It’s finally here! Or, in fact, I’m finally here: the past week or so I have been in the States. How did this come to be? A few months ago my esteemed post-doctoral colleague at the University of Groningen, Inger Kuin, asked me whether I wanted to submit an abstract for a conference that she was organizing at Stanford University(!). The conference, entitled ‘DocuMentality’, concerned the function and significance of documents (in the broadest sense of the word) in the Imperial Age. Even though this period is quite far outside of my expertise, she was enthusiastic about my research and what I could bring to the conference – so of course, I could not resist this generous invitation. I submitted an abstract and was subsequently accepted to the conference.
The conference itself was last weekend; it consisted of a small group of about fifteen people, among whom such grand figures as John Bodel and Mireille Corbier(!), which allowed for a somewhat intimate setting in which we were able to discuss all contributions thoroughly. I have to say it was amazing to see these experts at work, and to be able to contribute, even in a minor way, to discussions at this table. The grand location of Stanford University was of course immensely inspiring. I think most of us took away a lot from the discussions: especially the theoretical framework chosen by the organizers, offered by the work of the philosopher Maurizio Ferraris who coined the term Documentality, was very stimulating to think with. Ferraris treats documents as social objects (as opposed to physical or ideal objects), which allows us to see them as physical traces of immaterial acts or even memories. Looking at documents in this way certainly changes the way we see the emergence of documents in the ancient world, and the increasing bureaucracy of the Imperial age.
After the conference I stayed for two extra days in Palo Alto to explore the Stanford libraries, and also to meet up with Josiah Ober, since ideas from his book Democracy and Knowledge feature quite prominently in my dissertation work thus far. Needless to say, this was a very exciting meeting. Ober was, I think, enthusiastic about my ideas, and also managed to give some useful pointers. After this, I spent another day sightseeing in nearby San Francisco – and then it was already time to get on another plane and fly to Boston, from where I took a bus to Providence (Rhode Island) where I am now.
In Providence, I’m visiting Brown University, where my second supervisor Graham Oliver is located. I’m staying in an apartment close to the campus with Jessica, an extremely kind anthropology graduate student, with whom I was generously put into contact by one of the DocuMentality conference organizers who studied at Brown. I met with Graham, of course, and am working on my dissertation in the Brown library for the following few days. As we (Onno, Graham and I) have now definitively decided to work with a number of local case studies instead of a comprehensive epigraphic corpus, I have decided to use the island polis Kos, with its interesting doctor-decrees and asylia texts, as the first one. I am currently taking a first look into the available epigraphic material, and reading up on the history of the place.
The weekend is coming up, during which I will not be working on the dissertation as much: I am planning to take a trip to the RISD museum in downtown Providence, which is supposed to be very good. I am also making time for quite another cultural experience: Jessica alerted me to the existence of the ‘Jack-o-Lantern Spectacular’ at the local zoo, a yearly exposition of the most spectacular collection of carved Halloween pumpkins in the country. It will be riveting, I am certain. On Monday, Graham and his wife Mary have kindly invited me over for dinner at their home – and the day after that, I will already be flying back home.
I have to say I am finding all of this quite an experience, but it is also going by very quickly, since I am only here for all of twelve days in total. I certainly hope to be returning to the States for a more leisurely stay at some point.