10 June 2008

Last Monday I attended a workshop on "Local Encounters and the Global Circulation of Knowledge, 1750-1850" in Leiden. Central questions were, how are we to understand transitions of politics, science and economics, situated in diverse geographical and cultural locations? The papers presented during the day tried to connect the local and global, showing science as a dynamically co-evolutionary product of the encounters between representatives of various cultures. The two central concepts were the 'contact zone' and 'circulation of knowledge' as means for transformative production and transmission.

Lissa Roberts's "Introduction: Circulating Concepts as Inter-Disciplinary Contact Zones" presented a theoretical intro to local encounters and global circulation. Early encounters can be found in European discovery travels. Historical retrospection is to reveal that the expansion of England was also the transformation of England. In the 'circulation of knowledge,' there was a trend towards global homogenisation matched by local diversity (eg. Edgerton's "Shock of the Old"). The 'contact zone' was characterised by its temporal element, the involvement of multiple cultures, multiple contacts and exchange.

Kapil Raj presented a case study on "Calcutta: the Historical Geography of a Contact Zone." From its foundation onwards, Calcutta was a multi-coloured, multi-cultural city, quickly growing, and an example for a port of both trade as exchange of knowledge. W. Jones learned the Persian language and gave rise to the translation of many works into European languages. In Jones's work, we see the combination of language, ethnology, ethnicity, culture and religion. Jones developed a theory of a common origin of all men, and how they had spread over the globe. This common origin provided for a justification of British domination. Other topics discussed were the monetary worth of knowledge-exchange and the standardisation of measures, languages, and money. However, how does periodisation work in this story? Raj had chosen the 17th century as the starting point for Calcutta, the workshop looks that 18th century, and the development of the sciences into defined disciplines was only in the 19th century. An other questions concerns whether circulation was a product of centralised masterplan of trade and colonisation or rather a product of ad hoc events. The compromise consisted of the centrality of things within which a level of freedom exists.

Juan Pimentel presented "Stars and Stones. Astronomy and Archaeology in the works of the Mexican polymath Antonio León y Gama (1735-1802)," on the correspondence between Europe and Mexico on astronomical observations. Central themes were the relocation of Mexico in space and time, as maps needed to be connected to each other and as Mexico was relocated in a historiographical sense. Division of labour: European scientists used collected data at the peripheries (such as Mexico) for scientific practice in the centre. Problem of language barrier, the creation of new traditions (eg Mexican combination of local and newly introduced religious beliefs).

Andreas Weber: "A kingdom and its 'imagined' colony? - The Malay Archipelago in the eyes of the naturalist C.G.C. Reinwardt (1773-1854)." The Dutch in Indonesia commenced with the promotion of scientific research and therefore naturalist and Lineaus-admirer Reinwardt was sent. Hypothesised was the the connection with the scientific methodology of von Humboldt. Also central topic was the separation of Reinwardt's fieldwork and the de-contextualised character of the museum back in Holland. Futher questions were Reinwardt's relationship to locals and the infrastructure he was part of.

After the presentation of these papers (planned to be published early 2009) was followed by the fascinating commentaries by Leonard Blussé and Harm Beukers. Multiple points of critic were raised by Blussé, such as the problem of chronology, use of different perspectives, the role of language and systemisation, and the danger of anachronism. Interesting was the suggestion of the oldest form of history writing: the biography. The biography of a person or a city, it would provide the history of science with a new approach.

Beukers started with bringing into question the use of the strict model used at the workshop (contact zone, circulation). What exactly is circulating? In what context? What is the common ground between cultures? What exactly happens there? These questions had remained largely unanswered during the presentation of the papers. In for example medicine, Beukers pointed out, we can already identify various levels on which discussions take place, at the universal-local, traditional-modern, European-Asian, etc. Circulation implies inequality, thus essential differences. What exactly are these? Localisation, where are the connections then? Lastly, Beukers introduced the 'boundary objects'. Objects are the only things really of which we can recognise that they have 'circulated.' Questions we need to answer then are: how are these objects obtained? How are they transformed? How do collections change an object? What books are collected (and which one's not)? So, in the transmission of knowledge, the supposed 'knowledge claims' should be found behind the 'boundary objects.'

Further discussion went on about terminology. Why do we talk about 'circulation'? Why not, for example, diffusion, reception, appropriation, intercourse, cross-fertilisation, and in the case of translation, also transformation, configuration, communication and misunderstanding? Are we talking about knowledge or rather ideas, concepts, beliefs, facts, at contact zones, or trading zones, encounter or exchange or interchange of ideas or persons or objects or other embodiments..? The last issue concerned the question 'why' people engaged in 'circulation of knowledge.' What are people's motivations? Pimentel: it's necessary and it's forbidden!


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