Coping with Copia: Epistemological Excess in Early Modern Art and Science
Call for papers for a conference in Montreal, May 14-16, 2015
Fabian Krämer (History of Science, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität
Munich, Germany) and Itay Sapir (Art History, Université du Québec à Montréal, Canada)
Arcimboldo, the Librarian, wikimedia commons
We are living in an era of unprecedented information overload. This is one of the most common clichés defining the early 21st century, both in academic circles and in general public imagery. And, as clichés often do, this one encapsulates some elements of truth. The Internet era is indeed, quantitatively at least, the scene of the most formidable
multiplication of readily available information of any kind humanity has ever experienced. A considerable portion of this information comes in visual form: we have more and more images and diagrams of all kinds of things at our disposal, and we often wish – this is perhaps a broader anthropological phenomenon – to give visual figure to information that is not quintessentially meant to address the eyes.
The “unprecedented” nature of our contemporary overload may be less clear than we tend to think, however. Some periods in the past were confronted with a similar cultural situation, considering both the objective growth in available information and the subjective impression of living in an era of unprecedented epistemological saturation. An emblematic moment of this kind was the sixteenth and seventeenth century in Europe, the two centuries that led up to, and witnessed, the now often contested “Scientific Revolution”, a period characterised also by geographical expansion and aesthetic subversion. Then, as now, optimism about the prospects of knowledge was inextricably mingled with fears of having “too much to know,” to borrow the title of Ann Blair’s seminal monograph – and of the impossibility of selecting, organizing, and finally making sense of the ever increasing amount of information facing our early modern predecessors. Then, as now, artists and scholars were at the forefront of the struggle to digest and discipline knowledge – or, conversely, to denounce its overabundance and express our human failure to meaningfully organize what we know. Then, as now, they also unwittingly contributed to the very copia that they so frequently bemoaned.
Indeed, epistemic abundance is a constant challenge to those people whose function in society is to represent different facets of reality. Arguably the two most prominent professions regularly producing visual representations of the world – be they all-embracing or specific, systematic or seemingly random – are those of scientists and visual artists. In their professional universes, more often than not completely separate from one another, practitioners of science and of art try – and have tried in the past – to give form and order to the epistemological saturation around them. Or they strive, on the contrary, to represent precisely the irrepresentability of a multifaceted and seemingly
inexhaustible reality. At the same time, we should not conceive of artists and scientists as purely reactive vis-à-vis the multiplication of available knowledge but, rather, consider their role also in bringing it about in the first place.
The different strategies conceived for the visual representation (or denunciation) of information overload, as well as the sometimes unintentional creation of even more information along the way, will lie at the heart of the conference that Montreal will host in 2015, welcoming historians, art historians, historians of science and of ideas and scholars of related disciplines. While proposed papers for the conference should address the early modern period, sessions will be accompanied by respondents from the field of contemporary science and art, who will comment on the relevance of the historical example to our own time.
In the artistic field, the aesthetic and epistemological strategies of contemporary artists and of painters and sculptors of the late Renaissance, Mannerism and the early Baroque indeed offer fertile ground for comparison, contrasting and mutual illumination. If one can convincingly tell the story of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century art as a series of attempts at visually representing knowledge and at repressing the unbearable complexity of such an enterprise—a narrative that this conference offers to verify and elaborate upon – one can arguably claim that art around 2000 is concerned by a surprisingly
similar predicament and that, conversely, modernity in art has its roots in a relatively distant past.
As for science and its own visual policies, the proliferation of images in contemporary cognitive science, amongst other fields, and the high expectations often attached to them, are reminiscent of a similar upsurge of the use of images in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century natural history, and the simultaneous rise of diagrammatical forms of
representing and ordering knowledge. Visual strategies were used both to visualise epistemic objects and thus generate knowledge about them and to order and parse this knowledge. The concerns with “Big Data” in contemporary science also arguably have a precedent in the attempts of early modern scholars to gather and parse the huge amounts of information on all sorts of “natural particulars” (Grafton & Siraisi) that they gathered and shared through their correspondence networks.
We invite proposals from the history of science, the history of art, and adjacent disciplines. Please send abstracts of no more than 300 words (including the title), for papers in English or in French, to Fabian Kraemer (Fabian.Kraemer@lmu.de) and Itay Sapir (firstname.lastname@example.org) by May 31, 2014.