Fellows' Spotlight: Chiara Graf

Submitted by Sonja Johnston on Wed, 01/29/2020 - 13:15

Chiara Graf is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Classics and a 2019-2020 Chancellor Henry N.R. Jackman Graduate Fellow in the Humanities. Her research while at the JHI is titled "Wisdom and Other Feelings: Affect, Knowledge, and the Senecan Subject" - an examination of the relationship of affect and natural science in the works of the Roman philosopher, scientist, and tragedian Lucius Annaeus Seneca (c.1 BCE-65 CE). She asks a number of questions:

  • What feelings arise in the face of unexpected, beautiful, or frightening natural phenomena?
  • What can these feelings teach us?
  • How can we harness them towards ethical thought and action?

Chiara argues that affect can provide routes to knowledge and define the subject’s relationship to the cosmos. Her research draws heavily on the history of science, the study of ancient literature, and modern philosophy and critical theory.

As we open the call for applications for next year's Chancellor Henry N.R. Jackman Graduate Fellow, I asked Chiara to reflect on her JHI experience.

Chiara Graf Portrait

JHI: Why did you apply for a JHI Fellowship?

CG: I applied for a JHI fellowship because my research is fundamentally interdisciplinary. I approach ancient scientific and philosophical texts as works of literature: I look for their emotionally charged, descriptive passages, and I think about the rhetoric they employ to make their scientific or philosophical points. I also often draw upon modern critical theory, especially affect theory, as a way of interpreting the ancient texts I work on. For this reason, I thought my research could benefit from an interdisciplinary fellowship like the JHI.

JHI: What experiences were you hoping for?

CG: When I applied for a JHI fellowship, I was hoping for the chance to exchange ideas with scholars from a variety of disciplines. Those expectations have definitely been met, and it’s been amazing to learn about the wide array of innovative projects the fellows are working on. What I wasn’t expecting was the exciting range of “extracurricular” activities we’ve been able to participate in. From reading and discussing Amitav Ghosh’s new novel, to flipping through nineteenth century ship’s logs in the Thomas Fischer Rare Book Library, there have been so many opportunities to engage with our topic, “Strange Weather,” in lateral and interesting ways.

JHI: How has being at the JHI added to your research?

CG: Being at the JHI has exposed me to a vast array of literature and scholarship on the environmental humanities. It’s striking how much modern environmental humanities literature, written in response to the climate crisis, resonates with ancient literature on the natural world. As a group, we’ve read and discussed works by such authors as Dipesh Chakrabarty and Amitav Ghosh. These thinkers raise questions like, to what extent had environmental catastrophe forced us to reconsider the status of human rationality? In my dissertation, I argue that Seneca, writing in the first century CE, is concerned with this same question. It’s been very exciting to get to draw these connections between ancient and modern understandings of our relationship to nature and the environment.

JHI: Has the interaction with other Fellows informed your research and if so, how?

CG: Definitely! It was such a privilege to present my work to the other fellows and hear their feedback. My research concerns affect and emotion, and, as it turns out, many of the other fellows are also working on this topic, though from different angles: for example, Daniel McNeil encouraged me to think a bit more on shame, a topic he has worked on, and Judith Brunton has written extensively about hope. The other fellows here are doing some really engaging and cutting-edge work, and our weekly discussions have been very inspiring!