Cultural Exchanges/Global Histories: Reading Mobility

Narin Hassan

When I moved to Atlanta in 2003, I was struck by how the city was being identified as “the capital of the new South,” and a place of convergence for people and things.  The Hartsfield Jackson International airport had recently been named the busiest airport in the world, and my new neighborhood was located just blocks from the center of the 1996 Olympic ceremonies. Georgia Tech was also in a period of transition and growth, and the School of Literature, Media, and Communication was evolving into a center for literature and science studies, an area that converged with my research and teaching interests.  The Digital Media program, in its initial stages of development, was quickly being recognized as a distinctive new graduate program both within Georgia Tech and beyond.  In 2003, as in 2014, this School was asking questions about what it meant to be innovative, how to prosper as a humanities department in a technical institution, and how to be a model for liberal arts education.  As a new faculty member I found it exciting to be in a place that was willing to be flexible: one that could, in some ways, mirror the English departments I had been trained in, and in others be vastly different and open to change. LMC was the right “home” and a place where I—a nomad much of my life—could actually stick around for a while.  As the child of diplomats, I grew up living internationally (eight different countries) for much of my childhood, and had lived in three U.S. cities before moving to Atlanta.

The work I do in LMC reflects that sense of movement and change while analyzing what it means to belong or be in a given place at a given time. Questions surrounding mobility emerge in the research and teaching I do in the fields of Victorian studies, postcolonial studies, gender studies, and medical humanities. The term mobility could imply movement, geography, and spatiality, but could also suggest absence, or placeless-ness—a lack of being rooted. Mobility could reference, among many other things, the vast “mobile technologies” that expand our notions of what it means to be a global citizen, and what it means to be situated in a given location. Mobility may connect to theories of space, to the circulation of textual or visual objects, to moving subjects, and imaginary and lived worlds, or be tied to geographical mapping and in turn to notions of home, of nation, and of travel.  It could refer to the body—to physical movement—or to a lack thereof, and to notions of freedom, or of immobility and enclosure. Mobility could also imply a “shift,” a social or philosophical turn, or a global sensibility.

My research considers mobility in relation to imperial power, and to gendered identity and the formation of new boundaries and “contact zones.”  In my book Diagnosing Empire: Women, Medical Knowledge, and Colonial Mobility (2011), I trace the writing and work of nineteenth century women travelers in India and the Middle East to examine the relationship of women’s travel to colonial medicine. I analyze the various material objects women traveled with—travel kits, journals, photographs, medical instruments and tools, to trace the movement of these objects in a circular way.  In this work, examining the travel and movement of both objects and peoples reveals both imperial formations and the relationship of women to medical practices and scientific progress. In much of my research, I trace the circulation of texts and visual images as material objects as well—examining for example, the mass production of sensational and popular fiction in the nineteenth century as well as other forms of writing such as medical guides, domestic manuals, and gardening journals.

My recent work traces the mobility of commodities such as tea and the formation of early mobile technologies such as Wardian cases and glass conservatories, considering the interconnectedness of imperial and scientific progress within the domestic sphere.  In the classroom, such research interests give students the opportunity to analyze documents like maps, published letters, and literary texts alongside visual images, architectural illustrations, and films. My teaching includes courses with a literary and historical focus, such as “Victorian Literature and Culture,” and genre classes like “Studies in Fiction,” and courses that consider the relationship of biomedicine and culture. A number of the classes I teach in the areas of gender and postcolonial studies address questions in the fields of cultural studies, anthropology, and sociology. While many of my courses consider cultural histories, my goal is to connect historical and literary texts to contemporary culture—considering for example,  “Neo-Victorian” films, and texts, and cultural movements such as steampunk.

In all my work, mobility is not simply about expanded space or movement, but instead about the historical and cultural exchanges that emerge through interconnectedness—mobility is thus often tied not to absence and spatial distance, but instead to intimacy and new political and cultural relations. Thus, in newer research I trace the figure of the colonial wet nurse as an intimate and mobile figure of the European household, and consider new technologies of infant feeding and milk-sharing in relation to the circulation of bodily fluids and things. But for me, questions of intimacy, of bodies as mobile subjects, and material (and botanical) things as markers of an increasingly moving and mobile age, continue to infuse the practices of my research and teaching, and suggest to me that mobility—in all its shifting forms, can be a point of inquiry for work across disciplines and practices.

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