Order of Multitudes

Thinking Beyond Academic Boundaries: A Conversation with Ayesha Ramachandran

Ayesha Ramachandran is an Associate Professor of Comparative Literature at Yale University, whose recent work focuses on Europe’s relationships with the expanding world in the early modern period and beyond. Her first book, The Worldmakers: Global Imagining in Early Modern Europe (2015), charted transnational encounters and the early mechanisms of globalization from the late fifteenth to the early eighteenth centuries, and won several major awards. Professor Ramachandran and I recently spoke about her research and her participation in the Sawyer Seminar project.  

Sarah Pickman: Can you speak about your academic background and research interests?

Ayesha Ramachandran: My background is somewhat unusual in that my Ph.D. is from the joint degree program in Renaissance Studies at Yale—one of these-now rare programs that are genuinely interdisciplinary. It was a little bit like doing a Ph.D.-and-a half, with a primary field, which for me was English literature, and work in three non-literary fields, which for me were history of science, history of art, and history of philosophy. I ended up having a diverse foundation academically and have always been interested in the interface, broadly, between cultural history and science and technology. My first book, The Worldmakers, was about how the concept “world,” as an idea of totality, came to be imagined, talked about, theorized, and represented, across a range of different disciplines. And a project like that, which was interested in the fundamental conceptual problem of how you imagine the whole world, necessarily drew on a variety of disciplinary approaches. But part of that project was also about reconstructing a time when disciplinary difference, as we understand it now, did not exist. So for example, we could think about a mapmaker like Mercator who is today known as a cartographer but who was trained as a jeweler’s assistant; he was a goldsmith. And it was his goldsmithing ability that actually allowed him to become a superb calligrapher and cut copperplate engravings. His first published work is a treatise on calligraphy, on lettering for maps. My interest in these figures, who themselves ranged across lots of different domains, matched my own intellectual trajectory, which has been interested in problems as opposed to specific disciplinary places or approaches.

SP: Building on that background, what kinds of projects are you working on currently?

AR: My other, more literary work at the moment is a project on the global lyric. I’m deeply interested in questions of cultural comparison, and specifically how we look at various kinds of cultural forms across radically different geographies and languages. Lyric poetry is something we consider to be so related to a particular language and a particular place, but are there ways in which we can talk about its cultural function and work across different languages and geographies? So I’m currently in the midst of writing a book about what I’m calling “lyric thinking,” which explores how different cultures in the early modern period all turned to lyric poetry in different ways to think about selfhood and the relationship of the individual to the social world.

SP: What do you see as things you want to contribute to the Sawyer Seminar from your own research and the kinds of things you’re interested in?

AR: One of the key questions I keep asking myself is not, “What discipline am I speaking from?” but rather, “What set of materials am I looking at? What about my broader intellectual training enables me to put together what sometimes seem like very disparate sets of materials?” For example, for my first book I did a lot of work on encyclopedias, cosmographies, atlases, and maps. For the Sawyer Seminar, the formation of the atlas and the encyclopedia in particular are frameworks that intersect with research I’ve already done and are ongoing interests in my teaching as well. The Sawyer Seminar connects to my interests in how atlases are used, how they were received, and how they become repositories of organizing information. But I also want to ask what kind of framework they offer us to make sense of what feels like heterogenous chaos in the world. There are lots of different ways to do this. One is narrative: novels, for instance, are one way in which people make meaning. We know this from figures as disparate as Lukács and Freud. But on the other hand, encyclopedias—Wikipedia and the New York Times—are also ways of making meaning. So I’m very interested in the specific cultural forms that the collation of information takes. And the Sawyer Seminar project is, at its heart, about this question.

SP: Why do you think it is important to be talking about how we manage information at this particular moment in time? Is there a particular urgency you see based on where our world is now?

AR: When it came to thinking about my current work, which has a few different axes, one of which is an interest in long histories of knowledge formation and what we are calling “big data” in terms of the Sawyer Seminar project, I wanted to think about how people curate materials that then, when put together in particular formations, make knowledge. The things we put next to each other and consider to be worth looking at or worth studying are the building blocks of where our knowledge comes from. And even in the midst of this pandemic, we see the same phenomenon in spades: there are some people who choose to look at this and say, “Well, this is actually fact, this is actually happening.” And then there are people who say that it’s a giant hoax, it’s not actual knowledge. I think that that fundamental question of what data we choose to look at and take seriously, and what relationships we want to understand, is something that’s playing out terrifyingly in real-time now. I’m interested in that question historically. I think at the moment we’re seeing how information is important, how its management and communication is so important.

SP: What parts of the Sawyer Seminar are you most excited about? Are there any specific programs or initiatives you’re especially looking forward to? 

AR: There are a few things I’d highlight. First, the biggest goal for me in this project is to build internal connections across different areas at Yale, and that’s in part why I’m so excited that our collaborators come from all of these different disciplines. We wouldn’t ordinarily come together to discuss a central question that bothers all of us in very different ways. Practically that means something like producing a podcast that takes listeners on a tour that brings together both the Yale University Art Gallery and the Yale Center for British Art, to look at the way knowledge-making practices happen. People often go to one or the other, but don’t think of the two together as a continuum. Or, thinking about how we can connect the Beinecke, the galleries, and the Peabody Museum to think about them as an itinerary of knowledge-making on the Yale campus itself. We’ve been thinking about doing courses that would be genuinely interdisciplinary, and we’ve hired a postdoctoral fellow whose job it will be to think about crafting a course that connects to Yale’s increasing interest in “data literacy”—how data is made and how it produces knowledge. The postdoctoral fellow might also have outward-facing outcomes, such as putting together an exhibit that would be both physical and virtual. The exhibit would focus on how we organize things in order to make meaning.

There’s a powerful pedagogical element to the Sawyer Seminar, there’s an outward-facing, community-oriented aspect to it, and then there’s another aspect of it which is simply to bring people into the same room who wouldn’t otherwise come together to talk about their shared interests. I’m hopefully going to be running a couple of events around the use of personal archives, which will bring together literary scholars, historians, ethnographers, anthropologists, journalists and even medical humanists who are really interested in dimensions of case histories—people who all dabble in that kind of personal archive but from very different perspectives. I hope we can reach a wide community within and beyond Yale and have people think about these questions across different disciplines.