Edited Volumes June 13, 2008Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
Tags: Simon Schaffer
Doing a little self-educating, and preparing for the canon-building series, (and procrastinating on some manuscript revisions), I thought a good idea would be to take a look at the collected works of Simon Schaffer. Everyone agrees he’s an enormously important scholar in the field, but I’ve never really heard any discussion of his approach beyond the fact that he likes to talk about experimentation and instrumentation. I don’t dispute the notion (as a grad student I had the pleasure of a one-on-one pub lunch with him and was as blown away by his grasp of the issues as anyone I’ve ever talked to), but I would like to have a little bit more of a discussion about his, erm, “shtick”, as in, what is it? That’s for a day far off.
Of course, he’s never written a solo book, which makes tracking his work down a little bit of a task. And, actually, it’s worse than that. It turns out a very significant portion of his work is in the format of entries in edited volumes, which brings me to today’s topic. First a straight-out gripe: edited volumes are a little annoying, particularly because, unless you happen to enjoy doing JSTOR searches of the Isis cumulative bibliography (which I try to avoid if at all possible), edited volumes are a good way of hiding scholarship from the uninitiated. If you don’t happen to know that an edited volume exists, it may as well not.
What do edited volumes accomplish? I get the impression that if people put together a good conference, they feel the contributions ought to all be published together, which means that there’s never more than a cursory effort to pull it all together (and the effort that is put in is usually pretty ponderous, because conferences rarely result in much that can be pulled together in any coherent way). This is especially trouble in vague, “thematic” conferences–“science and wooden boxes” or something. These always sort of hint at a broader significance, but are always more suggestive than conclusive. Not only is there no “end” to the work, there’s never any beginning. The old saw “read it for the footnotes” applies, of course.
And of course, there are also summary volumes like the Cambridge History of Science series, or 1990’s Companion to the History of Modern Science, to which major scholars also contribute. I’ve never been encouraged to sit down with these–probably I should. Are these our canon? Should they be taught in classes, or is that considered a waste of time in favor of more advanced material? They’re certainly not anything that’s ever “discussed”. It strikes me as smacking of German romanticism or something to want to discuss the adequacy and the “feel” of an overarching view of a topic without knowing what I mean by that. But it’s still probably worth addressing, because frankly I’m not sure how I should feel about this corner of the literature; which makes it a good topic for further blog inquiry.
But, here’s another thing with edited volumes. As a quick look at the edited volumes Schaffer’s contributed to indicates, there are also those edited volumes that seem to be the playground of the elite. Is it the case that the edited volume format is also where the vanguard issues of our field are defined? If so, what are the consequences of defining a vanguard within a format that emphasizes neither cumulative knowledge nor conclusive results? How are our readings of this vanguard literature changed if we do not have ready access to the background knowledge the contributors already possess? Maybe not being a master of this background knowledge is all just part of being a younger scholar, but I always like to be reform minded…
So, is there a more efficient way of proceeding with all of this? I have zero problem with the publication of intermediary thoughts and results–in fact, I think it should be done more often and more publicly, even if the thoughts aren’t entirely original (thus this blog). Wouldn’t it be nice if scholarship on topics could all be intertwined, so if you wanted straight-up facts, or a summary of argumentation, or access to the lines of scholarship on a given topic, or a given methodological approach, you could use a centralized gateway to access the collected literature and summaries thereof? As usual, I think the internet will be transforming. Maybe I’m just being lazy, but getting access to accumulated knowledge in the most compact way possible has always been a lever to better scholarly contributions.
*This post was edited from its originally posted version, mostly to take into account the summary literature.