Panel 3

III. Objects in Motion and the Circulation of Culture
Chair: Mariselle Meléndez, Spanish and Portuguese, UIUC

What do tangible objects such as textiles, silverwork, maps, books, jewelry, paintings, clothing, furniture, kitchen utensils, and food tell us about the history and culture of the early modern world? How through the history of objects can we learn about the identity construction of people in the colonial world? What role do cultural memory and emotions play in the creation of objects and how do objects shape the manner in which people think about others and themselves. This panel will examine the circulation of objects across cultures and global regions from the 15th to the 18th century and its impact in our world today.  We will discuss how the exchange of gifts, the consumption of luxury goods, the exhibition of wealth through objects, the import and export of certain foods, and the way in which objects travel among continents, tell us about the cultural exchange that took place between native populations and colonists from cultural encounters that occurred in what is considered the first global age to the 18th century. Finally, we will discuss the manner in which still today the same tangible objects link the present to the past while underlining the impact of the Americas in Europe, Africa and Asia and the impact of all these three continents in the Americas.

Javier Irigoyen-García, Spanish and Portuguese, UIUC
“Globalizing Iberian Moorishness: Chinese Textiles and Imperial Cultural Identity in Early Colonial Mexico”

The game of canes (juego de cañas) was an aristocratic equestrian exercise particular to the Iberian Peninsula in which all the participants dressed as “Moors.” While the game of canes was a remnant of the Islamic period, in the early modern period it became an expression of ennoblement and social mobility for middle ranks. The game of canes traveled with Castilians and Portuguese, as they used it to articulate cultural coherence to their colonial projects in the Americas, Africa, and Asia. Yet colonial expansion interacted in transforming Iberian cultural practices, as trade in Asian textiles influenced Moorish fashions in the Iberian empires in many ways. While Asian trade influenced Iberian cultural practices and recodified their meaning for social promotion in many ways, this presentation analyzes how it contributed to the cultural homogeneity of empire, as it served to displace a particular local variant of Moorish dress created in early colonial Mexico.

Eva Kuras, Comparative and World Literature, UIUC
“The Pursuit of Goblets and Silks in Medieval Romance: Luxury Objects as Contact Zones between the Islamic East and Christian West”

In tracing the history of a medieval Mediterranean romance that made its way from the Persianized Islamic east as Varqeh o Golshah to multiple vernacular contexts of the Christian west as Floire et Blancheflor, I explore the circulation of motifs, stories, and luxury objects that demonstrate western European connections with Persian culture. In this paper, I focus on the movement of objects, both within this romance and in the broader sociohistorical context in which it circulated.

The stories themselves thematize the long-distance movement of people and objects, reflecting what was occurring along mercantile and Crusader routes between the Islamic east and Christian west in the High Middle Ages. The desire for prestige, wealth and sexual conquest stimulated the acquisition of certain luxury objects and the women associated with them, even when this meant perilous travel over great distances and the transgression of religious, cultural and geopolitical barriers.

As described by E. Jane Burns in her book Courtly Love Undressed, medieval European romances associated courtly love itself with the east by “evocations of lavish goods that have moved westward through mercantile exchange and crusading plunder” (183). Similar to the goblet that changes hands in some adaptations of Floire et Blancheflor, the real-life “Eleanor vase” made its way from Sasanian Persia to the hands of a Muslim ta’ifa king of al-Andalus, and finally to Eleanor’s grandfather, the Troubadour and Crusader William IX, Duke of Aquitaine. As the Christian Blancheflor moves in the opposite direction, to the east, she becomes increasingly associated with eastern silks and gems and in so doing, “stands tellingly astride the cultures of east and west as a contact zone” (Burns 223). As a historical counterpart to this evocation of Eastern textiles, I will examine the Byzantine-made “elephant silk” of Aachen, likely derived from an Iranian prototype, that was brought by Étienne de Blois in the First Crusade to the Abbey of Saint-Josse.

Gregory Cushman, History and Environmental Studies, University of Kansas
“Guano and the Hermeneutics of Empire from Alexander von Humboldt to James Bond”

During the long 19th century, guano was the capitalist world’s foremost example of a commodified object of knowledge in motion, and was as crucial to the metastasis of industrial civilization, its ever-shifting empires, and the inauguration of the Anthropocene as wheat or coal. This presentation will briefly review how guano and the forces of ecological imperialism created new relationships between people (especially Humboldtian scientists and migrant Asian and Pacific Island workers), other-than-human species, objects, environments, and colonial practices. But guano has proven surprisingly mobile and durable in the late 20th century, both as the setting and subject for new imperial narratives within mass market popular culture. Ian Fleming relocated the guano industry of Peru to the channel between Cuba and Jamaica in his 1958 James Bond novel Dr. No, and populated it with “Chinese Negro” workers, a homoerotic Cayman Islander sidekick, and a white marine biologist Bond girl. The 1995 Jim Carey film Ace Venture: When Nature Calls relocated guano imperialism yet again to the bat caves and the exploitation of Native tribes in the heart of Africa. Come to think of it, Marvel’s Black Panther is the basic premise of Ace Ventura turned on its head, imagining an Afrocentric monarchist utopia, based ultimately on an accident of Nature and the scientific know-how to exploit it.