Monday, August 29, 2011
Sunday, August 21, 2011
Child Looking at Brontosaurus, American Museum of Natural History, 1937.
|Brontosaurus displaying characteristically turn-of-the-century amphibious habits in a painting by Charles Knight, under the direction of Henry Fairfield Osborn.|
|Mounting Brontosarus at the American Museum, 1904.|
|Illustration of sauropod dinosaur Pose by Mary Mason, under the direction of Oliver Perry Hay, Proceedings of the Washington Academy of Sciences, 1910.|
Thursday, August 18, 2011
Tuesday, August 16, 2011
To put it another way: instead of answering history-of-science questions with American-history answers, we're increasingly answering American-history questions with history-of-science answers. For those of us at the boundary–especially those on a market with more jobs in one than the other–this is a promising path.Those ideas were floating in the back of my head while I was re-reading Alain Desrosieres' _The Politics of Large Numbers_.
In his first chapter, Desrosieres does for France what Hank talks about us doing for the United States. An earlier generation of social historians, he explained, had been frustrated in their attempts to construct statistical models from the data left in departmental prefects' statistical memoirs, instituted and published in post-revolutionary France up to 1830. Desrosieres' gloss: "Historians long considered them to be heteroclitic, incomplete documents, unserviceable as a source of numerical data." (40)
But Desrosieres sees an opportunity. Rather than attempt to construct statistical series---which effort was indeed doomed to fail---why not shift one's gaze to the "process of adunation," to the means by which the revolutionary state went about remaking France. "Not only does the prefects' view of their departments offer precise information on the actual departments," he wrote, "it also and above all shows how the protagonists in this venture portrayed themselves, how they perceived the diversity of France, and the possible obstacles to this political and cognitive undertaking."(41)
There's something subtle going on in the first clause of that sentence I just quoted. Desrosieres does not simply abandon social substance for cultural interpretation. He offers an "and," instead of an "or." The careful reader can learn and convey a great deal of valuable information about the people of France, as read through these elite observers, he suggests. At the same time, that reader gains new insights into the cultural transformation of the French nation, with all its fits, starts, set-backs, and inconsistencies.
Of course, HOSers have already used their unique approach to offer revisions of standard American stories---Phil Pauly's take on immigration restriction and cherry trees springs to mind from a much longer list. But Desrosieres struck me because he took an apparent limitation (the muckiness and diversity of statistical memoirs) and turned it into a decided advantage. As the old programmer's adage goes (okay, so it can't be *that* old): it not a bug, it's a feature!
Hank is right. Historians of science have developed some extraordinary techniques for wringing meaning and significance out of the dryest and barest of facts. Why not turn those techniques back to problems that pester our fellow craftsmen?
But I'm even more intrigued and challenged by the idea that in the process of wringing meaning from limited facts, we can also bring those facts back into fruitful historical conversation.
Monday, August 15, 2011
Inspired by the recent trend of adding the phrase “and zombies” to great works of literature, I want to use this post as an experiment in pedagogy. For a while now I’ve been thinking
about the potential examine changes in 20th century ideas about political economy, technical knowledge, and the body through the concept of the zombie. I imagine an undergraduate course in science and popular culture that draws upon shifting depictions of the undead in American life. We would think about how the figure of the zombie has been mobilized to express anxieties about technoscience and describe the loss of personhood in our late capitalist -- increasingly interconnected -- society. Here is an initial take on the trajectory of the course with a few choice selections. I’m interested to see what people think and if we can flesh this out (pun intended) together.
V. Neuro Zombies
Tuesday, August 9, 2011
Tuesday, August 2, 2011
I like how this conversation is taking shape. It might be possible to see my contribution as taking up Lukas’ second methodological point – about the ongoing negotiation of the epistemic boundaries of scientific disciplines.
One of the first sessions of our Summer School dealt with research whereby members of various human communities were asked to “donate” genetic material. We read about a multi-faceted anthropological study in Brazil that attempted to discredit particular ideas about race in the service of taking a stand regarding the State’s position on affirmative action.(1) In this particular project, high school students were asked to assess their own racial makeup and to reflect on culturally held ideas about race. Then, they submitted genetic material to be analyzed for ancestry informative markers. There is much to be said about the merits and limitations of this project (including science in the service of politics). For the purposes of this conversation, however, I want only to make one basic point: in providing the material bases for genetic research, this public – Brazilian high school students – became biological.
Human population genetic research has been taking place in America for decades and, as it has merged with parts of anthropology, has intensified with the rise of genomics. In addition to those instances when they are actively enrolled by scientists in biological research, Americans can now also purchase any number of genetic tests that offer insights into their heritage and makeup.
From the case of human population genetic research, historians of science are finding themselves reassessing what kinds of actors might be found in the lab – too often understood as a closed site of inquiry and knowledge production. However, when humans become objects and, pieces of their bodies, subjects of biological inquiry the lab takes on a new analytic significance for historians concerned with thinking about “biology and the public.” Not least of all because – following Latour – a lab can raise the world.
I’ll stop here with a “public” image that I find particularly illustrative. It is from an April 22, 2010 New York Times article that covered a lawsuit in which members of the Havasupai successfully sued Arizona State University for misuse of their genetic material.
(1) Ricardo Ventura Santos, Peter H. Fry, Simone Monteiro, Marcos Chor Maio, Jose´ Carlos Rodrigues, Luciana Bastos-Rodrigues, and Sergio D. J. Pena. Color, Race, and Genomic Ancestry in Brazil Dialogues between Anthropology and Genetics by Current Anthropology Volume 50, Number 6, 2009
Monday, August 1, 2011
I'm not sure that it is. It is indeed tricky -- risky even -- but I think the potential payoff of such a project outweighs its considerable pitfalls.
I'll restrict myself to two points, one methodological and the other more substantive. First, a point on historical method:
I grant it is very important not to confuse actor's and analyst's categories when doing history. It would be a grave error to import our modern notions about the relationship between biology and the public into a discussion about 16th century natural history, thinking they apply in roughly the same way. However, that does not mean we cannot use modern concepts as a useful analytic jumping off point for a historically sophisticated conversation.
One way we might do so would be to trace a constellation of modern categories backwards in time, watching them coalesce into older concepts, disciplines, and ways of life. Having done so, in our case it it would then be important to realize that early modern natural history has a number of descendants besides contemporary biology. (Including popular institutions like zoos, acquaria, nature documentaries, etc.) Moreover, as we trace the path of natural history to modern biology forwards in time again, it's equally important to take note of the many cultural and intellectual influences that creep in laterally, as it were. (One obvious source would be medicine, but there are many others.)
Historical genealogy is difficult, to be sure, but that does not mean we should shy away from it at the get go!
The second point I want to make is more substantive. Tracing the historical relationship between biology (or science more generally) and the public is extremely important. One reason is precisely because in so doing we learn how difficult it is to make this distinction before the late 18th or early 19th century. However, we also learn that issues of community membership are always being negotiated along some register or another. Moreover, I do think we can say that an important shift took place around the turn of the 19th century. As disciplines like biology coalesced into coherent and powerful social institutions, their practitioners deliberately went about setting themselves apart from other sectors of society. I would argue that it is certainly worthwhile to investigate their reasons for doing so, as well as the mechanisms by which they succeeded in policing the epistemic boundaries that signal their status as holders of expertise.