The Material Cultures of Knowledge, 1500-1830: UC Multicampus Research Group

Traveling Concept
Launch Event
Summer Seminar


The Material Cultures of Knowledge 1500-1830, is a multi-campus research group established in 2011 and funded by the UC Humanities Network and UC Humanities Research Institute. Consisting of a Steering Group and number of core Participating Faculty from seven UC campuses, we will organize collaborative events, foster collaborative research and funding bids, and provide additional opportunities for interdisciplinary graduate student research and mentorship. The Steering Group includes Mario Biagioli (UC Davis), Adriana Craciun (Director) (UC Riverside), and Ian Duncan (UC Bekeley).

Our MRG builds upon a University of California network of excellence, containing a significant concentration of U.S. scholars working in the intersections of material, visual and textual studies in early modernity and the long eighteenth century. Scholars working in the earlier periods of 1500-1830 increasingly emphasize the shared material culture of discursive practices across modern disciplinary lines. Whether through examining print and manuscript culture, material culture, visual culture, social and physical networks, authorship and exhibitionary practices, or geographies of knowledge, the shared material dimensions of their diverse objects of study frequently take center stage in new research.

By bringing together scholars from these diverse disciplines whose lines of inquiry and objects of study are converging through the shared concern with material cultures, we can see a major theoretical shift in early modern and eighteenth-century studies. Speaking in distinct critical languages, and relying on different periodization and scalar models, when they converge on one shared concept or problem, scholars from these different traditions can often have more to say to each other than to their monodisciplinary counterparts. Using the notion of “travelling concepts,” and the transdisciplinary approach to shared problems favored in the sciences, our MRG will cohere around concepts (e.g., archive, author, priority) that move between modern disciplines, illuminating and transforming them in the process. As Cambridge historian of science Simon Schaffer has recently argued, “the discourse of interdisciplinarity must change its historiography of Eurocentric and monolithic disciplinarity and must begin to explore the historical geography of exotic indisciplines.” Whether we conceive of these earlier formations of knowledge as predisciplines, interdisciplines, or indisciplines, their hybrid, often global genealogies are at the forefront of interest in early modern and eighteenth-century studies.

Traveling Concept: Firsts & Bests: Technologies of Priority, Ranking and Originality

Each year the MRG’s events will be focused through a “traveling concept” designed to provide intellectual direction and identify novel research problems in a way that no single discipline can do. For 2011-2012 our traveling concept will be Firsts & Bests: Technologies of Priority, Ranking and Originality.

Firsts & Bests invites us to think about systems of registration, and metrics of value, prestige, taste, and style, as well as techniques of authenticity and canon formation. As our lives as citizens, scholars, and intellectuals become increasingly structured by rankings, we want to trace early modern genealogies of the quantification of qualitative value in science, humanities, and the arts – not how historical actors evaluated and compared a few works, authors, or products, but rather the history of systematic rankings as a trend. We cast our net widely to capture patterns that may elude disciplinary perspectives, and start by considering: the evolving notions of “first peoples” and “first contacts”; geographic “discoveries” and “must see” locations; priority disputes among scientists and inventors and protocols to resolve them; the development of legal notions of novelty and originality in intellectual property law; the introduction of the book review and the management of literary value in the growing book market; the emergence of art connoisseurship and auction catalogues; art, science, or literature prizes as well as the fascination with singularity in both the empirical sciences and the popular imaginary. What practices, interests, aesthetic networks, and technologies did these emerging preoccupations share? What were the social and sexual dimensions of these taxonomies and hierarchies? What were the unique problems in determining the first of a kind? And what about the systematic ranking of artworks, novels, tourist locations, or languages? In addition to casting light on a set of remarkably cross-disciplinary historical and philosophical questions, we hope that Firsts & Bests will also provide a timely reframing of twenty-first century academic concern with “indicators of esteem,” “research metrics,” top ten lists, and research assessment exercises.

Public Lecture & Launch Event:

As its launch event, in Spring 2012 the Material Cultures of Knowledge MRG will collaborate with the Huntington Library on hosting a public lecture and master class by Simon Schaffer, Professor of the History of Science, Cambridge University (details coming soon).

Summer Seminar 2012:

Indisciplines of Enlightenment: Firsts, Origins, Foundations