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Aesthetics as Epistemic Practice in Premodern Cultures

Annual Conference of the Collaborative Research Center 980 “Episteme in Motion. Transfer of Knowledge from the Ancient World to the Early Modern Period”,
24–26 June 2021


The Collaborative Research Center 980 examines the transformation of knowledge in European and non-European premodern cultures. The point of departure for our research is the hypothesis that the transfer of knowledge is always bound to material as well as medial objects or practices of representation. This raises the question of how various forms of enactment make bodies of knowledge perceivable and knowable in their different sociohistorical contexts. The question of how knowledge is perceived is ultimately bound to aesthetic dimension both of knowledge itself and of its transformation.

Material objects enhance and generate knowledge by means of their specific characteristics. Conversely, the specific cultural characteristics of material manifestations, representations and media arise from the process of the transfer of knowledge. Bodies of knowledge that are represented in oral or written, figurative or performative forms take different material shapes and are bound to distinct media. Thus, they always appear as ‘aesthetic’ phenomena – in a basic sense of the word – that promote and provoke different manners of perception. This also implies that the respective mental, sensory and bodily experiences of knowledge need to be questioned. There is a wide array of perceptive modes – from visual, tactile, acoustic to affective, imaginative and intellectual representation – that should be taken into account. This aesthetic dynamic continuously reconstitutes, reshapes, reenacts and, ultimately, revalidates knowledge.

The 8th annual conference of the research center in 2021 “Aesthetics as Epistemic Practices in Premodern Cultures”, plans to investigate from a transcultural perspective, aesthetic procedures involved in generating knowledge, from a transcultural perspective, including artifacts from both premodern European as well as non-European cultures. To what extent can aesthetic practices be qualified as practices that constitute knowledge? How do specific cultural and temporal contexts mark aesthetic phenomena? What role do religious backgrounds, ritual practices or craftsmanship play? How do they shape concepts or notions? Which aesthetic practices become manifest? In which contexts do they take effect and how can they be described? The notion of ‘aesthetics’ is explicitly not to be reduced to a theory of beauty, to categories of art or to conceptualizations of the sublime. Rather, we understand ‘aesthetics’ here as an open concept that allows for a transcultural investigation of a spectrum of practices regarding sensorial experiences, forms of perception and the affective potential of formation, as well as sensorial ways of comprehension.     

Talking about ‘premodern aesthetics’, we intendedly include reflections implicitly made with and through objects, their materiality, or practices. Thus, we focus on aesthetic processes that conceptual language might fail to describe.

In paying specific attention to the material and medial conditions of aesthetic practices, to objects and perceptions, we aim to investigate the relevance of aesthetic dimensions in premodern cultures of knowledge. The conference welcomes contributions that discuss aesthetic practices as epistemic practices and their cultural or intellectual context from a transcultural perspective.

The annual conference is conceived and organized by the concept group “Materiality and Mediality” under the direction of Anne Eusterschulte and Claudia Reufer.