Core Program


Making Worlds: Art, Materiality, and Early Modern Globalization

—organized by Bronwen Wilson, University of California, Los Angeles, and Angela Vanhaelen, McGill University
co-sponsored by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) Insight Grant

Southern Barbarian (Nanban-jin) Boat Formerly attributed to Kano School (Japanese) 17th century Courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Narratives of colonialism, empire building, and religious mission—of center, periphery, and globalization—have been under revision in recent years in order to nuance our understanding of what were immensely complex and multi-faceted phenomena. This year’s conference series will shift the focus from governing regimes and institutions to ways in which creative forms and practices were intertwined in the dynamics of materiality and early modern globalism. Such a proposition directs analysis toward the flow of materials, artifacts, and motifs across borders and bodies of water. It attends to experimentation that activated and responded to this traffic in things; it investigates these interactions as constant, on-going processes, thereby bringing innovation, ornamentation, improvisation, and sensation to the fore.

Such interactions were given impetus by an efflorescence of cosmopolitan spaces in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. These are cities, ports, exhibition sites, ships, caravanserais, markets, museums, theaters, and warehouses. They are spaces that are open to becoming something new, provisional instead of fixed in their form; they are not inherently hierarchical nor merely commercial, but inflected by global relations of power; they are spaces in which distance and presence are brought into consideration with each other. They are spaces through which people of diverse ethnicities, faiths, and vocational interests came and went. Allowing for convergences, reorientations, and interconnections, cosmopolitan spaces propelled people and artefacts in unexpected directions, giving rise to new ways of thinking.

These interconnected themes of spaces, materials, and imagination will be examined in three conferences through developing a series of interrelated case studies of movement and migration. These sessions will foster discussion and debate with visiting and local researchers and with the Making Worlds research project (

Conference 1: In Between Spaces
October 12-13, 2018

This first conference will consider movement, migration, and invention through, between, and within early modern spaces. The papers will explore new uses for, practices in, and configurations of spaces such as inns, ships, caravans, islands, warehouses, deserts, streets, and waterways. Such spaces could be in motion or transitional, both isolated and connected, and open to unpredictable forms of traffic. These spaces have much to teach us about flows and commingling of materials, media, motifs, practices, and people across and between cultures in the early modern world.

Conference 2: Material Flows
February 1-2, 2019

This conference will consider the flows, circuitry, and transformations of materials, motifs, styles, artistic vocabularies, and practices across geographical boundaries. Recent considerations of transnational studies and the global turn have prompted a shift away from area studies, state formation, and fixed borders to take into account concepts such as mobility and cultural entanglement. Papers will take up artefacts and motifs, tracing their circuitry and their paths to explore the implications of global movement and material flows.

Conference 3: Other Worlds
May 3-4, 2019

Having examined the potential for creative interaction to which “in between spaces” and “material flows” across geographies gave rise, this conference turns to “other worlds.” These are imaginary places, such as utopias and paradises; sites, like Jerusalem, that have been recreated elsewhere; travel narratives; costumes, performances, and ballets, such as Ben Jonson’s Masque of Blackness (1605) and Daniel Rabel’s designs for Americans for René Bordier’s Ballet de la Douairière de Billebahaut (1626); and representations of terrestrial and astronomical imagery. Papers will consider ways in which literary, theatrical, theological, mythological, architectural, and geographical forms became loci for imagining and inventing other worlds.


Becoming Media

—organized by Sarah Tindal Kareem, University of California, Los Angeles, and Davide Panagia, University of California, Los Angeles

In his seminal essay “Genesis of the Media Concept,” John Guillory speaks of the “absent but wanted” concept of medium in the history of Western thought. A diffusion of proto-mediatic political, aesthetic, philosophical, and scientific modes of handling media objects proliferate in the early modern and modern periods, despite the absence of a clearly articulated concept of medium such as that referred to by Guillory. It is in this space of a yet unspecified, though pervasive and prolific culture of media handling, that we may speak of a “becoming media.”

This series of conferences investigates in an interdisciplinary manner this diffusion of practices, objects, and modes of attention that generate an emergent concern with media in the early modern and modern periods. Given the recent development of new interdisciplinary fields of research in the humanities and social sciences—including but not limited to critical digital studies, media archeology, and digital humanities—as well as the proliferation of political and aesthetic research on the entanglement of media, ecologies, and global life, the conferences are well positioned to at once converge and showcase the diversity of theoretical and empirical research in and around the idea of a becoming media.

The conference series is designed so as not to focus exclusively on traditional periodicities or historical trajectories, but to articulate the emergent practices of engagement with media objects, and the ideas, technologies, and attentional modes solicited by such practices. This Core Program concerns the intersection of such material practices with theoretical reflection in order to contribute to an understanding of the experiential domain of a becoming media.

The two organizers, Sarah Kareem and Davide Panagia, have begun to develop this area of research in their own individual publications. Kareem’s recent article in Critical Inquiry, “Flimsy Materials: Or, What the Eighteenth Century Can Teach Us about Twenty-First Century Worlding,” articulates an imagined origin of current digital life in the tradition of philosophical skepticism of the Scottish Enlightenment; while Panagia’s recent monograph, Impressions of Hume: Cinematic Thinking and the Politics of Discontinuity similarly argues that David Hume is a proto-cinematic thinker whose theories of mental life and personal identity offer a trenchant critique of the desire for consistency and coherence in democratic political practices. Combining these diverse but overlapping orientations to philosophy, aesthetics, and media studies, the program enables a rich and lasting set of questions and debates regarding the persistent entanglement of media objects in the formation of modern political and aesthetic life.

Conference 1: Objects
October 27–28, 2017

Objects approaches the long history of media by way of material culture and the history of technology. The first conference gathers scholars who are concerned with the ways in which particular forms—codex, file, document—shape the ways in which we have historically consumed and continue to consume information.

List of Speakers

Conference 2: Practices
February 23–24, 2018

Practices focuses on practices from collage to “commonplacing” associated with particular media. The second conference is especially concerned with exploring the relationship between current practices in the digital humanities and older models of data collection and analysis. The participants’ presentations will illuminate the bi-directional flow between old and new media: the way that delving into early modern media practices from theatrical illusion to dictionary making can reframe the way we understand our own relationship to our current media landscape, as well as vice versa.

List of Speakers

Conference 3: Attentional Modes
April 27–28, 2018

Attentional Modes investigates how given media privilege or encourage particular modes of engagement such as play, immersion, or diffused attention. Participants may approach this problem diachronically or synchronically, whether considering the history of a particular attentional mode or examining the attentional constraints and opportunities afforded by various media forms in a given historical moment.

List of Speakers

Parmigianino, 1503–1540
Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror
ca. 1524
Oil on convex panel
Kunsthistorisches Museum