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Narrow and Broad Historiography and Self-Interested History October 19, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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At the beginning of the year, I posted on the “instrumental uses of history”, intending the post to set the tone for this year’s blogging.  It referred to the polemical and heuristic uses to which history is put, and the likely distorting effect these uses have on historical portraiture.  The post supposed the inevitability of this state of affairs and the futility of sustained work against it.

Subsequent posts have focused on the importance of taking the history of polemics seriously, as well as on the history of science community’s strong interest in the history of polemics. I have argued that this interest relates to how those polemics are seen as arising from, and revealing of, how science and technology operate in society: by securing the cultural and political, as well as intellectual, assent.

I have argued that these ideas are thought to run contrary to past and popular historiography, which is imagined to render systematically invisible not only these polemics, but the social and material circumstances that so often give rise to polemical encounters.  In this way, the past and popular historiography is thought to depend on a false (or at least deeply selective) image of science, technology, and society to assemble its history.  The image is one wherein the final form of ideas and the criteria on which they are judged acceptable are taken-for-granted in specifically self-interested ways.  Accordingly, recovery of a realistic image of science is thought to be not only an imporant historiographical task, but also a form of portraiture with innate virtues (as I argued at Whewell’s Ghost). 

One of this portraiture’s key virtues is its ability (consistent with SSK’s idea of symmetry, and the activist STS concern with inclusivity), to recover alternative intellectual regimes with alternative sources of cultural and political support, as well as to query the conceptual infrastructure on which prior scientific work was built.  In this sense, the history of science claims a sort of meta-perspective, which stands contrary to others’ error-prone, self-interested histories, which are, in turn, rendered more something to be mined for tidbits of data and studied for their revelatory polemics, than as a genuine part of the historiography.

I had previously entertained the idea that the ‘normative’ quality of professional historiography informed its portraiture of the past (see esp. here and here), but I thought of this as a sort of quirk resulting from the history of our historiography.  The idea that it might actually result from a systematic conflict of interest occurred to me as I was reading Arne Hessenbruch’s piece, ‘The Trials and Promise of a Web-History of Materials Research’ in the Science-Industry Nexus: History, Policy, Implications volume (2004).

In that piece Hessenbruch discusses the prospect of developing a history of materials science in collaboration with scientists, and refers to his work as a graduate student on a history commissioned by Siemens, observing: ‘My supervisor at the time, Simon Schaffer, called my remuneration “blood money”‘ (408).

Now, this bugged me, because, having been through a good chunk of Schaffer’s oeuvre, I had begun to view him as having sold out his unique early vision for a historiography of natural philosophy to the bland, homogenized, but united historiography of the 1990s.  This was the historiography that conceived of itself increasingly in terms terms of combating the aforementioned false visions of science and technology, leading to every damn thing you read being not an argument about the past, but, on one level or another, a learned sermon (directed at no one in particular) about trust, authority, and iconography. 

I believe the trend can, at least in part, be explained in terms of the conflict of interest attained while trying to wash oneself of conflicts of interest.  The historian purports to have a meta-perspective, but the meta-perspective itself becomes a deeply entrenched, and, in its own way, myopic perspective.  The things that are of most interest in history are now the same things that we purport to be able to see that prevent us from being taken in by others’ narratives.

(For an interesting comparison read NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen on what he calls the ‘Church of the Savvy’, which is part of his analysis of the modern journalistic ‘ideology’.)

Immediately following his observation about his Siemens project, Hessenbruch goes on:

All this relates to the vaunted status of the scholar as independent and objective: Only by not having a stake in the matter under investigation, by being unbiased, can one conduct research of genuine quality.  In the case of history of science, collaboration with scientists automatically taints the project as having an interest and as such lacking objectivity.  The resistance to such a collaboration is probably particularly strong in the discipline of the history of science because it regards as professionalization the very process when retired scientists were replaced by trained historians, branding the genre of the retirees as ‘whiggish.’  To this day, ‘whiggish’ connotes both naiveté and wrong-headedness.

Now, Hessenbruch was discussing his perceived need to enlist scientists in the construction of a history of materials science, via a website (now abandoned, but still accessible), and the attendant need to escape the notion that this was somehow a dangerous idea.

It is an idea I now openly embrace.  What I want to do, for my own research purposes, is redefine the worth of historiography not in terms of its ability to evade certain kinds of error, but in terms of its ability to aid me in learning about the past.  In my work on 20th-century science, I have found myself increasingly enjoying memoirs and official histories because they tend to be so much more informative than historians’ literature, whatever the idiosyncracies inherent to these kinds of works.  Even if there are a lot of simply bad histories out there, many are OK, and all can lead someplace new.  Because it has become evident to me that the professional literature is not much less idiosyncratic in its reliability and informative capacity, the time seems ripe to throw the doors open and to embrace a ‘broad’ vision of what constitutes the historiography.

As Hessenbruch saw, perhaps several years prematurely, the present is an exciting time to reopen the question of the breadth and mechanics of useful historiography, mainly because the internet makes the accessibility of past works and evidence much easier than in the past.  The ability to handle diverse resources and arguments should be augmented, though we will need to design new scholarly technologies to do so.

Importantly, I think that embracing the ‘broad’ vision will not be well-served by simply adhering to an ‘anything goes’ attitude.  The ‘broad’ historiography must be accompanied by a ‘narrow’ one.  However, the priorities of the narrow historiography will be quite different from the current professional historiography.  In particular, its task will not be to define itself against the broad historiography: it will not police or filter its content, or diagnose and correct its errors.  The narrow historiography will not preoccupy itself with the failures of uninformed and instrumental histories, it will abandon its preoccupation with the ‘invisible’, and will instead seek to make available, summarize, and collate what documentation exists, extend that documentation wherever possible, and, at the highest level, ask a large number of focused questions relating to specific portions of the historical record.

This notion is not a hegemonic idea of what historiography must or should be.  It is an unoriginal (but not nostalgic) program, distinguished, but not separate from, the prevailing program.  It is meant to have an appeal, and, on the basis of its appeal, to compete with the status quo.  Future posts will discuss what factors might add to this appeal.



1. Michael Robinson - October 19, 2010

I agree with you. Scientific players are more sophisticated (and HoS, STS scholars less disinterested) than the literature portrays. I have been digging into current NASA debates on human spaceflight and I am pretty energized at the sophistication of discussion, the eagerness to engage in debate, the ability to try on, articulate, etc other positions. It’s interesting (and for a historian who usually studies dead people, disorienting) to have my work reviewed by space scientists and engineers. Better by far than reading “every damn thing being not an argument about the past, but, on one level or another, a learned sermon.” Well put.

2. Tawrin - October 19, 2010

Right on.

3. Thony C. - October 19, 2010

I second Tawrin’s right on.

4. Rebekah Higgitt - October 19, 2010

There does, however, remain the question of what are the headline points that historians of science would like non-historians of science to take on board. It is here that clarity and repetition may be useful, even if they are not in research. While I don’t believe that all historians should be required to speak to general audiences, or even to work out for themselves what they think their work offers society at large, there are those who feel the need to make decisions about the message they put across to non-experts. If they think that message is important, or socially useful, should we blame them for finding new ways of presenting and illustrating it? Ideally, their reading and research should continue to be open, and the headline message might be altered, amended or further confirmed as a result. However, the sermons will continue so long as a writer is convinced a) of the importance and relevance of their position and b) that there are readers/viewers/listeners out there who are either unconvinced or, perhaps more importantly, have no knowledge of the existence of such views.

Will Thomas - October 20, 2010

My position here is that “messaging” is both futile and unnecessarily confining of our work. It presumes that audience members are likely to have a particular need, and that they will be receptive to a particular presentation of science in history, which will address that need. I think both of these are dodgy propositions. (My experience is with Americans and not Europeans, admittedly, and there certainly are differences in public ideas between sides of the Atlantic, but I think the basic point carries over.)

My own inclination here is to think that historians like to believe that these things are the case, because it rather nicely justifies the way we are going about things at present, thereby allowing ourselves to imagine that we are, or could or should be, important and relevant, where, in fact, we are not, and probably never will be (at least not to the extent that the impacts of our work recompense even the very little funding we actually use.)

Now, to be clear, this does not entail a retreat to the ivory tower, or a turn toward some sort of dry intellectual history. Rather, it means forging a role for ourselves that respects our strengths and limitations. I think a turn away from being didactic in our work is a good start.

I believe that rather than going with a didactic sermon approach, we are better advised to go with an approach focused on making knowledge coherent and available to others who might be interested in gaining access to it for whatever reason they might have. This means synthesis (but not necessarily Grand Synthesis), summary, and providing a portal to deeper study for those with the ambition. Providing a centralized, permanent, and reliable source of information is, in my mind, preferable to sporadically lobbing a history-coated message over the wall to the masses.

As Michael nicely pointed out above, being didactic has a tendency to blind us to the richness of ideas of the past and present, because presuming a poverty of ideas makes us look more important and relevant. (I had a very similar experience with OR — the thinking about the relationship between scientific analysis and policy was quite rich in the past, which is not something you get if you believe the literature about the RAND Corporation being a hive of technocratic thinkers who thought they could solve political problems with science and math.)

This could, in turn, have an impact on our palatability. If, in our rush to bundle the past up into a message, we disrespect the richness of past ideas, others who at least have an inkling that we must be leaving something out are apt to view us as a less-than-credible source of information about the past. This would, of course, dilute the impact of any message we might want to offer, even if they are not capable of fully vocalizing their critique of our work.

Now, while this in some ways affects the rationale behind current practices in exhibit curating, I don’t think it actually has many implications for the actual products of exhibit curating. The object, as I see it, of an exhibit, is to present as rich of a portrait of past practices as possible to spark further interest; provision of detailed knowledge in such a venue is infeasible. Based on what I’ve already seen around DC and London, this task is in good hands. I’m not sure what else I could reasonably ask for from curators.

(By the way, for those passing through, be sure and check out the Enlightenment exhibit at the British Museum, which has a lot of materials from the collection of Hans Sloane. Also, take the time to peruse the titles of books lining the wall for a quick context lesson on the intellectual culture of the period.)

Anyway, it’s good to vocalize disagreements along these lines. I was at a conference last March and was talking to Graham Burnett, and he was of the very explicit opinion that scholarly models of history are basically antiquated. He saw the future as being in things like the magazine where he is an editor, Cabinet.

5. Rebekah Higgitt - October 20, 2010

I would argue that choosing, in exhibits or elsewhere (NB I wasn’t particuarly focusing on curators in my comment, but I’d also add that many curators speak and write as much or more than they work on exhibits), to “present as rich of a portrait of past practices as possible” could be indicative of a commitment to the kind of historiography that argues against whiggism etc.

Making it “rich” would suggest that science is being presented within wider contexts – something that is still a novelty in many museums, and doesn’t happen at all in most Science Centres. Similarly, focusing on “practices” works against the great men, great discoveries kind of narrative, or the “science as product” kind of presentation. I would agree that “messaging” is probably not helpful, but presenting ideas/stories/objects that complicate other (inaccurate?) messages must surely be a good thing.

6. Will Thomas - October 20, 2010

I would like to unbundle the production of what we, in this context, agree to be rich history, from the battle against whiggish, Great Man, epistemologically naive, etc. histories.

I think the embrace of richness is now well-established as a standard of good practice, but my argument is that 1) the inevitabile persistence of impoverished (i.e., opposite of “rich”) history, and 2) the inefficacy of the production of rich history in working against it, strand methodological debate circa 1992. It often seems that the singularity of rich portraiture as a standard of professional quality will continue to prevail until impoverished history finally relents.

This is a pity, because it is clear that the impoverished historians and their publics aren’t really listening. In the meantime, we could be having deeper conversations about the ways in which we have succeeded and the ways in which we have failed and could hold our work to higher internal standards.

I would argue that rich portraiture has been successful, or, more accurately, it has achieved as much success as it is going to. Unfortunately, because the eternal battle against impoverished history rages on, we have not come to terms with how the pell-mell production of our chief weapon against it, rich portraiture, has itself created severe problems with the coherence and navigability of the historiography (not to mention its marginalization of technical history of science and other sub-genres).

If we relented in our battle against impoverished portraiture we would, of course, continue to produce rich portraiture — including in public presentation — but, absent this noble cause as a justification for proceeding as we have, we might just feel more at liberty to concentrate on these other issues as well.

The renewed professional debate and sense of intellectual progress might even entice others to pay more attention to what we do, and, in the process, see the fruits of the rich portraiture that has long been, and always should be, endemic to our professional style.

7. Young links | Evolving Thoughts - October 21, 2010

[…] and Philosophy of Science be Applied in Socially Relevant Ways? Does Newton feign an hypothesis? Narrow and Broad Historiography and Self-Interested History. Jean Baptiste Lamarck: Founder of Lamarckian Evolution. Visual representations: Giants’ […]

8. Academics vs. Explorers « Time to Eat the Dogs - October 29, 2010

[…] from sources far removed from my field of expertise in the history of science and exploration. As Will Thomas has pointed out at Ether Wave Propaganda, historians sometimes forget that their “subjects” are often […]

9. Arne Hessenbruch - November 13, 2010

Cheers mate!

10. H Stern - November 13, 2010

Hessenbruch is one of the foremost luminaries of our generation and will have his day.

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