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Knowledge on the Move:

Circulation, Domestication and Transcultural Reconfigurations

Coordination: Joachim Kurtz, Professor of Intellectual History

On April 15, 1665, Adam Schall von Bell, the director of the Imperial Astronomical Bureau at the Manchu court in Beijing, was sentenced to death. Born and raised in Cologne, Schall was originally sent to China by the Jesuit order in 1618 and, through versatility, tenacity and luck, had ascended to one of the most coveted positions in the Qing empire. During his rise through the ranks he routinely outperformed Islamic and Han-Chinese astronomers in competitions at court. Equipped with what he deemed superior methods of computation, his predictions of solstices, eclipses, and other celestial phenomena had, time and again, proven to be the most reliable. And yet, after more than twenty turbulent years of service, he was suddenly brought down by alleged errors in his calendrical calculations. These charges were raised by Yang Guangxian – a charlatan, Schall felt, if there ever was one, who believed that the length of fortnightly intervals could be determined by filling ashes into musical pipes and burying them in a special chamber where, in due time, they would be affected by invisible yin and yang ethers! Crouched in his prison cell, Schall was at a loss to comprehend the causes of his downfall and the abrupt rejection of the knowledge that had sustained his stellar career. Although his sentence was eventually commuted, he died as a broken man months after his release.

The trial that sealed Schall’s fate is one of many dramatic moments in the encounters between European and Asian knowledge that this summer school will explore. Its sessions depart from the premise that global exchanges of knowledge are by no means recent, let alone exclusively (post-)modern phenomena. Although their intensity has increased and more information is now circulated at a faster pace than ever before, migrations of knowledge across political, cultural, social and linguistic boundaries have played a pivotal role in the formation of knowledge-cultures throughout history and around the globe.

Knowledge is never a mere commodity. Perspectives on its meaning, value, uses, and capacities undergo frequent shifts and are almost always contested. In its diverse forms – discursive and embodied, practical and esoteric, open and secret – knowledge can become an object of desire, indifference, or revulsion. As such, it is appropriated, exploited, domesticated, molded, ignored, or rejected by concrete agents acting in specific circumstances; at the same time, it is inevitably embedded in larger structures of power, habitus, and convention that it helps to legitimate, stabilize, or subvert.

When knowledge is set in motion, the intricacies of its formation and reconfiguration are thrown into particularly sharp relief. Knowledge travels in multiple ways. Most conspicuously, it is transported and shared, voluntarily or involuntarily, by traders, migrants, missionaries, itinerant scholars, pilgrims, professionals, and other individuals or groups that cross boundaries of language and culture; it also moves as encoded in texts, attached to objects, or embodied in social and cultural practices. In some instances, it enters the trading zones and borderlands in which people and ideas meet in decontextualized fragments, in others it is presented as (part of) an integrated system. In either case, it becomes a site of multilayered and extended negotiations that affect both the contexts of its arrival and departure in unexpected, and often, unintended ways.

To gain a deeper understanding of the reconfigurations of mobile knowledge, the case studies to be scrutinized in the summer school’s sessions will address questions such as the following:

  • How is knowledge transformed on its way through different regions, cultures, polities, and languages?
  • What is lost, or gained, in translation?
  • How do new categories, ideas and practices react with local knowledge, and in what ways do they contribute to reshaping views of emic practices and learning?
  • How can we conceptualize migrations of knowledge in a new historical epistemology without reducing their complexity or denying their dynamics?
  • And how can we combine studies of the structural constraints, such as asymmetries of power, capital, and influence, that shape such movements with richly textured accounts of individual agency and creativity?

A central concern of the summer school as a whole is the examination of how transcultural movements of knowledge can be integrated in more credibly global discourses of science, thought and technology. Despite their ubiquity, movements of knowledge have rarely been accorded the significance they deserve. One reason may be that their inclusion threatens to destabilize fixed notions of culture and tradition, forcing us to rethink the categories in which the formation and spread of knowledge has been understood. Efforts to reinscribe knowledge on the move into historical narratives are only beginning to gain momentum. Their main inspiration is the work of scholars from diverse disciplinary backgrounds – historians of science, thought, technology, and art as well as sociologists, philosophers, and anthropologists – that sheds light on the tortuous routes along which learning has traveled, and the diverse ways in which it was transformed, refused, hybridized, or domesticated in the process. Distinguished representatives of these new and exciting directions will lecture and conduct seminar sessions at the Summer School, focusing on themes such as geographies of knowledge; networks, agents and pathways; knowledge and translation; and media of circulation.

A special section will introduce new techniques of presenting transcultural histories of science and thought through digital storytelling, podcasts, or short films.