Historiographic Atavism and the Dilemma of Science Studies February 4, 2009Posted by Christopher Donohue in Methods.
Historiographic atavism has the following features. As a way of introducing arguments, an atavistic chain of reasoning takes minimal consideration of the prior formulations or the prior solutions to a specific problematic. Every argument is fundamentally a novel one by virtue of its complexity or its departure from a frame of conceptualization. An atavistic claim can exist only if it reduces a prior body or school of scholarship either to a bare methodology or to a bare summary. This robs previous historiography of the conceptual rigor it rightfully possesses. Historiographic claims, while competing in reality, exist as exemplum in the atavistic narrative. Historiographic atavism is then the instrumental use of previous scholarship, particularly a recovered or hereto underutilized methodology, to underscore the novelty and the complexity of endless and non-reducible particulars. This allows every account to remain particular, correct, locally valid, and non-confrontational. All atavistic arguments present themselves as the most open of all methodologies to critique. The endless nature of the critique and this seeming freedom impedes the formulation of positions, claims, and disciplinary progress.
Historiographic atavism develops from a critical suspension of synthetic narrative. Its antithesis is the “canon.” Its historical subject is the locality. Universality or “synthesis” is only achieved through the interconnection of localities. These particulars, interconnected on some level to a defined ‘whole,’ are endlessly (re)producible through the work of textual or material analysis. This analysis produces particular historical subjects that are nonetheless incapable of becoming complementary or subsumable elements through an act of induction into a meaningful synthesis. Every locality rhetorically relates to the ‘whole’ but is incommiserate with it. Every particular work of scholarship remains incongruous, but nonetheless applicable, to the previous work of scholars. Such is the paradox of atavistic scholarship.
The second paradox of atavistic scholarship is the degree to which as a cumulative enterprise it assumes, antithetically against its stated intentions, an evolving and definitive expertise on the part of its reader. If narrative and synthetic judgment is ultimately absent from the text itself, and the crucial act of synthesis is left to the reader, that reader must be within the community of experts on the subject in order to understand the topic at hand and to discern its significance. Atavistic scholarship is suitable for the most discerning and informed of experts, but this goes against science studies’ self-professed desire to engage with a public beyond itself.
A reconciliation of perspectives into a coherent scholarly world-view is possible. Due to the methodological aversion to the consolidation of gains as well as to the assumption of an dialogue of equality with the reader, thought to be a public but, who is, in fact, an expert, the specific analytic richness of a specific work generated by the atavistic scholarship is appreciable only through an external methodological narrative and an external taxonomy imposed through the reader’s subjective expertise.
Atavistic scholarship, due to these two paradoxes, even when not pursuing fictions produced by its own methodology, mistakes craft and complexity for the suspension of judgment. By beginning matters philosophically and with the totality of the argument described through the invocation of particulars, the entirety of the historical project becomes meaningless. The historical, which should unfold as a densely packed series of causal narratives central to arguments, becomes, as an exemplar, a consequence or a byproduct of a process of change over time. The exemplar does nothing to demonstrate or to narrate how this change actually occurs, only that it does as illustrated by the exemplar.
The ‘case-study’ is, in many instances, not an example of proper historicist reasoning, but actualized methodology, the illustration of a black box decisionism on the part of the author to present the best evidence of a theory. Such decisionism is perfectly appropriate in a court of law, when one is pleading a case. Historians are neither lawyers or rhetoricians, as they see themselves. The presentation of a case in a court of law depends upon the rebuttal from the opposing side, thus the presentation of the best evidence to the exclusion of evidence to the contrary is an acceptable presentation of argument. Science studies literature finds its rebuttal in the testimony of the expert reader and thus a court of understanding is established between the local study and the community of experts who will most likely read the text. Nowhere however is the significance of the project found within the text.