The aim of the AGON project is to place social interaction and practice at the heart of literary and artistic creation in the early modern period (16th-18th Centuries). Creation is understood here as the production of texts, genres, images and ideas which influence ways of thinking and feeling. Without overlooking the importance of individual psychology, or literary and genetic analysis, we propose a discursive approach, exploring creation in relation to the customs, needs, and constraints of intellectual life. These dynamics help reveal the thought processes behind texts by highlighting instances of confrontation, comparison and opposition. The early modern period is of particular interest since this is when distinctions between disciplines—previously described under the general category of ‘belles lettres’—began to emerge: distinctions which persist today.

This study will focus in particular on the analysis of polemics: the querelle des femmes, the querelle des Bouffons, disputes involving L'École des Femmes, the use of colour in art, as well as the ongoing querelle des Anciens et des Modernes. Creation here is understood as the result of the social interactions which give rise to the production of texts, genres, images and ideas, and which, through discursive practice, influence modes of thinking and feeling.

The period in question is the ‘early modern period’, a time when the distinction between disciplines previously categorised as ‘belles lettres’ was only beginning to emerge. In every domain intellectual debate and confrontation shaped the development of the changing cultural field. The major invention of the period—the printing press—facilitated new forms of public discussion. In the debates that herald the modern age, such as changes in the sciences, religious thought, the dissemination of knowledge and the nature of intellectual authority, texts are at once methods of intervention (for example, Les Provinciales are part of the Jansenist controversy) and themselves objects of polemic (for example La Princesse de Clèves). They constitute cases that act as focus points for discussion.

The research conducted by this team is based on two comparisons: the first, between the diverse domains of cultural life and the second, between two different countries—France and England. Some quarrels and controversies are similar on both sides of the Channel (such as the querelle des Anciens et des Modernes and the Battle of the Books); some involved the same institutions (the theatre quarrels in France and England for example); and some are different, and these differences reveal intellectual dynamics particular to each society. This interdisciplinary approach will help rethink literary and cultural history, in which literature, the arts, the sciences and philosophy are understood as the places in which key questions about history and society are negotiated.

The major debates of the early modern period probed epistemological, religious and philosophical questions. They divided scholars and intellectuals across the Republic of Letters. These conflicts were both local and had repercussions throughout Europe, were formulated in a variety of genres from treatises to correspondence, periodicals to pamphlets. They grew out of meetings and discussions in salons, clubs, Academies and cafés. It is thus essential to get a sense of the practices and interactions at play in these milieu: the developing literary field in France is characterised by both the world of the salons (a female, mondain space), and that of the academies (a male, scholarly space); but the querelles tended to transcend these two worlds.  In England, the spaces of cultural and literary interaction were different, composed of coffee-houses, clubs, academies and societies. But in both countries, the modus operandi of these spaces encouraged participants to think about their practice, and sometimes, their discipline. Distinctions between areas of knowledge, between ways of thinking and writing were debated, giving rise to new conceptions of genre and discipline.