Online Lecture Series “Culture, Media, and Technology” #1

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Online Lecture Series “Culture, Media, and Technology”

Organizers: Chang Liu (Heidelberg University) and Sun Mingli (Jilin University)

Time: Beijing Time 3:15pm (CET 9:15am), May 20, 2021

Speaker: Prof. Philipp Schweighauser (University of Basel)

Title: “Boasian Verse: The Poetic and Ethnographic Work of Edward Sapir, Ruth Benedict, and Margaret Mead”

About the Speaker: Philipp Schweighauser is Professor of North American and General Literature at the University of Basel, Switzerland. He is the author of Beautiful Deceptions: European Aesthetics, the Early American Novel, and Illusionist Art (U of Virginia P, 2016) and The Noises of American Literature, 1890–1985: Toward a History of Literary Acoustics (UP Florida, 2006). Schweighauser is currently working on a monograph on the poetry of Margaret Mead, Ruth Fulton Benedict, and Edward Sapir and (together with Balazs Rapcsak and Mark Nixon) on an essay collection entitled Beckett and Media.

Abstract: This talk reports on my book project Boasian Poetry coming out of the Swiss National Science Foundation Project "Of Cultural, Poetic, and Medial Alterity: The Scholarship, Poetry, Photographs, and Films of Edward Sapir, Ruth Fulton Benedict, and Margaret Mead" that I directed from 2014 to 2017. Situated at the intersection of literary studies and cultural anthropology, the project explores convergences between three types of alterity: cultural alterity (the otherness of the cultures anthropologists study), poetic alterity (the use of poetry in anthropological investigation), and medial alterity (the use of then non-conventional media such as photographs and films in anthropological investigation) in the work of three preeminent cultural anthropologists: Sapir, Benedict, and Mead, who made major contributions to the conceptualization of 'culture' and 'cultural relativism,' two of the most influential concepts in the 20th c. social sciences. Out of the three, it is Mead who has become famous for experimenting with media other than the standard ethnographic text already in the 1930s, particularly photography and film. What is less known is that, together, our three anthropologists wrote over 1,000 poems, dedicated poems to one another, and published a good number of them in renowned literary magazines such as The Dial and Poetry. This prolific, collaborative poetic output, much of which engages with the objects of the writers' anthropological investigations, makes them a unique group in the history of 20th-century cultural anthropology: they were the only anthropologists of the era that left a sizeable (yet sorely understudied) body of poetry. Along with their ethnographic writings and relevant selections from Mead's ethnographic films and photographs, these texts and (audio)visual media form the corpus of the research project.

My talk zooms in on three case studies: three texts by Sapir—two ethnographic studies and a poem—on his 'Nootka' (Nuu-chah-nulth) informant Tom Sayach'apis; Mead and Gregory Bateson's plurimedial book Balinese Character: A Photographic Analysis (1942); and Benedict’s negotiation of a Māori creation myth in “In Parables” (1926). These case studies explore what difference it makes whether one evokes foreign cultures and subjects in standard expository ethnographic prose, in poetic language, or in (what used to be) non-conventional media of ethnographic representation such as celluloid and photographic prints.


Please register with Chang Liu for ZOOM meeting ID and passcode for the lecture


About the organizers:

Chang Liu is a PhD candidate at Heidelberg University’s Centre for Transcultural Studies, where he studies the reception history of American pop icon Madonna in Post-Mao China. Before pursuing an academic career in Germany, he lived in Beijing and worked at the French Embassy as the musical affairs officer.

Sun Mingli is Professor of English at Jilin University’s College of Foreign Languages. She received her PhD from Jilin University, and she is specialized in American culture and literature, and particularly literature and journalism, literature and war, critical race studies, and American ethnic literature.