Mark Vessey

Professor

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Graduate Student Supervision

Doctoral Student Supervision (Jan 2008 - May 2019)
Another look at Orientalism : Western literature in the face of Islam (2011)

Another Look at Orientalism seeks to establish a genealogical link between the fields of literary criticism and Islamic studies through a case study of the Qur’anic scholarship of Abraham Geiger (1810-1874). Responding to Edward Said’s thesis in Orientalism (1978), which polemically subordinates all Orientalist scholarship of the nineteenth century to some form of imperialist motive, this dissertation argues that Geiger, as a member of the Jewish diaspora in a German-speaking land, reacted against the Christian bias in the philological scholarship of his time by highlighting the heading “Abrahamic” in his work Was hat Mohammed aus dem Judenthume aufgenommen? (1833). I see Geiger’s work as one of the first attempts to critique the internal imperialism of Western/European culture and, as such, a precursor of comparative and postcolonial literary studies of the twentieth century.From a theoretical angle, I combine Jacques Derrida’s philosophy, particularly on “Abrahamic hospitality” and “exemplarity,” with perspectives drawn from diaspora and postcolonial studies, such as those of Aamir Mufti, Jonathan and Daniel Boyarin, Sander Gilman, Susannah Heschel and Amos Funkenstein. The aim is to show that Geiger’s pioneering influence on the “objective” study of Islam—however motivated by his defence of Judaism in face of Christianity—should be seen as a gesture of hospitality towards Islam. I ultimately argue that Islam was not always exterior but also implicated in the construction of modern European identity.In the first chapter, I show how the corroboration of a Judaeo-Christian essence in Western literary criticism, particularly in the works of canonical critics like Matthew Arnold and Erich Auerbach, was informed by the nineteenth-century background of the “Jewish question.” In the second chapter, I trace how postmodern Jewish theory, as influenced by Derrida’s philosophy, has contended with the supersessionist and hegemonic implications of the Judaeo-Christian “hyphen.” Next, I turn to my case study of Abraham Geiger and contextualize his work with respect to the methods of German Orientalism and in relation to the German-Jewish emancipation struggle. I then analyze Geiger’s Was hat Mohammed aus dem Judenthume aufgenommen? in the light of Derrida’s philosophy of exemplarity and hospitality, as explained in Chapter Two.

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Ancestor, book, church : how Nigerian literature responds to the missionary encounter (2010)

Ancestor, Book, Church reinserts into Nigerian literary history the texts generated by the nineteenth-century Anglican missionary incursion into Yorubaland, in the southwest of today’s Nigeria. I demonstrate how these early texts – in Yoruba and in English, written by Europeans and by Africans – and the histories and modes of thought that they reflect can be used as resources for understanding contemporary African literatures. Thus I argue against those who would dismiss the missionary text as absolutely foreign to and the missionary encounter as strictly an interruption of an “authentic” African cultural history.In much of Nigeria during the nineteenth and earlier twentieth centuries the first literacy training was provided by missionaries, whose goal in teaching the ABCs was typically to lead indigenous people away from ancestral beliefs, through books, to the church. Yet this ideal linear sequence is inadequate as a description of what was in practice a complex, dialogical process. Sometimes the education and technologies associated with books enabled writers to reconfigure and revivify ancestral beliefs, to incorporate them into a revised form of Christianity, or to turn towards secularity. In all cases, I argue, literature in Nigeria engaged and engages with the legacy of missionary Christianity. I find evidence for this engagement not only in the contextual and thematic dimensions of literary texts but also, and especially, in a mode of signification exemplified by the English missionaries’ favourite fictional text, The Pilgrim’s Progress, a translation of which was also the first work of extended fiction to be written in Yorubaland.Ancestor, Book, Church reads nineteenth-century missionary texts and twentieth-century literary texts together as instances of the ways that Nigerians think and believe. It builds therefore upon research by anthropologists and scholars of religions, which it presents in the first chapter, and then moves into a literary analysis, informed by postcolonial theory, of the Nigerian writers Samuel Ajayi Crowther, D. O. Fagunwa, Amos Tutuola, and Wole Soyinka.

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Master's Student Supervision (2010 - 2018)
British-Persian relations in the Sherley dossier (1598-1626) (2014)

As part of a more general interest in “Orientalism” and the history of East-West relations, a good deal of scholarly attention has lately been devoted to cultural, commercial and political interactions between the English and the Persians in the period of Britain’s main colonial expansion, from the eighteenth century onwards. This study joins a growing body of scholarship that concentrates on an earlier period and that is developing new theoretical paradigms for understanding East-West relations during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in terms of mutuality, dialogue and reciprocity (e.g. Matar, Maclean, Vitkus, Loomba, Burton, Barbour, and Dimmock). As emphasized by these critics, the power relations assumed by postcolonial theory are unsustainable in an early modern context, because it was only during the eighteenth century that Muslim empires such as those of the Ottomans and Persians became the subjects of colonial construction. In fact, in contrast to the imperialist views of the eighteenth century, the early modern English showed a great interest in cultural and commercial relations with the Islamic “Other”. In this thesis, I examine early modern England’s relationship with the Muslim East in general, and with Persians in particular, emphasizing the fluidity of intercultural relations. I also suggest that “Otherness” in the early modern period itself had a fluid and ambivalent nature. My study focuses on a dossier of texts relating to the travels of two Englishmen (the brothers Anthony and Robert Sherley) to Persia, which played a significant role in the formation of early modern English perceptions of Persia and of Persians. The main scene of the study lies between the first trip made by the Sherley brothers to Persia in 1598 and the publication in 1625 of Purchas His Pilgrims. These accounts are of two distinct types: narratives written by traveller-writers, and those composed by hired writers at home. Juxtaposing these two groups of accounts, I demonstrate the versatility of the representation of the Persian “Other” and point out how the writers’ predispositions and the changing politico-historical milieu influenced the construction of images of the Persians.

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