By Lee Sandberg
Suzanne Conklin Akbari, widely recognized for her intellectual range and interdisciplinary accomplishments in the field of Medieval Studies, will join the Faculty of the School of Historical Studies at the Institute for Advanced Study, effective July 1, 2019.
Specializing in medieval literature, Akbari is involved in various projects to expand the range and methods of exploring texts from the Middle Ages, including a new Mellon Foundation–funded study of “The Book and the Silk Roads,” and is the author and editor of several landmark publications. She is currently Professor of English and Medieval Studies and Director of the Centre for Medieval Studies at the University of Toronto—the largest and best-known program of its kind in North America—and continues to serve as a doctoral student advisor. Her research there has focused on the intersection of English and comparative literature, ranging from Neoplatonism and science in the twelfth century to national identity and religious conflict in the fifteenth century.
“Suzanne has redefined the standard model of studying the Middle Ages. Her innovative and inclusive approach ventures beyond preconceived boundaries, bringing the variegated cultures and traditions of the time into conversation with one another and offering a unique and global perspective of the past,” stated IAS Director and Leon Levy Professor Robbert Dijkgraaf. “Undoubtedly, the comparative and expansive nature of her work will produce fascinating connections across the disciplines at IAS, and as a literary studies scholar, Suzanne’s arrival will mark an exciting new beginning for the School of Historical Studies.”
Her first monograph, Seeing Through the Veil: Optical Theory and Medieval Allegory (University of Toronto Press, 2004), is a study that explores the affinities between allegory and vision, making the fundamental claim that medieval theories of knowledge are closely related to optical theories. In a work encompassing science, philosophy, literature, and art history, Akbari traces the evolving relationship between sight and knowledge as manifested in a range of poetic texts.
Akbari’s second monograph, Idols in the East: European Representations of Islam and the Orient, 1100–1450 (Cornell University Press, 2009), takes on the audacious task of exploring the relationship between Islam and Christianity through the lens of various medieval texts, philosophical treatises, works of art, maps, historical chronicles, and encyclopedias. Her investigation reveals how medieval European Christian writers and readers understood and explained the differences they saw between themselves and the Muslim “Other” and illuminates the tangled relationship between colonial attitudes and modern racism and anti-Semitism.
“Suzanne’s scholarship is not only marked by an extensive engagement with distinct aspects of literary theory, but also driven by what may be described as an experimental tension that, emanating from deep and extensive textual knowledge, pushes the boundaries of traditional readings and takes the object (a text, a corpus, even a canon) onto new shores,” stated Nicola Di Cosmo, Luce Foundation Professor in East Asian Studies. “Her work continues to reveal new meanings and points of entry into a past that, as she reminds us, remains relevant to our present.”
Each one of the four edited volumes she has produced to date has been praised as a venture in a new direction. How We Write: Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blank Page (Punctum Books, 2015)—rather than serving as an instruction manual—features essays by thirteen authors reflecting on their own unique writing processes, highlighting its messiness, moments of discovery, and unpredictability. A Sea of Languages: Rethinking the Arabic Role in Medieval Literary History (University of Toronto Press, 2013), is a collection of essays that interpret the medieval world from a distinct “Mediterranean” perspective, challenging the notion of medieval European literature’s insularity and highlighting the influence of Arabic poetry, music, and philosophy. The Ends of the Body: Identity and Community in Medieval Culture (University of Toronto Press, 2013) reveals the various uses and meanings of the body as shaping private and public spaces, personal identities, and whole communities. Marco Polo and the Encounter of East and West (University of Toronto Press, 2008) confronts the ingrained concept of binary opposition between East and West, offering a perspective of cultural, economic, and linguistic exchange rather than conquest and conflict.
“From childhood, I have been fascinated by the Institute’s very special combination of complete intellectual freedom and a multidisciplinary environment that ranges from mathematics to the sciences to the humanities,” stated Akbari. “Joining this community of researchers will, I am certain, push me in unexpected directions and unleash new sources of creativity. I am both honored and delighted to join the School of Historical Studies.”
Akbari is currently working on two new monographs, which further evidence the contributions of literature to historical thought. The first book, Small Change: Metaphor and Metamorphosis in Chaucer and Christine de Pizan, surveys the phenomenon of change as it was understood in England and France in the years around 1400. The second work, The Shape of Time, will examine the structure of world histories written between the First Crusade and the fall of Constantinople in order to take stock of how premodern people saw themselves situated in history, providing useful insight into medieval perspectives on temporality, as well as casting a light on our own ways of conceptualizing our historical moment—what is “modern” and what is “medieval.”
While Akbari’s research has often been conveyed through writing, she has found in lectures—specifically her Literary Tradition class—the power to captivate and share the emotion of reading with students. Seeking to capture this feeling of spontaneity and excitement as inspired by the written word, and to provoke the desire to read, she has created and hosts with a former student, Chris Piuma, “The Spouter-Inn,” a literature podcast and forum to talk, laugh, think, and wonder, which airs on megaphonic.fm.
Akbari earned a B.A. from Johns Hopkins University in 1984. She went on to study at Columbia University, earning an M.A. in English (1989) and an M.Phil. and Ph.D. in English and Comparative Literature (1991 and 1995). She has received numerous grants in support of her work, including an award from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Insight Grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, and the Chancellor Jackman Research Fellowship in the Humanities.
She is a Member of various professional societies including the Medieval Academy of America, BABEL Working Group, Modern Language Association, Canadian Society of Medievalists, American Comparative Literature Association, and the New Chaucer Society.
Top Image: Photo of Suzanne Conklin Akbari – courtesy the Institute for Advanced Study