A symposium with the titillating title “Historicide and reiteration” (and the more pedestrian subtitle “Innovation in the sciences, humanities and the arts”) will be held 9-10 February, 2007 at Maastricht University (nice town, worth a visit!). The meeting promises to touch upon some rather fundamental topics for science, technology and medical history museums. The dead-line for submission of abstracts is next week — i.e., Monday 15 May is extended to 1 June 2006, so hurry up! (They don’t seem to have a website yet, or I haven’t looked closely enough). Anyway, here’s the cfp-text:

“Unlike art, science destroys its own past”, or so Thomas Kuhn argued in his ‘Comment on the Relations of Science and Art’ (“The Essential Tension: Selected Studies in Scientific Tradition and Change”, 1977, 340-351, p.345). In the arts, older works continue to play a vital and formative role in contemporary innovations. In the sciences, however, out of date theories and practices are generally thought to have no use whatsoever to the development of new insights: science continually destroys its own past. Hence, museums are crucial to art (but not to science), while five-year-old books become obsolete in science (but certainly not in literature). Poetical and aesthetic themes, motifs and representational strategies are forever undead, it seems, ready to reappear on the cultural scene at any time.

The contrast between historicide and reiteration holds out the promise of leading us beyond sterile, hackneyed terms such as fact versus fiction, objectivity versus subjectivity, or experience versus speculation in our efforts to come to terms with the interrelations between the sciences and the arts. Nevertheless, we cannot rest content with Kuhn’s treatment of the issue, for the following reasons:

1) First of all, it needs to be more finely attuned to actual practices in art and science. What are we to make of, for example, contemporary mathematicians’ ongoing interest in Fermat’s centuries-old theorems? And how are we to understand the famous avantgarde dictum that all museums should be burnt down?

2) Second, the categories of ‘art’ and ‘science’ are too broad to be of any use to empirical inquiry. It seems useful to at least differentiate between the natural and the social sciences. Likewise, we should ask ourselves whether the concept of art as a reiterative practice applies equally to literature, music and the visual arts, and if the humanities should also be taken into account. Do the humanities share the reiterative nature of the arts, or do they embody yet another culture of innovation?

3) Third, we must pay closer attention to the fact that scientific and aesthetic innovations often materialize through interdisciplinary exchange, that is, by amalgamating concepts, theories and methods from diverse intellectual domains. Thus, Martha Nussbaum innovated ethics by reiterating an old master, Aristotle, and by importing concepts from the neighbouring discipline of literary studies into philosophy. Likewise, Weber and Durkheim succeeded in founding sociology by combining elements from the natural sciences and from the realist novel into a new field that distinguished itself from both science and literature. The elaboration of evolutionary theories necessarily depends on literary metaphors and narrative models for its articulation, while it is no less true that evolutionary perspectives on man’s place in nature have functioned as an important source of innovation for literary modes of emplotment. As these examples demonstrate, processes of interdisciplinary exchange may even transgress the borders between the ‘three cultures’ of the natural sciences, the social sciences and the humanities/arts (cf. Wolf Lepenies, Die drei Kulturen, 1985). Border traffic between art and science has become an important feature of various innovative, late-twentieth-century research practices such as genomics and brain research. The arts may turn their position at the margins of society to good use by functioning as a free space for independent inquiry, embarking upon investigations ignored or discredited by commercial interests and academic science. This is exactly what happens in various forms of collaboration between artists and scientists (cf. Siân Ede, Art and Science, 2005). If the boundaries between the three cultures are permeable, and if artists and writers actively contribute to the shaping of scientific knowledge at times, doesn’t this at least open up the possibility that scientific innovation may also proceed through reiteration?

4) Fourth, the tenet that the leading edge of science is untrammelled by the burden of the past somehow smacks of the discarded concept of autonomous science, which would be immune to external influences and hence, to tradition. Over the last few decades, however, the supposition that science would have no significant cultural, political, social or aesthetic dimensions has been seriously questioned within the burgeoning field of Science and Technology Studies.

This symposium wants to investigate the convergences and divergences between the sciences and the arts by taking our cue from the ways in which they position themselves vis-à-vis their past. It aims at a thorough evaluation of the contrast between historicide and reiteration as a potentially fruitful perspective on the interrelations between the three cultures. We propose the following levels of inquiry:

a.”The actual practice of art and science”. Do specific instances of scientific innovation corroborate or falsify the idea that the creative reappropriation of the past has nothing to contribute to scientific discovery? Is historicide in the arts confined to the occasional exception of the historical avant-garde, or does it constitute a more substantial part of aesthetic innovation?

b.”The prototypical images of art and science”. Are they supposed to be reiterating or destroying their pasts, and how do such assumptions figure in the public self-fashioning of scientists, writers and artists? Do such attitudes toward the past also work internally as codes of proper artistic or scientific behaviour? If it would be the case that scientific innovation may be prone to reiteration as well, does this mean that scientists unwittingly reiterate the past and therefore cultivate a deluded self-image? Would a similar argument apply to the iconoclastic self-fashioning of avant-garde artists?

c.”The contents and products of art and science”. How do views of the significance of the past relate to scientific theories, literary novels or the subject-matter of painting? Are scientific accounts of, say, the human life span or biological evolution more inclined towards linear, progressivist accounts than literary genres which also cover these domains such as the Bildungsroman or the regional novel?

This symposium invites contributions from the history and sociology of science, the history of art, the history of literature, literary theory, and philosophical aesthetics. A selection of the papers will be published in a peer-reviewed volume, to appear in the series “Arts, Sciences and Cultures of Memory”, edited by Kitty Zijlmans, Lies Wesseling and Robert Zwijnenberg (publisher: Equinox, London).

If you are interested in contributing, please send a 300-word abstract before May 15, 2006 to:

We will select the contributors to the symposium before July 1, 2006. You may subsequently be asked you to pre-circulate your paper before January 14, 2007. Please make sure your abstract contains the following items:

a. a concretely delineated case study
b. a specification of the level of inquiry of your case study (a, b and/or c)
c. an interdisciplinary scope: contributions that engage in a comparative analysis which crosses the borders between the ‘three cultures’ will be given priority.

The organizing committee:
– Dr. René Gabriëls, Department of Philosophy, Faculty of Arts and Culture, Maastricht University
– Dr. Geert Somsen, Department of History, Faculty of Arts and Culture, Maastricht University
– Dr. Elisabeth Wesseling, Department of Literature and Art, Faculty of Arts and Culture, Maastricht University
– Prof. dr. Robert Zwijnenberg, Department of Literature and Art, Faculty of Arts and Culture, Maastricht University, Department of the History of Art, Leiden University

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