A considerable literature exists on the subject of early modern "encounters," focusing on how these provided contexts for the invention of new categories of perception and analysis, as well as for the making or remaking of disciplines, including some of the modern social sciences. Histories of ethnology, anthropology, religious studies, international relations, political thought, and a variety of other related disciplines (including a version of world-history itself) have a marked tendency to hark back to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries when they seek the origins of these forms of contemporary knowledge.
What is sometimes lost sight of in these considerations is the fact that the encounters did not take place between societies or cultural systems as such, but between particular sub-cultures or segments of societies. Some of these were relatively asymmetrical encounters and dealings (as with Iberian missionaries in their authoritarian rapport with subject populations in the missions of Latin America), others far less so.
In my Mary Flexner Lectures, it is my intention to focus on how courtly encounters were the crucial site for the forging of mutual perceptions and representations in Eurasia. This naturally implied a prior recognition of at least a crude parallel morphology, where the societal agents involved in the encounter saw each others’ societies as possessing somewhat similar political systems, dominated by rulers with courts, which in turn possessed systematic rules and conventions (what in the Perso-Arabic world might be termed adab) that had to be deciphered and eventually translated and rendered commensurable.
- Sanjay Subrahmanyam
Mary Flexner Lecturer