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ISECS Rotterdam, Day One The Enlightenment and Markets and so forth…

July 28, 2015

ISECS 2015

The wind is blowing.  Rain comes heavily, and almost horizontally, all across the western Netherlands.  The few people on the streets are scurrying for cover and the forecast is for worse to come.

But are we downhearted?  No, because we have a full programme of eighteenth-century themed academic papers.  Here at least in Rotterdam, is a beacon of warmth and cheer.  We start with a big ol’ plenary session. Good to start with a proper plenary if only so that we can all see each other and revel in how many we are.  We had Margaret Jacobs laying down some familiar yet necessary concepts of a new market for ideas and the extent to which a New Heaven and a New Earth brought about the subversion of every providentialist assumption in our beloved and elongated century.  Freemasonry, Prince Eugene of Savoy’s library, and Dutch porn were all cited as evidence that the policing of knowledge became logistically petulant and impotent as the decades rolled by.

Then we split into sessions.  I was lucky enough to remember a properly headspinning session on theology of narrative and enjoyed two papers on Daniel Defoe and the Plasticity of Being and the narrative praxis of Wesleyan exhortation.  What does the sheer density of facts, the mountain of evidential “stuff” in a Defoe style novel tell us about perceived notions of both God and the absence of God in a universe that seems to stand in increasingly urgent need of interpretation?

(Our conference theme is “Opening Markets – Trade and Commerce in the Eighteenth Century” – but not to worry.  Like all good conference themes – it’s more of a leitmotif really – and is satisfied by the promiscuous and largely metaphorical deployment of terms like “market”, “economy”, “exchange” and “currency”.  All it takes is for two people or more people to share an idea and the conference “theme” is satisfied.)

Skipping outside into the hurricane to get our bagged lunch, the conference of course continues in miniature.  It’s not just the sessions but the spaces between the sessions where the real process of intellectual regeneration takes place.

As for the afternoon – well I was at the ISECS committee meeting.  The last meeting of the old committee.  Twilight of the Gods.  Rotterdammerung.  Our deliberations will make themselves clear and wise and good in due course.  The AGM is this evening.

But the evening belonged to the reception at the Laurenskerk in the middle of town.  The one great building to be lovingly rebuilt after the entire city was wiped out in the space of a few hours in May 1940, we were given the entire church to drink in.  And to a lesser extent eat in.  And to an even lesser extent listen to a few speeches in.  There’s something very satisfying about drinking a church dry.

And so we scattered into smaller bands, we great congregation of eighteenth-centuryists.  There is nothing, absolutely nothing, so energising as constantly meeting people with whom you have enough shared knowledge in common to make the definition and conquest of one’s own areas of ignorance seem proximate and necessary.

I love it here.  I always love it here – “here” being wherever several hundred eighteenth-centuryists are gathered together.  Here, I learn.


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