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Foucault, Ginzburg, Latour, and the Gallery September 30, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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This post is an expansion on my previous post on Lorraine Daston’s discussion of the proliferation of microhistories that are “archivally based and narrated in exquisite detail” but that seem to serve no clear end.  I largely agree with her assessment of this trend as an unsatisfactory state of affairs, as well as with her linking of the trend to a divergence from a prior era of productive dialogue with the other fields of science studies.  However, she makes two key claims with which I disagree:

  1. “…in large part because of the mandate to embed science in context, historians of science have become self-consciously disciplined, and the discipline to which they have submitted themselves is history” (808).
  2. “Insofar as there has been a counterweight to these miniaturizing tendencies in recent work in the history of science, it has been supplied not by science studies but by a still more thoroughgoing form of historicism, namely, the philosophical history of Michel Foucault” (809).

I do not believe historians of science have in some way exchanged science studies for history, and I believe the historicism associated here with Foucault represents a continuity with the scholarship of the ’80s.

Let’s start with the intertwined set of highly productive conversations that took place around the ’80s (which we are beginning to revisit on this blog, and of which Daston was a part).  Participants understood their gains to be generated by studying things like “practice not ideas”, “instruments”, “cultures of the fact” and so forth, which are slogans that make sense if you have a precise understanding of what they were reacting to. Absent the detailed content of these conversations, a pantomime of the basic historiographical techniques used in achieving those gains—looking at science at the archival level, problematizing and historicizing supposedly rigid ideas, etc.—was methodologically canonized in the assumption that these techniques were productive in and of themselves.  Dances understood to have once brought rain were repeated, creating a kind of “cargo cult” historiography.

The trouble with this situation is not that this historiography is invalid; rather the historiography seems to make claims to being highly progressive, even as some observers seem at a loss to describe what it is accomplishing, leading to talk of “fracturing” of historiography, the proliferation of  “microhistory”, or, my preferred term, the creation of a “gallery of practices” (which I like because cross-temporal studies of scientific images and objects or even old-fashioned genres like biography can participate in the detailed archival portraiture to which Daston refers.)

The methodological inclinations behind the creation of the gallery can be illustrated as an unlikely amalgam of the disparate methodologies of three scholars: Michel Foucault, Carlo Ginzburg, and Bruno Latour.

It is, on the surface, strange that Daston should associate a trend in archival detail-mongering with Foucault’s historicization.  When I read Foucault’s work, I find it helpful to imagine him clearing out whole shelves worth of materials in a library, sitting down with it for some months, picking out patterns, and then lecturing and writing about what he saw with maddeningly sparse detail (usually not even referencing what he read, preferring to speak of “eighteenth-century ideas” or some such phrase, in the assumption that you too have read these books).  While affirming the individuality of all works, Foucault sought out coherent epochal epistemic continuities cutting across that individuality.

I believe it is Foucault’s emphasis on the tacit in texts, which even includes things like ideas embedded in architecture, that makes him relevant to the present conversation.  These ideas were both located in history, and their histories were outside of human control over text, and—and this is important—they could only be read across a large sample of texts.

If Foucault’s history ends up still being a history of ideas of people who wrote books and drew architectural plans and painted paintings, Carlo Ginzburg’s famous microhistory The Cheese and the Worms was intended to try and get back to the vicissitudes of “popular culture” by looking at the sheer idiosyncrasy of ideas inhabiting any individual’s world view.  Ginzburg noted that his literate miller Mennochio was not a representative peasant; rather he was intended to convey to the intellectual history literature (which included Foucault) and also to the Annales School, the intellectual autonomy of non-elite thinkers, who made their own use of the books they read.

Daston sees Ginzburg (with Natalie Zemon Davis) as “a virtuoso … [who] can see the universe in a grain of sand, illuminating cosmic themes on hand from a single, richly described episode.”  The microhistorian must be deft (and, like Foucault, well-read) to present a compelling microhistory.  “Alas,” Daston observes, “virtuosi are rare in all fields, and the average microhistory in the history of science places the accent heavily on the ‘micro’…”  In other words, they miss the point of the exercise, and their work fails to transcend its mundane subject matter.

I think the presumed point of microhistory (or any other kind of detailed portraiture) for the “average” historian of science is that it is meant to be treated as a Foucauldian “text”; something in which some larger tacit thing may be read.  In the case of science, it is its social-cultural content.  Whether this content comes from the sociology of knowledge or a stock set of ideological macrotraditions like “Victorian values” or “seventeenth-century masculine ideals” has never been especially important for most historians.  See, for example, the pastiche of topics in the widely-cited 1996 Osiris on “the field” edited by Henrika Kuklick and Robert Kohler.

The questions remains: how did Ginzburg’s focus on the narrow come to be understood as an acceptable methodological paradigm for replicating the gains Foucault achieved by reading broadly?

The strategy is pretty consistent across historical and cultural studies disciplines and has a lot of reference points, but, for the case of history of science/science studies, Bruno Latour is as good a reference point as any other.  Latour has always set up his work as working against some alternative, dangerously naive, and supposedly culturally dominant view perpetuated by philosophers and the media, which he eventually labeled as “modern”.

Using the term “historiographical theodicy”, I have discussed this notion of the historically dominant view as an imagined source of distress or even evil in the world, which motivates the work of science studies scholars and historians, and is presumably behind the view that it’s really urgent that we work harder to reach out beyond our discipline.

According to this straw-man dominant view, science is something that arrives at truth by adhering to method.  Thus, simply by challenging the rigidity or permanence of broadly accepted concepts and by locating scientific practice in a socio-cultural context by unveiling the vicissitudes of the archival record, one learns something about the history of the practice, and about local manifestations of the macroideological context, but, above all, one contributes to the “new vision” of science, which Daston herself seeks.  That this task is not noticeably advanced by any single, narrow, Ginzburgian work is (sometimes explicitly, usually implicitly) justified by the notion that the historiography is eternally exploratory, never synthetic—a humble contribution to a worthy cause.

The unsettling thing to me about Daston’s article is that the literature to which she refers is, as near as I can tell, created in the presumption that it is contributing to a project in which she herself is regarded as a revolutionary leader (indeed, watch on p. 802 for the obligatory disdainful reference to “the litany of my undergraduate teachers” that she and others escaped so that we might be free).  Yet, since this literature is detached from the deeper conversations in which she has engaged for thirty years, not only does she not recognize it as a continuation of the original project she helped launch—seeing in it a retreat to “history”—she doesn’t actually seem to think too much of it either.



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