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September 3, 2006


Faculty Research Update: Recent Grant Awards

photo ofHomay King

Bryn Mawr faculty members attracted a record number of research grants as well as a record total figure in foundation funding in fiscal year 2006, Associate Provost Suzanne Spain reports. Among those who have recently won grants are an anthropologist, an art historian, a scholar of Italian literature, and an interdisciplinary study group that focuses on food.

Film scholar Homay King, an assistant professor of history of art, has received a Lindback Foundation Award in the amount of $15,000 to support her book project, “Lost in Translation: Orientalism, Projection, and the Enigmatic Signifier.” King's study focuses on the role that cinema has played in the construction of a Western image of the East as “impossibly enigmatic.”

“'Orientalist' representations have a robust cinematic history,” King says. “They tend to take the form of the exoticization, eroticization, and emasculation of Asia and its diasporas.” Drawing on cultural studies, film theory, and postcolonial and psychoanalytic theories, King argues that the West “has tended to depict the East not simply as strange or exotic, but more specifically, as unintelligible: beyond the limits of Western comprehension and rational thought.”

Landmark films from Broken Blossoms (Griffith, 1919) to Chinatown (Polanski, 1974), and from The Lady from Shanghai (Welles, 1947) to Lost in Translation (Coppola, 2002), perform what King terms “the Shanghai gesture,” whereby the East is “cloaked in a veil of indecipherability.” King contends that the image of an unfathomable Asia plays “a foundational role in cinema culture.” Finally, she turns away from Hollywood cinema to examine some alternative models of cultural exchange between East and West offered by experimental forms of media.

photo ofHomay King

The National Science Foundation awarded Lecturer in Anthropology Melissa Scott Murphy a grant of $22,000 for a large-scale investigation of an Inca cemetery in Puruchuco-Huaquerones, Peru. The cemetery, Murphy explains, offers a unique opportunity to shed some light on one of the hottest controversies in the archaeology of the Americas: the debate about the size of the indigenous population of the Americas prior to European contact and how sharply that population declined as a result of contact. “The debate about the impact of Spanish contact on the Inca empire has largely centered on the interpretation of ethnohistorical documents and censuses,” Murphy says. “This is the first time there is physical evidence of a community in South America whose members lived before, during and shortly after Spanish conquest.”

According to Murphy, the Puruchuco-Huaquerones cemetery is an unusually valuable source of information. “Normally, skeletal samples from cemeteries don't yield an accurate picture of a population for several reasons. Samples are often very small, poorly preserved, and not representative of the population as a whole, and usually the cemetery samples span a long period of time. But we have to date recovered 1,713 burials from Puruchuco-Huaquerones, some containing multiple individuals, so we have data from well over 2,000 individuals representing all age ranges, and we expect to recover several hundred more burials.” Further contributing to the site's significance are the exceptional preservation of the burials, including textiles and pottery, and the relatively short duration of its use, about 120 years.

Acute illnesses leave no traces in bones, Murphy explains, so bioarchaeologists must infer them from demographic data. “A typical cemetery will have many individuals who are very young and many who are very old, so a cemetery with a lot of people in the prime-of-life years suggests an outbreak of infectious disease or trauma leading to an unusual pattern of mortality,” she says. The richness of the Puruchuco-Huaquerones sample, along with a sensitive new technique that allows researchers to determine the ages of adults with more precision than traditional methods offer, promises to yield demographic data of a very high quality.

photo of Roberta Ricci

Assistant Professor of Italian Roberta Ricci has won a coveted Bogliasco Fellowship from the Liguria Study Center for the Arts and Humanities, one of only 10 awarded this year. She will spend six weeks in residence at the center, which comprises three villas in a picturesque village on the Italian Riviera, preparing a manuscript for publication. In it Ricci analyzes different morphologies of authorial commentaries from the Medieval to the Renaissance periods, including footnotes, prologues, letters and prefaces. The title of the book manuscript is "Morfologie autoriali nel Medioevo e Rinascimento Italiano: Il testo letterario Iuxta Principia Propria."

Ricci begins her study with the 14th-century poet Boccaccio and his glosses on his own epic "Teseida delle nozze di Emilia" (ca. 1340). The interpretive and erudite self-commentary, written in the third person, was not identified as Boccaccio's own work until 1929; Ricci reflects on Boccaccio's motive for using such a rhetorical device to present the commentator as a distinct literary persona from the poet himself. Boccaccio's self-glosses, Ricci argues, mark the beginning of his career as a humanistic scholar in Florence and illustrate the continuity between his artistic and scholarly production.

In the second chapter of her work, Ricci turns to private letters written in 1575-76 by Torquato Tasso to men of letters working at the Curia Romana. Here Tasso appealed to literary and religious authorities for guidance before the publication of his masterwork, the Gerusalemme Liberata, an epic poem based on a historical narrative of the First Crusade. Ricci focuses on Tasso's negotiation of the boundary between poetic invention and history and on the evolving poetics that ultimately allowed Tasso to claim his work as allegory.

Ricci continues to work on the epistolary genre in the next chapter, in which she considers the published letters of Arcangela Tarabotti, a 17th-century author who decried the widespread practice of forcing women into religious life against their will. Ricci argues that Tarabotti, who was herself involuntarily confined to a convent, used the epistolary genre to construct an authorial identity for herself and the public. In Tarabotti's letters, she says, “Fiction and truth, fictionalized narration and autobiography, remain a delicate balance in the presentation of her female and literary self. As a woman, a nun, and a protofeminist writer, Tarabotti needed to resort to invention in all her works because only thus could she hope to achieve her aim, namely to denounce the widespread social malpractice of which she herself was a victim.”

Thanks to Associate Professor of History Sharon Ullman, a Mellon Tri-College Seed Grant will nourish interest in the burgeoning interdisciplinary field of food studies at Bryn Mawr, Haverford and Swarthmore. Ullman proposed the grant along with Associate Professor of French Pim Higginson, Assistant Professor of English Kate Thomas, Haverford Associate Professor of English Raji Mohan, Swarthmore Professor of History Bob Weinberg and Swarthmore Professor of German Hansjakob Werlen. Werlen is the founder of the Philadelphia chapter of Slow Food, an international organization that promotes food and wine culture and supports agricultural biodiversity.

“The field of food studies is growing rapidly all over the country,” Ullman says, “and there is significant interest in it within the three colleges. Numerous individual faculty members are pursuing research or teaching classes in this area, but because they are in a variety of disciplines, they are often unaware that colleagues in other departments are doing research on related topics. We hope to bring these people together to encourage sharing of ideas and resources and to foster a community of scholarship.”

According to Ullman, the Mellon grant will likely fund a series of three symposia centered on lectures by scholars who are recognized as key figures in food studies. The group will also host meetings at which faculty members will discuss their research and consider possibilities for collaborative work.

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