The “Elegant” History September 8, 2008Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Book Club.
Tags: elegant history, Harold Cook, Lisa Jardine, William Cronon
Back in March, I suggested that some evaluation of the significance of a scientific or learned activity in society, say, in economic terms, would be very useful. That is, an analysis of “science and technology in history” as opposed to “the history of science and technology”. Commenter Daniel suggested I was being a little unfair—the connections between science and economic activities has been a frequent theme in the historiography for some time. I, in turn, explained that I wasn’t talking about connections, I was talking about science as an actual part of an economy. Nevertheless, Daniel had a good point, and had recommended a number of works, which I promised to check out. I was especially interested in Harold Cook’s Matters of Exchange, about commerce and science in the early modern Netherlands. So, I’ve finally picked up this volume and have started in.
I was excited to read this book, because I’ve long had the feeling the early modernists are more advanced than the rest of us in terms of understanding the scope and dynamics of their subject matter; because I know virtually nothing about Dutch science (except for a bit about Huygens and the fact that Descartes was there for a while); and because I think there are good insights yet to be derived about science as a formalization of practical activities. Right now I’m about 170 pages in, and I have mixed feelings. I’m inclined to really like this book, because Cook obviously has a firm and broad grasp of the subject matter, and it shows science as a community activity of people and institutions, most of whose specific contributions would not be well-remembered if we were concerned with linear histories of ideas. However, the book is also frustrating on account of some properties it shares with books falling into a category we can call “elegant history”.
“Elegant history” is probably the most charitable term I would give to what is now a very common style that could also be called the Simon Schama School, or, less charitably, Bed Time Stories for Professional Historians. Effectively, elegant histories require erudition, deep study, and a strong methodological awareness to write, but they always seem singularly uninterested in actually transferring knowledge to the audience or in undertaking a rigorous historical analysis, preferring instead to convey a sense of how “everything is connected” by meandering back and forth through a historical milieu, making it unusually difficult to keep track of actors, institutions, and specific points of historical interest.
I don’t really consider Matters of Exchange worth reading at all until page 57. Everything up until that point (the first chapter and a half) reads like a drunken evening out with an early modernist. The text often moves unannounced and within a space of a couple of paragraphs between different points, such as: 1) hand-waving about objectivity, taste, moral economy, the theory of the passions, and the difference between kennen and wissen; 2) obligatory references to Daston, Shapin, Pamela Long, and even Latour and Woolgar (!?); 3) whirlwind tours through Wunderkammern, botanical gardens, and anatomical theater; 4) ancient authorities: Aristotle, Plato, Pliny, etc…; 5) cherry-picked bits of watered-down anthropology, sociology, and economics from the past 100-odd years. None of this works as theory or historiographical methodology because it’s too undeveloped and incoherent; or as a thematic introduction to outsiders to academic history, because the material moves too fast and chaotically to be accessible to anyone who doesn’t have familiarity with this sort of thing.
Here’s a quick summary of first 57 pages: trade and connoisseurship (say of exotic goods) require a common stock of (often tacit) knowledge in order to forge agreement about its appropriate uses and its worth. Debates ensue surrounding this knowledge, leading to a more refined language and philosophy, as well as new institutional homes for the arbitration of claims, at least as far as the overlapping realms of natural history and medicine are concerned. Also, we will discuss the controversial ethics of curiosity and trade in a religious culture. Sounds sensible to me; let’s move on.
The post-p. 57 focus on the specific community of the Netherlands is potentially extremely useful, particularly if it illuminates the specific context of religious/political turmoil, which Cook does a nice job of illustrating. All of this is sort of terra incognita to me, so I wish instead of illustration, there were more historical argument concerning the ways specific context and specific knowledge tended to interact, not just that these ways were local and contingent. (There is, however, a brief discussion of the inapplicability of Weber’s Protestant ethic thesis; does anyone still buy that?)
Mostly what we get is stylistic vestiges of the first 57 pages as we veer disorientingly back-and-forth between actors, themes, and time periods. One minute we’re in 1590, the next we’re in 1670. One minute we’re discussing Calvinist politics, the next the foundation of the University of Leiden, the next after that we have a religious-symbolic interpretation of the illustrations in books on medical anatomy. Sometimes this is done to illustrate the various issues that individual actors had to confront, but sometimes it just seems tangential, which is when the violent shifts in time frame occur.
There’s a lot to get out of this book, but to do so I feel I’d have to go back over it with a magnifying glass, a pair of tweezers, and a notebook to put all the rich scholarship here back in order, which is more than can be expected of all but the most specialist readers. Cook, however, is obviously casting his net beyond the specialists, and seems to have chosen to present his work this way to provide the text with narrative thrust (i.e., to make it “elegant”), but since we in the broader HoS community know far less about the Dutch community than, say, the English, it seems to me there’s actually a historiographical responsibility here to transmit research results in an efficient and informative way to an uninformed audience.
To put this another way, I’m getting the impression this book is trying too hard to be Lisa Jardine’s Ingenious Pursuits, and not enough to be William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis. Both those books are among my all-time favorites, but for very different reasons. Jardine’s book is popular and the prose is punchy. It is “elegant” history at its best. It is an engaging illustration of what has already been revealed by a focused and disciplined historiography about early Royal Society culture. Cronon’s book is an analytical tour through the technology and economy of the late-19th-century Chicago and American Midwest—a historiography in-and-of-itself. Want to know about lumber? Go to the lumber chapter. Excellent.
Elegance serves history written and read for pleasure. This book (at over 400 dense pages) seems too cumbersome (and too historiographically important) to be the subject of an elegant treatment. Publishers would know better than I, but I can’t imagine it attracting much of a mainstream crowd. Meanwhile, it’s also a frustrating read for those of us who just want to familiarize ourselves with the terrain and context of Dutch science. In spanning the presumed needs for two (or more) different audiences, Cook doesn’t address the needs of either particularly well, which is a shame, because the material is both detailed and useful.
The book’s elegance thus mainly seems to be serving to transmit a fairly simple message to an audience that should by all rights already be familiar with and totally accepting of it. I want to emphasize that I pin none of this on Cook: his book is extraordinarily well-researched, and shows a keen appreciation of the fact that pleasure-seeking history of science audiences are accepting of general, familiar-sounding arguments and don’t mind seeing them illustrated again and again in new contexts. We know that the names and dates will not be on the test.
PS. Cook applied the “page 69 test” to his book back in May ‘07. Fun feature. Cook sounds like a good guy, so hopefully I won’t get into too much trouble for rolling up the director of the Wellcome Trust Centre for History of Medicine in my more general concern about the academic disadvantages of elegant history!