by guest contributor Jonathon Catlin

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The German historian Reinhart Koselleck (1923–2006) is best known as the founder of Begriffsgeschichte, or conceptual history, a historical methodology that culminated in the Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe: Historisches Lexikon zur politisch-sozialen Sprache, a massive eight-volume encyclopedia of fundamental historical concepts that Koselleck co-edited with Otto Brunner and Werner Conze. Toward the end of his life Koselleck moved away from his earlier project of conceptual history and directed his intellectual energies to issues of memory and iconography, as seen in his late collection of essays Zeitschichten (2000). Several essays from this volume, as well as some written after its publication, have been recently collected and translated into English as Sediments of Time: On Possible Histories (Stanford, 2018) with an introduction by Koselleck’s former student Stefan-Ludwig Hoffman (available free online).

Koselleck and conceptual history are having a veritable resurgence. One of the most interesting fruits born of this wave of interest is the three-part exhibition “Reinhart Koselleck und das Bild” (Reinhart Koselleck and the Image), which was displayed in Bielefeld, Germany, in spring and summer 2018. It was curated by Dr. Bettina Brandt and Dr. Britta Hochkirchen, two scholars affiliated with Bielefeld University, the history faculty of which Koselleck helped establish in the 1960s and where he taught until his retirement in 1988. Besides Koselleck’s conceptual history—documented in his archive and library at the Deutsches Literaturarchiv (DLA) in Marbach—he also took over ten thousand photographs, which are now housed separately at the Bildarchiv Foto Marburg and viewable online. Most of his photographs were part of two thematic projects, Politischer Totenkult (the political cult of the dead, with a focus on war memorials) and Politische Ikonographie/Ikonologie (political iconography and iconology, with a focus on equestrian monuments). These began as hobbies but matured into intellectual projects in their own right, with the former culminating in Koselleck’s 1994 co-edited volume Der politische Totenkult: Kriegerdenkmäler in der Moderne.

Selections of Koselleck’s photographs were displayed in three different locations around Bielefeld, each of which highlighted a different dimension of his work on iconography. Curators Brandt and Hochkirchen argue convincingly that the late Koselleck—and to some degree his earlier project of conceptual history as well—was deeply attuned to visual as well as linguistic semantics. They thus position Koselleck at the forefront of the recent “iconic turn” to aesthetics, political iconography, and metaphorology. Their curatorial work reveals that conceptual history’s traditionally logocentric tools of etymology, philology, hermeneutics, and historical semantics only achieve their true interpretive power when combined with the study of closely related icons, symbols, and images.

koselleck 2

The exhibit thus links Koselleck to the Blumenbergian turn of recent works of conceptual and intellectual history such as the volume The Scaffolding of Sovereignty: Global and Aesthetic Perspectives on the History of a Concept (Columbia, 2017), co-edited by Zvi Ben-Dor Benite, Stefanos Geroulanos, and Nicole Jerr, which opens up a number of new approaches for conceptual history. This work illustrates through diverse case studies that sovereignty is at once a concept that can be “filled up” with different meanings in different times and places, an image inextricably linked in political modernity to the iconography of the Hobbesian sovereign, and a Blumenbergian absolute metaphor” of the visualization of the body politic in one sovereign. This turn toward linking conceptual history with aesthetics and political theology has helped put some final nails in the coffin of the fallacies of rationality and coherence that has long constrained the history of ideas to narrowly conceived “philosophical” subjects. The fact that Brandt and Hochkirchen—like Koselleck himself—have training in art history is evident in their attempt to open up conceptual history to new audiences, both within the academic world and for a public interested in the politics of memory and representation.

One political icon in particular preoccupied Koselleck for much of his life: the horse. The exhibit “Political Sensuality” (Politische Sinnlichkeit) displayed in Bielefeld’s Center for Interdisciplinary Research (ZiF) explored the way the modern political “space of experience” (Erfahrungsraum) engages all five senses and the body. It presents everything from his photographs of political symbols, such as statues of Karl Marx, to dozens of figures of horses from his personal collection—ranging from everyday products and advertisements emblazoned with horse iconography to collectable figurines Koselleck displayed on the bookshelves in his office, to the stuffed horse he took naps with in his old age.

Koselleck stuffed horse-1

The horse captivated Koselleck because it was employed by a wide range of modern political ideologies as a symbol of power and sovereignty. The equestrian statue was one of the fundamental symbols of political modernity and conveys the “space of experience” (Erfahrungsraum) of the Sattelzeit (1750-1850), the period of modern conceptual emergence at the center of Begriffsgeschichte. Koselleck characterized the horse as a privileged icon of the modern era and even wrote of an “equine age” (Pferdezeitalter).

Koselleck horse figures 1-1

As the horse lost its economic and military functions with the advent of industrial power, the automobile, and the tank, it was consigned to more trivial functions as a means of leisure and recreation. This was the meaning horses held for Koselleck in his own time, given his childhood passion for horseback riding. His impressive collection of figures captures this semantic shift, from commanding military figures to the playful carousel pony and rocking horse.

Koselleck horse figures 2-1Koselleck as rocking horse-1

The curators argue that Koselleck was deeply attuned to the mediated quality of his images. He regularly took photographs of television programs, especially parades and ceremonies, that are marked by distortions, glare, and fuzziness, thus tangibly conveying their multi-mediated status.

Koselleck television photographs

Koselleck similarly kept poor quality photographs taken out of train windows that are often overcast by flash glare and others including reflections of his own face and hands. For the curators, these images seem to express a “double quality”: on the one hand, images seduce the eye and draw the viewer in, but on the other they create distance and distortion that keeps the viewer at a critical distance. This attention to visuality reflects Koselleck’s broader contention that history is always plural and contested: experiences, expectations, and interpretations pile up in layers and battle for significance and meaning. Koselleck’s photographs of statues of Karl Marx exemplify his attention to competing historical perspectives: a statue that from a distance looks imposing and commanding becomes an absurd caricature up close.

Koselleck Marx photographs

“Layers of Time” (Zeitschichten), which takes its name from Koselleck’s late collection of essays, is displayed in Bielefeld University’s History Faculty. It presents dozens of clusters of Koselleck’s photographs concerning historical objects, time, and experience, revealing his sharp eye for spotting layers of history, memory traces, anachronisms, uncanny juxtapositions of time, repetitions, and multiple modernities—what he, following Ernst Bloch, called “the simultaneity of the non-simultaneous” (die ‘Ungleichzeitigkeit’ des Gleichzeitigen). The visual aspect of the title layers or sediments of time recalls a quotation by Koselleck featured at the beginning of the exhibition: “Whomever speaks about time is dependent upon metaphors.”

Koselleck Via del Progresso-1

This exhibit also provides a bit of intellectual history behind Koselleck’s “image praxis.” He initially wanted to attend an art academy and become a caricaturist. He abandoned this plan in favor of history, but while studying in Heidelberg he continued to attend art history seminars. One of the few physical objects on display is Koselleck’s heavily underlined copy of Giotto – Arenafresken: Ikonographie, Ikonologie, Ikonik, a 1980 work of art criticism by his friend and colleague Max Imdahl (a fellow member of the group Poetics and Hermeneutics, which met around Germany from 1963–1994). Koselleck took particular interest in Imdahl’s notions of “Bildzeit” (image-time) and “Bildzeitlichkeit” (image-temporality), which theorize pictorial expressions of time—the layers of history sedimented within every image.

Max Imdahl, Giotto, 1979

Koselleck’s underlined copy of Max Imdahl, Giotto – Arenafresken: Ikonographie, Ikonologie, Ikonik. Munich, 1980. Held at the Deutschesliteraturarchiv Marbach.

The exhibit also includes a small selection of caricatures from Koselleck’s own hand, which depict political figures such as Konrad Adenauer, Theodor Heuss, and Harry Truman, as well as his former professors Karl Jaspers, Hans-Georg Gadamer, and Karl Löwith. In 1983, on the occasion of Koselleck’s sixtieth birthday, a volume of his drawings and caricatures was published as Vorbilder – Bilder, with a short introduction by Imdahl.

Koselleck caricatures-1

Koselleck’s caricatures, published in Vorbilder – Bilder, 1983. Top left: Konrad Adenauer in 1949 after his election as Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany; Top right: German Federal President Theodor Heuss on December 12, 1952, a few hours before his decision to rescind the judicial opinion of the Federal Constitutional Court against West German rearmament under pressure from CDU Chancellor Konrad Adenauer. The image is dedicated to Carl Schmitt, with whom Koselleck had a correspondence and whom he thanks in the preface to his first book, Critique and Crisis; Bottom right: “Oder? Oder?” comically depicts Polish leader Władysław Gomułka receiving Charles de Gaulle in 1967 to affirm the Oder-Neisse border between Germany and Poland.

Koselleck Eric Hobsbawm drawing-1

Koselleck’s sketch of the British Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm, who taught Koselleck at a reeducation center at Göhrde castle in 1947.

Koselleck’s photographs often evoke temporal acceleration and the paradoxes of technological progress. In a single frame he frequently contrasts signs of progress and regression, utopia and catastrophe, forgetting and haunting. The most frequent image he sought to capture was the juxtaposition of a blurred modern high-speed train rushing past the stationary statue of a rider on horseback, representing the displacement of the horse by the train as the dominant mode of transit in Europe—yet also the persistence of equestrian iconography.

Koselleck train and rider-1

The final exhibit, “Memory Sluices” (Erinnerungsschleusen) was displayed at the Bielefelder Kunstverein and curated by its director, Thomas Thiel. It presents Koselleck’s foray into the politics of memory and the “cult of the dead”, which he argued was “one of the signatures” of political modernity in his 1983 essay “Sluices of Memory and Sediments of Experience.” As the European nation-state emerged as the center of modern life during the Sattelzeit, the Christian monopoly on the meaning of death through salvation and the afterlife gave way to the perpetuation of life through the political futurity of the nation. Koselleck’s work showed that this shift was evident in changing memorials for the dead. The French revolutionaries first sought to memorialize each individual fallen soldier regardless of rank, symbolizing the democratic principle of equality in sacrifice to the nation. Nations created a cult of those who died for them and erected magnificent monuments for their worship.

Monument to the Battle of the Nations

Monument to the Battle of the Nations, Leipzig, 1913 – Wikipedia.

World War One served as the high point of this practice of naming the dead regardless of their rank. In the battlefields of Flanders, the Somme, or Verdun, “no name could go missing” because “the equality of death becomes the symbol of the political unit of action” (Sediments of Time, pp. 218, 217). Koselleck connected such forms of memory back to structures of possible historical experience: “Wartime experiences could only be made and raised to the level of consciousness because they fitted into a grid of historically pregiven possibilities of experience…formed through language, ideology, political organization, generation, gender and family, class, and social stratum” (p. 213).

Koselleck First and Second World War-1

After World War One, however, and especially after World War Two, memorials ceased to name the individual dead because “sacrificial importance” could no longer be attributed to mass civilian death and genocide. In West German memorials for fallen soldiers and concentration camp victims, Koselleck wrote, “it becomes especially clear that death is no longer understood as an answer and instead only as a question, death no longer generates meaning, instead it calls out for meaning” (p. 218). In his 2002 essay “Forms and Traditions of Negative Memory,” Koselleck called this “negative finding” the “abysmalness” (Abgründigkeit) of remembering the National Socialist period: “Senselessness [Sinnlosigkeit] became an event. There is no attribution of meaning [Sinnstiftung] that could retroactively encompass or redeem all the crimes of the National Socialist Germans” (p. 240). Successful post-World War Two memorials such as those of Jochen Gerz—what James E. Young calls “counter-monuments”—thus attempt “to show that the question of meaning has itself become meaningless” (p. 248).

Esther Shalev-Gerz and Jochen Gerz, "The Monument Against Fascism," 1986

Esther Shalev-Gerz and Jochen Gerz, “The Monument Against Fascism,” 1986.

Koselleck contributed essays to debates about memorializing the Holocaust in Germany that culminated in Peter Eisenman’s 2008 Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. His positions center on the ambivalent relationship between perpetrator and victim, for he notes that during the National Socialist period itself, “victim” (Opfer) referred to soldiers who sacrificed themselves for glory of the Reich, whereas after the war it came to symbolize senseless and passive death. Memorials to the First World War that had been repurposed in the service of Nazi propaganda were once again altered by the Allied occupiers: “References to fame and honor were removed, heroes were transformed into victims or the dead” (p. 223). To the extent that such memorials honored both war and terror in conjunction, they represent “a kind of despairing meaningless…more a loss than a founding of identity.” New “rituals” like painting over soldiers’ memorials with words such as “never again war” signal piling up layers of meaning but also breakthroughs into new forms of historical consciousness.

Koselleck Nooit Meer Auschwitz-1

Koselleck was adamant about three points in Germany’s debates about remembering the National Socialist past. First, he wrote that the experiences of terror and useless suffering of the victims could not be transmitted: “They fill the memory of those affected by them, they form their memories, flow into their bodies like a mass of lava, immovable and inscribed….As a primary experience, the experience of absurd meaningless burned into the body cannot be carried over to the memory of others, nor can it be transmitted to the recollection of others who were not affected” (p. 241). He thus concluded that there was no German “collective memory” to speak of. One is confronted here with the senselessness of Koselleck’s own wartime experience: he served as a young Wehrmacht soldier on the Eastern Front and likely would have followed the fate of his brothers to the grave had he not been spared from battle by an injury. After the war he was taken prisoner by the Soviets, who held him on a work duty at Auschwitz and then in a prisoner of war camp in what is now Kazakhstan.

Second, Koselleck wrote, Germany had what his teacher Karl Jaspers called a unique political responsibility to remember not only victims of National Socialism, but also the perpetrators who carried it out its crimes (p. 245). It is no accident that Koselleck’s personal copy of Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, held at the DLA in Marbach, is almost entirely underlined and littered with annotations: political responsibility after the war entailed coming to terms with Germany’s genocidal past and pursuing justice for the victims where possible. Koselleck thus objected to the inscription on Käthe Kollwitz’s Neue Wache memorial for victims of National Socialism in Berlin, “To the Victims of War and Tyranny,” because it “disguises what happened and ignores the brutal and absurd truth of our history.” Instead he proposed: “To the Dead: Fallen, Murdered, Gassed, Died, Missing.”

Finally, Koselleck argued that memorializing victims by same the “racial-zoological” criteria of the SS according to which they were sorted and killed only served to reproduce Nazi identity politics (p. 241). Instead he advocated a single memorial that would honor all victims of National Socialism, not just Europe’s Jews: “We as perpetrators are obliged to treat the other groups in the same way, because we killed all the victims in the same manner…. A perpetrators’ monument [Tätermal] should memorialize all the murdered” (p. 244). Koselleck worried that for Germany to focus on remembering Jewish victims like any other nation served as a “kind of unburdening” from memory of their own past as Germans (p. 246). He presciently noted that after the memorial to European Jewry was completed, Germany would be uniquely obliged as a perpetrator nation to erect separate memorials for Sinti and Roma, homosexuals, and victims of the euthanasia program, who, indeed, have since been remembered by smaller monuments nearby. Notably absent from this list, Koselleck noted, are the 3.5 million Soviet prisoners of war who died in German camps. “Mourning,” he contended, “is not divisible” (p. 245).

Koselleck Euthanasia Sachsenhausen-1

Euthanasia memorial and memorial at Sachsenhausen concentration camp

This need to simultaneously remember German, Jewish, and other historical subjects in the Second World War produced an aporia of memory that Koselleck argued could only be symbolized through monuments, not resolved by them. Hence the most successful memorials to both the Holocaust and German war losses, he wrote, were “negative monuments” or “process monuments,” which symbolized the senselessness of National Socialist terror and an ongoing need for working upon the past. Rather than healing wounds, such monuments serve to expose them and keep them open to public memory, debate, and historical consciousness.

Koselleck Treblinka-1

Memorial at Treblinka death camp in Poland

“Koselleck und das Bild” is a striking testament to Koselleck’s visual legacy. His decades-long engagement with visual culture reminds us that images and icons are indispensable points of crystallization for historical experience and memory. Only with the tools of a historical aesthetics can we begin to heed Koselleck’s call to work through the aporias of historical memory that continue to confront us today: “we must think the unthinkable,… learn to speak the unspeakable, and… attempt to imagine the unimaginable” (p. 246).

Photographs by Reinhart Koselleck are courtesy of the Koselleck family and © Deutsches Dokumentationszentrum für Kunstgeschichte – Bildarchiv Foto Marburg. Photographs of the Bielefeld exhibition “Koselleck and das Bild” are courtesy of Philipp Ottendörfer.

Jonathon Catlin is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of History at Princeton University. His dissertation in progress provides a conceptual history of “catastrophe” in modern European thought, focusing on German-Jewish intellectuals including the Frankfurt School of critical theory.


An Afternoon with Bodys Isek Kingelez at MoMA

All photographs by Enrique Ramirez, click to enlarge + read captions

By guest contributor Enrique Ramirez

There was a moment upon entering Bodys Isek Kingelez: City Dreams, currently at MoMA until January 1, 2019, when I felt as if I had left something behind. It was momentary, as if a pulse of light blinded me and I needed a second to reorient, to re-adapt. The first thing I abandoned was any assumption about what an exhibition does or how it should be organized. There, by the entrance, was the wall text, predictably serviceable, telling me of Bodys Isek Kingelez, the Congolese artist, arriving on the art world scene in 1989 with his models, impeccably-designed constructions that oscillated between architecture and sculpture and bore the not-humble name “extrêmes maquettes” or “extreme models.” And below this text, something else: a link to a Spotify playlist. It was nothing like I had encountered before, for when I see people wandering through a museum with headphones, I assume that they are listening to the audio commentary to an exhibition, not music. My memory of the wall text description of the playlist may be fuzzy, but a quick glance at my phone reveals that it features West African pop music from the 60s onwards—a roster of musicians such as Les Bantous de la Capitale, Pepe Ndombe, Youlou Mabiala, and Papa Wembe—all comprising a sonic environment for Kingelez’s creativity. It is an apposite connection. One the one hand, the playlist strove for a kind of a kind of range matched only by the exhibition, the first ever comprehensive showing of Kingelez’s work. One the other hand, its breadth matched the works on display, also bursting with something like the upbeat polyrhythms, guitar acrobatics, and shimmering harmonies that characterize Afropop music. The models on display are not just an assortment of buildings and cities made of materials like cardboard food wrappers and bottle caps. If, as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once quipped, “architecture is frozen music,” then these “extreme models” are not just physical embodiments of Afropop sounds and rhythms. Kingelez, who died of cancer in 2015, has instead left us with something that is uniquely his: a magpie geography born of a life marked by a singular, fertile, and generous imagination, one whose contours, conurbations, terrains, and buildings created a world that was at the same time universal and yet unmistakably personal.

I too would like to think that this is an essay about the universal and the personal. It is, ostensibly, an essay about Kingelez, about his show at MoMA, which you should see. Yet this essay is cloaked, maybe nestled momentarily, in the folds of another essay, one about things that you may give up or lose when entering a museum. It may veer between the two, sometimes at a moment’s notice, and as reader, you may experience a bit of disorientation. Did he just say that? Why is he talking about that now? As an incentive for you to keep on reading, I offer you this: it has a bittersweet ending. Now, about those things you may lose or give up. If it is winter, you may check in your coat, scarf, and gloves. If your bag is too big, you may have to check that in too, although you can probably get away by holding it close to your torso. A blockbuster show means that you will wait in line, and if you go to MoMA on a Friday afternoon, admission is free, so be prepared to wait in line then as well, which means that you will give up time. The crowds may be large, and this requires you to give up (or at least alter) your own idea of personal space. You may be looking at, say, a large Barnett Newman triptych and want to capture it with your phone. You back up so as to accommodate it within your phone’s limited picture frame and bump into someone behind you. Or, as is almost always the case, you wait for that moment when the space between you and the painting is empty. And as you tap on your phone’s screen to make sure that you are actually focusing on that Newman or that Bell-47D1 helicopter dangling precariously over the escalators, someone walks in front of you and becomes an unwilling study in what was supposed to be a quick but at least thoughtful document of your trip to this museum, on this day, at this very time. And sometimes you give up and surrender and let these people wander into your frame. You may even fancy yourself as some kind of cut-rate Thomas Struth documenting the life of a museum on that very day, that very time.

I did this last year. In one, I captured a young man and a woman shortly after an embrace in front of that very Barnett Newman. As soon as their embrace ended, the man took on a studied pose, arms crossed, one foot in front of the other, examining the painting. As for the woman, she retreated to her cell phone. And in my photograph, I just happened to frame her in the center panel of Newman’s triptych. In another, a man and woman hold each other as they peer through the large floor-height window into the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture garden. There is a thin strip of alloy that separates them from the window, so at least from my vantage point, they appear as if they are preventing each other from leaping into that void, into that garden. Later, when I was down in the sculpture garden, I spied two women and man sitting and laughing. They appeared to be comparing photographs taken on their phones. They were also speaking in French. In retrospect, I think these images did more than just capture people during unguarded moments. Perhaps they were a document of my own longing. It was an unseasonably hot September afternoon. I was far from home and wanting to unburden myself of the various bags I took with me from the airport. I gave up my carry-on at the coat check at the entrance on West 53rd street, but I think I gave up my heart as well. I may have been in love. It is hard to be objective about museums, after all.

It is also hard to be objective about Bodys Isek Kingelez: City Dreams. I had to give up my own pretensions as an architectural historian and engage Kingelez on his own terms. This is not to say, however, that I was not finding some kind of lifeline in my academic training. Architectural history is teeming with examples of cities summoned as if from mid air, of audacious plans and bold schemes, surprising glimpses at futures never realized. “Somewhere I have never travelled,” wrote e.e. cummings, words that come close to that sense of slackjawed incredulity when encountering, say, the glinting peaks and faceted surfaces of Bruno Taut’s crystalline Alpine Architecture, the relentless field of cruciform towers obliterating Paris in Le Corbusier’s Plan Voisin and Ville Radieuse, the pastoral functionalism of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City, or even the machine-like infrastructures and ziggurat terminals of Antonio Sant’Elia’s Citta Nuova. These schemes point to something that momentarily sets the realm of architectural history apart from other disciplines, for ours is a field that does enliven the power of the counterfactual as a tool for writing history; which is to say that we look to the unbuilt and fantastical as a way to gauge a particular designer’s engagement with the world.


Placing City Dreams in such company seems apposite, for Kingelez’s models of buildings and cities can be thought of a larger scheme, one where the artist envisioned a world coming to terms with itself after independence from European colonial powers. As whimsical as these buildings may seem, they are, to repeat that old saw from architectural modernism, functional. They “work.” In City Dreams we see schools, hospitals, stadiums, restaurants, airports, train stations—evidence of a world organized for the sake of a real, growing, and vibrant population. Yet these expressive forms will resonate with contemporary architectural audiences as well for the exact opposite reason, for they seem to refer to themselves and themselves only. Take a glance at projects coming out of well-heeled architectural programs and you too will see something similar. Building facades and site plans in high-saturated pastels; an emphasis on surface effects; a general aesthetic that privileges the hard edge of a cartoon or the communicative imprimatur of a supergraphic: this is architecture that appears to suspend everything in favor of a kind of ecstatic imageability. Now this seems appropriate for our current time, one where Instagram becomes the primary conduit for ideas about architecture. And in those instances where I try to be the dutiful architectural historian and critic, a set of instincts fall into a kind of reflexive lockstep and I find myself accessing Jean Baudrillard, Frederic Jameson, Charles Jencks, and especially Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, names we associate with polemical statements about the image-ability of architecture, a symptom of a condition that we diagnose using the woefully inappropriate yet established term Postmodernism. Call it a surrender, one where architecture culture has finally admitted a complete yielding to an ecology of images. But has not this always been the case? Is it better to say that architecture culture has reached what the late philosopher Vilém Flusser observed as the “dominance of technical images” over text in our world?

Odd how the first things that came to mind when encountering Kingelez were not buildings, but novels. Words. I thought of Jean d’Ormesson, whose 1971 novel, The Glory of the Empire, is not just an imaginary account of a lost world, but one that comes with its own fabrications, everything from imaginary sources to fake footnotes and make-believe indices. “It is not history that makes the historian,” wrote d’Ormesson, “but the reverse, and no historian does anything but give birth to his own universe.” How appropriate. Consider Jan Morris’s Last Letters from Hav, a travel narrative inside a fictional land. In both instances, the novel becomes a kind of mirror reflecting each author’s inner worlds, here cast not just as literary references but also as landscapes, cities, and buildings. The history of D’Ormesson’s Empire features very real references to very real Arnold Toynbee, Michel Foucault, Claude-Lévi Strauss, and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. And the two monumental buildings in his Empire (painted in fake architectural splendor by Monsu Desiderio, an actual pseudonym given to a group of 17th century Neapolitan artists) were “considered the masterpieces of architecture by Bramante, the three Sangalli, Vasari, Palladio, Ledoux, Wright, Mies van der Rohe, and Le Corbusier.” As for Morris, her vision of New Hav features a “less inspired” work by Le Corbusier and an electrical grid by Peter Behrens.

Thoughts of Afrofuturisms were inescapable as well. Mark Dery coined the term in 1993 to describe a body of “speculative fiction that treats African-American themes and address African-American concerns in the context of twentieth-century technoculture—and more generally, African-American signification that appropriates images of technology and prosthetically enhanced future.” As with any field, scholars and authors have been mapping Afrofutrisms’s origins and effects from the past and into the future, creating a divergent body of literature that covers everything from slave narratives, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Sun-Ra’s Space Is The Place, as well as the N.K. Jemison’s environmentally-themed science fiction novels. More recently, novelist Deji Bryce Olukuton imagined a solar catastrophe decimating infrastructures in the developed world and leaving the Nigerian space program the only organization capable of rescuing a stranded cosmonaut. The spacecraft to be launched from Abuja first appears as a bronze sculpture, which Olukton describes as “festooned with black-painted ziggurats and Gelede masks peering into new realms of time, the cultural heritage of Nigeria forged into a colossal sculptural vision of the future.”

This all speaks of this inchoate idea called “utopia”, one that seems to be on the lips and fingers of many a critic who distill Kingelez’s work into a kind of coherent project. Even the exhibition’s title conjures it, this notion of a dream city, this alternative to the present. Is it possible, then, that we do this work a disservice by labeling it as a “utopia”? For what are we thinking of when we conjure alternative schemes in distant futures, of realms and environments that are supposed to provide a balm of sorts for what ails us? I think of the late Denis Johnson, who wrote in Jesus’ Son, “I had never known, never even imagined for a heartbeat, that there might be a place for people like us.” Utopia is for people like us, a vessel for our thoughts and aspirations, and perhaps just that. It is a dead letter sent forward in time, never addressed, and never to be returned.


I wonder about other things left and given up at museums, never to be returned. I can come with lists of things I have forgotten at galleries and exhibitions: tote bags, headphones, my wallet, lunch. But there is something else, something fleeting that may gnaw at you the way it does at me. You realize that you left it when you recognize it as forgotten—which is a roundabout way of saying that you have actually remembered it. There are names and terms for this, yet these words fail to give it adequate contours and volumes. Something neither perceptible nor detectable persists and lingers about. Perhaps it is a feeling. Perhaps it is closer to synesthesia, the “colored hearing” Vladimir Nabokov once wrote about in Speak, Memory, when “the color sensations seem to be produced by the very act of my orally forming a given letter while I imagine its outline.” Is this feeling one where your sense of space is mapped out in time? I can make it from one corner to the room in twelve heartbeats … Eight have passed, you may think to yourself. I do sometimes. I also think of Svetlana Boym, who described nostalgia as an operation that “charts space in time and time and space,” which sounds as if she was reading the craggy peaks and irregular valleys of an electroencephalogram chart with the eye of a person reading tea leaves—which is to say with an affinity for patterns and coincidences. And perhaps that is what happens when you enter a museum, for instead of patterns and coincidences, that itch you feel is not so much a longing as it is a recognition that you have found something you did not know was lost and is now being returned to you.

These are the things returned to me as I write, fragments of a visit to Kingelez’s work at MoMA: a wall text; a brief explanation of the artist and his work; episodes of a life spent in the Belgian Congo (now Zaire) and then Kinshasa; Kingelez the school teacher turning his life to scissors, blades, and glue; models of buildings and cities constructed of cardboard, soda and beer cans; turquoise, magenta, palettes for a technicolor fantasy; imaginary places with French names, Réveillon Fédéral, Étoile Rouge, Aeromode; Magiciens de la Terre, a 1989 show at the Centre Pompidou, the first ever to feature his work; of worlds as cities, worlds as infrastructure; papier maché oceans; a box of “Special”, a toothpaste brand from elsewhere; buildings shaped like gossamer-winged butterflies, an accordion’s bellows, a shoe polisher, a shark’s fin (or an upturned fang); the Ville fântome, a city where citizens move between different zones along a “bridge of death”; Stade Kingelez, a soccer stadium; fields of greenery with scalloped edges; a container of Smint and a box of Bic ballpoints; a silhouette of a country priest, shushing, an image I remember as a squadron insignia from one of the World Wars, now pasted on the facade of one of Kingelez’s models; a woman standing on her toes in the corner holding her phone in the air, trying to capture the contents of the exhibit in one take; an elderly man squatting at eye level with one of the models, as if trying to have a conversation with it; security guards checking their email; buildings named after countries; the United Nations building reimagined as a giant conch shell; chatter hanging in the air above; an agricultural village transformed into skyscrapers; a city in the 31st century comprised of real and imaginary buildings from the 20th and 21st; a line for a pair of VR goggles at the end of the exhibit; that Kingelez was born in 1948; that he studied economics; that he died of cancer in 2015. It continues …

… and it all begs an important question, perhaps the one central to this essay: what do we recognize as lost when we enter a museum, when we encounter an exhibition like City Dreams, when we find ourselves in the midst of something so different, so thrilling? One thing we lose is a sense of space and time. Not “our” sense, but “a” sense of space and time, and by this I mean the space and time of Kingelez and his work. Any attempt to express what was going on in Kingelez’s inner and outer worlds is just that—an attempt. My ability to locate his work in space and time is born of the habits and practices I learned while studying and writing about architectural history, and one of these is telepresence. I can write, for example, that while Kingelez viewed his works as evidence of his stature as a “small god”, that his vibrant designs showed an initial affection for Mobuto Sese Seko Kutu’s doctrine of authenticité. I can write that he named one of his earliest sculptures after the day that Mobutu became President of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (soon to be renamed Zaire). I know these things as facts culled from what others before me have written. Texts are my modes of transport, my conveyances to a space and time that will be forever unknown to me. An exhibition, then, only amplifies a similar sense of spatial and temporal dislocation—an eternal removal, so to speak. The only difference is that the “extreme models” on display, dutiful arranged by teams of curators, conservators, and exhibition designers, are “messages from a lost past,” as T.J. Clark once put it. They are emissaries from a world we will never be able to access.


Ville de Sète 3009 is one of the very last objects you will encounter. Completed while in residence at the Musée International des Arts Modestes in Southern France in 2000, it was one of Kingelez’s last large-scale works. It shares many of the characteristics of his earlier “extreme models.” There is, for instance, the same color palette, the same vivid ultramarines and oversaturated carmines. The buildings here are versions of the ones he likely saw while in residence there. Yet something else is happening here, for these buildings, on another glance, begin to look familiar. One, for instance, repeats butterfly- and sail-like shapes from earlier works. Another is comprised of two cylinders, and when viewed in plan, looks like a figure eight. Like his other cities, Ville de Sète 3009 is also surrounded by a moat. Rooftops appear to be connected by aerial walkways. There is also a more decided emphasis on pure geometries. And if you take a closer look, some of the buildings begin to look familiar. One is an echo of I.M. Pei’s Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong. Another appears like a version of the Empire State Building, taller, narrower, conjured from transparent yellow plexiglas. There are even smaller, ziggurat-like structures that appear to reference Henri Sauvage and Charles Sarazin’s unbuilt Maison à gradins from 1914. These are signs that Kingelez is folding utopias into his own immediate world.


Ville de Sète 3009 (2000): One of Kingelez’s most ambitious sculptures representing an inventory of all the forms used in his prior works.

There are three ways to view this model. There nothing unusual about the first, for it is really the way everyone views larger-scale works or sculptures in a gallery. You approach one of Kingelez’s model and then you bend down to take a photograph, keeping yourself at eye-level. And when you stand up, you now see Ville de Sète 3009 from above, which means that yours is the bird’s-eye view, le regard surplombant, a vantage point affording you a glimpse at the world, a planner or an architect’s totalizing eye, the purview of modernity. The second is unusual because it requires you to look at the ceiling, something you almost would never do in one of MoMA’s galleries. Mounted directly above Ville de Sète 3009 is a large mirror that reflects the image of the city back at you. I imagine that this may be the point of view of an astronaut falling head first, coming down to Earth and peering up into Sète moments before splashing into the water, and like Bruegel’s Icarus, feet barely peering above the whitecaps. Or, is this peering at something on the ceiling a substitute for the artist’s point of view? And then there is the third, which requires you to wait in line for a pair of VR goggles and fly through a three-dimensional rendering of Ville de Sète 3009. In that virtual space, Sète becomes an image of an image of a city. Kingelez’s city has transformed from a cardboard city to a digitized realm rendered from protocols, software, grids, ones, zeroes, machine languages, and mouse clicks.

To fly in this version of Kingelez’s Sète is thrilling. I even felt a bit of momentary dislocation and an acute, yet fleeting, motion sickness that made me giddy. These were symptoms of my own recursion, flying in a digitized version of a city that existed in Kingelez’s world. And I thought of another recursion. Specifically, it was a passage from Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, a description of a balloon flight over Cartagena de Indias. And though I have read that novel several times, I remember the passage because it was blockquoted in a review written by Thomas Pynchon in 1988. In that piece, which I still think is one of the most astounding pieces of writing one can read, Pynchon declares that Garcia Márquez did nothing short of creating art, and that art like Love in the Time of Cholera gives us something we only realize we wanted when faced with it. Pynchon uses a beautiful term for this: “works that can even return our worn souls to us.” And perhaps that is what happened on that October afternoon. I gave myself to Kingelez’s world, and my own worn soul was given back to me.

“Bodys Isek Kingelez: City Dreams” is on view at the Museum of Modern Art (New York, NY) through January 1, 2019.

Enrique Ramirez is a Brooklyn-based writer, architectural historian, musician, and critic. He is currently Visiting Assistant Professor of the History of Art and Design at Pratt Institute. You can follow him on Instagram at @riqueramirez

“Serfs” on the Roof of the World: The Importance of Terminology in Discussions of Politically Sensitive History

By Contributing Editor Kristin Buhrow

Most commonly associated with Medieval Europe, the term “serf” is commonly used to describe a certain type of peasant class with a particular set of living conditions.  From the European Middle Ages, academic discourse in English has imposed the term “serf” onto populations of landless peasants in nineteenth century Russia (Melton, 1987), early twentieth-century East Africa (Huntingford, 1931), and beyond.  This essay will explore the application of the term “serf” to peasants of a particular social and political context: the mi ser class within Pre-Modern Tibet, the political and social effects of the modern use of this term, and the importance of recognizing the politicized use of terminology in academic and political discussions more generally.


Farmland outside of Meldro Gungkar, Tibet.  August, 2017. Photography by Kristin Buhrow.


While each of the cultural contexts mentioned above exhibits a different sort of peasant class affected by unique conditions, resources, and norms, the designation of these as “serf” classes is dependent upon the existence of an interminable relationship with a particular member of the higher class—a “lord”. According to Melvyn Goldstein’s multiple treaties on the application of the term “serf,” a class’ designation as such indicates a “hereditary superordinate-subordinate relationship in which the subordinate possesses a legal identity independent of the superordinate” (Goldstein, 1971 p.522), the subordinate’s lack of legal right to terminate the relationship (Goldstein, 1971 p. 522), and “a degree of judicial control” by the superordinate over the subordinate (Goldstein 1986 p. 82).  Whatever the other conditions experienced by a peasant class, these criteria serve to determine which social classes may be designated a “serf” class (as opposed to a slave or more general peasant class) regardless of culture.

Based on the principles above, some academics and political personages have recognized Pre-Modern Tibet (1642-1959) a culture practicing serfdom.  More complex than a simple array of lord and serf relationships, however, the taxonomy of Pre-Modern Tibetan social classes involves several branches.  Firstly, Pre-Modern Tibet might be divided into two social classes: the monastic population and the laity. Focusing on the laity, this category could be divided into two clear classes:  the landed aristocracy, sger pa, and the peasants, or mi ser[1] (Goldstein, 1971 p.522-3).  Despite both sger pa and mi ser contributing children to the monastic population, those who remained part of the laity were obligated to fulfill unequal social roles.  Far outnumbering the sger pa, who constituted only about 200-350 aristocratic families, the mi ser were a more diverse population in terms of wealth, lifestyle, and location on the Tibetan plateau.

While responsive to a particular sger pa family, the condition of the Tibetan mi ser diverges with that of other global peasantries classified as serfs with regard to their ability to challenge their social superiors, accumulate resources, and even change locations.  Unlike their feudal European counterparts, Tibetan mi ser were not only able, but publicly encouraged to appeal to other members of the aristocracy and even the central court system to challenge or prosecute nefarious or unjust members of the aristocracy (Goldstein, 1971 p. 523; Bischoff, 2013 p. 12). This access to the court system and the influence of other aristocrats allowed mi ser a more powerful role in their social relationships than “serfs” in other cultural contexts.  In addition to providing peasants with prosecution rights, premodern Tibetan lords were less powerful than their medieval counterparts because they could not unilaterally alter the amount of taxes required or the amount of land serfs held (Goldstein, 1971 p.522), lords often provided minimal oversight so long as corves were met (Goldstein, 1971 p. 526). Perhaps related to a standard of minimal oversight, Tibetan mi ser did not necessarily live in destitute conditions.  The status of mi ser then, were not analogized to serfs because of high levels of poverty or total incapability to challenge the will of their lords; instead, mi ser have been analogized to serfs due to a lifelong bond to the land of one aristocratic family, extending to the lives of their descendants[2]  for multiple generations.

Within the social category of mi ser is an allowance for an alternative lifestyle which further complicates the discussion of mi ser as land-bound serf: the geographically mobile mi bogs. Translated to “human lease,” mi ser who obtain the status of mi bogs were leased to work on other estates.  This status was usually taken on voluntarily by the mi ser with approval from their sger pa landowner to allow for more freedom as to geographic location as well as the ability to travel.  Some Tibetologists claim that the existence of a status like mi bogs indicates that mi ser were free to travel, not bound to the land of a sger pa family, and therefore not able to be categorized as serfs at all (Alice Travers going as far as to assert that mi bogs were “a masterless sect of people—people without land, without master, and without a servant” [2013 p.151]).  However, while the availability of the mi bogs path does differentiate the experiences of Tibetan mi ser from other groups of “serfs,” it is important to note that even while away, mi ser still had to respond to their original sger pa family’s commands, pay an annual fee to the sger pa, travel where the sger pa commanded, and return home upon his order (Goldstein, 1986 p. 94). As such, even with the allowance of a certain number of mi ser to attain the status of mi bogs and live away from the immediate lands of the sger pa, the social relationship between mi ser and sger pa remained not only extant, but influential.  Even in cases of geographic removal, mi ser were still responsive to the owners of the lands they were obligated to work.  In this context, the term “serf” may render a fairly accurate picture of certain aspects of the lives of mi ser in Pre-Modern Tibet.

Despite its application to the Tibetan peasants of more than sixty years ago, the modern description of mi ser as a “serf” class has functioned in support of a narrative condoning the communist party’s occupation of and Sinicization efforts within Tibet.  Since entry of the communists in1959, Chinese political publications have emphasized the parallels between the mi ser sger pa relationship and the serf – lord relationship. This emphasis includes making direct reference to the mi ser population as “serfs” in English language publications. Taking one popular example, the word “serf” occurs some thirty-five times in the 2001 edition of the English language Chinese government public relations leaflet “100 Questions on Tibet” (Barnett, 2008 p. 81).  While it is true that some aspects of the Pre-Modern Tibetan peasant experience allow the mi ser to be categorized alongside serfs according to loose, culturally relative definitions, it is also likely that associating Pre-Modern Tibetan peasants with a historical system known for oppression of laborers was a conscious choice by the Chinese Communist Party to illicit support for the seizure and Sinicization of Tibet.

This support from admirers of the Chinese Communist Party and Communists worldwide was sought by appealing to a Marxist perspective of linear societal development.  In the Marxist view, a feudal society is considered less “evolved” than an industrial society; this perspective allows communists to deduce that any cultural operating on a system similar to feudalism is inferior to the more developed China.  While a necessary stepping stone to reach the higher evolutions of social structure, the stark differences between the landed and laboring classes in feudalism render the system, in the Marxist eye, “inseparable from extreme abuse” (Barnett, 2008 p.82). This narrative of Pre-Modern Tibet as a society characterized by violently abusive inequality is propagated to justify its seizure of Tibet and excuse some of the human rights abuses which take place there today.  As noted by Travers in her 2013 article, this Marxist narrative has been reinforced by the Chinese Communist Party and Western observers with communist backgrounds since 1959 (p. 143).  Understanding this politicization of historical social hierarchies, while the term “serf” is technically accurate, its use legitimizes a construction of Tibetan history which marginalizes traditional Tibetan norms and allows the Communist Party to take the role of a savior society.

In the quest for honest and fruitful discourse, it is important that all discussants be aware, not only of the historical realities of the past, but also the political context of the present.  A responsible contributor must therefore be able to earnestly describe the likely difficult conditions for life among Pre-Modern Tibetan mi ser and must acknowledge that mi ser did live within a system which could be easily abused by their sger pa counterparts.  Simultaneously, an informed discussant can not act as if openly associating the conditions of the mi ser with medieval serfdom does not have a history of politicization.  Under conditions such as these, academic and political discussions must remain open, with the choice to analogize the mi ser with serfdom available for those who have no qualms with the modern connotations.  Likewise, the choice to refrain from making the analogy or to argue against the appropriateness of the analogy should be regarded as a form of academic activism by those who wish to knowingly partake.

[1]Other variations on these Tibetan terms include sku drag for aristocracy and smad rigs for peasants (Travers, 2013 p.141).

[2] Descendants of peasants were ascribed through parallel descent, with sons going to their father’s lord, and daughters go to mother’s lord (Goldstein, 1971 p. 522).


Conference Report: Mastery, Ownership, Divinity: Self And Power in Transregional and Transtemporal Perspectives

by contributing writer Philipp Sperner

While the need to study notions of power, sovereignty and rule from a global perspective has been widely acknowledged, the research is all too often limited by its strong dependence on the disciplinary framework of area studies and Eurocentrism. One of the aims of the conference, titled “Mastery, Ownership, Divinity: Self and Power in Transregional and Transtemporal perspective”, organized by Milinda Banerjee and held at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität (LMU) in Munich on 18th and 19th September 2018 was to work towards developing alternative frameworks. Another aim of the conference was to emphasise the intersections of political theology and political economy and, in empirical terms, to relate focused case studies to longue durée histories and transregional developments.

One critique, shared by several of the speakers, concerned current hegemonic theories of the emergence and development of the state. The issue was approached by Robert Yelle (LMU) through an analysis of the connections between patriarchy, property, and religion. By critically revisiting the 19th-century discourse on the alleged shift from matrilineality or matriarchy to patrilineality and patriarchy as the basis for statehood, the talk emphasized the importance of religious mythology and sacrifice for the constant (re)production of patriarchal rule. Yelle further argued that the hierarchy established through these forms of “patriarchal biolopolitics” is expressed and perpetuated through the family as the central institution of absolute patriarchal sovereignty, which extends not only over women and children, but crucially also over slaves and all forms of property.

The notion of (patriarchal) sovereignty as being not merely a political but a quintessential politico-economic relationship was further developed in the talk by Devin Singh (Dartmouth College). He argued that debt slavery and patterns of debt management were intricately connected to the formation of (state) sovereignty. Since enslaved citizens could no longer be subjected to the paying of taxes, the state had a significant interest in limiting forms of private debt servitude. On the other hand, however, Singh maintained that early states also significantly depended on forms of debt slavery in order to assert direct control over labour. He then showed how debt slavery was legitimized through a political theology that portrayed god as the ultimate creditor to whom everyone is indebted and who alone has the power to forgive one’s debts.

The manifold connections between the (re)production of sovereignty and state formation were further explored in talks by Michael Kinadater (LMU), Tanuja Kothiyal (Ambedkar University Delhi) and Aditi Saraf (LMU). While Kinadeter traced connections between the politico-cultural developments in China, Korea and India and the emergence of centralized power and its ideology in Japan,  Kothiyal and Saraf examined conditions of statehood and state making in borderland regions in South Asia. On the basis of her research into the history of authority and control in the Thar desert from 1400 to 1800, Kothiyal contended that rather than understanding statehood as being predicated on a single sovereign power, it should instead be seen as constantly being re-negotiated and re-inscribed into a complex network of various forms of political, religious and economic authority. That such practices of negotiation also rely on the successful adoption of an adequate terminology became apparent in the talk by Aditi Saraf, who showed how the use of the Urdu term “hifazat”, denoting “care”, “trust”, “guardianship” and “safekeeping”, allowed the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir to tie the two different discourses on protection and rule together. The state thus adopted a legal discourse on property rights that was far stricter than it would have otherwise been possible within the sphere of British imperial rule.

mastery conference image 1

Image 1:
Simon Cubelic (who chaired panel 2), Tanuja Kothiyal, Milinda Banerjee 
and Aditi Saraf.

Another topic that was taken up by several talks at the conference was the changing notion of who could become (a) sovereign. In his talk on “Divine Subalterns and Sovereign Labour“, Milinda Banerjee (LMU) argued that the idea of divinity as something pertaining to every (human) being has not only been hugely influential for popular quasi-democratic mass movements in the past but serves as an important argument for the emancipation of subaltern agents up to this day. By analysing a range of moments in 19th– and 20th-century India – from peasant revolts, labour struggles, and the movement for women’s rights to more recent movements for land rights – Banerjee demonstrated how various actors critically engaged with the nexus of divinity and state sovereignty, and succeeded in claiming their own sovereignty via the declaration of a universal divinity of many, or even all, humans.


mastery conference image 2

Image 2:
Tanuja Kothiyal (who chaired panel 4), Ananya Vajpeyi, Anastasia 
Piliavsky and Bhrigupati Singh.

A different but closely connected approach to claiming one’s right to authority and sovereignty was analysed by Ananya Vajpeyi (Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi) in her talk on the history of the term “Śūdra”. The term is used to designate the lowest category of the four-tier social hierarchy most often referred to as the “caste system”. By revisiting the history of the first Maratha king Shivaji (1630-80 CE), Vajpeyi explored how someone who had nominally belonged to the lowest strata of society managed to change and transgress the order of the social hierarchy by claiming royal ancestry. While Shivaji’s successful effort to recast himself as (divinely sanctioned) king and sovereign was portrayed as a self-emancipatory act by the 19th-century social reformer Jyotiba Phule, the Dalit leader, activist and “father of the Indian constitution”, B.R. Ambedkar, was more ambivalent in his analysis of Shivaji’s rulership.

The conference also included engaging discussions on practices that helped establish and sustain hierarchies of authority and control. Rather than simply criticising the existence of such hierarchies, Anastasia Piliavsky (University of Cambridge), instead made a compelling case for trying to understand how and why hierarchy is indeed often seen as a social and political good. Piliavsky gave a vivid account of her ethnographic observations of the daily meetings of a politician with his constituents in the Indian state of Rajasthan. She argued that the hierarchies that structured these interactions did not translate into a straightforward rule or mastery of one person over the other, but instead corresponded to an intimate and comprehensive responsibility that the politician had towards his constituents. Understanding how such hierarchies are embedded into democratic systems might enable us, Piliavsky claimed, to better understand the growing demand for strong political leaders today.

A different take on practices establishing and reinforcing social hierarchies was presented by Jules Gleeson (University of Vienna and FOVOG, TU Dresden). Her talk focused on normative shaming practices at the Great Lavra monastery established by Athanasios of Athos. Gleeson argued that through deliberate stigmatization and shaming of disobedient monks Athanasios sought to establish a community based on a Christ-like humility and wilful self-humiliation conducive to a rigid hierarchy. In contrast to practices of shaming and denigration, the talk by Ceyda Karamursel (SOAS University of London) demonstrated how the deliberate use of seemingly “softer” vocabulary served to legitimize and uphold the hierarchy between slaves and masters in the late Ottoman Empire. Rather than framing the hierarchy in terms of the human/property distinction commonly drawn on before, Karamursel argued that slavery was legitimized and naturalised by being portrayed as resulting from natural weakness and thus sanctioned by god. Magnus Fiskesjö (Cornell University) argued that the pervasive surveillance and constant assessment of citizens in contemporary China is indeed a sign of a qualitatively different form of rule that might be connected to exhibitionist and quasi-confessional practices on social media.

mastery conference image 3

Image 3:
Annabel Brett (who chaired panel 5), Jules Gleeson, Simon Yarrow and 
Lorenzo Bondioli.

In her talk, Annabel Brett (University of Cambridge) focused on the notion of “use”, and especially the use of animals, in the Western natural law tradition. Beginning with Thomas Aquinas, the concept of “use” played an important role for the distinction between God and the physical world on one side and between humans and animals on the other, Brett argued. While “use” was seen as relying on a physically-embodied being and thus could not be something God “does”, it was also regarded as tied to the notion of a rational action directed at a specific goal or aim. Animals, therefore were not capable of “use”. Seen from this perspective, the very notion of what it means to have ownership of something and mastery over something is inextricably tied to the human-animal relationship.

This focus on animals as constitutive of regimes of human mastery was reinforced by Kresimir Vukovic (British School at Rome) in his analysis of different enunciations of control over, and taboos against, cattle, wolves, and dogs among Indo-European (especially Roman and Indian) cultures. Vukovic suggested that the structural similarities, such as the distinction between warriors and priests based on different forms of mastery over animals, might be seen as indicative of a shared political theology and a common framework of power relations.

The relationship between political economy and political theology was strongly foregrounded in the talks by Simon Yarrow (University of Birmingham) and Lorenzo Bondioli (Princeton University). While Yarrow explored the role of money and saints’ relics in twelfth-century Latin Christendom, Bondioli focused on the period of Fatimid state-making in tenth-century North Africa and mapped out the integral relation between taxation regimes, property rights and forms of political discourse.

A different kind of spiritual economy was analysed by Bhrigupati Singh (Brown University) in his interrogation of procedures undertaken by patients suffering from mental illness, especially in Sufi shrines in Northern India. Singh underlined the various forms of symbolic exchange and transfer of persons, goods and ‘afflictions’ between healers, treatment seekers and family members. This opened up new ways of understanding mental illness, radically different from an individualistic approach that foregrounds the role of the individual patient.

While the conference covered a broad range of time periods, regions and themes, it succeeded in bringing the speakers from various fields into an engaged conversations with each other. This became especially apparent in the responses to a question raised in the general discussion at the end of the conference, regarding the function of “sovereignty” in linking mastery, ownership and divinity. While Anastasia Pilliavsky, Annabel Brett and Ananya Vajpeyi emphatically emphasised the need to diversify the conceptual toolkit, others argued in favour of the use of “sovereignty” as a kind of placeholder that needs to be defined and described anew within every specific context. Apart from providing a stimulating atmosphere for several more fruitful discussions – such as on the competing or probably even irreconcilable relationship between transregional and transtemporal perspectives or on the productive use of a dialectic approach to visualize the complexities of political and economic theology – the conference has probably succeeded most effectively in providing a platform for truly intersectional conversations based on rigorous inquiries into situated case studies and sharp theorization.

Philipp Sperner is a PhD student at the Research Group “Globalization and Literature”, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität Munich. He can be contacted at philipp.sperner@posteo.net 

The featured image at the top of this page comes from the Conference’s poster, available at: https://www.japan.uni-muenchen.de/personal/gastwissenschaftler/banerjee/mastery_ownership_divinity/mod_-_poster.pdf 

“To Intervene yet again”: Theory Revolt, Live!

By contributing writer Jonathon Catlin

In May historians Ethan Kleinberg, Joan Wallach Scott, and Gary Wilder, together known as the Wild On Collective, released “Theses on Theory and History,” a widely-discussed manifesto on historical methodology. On October 8, this “cabal of rebels” made their first public appearance at the New School for Social Research, introduced by historian Oz Frankel. (Ethan Kleinberg could not attend.) A recording of the event is available below.

The “Theses on Theory and History,”  emerged, Scott reflected, out of the authors’ shared “impatience with the persistent refusal of disciplinary history to engage with long-standing critiques of its practice: critiques of its realist epistemology and empiricist methodology, its archival fetishism, its insistence on the primacy of chronological narrative, and its maintenance of reified boundaries between present and past. How had it happened, we wondered, that the critiques which had nourished our own thinking had somehow failed to transform disciplinary norms in significant ways? Why the recurrent need for critique generation after generation?”

Scott began by addressing the most obvious criticism of the manifesto: “Didn’t you do this already in the 1980s? Haven’t you fought that battle?” “Yes,” Scott answers, “we did fight that battle, but somehow we failed to transform the disciplinary norms in significant ways. What we’re witnessing is a reaction against exactly the kinds of theoretical incursions, rethinking, the epistemological transformations, that we’d hoped to be putting in place, securing. We don’t believe in linear, progressive history, but I think we hoped that somehow those battles would have established a stronghold forever. I’m constantly amazed at the extent to which I think in terms of progress, even as I am a critic of [progress] narratives.”

Of course, she notes, critiques of history and historicism were not invented in the 1980s: Theory Revolt’s roots go back to the 19th century, to Nietzsche, Simmel, and Croce; to the interwar period, to Heidegger, Bloch, Du Bois, and C.L.R. James. “It’s not as if the discipline has not had its critics time and time again,” Scott reflects, “and yet that critique never came to hold.” Hence, she explained, “What we wanted to do was figure out how we could again address the questions, the ways in which theory has become ghettoized in the domain of intellectual history, how documentary and synoptic accounts were replacing the kinds of epistemological transformations the three of us had all undergone somewhere along the way in our formation.”

The manifesto emerged as the right genre for this intervention. Kleinberg in particular was keen on nailing copies of the theses to the door of every history department in the country in the fashion of Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses. These Theses themselves are clearly inspired, Scott said, by manifestos from Marx, Benjamin, and Horkheimer and Adorno. Making the theses open access—at Kleinberg’s insistence—resulted in a swift and eager reception around the world, including translation into many languages. “We hit a nerve that people in many parts of the world responded to.”

Scott spoke highly of a forum of critical responses to the Theses the authors commissioned at History of the Present, where she is an editor. Andrew Zimmerman, notably, “reminds us of the need to decolonize theory” to include figures like Fanon and his encounters with Africa, and Foucault’s unacknowledged debts to the Black Panther Party in his work on prisons; in Scott’s words, “theory is bigger than the suggestions we make about what theory could be.”

“Let’s break some windows” was the attitude that brought Wilder to Theory Revolt. He critiqued the “insidious ways” that “superficial but shallow and domesticated embrace of theory” has preempted real theoretical engagement. Their target, he said, is not historians of old who think theory is “nonsense,” but rather those who say, “we already do that!” and “we read your book twenty years ago and it’s on the syllabus!” Scott added to the chorus, “it’s in my footnotes!” Theory Revolt opposes this “domestication of theory by history” and also “the ghettoization of theory in intellectual history.” The issue is not that nobody out there is doing critical history; it’s that the structures of the discipline—journals, hiring, tenure—still make doing it difficult.

The aim of the Theses, Wilder said, “is not a call for historians to write about theorists or somehow apply theory to their work.” It’s not a call to “do theory,” whatever that might mean, but rather to practice “self-reflexive critical history.” For Wilder this means “conceptualizing our material: treating as real those processes, relations, structures, that might not be… objectively verifiable. It means asking questions whose answers can never be definitively found in an archival box. It’s not a call to not do archival history; but it’s calling out this idea that any question worth answering could be answered by a document in a box somewhere.” This amounts to a plea against “conventional history,” conceived, in Dominick LaCapra’s classic formulation, as “the translation of archives into narratives.” As he glossed the manifesto, this entails “being self-reflexive about the histories, limitations, and risks of one’s own categories and frameworks. It means taking responsibility for one’s own implication in the object of study—psychic, social, political, ethical. It means the need to address ways in which the past is implicated in the present, and vice versa. And critical history means being clear about the political stakes of the work, addressing the relevance for our political present. It doesn’t necessarily mean that every work of history has to be instrumental in some immediate way, but it means that if that question isn’t being asked then we’re in scholasticism or antiquarianism and we’re not speaking to the world.” A central aim of theory is to help the historian become conscious of, if not ever fully overcome, the liberal assumptions about self and agency they bring into the archive to begin with.

“The whole point,” he said, “is to challenge the reified distinction between history and theory. If you do history, it’s got to be theorized critical history; if you’re a critical theorist, you have to be doing history, because otherwise you’re also reproducing an ideological conception of the world if you’re not relating your concepts to social arrangements and social formations.” He readily admitted that there will always be traditional empirical historians, but its more modest intervention of Theory Revolt would be to say “not that every historian should be this kind of critical theorist, but at the very least, the field has to stop pronouncing on what is and is not history.” His preoccupation in his own work, he concluded, is “to break the fantasy that professional historians somehow have a monopoly on how to think about the past.” “Just as we should never concede politics to the politicians, or ethics to the ethicists, or even philosophy to professional philosophers, there’s absolutely no reason that professional historians should own history.” As Foucault once flippantly declared, “I’m not a professional historian—but nobody’s perfect.”

New School historian Jeremy Varon, a student of Dominick LaCapra, asked why the authors bothered to try “to rattle the cages of hegemonic discourse” within the discipline instead of creating to their own critical spaces, which as Scott agreed, the authors already do.

The most most interesting exchange was between the speakers and Ann Stoler, a historian and anthropologist who is also a leading postcolonial interpreter of Foucault. Stoler argued that using the word “theory” in the title of the manifesto and movement creates a black box around what the revolters are really advocating. Instead, she argued, they were ultimately after “a politics of knowledge” and reclaiming history as a political space. History, she said, must be answerable to the classic question of David Scott, “Are these questions worth having answers to?” “I don’t think we need the word theory any more,” she said, claiming what is meant by the word theory itself “isn’t even problematized half the time.” “Theory with a capital T,” Stoler said, has become “a black box.” “We are doing a disfavor to our graduate students by constantly talking about theory and history, theory and practice. It paralyzes them.”

In place of Theory, Stoler proposed “concept work” and “conceptual labor.” Changing this language, Oz Frankel suggested, would also help the authors get away from the same old “usual suspects” of Marxism, deconstruction, etc.—of giving the impression “that theory is history’s other” and that “we always have to cross some boundary” to reach it. Wilder thought it was interesting that they were read as “reifying theory” with its own “guild mentality” when he in particular has little patience for poststructuralism and is much more of a “live” ethnographic theorist in a Marxist framework—akin to what Stoler does with Foucault. As Wilder defined it, “Theory is a practice of triangulating your material, your concepts or categories, and the world” and, conversely, “every descriptive act already prefigures an whole theory of society.” Their opposition to “empiricism” is not a critique of doing archival work, but rather an attempt to dethrone the particular historical ideology “that the observable is the real.”

A pass through the Revolters’ academic trajectories reveals that none has ever been totally at home in the historical discipline: Wilder is equally a historian and an anthropologist; Kleinberg is just as often in conversation with philosophers as historians; and Scott was employed at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton in the School of Social Science, not the more conservative School of Historical Studies where she said has “never been welcome.”

As the discussion neared a close, Scott made a surprising admission that doesn’t come through in the boldly written manifesto: In the 1980s, she said, the feminist movement of which she was a part rejected the idea that the discipline should simply “add women and stir”—achieving sociological diversity without rethinking its work. Rather, their “great goal was to transform history.” Yet “that didn’t happen, for the most part; it was adding women.” “The dream of the 1980s that history was never going to be the same” ended in institutional resistance.

Perhaps addressing the critique of their own institutional power levied by John Handel on the JHI blog earlier that day, Wilder reflected that they wanted to use their platform to clear the ground for young graduate students to do more creative, exciting work. To have “to intervene yet again,” to use Scott’s words, might seem an exhausting task. But the energy Theory Revolt has injected into the discipline might just serve to nourish the next generation of critical historians.

Jonathon Catlin is a Ph.D. student in the Department of History at Princeton University. His work focuses on intellectual responses to catastrophe, especially in German-Jewish thought and the Frankfurt School of critical theory.

Listen to the full event here.

Disappearing Spaces: Mapping Egypt’s Deserts across the Colonial Divide

by guest contributor Chloe Bordewich

In October 2016, government and opposition lawyers met in one of Egypt’s highest courts to battle over the fate of two tiny Red Sea islands, Tiran and Sanafir. When President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi suddenly announced the sale of the islands to Saudi Arabia earlier that year, pent-up rage toward the military regime that took power in 2013 poured out through a rare valve of permissible opposition: a legal case against the deal was allowed to proceed.

In this fight, both sides’ weapon of choice was the map. Reports circulated that state institutions had received orders to destroy maps that indicated that the islands in question were historically Egyptian. In response, the government paraded old atlases before the court proving, it argued, that the sale of the islands would only formalize the islands’ longstanding de facto Saudi ownership. Enclosed in one atlas, published by the Egyptian Geographical Society in 1928, were several maps on which the islands in question were shaded the color of Saudi Arabia. Khaled Ali, the lead opposition lawyer, pointed out that Saudi Arabia did not exist in 1928. The duel of maps continued over several sessions anyway, with Ali’s team accusing the state of intentional obstruction, obfuscation, and blatant fabrication, and the state denouncing some of Ali’s maps as inherently suspect because he had obtained them abroad.

This case drew public attention to the fraught modern history of the nation’s cartography. The Map Room of the Egyptian Survey Authority (Maslahat al-Misaha), where Ali and his associates had first gone looking for evidence, has made and sold maps of Egypt since 1898. Today it abuts the Giza Security Directorate, a mid-century fortress shielded by blocks of concrete barricades and checkpoints. Though the two may be accidental neighbors, their proximity conveys a dictum of the contemporary Egyptian state: maps are full of dangerous secrets.

How does a secret become a secret? In the case of Egypt’s maps, the answer is tangled up in the country’s protracted decolonization. An (almost) blank page tells some of that story. The map in question is of a stretch of land near Siwa Oasis on the edge of the Western Desert, far from the rocky islands of Tiran and Sanafir. Printed in 1930, it features only minor topographical contours in the lower left-hand corner. The rest is white. “Ghayr mamsūḥ,” the small Arabic print reads. “Unsurveyed.”

Siwa Map

This blank space is an artifact of the Desert Survey, a special division of the Survey Authority tasked between 1920 and 1937 with mapping Egypt’s sandy, sparsely populated expanses. (The Western Desert alone comprises more than half of Egypt’s land area beyond the Nile, but is home to a population only one-thirtieth that of greater Cairo.) The Desert Survey’s lifespan coincided almost exactly with the gradual retreat of British officials from the everyday administration of Egypt: it was born just after the 1919 revolution against British rule and dissolved a year after the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty that ostensibly formalized an end to occupation. Here decolonization is thus meant not in the comprehensive sense that Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Achille Mbembe have written about, as a cultural and intellectual challenge to Western thought’s insidiously deep claims to universality, but something much more literal: the withdrawal of colonial officials from the knowledge-producing institutions they ran in the colony.

The British cartographers who led the Desert Survey were keenly aware of their impending departure. As they prepared for it, they erected a final obstacle that would leave behind a legacy of paralysis and cartographic secrecy. Repeatedly accusing Egyptians of apathy toward the desert, colonial officials parlayed nescience into ignorance. In doing so, they sowed the seeds of an enduring anxiety among Egyptians over crucial spaces that remained unmapped.

The strident whiteness of the 1930 Siwa map looked different to the receding colonial state than it did to the emergent postcolonial one. To John Ball and George Murray, the successive British directors of the Desert Survey, blank space marked an incomplete but wholly completable project. For the post-colonial Egyptian state, the same blankness was the relic of a project it could not or would not complete, the bitter hangover of projected ignorance.

The Desert Survey’s vision was already more than two decades in the making when Ball was granted his own division of the more than 4000-member Survey Department in 1920. In 1898, colonial officials had commenced the ambitious cadastral survey that would eventually produce the Great Land Map of Egypt—the subject of Timothy Mitchell’s noted essay—and Ball departed for the oases of the Western Desert with his partner, Hugh Beadnell, to search for lucrative mineral deposits. From that point forward, the Survey Department viewed each unit’s work as a step toward total knowledge of every square meter of Egypt in every form and on every scale. It was only a matter of time, officials firmly believed, until the grid they had created at the Survey’s birth was filled in.

During the first decade of the twentieth century, the Survey Authority’s ambitions were directed inward: its cartographers wanted to know what was inside Egypt’s borders, even as sections of those borders remained fuzzy. But the First World War crystallized a broader imperial vision that linked Egypt’s Western and Eastern deserts to Jordan, Syria, and Iraq and saw the management of smugglers, nomads, geology, and development as related challenges directly correlated to the resilience of British rule (Fletcher, British Imperialism and “the Tribal Question”: Desert Administration and Nomadic Societies in the Middle East, 1919-1936; Ellis, Desert Borderland: The Making of Modern Egypt and Libya).

From the moment of the Desert Survey’s founding in 1920, and at an accelerating pitch over the 17 years that followed, British colonial officials justified their continued control of the Desert Survey even as most other institutions changed hands. One way they did this was by depicting survey work as a vocation and not merely a job. As Desert Survey chief John Ball wrote in 1930:

I shall try to keep our little show going and my little band of British surveyors at work in the deserts, but am not sure of success, as it has been said that Egyptians could do it equally well and we are therefore superfluous… but I have used Egyptian effendis in the deserts and I know them. Here and there you can find one really interested in his work, but 999 out of 1000 think only of promotion and pay, and you can’t manage… intrigue when you are hundreds of miles out in the wilderness.

(Royal Geographical Society CB9/Ball, John, letter to A.R. Hinks, February 28, 1930)

Not only did the Egyptian surveyors not know how to do the work the British experts were doing, Ball implied, but they did not want to know. If they did, it was for reasons that were crassly utilitarian by British standards.

Not having the proper expertise was an issue that could be resolved by more training. But by casting the fundamental issue as one of indifference—of not wanting to know, or wanting to know only for wrong, illogical reasons—officials like Ball were implying that even providing more training would not close the gap. Consequently, officials concluded, they would have to remain until they had shaded in the last empty expanses on the desert grid.

Survey authorities, in tandem with their associates in the colonial Frontier Districts Administration, thus articulated a position that held certain kinds of not-knowing to be acceptable, even desirable, and others to signal ignorance. In late 1924, Survey Director John Ball updated the members of the Cairo Scientific Society on the Survey’s progress in mapping the unknown regions of the desert. He reveled at the “gasps” his statistics elicited from an audience shocked at how much remained unknown (RGS CB9/Ball, John, letter to A.R. Hinks, December 19, 1924). Though he smugly reassured them that the unknown would soon vanish, a report published on the eve of independence in 1952 revealed that 43 percent of Egypt had by then been professionally surveyed, 24 percent was roughly known from reconnaissance, and 33 percent was still unknown. All that remained lay in the far Western Desert (George Murray, “The Work in the Desert of the Survey of Egypt,” Extrait du Bulletin de l’Institut Fouad Ier du Desert 2(2): July 1952, 133).

The desert did not disappear after 1952, of course; it came to occupy a central place in development dreams of the Nasser era, dreams that subsequent leaders have revived repeatedly. But the various incarnations of the project, aimed at facilitating the administration of economic development zones, had little in common with the colonial quantification—fetishization, even—of the unknown.

Maps articulate uncertainty more viscerally than the many other paper documents that similarly elude researchers and the public. The result is that vast spaces of the nation still reside primarily in foreign archives – the UK National Archives, the Royal Geographical Society in London, the Institut Français de l’Archéologie Orientale—where even the parties to the Tiran and Sanafir case turned for evidence. The obfuscation that drives us to these archives is not a product only of contemporary authoritarian politics, however; it, too, has a history. The projection of ignorance left a scar, an anxiety which can only be read through its shadows in colonial archives and its conspicuous absence in postcolonial archives.

Chloe Bordewich is a PhD Student in History and Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University. She currently works on histories of information, secrecy, and scientific knowledge in the late and post-Ottoman Arab world, especially Egypt. She blogs at chloebordewich.wordpress.com.

The Pricing of Progress: Podcast interview with Eli Cook

By Contributing Editor Simon Brown

In this podcast, I’m speaking with Eli Cook, assistant professor of history at the University of Haifa, about his new book, The Pricing of Progress: Economic Indicators and the Capitalization of American Life (Harvard University Press, 2017). The book has been honored with the Morris D. Forkosch Book Prize from the Journal of the History of Ideas for the best first book in intellectual history, and with the Annual Book Prize of the Society for US Intellectual History for the best book in that field.

pricing of progress

In The Pricing of Progress, Cook tells the story of how American businessmen, social reformers, politicians, and labor unions came to measure progress and advocate policy in the language of projected monetary gains at the expense of other competing standards. He begins this account with the market for land in seventeenth-century England, and moves across the Atlantic to explain how plantation slavery, westward expansion, and the Civil War helped lead Americans to conceive of their country and its people as potential investments with measurable prices even before the advent of GDP in the twentieth century. He traces an intellectual history that leads the reader through the economic theories of thinkers like William Petty, Alexander Hamilton, and Irving Fisher on the one hand, and quotidian texts like household account books, business periodicals and price indices on the other. Throughout, he shows how the rise of capitalism brought with it the monetary valuation of not only land, labor and technology, but of everyday life itself.   

Listen to the full conversation here.

John Parkinson and the Rise of Botany in the 17th Century

By Guest Contributor Molly Nebiolo


John Parkinson, depicted in his monumental Theatrum botanicum (1640).

The roots of contemporary botany have been traced back to the botanical systems laid out by Linnaeus in the eighteenth century. Yet going back in further in time reveals some of the key figures who created some of the first ideas and publications that brought horticulture forward as a science. John Parkinson (1567-1650) is one of the foremost in that community of scientists. Although “scientist” was a word coined in the nineteenth century, I will be using it because it embodies the systematic acts of observation and experimentation to understand how nature works that I take Parkinson to be exploring. While “natural philosophy” was the term more commonly in use at the time, the simple word “science” will be used for the brevity of the piece and to stress the links between Parkinson’s efforts and contemporary fields. Parkinson’s works on plants and gardening in England remained integral to botany, herbalism, and medicinal healing for decades after his death, and he was one of the first significant botanists to introduce exotic flowers into England in the 17th century to study their healing properties. He was a true innovator for the field of botany, yet his work has not been heavily analyzed in the literature on the early modern history of science. The purpose of this post is to underline some of the achievements that can be  attributed to Parkinson, and to examine his first major text, Paradisi in sole paradisus terrestris, a groundbreaking work in the field of history in the mid-1600s.

Parkinson grew up as an apprentice for an apothecary from the age of fourteen, and quickly rose in the ranks of society to the point of becoming royal apothecary to James I. His success resulted in many opportunities to collect plants outside of England, including trips to the Iberian Peninsula and northern Africa in the first decade of the seventeenth century. At the turn of the seventeenth century, collectors would commonly accompany trading expeditions to collect botanical specimens to determine if they could prosper in English climate. Being the first to grow the great Spanish daffodil in England, and cultivating over four hundred plants in his own garden by the end of his life, Parkinson was looked up to as a pioneer in the nascent field of botanical science. He assisted fellow botanists in their own work, but he also was the founder of the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries, and the author of two major texts as well.

His first book, Paradisi in sole paradisus terrestris (Park-in-Sun’s Terrestrial Paradise) reveals a humorous side to Parkinson, as he puts a play on words for his surname in the title: “Park-in-Sun.” This text, published in 1628, along with his second, more famous work published in 1640, Theatrum botanicum (The Theater of Plants), were both immensely influential to the horticultural and botanical corpori of work that were emerging during the first half of the 17th century. Just in the titles of both, we can see how much reverence Parkinson had for the intersection of fields he worked with: horticulture, botany, and medicine. By titling his second book The Theater of Plants, he creates a vivid picture of how he perceived gardens. Referencing the commonly used metaphor of the theater of the world, Parkinson compares plants as the actors in the the garden’s theatrum. It is also in Theatrum Botanicum that Parkinson details the medicinal uses of hundreds of plants that make up simple (medicinal) gardens in England. While both texts are rich for analysis, I want to turn attention specifically to Paradisus terrestris because I think it is a strong example of how botany and gardening were evolving into a new form of science in Europe during the seventeenth century.


Title page woodcut image for Paradisus Terrestris. Image courtesy of the College of Physicians Medical Library, Philadelphia, PA.

The folio pages of Paradisus terrestris are as large and foreboding as those of any early modern edition of the Bible. Chock full of thousands of detailed notes on the origins, appearance, and medical and social uses for pleasure gardens, kitchen gardens and orchards, one could only imagine how long it took Parkinson to collect this information. Paradisus terrestris was one of the first real attempts of a botanist to organize plants into what we now would term genuses and species. This encyclopedia of meticulously detailed, imaged and grouped plants was a new way of displaying horticultural and botanical information when it was first published. While it was not the first groundbreaking example of the science behind gardens and plants in western society, Luci Ghini potentially being the first, Parkinson’s reputation and network within his circle of botany friends and the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries bridged the separation between the two fields. Over the course of the century,  the medicinal properties of a plant were coherently circulated in comprehensive texts like Parkinson’s as the Scientific Revolution and the colonization of the New World steadily increased access to new specimens and the tools to study them.



Paradisus terrestris includes many woodcut images of the flowers Parkinson writes about to help the reader better study and identify them. Image courtesy of the Linda Hall Library, Kansas City, MO.

Another thing to note in Paradisus terrestris is the way Parkinson writes about plants in the introduction. While most of the book is more of a how-to narrative on how to grow a pleasure garden, kitchen garden, or orchard, the preface to the volume illustrates much about Parkinson as a botanist. Gardens to Parkinson are integral to life; they are necessary “for Meat or Medicine, for Use or for Delight” (2).  The symbiotic relationship between humans and plants is repeatedly discussed in how gardens should be situated in relationship to the house, and how minute details in the way a person interacts with a garden space can affect the plants. “The fairer and larger your allies [sic] and walks be the more grace your Garden shall have, the lesse [sic] harm the herbs and flowers shall receive…and the better shall your Weeders cleanse both the beds and the allies” (4). The preface divulges the level of respect and adoration Parkinson has towards plants. It illustrates the deep enthusiasm and curiosity he has towards the field, two features of a botanist that seemed synonymous for natural philosophers and collectors of the time.

John Parkinson was one of the first figures in England to merge the formalized study of plants with horticulture and medicine. Although herbs and plants have been used as medicines for thousands of years, it is in the first half of the seventeenth century that the medicinal uses of plants become a scientific attribute to a plant, as they were categorized and defined in texts like Paradisi in sole paradisus terrestris and Theatrum botanicum. Parkinson is a strong example of the way a collector’s mind worked in the early modern period, in the way he titled his texts and the adoration that can be felt when reading the introduction of Paradisus terrestris. From explorer, to collector, horticulturist, botanist, and apothecary, the many hats Parkinson wore throughout his professional career and the way he weaved them together exemplify the lives many of these early scientists lived as they brought about the rise of these new sciences.

Molly Nebiolo is a PhD student in History at Northeastern University. Her research covers early modern science and medicine in North America and the Atlantic world and she is completing a Certificate in Digital Humanities. She also writes posts for the Medical Health and Humanities blog at Columbia University.