Featured Research: Political Orders - National Humanities Center

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Featured Research: Political Orders

January 1, 2022

In this issue we highlight the research of Fellows from the class of 2021–22 who are exploring the making and unmaking of political orders, especially the establishment and dissolution of colonies.

Maggie M. Cao

Project: Painting and the Making of American Empire‚ 1830­–1898

Maggie M. Cao is assistant professor of art history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is a scholar of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century American art in a global context. She works on the history of globalization with particular interest in intersections of art with histories of technology, natural science, and economics. Cao is currently at work on a book entitled Painting and the Making of American Empire, 1830–1898, the first synthetic treatment of nineteenth-century art and empire in the global context. The project offers revisionist readings of globally-themed art including history paintings of the colonial past, landscapes of polar expedition and tropical tourism, still-lifes of imported goods, and ethnographic portraiture. The book aims to connect historic American paintings to the flows of commodities and peoples through colonial systems and infrastructures in the decades leading up to formal U.S. colonization in 1898.

William Bradford, An Arctic Summer: Boring through the Pack in Melville Bay, 1871. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY

What was the initial spark that led you to this project? What are the big questions that you are considering?

When I was writing my first book, The End of Landscape in Nineteenth-Century America, I looked at a lot of paintings depicting distant locales, places like Brazil, Jamaica, and Newfoundland, and I was surprised to find that U.S. imperialism was not more central to the way that scholars discuss such landscapes. With this book, I wanted to change the conversation on nineteenth-century American paintings about the global. The fact that the United States was not formally trying to colonize these foreign places at the time does not preclude such works of art from being understood in terms of colonial relations. The book started with research into landscapes of the Arctic region, which I connect to the exportation of ice to the tropics and the quest for the Northwest Passage. It has since expanded to cover paintings about the globe in a full range of genres from portraiture to still life. What I am hoping to offer is a synthetic treatment of American painting and empire in the nineteenth century. My other goal is to connect that history of empire to contemporary issues tied to the legacy of colonialism, doing so by drawing links between historic paintings and contemporary art.

De Scott Evans, Homage to a Parrot, ca. 1890. Photograph courtesy of Sotheby’s, Inc. © 2020

In the course of your research have you run across anything that genuinely surprised you? What can you tell us about it?

I have been struck by how much nineteenth-century U.S. colonialism was infrastructural, that is, carried out through technological, commercial, and ecological interventions in foreign places. Americans in the nineteenth century fought few wars abroad, but were incredibly active in projects like building transportation networks, transforming ecosystems through agriculture, and collecting scientific data and specimens around the world. These infrastructural interventions were ultimately what enabled artists to travel abroad and to collect foreign goods. Artists were colonialism’s pioneers in way; they were often among the first to bring the globe in a digestible way to American viewers hungry for novelty. A major challenge in my project has been to figure out how to talk about such artworks in relation to empire, since they do not depict literal acts of conquest and rule. Instead, I’m trying to understand how American artists gave form to the often invisible infrastructures of colonialism.

What new avenues of inquiry do you hope this research will prompt or make possible in your field?

There has been very little written about American art and colonialism abroad before 1898, the start of formal imperialism with the Spanish American War and the annexation of Hawai‘i. Global approaches in American art history often treat artworks of foreign people, places, and things as politically neutral, even positive, framing them as a products of scientific inquiry or cultural exchange. I hope my book, which points to the lopsided power dynamics at play in their production, will push us to understand these same artworks in a new light. I want to give people who look at historic American art a new window onto the dark side of these otherwise beautiful and innocuous paintings. In the process, I hope to bring questions of empire from the periphery to the center of American art history.

Jessica Hurley

Project: Nuclear Decolonizations

Jessica Hurley (she/they) is assistant professor of English at George Mason University and the author of Infrastructures of Apocalypse: American Literature and the Nuclear Complex (University of Minnesota Press, 2020). She works at the intersection of cultural studies, science and technology studies, the environmental humanities, and critical theories of race, indigeneity, disability, gender, and sexuality. Her research focuses on the cultural narratives that shape American nuclearization and how subaltern artists and activists use aesthetic form to theorize and oppose it. In her current book project, Nuclear Decolonizations, Hurley extends her work on cultural struggles around nuclearization in the U.S. to the transnational scale. Her project shows how nuclearization has impacted the decolonization imaginary in four key sites and how writers and activists in the Global South have both represented the imperial violence of the nuclear complex and used fiction, poetry, film, and performance to theorize alternatives to it.

B-61 nuclear bombs in storage. U.S. government photo.

What was the initial spark that led you to this project? What are the big questions that you are considering?

You’re probably not supposed to admit this, but the spark actually came from somebody else’s work! There’s a moment in Rob Nixon’s Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor where he calls for Americanists to consider the environmental impacts of U.S. foreign policy across the globe. I was teaching the book and I thought huh…what would that look like for the U.S. nuclear complex? I’d already been working on nuclear colonialism from a U.S./Native American perspective, but that prompt led me to the big questions that this new project is trying to answer: what’s the relationship between the Age of Decolonization and the Age of Nuclearization? How did those two processes impact each other in terms of how each would be imagined and played out?

In the course of your research have you run across anything that genuinely surprised you? What can you tell us about it?

I was familiar from Gabrielle Hecht’s work with how the major European nuclear powers, Britain and France, had experienced nuclearization as something that would maintain their colonial status. And from my work in the U.S. I was aware of how devastating nuclearization has been for Indigenous nations and their environments. Across these areas, nuclearization has been inextricably bound up with colonial power relations. So I wasn’t expecting to find a genuine, passionate belief that nuclearization would be a pathway to postcolonial independence and the abolition of those colonial power relations in postcolonial sites like India and Ghana. While I’m still not convinced that it’s possible to have a decolonial nuclear complex, it was surprising and impactful to see how strongly people like Nehru and Nkrumah believed that nuclear technology could serve an anticolonial function.

What new avenues of inquiry do you hope this research will prompt or make possible in your field?

I’m a scholar of the speculative imagination, and at the same time I’m researching the very concrete ways that environmental and infrastructural changes have impacted processes of colonization and decolonization. My hope is that this research will inspire people to think about these things together: to consider the ways that new technologies and new political realities open up new ways of thinking about the future, but also how technological and environmental changes limit the politics that can play out in those spaces and foreclose certain futures. There’s a technoutopianism in a lot of futures thinking that suggests that any technology can be used to achieve either positive or negative ends. I hope to show that some technologies actually can’t be repurposed in this way, and help us to think about what it might mean to say no to particular avenues of technological development in the name of environmental and human flourishing.

Rashna Darius Nicholson

Project: “Helping Hands”: U.S. Cultural Diplomacy, Soft Power and Theatre for Development

Rashna Darius Nicholson is assistant professor of theatre studies at The University of Hong Kong. Her research and teaching specializations include nineteenth-, twentieth-, and twenty-first-century theatre history, historiography, and practice; postcolonial and world literature; and cultural development. Nicholson’s first monograph, The Colonial Public and the Parsi Stage: The Making of the Theatre of Empire (1853–1893), traces the origins and early development of colonial South Asian theatre. Her current project is on the influence of the Rockefeller and Ford foundations on theatre in the Global South during and after the Cold War.

Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, Indian social reformer and freedom activist

What was the initial spark that led you to this project? What are the big questions that you are considering?

I worked as a volunteer at the Freedom Theatre, Jenin in 2009. After its founder Juliano Mer Khamis’s demise, I began thinking about the politics of philanthropic funding to culture in the West Bank. This led me to pursue archival research at the Rockefeller Archive Center where I found a treasure trove of resources on the institutionalisation of culture in postcolonial India.

In the course of your research have you run across anything that genuinely surprised you? What can you tell us about it?

I was and am intrigued by the intricate confluence in the 1950s and ’60s between science, crafts and the performing arts. UNESCO and American foundations conceptualised these fields as the common heritage of mankind in need of preservation and advancement. The neat separation of these fields is a relatively recent phenomenon.

Indian commemorative stamp, 1985

What new avenues of inquiry do you hope this research will prompt or make possible in your field?

Unlike other fields, theatre studies has not engaged with the influence of the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations on its own development. Foundation officers and cultural bureaucrats made entire genres and fields of study such as intercultural theatre and performance studies possible through their funding of particular artists, events and institutions. They also created and propagated influential global ideas such as ‘cultural development’, ‘creative cities’ and more recently, ‘creative placemaking’. Hopefully, the project opens up further research on these topics not only in theatre and performance studies but also in the political sciences and development studies.

Christian Raffensperger

Project: Political Culture in the Arc of Medieval Europe, 1000–1300

Christian Raffensperger is professor and chair of history at Wittenberg University. His academic goal has remained the same since the completion of his PhD at the University of Chicago (2006)—the integration of the medieval polity of Rus’ into the larger medieval European world. From Reimagining Europe: Kievan Rus’ in the Medieval World (Harvard, 2012) to Conflict, Bargaining, and Kinship Networks in Eastern Europe (Lexington, 2018) to his current project Rulers and Rulership in the Arc of Medieval Europe (in progress at the Center), he has traced the medieval kingdom of Rus’ becoming more and more a part of medieval Europe. In so doing, the definition of medieval Europe may change, but so does our understanding of heretofore normative institutions like “kings” and polities.

Kievan Rus’ in the 11th century. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

What was the initial spark that led you to this project? What are the big questions that you are considering?

This project grows out of my long-term interest in rethinking what medieval Europe was, which began already with my first book, Reimagining Europe. It has become increasingly clear to me over my research that while England is the normative model for medieval Europe, it is actually quite abnormal in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Examples of all kinds from Rus’, Scandinavia, Iberia, and elsewhere are similar to one another, and yet different from what medievalists typically think of as normal.

This project is a bit far reaching, I confess, so I am looking at all kinds of things including titulature, corulership, succession, relations between the church and rulers, conflict management and more!

In the course of your research have you run across anything that genuinely surprised you? What can you tell us about it?

I was fascinated to learn about the derivation of “queen.” In most of the medieval languages that we work with, the term for ruler is the same for male and female, though changes because of the gender (rex / regina, basileus / basilissa, kniaz’ / kniaginia, etc.), thus we are seeing “Ruler (male)” and “Ruler (female)” as the root translation. In English, we use “king” for the male ruler which shares a Germanic root (*kuningaz) with words like konungr in Old Norse and kniaz’ in Old East Slavic. “Queen,” however, has an Old English root which just means “woman,” which, I think, is genuinely important to our construction of ideas of rulership in both the medieval past and the present.

What new avenues of inquiry do you hope this research will prompt or make possible in your field?

I would very much like medieval European studies to become a field that is inclusive of eastern Europe. Books about “medieval Europe” are typically about western Europe, yet bear the label of “medieval Europe” while books which deal with the eastern part of the continent carry national labels or are consigned to an eastern “other.”

Similarly, I believe I am really only scratching the surface of the work that can be done on a whole variety of topics, and I am hopeful that this project would encourage more work on rulers, women, monasticism, conflict, and so forth across medieval Europe rather than within the existing silos of western Europe, eastern Europe, and Byzantium.