Call for papers: Coping with Copia: Epistemological Excess in Early Modern Art and Science, Montreal

logoCall for papers for a conference in Montreal, May 14-16, 2015

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

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 ( and Itay Sapir ( by
May 31, 2014.


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