Never Stop Searching: Insight into Archival Research

by Samantha Perlman 17C
Undergraduate Humanities Honors Fellow

After completing the final draft of my history honors thesis this week, I have a newfound admiration of academia. Historians extensively research their topics before even attempting to write monographs. I found myself becoming a historian this past semester as an Undergraduate Fellow at the Fox Center. Immersing myself in the Emory University Archives in the Stuart A. Rose Library, I strived to translate my research questions into a finished product.


At first, it was extremely difficult for me to get my bearings on archival research. I was fortunate that the Rose Library created extensive finding aids but I had no idea how to approach my research questions. My history honors thesis is on the history of integration at Emory University from 1969-1989. Looking back to those early days in September, I did not know that I would lock into that particular twenty-year period. All I knew was that I had an interest in racial integration at Emory and that I wanted to chart the success of this initiative through the Office of Admission’s black recruitment and enrollment data. This was probably much easier in theory than in practice. One thing I learned from my research was not to search for something too specific in the archive; otherwise, I would have missed all the nuances of the documents and the larger story.  As I sifted through thousands of papers, I began to create broad themes to guide my research and write down unfamiliar terms, events or people that I discovered. Often, it was this fluidity of searching, in which I was open to interacting with the documents, that I found my most pertinent material.

I remember when I came across my first major document: The President’s Commission on the Status of Minorities (PCSM) 1981 Report. President Laney established the PCSM in 1979, one year following his inauguration at Emory. The purpose of the PCSM was to study minority recruitment across the university and develop recommendations for how the administration could better serve minority students, staff and faculty. My 1981 document was the initial two-year study the PCSM conducted. The Report contained reflections from minority students and faculty as well as a crucial chart in which the PCSM compared Emory College black recruitment statistics to its peer institutions. Emory’s peer universities included Duke, Rice, Tulane and Vanderbilt. The 1979 data was shocking and crucial to the narrative arc of my thesis; I learned that Emory College Admissions ranked below all its peers in the percentage of black applicants who were accepted (31%) although they had one of the highest overall acceptance rates (63.7%). Such data indicated to me that the Office of Admission in 1979 had clear issues with black recruitment. I developed this insight from one chart in a document!

Moments like the one above, truly transformed the rigorous thesis process into an exciting journey. Some days, it was difficult to maintain my motivation. However, writing my undergraduate honors thesis remains the most exhilarating and meaningful academic experience of my college career. In many ways, I have to thank the amazing community at the Fox Center for this positive experience. I wrote my entire thesis at our Fellow office. Working in the Center constantly reminded me the importance of academic scholarship. I am so grateful to be a part of such a talented group of scholars!


From the Amazon to North Decatur Road

by Hugh McGlade 17C
Humanities Honors Fellow

Photo credits: Hugh McGlade


We stayed at a floating hotel, a six-room structure surrounded by flooded Amazonian rainforest. When boats went by, the building bobbed with the wake. Urbanity—and for that matter, any landscape I had ever known—seemed very distant. The closest city was two hours by boat. Manaus, the capital of Amazonas, was a plane ride away.


It was May of 2016, and I was on a research trip to Brazil. I had spent the past week in government archives in Rio de Janeiro, thumbing through documents for my thesis. I was scheduled to spend another week doing the same. The foray into the rainforest was a touristy get-away—a three day adventure to a part of Brazil that I knew nothing about.

In my first hours in the Amazon, I was a spectator in awe of the vastness of the sky, the colors of the birds, the density of the jungle, the noises of the monkeys. But I quickly normalized those things. They remained amazing, but not all consuming. Increasingly, people drew my attention. The politics of community policing against poaching; the agriculture practices of harvesting acai; the economic impact of eco-tourism. I got only small glimpses into those topics, through conversations and observations. But they stuck with me, and I kept thinking to myself, “Someone needs to write a history of this place.”


Soon I returned to Rio and headed to the archives. As I read about my research topic (a U.S.-Brazilian hunger alleviation program in the 1940s), I paid more attention to the regular mentions of the Amazon. In fact, I realized that I had been privileging documents about the urban initiatives of the program, merely because I felt comfortable with references to Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo. The Amazon, and its food, its soil, its landscape, was now real to me, and it changed the way I imagined history.

But it was not until I came to the Fox Center this spring that I gave serious attention to exploring the connections between our material realities and our humanistic inquiries. In a practical yet critical sense, I have a desk, bookshelves, and a quiet environment, the combination of which has allowed me to think, read, and write in a more attentive way than ever before. And in an intellectual sense, the community has pushed me to think about how the humanities—in their many disciplines and topics—relate to one another and to the world. For this reason, the weekly lunches and off-hand conversations have been not a distraction from research but rather a catalyst for it. I have been inspired by how people think, and by how ostensibly unrelated topics related to my work. Now all I need to do is get back to the Amazon as a researcher and not a tourist.

A Journey to Decipher Rubens’ Political Allegory

Koposova-1                Union of Earth and Water                                          Hermitage Museum

by Ekaterina Koposova 17C
Humanities Honors Fellow

My research on the Union of Earth and Water began last spring in Dr. Melion’s seminar on Peter Paul Rubens. What started as an interpretation of a single painting grew to include many works by Rubens that deal with his vision of peace and its development in his art. My research on the Union of Earth and Water involves several levels of analysis that combine to yield a comprehensive reading of this work. The peace images that Rubens created express the vision of a political utopia by means of divine allegory. Following Terence’s apothem “sine Cerere et Baccho friget Venus,” Rubens created images of the union of the three gods that are meant to represent the joy and bounty that a peace in Europe would bring. Thus, these images prove to be a tantalizing mix of abstract, philosophical ideas founded on an intimate knowledge of Greek and Roman myths, literature, and art while at the same time having a very practical political purpose and origin. The Union of Earth and Water, however, adds to this agenda another very well-known artistic tradition — the water deities. Rubens advocates a compelling political cause with sumptuous images that rely on an enormous wealth of knowledge both of the art of Antiquity and his own era. The John Howett Fellowship has given me the chance to trace both the divine allegories relevant to my study and the visual culture of river gods as political emblems to expand and inform my research.


                                                                   The Tiber – Louvre Museum                      photo by Ekaterina

One of the most important discoveries I have made during my travels is that river gods in their role as political symbols are not unique to the Netherlands nor are they confined to the realm of pageant decorations and paintings. In fact, as my visit to the Louvre made abundantly clear, the imagery of river gods (as well as their importance for politics) originated in Antiquity. Louvre’s Tiber is a monumental Roman sculptural group consisting of a river god with a cornucopia and an oar (attributes water deities of Rubens’ times also carry) by whose side Romulus and Remus play near their adopted wolf-mother. Rubens has a painting named after the legendary founders of Rome that uses the same motif of two children nursed by a she-wolf under the protection of a river god. Beyond antique sculpture, I have seen river gods appear on façades of buildings (in France, Belgium, and Austria), fountains (Medici Fountain, Paris), triumphant arches (Porte Saint Denis, Paris), and decorations of royal apartments (Louvre, Paris). Seeing this profusion of river gods in a variety of media (ephemeral architecture, sculpture, architecture, interior decoration, painting) across time (from Antiquity on to early eighteenth century) and countries (likely across Europe) influenced my analysis of the Union of Earth and Water. In creating the Union of Earth and Water, though its message was expressed allegorically, Rubens by no means intended to be cryptic. On the contrary, much as he wrote to Justus Sustermans about The Horrors of War, he probably expected the Union of Earth and Water to convey his meaning plainly, at least on a political level. To add explicitly his own plea for the end of the Scheldt blockade to numerous others, many of which had come in the form of pageant decorations, Rubens drew on a well-known and widespread language of political allegory and symbolism. Not only would it have been understood by learned men of the Netherlands — Rubens’ metaphor was made to speak clearly to educated men across Europe.

Rubens’ own art is abundant in river gods, whose importance for his work should not be underestimated. The artist’s nuanced understanding of these deities’ importance to the political imagery led him to incorporate water gods in many of his works. Some of these, like his portrait of the Duke of Buckingham or Ferdinand of Hungary meeting with Cardinal-Infante Ferdinand of Spain at Nördlingen feature river gods as an allegorical backdrop to important political players. This is also the case in the Medici cycle, of which even the oil sketches feature river gods (Arrival of Marie de Medici at Marseille and the Exchange of Princesses). These images have been crucial for me to see because they make clear the connection that existed in Rubens’ mind between persons capable of influencing politics and water deities.

Beyond its political meaning, connected to river gods and the precarious situation of Southern Netherlands, the Union of Earth and Water is an image of peace, which has a place among other peace allegories created by Rubens. These evolved from three main elements — the three gods of Terence’s apothem — that exist both separately and in their symbiotic form of peace in Rubens’ art. Paintings that focus on these gods separately help determine the elements that can be used to identify the presence of these gods on canvases where they are evoked simultaneously and implicitly (the Union of Earth and Water is an important instance of this). Rubens’ paintings of Bacchus and his followers, notwithstanding their diversity, are characterized by three crucial elements: grapes, vine leaves, and felines to which may be added two more — wine and satyrs. In any combination, these elements, when they migrate from Bacchic canvases to other works, must alert the viewer to the Bacchic presence. Seeing Satyr’s Head, Drunken Silenus, Minerva Defends Peace from Mars, and the Feast of Venus has further convinced me of this. Consequently, I feel more certain than ever that the tiger, grapes, and vine leaves in the Union of Earth and Water (not to mention the satyr in the sketch for the painting) are not coincidental occurrences but are meant to alert the viewer to the presence of the wine god. Rubens also created many paintings devoted only to Venus. Seeing the sketch The Birth of Venus in Brussels was vitally important because it showed Venus with no other main gods. Being the scene of her birth, this sketch is focused on what is quintessentially characteristic of Venus: nudity, golden hair, cupids, pearls, and a connection to the sea. The latter is very important considering the oceanic themes of the Union of Earth and Water and that it lays such strong emphasis on Venus’ birth from the sea, which is rarely emphasized so strongly. All the elements, except the blond hair, that in this sketch belong to Venus and no other god, also characterize Ceres in the Union of Earth and Water. Establishing the composite identities of gods in Rubens’ allegories of peace necessitates a close study of his works that treat these gods in isolation.

Minerva Defending Peace from Mars and Feast of Venus are supreme examples of two kinds of Rubens’ peace imagery, which is a vital point of comparison for the Union of Earth and Water. Minerva Defending Peace from Mars is openly political. (In this it is similar to the even more dramatic Horrors of War.) Peace and War divide this canvas, underlining an intimate connection between peace and its enemy. This suggests that Rubens’ peace images, even when devoid of any signs of conflict, actually exist in unspoken opposition to it. Minerva Defending Peace from Mars has elements of Terence’s divine trio: grapes and satyrs speak of Bacchic presence, the abundant fruit and its harvest recall Ceres. Peace herself is as though a personification of Venus — what else may be suggested by her golden hair, nudity, pearl earring, and red drapery? Nevertheless, her suckling of an infant recalls images of Tellus — another Roman earth goddess, which adds more complexity to her identity. This is very similar to the Union of Earth and Water, where Ceres has attributes of Venus and where the Bacchic presence is implied as the last component of peace.


Feast of Venus, 1636-38

The Feast of Venus is a more implicit image of peace, which does not refer to war in any other way than by being such an absolute antithesis to it. This celebration of Venus also features elements — satyrs and grapes, abundant fruits and cornucopia, lovemaking and cupids — of Bacchus, Ceres, and Venus, the three gods of peace. Moreover, the painting features a statue of each god. It is an allegory of peace enacted by the living beings and conditioned by the gods, whose statues overlook the worship of Venus — the ultimate expression of peace. Similarly to the Feast of Venus, the Union of Earth and Water is an enactment of peace because it depicts the end of the blockade of the Scheldt, which only would have been assured by the end of war. In Rubens’ lifetime, however, this was not to be. This is why, perhaps, that in creating the Union of Earth and Water, the artist thought back to his early image of Adam and Eve — a moment of bliss subverted by the reality of the fall. Seeing Adam and Eve further convinced me of this.

The John Howett Fellowship allowed me to trace three most important parts of my argument concerning the Union of Earth and Water. I discovered that water deities, particularly river gods, were a recognizable metaphor of Rubens’ time, one that he must have used to make the meaning of the Union of Earth and Water clear. The images of Bacchus and Venus, apart and as elements of his vision of peace, are characterized by identifiable elements that mark their presence for the viewer, whether the gods themselves are portrayed or not. Using these elements, Rubens builds sophisticated allegories that depend on a shared symbolic meaning. Incorporating these discoveries into my analysis and researching further the new possibilities that they had put before me has had a powerful (and highly beneficial) impact on my work.

Philosophy and Intellectual Home

by Lamija Grbic’ 17C
Undergraduate Humanities Honors Fellow

With the month of February coming to a close, I find myself looking ahead with anticipation on my last two months at Emory as well as reflecting on the past three and a half years as an undergraduate. It has been two months since I was invited to join the Fox Center for Humanistic Inquiry as an undergraduate fellow. This was an invitation I did not anticipate to receive, but I am truly grateful that I did receive it; my experience with the Center has provided me with a sense of intellectual home on campus and a community of support as I have explored the thrills and challenges of composing an extended piece of writing in philosophy.

I came to philosophy with a desire to ask questions about myself and our society—our knowledge, politics and relationships to nature and to each other—in ways which deconstruct these concepts and bring them out of our day-to-day experiences and into a realm of critical engagement. In this realm, we can investigate the functioning of such concepts—freedom, for instance—and trace its intellectual, political and social history. We can temporarily “suspend” (in the tradition of the phenomenologists) our concern about whether such concepts are “correct” or “what we should believe” and instead ask ourselves about what such concepts do for us. What is at stake in believing one thing and not another?

For me, the complementary process in this equation has always been to return to our day-to-day lives with a renewed understanding of the ideas we typically take for granted, or at the very least some excitement and willingness to engage with other aspects of our lives using a critical lens. My love of philosophy stems from my belief that there is always something more than meets the eye about the ways we organize our engagement with the world and that there is always room for mystery and wonder in discovering a previously overlooked aspect of our lives.

If all of this sounds a bit abstract (as philosophers tend to sound), I believe this might have less to do with the ostensible dichotomy between theory and practice and more with how we understand (indeed, theorize) philosophy itself. The notion that philosophy should be grounded in or speak to our day-to-day lives is often forgotten, not because this principle is foreign to philosophy but because we tend to view philosophy as an aim in itself rather than as one (of many) ways to approach life. Philosophy has helped me approach my own experiences in a critical way and has inculcated a sense of patient wonder that I have brought with me to multiple aspects of my life, including my academics, activism and work life.

It was this belief in the power of philosophy as a problem-solving approach that lead me to my thesis topic; in light of heightened Islamophobia in some western countries, I decided to examine representations of Muslim women in the United States and France. I wanted to investigate what types of discourse are being used to talk about Muslim women—specifically hijabi women, or women who wear the hijab. My findings have revealed that othering discourse arises not merely from openly Islamophobic factions motivated by hate, but by liberal-minded individuals and some feminists. Muslim hijabi women are deemed “oppressed” if they wear the hijab; should these women declare that wearing the hijab is their choice, they are deemed internally “oppressed” or contributing to their own gender oppression. The hijab as an object thus becomes infused with highly politicized meanings concerning what freedom is and more specifically what freedom looks like. Throughout the course of my project, I have attempted to grapple with how such characterizations of Muslim hijabi women arise as well as their effects on hijabi women as political subjects. Whose words count as truth if we systematically discount the perspectives of hijabi women as the voices of those who are oppressed by their religion and therefore incapable of making choices in their own lives?

In order to address some of these questions, I have drawn upon several philosophical disciplines, most notably psychoanalysis and phenomenology. Psychoanalysis seeks to map out the workings of the mind—and most importantly, the subconscious—while phenomenology (mentioned above) is concerned with studying how the world presents itself to our limited gazes, understanding that objects arise in our consciousness not in the way that they “are” in the world.  Rather, our perception of objects is mediated by our own positionalities in the world.  Through the course of my project, I have drawn upon feminist psychoanalysts such as Drucilla Cornell and contemporary women working in phenomenology, including Sara Al-Saji and Sara Ahmed. Having gathered these perspectives, I am currently working on developing an iteration of feminist solidarity, given the differences in the experiences of women from different racial, cultural and religious backgrounds as well as the history of western imperialism propagated against Muslim peoples. Overall, I hope to demonstrate the far-reaching nature of these colonial discourses, and to argue against any attempts by western and/or white feminists to define the experiences of Muslim hijabi women.

Researching, writing and thinking about these issues has been difficult, not only because of the challenging nature of writing in philosophy, but because this project has forced me to grapple with questions of power, audience, purpose and the extent of my own personal involvement with these questions. In sum, the experience of writing my thesis has been fraught with questions about what is at stake in this project and perhaps other projects in philosophy that I would like to pursue in the future. The Fox Center has been helpful in grounding (both intellectually and literally) my thoughts by providing me with a space in which I can organize my research materials and discuss issues such as academic responsibility in the current political climate with others. The weekly Fellows’ lunches have been especially rewarding as they have allowed me to learn about the research of graduate fellows in the Center and helped me imagine what it might be like to pursue philosophy at the graduate level.

My most formative experiences over the past three and a half years have occurred in community with others. Whether this has involved being mentored by graduate students or giving back through service and peer tutoring, my Emory experience has been largely defined by the intellectual homes I have found here.  As I undertake the personal and academic challenge of completing an honors thesis in philosophy, I am truly grateful to the Fox Center for serving as another home for me here at Emory.