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Research seminar / Re-Staging Modernity: Imperial Encounters as Sites of Knowledge


Over the past decade, the interpretative frameworks that governed the approach of the knowledge situation of modern age “imperial encounters” have changed dramatically, taking advantage of a range of new historiographical proposals. Stemming from the cradle of cultural history and dedicated to the comparison of geographically diverse historical situations, the current of “comparative history” flourished by the early 1990s. The theory of the “middle ground” (Richard White) also enabled us to conceptualize the plurality and complexity of social interactions produced by “first contact” situations. Approaches in terms of “cultural transfer” (Michael Werner, Michel Espagne) have similarly evolved, since their first publication in 2004, to craft a “crossed history” attentive to the details of the sociability and materiality of transnational scholarly exchanges. Other historians have even sought to renew or reopen a critical dialogue with the tradition embodied by the Annales School under the leadership of Fernand Braudel, who himself advocated a world history compartmentalized into “civilizations”. In this wake, Sanjay Subrahmanyam, Serge Gruzinski and Kapil Raj, to quote juste a few, have developed an approach of “connected history” very critical of the Eurocentric premises of world history and global history. More recently, Lissa Roberts and Simon Schaffer questioned the narrative possibilities induced by the passage from a diffusionist approach to a circulatory approach of imperial knowledge. The latter highlights the social and cultural “intermediaries (go-betweens)” and takes a horizon survey which underlines the peculiarities of the historical situation of the “contact zones” under scrutiny.

Wishing to clarify the scope and limitations of such historiographical proposals, our research seminar, to be held at Sciences Po in Paris, aims at discussing current research on case studies as detailed as possible. This seminar will scrutinize anew the study of situations of “imperial encounters” of the modern age by taking as an object of analysis the actors’ ordinary practices of comparison, and thereby by describing and specifying practices of commensurability shaped not by contemporary historians but by the actors of these encounters. This historical and symmetrical anthropology of knowledge will go beyond the traditional divide between European and extra-European contexts as well as take seriously into account the interplay between “scales” (“global”, “regional” or “local”) which made the encounters legible on site and at a distance. This framework turns therefore primarily into a reflection on the practical construction of standards and devices that allowed people either to set up or to cross “cultural borders” (metrology, languages, diplomatic issues, etc.).

More specifically, under this heading, we would like to address not only the different types of tests (“epreuves”) developed by scientists to assess and to classify the stages of European imperial progress, but also to account for the embarrassment and fears that aroused in the little world of humanist scholars and cabinets of “curiosities” when they had to deal with the influx of words, things and creatures from the West and East Indies. The far away confines of the Pacific islands, the Indian archipelago or North America actually played a crucial role in the creative criticism of Ancient authorities in various fields of knowledge such as cosmography, botany, astronomy or the law of nations. The conditions of the collection, preservation and interpretation of those artefacts have moreover contributed significantly to dictate new terms of experimental knowledge in Europe. The resulting conflicts of interpretation opened harsh debates on the “fair” measure of legitimate values, on the “good” criteria to be used to estimate and index the imperial encounter in a grand narrative reconstructing the origin of Nations or the fate of Europe.

The detour through modern empires therefore is not a way of fetishizing “cultural areas”, but to argue for a productive use of analytical sites of comparison. By reinvesting social science methods, the cultural history of the imperial dimension of “first modernity” forces us to think critically about the grand asymmetries (between Myth and History, between Nature and Culture, between orality and writing, etc.) that it produced and that still are the foundational elements of the Great Divide between “the West and the rest.”