Thursday Lecture Series: Observation and Obfuscation

Categories as Prisons

Thursday, The Heyman Center, Second Floor Common Room

I am interested in how dominant historiographical categories that work well for a handful of western European societies have come to stand for general theories of knowledge and modernity. In this case, I want to explore how such categories like the public sphere, print culture, the republic of letters led to alleged breakthroughs: the Scientific Revolution, centers of calculation, the Enlightenment, namely, the vast accumulation of new empirical knowledge that transformed the global economy, leading to the Industrial Revolution.

I use petitioning in 16th-century Peru and Mexico to demonstrate the opposite, namely, that vertical manuscript communication and cyphered secrecy between multiethnic vassals and the monarchy played a far more important role in ushering modernity than any printing press or public sphere.

Yet the problem is much larger. It lies ultimately in the hardening and reifying of the category of the “West,” made worse by the provincializing of “Europe.” This type of postcolonial discourse has ceded to three tiny countries in Europe the global construction of early modern knowledge as “Western.” These moves, in turn, have rendered invisible vast provinces of the history of the global south.

Guest lecturerJorge Cañizares Esguerra, The University of Texas at Austin
Alice Drysdale Sheffield Professor of History