Mellon-Sawyer Seminar

Beyond Medieval and Modern:
Rethinking Global Paradigms of Political Economy and Culture

A Sawyer Seminar funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation

Organized by the World Studies Interdisciplinary Project
University of Massachusetts-Amherst, 2015-16

For Seminar Participants (password protected):

Seminar Overview

New data in world history indicates that many systems we call “modern” emerged in a period that we call “medieval”– not in the European West but in the pre-1500 Afro-Eurasian South and East. This scholarship reframes global histories, throwing into question medieval/modern periodization as well as east/w­­­­est oppositions—and as such deserves wider dissemination among researchers and fuller engagement from critical theorists.

In particular, the evidence calls for revised critical narratives of capitalism, modernization, and enlightenment ideals; it allows for new insight into the co-formations of states, economies, and culture; and it ultimately offers a fresh basis for postcolonial, feminist, and materialist and other critical approaches to contemporary global problems.

This Sawyer Seminar, “Beyond Medieval and Modern,” will foster interdisciplinary engagement with the long-historical data and explore its conceptual implications. During Fall 2015 and Spring 2016, the University of Massachusetts will host cutting-edge humanists and social scientists from around the world in a cumulative sequence of seminars and lectures, beginning with pre-1500 periods and from this perspective reframing post-1500 periods. These will include four two-day seminars, two local “inter-seminars,” and an ongoing workshop for participating doctoral students who are studying the new scholarship. Fall events will culminate with a lecture by Professor Ann Stoler and Spring events with a lecture by author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o.

In the series of seminars, scholars will: 1) share and study historical-archival materials from different disciplinary angles with guidance from experts, 2) begin to develop new interdisciplinary analytical paradigms and historical narratives, especially regarding the material co-formation of cultural and state-building institutions, and 3) discuss the methodological and curricular implications of this paradigm shift. We will give special attention to understudied dimensions of world history, especially African states, gender formations, and cultural institutions such as imperial academies and libraries.

Seminar Design

For each seminar, we will host an interdisciplinary mix of scholars working across hemispheres and eras, and we especially hope to heighten awareness of earlier-period data among scholars of later periods. Therefore although Fall seminars will focus in significant part on pre-1500 periods and Spring seminars on post-1500 periods, each seminar will include scholars and presentations from other periods so as to foster knowledge-sharing and longue-durée thinking.

All of the four main seminars will include three sessions over a day and a half, followed by a seminar dinner. We anticipate that visiting participants will spend two to three nights in town. Each session will take up subthemes within that weekend’s larger theme, informed by 10-15-page papers circulated in advance by the scholarly experts on the session’s subtheme. In each session, scholars will give brief overviews of their papers, with response and moderation of discussion by a participating Sawyer scholar.

Schedule of Public Events

Click here for more about the public events associated with the Sawyer Seminar.

  • Thursday, October 22, 2015: Emergent Frameworks Roundtable, “Translating Literary-Political Worlds: Longue Durée Perspectives and African/Asian Spheres”
  • Thursday, November 12, 2015: Public lecture by Ann Stoler
  • Thursday, March 3, 2016, 5:30PM (Isenberg 210): Emergent Frameworks in World Political Economy: Revisiting Westphalian and Capitalist Narratives
  • Wednesday, April 6, 2016, 4:00PM (ILC S211): Archiving African Imaginaries, A Screening of “Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o: The River between Indigenous and Colonial Languages,” by prize-winning documentarian Ndirangu Wachanga
  • Thursday, April 7, 2016, 4:30PM (Bowker Auditorium): Distinguished Troy Lecture by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, sponsored by the English Department
  • Friday, April 8, 2016, 10:30AM (Isenberg 210): Emergent Frameworks Roundtable: Language and African Polities in the Longue Durée

Seminar Schedule (invitation only)

Fall 2015
Thinking the Medieval Otherwise: Inter-Materialities in the Global Southeast

  • October 23-24: Linked States of Knowledge: Libraries, Literacies, and Material Histories. Visiting scholars: Philippe Beaujard (Institute des Mondes Africains), Simon Gikandi (Princeton), Isabel Hofmeyr (U of the Witwatersrand), Fallou Ngom (Boston U), Sheldon Pollock (Columbia), Janina Safran (Penn State), Ann Stoler (New School), Dorothy Wong (U Virginia), Travis Zadeh (Haverford College), Hayrettin Yücesoy (Washington U)
  • November 13-14: Geopolitical Intimacies and Gendered Economies. Visiting scholars: Ousseina Alidou (Rutgers),  Wendy Belcher (Princeton), Jinah Kim (Harvard), Shaun Marmon (Princeton), Ann Stoler (New School)

For more information about the Fall 2015 seminar, please click here.

Spring 2016
Thinking the Modern Otherwise: Layered Inter-Materialities and Global Dynamics

  • March 4-5: Geopolitical Economies after 1450: Resituating Reconquista, Westphalia, and Capitalist Modernity. Visiting scholars: Pinar Bilgin (Bilkent U), Jordan Branch (Brown), Molly Greene (Princeton), Siba Grovogui (Cornell), Walter Mignolo (Duke), Kenneth Pomeranz (U Chicago), Mary Louise Pratt (NYU), Eric Tagliacozzo (Cornell), John Thornton (Boston U)
  • April 8-9: Medieval to Post/colonial: Rethinking Geopolitical and Aesthetic EconomiesVisiting scholars: Ousseina Alidou (Rutgers), Nadia Altschul (Johns Hopkins), Simon Gikandi (Princeton), Isabel Hofmeyr (U of the Witwatersrand), Maghan Keita (Villanova), Revathi Krishnaswamy (San José State), Michael Laffan (Princeton), Mary Louise Pratt (NYU), Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o (UC Irvine)

For more information about the Spring 2016 seminar, please click here.