Meets West,” but also design the course under the same guidelines of “Re-mapping the Renaissance.” And, perhaps, most importantly, it has provided me with a community of people I will always be grateful to know.

-- Nedda Mehdizadeh


Three-week schedule

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Fall 2011 Calendar of Events

UPDATE: For more information -- including the correct time and location -- about our panel on "What Monsters Mean"  follow this link. An accessible and enjoyable look at what monsters reveal about the cultures that dream them, "What Monsters Mean" takes place on Thursday October 27 at 4 PM, 1957 E St. NW Room 213. Everyone is welcome; we would love to have you join us!

The seminar on "Monster Theory" on Friday 10/28 is by pregistration, which has now closed. 

More MEMSI events are listed here.

Please mark your calendars and share this announcement widely. All events are free and welcome all who wish to attend.
Friday September 9 at noon
Lunch seminar
Suzanne Miller (History, GW): "Cycles of Violence and Penance: Crafting the Narrative of Venice's Adriatic Empire"
paper will be circulated two weeks in advance
Rome Hall 771, 801 22nd St NW

Friday October 7, 9 AM
Breakfast seminar
Jessica Frazier (English, GW), “Re-Orienting the Diamond: India, the Transnational Jewel Trade, and the Early Modern Theater”
paper will be circulated two weeks in advance
Rome Hall 771, 801 22nd St NW

Thursday October 27 4 PM

What Monsters Mean (discussion of the cultural significance of monsters from the medieval period to the present day by two experts in the field)
1957 E St. NW Room 213

Friday October 28 12-2 PM
Monster Theory (seminar for interested faculty and graduate students; readings circulated in advance)
Jeffrey Weinstock and Asa Simon Mittman
Rome Hall 771, 801 22nd St

Thursday December 1 4-6 PM
Rome Hall 771, 801 22nd St

Friday December 2 11 AM

Critical Animal Studies (seminar for interested faculty and graduate students; readings circulated in advance)
With Karl Steel, Julian Yates, Peggy McCracken and Tobias Menely
Rome Hall 771, 801 22nd St

We are working on the spring semester calendar, and want to ensure that you hold this date:
Friday January 27 12 PM
Lunch seminar: Ben Tilghman (GW, Art History), "The Enigmatic Nature of Things"

To be added to our electronic distribution list, please contact Lowell Duckert,

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Audiofiles for Objects, Networks and Materiality

The audio files for our Kalazoo session on "Objects, Networks and Materiality" may be found here.

Our thanks to Eileen Joy for recording and posting them!

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Kalamazoo Success

Thank you to everyone who attended or participated in our panel at the International Congress of Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo last week. We had about fifty people in the audience, and a lively discussion that followed excellent presentations. Look for news here soon about next year's MEMSI panel.

photo by Jonathan Hsy
We were also honored to be at the punctum press launch. Again, look for an exciting announcement here related to this innovative press.

Objects, Networks, and Materiality (A Roundtable)
Organized and Presided over by Jeffrey Cohen, and Sponsored by GW MEMSI
  • "A Parliament of Things?" Laurie A. Finke
  • "Things without Faces" Julie Orlemanski
  • "Medieval Nets" Valerie Allen
  • "Passionate Matter" Elizabeth Blake
  • "Remediating Matter" Kellie Robertson
  • "The Ice Age Is Never Over" Lowell Duckert

Thursday, April 28, 2011

GW MEMSI funded through June 2013

The George Washington University Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute is happy to announce that it has received funding through the Office of the Vice President of Research through June 2013.

We are pleased and grateful for this extension of our initial three year run into the next twenty four months ... and we look forward to creating that future with you.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Objects and Agency Mini Conference

Please join the students of Jeffrey Cohen's graduate seminar "Objects, Agency and the Consitution of Life" on Thursday April 28 as we hold a mini-conference to conclude the course. The event takes place at 3 PM in the English Department seminar room, Rome Hall 771 (801 22nd St NW).

The panelists are:

Craig Mariconti, "'Hir owene dirke regioun': Inclination and the Life of Stone in Chaucer’s Franklin’s Tale and Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain"

Laura Feigin, "Powerlines in our Bloodlines: On the Temporality of Agency of Vibrant Matter in Marie de France's Guigemar"

Emily Russel, "Otherworldly Corpora: Why Sir Orfeo Looked Away When I Can’t"

Haylie Swenson, "Animal Angels: Nonhuman Intermediaries in Breton Lais"

After the conference we will toast the ending of the spring semester with a drink at a nearby place of libations. Please join us!

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

AVMEO Afterthoughts

by Nedda Mehdizadeh

One large black work glove, one unblemished dead rat, and one smooth stick of wood. In this motley assortment of nonhuman “things” gathered near a storm drain in Baltimore, Jane Bennett found the inspiration for her provocative book Vibrant Matter: a political ecology of things – a response to different theorizations of matter (Kant, Spinoza, etc) as well as a “reply to a call from things.” For GWMEMSI, it was the springboard for a series of conversations that culminated in the spring conference, “Animal, Vegetable, Mineral: Ethics and Objects in Early Modern and Medieval Periods.” The exchange Bennett experienced with these nonhuman objects left her with an enticing question: “What if the items really did – in some underdetermined sense – hail me?” As a result, her book attempts to contend with thing-power, with the agency of the object, the thing, the nonhuman entity, and its desires, its stories. The conference, likewise, attempted to contend with the same ideas, calling on a variety of scholars, including Valerie Allen, Eileen Joy, Sharon Kinoshita, Julia Reinhard Lupton, Peggy McCracken, Carla Nappi, Kellie Robertson, Karl Steel, and Julian Yates, not to mention many other scholars from across the continent sharing works-in-progress (or even thoughts-in-progress), to make sense of human and nonhuman interactions. What we came up with were .... well ... more questions à la Jonathan Gil Harris’s concluding remarks, but also perhaps a better idea of which questions to ask and a closer understanding of how we might share the world with our nonhuman cohabitants. What are these nonhuman “things” telling us? What are the ethics behind ventriloquizing their stories? In what ways do these interactions shape our approach to cultural studies?

For me, the nonhuman “things” that began our story, as well as other nonhuman “things” discussed during our two days of conferencing, were guides to unexpected places. As a graduate student working on Anglo-Persian encounter in the early modern period, objects have played but a bit part in my work, getting eclipsed by human interactions between Persian kings and English travelers. The truth is that I began thinking about my dissertation topic through objects. During the spring semester of 2007, my dissertation director, Gil Harris, introduced me to seventeenth-century travel writer Sir Thomas Herbert, and I was taken with his obsession with the ruins of Persepolis. Over the years, I have visited and revisited this moment  in his narrative without ever reaching a satisfying conclusion about what to make of the fragments that captivate Herbert – and, me. Or to use Bennett’s words, the objects of Persia’s ancient, fallen past have been calling to me. But their call has been largely ignored, or met with exasperation, like an exhausted mother without an idea of how to pacify her child who incessantly repeats “Mom. Mommy. Mama.”

Recently, however, I started thinking more critically about the structure of Persepolis, and what its fragments are doing. For Herbert, it is a portal to ancient Persia where the palace still stands in all its splendor and is still very much alive. For me, they are a bridge to many temporalities – ancient Persia, early modern Persia, modern day Iran. And I didn’t have to stray too far from home to begin making sense of this moment and its objects, turning, as I often do, to my professors and mentors: Jeffrey Cohen, in his article, “Stories of Stone,” from the inaugural edition of Postmedieval: a journal of medieval cultural studies and Gil Harris’s chapter on Othello/Desdemona’s handkerchief in his Untimely Matter in the Time of Shakespeare. During the AVMEO conference, I found myself transported to Herbert’s encounter over and over again, often by a nonhuman agent introduced by one of our fascinating speakers.

The animals of Sharon Kinoshita’s talk, “Animals and the Medieval Culture of Empire,” were facilitators of exchange between the Christian and Islamic worlds, often associated with a variety of movements brought upon by gifting or bartering. But as the question/answer period following her talk indicated, these same movements occur with stone; as Kinoshita reminds us, the materials that make up the palace of Persepolis come from different locals, producing one structure made up of fragments from different places. Or the “Flower Girls” of Peggy McCracken’s paper which focuses on “a garden of plentitude” encountered by Alexander in Roman d’Alexandre whose forest can restore virginity. The filles de fleur are in many ways one with the forest and its virgin-(re)making properties after encounters with visitors – such as Alexander and his men – in what is perhaps a metaphor for the plentitude of virgin land that will offer itself to Alexander’s desire for empire-building. Or Valerie Allen’s “handout” – mine, a periwinkle gemstone with clouds of white – that fascinated me with its curves, dent, and coloring, giving me a tangible way to wonder at the “virtue” of an object. Or Carla Nappi’s Chinese words that translated and transliterated Persian script, underscoring the practices of “making sameness” and the importance of considering systems of identification in order to understand the early modern object that is, in many ways, foreign to us now. Each of these moments, brought about because of a nonhuman “thing,” made me think more about what is at stake in thinking about objects, particularly those from the many Persias I encounter in my work.

Something that I am realizing is that I might have been asking the wrong question about Herbert’s Persepolis all along. Maybe there is no stable, singular answer that will ever satisfy me because maybe that is not the point. Herbert, in each edition of his narrative (1634, 1638, 1664, 1677), goes back to Persepolis, reimagines the space, and rewrites it. It is his way of going back to that moment of history. To the moment of Persia’s splendor. To the moment that fascinates him most: Alexander’s destruction of the palace. Maybe it is the “going back” that matters here. Or at least, maybe it is the “going back” that matters to me. Persepolis takes me back. To my roots. To memories of stories told by my family about our past. To my first visit to Iran when I was a nine-year-old walking through the ruins, not fully understanding its importance or the stories the stones were telling, but knowing the profundity of the experience. To the stories it anticipates about Iran today. To the possibilities of what Iran might look like in the future. Eileen Joy, in her inspiring plenary entitled “You Are Here: A Manifesto,” discusses in part three “A Text Is A Sentient Being...” the ways in which texts are themselves vibrant matter. She says, “we might say that literary narratives, although they are, in one sense, completely unreal, or sur-real, and inhuman, pitch themselves at the real world and also create space (underground passageways, shelters, hiding places, root cellars), for that which cannot be brought into being, or cared for, anywhere else.” Returning to Persepolis – to a place that allows me to visit all of the versions of Persia/Iran – brings what is gone, what is left, what is meant to be into that space Joy talks about. Sifting through the ruins of Persepolis is, perhaps, my “reply to a call from things.”