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Normative Historiography and the Gallery of Practices August 14, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in History as Anti-Philosophy.
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Inside the museums infinity goes up on trial
Voices echo this is what salvation must be like after awhile

–Bob Dylan, 1966

If I were David Byrne
I’d go to galleries and not be too concerned

–Crash Test Dummies, 1993

I take progressive historiographical scholarship to be generated through a chronological problematic.  By characterizing traditions (of practices and ideas) and projects as operating within defined periods and through defined constituencies, scholars can theorize and argue about the results of interactions between traditions, projects, and constituencies, and about the nature of changes in these things over time.

If this blog has its house critique, it is of the new internalism, which is a label for scholarship that creates self-standing pieces of work with no asserted historical relationship to other pieces of work.  Instead, the work often purports to address a socio-epistemic problematic, which seeks a deeper understanding of how knowledge is made and how it operates in society.  The scholarship seeks this understanding by accumulating instances of practices relevant to socio-epistemic questions in varying historical contexts.  The accumulation of such instances creates a scholarship referred to on this blog as the gallery of practices.

The object of this post is to inquire into the relationship between the creation of the gallery and the historiographical “theodicy” adopted to lend urgency to the establishment of a new sociology of knowledge (since around 1980).  In a change of thinking since I started this blog, I don’t imagine that the literature currently seeks to address questions actually posed by sociologists (or philosophers).  As near as I can tell, precious few people who cite Latour have much use for his semiotic phenomenology.  Rather, I now suggest that the sociologists’ theodicy—however tongue-in-cheek it may have originally been—established a historiographical legacy that has had a lasting impact on the way historians write and how they imagine their work to contribute to a larger scholarly project.

This historiographical legacy is characterized by positing a historical naiveté concerning the relationship between science and society, which the new sociology of knowledge might salve.  The onset of this naiveté has a mobile periodization.  For some scholars it begins with the Scientific Revolution, for others the Enlightenment, for others the modernity and scientism of the 19th century, for others the 20th-century’s or Cold War’s “faith in science and technology”: this is a game in which scholars of all periods can participate.

Popular histories, official histories, “textbook” histories, and epistemological reconstructions of scientific progress can all be counted on to discount the cultural elements of science in favor of generally progressive intellectual narratives.  The numerous connections between scientific practice and claims with the values, demands, imagery, and ideas of the surrounding culture; and the sausage-making process by which scientific claims are “constructed”; are things that will not appear in such narratives.

In fact, the fractious and ad hoc character of the connections between scientific claims and cultural norms, the power plays characterizing the foundation of scientific institutions, the profligate optimism of scientists’ self-promotion all testify to a persistent lack of maturity with respect to the role of knowledge in society.  It is the responsibility of sociologically informed historiography to provide a corrective to the received view, to demolish the myths surrounding science, and to represent the place of science in society and the contingency of its development as only a faithful representation of the archival record can reveal.  This is the evangelical vision of the socio-epistemic imperative, held by those who see ready and novel applications of our craft to problems outside the profession (however much distaste they might have for religious evangelism, they always seem to want to ask outsiders if they’ve heard the Good News.)

Even if historians purport no public relevance for their work, sociology’s theodicy still marks socio-epistemically revealing incidents as being of automatic scholarly interest.  It is therefore the historian’s professional duty to present evidence of these instances when found in their research.  Since this act of collection adheres to no obvious chronological problematic suggested by the historiographical literature, it should be thought of as providing ornamentation to the gallery of practices.  Since the main import of ornaments is socio-epistemic, and since the socio-epistemic imperative is grounded in fidelity to the archival record against a received view, ornaments are judged primarily according to their museological fidelity to historical practices—their ability to represent some facet of the past in a lifelike way—rather than according to their explanatory power.

I see two main problems with ornamentation as a scholarly pursuit.  First, the socio-epistemic problematic does not seem to exist in any strong sense.  While it is true that a number of historical practices have been discovered in the historical record in the past few decades, the bulk of the literature does not seem to address pressing socio-epistemic problems, nor does there seem to be any place where socio-epistemic insights are amalgamated into an accepted body of knowledge (possibly because the validity of the insights is presumed to be local, which authorizes an endless proliferation of variations of a basic “form” of practice in alternative historical milieus, making the literature truly museological.)

Second, more dangerously, because the cogency of the socio-epistemic imperative is grounded in a historiographical theodicy, it systematically highlights historical practices emphasizing the validity of the theodicy’s narrative while neglecting practices and innovations, as well as prior histories, that undermine that cogency—a practice David Edgerton refers to as “anti-history”.  The most that could be hoped for is a temporarily successful “negotiation” of positions.

Edgerton is one of the best observers of this kind of historiographical practice.  Here are two extracts from his essay review of sociologist Donald MacKenzie’s 1990 “historical sociology” Inventing Accuracy, which he rightly praises for its quality, but which he also criticizes for problems endemic to its commitment to the “Social Construction of Technology” (SCOT) program (closely related to the sociology of knowledge):

For MacKenzie, because technological change is simultaneously social change—in which is included economic, political, organizational, cultural and legal change—it has to be analysed with concepts which do not recognize the distinctions between categories.  To turn it around, MacKenzie assumes that theoretical positions which distinguish between technology and society cannot recognize the interrelatedness between the two.

My emphasis.  Later:

The embeddedness of technology in the human world has been obvious for a long time.  This is reflected in the fact that the history of technology has long been studied by economic historians, business historians, and historically-minded economists, as well as by labour historians….  To be sure, SCOT recognizes the existence of other approaches to the study of technology but the test of their importance is the extent to which they approximate the SCOTtish insights.  In that Whiggish sense SCOT can be generous: it allows that others got the same results using other methods.  But it neither does justice to these other positions, nor distinguishes itself properly from them.  It thus exaggerates its own novelty, or at least the novelty of its insights.

The historiography produced through the sociology of knowledge’s theodicy purports to be a salvation from historically naive views.  It is decorated with ornaments (such as MacKenzie’s history of the techno-politics of nuclear missile guidance) reinforcing its narrative validity.  The infinitude of examples presented in this vein creates a literature that is of high quality in its representational skill, often innovative (or obscure) in its choice of subject, repetitious in its argument, pious in its attitude toward historical (and received) ideas and practices, and slothful in advancing historical understanding.  This must be what salvation is like after awhile.

If this polemic has validity, it is left to examine why this literature has appeal.  Outside of the intellectual or moral authority it presents its authors, its lack of argumentative engagement with colleagues’ work makes for easier writing, while maintaining professional peace and presenting a united front to possible opponents.  It also does actually provide insights for other writers working in the same localized historiography.  The mode of writing is perfectly amenable to an alternative view of historiography that views it simply as writing about history (one can go into the gallery to enjoy the view without being too concerned about arguing over the arrangement).  There have also been attempts to use the amalgamated contents of the gallery in constructive ways.  We will examine these perspectives further at a later time.

Addendum: here is the citation for Edgerton’s review: ‘Tilting at Paper Tigers’ essay review of MacKenzie, Inventing Accuracy, British Journal for the History of Science 26 (1993): pp. 67-75.


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