New Directions & Comparative Early Modernities:
Europe and the Persianate Empires

 
Jahangir Preferring a Sufi Shaykh to Kings From the St. Petersburg Album Signed by Bichitr India, Mughal dynasty, ca. 1615–18 Margins by Hadi, Iran, dated AH 1169/1755–56 CE Opaque watercolor, ink, and gold on paper Purchase Freer Gallery of Art F1942.15

Jahangir Preferring a Sufi Shaykh to Kings
From the St. Petersburg Album
Signed by Bichitr
India, Mughal dynasty, ca. 1615–18
Margins by Hadi, Iran, dated AH 1169/1755–56 CE
Opaque watercolor, ink, and gold on paper Purchase
Freer Gallery of Art F1942.15

Though I am primarily a scholar of early modern Europe, my research on the history of globalism has led me to investigate how the “world” is itself envisioned from different places and cultural vantage points. Preliminary research on Europe’s encounter with the Americas and the Indo-Islamic empires (Ottoman, Safavid, Mughal) in the sixteenth century resulted in papers on the peculiar genealogies for the Amerindians proposed in a range of European maps and texts and an essay on Mughal miniatures at the court of Jahangir which depict globes and world maps as part of a volume on Comparative Early Modernities. These initial explorations into new scholarly territory pushed me to think about the philosophical, political and methodological challenges of comparative cross-cultural scholarship across the early modern world. What might it mean to write a cultural history of Europe’s relations with the many worlds beyond its still-nascent borders on the eve of rapid colonial expansion and increasing imperial domination? What stories can we uncover about the flows of people, objects and ideas across frontiers between seemingly incommensurable cultures?

These questions animate my future research and form the basis of a multi-year Mellon New Directions fellowship that I was awarded in 2016. With this support, I aim to study the Persianate cultures of the early modern Indo-Islamic world (roughly 1450-1700), which stretched from Anatolia to China. Over the next few years, I hope to acquire the tools and training necessary to join a small but growing group of scholars committed to bridging the intellectual, historical and scholarly divide between Europe and the Middle East by reconsidering their deep, interlinked histories from the middle ages to the present. I am working to acquire linguistic proficiency in Persian, which will eventually enable me to undertake studies of the classical Persian literary and intellectual traditions, the history of the early modern Persianate empires, as well as of the book arts of the Islamic world. By exploring the linguistic, intellectual and cultural history of the Persianate courts of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, I hope to bring my European expertise into synergy with its traditional “Other.” At the same time, I expect that my engagement in a new discipline and field of study will enable me to bring back to my core research interests an expanded and deeper engagement with non-European languages and cultural frameworks. Such study will facilitate a move beyond a Eurocentric disciplinary and regional framework and to reconsider the intellectual and cultural history of modernity in truly global terms.

My larger research interests in this new work derive from an on-going commitment to reimagining cultural commensurability, hybridity and interchange across East and West. Developing themes from my first book, I hope to be part of a wider scholarly project to interrogate accounts of the “great divergence” and construct alternate histories for modernity across the globe. The early modern period, which precedes the era of European imperialism, is a crucial historical period for such study, since it sees complex relationships of intense inter-imperial rivalry and engagement across Eurasia on the brink of modernization. As a first step in pursuing these concerns, I co-organized a workshop series on Early Modern Techne, funded by a Humanity/Humanities grant from the Whitney Humanity Center at Yale, which experiments with new methods for the study of early modern material culture on a global scale. I expect these research trajectories to culminate a book project tentatively entitled Becoming Early Modern that experiments with a comparative study of parallel genres in European and Persian literary traditions such as the love lyric, epic, devotional poetry, world histories, and book illustration.