Indiana University Bloomington
Arts and Sciences News at Indiana University Bloomington

New Project Explores “Assembling the Global”

Research Collaboration Spans Two Continents

Posted: Monday, November 18, 2013

World Map ca. 1670

Starting in the 1500s, the dominant worldview of intellectuals in Western Europe fell apart. The discovery of the New World, the Protestant Reformation, scientific breakthroughs, and new ways of thinking about man’s role in the world all combined to render former frameworks obsolete. The idea of incorporating all known historical events and people into the chronology derived from the Bible no longer held water. And yet, the brightest minds of the period still attempted to write universal history. Why did early modern thinkers take on this daunting task of developing a universal understanding that included new human experiences in unknown spheres? This question is the focus of a new international research program launched at IU this year.

“Assembling the Global: Universal History, Past and Present,” seeks to explore the roots of present-day global studies in practices of knowledge from the period 1550-1800 in Western Europe. The project incorporates not just philosophical and historical writings, but writings in several genres which seek to integrate all time and all space, to assemble the global and keep it together as a “universal history.” Early Modern writings ranging from botanical taxonomies to theatrical dramas, from accounts of earthquakes to the first French dictionary are topics of study among this group of scholars.

The project grew out of a collaboration between Indiana University and the University of Oslo, through the bridge-building of Professor Hall Bjørnstad, who received his PhD from Oslo in 2006 and is currently Assistant Professor in the Department of French and Italian here at IU. The Oslo group includes scholars in museology (the study of museums), social medicine, cultural history, and German, while the IU group includes professors from departments such as History, Art History, Political Science, German, and French & Italian. A third “wing” of the project team comes from the Université de Paris (both the Sorbonne-Paris IV and the Sorbonne Nouvelle-Paris III), where Anne Régent-Susini has received a prestigious 5-year fellowship from the Institut Universitaire de la France for research on French universal histories from the 16th through the 18th centuries. Professor Philippe Desan, a Montaigne specialist from the University of Chicago, is also an active participant.

In May 2013, the IU professors involved in the Universal History project met for a roundtable discussion of their various research efforts and how they related to the unifying theme. Then in September, participants from Oslo and Paris joined their US colleagues for a two-day workshop at IUB. After opening remarks by College of Arts & Sciences Executive Dean Larry Singell, the first panel took on the topic “Assembling the Global: The Craft of the Historian.” The keynote speaker was Gérard Ferreyrolles from the Sorbonne who gave an overview of the debates on universal history in early modern Europe. Subsequent panels dealt with concepts of time, the idea of a universal “nature,” the politics involved in the quest for a universal history, and what insight early modern European debates may have on today’s questions of globalization.

Coincidentally, the “Assembling the Global” workshop was held the same week as the conference “Framing the Global,” organized by the IU Center for the Study of Global Change. “Framing the Global,” which is also an ongoing project, explores emerging directions in the study of global phenomena today. Professor Bjørnstad has been working with Professor Bill Rasch, chair of the Department of International Studies, and Hilary Kahn, director of the Center for the Study of Global Change, to begin collaboration between the two research groups. It’s an exciting time for the study of such topics at IU, as the School of Global and International Studies has just been launched and will grant its first graduate degrees next year.

“Assembling the Global” has benefitted from widespread support from IUB programs and departments. Funding has come from the College Arts & Humanities Institute, the College Dean’s Office, the Mary-Margaret Barr Koon Fund and the Gertrude F. Weathers Fund of the Department of French and Italian, the Renaissance Studies Program, the Center for Eighteenth-Century Studies, the Center for Theoretical Inquiry in the Humanities, and the Departments of History and of Religious Studies.

The scholars of the Universal History project will continue their collaboration with a meeting at the University of Oslo next year.

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