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Invisibility, Underdocumentation, and Positive Portraiture September 6, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Cult of Invisibility.
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In historiographical discussions, a key concern is whether certain problematics prejudice historical portraiture.  By “problematics” I mean the dialectical process that determines what topics are researched, how they are investigated, and how the results of investigations are presented.  By “portraiture” I mean the sum total availability of information about the various aspects of history, apart from any analytical statements made about it and from our ability to navigate within the resulting historiography.  In other words, how do the questions we want to ask about the historical record both expand and limit our summary and publication of the record’s contents?

For at least a half a century, one way that professional history of science (and history more generally) has consistently attempted to distinguish itself is by pointing to its ability to recognize and correct for earlier historians’ and non-professionals’ prejudicial limitations in their portraiture.  Hagiographic biographies discount major historical actors’ flaws.  Positivistic accumulations of scientific contributions discount scientific “wrong turns” and the importance of theoretical frameworks.  Intellectual histories of science discount the culture of science.  Philosophical accounts of the historical establishment of claims discount the sociological work necessary to secure assent around them.


Initially, criticisms of prejudicial portraiture emphasized that important constituencies have been rendered invisible through various forms of bias.  Social history in the vein of E. P. Thompson emphasized bias against histories of common people in favor of interest in political figures, cultural leaders, and other heroic or otherwise individually influential figures identified through what we might think of as a problematic that emphasizes concerted action.  Along these lines, portraiture of disempowered and marginal constituencies has flourished (although sometimes these retain a concerted-action problematic, choosing to emphasize actors who are on the fringe but who, within the confines of their particular sphere, are influential nonetheless).  Historians who discover new classes of invisible things stand to gain significant cachet.

In the historiography of science, scientists, historians, sociologists, and, indeed, many philosophers, have been noting for an exceedingly long time that the motivation behind scientific work, and the actual processes of that work, are often expunged or rearranged when work is distilled into a finished product.  There is a strong tradition, therefore, of offering a supplementary, informal portraiture to demonstrate the “human side” of science, the craftsmanship of scientific work, or the social and political context and implications of that work, for example.

In the last 30-40 years, however, an influential socio-epistemological point has made the rounds that scientific work actually depends on rendering the socio-cultural content of science “invisible”, because, it is argued, maintenance of the authority of scientific claims requires that they be regarded as the product of a purely epistemological process.  This strategy is said to break down when assent is not successfully secured, and socio-cultural content is rendered visible.  Notable here is Steven Shapin’s chapter, “Invisible Technicians: Masters, Servants, and the Making of Experimental Knowledge” in his Social History of Truth (1994), but the whole train of objectivity studies in the mid-’90s takes this to be a key point, and it is crucial to the claims to relevance and cogency in the commentary of Bruno Latour on “science”, “nature”, and “modernity” from the late 1980s on.

Various criticisms of prejudicial portraiture and resulting invisibility have often been confounded.  Thus, discussions of historiographical craft often segue effortlessly into discussions of scientific epistemology and, for example, the nature of this epistemology’s relationship with public ideas.  I gather this is because epistemological misconceptions are taken to be a generic cause of systematic invisibilities in historiographical craft.  It is not clear to me that this is so, nor is it clear to me that scientific legitimacy has actually depended on sweeping cultural content under the rug, exactly.  More on these suspicions in follow-up posts.

For the time being, I want to suggest that there is a pressing need for an alternative posture to assumptions that a prejudicial historical portraiture is grounded in a particular kind of epistemological bias.

Positive Portraiture

The criticism of David Edgerton provides an interesting variation on the problem of historiographical invisibility.  This blog regularly promotes Edgerton’s critical observations on historiography (speaking of, see his most recent essay in the July Technology and Culture).  To date, I have paid less attention to his craftsmanship.  Edgerton’s history-writing is characterized by his assembly of inchoate sets of portraits, which typically highlight points that are “of importance”, for example, in assessing the history of British state sponsorship of R&D, he has noted the importance of the postwar Ministry of Supply.

The unity of Edgerton’s assemblages is to be found in their presentation of an amalgamated portrait that is invisible to, and at odds with, existing historiographical narratives and portraits.  The power of his work is in this strategy.  Among his recent works, Warfare State (2006) challenges the signal importance of the welfare state in British history and the search for explanations for British military vulnerability and weakness in science and technology.  Such narratives fail to discuss Britain as the major military and scientific and technological nation that it was.  Similarly, The Shock of the Old (also 2006) challenges the traditional historiographical bias toward novel technologies, arguing that even histories challenging the hype surrounding novel technologies simply “invert” the narrative to show the failures and problems associated with novel technologies.  To escape the narrative, the point is that it is important to study non-novel technologies as well (as well as related issues of technology use, like maintenance).

The difficulty here is that Edgerton’s criticism can be mistaken as claims to the discovery of new forms of invisibility, which historians can help make visible.  In cases where I have seen him cited, he is often regarded as simply calling for studies of “old” technologies, or of state scientific bodies (see Melissa Smith’s article on the Home Office’s Scientific Advisers’ Branch in the June BJHS).  Such studies are certainly a step in the right direction, but I think these do not capture the full point of Edgerton’s critique, which revolves more around the historiographical riches to be mined through what I call “positive portraiture”.

Positive portraiture relates to the historiographical effort to arrive at useful and extensive depictions of what existed in history, putting individual entities (events, people, technologies) in the context of comparable entities.

Edgerton’s work is interesting in that retains existing historiography’s interest in remedying persistent invisibilities, but, unlike that historiography, it finds a way forward not by arguing with that historiography’s conclusions, but by using positive portraiture to build an alternative vision of the past that undermines the historiography’s key assumptions about what issues need to be addressed and how.

I think a crucial aspect of positive portraiture, is its emphasis on the fact that vast aspects of the past are undocumented.  Undocumented history differs from invisible history in that the assumption is that the primary task of the historian is not to diagnose and undo past concealment, though that may be a useful secondary task.  Diagnosis and remedy too often adheres to that historiography’s investigatory agenda by engaging in a dialectic with it — what Edgerton calls “inversion”.

Instead, the primary task should be to extend portraiture as best as we can, and to build new argumentation on the basis of this portraiture.  How to move forward in this vein is an open question.  We know that undirected empiricism can produce exceedingly tedious and unilluminating history, but there is not much historiographical thought laying out what constitutes the most useful methods of portraiture.  The more inchoate qualities in Edgerton’s oeuvre suggests the need for an explicit new set of problematics, and some overarching means of navigating through our portraiture and the arguments associated with it, rather than engaging with various arguments in the historiography pell mell.  Once we have a better handle on how to do this and how to make historians and others interested in it (I suspect we may actually provoke more interest from outsiders already interested in specific topics), it will be correspondingly easier to engage with the historical record in more open-ended, exploratory, and productive ways.


1. Melissa - September 7, 2010

I think the tendancy of historians to focus on certain major events and ignore the details of everyday life makes it difficult for us to really understand what was happening in the past. I may know the dates of major wars, and roughly know when certain scientific discoveries were made, but I often have only a vague idea of how events affected normal people because people don’t talk about it.

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