Reading Group Meetings

The reading group will meet four times over the course of the academic year, tentatively in October, November, February and April.

Summary First Meeting: “Ocean Crossings meets Karla Mallette”

For those of you who haven’t been able to attend our first meeting on October 19th, here’s a brief summary of the main points discussed:

Guest Speaker: Prof. Karla Mallette – Professor of Italian and Near Eastern Studies at the University of Michigan

For our first meeting of the academic year, Professor Karla Mallette from the University of Michigan joined our discussion as part of her campus visit. Professor Karla Mallette studies communications between literary traditions in the medieval Mediterranean—especially Arabic and the Romance vernaculars—and the way that we remember that history today.


  • “The Seven Sages at Sea: Framed narrative systems in the pre-modern Mediterranean.” Lingua Franca. Explorations of the Literary Geography of the Mediterranean, ed. Michael Allan and Elisabetta Benigni. Philological Encounters, Zukunftsphilologie, Berlin. Forthcoming
  • “Exiles or Nomads? Texts in Translation in the Pre-Modern World.” World Literature in Translation, ed. Paulo Horta and Philip Kennedy, New York University Press. Forthcoming

The two articles chosen for our first meeting served as the starting points for our conversation on the nature of cosmopolitan languages as important vehicles for the circulation of texts troughout time and space. In medieval times, cosmopolitan languages are trans-regional and trans-historical mega-languages, such as Latin, Greek or Persian, that allow communicative exchanges between speakers of different mother tongues. In particular, we discussed the importance of such languages in the preservation of traveling texts throughout different literary traditions. The Sindibad-Seven Sages tradition represents one of the most significant instances of this trans-historical/trans-regional textual circulation. Furthermore, we discussed the importance of the sea as an “engine of uncertainty”; in medieval narratives, the sea, with its lawlessness and its unpredictability, is the emblem of fortune. Everything can happen while at sea; borders and identities become unstable, porous. Even language is not exempt from the destabilization of reference points intrinsic in the state of being at sea. Here languages are deterritorialized and the estranging effect caused for instance by the cohexistence of diverse vernaculars on confined spaces such as ships, allows for the emergence of  “languages of the border”.


A.Y. 2014-2015

Summary Third Meeting: “Exerting Power at Sea”

For those of you who haven’t been able to attend our second meeting on November 13th, here’s a brief summary of the main points discussed:

  • Connery, Christopher. “Sea Power.” PMLA: Publications Of The Modern Language Association Of America 125.3 (2010): 685-692.
  • Aalberts,Tanja E; Gammeltoft-Hansen, Thomas. ”Sovereignty at Sea: the Law and Politics of Saving Lives in Mare Liberum.” Journal of International Relations and Development v 17 n 4 (2014 10): 439-468.
  • Papanicolopulu, Irini. “the Law of the Sea Convention: No Place for Persons?.” International Journal Of Marine & Coastal Law 27.4 (2012): 867-874.

In his article “Sea Power” Christopher Connery argues that in our times we cannot experience the glory of Sea Power in its ancient figurations and theatricalitiy: from majestic naumachies to military parades. What is left, is a new kind of spectacle that reenacts the theatricality from a different perspective reminding us of the sublimity of the sea through images of sinking ships or deaths at sea. We then discussed and problematized what is the place left for human beings (migrants in particular) in the context of the international laws regulating maritime spaces. Through the articles “Sovereignty at Sea: the Law and Politics of Saving Lives in Mare Liberum” by Tanja Aalberts, and “The Law of the Sea Convention: No Place for Persons?” by Irini Papanicolopulu, we addressed the interplay between politics and law at the core of the recent attempts to strengthen the humanitarian commitment to saving lives in mare liberum. The systematic territorialization and the over-regulation of the maritime space generate a new geopolitics of mare liberum. The Mediterranea is thereby transformed into a space of deferral where different nation-states may seek to disclaim accountabilities by shifting between different legal regimes and interpretative strands. Thus, rather than creating a dense net that will provide for a better protection for migrants and refugees, the legalisation of mare liberum has produced more loopholes, resulting in increasing possibilities for the involved nation-states, to disclaim, and defer, their responsibility.


Summary Second Meeting: “Strategies of Mapping”

For those of you who haven’t been able to attend our second meeting on November 13th, here’s a brief summary of the main points discussed:

We read the introduction to John Pickles’ A History of Spaces: Cartographic Reason, Mapping and the Geo-coded World, Alfred J. Lopez’s introduction to the journal The Global South — “The (Post)Global South” — and Emilie Savage-Smith’s “Cartography”.

Starting from Pickles’ problematization of the role of maps and mapping in the construction of socio-spatial identities we discussed the various implications and motivations embedded in the practice of drawing lines, where the line can serve as an instrument to define comfort zones, to separate the self from the other or to demarcate areas of inclusion and exclusion. We then discussed and problematized the role of the colonial discourse in the acts of mapping and naming intended as practices of power-relations’ construction. Furthermore, through Lopez’s article on the (Post)global South, we addressed the challenge of defining the concept of Global South and recognized its political potential as well as its methodological flaws. The Global South situates the operation of mapping within the subject combining ethnicity, race, gender and social status as coordinates able to subordinate the individual to a “North” leader of globalization. Throughout our discussion, the use of the Global South as a label to transversally address issues of subalternity has revealed to be at times simplistic, carrying the load of an ethnocentric perspective and seeming not innovative towards pre-existent approaches of subaltern studies. Moreover, the Global South lacks of a coherent understanding of the globalization that stills Lopez argues to overcome, including its historical dimensions. Ultimately, we applied Pickles’ critique on cartographic reason to Savage-Smith’s article “Cartography”, which offered us some interesting examples to reflect on the various configurations acquired by the act of map making through time. We recognized how premodern maps entailed theological or historical statements of power relations as well as recalled constellations of ideas not necessarily relying on an idea of location based off of mathematical foundations. We finally concluded how the features of spaces themselves influence mapping. When the focus shifts from the contingent spatiality of continents to the fluidic dimension of the sea, for example, the reference coordinates of the map become elusive and the line of demarcation between the here/there and the self/other is destabilized.

Summary First Meeting

For those of you who haven’t been able to attend our first meeting, here’s a brief summary of the main points discussed:

We read David Abulafia’s “Mediterraneans,”  Cristina Lombardi-Diop’s “Ghosts of Memories, Spirits of Ancestors: Slavery, the Mediterranean, and the Atlantic,” and an excerpt from Paul Gilroy’s Black Atlantic.

Starting from Abulafia’s approach to the Mediterranean as a possible model of analysis for similar Middle Seas, we discussed the controversies implied in the definition of the Mediterranean itself in terms of spatial, temporal and cultural frameworks. In particular we focused our attention on the networks established by trade and cultural exchanges as well as by the transnational movement of people across national boundaries with a specific emphasis on migration. Through Lombardi Diop’s article, we discussed the current illegal immigrant labor exploitation in the Mediterranean as a reenactment of the Atlantic Middle Passage. We focused on the definition of the illegal immigrant as a non-person deprived of his juridical (and human) rights, therefore transformed into a mere commodity to be exploited and reified. Lastly we discussed Gilroy’s image of the ship as micro-cultural systems in motion crucial in the process of identity construction within and outside national boundaries.


Past events’ readings

  • November 13, readings: the introduction to John Pickles’ A History of Spaces: Cartographic Reason, Mapping and the Geo-coded World, Alfred J. Lopez’s introduction to the journal The Global South — “The (Post)Global South” and Emilie Savage-Smith’s “Cartography”.
  •  September 26, readings: David Abulafia, “Mediterraneans,” Cristina Lombardi-Diop, “Ghosts of Memories, Spirits of Ancestors: Slavery, the Mediterranean, and the Atlantic,” Paul Gilroy, “The black Atlantic as a Counterculture of Modernity”.