Order of Multitudes

Hidden Wonders: Travis Zadeh on the Possibilities and Limitations of Digital Archives

Professor Travis Zadeh is a scholar of wonders—specifically, wonders in Islamic intellectual and cultural history. An Associate Professor in the Religious Studies department at Yale University, Zadeh has authored two books: Mapping Frontiers Across Medieval Islam: Geography, Translation and the ‘Abbasid Empire’ (2011) and The Vernacular Qur’an: Translation and the Rise of Persian Exegesis (2012). He also has an interest in the digital humanities, specifically how technology simultaneously makes archives accessible for research while presenting new challenges in organization and comprehensiveness. In this interview, Professor Zadeh and I discuss his interests in museum collections and reflect on a virtual Sawyer Seminar. 

Allison Chu: Can you speak a bit about your academic background and interests?

Travis Zadeh: I work on Islamic intellectual and cultural history. I started my work in comparative literature, and I got into Islamic studies through the study of language and writing. The further you go back in time, the harder it is to separate out the literary from other fields of writing, so I’ve gravitated towards many different kinds of projects in my own work. My first book was on how geography and frontiers in early Arabic and Persian writings were conceived and thought of. That got me into writings on wonders and marvels, so I’ve done a lot of work on natural history and the place of magic in intellectual and cultural history. 

My latest project relates a lot to the broader project of the Mellon Sawyer initiative, because it is very much concerned with capturing the world in a book. This book is on natural history in medieval Arabic and Persian and the ways in which natural wonders were conceived of in writings on historic natural philosophy. I trace one influential natural history, called Wonders and Rarities, that was written in Arabic and then transcribed into Persian, then Ottoman Turkish, and then Urdu. It survives in multiple manuscripts and lithographs well into the 19th century. It represents a world before Copernicus and Columbus—so it doesn’t have any real engagement with knowledge of the Western world. Although it’s filled with literary pleasure in all sorts of interesting ways, this book on wonders and rarities was circulated as a scientific natural history, and that’s part of its appeal.

My book asks how you understand such a world through the prism of post-Enlightenment thought. The natural history is filled with the kind of monsters and creatures of classical antiquity—dog-headed men and islands where women grow on trees—so how do you write about it? How do you understand that in the framework of modern secularism? Part of the problem is that we read Islamic wonders through the prism of Orientalism, and the legacy of Orientalism, and the legacy of critical, disenchanted critique and ridicule. Can you write about a world before modernity in a way that isn’t exoticized? I don’t think that you can. So, how do you develop techniques to undo that? I’m looking for a way to read the past in terms that make it intelligent, when the past itself is by necessity unintelligible to us because of the radical shifts in ontology and metaphysics that define modernity.

Allison Chu: I hear a lot of similarities between your work and some of the other conversations we’ve been doing for the Order of Multitudes with the themes of boundaries, translation, and alterity.

Travis Zadeh: Yes and also classifying and typologies, and how to give order, especially in my last book. There’s all that is exotic, strange, and uncanny that weaves itself through this illuminated manuscript that then circulates in hundreds of copies. It was one of the most popular natural histories that we have. So many of the manuscripts were copied or imitated, and alterity runs throughout it. Trying to make sense of it, and its taxonomy, also lends it a kind of order and gravitas as well, and it comes out of a scholastic tradition shaped by Aristotelian philosophy, so it is very authoritative in essence.

Allison Chu: What was it about this Sawyer Seminar project that drew you in to collaborate as one of the Principal Investigators? 

Travis Zadeh: For me, I love the issues around museums, museum culture, and presentation. I find that coming at it from the perspective of Islamic studies and how Islamic art is presented and managed in museum spaces is so rich and fascinating. We mentioned those issues of Orientalism and exoticism, and also constructing a certain idea of what art is in non-Western societies and cultures, and what the space of natural history is within that too; that classification of the “Oriental.” Natural resources are also a very big part of the historical formation of the museum, which is fascinating: histories of the museum as a space for natural philosophy, botany, mineralogy, zoology. This book I’ve been talking about, Wonders and Rarities, has an interesting feature: in Urdu, you have this beautiful expression for the museum, “Ajaaeb Ghar,” which has that same word for “wonder” in it.

The museum is a modern phenomenon from colonialism as it was imported and developed in South Asia and in other colonial contexts. In Urdu the museum becomes naturalized by taking this classical word of “wonders” and then making it into a “House of wonders.” It’s just brilliant; it’s a new term, a neologism, that evokes its classical repertoire and yet it also speaks to a very modern sensibility of collecting and organizing that doesn’t exist, save for these ruptures of colonialism. There’s all these problems around ethics that my colleagues in this seminar are engaging with that intersect with the ethics of collecting, the epistemologies that are involved in collecting, and the values. And then, when set in non-Western contexts, it just complicates and adds these layers of richness and texture that are necessary to explore and engage with, but are also very difficult to conceptualize. 

Allison Chu: Why do you think the subject of organizing and ordering information is urgent to discuss at this moment?

Travis Zadeh: My own interest in this seminar comes out of the digital humanities. I’ve written a little bit about the ways in which our sources have been digitized, and it’s opened up all kinds of arenas for us. Much of my work is archival. It’s deeply codicological and uses manuscripts. Manuscripts are accessed historically through archives, and you have to physically be there, and now we have an incredible array of materials that are available online, so it’s sped up and expanded what we can process and dig into. However, at the same time, there’s also a closing-off. What is so beautiful and exciting and fascinating, intellectually, around collecting and organizing is that it gives us a sense of encyclopedic totality. It’s like a metonym that stands in for the thing itself.

Yet the encyclopedia can as readily include as it can exclude, so what gets included in that typology or in that taxonomy that lends it that sense of a world within a book is a kind of curatorial process. Similarly, in the digital age, we have all this incredible material available to us now. I can search all these printed books with the speed of binary communication, and just in a split second I could have available to me something that would have taken my previous colleagues years of indexing and cataloguing. But, I can only get at what’s been digitized. Even the archives themselves, there are so many that aren’t digitized. It creates a kind of illusion of totality that short circuits the necessity of looking beyond it. While you’re in a sea of data and new information, there is the occulting and obscuring of a whole array of materials that aren’t getting digitized, being silenced, and just aren’t involved in this process. Much of what is digitized has been both edited and made into a text file. While there are more archives available online, there are a lot that just don’t exist online or in digital form. How do we navigate those spaces of inclusion and exclusion? 

Allison Chu: The Sawyer Seminar has been active for about a semester now, and we still have many more initiatives and opportunities to come this semester. What events, conversations, or programs in this Sawyer Seminar have you been most excited about?

Travis Zadeh: I love the initiatives that we’ve already developed around museums, curation, and archives. All of those things speak really directly to the intellectual and cultural world that I’ve been thinking about. In terms of my own curation of activities, I’ve been thinking about bringing people in to discuss the digital humanities and Islamic studies. I think that there’s a lot of rich work going on in those fields, work on how to work with these digital data that are available to us and the kinds of resources that we have at our disposal, but also the kinds of ways in which taxonomies occlude as much as they reveal. I’ve been thinking of organizing a series of discussions around the issue of collecting and the occult, for example, the occult sciences in collections. The occult sciences are historically connected to natural sciences with the Renaissance, but they also have interesting analogs and non-Latin contexts as well. Where do you find them, how do you organize them, and where do you place them in a kind of order of multitudes? That is a series of conversations that I’ve been looking into organizing. 

Allison Chu: This Sawyer Seminar has had to make some significant adaptations in the last year because of COVID-19. How has converting the seminar to a virtual project opened doors or presented challenges?

Travis Zadeh: There are so many challenges. Now that we’re halfway through a year, I really long for human interaction that’s not mediated through a screen, so I think the challenges seem more daunting now. Like all tools, there is the surplus and the deficit that we have. I think it’s really exciting that we can have an audience that’s well beyond our campus. That’s a very obvious benefit of staging a set of conversations and curating a set of interactions that otherwise would be very difficult and even parochial in the way that we’re framing them. Although when hosting a conversation we might aspire to have people from beyond the New Haven community involved, realistically, when we put people in a room, we’re limiting the physical capacities of others to interact. It’s been really rich to open up these conversations to beyond the confines of physical space. Speaking from my own personal experience of teaching and organizing events like these, I feel like there’s so much lost in human contact, attention, and focus. I really look forward to the time when we can all come back together.