Keynote Speakers

“Translation and Catastrophe”
Anna Brickhouse
University of Virginia

In “Translation and Catastrophe,” I explore the role of translation and mistranslation in responses to the Lima and Lisbon earthquakes of the eighteenth century. In doing so, I sketch a different temporal and geographic frame for the story of Enlightenment.

“Superseding Historical Injustice? Enlightenment’s Future’s Past”
David Scott
Columbia University


“Super-Fly: Makandal’s Enlightenment from Below”
Monique Allewaert
University of Wisconsin-Madison

In this talk, I propose that eighteenth-century tropical archives that circulate till this day indicate a taxonomic and mythological discourse that emerged in the midst of the Enlightenment, that takes up key Enlightenment problems (the conceptualization of systems, inductive methods, the production of knowledge adequate to a global scale, idealism), yet reroutes more well-known Enlightenment modes organizing knowledge and things. I develop this argument through an analysis of the legal decisions and prohibitions as well as stories, technologies, and rituals inspired by the St. Domininguan maroon François Makandal who was accused of seduction, sacrilege, and poisoning when he was caught in 1758 and then burnt at the stake. Before his execution, he prophesized that he was transforming into a mosquito so as to continue a counter-organization of the plantation colony on a scale at once material yet not entirely humanly perceptible. Drawing on eighteenth-century Anglo-European discourses pertaining to Makandal, nineteenth-century Haitian variations on this event and story, and accounts of tropical insects in both natural historical and mythological traditions, I argue that Makandal’s tropical insectaria poses the small, the partial, and the partializing as the driver of natural history, community, and knowledge.

“The Republic of Arabic Letters: Islam and the European Enlightenment”
Alexander Bevilacqua
Harvard University

It is known that, in the eighteenth century, the Western understanding of Islam underwent a dramatic transformation: European depictions of the religion became both much more detailed and empirically informed, and more neutral, sometimes even warmly sympathetic. Scholars have attributed this change to the secular point of view of the European Enlightenment. In fact, it can be shown that the reinterpretation of Islam began in the seventeenth century and was pursued by religiously orthodox men, both Catholic and Protestant. It unfolded irrespective of its agents’ affiliations, religious orthodoxy or feelings toward Islam. Instead of identifying a “Copernican moment” in the European study of Islam, this paper reveals to a continent-wide, inter-confessional process that unfolded over the better part of a century. Key drivers were virtuous competition between confessional rivals, a shared understanding that Islam was relevant to the history of Christianity, and an increasingly acute sense that the European tradition had done a poor job of accounting for the historical phenomenon of Islam. Eventually, these interpretations were adopted by the likes of Gibbon and Voltaire, who have more often received credit for them in our own time. The Enlightenment, then, stands in need of revision: either it is less meaningful than has been imagined, or its boundaries need to be redrawn to include a greater variety of agents, especially men of religion. In turn, the relationship of religion with Enlightened modernity needs to be rethought as well.

“God, State”
Tony C. Brown
University of Minnesota

Hegel claimed the state to be God’s coming into the world (“es ist der Gang Gottes in der Welt, dass der Staat ist”). Hegel is not unique, in this sense: the state has long been a divinity of sorts, whether as a transcendent or immanent reason actualised in sovereign- and nation-state forms, even for those like Kant who were more favourable to a cosmopolitan or contractual ethic than Hegel. And yet, with Hegel and Kant and so many others, the state appears in a world without divine law and as something made in time by human beings (or at least, by some human beings and not by others, Amerindians for example). Hence Hegel notes in the Grundlinien der Philosophie des Rechts, there are two just kinds of law, “Gesetze der Nature und des Rechts,” with the latter being posited by human beings (“Die Rechtsgesetze sind Gesetztes, von Menschen Herkommendes”) as what governs life in the state.

For Carl Schmitt, whatever theological import we might attribute to theories of the state like Kant’s or Hegel’s, that import would be a secularised one: in his well-known formulation, “all concise concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts not only because of their historical development–in which they were transferred from theology to the theory of the state, whereby, for example, the all-powerful God became the omnipotent lawgiver–but also because of their systematic structure.” Certainly the absence of divine law would support Schmitt’s claim. Still, for Hegel at least, God remains, and “in der Welt,” though a world in which God no longer appears to fully correspond (or at least the question would have to be asked whether or not, where there remains no state, God is there too).

The crucial point–the point that indicates why Hegel needs no divine law, and why Schmitt’s claim (“all concise concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts”) appears to hold–is that God’s coming into the world with the state follows not from the nature of God but from the nature of human beings. God is called into the world by human nature, as it is realised and fulfilled in the state. If in a non-secular age political theology would underwrite political anthropology, here the relation appears as reversed, prompting the question: to what extent does a dominant political anthropology retain or break with the “systematic structure” of “concise [theological] concepts”? And what happens to both (anthropology and theology) when exposed to those who remain godless and stateless?

“Strangers in Strange Lands: Letter Writers in the Early Black Atlantic”
Vincent Carretta
University of Maryland

Phillis Wheatley (1753?-1784), Ignatius Sancho (1729?-1780), Olaudah Equiano (1745?-1797) and Robert Wedderburn (1762?-1835?) are best known for their respective magna opera: Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (London, 1773); Letters of the Late Ignatius Sancho, an African (London, 1782); The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African. Written by Himself (London, 1789); and The Horrors of Slavery; Exemplified in the Life and History of the Rev. Robert Wedderburn (London, 1824). But once they were free, these formerly enslaved writers of sub-Saharan African descent chose to use letters to participate in contemporaneous dialogues about the plight of their fellow enslaved African-Britons. They rhetorically transformed their positions at the margin of society into a vantage point from which to speak as supposedly disinterested observers and critics of the societies that they were in but not fully of. They do so by appropriating Judeo-Christianity to authorize themselves to judge hypocritical self-styled Christians of European descent. They all represent themselves to varying degrees as prophetic descendants of “Moses and the Prophets” designated to convey to their readers the Pauline doctrine that in the Christian community there “are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellow-citizens with the saints, and of the household of God.” Like Moses in the Old Testament, the archetypal Judeo-Christian “stranger in a strange land,” Wheatley, Sancho, Equiano, and Wedderburn sought to lead an exodus of their people from slavery.

“Partial Enlightenments: Luso-Brazilian Epistemologies”
Bruno M. Carvalho
Princeton University

Despite the lack of the printing press and universities in its colonies, the Portuguese empire maintained a global reach throughout “the long eighteenth century.” Challenging the notion of the Portuguese-speaking world as “backwards” or merely obscurantist during the period, this talk discusses how the circulation of new forms of knowledge generated resistance as well as selective and creative appropriations. The geographer Charles Withers proposes that once we consider the European Enlightenment’s concerns with pushing the boundaries of knowledge about the world, “the margin becomes the core.” My talk will depart from the Portuguese Americas, and explore how a closer look at Lusophone experiences and texts can help us to recognize forms of knowledge that Enlightenment luminaries tended to neglect. The talk will focus on how the study of “peripheries” can serve to uncover part of the period’s epistemological instabilities and wealth of ontological possibilities, sometimes flattened as it becomes understood either as an Age of Reason or as an age of colonial exploitation.

“Enlightenment Terror and its Terrain”
Jill Casid
University of Wisconsin-Madison

Thinking the legacies of the claims of enlightenment modernity and its techniques of reason as a global matter takes us to the question of terror and its terrain. Revisiting the work I began in Scenes of Projection: Recasting the Enlightenment (2015) to develop a history of the present of global terrorism, I extend its reckoning with morbid projection as not the dark side of enlightenment but central to the work of reason. Rather than reason’s outside, terror, I will argue, constitutes not the state of exception of enlightenment’s other but its disavowed grounds. Displaced to the historical margins as the restricted events of metropolitan and colonial political violence and to cultural and geographic peripheries as the undisciplined susceptibility to phantasms attributed to primitive, immature, and irrational superstition and false belief, terror recurs apparitionally. While terrorism is the late eighteenth century’s word concept, terror, nonetheless, hails us as the unclaimed shadow of a secular enlightenment modernity and as if from afar. Rather than demonstrate terror’s radical exteriority or alterity, this phantomatic effect, I will elaborate, tracks the exercise of reason as an apparatus of power that produces its discarnate subject by devices of worlding transport. Focusing particularly on the lantern of fear, the magic lantern device of the phantasmagoria, as at once figuration and agent of insurrectionary terror as a scene of projection, this paper works across its deployment in accounts of slave revolt in the French plantation colony of Saint Domingue (now Haiti), in the globe-spanning and condensing terror demonstrations of Étienne-Gaspard Robert (known as Robertson), and in Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason to demonstrate how, without the exercise of speculative correction, “we should make theology a magic lantern of cameras.” Carrying off by displacement what that subject will not own and in a mode of exterminating or morbid projection, the exercise of enlightenment does not just chart a course across a globe but worlds its disavowed vulnerability as a terrain of terror from which threats to be eliminated arrive as if from without but to which responses other than repetitive terrorizing remain critically possible even immanent to the vulnerability of its, our trembling ground.

“Rewriting the Terms of the Modern World: Felix Varela’s 1826 Historical Novel “Jicotencal” and Modern Philosophy”
Raúl Coronado
UC Berkeley

As a result of the mid-eighteenth-century Bourbon reforms, the Spanish monarchy sought to bring about systemic administrative reform of its institutions in order to better administer them and, hopefully, regain political and economic status in the West. It did so in part by reforming Hispanic universities, integrating into the Scholastic-Aristotelian curriculum what they described as “modern philosophy” but was essentially philosophers associated with the scientific revolution. The reforms, however, had unintended consequences. By the 1780s, Scholastics throughout the Hispanic world became immersed in what became an acerbic debate on the nature of the world, pitting Aristotelians against self-described modern philosophers. Debates exploded across the Hispanic Scholastic world: from Spain, to Mexico, and Cuba. Professors and rectors were demoted, lost positions, and were sent into exile.

One of the centers of these debates was at the San Carlos and San Ambrosio Seminary in Havana where Father Félix Varela was educated and where he wrote and taught some of the earliest modern philosophy textbooks. Using this eclectic philosophy, Varela would come to be the teacher and mentor of Cuba’s revolutionary generation, José Antonio Saco and José Martí’s teacher Rafael María de Mendive. As nineteenth-century Cuban revolutionaries would later say of Varela, “As long as there is thought in Cuba, we will have to remember him, the one who taught us how to think.”

Varela fled political persecution in Cuba and eventually settled in Philadelphia where in 1826 he would publish anonymously Jicoténcal, the first Spanish-language historical novel. Critics have long interpreted the novel as an allegory for Spanish-American independence. My talk, however, situates the novel within the larger debates that were unfolding in the Hispanic world from the 1770s-1840s. The novel certainly allegorizes the end of Spanish colonialism, but the novel also reveals that power is as much about epistemology as it is about brute force. Allegorizing competing political moralities through archetypal characters, the novel asks us how one should understand nature, morality, and ethics. Only after arriving at a careful, inductive understanding of the world, the novel suggests, can we move forward and begin to develop a political ethics of equality.

“Abu Taleb Khan’s ‘Vindication of the Liberties of the Asiatic Women’: An Indo-Muslim Response to 1790s British Feminism”
Humberto Garcia
University of California, Merced

A Shi’ite scholar, poet, and member of the Mughal service elite who wrote about his visit to Britain between 1799 and 1802, Mirza Abu Taleb Muhammed Isfahani (1752-1805) participated in 1790s British debates about women’s rights in his Persian travelogue, Masir-i Talibi-fi-Bilad-i-Afranji [“Travels of Talib in the Lands of the Franks”], written in 1803 and translated into English in 1810, and, most explicitly, in his “Vindication of the Liberties of the Asiatic Women.” Translated into English and published in the Asiatic Annual Register in 1801, this essay evaluates the relative social conditions of women in Europe and Asia by adapting progressive feminist ideas in order to discredit negative Orientalist stereotypes about Muslim wives’ miserable confinement. His comparative ethnography proposes that British men are more efficient than Asians in tricking women into a strict bondage enforced insidiously through male flattery, inverting the rhetorical strategy British Whig feminists used to compare Englishwomen’s socioeconomic inequality to that of the immured harem women portrayed in European fiction, art, and drama. As such, the “Vindication’s” ideological critique emerges from what Margaret Jacob calls “an international republican conversation,” which contests racial and gender differences within the parameters of a globalized Enlightenment movement.

Historian Michael H. Fisher has shown how the essay informed European writings on Indian Muslim men’s treatment of their women well into the 1840s, stressing Abu Taleb’s stolen agency as British writers assimilated his ideas into a Eurocentric framework. I will instead argue for the author’s selective appropriation of English literary and political discourses on Islamic femininity. The “Vindication” straddles two divergent discourses: first, harem fictions on Muslim wives who use their charming wits to dupe their husbands, an imaginative resource deployed by feminists like Mary Wollstonecraft and Catherine Macaulay to bring an Orientalized Britain in line with rational Western values; and second, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s The Turkish Embassy Letters (1762), which counters this westernizing project through its own deployment of harem fictions on liberated Turkish ladies. Abu Taleb encountered these diffuse strands of feminism in his conversations with British men and women, most notably the Duchess of Devonshire Georgiana Spencer (1757-1806): a politically outspoken socialite who transgressed gender norms and urged the Indian traveler to write a critical ethnography on Britain. The “Vindication,” then, presents an early instance of an inquisitive Muslim agent who, despite his sexism and misogyny, produced new knowledge in dialogue with educated Englishwomen outside male-dominated public spaces and across cultural, linguistic, and religious boundaries.

“Colonization and Cultural Difference”
Daragh Grant
Harvard University

This paper uses an engagement with the history of interaction between indigenous polities and English settler communities in early America to explore the relationship between colonization and the political salience of cultural difference. Scholars of early America tend to take for granted that relations between, say, English puritans in the Massachusetts Bay Colony and their Narragansett neighbors or between Yamasee Indians and those English settlers and African slaves around Charles Town took the form, first and foremost, of a cultural encounter. Whether these scholars narrate the histories of these encounters as moments of accommodation, of acculturation, of misunderstanding, or of radical incommensurability, they fundamentally share the assumption that Native Americans, European settlers, and African slaves were in the grip of their respective cultures and that they understood one another with reference to their differences. Put another way, even as the idea that cultures or identities are socially constructed has become an inescapable cliché across the academy, scholars of early America continue to treat the settler/native divide as if it marks a sedimented boundary-line marking two (or more) internally coherent, and mutually unintelligible (or, at least, incompatible) forms of life off from one another. In contrast to this regnant consensus, I suggest that in order for cultural difference to do a particular kind of political work in early America, indexing an apparent incompatibility of native and settler forms of life, one must first account for how these differences came to take on a political salience in the first place. This is not to deny, of course, that the semiotic systems and practices by which English settlers, African slaves, and indigenous communities rendered their worlds intelligible were distinct. Rather, it is to insist that the simple fact of cultural difference cannot account for why the colonial encounters of early America came to be conceived as encounters between cultures, understood as highly coherent, integrated, and clearly bounded wholes, whether by historical actors themselves or by the scholars who narrate their histories.

“‘As Witches Do the Devil’ (Daniel Defoe). Civil Rights and the Escalation of the Transatlantic Trade in Enslaved Africans: Some Unexamined Legacies of the Global Enlightenment”
William A. Pettigrew
University of Kent

Few global trades had more of an effect on the emergence of diversity than the transatlantic trade in enslaved Africans. Race—a quintessence of the enlightenment—is the major legacy of slavery. Those who sought to abolish the trade, their historians, and today’s politicians have attempted to associate abolition with longstanding notions of European enlightenment. This paper argues that such attempts are deeply problematic. Not only were the English abolitionists’ enlightened credentials undermined by their own broader project to rehabilitiate the religious soul of the nation, but the campaign to establish the fully-grown English slave trade owed as much to canonical notions of enlightenment and modernity—political freedom, constitutional rights, unregulated markets—as the abolition did. This paper examines the role of traditional conceptions of the enlightenment in challenging the monopoly of the Royal African Company of England (1672-1752) in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. The Royal African Company was the largest single contributor to the transatlantic slave trade in enslaved African peoples from the fifteenth to the nineteenth centuries. But the voracious commercial appetites of British merchants and planters were unsatisfied by the Company’s success. Although rigidly mercantilism (and therefore nationalist) in conception, as a joint-stock trading corporation its history belongs to a transnational perspective and its commercial fortunes depended upon the approval of West African interests. These interests allied with modernising free traders in enslaved Africans to liberate the trade from the Royal African Company and bring about the largest forced intercontinental migration in human history. This paper considers the implications of this alliance for the future of enlightenment ideas and modernity itself..

“Global Enlightenment? De-Theorizing in order to Re-Theorize”
Saskia Sassen
Columbia University

Categories (for analysis, for interpretation, for situating) that may have worked until recently, began to lose their grip with the global condition that takes shape over the past thirty years. This leads me to call for a de-theorizing in order to go back to ground level and explore the capacity of novel categories to give us a different interpretation of what global enlightenment might mean today.

“Two Concepts of Reason”
Vivasvan Soni
Northwestern University

We are all too familiar with the many critiques of enlightenment that seek to align the triumph of enlightenment reason with innumerable ills of modernity. Already at the very heart of the enlightenment, Burke associates “this new conquering empire of light and reason” with the Terror, a position Hegel also takes up in the Phenomenology. Since then, enlightenment reason has been blamed for everything from secularization and disenchantment to the rise of disciplinary society. The universalism of reason becomes a tool for colonial domination; the impulse to rationalization leads to the bureaucratization of modern society; by rendering everything equivalent in the service of computation, reason instrumentalizes the most sacred values; for Adorno and Horkheimer, it is but a short step from enlightenment to fascism. In recent years, scholars have sought to complicate this picture, by showing how important the emotions are in enlightenment thought (sentimentalism); how Christian values shape the early enlightenment; how disenchantment does not follow automatically on the heels of early modern science; how mechanistic accounts of rationality fail to adequately capture the empiricist picture of the world; and how the liberal values of toleration and conversation temper the excesses of a rigid and dogmatically applied “reason.” If we accept these accounts, then it is unclear why we need to be concerned about reason; the critiques are nullified; only an abuse of reason produces the effects that reason is being blamed for. Reason itself remains unitary and unscathed. In my paper, I want to suggest a different view that might help us make sense of these opposing positions. What if the greatest casualty of enlightenment reason is not some opposed concept like emotion, religion, myth, superstition or tradition, but another concept of reason? In this case, critiquing enlightenment would not mean opposing reason and rationality, but only a particular version of these. But can there be more than one “reason,” and what would an alternative version of reason look like? Exploring writings by Locke, Shaftesbury and Mandeville, among others, I will try to discern the contours of this alternate conception of reason, and trace how it is being displaced by what will come to be called enlightenment reason.

“Citizens United? The Corporation and Enlightenment Thought”
Philip J. Stern
Duke University

From the South Sea and Mississippi Bubbles and the dramatic expansion of the English East India Company into territorial power to Adam Smith’s scathing indictment of them as managed with “negligence and profusion,” corporations were among one of the great political and economic controversies of the long eighteenth century. Yet while debates over corporations conjured issues at the heart of the “Enlightenment,” the history of political thought has rarely considered the role the corporation—as a formal legal institution, rather than corporatism more generally—played in shaping European ideas about, for example, political obligation and authority, property and wealth, and, indeed, the very nature of personhood, both natural and artificial. This paper will explore the role of the corporation in shaping Enlightenment thought and (particularly colonial) practice, with particular attention to the ways in which both the idea of the corporation but also corporate institutions themselves bridged the global and the local, serving as a conduit for eighteenth-century considerations of the moral, political, and economic implications of trade, expansion, and empire. In so doing, it also suggests the value of institutional approaches to intellectual and cultural history, most immediately turning our attention away from well-known philosophes and towards the bureaucrats, administrators, merchants, and organizations that not only digested but also produced and perpetuated ideas critical to understanding the substance and style of Enlightenment thought. Finally, the paper concludes with some errant reflections on the fashion for mining “Enlightenment” ideas, such as social contract theory or Kantian ethics, in contemporary business and management studies, suggesting that the concept of the Enlightenment continues to influence our conception of the nature and power of multinational corporations to this day, albeit conceptually and historiographically divorced from the actual political, legal, and cultural reckoning with corporate institutions that was at the core of eighteenth century political, imperial, and international thought.

“Indo-Persian Tarikh as Enlightened History: the Seir Mutaqherin (1789-90) and the Eurasian Enlightenment”
Robert Travers
Cornell University

This paper explores the idea of a ‘Eurasian enlightenment’ through a study of a translated Persian history from late eighteenth century India. The Seir Mutaqherin or ‘View of Modern Times’ was a major Persian history (tarikh) of the later Mughal empire that was translated into English in early colonial Calcutta. The translator of the Seir, Haji Mustapha, was a remarkable scholar-adventurer whose career straddled the moving frontiers between European and Muslim empires. Born into a family of French dragomans in the Ottoman empire, Mustapha later converted to Islam and offered his services to the British East India Company in Bengal as a ‘go-between’ or knowledge expert. I have argued elsewhere that Haji Mustapha fashioned himself in India as a ‘Eurasian cosmopolitan’ who sought to conjugate and reconcile the diverse intellectual traditions of Europe and South Asia. This paper looks more closely at his translation of the Seir Mutaqherin as a self-conscious exercise in enlightened history writing that was meant to carry over into European knowledge the ethical principles and practical wisdom of Indo-Persian political culture. It will explore Mustapha’s complex and often conflicted relationship with the original Persian history and its author (a Shi‘a aristocrat from Bihar), and examines his efforts to mediate between Indo-Persian and British norms and categories. It also emphasizes Mustapha’s interest in questions of religious difference as a fundamental and problematic feature of inter-cultural communication.

“Umbrella Work: Translating Colonial Technology and Asian Invention”
Chi-ming Yang
University of Pennsylvania

How might a comparative and translational history of technology and artisanal culture help rewrite the Eurocentric, “Rise of the West” progress narrative of the Enlightenment that continues to structure academic scholarship? Focusing on one object—the collapsible umbrella—its use of hinge technology, its portability, and versatility—this paper considers the transfer and adaptation of Chinese manufacturing and decorative techniques in Europe and the Americas. Through a reading of the myth of the homo faber in Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719), I query the privileging of English and European claims to experimentation and discovery, particularly in light of the novel’s recent reception as an object of world literature by contemporary scholars of Chinese and Arabic. I also examine how narratives of Eastern civilization and influence have been central to techno-orientalism stretching from Montesquieu’s theory of Asian despotism to the revival of these principles in 1950s, Communist-era writings on Chinese religion, science, and technology by Joseph Needham (Science and Civilization, 7 vols., 1954) and Karl Wittfogel (Oriental Despotism: A Comparative Study of Total Power, 1957). Respectively sinophilic and sinophobic, both thinkers nonetheless reiterate eighteenth-century stadial theories of civilization that privilege Asia over Africa, and that differentiate between western and non-western, science and craft, and epistemology and religion. Such civilizational thinking continues to shape the legacy of the Enlightenment and even our preferences for global, connected histories within our current political and economic moment. How do we resist idealizing the non-West even as we acknowledge and elevate indigenous and non-western forms of expertise, invention, adaptation, and praxis?


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