Narrow and Broad Historiography and Self-Interested History October 19, 2010Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
Tags: Arne Hessenbruch, Simon Schaffer
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.
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.