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Humanities and the Arts

Pre-doctoral 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.

Plato and Aristotle on the Efficacy of Religious Practice
Justin Barney, Classical Studies

The theological innovations of the pre-Socratic philosophers and Sophists destabilized the standard view about what traditional Greek religious practices accomplish and how they accomplish it (Chapters 1 and 2). Plato and Aristotle advocate for the performance of traditional religious practices, but develop novel accounts to explain their value. Plato criticizes “illegitimate” forms of religious practice, but suggests that if performed according to an ethical standard, they influence all realms of human life (Chapter 3). In the Laws and the Phaedrus, Plato articulates how sacrifice, choral performance, and prayer can be performed in this way (Chapters 3 and 4). Aristotle denies the ability of religious practices to effect a change in the cosmos or move the gods to action (Chapter 5), but argues that they provide a benefit to the state in virtue of their positive effect on the practitioner’s soul (Chapter 6).

Household Choices and Urban Dynamics in the 1st Millennium BCE Ancient Greek World
Andrew Cabaniss, Classical Art and Archaeology

With increasing urbanization, our society needs cross-cultural and historical models of urban community formation and their alternatives. My dissertation adopts a diachronic, regional approach to the construction of community in the ancient Greek world by following the interaction between household decision making and traditional practices in domestic spaces of the first millennium BCE in eastern Crete. Modes of producing threads, cloth, and meals are traced across rural and urban households to construct models of how social communities develop traditions within a dense landscape settled by numerous other, overlapping communities. This project addresses questions about the construction of urban and alternative communities, “global” and “ordinary” cities, and whether urbanism generates or reconfigures traditions.

L2 Acquisition of the Syntax and Semantics of Mandarin Light Verbs
Yu-Chuan Chiang, Linguistics

Light verbs, which have restricted semantic content and can regularly form verb phrases with dependent nouns in Mandarin Chinese, raise important puzzles concerning syntactic theory (Huang 1997, Lin 2001, among others). A verb such as da “hit” can be a lexical verb denoting a hitting event but it can also be treated as a light verb, in the verb phrase da dianhua “to (tele)phone/call,” where the “hit” meaning is bleached in favor of a purely verbalizing meaning. The complex syntax and semantics of light verbs also raises important questions for second language acquisition (SLA); specifically, whether adult L2 learners can fully acquire light verb properties in their second language. This dissertation investigates the cross-linguistic properties of light verb syntax and develops a second language acquisition theory that explains how this knowledge is acquired by L2 speakers of Mandarin Chinese.

Universality from the Global South: Transpacific Journeys of Marxian Thought Between East Asia and Latin America in the 20th Century
Youngkyun Choi, Romance Languages and Literatures

This dissertation explores the transnational flow of new Marxian thoughts from the Global South to examine how national context impacts the way ideas are taken up and used. Highlighting the understudied agency of the South in knowledge production, I investigate the influence of Chinese Maoism in Peru and the impact of Latin American dependency theory on South Korea in the 1980s. I focus on two conditions that can enable the successful transmission of ideas. The first is the similarity of circumstances between the sending and the receiving contexts. To elucidate this common ground, I examine Peruvian and South Korean Marxist groups’ rationales for introducing Maoism and dependency theory, respectively, to their countries. The second condition for facilitating the transmission of ideas is creativity in reformulating ideas. I maintain that the two cases of Peru and Korea illustrate the concrete aspects of inflexible “application” and innovative “translation” of ideas.

The Forms of Queer Nostalgia: Desire, Historicity, and Obsolescence in LGBTQ Media Worlds
Sean Donovan, Film, Television, and Media

Against mainstream political rhetoric emphasizing a generous present and hopeful future, LGBTQ media in the United States has long demonstrated a sentimental proclivity for the past, luxuriating in reconstructions of prior time periods. In the process, LGBTQ media shapes an affective mode that both constructs itself and defines how users interact with it. This dissertation tracks queer nostalgia across different textual formats as a force of continuing social significance. I argue that the work of queer nostalgia media, in its circulation, reception, and affective capacities, produces imagined LGBTQ pasts that are indicative of ongoing political transformations and points of inter-community tension. I analyze these dynamics across a transmedial collection of sites, ranging from sexual hookup cultures online to documentary cinema to LGBTQ film festivals, for a full-bodied analysis of both individual media texts and their larger mobility in LGBTQ social publics.

Kant’s Formula of Universal Law: An Interpretation and Defense of the Supreme Principle of Morality
Guus Duindam, Philosophy

Kant’s Formula of Universal Law (“FUL”)—the first formulation of his Categorical Imperative—is widely criticized as rigid, unworkable, and subject to countless counterexamples. In this dissertation I argue such pessimism is unwarranted because it is due to interpretive missteps. Standard interpretations of FUL are subject to two fatal flaws. First, they insufficiently recognize that FUL’s two contradiction tests serve distinct functions: the first determines permissibility, the second moral worth. Second, modern interpretations rest on a mistaken and anachronistic conception of the maxim, the principle FUL is designed to test. Correcting these errors reveals that FUL is not only workable, but useful and normatively plausible. And this re-evaluation serves other important goals: it highlights the importance of carefully distinguishing between moral worth and permissibility, and it connects the Continental European and anglophone interpretive literatures.

The United States of Exception: The Representational Politics of Visibly Muslim Women in Western Media
Belquis Elhadi, American Culture

The trope of the oppressed Muslim woman has been used in the West for centuries. Its ubiquity made the proliferation of Muslim women boasted in headlines as “empowered” and “stereotype-breaking” in the last decade so striking. Some of these women are celebrated as “the first hijabi” to do something—a phenomenon I define as “Muslim firsts.” My dissertation addresses the question of why this cultural shift is happening and how these visual representations impact U.S. Muslim communities. Using discourse analysis, I unpack the ideological work Muslim firsts do and argue mainstream media incorporates images of exceptional “hijabis” as a means of reinforcing myths about U.S. exceptionalism and multiculturalism. My dissertation explores four separate Muslim firsts—Noor Tagouri in Playboy, Ibtihaj Muhammad in advertisements, Ilhan Omar in Congress, and Iman Meskini in Skam—to reveal how women who are visibly Muslim are expected to represent entire communities. I define this burden as “representational responsibility.”

A New Liberation: Reviving the Piano Literature of Classical-Era Women Composers Through Online Teaching Resources
Alissa Freeman, Piano Pedagogy and Performance

Throughout recent decades, there has been a surge in work to create a diverse classical music canon by finding and promoting works written by composers of underrepresented identities. Despite these efforts, one area that has received little attention is the music written by women during the classical era (ca. 1730 to 1820). Reviving these works involves not only creating direct access to them, but also providing teachers with the historical, practical, and pedagogical context needed to bring centuries old works to life. To meet these needs, ||:HerClassical:|| will assist in building deeper explorations of compositions by classical-era women by offering teachers online pedagogical resources. As part of the dissertation, a research study will assess the effectiveness of the website through surveys and interviews with teachers and students, providing guidance for the future of the project.

De-centering the Symposium: Characterizing Commensality in Late Classical Olynthos, Greece
Nadhira Hill, Classical Art and Archaeology

My dissertation project, De-centering the Symposium: Characterizing Commensality in Late Classical Olynthos, Greece, deconstructs the traditional, Athenocentric definition of the Greek drinking party, going beyond the narrow focus of modern scholarship on the practices of an enfranchised, wealthy, male elite in a single city. Since comparisons of the drinking practices of two Greek cities are rare, my project considers literary and archaeological evidence for the drinking practices of ancient Athens, which are compared with those at the northern Greek site of Olynthos, using both network analysis (a means for assessing connectivity between humans and objects) and a community of practice framework (communities constituted through shared histories of learning). This comparison will show that many different modes of communal drinking co-existed in Classical Greece (ca. 480 to 323 BCE), and that they were connected by a common “set” of drinking equipment, decentering the symposium as the singular occasion on which ancient Greeks drank.

Ecologies of Infrastructure in Contemporary Postcolonial Literatures
Katherine Hummel, English Language and Literature

This project examines how built infrastructural systems in the Global South link the historical spatial logics of colonialism with contemporary environmental issues. Typically, postcolonial literary critics have studied explicit, thematic depictions of ecological crises to understand colonialism’s impact on environments. My project turns from the thematic to the ambient, exploring systems like roads, pipelines, and energy grids that are unlikely subjects for narrative. Through four chapters, I examine a shared postcolonial location, infrastructural system, and literary genre to consider how postcolonial writers reimagine everyday encounters between people and infrastructures to reframe what “counts” as matters of environmental concern. Synthesizing postcolonial studies, the environmental humanities, and science and technology studies (STS), Ecologies of Infrastructure ultimately pursues a history of the environmental present. My dissertation uses contemporary literary texts to make legible how the legacies of colonial development remain materially, ecologically, and discursively present in the infrastructures that shape everyday postcolonial life.

In “Other Tongues:” Towards a Liberatory Grammar of Feminist Knowledge
Shalmali Umakant Jadhav, Comparative Literature

In the wake of global uprisings against violence on Blacks and Dalits that are reviving century-long debates over the connections between race and caste, my dissertation, entitled, “In Other Tongues:” Towards a Liberatory Grammar of Feminist Knowledge, enriches these discussions by constructing a feminist interdisciplinary grammar that reformulates the relationship between caste, race, and gender. Scholarly work on race and caste—largely stemming from social sciences—has either analogized race and caste or deployed them as interchangeable terms to understand the conditions of Blacks in the United States and Dalits in India, neglecting the subjectivities of women in the global South. Through comparative close readings of 20th and 21st century literatures by Francophone Black and Marathi, Hindi, and English Dalit women like Suzanne Césaire, Paulette Nardal, Urmila Pawar, and Kumud Pawde that reconceptualize key terms like “solidarity” and “intersectionality” in the particularities of the global South, my dissertation generates a shared feminist vocabulary that is useful to both scholars and activists committed to the urgent task of building global solidarities.

The Prestige of the Foreign in Genoese Devotional Painting, 1460-1530
Brenna Larson, History of Art

My dissertation examines period conceptions of foreignness through an investigation of visual art production in and around the Mediterranean port city of Genoa (c. 1460–1530). Itinerant and immigrant artists dominated art making in the region and contended with systems of exclusion and inclusion imposed by organizations such as the guild of painters and shield makers. The preponderance of foreign artists working in Genoa and enrolled in the guild—combined with the dizzying speed of socio-political change in the city—made for mercurial conditions of art production which resist traditional conceptions of regional schools and styles. These conditions, particularly as they related to the perceived foreignness of art practitioners, are examined across three sites: the complex of Santa Maria di Castello in Genoa; sites of della Rovere (papal) patronage in nearby Savona; and ecclesiastic monuments on the island of Corsica, which was a possession of the Genoese Bank of St. George.

Migration and Literature in the English Renaissance, 1492 to 1668
Tonhi Lee, English Language and Literature

This dissertation examines some of the major developments in English Renaissance literature (romance, tragedy, utopian fiction, and allegory) in relation to the social, historical contradictions that characterized early modernity (1485 to 1660), a pivotal moment in world history that witnessed both voluntary and forced migrations on an unprecedented, global scale. Drawing on recent discussions of early modern “inter-imperiality,” it approaches migration as a byproduct of an emerging, global network of empires, which constituted not only the existential condition of migrants and refugees, but also the discursive and aesthetic horizons of alienation explored by a number of early modern literary genres. In the process, this study advances the claim that migration and literature constituted analogous forms of social praxes that responded to (and participated in) the conditions of alienation that produced (and were produced by) migration in early modern world.

Boys Will Be Brands: Creating and Performing the Self in Russian Battle Rap
Aleksandra Marciniak, Slavic Languages and Literatures

My dissertation provides the first detailed literary and cultural analysis of Russian battle rap as a performative literary genre and anti-authoritarian phenomenon in Russian popular culture. Battle rap is a style of rapping in which two opponents deliver memorized texts against one another before a live audience. In this dialogic exchange, performers assert their own personas and simultaneously deconstruct their opponents’ performed selves. This collective performance is dynamically conditioned, in real time, by social debate, literary representations, and a myriad of topical references. My dissertation demonstrates that battle rap’s cultural construction of the self invites engaged audiences through performance into an accessible community that values, and tests the limits of, free speech. I contend that the genre is significant in its public creation, negotiation, and subversion of persona as a means of resistance to the normativizing effects of authoritarianism in the Russian context.