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Proseminar

The Proseminar: Centerpiece of the Graduate Certificate Program

The MEMS Proseminar, a team-taught comparative and/or interdisciplinary course, brings together faculty and students from a wide array of our constituent areas. Visiting lectures, colloquiua, and conferences are often coordinated to bear upon the topic of a given term’s proseminar. The course is offered under two or more departments (appropriate to the topic and disciplinary approach) and welcomes both Certificate students and other interested students.

Please see the links below for a taste of what MEMS Proseminars have offered in the past.
 

Fall 2015: "Premodern Empires: Comparative Studies"

This seminar is a survey of empires in the premodern period, especially the two millennia from 500 B.C. to 1500 A.D.  Most early states were empires of some sort, ruled by kings or emperors with dynastic connections, dominated by great landowning aristocrats, supported through the exploitation of peasants, made plausible by a religious ideology, and usually aggressive toward neighboring peoples or states.  Different combinations of these variables made for different empires.  Some survived for centuries, others were transitory.

Aspects of empire, emperorship, and imperial rule have long been important topics in modern scholarship.  The readings for this seminar will include important modern books and articles about premodern empires.  The focus will be on the ancient Mediterranean and the adjacent regions (e.g. the Athenian empire, the Roman empire), post-Roman Europe (e.g. the Carolingian empire), and the Near East and Middle East (e.g. the Caliphate).  Readings will also include comparative studies from around the world.  Topics to be discussed will include administration, rulership, imperialism and frontier societies, cities and countryside, economy, culture, religion.

Winter 2015: "Knowledge and Visuality in Early Modern Europe"

 Four of the nine prestigious Kavli prizes awarded in 2014 went to scientists focusing on techniques of visualization. The critical importance of visual technologies to scientific inquiry has long been recognized, but in the past few decades historians of art and of science have put visuality at the heart of a major rethinking of the foundations of modern scientific knowledge in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Recent science studies have shifted focus from theory and idea-driven narratives of scientific “firsts” to accounts of the collaborative exchanges and material practices in which changing understandings of the natural world took shape. This work has underscored how pictorial and visual technologies functioned not simply as mimetic aids to communicating existing knowledge, but also as transformative and translational processes that actively participated in the production of knowledge itself. This course looks at the early modern study of nature through the lens of its visual forms—from painting, prints, drawings, and book illustrations to diagrams, maps, globes, charts, measuring instruments, and optical devices. How did the making and use of these artifacts uniquely integrate technical know-how, artisanal knowledge, and text-based learning in natural philosophy, medicine, cosmology, geography, and other (proto)scientific fields? How can we compare the ways people visualized knowledge in the overlapping worlds of the workshop, the collection, and scholar’s study? Drawing on university collections, we will especially attend to the role of print media in enabling a greater degree of standardization and sharing of visual information, prompting new forms of visual argument, and generating debates on the authority and evidentiary status of images. In conjunction with our shared survey of canonical case studies, each participant will contribute new scholarship concerning what visual knowledge looked like and how it functioned during the strange and exciting emergence of so-called modern science in Europe.

Fall 2014: "Premodern Cities: Comparative Studies"

With a few deviations into Asian and African contexts, this course investigates European urban cultures and history across the very long duration. It takes in ancient, medieval and early modern examples of urban development and un-development, trying to probe the particularities of cities, city life, and urban culture in an array of times and places. One important theme will be the unique characteristics of urban physical plant, especially how urban fabric structured people's existence. We will also look hard at urban representation, in words as well as in bricks and stones. The practicalities of urban "metabolism" and the in- and out-flow of energy from urban communities will be another theme the course addresses

Winter 2014: "Material Culture in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe"

This course considers historiographic trends but also current scholarship that places material culture and visuality at the center of accounts of Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe.  Characterized by Burckhardt in 1860 in terms of the discovery of the world and of man, the Renaissance has long been associated with naturalism and materialism.  Marx and others found explanatory models in capitalism, class difference, and wealth accumulation.  Today, with the help of curatorial practice and what literature specialists call “thing theory,” how might we reconceive of materiality, in the light of the extensive attention recently paid to the dynamics of consumption and to issues of tangibility and user inter-action?  We will consider practices and spaces such as clothing, domestic interiors and culinary culture.  Some attention will be paid to “popular” or “mass” culture, including the carnivalesque, the ephemeral (eg graffiti), and the relatively inexpensive (eg tin badges and toys). One or two meetings will be held with curators and conservators, especially at the DIA. 

Winter 2013: "Animal, Human, Woman"

This seminar explores the role and function of concepts of embodiment (including race, gender, and sexuality) in definitions of the human. The first part of the seminar is devoted to devising a theoretical repertoire drawn from theorists not primarily known for their interest in gender, but who have provided influential theories of the social, disciplinarity, sovereignty, the biopolitical, and the posthuman. In the second part of the seminar, we will use these theories to think through issues of agency, sovereignty, and power in relation to species, gender, sexuality, and race. We will focus on two literary case studies composed of a cluster of intertexts: the stories of Philomel and Cressida across the medieval and early modern periods in English and in French (all French texts available in English translation). Literary authors include Chaucer, Chrétien de Troyes, Shakespeare, and translators of Ovid; theorists include Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, Agamben, Latour, and Grosz. Throughout the Term we will consider the tension, in both theory and literary representation, between being and becoming.

Students will complete a major research project grounded in their own primary research areas and that engages with the theoretical paradigms offered in the course. Requirements include an annotated bibliography, an oral presentation of research questions, and a final paper. The class will culminate in the presentation of student research with the goal of preparation for publication.

Although the case studies for the course will be located in the medieval and early modern periods, no prior training in those areas is assumed, and the seminar should be useful to any student interested in gaining a broader understanding of contemporary theory and developing a methodological tool kit for engaging with both literary texts and historical issues in any period.

Fall 2012: "The Cultural History of Cartography"

Over the past thirty years, the cultural history of cartography has been reinvigorated by means of the theorizations deriving from literary and cultural studies (e.g., Foucault, Certeau).  Correlatively, scholars of literature and visual culture have become attuned to the importance of maps, mapmaking, and spatial logics to an array of questions:  the historical emergence of race, the gendering of colonial rhetoric, the administration of empire, and the experience of urban life.  This interdisciplinary seminar, co-taught by an English/Women’s Studies professor and the university library’s chief map librarian, will focus on the mutually-informing relationships among cartography, literature, and visual culture at different historical moments in Europe and North America.  We will explore the very definition of a map, which differs across time and cultures; cross-cultural variations in map literacy; the use that people make of maps and atlases in different times and places, including military activity, local journeying, exploration, colonization, urbanization, and administration; the representations of human bodies, flora, and fauna on maps (including racial, ethnic, gendered, and geographic designations); and the ways in which spatialized graphic idioms (e.g., longitude, latitude, grids, compass roses) contribute to broad cultural logics, including historically specific modes of classification and comparison. 

 

Our Anglo-European focus will be supplemented by consideration of cartographic products from non-Western cultures, especially Asia.  Depending on the interest of students, our survey may range from the medieval period to the present, although we also will focus on select moments in time.  Shifts entailed by technological changes in the late sixteenth century (geometric triangulation, surveying, copper-plate engraving, mass-marketing of prints) will orient one such focus.  Select literary texts that have elicited considerable interest for those interested in cartography (for instance, Shakespeare’s King Lear) will make an appearance.  In addition, we will explore the implications of new digital technologies for both research and pedagogy.

 

Our cartographic archive will be based on the collections of the Clements Library and Hatcher’s Clark Map Library, although on-line databases will be used as well.  Along with reading in recent cartographic history, spatial theory, and literary texts, requirements include attendance at a symposium on the cultural history of cartography to be held October 25 and 26, and the viewing of two special exhibits related to the symposium.  Readings drawn from the scholarship of symposium speakers (some of them former Michigan Ph.D.s), will orient the first half of the syllabus; the second half will be devoted to developing skills for final projects, some of which will evolve out of questions developed in the course of the symposium.

 

This course should be useful to anyone interested in developing their interdisciplinary skills of reading literary and visual texts, and historicizing and theorizing them.  No previous “map literacy” or knowledge of the history of cartography is required. 

Winter 2012: "Popular Visual Culture in Medieval and EM Japan and Europe"

In this seminar, we will utilize a comparative perspective in considering the role of the visual arts within popular religion in Europe and Japan during the Medieval and Early Modern periods. We will interrogate categories of “art” and “popular religion” in relation to specific cultural and theoretical discourses, both historical and modern. We will pay special attention to how period texts and images associate popular religious practices with superstition, ignorance, misbehavior, rusticity, and the transgression of orthodox belief. In studies of various cultures, “popular religion” is often understood as a binary term with diverse and contradictory associations: extra-liturgical, traditional, indigenous, subaltern, mass, etc. Art historians of both East Asia and Europe have tended to conceive of popular religious art in terms of a “high-low” binary dependent on a quality criterion, rather than on socioeconomic, cultural, and historical considerations. Popular religious art is thus characterized as evincing little skill, a lack of expressive power, misinterpretation of orthodox beliefs, cheap manufacture, and the utilization of mechanical reproduction. This criterion of quality often leads to the designation as “popular” objects that were, in fact, historically situated within elite, learned, and dominant cultural spheres. Our class will challenge these categories and consider more fruitful and historically accurate ways to understand visual culture that often has been left out of the purview of art history.

Fall 2011: "The Premodern Mediterranean: Comparative Studies"

In premodern times the Mediterranean was either a frontier zone between competing states and competing religions or the core of a single state, facilitating links among different cultures, religions, and economies within the Roman Empire and the Islamic caliphate. 

Thinking about wider distinctions and connections across the Mediterranean and surrounding regions allows us to think in addition about the longer historical trends and problematize the very concept of "the Mediterranean."

This seminar will focus on the Roman and medieval periods. Most of our readings will be modern books, articles, and chapters on various topics such as cities and countryside; environment and climate change; economies and the movement of commodities; ideas, languages and the circulation of books; and representations of power.

Winter 2011: “The Culture of Courts in Premodern Europe and East Asia”

This course explores the cultures of royal and aristocratic courts in Europe and East Asia during the premodern period, from about the seventh through the seventeenth centuries. Within Europe, concentration will fall on the royal courts of France and England, but we will also assess the unique contributions to European courtly culture of the small courts of renaissance Italy. For East Asia, we will focus on the evolving and differing court cultures of China and Japan, while also examining the early modern kingly court of Yee dynasty, Korea. 

After considering the genesis of the courts and the cultures they produced, we will examine how courts invented and maintained their symbolic authority and power by focusing on certain topics that are germane to cross-cultural comparison. This examination should help us to see the potency of cultural construction that shapes the court’s supremacy and makes it meaningful both to its members and within a larger and often competitive society.

Our investigations will address not only specific courtly comparisons, but also, through the lens of certain theoretical writings - such as Norbert Elias on the “civilizing process”, Henri Lefebvre on “the production of space”, Stephen Greenblatt on “self-fashioning” – ways in which courts created new social meanings and behaviors that transgressed their walls. Examples of topics include: Architectural and spatial settings, divinity and legitimacy, legal and bureaucratic dimensions, rhetoric and the practice of courtly love, the formation and concept of the aristocratic body, the court as center of consumption, literary and artistic expressions, sartorial performance, and esoteric beliefs. 

We encourage students with interests in literature, music, and the history of art as well as historians.

Winter 2010: "Albrecht Dürer in Contexts"

Ever since the sixteenth century, Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) has figured as an iconic artist. In fact, the histiography of the history of art is intimately intertwined with the reception of Dürer. Whether his self-portaits were said to exemplify Renaissance subjectivity, his prints were taken as an expression of Germanness, or his religious art interpreted as emblematic of a particularly fervent religiosity on the eve of the Reformation, the artist's rich œuvre of paintings, prints, drawings, and writings has repeatedly served as a window onto religion, culture, and society on the brink of modernity. The artist's persistent iconicity can be traced to a deliberate self-presentation which Dürer, the artist-humanist, and his circle fashioned as well as disseminated in a variety of media. 

This interdisciplinary seminar will respond to Dürer's enduring presence by engaging the artwork and its reception as well as the social and civic contexts in which this art was circulated. Our discussions will primarily revolve around the close analysis of Dürer's paintings (such as his self-portraits and altarpieces), prints (such as Melencolia I), and theoretical and autobiographical writings. 

A reading knowledge of German is desirable, but not essential, as much of the best literature on Dürer, Nuremberg and late medieval / Renaissance Germany is available in English. Pending funding, we will also undertake a field trip to the Metropolitan Museum and the Cloisters in New York (March 19-21).

Winter 2009: "The Culture of Cities in Premodern Europe"

By the sixteenth century Europeans regularly identified their culture as both urban and urbane. This argues for a central role of cities in the formation of European identity.This course will examine the role of the city in shaping that identity from the rise of urban culture in the twelfth century through its full development in the period of European global expansion in the sixteenth century. 

Although European urbanism shaped a continental identity, the continent was not unaware of comparisons, from dream capitals of Troy and Jerusalem to more competitive contemporary images of Tenotichlan and Constantinople. It is the intersection between the growth of cities in Europe and the imagining of cities - in art, in literature, in religious thought - that will provide the focus of this course. Although the course will proceed for the most part chronologically, it will also organize itself around specific cities, institutions, and disciplines. 

Such topics will include the role of the universities in the standardization of European culture, but also in connecting various cities in Europe, urban religion (mendicants, confraternities, Jews), self-representation and public display (art, music, procession), the physical city (architecture and urban planning) and the ideal city (Rome, Jerusalem), exiles, tradesmen and travelers. 

Because of the expertise of the instructors, particular attention will be given to Italian cities: Florence, Venice, Rome.

Winter 2008: "Arts, Patrons, Courts in Early Modern Culture"

This course is a seminar devoted to exploring the role of private patrons, institutional patronage, and the commercial market-place in the production of works of music and art.  It is designed for graduate students interested in reading and writing about the patronage and production of music, the visual arts, architecture, and theater in the early modern period, as well as studying pieces of music and works of art. 

The course is open to scholars and performers. We will explore the role of individual patrons and institutional patronage, public and private, in early modern societies, through careful case-studies of patrons, producers, artists, and performers, male and female, in selected times and places. 

Our work seeks to better understand systems of production as well as the variability and complexity of relationships between patrons/producers and artists/composers/performers in Europe and Latin America in the period roughly 1500-1750. Our first set of readings will include groundbreaking patronage studies from our several disciplines, as well as readings concerned with methodology, theories of patronage and production, the economics of the arts, and the politics of the arts in early modern society. 

Following this initial period of general readings, the course will be organized around particular times and places (along with relevant musical, theatrical, and artistic repertories), with readings from successful case studies. Students will be introduced to and have the chance to work with various kinds of primary sources — archival documents (inventories, notarial documents, household accounts, private letters, etc.), printed texts, theatrical manuscripts, musical scores, images, and so on.  

Our understanding will be enriched by several guest presentations by MEMS faculty on their own case studies. Our work will focus on Florence (and possibly other Northern Italian centers), Rome, Naples, Versailles and Paris, Madrid, Lima, and London, with possible study of other sites, depending on student interest and linguistic preparation.

Winter 2007: “Religion and Empire in the Early Modern Atlantic”

Religious passions and conflicts drove much of the expansionist energy of post-Reformation Europe and provided both a rationale and a practical mode of organizing the dispersal and resettlement of hundreds of thousands of people from Europe to the Americas. During the formative period of European exploration, settlement, and conquest of the Americas, from roughly 1500 to 1700, Europe’s Christians, confronting the new and unfamiliar, were forced to explain and defend the old, often in novel and startling ways.

This course will look at the dynamic expansion, fragmentation, and dispersal of religious communities and ideas in the 16th and 17th centuries through four interrelated categories:  translation (the process of rendering familiar beliefs and texts in a new idiom); dissent (the challenge of defining and maintaining boundaries between the authorized and the unauthorized); diaspora (the experience of exile and estrangement); and transplantation (the rooting of the sacred in alien environments).

All of these themes highlight the tremendous instability that the wars of the Reformation and imperial expansion introduced into organized religious life in the 16th and 17th centuries, on both sides of the Atlantic, and the creative adaptations of belief, practice, and community life that followed in the wake of these seismic events.  Our texts will include major literary and historical documents of the period as well as important scholarly interventions. 

We are eager to convene this course as an intensive interdisciplinary conversation and we welcome students from American Culture, Comparative Literature, Anthropology, Sociology, Romance Languages, Art History, and other related disciplines, as well as those from our home departments of History and English.

This course is sponsored by the Atlantic Studies Initiative and fulfills the proseminar requirement for the certificate in Medieval and Early Modern Studies. Our semester’s work will also lay the groundwork for an international conference on the same subject, to take place at the University of Michigan on October 5-6, 2007; students will be encouraged play active roles in planning and administering that conference.

Fall 2006: "Histories of Etymology and Genealogy"

This course will examine etymological and genealogical continuity but also rupture, investigating the processes in terms of their fictionality and representational strategies. Stretching over both medieval and early modern materials, chiefly in Western Europe, the seminar queries standard notions of chronological division and instead invites a reconsideration of conventional ideas about origin, influence and filiation.

After an overview of theoretical frameworks (Bloch, Butler, Derrida, Foucault), our case studies will be drawn from such subjects as Isidore of Seville’s etymological project, linguistic and archaeological claims for the primacy of Etruscan roots (including Annius of Viterbo’s late fifteenth-century forgeries and those of Curzio Inghirami in the seventeenth century, which also invoke notions of authenticity), the representation of Adam and Eve as the “first parents” after they committed “original sin”, nationalistic myths of Troy (including stories about the origins of the Ottomans), and the productive tension between valorized imitation (visual, political, rhetorical) on the one hand and valued innovation on the other.

Winter 2006: “The Presence of the Past in Medieval and Early Modern Culture”

The proseminar explored several broad purposes of the past in medieval and early modern cultures. The past could be used to construct identity in the present; the effort to assimilate an alien past could be a main engine for hermeneutics, allegory, and other forms of re-signifying; the past could support claims of political and cultural legitimacy; and conversely, it could become the site for the oppositional imagination. 

Through a series of case studies, we will investigate the varied ways in which myths of the past were created, exposed, and continually reinvented for these (and perhaps other) purposes. We will focus our exploration through such cases as Beowulf and the past as treasure; invented genealogies and other forgeries; the legend of Arthur; the story of Lucretia; architectural spolia and the idea of Rome; the Donation of Constantine and the past as text; visual histories; hagiography and devotional images; and biblical hermeneuetics and the Franciscans.

Fall 2005: "Visual Valences: Status of the Artist in Med and Early Mod Europe"

The goal of this seminar is to develop more complex models for conceptualizing the ‘artist’ as practitioner and social agent in Europe from 1200 to 1600. Drawing on an array of primary sources and recent secondary literature, we will examine narratives embedded within late Medieval and Early Modern art histories about the ‘rise of the independent artist’ and the ‘changing status of the artist’. Historical terminology and grades of distinction among practitioners will be defined, as well as variation in usage according to region and time.

We will examine images of labor and note how specific practitioners are ‘named’ and their skills, status and fame represented in inscriptions, chronicles, encomia, and treatises. Attention will be given to the organizations (guilds, confraternities), the socio-economic networks and the conditions that structured artistic employment in major and minor artistic centers, in monastic, communal, and court environments, and in cases of interregional activity.  Clientele and patronage will be examined from the perspective of the practitioner negotiating contracts and forging careers.

We will consider how conceptions about ‘quality’ were defined and regulated through contract and guild control, tied to certain kinds of performativity evident in works of art, and verbalized in assessments and literary praise. The figure of the entrepreneur operating with a ‘signature style’ will be explored. While the focus will be on the visual arts, many of the issues considered are equally applicable to the fields of architecture, literature, and music. Our approach will be interdisciplinary and participants from other fields are welcome. 

Fall 2004: “Print Culture in Early Modern Europe”

The introduction of printing with moveable type and new techniques of pictorial reproduction had a major impact on European culture and society, comparable to that of the current computer and Internet technological revolution. This course offered an interdisciplinary study concentrating on the material and visual culture of prints in Italy and the north of Europe (Germany, the Netherlands, England) circa 1450 to 1650. 

Raises issues relevant to many projects beyond those specific to print technology, such as the regulatory role of censorship, the definition of “obscenity” and “copyright”, the nature of representational “authority”, the connection between print and a growing number of observational “sciences” such as medicine and cartography, the development of genres like urban guidebooks and New World travel literature, and the matter of different registers of circulation and reception (ranging from the “popular” to the “learned elite”). 

Also considers theoretical arguments about the cultural significance of reproductive technology and the rise in visual literacy within different social populations and cultural spheres. Utilizing the excellent collection of intaglio prints in the University of Michigan Museum of Art and the early illustrated printed books in the Harlan Hatcher and Clements Libraries, students will become familiar with a range of printing techniques (woodcut, engraving, etching, and dry-point) and the different categories and functions of prints, in both single-leaf issues and illustrated books.

Fall 2003: “Seeing (in) Early Modern Europe"

This class focused on a series of readings and case studies highlight ways that notions of seeing and visual technologies have figured in key (art) historical scholarship on early modern Europe. The course examined the historical implications of taking serious account of the visual, and the art historical implications of historicizing vision and visual culture. It investigated how the disciplines of history and art history and their methods have been brought to bear on one another. 

Readings covered different types of visual objects as well as a range of topics, such as imagery in the context of religious devotion, Reformation propaganda, nascent nation-building, and scientific exploration. 

Aimed towards understanding the changing status of image in an age of mechanical reproduction.

Fall 2002: “Geographers and Cartographers: Shaping the Premodern World”

This course compared the ways in which the world was bounded, charted, and described in the premodern period, particularly within Christian and Islamic spheres. Since both religious cultures reached back for geographic knowledge into the ancient Greco-Roman past, part of the interest of the course will be to assess the ways in which the shared authority of the past was transmitted, transmuted, and challenged between the fall of Rome in the fifth century and the encounter with new lands and cultures in the fifteenth and sixteenth.

Considered attempts to grasp the world in maps (e.g., the Ptolemaic grid; portolan sea charts; spiritual mappaemundi), in literary accounts (e.g., the geographies compsosed by travelers and pilgrims; descriptions of marvels and wonders), as well as in texts deriving from bureaucratic practice (e.g. administrative manuals) in order to learn both how they envisioned and represented the globe and how they measured themselves and their civilization as they experienced cultures beyond its bounds.

The course offers an opportunity for students from a variety of disciplinary and regional specialites to experience a range of the sources of premodern geographical knowledge (read in translation) and to achieve some sense of the benefits of cross-cultural exploration of the premodern world.