Rethinking the Concept of Renaissance

The 2017–18 CBC revolved around the question whether the concept of Renaissance could be applied also outside its original European context, and more specifically in South Asia. The starting point of the discussion was Jack Goody’s book “Renaissances: The one or the many?”, which has been analysed from very different perspectives in the opening talks by Camillo Formigatti and Antony Pattathu and to which most of the following talks referred back to. There was a general consensus about the fact that Goody’s depiction of South Asia is at best incomplete and at worst repeats some orientalist prejudices about its being changeless.
The final round-table tried to extract some general conclusions of the three-days discussion:

STEP 1. Should we use European categories at all?
Most of the art-historians and some of the philologists among us suggested just to refrain from using European categories such as Renaissance. They influence their users with unnecessary assumptions and offer no concrete advantage. One of the philologists suggested therefore a 20–30 years moratorium in the use of such categories.

Most other scholars, however, rather agreed on the need to use (also) European categories. In a beautiful simile, a musicologist explained that our categories are unavoidable and we should rather be aware of them and careful in their use: “One of the practices in ethnomusicology is to transcribe music that is traditionally transmitted orally into European staff notation in order to preserve and convey the music being discussed. However, it became apparent fairly early in the history of the discipline that by transcribing music that is not based on concepts in European art music into staff notation, the music thus conveyed was altered substantially. The categories and concepts through which we understand European art music are not necessarily significant in the music of other cultures, but it is almost impossible to bypass them as they become part of the way that those trained in European art music then perceive music”.

STEP 2: Careful and self-conscious use of “Renaissance”
In order to use the term and concept of “Renaissance”, we need a working definition of it. The following working definition has been therefore suggested (notes on each word follow):

What does Renaissance mean? An efflorescence prompted among a group of people by a revival of the past after an interruption.
An efflorescence is needed, since a revivalistic movement not leading to any new outburst in the arts, literature, philosophy, etc. cannot be labelled “Renaissance”.
It is difficult to define how many people make “a group”, but there needs to be a movement, not just a few connected individuals not gaining momentum.
The rupture element is also needed, otherwise there is just continuity. In other words, each generation is quite naturally inspired by the preceding one, but a Renaissance is characterised by the fact that one seeks inspiration from a more distant past. This past needs to be real (not mythical*), but not the immediately preceding one (otherwise it is just continuity). The past must therefore be felt to have been dormant for a while. Further, the appeal to be the past must be something one is aware of, something deliberate and intentional (otherwise, again, there is just continuity) and usually something the audience is also aware of. Therefore, one needs a golden age period which is specifically located and gives inspiration for a new efflorescence.
Please note that in the case of performative arts we don’t really know whether the elements we go back to were really existing, since we don’t have visual or audio recordings (as pointed out by LPe).
Why can’t the past be just a mythical one? Readers who are familiar with South Asia will for instance be reminded of the omnipresent hints at the lunar dynasty (virtually each king claims to descend from it). However, we don’t have any real artefacts we can look back to in the case of the lunar dynasty; there is no lunar poetry, no lunar painting, no lunar capitals.

STEP 3. Beware of the political element
As highlighted by AP, CF and others, the use of the term “Renaissance” is not value-neutral. By saying that something is a “Renaissance”, one is often issuing a statement of value. Nor can scholars forget that this is already happening in front of our eyes, with the term “Renaissance” appropriated by various groups, usually for controversial political purposes (as discussed, for instance, in BL’s speech). Thus, we don’t want to lean back in our armchairs and issue verdicts about Renaissances in the world, but nor can we just abjure our scholarly responsibility while others are issuing these verdicts already, for non-scholarly purposes.

STEP 4. Should we add also some specific elements to the operative definition above?
The main problem is finding a balance between a precise definition (a vague definition is just useless) and a too-narrow one. Thus, the following criteria are, as stressed by EM, sufficient, but not necessary conditions. Renaissance(s) are complex phenomena, but they may entail one or the other elements between individuality, secularism, knowledge circulation (CP) and the formation of a Canon (the last addition is due to LPa). Other possible ingredients for Renaissance(s) are economic prosperity, as well as a dynamic society and possibly also religious changes.

STEP 5. Why should we use the label and concept “Renaissance”?
I personally think that our use of this term and concept should not be part of a hegemonic discourse, but rather meant as a tool to ask new questions.
RK for instance suggested looking at the function of these and similar terms (“awakening” in the so-called Bengali Renaissance, for instance) in the settings in which they were used.