The Oaks News
Lori Diel Parses the Images and Enigmas of the Codex Mexicanus
Lori Diel, a fellow in Pre-Columbian Studies at Dumbarton Oaks in 2016–17, is an associate professor in art history at Texas Christian University, where she has taught a variety of courses on Mesoamerican, South American, and Mexican art from preconquest times to the present. She has also written articles on the representation of women in Aztec art.
Much of Diel’s recent research has centered around the Codex Mexicanus, an early colonial Mexican pictorial manuscript currently held in the Bibliothèque nationale in Paris. Richly illustrated and ripe for interpretation, the codex lends itself to a variety of studies, as Diel demonstrated in her recent research report, “An Aztec History Painting in the Codex Mexicanus.”
Brief Q&A with Lori Diel
You were a summer fellow at Dumbarton Oaks in 2012, and you were working with the Codex Mexicanus then as well. How has your work with the codex changed over time? How have your perceptions of it altered?
Well, I had just started working with it in 2011, so when I was here in 2012 I was still trying to figure out what was important. Usually you have to have a theory when you start working with an object, and at the time I had a lot of assumptions about the codex.
For one, I thought it had been made in Tlatelolco, but the more time I spent with it the more I realized that Tlatelolco was the wrong city—there were more signs telling me it had been made in Tenochtitlan.
You just have to spend so much time with the object, there’s so much to learn, especially in a codex of this size, and after you’ve spent a while with it you begin to notice certain things. Early on I was focusing more on the Christian elements of the codex, but now I work more with the Aztec parts, and I’d say broadly speaking, since 2012, I’ve become more interested in the historical aspects of the codex and the context of early colonial Mexico.
The Codex Mexicanus contains a royal genealogy that is exclusive—it makes a claim about an ancient and exclusive tradition. But the Christian images the codex contains seem to suggest an element of inclusion, of cultural synthesis. What’s the dynamic at work here?
Well, the creators of the codex were Christians, and I think they were fully converted, in that they wanted to embrace this tradition and incorporate it into their culture. At the same time, they didn’t want to forget their own tradition, so there was an effort to maintain it.
What’s interesting is that at the time the codex was made the native nobles had really lost control of the government, so emphasizing this royal genealogy was an attempt to build up that tradition and restore it. And of course, they were comparing the Aztec past to Spain, which had the Habsburg line—in a sense, they were exalting their own sphere of power.
How was the codex produced? Was it a workshop-type environment, with strong organization, or something more diffuse?
Well, that’s the big mystery. We don’t really know the logistics of its creation.
I suspect it was produced in a workshop, but the interesting thing is, it’s clearly been updated over time. There’s one section, the zodiac section, that appears to have been added in, and the community knew that whoever was in charge of the codex could consult it and run the charts if someone were sick or if any information was needed. So really it was a living document.
We don’t really know its whereabouts for many years, until about 1820 to 1840, when a French collector is traveling through Mexico and picks it up and eventually sells it in France—and then of course it ends up at Bibliothèque Nationale.
Eric Dyrdahl Investigates Pre-Columbian Craft Production in Ecuador
Eric Dyrdahl, an archaeology graduate student at Pennsylvania State University, was a junior fellow in Pre-Columbian Studies at Dumbarton Oaks in fall 2016. His dissertation research focuses on craft production in the Late Formative period (about 800–400 BCE) in the Imbabura region of Ecuador. In addition to working in Ecuador, he has conducted obsidian characterization research in central Mexico.
Dyrdahl’s research report detailed the history of the Las Orquídeas site and his work excavating it. In the course of his research, Dyrdahl has unearthed countless beads, ceramics, and ornaments made from animal bones and shells in different stages of production—evidence of a complex and systematic approach to the creation of craft items that Dyrdahl intends to study in greater depth.
A Brief Q&A with Eric Dyrhdahl
In your research, you work with fragments—beads, ceramics, and so on. What are the other sources you’re using to make sense of this welter of crafts?
So, beyond artifactual remains? Well, it’s about two thousand years later, but there are ethnohistoric accounts of traders in Ecuador, especially in the area where I work. So I’m certainly looking at those models, and thinking archaeologically, “How would these appear? What kind of evidence are we going to have depending on this model?” And I’m testing those against the actual evidence that I have to see which seems most plausible.
But otherwise . . . well, in some of the other research reports we’ve seen recently, the fellows have analyzed codices and other things. I don’t really have anything like that to bring to bear. What I’m working with is a little too old.
In your talk you mentioned recognizing craft items that have shown up in other regions after what was probably a laborious process of transference. How do you trace these crafts? What makes them unique and identifiable?
It’s the form, primarily. One of the things that I need to do going forward, which I haven’t been able to do as much of as I would like, is to actually see these materials from other areas in person and compare production techniques, to see if they’re using the same methods for perforating beads and forming edges and so on. That would be the best indicator of shared production.
But the unfortunate truth is that, for so many of these types of artifacts, we know so little about their origins and the full spread of production. Las Orquídeas is one area where these things are being produced, but there could be a lot of other sites that we simply haven’t found yet. So there’s a lot of network analysis that needs to be done before we can understand the connections between the sites that have been studied from this period. From there it would be much easier to look at forms and production techniques and begin to connect the dots.
You mentioned that your site contains a lot of different artifacts at different stages of production, that there’s a fair bit of standardization to the process of production. But you also discussed a whalebone artifact, which is a bit of an anomalous material. How did the artisans react to working with this strange material? How did it fit into the process of production?
One of the nice things about studying the process is that there are a number of tasks that actually overlap. So if you know how to work shell, and you can perforate shell, you can perforate stone. Similarly, if you know how to work with animal bone—and they’re making animal bone tools— you can work with this whale ivory. That’s one of the reasons I’m taking a more holistic approach in thinking about the whole range of artifacts, versus just picking out the Spondylus beads, for instance. Once we take this broader perspective we start to see the great overlap between a lot of these tasks, and that a lot of these crafts aren’t actually indicators of some kind of specialization—the idea that, well, this person knows how to work whale ivory, and so only this person can do it.
One of the things I do is experimental archaeology, so I try to replicate some of the things I find. I’m not the best artisan in the world, that’s for certain, but you begin to understand that even though these things are important and impressive, they wouldn’t necessarily have required much specialized knowledge. Working with these materials, even though it would have been tedious and difficult, does not necessarily mean that the process of producing these artifacts was complex.
Jan Haenraets Discusses the History and Preservation of Mughal Gardens
Jan Haenraets, a fellow in Garden and Landscape Studies at Dumbarton Oaks in fall 2016, is a landscape architect and preservation specialist. In addition to serving as Head of Gardens and Designed Landscapes of the National Trust for Scotland, he was recently appointed as a professor at the Preservation Studies Program at Boston University. Previously he was a postdoctoral fellow at the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at MIT.
Much of Haenraets’s academic research has focused on the Mughal gardens in Kashmir. At Dumbarton Oaks, he has been examining the wider context and significance of the valley-wide network of the gardens, a substructure that, he contends, has largely been ignored in past studies. Haenraet’s research has often abetted his work advising conservation and preservation projects.
Brief Q&A with Jan Haenraets
In your talk you described a “network” that has been lost and forgotten, which goes against traditional conceptions of the Mughal gardens. What are some other common conceptions about the gardens that you’ve encountered in your work?
So, with the idea of the network, I’m basically trying to correct history, because a lot of scholars have strong preconceptions about gardens as single, or singular, things. People think they stand on their own, and though a city might have a lot of gardens, we don’t know how they’re connected to each other. In some cases we might have an idea, but in Kashmir, where a lot of my work is focused, we don’t really know. That’s why I’m fascinated by the bigger picture; there’s almost a need to rewrite the history of the Mughal gardens in the whole subcontinent.
That was the focus of my lecture, but there are of course things I didn’t speak about, like the link to paradise. If we look at any book on Islamic gardens and their tradition, there’s a strong reference to the representation of paradise. Many of these gardens are in desert areas, or very arid dry regions, and so if you have within that region a secluded little island, walled and irrigated, with some green lush vegetation, that becomes a kind of paradise.
In the case of Kashmir, the interesting thing is that when you arrive in the valley, because it’s so fertile, it’s almost as if you’re already in a paradise. Why would you need a garden? So it’s a little ironic with Kashmir.
In the history books, when people write about Islamic gardens, the standard idea is of a rectangular garden with a cross axis—the tomb garden is a typical example—with a design that very much looks inward. You look inward to the central tomb which stands above the rivers, and it’s all very symbolic.
But when you look at Kashmir, this conception doesn’t necessarily apply, because they don’t often strictly implement the charbagh [quadrilateral garden layout] anymore, because of the topography of the region. Instead they start stretching it and working with it, and the garden becomes a platform from which you look outward, into the paradise around you, and the landscape outside.
You’re actually involved with the preservation of some Mughal gardens. How has your research into these lost networks affected your preservation work? Has it facilitated it, impeded it?
Well, it has made it more difficult in a sense. I should say, I started working in Kashmir by assisting INTACH, the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage, which has chapters throughout India. I started helping the Kashmir chapter, and they were doing some conservation work for the government, which runs the well-known sites. So they have these walled-off, well-known sites which they can ticket for about ten rupees or so; it’s very accessible to the common man.
The local chapter was focusing on some of these famous sites, employing architects on some of the key structures, and then around that the department of floriculture did its floriculture-flowery thing, which, I should say, is very European and bright, like British planting beds. And so that’s their focus, and when I was asked to assist with some of the famous sites, to give them some ideas about what they should do in the wider garden, they didn’t even realize how big that garden was. They’d asked me to give some input about what should be planted in the garden, and I complicated that, I said, “We can’t just answer that question without understanding more.” So in that sense it makes conservation more complicated, because we don’t have a few gardens, we have so many more, a network.
That’s why I’d like to tell this story in book form, to capture the bigger picture, because I think it needs to be understood and reintroduced into the traditional history and understanding of the Mughal gardens. I think right now a lot of preservationists don’t have the expertise to deal with the network of gardens, and there’s also a fairly corrupt system which allows the demolition of even protected areas. So what will really happen with the gardens? I can’t say. But it’s a typical argument, that if we don’t understand the issue we’ll never be able to solve it.
I hope at some point there will be a certain recognition, that conservation will become less complicated—I mean, if you look at some of the sites I discussed, today, there are local people just growing vegetables there, and they have an orchard on the side. And I think they’re the most charming ones.
Of course there are issues with things falling apart, the building not being maintained, but in some way it’s still a form of low-key preservation, while with the famous sites they’re overdoing it, they’re turning these sites into tourist attractions. They’re developing things, they’re destroying things, they’re polishing these buildings up in a way that they never would have looked, so that history is unreadable. Dereliction, after all, is a very beautiful layer of history, which is interesting to preserve as well. If you’ve had three hundred years of dereliction or slow decline, why would we need to erase that?
It might be wishful thinking, but I would like conservationists to understand the significance of this network of sites and to try to retain that in a simpler way. They shouldn’t feel forced to turn everything into a tourist attraction, or subject it to museumification and beautification with all these flowers and so on. They’re spending so much time implanting little floral arrangements, cutting the lawns and so on—there’s no need, they never would have gotten on like that in the past. It would have been wild flowers or something much simpler. And I guess, in that sense, my research could make conservation a little easier.
Deirdre Moore on Cochineal Insect Cultivation in Eighteenth-Century Mexico
Deirdre Moore grows her own bugs. On the broad, mitt-like pads of prickly pear cacti, carefully cultivated fuzzballs house the illusive insect known as the cochineal. On October 31, Moore, a 2015–17 Tyler fellow in Garden and Landscape Studies, delivered a talk entitled “Indigenous Knowledge and Breeding of Cochineal Insects in Eighteenth-Century Colonial Mexico,” which traced her research into cultivation practices and the economics of the cochineal market.
As Moore explained, cochineal were valued in centuries past for the red dye extracted from their ground-up bodies. Throughout the eighteenth century, the cochineal was aggressively grown in Mexico, especially the province of Oaxaca, which boasted one of the few climes favorable to large-scale cochineal farming. Eventually, it became one of the first truly transcontinental cash crops, dying everything from Oaxacan wool to the red coats of the British military.
Yet northern European understandings of cochineal were only hazy at best. The intelligentsia hotly debated whether the cochineal was a bug or a plant (the dried insect resembles a crunchy, long-deceased pea). Moore’s research has sought to compare Oaxacan expertise in cochineal farming with the bevy of European misunderstandings wrought by the cochineal trade.
A Brief Q&A with Deirdre Moore
What is the actual ink-making process like? There’s a long period in which it’s a really popular dye—but are there any evolutions in the process during that time?
There were three traditional ways of curing these insects. You can boil them—killing them by immersing them in hot water and then drying them—or you can toast them as you would normally toast your corn, or you can dry them in the sun. Different areas within the Oaxacan region preferred different methods -possibly for climatic reasons. During the eighteenth century, there was pressure from colonial authorities to try to standardize the way cochineal was cured. Archival records indicate that these colonial authorities preferred cochineal to be dried in the sun because they thought there was less opportunity for fraud and adulteration of the end product. But drying in the sun often ended up being a more lengthy curing process. Also, if you dry cochineal in the sun, sometimes the insects will give birth to their babies before dying. Then the product is less valuable since the weight decreases and it is mixed with baby cochineal dust. So there was a certain amount of resistance from some growers. Of course, the concerns about fraud and adulteration were also real. Some people even made fake cochineal by passing wet clay through a fine mesh, drying the result and then mixing it with cochineal to bring up the weight of their product. Various types of adulteration were common during the eighteenth century.
In terms of the actual dyeing, I was surprised when I watched the process. I assumed it would be a fairly set recipe, but it was very ad hoc. The local weaver and his wife whom I visited, ground up their dried cochineal and then appeared to add things at whim. They were mostly using baking soda as a mordant but it was not measured out with the precision one might imagine dyeing textiles would involve. They also disagreed with each other frequently about what shade of red they wanted and how much of this and how much of that to put in to dye their wool. There were a couple of hours where they were periodically adding fistfuls of things. They were changing the color as it developed. Every batch they make ends up being a different shade of red. The colors they ended up with were beautiful.
The other thing that surprised me was that they were using copper and various other metal implements, and of course metals can affect the colors of dyes. When I asked them about this they said, “No, no, not at all,” the types of metal weren’t going to have any kind of effect. But they did tell me that a women once came to visit while they were dyeing with cochineal. When they put the wool in the pot it turned brown instead of red. So they asked this woman, “Are you pregnant?” And she said yes, and they asked her to move further away. They dipped the wool again, and it turned orange. Then they asked her to leave altogether, but they said they never got a good red on that occasion. This kind of scenario does appear in a variety of texts in other places in the world—the idea that an unborn baby has an effect on the dyeing process.
A question that came up after your talk asked about the social aspect of cochineal production. What are the social issues or changes that spring up along with the market?
Well, from the very beginning of the colonial period, right after the conquest in the early 1500s, a lot of social problems arose around cochineal. You have people who were previously subsistence farmers suddenly making an extraordinary amount of money selling cochineal to the Spaniards. In the tradition of the newly wealthy everywhere, they’re carrying on poorly, buying all sorts of alcohol, getting drunk on Sunday, wearing all the best clothes, and buying the best thick chocolate. There’s even an anecdote—that these get-rich-quick folk were served the thin chocolate more commonly drunk by the lower-classes—and threw it out on the ground in front of their hosts. The moral outrage from their social superiors, who recorded these behaviors, is still palpable over four centuries later.
Moving on into the eighteenth century, you see a continuation of the social problems caused by cochineal wealth. It’s a cash crop, and people are making a bit of money off it comparatively. Many farmers chose to grow less corn since cochineal was more profitable. There are entire areas where the authorities complain that locals are not growing food. With the arrival of a larger market some people stopped growing corn altogether, because they could buy food with the profit they were making off the cochineal and still have money left over. There was a manuscript that I mentioned in my talk in which a priest tells his bishop in the eighteenth century, “I can’t even get the children to come to school, because they’re all growing cochineal.” Cochineal is widely assumed to have had a significant long-term effect on the history of Oaxaca. Currently, Oaxaca remains the area of Mexico with the most indigenous people still living on their traditional lands and speaking native languages. That is less common in many other states in Mexico. In many cases people had to move away from their traditional areas much earlier on for economic reasons. Cochineal was a cash crop that was viable and lucrative even when it was grown on small plots with poor soil. In certain cases, those circumstances allowed people to stay on their land.
What is the spread of cochineal today? Where are they located? Where are they still being farmed?
Currently, the vast majority of cochineal is being grown in Peru, and—this is interesting—a large proportion is still coming from smaller areas of cultivation. There is a large plantation in Chile. A much smaller proportion of the global supply of cochineal comes from the Canary Islands, Botswana, and other areas. Very little comes from Mexico these days. There are two lines of thought on domesticated cochineal in Mexico. One is that it arrived in Mexico—that it evolved in Peru and somehow was transferred in the Pre-Columbian period. But one of the strongest arguments for cochineal evolving in Mexico rather than Peru is that domesticated cochineal has a lot of coevolved parasites preying on it that are local to the southern Mexican landscape. Frequently, when you see a relationship like that it indicates that the biological entity evolved over a long period of time in the same area as its parasites. This is also why it is often easier for plants and insects to flourish, or even become invasive, in areas where they are not native. Competition with a large population of parasites makes it much more difficult to grow and tend to cochineal in Mexico. There was a lot of skill involved in knowing how to grow native cochineal and deal with the many parasites of cochineal in the Mesoamerican landscape. During the early nineteenth century, people started trying to develop an industry of domesticated cochineal in Guatemala. Certain reports indicate that the venture did not succeed until native Oaxacans were sent along with the cochineal to teach the local population insect growing skills. They kind of end up stealing Oaxaca’s thunder. Guatemalan exports of cochineal surge and Oaxacan exports slump. The viability of growing cochineal in other areas eventually caused Oaxaca to lose its monopoly. I’m fascinated by the transfer process because it involved local knowledge and understanding of the life cycle and predators of cochineal.
Andrea Cuomo on Greek Scholia and Byzantine Pedagogy
Andrea Cuomo, a fellow in Byzantine Studies at Dumbarton Oaks in 2016–17, is a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute for Byzantine Studies at the Austrian Academy of Sciences. On November 2, he delivered a research report entitled “The Editing of Greek Scholia and the Study of Medieval Greek Literature,” in which he examined elite educational practices in Byzantium during the Middle Ages.
An essential component of elite education was learning to read, write, cite, and allude to Attic Greek, a task that was aided by editions of the classics bearing detailed scholia, or annotations. In his talk, Cuomo described the production of scholia and their use as learning mechanisms in the Byzantine Empire. Contending that the Byzantine schooling system represented neither sterile erudition nor a cult of the past, he questioned how Byzantines used and related to this tradition, and how modern scholars might go about producing critical editions of these texts.
A Brief Q&A with Andrea Cuomo
In your talk you spoke about the grammarian Manuel Moschopoulos. For the layperson: who was Moschopoulos?
Unfortunately, Moschopoulos—the author whose textbook I am trying to edit—is a shadow figure. He’s known to classical philologists because we know that he worked on all the classics, and we can infer something about his life from his work. So we know he was teaching at the school at a monastery in Constantinople, when suddenly, in the first decade of the fourteenth century, he disappeared. And we don’t know what happened. We know that he was probably involved in some conspiracy against the emperor, because he was imprisoned, and in 1306 he disappears, either because he died, or . . . well, we really don’t know. Like I said, he’s really a shadow figure, and we only know what we can infer from what’s left.
What exactly are scholia and why are they important?
They are important for two reasons. At that time, for the Byzantines, scholia were central because the Byzantines wanted to learn Attic Greek—the Greek of the Greek classics. Since they were learning it as a foreign language, they needed the scholia—just like if you want to learn Shakespeare, you need not only the text, but also a gloss for every word. Unlike glosses, though, scholia were a little bit longer than just a synonym. They sometimes rephrased difficult passages, but always with the aim of providing students with good examples to imitate when writing on their own. So really, they were useful tools with the pragmatic, tangible, concrete target of learning.
Sometimes, and this is probably what’s more interesting for our sensibility, these scholia give us parallels, or they’ll say, for instance, “Don’t imitate the style of this person,” and they quote an author. So we can also begin to grasp Byzantine aesthetic judgment on literature.
For us, they’re important because they tag a lot of words and a lot of syntactic constructions, so to speak, and if we follow the tagging as a contemporary Byzantine tagging system, we can end up interpreting Byzantine texts in an interesting way. For instance, if I have the text of a Byzantine author, who I know used scholia to learn Greek, then we can verify whether he was following these rules. And we can also tell whether he was switching into a lower or a higher register, always following this contemporary tag. So, our interpretation will be not anachronistic.
And the scholia can even help us classicists, or other people in the humanities, to understand the status of education: Whey would a grown-up society like Byzantium in its last two centuries learn this language? They knew that they were studying the past, but they actualized it, and they said, “It’s important for us; we are that.” So in a way, we can also use this kind of research to explain the importance of classics nowadays—I don’t necessarily like this approach, but at least I understand it can be useful.
When you have this group of people, almost a workshop, producing one set of scholia, what does that do to the idea of authorship? Is it a joint authorship? What is interesting or exciting about trying to discern the individual scholiasts behind the words?
It’s a very difficult question, because we all imagine the idea of authorship, and for many kinds of works it is easy to understand the concept—for a historiographic work, for a novel—but for this material it’s very difficult. So there are a couple of things we need to consider. First, they were comments that originated in a school—and as I tried to point out in my talk, this school had a chair, who was Maximos Planoudes, and he had his assistant, and they all surely promoted and contributed to the creation of this scholiastic corpus. Books were very rare then, and I think that if there was one, they annotated it jointly. That’s the first part: already at the very beginning of this corpus there was a joint authorship.
But really, for us, it doesn’t matter who wrote exactly which scholia. What’s more interesting to know is how they were transmitted, which is the second part of authorship. Scribes were more autonomous when they had to copy material. For example, when they copy Herodotus, they are very faithful, as if they were copying the Bible; but when they copy scholia, they may decide to omit or add one scholion, and so in a sense the scribes are also our authors. The question is: If I produce a critical edition, should I publish only what is original, or should I give you the idea of every single manuscript? To answer your question, I don’t believe the individual authorship matters with scholia. The point is how these scholia worked and their impact on learning.
Adam Goldwyn Pushes Ecocriticism Back to Byzantium
Adam Goldwyn, a fellow in Byzantine Studies at Dumbarton Oaks in 2016–17, is an assistant professor of medieval literature and English at North Dakota State University. His intellectual interests include classical reception and comparative approaches to medieval literature, though recently he has begun to work with a new theoretical approach to the past: ecocriticism.
As Goldwyn explained in his talk, “Byzantine Ecocriticism: Humans, Nature, and Power in the Medieval Greek Romance,” he first came to be interested in ecocriticism while teaching a literary seminar. After analyzing Homer’s description of the shield of Achilles in the Iliad, a student asked Goldwyn whether the Greeks had had greater imaginations than modern people; it was difficult for him to imagine the cosmos carved on a shield, and when he looked at the stars he saw only dots. In attempting to answer the student’s question, Goldwyn read up on light pollution and its effects on the night sky; the melding of literary and environmental concerns catalyzed his interest in ecocritical studies.
Goldwyn began his lecture by explaining the basic tenets of ecocriticism and the related school of ecofeminism. As an approach to literary analysis, ecocriticism seeks to interrogate the ideological underpinnings of humanity’s interactions with the natural environment. Though initially developed as a framework for understanding industrial and postindustrial societies Goldwyn has sought to push its reach backward in time by applying an ecocritical approach to classical and medieval texts, including Ho Polemos tes Troados, a Greek translation of the Old French Roman de Troie, in an attempt to develop an understanding of Byzantine environmental ideology.
A Brief Q&A with Adam Goldwyn
During your lecture, you did some rereadings of myths from an ecocritical perspective: Medea as an environmental shaper, Jason as a pillager who steals the natural resource of the golden fleece. Are there other myths or texts that you’ve had intriguing ecocritical readings of, or that you thought lent themselves well to the theory?
One of the things that makes myths so interesting is that they’re often about these very early human-nature encounters, before the relation has been solidified by society. So you have things, for instance, like the labors of Hercules, which is a man wearing a lion skin, going around and imposing a human, civilized order on the world through, among other things, the killing of really powerful monsters or unusual kinds of creatures. So I think that the Hercules myth, as the human conquest of nature, is one. I certainly think that Ovid’s Metamorphoses is quite interesting—and recently controversial, because of some of the issues around divine-human sex and the issue of consent. But people transforming back and forth between animals and humans, and between humans and plants, makes you think about the borders between humans and gods. It turns out the borders between these seemingly fixed categories are very fluid. I think that that opens up a lot of space for thinking about ideologies, value systems, and what it means to be a plant, an animal, a certain kind of animal—a monstrous animal or a cute animal or a dangerous animal—or a god or a human. I mean, what’s human about animals, and what’s divine about humans?
One of the main tenets of ecofeminism as you described it is that oppression based on things like race, class, gender, and sexuality stems from the tendency to oppress nature. Is there a goal in ecocriticism to return to a state where the boundaries between humans and nature aren’t as clear?
That’s a tough question, and I think it’s helpful to talk about humanism. Before, you had God at the center of the universe—this is like the geocentric model of the universe—and then Galileo comes along as a humanist, and humans become the center of the epistemological world. Humanism is, in a sense, the study of humans at the center of things. Ecocritics point out that we can move away from thinking about humans as the center, and instead think about humans as part of a linked network of equally important and equally autonomous creatures. And we come to realize that something as small as a honeybee turns out to be a cornerstone of global ecology. So, post-humanist thinking, or transhumanist thinking, decenters the human and thinks of the world more as a networked web of symbiotic interconnections.
You’re pushing ecocriticism into the past and using it to study Byzantium. What is the backflow? How can Byzantium end up affecting ecocriticism?
There are a couple of things I can think of. One: Ecocriticism has largely been a project of the West, and predominantly of Anglophone scholarship. So even in ecocriticism, you have mostly scholars in the U.S. or England writing about ecocriticism from their own perspective, and writing mostly about contemporary or even medieval English literature. So we can end up bringing in a comparative context.
I think another thing that’s really important is to see how much ecocriticism suffers from a presentist view. Of course we’re in a new environment, or moment, because of anthropogenic climate change, but when we push back and develop Byzantine and medieval ecocriticism, and ancient ecocriticism and Biblical ecocriticism, and see how far we can push it back, we begin to see that the ideologies that underlie these things in fact go quite far back. We’ve inherited a system of environmental beliefs and attitudes that may not have been so bad when they developed, when you only had a couple hundred thousand humans and all they had were stone tools. You could have an ideology of deforestation then because you didn’t really have the technological means to accomplish it. But now, we have the same ideology, but the consequences are radically different, because you can cut down hundreds of acres of rain forest in a day or a week. Trying to push back the chain of ideologies that got us to where we are is really important for thinking about the contemporary moment.
A lot of the textual excerpts you read that were about Medea mentioned her education in magic—I believe one even referred to “liberal studies.” I’m wondering if you could talk about this connection between education, magic, women, and ideologies.
The etymology of liberal arts is, basically, the education that a free person would have needed, so in some sense of course education is that which a free man—and emphasis on the man when we’re talking about Rome—would need. One of the things that ecocritics and ecofeminists often discuss is the different environmental ideologies between men and women, and how nature itself is often given a feminine gender. And there’s a problematic but somewhat commonplace binary that men have an environmental ideology of exploitation (think hunting), whereas women have an environmental ideology of sustainability or care (think of gathering, or gardening, as opposed to hunting). I mean, it’s a little bit of a gender-essentialist perspective, but by educating women, by bringing them into environmental discourse, I think that we can shift from a certain kind of male-dominated narrative about how we should treat the environment to one that’s dominated more by care, nurture, and sustainability.
Pre-Columbian Studies Junior Fellow Jessica MacLellan on Maya Stone Platforms and the Organization of Community
Jessica MacLellan, a junior fellow in Pre-Columbian Studies at Dumbarton Oaks in 2016–2017, is a PhD candidate in anthropology at the University of Arizona. In her research report, entitled “Households, Ritual, and the Origins of Social Complexity,” MacLellan provided a brief summa of Mayan archaeology—its past, aims, and current state—before segueing into a description of her fieldwork with the Karinel Group, a suite of settlements in Ceibal, Guatemala.
At the Karinel Group, MacLellan has helped to unearth evidence of stone platforms, carved from the bedrock of the region, that seem to have served a number of purposes. While some evidently formed the floors of homes, others appear to have been used as stages for the enactment of rituals. MacLellan intends to use these platforms, along with other archaeological evidence from the site, including pottery caches, to answer a number of questions about the links between domesticity, ritual, and ancestor worship.
A Brief Q&A with Jessica MacLellan
When you were laying out the theoretical basis of your research, you said that ritual, specifically the way you’re looking at it, can be both inclusive and exclusive. Could you elaborate on that?
Sure. So one of the main traditional focuses in anthropology, archaeology, history, is studying ritual as a means to bring people together—I think Durkheim is the main theorist on that, and then there’s this idea of “communitas,” which is Victor Turner—but basically, a lot of people see ritual as bringing communities together. And yet, at the same time, whenever you have these formal ritualized practices, there have to be individuals with specialized knowledge of the rules and special responsibilities. So the idea is that, even from the beginning, in very simple egalitarian societies, there are people who are ritual specialists, and as societies become more complex, there’s a potential for those people to move up in the hierarchy, so that eventually you end up with things like divine kingship, which the Maya have, which is kingship based on ties to the gods and the ability to communicate with the gods, with commoners supposedly lacking that direct link.
In your talk, you focused on the connection between permanent settlements and ritual. What explains that connection?
Well, the way that I look at ritual, it’s not really tied to simpler or mobile societies versus settlements—you can actually see ritual even today in our modern societies—and the main theorist that I use are usually sociologists, so they’re actually looking at the much more recent past. Ritual can mean a lot of different things, and it’s kind of an intentionally vague term, but it’s appropriate when we don’t want to use the word “religion.” This is useful during the time period I’m working with: I don’t have any texts, and I don’t want to impose beliefs or meanings on the people because I don’t know what they were thinking, obviously, we just have little bits of their trash and their architecture. But by focusing on the physical actions they took, on their interaction with the material world, on rituals—well, it’s a little bit easier than focusing on meaning, on symbols, and I think we can avoid putting our own western perceptions on people by focusing more on their actions. So I don’t think that ritual is necessarily tied to this idea of sedentary groups, or not sedentary groups, but you definitely expect changes in ritual when you have changes in social structure.
I’m curious about how the carving of the stone platforms occurred. What tools were being used? What processes?
That’s a good question. We haven’t actually been able to see this happen ethnographically, but it does seem to have happened at a lot of archeological sites in the Maya area, and we do know that they didn’t have any metal, so obviously they wouldn’t have metal shovels or hoes or rakes. They would have probably been using wooden tools made out of the trees around them, or possibly stone tools. It must have required a large group of people, so again we have this idea of bringing the community together, of creating a community through work. And something like creating a plaza could be a very ritualized act, and they also created house platforms that way, so it probably required somebody organizing them. This again gives you the idea that there’s somebody who’s maybe gaining a higher position in this society, because they can bring together these groups of people and start this process. But why they wanted to do it? I still don’t know.
Byzantine Studies Fellow Eleni Kefala on Byzantium and America before and after the Age of Reason
Eleni Kefala, a fellow in Byzantine Studies at Dumbarton Oaks in 2016–2017, is associate professor in the School of Modern Languages at the University of St Andrews. Though her previous research has centered on Spanish American literature and the visual arts, her work at Dumbarton Oaks will attempt to bridge, for the first time, Pre-Columbian and Byzantine studies in the context of her new interdisciplinary project “Byzantium and America before and after the Age of Reason,” which itself builds on her latest monograph, Five and One Theses on Modernity.
In her research report, titled “The Vanquished: Byzantium and America before and after the Age of Reason,” Kefala first established a complex and guiding theoretical framework. Citing a long list of writers, philosophers, and cultural theorists that included Immanuel Kant, Fredric Jameson, Enrique Dussel, and Edward Said, Kefala provided a cultural critique of concepts like modernity, progress, and enlightenment, and of discursive constructions of Byzantium and Pre-Columbian America in order to explain the rationale of her project.
A Brief Q&A with Eleni Kefala
In your presentation you displayed a complex theoretical apparatus. Now that you’re at Dumbarton Oaks, how do you come down from that apparatus and start digging around in the particulars?
The idea of a comparative study of Byzantium and America came as I was writing two theoretical chapters on “modernity” and its “others” for the purposes of a monograph I’ve just finished, Five and One Theses on Modernity. What I presented at Dumbarton Oaks was a rough summary of the most relevant findings of the first part of the book, which I call “Excursus on Modernity.” So what I was aiming at, and basically what I’m interested in, is what the moderns, while trying to define their own “modernity,” had to say about Amerindians, on the one hand, and Byzantium on the other. The ultimate end of this investigation is to explore the discursive mechanisms whereby these civilizations were epistemically and culturally subalternized, especially (but not only) during the Enlightenment, and seeing to what extent these mechanisms are actually with us today. What I will be doing here at Dumbarton Oaks is something slightly different, which is going to be, hopefully, the first chapter of a monograph on Byzantium and America before and after the Enlightenment. Although the book will be about how the west discursively constructed those “premoderns” from the Renaissance on, the first chapter will actually look at the point of view of the Byzantines and the Amerindians—that is, the point of view of the defeated, how they saw the conquest. For instance, the Aymara in what is today Bolivia and Peru referred to the so-called “discovery” of the Americas as Pachacuti, meaning “the world upside down.” So I want to look at the perspectives of the people who were conquered in both cases.
You talked about trauma theory and memory studies, a lot of which seems to develop in the twentieth century. So how do you adapt these studies to the fifteenth century, to very foreign cultures?
You always have to be very careful. If we go back to the term theory, what does it mean? Theōria—from theōreō, meaning to consider, to observe, to theorize—gives you the opportunity to look at something in a more comprehensive way. Theory, as Deleuze once said, is a box of tools. So I would like to look at particular instances of “postmemory”—Hirsch’s idea, which she’s using with reference to the Holocaust to explain how cultural trauma or memory can be transmitted from generation to generation through texts, images, and behaviors, but which I think could be a useful tool when it comes to looking at poems written by scholars or anonymous people after these conquests. For instance, I’d like to look at issues of cultural trauma, memory, and postmemory in the thrēnoi, or laments, for the fall of Constantinople in 1453 and in the Cantares mexicanos, especially the icnocuicatl, the “songs of sorrow,” which were composed by Mexica poets soon after the fall of Tenochtitlan in 1521. The same applies to theories of hybridity and cultural translation.
We should use these terms with caution, but we can use them, because the mechanisms of cultural production—whether this is now or during the Roman Empire, or the Byzantine Empire, or the Ottoman Empire, etc.—the way that culture is produced, has not changed much. Culture can be the product of dialogue, or clash, but it’s definitely the product of the encounter between different cultural systems, which produces something new. This “new” is then essentialized, its identity becomes identifiable, and then it meets and clashes with something else to produce some other newness, etc., etc. Of course, each case comes with its own specificities, both in terms of time and space, but this is how culture moves, how culture changes, let’s say. So yes: caution. But I don’t think that we should be terrorized by the idea that one could use contemporary theorizations to shed light on previous periods, in the same way that we are not terrorized by the idea that theories of the past can still be useful and relevant to us today. For example, during the discussion I borrowed Borges’s theorization of “thinking” as selection and abstraction. I could see that many colleagues in the audience immediately appreciated the reference. Borges talks about this in a story called “Funes the Memorious,” which was published in 1942. Is what he says less useful or relevant to us today just because he said it in 1942?
There was a lot of focus in your presentation on scientific advances, medical advancements, and the idea of progress. Where did that emphasis come from?
If you are interested in the concept of “modernity,” as I was when writing the “excursus,” you eventually have to look at what comes before it, and what comes before it, in time, is the middle ages. In terms of space, it’s the non-European cultures—in this case, obviously, the Amerindian civilizations, since I agree with scholars like Dussel that modernity begins in 1492 with the conquest of America. Now the idea of progress is fully fleshed out during the Enlightenment, with thinkers like Kant and Fontenelle, who eventually breaks with the cyclical notion of history, and progress is seen in the future, not in the past. And then you start looking at the real notion of progress—what did they mean by progress? Even a strong supporter of the idea of progress like Fontenelle says that he doesn’t believe in the idea of moral progress—who can ever argue that we’re morally more advanced than people that lived in previous times? And then the notion of artistic or aesthetic progress also is very difficult to grasp—who can say that our aesthetic tastes today are more advanced than, for instance, the abstraction of Byzantine art? So once you try to disentangle this whole literature about progress, then you can only end up with the notion of technological and scientific progress. And then you have to problematize the moderns’ view that the idea of scientific and technological progress, or sometimes even the thing itself, was absent from premodern or non-modern cultures, as was supposedly the case of Byzantium.