Mapping Entanglements. Dynamics of Missionary Knowledge and “Materialities” across Space and Time (16th - 20th centuries)

10.-11.02.2017, Workshop, DHI Washington

Conveners: Sabina Brevaglieri, Elisabeth Engel in collaboration with the History of Knowledge Research Group at the GHI Washington and the GHI Rome

In recent years missionary knowledge has emerged as an experimental category for scholarship, residing at the intersection of different historical and scholarly fields and shaped by all of them, such as the social and cultural history of missions, imperial history, history of science, and intellectual history. This new analytical focus fosters better understanding of the various meanings of knowledge and the specific nature of how it is made in relation to the missionary commitments of different religious communities. At the same time, the study of missionary knowledge underpins a subtler understanding of the missionary as an “actor between two worlds.” While a “duty of knowledge” of people, languages, and territories targeted for evangelization can be considered integral to apostolic practice, the missionary cannot be reduced to a privileged agent in the making of an institutional body of knowledge. The production, circulation, and accumulation of missionary knowledge are to be regarded as closely intertwined with religious experiences, oriented towards a personal engagement in the local field. However, knowledge-making shapes complex and multipolar configurations across colonial spaces imbued with competition and conflicts. An analytical focus on missionary knowledge, thus, appears to be a powerful tool for reflecting on the relationships between power and religion. It provides a sensitive ground for launching an “entangled history” project from a longue duréeperspective as it is able to address a highly fragmented and instable bulk of evidence scattered and mostly unexplored in archives, libraries, and museums throughout the world. 

“Mapping entanglements” is here, first of all, understood as a dynamic tool for overcoming the artificial epistemological divide between Europe and the colonial empires. Along this line of thinking, the workshop sets out to investigate paths and configurations of missionary knowledge within dynamics of continuity and change, going beyond the boundaries of traditional periodization, as well as challenging the logic of homogeneous cultural areas. Shifting “knowledge collectives” made by people, institutional actors, textual and visual “writings,” such as maps, as well as things, account for the constitutive epistemological plurality of missionary knowledge, as well as for its strongly negotiated nature. Within such knowledge aggregates, writings emerge as complex translations of missionary experiences and transcriptions of a plurality of voices and agencies that contribute to shaping them. Material evidence too, however, provides insight into multiple ways of knowing as they meet and coalesce in an object. It articulates networks of mutual dependencies, in which agency is not homogeneously distributed but reshaped through asymmetrical interactions wherein contingencies and shifting positions within a web of spatial and temporal connections remain invisible to the master narrative of colonialism. Within this framework, missionary knowledge as a field constitutes a fresh perspective for looking at Europe within the shifting global dynamics of centralities and decentralities, as well as for questioning Europe’s essentialist relationship with Christianity, opening up the possibility of reevaluating comparisons between the Protestant and Catholic worlds.

“Mapping entanglements” is also a tool well-suited to addressing the enormous spans of spatial and temporal links in which “things” are entrapped. In engaging with the complexity of missionary knowledge, the workshop invites participants to explore the conceptual divide between verbal communication and materiality beyond a classical dualistic approach. Writings, as a communicative form of knowledge, and things do not have to be viewed as opposites, nor necessarily regarded as homogeneous, and distinctions should not be erased. From the perspective of missionary knowledge, however, both the study of writings and of objects can be approached by evaluating their performative dimension, beside and beyond the representational one. We therefore regard the material “presence” of different kinds of knowledge artifacts, whether copies of published books in libraries, writings stored in archives, or objects in museum collections, as having an active historical dimension, since they are not completely separated from the contingencies in which they were produced and received. The workshop plans to shed light on the relationships between their uses, situational contexts, and shifting hierarchies of relevance. By taking into account the meanings attached to the making and conservation of sources, contents – and silences too – acquire new meanings, and discarded agencies acquire new visibility. 

Potential topics include, but are not limited to: 

  • Writings and images as spaces of entanglement: religious traditions and missionary knowledge
  • Crossing boundaries: paths of missionary knowledge between manuscripts and book cultures
  • Writings and agency: missionary knowledge in invisible and visible spaces
  • Missionary knowledge dynamics: archives as spaces of interaction and negotiation
  • Embodied missionary knowledge: writing and consuming material culture across spaces and times
  • Missionary exhibitions and museums: the making of the order of knowledge

At this level, the workshop’s interdisciplinary scope clearly intertwines with the transnational and global dimension, underpinning the ongoing discussion at the GHI of the high potential of the history of knowledge as an analytical focus supporting reflexivity of historical work, as well as creative dialogue within and outside other historical disciplines.