Interview with Postdoctoral Visiting Fellow Jonathan Dentler

September 28, 2023

We're thrilled to introduce Dr. Jonathan Dentler, our latest Visiting Fellow at the GHI. An expert with a wide-ranging academic portfolio, Dr. Dentler's specialties span from Transatlantic and Global History to the History of Science, Media, Museums and Collections, and even Art History.

Jonathan Dentler joined the GHI as a Visiting Fellow in September 2023. He arrived from Paris, where he was a Terra Foundation for American Art Postdoctoral Fellow (2020-2022) and a postdoctoral researcher associated with the “Early Conflict Photography and Visual AI” (EyCon) project (2022-2023). In 2020, he received a Ph.D. in History from the University of Southern California, where he also earned a graduate certificate in Visual Studies. At the GHI, he will be working on his project, "Submerged Ties: The Atlantis Myth and the Lure of Analogy, 1860-1970."

Join us as we delve into a captivating conversation with Dr. Dentler, exploring his academic insights, experiences at the GHI, and his personal journey that has shaped him into the Post Doc Fellow he is today.

Can you tell us a little about your academic career prior to the GHI?

Jonathan Dentler: As you pointed out, my post-graduate career has been centered in Paris. I did my bachelors at Columbia University where I concentrated in philosophy and American cultural history. I also studied German, and after I graduated, I went to Berlin on a DAAD fellowship to study at the Humboldt Universität zu Berlin. At the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, I changed gears somewhat, and became interested in news photography. I had always used the press as a source of evidence but began to realize that I was interested in the press itself as an object of historical study. My dissertation is a global history (though with particular focus on the transatlantic world) of wire service photography from about 1920-1950. Through the Visual Studies Research Institute, I worked with scholars from many disciplines, particularly art historians, which enlarged my methodological tool kit for approaching press photography and technical images. My dissertation work led me to the community of historians and scholars of photography, which is particularly strong in Paris. I built connections there, and this led to my first postdoc in 2020.

What made you apply to GHI?

JD: This fellowship seems to combine the virtues of a self-directed or autonomous situation, a residency in which one can develop research together with a cohort of fellows, and a research center in which one can learn from other scholars with a wide variety of expertise. That, plus the fact that it is located in Washington DC, with its rich archival and library resources, is what motivated me to apply.

What challenges do you face and what do you hope to achieve?

JD: It’s early in this second project, so there are many challenges around defining temporal limits and subject matter limits, its place in the historiography, and the appropriate method. Ideally, I’ll figure out some of these aspects of the project by the end of the fellowship.

What led you to specialize in Transatlantic History as well as Media & Visual History?

JD: While national frameworks are of course important contexts for the modern period, it always struck me that one could ask a broader—or at least different—set of questions if one broke out of the national frame. I was interested in asking about how cultural forms and institutional arrangements that characterize, for example, the news, movies, or the museum, traveled across national and imperial frontiers in what we can call the “transatlantic world.” To some extent this is a dissatisfying concept in that it leaves out the fact that these cultural practices also developed and circulated in other areas of the world, and I try to cover that in my dissertation by discussing places such as Japan, India, and Central Africa, but nevertheless I think one has to understand developments on both sides of the Atlantic to grasp their formation.

Could you give us a short overview on how the discourse on the prehistoric Atlantis Myth shaped transoceanic connections in the 19th Century?

JD: The Atlantis myth is interesting from the perspective of “transatlantic” history because the lost continent gave many scientific and cultural figures a pretext to imagine ways that its disparate civilizations and cultures were linked on a deep prehistoric level. Many imagined that settlers from Atlantis had brought various technologies or cultural practices around the Atlantic basin, and that this explained apparent similarities between, say, the Maya, the Yoruba, and Neolithic Europeans. One has to keep in mind that this was a time when transoceanic links were become denser due to developments such as undersea telegraphy, steam ships, and burgeoning print culture.

Could you tell us more about your GHI Research Project?

JD: As I conceive of it now, the project (Submerged Ties: The Atlantis Myth and the Lure of Analogy, 1860-1970”) hinges on the question of analogy and the “lure” it proffered in terms of the production of knowledge. In the absence of textual evidence about the deep past, and in a context in which the use of technologies for visual reproduction such as book illustration or photography was growing, many came to depend on pictures to make arguments about the deep past. Noticing similarities between the cultural artifacts of different civilizations around the Atlantic, many supposed that a common link through Atlantis could explain their origins. The project will follow these images of Atlantis as they proliferated and supported various forms of knowledge, affect, and meaning over the later nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

What do you hope to achieve at the GHI?

I hope to get essentially all of the archival work in the Washington D.C. area for this project done, and to continue revising my book project based on my dissertation.

What are your plans after you leave the GHI?

This summer I was offered a permanent job teaching US history as a “maître de conférences” (equivalent to an Assistant/Associate Professor) at the Institut Catholique de Paris, so after the GHI I will start working there. I’m looking forward to writing lectures and approaching history from a different angle in order to explore it together with undergraduates and master’s students.