Jenny Davidson talks to Daniel O’Quinn, author of Engaging the Ottoman Empire

JMD: Thank you for writing this remarkable book. I learned a huge amount from reading it, and it left me with a desire to delve deeper into its subject and read some of the intriguing primary texts you have amassed as the book’s corpus; many of them include images that are as important as the words they also mobilize. My first question has to do with how you now see the work the book has done of creating an archive and leveling a wide range of analytic tools on its contents. Early on you call the book’s effect “far more constellatory than cumulative”: “Rather than offering a grand narrative of European-Ottoman relations or a rigid conceptual framework to organize the archive,” you write, “I have chosen to explore a series of intimate encounters, some of which have large geopolitical ramifications, using the tools of microhistory and cultural analysis.” I thought this was a very good description of what the book does – and yet it downplays the extent to which the effect of your book overall is to create a grand narrative of sorts. How did you think about balancing the small and the large when you first started working on the book?

DO’Q: Thanks Jenny, for the kind words regarding the book and for your thoughtful questions; and thanks to Sarah and Crystal at The Rambling for making this interchange possible. With this first question, I feel like you have been looking over my shoulder for the last eight years because I don’t think a day went by when I wasn’t thinking about how to balance historical narrative and rhetorical analysis in this project. The close readings, of which there are many, share a certain stance and attitude, but I move variously across a wide range of media. I knew that I had to tell a story, or rather stories, in part because eighteenth-century studies as a whole remains relatively uninformed about Ottoman affairs and about Euro-Ottoman interactions more generally, and in part because the fine-grained analyses needed to be woven together so that readers could discern recurrent patterns of argument and explication. I spent a lot of time thinking about contemporary films and novels that brought together narratives with often disparate characters and moods into a cohesive formal and analytical whole. I don’t want this to sound grandiose, because I could never match these achievements, but Kluge’s Germany in Autumn and Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn were on my mind.

Scholars like Virginia Aksan, Suraiya Faroqhi, Palmira Brummett and others within Ottoman studies, who have written so compellingly about this period in a more conventional historical mode, made it possible for me to come to the texts and images with a different set of critical questions. I couldn’t see any way that I could bring the analytical intensity I wanted to achieve on an exhaustive survey of events and documents. For example, I realized early on that I wasn’t going to be able to deal with events in Cairo or Aleppo. Rather than a grand narrative, a nexus of intimate relationships links all the major actants in each section of the book. Because of the prevalence of diplomats and antiquarians, the book is primarily focused on Istanbul and on various sites in Greece and Asia Minor.

My primary objective was thus much more granular in that it focused on the mediation of intercultural sociability. My sense was that I could expand our understanding of both mediation and intercultural relations by closely attending to a number of interlocking archives, both textual and visual, that staged both intimate and geopolitically significant negotiations. My primary remit was to show how the affective dynamics of intercultural sociability could be derived from close attention to formal deformations in the materials I was analyzing, thus breaking down any simple separation of history and form. The project takes what has traditionally been the grandest possible narrative (imperial geopolitics) and relocates it at the level of affect, which I study not in terms of the sentiment/sympathy nexus that has dominated work on empire (and slavery), but in terms of formal distortion.

Part of the reason both the geopolitics and the affective dynamics look different here is that I am interrupting the grand narratives of eurocentrism/euro-supremacy/Orientalism that still dominate our field by studying a neglected history and archive in which Europe is not on top. European engagement with the Ottoman Empire in this period did not fall into recognizable patterns of European imperialism or colonialism, but rather operated according to structures of imitation and rivalry that were enacted in relation to recurrent outbreaks of war and peace. The size, longevity and organization of the Ottoman Empire provoked a high degree of anxiety or aspiration among the figures I consider in this book and those affectively unsettled states are always interesting to me.

As I say in the book, and as you’ve noted, Jenny, to my eye, the book’s overall effect is far more constellatory than cumulative. Obviously, the phrase constellation hearkens back to Benjamin, and as a form of counter-memory I wanted the links that join the elements in the constellation to speak to our present predicaments. To make this more palpable, I wanted the analytical decisions that aligned Vanmour’s use of allegory with Montagu’s rather different allegorical strategies to provide a productive sense of disjunction and contestation whose ultimate import had to do with gender and violence. A similar alignment links my analysis of Ainslie and Mayer’s resistance to Choiseul-Gouffier with my reading of Byron’s The Giaour, but there the concerns tilt more towards genre, sexuality and wartime. Although they follow a certain chronology, the links between these chapters are not primarily narrative, but rather harmonic. My hope is that the stories and analyses resonate across the volume without resolving into a reductive synthesis.

JMD: One reservation I had at times (reservation is probably too strong – let’s say “slight wariness”) concerned the subtlety and complexity of some of the book’s arguments: your reading of the allegorical dimensions of Montagu’s Letter-book, for instance, and the meaning of its silence about the siege and fall of Belgrade. It made me want you to be more forthcoming about how you see the individual agency and intentions and desires of authors, artists, printers, publishers: would you say that you find it most useful to consider each textual-visual artifact mostly in terms of its effects on readers and viewers rather than what the person or people who created it wanted it to say? How do you know that your readings are sufficiently like the responses of early readers to hold that kind of weight?

You offer an interesting qualification of your own around that Montagu example: after looking at the racist aspects of Montagu’s account of her visit to Carthage, a well-established site for imperial guilt from The Aeneid onwards, you say: “At this point my argument reaches its breaking point for it is difficult to do more than speculate about intention here; perhaps it is best to see this section of the text and my own desire to comprehend it within a narrative of self-critique as symptoms whose larger ramifications need to be recognized” (209). How might we go about describing such symptoms and begin to take account of their ramifications? I’m interested in your thoughts on critical or methodological tools that might help, and what this kind of approach can and can’t do.

DO’Q: There are multiple questions here and they arise from the rhetorical complexity of Montagu’s Letter-book, although I think we could trace similar interpretive problems in Vanmour’s paintings. When Teresa Heffernan and I edited the Letter-book for Broadview we argued that the Letter-book exhibits a deeply considered formal structure. That structure is laid out by Montagu herself in a table of contents of sorts, but my sense is that we have underestimated the complexity of her rhetorical strategies. The narrative gaps and the allegorical rehearsals of other narratives, most significantly from the Aeneid, are explicitly signaled by Montagu for her intimate circle of readers, and for us. Those early readers included Alexander Pope and Mary Astell; it is hard for me to imagine that Montagu’s frequent allusions and rehearsals of Virgil and Homer would have been invisible either to her immediate social circle or to Richard Chandler at mid-century or to Byron eighty years later. But it seems to me that the real problem here has to do with allegory itself; as allegory becomes increasingly complex, or, in Montagu’s favorite gesture, feinted at but not literalized, intention and agency impinge on the horizon of interpretation.

Because I work so much on the theatre, where fleeting topical allegory is often the name of the game, I’ve grown very aware of how vital fragmented allegory is to eighteenth-century aesthetic experience. In my discussions of Montagu, I argue that allegory provides a particularly auspicious strategy for her to claim authority, and thus one of the things I wanted to show was how these feints and subtle gestures allow her to stage a gendered critique of both epic form and journey literature that is necessarily surreptitious. When one reads Mary Astell’s remark on the Letter-book, which was eventually printed as a Preface, I would contend that you know that she knows, that she recognizes the Letter-book’s allegorical dimensions as a form of counter-memory. Chandler maybe not so much; but Byron’s identification with her seems telling.

As for the qualification of my own reading of Montagu’s letter from Carthage, all of my books have a moment like this one. I believe quite strongly that Montagu is staging her own complicity with imperial racism, but I also recognize that part of that belief is entangled with my own desires, with what Barthes would call a writerly engagement with the text. If I can bring the reader with me, draw them into a similar scene of desire, then I have established a collective relation to the past that necessarily impinges on our present condition. Establishing that shared sense, and yet acknowledging our part in its construction, is very important for me. Equally important was devising a way of contending with a particularly strong reading of the same scene in Letter 45, namely Srinivas Aravamudan’s brilliant analysis of this passage in Tropicopolitans. The long arc of my reading of Montagu in Chapter 3 and 4 takes me to the very place that Srinivas isolated as the sign of Montagu’s reversion to imperial norms. In light of the numerous criticisms, both subtle and blatant, of Whig imperial policy throughout the Letter-book, I suggest that Montagu adopts an explicitly racist position, a position that occurs nowhere else in this highly crafted text, in order to demonstrate her complicity, to make her reader feel the shameful cost of empire. That she does so by mobilizing Aeneas’s betrayal of Dido’s hospitality not only clarifies the pervasive allusions to Virgil across the Letter-book, but also brings the enactment of guilt into a textual paradigm well known to her immediate readers. After identifying so strongly with the speaking voice in the Letter-book, this gesture prompts an intense disidentification and thus the text forces a reckoning of sorts; it opens the very ground from which a condemnation of Montagu’s racism can be staged, and it underlines the constitutive relationship between betrayal, violence, and empire that she cannot evade as she returns to England.

In other words, the performance of racism is drawn up into a higher level of critique that interestingly undermines the very authority that Montagu is so at pains to establish throughout the text. It is a complex argument, one that undeniably ascribes intention to Montagu and yet retains the insight of Srinivas’s reading. For me, and hopefully those readers who are willing to come along, it is derived in part from an attempt to read the Letter-book as a coherent formal entity and in part from the very real desire on my part to understand how Montagu might help us understand the legacy of imperialism otherwise, for one of the undeniable implications of my contention is that critique of imperial violence requires both a rigorous critique of one’s own complicity and a disidentification from oneself. In a sense Montagu provided the model for making my own desires manifest at the end of Chapter 4.

JMD: A good deal of the book is devoted not just to relatively unfamiliar visual genres (the costume album, the architectural elevation) but to drawings, paintings, clusters of images and text that are effectively multi-media works, and you are especially interested in the “complex representational strategies” developed by artists who are working in a context where engaging with what one sees (the ruins of Ionia, for instance) “demanded thorough scrutiny of the relationship between culture and violence—both in the present and the past” (215). You also make a persuasive case that “the history of the dissemination of the information collected on [an] expedition—that is, the order in which the images and texts reached the public—is itself of historical and political significance” (216). I was reminded of Sara Suleri’s discussion of the pamphlets printed during and after the impeachment of Warren Hastings in The Rhetoric of English India, which I know you discuss in one of your earlier books. Is the commitment to this kind of material something that’s been important to you since you began graduate work, or has it come upon you more and more strongly as a central topic of interest?

DO’Q: My dissertation was on questions of alterity in De Quincey and Kant. De Quincey was one of the earliest and most trenchant readers of Kant’s work. That intertextual nexus offered a perfect place to think about the transit from human to animal to thing in the tropology of late-eighteenth and early nineteenth century racism and it allowed me to pursue ongoing interests in Foucault and Lyotard’s readings of Kant. By the time I finished that project I became increasingly aware that I wasn’t attending sufficiently to the larger archive of imperial policy and practice. Nor was I paying sufficient attention to those paying the cost for racist fantasy and action. My postdoctoral work centered on Equiano, Cuguano, and other abolitionist writers, but while I was at Cornell, largely due to contact with Laura Brown and her students, my interests became increasing global. Staging Governance: Theatrical Imperialism in London, 1770-1800 and Entertaining Crisis in the Atlantic Imperium are actually two parts of a single program of research focused on understanding how Britons came to understand publicly the transition from the first British Empire in the Atlantic world to the territorial empire in the Asian subcontinent. That has spawned a new project on the more intimate, affective relation to geopolitical change that I am struggling with now, but one of the important upshots of that earlier research was my induction if you will into the complex evidentiary problems posed by working on performance and theatre.

Sara Suleri’s book was an incredibly important intervention, but the focus on novels and pamphlets marked a significant limitation. My initial research indicated that East India Company affairs were intensely scrutinized across the mediascape and that the theatre and the daily press were far more hegemonic cultural sources than those chosen by Suleri. Attending to these more transient yet convergent media changes how one perceives the complex debates surrounding colonial governance and the fitful constitution of imperial subjectivity. In Staging Governance, I decided to focus on the performative repertoire that so strongly influenced public opinion and imperial policy, for it was in relation to performance that women had their say on the highly sexualized rhetoric mobilized during the Hastings debates. Burke and Sheridan’s performance in the House of Commons, Fanny Burney’s complex analysis of Burke’s performative persona, Elizabeth Inchbald’s longstanding critical engagement with the whole Hasting debacle, Mariana Starke’s extraordinary analyses of East India Company activity, and the strange performances of imperial supremacy at Astley’s Royal Amphitheatre provided an extraordinary glimpse of the anxieties and the fantasies instantiated by a radical re-orientation of British imperial policy.

Significantly, none of these developments in India policy could be separated from the American war, so I was formulating Entertaining Crisis at the same time. I knew that that book was going to address the matter of media convergence with far more rigor because I would be handling the theatre and newspapers as a dynamic cultural generator. What I hadn’t anticipated was the degree to which thinking about the diurnal/nocturnal relationship between the press and the theatre would blossom into a full-scale concern with sociability. Entertaining Crisis was written very much in dialogue with Gillian Russell’s brilliant book Women, Sociability and Theatre in Georgian London, which focused on a similar time frame. But the work of Joseph Roach, Kristina Straub, Lisa Freeman, Misty Anderson and many others in their wake has radically changed how we think about eighteenth-century culture because their palpable investments in performance studies have introduced new evidentiary procedures for analyzing phenomena once thought too ephemeral for discussion.

As soon as one opens the scene of sociability to the methodological concerns of performance studies both the archive and the repertoire drastically expand, and new strategies of reading emerge. That two-fold expansion and emergence was incredibly helpful for Engaging the Ottoman Empire because it allowed me to follow patterns of intercultural sociability across a wide array of historical situations. To put it somewhat reductively, it allowed me to address the mediation of the Treaty of Karlowitz and Montagu’s representation of Ottoman state processions in the same analytical frame while maintaining their historical specificity. Furthermore, Engaging the Ottoman Empire emerged from editorial work on Montagu’s Letter-book, on Elizabeth Craven’s A Journey through the Crimea to Constantinople, and on The Travels of Mirza Abu Taleb Khan. Mirza Abu Taleb dropped out of the project, but I remain very committed to working on the various Muslim travelers who visited Britain and France over this period because intercultural encounters demand a heightened awareness about our historical and theoretical assumptions. Humberto Garcia is writing on this material in a systematic fashion at the moment and that publication is going to be incredibly important.

But to come back to your question, I guess it is evident that I’m pretty committed to this violent non-traditional archive and to this unfamiliar repertoire: once one sees these things, they can’t be unseen. But violence poses extremely challenging theoretical questions for what we do: questions pertaining to the limits of form and representation, to matters of historical complicity, to the affective dynamics of economic and political domination and subjugation. Much of my work has revolved around matters of wartime affect; Engaging the Ottoman Empire feels like my most sustained attempt to understand the precarity of life as it permeates the mediascape.

JMD: The book incorporates well over a hundred images, almost all of them new to me: there are 27 color plates and something like 103 black-and-white images integrated into the text. How did you learn to be such a subtle reader of non-verbal materials?

DO’Q: I’m sure there are many who would question my facility with non-verbal materials, but I hope it isn’t too embarrassing to say passion. I love to look, to engage in the kind of thought instigated by visual media. This has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. I have a strong visual memory and try to see as much as I can see. I’ve learned an immense amount from art historians, people like T.J. Clark, Svetlana Alpers, Michael Baxandall, Rosalind Krauss, David Solkin, and from a host of film scholars; my first journal subscription was to October. But more than anything else I’ve learned to open myself to visual problematics by working alongside the Studio Art program at the University of Guelph. Guelph has the finest MFA program in Canada and about 20 years ago the brilliant photographer Suzy Lake asked me to start coming to crits. The sustained, intense time spent looking at the work of these emerging artists and listening to the colloquy generated by the faculty in an effort to help them realize their objectives is the best part of my job. They allow me in as a kind of interested amateur, as a representative gallery-goer ostensibly seeing their work cold in a gallery setting as opposed to the studio. What they probably don’t fully grasp, because they are resolving their own research problems, is that they have accorded me an incalculable gift, the gift of pleasureful thought.

That said, it is important to state that this book demanded that I go back to school. I had wanted to write a thin book about intercultural performance by focusing on the myriad accounts of European diplomats being brought before the Sultan, but because the protocols for these meetings were so strict and long-standing that part of the book became only a short section of the Introduction. In a moment of intense tedium at the National Archives at Kew—diplomatic correspondence isn’t all it is cracked up to be—I realized that Sir Robert Ainslie, the British Ambassador to the Sublime Porte in the late eighteenth century, had this extraordinary working relationship with an Italian artist named Luigi Mayer. When I went to the British Museum and called for the bound volume of Mayer’s extraordinary watercolors, I realized that I had to write about them. Indeed, my favorite chapter in the book is really about Mayer’s gorgeous watercolor drawing of the Achilles sarcophagus in Ephesus. Many of the book’s strands–its interest in the affective cost of war, my sustained engagement with epic form, the constant return to scenes of desire and intercultural sociability—are all tied together in that drawing. This chapter was one of the earliest parts of the book drafted and it provided a model for all the others: without it I couldn’t have written the Byron chapter some six years later.

Finally, I received a lot of help from curators, especially Kim Sloan at the British Museum and Eveline St. Nicolaas at the Rijksmuseum. With a couple of searching interventions during a workshop at the British Museum, the former quickly instructed me on the importance of precise terminology and an understanding of technique and genre. That workshop was an unbelievable experience. I was presenting on the Dilettanti materials in Chapter 5, so the museum, unbeknownst to me, arranged for all, and I mean all, of the relevant drawings and artifacts to be present in the room with us. Being humbled before the evidence by a rigorous yet generous set of interlocutors was very salutary: not only did I learn a great deal from the assembled art historians, classicists, and literary scholars, but I also discerned how my work could operate productively alongside their disciplinary expertise. Eveline’s influence was different: she kindly showed me every Vanmour painting in the stores of the Rijksmuseum while it was under renovation, and the conversation that ensued as we pulled each rack of paintings out was so helpful in part because we came to the work from very different places. I had to test and check my sense of the work with someone who had spent a significant part of her career caring for the paintings. It is my hope that some of that sense of care and enthusiasm infuses Chapter 2 and 3. Like Eveline, I strongly feel that these paintings are aesthetically important beyond their ostensible exoticism or illustrative qualities.

JMD: And finally, what was it like to compile such a gigantic collection of images? How many archives did you visit, and in how many countries? And can you tell the readers of The Rambling a little more about the process of selection and of securing quality reproductions and permissions? What would you tell an early-career scholar who thinks that their article or book project is moving towards including an unusually high number of images?

DO’Q: Well, the truth of the matter is that images are far more available than they were in the past. When I wrote Staging Governance I was still cranking my way through the microfilm of the British Museum’s collection of satirical prints. Now the entire collection is on-line with Dorothy George’s incredible commentary built right in. Most major institutions have digitized their collections and many museums have adopted fair use policies or even made high resolution images free for academic use with proper accreditation. For example, the Rijksmuseum has put most of its images into the public domain, so the Vanmour reproductions were readily available. That said, being in the presence of the work is very important; some of the pictures and objects in the book are very difficult to see in person and some of the engraved books are very expensive to reproduce. Antoine-Ignace Melling’s paintings and drawings are quite dispersed and often in private collections. I got lucky in that the most important Melling painting for my argument was on display at a public museum in Switzerland and that the drawings I needed were accessible through Sotheby’s.

The project took me to collections in the US, the UK, the Netherlands, France, and Italy; without the support of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada that would not have been possible. I’ve already mentioned how revelatory my trip to the Rijksmuseum was, but the biggest archival thrills were textual. After endless hours and multiple trips to the UK to try to find meaningful material in the Foreign Office records at the National Archives at Kew regarding the Karlowitz negotiations I discovered that Lord Paget’s private papers were collected separately at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). That correspondence was utterly amazing and SOAS is a wonderful place to work. Handling Montagu’s Letter-book also fundamentally changed how I understood the text: only by holding it in my hand did I understand it as product of social authorship. Likewise reading through Ruzzini’s collection of Karlowitz documents at the Marciana Library in Venice and coming across his hand-drawn map showed me a route forward that I otherwise would not have considered.

My experience throughout this project was that librarians and curators are by nature generous and by profession curious about what you are doing. The staff at the Getty and at the rare books library at UCLA were tremendous. I had a really lovely afternoon at the Royal Institute of British Architects library in the Victoria and Albert Museum when the chief curator saw that I had spent much of my week calling for James Stuart’s drawings from the expedition that would result in The Antiquities of Athens. We had a long discussion about Stuart; I knew very little about architecture, but he sensed my enthusiasm and really helped me on my way. Sometimes this interest comes across at a distance: my enquiries about the Achilles Sarcophagus at Woburn Abbey yielded a warm reception and the curator provided photographs the next day.

The research for this project was a lot of fun and the permissions side of things was surprisingly OK. One thing I discovered was that because engraved books exist in multiple copies it is possible to shop around for the least expensive arrangement. I first encountered Melling’s Voyage pittoresque de Constantinople et des rives du Bosphore at the Teylers Museum in Haarlem, but their reproduction policy was prohibitive. The Getty on the other hand had the page images I needed available for free. So, there’s one piece of advice: research multiple sources for images to find the best alternatives in terms of cost and quality. That said, Engaging the Ottoman Empire was expensive to produce and required a publication subvention.

Second piece of advice: build in funds or seek funds for anticipated subvention costs on the front end. I had to scramble quite a bit in the home stretch. I was able to pay that subvention from professional development money earmarked for updating my office computer at work. So I’m banging away on a very old laptop about a very elegantly designed new book: a happy trade-off. I owe a lot to my editor Jerry Singerman and the people at the University of Pennsylvania Press: they embraced the visual side of the project from the outset and did everything they could to make all of the images as legible as possible. To my eye almost every image is presented at sufficient scale to match my sometimes hyper-detailed analysis. I couldn’t have asked for better editorial guidance. I guess that is a final piece of advice: thoroughly research which presses excel at incorporating images in their books and discuss the question of images candidly at the outset with the editor. I have no doubt that every project poses different challenges, but a supportive press will bring years of experience and a wealth of knowledge to bear on whatever issues might arise.

Daniel (Danny) O’Quinn is a Professor of English and Theatre Studies at the University of Guelph. He is the author, most recently, of Engaging the Ottoman Empire: Vexed Mediations, 1690-1815 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018).

5 Questions With Jenny Davidson is a regular column of The Rambling Reads that features conversations with authors of recently published works. If you’ve recently published a book and would like to be interviewed, please get in touch with us.

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