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As part of its event series tgiFHI, the Franklin Humanities Institute is conducting interviews with its faculty speakers in order to familiarize broader audiences with the diversity of research approaches in the humanities, arts, and interpretive social sciences at Duke University.

Dr. Lee Baker is Mrs. A. Hehmeyer Professor of Cultural Anthropology, Sociology, and African and African American Studies.

In this edited and condensed interview, he describes how science and society shape one another, the racist underbelly of assimilation, and how piecing together the lives of people living in the early 20th century can be a bit like detective work.

Dr. Baker gave a virtual tgiFHI talk titled "W.E.B DuBois, Franz Boas, and 'the Real Race Problem'" on Friday, February 5, 2021. View the full talk here!

What are your research interests and how did they develop?

I’m interested in the role anthropology has played in public policy, popular culture, and the law, and I work mostly in the United States. I’m interested in the larger question of how science shapes society and society shapes science from the late 19th to the 20th century.

I started off looking at the African American experience and at how anthropology was used in cases like Plessy v. Ferguson and Brown v. Board of Education. Both society and anthropology changed during that time, and each had an influence on the other.

In my second book, I looked at the role anthropology played in fabricating indigenous constructions of authentic culture and policies that supported Native American autonomy and  the so-called “Indian New Deal.” I looked at everything from the use of peyote and rituals to salvage anthropology.

Now, in my third book, I'm looking at white folks and immigration, and I’m seeing once again that anthropology played a compelling role in the concretization of whiteness. Generally, people think the consolidation of the Italians, Slavs, and Czechs as “white” came after World War II. But I'm looking at the early 20th century, when the Americanization Movement really committed to assimilation.

My current focus is on assimilation as racism. During the Americanization Movement, anthropologists claimed that there were no substantial differences between the races in Europe. But in order for this “anti-racist” case to make sense, anthropologists had to show that there's a huge gulf between Caucasians and the other races: the Mongolians, Blacks, Native Americans, and Asians. It was completely racist.

There is a nasty and vicious underside to assimilation. In the early years of the 20th century, so much of proving your Americanness was about participating in racism. I’ve started to work on the Midwest, where there were smaller towns with few immigrants who were really trying to assimilate. A lot of race riots happened in these towns, and a lot of immigrants participated in them.

Racism is a scavenger ideology. It gives and it takes; it incorporates and then it shifts. A lot of people saw assimilation as anti-racist, but indeed the cost was racism.

What’s an example of how anthropology influences the law?

A great example is the number of court cases that decided who could be a naturalized citizen. There were two back-to-back cases: Takao Ozawa in 1922 and Bhagat Singh Thind in 1923.

To become a citizen at the time, you had to be a free white person. Ozawa claimed that although he was of Japanese descent, he was white. He was a Christian, he raised his children to be Americans, and he even argued that he had lighter skin than most Spaniards. He said that in his heart, he is white and American, and so he should be a citizen.

The court ruled that because the anthropologists say that Ozawa is Mongoloid, not Caucasian, he is therefore not white. According to science, he could not become a citizen.

The following year, Bhagat Singh Thind says that while he’s from India, he’s of a high caste, and is technically Aryan, and therefore he is Caucasian and white. The anthropologists indeed classified the people from his province in India as Aryans. A number of court cases were won along these lines, because it was “scientifically” backed.

There was one case in California that drove the district court judge nutty because he had to follow the science and anthropology even though he didn't really believe it. Then a year later, a similar case went to the Supreme Court, where it was deemed that any common man would look at a South Asian and say that they are not white. So instead of science, the Supreme Court decided to employ “common sense.”

The East and South Asians were making different types of anthropological arguments. But at the end of the day, white supremacy goes with the most authoritative answer to shore up white supremacy, whether that’s "science" or just "common sense." This is all a larger conversation about the influence of science on society. It’s very conveniently used when it supports white supremacy, but when it doesn't, it gets thrown under the bus.

What is your research methodology?

My research starts with Franz Boas, the father of American anthropology, and his extensive collection of letters. W. E. B. Du Bois, who also had very good letters, and Franz Boas had a very complicated and interesting relationship. Just by following the intersection of those two very influential scholars enables you to then find stories and connections, leading you to newspapers, magazines, archives, speeches, and so on.

I'm one of the few cultural anthropologists you’ll ever talk to who doesn't do ethnography. I do the anthropology using other disciplines. My approach is very anthropological, but I lean a lot on media analysis, law, public policy, history of science, history, chronicling, “detective work,” and storytelling.

At the end of the day, I just love telling stories. These stories are so rich and with some of this stuff, you really can't make it up. Racism in society is so complex. Things line up in almost predictable ways from unpredictable material.

More recently, I've been really interested in looking at individual stories of people we don't know. The Library of Congress and ProQuest have digitized small town newspapers. With my interest in the Midwest, I looked at one that reported on two high schools in Central Minnesota that held a debate on immigration. Using tools like, I started to piece together these peoples’ lives. It's a little weird, but it's public record. You know you can find out where they grew up, what they went on to do after high school, if their parents were immigrants, and so on.

It’s been useful for my recent work on the orphan trains. Missionaries took children out of orphanages in New York and put them on trains to go to the Midwest to do cheap labor. The children were racialized in New York as Irish, Slavic, or Russian, but overnight, they arrived in the Midwest as white.

I’ve been following some of the orphan train riders’ lives through and putting together this whole mosaic of their lives, where they worked, and where they went. It's been an interesting tool to use old newspapers and to develop real life stories of everyday people.

What’s a particularly exciting story you’ve come across?

Recently I wrote about a young scholar in Harlem, Willis N. Huggins, who was working at the YMCA around 1911. He was interested in Africa and gave lectures on African civilizations to the local YMCA. At one lecture, he read an article by Franz Boas out loud. He eventually wrote a letter to Franz Boas, in appreciation of Boas’ contribution to knowledge. He wrote to Boas: “the army of youth are behind you.”

This young scholar later became a big wheel in the Harlem Renaissance. He became the chairman of the Harlem chapter of Carter G. Woodson’s Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. He befriended Du Bois. And he became a real mover and shaker as a public-school teacher and principal, trying to get African Studies taught in New York Public Schools.

Well, there are many people who are critical of Boas, and he said and wrote many cringe-worthy things, but it is it's important to see how he was read at the time, with this “army of youth” supporting this vision. It helped me understand the context a bit better.

What do you hope people will take away from your talk?

The one thing I hope people will take away is that you can have the best intentions and ethical stance, but still contribute to racism, sexism, and discrimination. You just have to sit with that and understand that there is racism without racists and there is sexism without sexists. These ideologies, modalities, and social processes co-opt even the best intentions.

I think that's just a lesson for us, even today.

What are you teaching?

My signature course that I teach just about every year is called “The Anthropology of Race.” It’s a course that’s always updating and adapting, and now with Covid and the Movement for Black Lives, it’s been updated again. It’s an undergraduate course that’s always very diverse and fun.

I also teach a graduate seminar called “Race, Racism, and Democracy.” We read contemporary ethnographies and then interview the authors. I've been doing this well before Zoom was even popular because I want graduate students to understand the process. These authors are human beings that struggled with every page and had challenges and joy along the way. I want to put a human face to the books that become part of my students’ educations.

Selected publications for further reading:

"Research, Reform, and Racial Uplift: The Mission of the Hampton Folklore Society 1893-1899" Lee D. Baker, History of Anthropology 9, (University of Wisconsin Press, 2002), Pp. 42-80. 

"The Cult of Franz Boas and His 'Conspiracy' To Destroy The White Race" Lee D. Baker, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society (2010), 154(1):8-18. 

"Is It Worth it? Science Education of the Talented 2%" Lee D Baker & Tracie Canada, Transforming Anthropology (2016), 24(2):116–124.

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Assistant Professor of History Sarah Balakrishnan kicks off Fall 2022's tgiFHI series on Friday, October 14, 2022. Here's an interview with Prof. Balakrishnan on her research interests, method, and practice.

Tell us about your research interests and how they developed.

I study Southern Ghana during a period that is often referred to as the imperial encounter. This was when Europeans first made contact with people living in Ghana, which was in the mid-15th century and to pretty much to the end of the colonial war in the 19th century. It’s a very large 500-year period. My work is really interested in the relationship between European people and West African people. I don’t think that [relationship] is destined from the very beginning of the imperial encounter – we’re talking about two impressive societies that have their own ways of life, their own resources, their own ways of doing things. It’s not [immediately] clear why that relationship should become one of colonialism.

So I study a very long time period to see these shifting changes in power, and the paper that I’m going to be researching [for tgiFHI] is really about one aspect of this: the emergence of prisons in Ghana during the period of the Atlantic slave trade. It used to be thought that there were never prisons in Africa before colonial rule because these were an invention of Europe and the West — a unique invention that was transported and imported across the world through European colonialism. My talk shows that that’s not true; Africans invented their own systems of prisons before colonial prisons occurred, and they were invented for many of the same reasons that Europeans invented prisons — which is that near the end of slavery, [colonial rulers were thinking through] what happens to Black people after slavery is abolished, i.e., how are you going to get capital and labor extracted from African people? What I show in particular is that even though these prisons emerged in Africa at roughly the same time as prisons were spreading across the ocean — in North America in the 19th century at the end of slavery — the prisons in Africa very interestingly targeted mainly women, whereas the prisons that we are familiar with in the West targeted mainly men. So we're talking about a system [among prisons in Africa] that's really organized around the female body and female labor. And that's why it's vital to talk about prisons of the world to understand a version of the prison that centers on female capital instead of male capital.

Could you share a little bit about how you got started on this current research project?

I’ll answer that in two ways. The first is, “well, why Ghana?” and that goes back to my time as an undergraduate student. I went to McGill University for my bachelor’s in Canada, and they had this amazing arts internship program where you could think about countries where you would be willing to work for the summer, and they had established connections with organizations in those countries where [the university] sent interns. I wanted to go to different places in Africa, because [through my Indian family] I knew about the history of indentured Indian labor in Africa. There’s still such a large Indian population across Kenya, Ghana, and Tanzania. The university ended up assigning me to Ghana for the summer. And I really enjoyed it and became fascinated with this is a history that is part of my own: my own family history of colonialism and British empire. So that's why Ghana.

Why prisons in particular? I think what fascinated me is that we didn’t really know these prisons [in Africa] existed. In the archives, I tend to study documents historians don’t really use because they’re often in sorted piles called “Native Affairs” files. Native Affairs files are connected to indigenous people: basically, things that indigenous people would write to the colonial state, which were often complaints that would get filed. As I was reading through these [documents], there was so much discussion of these African prisons: women inside the prisons, men whose wives were imprisoned, men whose daughters were imprisoned. I thought, wow, it would be cool to write an article about gender and the prisons. Then as I started digging into the scholarship, I realized we didn’t even know these prisons existed, let alone that there were mainly women in them. I started to think: if we don’t know why this prison exists and scholarship says it doesn’t, you’re no longer just trying to prove why women were imprisoned; you’re trying to prove why [these prisons] emerged and how did they changed the narrative of incarceration. Which is a really important story in the world today.

Could you tell us a little bit more about your research methods? What does your day-to-day research practice look like?

That’s a great question. I’m a historian and like most historians, I really rely on archives, which are big repositories of world documents that tell us a lot about the past. In particular, my method is what social historians would describe as a “history from below.” I’m really trying to capture the mindset of everyday versus more elite people and intellectual people, and because of that it’s quite challenging because those are the people who are least likely to leave behind documents for us to find. My method was looking at this huge set of files that dealt with the concerns of ordinary people. These files are very hard for historians to use because they’re in gigantic boxes that are not chronologically organized. Say you wanted to study popular life all over Ghana: you’d have to open up every box, for every city and every town. A lot of it is just loose-leaf paper. My method is to try and read as much of this as possible. I think this is really where day-to-day life and ordinary people can be seen in their own words: they write letters, they appear before a court, and we get these monologues of ordinary people talking about their experiences.

[This archival research method] revealed these histories we didn’t know about because we [historically] didn't look at those boxes. We didn’t know these African prisons existed. But obviously they did, and they were very important. There were probably at least 80 of these prisons in Ghana by the year 1888. That's a large number; there were only eight or ten colonial prisons at that time.

You deal with this really complicated archive but also cover a broad array of subjects and topics. What is the role of interdisciplinarity in your work?

That’s a great question. I’ve trained as a historian and as an anthropologist. And anthropology certainly comes in because historians tend to be interested in change over time, whereas anthropologists would be more interested in how people make meaning out of their society, how do they organize their societies — politically, and through concepts like gender and spirituality and religion. I certainly read the archive in an anthropological way.

The second way — and this is not necessarily an aside from my academic work — is that I’m a fiction writer and have published a few pieces of my upcoming short story collection. One of the major interdisciplinary ways I think and work is asking, “how do you tell the story?”

Tell us more about your tgiFHI talk and what you hope attendees will take away from it.

I think this talk really will interest people who are interested in histories of confinement, incarceration, bondage, and slavery from an international perspective. I think it’s certainly something that I think the world needs right now — we’ve come to understand that we have a prison problem that is not unique to the United States.

What classes are you teaching this year, and what upcoming courses are you looking forward to teaching?

This year I’m teaching Introduction to Modern African History (History 102). I’m really enjoying it; it’s a total adventure. I’ll be going on leave in the spring, but next year I'm looking forward to teaching a class on the global history of confinement, which will look not only at prisons but also things like asylums, slavery, bondage. And then I’m teaching a course on History through Fiction.

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As part of its event series tgiFHI, the Franklin Humanities Institute is conducting interviews with its faculty speakers in order to familiarize broader audiences with the diversity of research approaches in the humanities, arts, and interpretive social sciences at Duke University.

Dr. Fadi A. Bardawil is assistant professor of contemporary Arab cultures in the Department of Asian Studies and Middle East Studies. In this edited and condensed interview, he describes why translation and displaced meanings generate space for new thought, how he's assembled an archive that's underground and dispersed, and how theory comes alive in political action through translation and transfiguration.

Dr. Bardawil gave a virtual tgiFHI talk titled Overcoming Theory's Resistances: Translating Arab Revolutions Past and Present on Friday, November 6, 2020, at 9:30am. View the full talk here!

What are your research interests and how did they develop?

I'm an anthropologist by training, but my work is interdisciplinary. There are three intellectual traditions at the heart of my work: political anthropology, critical theory, and intellectual history. So far in my work, I’ve mostly focused on the Arab countries in the Middle East, particularly on Lebanon.

My work is broadly about the articulations of cultural production and political practice. Earlier in my career, I looked at art and politics. In my recent book, I continued to explore these mediations, but through the lens of theory and practice. I used history and ethnography to trace different relationships to theory and its deployment in both revolutionary organizations and academic institutions.

I work in three languages—Arabic, French, and English—and trace the international circulation of critical theory, its translations, and how these translations have been used in different institutional contexts.

How is translation generative?

A main part of my work resides in the displacements of meaning that translation produces. Translation, as I see it, is less a process of producing copies out of an original and more one of generating new ideas. When you move between languages to adapt concepts from one global setting to another, the displacements in meaning, and use, are fertile grounds to produce new ways to think about, and act in, the world.

For example, Gramsci, who wrote in Italian, was translated into Arabic by two members of a political organization I worked with. Neither member read Italian, but one read English and the other read French. They used the English and French translations of Gramsci’s Italian text to produce a unified Arabic text. It’s a translation of two translations.

I’m constantly faced with questions of slippages—and the productivity of those slippages, which open up new possibilities for some concepts and foreclose others. It’s a challenge to be precise and truthful to the materiality of a text and the proliferation of meanings that it may generate. You have to be a slow and careful reader as you shuffle back and forth between linguistic universes.

How can cultural theory turn into political action?

In my research I’ve been tracing the genealogy of the Arab New Left—the leftist Arab political organizations that came about during what is now sometimes called the Global Sixties.

The young militant intellectuals of the Arab New Left were reading, and putting to use, texts from the Marxist tradition, critical social theory, and anti-colonial theory. There were two steps to their reading and practice. First, they had to linguistically translate the texts into Arabic. Then there needed to be a second, adaptive translation, which, following Elizabeth Povinelli and Dilip Gaonkar, I call transfiguration. These young thinkers in the 1960s had to transfigure texts by Bourdieu, Marx, and Luxemburg to help them not only understand their current situations, but also intervene in them.

For example, they disseminated political pamphlets that included Bourdieu’s theory of social reproduction in order to mobilize high school students. They didn’t cite the original authors or use theoretical jargon. These pamphlets were the outcome of a process of translation and transfiguration, which deployed the insights of critical theory in political militancy. Theory comes alive in political action.

What does your day-to-day research look like?

My work consists mostly of archival and ethnographic research.

The archival work can be complex because the archives of leftist organizations are not housed in museums or state institutions—they’re dispersed. Before analyzing any archive, I have to assemble it. This is the biggest challenge to conducting my research. I have to find people who happen to have kept copies of underground periodicals from the 1960s, who then lead me to other former comrades. I have to establish a level of trust with them since there’s no protocol for me to borrow, photograph, or Xerox their materials.

As for the ethnographic work, I have very long conversations. I wouldn't call these interviews because when you have around 50 hours of tape of yourself talking to someone, it becomes more of an extended conversation that is carried on over many years. It’s a way to bring back to life and sustain an intellectual, and political, tradition through intergenerational dialogue. Through these conversations, I both critically interrogate the politics and works of the 1960s generation, from my perspective as part of a younger one, while also revealing a world that I’ve never inhabited and the hopes and disenchantments of those who lived, and acted, in it.

I then put these conversations in dialogue with the archives that I piece together. I dwell in the space created by the discrepancy between memories and archive. It’s a generative space to produce my work.

What do you hope people will take away from your talk?

I hope people will start to think about translation beyond the binary of original and copy, authentic and fake. Translation is a practice. It is generative. It produces new concepts. And in the wake of the Arab revolutions that began in 2011, the labors of translation are needed much more than ever.

Through translation, we can produce new ways to understand what's happening. Rather than erasing the work of revolutionaries because they don’t fit into our “original” theory of what a true revolutionary is, I’d like for us to translate their practices back into theory to help us think about our present and rethink our understanding of what a revolution should be.

And in a related vein, if we’re thinking about a politics of solidarity in the present, across difference, we must also think about translation.

Another binary I’d like for us to move away from is the view of Arab thinkers as either westernized or nativist— a view that always keeps the West at its center. In my talk, I’ll be thinking about translation as a way to understand political events such as the Arab revolutions, which can’t necessary be apprehended by a critical theory that's always coming back to deconstruct the West, essentially re-inscribing the West as the subject.

What are you teaching?

I’m co-teaching the Asian & Middle Eastern Studies gateway seminar with Professor Erdag Goknar. It’s a requirement for our majors and introduces them to theoretical concepts to think about the conundrums of the present. It invites students to think critically about both the increasing interconnections of our world as well the various historical representations of Asia and the Middle East.

I’m also co-teaching a graduate seminar with Professor Cemil Aydin (UNC) that's offered to both Duke and UNC students, called “Critical Genealogies of the Middle East.” It’s required course for graduate students whose work is related to Middle East studies, so we have students from art history, anthropology, history, religious studies, and literature. The course introduces students to key seminal texts and debates, as well as new scholarship, in the field.

Selected publications for further reading:

Revolution and Disenchantment: Arab Marxism and the Binds of Emancipation (Durham: Duke University Press, Theory in Forms Series, 2020)

“Critical Theory in a Minor Key to Take Stock of the Syrian Revolution,” in A Time for Critique, ed. Didier Fassin and Bernard E. Harcourt (New York: Columbia University Press, 2019):174-192.

 “Césaire with Adorno: Critical Theory and the Colonial Problem,” South Atlantic Quarterly, Vol. 117, no.4 (October 2018): 773-789. 

“The Solitary Analyst of Doxas: An Interview with Talal Asad,” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, Vol. 36, no. 1 (May, 2016): 152-173.

In Arabic:

al-Waba’ al-Mu‘awlam: Day‘a Kuruniyya Wahida bi-Marakib Muta‘addida,”[The Globalized Pandemic: One Corona-Infected Village with many Boats], Journal for Palestine Studies (Arabic Edition), 31: 123 (Summer, 2020): 85-91.

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As part of its event series tgiFHI, the Franklin Humanities Institute is conducting interviews with its faculty speakers in order to familiarize broader audiences with the diversity of research approaches in the humanities, arts, and interpretive social sciences at Duke University.

Dr. Felipe De Brigard is the Fuchsberg-Levine Family Associate Professor of Philosophy, and Associate Professor in the departments of Psychology and Neuroscience, and the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at Duke University. He is also Principal Investigator of the Imagination and Modal Cognition Laboratory (IMC-Lab) within the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences.

In this edited and condensed interview, Dr. De Brigard describes how he's merged philosophy with neuroscience, the ways in which human memory has both evolved and remained stable through the digital age, and why nostalgia can be dangerous.

Dr. De Brigard gave a virtual tgiFHI talk titled Nostalgia Reimagined on Friday, October 23, 2020, at 9:30am. View the full talk here!

On his research interests:

Memory plays a critical role in many cognitive processes in all sorts of ways. I study the interface between memory and those processes.

One interaction I’m interested in is how memory both constrains and guides imagination. We tend to distinguish memory and imagination, but there’s quite a bit of evidence that shows they're highly interactive. I want to know to what extent they interact, and how? This back-and-forth has been guiding my research for a long time.

Currently, I’m moving on to more applied questions. To give you an example, I’ve become really interested in counterfactual thinking. It’s when people imagine alternative ways things could have occurred. It’s highly related to causation: “A” is the cause of “B” because had “A” not occurred, “B” wouldn't have occurred.

On the interdisciplinarity in his work:

I was sure I wanted to study memory by the time I was an undergraduate, but I didn't know how. I wasn’t quite able to put my finger on the kind of approach I wanted to pursue. As an undergrad, I trained in neuropsychology, but it felt too clinical to me. I was more interested in the theory. There was no neuroimaging or cognitive neuroscience in my undergraduate school. And the philosophy I was studying at the time was very abstract, much like what people nowadays call analytic philosophy. They were not at all interested in the sciences.

I was fortunate to do a master's in cognitive science and philosophy at Tufts University. By that point, I was already convinced that I wanted to do something philosophical but with a naturalistic bent. Then I did my PhD at UNC—I was a graduate student both in philosophy and psychology and neuroscience. That was when I figured out that these two disciplines can be merged. This was a wonderful realization that was critical for me to continue to pursue questions I’ve always asked about memory.

Are there methodological tensions between the disciplines you're working in?

My view of philosophy interacts with the sciences. When I started studying philosophy as an undergrad, my ideal philosopher was someone like Umberto Eco or Jorge Luis Borges. It was someone who knew a lot about many topics, who had a true love of knowledge. It just so happens that the kinds of knowledge I became interested in were computational modeling, neuroscience, neurons, fMRI, and so on, in addition to more humanist forms of knowledge.

However, many of my colleagues in the analytic philosophy tradition can be reluctant to use these other forms of knowledge. On the other hand, neuroscientists might get very bored if you start speaking to them in abstract philosophical terms that don’t affect their day-to-day scientific practice. It is often difficult to merge the theory with the practice.

In the Middle Ages, there was a discipline called casuistry, which was about turning theory into practice. I see myself as a practitioner of casuistry: I find an enormous amount of value in both philosophical discussions about memory and in doing and understanding the science. You need to find value in both languages and be bilingual. That’s why I love interdisciplinarity so much.

What does your day-to-day research look like?

The work we do in my lab is usually divided in thirds, because some questions are a bit more philosophical in nature, some are more psychological, and others are more neuroscientific.

If we think the question requires an empirical answer, then we have a handful of empirical approaches to take. We can do behavioral studies, eye tracking studies, electroencephalography studies, or functional magnetic resonance imaging studies. If the question requires a more theoretical approach, then consider whether we want to do neural or psychological theory, or if the question requires computational modeling.

You start with the question then you figure out what answer it requires. If it’s more empirical, we design an experiment and have lab meetings to present the justification for the experiment, get feedback, and then collect data and analyze it. If it’s more philosophical, the process actually looks similar. You start with a question, structure your argument, present your idea to the lab, and so on. Then you get feedback and write a paper.

Has human memory changed over time, or has it remained the same?

One may be tempted to say that it has. On the one hand, we can look at how we produce a lot of memory errors and reason that it’s because we live in a very complex world. We’re receiving far more information every second than our hominid ancestors did. The amount of information is outstripping the limits of memory.

But that also seems wrong to me because we do a lot of experiments with impoverished stimuli that generate false alarms at the same rate. We can test people with basic paradigms and very little information—probably less information than our hominid ancestors had—and still elicit false memories. This suggests that there might be something relatively stable in the structure of memory.

And yet, the world around us has indeed changed socially and physically. We rely on our environments to provide us with cues for retrieval. There’s a famous effect called transfer-appropriate processing: when people encode information in a certain context, they’re much better at retrieving that information if the context of retrieval is the same.

We’ve always used the world as a mnemonic machine. Think about when you go on a walk. You rely on landmarks to remind you where to turn left and right.

Put that on steroids and you have the internet. Now in the digital age, we put an enormous number of reminders online. When Facebook reminds you of something from nine years ago, it’s hoping that the information will act as a cue for you to recall the memory so that you share the memory again.

We have had to learn to use the world very differently. Think about the invention of writing and then the printer—the ways in which cues are presented to us have changed drastically. As a result, there must be aspects about memory that have changed and evolved as well.

What do you hope people take away from your talk?

Nostalgia is better understood not as memory, but imagination. One of the consequences of nostalgia that I’ll mention in my talk is that there’s a very close connection between nostalgia and political motivation. Politicians leverage nostalgia in propagandistic strategies to motivate people to act in ways that are not guided by memory, but imagination. The takeaway is a call to arms to improve our historical knowledge.

What courses do you teach?

I typically teach three classes. One is an advanced graduate class called “The Philosophy and Science of Memory and Imagination.” The second class I typically teach is an undergraduate class, “Philosophy and Neuroscience.” It’s cross-disciplinary in philosophy, psychology, neuroscience and neurobiology. That one has many seats available; it usually has 40 students or so. I also often teach the “Introduction to Philosophy of Mind” class.

Further reading:

Nostaglia Reimagined (via Aeon)

For a list of selected publications, visit the Imagination and Modal Cognition Lab site.

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Our Spring 2023 tgiFHI series begins with Cassandra Casias, Assistant Professor of Classical Studies. Here's an interview with Prof. Casias on her research interests, method, and practice.

Tell us about your research interests and how they developed for you.

My research is primarily focused on the social history of the ancient Mediterranean. Topics that I'm most interested in are sex and gender in the ancient world, slavery and religion, primarily early Christianity in the Roman world.

My mother raised me to be two things: a Catholic and a feminist, and in equal degree. I've always been interested in how women are discussed and the way they are depicted in early Christian texts. The way Christian theology eventually develops around family dynamics, the life cycle of women, and how their bodies are regulated, to a certain degree, by bishops.

Tell us about your research methods. Can you discuss a text you’re working with now?

A text I can discuss is the Passion of Perpetua, which is an early Christian narrative about a group of catechumens (pre-baptized Christians) who were executed in a Roman spectacle at Carthage in 203 CE. This account is unique because it includes a portion that reports to be a diary of a woman who is going through the martyrdom while she's in prison waiting for execution. She herself, Perpetua, was a nineteen-year-old girl and a nursing mother. She had an infant at her breast, and she discusses her issues having to breastfeed in jail, like having to bribe the guards so that she could keep the baby in there with her, for example.

This is a text I'm working on right now. The best way to describe my research method is to say that we have interesting texts from antiquity and the problem is trying to explain them, because often only one side of the story has survived. There will usually be just one account of a certain event, and then you have to figure out your way around that. With Passion of Perpetua, my method is to go around and find as many sources as I can that are relevant to this text to provide more context. For example, there is a Christian writing around the same time as Perpetua whose name is Tertullian. He was, as far as we can tell, a priest of the early Christian Church. We don't know too much about him, but his writings help because he was both from Christian Africa and he was writing around the same time as Perpetua. Then as an ancient historian I can also look at tombstones. Tombstones are one of our major sources of information because there was a wide variety of people who had inscriptions about their life, written either by themselves or their families when they were buried. We also have contracts from the desert. Egyptian sands and dryness have preserved a lot of different legal documents that we can use. Even though they're from Egypt, it still helps us understand other areas in Rome where we don't have as much surviving evidence. It's about piecing together several different parts of a puzzle.

Could you say more about the role of interdisciplinarity in your work?

I would say that, not just for me, the study of the ancient world always has to be pretty interdisciplinary simply because we have so few sources to begin with. As I mentioned with Passion of Perpetua, I am looking at it as a historian would evaluate texts. Because we have so little, I have to understand a little bit about Christian theology so I can discuss Tertullian's contribution to the context of Passion. I have to study papyrology, the study of looking at these documents from the desert and trying to decipher handwriting, to figure out what exactly these documents are saying. Then there's also material culture that I look at. For example, I study slavery in Roman Africa, and we have these surviving slave collars–iron collars that they would put around the necks of runaway slaves. We look at these objects and what they can tell us about the history of slavery and the Roman Empire, because we do not have written accounts from slaves. The ability to look at material culture, images, representations, philosophy, theology in my personal way helps us at least flesh out the text that we have. And then, of course, there's things like ancient medicine or ancient law. There are certain areas of expertise that I kind of delve into when historically contextualizing certain things.

Could you speak more about the presentation you’ll give for tgiFHI? What takeaways do you want people to leave with?

The scope of my talk will be to discuss breastfeeding in the Roman Empire: the difference between the philosophical texts that tell us what women should be doing versus what women were actually doing. Now in the Roman philosophical texts, the elite men who were writing them would say that A.) The mother breastfeeding is the best option for the baby, and B.) would criticize women for outsourcing wet nursing to enslaved people. This of course was not their objection to the exploitation of slaves, but it was criticism that you were charging something as important as a free child to a woman who is slavish, who is implied to be a barbarian and not morally upright. The idea was that we should be raising children alongside their free mother so that they become morally upright.

That's a discussion that's going on in the scholarship. What I'm doing is taking these Christian sources from Africa because they are unique and can tell us something about breastfeeding in the Roman Empire more generally, especially the text Passion of Perpetua. Because it's an account written purportedly by a nursing mother who talks about her experiences with nursing, it highlights the complexity of questions about when the mother should nurse or when the slave should nurse, and why certain decisions are made about how to feed an infant

Recently there was a formula shortage in the United States, and it generated a lot of discussion about breastfeeding. The basic idea was that women should be breastfeeding anyway, and therefore the shortage should not affect them. In that rhetoric, the issue was made to be much more black-and-white than it is. Women could nurse, theoretically, which is medically good for the baby, but at the same time it does not consider the reality of the situation. For example, there are medical reasons why a woman might not be able to nurse, or socioeconomic reasons why a woman may not be able to nurse. That's basically the kind of situation I want to show in ancient Rome, as well. The philosophers would make it a black-and-white choice between a mother really loving her children and being devoted and therefore nursing, or not. If a woman outsourced her child to a slave she was seen as vain, concerned about her appearance, and uncaring towards her babies. What you see in both the modern and ancient world really is a much more complicated situation. Because an infant's life is so fragile it's good to have more than one option for milk. For example, a mother might not produce enough milk, or a nursing mother might die. Because infant mortality was such a big issue, it really comes down to the fact that most decisions about child rearing are going to be a lot more complicated than the philosophical texts make them sound.

What classes are you teaching this semester and academic year?

This semester, I am teaching “Roman law.” One of the great parts about Roman law is that you get to teach social history as well. Some of the biggest topics are marriage law, inheritance laws, and slavery laws. You know, laws about personal status and finances, which are interesting to talk about.

Next semester, I'm looking forward to teaching a class on ancient medicine. It's called “Ancient Sex Ed” and addresses ancient medicine geared specifically towards sexual reproduction and sexual health, the different medical questions they had, and the way that the ancients tried to solve them. We deal with topics like how the ancients thought conception happened, or breastfeeding—because of my research, of course—and we go over men's sexual health and their thoughts about how men can most successfully impregnate a woman, or whether he's unable to have sex, and what you should do in that case. That's what I’m looking forward to teaching next semester.

I'm also teaching a graduate seminar on Augustine. Augustine of Hippo is a bishop from Africa. More than a million surviving words come from Augustine. He's written sermons, letters, treaties, and several different genres. We're going to explore a little bit of his writing and what he talks about.

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Asian American Studies was founded upon the idea of “Third Worldism”—so why is this no longer the predominant sensibility among scholars in the field? How does the history of Asian American Studies, as a field, tell a larger story about multiracial solidarity in the United States? And how does intellectual history provide a unique space to think about race, and then to consider new frameworks?

Here we interview Assistant Research Professor of History Calvin Cheung-Miaw about his research and teaching. Dr. Cheung-Miaw gave a talk entitled "From Color-Line to Colorlines: Asian-American Intellectuals in the 1980s and 1990s" on Friday, January 21, 2022, as part of our tgiFHI series.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

What are your research interests?

My research is at the intersection of Asian American intellectual history and social movement history. I'm generally interested in how people have thought about race in the post-civil rights era.

The history of the field of Asian American Studies tells us a lot about the rise and fall of “Third Worldism” in the United States. This was the idea that Asian Americans, Latinx folks, African Americans, and Native Americans all confronted analogous situations of racism, and that, together, their struggles for self determination could transform the United States.

Third Worldism was the predominant sensibility among the students who demanded the creation of Asian American Studies and the scholars who built the field in the late-1960s and 1970s. In my current project, I start in the late-60s and look at how this sensibility shifted by the 2000s.

The 1990s was a crucial turning point; This was when a lot of complex conflicts among racially subordinated communities occurred. There was the so-called Black-Korean conflict in Los Angeles, the lawsuit by Chinese American parents challenging San Francisco’s desegregation order, and the controversy over whether Asians were part of settler colonialism in Hawaii. These conflicts all generated lots of debate in Asian American Studies.

Today, scholars and activists committed to multiracial solidarity are much more likely to believe that communities occupy distinct positionalities, and that their paths toward empowerment are likely to come into conflict.

I’m interested in what the history of Asian American Studies can tell us about why this big shift happened.

How did your interests develop over time?

When I finished my PhD exams, I wasn't really sure what I wanted to research for my dissertation. What helped was talking to organizers.

In 2018, I was at a convening of Asian American grassroots organizations from across the country. I distinctly remember a Chinese immigrant working-class organizer asking the group whether Asian Americans are people of color. He explained that when he worked with Black or Latinx organizations in Philadelphia, the attitude was that Asian Americans were not. This stuck with me. 

Then I read one of my favorite books of literary history and criticism, Colleen Lye’s America’s Asia. In the book, Lye tells a story about a student asking her if Asian Americans are people of color. Lye writes in her book that there’s no easy answer to this question.

This struck me as a really different response than what would have been given in the 1970s, when folks saw themselves as sharing the same status as other Third World communities exploited by white supremacy and capitalism.

At some point, Third Worldism became fraught, even for people committed to Asian American Studies and activism. I wanted to know how and why this change happened.

What is the role of interdisciplinarity in your work?

Intellectual historians have, I think, an interesting relationship with interdisciplinarity because our sources are often the bodies of scholarship of other disciplines.

Asian American Studies is obviously an interdisciplinary field. I’m immersed in scholars who are psychologists, literary critics, cultural theorists, and social theorists. I have a strong interest in all of those disciplines as they pertain to Asian American Studies.

What can be distinctive for an intellectual historian is that you’re trying to historicize the field—you’re not necessarily invested in whether its theories are right or wrong. Laurence Veysey wrote that for intellectual historians, “all ideas are false but important.” 

That's how I come at it. I mean, there are definitely some takes that are wrong! And certainly, Asian American Studies is born out of the work of people with deeply held progressive or radical political commitments—that’s something I love about the field.

But as a scholar, my intention is not to say that any one side of the debates in Asian American Studies is right or wrong. Instead, I’m trying to understand how the debates arose, their implications, and where they have led.

I do a bunch of political writing where I try to convince my reader to take a particular stance, but this book is a different project. What's important about this project are the questions that it raises.

What’s the most interesting thing you’ve found in the archives?

I love doing archival work. I think most historians do. 

One of the most interesting things I’ve found was at the University of California, Davis, where there’s a library named after one of the Asian American Studies department’s first full-time tenure track faculty, George Kagiwada.

While looking through a bunch of files that hadn’t been fully processed yet, I came across an organizing campaign from 1976 that I’d never heard about: the tenure fight of George Kagiwada.

George Kagiwada had published very, very little in terms of academic writing. But he boldly argued that he ought to get tenure on the basis of his contributions to social change. His main example was his work chairing the Asian American Studies Program.

His department voted to not grant him tenure, which isn't a surprise. But there were a bunch of students and community members who organized to support him—and he eventually won.

I found all of these documents from the organizing campaign’s meeting minutes to Kagiwada’s letters to his colleagues. It was a really fascinating window into this campaign. There were also records from UC Davis faculty of color—“Third World faculty,” at the time—who, following Kagiwada’s victory, came up with alternative criteria for tenure for Third World faculty.

To this day, I still can't believe that George Kagiwada won tenure on the argument that chairing the Asian American Studies Program was a contribution to social transformation.

I think this shows how savvy Asian American Studies folks were at that time in both trying to navigate the university and in trying to hold onto the activist visions that inspired the creation of the field.

What do you hope people take away from your talk?

I hope people come away more interested in Asian American intellectual history, and in historicizing our frameworks for thinking about multiracial politics in the United States.

I’d like to raise the question of whether we can open up other frameworks for thinking about multiracial alliance and, in fact, adjust the meaning of racial justice in a multiracial society.

What are you teaching?

This semester, I’m teaching a lecture course called “Introduction to Asian American History” and a seminar called “Theorizing Liberation,” which is radical intellectual history of the post-civil rights era.

Selected publications for further reading:

Cheung-Miaw, Calvin. “The Boundaries of Democracy.” Pacific Historical Review 90, no. 4 (2021): 508–36.

Cheung-Miaw, Calvin. "The Pivot of U.S. Politics: Racial Justice and Democracy." Organizing Upgrade, November 20, 2020.

Cheung-Miaw, Calvin, and Roland Hsu. “Before the “Truckee Method”: Race, Space, and Capital in Truckee’s Chinese Community, 1870–1880.” Amerasia Journal 45, no. 1 (2019): 68–85.

Cheung-Miaw, Calvin. “Asian Americans and multiracial politics: the contribution and limits of racial triangulation theory.” Politics, Groups, and Identities, n.d., 1–7.

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As part of its event series tgiFHI, the Franklin Humanities Institute is conducting interviews with its faculty speakers in order to familiarize broader audiences with the diversity of research approaches in the humanities, arts, and interpretive social sciences at Duke University.

Dr. Jasmine Nichole Cobb is the Bacca Foundation Associate Professor of African & African American Studies and of Art, Art History and Visual Studies. She is also a co-director of the “From Slavery to Freedom” (FS2F) Humanities Lab at the Franklin Humanities Institute at Duke University.

In this edited and condensed interview, Dr. Cobb describes the enduring questions of what Black freedom means across time and visual media, the history of violence relating to Afro-textured hair and racial capitalism, and the weirdest (and grossest) thing she found in the archives.

Dr. Cobb gave a virtual tgiFHI talk titled Tactility and the Texture of Racial Capitalism on Friday, September 25, 2020, at 9:30am. 

On her research interests and how they developed:

Broadly, I'm interested in representations of Black liberation, Black freedom, Black autonomy, particularly as they represent visual problems from the 19th to the 21st century.

I became interested in this area through archival research, after discovering there were communities of free African Americans in the U.S. before the Civil War. I approach the existence of a free Black person in the early 19th century as a visual problem. At a time when slavery is rampant and “black skin color” is supposed to be a marker of social standing, how do people make sense of the fact that racial identity did not clearly convey citizen status? How did people cope with the notion that be of African descent did not always translate to this person being owned on paper?

I started researching routes toward freedom and trying to understand how some Black people became free while slavery expanded. How did this reality shape their lives? How did that shape their representation by others? How did they represent themselves?

I took those questions to archives, many of which, ironically, were founded in the context of slavery. I would find, in the 19th century, hostile representations of free African Americans as absurd, not prepared for citizenship, not making good use of their freedom. And it started me on this path of trying to understand what Black freedom has meant to people of African descent in the U.S. across time periods and across mediums: painting, caricature, drawing, photography, film, and so on.

How does your work combine perspectives from different disciplines?

I am appointed in Art, Art History & Visual Studies and African & African American Studies, but I also have work conversant with questions in English literature, including a forthcoming edited volume on African American literature in the early 19th century. I'm trained in rhetoric and communication, which is a young discipline that straddles these fields of visual representation, writing, speaking, and the like.

What many of these fields have in common, however, is that they are not just looking at products of representation, like paintings or books, but they're also all thinking about what English calls “the author,” what art history calls “the artist,” what rhetoric calls “the rhetorician.” I see connections across fields where the work, the production of the work, the circulation of the work, and the reception of the work matter to each discipline.

I discuss an image of Frederick Douglass in my second book, a daguerreotype taken by Samuel Miller. By the time Frederick Douglass takes this picture, he's a well-known abolitionist, he's respected, he's run away from bondage in Maryland. But his freedom, as recorded in the picture, is complicated; Douglass gains his freedom through white abolitionists paying for his manumission, thus replicating his commodity status in some ways.

It raises the question of what kind of freedom do we recognize for Black people? And what kind of freedom can be portrayed through particular visual media, like photography, in the middle of the 19th century? What are the ways in which race undermines representation in real time, and in documents?

On her use of archives — and the strangest thing she found there:

For this project, I spent a lot of time looking through 19th century archival material such as the photographs of Frederick Douglass, as well as records—pseudoscientific records about hair and race.

One strange find is this scrapbook collection by a would-be scientist, Peter Browne of Philadelphia. He was interested in hair as it related to race science, which is already solid intellectual business by the early 19th century. Although Peter is not a scientist by training, he tries to enter the foray by proposing that the distinction in hair texture between people of African descent, whites, and Native Americans is proof that people of African descent come from different origins, and that they are more akin to animals than to people.

Along with his “scientific” writing and experiments, he creates a scrapbook where he collects samples of hair from presidents. He has hair from George Washington and Andrew Jackson, as well as hair collected from unfree people of African descent and Native Americans.

That was interesting – and gross – for multiple reasons, but for me, as a person who loves archives, it’s exciting, because there is no other place to find something so weird. It gives another tangible example of how proving the variety of races was really a way to become an upstart intellectual in the early 19th century.

What do you hope people will take away from your talk?

There’s so much we think we know about “Black hair,” which, in this book, I define as textured hair—hair that's not treated with chemicals or heated to become straight. A common theme, particularly in African American studies, has to do with questions of entrepreneurship and personal style, which are important. But I come at this work asking: What are the other tentacles of capitalism we should think about when we think about Afro-textured hair?

I'm talking about violence as the chief imprint capitalism makes on how we understand Black hair. There are some spectacular examples that have come up in recent history, from children suspended or not allowed to graduate for wearing dreadlocks, to a high school athlete in New Jersey having his locs forcibly cut off at a wrestling match.

In the talk, I share how there's a much longer history to these spectacularly violent encounters. Read closely, they tell us something not just about the meaning and import of Afro-textured hair, but also about legacies of touch and intimate interaction, intraracially and interracially. I hope the talk helps us to think more broadly about racial capitalism, touch, and hair texture.

On the courses she’s teaching:

This semester I am teaching “Black Women, Black Freedom.” It's a little different every time I teach it, but essentially, it’s new works often authored by Black women scholars. That’s who happens to be most frequently writing about Black women—other Black women.

My next class will probably be “Women and Visual Media Studies,” which is a course on contemporary representations of women and digital platforms, popular feminism, how women navigate art and media production, misogyny, and feminism.

Selected recent publications for further reading:

Editor, African American Literature in Transition, Vol. 2 1800-1830 (New York:  Cambridge University Press, in press).

“Making Space:  Deborah Willis and the Archive of Black Visual Culture,” Camera Obscura 35:3 (forthcoming, December 2020)

Roundtable, “Institutionalizing Methods:  Art History and Performance and Visual Studies” in Saturation:  Race, Art, and the Circulation of Value, eds. C. Riley Snorton and Hentyle Yapp (Cambridge:  Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 2020). 

“A More Perfect Union:  Black Freedoms, White Houses.” Public Culture 28:1 (January 2016):  63-87.

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As part of its event series tgiFHI, the Franklin Humanities Institute is conducting interviews with its faculty speakers in order to familiarize broader audiences with the diversity of research approaches in the humanities, arts, and interpretive social sciences at Duke University.

Roberto Dainotto is Professor of Literature, Italian, and International Comparative Studies. In this edited and condensed interview, he describes how the popularization of the novel occurred at the same moment as the politicization of the masses, and how literary inventions not only represent, but also affect political and economic realities. He asks how we may be able to respond to crises today through not applying, but translating Gramsci.

Dr. Dainotto gave a virtual tgiFHI talk titled "Sovversivismo: Gramsci on Reactionary Insurrections" on Friday, March 5, 2021. View the full talk here!

What are your research interests and how did they develop over time?

My interest is in the novel at the moment it becomes the dominant literary genre, between the 18th and the 19th centuries, a moment in which the popular masses started participating in political and cultural life.

I don't think my work on the novel is unrelated to my study of early Marxist theory; so, Gramsci and Labriola. Once again, it is a reflection on popular masses participating in political life. My first book was my dissertation, which was on the regionalist novel. I am a Europeanist mostly, but especially since I came to Duke, I have been very influenced by postcolonial literature and theory. Lately I've been working on Fanon, who became very important in Italy in the early Sixties, more so than in France, because he was not censored in Italy.

Can you speak more to the moment when the novel becomes popular and the masses become politicized?

Between the 18th and the 19th century, there are several revolutions: democratization of political structures, the rights of suffrage become wider, public schools create more potential readers...

Pamela, for example, completely tears apart the tenets of classical poetics, the distinction between high and low, the principle of decorum – that heroes and tragedy are for the higher classes and comedy is for the lower classes. In Pamela we have a maid who not only is a hero, but she also speaks as elegantly as the upper classes. In that sense, I see a very strong connection between the moment in which the novel becomes dominant and what is happening in politics and in technology with the spread of the printing press.

There is the Nancy Armstrong book, How Novels Think. This is one of the things that keeps interesting me: what are the epistemic conditions for the novel to be?

And that's what interests me, this moment of democratization when the popular masses become a political and cultural subject. This is all nice and well but at the same time, it presents several problems: the difficulty of relativism, the difficulty to establish common or shared values. This is what fascinates me, and it’s what fascinates me about Gramsci. He's the one who's absolutely concerned about how you make politics at the moment in which masses can go in different directions.

Anything is possible. The question becomes to which direction, to which end, you want to flow.

What is the role of interdisciplinarity in your work?

I would say that I still do literature even when I work on Gramscian political theory.

One of my graduate professors, Barbara Sparkman, was very influential to me. She wrote this beautiful book, Fascist Virilities, on Mussolini and D’Annunzio. It was a way of reading the rhetoric of fascism in the way in which fascism will try to create a storytelling of the nation. She managed to make a very strong political study of fascists by using the typical methods and tools of humanistic research and literary investigation.

I think I would insist that my disciplinary core remains with literature, but I don’t consider literature to be an isolated discipline. Gramsci, for instance, is someone who talks a lot about literature, but for him, literature, like sociology or economics, or anything else, is always part of what he calls a nexus of problems, or a “totality.” I see literature as part of a nexus of problems, of a series of social expressions or events.

My training was in Italy, and formalism in Italy was very different than formalism in the United States. Closer to the Prague school, especially Jakobson, for us the formal study was never understood as studying literature as a “well-wrought urn.” The formal was what we used to call a “level.” In order to decode the text, you needed to know all the level that determined its significations: the sociological level, the historical level, the political level, the economic level... I still think of literature in that way.

So “interdisciplinary” is not a word that I use when I talk about my work. But of course my work is interdisciplinary because I will never understand a novel if I don't know the history, the sociological reality, the economy around it.

What is your methodology?

Well, it depends. The book on the regionalist novel came out of a real anger. There was a book that was published while I was writing my dissertation on stories from the “new Europe.” And this collection of European short stories started using basically the language of decoloniality to discuss what they called...something like the “blossoming new voices in ex-Yugoslavia.” This was while the war was still going on. I was very angry at reading that the war in ex-Yugoslavia could be sold as the “blossoming” of different regional identities.

The Europe book, which I published with Duke, was also a part of the same sentiment. I was very angry about the fact that with Schengen, the European borders had opened, but for people from the south of Europe, which were called at the time the “PIGS” (Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain), it was much more difficult to go through Schengen. This is to say that the thing that motivates me is strong affect.

I found that literature had something to do with it, because the entire taxonomy of North and South was, before anything else, a literary invention, that then became what I call the “rhetorical unconscious” of legislation and economic decisions. So literature very often does something, not simply represent. It does something to politics and economics. I try to understand what the connections are between the different expressions of social living at a certain moment.

What's something you hope people take away from your talk?

My talk tries to look at one specific concept of Gramsci’s: sovversivismo. I try to look at the way in which the occurrences of this word in specific political and cultural contexts make the word acquire certain meanings and achieve certain political results, rather than others. You cannot do that if you only have some scattered notes from here and there. We do not yet have yet a philologically reliable edition of the notebooks. We need to translate the entire notebooks of Gramsci – we still don't have a complete translation.

Gramsci is the thinker of crises. He has a whole taxonomy of different crises, but his major distinction is between an organic crisis and a conjunctural crisis. For him, after World War I, capitalism enters a period of organic crisis because wealth tends to be concentrated among very few individuals. The middle classes feel betrayed: they fear the “proletarianization” of the middle classes. This has some echo of course, with the present moment. For Gramsci, these would be two different conjuctural crises. But they both express the same organic crisis at the origin of all of both.

What I'm trying to do with the talk and what I hope people will take away is that you can do a philological reading of a text or a series of texts. But at the same time, this philological reading can talk to our present. There is a way in which we can translate, rather than apply, Gramsci. Gramsci can become a way for us to make a little bit of sense of what we see around us.

What are you teaching?

I’m teaching an undergraduate course on “What is Europe?” It actually has nothing to do with my book on Europe; it's on what Europe is, since geographically you cannot separate Europe from Asia. How do we define Europe politically, culturally, et cetera?

I also teach courses on Gramsci with certain regularity, including a graduate course.

Selected publications for further reading:

Co-Editor with Fredric Jameson. Gramsci in the World. (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2020).

Editor. “Le forme della conoscenza in Giambattista Vico.” Monographic issue of Italian Culture (2016).

The Mafia: A Cultural History (London: Reaktion Books, 2015).

Europe (in Theory). Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007. [Winner of the 2010 Laura Shannon Prize in Contemporary European Studies].

Place in Literature: Regions, Cultures, Communities. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000.

“Geographies of Historical Discourse.” The Oxford Handbook of European Romanticism. Ed. Paul Hamilton. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016. pp. 621-643.

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As part of its event series tgiFHI, the Franklin Humanities Institute conducts interviews with its faculty speakers in order to familiarize broader audiences with the diversity of research approaches in the humanities, arts, and interpretive social sciences at Duke University.

Samuel Fury Childs Daly is Assistant Professor of African and African American Studies. In the edited and condensed interview below, he explains why he became interested in the study of law and warfare, how he uses the fine arts to approach the study of history, and how studying the military regime in Nigeria provides insights into the ways that soldiers rule countries. But first, here's the tgiFHI he gave on Friday, October 22, 2021, titled "How Soldiers Think: Law and Dictatorship in Nigeria":

What are your research interests and how did they develop?

I’m a historian of law and warfare, and where those things meet. I've always been attracted to questions or topics that I don't intuitively understand, and both law and militarism fit that bill.

My past work was about the Nigerian Civil War, and how this war was connected to Nigeria's long and harrowing experience of crime in the late 20th century. Basically, the book argued that warfare opened up a space for new kinds of criminality that hadn't been there before.

This project that I'll be speaking about at tgiFHI follows on from that book. When I started doing research about Biafra in 2011, as I was moving through the archives and going to all of these courts, and speaking to all these lawyers and reading their personal papers, I would often encounter documents that didn't quite fit what I was looking for. So I would copy them and toss them in a file folder, which eventually became a box, and then several boxes, and then a whole filing cabinet of paper. Before I knew it, I had this collection of documents about Nigeria's long experience of military dictatorship, which lasted from 1966 to 1999, with a couple of brief interruptions.

Most of the papers that I collected were court cases and legal records, about how people used law during the military dictatorship to try to obtain remedies or criticize the state. But they also showed something about the military regimes that ruled Nigeria in this period, and how they thought about the big questions of the late 20th century—about how a state should be, and how law works in the postcolonial world.

My interests aren't limited to Nigeria. I'm also working on a project about military deserters in Africa at large. It looks at why men desert the battlefield and what they do after they desert, and it argues that desertion is a more politically creative act than militaries usually understand it to be. It's not always just about cowardice or fear. Sometimes it's about the desire to create a new world, even in the midst of warfare.

What is the role of interdisciplinarity in your work?

You know, African Studies is inherently interdisciplinary. Very few people just operate in one mode. The thematic questions that I'm interested in are best served by taking an omnivore’s approach, even though I’m a historian, and a fairly doctrinaire one at that, who uses a lot of archives and keeps my eyes pretty firmly on the past. I also use ethnographic methods, and I think a lot about the humanistic study of law.

I also seek out sources in unusual places. I lean pretty heavily on diaries and memoirs, and even works of fiction. These are not things that most legal or military historians would go to first, but, given the constraints that you have to operate under working on Nigerian history, I found them valuable. I think they make for a more creative kind of history, too.

I also think a lot about the fine arts, and even though it doesn't always show up explicitly in my work, I’m always thinking about how artists interpret the same kinds of questions that I’m working on. So when I'm trying to understand how women experienced militarism in Nigeria, the performance artist Okwui Okpokwasili is on my mind. Or when I'm trying to get a sense of what this time period looked like and felt like, I look at the paintings of Njideka Akunyili-Crosby. Historians don't have a monopoly on thinking about the past, and I want to write history books that pack the same punch as a song or a painting.

I also think a lot about other areas of history. I have recently been looking more and more to places that are really far from the space and the time that this book is nominally about. I think a lot about South Asia’s legal culture, and about militarism in the Americas, and all these other precincts of history that nonetheless maybe reveal something about what was going on with Nigeria's particular form of militarism. So being interdisciplinary to me just doesn't just mean using the analytical tools of other fields, but also thinking about forms of history that are really far from whatever I’m looking at.

What's one thing that you hope people take away from your talk?

The history of law in Nigeria is relevant for a lot of places. I think there's a larger story here about how soldiers rule countries in general. The short answer is that soldiers rule countries like they fight wars. They approach every political problem like a battle. They see it as their objective to win that battle, even if that means  annihilating their political rivals. The world of soldiers is a world of conformity and hierarchy, and this bleeds over into how they administer their countries and how they do politics.

Military officers also often believe, whether publicly or privately, that they have figured out human nature: that they know how people work. This makes for an unusual form of law that they enact when they come to power. The men who ruled Nigeria in this period really thought that making the country into a vast barracks was what was going to truly make it free. They thought that if they could convince, or force, everyone, from a woman selling produce in the marketplace to a wealthy businessman in a boardroom, to act and think like a soldier, that this would make Nigeria free. They really ardently believed this. The notion that freedom is discipline is not a counterintuitive one in the martial habit of mind, and we see this all over Africa in the era of military rule. It's something that we find in lots of different military regimes, or militarized countries or states. We see it in the United States too.

I think Nigeria offers us a really vivid example of what that disciplinary philosophy looks like in practice. The truth of the matter is, most civilians don't want to live in a barracks. So when they are forced to act like soldiers, what results is often a very illiberal form of politics.

What are you teaching?

Right now, I'm teaching two undergraduate seminars. The first is called “Africa Before Colonialism” and it's a survey of the African past from 10,000 years ago to about 1800. This is a course that is very much about method, and about how we know about the past, and about learning to use things like historical linguistics or archaeology or climatological data to understand big transitions and movements in the deep African past. It's also about quasi-philosophical questions about how societies are born, how they end, how people come to think of themselves as a society, and what forms of politics operated long before the world that we live in today.

The other course is also an undergraduate seminar called “Nigeria: A Modern History,” which looks at Nigeria's last 200 years or so, which is a period that encompasses the growth and collapse of big states and kingdoms, the advent of the Atlantic trade in enslaved Africans, colonialism and what came after. It’s my favorite course to teach.

Next semester, I'll be teaching a graduate seminar in African and African American Studies, which is a survey of some current questions in the field. It’s open to students from all over the university, and it’s part of our graduate certificate program in African and African American Studies.

I’ll also be teaching a new course about law in Africa and the African diaspora, which I'm very excited about. So stay tuned!

Selected publications

A History of the Republic of Biafra: Law, Crime, and the Nigerian Civil War, Cambridge University Press, 2020.

“A Nation on Paper: Making a State in the Republic of Biafra,” Comparative Studies in Society and History vol. 62, no. 4 (2020): pp. 868-894.

“Policing and the Limits of the Political Imagination in Postcolonial Nigeria,” Radical History Review vol. 137 (2020): pp. 193-198

“A Moral No-Man’s Land: David Diop’s At Night All Blood is Black,” Los Angeles Review of Books, 16 September 2021.

“Unfinished Business: Biafran Activism in Nigeria Today,” Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, 7 April 2021.

a headshot of a man

Our Spring 2023 tgiFHI series continues with Ryan Donovan, Assistant Professor of Theater Studies. Here's an interview with Prof. Donovan on his research interests, method, and practice.

Can you tell me about your research interests and how they developed for you?

My current research focuses on Broadway musical theater, specifically since 1970. My interests developed for me long before I ever became a scholar. When I went to grad school for my PhD, I had no idea that I could study musical theater as an academic–it seemed impossible to me at the time. I came back into the academy after some years as a dancer in musicals. I knew that I wanted to teach and do research, so I figured out a way to combine my performance experience with the research I was being trained to do as a PhD student. The skills I learned as a performer have served me well as a scholar.  

In grad school, I was doing my course work and things didn’t always resonate with me, especially when it came to theory. I took a class on modern adaptations of Greek tragedy and decided to look into Oedipus, which led me to read disability studies and queer studies. I was intrigued by the intersection of these fields. Those fields and fat studies–which I had already developed a prior interest in–became foundational to my dissertation and, later, my first book. I started immersing myself in those fields, which led me to think about bodies and stigmatized identity more broadly and to ask how musicals cast stigmatized bodies, figuratively and literally, and how casting rarely used its potential to challenge norms.

Can you say more about the role of interdisciplinary in your work?

My work is really centered on the body. The fields that I was drawn to–disability studies, fat studies, queer studies–are all asking what bodies mean and what bodies do. Each of those fields is already interdisciplinary. Scholars in seemingly disparate disciplines from food studies to sociology, to literature and health humanities are working in these fields. And then there is my home field of musical theater studies, which is inherently interdisciplinary–we have theater scholars, dance scholars and musicologists all under the same umbrella. Coming into the academy from a practice-based background meant I wasn't necessarily thinking in terms of discipline. So, to find these fields that cohere around many different disciplines just intrinsically made sense to me to begin with.

Can you talk about your research methods? Describe what your day-to-day research practice looks like.

My research starts with going to the archive and asking questions. For instance, on the project I’m just beginning I’m looking at an archive of theater business records. I don't always know what I’m going to find, but just going and looking at primary sources points the way for me. For example, for my book I looked at the papers of the costume designer for the musical Dreamgirls. I went into the archive asking, “Is there material evidence of how that musical participated in stigmatizing fat women?” I was looking at the costume designer’s records to see when certain actors wore padding–or what's commonly called fat suits–I discovered a lot of inconsistencies, which are exciting as a researcher to find—especially so in this case because the show’s conflict is about appearance and its creators publicly changed their story about that a few times. After visiting archives, I layer on theoretical approaches to analyze what I found. I like looking back at what I find in the archive, because that's what excites me and that’s when ideas start forming for me. I love the process of research beginning there.

While I always start with the archive as much as possible, I’ll also supplement that work with interviews. The last interview I did for Broadway Bodies was with a real Broadway legend named Baayork Lee. She was in the original cast of The King and I as a child and then most famously was in the original cast of A Chorus Line. She’s an inspiration for dancers and for Asian American musical theater performers. She is just the most generous, energetic, and enthusiastic person. I was always enamored with the anonymous ensemble member who goes from show to show as much as I was with the big Broadway stars, and Baayork danced in the chorus of over a dozen Broadway shows. The kind of living history she embodies and passes on through her work is so inspiring to me. It was a real gift to be able to talk to her and include her in the book.

Can you tell us a little bit about what you'll be presenting for tgiFHI? What is a takeaway you want people to leave with?

My book, Broadway Bodies, is organized in four sections. The first looks at the Broadway body itself and asks: What is it? What are its implications for casting? How is it then perpetuated? Each section after that looks at a particular stigmatized identity. There is a section on size, a section on sexuality, and a section on disability. For tgiFHI, I'll be presenting work from the section on size. I’ll be talking about size discrimination on Broadway and how it remains the norm to discriminate against people whose bodies don't conform to the idea of the typical Broadway body.

One of the takeaways I want people to leave with is that identity and appearance-based discrimination impact all of us, whether we know it or not. Who and what we see or don't see on stage implicitly sends a message about whose bodies and whose stories producers deem neither valuable in an ethical sense, nor profitable in an economic one.

What classes are you teaching?

Last semester I taught for Duke in New York Creative Industries. I curated a series of theater outings for the student cohort in addition to a range of other outings, which included everything from dance performances, independent cinema, and museums to artist studio visits, lots of food, and walking tours. The courses I taught in New York were Reading Theater in New York and the Arts, Culture and Performance of New York. For me it was kind of full circle life moment since I lived in New York for over twenty years before coming to Duke and it was a joy to get to share my hometown with my students.

This spring I’m teaching a seminar called American Musicals, which is always one of my favorite classes to teach. In the class, we interrogate the definition of “American” and “musical” and how that's changed over time. We think about who's included in those terms, who's not, and how the musical is a form where theater works out questions of national identity, ability, gender, race, and sexuality.

Yun Emily Wang smiling against red wall

Our Spring 2023 tgiFHI series continues with Yun Emily Wang, Assistant Professor of Music with a secondary appointment in Gender, Sexuality & Feminist Studies. Here's an interview with Prof. Wang on her research interests, method, and practice.

Tell us about your research interests and how they developed for you.

My current body of work focuses on Asian Canada, and more specifically the Chinese diaspora in Canada. The geocultural areas and topics I work on include East Asia, Asian America, and transpacific circulation/migration. My research interest is at the intersection of two things. One is thinking about sound, broadly construed. This could include the kind of sounds we conventionally describe as music, the sound of speech–like people chattering or the sound of people talking–and it could also be everyday sounds that don’t really serve any kind of expressive purpose.

And on the other side of this is how ideas about sound shape systems of power that we describe as race, gender, and sexuality. I'm really interested in how sound shapes these social categories that are meaningful and function in a certain way to create inequity. For example, how do a group of queer Asians sound linguistically? Or what's their music?

Thinking about sound is never separate from thinking about how people listen, or how people navigate the world with their ears. For example, if you walk into a mall, do you hear the boba tea blender first? Or do you hear Beyoncé or Taylor Swift coming out of different stores first? What histories of listening lead to how you direct your aural attention in that moment? I'm interested in listening as a socially and politically situated activity.

Although my academic training was in ethnomusicology, I was trained as a musician first. Music plays a really big role in how we think about sound. When I was training to be a professional viola player, I was very curious about the social dynamics within an orchestra. I would go to my viola lessons and say to my teacher, “[o]h, my God! Don't you think it's fascinating how the social hierarchy of orchestra players show up in this way?” And my viola teacher would say, “Maybe you should go into ethnomusicology...” From there, I reoriented my thinking and went to graduate school in New York, where I pursued my first project in sound studies on Chinatown soundscape.

Could you say more about the role of interdisciplinarity in your work?

Interdisciplinarity allows me to see multiple perspectives and work through an issue or work through a question from a lot of different angles. Once you start to look at it from different perspectives, things become more interesting than they first seem. Sometimes these perspectives are not compatible with each other. I find that to be the most interesting and engaging part of doing scholarly work.

I am an ethnographer and conduct ethnographic research, which means very often that I don't have a text or an object to analyze at the outset. Rather, I start with particular social scenes. I find it very productive to think about the multiple perspectives in a given scenario, and not even just those of people. You can look at this like cinematography. You can shoot the same scene from different angles and that gives you a much more complex perspective on the whole scene.

Tell us about your research methods.

Ethnomusicologists understand ethnography in many different ways. For me, ethnography is an iterative process that involves revisiting a scene, including in my mind. That includes establishing a rapport, which is not that different from just being a person and making friends. To develop a rapport, you must do all this leg work to establish a relationship and when you are doing that, you're making decisions about who you want to spend time with and where. All those relations, all of those decisions are informed by your life experience and your theoretical thinking. They don't just come out of nowhere.

One example of a scene I'm currently writing about and trying to think through involves a young 24-year-old, new immigrant to Canada from China. Despite being surrounded by people, she lived this alienated existence and she had all kinds of complicated feelings about this. She's part of the newest wave of immigration to Canada and there's a lot of intra-ethnic tension between the older immigrants and her generation.

She and I would hang out in a tiny room she was renting in Toronto. One day, we were watching this TV show called A Taste of China. On the show there was a beautiful mother-daughter interaction where the mother was cooking all this beautiful food for her daughter. My interlocutor was watching this and started salivating. She took out this big box of, what I called, “cheap and terrible” cookies that she bought on sale. She gave me one to gnaw on while we were watching this beautiful scene of intimacy and kinship articulated through mom’s cooking. I told her the cookies were terrible, and she yelled at me, and said, “of course they are! It’s not the point!”

I’m trying to think through the layers of difficult relationships and different types of intimacy in that one scene. The research involves being there, eating her terrible cookies, and it also involves reading a lot and learning about the social-historical context for her, the kind of intimacy portrayed in the show, and the kinds of intimacy possible to her, or not. What does it mean for her to say the taste of the cookies was not the point? So what was the point? It's not straightforward and it shouldn't be. So for me, research also includes reading, learning, and the thinking that takes place before and after field research. Sometimes I will have one interpretation, and maybe later I will realize there's another layer to it.

Could you speak more about the presentation you’ll give for tgiFHI? What takeaways do you want people to leave with?

The talk is the converging point between several things I have been thinking about from the field work I conducted for my current book project. A big chunk of this field work was with a group of queer Taiwanese immigrants, and it just so happened that the years I was doing this research were also the years that Taiwan started to publicly debate legalizing same-sex marriage (from 2013 to 2018). Although the debate began earlier, 2013 was when there was a real proposal and possibility. You can imagine that a lot of the sociality within this group made references to what was going on in Taiwan. A lot of our dinner conversations in Toronto were about Taiwan and this potential policy change.

The talk traces 3 different moments through different kinds of sound within this group of people. One instance I am analyzing involves my interlocutors listening to these videos that had just become viral on the Internet at the time of my research. One video was a very campy, EDM remix of an anti-gay sermon in Taiwan. This group of people would hang out at home, put it on, and start dancing and singing along with it.

Another moment I’m interested happened during the debates on the legalization of same-sex marriage in Taiwan. My interlocutors would listen to Mandopop songs in the background and sing along with the debates, like karaoke, and in some moments transition from singing into other vocal gestures, like moaning and performing different kinds of sexualities.

And last instance from my research I’m interested took place in 2017 when my interlocutors attended Toronto's Pride Parade, and participated in the neoliberal white, queer discourse and represented themselves as “Taiwan coming out to Canada.”

I’m analyzing the different conceptions of “queer” and the complex politics in in each of these moments. That's really what the talk is about.

One thing I hope people take away from the talk is that music is not universal, or music is not a universal language. More specifically, ideas about what music can do and the relationship between music and subjectivity is not universal. Music can be a very interesting lens through which we can see a micro-politics, but music is not a universal language.

What classes are you teaching this year? What classes are you teaching in the future?

I just taught two classes in the Fall, and I look forward to teaching them again in different iterations. One of them is called Sonotopias, and it's a graduate seminar on sound and space, but more specifically sound and the politics of spatial imagination. We often borrow tropes about space in order to talk about sound. Tropes about space are not politically neutral. The seminar investigates the relationship between sound and different conceptions of space. It was really fun and stimulating.

The undergrad class that I taught this Fall was called Listening to China and the idea is to take the two keywords in the course title, “listening” and “China,” and put them together, destabilize them, and explore around them. Nominally it's a class on Chinese music, which includes traditional music, popular music, and music in Asian America. A guiding question for the class is “what are the global processes that create the situation where we would call a musical practice Chinese music?” That was a really fun class to teach, and I would be really excited to teach it again.

In the spring, I'm teaching an undergrad seminar called Sound, Music and Gender. In the course we’ll study a bunch of different musical practices as case studies that fleshes out key concepts in Gender and Feminist studies. We’ll cover topics like masculinity, the figure of the diva, lip-syncing, camp aesthetics, karaoke, queerness, trans-vocality–all these things! I teach this class with an implicit slant towards the global. The idea is that understandings of gender and sexuality depend on where you are in the world, and that something like “masculinity” can mean different things in different contexts. I don’t know what classes I will teach in the future yet, but I think it would be fun to have a class that compares different models of multiculturalism through music.

Stefani smiling against backdrop of plants

Our Fall 2022 tgiFHI series concludes with Stefani Engelstein, Professor of German Studies. Here's an interview with Prof. Engelstein on her research interests, method, and practice.

Tell us about your research interests and how they developed for you.

I work at the intersection of literature and the history of science, particularly the life sciences. I am interested in the ways that different disciplines ask questions that address similar issues but pursue the creation of knowledge differently. I also investigate some figures and methodologies that travel between disciplines. I guess I have always been attracted to both literature and the way living things work, but it wasn’t until college that I realized that the questions I wanted to ask about living things were not scientific questions, but were humanities questions. So I switched my major from biology to literature. It wasn’t until I was in my second year of graduate school that I saw how these interests could come together. I was reading William Blake and Heinrich von Kleist for two different seminars. In Blake’s mythological poetry, body parts are literally rolling around on mountain tops and bodies coalesce together with the worlds that allow them to become meaningful. In Kleist, on the other hand, bodies are subjected to violence that explodes them and reveals their fissures and the risks associated with how they come to mean. Bodies in both cases are interwoven with political and social constructs. And so I thought, I need to look at these things together — for example, at the embryology that Blake learned about in anatomy lessons at the Royal Academy of Art, or at the history of amputations that might inform Kleist’s mentions of amputees dancing on prosthetics, and which, it turns out, he might have witnessed as a young military officer. So that was the starting point.

Tell us about your research methods: what your day-to-day research practice looks like, and/or a particular text that you're working on right now.

Usually what happens is that I am reading a work of literature and I notice something that makes me want to explore scientific writing of the period, although it can run in the other direction too. For example, I was teaching a Kafka short story in the spring of 2021, before we had a vaccine for Covid. It was Kafka’s penultimate story, written as his tuberculosis was advancing. The story, “The Burrow,” features an isolated burrowing creature as its first-person narrator, and the Creature hears a noise that it can’t identify, but that sounds like air whistling through a tube. And I thought, what are the sounds of tuberculosis? Other scholars had associated the story with Kafka’s disease in one way or another, but nobody had asked this question before. I went to medical textbooks from the 1910s and 1920s and learned about how tuberculosis was diagnosed through physicians listening to the sounds of the lungs, either with a stethoscope or by laying the ear on the patient’s chest.  I paid attention to the language used to describe those sounds. I also read Kafka’s descriptions of his illness in diaries and letters and discovered that he had seen some of the medical records reporting the sounds his lungs made — which he couldn’t hear directly. Those records still exist and I was able to get digital photos from the archives where they are housed and I even deciphered the physicians’ handwriting, with the help of what I had learned and also by talking to another historian of medicine and to a pulmonary specialist. This work allowed me to see in Kafka’s story a reflection on the transmissibility of disease through air, but also on the communicability of worldviews through literature, and on the position of fiction with respect to the mortality of its author and its readers. 

While this work focuses on one story and very specific biological conditions, my work is just as likely to address how whole systems of knowledge are built, for example, the way genealogies or family trees structured disciplines from linguistics to biology to comparative religion to race theory in the 19th century. Or, in my most current book project, the way that sexes came to thought of as opposite rather than merely other and what how that concept of opposition gave the act of sex a foundational role in philosophy and literature.

Could you say more about the role of interdisciplinarity in your work?

Interdisciplinarity has been billed as an innovative goal for generations now. But what does the word actually mean? I think there are a lot of different approaches that address disciplinary boundaries and make them porous in various ways, but that it is important to understand one’s own methodology and goals. My methodology of close-reading and analysis allows me to investigate how different disciplines construct and transmit knowledge and also how they contribute to the social world we share.  I investigate materials that come out of a variety of disciplines. My methodology, however, comes out of my training as a literary scholar. It is the humanities that have taught me to pose the significant questions I ask of the world, including of the sciences.

Could you speak more about the presentation you’ll give for tgiFHI? What is one thing you want people to take away from it?

I came to the topic for the talk — which is called “Divisive Affect, Loyalty, and National Cohesion: Du Bois contra Wagner” — through first reading a work of fiction by W.E.B. Du Bois, who himself inhabited a number of disciplinary worlds, by the way.  His first job was as a Professor of Classical and Modern Languages, including German, at Wilberforce University. Du Bois was interested in Wagner, whose operas he first came to know as a Master’s Student at the University of Berlin, and which he attended throughout his life. Wagner comes up several times in The Souls of Black Folk.  The question is, given their very distinct views on race, what was Du Bois doing with Wagner? I find a way to explore that question through this short story Du Bois embedded in Souls in which he uses the narrative form to illustrate the pernicious effects of models of nation-building such as Wagner’s that depend on the suppression of history. While not only modern American politicians, but also many earlier thinkers advocated forms of ignorance or forgetting of historical trauma to foster supposedly common feelings of belonging, Du Bois reveals the way that affect is passed down through generations whether discussed or not, motivating action that, if not reflected upon, repeats traumatic violence. The open question of the story and beyond the story is how to intervene in such cycles of repetition. Is knowledge, is education, enough, even if it is open about the past?

The talk is related to my interests in literature and science through the concept of race, which was theorized as scientific in a number of disciplines from the late 18th century through much of the 20th. My work here is informed by Critical Race Theory.

What classes are you teaching this semester and academic year?

Duke and the University of North Carolina have a fully merged graduate program in German Studies called the Carolina-Duke Graduate Program in German Studies. With a colleague at UNC — we are the co-Directors of Graduate Studies (DGS) for that program — I am leading a dissertation colloquium both semesters this academic year. The colloquium gives students a chance to distribute dissertation chapters and receive both peer review and comments from both DGSs. It’s also an opportunity to provide job market support. 

I am also teaching a first-year seminar this fall and a graduate seminar in the spring. In addition to being German Studies courses, both are cross-listed with Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies, where I have a secondary appointment, and the first-year seminar is also cross-listed with English. The first-year seminar is called Monstrous Births: Coming to Life in Science and Literature of the Nineteenth Century and it’s about both artificial life and strange births in the nineteenth century — think Frankenstein, automata, and weird births, as well as the history of science surrounding such fiction. It’s a way to reflect on anxieties and hopes surrounding the sciences and the natural capacities of bodies, as well as whether such capacities can be distinguished from social productions. The graduate seminar in the spring is called Relationality and the Individual: Self, Other, Environment around 1800 and Beyond. Around 1800, people began thinking about life as a category founded on processes rather than just on physical structures. This emphasis on forces made the boundaries of any living individual an open question. The class will look at literature, philosophy, and scientific texts that explore the drawing of boundaries through interactive exchange, often creating oppositional categories in the process, such as opposite sexes or organism and environment.

Sophia smiling against dappled sunlight

How do we define Appalachia? What kinds of assumptions do we make about the people who live there, and how do they limit our view of human complexity? How can Latinx music deepen our understanding of regional culture(s), including our own?  

Here we interview Assistant Professor of Music Sophia Enriquez about her research and teaching. Dr. Enriquez gave a talk entitled "Listening for Latinx Understories: The Musical Roots/Routes of Migrant Farmworkers in 20th c. North Carolina" in our tgiFHI series on Friday, November 5, 2021.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

What are your research interests and how did you develop them?

I study folk music traditions of the Appalachian region, with an emphasis on Latinx communities and migration, and I come to that from the fields of ethnomusicology and folklore. As a musicologist, I'm generally very interested in the social and political dimensions of music, and how the creative practices of music and storytelling, and spaces we form around these traditions, carry meaning.

I'm from Appalachian Ohio, born and raised, and I was interested in learning more about music that's connected to the place I was from. I’m from an Appalachian family on my mom's side, like white settler people, but my dad's background is Mexican-American. I started to get interested in questions like, where are the people who share a background like mine? Where do they map onto these traditions?

I knew that there were other Mexican and Mexican-American people in Appalachia, but I wasn't sure where. I went down a rabbit hole, reaching out to networks and scavenging the interwebs, and I found people who have really interesting, creative projects, merging Latin folk music and Appalachian folk music into different things that they identify as “Mexilachian,” “Latingrass,” or “Appalatin.”

How would you describe the Appalachian region to someone who is unfamiliar with it?

Geographically speaking, what is “politically” considered Appalachia is defined by the Appalachian Regional Commission, which is a federal body that makes those decisions, and distributes funds and resources to counties that meet certain socio-economic criteria. The main idea is: a culture that's specific to place and to region and to the Appalachian mountains themselves. But the hills of southern Ohio are very different from southern West Virginia, so I would say that I understand the region less in terms of these sorts of political, official boundaries, and more in terms of how people identify culturally to place.

There are also migration narratives about mass, inter-regional Appalachian migrations of folks, who moved in the mid-20th century from places like Eastern Kentucky, West Virginia, East Tennessee—i.e., “central Appalachia”—to areas that are considered more peripherally Appalachian, like the Cincinnati area. So I think of Appalachia as a place is connected to the mountains, but I also think that its borders are very porous.

What is the role of interdisciplinarity in your work?

My work is interdisciplinary at its core. For me to do what I do, or ask the sorts of questions that I’m asking, it has to be.

The main intersections, or spaces that I draw from would be ethnomusicology and Latinx Studies—and specifically within Latinx Studies, the perspectives of Latina and Chicana feminisms—and also folklore. One of my graduate interdisciplinary specializations is in folklore, so I think about folklore both conceptually and at the material, cultural level of tradition.

And then I would say Appalachian Studies, as a way to think about region and as a place for my work, but I'm also engaging in Appalachian Studies from a critical perspective. Appalachian Studies as a field has been neglectful in thinking seriously about the erasure of different groups of folks, specifically the Black Appalachian experience, the Latinx Appalachian experience, the indigenous Appalachian experience, and so forth. I would say that I'm bringing a different, not entirely different, but a new set of tools into Appalachian studies, and those are the tools from Latinx studies, Chicana feminism, and to some extent, ethnomusicology.

Can you describe what your research practice looks like?

I do a lot of field research, which involves showing up to places, talking with people, traveling, and building relationships, both at the individual level and the organizational level.

I describe my research as collaborative and relationship-based. It is also multi-methodological. One method from anthropology, which Clifford Geertz called “deep hanging out,” is about building deep and long-standing relationships with people. In my case, they’re very aware of what I’m doing. So that's why I use the word “collaborative.” One of the major power dynamics that we encounter in fields like ethnomusicology, anthropology, and folklore is this notion that we bring a level of expertise that might not necessarily be shared amongst our collaborators. This is entirely not true in my case, and in fact I would argue very much the opposite. Folks bring a critical lens or a consciousness that I just can't have because of my own positionality. I have gotten to know so many different people who are incredibly intellectually engaged in the questions that I'm asking, and have thought about them themselves for years.

There’s also an archival, or what I would call a “historical” ethnomusicology approach to my work: looking at archival materials, and thinking about how music, expressive culture, and storytelling shows up in the archives, and how people understand themselves through music. This talk is the first I’ve ever given that isn’t rooted in my field work, but in archival work. I’m trying to connect the dots and thread together narratives about music through what’s available.

What’s one thing you’ve found in the archives that surprised you?

I was so excited by the intentionality on the part of SAF (Student Action with Farmworkers) and the Southern Folklife Collection [at UNC] in paying specific attention to folk arts, music, and dance—Latinx cultural practices in that sense. And that's part of my argument, that we should understand the creative practices of Latinx folks in this area as part of regional, local culture, and not as the “other” in the local. Why is it that the mariachi or salsa or norteńo music happening here isn’t considered Southern music or Appalachian music? To me, it is an expansion of the possibilities of what counts. I’ve been surprised—in a good way—to see that there's a shift in our understanding about who is rooted here and how they're contributing to our collective, local cultural expression.

What's one thing you hope people will take away from your talk?

We really are better off when we understand not just stories about Latinx farm workers in North Carolina but each other in multifaceted, complex ways. Part of my research agenda in Latinx Appalachia is to show that when we imagine these identities to be in contradiction with each other, we are diminishing the very realities of their existence. We shouldn’t be surprised that there are Latinx people in West Virginia, Kentucky, etc. Of course there are! We make a lot of assumptions about people based on where they're from: assumptions about how they identify, what they like, what kind of music or creative practices they engage with, and those assumptions reveal long-standing histories and legacies of bias and systemic racism. They have very real impacts for the way that we understand each other and see ourselves in relationship to other people.

Telling a music-rooted story about farmworkers in North Carolina is one way that we can unlearn some of those assumptions about people, and better understand the ways in which Latinx people continue to contribute to our local and regional cultures.

What are you teaching?

I’m teaching an undergraduate class called “Latinx Music Cultures.” To my knowledge, this is the first academic course in the Department of Music that has ever focused on music of Latinx people. In the class, I’m looking at the music of Latinx people in the U.S., Latin America, and the Caribbean. The first units center Indigenous, Afro-Latino, and Afro-indigenous traditions, and right now we are wrapping up a unit on Latinx music communities in the context of the U.S. in the diaspora. Then we are talking about what it means for Latinx music to circulate globally, and where and how that happens. I’ve been really, really grateful to be able to incorporate a lot of outside voices this semester, specifically, some folks doing work in the Durham Latinx community. We've had five guest speakers, which has been really great!

I am teaching two classes next semester. One is cross listed with LSGS (Latino/a Studies in the Global South) and that is “Borderlands and Musical Crossings.” The other course, which I'm equally as excited about, but especially so because it's so new for Duke, is “Music of Appalachia.” In that course, we're talking about Dolly Parton and the Black string band tradition, and of course, we'll talk about Latinx music practices in Appalachia. I'm really excited for that on, because I think that there's a need for these conversations about the local, about region, and about place.

Selected Publications and Media

"‘Penned Against The Wall’: Immigration Narratives, Cultural Mobilities, and Latinx Experiences in Appalachian Music.” Journal of Popular Music Studies 32, no. 2 (2020): 63-76. Special issue, “Uncharted Country: New Voices and Perspectives in Country Music Studies.

“Building Relationships, Sustaining Communities: Decolonial Directions in Higher Ed Bluegrass Pedagogy,” co-authored with With Travis D. Stimeling. In Intersections: Canadian Journal of Music/Intersections: revue canadienne de musique 39, no. 1 (2019): 57-72.

Nuestro South Podcast, Season 2 Episode 2, The Music of a Mexilachian Future with Sophia Enriquez

Jehanne smiling in black and white

As part of its event series tgiFHI, the Franklin Humanities Institute is conducting interviews with its faculty speakers in order to familiarize broader audiences with the diversity of research approaches in the humanities, arts, and interpretive social sciences at Duke University.

Jehanne Gheith is Associate Professor of Slavic Languages and Literature and Chair of Slavic and Eurasian Studies at Duke University. Formerly a Licensed Clinical Social Worker at Duke Hospice, she now has a private psychotherapy and grief counseling practice.

As of January 2021, Dr. Gheith is co-director of the Franklin Humanities Institute Health Humanities Lab.

In this edited and condensed interview, she explains why, while a professor of Russian culture at Duke, she decided to pursue her license in clinical social work. She describes the ways Russian literature informs her clinical work, and how her clinical work has impacted her teaching. And she reflects on the power and complexity of stories.

Dr. Gheith gave a virtual tgiFHI talk titled “Still Alice, Always Elena: New Stories about Dementia" on Friday, March 19, 2021. View the full talk here!

What are your research interests and how did they develop over time?

It’s a complicated story: I started out at Duke as a professor of Russian culture. I wrote a book on 19th century Russian women authors and then a book on the Gulag that involved interviewing survivors… And along the way, I got my license in clinical social work. 

When I worked for hospice as a medical social worker, that showed me that there's a deep need for more education around death and dying in our culture. I worked with people who were facing questions that they just never thought about because we've shut down that discussion in our culture. It's terrible to be thinking about dying for the first time when you're in crisis. So I decided to teach about medical ethics and end of life care (I was working at Hospice and Duke concurrently).

The medical humanities are now my primary research interest. What I have seen is that my training in Russian literature made me a very different kind of social worker. I was asking different kinds of questions and able to hold difficult stories—because that's what you do in Russian literature.

I have seen there's been a kind of back and forth: my understanding of Russian literature has shifted because of the clinical work, too, and now that I have a private practice, I find that I use Russian literature all the time. 

What led you to pursue a degree in social work as a professor?

When I first started studying Russian culture, it was a lot more relevant than it became after the fall of Soviet Union. I really missed working in an area that both interested me intellectually and felt relevant to people’s lives.

And then I had a personal experience. My younger brother died very suddenly and I went to a grief group. About a year later, I realized leading a group like this was something that I wanted to do. The first semester that I was in social work school, I realized: this is now my path and there are ways I can combine my work in social work and my work at Duke.

There's a lot of Russian literature that's about loss, and my project on the Gulag was all about loss. I think the connections were definitely there, but I also wanted to develop something that would do a different kind of work in the world than what academia does. 

But I value both immensely. I love being on both tracks.

What is the role of interdisciplinarity in your work?

When I was doing the interviews with Gulag survivors, I did a lot of research and training in oral history, so that's certainly one thread of interdisciplinarity. And then my training in literary analysis has been really helpful for reading social situations.

It's both the capacity for literary analysis and the deep knowledge of the Russian text that informs how I work with people. I bet I'm the only therapist in the Triangle who will regularly reference Tolstoy. 

The problem with our medical training right now is that we focus primarily on the science. And certainly, I want my doctors to have the science behind them. But we're not teaching about empathy and holding stories. The whole narrative medicine movement has started to do that.

Even then, the narrative medicine movement doesn't focus primarily on Russian literature, which is a really rich field because so many of the stories are about loss. The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Tolstoy, which I've done a couple of workshops with Neil Prose on, is a wonderful work that explores these intersections well.

The interdisciplinary is so deeply embedded in my work. I see things in Russian literature that I didn't see before I started working with people on hospice here, and the same is true the other way around. 

Can you expand on how your insights from social work come over to your academic work?

Let me show you some art projects of my students in the “Medical Ethics and End of Life Care” course, which is a part of the Knowledge in the Service of Society FOCUS cluster.

This is a series of little houses by Lilly Kelemen in 2019. She made this to show the housing of the body in several cultures. There are different musical lyrics inscribed in each of the houses.

Lilly Kelemen
Lilly Kelemen, project for the “Medical Ethics and End of Life Care” course

This is by Elora Pradhan, who’s an engineer. This is a 3D printing of a head, which then has all these different things that go on in dementia.

Elora Pradhan
Elora Pradhan, project for the “Medical Ethics and End of Life Care” course

There's one other project that's also on dementia. In the first series, there are five different cutouts and you see increasing disorganization. The first set of slides has the same face in all the slides. Then in the next one they're not as well organized. And then in the next one, they are mostly outside that face. And then the second to last one there are just a few. And the last one’s not even a face, it's just all the broken-up slides. 

My method of teaching is partly influenced by my social work and my interest in students developing skills and empathy, especially if they're pre-med. Whatever field of medicine they're going into, they need to be able to listen to patient stories effectively. 

In the fall, we were working hard on patient-provider communication in the FOCUS course, and two students in the class were dancers—Amy Labrador and Anna de Pourtales. As their final project, they made a dance about modeling good and bad patient-provider communication. It is so powerful that some doctors in Finland wanted to show it to their medical students.

And in my research, social work has certainly affected how I conducted interviews in my work on the Gulag. I was really listening for how loss affected people.

How do you propose using literature with your clients?

Like anything, it depends on how you do it. A lot of what you do with a client is about trying to establish a connection. With a hospice patient and family, you try to be helpful in whatever way they need, but you often don't have a lot of time. I think that literature can be a shortcut.

But certainly, it needs to be proposed as a possibility. I always start by showing a connection I would make to your situation—I frame it by saying it might not fit for you, so let me know. Sometimes they'll say “that part doesn't quite work” or “no, that one just doesn't work for me.”

When working with hospice patients, stories can be a shortcut. Telling a story allows others to tell their story, which might be different than the story you proposed, but you open up that pathway. That’s just the way story works. 

But I do think it matters how you pose it. Narrative therapy is about making room for people to tell their stories and to recognize that you can shift stories. You can’t impose a narrative on them, but you can make a suggestion. You can say this in your story made me think about this—does that resonate at all for you?

There is a flexibility in story. When you recognize something’s a story, you can shift it. You can start to think, how can you tell that differently? 

What Russian literature do you find yourself reaching for to use with clients who are grieving?

It really depends on what somebody's telling me.

I often reach for Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. Sometimes it's Liudmila Ulitskaia, who's more recent. And then there are two others, who are 19th century women authors that I worked on and will use: Tur and Khvoshchinskaia, who insisted that she was her male pseudonym, Krestovsky.

Our society is not great about dealing with loss, and that includes sibling loss, which is something that's personal for me. That’s something that Krestovsky shared too, because her sister died. If somebody comes to me with a sibling loss, I'll often find myself talking about some of the ways Krestovsky put her experience into art. Their way might be different, but it opens up some options for them.

And with Dostoyevsky, it can be about how to live well into great difficulty. Trying to face it, but also, when to look away. With Dostoyevsky, you could pick just about any of his works, but The Idiot is probably the most relevant for my clinical work.

And I also often go for Krestovsky’s An Old Portrait, New Original, in which she explores how art and life are related.

What do you hope that people take away from your talk?

I hope people take away from my talk a few of things. One is that people with dementia may have rich inner worlds. I want there to be less fear and less dehumanizing of people with dementia.

And I hope people come away with a sense of the power of story—the power and complexity of story.

And I hope they come away liking Russian literature just a little bit more. I always hope that.

What are you teaching?

I teach a medical ethics and end-of-life care issues class, a service-learning class. I have a version of it that’s a FOCUS class and another that's for upper division students. Placements have included Croasdaile, the Durham Nursing & Rehab Center, hospice for the upper-division students, and the Ronald McDonald House for first-year students.

And hopefully, if we get enough students, we’ll be teaching a Duke Immerse, “Pandemics, Health, and Power” in the fall. My course will be on the literature and film of pandemics.

I also teach a course that compares the films of Tarkovsky and Stanley Kubrick. I teach a Dostoyevsky course, a Tolstoy course, and a course on the Gulag.

And I haven’t taught this recently, but hope to teach it again: Russian short fiction and film. I love teaching on the Beat Generation and the Russian New Wave—those were poets with a similar kind of ethos, but on other sides of the Cold War. 

Those are the kinds of things that I teach. It's really wonderful to have a foot in both worlds—academia and social work.

Resources and further reading:

Because I am both an academic and a clinician, doing my best to blend the two worlds, my resource list includes some articles, but also resources I use in conducting workshops. Loss is something we don’t talk well about as a society and so we end up with few tools when it happens to us. In addition to the resources below, if you’d like to be on my email list for workshops, please email me at

My articles and books:

“Sibling Loss” Epilogue (2005)

“Still Alice, Always Elena: Dementia as a World of Possibility” forthcoming in eds., Konstantin Starikov and Melissa L. Miller, The Russian Medical Humanities: Past and Present I2021)

Gulag Voices. eds., Jehanne M Gheith and Katherine Jolluck, Palgrave McMillan (2011)

And just for fun: Finding the Middle Ground: Krestovskii, Tur, and the Power of Ambivalence in Nineteenth-Century Russian Prose, Northwestern University Press  (2004).

My workshops often center on reading a book and building some exercises or writing prompts into that. Great books include to work with in this way include:

Atul Gawande, Being Mortal (2014)

Nina Riggs, The Bright Hour (2017)

And for pet loss:

Steven Rowley, Lily and the Octopus (2016)

M.J. Tucci and Laurie Califf, A Peaceful Path: A Supportive Guide through Pet Loss (2014)

Darren in black and white

As part of its event series tgiFHI, the Franklin Humanities Institute is conducting interviews with its faculty speakers in order to familiarize broader audiences with the diversity of research approaches in the humanities, arts, and interpretive social sciences at Duke University.

Dr. Darren Gobert is the William and Sue Gross Professor of Theater Studies and Professor of English. In this edited and condensed interview, he describes the process of reconstructing and imagining the unknowable in performance studies, the way cultural scripts pass through our bodies both on stage and in everyday life, and why theater artists can still create performances in lockdown.

Dr. Gobert gave a virtual tgiFHI talk titled Purge on Friday, October 9, 2020, at 9:30am. View the full talk here!

On his research interests and how they developed:

I'm a theater historian. I think about theater history as a way to understand how ideas have cohered, spread, and evolved through time, specifically through the material of the body: bodily performance and acts of embodiment.

I was a bit of a magpie as a student. I was really interested in philosophy, in theater, in French literature. And I felt like my interests didn't have a focus until I got to graduate school in a program where I felt licensed to constellate those different interests. Over the 15 years of my career, I've been following that path steadfastly. I’ve been thinking about the history of dramatic literature and the history of theater as an embodied archive for how ideas have been disseminated and dispersed from time to time and place to place.

How do you research performance and acts of embodiment when you can't experience past productions physically?

That’s the central question, really, of all theater history and performance studies: you're dealing with an archive that is not necessarily a written archive. You're thinking about embodiment, acts of embodiment, and performances that have receded. We have to look to archival materials to reconstruct what might have happened, and then imagine those performances.

One of our tasks is to see how performances today might reflect the lineages of cultural transmission that have passed through performers’ bodies. That sounds really abstract, but if you think about how a choreographer passes on a piece of choreography to dancers and how those dancers in turn relay that choreography to other dancers, it works that way for all these embodied performances.

In some ways we bear the traces of those histories in the way that we behave, not only on stage, but in everyday life. One of the easiest ways to understand that, I think, is if we think about how gender gets signified. That's a prime example of a cultural script that people have taken up and transmitted without necessarily thinking about it. It seems as natural as breathing and yet there is a script there that gets taken up.

What does your archival research look like?

My current project is about the concept of catharsis, which has been a central concept in theater history. We have hundreds and hundreds of years and thousands of documents arguing about what this concept means. These documents are often logically incompatible with one another. What I'm looking at now is how the prevailing wisdom of what catharsis is was disseminated and morphed from time to time and place to place.

I'm working from a particularly large archive. I had a research team at my former institution and a large grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada to just gather as much material as I could. That archive has become the primary critical archive that I use for this this book. It's about 124 critical texts on catharsis written over 500 years and in over 20 languages.

It’s a large-scale picture that I can dip into. In my book, I look at specific moments in various times and places and talk about moments of coherence, where a particular picture of catharsis emerged. When I find a moment that seems to be particularly worth examining, I try to hone in and look at the performances, in theater and everyday life, happening at that time.

On Friday, I’m going to talk about moment in 1950s America where certain understandings of catharsis came into focus because of the cultural currency of psychoanalysis. I'll be looking at a play by Tennessee Williams, Suddenly Last Summer. I’ll look at not only its performances, but also the performances in the everyday life of Williams himself, since he wrote the play while undergoing daily analysis. We have pictures from his journals, from his letters, and from the clinical notes of his analyst. I can try to reconstruct and imagine what was happening through what he described in his own words and to his friends.

What is your process of reconstructing and imagining performances?

This question sits at the heart of the methodology of theater history because it's impossible in some ways. I think the first part of the process is to recognize the unknowability of what you're trying to describe and that you have to have a contingent relationship to the performance in question because you can't say anything too definitive about it. Think of a very scripted performance, such as a theatrical performance on stage. It differs from night to night due to any number of factors. That's the beauty of performance.

As theater historians, we have a different understanding of the archives and repertoires that we work with because we recognize that their potency comes precisely from their unknowability. I think you really just try to understand as much as you can about the context in which the performance happened. And if you can congregate a whole bunch of accounts of what people claimed to have seen, you can start to reconstruct what might have happened.

That act of imagination is, of course, a performance of its own. And like any performance, it’s going to differ from its antecedent performances. In your writing, you have to keep a certain epistemological stance about what you’re looking at and be self-critical about your imagining.

What do you hope people will take away from this talk?

I hope that people will take away a richer understanding of how theater history works as a discipline, in its relationship to all of the other humanities disciplines. Theater history is such a such a great field because you can align it precisely with all kinds of classical humanities, such as art history, history, or philosophy, even as half of the work that's done in any given theater history program is arts-focused. I would like people to take away a sense of the richness and interdisciplinarity of theater history in general.

My work might be particularly legible as interdisciplinary because the ideas that I'm interested in are really historical and philosophical ideas. My first book, The Mind-Body Stage, was about philosophy and theater because the archive in question was entirely a philosophical archive, even though I was looking at a lot of performances. In the same way, my current project touches at the heart of a central question not only in theater history, but also classics, because the concept of catharsis comes from Aristotle's Poetics.

What are you teaching?

Currently, I'm teaching our department’s required introduction to the discipline: “Theater Today.” The primary point of that class, as I teach it, is to have students read plays and appreciate them both as incredible artifacts that we can start to reconstruct, and also as blueprints for wonderful works of theater performance that we can create. The current situation hampers us somewhat—but we still can create.

The constraints of 12 feet apart in masks are in some ways no different than any other constraints that have marked the history of performance. In every play we read in this class, we aim to understand the context of the culture that produced it, including the various material constraints that made the play what it was: you didn’t have women on stage, you didn't have electric lights, you didn't have a roof. And now we’re making performances where the performers have to be a certain distance apart.

I think, in theory, it's a really interesting moment to teach theater history. In practice, because it’s such a collaborative art form, it would be wrong not to admit how sad it is that you can't really be together in the way that you're used to. And I think what we're all grappling with is trying to find the creative potential of this new reality we're living in without getting pulled in the undertow of mourning what we've lost. That's the challenge for me, anyway.

Selected recent publications for further reading:

Most of my work has been as editor of the journal Modern Drama; my twentieth and last issue was published a few months ago. And here's what else I have written since I came to Duke last year: 

Gobert, R. Darren. “Adaptations.” Forthcoming in Tom Stoppard in Context. Ed. David Kornhaber and James N. Loehlin. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2021.

Gobert, R. Darren. “Love and Information, or Sexuality and Gender in Nonbinary Times.” Forthcoming in Analysing Gender in Performance. Ed. Cathy Leeney and Paul Halferty. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020.

Gobert, R. Darren. Review of Mount Olympus directed by Jan Fabre. Theatre Journal 71.3 (Fall 2019): 369-73.

Erdag in black and white

In a legal context, such as the war crimes tribunal held to address the Armenian genocide, why must we analyze culture? Why is a literary analysis vital to approaching issues of conflict that that are legal, political, and historical? And what kind of value do archives that are incomplete and fragmentary offer to scholarship?

This week, we interview Erdağ Göknar, Associate Professor of Turkish in the Department of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies.

Dr. Göknar gave a talk entitled "Legal and Affective Archives of Atrocity: The Afterlives of Genocide Trials in Occupied Istanbul (1918-23)" on Friday, March 4, 2022, as part of our tgiFHI series.

A recording of this talk is available with a Duke NetID.

Erdag Goknar tgiFHI talk March 4, 2022

This interview has been edited and condensed.

What are your research interests and how did they develop?

Broadly, my research interests focus on identity and subjectivity as represented in cultural forms such as literature and historiography.

I’m the child of Turkish immigrants and I grew up in the American Midwest, where I encountered a lot of misconceptions about what it means to be from the Middle East, and specifically Turkey.

This became something of a dilemma growing up. And so I began exploring the dilemma, first through a creative writing, in which I hold an MFA, and later academically through graduate work in late Ottoman and modern Turkish studies.

There are points at which both of those trajectories intersect in my work. For example, through literary translation. Translation always occurs in a broader cultural and historical context, and the translation process can't happen fully without the scholarly research.

Such that I consider the scholarship I do to be a form of cultural translation. I'm trying to explain cultural contexts that people may have heard about, but are unfamiliar with, as well as the underlying structures that inform those contexts. I see my role as a scholar to translate these lesser known worldviews to new audiences.

How did you arrive at the current project?

For many years I’ve been focused on the period between 1918 to 1923 in the Middle East, which was an armistice period after World War I, when Istanbul and other territories were occupied by Allied powers, essentially the British and the French. It's a formative era when the modern Middle East, as we know it today, was established.

Late Ottoman Istanbul was a very cosmopolitan and dynamic city. There was a lot of fluidity at that time with how people saw themselves and the multiple ways inhabitants felt a sense of belonging.

But by World War II, Istanbul had changed considerably. It had lost much of its cosmopolitan character and had became more monolithically Turkish and Sunni Muslim. The Christian population was either forced out or encouraged to leave.

So, the complexities of this five-year period are fascinating to me. And in the midst of this occupation, you have a war crimes tribunal unfolding against the former World War I Ottoman government for persecution of the Armenian population—which fed historiographies of both genocide and denial. Most scholars today would treat the Allied occupation and the Ottoman tribunal separately. But in my current project, I’m trying to connect them by looking at intersections of law, historiography, and literature. I’m examining two events that were going on at the same time in the same city, but were not always considered together in assessing the Armenian genocide.

What is your research methodology?

I'm engaged in tracing the ways cultural production—this can mean a novel or a legal document from an archive—is indexed to political and historical issues. This often takes the form of tracing what might be called “epistemic violence.” This is not material violence, but violence to a system of knowledge or a worldview.

My research is done in layers, through modes of “reading.” The kinds of readings I do are inherently interdisciplinary. I first do a literary close reading of the text in question. And then I start to trace the political and historical contexts to which the text refers. Is there an issue of race or law involved here? Does the text say anything about identity formation, subjectivity, or state power?

In doing these readings, I have to engage in interdisciplinary methodologies. I tell my students that if we're given a book, we may think of the text as contained within the cover. But you can actually read the ways in which the book connects not only to other texts, but also to other contexts, giving rise to a network or an “intertext” of sorts. That’s the kind of scholarly reading I do: from texts to contexts and intertexts.

I try to convey the broader resonance and significance of cultural production. We live in a time when the humanities and culture are often marginalized. They’re considered to be ancillary to politics. I try to invert that understanding. Culture can inform political violence and can, in fact, reveal the clues to its instigation.

On the relationship between epistemic and material violence:

I spend a lot of time in my courses discussing the ways in which epistemic issues, which are issues of knowledge formation, are tied to ontological concerns—that is, behavior. That connection becomes really interesting when you look at issues of conflict between groups, ethnicities, and peoples.

For example, in many countries throughout the Middle East, and specifically in Turkey a language and alphabet reform took place in the late 1920s, whereby the Ottoman Arabic script was, in a matter of months, changed to the Latin script. Immediately, newspapers were written in another alphabet. It became illegal to publish anything not in the Latin script.

This created a rupture between one linguistic system and another. I see this as an extremely violent process, yet it was presented as a benign process for the greater good, and with a rationale based on a linguistic argument: it’s easier to teach in Latin. This rationale conceals a completely different, ideological social engineering that was happening in the name of nationalism.

The war crimes tribunal held in occupied Istanbul after World War I to address the genocide and atrocities inflicted upon the Armenian population in the Ottoman Empire, left us with fragmentary archives—which are also in Ottoman Turkish. And so, a few years later, when the state changed the alphabet, this was an epistemic move, which concealed political violence in the name of progress.

On approaching the archive through a “literary mode of knowing”:

The Armenian genocide was enacted through population transfers and massacres by the Ottoman government. The archive associated with the Istanbul tribunals establishes an early evidentiary source for this war crime. The documents that constitute it are fragmentary, raising subsequent issues of law and historiography with regard to crimes against humanity.

But these documents and fragments are a fascinating source of interdisciplinary analysis. Some legal scholars might look at archival documents and think about their probative value: what does this tell us as a fact? But the documents can be read in other ways, ways that reveal a cultural or political imaginary. I read the archives as a textual corpus, through what scholars might call a “literary mode of knowing.”

For example, there are documents of interrogatories—questions that prosecutors asked suspects during this period—however, they’re incomplete. They don’t include the answers, for example, just the questions.

But the questions themselves are extremely revelatory. In a legal framework, they would be dismissed for lack of probative value. But in an interdisciplinary, cultural analysis, they indicate a genocidal landscape within state and society that exists outside the evidentiary rules of the courtroom.

The literary reading enables us to revalue the archive affectively in a way that gives it testimonial force that it's stripped of otherwise. Today, the Turkish government might acknowledge Armenian deportations and massacres, but refuses to acknowledge the intent to harm or kill Armenians as genocide. An intertextual and “affective reading” of these documents makes it impossible to deny that intent.

What do you hope people take away from your talk?

This is an incredibly violent and tragic period in Middle Eastern history. But it’s also somewhat marginalized. We predominantly think about the region as an area studies region or through the lens of individual nation-states, which filters out this formative moment of the end of empire. But this period of reterritorialization is the prequel to the modern Middle East as we know it.

The other thing I would like people to take away are the revelations of alternative archival readings. Tracing the way a legal or historical document can be embedded in various contested discourses is fascinating. Through an affective reading, we can trace analyze those discourses and think about how the document is appropriated by various political or social imaginaries, by various sites of state power.

Hopefully, this work will encourage others who may know of other lesser known or marginalized archives that may be worth reexamining and refiguring. I hope to encourage others to retrieve archival stories in innovative and politically engaging ways.

What are you teaching?

I direct a study abroad program called “The Middle East and Europe.” We had to stop taking students to Turkey after the failed coup in 2016, so we now have a four-week program in Berlin. But I’m very excited because for the first time this coming summer, we’ll be going to Istanbul for the culminating week.

As part of this program, I teach a course that deals with the historical and fraught relationship between Turkey and Germany, going back into the late 19th century. We tap into that history, as well as more contemporary issues of diaspora, Gasterbeiter or guest workers, and state minority relations.

At Duke, I currently teach a few courses on a regular basis. One is called “Geopolitics and Culture.” The subtitle changes, but it's been “From Bosnia to Afghanistan” for a while. We look at geopolitical conflicts throughout the Middle East using cultural texts as points of entry.

I also teach “Istanbul: City of Two Continents,” which examines at the last 150 years of the city and issues of contested cosmopolitanism.

Selected publications for further reading:

Göknar, E. (2020). The AKP’s Rhetoric of Rule in Turkey: Political Melodramas of Conspiracy from “Ergenekon” to “Mastermind.” The Oxford Handbook of Turkish Politics, 710–732.

Göknar, E. (2019, May 19). The Light of the Bosphorus: Orhan Pamuk’s Photography in “Balkon.” Los Angeles Review of Books. Retrieved from

Deonte Harris smiling

Of the £100 million generated by London's Notting HIll Carnival each year, very little is seen by the artists who make up the carnival—so what keeps the artists coming back year after year? What kind of "value" does the carnival pose to the artists, outside of the typical economic framework? And what might it look like for scholars to pursue knowledge in solidarity, and to give knowledge and materials back to the communities that they study?

Here we interview Assistant Professor of the Practice in International Comparative Studies Deonte Harris about his research and teaching. Dr. Harris gave a talk entitled "Interrogating 'Value from Below': An Ethnography of Culture and Power in London’s Carnival Art and Music Scene" on Friday, January 28, 2022, as part of our tgiFHI series.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

What are your research interests and how did they develop over time?

I’m interested in exploring global Blackness and its complexities.

I have a PhD in ethnomusicology, and while I was in graduate school, I had the opportunity to travel abroad for the first time to conduct a summer research project.

I was interested in working with Caribbean people outside of the Caribbean region because there’s not very much research on those communities within ethnomusicology. And so when I considered the possibilities of places to go, London stood out as both outside of the U.S., outside of the Caribbean, and the furthest destination from me. While there, I immersed myself in a community that I got to learn from every single day: their different accents, cultural norms, and ways of being.

This opened a broader understanding for me of what it means to be Black in the world. My dissertation and current book project would look radically different had I not done this project.

Currently, I’m researching the production of the Caribbean carnival scene in London. I’m in the process of developing a methodological approach to the study of “value,” which doesn’t privilege the usual economic framework. I call it “value from below.”

What I’m after is a larger question of what it means to invest oneself in the carnival. For example, calypso was once quite lucrative, but none of the artists today that I work with are well-paid from performing and recording calypso music. Also, the Notting Hill Carnival (NHC) in London generates nearly £100 million a year, but the overwhelming majority of that money does not go to the masquerade bands, steel bands, DJs, etc.

The strength of calypso and carnival, as a performance practice and cultural tradition, has continued even though the market doesn’t benefit the artists and musicians financially. How and why do these people continue to come out to produce this carnival year after year? What is the value in that? I’ve discovered that “value” oftentimes has to do with things that escape an economic framework.

What was your day-to-day research like for your current project?

For the book project, my research has been mostly ethnographic. There isn’t really an archive on the NHC. There are various individuals who have collected things over the years, but the carnival exists, primarily, as community history.

The first artist that I interviewed for this project is a calypsonian who performs by the name Alexander D Great. He generously taught me some of my earliest “history lessons” on calypso.

Alexander really gave me the inroads to meet people and become known as a researcher in the scene. Now, every time I go back, people will recognize me with my camera and audio recorder. I’ve formed friendships, and will sometimes go back for things like weddings. These are top notch artists, and I'm grateful they have allowed me to learn from them.

Over the years, I’ve tried to absorb as many cultural happenings as possible to get a sense of the scale and scope of what's happening in the scene. It really is a dynamic and brilliant “who's who of artists and musicians.” There’s so much activity, especially in the summers: different concerts, rehearsals, competitions, soca and dancehall fetes every weekend, and educational symposiums—all building up to the two-day carnival.

Something else I learned was how to foster relationships that are not just extractive. I didn’t want to simply go there to gather data in order to write things about them thousands of miles away. I wanted to give the knowledge and material that I was gathering to back to the community in some way. 

The Association of Calypsonians UK are currently in the process of developing a digital calypso archive, and I intend to continue to bolster the already existing materials they have. I’ve done so by donating many of my video and audio recordings of performances over the years, and will continue to do so for as long as I’m working with the community.

Prioritizing this sort of non-extractive relationship is also something that I learned from Alexander, and I’m eternally grateful for that.

How does London’s carnival tell a larger story about global Blackness?

I had thought about doing a multi-sited project, but I ultimately decided to focus on London. I want more Black ethnomusicological scholarship to exist on Caribbean people in London—I see this as my contribution. 

And the thing is, while the NHC is a local phenomenon, it's also global in terms of its impact. Year after year, the carnival is produced and people come from all around the world for it.

The musical aspect of the carnival offers a unique lens to understand its global reach. For example, if you go to the carnival, you’ll hear recordings of masquerade bands playing soca music—but you probably won’t be hearing local artists. Overwhelmingly, the music that you’ll hear comes from the Caribbean. And each year, the newest soca tunes from the Caribbean are played in London.

That same music that you’ll hear in London’s carnival, you’ll hear if you go to New York’s carnival, which happens a couple of weeks later. And then if you go to Miami's carnival a month after New York, you’ll hear the same music.

London's carnival is situated within a nexus of carnivals that are all interconnected by the music. So, for me, even though I’m focusing on London, I’m listening to a global music, and I’m studying articulations of a diaspora in action. 

What is the role of interdisciplinarity in your work?

Interdisciplinarity shows me what’s possible for music scholarship. I gravitate towards Black studies, diaspora studies, and Caribbean studies, and then I integrate them with musical analysis and ethnographic methods.

I'm inspired by a lot of research that happens outside of music. A number of scholars who are in Black studies or English, for example, who also think about music, write in a way that I find so refreshing. I think those scholars have made some crucial contributions to the study of music, and we, as music scholars, stand to benefit from learning from their ways of thinking and writing about music.

An example is La Marr Jurelle Bruce’s book, How to Go Mad Without Losing Your Mind: Madness and Black Radical Creativity (2021). He’s thinking through what it means to be mad, to go mad, to be perceived as mad, in relation to Blackness. And he asks whether it’s possible to create a “mad methodology” with studying things like music. Is it possible to pursue this knowledge not as something to collect, but as something that grows continuously and is rooted in community, solidarity, and radical compassion?

It's this spirit from such scholars that I find really special. It’s a model of the kind of care and thinking that I hope to cultivate in my own work, and that I hope to see in younger scholars.

What do you hope people take away from your talk?

I hope people come away with a better understanding of what I mean by “value from below.” This approach recognizes that value is a racialized phenomenon.

The NHC generates so much economic value, but you can't really understand the carnival without also thinking about race and the history of struggle against antiblack racism in Britain. Value from below, out of necessity, brings race and marginality, as an analytical framework, into the conversation.

The other point I hope people take away is that there’s a misperception that these large festivals are purely fun and celebratory, but there’s very overt political symbolism that undergirds all the reverie. This, too, is politics that's happening below the surface. 

What are you teaching?

I'm currently one of the co-directors of the Honors Distinction Program in the International Comparative Studies (ICS) program, and I have taught all of the ICS core courses since I joined the faculty here in 2019.

Additionally, I have introduced two new electives to the university. The first is an undergraduate seminar designed to cultivate new cross-cultural, interdisciplinary, and intersectional approaches to the study of value by bringing it together with critical studies of race. The title of the course is “Meaning, Mattering, and Black Being in the World: Towards a Critical Theory of Race and Value.” I’m teaching that this semester, and it is cross-listed as ICS, AAAS, and CULANTH. Feel free to listen along to the course playlist on Apple Music or Spotify.

The other elective is an undergraduate seminar that foregrounds the critical role of the imagination and creativity to modern Black political struggle in global contexts, from the era of Atlantic slavery to the contemporary Black Lives Matter movement. This course is titled “Music and The Black Radical Imagination.” I taught this one last semester, and it cross-listed as ICS, MUS, and AAAS. Listen along to the course playlist on Apple Music or Spotify.

Selected publications for further reading

“On Race, Value, and the Need to Reimagine Ethnomusicology for the Future.” Ethnomusicology 66:2 (forthcoming Summer 2022).

Iyn posing in sunset

On January 7, 2022, Iyun Ashani Harrison (Associate Professor of the Practice in Dance) gave a talk entitled "On Becoming: A Dance Research Presentation" as part of our tgiFHI series. 

Here's an interview with Prof. Harrison on his research interests, method, and practice.

What are your research interests, and how did they develop?

I am an Associate Professor of the Practice and Director of Undergraduate Studies in the dance program. I teach ballet technique: intermediate and advanced levels, male technique, male variations, and pas de deux.

I grew up in Jamaica, where dance is an integral part of the culture, and my parents were artists. My father, Stafford Ashani Harrison, worked as a professional actor and videographer, and my mother, Christine Ann Bell, performed part-time on radio, television, and stage, and she was also a business owner. In my early teens, my mother took me to see a performance by a Jamaican dance company, L’Acadco, where I saw an exquisite male dancer suspended from a rope in the rafters. I vividly recall experiencing a sense of awakening, an excitement for performance and dance-making!

I later had an opportunity to join a children’s performing arts group, Little People Teen Player Club, where we studied musical theater. The director, Cathi Levy, recognized my talent for dance and encouraged me to investigate it more closely. Luckily, due to my parents’ expertise in the arts, they knew that ballet training would support my development. I eventually moved to the USA, studying ballet, modern dance, choreography, and music at The Juilliard School.

I would describe myself as a formalist, though not a traditionalist. My choreography is neo-classical-leaning because of my tenure with the Dance Theatre of Harlem, but it is better categorized as contemporary ballet. My work is formal at its core - commonly using musical visualization, narrative, and abstraction, trying to push the limits of how neoclassicism might be utilized to convey ideas – not just form.

On dance as a research method:

People tend to think of dance only as practice: training, performing, teaching, and art-making. However, dance has a literary canon like theater, music, visual art, and other artistic disciplines. This literature includes the folks, places, and ideas that provide the dance profession's foundational histories, theories, and criticism. For example, aspects of dance literature align with the social sciences. The dance sciences also ask questions such as, “How do we keep dancers safe and healthy? What is the optimal way of working?” Dance literature is robust, expansive, and deep, and in this way, it falls into what the academy frames as traditional research.

However, there is also the more ephemeral and slippery space of creative research. This area of dance is not unlike what scientists do; We look at the body of work (the literature) and ask what is missing or needs to be explored more deeply. We start with an idea (hypothesis) and then experiment (rehearsal/investigate) – the final work (the artifact – a performance, video, Etc.) represents our findings. I feel that this approach to creative research is where the interdisciplinary and intersectional nature of dance is best evidenced.

You characterize your work as both “intersectional” and “inter-disciplinary.” Do the intersectional, and the interdisciplinary aspects relate?

Intersectionality is critical. My Jamaican Blackness, queerness, and cis-gendered-ness all inform my creative impulse. My work is often in dialogue with queer, gender, Black, and diaspora studies. My sense of self, construction of self, and how I identify inform my interests outside of the dance discipline.

For instance, I am currently creating a ballet adaptation of James Baldwin’s Giovannis Room. The novel’s liberatory themes parallel my experience moving from Jamaica to the USA. I appreciate how Baldwin captures the idea that traveling to a new place can allow for anonymity, self-exploration, and the rejection of old cultural norms, providing the possibility of redefining oneself. David’s journey in Giovannis Room feels like a mirror of my experience moving from Jamaica to the USA, where I could stand in my queerness and artistic life in more authentic ways than in my nation of birth safely allowed.

My research into this ballet adaptation involves collaborations with Duke colleagues in African & African-American studies, English, Theater and Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist studies. I have created a libretto based on our conversations and began choreographing the main scenes and ideas. An interdisciplinary methodology is essential for the ballet translation to make sense as a representation of the novel.

At the core of my creative research is the question of ballet’s relevancy. It is over five hundred years old and losing popularity with younger audiences who cannot relate to the classical and romantic ballet periods' hegemonic, sexist, and heteronormative narratives. In my work, I investigate whose stories are not represented in classical ballet. Whom do I need to bring into the room, so I do not perpetuate ingrained and problematic ideologies taught to me as a child training in this antiquated art form? How do I create authentic work representative of myself and contemporary times? How am I pushing against ballet conventions in my work?

How do you think about audience in relation to your work?

I make work because I have a deep desire to engage with societal problems creatively. I want audiences to see my work and would be happy if they enjoyed it, but if they do not, I still take on the task of wrestling with a problem. There is a part of me that wants my mom or my grandma to be able to understand or grasp something from my work. Even if they do not like it, I want them to have a way of entering the art. In this way, I am committed to making accessible art. As I think of accessibility, it is significant to note that I do not intend to pander to my audience. The work wants to say something complex, and I see my role as giving the viewer ways to enter - asking them to come along with me on this journey.

American culture has a troubling ethos that interpretative or modern dance is the punchline of any joke representing an incomprehensible topic. But in fact, nothing could be more accessible to a human being than a dancing body. If we do not speak the same language, we can still negotiate the significance of a body in space. For example, many people have biases and ways of understanding bodies. Folks have all kinds of opinions about Black, Brown, white, male, female, trans, and able bodies, so when somebody sees a body moving and says they do not understand what they are watching, I do not believe it. What I think the audience member is doing in these moments is avoiding engaging with something complex – something that the body insinuates that brings the viewer discomfort. I believe that when audiences come to a theater and see bodies on stage, they already have all the information they need to draw conclusions.

So, my position towards the audience is to ask them to work harder – I will give you clues, but you should engage. You have much cultural information helping you to understand what you are seeing. Or, if you do not want to approach it intellectually, allow the dance to wash over you. We may not understand the ocean, but we can sit by the water and let the sound, smell, and other sensations wash over us. There is something that it does to us emotionally. We have an understanding even without words.

You can come into dance intellectually, from a cultural perspective, or let the thing wash over you.

What do you hope people take away from your talk?

The big takeaway is that there are artists on campus—and our work is significant. It is not just for decoration, entertainment, stress relief, and escapism. We are not here simply to put on charming little performances. Dance is a robust and complex field of inquiry with a literary and artistic canon, and we contribute to the intellectual and cultural capital of the Duke campus in a meaningful way.

If people have more insight into our work, perhaps more significance could be placed on the arts at Duke. For me, it is political. I wanted to demonstrate the depth of my research: yes, it is a dance on stage - it is choreography, but it is informed by profound and intersectional analysis. Like our colleagues in other departments and colleges, artist-educators push the edges of our field.

What are you teaching, and what's on the horizon for you and your work?

Next semester, I will teach advanced ballet and a ballet repertory class. I am also excited to develop and lead a new course - Arts Activism and Everyday Technology. I am working to build a curriculum that students might see as culturally relevant. I desire students to become excited about who made activist art before us, who the creative disruptors are now, and how they can activate to make radical art.

I am also developing two other courses for the coming semesters: 1) Black Dance: Jamaican Context. It focuses on the historical and cultural dances central to the Jamaican theatrical dance lexicon; And. 2) Ballet History: Black Presence investigating the Africanist contribution to the art of ballet.

Regarding my research, I have an upcoming summer choreographic residency at The Ailey School (the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater) in New York City. In fall 2023, I will premiere the ballet adaptation of Giovanni's Room. Lastly, in the fall of 2023, Antiracist Ballet Teaching (a Routledge text I am coediting and cowriting with Kate Mattingly) should be published. The text brings together a dialogue between practitioners and theorists in ballet studies on the topic of race in ballet education.

Additional Resources:

On January 14, 2022, Paul Jaskot (Professor of Art, Art History, and Visual Studies) gave a talk entitled "Using Digital Methods to Analyze Humanities Sources: The Case of Nazi-Occupied Krakow" as part of our tgiFHI series. 

Here's an interview with Prof. Jaskot on his research interests, method, and practice.

What are your research interests?

I am a specialist in modern German art history with a sub-specialty in the art and architectural policy of Nazi Germany. Broadly, I teach on issues of modern art and modern architecture and am really interested in the political history of art. Because of my focus in Nazi Germany, I intersect quite a bit with Holocaust studies. I regularly teach in that area and am involved with the Holocaust Geographies Collaborative, which has been around since 2007. Through that, I look at questions of how space matters in terms of understanding the history of the Holocaust. My interest in built environments--space as building, space as construction--has led to interdisciplinary conversations with a lot of different folks.

If my first hat is art history, and my second hat is Holocaust studies, my third hat is digital humanities. I've done quite a bit of work on mapping and modeling in Holocaust studies and do mapping and modeling of the built environment digitally, in collaboration with a wonderful set of colleagues here at Duke and elsewhere. That's something I try to rope into all of my art history classes, as well as think about in terms of my research.

How did these research interests develop?

When I first went to graduate school at Northwestern, I thought I wanted to work on the artists on the Left who were “fighting the power,” who were involved in revolutionary activities. But my advisor and I couldn't quite find a topic that fit. In my second year, I stumbled into a course on Hitler and Stalin as artistic patrons, patrons of painting and architecture, which was very unusual at the time. I thought, well, I could keep doing these artists on the Left, but it seemed to me that what was really needed was also looking at artists on the Right. That is, thinking about the extremes of politics and thinking about the extremes of politics from a rightwing perspective.

I plunged into a dissertation that led me to study forced labor concentration camps as sources for building materials for the monumental architecture of Nuremberg and Berlin during the Nazi period. When I started, several art historians said that I’d never get a job because what I was doing wasn’t art. It was focused on perpetrators and camps. But I kept pursuing it because I was really interested in the political question. Even now I continue getting drawn back to the central question of how architecture was instrumental for Nazi political action and pursuit of their plans.

This is a long way of saying that political history has really driven me from the start. It has driven me because no one else was doing it, but it’s a question that's been hiding in plain sight. The historians don't want to do it because it's “culture.” The art historians don't want to do it because it's about rightwing perpetrators and rightwing policy. So it falls between the gaps. Every time I think I’m done, I find another topic that no one is touching, like architecture, construction, and occupied Europe, which is about hundreds of thousands of people.

Look at the railroad system. Whether we are in history, art history, or literature, we all understand the importance to the railroad system as an infrastructure that enabled genocide and that promoted genocide. But we don't think about construction in that same way. Until we see construction as a cultural core of the genocidal project, I'm going to keep going down this path. We have to put those two words--culture and genocide--together.

I’ve tried to think this question outside the context of Nazi Germany in some of my publications. I've looked at Weimar. I’ve looked at post-War culture. I’ve done some work on Chicago architecture. Most recently, I’ve been interested in looking to the east, looking to occupied Europe. Currently I’m working on a Krakow project.

As an interdisciplinary scholar, what is your research methodology?

In some ways, I've actually given up on the question of interdisciplinarity. That might be surprising for someone who feels in between several disciplines. But I think there's a myth of interdisciplinary, which is that we can learn any discipline we want, at any time we want, and as many as we want. But no one would really say they do that. When we talk about interdisciplinarity, we’re really talking about one, two, or maybe three disciplines that we work between.

I say I'm “giving up” on the project because the more I've been involved in digital humanities, the more I feel the answer to real interdisciplinarity is collaborative scholarship across disciplines and acknowledging one’s own disciplinary limits.

That was a hard thing for me to learn. It came with my experience as part of the Holocaust Geographies Collaborative, in a really exciting summer workshop in 2007 at the Holocaust Museum. The Holocaust Museum brought together five professors who worked on space and five professors who were historical geographers who worked on Geographic Information Systems, or GIS, i.e. digital mapping. The GIS people knew nothing about the Holocaust and we as the Holocaust people knew nothing about GIS. So we got into the room and had a whole 10 day workshop all planned out. Each one of us was responsible for a day. At the end, we were supposed to present our own work and say how thinking with these GIS people made us think differently. That was the standard format. But something clicked on Day 2.

At some point in the conversation, we just stopped and said let's throw this 10 day syllabus out. Instead of doing 10 individual presentations, let's do 1 collaboratively with all of us. For the humanists in the room that was very scary because humanists do not typically complete new projects in 10 days and present it publicly as professional work. We write books over 10 years! We don't do them in 10 days! But it was also really exciting. We did 1 presentation with 10 people in 10 days, and it taught me some things. First of all, it taught me I can really learn from geographers who are specialists in GIS. Secondly, working collaboratively, really collaborating, means letting go of my ego and everybody else's ego. It was an empowering experience, so we kept working together. After about three years, I sat in a class of freshmen and sophomores, as a full Professor, learning GIS because I knew that I needed to be able to talk to the geographers in a much more informed manner. It allowed me to say I can embrace geography, and historical geography, and I can embrace GIS as a method, because I know its capabilities, its affordances, and how it allows us to answer certain kinds of research questions.

This is where interdisciplinarity comes in. Suddenly I could see why those research questions were interesting for my research questions. Learning about GIS didn't mean that I was a specialist in geography. I would be the specialist on the built environment and on perpetrator history of the Holocaust. This is also where I think the humanities can really go much further. If we start to think of interdisciplinarity as collaboration, we can embrace collaboration in terms of how we think about our own scholarship. Sure, this means starting to co-author publications, but it also means changing our institutions. How do we hire collaboratives in humanities departments? That's not the way we think. How do we value collaboratives? Our award system is all about individuals. That's a real problem. If we want to address “Grand Challenges,” if we want to address something as big as genocide, from a humanities perspective, then we must stop embracing the Genius Solo-Author, or Interdisciplinary Guru, and start embracing interdisciplinarity as a collaborative practice in which we can start to tackle challenges at much more fundamental, complex, and rigorous levels.

Working collaboratively has taught me to think about the ways different kinds of research questions can be approached at a much higher level. Art history has specific research questions. We have research questions about culture and objects in the built environment. We have questions about design and reception. These are not the same questions as historians or geographers or literary scholars. I want to hold on to the disciplinary questions, but in some ways, I want to go back to the 19th-century German university model in which you could be an art historian, but within a large umbrella of the humanities. We have to change our environment if we want these larger questions resolved, or not resolved. It's like curing the common cold. We will never cure the common cold, but collaboratively working on a cure is what drives fundamental research in important ways. I believe if we start asking what is crucial to human experience, including the bad parts like genocide, then we can think about it in a different way and come at it from a variety of different research questions.

What does your research look like day to day, and what do you imagine research in the humanities more broadly looks like day to day in this collaborative model?

The heroine of my research model is Anne Knowles, one of my longtime research collaborators. She is a historical geographer at the University of Maine. Right now, we are working on an NEH funded Holocaust Ghettos Project. Between Anne Knowles and our own digital humanities specialist here at Duke, Hannah Jacobs, I’ve really learned the importance of project management. Both of them emphasize, for example, the need for regular team meetings, structured goal setting, and understanding process. All of that takes time and means stepping out of your own individual priorities. That's really the only way you can collaborate.

Making time for process means making time for not what you think is the priority, but what you, as a group, can agree on is the priority in this particular moment. That can be a challenge because the way that our academic life is structured, time is the great variable. It is really the one resource, the commodity of choice. Stepping back from that and making time for other people's work, discussions, and priorities, doesn't come naturally. We're not trained to do that and we're not encouraged to do that through the award system that we have set up. The dissertation, for example, is not about your colleagues; it's about you. And there's real value to that, too. I don't want to devalue individual work. In fact, I think it’s absolutely essential. But for collaborative work you have to be a little more intentional about your planning, and more emphatic about process as research. Again that’s not something that comes naturally to us in the humanities. I've had to learn that. I learned that partially by working with my colleagues and writing collaborative articles about our process.

But that's something very new for me, new since 2007. The idea that I would write an article about how I put something together, what I learned in the archive, and how I made evidence into data--realizing that the process was also analysis, the process was also results, and the process was also always ongoing--that’s the step a true collaboration needs and it means carving out time for teamwork and process itself. You also have to trust your colleagues know what your interests are and trust yourself to let go a little bit. It's not easy. Not surprisingly, it's particularly hard for junior faculty and graduate students because they really do have to worry about publishing solo-authored books and articles, and I understand that too.

What is the topic of your tgiFHI talk and what do you hope people who watch it will get out of it?

My talk brings these three fields of art historical inquiry, Holocaust studies, and digital humanities together and asks why we would do that. The way that I framed it was that there's a dominant trend right now in Holocaust studies called integrated history. It is a term that comes from Saul Friedländer, a major thinker who is now a retired Professor from UCLA. It's a very common term for this idea that for too long Holocaust studies, broadly, has had either perpetrators studies at the scale of the genocide, or has focused on victims of Jewish experience at the level of the individual, particularly through survivor testimony with their very powerful and very important memorial function of honoring individuals. That's been really productive for us, but as many of us who have talked about integrated history said, it means they are two separate areas that often don't speak to each other directly. The move towards integrated history is trying to see how we might be able to bring these two areas together.

As I started this project on occupied Krakow, I thought this major city was a perfect example. It is the only one where you have both a major plan for reconstruction--from a German point of view, that is, Germanifying it, making a German capital of the East, “Krakow will be German again.” That was the kind of phrase you would see in the propaganda from the Nazi occupiers. And, at the same time, it had a major ghetto and a major concentration camp, Plaszow, made famous in Schindler's List. This is very unusual. No other major city had this set-up. Berlin didn't have this. Munich didn't have this. Nuremberg didn't have this. Only Krakow. So it seemed natural to be able to talk about integration.

But integration wasn't quite working because I was just putting things side by side. I was correlating but wasn't connecting. As I was thinking through this, and thinking through it digitally, I started to shift from integration to intersection. Thinking about intersection meant that I could talk about how buildings and construction sites work as particular, intense points of intersection in terms of perpetrator goals and policies with victim lives and experience. Thinking about the built environment became a way of bringing Jewish, Polish civilian, and German perpetrator experiences into the same world without collapsing them into each other. I would never say these were the same. And it's not that these people had equal power, control, or policy. All three of these positions, and there were many more, were distinct but intersected there.

So if we start to focus on buildings as points of intersection, how can we start to relate these various approaches to the Holocaust? Out of that, I talked about, for example with housing, how we can think about the goals of the German occupiers as they dreamed about making wonderful German housing estates for the new Germanic presence. In fact, some of that was realized. How, at the same time, were they thinking about Jewish housing, which became the cramped spaces of the ghetto? And how was housing also a point of intersection in terms of construction and forced labor, in which German perpetrators, as well as some Polish civilians, were also involved with building and construction using Jewish forced labor? In all these ways, housing became a way of teasing out points of intersection and of understanding how these various constituencies come together while preserving their individual perspectives.

My major point is that we can use the built environment to think through the complex history of the Holocaust and the various players of the Holocaust. Perhaps even more importantly, by thinking about the various players and their relationships to construction, we can see how the role of cultural aspirations that come with construction were central to genocide itself. That is what I hope people will get out of this lecture: that Genocide is not only a product of racism and power, but is also that which we think of as “good” in human society, that is, a cultural agenda.

Are you teaching classes next semester? If so, what classes?

Next semester, I'll be co-teaching a graduate level pro-seminar with Hannah Jacobs on cultural and historical approaches to digital humanities. It's an introduction to various methods as well as theories of digital humanities. That is for our M.A. students in digital art history and computational media, but it is also taken by other graduate students who want to learn something about the digital humanities. I will also be co-teaching a seminar on Comparative Fascism in Germany, Italy, and Japan with Gennifer Weisenfeld, who is a Japan specialist.

In the spring, I’ll be teaching one of my bread and butter courses, Art and the Holocaust, which is an undergraduate seminar on the history of the Holocaust, but a cultural history. It follows Jewish artists, but also German artists who were involved in racist policies and the State, and thinks about how art, architecture, film, painting, you name it, how cultural products and cultural interests, were central to the Holocaust itself.

Douglas Jones headshot

Our Fall 2022 tgiFHI series continues with Douglas Jones, Associate Professor of English and Theater Studies. Here's an interview with Prof. Jones on his research interests, methods, and practice.

Tell us a bit about your research interests and how they developed for you.

My current research agenda is clustered around three primary areas: 18th- and 19th-century American literary studies, performance studies, and political theory. I came to these fields somewhat organically in terms of how they allowed me to ask certain questions about early American political cultures. One of my chief interests going into graduate school was the cultural work that facilitated Americans’ imaginings of themselves as a new nation with radically different types of persons as part of that polity. What I discovered very quickly is that the traditional archives of literature, written personal accounts, and monuments only tell us part of the story. There's another kind of archive, if you will, of embodied action, of oratory, theatrical culture, discourse, and being on the streets. So much of early American history emerges from spectacular performance events, the Boston Tea Party for example. My attraction to the intersections of early American embodied cultures and literary cultures was necessary and swift.

I was especially drawn to the question of how the United States positioned itself in relation to the institution of chattel slavery, since the US was founded on democratic principles such as consent of the governed and equality before the law. That moved me to working in various antislavery and proslavery archives. Those archives are full of written and material effects, but also ephemeral, embodied, theatrical, performative ones. So, if I wanted to ask the sorts of research questions that I wanted to ask and, indeed, answer them, I had to embrace various fields. I had no choice but to work across fields, disciplines, and methods. 

Consider enslaved persons’ and their descendants’ relative lack of access to the materials that make up traditional archives. Any interest in the ways in which they crafted political cultures; created and transmitted knowledge among themselves and others; or innovated aesthetic praxes requires working with what performance theorists call the repertoire of embodied action. As my current research suggests, these populations used the repertoire to a do a lot of theorizing of, say, the political. Traditional approaches to the history of ideas will always fail to miss these populations’ pivotal elaborations of political thought and practice. Happily, scholars are developing methods with which to understand how intellectual production happens on and through bodies in time and space. 

Can you say a bit more about your research methods and specifically what your day-to-day research practice looks like? Is there is a particular text that you're working on right now that you find especially interesting?

My day-to-day research practice depends on where I am in the project. For example, if I'm working in an archive or historical society or library, my day might include pulling out boxes, reading letters, reading newspapers; just doing a lot of retrieval, taking pictures, and getting copies. So that's what one day in my life as a researcher might look like. 

I try to do most, if not all, of this work before I begin my writing process. I spend a lot of time researching in collections, libraries, and archives so that I can later dedicate the bulk of my time to the writing. Once I am writing, I'm fairly disciplined in terms of setting down objectives for the week and meeting them. There was a practice that I developed for myself in graduate school: when I was writing my dissertation, I aimed to write a single-spaced page per weekday. If Saturday rolled around and I only had three pages when I should have had five, Saturday became a catch-up day. Because I wanted my Saturdays for Saturday-type stuff, I almost always made sure that I was on schedule. That type of writing discipline and regiment really works well for me.

I’m a big proponent of putting something on paper and refining it later, as opposed to trying to craft that perfect sentence or paragraph up front. So, a lot of the time when I say I am “writing,” I am really editing. One thing that happens regularly during my process is find myself moving to areas that I didn't outline—it’s almost magical! Sometimes they are digressions and tangents that don't work, but very often they do. This is to say that for all the writing discipline I espouse and try to practice, I do leave room for improvisation and a bit of wandering. But for any of this to happen, I must have the lion’s share of the archival research done.

The next question is about interdisciplinarity. Can you say a little bit more about how it plays out in your work?

One of my primary fields is performance studies, which emerged out of a peculiar combination of anthropology, rhetoric, literary studies, theater history and criticism, and philosophy. So, for me, interdisciplinarity is at the core of my training and critical approach.

That said, my subjects often lead me to different disciplines, because historical figures work within and across and against what we now call disciplines. This is especially true of the populations of British North America and the United States I study. To be sure, literary theory offers tremendous insights in the formal-generic aesthetics and political interventions of, say, classic antebellum slave narratives such as like Frederick Douglass’ Narrative of 1845. But at the same time, abolitionists like Douglass and their proslavery detractors worked at the lectern: they were orators whose words moved the social and political order of the day.

To take another example: I'm currently writing a book at the intersection of literary studies and political theory, especially democratic theory. The project, I hope, honors the literariness, the writerly, the formal aesthetics of my objects of analysis on one hand, but also, on the other hand, how they elaborate and reconceptualize specific democratic principles. It has been difficult crafting methods and identifying interventions because literary studies and political philosophy don't talk to each other very often; their terms and priorities don't regularly intersect.

I found myself asking questions like: how might I read political theory out a set of evangelical poems that is legible in political philosophy? What do these poems do as poems that might engender a particular understanding of some rudiment of democracy? What does the literary sketch as a genre, as a very popular genre in the mid-nineteenth century, offer a political philosopher that might be interested in questions of democratic subjectivity? What does the literary sketch supplement, complement, and elaborate in our understanding of democratic personhood that we have missed because we have relegated the genre to the work of culture, outside politics? 

I find myself often struggling with this balancing act. But it is a significant one to perform because, by reading early black literary as political philosophy, we encounter perspectives and knowledge-making that are sorely missing in the field precisely because early black writers, both free and enslaved, very rarely turned to formats like the essay or the treatise as their primary modus for philosophizing. For them, literary-intellectual culture and political culture are one-in-the-same. The kinds of disciplinary bifurcation that we might see now in our own cultural lives did not really obtain in long nineteenth century. This is why the publication of Phyllis Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral in 1773 was such a momentous political event. Thomas Jefferson wrote about Phyllis Wheatley on multiple occasions, most notably in his States on the Notes of Virginia (1785), because there was something about writing as an enterprise that had deep political consequences and implications in the eighteenth century, especially racialized ones. For better or for worse, we don’t have that sort of relationship with literary culture today. 

Tell us about your presentation for tgiFHI. What are some of the takeaways you want people to walk away with?

For tgiFHI I'm presenting some thoughts on the relationship between a practice called black minstrelsy, African American literature, and modern black subjectivity. Black minstrelsy was a theatrical phenomenon in the second half of the nineteenth century in which black performers donned blackface to perform their own versions of the minstrel show. Essentially, they took over the minstrel show, figuring, “Well, if white men in blackface can become rich and shape Anglo-American societies mocking us, watch what we can do.”

Forms of comedy like standup and the sketch and musical forms like as ragtime, jazz, and the blues all emerge out of the black minstrel show. For black performers and their black audiences, minstrelsy in no way affirmed black people as genetically deficient, as those who are inherently and always unintelligent, who are linguistically inept, who are incapable of being full, productive citizens in the American polity. Rather, they used minstrelsy and the blackface mask as theatrical conventions with which to tell their own stories and wrestle with their own sensibilities and desires, doing so with little to no regard about how others might judge them.

These performers, choreographers, composers, dancers, singers, musicians, instrumentalists, jugglers, and comedians weren’t especially worried about the “politics” of their minstrelsy. They were most invested in the social milieux they were creating for themselves and their audiences. The talk is going to deal with how black minstrelsy formed, what it does, why it does what it does, and how it influenced and shaped modern (African) American cultural formations and identities in ways that critics at the time and since either ignore or don’t want to talk about. We find that the black minstrelsy exerted a tremendous influence on black literary modernism, that is, the texts we associate with the Harlem Renaissance. That influence is in the characters, in how plots unfold, in narrative twists, in how the comedy is figured, and more. In short, my talk will consider how the seeds of modern black American literary production were planted in black minstrelsy. What's especially fascinating is there are so few, too few, critical approaches to that understanding that influence. 

We have writers like Rudolph Fisher and Zora Neale Hurston who embrace black minstrelsy and, more broadly, black vernacularity; they didn’t shy away from the fullness of black sociality: it became the wellspring of their art. Then we have someone like a James Weldon Johnson, who, while recognizing the importance of black minstrelsy, also decides against embracing it too much because he doesn't want his work to reaffirm some of its stereotypes. And then we have someone else like W.E.B. Du Bois who just rejects it and tries to offer forms of writing that are completely devoid of black minstrel material. The thing I would like people to take away from the talk is that when we conceptualize movements like the Harlem Renaissance or the New Negro Movement, it’s important to remember that they don't constitute absolute breaks from what came before or what is around it: there are continuities, transformations, spill overs. These movements that we study, oftentimes as high culture, as “Literature,” have a deep and tangled relationship with the vernacular, with popular culture. One cannot really understand the work of Langston Hughes, Rudolf Fisher, Marita Bonner, Jesse Faucet, or Nella Larson separate from the popular. But with the controversy that is black minstrelsy—blackfaced black performers in minstrel shows of their own making—scholars have largely refused to embrace it as worthy of serious critical treatments. My aim in this talk and the broader projects from which it derives is to help reveal just how important black minstrelsy was in the making of modern (black) America and, thus, why we should be studying it.

What classes are you teaching this year?

I’m teaching a course that is part of the Transformative Ideas program. The course is at the intersection of literary studies, theater studies, and political philosophy. It is a course about power: What is power? How is it constructed? How is it understood in terms of its relationship to the state? In terms of sovereignty and authority? In terms of violence? What are the ways in which we recognize power? How is it created? Transferred? Lost? 

In the class we read foundational political philosophers on power such as Machiavelli, Arendt, Mills, Weber, and Fanon, among others. We then pair up their text(s) with dramatic literature. And what this approach allows students to think about is the important of performance and other forms of public culture to the maintenance or transferal or accumulation of power within a polity. For example, we read Machiavelli’s The Prince alongside Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Students were very interested in the question of ambition: How does ambition function? How does it help you not only to procure power, but also to lose power? Machiavelli talks about when to use overriding force; he says the prince should use force once and for all, that he should not string it out. Students saw an illustration of this Machiavellian principle in Macbeth's downfall. This course is really trying to understand some of the cultural elaborations of what we call political power.

My students in the course loved Antigone. We wrestled with this clash between state power, which Creon represents (and must represent because Thebes is just coming out of a civil war), and cultural power, which Antigone represents in her effort to bury her brother Polyneices. Why is that clash so affectively and intellectual generative? And why does Creon win out? Or does he? What does the play say about state power versus cultural power as it takes shape in family and religion? We read Antigone alongside Plato's Crito. In the Crito, Crito says to Sophocles who is awaiting his execution, “Hey, we've got to get you out of prison and go somewhere else, and there you can raise your sons. It's important for your family that you escape.” To this Socrates says, “No, I can't do that, because the law and the state is more important than my family or any family. How can I raise my sons with honor and integrity if we are living elsewhere as fugitives, in rank violation of Athenian law?” The sorts of questions that these pairings of political philosophy with drama have prompted have been incredibly exciting for students to take up.

Our Spring 2023 tgiFHI series concludes with Annette Joseph-Gabriel, Associate Professor of Romance Studies. Here's an interview with Prof. Joseph-Gabriel on her research interests, method, and practice.

What are your research interests and how did they develop for you?

I've always been interested in how we tell stories about people who fall out of dominant narratives. I was trained in Francophone literature at a time when the canonical works in the field were primarily authored by men. Although we're very cognizant of stories from the French speaking world, including former French colonies, there are all these voices that fall out of that narrative including those of women who participated in public discourse in literature and in politics. Their stories get narratively situated in the space of the house, the home, the garden, and the nation as micro-spaces that reflect larger concerns.

My first book really wanted to think about women writing and speaking publicly, and that thread runs through all my research. I work mostly on slavery in the eighteenth-century and colonialism in the twentieth century in the French speaking world. At each point I'm asking the same question, “how do we tell the stories of those people who were not part of the dominant narrative?”

On a personal level, my introduction to the United States was Williamstown, MA, which was where I went to college. Having grown up in Ghana, it was extremely different from where I came from! I felt really lost and perplexed by that space, and I took a course called Defining the African Diaspora with Prof. Stéphane Robolin. In that course, we read Notebook of a Return to the Native Land by Aimé Césaire. At the time, I was thinking a lot about being in this space that was so completely different from anything that I knew. Diving into this text and the questions that Césaire was opening up for me about Francophone literature, French language, expression, the Black diaspora are really what sparked my interest in my current research about those voices that fall out of dominant narratives. At that moment in my personal life, I was trying to figure out my own voice and felt like I was falling through the cracks of this weird space that I was in that connected to my intellectual life and trying to understand these other stories that were emerging for me.

Can you tell us about how your work is interdisciplinary?

I'm a literary scholar and that's primarily what I do. However, I was trained by several Black women who were literary scholars, historians, and sociologists. My training was very interdisciplinary, which I think is very much the case for those who pass through any kind of Black studies program–I got a certificate in African American and diaspora studies in graduate school. The questions I was asking were being answered in very different ways by scholars who were situated in different disciplines. For me, interdisciplinarity in my work appears as different modes of inquiry that are in relation. There are different tools that allow us to answer these complex questions in different but related ways. There's never going to be one single tool or discipline that’s going to allow us to arrive at one single answer. Working at the nexus of these disciplines allows me to approach my work in creative ways. I also try to undo the things that are stifling, limiting, and constraining about the more traditional tools from these disciplines at the same time.

Can you talk about your research methods and also describe what your day-to-day research practice looks like?

One of the things that I've been thinking about recently in terms of method is an expression that I'm hearing scholars use more often, which is “thinking with” or “thinking alongside.” There's a traditional mode of intellectual inquiry where you have to acknowledge what has come before you and show what is new and different about what you’re doing, which kind of goes against everything that's come before. However, scholars who are thinking with and thinking alongside are doing some of that, but it isn't the primary motivation of their work.

Sometimes you can just kind of walk alongside the people who have been thinking these questions and think with them. Being in conversation, as opposed to being in conflict or competition, can really yield something important. My methodology really involves reading, writing, and thinking about that writing as participating in a larger conversation. It helps now to be a little bit more established in the field where my interlocutors are people who I know and consider my friends, colleagues, and intellectual community.

Can you tell us about your upcoming talk? What is a takeaway you hope people will leave with?

This talk comes out of the research for my second book project about enslaved children. I'll be talking about one of the children that I studied who was an enslaved boy in Paris who ran away from his enslaver, was caught, and imprisoned. While sitting there in a horrible, dark prison dungeon in Paris, he decided to write a letter to Benjamin Franklin to negotiate his release. In that letter he basically tells Franklin about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It becomes this remarkable transatlantic conversation initiated by an enslaved child sitting in a prison cell about ideas often associated with the Founding Fathers of the United States. It’s discussed not just as a philosophical ideal, but literally a fight for his life.

What I want people to take away from this is that Black children matter. Children like the enslaved boy that I just referenced, do interesting things when they write. Being attentive to those things that they do, can give us new creative methods for accounting for Black lives that were never fully accounted for in the archives and that are sometimes still not fully accounted for in some of our research methodologies. We talk a lot about the limits and the limitations of colonial archives, and how we must write creatively against those archives. Studying Black children as thinkers as opposed to just little people that you observe can do a lot for sparking something in our own creative writing.

What classes are you teaching?

This semester I am teaching a class called Black (in) translation. I'm thinking both about what it means to translate the word “Black,” so literally the word or the idea of Blackness in translation, but also thinking about the work of Black translators. It is a class that I am coteaching with my undergraduate advisor, Professor Stephané Robolin, who introduced me to all of this–it’s really a full circle moment. I’ll teach the class from Duke and he’ll be teaching from Rutgers. We'll meet simultaneously on Zoom and think about these texts and the questions of translation.

The class is taught in three languages across two institutions. Here at Duke the class will be taught in three different languages. We all meet on Tuesdays and hold the class in English, and on Thursdays we break out into discussion seminars. One seminar will be taught in English, another seminar in French, and the third seminar in Spanish. At each point, students are reading the same text, but in different languages so that we practice the theoretical questions that we are engaging with about translation.

The term "yellowface" is widely understood in pop culture, but it's not a searchable term in the archive catalogs—the concept doesn't exist. What is the first known instance of yellowface? How do theater historians write about live productions that happened in the past? And why is the history of yellowface in theater relevant today?

This week, we interview Esther Kim Lee, Professor of Theater Studies and International Comparative Studies and the Director of the Asian American and Diaspora Studies. Dr. Lee gave a talk entitled "Made-up Asians: Yellowface During the Exclusion Era" on Friday, February 4, 2022, as part of our tgiFHI series.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

What are your research interests and how did they develop?

I'm a theater historian, which means I study the history of theater, past and present. I focus on Asian American theater and Asian diasporic theater.

A week into my last quarter at UC Santa Barbara, an advisor told me that I needed one more general education course in the arts to graduate. The only course still open was a theory class called “Dramatic Structure.”

Little by little, I got really into it. One day, the professor gave a lecture about the structures of drama, the human brain, and computers. A light bulb went up. I went to his office hours and said, “I want to do what you do.” And he turned out to be a very well-known theater theorist! He let me study with him for my master’s. I dedicated my first book to him, Dr. Bert O. States.

Then I did my PhD at The Ohio State University. This was when I decided to pursue the history of Asian American theater. At the library, I saw a couple of shelves on African American theater history and a few books on Latinx theater history. I didn't find anything on Asian American theater history.

I decided to write my dissertation on this topic. By the time I finished the book version that came out in 2006, I had interviewed over 70 Asian American theater artists. I could have gone on and on. It included the first documentation of Asian American theater companies founded in the 1960s and 1970s.

That’s how I got started. And then something I learned through these interviews is that the origin story of Asian American theater is yellowface. In a way, my forthcoming book, Made-Up Asians: Yellowface During the Exclusion Era, is a prequel to my first book.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Asian characters were portrayed by mostly white actors in makeup and costumes. Asian American actors couldn’t get cast in principal Asian roles. And so these actors got together and founded theater companies to commission playwrights and create roles for themselves. This is how Asian American theater began. I wanted to explore this origin.

How does your research methodology differ between studying historical and contemporary works?

Historical productions are much more difficult to write about.

In music history, you can look at music scores. In art history, you can look at paintings. Even dance can be coded. But theater is impossible to document exactly. It’s the most ephemeral art form. Even if you videotape live theater, it's not the same once it’s over.

We have bits and pieces. We have scripts and production photos. We have writing about and by actors: reviews, autobiographies, gossip columns, and scrapbooks.

The book on yellowface was 100-percent archival. The terminology “yellowface” is not recognized in the archives. I couldn’t go into a catalog and type “yellowface” because the concept doesn't exist. So while I was trying to gather factual information about yellowface, I was also creating new knowledge about how to understand the concept.

To identify actors who did yellowface, I had to go to their files and look at hundreds of images before I’d finally find one. The digitization of the classification didn't help at all. It was really time consuming to go against the dominant mode of archiving. But at the same time, it was fun detective work.

Writing about live theater is much more accurate—at least in my interpretation of it. 

The first book from 2006 was mostly interviews. The interview process is about gathering a lot of different stories and then trying to provide a more neutral perspective. People disagree on things. You have to do some interpretation, rather than “he said, she said.”

When writing about live theater, I tend to start with the audience reaction. I sit at the very back to watch the audience. I try to provide a perspective that's usually not reflected in mainstream drama criticism. 

The vast majority of theater critics are white men. Their perspectives are very different from mine, especially when we're talking about Asian American plays. I try to educate critics who miss things. I try to be true to what the playwright and director intend to convey to the audience.

What is the most interesting thing you've found in the archives?

I was interested in how far back I can trace this yellowface image. I eventually traced it back to Joseph Grimaldi, the father of modern clowning. His version of “clown yellowface,” as I call it in my book, was the first caricature of a Chinese character. It’s what we're still seeing now. 

I actually didn’t find this in the archives. I found a picture—kind of like a collectible photo card for fans since he was so popular—attached to an interlibrary loan book. It was a picture of him in yellowface drawn by an artist in around 1812.

This was one of the big findings of my book! It was proof of “clown yellowface” as early as 1812. It’s the prototype of everything that we're seeing now.

My hand was shaking when I had to return the library book. I'm glad that at least I was able to digitize and share the image. It’s the first image in my book and we go back to it over and over.

What is the role of interdisciplinarity in your work?

Theater history has to be interdisciplinary. That’s something I like about it; I never get bored. There’s dramatic literature: you analyze plays like you would in English. There’s history: you study historiography and handle evidence. There’s art history: I look at actors’ iconographies, stage designs, and fan scrapbooks. There’s also popular culture because theater is about what's popular; If a play isn’t popular, it will close.

This book was also interesting because I got to study the difference between what was seen on stage and what was happening off stage in history. Often there felt like no connection between the two. Why would you vote to exclude Chinese men by law, but then go watch a Chinese character played by a white actor on Broadway? 

In some ways, the answer is pretty simple. It was a popular stock character played by a popular actor. People paid money to see it. Audience psychology is one of the more fascinating problems I had to solve in my book.

Why is the history of yellowface relevant today?

The history of yellowface and Asian American theater was absent in my education. It’s ironic that the history of the exclusion of Asians was excluded from my curriculum. I started to write this book with the hope of rectifying this double exclusion.

I wrote during the pandemic. I would write about the misrepresentation of Asians, and then I would go outside and feel that I should cover my face to not be attacked. What I was writing was so relevant to what I was experiencing on a daily basis: the misrepresentation, the caricature, the distortion of Asians.

I saw the way Asians went from quiet model minority to yellow peril almost overnight. To me, those are the exact same stereotype. They're both perpetual foreigners and “undesirable elements,” as Ping Chong put it. 

In a way, I should have predicted this. I was writing about yellowface as a tool. It was a technology used by theater artists to perpetuate the idea of the Asian as foreign and excluded. The legacy of its history is still felt. It’s more relevant than ever.

What do you hope people will take away from your talk?

Yellowface is about the construction of the white actor. The acting industry created a notion of the white actor, and perpetuated whiteness as the superior form of acting. I’ve concluded that this really has nothing to do with Asians. 

One question I hope people ask is: what are the legacies of historically privileging white actors? We idolize actors because they represent us and our society, but as beautiful and charismatic ideals.

Another question: who has the power to represent whom? Especially today, with the internet and social media, we’re all on camera, so in a way, everybody’s an actor. What does it mean to be an actor now? 

What are you teaching?

I'm not teaching this semester because I'm directing the Asian American & Diaspora Studies Program. This semester is really exciting because we’re going to have a new minor. 

Last semester, I taught “History of Acting,” which was a survey of acting from Greek theater to the 21st century.

Next year, I’ll be teaching “Asian American Theater,” a course I teach regularly, as well as a course called “Globalization and Theater,” which looks at how globalization has affected theater around the world.

Selected publications for further reading:

Made-Up Asians: Yellowface during the Exclusion Era (University of Michigan Press, 2022)

 “Historiography of Yellowface: Stage Make-Up, Materiality and Technology.” The Methuen Drama Handbook of Theatre History and Historiography. Eds. Claire Cochrane and Joanna Robinson. Methuen Bloomsbury, 2019.

A History of Asian American Theatre (Cambridge University Press, 2006)

You can find more readings at 

As part of its event series tgiFHI, the Franklin Humanities Institute is conducting interviews with its faculty speakers in order to familiarize broader audiences with the diversity of research approaches in the humanities, arts, and interpretive social sciences at Duke University.

Michael Kliën is Professor of the Practice of Dance and Director of Graduate Studies of the MFA in Dance: Embodied Interdisciplinary Praxis at Duke University. He also directs the Laboratory for Social Choreography at the Kenan Institute for Ethics.

In this edited and condensed interview, Dr. Kliën describes how the way we move our bodies constructs our world, why research and practice are the same thing, and how attempting to move differently might expand our imaginations—and could change our reality.

Dr. Kliën gave a virtual tgiFHI talk titled Wild Thoughts and the Killing of the Octopus: Social Choreography as an Aesthetics of Governance on Friday, October 30, 2020, at 9:30am. 

What are your research interests and how did they develop?

My interests are under the umbrella of social choreography. I think about social choreography in terms of how our ideologies form the frames in which we move our bodies and thereby build collective choreographies and systems of exchange, for example in our educational systems and towns.

The systems we create recursively determine how we individually move, and how we relate to each other. This loop becomes highly complex. We usually respond to the situations in our world—climate change, inequality, mental health—from within the framework of the ideologies that caused the issues in the first place.

Social choreography is a way to look at and gain an aesthetic feel for this interconnectedness. At the same time, it’s a way to create containers to find strategies for moving beyond our narrowly constructed reality. What’s “normal” is just not working anymore. We have to look for breakages in the matrix.

How does social choreography impact our everyday lives?

An example is how our culture has an obsession with squares. When you look out a window, at the floor, or at a computer screen, you are seeing the world through squares. We think it’s necessary to think and exist in squares; however, the body has no squares. We’ve constructed our world in a way that limits our perception of reality.

The role of the artist is to peel away the squares and start to rebuild spaces and relationships in different ways.

This is the artist’s work. And in social choreography, everybody's an artist. Everybody can think about these issues and engage in meaningful ways to undo, and then to find new ways to move, relate, and rebuild.

What is the genealogy of your artistic career?

I'm an artist and choreographer by training, but over the course of my career, I’ve also run my own dance companies, as well as created work ranging from contemporary ballet to happenings to club nights.

I've always felt the need to develop the discipline and expand what dance can mean. Dance is often relegated to the sidelines. Much of my work has been about bringing the moving body to the center of the conversation. At the same time, I work to expand choreography to go beyond the dancing body. I think about dance relationally, and I think about the social as an aesthetic field of engagement.

Over the years, I became interested in building avant-garde institutions with a utopian impulse. I built one in Ireland (Daghdha) and one on the Greek island of Hydra (R.I.C.E.). These were gatherings of, and centers for, concerned citizens and artists.

Throughout my career I spent time developing work for various dance companies and later museums. Along the way, I got my PhD. Then three years ago, Duke came into the picture. I thought it was a fascinating challenge to help build an MFA program that’s somewhat different from what’s traditionally offered in academia.

How does your research interact with your practice?

I work in an aesthetic field that’s also a complex and living process. There’s almost no distinction between my research and my practice. A thought is always a physical act; A physical act is always a thought.

My practice has many aspects, including a lot of reading. I'm very influenced by Gregory Bateson on systems theory and ecological thinking. I also support much of my teaching through cultural theory and interdisciplinary writing. Like any researcher, I try to stay on top of all the different discourses going on.

But I treat the research with a different methodology. For example, in academia you’re not allowed to quote without credit, but in the arts, you make and remake. I allow all my material to be reused in open source systems.

Another aspect of my practice is in the form of situations, such as with Parliament at the Nasher Museum a couple of years ago. I set up containers with very few instructions. People spend six to ten hours in silence, with nothing to do, nowhere to sit, and nothing to look at. Then very quickly, self-organizing dynamics take over. Because I invite many people from different knowledge bases, new embodied situations emerge.

These situations feel very alien initially, but as they go on, people get very excited. It's like there are untapped fields of existence, awareness, and reality that people carry but must subdue in their daily interactions. We’re so governed by shame and fear, but here you find a deep connection with people you’ve never met. There’s a sense of belonging and care.

How do you work within the contradiction of also having to participate in social constructs?

In social choreography there isn’t a traditional “against-ness” toward our constructed reality. We’re all a part of the systems we’ve built, and a part of the problem, yes, we can recognize and address the intrinsic fallacies of a collectively constructed reality.

The question is how can we, together, expand our field of what’s imaginable, and then build a new institution together? This is a long-term project, and it's still very early on. I don't know if this work has or will affect the very foundations of our institutions.

But consider how ecological collapse has already happened and is continuing to happen. If you’re driving 200 miles an hour toward a wall, you could just sit there and accept that you’re going to hit that wall. Or you could just try something.

It might all be in vain, but at least we would be trying to move differently. And we might need to move very differently, outside of what’s comfortable. To go through the amount of change needed, there will be pain. Social choreography brings out pain and resistance as well.

What do you hope people take away from your talk?

I’d like for people to gain a basic understanding of what social choreography is, and to become curious about engagement and collaboration.

I also think there’s often a subtle effect from these sorts of talks that’s very hard to predict. I'm interested in the “takeaway” that comes back years later in ways you would never imagine. I don't want to flatten that mystery by setting clear expectations.

The acknowledgement that our understanding of everything is limited is really important to social choreography and my artistic practice. It’s humbling.

What are you teaching?

This semester I’m teaching the graduate course “Choreographic Praxis,” in which we look at different ideologies of human ordering that we connect to our political systems. I’m also teaching “Movement Research,” where students research through movement to dig into their psyches.

Next semester, I’m teaching an undergraduate class, “Dancing States of Mind,” which is about reaching different ways of thinking through movement. It’s open to anybody who's interested in how moving relates to learning, thinking, and living.

The first exercise I give is to simply go out in public and hold one arm above your head. Stand there and see what happens. The students have to overcome a lot of shame and fear to do this exercise—they see that people will then move away from them very quickly.

We then unravel why that is. The “land of the free” is highly regulated. Our movements are highly trained since infancy and any breakage of social codes will lead to consequences. If you stand with your hand above to your head, people won’t want to be near you, they will feel threatened by you, you will become unreliable.

In “Dancing States of Mind,” we get out of line together. We contemplate freedom and who governs what we can and cannot do. It’s a personally challenging, yet joyful class. After taking it, students seem to feel better, because they discover a sense of personal agency in the unfolding story of our collective realities.

Our Fall 2022 tgiFHI series continues with Kimberly K. Lamm, Associate Professor of Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies. Here's an interview with Prof. Lamm on her research interests, methods, and practice.

Can you tell us about your research interests and how they developed for you?

My research is focused on psychoanalytic feminism, the iteration of feminism that takes up the insights of psychoanalysis, and brings it to bear on US literature, art, and visual culture. I think a lot about the affinities between aesthetic practices and psychoanalysis, both as a kind of method for reading texts, but also as a one-on-one experience in the clinic. For me, both aesthetic practices and psychoanalysis encourage us to see, understand, and value people in their singularity, or how their subjectivities are unpredictable arrangements of desires and histories. And I think that that is enormously valuable, because I don't see much out there in the world that is attentive to the singularity of people. In Black studies, which is an important part of my research, there is a concept of the Black interior developed by Christopher Freeburg in his book, Black Aesthetics and the Interior Life (2017) that resonates with my interest in psychoanalysis. Freeburg writes that “the fact that Black people suffer from racist social hierarchy is general, but precisely how one struggles, contests, and falls victim to the suffering is inherently unique.” To me, this is very much aligned with the insights of psychoanalysis. A concept like the Black interior doesn't account for the histories of systemic racism, but I feel like it is a necessary supplement to those kinds of investigations.

I was initially trained to read modern and contemporary poetry in the US, and it taught me how to read carefully and expansively and take the imagination seriously. My study of Black literature is an important part of cultivating that attention and understanding its political stakes. The work of poets such as Gwendolyn Brooks and Harryette Mullen underscore how significant a concept like the Black interior can be.

Tell us about your research methods and describe what your day-to-day research practice looks like. What’s a particular text or a writer that you're working on right now or thinking through?

My research methods are really informed by psychoanalytic insights about the unconscious and the idea of “working through,” the name for a process of revisiting, through words and affects, memories and experiences that one holds in the unconscious. I consistently choose, read, and investigate texts that illuminate the fact that when we talk about identity categories such as gender, sexuality and race, often we aren't fully present to ourselves, particularly if we have inherited damaging histories. I'm also interested in texts and objects that attest to the limitations and dismissals built into the concepts of women, femininity, and feminism, and I look for places in texts that challenge those limitations and dismissals. Related to this, I also try to imagine connections among women that aren't premised on failure and open up possibilities for imagining alignments among women that can account for the differences that imperialism, colonialism, and racism have enforced.

My first book, Addressing the Other Woman: Textual Correspondences and Feminist Art and Writing (2018), looked at artists (Adrian Piper, Nancy Spero, and Mary Kelly) and writers (Angela Davis, Valerie Solanas, and Laura Mulvey) who were aligned with the feminist seventies, and who deployed language to interrupt dominant images of women and did so to address and create feminist audiences. I'm always looking for historical moments in which those kinds of correspondences, even if they're imaginative, have been foreclosed, but are also possible.

In terms of my day-to-day research practices, and how that looks, I try to wake up, drink coffee and write. If I can do that, then ideas and connections flow and my interests and my purpose become clear. It is a great feeling to discover what you're thinking as you're writing. There's nothing else like it. If I don't get to do that every day, I get kind of uncomfortable and frustrated.

Is there a particular text that you found to be formative in terms of your development as a scholar, or a text you're currently invested in that you could talk about?

In addition to “Words and Clothes: Sartorial Self-Fashioning and the Legacies of Enslavement” (see below), I'm working on an edited collection devoted to the work of Laura Mulvey. It's called “Laura Mulvey: Feminist Legacies” and it's trying to create a full account of her work and its impact across multiple fields, including, of course, film and film theory. A big part of my investment in Mulvey’s work is a film that she directed with Peter Wollen in 1977 titled Riddles of the Sphinx. Riddles is a very dense avant-garde cinematic text that draws on psychoanalysis and indexes the women's liberation movement in Britain in the 1970s. Right now, I'm returning to that film to think about issues of voice and the suppression of women's voices, particularly in public life and in public discourse.

Riddles continues to be a real resource for me. It has all these textual elements in it, as well as different layers of language and sound. It's like a book that I continue to read. The work of Classics scholar, Mary Beard, and her focus on gender and voice in the public arenas of western culture has really resonated for me as I have returned to Riddles and thought about Trump's election and the demonization of Hillary Clinton (among many other women). Scholars like Beard and theorists and filmmakers like Mulvey have been addressing the issues that center on the voice and that often register on affective and bodily levels. I'm fascinated by how often people respond negatively to women’s voices, but even more broadly, a voice that registers as feminine. Sometimes it hurts our ears.

The next question is about interdisciplinarity. It sounds like the kind of questions you're interested in would require you to have an eclectic set of tools. In terms of talking about or speaking across different objects like poetry, film, and literature.

Interdisciplinarity is a big part of my research and my teaching. My PhD is in English, American literature in particular, but I managed to pursue my interest in art, history, and visual studies by taking classes, reading, and going to museums. I also teach in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Feminist Studies, which represents a number of interdisciplinary fields. To me, the connections among these fields and disciplines seem obvious and intuitive, but pursuing them together has been harder than one might initially imagine, primarily because of the way the disciplines are organized in the university. However, I continue to think that interdisciplinarity is vital for feminist thought, as it allows us to trace the multiple and layered forces that come together to compose the recognizable images and lived experiences of race, gender and sexuality.

Could you say a little bit more about the talk you'll be giving. What do you hope people will walk away with?

My presentation comes out of my current manuscript, which is called “Words and Clothes: Sartorial Self-Fashioning and the Legacies of Enslavement.” In “Words and Clothes” I am illuminating a tradition, which I don't think has received adequate due, in which Black women writers from Reconstruction to the present crafted literary representations of clothing. I trace what fashion scholar Elizabeth Way calls a matrilineal heritage of sewing and writing from Elizabeth Keckley, who published her narrative in 1868, to Gwendolyn Brooks, who was writing in the middle of the twentieth century. I argue that these writers reveal clothing, fashion, and sartorial display to be poetic languages that speak to the psychic legacies of slavery’s sexual violence.

For this presentation, I’m focused on Quicksand (1928), a Harlem Renaissance novel by the writer Nella Larsen. At the center of Quicksand is Larsen's protagonist, Helga Crane, who is interesting, difficult, and unsatisfied with a lot, and rightfully so, as she is confronting Jim Crow America and trying to figure out her place in it. Crane also has this very refined aesthetic sensibility that manifests through her attention to fashionable clothing and interior decoration. Larsen links her protagonist’s attention to art, clothing, and fashion to her own work as a writer. What I'm trying to show is that Larsen is doing more than representing clothing as a theme but thinking about clothing as a form of writing that challenges the racist and sexist fabrications that get solidified in US visual culture. By doing this, Larsen defies the presumption that we can see through and easily understand Black women's subjective relationships to slavery’s violent legacies.

I hope I can show people the value of Black femininity’s relationship to clothing and fashion and encourage people to think about the role of clothing in Black cultural life psychoanalytically, which I think means understanding clothing and fashion as counterarguments to the history of Black women's commodification, and symptoms of their superficiality, which has been a consistent theme in the scholarship that is attentive to Larsen’s work. Her character Crane likes to look at clothes and buy commodities and often in the scholarship that dovetails with her psychic challenges, and so she is easily pathologized.

What classes are you teaching this year?

I'm teaching a course called “Fabricating Race: Art, Clothing, and Resistance,” which will become “Black Feminism and Fashion” in Fall 2023. “Fabricating Race” introduces students to a tradition in which Black American artists and writers make clothing a primary theme of their work. Clothing is often talked about as a second skin, and aesthetic representations of clothing open the possibility of reimagining the visual economy of race: the belief that race can be located in the body's physical features and characteristics. “Fabricating Race” asks students to engage with visual culture, material culture, and literary studies, and we attend to clothing as an aesthetic practice of everyday life that defies racism’s flattening and objectifying effects and affirms, often covertly, the value of Black people's lives.

I'm also teaching “Thinking Gender,” which is the core course in the Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies Major. “Thinking Gender” introduces students to the theoretical frameworks that inform, and continue to inform, scholarship and in Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist studies, and I present feminist theory as a kind of writing that follows and examines the thinking that shapes how we understand gender, feminism, sexuality, and race. These concepts are notoriously stubborn, and feminist theory gives us a way to think about the possibility of transforming them.


As part of its event series tgiFHI, the Franklin Humanities Institute is conducting interviews with its faculty speakers in order to familiarize broader audiences with the diversity of research approaches in the humanities, arts, and interpretive social sciences at Duke University.

Dr. Laura Lieber is Professor of Religious Studies, Classical Studies, German Studies, and Divinity, and director of the Duke Center for Jewish Studies.

In this edited and condensed interview, she describes why she's interested in the texts enjoyed by "regular" Jews, how analyzing poems led her to thinking about performance spaces, and why life in antiquity was lively and entertaining—more than we might think.

Dr. Lieber gave a virtual tgiFHI talk titled “Bodies of Knowledge: Recovering the Lost Drama of the Early Synagogue” on Friday, January 29, 2021. 

What are your research interests and how did they develop?

My research interests lie in classical studies, religious studies, and theater. In undergrad, I majored in English literature and classical studies and minored in social work; after college, I went to rabbinical school, but I always planned on a PhD afterward. With my background in classics, I did my doctoral work in Jewish studies. From there, my research has gotten a lot broader.

I was originally interested in how the Hebrew Bible was experienced and understood by “regular Jews” in the ancient world. I started by looking at midrash, the most familiar body of literary texts, but I was concerned that these were a bit too elite for my interests. I was really interested in the Jews who I think of as my ancestors—the “regular” Jews.

I began to look at other forms of biblical interpretation, which led me to look at liturgical poetry. These works were used in the prayer service, so I knew regular Jews would have experienced them. They were about understanding the Jewish place in the world. They were history written by the losers.

From there, I branched out to study the liturgical poetry of other religious communities in the same time period. I work in the fourth through sixth centuries of the Common Era, which was a peculiar period where everybody, throughout all the different religious communities, was suddenly just crazy about religious poetry.

I realized that we have all this liturgical poetry from all these different groups because it was ultimately really popular and entertaining. It wasn’t just about serious theological work. We really have to look at them as part of popular culture of the time.

I’m now focusing on how religious performances in late antiquity were influenced by the theater, oratory, and popular entertainment of the period.

What is the role of interdisciplinarity in your work?

I started out interested in the visual studies of the liturgical poems. But I soon became interested in the performance spaces. When you study a poem, you typically analyze the literary elements. But I started to think, well, what did people actually hear? What could they see?

My research really started to take shape when I realized that synagogues and churches in the fifth and sixth centuries were often renovated to improve acoustics. To me this indicates that people in antiquity desired to hear the works that I study. They adapted spaces to improve the experience.

For a long time, the works that I study were very marginal even within Jewish studies because they were “popular,” unlike the elite rabbinic sources. Scholarly prose works were valued in a way that “common” texts weren’t. There was also an assumption that because the Hebrew can be quite difficult to us, no one at the time would have understood them.

What I’ve learned from studying the buildings is that people in fact wanted to hear these works and enjoy what was going on. They went through the trouble to raise or move the platform so that the speaker would be more visible. This was so practical yet so consequential for how people accessed and enjoyed these texts.

The fact that these works were so popular that the buildings were altered to help people enjoy them was, to me, really unexpected and important evidence that these works were a part of everyday life. I believe we wouldn't have so many works of this kind and so many copies if they weren't tremendously popular.

People who work in the early Byzantine period have begun do great sound studies in magnificent cathedrals and basilicas like Hagia Sophia. I like to imagine that we have, on one hand, these Broadway productions, and then on the other, the community theater productions over in the hinterland.

In my research, I’m really looking  beyond the surface of these texts written by people living in antiquity in order to learn about their perspectives on existence. Because to them it wasn’t antiquity. It was their lives.

How has your background in social work influenced your research?

While studying classical studies and medieval English literature, I didn’t want to lose my connection to the outside world. In my social work courses, we studied more abstract systems theories, but we also learned about hunger, poverty, and class structures in a very lived way.

In undergrad, I worked with women in the AIDS crisis. I learned how someone who is comfortably middle class could suddenly see their health and career fall apart and face a lot of social stigma. I realized that we can feel protected, but a lot of that can be an illusion. We're living in a moment now where again the illusion falls apart.

I do believe that’s all shaped how I approach my work now. The works we still have from antiquity survived because they're the products of the wealthy and the learned. They were protected from the accidents of history, too much moisture, too much sun, things like that. My interests have always been attuned to fragility, and how easily things could fall apart.

I’ve always been interested in power dynamics and the lives of the more vulnerable. In my research, I’m really looking beyond the surface of these texts written by people living in antiquity in order to learn about their perspectives on existence. Because to them it wasn't antiquity. It was their lives.

What do you hope people will take away from your talk?

I hope people will come away knowing that life in antiquity, even religious life, was really exciting and entertaining. I think we tend to assume that if something is religious, it must be solemn and otherworldly. But I keep coming back to how dazzling life was, in that moment, in the synagogues with music and mosaics and light. It was entertaining and impressive, as well as meaningful.

In antiquity, they knew how to put on a show. Even if the show was religious and the purpose was therefore on some level, deeply existential, it was still really entertaining. The various authority figures, you know, church fathers and rabbis, would complain about the fact that people wanted entertainment.

I work in this period between the Roman Empire and the Middle Ages that doesn't get as much attention. But it was a really lively and energetic period. There was this desire to connect. I think about how it’s similar to the way religious communities now often feel pressured to appeal to young people. There was a desire to bring people in.

There's of course so much that we don't know. We don't know, for the most part, what their works sounded like musically. Their idea of good poetry isn’t our idea of good poetry. Their works can seem very alien to us.

But I do feel confident in the starting assumption that we have these works today because there’s a reason they were popular and there’s a reason they endured. I don't want them to be lost.

What courses do you teach?

I have two new courses coming down the pike. One is about Jews in the Greco-Roman world, and the place of this distinctive ethnic and religious minority within a large empire. I’d really like for this course to help us learn about pluralism and think about navigating multiculturalism today by modeling what was both successful and unsuccessful in antiquity.

The other course is about translation, theories of translation, and translation and power. Many of the texts I work with have never been translated into English. I’ve found myself having to, initially by necessity, translate the works I study for people in related fields just so they can understand what I’m talking about. My goal is just to get people to read the same things I’m reading, and my writing and teaching are all attempts to explain why it’s cool. Translation is a part of that process.

I’ve realized that once you overcome the language barrier, you might find deep similarities and affinities between different communities. I’m very excited to take a semester to think about those issues of crossing cultural and semantic boundaries.

Selected works for further reading:


Jewish Aramaic Poetry from Late Antiquity: Translations and Commentary.  (Cambridge Genizah Series, volume 8; Leiden: Brill, 2018).

The Vocabulary of Desire: The Song of Songs in the Early Synagogue (Brill Reference Library of Judaism, vol. 40; Leiden: Brill, 2014).

Yannai on Genesis: An Invitation to Piyyut (Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College Press, 2010)

Scholarly articles:

“With One Voice:  Elements of Acclamation in Early Jewish Liturgical Poetry,” Harvard Theological Review 111.3 (2018): 401–424.

 “Daru in the Winehouse: Dancing and Performance in the Jewish East in Late Antiquity,” Journal of Religion 98.1 (2018): 90-113.

“On the Road with Mater Dolorosa: An Exploration of Maternal-Filial Discourse in Performance,” The Journal of Early Christian Studies 24.2 (2016): 265-291.

“Stages of Grief: Enacting Laments in Late Ancient Hymnography,” AJS Review 40.1 (2016): 101-125.

“Theater of the Holy:  Jewish Piyyut, Christian Hymnography, and the Rhetoric of the Late Ancient Stage,” Harvard Theological Review 108.4 (2015): 327-355.

Popular pieces:

“Law as Love-Song,” for Canopy Forum: On the Interactions of Law and Religion

“Demonic Femininity in the Ancient Synagogue: Dancing with the Angel of Death,” Stroum Center for Jewish Studies E-Journal, University of Washington:

“I will flee to my Helper: A Rosh Hashanah Love Song,” for (posted September 29, 2016)

“Tisha b’Av with Queen Esther” for TheTorah.com  (posted July 20, 2015; a Mosaic Magazine “pick”:

Our Spring 2023 tgiFHI series continues with Wenjin Liu, Research Assistant Professor at the Philosophy Department. Here's an interview with Prof. Liu on her research interests, method, and practice.

Can you tell me about your research interests and how they developed for you?

I work primarily on ancient Greek and Roman philosophy and have a strong interest in classical Chinese philosophy and comparative philosophy, especially the comparison between classical Greek, Roman and classical Chinese. Regarding ancient Greek and Roman philosophy, I work on substantive forms of human imperfection–such as ignorance and vice–at both individual and collective levels, and mental illnesses. I'm interested in understanding Plato's discussion of their nature, causes and the connection between those forms of imperfection and how he came to see those forms of imperfection play in the period that he was situated in, which was a time of all sorts of social and political instability, war, decline and reconstruction. I'm also interested in understanding Plato’s proposed remedies and measures for preventing those forms of imperfection, because the goal of his philosophy was to propose a model for people to live a happy life both individually and collectively.

Another part of my research is that I'm interested in understanding the continuity and differences between Western and Eastern intellectual traditions at the very beginning of their written records. On the Western side I’m looking at Plato and Aristotle, and on the Eastern side I look at Confucius and Mozi. These philosophers were contemporaries living during the fifth century BCE­, but they developed different schools of thinking in response to all sorts of social-political problems of their time and solutions to those problems. I'm interested in understanding how those thinkers independently came up with answers to those problems and what they identify as the problem of their time. I ask, are there some common problems between the West and East? If so, what are their solutions? If there are some common take aways from those solutions, where does their intuition differ? In the long run, I'm interested in exploring how those ideas can shape our current cultures and values of the East and West, and what lessons we can learn from those ideas in our multicultural and cross-cultural communication and cooperation.

I was born and raised in China. I went to a local high school where I studied classical Chinese literature, which was part of the college entrance exam. There, we read parts of Confucius and Mozi, but we didn't read it in an analytic philosophical way–we read it mostly in historical and literary ways. I was taught to understand those ideas in the development of Chinese intellectual history, and how that writing influenced Chinese literary forms.

I've always been mostly interested in big fundamental questions. Like, what are those people trying to get at? And how those ideas, those questions and their answers can inform us when we think about our life, and how we how we develop from there.

In college, I discovered Greek and Roman philosophy. There wasn't Chinese philosophy offered at the college I went to, but we did have a course on the philosophy of East and West. There was a focused course on ancient Greek and Roman philosophy. In that class, the texts I was reading asked similar questions as Chinese texts I was interested in despite the geographical and political differences of those parts of the world. Having been written around the same time, I thought they must have come up with those questions and answered them independently, because there wasn't any concrete evidence about extensive communication between Greece and China at that time.

In graduate school, I did my dissertation on Plato. After I finished my preliminary exam, I had more time to think about connecting my different interests in philosophy. That's when I started thinking more seriously about using analytic and linguistic tools I gained from my training in Greek and Roman philosophy to understand classical Chinese philosophy, and the connection between those two.

Can you tell us about the role of interdisciplinarity in your work?

My current research is rooted primarily in contemporary analytic philosophy. I do close readings of the text and logical analysis of the ideas behind the text. I also draw ideas from classics, history, and political theory, both historical and contemporary. To show the contrast and continuity between the East and West, I also read Chinese philosophy and literature.

Recently, I got interested in empirical work in psychology, because I find psychologists always ask brilliant questions. I browse empirical work in psychology just to get inspiration for when I study my primary texts. I also look more broadly at publications like The New Yorker or The New York Times where there is more public discussion–doing so helps me get a sense of what people are interested in and the kinds of problems we are trying to solve.

Can you talk about your research methods? Describe what your day-to-day research practice looks like.

My day-to-day research routine depends on whether I choose to write for a particular amount of time­–days, weeks, months–or if I choose to do more broad research.

When I’m writing, I start my day jotting down my ideas, which can take several hours. After I get tired of that, I look at relevant second literature or at the primary text to corroborate my interpretation. And if I can, I end my writing days by reading broadly. I must admit, though, that my writing days don't always go this way. Sometimes my day just ends with writing, or sometimes I even struggle to write.

When I choose to do broad research, I spend a lot of time reading. For example, this month I’m mostly doing research and reading. I start the day meditating on the big idea of the paper. I also think about what questions need to be answered today and for the month of research. From there, I look at primary and secondary literature depending on the questions I need to answer. For example, today I studied keywords in a primary text by Plato. This was because I had more philological work to do. This included checking every word that occurs in the particular text by Plato I’m working on and asking, “what's the idea?” and how that features in his corpus.

Tell us about your talk. What do you want people to take away from your presentation?

My talk is titled “Political Vice in Plato.” Plato, born not long after the beginning of the Peloponnesian War, witnesses the decline of Athens from a hegemonic power in the Greek world to a city state that struggles to recover its glory in the midst of constant internal quarrels and external threats. His contemporaries often assume that salvaging Athens from its decline crucially involves attending to particular, salient episodes of the decline, for which politicians who are directly involved should be blamed. In this talk, I argue in the Gorgias and the Republic, Plato provides a different perspective to understand not only the decline of Athens but also political problems elsewhere. In his view, a better understanding and treatment of those problems requires us to go beyond particular episodes and agents, which, albeit palpable, are symptoms or products of an underlying structural flaw, namely, political vice. Political vice is a substantive deviation from a city’s normative order. Because of that deviation, a city performs its function—collective human living—poorly. A corrupt culture is the root of political vice. Sustainable political changes should accordingly be mediated via gradual shifts in cultures.

A takeaway I hope people leave with is that when theorizing about our current political problems Plato’s answer is that we not immediately blame current politicians, and that we think more broadly about the origin of our current political institution and the overall culture which shapes generations of politicians and people. I hope this talk will resonate with people, especially considering current political debates.

Can you tell us about classes you're teaching?

In the next semester, I'm going to teach two undergraduate courses. One is on ancient Greek and Roman philosophy. This course will be a survey of a major thinkers in the ancient Greek and Roman philosophical tradition, like Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, and the Epicureans. I conceive of this course as giving students a broad introduction to the big ideas and methodology of doing history of philosophy. I'm also open to student suggestions about where they find continuity and contrasts between those ancient texts and contemporary discussions. And I’m happy to explore those ideas with students.

The second course is on comparative philosophy of ethics and politics, between the classical Chinese and ancient Greek and Roman philosophy. I imagine this course to be more of a research seminar where I can guide students to do independent research on specific topics. One example could be the structure of humanity or the structure of the human soul and the contrast between Mozi and Plato. Students can also propose ideas for what they want to write their research papers on.

As part of its event series tgiFHI, the Franklin Humanities Institute is conducting interviews with its faculty speakers in order to familiarize broader audiences with the diversity of research approaches in the humanities, arts, and interpretive social sciences at Duke University.

Jarvis McInnis is the Cordelia & William Laverack Family Assistant Professor of English at Duke. 

In this edited and condensed interview, he describes looking at home through a different lens, why his research on the plantationocene began with Zora Neale Hurston, and the paradox of Black educational institutions existing on former plantations. He asks, what does it mean to breathe life back into this land?

Dr. McInnis gave virtual tgiFHI talk titled "Tuskegee & the Plantationocene: Toward a Theory of Eco-Ontology in Black Studies" on Friday, February 19, 2021. View the full talk here!

What are your research interests and how did they develop?

My work is broadly in African and African American diasporic literature and culture, and more specifically, Black transnationalism and diaspora. It developed out of a class I took in grad school, “The Black South,” which was taught by Farah Griffin. The class was about connections between the U.S. South and the Caribbean.

I'm originally from the South—Gulfport, Mississippi, about an hour east of New Orleans—and I'd never really thought about the ways that the U.S. South is a part of a larger transnational economy and culture. Taking Dr. Griffin’s course helped me to see home anew, through different eyes. 

I was a graduate student who left Mississippi at the age of 22 to move to New York City. I was always hyperaware of the differences between my upbringing in the deep South and New York City. 

A lot of the faculty in my grad program worked on Harlem, but I began to wonder, what would it mean if our work in Black Studies centered rural agricultural regions, or even the urban South, as opposed to northern urban centers like New York and Chicago, or Paris and London? What do we make of the folks who didn't leave the South, or who left the South and came back? How did they imagine themselves as modern subjects? How did they imagine themselves as part of a global community?

On Zora Neale Hurston’s influence:

In the beginning of Mules and Men, Zora Neale Hurston said it was after she left home—when she left her small all-Black town in Florida and went North to study anthropology—that she was able to return and view home through a different lens. She called this “the spyglass of anthropology.”

This is always on my mind because my project really began with her work. She was interested in tracing transnational and diasporic linkages between, say, Eatonville, Florida, and the Bahamas, Jamaica, and Haiti. She’s, in many ways, my muse. It’s so productive to think with her and through her, and to learn from her.

What is the role of interdisciplinarity in your research methodology?

I'll never forget a moment when I was preparing my dissertation proposal, and I laid out all these chapters I wanted to write, and my advisor, Farah Griffin, looked at me and said, “You know, Jarvis, you're in an English Department.” [laughs]

The questions I was asking and the sources I was reading took me to the archives and to disciplines that weren't my own. This makes sense because my inquiry began with Hurston, who straddled the line between the literary and the anthropological. My questions are necessarily interdisciplinary. 

One of the beautiful things about interdisciplinarity is that it can be very clarifying about your own discipline. While writing, I always start by asking, how can I approach this from a literary perspective? I figure out how literature can help me answer my question and how it can’t—so what do I do with that? 

Often, this inquiry takes me to the archive. On one hand, I try to bring my literary methodologies to other disciplines. But also, I want to understand how historians, sociologists, anthropologists, and other social scientists have worked through this question.

Working in the archive can be intimidating, but it's also liberating. I’m not beholden to historiography in the same way that that my historian colleagues are. But I always try to ensure I’m doing my due diligence to write about an archival object in a way my historian colleagues can respect, even if they would take a different approach to it.

Writing and thinking as an interdisciplinary scholar is often a process of negotiation. I simply can’t write about an object or question from every disciplinary vantage point. But I still make sure to share my work with friends and colleagues from different disciplines to get their perspective, because it helps to sharpen my analysis. Interdisciplinarity is central and essential to my practice and methodology.

What’s the most interesting thing you’ve found in the archives? 

Oh my gosh, I get excited about new archival objects daily.

My work is on the afterlife of the plantation in the U.S. South and in a hemispheric context. In 2015, I was reading a book on the Garvey movement in the U.S. South and I saw a reference to a plantation newspaper called The Cotton Farmer that was published in the 1920s in the Mississippi Delta. It was published by Black tenant farmers and sharecroppers, and three copies of that paper circulated to banana plantation workers in Panama. 

We know that a goal of sharecropping and tenant farming was to prevent black people's literacy in order to keep them in debt and unable to migrate away from the plantation—so how is it that they’ve established their own newspaper during the height of Jim Crow, I wondered? And how in the world does this paper end up circulating down to a Garveyite in Panama?

I spent the next four years traveling to Panama; Austin, Texas; and various archives around the country. There were no extant copies of the paper. 

I reached out to Mary Rollinson, the scholar who wrote, Grassroots Garveyism, the book where I first came across this reference. I said, “Mary, I've gone to the National Archives twice. I can't find it.” She just said, “Well, I'll send you a copy from my files.” 

Things really began to come together from there. I tracked down the family members of the newspaper’s editor, who now live in the Midwest. It was a really exciting experience. I wrote an article about it, which was published in American Literature in October 2019.

What do you hope people take away from your talk? 

My alma mater, Tougaloo College, was established on a former cotton plantation. As an undergraduate, I often thought about the irony and paradox of educating African Americans on the very site of their ancestors’ enslavement. More recently, I began to think about what it means for Tuskegee, the foremost Black educational institution of the early twentieth century, to be established on a former cotton plantation as well. I wasn't sure what to do with the ecological component yet, but I knew it was crucial to think about the ecological in relation to the plantation. 

I began working on George Washington Carver, who was at the forefront of sustainable farming methods in the early part of the twentieth century. This gave me a chance to think about soil and cotton, sugar, bananas, and tobacco. What’s the environmental impact of producing these plantation commodities, I wondered? What does it mean to look at Tuskegee, where the land had been depleted, and to try to breathe life back into it? 
I began to understand that the way Carver was trying to regenerate the land was consistent with the way Booker T. Washington was trying to regenerate a group of people who had been degraded by the system of slavery. Black Studies typically understands Tuskegee as a fraught political project—an accommodationist project. But Tuskegee was bigger than Booker T. Washington. It’s much more capacious and nuanced than we've given it credit for. 

That’s what I'm hoping that folks will take away—this contribution to the work on the plantationocene. Yes, the plantation is a site of degradation, of exploitation, of depletion. But I’m really interested in what it means to try to regenerate the land and Black ontology at the same time, and to center the U.S. South and historically Black colleges and universities within Black Studies more generally.

What classes are you teaching? 

I teach a course called “Conjuring the Americas,” which is about African-derived religious healing and spiritual practices and African American and Caribbean Literature. I may expand that into a graduate course that brings in African literatures as well. I also teach a course on music and African American literature that moves from Negro Spirituals and minstrelsy to jazz, blues, and gospel, to hip hop and spoken word poetry.

I want to teach a course on the archive, a course on the plantation and Black environmentalism, and a course on Black religiosities. That’s enough graduate courses for the next four years! And I’ll probably teach undergraduate iterations of those courses as well.

Selected publications for further reading:

“Black Women’s Geographies and the Afterlives of the Sugar Plantation.” American Literary History 31.4 (2019): 741–774. Print.

“A Corporate Plantation Reading Public: Labor, Literacy, and Diaspora in the Global Black South.” American Literature 91.3 (2019): 523-555. Print.

“‘Behold the Land’”: W. E. B. Du Bois, Cotton Futures, and the Afterlife of the Plantation in the US South.” The Global South 10.2 (2016): 70-98. Print.

As part of its event series tgiFHI, the Franklin Humanities Institute is conducting interviews with its faculty speakers in order to familiarize broader audiences with the diversity of research approaches in the humanities, arts, and interpretive social sciences at Duke University.

Martin Miller is Professor of History at Duke University. In this edited and condensed interview, he describes life as an American graduate student in 1960s Moscow; how he analyzes photographs with a historian's eye; and how Western photographers were able to capture everyday life in the Soviet Union in the midst of the Cold War.

Dr. Miller gave a virtual tgiFHI talk titled "Western Documentary Photography of the Soviet Union, 1928-1968" on Friday, February 26, 2021. View the full talk here!

What are your research interests and how did they develop?

I was trained as a historian of Russia at the University of Chicago. I started out in European history, but I enrolled in a course on the history of Russia by a professor who turned out to be extremely charismatic and captured my attention completely. It was rather late in the game – I was in my third year of graduate school before I decided to commit to this, which meant learning another language very quickly.

And the Cold War, it was inescapable. I received a fellowship to spend a year in Moscow in 1966, where I did my dissertation research, and that was a year of learning and experience that was incomparable.

What is the role of interdisciplinary in your work?

Oh, absolutely crucial. I’m constantly trying to make my students understand the necessity of bringing fields and disciplines together rather than burrowing deeply into just one thing.

The talk will bear this out. I was looking around my own library, and I saw that I had a huge collection of photography books about Russia. I thought to myself, why don't I look into that? That meant doing a lot of reading in a field that I knew literally nothing about, and learning the methodology.

I was trained to analyze words, regardless of what language they happened to be in. Sometimes we had to take courses on paleography, which meant learning how the handwriting works in the writing of the person you’re studying. What I’ve done with images is the same thing. I've tried to train myself as a kind of paleographist of imagery instead of words – to look at a photograph, turn it around, look at the contrasts and see what’s there, and then start putting photographs together.

So it's A, learning to read images and B, learning to read those images, because this photographer’s work is different from the others. I sometimes think of it as the auteur theory in cinema, because there’s a characteristic style that begins to emerge.

I’m fusing together the history of the Soviet Union, as we generally understand it, with the perspectives of photographic evidence. Witnesses, I call them – the photographers who came from the West to work in Moscow.

On using photographs as historical evidence:

There's a very famous book by David King that everybody in my field knows about. On every page there are two photographs. One example is a photograph of Lenin at the top of a reviewing stand, and several paces next to him is Trotsky. The second picture is the same photograph, except Trotsky ain’t there anymore. He’s been airbrushed out of history.

What I have to worry about is verifying evidence, which would be the same thing if we were dealing with words. I tell my students this all the time. If somebody comes in and says, “Look, this is a primary source, it’s an excerpt from an author’s diary” – but can you corroborate it? Did anybody else write about it? Was anybody else there? Maybe it’s fiction, not fact. You have to constantly interrogate these things. That gets me back to interdisciplinarity, because I need to be able to wander from one field to another to make sure that the information being portrayed in the images is, in fact, as valid as one can make it.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve found in the archives?

One thing I didn't expect was the immensity of what some of these collections contain. There’s a book by John Steinbeck, who went to Russia in 1947. Fortunately, he took with him the most important documentary photographer at the time, Robert Capa, who was going along to document in images what Steinbeck was going to write about in words.

The Capa archive is in the International Society for Photography in New York. Capa took hundreds and hundreds of rolls of film. It is really a staggering number of pictures.

It was typical of the time for photographers to develop strips of negatives on a contact sheet, and draw an orange box around the photograph they liked. Going through boxes and boxes and seeing what he didn't choose to publish was a learning experience.

The other complication in this research is that the photographers had to go through Soviet approval before they could even come back to the United States. Rarely did they show them every single photograph. Capa was allowed to publish only 49 photographs from the ones he took during his trip. But he had a nice sense of wit and humor about the whole experience there – how to get around everything that they told him he shouldn't do.

What do you hope people take away from your talk?

When I started to put this project together, my thought was to produce something that – if it wasn’t a counter-Cold War book, it would at least ask people to rethink some of the structures of opposition that dominated the world that we used to call “free,” as opposed to the one that was always called “communist,” with such negativity that you can almost feel the burn.

Part of the intention is to understand what ordinary people's lives were like in an extraordinary situation. They lived in an incredibly complex political structure. There were aspects of it which I think few outsiders really could have possibly understood, without visiting there and immersing oneself inside of it.

I’ve gone back a number of times since graduate school, and of course, it's been different, but when it was still the Soviet Union, and the imagery was so utterly negative...that would take another interview to talk about. But the connections to people were so powerful – all the more so because you’re crossing a Cold War divide by befriending each other.

A small example – it was the middle of December, or maybe January. Moscow was totally freezing, and there was nothing but snow anywhere. I wanted to talk to my closest Russian friend about his family background, and I kept asking him about it. He said, “We're not going to ever talk about it inside Moscow university, because your room’s bugged.” I didn’t believe him at first, but I later found out he was right.

He took me outside, as cold as it was, and told me about his father, who had been a prisoner of Stalin – he was taken from the house and never seen again. His parents were illiterate farmers. He showed me postcards where his mother could only write Xs and Os. But he knew what it meant, and it meant so much to him.

The point of all this is that he trusted a foreigner – me. And that's part of understanding the kind of society that these photographers found their way into, during the Cold War when they were the enemy.

What courses are you teaching?

Every fall, I teach a course on the history of modern terrorism. I've been offering this course for such a long period of time, I decided there must be a counterpart to it. So I invented a course on the history of political non-violence, and boy, is it a relief to talk about people who were committed to resolving the very conflicts that I was teaching. The cases of King and Gandhi are well known, but there are tons of people I’ve learned so much about, and I have such enormous respect for what they went through.

Selected publications for further reading:

“Political Violence in Europe during the Long Nineteenth Century,” Erica Chenoweth (ed.), The Oxford History of Terrorism (NY: Oxford University Press, spring, 2019)

“Entangled Terrorisms in Revolutionary Russia,” The Routledge History of Terrorism, Randall D. Law (ed.) (London and NY: Taylor and Francis/Routledge, 2015), pp. 92-110

"Diagnostics of Violence: Russian Psychiatry in World War I," Russia and the Great War (Slavica Press),2015.

The Foundations of Modern Terrorism: State, Society and the Dynamics of Political Violence, (Cambridge University Press, 2013) (translation into Arabic in process)

As part of its event series tgiFHI, the Franklin Humanities Institute is conducting interviews with its faculty speakers in order to familiarize broader audiences with the diversity of research approaches in the humanities, arts, and interpretive social sciences at Duke University.

Dr. Jessica Namakkal is Assistant Professor of the Practice in International Comparative Studies; Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies; and History. In this edited and condensed interview, she describes the importance of geography and decolonial feminist theory to her methodology, how she researches migration and the transnational through "minor history," and why utopia is a good idea but a colonial impulse.

Dr. Namakkal's forthcoming book, Unsettling Utopia: The Making and Unmaking of French India, will be out with Columbia University Press in Spring 2021. Dr. Namakkal received a an FHI Faculty Book Manuscript Workshop Award in the 2016–2017 academic year for this book.

Dr. Namakkal gave a virtual tgiFHI talk titled Unsettling Utopia: Spiritual Settlement and Colonial Extraction on Friday, October 2, 2020, at 9:30am. View the full talk here!

On her research interests and how they developed

I’m a historian and I teach in the International Comparative Studies Program. I went into graduate school working on empire, broadly, with the intent to study the ways of knowing produced by colonialism. In graduate school I focused on the French colonies in India, partly because I was training with a French historian, Patricia Lorcin, who works on Algeria and North Africa, and partly because I was really interested in thinking about the parts of colonialism that have not been focused on in the historiography or in popular culture—because colonies have margins. The French colonies were spread throughout India and by the time I got around to writing my book, that brought me to thinking about history that exists on the margins of both empires and histories of empires.

In my book, I build on the idea of “minor history,” and what it means to do history from the margins of the discipline. I see myself as an interdisciplinary scholar: I work with geography, ethnography, and feminist methodologies, in addition to doing more traditional archival research. Minor history is about what it means to do that, and what it means to be a non-traditional bodied historian. Historians come in lots of shapes and forms and ethnicities these days, but it's still a discipline dominated by white men, so the minor is important to my work on multiple levels.

Minor history is also what it means to do history of places that people don't talk about very much. The majority of academic history still is written about Western Europe and the United States and if you look at hiring practices, at least in the US, most jobs are in American history. Minor history really matters in the case of the places that I'm looking at, because the majority of what’s written about India fits into the Anglophone British Empire history. Contributing to historiography in that way, to think about what it means to us to think and with the minor, is what I'm working on now.

On the interdisciplinary nature of her minor history work

The French Indian colonies were spread throughout the subcontinent—they’re not near each other. This geography is incredibly important. In my book I write about the borders that were erected around these colonies, about how colonial interests, here between the French and the British , created physical borders that split villages in half. The Bangladesh-India border has a lot of enclaves today. And these fractured territories are really prominent globally. They came about because of imperial border-making, but people don't really talk about them in this way, instead seeing them as a problem of modern nation-states.

The minor is, in my mind, really expansive. Within history, people are, for very good reason, dedicated to learning a place and its languages very well. But sometimes that also leaves out hundreds of thousands of years of transnational migration. Migration has been a hot topic for the last several decades, especially in the U.S. because of American exceptionalism and the changing natures of U.S. borders. But migration has always happened. And colonial settlement has happened for a very long time. To focus on the national level often leaves out people that move across borders and the importance of border towns, which also tend to be in flux.

The work I'm moving towards is about communes and cults and settlements—intentional communities. My first book has a chapter on a place called Auroville, which is just outside Pondicherry. They're an intentional community that still exists today. Most of the scholarship on these projects happens in Religious Studies and is focused on interrogating the spiritual practices and beliefs of the inhabitants. However, I'm really interested in the material world: in this case, not just what utopianists might have believed, but what happened when they work to make their dreams a reality. The utopianists have really great ideas: Thomas Moore's Utopia was an idea of a place that is nowhere. My argument is basically that this is a colonial impulse. As these utopian practices were put into more experimental communities in the 18th and 19th centuries, they started to take a shape that saw themselves outside of colonial projects, but were incredibly similar and linked to the colonial projects.

Geography, decolonial theory, and postcolonial studies all help me think about the creation of these places as outside of wherever people are trying to escape—whatever institution, whatever hierarchy, whether it be religious, whether it be nationalist, whether it's capitalism. People want to experiment with another kind of living that's outside of the norm, which has often meant migrating and  creating a new settlement. Thinking through geography and theorists who have thought about how space operates is incredibly important to understanding these historical changes. Space is central to those questions.

What do you hope people will take away from your talk?

My argument is that decolonization is a historic event that has not ended, which leads me into the two other ways that I think about decolonization: as a theoretical category of analysis and as a contemporary social movement. Those things are interrelated, but tend to stay separate from each other in the different disciplinary literatures about decolonization.

What I am working towards, and what my book and my next project work towards, is understanding the continuations of colonialism. We should all acknowledge from the start that we live in a settler colony: the U.S. is a settler state and all non-Indigenous peoples are complicit in it. But beyond that, states that were former colonies also need to think about settler colonialism. India was not a settler colony in terms of British rule, but contemporary India needs to think about its colonial institutions. The most obvious one may be the legal system, which is basically the British legal system and legal colonial code, but also the way that space is occupied, with military and police, in India today, the most obvious and urgent example being Kashmir.

I also urge people to think about what it means to think about decolonization as a completed event, which I think historians have been complicit in making a norm. I'm trying to make that not the norm. It's very popular now to talk about decolonizing things. I think there are social movements that are doing that now in smart ways and social movements that are doing that in vacant ways that are not engaged with questions of colonial settlement. But we need to think about them and we need to talk about what it has meant and what it may mean going forward to decolonize.

What courses are you teaching?

This semester, I'm teaching a new course called “Global Histories of Citizenship, Migration, and Empire.” It’s part of the Focus Program on “Immigration and Citizenship,” an effort put forward by the burgeoning Asian American and Diaspora Studies program. We’re thinking about how the history of modern migration is linked to empire and where contemporary ideas of citizenship have come from. Who is a citizen, who is a migrant, who is a refugee, who is a tourist?

Next semester, I'm teaching “Decolonization: History, Meaning, Struggle,” a 300-level seminar where we look at three modes of understanding decolonization. We read Fanon and Césaire. We talk about decolonial feminism. We read “Decolonization Is Not a Metaphor” by Tuck and Yang. We think about all these modes of understanding the different ways people talk about decolonization—what that has meant in the past and what it means in the future.

And I have another new course called “Global South Asia” that I will also be teaching next semester. It’s a South Asian diaspora class that lays an intersection between Asian American studies and then goes back to also thinking about what the global-ness of being South Asian means back in South Asia. To be a global population instead of being designated within certain nation-states. To be part of the world.

Selected recent publications for further reading

Unsettling Utopia: The Making and Unmaking of French India, forthcoming spring 2021, Columbia University Press.

“Who is a Citizen in Contemporary India?” with Swati Chawla, Lydia Davis, and Kalyani Ramnath, Epicenter, Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, February 11, 2020.

“Decolonizing Marriage and the Family: The Lives and Letters of Ida, Benoy, and Indira Sarkar,” Journal of Women’s History 31 (2) 2019: 124-47.

“Peanut Butter Dosas: Becoming Desi in the Midwest,” Tides: Magazine of the South Asian American Digital Archive, April 2017.

“The Terror of Decolonization: Exploring Pondicherry’s Goonda Raj,” Interventions: International Journal of Postcolonial Studies 19 (3) 2017: 338-57.

Our Fall 2022 tgiFHI series continues with Mark Anthony Neal, James B. Duke Distinguished Professor of African & African American Studies and Chair of the Department of African & African American Studies. Here's an interview with Prof. Neal on his research interests, method, and practice.

Tell us about your research interests and how they developed for you.

Broadly defined, my research interest is Black popular culture, with particular footing in Black popular music. My dissertation was a social history of Black music in the post-World War II period. I’m not trained as a musician or as a musicologist. Much of my work looks at music broadly in a way that is reflective of Black political and social life, and that focus has been expanded to also consider questions around popular culture — television, film, visual arts, and comedy, but also a real attentiveness to the performance of gender, particularly Black masculinity.

I'm trained in American cultural studies, but my first two degrees are in English. I was a creative writer as an undergraduate, and I studied African American literature in my master’s program. So I very much come from this kind of reading and critiquing a text, and extending the literary text into the cultural text. My interest in music, though, is a little bit more personal. It comes from my family upbringing: a house that was filled with music, and in particular a father who was filled with music. This is part of my [tgiFHI] talk: about how one of the gifts he gave to me as a father was his love of music, particularly as he was someone who was a functional illiterate, who couldn't read. So books and reading wouldn't be a part of what our relationship would become, but music would be.

Tell us about your research methods: what your day-to-day research practice looks like, and/or a particular text that you're working on right now.

My archive is culture in the broadest sense. When I'm working on popular music, the archive could literally be my collection of a 1,000 vinyl albums, my 1,000 CDS. In a digital era, those [media] are a little bit easier to manage. But my archive has never been a traditional archive. This is part of what I write about in Black Ephemera. When we talk about archives, we think about stacks, and we think about papers, and we think about libraries. My idea of “archive” is so much more ephemeral and that informs my research practice: a lot of time listening, a lot of time watching, and a lot of time listening and watching in comparison to each other.

For the day-to-day, the most important thing for me is always a writing piece. I always consider myself first a writer before a scholar. And while there is always research stuff that's going on in my head, it's always important to me to be able to get 500-700 words down a day, even if I'm not at the moment working on a project.

The project that I'm working on now around Black fatherhood is both reading a lot of scholarship from the 1950s-70s as it relates to fatherhood and Black fatherhood. I'm spending a lot of time with Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s report on the Black family, but also contemporarily looking at some of the commentary around Black fatherhood: YouTube clips that show up all the time of Black fathers trying to discipline their Black boys "right" and discipline them into manhood. That’s a part of the narrative to me, and part of the research process: being able to watch these things and offer some sort of interpretive lens to what they are.

It sounds like you deal with an eclectic archive. Could you say more about the role of interdisciplinarity in your work?

I am an interdisciplinary humanist, even though I’m Chair of a department that sits in social sciences. But I’m very much someone who is steeped in and reading across literary scholarship, musical scholarship, and art history and visual scholarship. But I’m also reading in the interpretive social sciences — including anthropology, sociology, and some psychology — particularly around things like identity formation. For me, African American studies and Black studies are organically part of an interdisciplinary space. So it's virtually impossible for me not to think interdisciplinarily given the folks I’m in the department with and the ways that they think and how we collectively share ideas.

Could you speak more about the presentation you’ll give for tgiFHI? What is one thing you want people to take away from it?

It’s the first chapter and part of the introduction from a book project that I'm working on now called The Love Languages of Black Fatherhood. It’s intended to be a trade book, so the language is very accessible, but I’m also trying to mix in a memoir of both my experiences as a son to my father but also as a father to my daughters. I’m sprinkling that in with social science research but also a media critique. A huge part of the project is me reading through examples of Black fatherhood that have existed in popular culture over the last 50 years, particularly post-Moynihan Report.

If there’s one thing I hope folks get from this talk, it’s to think differently about some of the stereotypes that have been presented to us in thinking about Black fathers. In the American public imagination, Black fathers have been defined by absence, by not being present. You think of the way that white male basketball coaches become a stand-in for the “missing Black father” in collegiate sports and professional sports. I’m hoping that people will take away that Black men make themselves present in very different kinds of ways — the kinds of ways that don't necessarily show up in the kind of data that we collect about Black families.

Speaking of public-facing work, let’s talk about your other project, Left of Black.

This is our 13th season and our third season working in collaboration with the Franklin Humanities Institute. The project was an attempt to make an intervention: to be able to present scholarship in Black studies for a broader audience, and to use emerging digital technologies in ways that were unprecedented a decade ago. One of my models was Charlie Rose, but the Charlie Rose from the early 1990s, when he wasn't as pressed to have eyeballs and had a pretty wide-open space to talk to everybody: filmmakers, writers, intellectuals. It was actually watching Charlie Rose in the 1990s when I saw some of the first substantive public conversations with folks like Cornel West, Michael Eric Dyson, and Toni Morrison. But I also take as my model a public affairs television show that I grew up with in New York City called Like It Is, hosted by the journalist Gil Noble. He would take these hour-long segments over a Sunday afternoon and he would dig deep into pressing issues around Black America at the time but also dig deep into an archive of Black culture. That show [gave me] the first visual of Malcolm X’s speeches.

With Left of Black, I wanted to create a space that looked at what was being produced in in the name of Black knowledge and Black studies, and to do so in a loving way, but also for writers and scholars who PBS or NPR might not be paying attention to. I wanted to take a serious look at folks who are producing great work in the academy who wouldn't necessarily have the platform to be able to [share their work more broadly]. I think of the number of times I’ve heard from colleagues that they use episodes in the classroom or the number of folks who told me they discovered somebody that they didn’t know of because that person spoke on an episode. There was once a guy who stopped me in KFC a decade ago to tell me how much he loved the conversation we did with Cornel West in our first season.

Is there an interview that you're particularly excited this season?

We were able to take advantage of when the great historian Robin D.G. Kelley when he was in the area, and we shot an episode in the East Duke Pink Parlor. It was great to be in those kinds of spaces with Robin Kelley. He is someone who literally has been one of the most influential scholars on my career.

What classes are you teaching this semester and academic year?

I'm teaching Images of Black Masculinity, which is a class that I've taught frequently over the last four or five years. But the particular focus is on the Black athlete, as part of a larger project that a few of my colleagues are doing here at Duke called Black in Blue: The Duke Sports & Race Project. In the spring I’ll be teaching a course on the history of Black comedy: another class I’ve taught frequently over the past several years. The class is endowed by the estate of Jenny Koortbojian, so it allows us to use more resources to bring in speakers and show films and things of that nature.

What do Grimms' fairy tales have to do with German nationalism? How did the Grimm Brothers' contemporary, the famed 19th-century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, react to that growing nationalism? Why is Schopenhauer considered "ahead of his time"...and why does he also seem retrogressive to us?

Here we interview Associate Professor of German Studies Jakob Norberg about his research and teaching. Dr. Norberg gave a talk entitled "Schopenhauer's Politics" in our tgiFHI series on Friday, October 29, 2021.

What are your research interests and how did they develop?

I’m basically interested in German political thought—the political thought that came out of a nation that has a bad reputation politically, at least from the 20th century, but obviously also has an incredibly rich intellectual tradition.

I just finished this book that's coming out in 2022, and it's called The Brothers Grimm and the Making of German Nationalism. I study these two folktale collectors, grammarians, lexicographers—Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm—and I argue that their entire scholarly project, their career-defining intellectual pursuits, were animated by a nationalist vision. That has been my research interest for some time, basically: the rise of German nationalism, as it was supported and substantiated by people like us, academics, in my discipline, German Studies.

But then I wanted to write a book about someone who was very different from the Brothers Grimm, but still knew their time: someone who witnessed the revolutions and upheavals, and yet arrived at very different conclusions about what a society should look like. Schopenhauer is a member of the same generation as the Brothers Grimm, but he was a very committed anti-nationalist, a cultural cosmopolitan, interested in non-Western religion and thought, interested in literary works far beyond the national tradition, and quite contemptuous of the nationalists of his time. But his arguments against nationalism were based in his anti-egalitarian attitudes. So I wanted to write about someone who had a different angle on that epoch, who did not support nationalism, who resisted it, criticized it. But it turns out he did it from an elitist, even supercilious, reactionary standpoint.

The Brothers Grimm are best known for their fairy tales. What would you say to someone who is wondering what fairy tales have to do with nationalism?

First, I just want to point out that the Brothers Grimm did a range of things. They were experts on grammar, and the diachronic development of languages. They thought that they could track the evolution and differentiation of different languages, and that they could, by very precise grammatical means, separate languages from each other. And they thought that this knowledge also allowed them to delineate nations very neatly, and even adjudicate territorial disputes. For them, grammar was the key to geopolitics.

I think that there's a strong connection between the fairy tales and nationalism. Anyone who's tried to discern the politics in the tales themselves has usually produced meager results, but what I do is to show that what the Brothers Grimm wanted was a kind of pure, authentic voice of the people, so that they could point to it and say, there is something here that is already extant: namely, a people. They wanted literary, cultural proof of an already existing population that was ethnically and linguistically distinct. And so, you could say that the folk tale collection fulfilled a political purpose, a political function, precisely by not being overtly political: because it was proof of the already existing character of a distinct nation.

Nationalism also speaks with a double voice in this period. If you look across all the authors that were part of the nationalist movement, they usually produce in two genres. On the one hand, fairy tales, legends, folk songs, and so on—the voice of the ethnically distinct, but kind of politically innocent population. And on the other hand, the war song, the militant pamphlet, the political speech. If you look at the repertoire of the nationalists, you see that they're always coordinating the folklore with political speech, and to some extent, the Grimm brothers do that too. That combination of genres is what's distinctive. They’re trying to do two different things: they try to prove the existence of an already extant nation, and then they're trying to mobilize that nation with more aggressive political speech.

How do you see Schopenhauer’s reaction to this form of nationalism?

Schopenhauer has a very different background from the Brothers Grimm. His father is a merchant who worked in port cities; he has several international connections, and speaks multiple languages, and he brings up Schopenhauer in that tradition.

Schopenhauer develops a philosophy that is open to influences from other places. He is known for introducing Eastern thought into German philosophy. He was interested in Hindu writings and Buddhism, so he breaks with the supposed supremacy of Western religion and thought. And then he is inspired by authors like Goethe who are open to other cultures, so his texts are a tapestry of Italian proverbs, Spanish sayings, French moralist aphorisms, quotations from ancient works, and anecdotes from English newspapers.

He doesn't buy the concept that ethnic and linguistic sameness should have any particular political consequence. It makes no sense to him to build a community on shared nationality, because he doesn’t have anything in common with people just because they happen to share his nationality. He thinks he communicates with the great geniuses of the world, not with the people in his neighborhood. I’m trying to think of some of his many scathing remarks: “People who are proud of the nation often try to cover up their own unremarkable personalities. The majority of people in any nation are fools, and the geniuses and the great authors and philosophers are never representative of their nation: they’re always exceptions in it.”

What is the role of interdisciplinarity (or disciplinarity) in your work?

I think, right now, with this book on the Grimms and project on Schopenhauer, and even maybe my first book, Sociability and its Enemies: German Political Theory after 1945, I might look like something of an intellectual historian, but I think I'm always too interested in the particular organization of texts—the style, the genre, the narrative form—to care only about the ideas, their origin, and their dissemination. So I probably look a little more to the literary dimensions of texts.

I read historians and philosophers and even sociologists, probably weekly, and I benefit so much from their work. But I'm very interested in disciplinarity, and the project on the Brothers Grimm was in some ways a history of the discipline in which I happen to end up, named “German Studies,” and to see that it's not influenced by nationalism, it kind of is a form of nationalism itself. I think of myself as doing some disciplinary self-reflection.

What’s one thing you hope people will take away from your talk?

The nationalists of the 19th century believe that if you're born in a nation, you should also have some say in the politics of that nation. I’m not saying they're democrats, but I’m saying there there's a trend towards a greater role for the people in politics.

Schopenhauer is not a democrat, and he's not a nationalist; he represents an anti-democratic anti-nationalism. He is a fascinating figure, at least for me, because he is, on the one hand, very prescient and, on the other hand, very retrogressive to us. As a philosopher of pessimism, he's very attentive to human and animal suffering, and he has a series of positions that might seem very interesting for us today—a real concern with animal welfare and an early defense of animal rights; an interest in breaking down the dominance of Western thought and religion, and having a more capacious understanding of a global tradition; and a very critical look at the United States, and especially its system of slavery. He dies before the American Civil War, so for him, the American social, political, and economic system is intertwined with slavery, and he thinks that this system of slavery is in fact a manifestation of American republicanism; he thinks it's typical of republics to have slave owners.

He has all these interesting positions that seem sort of forward-looking, and yet he himself is an absolute committed reactionary in his own time, who rejects the working class movement, the democratic nationalist movement, the feminist movement and so on. On the one hand, he is sort of a friend; on the other hand, he is a very alien figure, and the alien and non-alien aspects are somehow intertwined.

What are you teaching?

I am teaching “The Viking Age” this semester, and next semester, I'm teaching “Fairy Tales from the Grimms to Disney.” I usually find myself teaching courses on topics that people have a lot of preconceptions about, like fairy tales and Vikings, and then the entire course becomes this pedagogical exercise, trying to very gently remove people's set ideas about genres and periods. I don't introduce something that no one has ever heard of, I try to reintroduce something that everyone has heard of, but clear away a lot of the accumulated preconceptions.

Next fall, I think I want to teach a gradudate course on the University, and the formation of disciplines. It will be restricted by the German tradition, because that's my area, but I will look at it from Kant to Marx, basically—reflections on the political function of the university, the political status of the university, and the political vocation of the professor.

Selected Publications

The Brothers Grimm and the Making of German Nationalism. Forthcoming with Cambridge University Press (Spring 2022).  

“Adorno and Postwar German Society.” A Companion to Adorno. Ed. Peter Gordon, Espen Hammer, and Max Pensky. Wiley-Blackwell, 2020. 335–348.

“Anti-Capitalist Affect: Georg Lukács on Satire and Hate.” New German Critique 135 (2018): 155–174.

“German Literary Studies and the Nation.” German Quarterly 91.1 (2018): 1–17.

As part of its event series tgiFHI, the Franklin Humanities Institute is conducting interviews with its faculty speakers in order to familiarize broader audiences with the diversity of research approaches in the humanities, arts, and interpretive social sciences at Duke University.

In this edited and condensed interview with Dr. Luciana Parisi, Professor of Literature, she describes how she become interested in cyberpunk, the role of bacteria in human evolution, and whether technology is good, bad - or both.

Dr. Parisi  gave a virtual tgiFHI talk titled Recursive Colonialism and Speculative Computation on Friday, September 18, 2020, at 9:30am. View the full talk here!

On her research interests and how they developed

So my research interests are philosophy of media and technology, philosophies of difference and critical theories, computation and cybernetics.

I started to get interested in information science and cybernetics when I started reading science fiction literature from this movement called cyberpunk in the late 1980s. Cyberpunk was really what got me into critical theories of technology and into pursuing my doctoral studies with the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit at Warwick University in the late 90s.

Cyberpunk challenged the naturality of the body - what we assumed to be the relationship between sex and gender, skin color and race. It would describe bodies that were half-human, half-machine, or it would describe people that have two or three sexes, or people who changed their skin color. It challenged the idea of essentialism, of naturalism.

On one hand, you have this question of technology as a new form of capital, control and governance, one that’s invasive and transforms all forms of being and knowing, that impacts our ontology and our epistemology. But it also was a way to break away from essentialism and forms of naturalism that were being adopted in certain politics of identity, especially feminism.

My first book, Abstract Sex: Philosophy, Bio-Technology and the Mutations of Desire, was part of this endeavor - of breaking away from the Darwinian epistemology of the evolution of the species, which is based on sex and gender identification. I looked at a different mode of evolution that was defined by symbiosis or endosymbiosis, where all kinds of biological systems really are descendants of bacteria, and the way bacteria transmit information and retrieve information is not within the boundary of species.

So my point was to challenge the idea of species, upon which the codification of sex, gender, race and even class was perpetuated. Advocate for an origin of the human, let's say, that’s based on viruses and bacteria, where you can't really draw a border. Then I can rearticulate what sex is, I can rearticulate what femininity is, I can rearticulate what feminist politics is, or transfeminist or transgender and queer politics can be.

It was a kind of rewriting of history - from the ancient origin of the human to biotechnology, and then taking biotechnology as a possibility to rewrite that sex-gender identification and politics.

On how science and the humanities intersect in her research

Science is believed not to be really a way to create philosophical concepts, or new aesthetics; it’s something that has to do with measuring the world in exact methods. Scientific knowledge is ontic, or limited to facts. And science itself is locked within this epistemological form; it can't go beyond itself. My scope is to try and open science to its own limits.

My method is always to go into science, stay with science, try to break down the questions that I need to ask, and then go back to the humanities, and ask the humanities a critical question:

Are you sure that the origin of the complexity of humans is in the eukaryotic cell, is in sexual difference, is in sexual reproduction? Are you sure it's not in bacteria?

Is it true that we still need to think about the human-machine division, and what does it mean to be human if we suspend the model of speciation?

When you know your question of the human is based on a colonial epistemology, a patriarchal epistemology, why are we hanging onto it? This is the epistemology that we've been carrying on since modernity and it's been consolidated by Darwinism. A certain reading of “the fittest” that capital understands as: you're not competitive enough, you're not fit enough, and it's your fault that you're poor. Instead going back to Western colonial epistemology, challenge it and allow for other forms of knowledge to come forward.

I think I really like Sylvia Wynter's proposition on this, where she says we need to expand our inquiry and scientific epistemology to change our cognitive understanding of the world. That's very, very dear to me, this method. That’s why I work at the intersection of the humanities and science, because going back and forth allows for modes of interrogations that can abolish colonial and patriarchal forms of knowledge.

On what she hopes people will take away from her talk

On one hand, forms of governance are totally relying on science, but then on the other, forms of ontological and epistemological liberation can also be articulated from science. So it's important to take that from science, rather than associate it with something that only wants to technocratically divide and control us. In my book Contagious Architecture, I propose an alternative conceptualization of algorithms and data, and engage with computation as a new form of thinking space and time.

My work has always tried to create a space away from the opposition between “technology's good” and “technology's bad.” Is it about power, or is it about resistance? Is it trying to articulate a different kind of ontology and epistemology? That's where my research led me from cyberpunk and cyberfeminism into a political re-articulation of sex.

I think the question of the limit is very important. So what we will really look at in this talk is to say that the limits of knowledge are neither something to be completely overcome - because, you know, we have this vision that we will incorporate everything – or to say, “oh, there's something that we really don't know, and we will never know.” No, it's about experimenting with the limits of knowledge, as a way to transform knowledge.

On the courses she’s teaching

When I arrived here last year, I started a graduate seminar called “Automation and Philosophy” about the debate about machines taking over our decision-making capacity, which is fundamental to construct philosophy.

My undergraduate course this semester is called “Societies of Control: Power and Resistance in the 21st Century,” about how emergence of intelligent technology - technology that is able to predict your behavior and recognize your patterns when you walk in the street or when you pass a border, or when you buy something on Amazon - is transforming modes of governance and therefore needs new forms of resistance.

Next term is a class about Computational Architecture: Space, Time and Borders. So I will look at planetary architecture - the infrastructure of computation and artificial intelligent systems, such as drones, as transforming borders into war zones– and we will look at how this kind of automated infrastructure of intelligent prediction and tracking is establishing new invisible borders where space and time can become hacked and reprogrammed.

Selected recent publications for further reading

Parisi, L. & Román, E. D. “Recursive Colonialism & Cosmo-Computation,” Social Text Online, Periscope “Control Societies @ 30: Technopolitical Forces & Ontologies of Difference” (Forthcoming)

Parisi, L. “The Alien Subject of AI,” Special Issue Digital Subjects, Subjectivity Journal, Palgrave MacMillan. Issue 1, 2019. ISSN: 1755-6341 (Print) 1755-635X (Online)

Parisi, L.  “Critical Computation: Digital Automata and General Artificial Intelligence” in Special Issue on Algorithms and Security, Amoore L. eds., Theory, Culture and Society. 2019.

Parisi, L. “Xeno-patterning: Predictive Intuition and Automated Imagination”, Angelaki, Journal of the Theoretical Humanities, Volume 24, 2019.

Parisi, L. “Reprogramming Decisionism”, e-flux Journal, October 2017.

Majaca A., & L. Parisi. “Incomputability and Instrumental Possibility” e-flux Journal 77, November 2016.

As part of its event series tgiFHI, the Franklin Humanities Institute is conducting interviews with its faculty speakers in order to familiarize broader audiences with the diversity of research approaches in the humanities, arts, and interpretive social sciences at Duke University.

Henry W. Pickford is Professor of German and Philosophy. In this edited and condensed interview, he describes Adorno's role as a public intellectual; how Adorno's approach to reading philosophical arguments and artworks always included their social and economic contexts; and why reading Adorno now can help us understand our current moment.

Dr. Pickford gave a virtual tgiFHI talk titled "Thinking with Adorno: Metaphysical Experience and Aesthetic Autonomy" on Friday, March 12, 2021. View the full talk here!

What are your research interests and how did they develop?

I've always been interested in philosophical approaches to literature. In undergrad, I studied Russian, philosophy, and computer science. And then in grad school, I studied comparative literature and earned a supplemental MA in philosophy.

I eventually gravitated to Adorno. I really appreciated the sophistication of his readings of literature and his aesthetics, as well as his commitment to theories of society and the larger contexts in which artworks have meaning.

I was fortunate enough to be able to translate two of his books as a graduate student. I took a break from grad school and went to live in Berlin and study with one of his students. The essays of the books I was translating were based on radio lectures Adorno gave when he returned to Germany after World War II. They’ve since been collected and published, but at the time they weren't, so I got to travel across Germany and listen to those recordings.

That really opened my eyes. I thought, wow, Adorno actually was a public intellectual on top of writing these various esoteric philosophical works. I'm coming back to that now in this talk: Adorno’s roles as a public intellectual as well as a philosopher.

Could you talk about Adorno’s work as a public intellectual?

Adorno was always reading not only the philosophical arguments, but also the social economic contexts that the philosophical arguments were coming from. He had learned a way of reading the social history and conditions out of philosophical texts from his early mentor Siegfried Kracauer.

Adorno came back to Germany after the war and recognized pretty quickly that despite the defeat, very little had changed. The problems he had been diagnosing were continuing unabated despite the growth of democracy within Germany. So he thought that the problems were seated more deeply than in democratic institutions and specific politicians.

Even before his exile, Adorno was associated with the Institute for Social Research, directed by Horkheimer at the time. They tried to understand, in part, why the possibilities of radical social and economic change had failed in Germany—why fascism arose rather than something like democratic socialism.

One of the pillars that Adorno thought needed to be addressed was education: school as well as university education. As a public educator, he started giving lectures on public regional radio stations. The topics would vary from contemporary politics, avant-garde music, literature, the nature of education—just a really wide variety of topics.

He would then turn these into essays that were published in popular—not academic—journals, and eventually reworked those into book collections that he published. Adorno became a popular author in 1951 when he published a collection of aphorisms called Minima Moralia, which became a best seller. He really leveraged his public persona to do a lot of this work.

And one thing that's really interesting is that he, for someone who's known for writing very difficult abstract prose and so-called “dialectical sentences,” he was also really concerned about being understood in his lectures. Famously, he would interview the sound engineer after his radio talks to ask whether he or she understood what he was saying, just to make sure that he was coming across well. This is all a side of Adorno that most people don't readily anticipate.

What is the role of interdisciplinarity in your work?

I learned Russian and German, then lived in Russia for a while, and then lived in Germany on several occasions. So I know a bit about those literatures—and then I have a philosophical background. I think and publish in the fields that are accessible to me, so that includes German topics, Russian topics, and philosophical topics.

Adorno, as a polymath, is someone I admire. In the first aphorism of Minima Moralia, he talks about the kind of resistance that the intellectual meets in institutional settings. He’s someone who so easily can switch into different disciplines and engage them. I think all those disciplines do interconnect—certainly at the level of analysis that Adorno undertakes.

One of the things that I really love about Duke is that when I applied here, the fact that I work across a range of fields made me attractive to the German department at Duke. To be at a place that welcomes interdisciplinarity is really incredible.

Could you describe your methodology?

When I look back, I think I'm really oriented towards problems, rather than having a fixed research agenda and looking for a topic that will accord with that or vice versa.

For instance, I got the idea for my first book and started writing about it when I was living in Berlin and translating Adorno. I was getting to know the lay of the land there, not that long after reunification. One of the perennial problems Germans were dealing with was how to commemorate the Holocaust post-reunification. There were all kinds of scandals about some of the projects that had been undertaken to try to do that.

The problem was very pragmatic: what are the conditions of success for a Holocaust artwork?

I thought, well, it has to have some kind of historical veridical relationship. You have to tell a story accurately related to historical facts and events. On the other hand, it also has to have some qualities of an artwork: perhaps it has to be beautiful, memorable, or elicit an aesthetic experience. It has to have some features, either in the nature of the artwork itself or in its effects, which make it an artwork, not a document.

I started with these really basic distinctions. And this actually brought in ways of thinking about philosophical aesthetics. What is the relationship between art and non-aesthetic reality—in this case, history? Does art symbolize it? Does art incorporate it directly?

Adorno was in the background of my research here, because one of his final works was on aesthetic theory—trying to incorporate both “aesthetic autonomy,” which says the art work has its own laws and is self-enclosed, and “aesthetic heteronomy,” which says that there are relationships to social reality that an artwork evinces or in some way incorporates.

So this became the framework to then do close readings of memorials, films, poetry, and other types of art about the Holocaust that approach the problem of trying to fulfill both what I called the “dual desiderata”: the aesthetic requirements, and the historical or factual requirements. That became the first book—a normative theory of Holocaust art.

I wrote about the Neue Wache at the center of reunified Berlin, which was met with universal opprobrium, and juxtaposed it with a memorial in the Bayerischer Platz in the Bavarian Quarter called Orte des Erinnerns, in which they reproduced citations from the Nuremberg Laws against the Jews as street signs around the Platz. You'd be walking by what looks like a regular street sign at the entrance to a park, but then you'd read something like, “Jews are not allowed in the park after 5 p.m.” It was really arresting. It has an almost stereoscopic effect as though you’re transported back to that time.

What do you hope people will take away from the talk?

There were certain ways in which the tumult of the time in which Adorno was writing—the late ’60s—may resonate with our contemporary moment.

At the time and thereafter, Adorno has been castigated for being an aloof, apolitical, esoteric aesthete comfortable in the ivory tower. There’s this whole history of him and the student movement, of his disavowing some of the immediate actions they undertook, and so on.

As I work further into Adorno, my understanding of him has become that he was wagging a finger in a way, and saying that the problems aren't as simple and on the surface as you think they are. Rather, the deep analysis that's required to really change things has to begin with how we think and the way we judge. And so that's why he wrote these quite difficult works: Negative Dialectic, which is his major work on metaphysics and epistemology, and then Aesthetic Theory, which was published just after his death.

What I want to do is not completely defend him, but get a better understanding of why he chose those works and that path to address the political situation at the time. 

What do the ways that we think and judge have to do with capitalism? When we think of completely, qualitatively different things as exchangeable and equivalent, how does that perpetuate unjust social structures and processes?

And then for artworks, why these very esoteric modernist works—the Second Viennese School, Samuel Beckett, or Paul Celan, for example—can affect the way we think in a way that Adorno believed is commensurate with the actual problems at hand.

And why he then didn't just say, okay, you should go to school for 20 years and learn about these works, but rather, “I'm going to give you public educational lectures about these works, which should be infused into general education.”

What are you teaching?

I’m currently teaching a graduate seminar on Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason and Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. Those are very rich and challenging books and I have students from German, Literature, English, and Musicology—it's really, really fun thinking about these texts with them.

I regularly teach an undergraduate course called “Marx, Nietzsche, Freud” and a graduate/undergraduate course on Frankfurt School Critical Theory. I also teach a first-year seminar on ethical dilemmas in philosophy and literature, which is very rewarding. And then occasionally I'll teach upper-division undergraduate seminars on German topics in German, most recently on moral philosophy and narrative.

When I teach courses at any level, I always try to cross-list them with as many departments as I can. I really appreciate that diversity of perspectives because the kind of topics I teach speak to people where they are. It's not necessarily a universal topic, but there are ways in which people find a way to the material where it's enriching for them, and critically so. I want to provide critical tools for students to understand the world we're living in. When that light goes off and students realize, so this is why this society is structured the way it is, I think that’s really important.

Selected publications for further reading:

Monographs, edited volumes and critical editions:

The Sense of Semblance: Philosophical Analyses of Holocaust Art. Fordham University Press/Oxford University Press, 2013.

Der aufrechte Gang im windschiefen Kapitalismus: Modelle kritischen Denkens, ed. Rüdiger Dannemann, Henry Pickford, and Hans-Ernst Schiller. Springer Verlag, 2018.

Critical Models: Interventions and Catchwords by Theodor W. Adorno. A critical edition and translation by Henry W. Pickford. Columbia University Press 1998/2005.

Articles and Book Chapters:

“Remarks on the Riddle-Character of Art and Metaphysical Experience in Adorno.” Invited contribution. Constelaciones. Revista de Teoría Crítica 11/12 (2019/2020): 78-99.

“Adorno and Marxism.” Invited contribution. Routledge Handbook of Marxism and Post-Marxism, ed. Alex Callinicos, Stathis Kouvelakis, and Lucia Pradella. London: Routledge, 2021: 139-154.

“Adorno and Literary Criticism.” Invited contribution. A Companion to Adorno, ed. Peter Gordon, Espen Hammer and Max Pensky. Hoboken: Wiley Blackwell, 2020: 365-381.

“Die Kategorien des Widerstands und der Fall Adorno.” Invited contribution. Auf Nietzsches Balkon III: Philosophische Beiträge aus der Villa Silberblick. hrsg. Sarah Bianchi. Weimar: Bauhaus-Universität Weimar, 2018: 190-213.

“Riddlework (I): Adorno’s Model of Critique.” In Der aufrechte Gang im windschiefen Kapitalismus: Kritikmodelle im Gegenwartskapitalismus, ed. Rüdiger Dannemann, Henry Pickford, and Hans-Ernst Schiller. Wiesbaden: Springer, 2018: 67-92.

“The Dialectic of Theory and Praxis: Late Adorno.” Invited contribution. Adorno: A Critical Reader, ed. A. Rubin, N. Gibson. Oxford: Blackwell, 2002: 312-341.

What does “oppression” mean, and why is this concept not adequate to describe the nuances of race and gender? How might theorizing on race and gender through academic philosophy offer new insights to this question? And what do philosophers stand to gain from thinking about the social world in concrete ways?

This week, we interview Kevin Richardson, Assistant Professor of Philosophy. Dr. Richardson gave a talk entitled "Are Black Men a Counterexample to Feminism?" on Friday, February 11, 2022, as part of our tgiFHI series. View the full talk here!

This interview has been edited and condensed.

What are your research interests?

I am currently researching social ontology. Social ontology is about the nature of social categories. We often talk about social groups: basketball teams, the Supreme Court, students on campus. But what is a social group, really? Is any collection of people a social group? Or do certain rules and norms make a collection of people a social group?

I’m currently asking this set of questions about social categories like gender and race. I’m thinking about the political implications of the nature of these categories. For instance, is gender or race socially constructed, and if so, what effect would or should that knowledge have on our gender and race practices?

There are disagreements about the nature of oppression. Some people take oppression to be a relation between two social groups, where one group oppresses another. But some people also think that a group can oppress itself, or that a group can be oppressed without an oppressor group. 

I think that the concept of oppression is useful, but we need more. 

Philosophers from the critical tradition will typically say things like, “women are oppressed as women by men.” But there are complicating factors. There are cases where white women oppress Black men. People like Tommy Curry argue that Black people, even Black men, don’t have enough power to systematically oppress anyone.

I don't think these approaches are satisfactory. Oppression manifests in various ways, and some forms of oppression are not as harmful as others. The way we use “oppression” doesn’t adequately answer, for example, how much Black men might benefit from a patriarchy, versus other people. I think we need other concepts to build a theory that accounts for all these nuances. This includes the degree of harm and the degree of benefit from an oppressive structure.

How did your research interests develop?

My interest in philosophy started when I was an undergrad at UNC-Chapel Hill. At the time, I wanted to be a fiction writer, but I also took a bunch of philosophy classes. One day, my creative writing professor told me that I wasn’t writing characters, but ideas.

From there, I went to graduate school for philosophy at MIT. I started working on non-social ontology, which is broadly about abstract questions of existence and the nature of things. What is time, for instance? What is existence? What is truth? I started in this field with thinking about the distinction between fundamental and non-fundamental reality.

Now, I work on social ontology. With the social case, we can be more concrete about the abstract questions. Instead of theorizing about things like objectivity and subjectivity, let's think concretely about what it means if races are socially constructed. Would that mean that they're not objective? If so, how should we react on a practical basis? 

I think putting pressure on a concrete response, be it an action or a belief, helps us better understand the abstract concepts. It's difficult to understand how the descriptive fact of “what things are” relates to the political-ethical fact of “how things should be.” It's not straightforward how to put these together.

What is your research methodology?

Like a lot of philosophers, I do armchair theorizing. I sit and think, using reasoning that philosophers are trained to apply to various cases.

I also make extensive use of existing empirical research and existing theoretical work done by other philosophers and social scientists. It’s important to account for the empirical facts and to know what disagreements social scientists may have with each other on the matter.

In my work, I’m tracking the empirical facts, while thinking about whether or not our definitions of oppression, among other social concepts, are useful and accurate.

What is the role of interdisciplinary in your work?

The empirical evidence is extremely important. While philosophers do a lot of conceptual analysis, whether it's relevant will depend on the facts. 

If you get really abstract when theorizing about the social world, your theory can ultimately be inapplicable or just laughable. I’ve almost certainly done this. For instance, instead of grounding a conversation about men and women in empirical facts, you might have a thought experiment where you refer to two groups on an alien planet and say they do the equivalent of fist-bumping to reproduce. You’ll do your thought experiments and then try to apply your conclusions to your reasoning about gender. 

I’m inclined to think that's not a very good methodology. I think that we should make use of all the empirical information that other scholars have been working on. 

My engagement with interdisciplinary work is talking to and reading the work of scientists and social scientists who are really looking at the empirical data and theorizing about it in their own ways. I think we should take their interpretations into consideration for our philosophical theories.

I've been reading a lot of Sandy Darity and Darrick Hamilton’s work on the racial wealth gap and reparations. I think the economic question is extremely important—how much economic conditions determine social facts about races and genders—but is sometimes glossed over in philosophy.

I’ve also been reading the works of Michelle Alexander, Ruth Gilmore, and Dean Spade, who research what I call “carceral structures.” This is a category that includes prisons, but also more abstract forms of incarceration, such as ankle monitors and mobile apps—forms that extend the prison system outside of the physical walls of prisons. I think interesting ontological work can be done on carceral structures because they are so abstract.

On working on race and gender within philosophy:

I think we need more work on the social world by philosophers.

To be concrete, at the undergraduate and graduate level, students interested in questions of philosophy that happen to involve race are told to go to area studies. In some cases, that may work well for the student’s interests. 

But in many cases, such students may also be interested in broad questions in ontology, philosophy of language, or philosophy of mind. I think it's a very pernicious process where anyone who happens to be interested in things like race, gender, and even economics, are pushed out of academic philosophy. And these will disproportionately be students of color.

The consequence is that today, within philosophy, a lot of people are interested in social categories, but there are shockingly few people who work on it.

To be clear, there's no problem with doing philosophy in other disciplines, like Saidiya Hartman does. But I think the current disciplinary structure is not helping the students who are interested in tying the study of race and gender into other things.

In philosophy, I can work on language, mind, and knowledge—and I can work on gender and race. Historically, philosophers like Foucault, Marx, and Hegel weren't in a specific type of studies or department. They were philosophers. They read a whole bunch of stuff. Then they applied what they read about metaphysics, philosophy, languages and epistemology to the context of the social. I think a lot of great insights have happened in this way.

I think more scholars should be free to think abstractly and then concretely.

What do you hope people will take away from your talk?

I hope people will take away two things. 

First, that oppression doesn’t mean nearly as much as people commonly think it does. 

And second, I want people to take away how much work still needs to be done. To be clear, a lot of work has already been done. However, traditionally, there has been a resistance to constructing systematic theories of oppression.

I want to convey that if we don't have theories that can obey principles and get certain results, then I think that we will have the same debates in perpetuity. These debates will mostly be about which form of oppression between gender, race, and so on, is prior. I tend to think that this framework isn't helpful. We need more concepts. We need more types of theorizing.

What are you teaching?

This semester, I am teaching a seminar called “Philosophy of Race.” The class is divided into two parts. 

The first part is about the nature of race. Do races exist? If they do exist, are they biological? If they are biological, what does that mean? Or are they socially constructed? If they are socially constructed, what does that mean?

The second part is about racism. What is racism? What does racist oppression mean? We consider different cases of what would be considered racism.

Selected publications for further reading:

“Exclusion and Erasure: Two Types of Ontological Oppression” (Forthcoming in Ergo)

As part of its event series tgiFHI, the Franklin Humanities Institute is conducting interviews with its faculty speakers in order to familiarize broader audiences with the diversity of research approaches in the humanities, arts, and interpretive social sciences at Duke University.

Dr. Jesús Ruiz is a historian of the Haitian Revolution, the Caribbean, Black Atlantic, and Afro-Latin America. He is currently an ACLS Emerging Voices Fellow at the Franklin Humanities Institute, History, and Art, Art History & Visual Studies at Duke University, and will work with Digital Humanities Initiative@FHI Director Victoria Szabo on a new, archives-focused undergraduate course, “Introduction to Digital Humanities" (Spring 2021), among other projects.

"We are excited to have Jesús working with us to develop our approach to critical digital humanities," wrote Victoria Szabo. "The ACLS Emerging Voices fellowship allows us to opportunity to combine that research focus with a deeper dive into how we conceive of a more critical, global, engaged and reflective DH. As a scholar focused on the Haitian revolution from a Spanish and West African perspective, Jesús joins a strong community working on Haitian history and culture here at Duke."

In this edited and condensed interview, Dr. Ruiz describes his journey through the Spanish archives, why he takes a transimperial lens to research the history of Haiti, and why the Haitian Revolution is the most important revolution in the history of the Western Hemisphere.

Dr. Ruiz gave a virtual tgiFHI talk titled 'I Burn My Nation': Black Royalists and Monarchical Thought in the Haitian Revolution on Friday, October 16, 2020, at 9:30am. View the full talk here!

On his research interests and how they developed:

I come from an interdisciplinary background of Spanish language and literature and Caribbean cultural studies, of reading a lot of Caribbean postcolonial writers like Césaire, Fanon, and Glissant. My early interests were in the Zapatista Revolution in Mexico and the Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua. Then as a master’s student, I realized that the Haitian Revolution was the original example of a successful revolution in the Americas. And so that's where my research began: looking at Haiti.

I took a trip to Seville, Spain and did some work at the General Archive of the Indies. I began looking at records on the Spanish reaction to the slave revolts of 1791 in Haiti. That’s when I started to realize there was something much deeper than a simple story about a black and white struggle. There was actually much more fluidity. There was contact, negotiation, and influence between the formerly enslaved insurgents, the Spanish agents, the Spanish military commanders, and other figures.

I decided to go forward with a PhD in Latin American Studies to look at the history of the Haitian revolution. My research has become a broader history of royalism—the support for a monarchical ruler—as a political ethos in the history of Haiti.

We’re given very neat stories of how the nation-state is created, such as with the French and American revolutions. By looking at the Haitian Revolution through a different lens, as a Latin American and Caribbean story, we begin to see a very different political history. We see that there were ways in which enslaved insurgents and the founders of Haiti were negotiating and utilizing these old royalist principles that in our modern political sensibility seem ridiculous.

How does your interdisciplinary training inform your research?

My interdisciplinary background is central to who I am as a scholar. I've trained through a range of methods: historical research, literary analysis, and anthropological and ethnographic research.

Interestingly enough, it wasn’t until my PhD program that I really started to become what I consider myself to be now—a historian. While becoming rooted in the history discipline has pulled me away from a lot of those interdisciplinary methods, my interdisciplinary training, as one of my committee members observed, clearly seeps into my dissertation in many ways, and in ways I didn't immediately realize.

My dissertation is transimperial. Old school historians have drawn hard imperial lines like with the French Empire, the Spanish Empire, and the British Empire. In my dissertation, I’m saying that Haiti is on an island that was both Spanish and French, and if we zoom in on the border, we can see that the history of Haiti wasn't as rigid as the nation-state would have us believe.

For me, looking at history through a more entangled lens has been critical to understanding with greater depth what was happening in Haiti during this revolutionary era. I’ve had to look at some hard questions. What does it mean if a formerly enslaved free Black insurgent was negotiating with a slave-owning conservative royalist and plotting to uphold the throne of the very system that had put him in chains in the first place? How does that disrupt histories of slave resistance and agency in the Americas?

I had to come to this project from a different perspective—an interdisciplinary perspective. I didn't come to it thinking in very neat teleological narratives of what we want Haiti to be.

What have you found in your archival research?

As part of my master’s program, I went to the Spanish archives as a methodological exercise. We were taught the fundamentals of paleography, like how to tell the difference between a “J” and a “Y” and a “G.” But we were really just given a lot of freedom. Since I was interested in Haiti, I started with a collection in the Spanish colony on the court in Santo Domingo.

I started looking at some diplomatic records, which then branched off into military correspondences—reports from Spanish spies at the border sent back to the governor of Santo Domingo. I also started looking at the diplomatic correspondence between Spain and France, and then the U.S. A combination of many different types of records make up my work, and they really start at the colonial border.

One of my favorite stories from the archives is when I learned about an insurgent leader who gave a huge speech at a plaza in one of the towns. He chastised the white colonists and the mulattos, or the people of mixed race. He told them that the revolution was happening and has a list of towns they’ve already taken over. At the end, he says something to the effect of, “If I catch any one of you, I'm going to skin you alive and I'm going to make a mask out of your face and wear it.”

If you can imagine, this was a microfilm record I was flipping through, and I gasped out loud in the archive. The Spanish archives are really strict, so the security guards sprang into action when they saw me jump out of my chair.

What do you hope people will take away from your talk?

First and foremost, the Haitian Revolution is the most important revolution in the history of the Western Hemisphere. If we want to talk about liberation, we have to start with Haiti. They abolished slavery more than half a century before the U.S., France, Brazil—earlier than anybody else. We have to start with Haiti.

Second of all, Haiti is not a failed state. The first thing people think of when they think of Haiti, if they think of Haiti, is that it’s the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Or people think that Haitians made a pact with the devil and that they practice Vodou. The dominating narrative is that it’s a savage country.

Haiti not only was the first country that emancipated slaves, but also it did so despite the challenges that the state and its political leaders posed. Haiti was a Black revolution that instituted a Black state in a world that was dominated by white slaveholding colonies and empires. What they did was totally different than what was happening in the rest of the world. We have to give the Haitian Revolution the complexity it deserves, and learn those complexities, if we want to talk about emancipation and liberation.

With my undergraduate students, I often start with an exercise. I'll say, raise your hands if you know who Napoleon Bonaparte is—100%. Raise your hand if you know who George Washington is—100%. Raise your hand if you know who Jean-Jacques Dessalines—it's a sprinkle of hands. If there’s one thing people should take away from this presentation it’s just to know a bit of what happened and why it's important.

What are you teaching next semester?

Next semester, I'll be teaching “Colonial Latin America” with the History department. My approach will take the history of Afro Colonial Latin America as the starting point.

I’ll also be teaching “Intro to Digital Humanities” with Victoria Szabo and that's part of the Art, Art History, & Visual Studies program. I'm looking forward to bringing some of my research skills and interests to that class, but also to learning along with the students as I'm fairly new to the field of digital humanities in general.

Selected upcoming publications for further reading:

I'm currently working on a book review of Freedom Roots: Histories from the Caribbean by Laurent Dubois and Richard Lee Turits for the journal Bulletin of Latin America Research. This is forthcoming in 2021.

I am also working on two article manuscripts, one based on my tgiFHI talk: "'I Burn My Nation': Black Royalists and Monarchical Thought in the Haitian Revolution," and another based on a talk I recently did at Vanderbilt University's Circum-Atlantic Studies Seminar, "Sons of the Same Human Species: Rayanos and the Entwined Borderlands of Hispaniola During the Haitian Revolution."

As part of its event series tgiFHI, the Franklin Humanities Institute is conducting interviews with its faculty speakers in order to familiarize broader audiences with the diversity of research approaches in the humanities, arts, and interpretive social sciences at Duke University.

Philip Rupprecht is Professor of Music. In this edited and condensed interview, he describes the power of the press, the BBC, and other cultural institutions in mediating British musical culture, and how his own research takes part in the canon-making enterprise.

Dr. Rupprecht gave a virtual tgiFHI talk titled "Music, Bureaucracy, and the Production of Taste: Malcolm Arnold and the BBC in the 1950s'" on Friday, February 12, 2021. View the full talk here!

What are your research interests and how did they develop?

My research interests are in musicology, which is the historical and also the analytical-technical study of music. I’ve always resisted this binary, though. I believe that history and analysis are intrinsically linked. You can't do a good close reading of a musical text without solid historical awareness. And you can't say interesting things about historical situations unless you can parse scores at the level of individual gestures.

More specifically, I work on British music. I didn’t think I’d only study British music, but over time you specialize: I did my dissertation on Benjamin Britten, a famous 20th-century British composer, and I then wrote my first book on his operatic dramas. My second book was on the British avant-garde in the 1950s to the early 1970s.

I became interested in the interplay of British and European music, which became very fraught in the post-1945 period. This was a time when internationalism was in the air and the avant-garde was suddenly fashionable. I started thinking about all of this in terms of ideas about stereotyping that first arose in the context of post-colonial criticism. Of course, the interplay of the nations of Europe was a very different situation from that of an imperial moment, but I started applying a psychologically motivated study of culture to this little island off the continent of Europe. (With what's happened in the last couple of years with Brexit, I don't think it was entirely off base to emphasize these things.) Growing up in England, I was constantly aware of a love-hate relationship with “the continent.” Even in just the naming, “the continent,” it's always othered.

British musicians have always tended to define themselves in opposition to German and French musicians. They perceived German music as intellectually rigorous and contrapuntal, and French music as sensuous, harmonic, and subtle. You start to see these kinds of claims in newspaper articles, books, and CD liner notes. I was struck by this discourse of stereotype and self-stereotyping, and it became a part of my second book.

While writing, the big idea that came through for me was the role of newspaper press criticism in defining and mediating music’s presence in culture. If you go to a concert, sound will enter the room and your ears will pick it up. Maybe you dance, or you enjoy the colors of the instruments or are charmed by a snatch of melody.

If you go to a concert, sound will enter the room and your ears will pick it up...But what happened before you entered the room and what will happen next? Music is relayed to society through cultural channels – mediated by press, broadcasters, producers, presenting organizations, and the artists themselves"

But what happened before you entered the room and what will happen next? Music is relayed to society through cultural channels mediated by press, broadcasters, producers, presenting organizations, and the artists themselves. You're immediately in the world of canon-making, history, image, ideology, and stories. There is no naïve pre-ideological hearing of music.

From the ’50s and ’60s, we have a rich archive of newspaper opinion. Every time a new piece was performed, eight or nine critics in London wrote about it in the press, and what they said became the story. I started analyzing the journalistic reception of the music in relation to widely debated questions of style and technique.

It was an interesting book to write because it involved a group portrait of, in the end, about a dozen composers, where only two or three of them were famous. Defining this avant-garde scene of the ’50s into the ’70s was itself a canon-making enterprise. Who do you pick? Who did history pick, and why?

What is the role of interdisciplinarity in your work?

I feel that I’m rooted in music studies, and I look outwards to other fields to try to bring things back into my home field. For example, in writing about opera, I became interested in the social model of utterance articulated by speech-act theory, as a way of understanding the interplay of words and music on stage. I think it's very hard to be genuinely as good a literary critic or art historian as you are a musicologist.

If I mention the painter Francis Bacon and his screaming popes, as I did in my second book, I'm not going to claim to be an authority like David Sylvester. But I am going to read Sylvester’s interviews with Bacon. I'm going to draw conclusions from art history and bring them back to musicology.

The culture I’m interested in, at large, was multi-disciplinary. Composers, musicians, performers were inspired by the poetry they were reading and the paintings they were seeing.

What have you found in the archives?

My current book project, which deals with the period immediately after the war, and into the ‘50s, is a sort of historical prequel to my second book. Also I became aware of the elephant in the room, the BBC—the British Broadcasting Corporation—which was the largest impresario in the world at the time. They had eight or nine orchestras and a tax levy budget of millions and millions. And they were producing radio starting in the ’20s. By the ’50s and ’60s, they were really “the national presence” that could make or break a career in music.

Writing the book on the avant-garde, I was reading other scholars’ work on the BBC, but I hadn't worked on the BBC myself before. So I resolved, for my next project, that I would have to get my hands dirty and go to the BBC archive.

I made three trips between 2017 and 2018 to the Written Archives Centre in Reading. I wanted to track the bureaucracy involved in selecting orchestral music. They had a panel of anonymous readers in the ‘40s and ‘50s. If, as a younger composer, you wanted your music accepted for broadcast, it had to be read first by “the panel.” Some composers just never got the nod. By the early ’50s, people were getting rather upset because many composers—even a few older, established figures—felt they couldn't get their music played enough on national radio broadcasts.

The BBC bureaucracy was huge and rhizomatic. Its personnel was constantly changing from year to year. I’m spending a lot of time reading the BBC’s mostly handwritten memos from the ’40s and ’50s. I’m trying to imagine, well, who really exerted the power here? What can I construe from this paper trail that survives of a vast, well-funded bureaucracy that created the daily programming for the nation?

What do you hope people take away from your talk?

It was Raymond Williams who said, “Culture is ordinary.” In the ’50s, the debate was about whether culture comes from the ground up in an organic way, or a more top-down model – from people like F.R. Leavis or Eliot – who felt cultural and artistic value should emphasize a literate tradition defined by specialists.

“Culture is ordinary” is a great slogan. My slogan will have to be something like, “Musical culture, whether ordinary or extraordinary, is something mediated by institutions.” It's not very catchy yet, and sounds a little gloomy! But that to me seems like a truth that is otherwise almost invisible to us. The other point would be the historian’s problem, of understanding the personalities and regulating conditions within a given institution – the complicated day-to-day workings of BBC Radio, for example.

What are you teaching?

This semester, I’m teaching two undergraduate courses. One is on music theory. Each of the students writes a piece in four parts and we bring the Ciompi String Quartet to perform them all at the end of the semester. We’re very eclectic in our historical references and mix vernacular styles with classical music. Just yesterday I played the students Prince’s song “Raspberry Beret,” but the previous week we looked at Vivaldi concertos from the 18th century.

The other course I’m teaching is “Music History from 1918 to the Present.” We've just spent two weeks on the 1920s: Stravinsky, Hindemith, Bartók, Crawford Seeger and Gershwin. We also looked at the Duke Ellington Orchestra of 1930 because jazz was so influential on people like Copland and Milhaud. Next week we’ll start the ’30s.

I’m also advising PhD candidates in musicology. Their work is by definition the cutting-edge of the field.

Selected recent publications for further reading:

“Voicing Ideology: Modernism and the Middlebrow in Britten’s Operas.” Music & Letters 102 (May 2020): 343–66.

“Rhythmic Dignity: Motive, Signal, and Flux in the Music of James Dillon.” Musiktheorie: Zeitschrift für Musikwissenschaft 34 (2019): 347–76

“Scenes from Britten’s Spring Symphony.” In Literary Britten: Words and Music in Benjamin Britten’s Vocal Works, ed. Kate Kennedy (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2018)

Tonality Since 1950, ed. Felix Wörner, Ullrich Scheideler, and Philip Rupprecht (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2017)

As our world becomes increasingly more mixed-race, how does this trend tell another, more violent story about war, imperialism, and displacement? How can one's body be a site to investigate racial histories and their convergences? And why, if we truly want a less racist and less violent world, are the interdisciplinary humanities vital?

This week, we interview Anna Storti, Assistant Professor of Gender, Sexuality & Feminist Studies. Dr. Storti gave a talk entitled "Racist Intimacies: Asian America in Thrall to Desire" on Friday, February 18, 2022, as part of our tgiFHI series:

This interview has been edited and condensed.

What are your research interests?

My research seeks to observe the way the past lingers into the present. 

I’m a scholar of feminist and queer theory, Asian American studies, and performance studies. I see myself alongside humanities scholars who seek to develop new models to survey the links between dehumanization in the present and the imperial and colonial conditions that got us here.

I’m currently working on two projects. One is in its early stages and it examines how Asian Americans engage in “immoral behaviors” like gambling, sex work, intoxication, envy, and narcissism as a politics of detachment. These detachments show how Asian Americans chart alternative models of living to find closeness, intimacy, and sociality in the wake of violence or exclusion. The project is indebted to my lola and lolo, the best grandparents ever, who found sociality with other immigrants while playing mahjong and gambling at the casino.

The other project stems from my first book and it’s what my tgiFHI talk is about. It revolves around a relationship between racial mixture and what I call “racist intimacies.”

In the United States in particular, the growing numbers of racially-mixed citizens indicates, supposedly, a shift toward a post-racial society. I look explicitly at Asian Americans with white heritage, which is a group that's growing exponentially. Mixed-heritage Asian Americans in the contemporary moment are uniquely heralded as signs of an ideal cosmopolitan future.

In order to celebrate racial mixture, one must forget its genesis in war, occupation, and slavery. This project is an attempt to bring those disavowed histories into the fore by approaching racial mixture as a convergence where multiple racial histories clash within one body. That convergence doesn't just result in an identity of being mixed race, but as I show, it becomes the very grounds for new and emerging racisms.

How did your interests develop over time?

When I was applying to graduate school, I was interested in instances of passing, race, and queer femininity. I felt bombarded with images of racial mixture and queerness as signifiers of progress. I wanted to think about these subject positions outside of the visual, and so I began compiling an archive of different artistic expressions like performances, memoir, and poetic work that depicted moments of feeling mixed and queer.

But then two years into my PhD, a case broke that shifted the entire direction of my work. In 2015, Daniel Holtzclaw, a former cop in Oklahoma City was convicted to serve a 263-year sentence for assaulting at least 13 Black women. Holtzclaw is German and Japanese American. His father was stationed in Japan for the U.S. Air Force where he met his mother, who was working as a civilian police officer. Daniel was born in Guam.

His was indeed a case about sexual violence and police brutality against Black women. But it was also a story about empire, Asian masculinity, and whiteness. Throughout his case, journalists consistently racialized him as white. But he's not white; he’s racially mixed. I began to think about the porousness of whiteness alongside the faulty notion that mixed-race people are exemplars of a better future.

I began to think about white supremacy as having sexual preferences, which are always racist, violent, and fetishistic, and that people like Holtzclaw could extend them. Holtzclaw’s case helped me articulate the project as one about how empire’s enduring erotic life impacts all of us, on or off U.S. soil.

This case helped clarify for me how war, displacement, and migration are not single standing events, but rather function as manifestations of ongoing legacies of militarism and policing, which together reveal the prevailing racist logics behind gendered and sexualized violence.

What is your research methodology? 

I was trained in the interdisciplinary field of gender studies, so I've always been a little playful with my methodology. The questions I ask help shape the methods I use to answer them. 

Something that remains steady throughout the different methods I engage is my attention to minoritarian aesthetic practices. This includes self portraiture, installation art, queer visual culture, poetics, experimental film, and even revolutionary protest.

I try to think through what it means to trouble the barrier that exists between researchers and their objects. I talk with the people I write about, share my writing with them, and sometimes invite them to speak with my students.

Of course, with people like Holtzclaw, who I am unable to speak with, that form of connection is formed by investigative archival work. There are writings about mixed-race Asian Americans, but not necessarily an archive. A lot of the work I do is about assembling my own archive.

Most of my “archival work”—and I hesitate to call it that—is about listening to the artists I work with, not just what they say or how they say it, but what their bodies or silences communicate. I do a lot of movement analysis of dance and live performance, and think through what it means to participate. I pay close attention to how one’s movements are molded by things like empire and colonialism. Maybe the way one sits is because one was disciplined to sit a certain way, for example.

My understanding of archive is informed by what Julietta Singh calls the “body archive.” The body holds memories of the past that reach beyond one’s own life, deep into previous generations. I’m interested in the mixed-race body because there is a clashing of multiple racial histories. The body becomes the site to understand that.

What is the role of interdisciplinarity in your work?

I’m an interdisciplinary scholar housed in two interdisciplines: Gender, Sexuality & Feminist Studies and Asian American & Diaspora Studies.

There’s an assumption that within these fields, you talk about identity and fill in the gaps of history with stories about marginalized people that weren't told. And certainly, that’s what happens here. But more so, I think these fields really help us think about how race, gender, sexuality, class, ability, nationality—all of these identity markers—are actually forms of analyzing the world.

When you focus on a case like the Page Act, you think through a history of racialization and sexualization of Asian women. But if you use this case as a lens—an analytic—it opens up a different story of the world. I want my students to learn that we can put on an analytic and hopefully never take it off. Because when it's on, you can see, in every instance, power working. 

Ultimately, I'm less interested in how interdisciplinarity may provide new ways to forge originality or exhibit expertise differently. I’m more interested in how it can invite us to think and learn alongside each other. To me, it's about listening to different fields, groups of scholars, objects. At its best, interdisciplinarity allows for a comprehensive understanding of power so that things like justice and redistribution can become possible. 

What do you hope people will take away from your talk?

I hope my talk incites questions that might be uncomfortable but also necessary if we truly want to have a less racist and less violent world.

I'd like people to ask questions about how intimately empire is woven into their lives. I'd like them to wonder how those questions may be answered differently depending on their positionality. Would you be here, if not for U.S. imperialism? Where do your desires come from? How might our desires be shaped by the past? How might we pursue intimacy in ways untethered from empire? 

I don't know if it's possible, but I think we have to at least ask the questions. I really value self-reflexivity. How do we look inward and think through the different histories we carry, and understand that these histories intimately affect the ways we treat ourselves and each other?

What are you teaching?

I'm currently teaching “Race, Gender, and Sexuality.” The first few weeks prompt students to begin developing an analytic. The following weeks invite the students to apply their analytic to a series of case studies.

Next week, we're going to the Rubenstein Library for a workshop in the archives. I think this will get the students thinking about ethics when engaging materials. Outside of the classroom, what do we do with our analytic? How do we pay attention to ourselves and the power that we hold as observers who sift through archives, and as people who move through the world? How does a place like Duke University have access to so many materials? I think this will get the students thinking about, again, power, and its uneven distribution.

Selected publications for further reading:

“Half and Both: On Color and Subject/Object Tactility.” Women & Performance: a journal of feminist theory, Special Issue “Performances of Contingency: Feminist Relationality and Asian American Studies After the Institution.” 2020. 

“Scenes of Hope, Acts of Despair: Deidealizing Hybridity in Saya Woolfalk’s World of the Empathics.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, Special Issue “Staging Feminist Futures.” 2020.

“How to Speak without Words: Abuse and/as Disability in Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s Dirty River.” Disability Representation in Film, TV and Print Media. Routledge’s Interdisciplinary Disability Studies Series. Edited by Michael Jeffress. 2021.

“Remembering Konerak Sinthasomphone.” Reappropriate: Asian American feminism, politics, and pop culture. June 2021.

“‘So, I turn inside’: Overcome by the Unbearable, Seeing Myself in Michiyo Fukaya.” Feminist Studies, Special Issue “Commemorating the 40th anniversary of This Bridge Called My Back: Writings By Radical Women of Color and All The Women Are White, All The Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave: Black Women's Studies.” Forthcoming, Spring 2022.

What do we mean when we use the word "trauma"? Did the ancient Greeks think of trauma in the same way? Why do we assume that Greek tragedy is somehow therapeutic, and how might the story be more complicated that that?

Here we interview Andrew W. Mellon Assistant Professor of Classical Studies and Theater Studies Erika Weiberg about her research and teaching. Dr. Weiberg gave a talk entitled "On Knowing and Not Knowing Trauma in Ancient Greek" in our tgiFHI series on Friday, November 12, 2021:

This interview has been edited and condensed.

What are your research interests and how did they develop?

I’m interested in the concept of trauma in antiquity, and how its legacy affects the ways we think about trauma today. I look at Greek tragedy, which is the way the Greeks represented trauma most directly, through dramatic art. I’m also interested in how gender is articulated in ancient Greek literature. 

I got interested in the topic through some theater groups that have recently begun addressing combat trauma through the performance of Greek tragedy. There’s Brian Dorries’ company [Theater of War]. There’s another one run by a director named Peter Meineck [Aquila Theatre]. Strangely, around the same time in 2009, both of them started putting on these performances of Greek tragedy for veteran audiences. They thought that Greek tragedy could be used to articulate some of the pain that veterans feel after war, by approaching it not through their direct experience, but through an art form, filtered through a distant past and through these heroic figures.

When I learned about these performances, I was intrigued, and also a little disturbed, because my own research in Greek literature had been about gender, and all of the ways in which ancient texts silence the voices of women and people who don't conform to the default male position. So I was interested in how these projects go from texts that are reflections of their culture, which was a highly patriarchal, misogynistic culture, towards addressing these issues for us today, in a way that's inclusive rather than exclusive.

That led into a project where I was thinking about how tragedy itself is interested in women's experiences of pain. But tragedy represents women’s pain differently from men's pain. The representation of women's pain is often more complicated. You would not want to make this kind of universalist argument that “their pain is our pain,” which allows us to talk about it in a therapeutic way. Because for women, these works of art are not necessarily therapeutic.

That was my entry point. I wanted to think about the representation of trauma in these ancient texts, and how they let us understand trauma and gender differently. How does looking at women’s pain in tragedy complicate theater projects that want to use Greek tragedy as therapy for modern audiences? Is there a way that we could use these texts to address issues related to women's experiences of trauma, or is that a project that should not even be attempted using Greek tragedy?

“Trauma” is a popular word nowadays. What do you mean by it?

I'm interested in trauma not as a bodily or physical wound, but as an emotional or psychological wound—although I think that is a false binary today, and was especially so for the Greeks. Trauma researchers today define trauma as an event that has lasting repercussions on the mind, and as being affected by that event after the fact. So it’s both the event and the aftershock.

In my research I was interested in asking, “Did the Greeks have this concept of psychological trauma?” The word “trauma” is a Greek word. But it’s not ever used in the sense of psychological wound in Greek texts. I don't think that means that they didn't have a concept of it, but I think it does mean that there are serious challenges for us when we try to understand what that concept might have been.

Can you describe what your research practice looks like?

One of the things that I do to figure out how the Greeks understood trauma is to look at all of these different words related to the idea of trauma across a large number of different texts. Those texts might be Greek tragedy, ancient medical texts, historiography, and philosophy.

The nice thing about working on ancient texts is that now they're all digitized. So we have these wonderful databases. I search in Greek for all of these different words and passages, then compare them, and think about them in context based on what I know from reading other sources, and from thinking about how they are talked about in this genre versus that one.

Have you found anything in these searches that surprised you?

One of the interesting things that I found was that a lot of female characters in tragedy talk about their emotional pain using the embodied language of childbirth. They use this one word in particular, odis, which means a birth pain or the pain of being in labor. Using that word to describe an emotional experience struck me as pretty novel. There's also a Greek word ponos, which means pain, but is often used both of heroic struggle and of the pain of childbirth. I don't know if I was expecting to find these kinds of overlapping terms, both in the way that they’re gendered, and in the way that they express both physical and emotional pain.

If you had to pick a Greek tragedy that would provide the most insight into trauma or women's experiences of trauma, which one(s) would you pick, and why?

My favorite Greek tragedy is one that most people have not read. It's called Women of Trachis by Sophocles. It’s like Oedipus, which is the play most people think of when they think of Greek tragedy, in that it's also about the belated recognition of a mistake that the protagonist made. Oedipus becomes a key text for how people understand trauma today, because of Freud’s idea of belatedness: that trauma is something that we can't recognize in the moment, that it occurs only later, after the fact.

But whereas Oedipus is really well known, this other play is not. It has a female protagonist named Deianira, who is the wife of Heracles. She talks quite a lot about her past experiences as a girl, and how those past experiences create a situation of perpetual and cyclical fear in the present for her. She talks about how the river god Achelous asks for her hand in marriage, and she's so terrified of him that she'd rather die. She ends up not having to marry him, because Heracles battles him and marries her instead. Then that marriage ends up being an incredibly difficult one, because he's constantly going away and leaving her alone at home, to raise their kids. She's no longer in her father's house, which she associates with this feeling of protection. This creates a kind of chronic pain, related to these gendered expectations for women and girls in the ancient world, which leads to the real tragedy that's being depicted on stage, which is that she sends what she thinks is a love charm to her husband, and it ends up killing him. So there's a lot going on there about how past experiences and gender socialization can create traumatic moments that are only recognized belatedly.

What's one thing that you hope people take away from your talk?

What some people think of as a straightforward medical diagnosis like post-traumatic stress disorder is, in fact, something we construct through different discourses, be it law, medicine, culture, or art. And the way we construct it today is different from how other cultures do, especially ancient cultures. You're dealing with a cultural difference as well as a huge gap in time.

I want to reawaken how strange and different and unique and interesting the way the Greeks thought about trauma is, versus how we do today–to really emphasize the particularity of it rather than assume a kind of universal narrative. It is not apolitical the way we read these ancient texts either.

There is a reason why they keep coming back and haunting us: they’ve been intertwined in different moments in our history. I want to be aware of and critical of how our own ideas have been shaped by these texts.

What are you teaching?

Right now, I'm teaching beginning ancient Greek. I’ll do that also in the spring, continuing on from this semester. I think teaching beginning languages is wonderful because we play and we do a lot of games. Learning an ancient language like Greek and Latin is different from learning a modern language, where you first learn how to go to the store and order at restaurants. At this point in the semester, my students know, like, 10 words for “killing” and “destroying.”

In the spring, I’m also teaching a capstone seminar for classical studies majors about stories of homecoming in Greek myths, like the journey home that we're familiar with from the Odyssey, and how postcolonial and feminist writers have reimagined that story at different moments in history.

Selected Publications

“False Reports and Waiting Wives on the Home Front in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon and Sophocles’ Trachiniae.” Forthcoming in 2022. Classical Philology 117 (2).

“The Bed and the Tomb: The Materiality of Signs in Euripides’ Helen.” 2020. Mnemosyne 73 (5): 729-749.

“Learning to Bear Witness: Tragic Bystanders in Sophocles’ Trachiniae.” 2020. In Emotional Trauma in Greece and Rome, edited by Andromache Karanika and Lily Panoussi. New York: Routledge, 177-191.

“Tectius illa cupit: Female Pleasure in Ovid’s Ars Amatoria.” 2020. Helios 47 (2): 161-189.

“The Writing on the Mind: Deianeira’s Trauma in Sophocles’ Trachiniae.” 2018. Phoenix 72 (1/2): 19-42.

“Weapons as Friends and Foes in Sophocles’ Ajax and Euripides’ Heracles.” 2018. In The Materialities of Greek Tragedy, edited by Melissa Mueller and Mario Telò. London: Bloomsbury, 63-77.