Human rights, story-ballet and insects: The Oxford Enlightenment programme for 2018-2019

Our 2018-2019 programme is spearheaded by events on human rights and the Enlightenment, a much-debated topic with contemporary implications. Towards the end of the eighteenth century, two emblematic documents took for granted the view that human beings were entitled to certain basic universal rights (albeit within clearly demarcated political communities). In August 1789, the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen began with a reference to ‘the natural, inalienable, and sacred rights of man’; while thirteen years earlier, the Founding Fathers of the nascent United States famously held ‘these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness’.

In both cases reality on the ground did not match the universalist thrust of the celebratory Declarations. Moreover, eighteenth-century concepts of human rights should not be teleologically conflated with contemporary, post-war ideas and documents bearing similar titles (see, for example, Samuel Moyn’s account of the very recent history of present-day human rights). While trying to avoid such a distorting perspective, significant questions remain to be answered concerning, in the first place, the origins of the rights discourse so manifest in the American and French Declarations of the late eighteenth century; and, secondly, the intellectual genealogy of human rights from the Age of Revolutions onwards.

In our first event this year, the Besterman Lecture of the Voltaire Foundation on 15 November 2018, Keith Michael Baker of Stanford University – one of the foremost scholars of the French Revolution – will subject to close scrutiny different contexts and discussions of human rights in the early stages of the Revolution. The title of his lecture is ‘Writing Rights in 1789’. At the other end of the academic year, on 29 April 2019, Dan Edelstein (also of Stanford) will return to the origins of some of the basic notions at the heart of the Revolution in the inaugural George Rousseau Lecture, provisionally entitled ‘Liberty as Equality: Rousseau and Roman Constitutionalism’. The Lecture has been made possible by a generous gift from George Rousseau, a leading scholar of eighteenth-century culture, to Magdalen College (where the event will take place). The George Rousseau Lecture will be preceded by an afternoon colloquium (on the same day) on human rights and the Enlightenment, taking its cue from Dan Edelstein’s forthcoming book on the topic. We are delighted to welcome to Oxford for this discussion three major scholars of eighteenth-century political thought: Annelien de Dijn (Utrecht), Mark Philp (Warwick), and Céline Spector (Sorbonne, Paris).

Beyond this thematic focus, the Enlightenment Workshop returns in the second and third terms with a genuinely interdisciplinary programme on diverse aspects of eighteenth-century European culture. Daniel Fulda, Director of the Enlightenment Research Centre at the University of Halle (IZEA), will show us how major Enlightenment ideas were represented visually. Emma Spary (Cambridge) will examine the relationship between humanism and eighteenth-century scholarship by focusing on botany and what she calls ‘the Enlightenment of ginseng’. Moving on from flora to fauna, Dominik Hünniger of the Lichtenberg-Kolleg at the University of Göttingen will discuss the ways in which Enlightenment authors imagined and depicted the reproduction of insects. In papers on eighteenth-century British culture, Ros Ballaster (English, Oxford) will investigate the interface between theatre and the novel by focusing on Charlotte Lennox and Oliver Goldsmith, and Peter Sabor (McGill University, Montreal) will share with us some of the insights gained through his impressive editorial work on authors of the Burney family. In other sessions, Kate Tunstall (French, Oxford) will discuss representations of the unsuccessful attempt to assassinate Louis XV in 1757, and Julia Bührle (English, Oxford) will look at the links between eighteenth-century dance and literature in a session on the Enlightenment’s ‘story-ballet’. In the third term, Iwan-Michelangelo D’Aprile (co-director of the Research Center Sanssouci in Potsdam) will talk about eighteenth-century migration politics, while Maxine Berg (Warwick) will take us to one of the farthest reaches of the Enlightenment: Nootka Sound on the northwestern Pacific coast.

Last but not least, Richard Whatmore of the University of St Andrews will survey the activities of eighteenth-century Genevans in Ireland in a paper promisingly entitled ‘Terrorists, Anarchists and Republicans’. Professor Whatmore will accompany the rich menu of the Enlightenment Workshop with his series of six Carlyle Lectures on ‘The End of Enlightenment’. The dates and titles are available on the History Faculty website.

From eighteenth-century human rights and migration politics to the performance arts via ginseng and insects: we hope to provide something of interest to anyone who would like have a closer, unusual look at the European Enlightenment.

Avi Lifschitz (Magdalen)

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Cross-European perspectives on the Enlightenment: academic events at the Voltaire Foundation in early 2018

Avi Lifschitz is the new Academic Programme Director at the Voltaire Foundation. In his first Vf blogpost, he surveys some of the events scheduled over the second and third terms of 2017/18.

Catherine the Great, by Fyodor Rokotov, 1763.

Catherine the Great, by Fyodor Rokotov, 1763.

The main aim of our academic programme in early 2018 is to develop comparative and original views on eighteenth-century European culture in a series of events. Enlightenment – in the singular or plural, preceded by a definite article or left indefinite – has long been treated as a largely Franco-British affair, extending from Newton and Locke to the French philosophes and their acolytes. The Enlightenment Workshop, Oxford’s interdisciplinary research seminar on eighteenth-century culture, seeks to challenge this view by examining Enlightenment phenomena all the way from St Petersburg to London via Austria, Prussia, and further afield in Europe. In 2018 the Workshop will take place at the Voltaire Foundation in both Hilary and Trinity Terms. Its speakers come from a variety of academic institutions: as well as showcasing eighteenth-century research conducted here at Oxford and elsewhere in the UK, we are delighted to host speakers from Hungary, Germany, California and the American East Coast.

Frederic II of Prussia, by Johann Georg Ziesenis, 1763.

Frederic II of Prussia, by Johann Georg Ziesenis, 1763.

While Paul Slack (Linacre College, Oxford) discusses the complex interrelations between seventeenth-century British ideas of socio-economic Improvement and an eighteenth-century Enlightenment, Shiru Lim (UCL) analyses the concept of philosophical kingship by juxtaposing the philosophes’ relationships with Catherine II of Russia and Frederick II of Prussia. Thematically and methodologically too, the Workshop aims to explore the Enlightenment from a variety of approaches. Elisabeth Décultot (Halle) asks whether we can still use the term ‘Enlightenment’ – and with which controversies and semantic fields we engage when we do so.[1] The theological implications of natural catastrophes, explored by László Kontler (Central European University, Budapest), are followed by a paper focusing on street-lighting in eighteenth-century Paris and its wider significance, to be presented by Darrin McMahon (Dartmouth College).

Moses Mendelssohn, after Anton Graff, 1771.

Moses Mendelssohn, after Anton Graff, 1771.

German Enlightenment controversies on art and religion are explored by Katherine Harloe (Reading) and Paul Kerry (Brigham Young University), whereas Caroline Warman (Jesus College, Oxford) turns her gaze to more radical thinkers in an overview of French materialism from Diderot to the Revolution. The famous Parisian salons of the Enlightenment are examined from a fresh perspective by Chloe Edmondson (Stanford University); such venues would not have been hospitable to the subject of Adam Sutcliffe’s (King’s College London) paper, Moses Mendelssohn, who is widely regarded as having launched the Jewish Enlightenment (Haskalah).

The Enlightenment Workshop concludes on 17 May 2018 with an interdisciplinary discussion of new work on gender in different Enlightenment cultures, published in Anthony La Vopa’s recent book The Labor of the Mind (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017).  La Vopa will reply to comments on his book by colleagues from several Oxford faculties: Katherine Ibbett (French), Joanna Innes (History), Karen O’Brien (Head of the Humanities Division; English), and Ritchie Robertson (German).

Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, by Martin van Meytens, 1759.

Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, by Martin van Meytens, 1759.

This session is not, however, the only reference to the significance of gender for research on Enlightenment Europe in our programme: Barbara Stollberg-Rilinger (Münster), author of a new biography of the Habsburg empress Maria Theresa, touches upon this issue (among others) in her discussion of the empress and the Catholic Enlightenment. Her lecture on 26 February 2018 concludes a study day dedicated to recent research across Europe, conducted on the occasion of Maria Theresa’s 2017 tercentenary. The study day, convened by Tobias Heinrich, also includes papers by William O’Reilly (Trinity Hall, Cambridge), Catriona Seth (All Souls College, Oxford), Werner Telesko (Austrian Academy of Sciences), and Thomas Wallnig (University of Vienna). The speakers all aim to provide new perspectives on the empress, who has hitherto been overshadowed by contemporaries such as Frederick II and Catherine II (who are discussed earlier in the Enlightenment Workshop).

The main purpose of these events is to bring together graduate students, staff members, and visiting researchers from various faculties in Oxford, as well as guests from outside the University. This interdisciplinary dialogue might lead, we hope, to the creation of an Oxford salon for the discussion and exchange of invigorating ideas on Enlightenment culture – where there is no need for personal invitations or letters of introduction. All are welcome to attend the Enlightenment Workshop at the Voltaire Foundation, 99 Banbury Road, on Mondays at 5:00 p.m. (Hilary Term) and Thursdays at the same time (Trinity Term).

– Avi Lifschitz

[1] For some of Décultot’s views on Enlightenment historiography, see this recent discussion of the German Enlightenment.