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The “Elegant” History September 8, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Book Club.
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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!



1. Matters of Exchange - Book Review « Antoni van Leeuwenhoek Centraal - September 8, 2008

[…] The “Elegant” History, Will Thomas of Ether Wave Propaganda reviews the book Matters of Exchange, Commerce, Medicine, and […]

2. Benny - September 9, 2008

Interesting post! I have only heard really good things about this book, though I am still waiting for my library to get a copy. In fact, I presented at a conference, and one of my session-mates discussed the book, who just so happens to be an editor at Isis, said it was one of the most important books in the history of science in the last 10 or 20 years. Perhaps he was being hyperbolic…

That being said, I want to take issue with your statement that, “…we in the broader HoS community know far less about the Dutch community than, say, the English….” This does not ring true to me, especially since the English and Dutch contexts were inextricably linked, politically, socially, economically, and intellectually with England. At the very least, much of what can be said of the English context in general can be said salve veritate.

3. Benny - September 9, 2008

Oops I didn’t end my sentence. It should end, “…salve veritate of the Low Countries.


4. Will Thomas - September 9, 2008

Thanks Benny. I don’t want to say anything too conclusively, since I’m not an early modernist, but I at least get the sense that we know the English actors and institutions very very well. The Dutch case may well be comparable, but I have a hard time believing that it’s so well explored from an empirical standpoint, which is what I hoped to get out of this book.

All this said, I want to differentiate between “frustrating” and “not good”. As I say in my reply to Michael Robinson’s comment on my “epistemological imperative” post, my criticisms wouldn’t prevent me from considering the book to be canonical. I like being hard on books that I like!

5. Loïc - September 23, 2008

I like the sound and the implication of the “elegant history” concept.
Being, at least to some extent, aware of the early modern secundary literature I can understand both why Isis’s editor and many people with him are hyperbolic about the book and why Will T. is (rightly in my point of view) a bit unsure about it. The academic literature about commerce/colonies/empire and science, their interactions in one way or another, have been growing fast these last years. I can send you a few names and books titles if you want. The whole point of this literature is to show that economic exchanges and the political building of empire went hand in hand with the growth of science, which is no big discovery since it would have been strange that early modern state did not try to have better maps, better roads and ports and so on.
What is fascinating is how much the morals of these stories stick to the old story of unbound progress. However, the devil is in the details. When one look at particular historical episodes and dug for facts thoroughly one is often confronted with much more complicatded and fragmented accounts.
Let me take an example made out of a recent article published in Osiris on the French colonial (scientific) machine in the 18th century. While the authors of the article theorize how the French state and its dependencies (French academy of sciences) was able to accumulate knowledge on the colonies on an unprecented scale, knowledge which was in turn used by the French state for its imperial objectives. However, when one look at how this impressive collection of knowledge is put in action in specific cases all this nice narrative shows dangerous holes. The first example is French Guyana. In the beginning of the 1760s, the French state decided to establish a populous colony in French Guyana where there was only a few hundred people to have a firm standpoint on the American continent (France had just lost Louisiana and Canada). So the colonial machine sent scientists to draw maps, to learn about the climate, the plants that can be used to sustain this population, the animals that can be raised, etc. This was the biggest scientific enterprise at that time the French state has engaged in outside metropolitan France. By 1765, the new colonists had arrived and died in thousands because of disease and hunger. By 1770, the colony population was almost back to its previous level and nobody in France want to hear anymore about Guyana. Why does this happen? Not because of scientists, a lot of them has warned the government even if their warnings was clearly not welcome in Versailles and it may hurt their career, but it was of no avail: the state wanted his new colony and was not going to be disturbed by a few scientists and the scientist were unable to find ways to have him change his mind; so much for the “efficient” colonial machine.
What does this example tells us? That success stories are much more elegant than horrible mistakes and that it is much more easy to take the long view: this way you can pick the facts that serves your narrative well and forgot about the others.
By the way, since it is my first comment I have to congratulate you for the blog: it is both funny to read and quite interesting.

6. Will Thomas - September 23, 2008

I’m with you for a little ways here, Loic. I think the commerce thesis is far from unexpected. However, my concern with the “elegant history” is not that it deproblematizes the narrative—if anything, elegant history is really good at communicating just how messy history at the local level can be. Rather, my own concern is that there are many historical arguments to be made and a lot of pertinent facts to be communicated about the development of the specific culture being depicted, which are swamped by a style that argues for an overarching thesis, while its detailed content seems mostly concerned with just how contingent the local is.

In other words, rather than having a big picture that emerges from chaotically interlinking local narratives (history a la Tolstoy), I’d like to see a big picture supported by specifically historical sub-theses at the mesoscopic level, if that makes sense.

7. Loïc - September 24, 2008

It makes perfect sense to me. My problem with “elegant history” is that I do not think it emerges from chaotically interlinking local narratives, I think that this is planned from the beginning and the deceitful art of the historian is to construct the narrative in such a way that we believe he has randomely chosen his examples in a never ending list while he has worked very hard to litteraly produce them. The reference to Tolstoï is interesting since Tolstoï wrote novels, that is he produced fiction: my problem with “elegant history” is that I am always wondering if it is fiction or not. The historian himself is not necessarily to blame individually because I think it has became the normal way to do history and he is not necessarily aware of the epistemological problem he is running into.
Besides I am not sure that “elegant history” deproblematizes the narrative, it is more a way to protect your problematic from criticism: if you look at book reviews in historical journal and review essays, they clearly extract problematics from “elegant histories”. This is why the first 57 pages are fundamentals, they are the protective belt. It is the part where the historian has to make you feel as uncompromisely ignorant you are compared to him and thus how incompetent you are for criticizing his narrative. This works with 99% of the people who will ever read parts of the book and the 1% left have vested interests not to really criticize the book (because they are doing the same thing, because they are colleagues, because the author is very well regarded in the profession and so on).
The fact that we (because I feel the same as you) sense it as “deproblematized” is I believe the consequence of our different acculturation: economists as well as scientists are trained to see the world in a non-ambiguous way, theory is falsified or not, the fact matches the theory or not.

8. Will Thomas - September 24, 2008

Hmm, very interesting. I definitely know of examples where the narratives have been marshalled in such a way as to make the point. I don’t think I’d say the same in the case of Cook, but you make a good point that stylistically it becomes very difficult to be sure.

And you’re not the first person to point to a background in physics (undergrad minor) as giving me a different perspective on these things!

9. Will Thomas - September 24, 2008

Oh! I was surprised you knew about my physics background (I figured I mentioned it somewhere), but now I see that you didn’t, and were using the supposed difference in our “acculturation” to explain my (measured) defense of the “elegant” methodology.

No, I’d say my desire, say, to see an “account” (think accounting) of the difference between State A and State B in terms of an overarching thesis supported by sub-theses is definitely linked to my background. My defense of the elegant style is more out of a lack of desire to standardize methodology (I just want to see methodologies applied more appropriately), and I think, when it comes to history, I’m probably just less epistemologically strict, if that’s the right word. But, yes, I’m certainly sympathetic with your point of view, if I understand you right.

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