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  • D03

    Order in the Diversity: The Compared Body (16th-19th Centuries)

    Das Gemälde Szene aus dem Berner Totentanz des Malers Albrecht Kauw
    @ Bernisches Historisches Museum, Bern / Foto Christine Moor

D03 (B01) | Order in the Diversity: The Compared Body (16th-19th Centuries)

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Physical characteristics have been and continue to be an important element in the ordering of people. Yet how did this actually function? What role did practices of comparing play in this process?

Throughout the early modern period, religious elements played a central role in the order of people. At the latest over the course of the 18th century, not only did comparative views change, but in some cases so also did the objects of comparing themselves. Rather than choosing one or several religion-related elements, authors opted increasingly for ethnic and bodily attributes as a means of categorising people, and of focusing on alterity or similarity. We ask what position was assigned to bodily elements in the grammar of comparing (tertia, comparata or context).

Using three case studies, we examine the significance of practices of comparing for the transformation of the relationship between corporeality and religion in the assignment of group membership. We focus on the Christian-European representation of the following populations in travelogues and ethnographic texts:

  • The population of the Ottoman Empire, 16th-18th century (Malte Wittmaack).
  • Jewish communities, especially in Central Europe, from the 17th -19th century (Cornelia Aust)
  • Ethnic and religious diversity of the Indian subcontinent, from the 17th -19th century (Antje Flüchter)

In these case studies, body-related or racialising and religion-related determinations of similarity and difference intersect to a significant degree.

The aim of the project is to make a crucial contribution to understanding the emergence of ‘Western modernity’ in terms of the emergence of modern essentialising mechanisms of exclusion (Racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia) and thus to the genealogy of ‘Western modernity’. This is achieved by analysing the shifting relationship between the body and religion, in other words, by analysing comparative formations located at the meso level. This facilitates a productive further development of postcolonial critique: it provides us with tools for a more precise determination of the inner mechanisms of comparative practices.

The project builds on the results of the first funding phase (see “From Northern Europe to Southern India. Practices of comparing in the Field of Law in Early Modern Contact Zones”).

Project Management

© Philipp Ottendörfer

Antje Flüchter

Academic Co-worker

© Philipp Ottendörfer

Cornelia Aust

© Philipp Ottendörfer

Malte Wittmaack


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