Intellectual Networks and Exchanges (Wolfson College, Cambridge, July 1-2, 2010)
This workshop aims to investigate cultural and intellectual networks and exchanges of ideas from the late medieval to the modern period. Following the methodological redefinition of “exchanges” and of “networks” which has occurred in the past three decades, this workshop aims to explore the notions of exchanges and networks when examining sources, historical factors, geography, images and ideologies and their role in the creation and preservation of intellectual networks, and in fostering and accomplishing exchanges of ideas.
Exchanges between cultures have traditionally been examined by historians as transference of power between two groups (one stronger and the other, inevitably weaker). This approach was very much in vogue in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when cultural and political dominions represented increased national wealth to the most robust, victorious nation states. Historians in the greater part of the twentieth century also subscribed to this approach, which lasted roughly until the aftermath of World War II and the increased fear of Communist (and capitalist) influence over other peoples. The political economies of the weaker nations and the mores that supported them were seen objectively as something easily changed, adaptable, and accepting of external factors.
Since the 1970s, however, there has been increased concern from historians, political scientists and social anthropologists to understand to what extent do “conquered” cultures adapt to external influence, and to what extent what emerges is a complex process of transformation. The idea of “exchange” as part of the “transfer” process began to be used when referring to the relationship between groups, replacing imposition of ideas from stronger to weaker with conversation, trade, shared cultural, political, social and economic referential points. Scholars thus began questioning the unilateral approach according to which European nations may have passed their values (political, cultural, social and otherwise) to colonies, old and new; likewise, they questioned the very modes of intellectual, cultural and political exchange between European nations on a variety of topics.
Once this methodological and theoretical avenue was open, a number of interesting possibilities emerged, whereby the bond between colony and colonized, dominator and dominant, occupier and occupied could be redefined. Likewise, intra-region or intra-national exchanges can also be redefined, as social classes, gender groups and political units within nations exchange knowledge and ideas from various perspectives. The idea of “exchange” became separated from the usually-considered colonial networks, and even “networks” themselves have been redefined in this context.
The extent to which exchanges and the creation of networks have affected both Europe and the extra-European world is still unknown. Trade, colonization and international relations of political and cultural natures have all contributed to the creation of intellectual networks. In the ever-so increasingly globalized world, it is therefore essential to try and gain a better understanding about how ideas travel, create roots, adapts, become appropriated and change as a result of the creation of multiple intellectual networks. If knowledge is power, then examining how knowledge is transferred, adapted, interpreted (and misinterpreted) and recreated is an essential part of intellectual, cultural, political and socio-economic history.
This workshop aims to investigate cultural and intellectual networks and exchanges of ideas from the late medieval to the modern period. The main themes to be explored are:
SOURCES (how to find evidence pointing to intellectual exchanges in a compelling, verifiable way; how can one investigate intellectual networks in non-literate and literate groups; what constitutes evidence);
HISTORICAL FACTORS (when military occupation of colonial relations exist, how does one asses the role of intellectual networks in the exchange of ideas; how do ideas of the dominated/colonized influence the dominant/colonizer culture);
GEOGRAPHY (how do neighbouring nations exchange their knowledge; what role does trade play in creating networks of ideas; to what extent do regional amities and enmities shape ideas);
IMAGES (how symbols and myths are interpreted and reinterpreted, creating a bridge between cultures and within cultures; how differently have allegories been interpreted in non-literate cultures);
IDEOLOGIES (political and economic ideas are conceivably best examined in their contexts; how does one examine the exchanges of political and economic ideas beyond class, gender and nation-state; how does policy created become manipulated by different groups to suit local/regional needs).
Dr Isabel DiVanna
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