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Humanities and the Arts

Predoctoral fellows have been nominated by their programs and are selected through a competitive review process based on the creativity and impact of the research they are pursuing. The abstracts for recipients in the humanities and the arts describe the framework, aims, and significance of each fellow’s dissertation and demonstrate the breadth of Rackham doctoral programs.

City on a Hill: Constructing Edifices and Carving Identity in Gwalior
Ross Lee Bernhaut, History of Art

For over a millennium (ca. 6th–16th centuries) the central Indian hill fortress of Gwalior has been architecturally and sculpturally inscribed with temples, rock-hewn sanctuaries and statuary, mosques, palaces, reservoirs, and civic structures by diverse religious groups and royal patrons. This dissertation undertakes the first comprehensive, dialogic study of Gwalior hill’s architectural development over the longue durée, melding methods from art history, epigraphy, religious, and urban studies. I analyze in situ edifices, dislocated sculptures, iconographic programs, Sanskrit inscriptions, hagiographies, Persian and Hindi histories, travelers’ accounts, archaeological reports, and archival photographs to chart the distinct phases of the city’s expansion and reconstruct the appearance of the hilltop throughout its history. By demonstrating the material and conceptual interdependence of Gwalior’s sandstone eminence and its monuments, this project formulates a critical framework for examining the pervasive yet undertheorized phenomenon of hill fort urbanism in early medieval to early modern South Asia.

Alfredo Cabrera, Music (Performance): Composition

SHOOT! is a one-act opera monodrama that explores systems of oppression that employ security forces as a mechanism for pitting regular citizens against one another instead of against those individuals in positions of power with the ability to positively and effectively impact societal change. The opera follows a young member of the Venezuelan National Guard who is forced to accept conflicting embodied identities as both enforcer and victim of these systems of oppression through the unspoken guidance of the Goddess Maria Lionza and a reflection of himself as the victim. The identities and perspectives presented in the opera are based on documentary research and interviews conducted in Venezuela with current followers of Maria Lionza. SHOOT! employs novel approaches to the application of folk musical influences and generative artificial intelligence to address the topic at hand without relying on mechanisms of retraumatization to convey the message to audiences.

From Huts to Palaces: Archaic Domestic Architecture in Rome, Latium, and Etruria, c. 900-450 BCE
Amelia Eichengreen, Ancient Mediterranean Art and Archaeology

My project tracks the architectural development of domestic spaces in central Italy during the Archaic period, or approximately 900-450 BCE, when homes moved from mud huts to complex multi-roomed buildings. Previously, discussions of Archaic domestic space have focused around necropoleis as reflections of ancient cities. Recentering the debate around the homes themselves allows for a more accurate picture of domestic spaces, cities, and urbanization processes. This new lens reveals a more rapid urbanization picture than previously believed, and an increasingly marked social inequality. Additionally, I am able to identify early components of cultural distinction in Rome from the rest of central Italy by positing two architectural forms: one isolated to Rome and one found throughout Latium and Etruria.

Distinguishing Objects and Action Beyond Spoken Language: Insights from Speakers and Signers in Turkey
Demet Kayabasi, Linguistics

Communication is multimodal, i.e. it can surface auditorily or visually via spoken and signed language. Moreover, it extends beyond language: We produce non-linguistic gestures that can accompany language or communicate by themselves. This research examines how two fundamental categories in human cognition, actions and objects, are encoded for communication, considering all aspects of it, without staying limited to spoken languages only. The research methods used are designed to obtain comparable data in signed and spoken language as well as gesture. Data consists of utterances elicited via a video description task with speakers and gesturers of Turkish, and signers of Turkish Sign Language. This study contributes to linguistics by (i) examining whether or how human cognition maps onto linguistic structures, i.e. the correspondence between objects and actions, and nouns and verbs, and (ii) by examining how the fundamental properties of language and gesture overlap or divert from one another.

The Anti-Colonial Prison: Surveillance, Literary Production and Multilingualism in South Asia
Swarnim Khare, Asian Languages and Cultures

Swarnim’s dissertation is concerned with short stories, novels, letters, and poems written by political prisoners beginning in late colonial South Asia. Swarnim argues that the multilingualism that characterizes these texts functions at two broad levels: firstly, it is an anti-colonial critique of British rule using old and new literary conventions and genres, and secondly, the subjectivity of writers in prison is a previously unexplored point of entry towards understanding the multidirectional flows of power negotiations (through writing) between Indian revolutionaries and British colonizers. Through an account of imprisonment and its intersection with literary production in Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi, and English, a picture emerges of the strategic uses that these writers made of distrust that the British displayed toward languages other than English. Swarnim relies on close reading and attention to translation praxis as methods to situate her work in critical theory, translation theory, literary studies and colonial discourse analysis in South Asia.

Resonant Gratitude: Exploring the Sonic Relationships Between Humans and the Living Earth
Alexis Lamb, Music (Performance): Composition

Resonant Gratitude explores humans’ musical relationship to our natural soundscapes, specifically how our music can coexist with, or be in service to our natural surroundings. This hour-long composition will bring listeners to a place of attentive listening and reflection, which can then become a catalyst for preserving, protecting, and nurturing one’s environment. Resonant Gratitude will be performed in open-air environments and written for a mixed ensemble of voices, woodwinds, percussion, and strings. The performers, as well as all attendees, will be invited to listen and respond in real time to their surroundings in hopes of building a respectful sonic relationship with the living earth. This dissertation will also include a portfolio of materials that culminated in writing Resonant Gratitude, including my background research, field research, adjacent compositions, and the development of a music festival. The resulting awareness of the living earth’s sonic beauty will become a call to environmental conservation.

Building Sensory Architecture: Orienting Computational Design Through Neurodiversity
Yi-Chin Lee, Architecture

This dissertation proposes a community-engaged design process for creating sensory-responsive environments with knitted textiles toward neurodiversity. I examine the current computational design framework that emphasizes visual experience in technical knitting, neglecting the tactile nature of such material. The tactile nature is essential because it can support diverse bodies and minds in navigating the built environment. This research adopts disability studies as a theoretical framework and community-based participatory research to explore how to orient computational design, allowing disability awareness to blend into the design process in the early stage. To situate the research, I collaborate with two organizations: Disability Network Washtenaw Monroe Livingston and Ann Arbor Academy, a K-12 school for diverse learners. The study utilizes art-making workshops, focus group discussions, and interviews to understand how disabled individuals envision multisensory sensory spaces. The outcome of this research will be a participatory design framework and prototypes developed with individuals with disabilities.

“The Most Humane Kind of Allies:” Financial Exploitation and Social Struggle in Western Anatolia During the Mithridatic Wars (88-63 BCE)
Antonello Mastronardi, Classical Studies

Scholars of antiquity have only recently come to recognize that the advancement of the discipline necessitates a departure from the traditional emphasis on elites. Consistent with this trend, my dissertation represents the first comprehensive study of the effects that the Romans’ dominance and their conflicts with Mithridates had on the middle-lower classes within Western Graeco- Anatolian communities. Through numismatics, epigraphy, historiography, and contemporary political theory, I explore the impact of imperialism on the local social fabric and, conversely, the influence of local socio-economic factors on Roman imperialistic practices. Over four chapters, my objective is to accurately allocate agency to the diverse strata of Western Graeco-Anatolian society. This encompasses their internal conflicts, their interaction with two imperialistic bids, and the sequence of events leading up to a momentous genocidal outbreak.

Virtually Disposable: Digital Trash and the Question of Content
Samuel McCracken, Comparative Literature

Virtually Disposable historicizes and critically analyzes the conditions under which the cultural category of trash is and is conspicuously not operationalized in contemporary digital environments. Understanding the determination of real-world objects as trash as a reflexive aspect of human culture and the maintenance of physical space, this dissertation probes the criteria according to which modern users, web platforms, and storage-providers perform the same calculus in their everyday management of digital objects. By turns theoretical and media-archaeological, Virtually Disposable links the always-on character of digital culture to the economies of extraction and energy-consumption that materially afford file-circulation and -storage, arguing that every quotidian media artifact produced via (and saved on) inscription technologies contributes to the generation of e-waste and anthropogenic climate change. The language of digital trash, this project ultimately maintains, gives voice to what users need not utter and machines dare not say: that some things are not worth keeping.

Saudi Women’s Expression: Unmuting Voice in the Context of White Supremacy
Ahd Niazy, Middle East Studies

Saudi women’s voices are muted in western discourse; media speaks about them rather than to them, and scholarship presents them as “symbols” of state progress. This muting stems from racializations that instrumentalize the ‘Other,’ to support white supremacy. This dissertation presents Saudi women’s voices as primary sources, amplifying their voices in doing so. My sources are multimodal and intergenerational, ranging from novels to interviews to film and digital media. Adopting Bakhtin’s notion of voice, I treat voice as a form of expression and as a theoretical tool, interweaving the women’s expressions to form a dialogue about gender, relationships, and selfhood that emanates from the source. I build on the work of Lila Abu-Lughod and Suad Joseph, who forge interpersonal ethnographic approaches to elucidate gendered experience. I argue that by unmuting voice, we construct a framework for the study of culture that centers the nuance and contradiction inherent to lived experience.

Working Below Below-the-Line: Race, Labor, and Resources in Classical Hollywood
Joshua Schulze, Film, Television, and Media

This dissertation argues that the resource and labor shortages which occurred amidst the geopolitical climate of the Second World War both revealed and exacerbated a racialized (and racializing) logic towards labor and resources. It seeks to revise the ‘above-’ and ‘below-the-line’ labor distinctions in film production to account for the racialized labor force often negated entirely by this divide. A variety of menial and often physically taxing tasks were frequently carried out by workers of color willing to work for very little—something the studios capitalized on when thousands went on strike in 1939, 1941, and in 1945. In studio production records the bodies of these laborers were often conflated with the materials they handled, and rhetorically treated in the same manner as material resources. My case studies highlight the prevalence of this dynamic in the film industry and make the case for the centrality of race to studio labor divisions.

Trans Sisterhood at the Edge of Empire: Transfeminist Testimonios Between Cuba and the United States
Kerry White, American Culture

“Trans Sisterhood at the Edge of Empire” considers sisterhood as a transfeminist relationship within the testimonios (life narratives) of trans people living in Cuba and its diaspora in the United States. Drawing on ethnographic research and life history interviews with primarily Afro-descendent trans women, I examine the role of sisterhood, solidarity, and care between trans women as they narrate their life stories within hemispheric sex/gender systems that arise out of imperialism, racialization, and colonialism. I argue that self-narration within the contexts of sisterhood constitutes a survival strategy in the face of violence, a transfeminist method, and a tactic for cultivating different futures. This dissertation contributes to contemporary debates within trans studies, transnational American studies, and feminist ethnography through chapters on rethinking ethnographic methods; the foundational role of gender violence in trans life narratives; self-fashioning as mediated through medical care, migration, and informal markets; and the importance of Black feminist activism.