“Comparative Antiquity, a Humanities Council Global Initiative” is Princeton’s multifaceted collaboration aimed at developing research and teaching that embodies a new paradigm in the study of “global antiquity,” extensive in geographical and chronological scope and inclusive in disciplinary participation and methodologies. In his lecture, Professor Kern will introduce the intellectual foundations of the Initiative in his presentation and discussion. What can a productive global and comparative approach to antiquity accomplish? How can the specialized technical and contextual expertise required in the study of any single ancient civilization be brought into a productive exchange with that of others? Beyond exploring similarities and differences, the Initiative also examines the very nature and purpose of “comparison” as an intellectual endeavour. To compare means, first and foremost, to learn to understand the characteristics of any one civilization not as “natural” or inevitable but as culturally and historically contingent—whether of one’s own civilization or any other. As Kern argues, it is only through comparison of multiple civilizations that we can truly grasp what is unique to any one of them, and what is shared more broadly, if not even universally. 

The Initiative further reconsiders the disciplinary boundaries in teaching, as they have developed with ever-increasing specialization since the 19th century. While embracing the need for professional specialization, it seeks to inspire new forms of conversation and collaboration across separate fields of study and their respective disciplines, and to challenge students to think beyond the narrow confines of their own field. In this, the Initiative aims to test a framework of research and teaching that might serve as a model also for other areas in the humanities as well as for other institutions, and for the sustained collaboration between them around the globe. To study antiquity from comparative perspectives is to illuminate the foundations and historical identities of individual civilizations from points of reference that are not their own, to discover new questions for each of them, and to transcend their cultural and political tendencies of nativism and tribalism. It once again makes the study of antiquity a fundamental component in the education of our students and prepares them as citizens, scholars, and leaders in our polycentric world.

Martin Kern, Professor and Department Chair of East Asian Studies at Princeton University, received his M.A. (1992) and Ph.D. (1996) in Sinology, Art History, and German Literature from Cologne University, Germany. A specialist in classical Chinese literature, his research interests cut broadly across the fields of literature, philology, history, religion, and art in ancient and medieval China. In ten authored and edited volumes and more than eighty scholarly articles and book chapters, Kern has studied the performance of poetry in political and religious ritual; the formation of ancient and medieval Chinese cultural memory and identity; questions of writing and orality, especially in light of newly excavated manuscripts and inscriptions; and ancient Chinese literary aesthetics and hermeneutic practices. His current book project is titled Performance, Memory, and Authorship in Ancient China: The Formation of the Poetic Tradition. At Princeton, Kern leads the new university-wide initiative “Comparative Antiquity”; at Renmin University of China (Beijing), he directs the “International Center for the Study of Ancient Text Cultures.”

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