Mapping Immigrant History through Posters

Students researching and discussing the languages, dates, and locations of the show card posters from the Firschein Press of Brooklyn, New York, now part of The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life at UC Berkeley.


“It belongs in a museum!”: Thing Theory & Cultural Objects

Let’s start with Indiana Jones:

In his essay on “Thing Theory,” University of Chicago Professor of American Culture, Bill Brown, states:

We begin to confront the thingness of objects when they stop working for us: when the drill breaks, when the car stalls, when the window gets filthy, when their flow within the circuits of production and distribution, consumption and exhibition, has been arrested, however momentarily. The story of objects asserting themselves as things, then, is the story of a changed relationship to the human subject and thus the story of how the thing really names less an object than a particular subject-object relation. As they circulate through our lives, we look through objects (to see what they disclose about history, society, nature, or culture – above all, what they disclose about us), but we only catch a glimpse of things.

Examples of “objects” becoming “things” that we have thus far confronted in this class apply to two distinct categories:

  1. The unintended uses of technology: how we discuss, critique, manipulate, and re-purpose applications, and code, to achieve results other than the ones they were originally designed for
  2. Cultural objects in collections (Archives, Libraries, Museums), as distinct from said objects in their original context–which is often that of commodities. Museification is, in this respect, “memory work” that causes a disruption in the biography of things

Do cultural objects “belong in a museum”? Why? Do they remain “objects” once relieved of their primary function, or do they “perform” that function in the context of the museum itself?

Here’s a quick HT to René Magritte (you can read a full description on the LACMA website):


Our sources for the week:

  • Igor Kopytoff, “The Cultural Biography of Things,” in The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective (1986): 64–90
  • Bill Brown, “Thing Theory,” Critical Inquiry 28/1 (Autumn, 2001): 1-22

And, let’s close with (a young) Indiana Jones:

Coincidence? I Think Not… (Carlo Ginzburg’s Clues on “Clues”)

This week, we focus on Carlo Ginzburg’s essay, Clues (aka, “Clues: Roots of an Evidential Paradigm,” of Carlo Ginzburg’s, Clues, Myths and the Historical Method, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1989).

Ginzburg’s own clues about Clues are in the way the two open quotations are printed in the text: the “sources” are in Italics, unaccompanied by any footnotes (unlike in the rest of the essay):

Carlo Ginzburg, Clues: Opening Quotations

The lack of footnotes, as well as the cursive font, are likely clues of the fact that each quote, is “attributed to” each individual source. In fact, both quotes are virtually untraceable. A rewriting should read as follows

God is in the detail. A. Warburg
Attributed to Aby Warburg

An object which speaks of the loss, of the destruction, of the
disappearance of objects. It does not speak of itself. It speaks of others. Will it also include them? J. Johns
Attributed to Jasper Johns via John Cage’s Jasper Johns: Stories and Ideas, included in A Year from Monday: New Lectures and Writings, 1969. 

Thanks to the power of the Internet, one can also listen to John Cage’s reading of Jasper Johns: Stories and Ideas on the Internet Archive (but this auditory experience was not part of the original 1989 text):

Coincidence? I think not…

Now, try to find a reliable source for the “coincidence, I think not” meme 😉

Themes, Variations, Diasporas and (Mind)Maps

This week, we approached culture in diaspora under the rubric of theme and variations.

Our core case studies were: 

  • Exercises in Style (1947) by Raymond Queneau (1903-1976), a collection of 99 variations on a basic narrative–the question of how “basic” Queneau’s narrative is still lingers, however, and we thus referred to it as the “core” narrative upon/around which the 99 stylistic variations are built.
  • Johann Sebastian Bach’s Goldberg Variations (published in 1741), the “mother” of all theme-and-variations, given both its complexity and the fact that its variations also act as a musical/cultural anthology of sorts.

We pointed to two (well, perhaps three) elements of interest.

Moving away from the idea of building musical variations on a melodic theme, Bach used the bass line, rather than the melody, of the introductive Aria as the generative structure (or “core” narrative structure) upon which each of the ensuing 30 variations were composed. This approach tends to make the elements of continuity within the structure of the variations somewhat imperceptible to the listener. By connecting the variations via an underlying inaudible structure, Bach was thus able to use the variation as a template to build upon the stylistic canons of music past and present, crafting each individual variation as a summa of diverse musical ideas. The GV stand before us as both an anthology (or “collection,” a museum of sorts) of musical thought, and an archive of the invisible. We will investigate the related notions of collections, archives, and invisibility, in the coming weeks. For now, we focus on how to recognize patterns that tie together seemingly unrelated narrative units, and therefore how to “map” a unified atlas of cultural diversity.

In continuing to explore musical connections, we also examined how Uri Caine designed an innovative, yet faithful, approach to Bach’s Goldberg Variations under the sign of cultural hybridity (2000).

Through Josh Kun’s “Introduction” to Audiotopia, we connected hybridity and American popular culture.

Kun pointed us to Pete Seeger’s cultural manifesto, All Mixed Up (1955), which is always worthwhile listening to:

Kun also exposes the agenda of cultural (musical) hybridity in a contested political space. This allowed us to bring our opening theme — the relationship between culture in movement and the status of stateless refugees, displaced persons, and “undocumented” immigrants — back into our conversation. The “two countries” celebrated, and deeply questioned, by Los Tigres del Norte, pointed us to notions of cultural (when not existential) hybridity, of poly-identity, and multiplicity, which are inherent to diasporas.

Can the structure of diasporas be explained in terms of invisible themes and hybrid variations?

Can diasporas (and cultures in motion) ever be “mapped,” or is their natural fluidity resisting such attempts?

In order to answer these questions, we worked on the etymological hybridity of the constellation of concepts that surround the notions of diaspora. Thus, the overlapping and conflicting notions of diaspora, as dispersion and as exile, as loss of political referents and of divine protection, and the meanings acquired by the word, diaspora (including its etymology), provided us with a series of theoretical questions.

Among other things, we noted how the word diaspora, a Greek noun initially used to described the dispersion of the Jews, appears in most language in its Greek form, while in Hebrew it corresponds to a series of terms that share very little with their universally used Greek correspondent.

Diaspora: Meaning

The challenges in “mapping out” (or explaining) the cultural hybridity of diaspora also provided us with a series of practical issues. Here’s an attempt to map Jewish diaspora through time and space. It is presented in the form of a “mind map,” and is the work of the artist Ward Shelley (b. 1950).

Ward Shelley's Jewish Diaspora Painted Mindmap

In a related fashion, we then proceeded to examine, and to test, a variety of mind mapping tools.

We started from a very useful Wikipedia chart:

List of concept- and mind-mapping software (Wikipedia)

We evaluated available options, their pros and cons, discussed technical needs and software adoption issues, and installed software on our laptops/mobile devices. This way, we were able to test if, and how, mind-mapping tools can be used to recognize patterns (and thus, “map”), with the goal of applying them to our initial examples of theme and variations (from Queneau to Bach)…

In class, we directly tested two mind mapping platforms:

We will continue to refer back to these tools in the coming weeks, as we proceed to explore and evaluate new ones.

Meanwhile, here’s my own “mindmap” describing the first weeks of our course:

Mapping Diasporas MindMap1 (work in progress)

Mapping the Library of Babel

First: read Borges’ Library of Babel (and Eco’s Name of the Rose, or at least watch the movie), paired with Benjamin’s Mimetic Faculty.

Second: talk about labyrinths.

Take a break.

Third: open a box of unreadable books and figure out a way to organize them.

Everyone seemed to be playing along 

Writing/Thinking/Curating about Diasporas: A (Dis)Orientation (Class #1)

As we confront the theme of culture in motion this semester, I’d like to share one of the ways in which I have been writing, thinking, and curating diasporic cultural heritage. Consider it as an icebreaker, not as a “template.”

Below is a selection of cards excerpted from the texts I created a few years ago for the exhibition, mima’amaqim | from the depths of collections, with art by Bay Area artist, David Wilson. This collaborative exhibition was presented at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco (July 30, 2015-January 3, 2016), in the context of the series In That Case: Havruta in Contemporary Art, curated by Renny Pritkin.

The cards explore varied and conflicting notions of diaspora, in relationship to words, texts, people, and objects. Here are a few examples:

diaspora | di·as·po·ra | dīˈaspərə/

diaspora is a greek word. it means scattering, of seed. usually, “seed” is understood as “sperm,” thus the genetic implication of the scattering of a people. but a botanical explanation may work equally well. if one has in mind how farmers used to spread seeds on a field, by scattering them with a fanning gesture of their arm. it’s a theatrical gesture. it’s a display of seed.

Creative Commons License francesco spagnolo, 2015

diaspora | golah | galut

in hebrew, diaspora is usually rendered as golah or galut. here, the traditional understandings of the word — ranging from “expulsion” to “captivity” to, of course, “exile” (which is both, in a way) — are not enough, and the conversation must go further. an implication of this word may instead have a lot to do with “nudity” and “exposure.” even ezekiel (ch. 12), who obsesses with the word golah, seems to suggest that exile involves being exposed to the sight, and specifically to the eyes, of others.

Creative Commons License francesco spagnolo, 2015


diaspora is to be seen.

Creative Commons License francesco spagnolo, 2015

biographies in diaspora

life in diaspora is life in motion.

is writing the biography of a diasporic artist all that different from writing that of a diasporic object? in describing the magnes collection, i’ve left behind most conventions. artists no longer have “nationalities,” even when they do carry a passport (some carry more than one, others none at all). their biographies are told, sparsely, by the dates that frame their lifespan and, even more importantly, by the territories, countries, and sometimes cities, in which they lived and worked.

take abram krol, the artist who donated the original etching plate of his portrait of isaac bashevis singer to the magnes in 1997 [Acc. no. 97.14]. according to, he is Abram Krol (French, born 1919). and if one follows, he was instead Abraham (Abram) Krol (Polish, 1919-2001). in his full diasporic biography, in his life within the jewish world, this visionary artist who crossed from hassidism to cubism is better described as Abraham (Abram) Krol (Poland, France & Nazi-occupied France, 1919-2001).

nationalities do not necessarily matter here. quite paradoxically, in diaspora, it is instead the sense of place that truly matters.

the same is true of objects. material culture in diaspora always belongs to many a place. the very materials that make a ritual object often come from different parts of the world — among my favorites @magnes are torah ark curtains, one of which combines an inscription from ukraine with a textile from india, where it was used by jews from iraq… the biography of diasporic objects does not stop at their materials, though. it includes that of the (often unnamed) makers, of those to which the objects were dedicated (this is the case of many ritual objects), and of those who used them. and each of these biographies may very well bring together an array of places, of individual paths, of narratives.

the biography of objects and of people in diaspora is not a trajectory — from here, to there. it’s a network — a network of places.

 Creative Commons License francesco spagnolo, 2015