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Jour Fixe: Cultural and Political History of Mirages

Jun 21, 2016

The Cluster held its second Jour Fixe in the summer term on June 30, 2016, at 4 pm at Karl Jaspers Centre. Prof. Christopher Pinney (UCL) gave a talk on the topic “The Waterless Sea: A Cultural and Political History of Mirages”. An introduction was given by Prof. Christiane Brosius and Sheba Chhachhi (Delhi) was the discussant.

Fata morgana have long astonished travellers, and “waterless seas” have beguiled thirsty desert voyagers. Complex cultural histories long predate the first English usage of the term “mirage” in 1800. Chinese and Japanese poetry and images depicted fata morgana as exhalations of clam-monsters, whereas Arab, Persian and Indian sources related “inferior” mirages to the “thirst of gazelles”, a metaphor for the nullity of desire. Mirages have been observed wherever there have been sufficient temperature gradients to generate the necessary refraction. This talk focused chiefly on eastern or “Oriental” mirages that frequently conjoin the desert, Islam and the Ottoman Empire. These emblematize the antithesis of Tocquevillean “spectatorial democracy” in which politics was positively correlated with transparency. Islam exemplified an occlusion of which the mirage became a negative, but also enchanted, emblem (on first seeing the Kaaba in Mecca Richard Burton refers to “the mirage medium of Fancy”). The conclusion explored the way in which recent fata morgana (eg ones seen in Guangdong in 2015) feed into modern conspiracy theories which repeat the clash between “spectatorial democracy” and its occluded other. Finally, the philosophical importance of mirages, which are “real” but not “true”, was explored.

Christopher Pinney is a Professor of Anthropology and Visual Culture at University College London. His publications combine contemporary ethnography with the historical archaeology of particular media (see eg. his monographs Camera Indica and Photos of the Gods). The Coming of Photography in India, based on the Panizzi Lectures was published by the British Library in October 2008. In 2013, he was honoured by the Government of India with he the Padma Shri, a prestigious Indian civilian award, for his contributions to the field of literature.

Sheba Chhachhi is a Delhi-based artist whose lens based works investigate gender, the city, cultural memory and eco-philosophy, often drawing on pre-modern myth and iconography. Chhachhi began as an activist and photographer, documenting the women’s movement in India, moving on to immersive multimedia installations in both site-specific public art and independent works. Her works are held in significant public and private collections, including Tate Modern, UK, Kiran Nadar Museum, Delhi, BosePacia, New York , Singapore Art Museum and National Gallery of Modern Art, India.

Prof. Dr. Christiane Brosius holds the chair of Visual and Media Anthropology at the Heidelberg Centre for Transcultural Studies.

The Jour Fixe is a regular event of the Cluster of Excellence "Asia and Europe in a Global Context" held two times during each semester. It is organised by the four research areas of the Cluster and their speakers Prof. Diamantis Panagiotopoulos (Area A), Prof. Christiane Brosius (Area B), Prof. Joachim Kurtz (Area C), and Prof. Monica Juneja (Area D).

Visit the Jour Fixe website for more information.


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  • Copyright: Christopher Pinney