Faculty of Humanities

Empires, Imagination and Orientalism

Empires may be a thing of the past, but as a concept and as a home for identity constructions, empire is alive and kicking. From heritage tourism and costume dramas to theories of the imperial idea(l): empire sells. The publication project on post-imperial constructions of identity and history is called Post-Empire Imaginaries? Anglophone Literature, History, and the Demise of Empires (ed. Prof. Barbara Buchenau, Anglophone Studies, and Virginia Richter, with Marijke Denger, both University of Bern 2015). It presents innovative international scholarship on the lives and legacies of empires in diverse media such as literature, film, advertising, and the visual arts. Empires not only spur a special form of cultural diversity, in welcoming resistance and affirmation they also cast a powerful spell over people. As long-gone places of longing they provide archives and repertoires of colonial nostalgia, postcolonial critique and post-imperial dreaming – all at once (Leiden/Boston 2015).

How much influence a former empire can have on collective structures of imagination and meaning within the migration society is investigated in the project Ideas of Nation Brought by Pupils and What These Mean for the Teaching of History. A Qualitative Analysis of Pupil’s Understanding of Nation in Multilingual Forms. In open interviews and group discussions with senior grades Tülay Altun (German as a Second and a Foreign Language) asks how pupils express their understanding of nationhood with respect to the Ottoman Empire in the context of migration. These are analysed by combining the Documentary Method with Functional Pragmatics. One initial result: especially those pupils who regard themselves as ‘Turkish’ connect subjective ideas of the Ottoman Empire with national identity. At the same time, an analysis of selected school books revealed a Eurocentric view when it comes to questions of Nation and Nationalism. The project aims at suggesting new principles of teaching that integrate approaches of migration didactics.

The Ottoman Empire has also spurred the imagination of its contemporaries. In her forthcoming publication Turning Turk: The Ottoman Empire and the English Imagination, 1700–1799, Prof. Patricia Plummer untertakes a comprehensive survey of 18th century English Orientalism. Engaging with and expanding on Said’s Orientalism, this critical study scrutinizes English discourse on ‘The Orient’, which can be linked to an increase of travels to the Ottoman Empire. Apart from important works of travel literature, such as Lady Mary Wortley Montagu's famous Turkish Embassy Letters (written during her journey to Constantinople 1716–1718), and portraits of English travellers dressed in Oriental masquerade, Plummer analyses poems, plays and oriental tales. She thus sheds a light on a polyphonic discourse that strongly influenced English literature and art of the 18th century, and in which the emergence of an intercultural and interreligious dialogue may be detected (to be published in 2017).

The monograph Towards Turkish American Literature: Narratives of Multiculturalism in Post-Imperial Turkey (Dr. Elena Furlanetto, Anglophone Studies) expands the definition of Turkish American literature beyond fiction written by Americans of Turkish descent to incorporate texts that literally ‘commute’ between two national spheres. The volume transcends established paradigms of immigrant life-writing, as it includes works by Turkish authors who do not qualify as American permanent residents and were not born in the United States by Turkish parents (such as Elif Shafak and Halide Edip), and on novels where the Turkish and Ottoman matter decisively prevails over the American (Güneli Gün’s On the Road to Baghdad and Alev Lytle Croutier’s Seven Houses). Yet, these texts were written in English, were purposefully located on the American market, and simultaneously engage the Turkish and the American cultural and literary traditions (to be published in Interamericana by Peter Lang).

Gender, Art and Theosophy in Sydney: Louisa Haynes Le Freimann (1863–1956), too, is a research project that is situated in the context of post-colonial or transnational life-writing; Prof. Patricia Plummer therein reconstructs the life and work of a forgotten Anglo-Australian artist. An intensive search for traces proved Louisa Haynes Le Freimann to have worked in the context of important 19th and early 20th century reform movements: the Arts and Crafts Movement in Birmingham and the Theosophical Society that in Australia provided major impetus against the emerging national discourse and that influenced society and religion, art and architecture. The reconstruction of a seemingly marginal woman’s biography thus opens a window into hitherto overlooked alternative currents of Modernism and allows for a more comprehensive understanding of Australian culture around 1900. (Funding: Visiting Research Fellowship, School of Literature, Art and Media, The University of Sydney; Joint Visiting Research Fellowship, Humanities Research Centre and Gender Institute, Australian National University).

In the Francophone world for some decades, authors whose works today are subsumed under the heading of ‘postcolonial literature(s)’ have been influential. The reception of this Writing Back opened up the literary field in France for Francophonia, its increasing influence being recognised even by the Académie française. In her dissertation project Between Assimilation and Rebellion: Processes of Canonisation in the Francophone Field of Literature of the Maghreb in the 1940ies and 1950ies (supervisor: Prof. Stephanie Bung, Romance Languages Department) Ines Kremer M.A. investigates the emergence and differentiation of the field and the authors’ entanglement with and their emancipation from the authorities of consecration of the French metropole.

Critique of gender relations in Islam and the victimisation of women: Orientalist attitudes often influence the Western view on Muslim cultures and Muslim communities in countries of immigration. Anglophone Muslim writers create their own concepts of identity by writing against dominant western categories, such as the Western gaze, while (also) locating themselves within in a discourse about gender relations in Muslim cultures and the Muslim diaspora, respectively. In her research project Gendering Muslim Identities (Initial funding: EKfG) Prof. Patricia Plummer investigates the representation of Muslims in Anglophone literature and culture from a transnational, gender-specific cultural studies perspective. The project thus contributes to the deconstruction of orientalist perceptions and provides new perspectives on an emerging hybrid discourse and hitherto marginalised voices.

This project is further linked to a work in progress, Teaching Burqavaganza in Pakistan, that is being prepared by Prof. Plummer and Prof. Shirin Zubair, a visiting scholar from Pakistan, who is currently spending two years in the Postcolonial Studies section to carry out research funded by the Philipp-Schwartz-Initiative of the Alexander v. Humboldt Foundation (2016–2018). The book investigates questions of gender and cultural theory, linking them to an intersectional and autobiographical perspective. In addition to this, Prof. Zubair is carrying out her own research on Gender, Feminism and Education: A Study of Women’s Literacies and Lives in Contemporary Pakistan, which follows up on an earlier study she undertook as Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Global Cooperation Research (Käte Hamburger Kolleg Duisburg) in 2014. The findings of this project will be published in a monograph with Berghahn Books (New York).

Unlike everyday discourse, in which discussions of religious and cultural issues are often accompanied by prejudice and premature attributions that make a reflected, measured and balanced approach rather difficult, dealing with these topics in the theatre not only provides artistic freedom: working on a play in an ensemble also renders possible an intense, substantial examination of religious and cultural issues. In their project Religious and Cultural Diversity in Rehearsals Maximilian Krug, M.A. and Prof. Karola Pitsch (Department of Communication Studies) investigate how debates are communicatively and physically shaped, which traditions of discourse, attributions and strategies of dissociation are mobilised by the participants and how interculturalism and identity are created as categories (instead of assumptions). They analyse video tapes of the rehearsals for a play that, by using the example of circumcision, asks the question: How much tradition do I want to bring with me from my ancestors’ home so as not to deny my roots?