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.”