Global Histories of Knowledge: Ofer Gal & Zheng Yi
From the Mongol conquest of Eurasia linking the landmasses, to the ‘age of discovery’ connecting the Atlantic to the Pacific, Asia, Europe, and finally the “New World” became inextricably bound. By the middle of the 16th century, commerce, conquest and exploration across political and geographical borders have turned these ties into a global economic and cultural network intensifying ever since. Our group studies the modes and practices of knowledge that emerged from and supported this network.
Several recent studies, such as Cook’s Matters of Exchange (2007), Elman’s On their Own Terms (2005), and Subrahamanyan’s early modern history as a “global shift with many sources and roots” (1997), have taken first steps towards establishing a new framework from which to examine this early modern economically and culturally interdependent world and its corollary world of knowledge. But despite these pioneering insights, a truly global history of knowledge still requires new perceptions and understandings of the radical changes in early modern forms and practices of knowledge. Recent scholarship on intercultural contact has embraced a wider turn in the humanities from a focus on the national to the transnational, and from the politics of empire to those of circulation and exchange.
But histories of knowledge still remain grounded in models of centre and periphery, hypothesizing clearly separated cultures, and measuring the competing weights and claims of metropolitan calculation and local knowledge. Moreover, intellectual histories of early modernity and beyond are still dominated by the emergence of modern science—understood as a quintessentially European achievement—as the authoritative form of knowledge, transported by force or volition to the rest of the world.
Our project, instead, is characterized by a resolute focus on the process of knowing and circulation of knowledge as part of that “global shift” from the mid-16th to 19th centuries. What were the ideas, practices and objects fashioned in interstitial spaces: en route to known/unknown mountains, rivers, or countries; on shipboards, at borders, markets, and passing through customs points; looking across orbits or at the heavens populated (once one moves) by a whole new array of moving objects: comets, moons, and sun spots? Which forms and products of knowledge survived ocean passages and border controls, made home and changed conventions? Which objects perished on the high seas or disappeared down the cliffs with the unfortunate knower? How did knowledge and praxis not simply pass between two set points, but traverse, influence, bisect and remap emerging routes of travel? And how did motion itself become a value scientifically and culturally at the different ends of the spectrum?
Our project is structured by two distinct but interrelated approaches:
· investigation of particular travels and expeditions and the forms of knowledge they conveyed, collected, and produced;
· investigation of the history of ideas of motion itself in this period: in particular the ways in which theories of movement were factored in to early modern epistemologies.