29 Jul 2001 - 31 Jul 2001 All day Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge


Colloquium co-organised by the Theory, Culture & Society Centre (Nottingham Trent University) and CRASSH (University of Cambridge)

The year 2001 sees the 250th anniversary of perhaps the most famous encyclopaedia in the West, the Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des Sciences, des Arts, et des Métiers (1751-1765), edited by Diderot and D’Alembert. The Encyclopédie, contained contributions from many eminent scholars and scientists of the day, and was built around the idea of the complete classification of knowledge. Its basic assumption was the sense that the world, both nature and culture formed a cosmopolis, a bounded and finite system which was orderly, knowable and recordable. Something which would produce benefits for humanity, with social and human engineering following scientific description and classification.

Encyclopaedias have an important role in the codification of knowledge. They provide us with a sense of both the extent and the order of knowledge. They seek to provide a definitive inventory of the things in the known world. They bind together the elements within the world into a new conceptual order through their capacity for indexing, linkages and cross-referencing. Encyclopaedias have often emerged at crucial times in history to act as markers of the transition point from one social order to another.

As we enter the 21st century, a number of new projects to construct encyclopaedias have begun: a clear sign that the boundary, limits and classification of our world is shifting. Our culture no longer appears to have the same level of stability as before. Here we can point to a number of factors. Firstly, digitalization, the capacity of new information technologies to store and retrieve vast amounts of data. To have all the cultural representations and texts of the world immediately at hand in digital format, raises the problem of the structure and classification of the world. Especially so when many different forms and types of knowledge can be put into a vast database which can be traversed through hyperlinks and search engines. Yet who should construct the databases, hyperlinks and search engines: the state, the corporations, the university? A sort of order is emerging with the Internet, yet it is driven by many different and conflicting principles, with the commercial dot.com economy currently in the ascendant. We therefore have a problem, about how to classify, handle and access digital culture.

Secondly, cultural instability can be linked to the expansion of our horizons through globalization. The integration of the global economy should not be merely associated with producing common procedures and a uniform world, it has also been accompanied by the clashing of cultures. It may well be the case that we increasingly live in ‘one world’, but many contradictory processes are taking place; not just the extension of English as the language of business, commercial law and international non-governmental organizations, but also the visibility of different cultures and traditions. We are becoming increasingly aware of different accounts of global history and various alternative modernities. The Western account of the rise of modern times and the classification systems used in the social sciences and humanities are becoming challenged by counter-knowledges.

Diderot and the philosophes had the ambition ‘to collect all knowledge scattered over the face of the earth, to present its general outlines and structure to the men with whom we live, and to transmit this to those who will come after us, so that the work of the past centuries may be useful to the following centuries, that our children, by becoming more educated, may at the same time become more virtuous and happier, and that we may not die without having deserved well of the human race…’. Two centuries on, the ambition to systematically collect all knowledge for humanity, and the assumption that this knowledge is necessarily for the good, has paled in the face of the direct critique of the dialectic of enlightenment provoked by the numerous wars and genocides of the 20th century. It has also become more apparent that the encyclopaedia project bears the marks of a particular spatial location, the West. Today it is impossible to assume that we in the West have licence to continue to accumulate knowledge on behalf of those in other parts of the world. Especially when they refuse to remain silent and constantly engage in a global dialogue in which some of the central categories of modernity become contested. Today our scope is global, our mode should be more dialogical. This means that the various elements of other cultures cannot be neatly laid out and fitted into the master classification systems. Something which suggests the need to reconstitute our classification of knowledge in a more open and dialogical way, that we are beginning a process of de-classification and re-classification.
Programme thematic areas:

1. Constructing Encyclopaedias. Diderot and D’Alembert’s Encyclopédie in the context of the Enlightenment, the project of modernity, and the formation of the human sciences. Non-Western and pre-modern encyclopaedias and their role in knowledge formation and governmental administration.

2. The encyclopaedia, the museum and the archive: the origin of public space. Commercialised leisure and education projects. The development of the public sphere

3. Problematising classification: codes, flows and complex systems. The movement beyond stable classification: new genetics, complexity and flows.



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