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The Mirrored or the Integrated Image? Beyond the Cult of Invisibility March 16, 2012

Posted by Will Thomas in Cult of Invisibility.

Having outlined and criticized a style of historiographical work, labelled the “cult of invisibility” in Pt. 1, Pt. 2, and Pt. 3, this final post enumerates some of the effects of writing in this style, and how to move beyond it.

The central characteristic of the cult of invisibility is its method of proceeding by identifying prejudices — intellectual, ideological, what have you — that prevent aspects of history from being seen, or interpreted correctly.  One key implication is that diagnosing these prejudices opens a path to a more proper historiography.  But can it?

Highly visible, but not necessarily well understood

One way of approaching the question is to consider to what extent we have a proper historiography of topics that are clearly “visible”.  David Edgerton’s emphasis on how little we know about twentieth-century Britain as a scientifically and technologically sophisticated nation with a powerful military has been very influential on my thinking on this problem.  I’d also include here Sven Beckert’s work in illuminating the history of wealthy men in 19th-century New York City.

At this point, though, it is crucial not to suppose that the problem with the cult of invisibility is that it somehow renders formerly visible topics invisible in a kind of reverse discrimination against “official” or culturally “dominant” history.  The real problem is in how historians deal with empirical knowledge of history by mistaking visibility for knowledge.  This is a problem that pertains almost equally to “visible” and more classically “invisible” topics.  Notably, Edgerton (whose office is actually next door to mine, so we talk about this stuff often) will also be happy to tell you about how little we know about the use of established technologies in poorer nations.

Now, Edgerton will also go on to tell you that we know little about technology use in poorer nations because “technology” is too often taken to mean high technologies, novel technologies, or invention.  This observation is, I think, correct, but I would like to put it aside, because it is — just like this series of posts — typical of the style of argumentation that prevails in the cult.  It is another case of identifying an intellectual prejudice that prevents the historiography from rendering a topic properly visible.

What is so insidious about the cult of invisibility is the constant temptation to attempt to escape it, while at the same time adhering to its central assumptions.  I want to highlight the sheer futility of trying to identify the methodological prejudices of a scholarship that is built around the identification of methodological prejudices, and hoping thus to arrive at a satisfactory methodology.  This is like trying to triangulate the true position of the exit to a hall of mirrors by setting up yet another mirror.

Here’s how this can work out in practice:

Let’s say we wanted to suggest that the present literature has an impoverished portrait of the history of industrial science (which it does).  Because the cult of invisibility is enthusiastic about overcoming prejudices (in this case a prejudice favoring academic work over gritty industrialism), one is likely to be met with happy acceptance of such criticism.  But, the most one could actually hope for is a study or maybe an edited volume that addresses some small case from the history of industrial science.  Despite the fact that only a vanishingly small amount would have actually been learned about industrial science, it would at this point be possible to absolve ourselves of any prejudice against the topic.

Now let’s say that, frustrated, we further pressed our case, we might find the cult recalcitrant to undertaking any major change in methodology and work habits that would, to continue with our example, allow industrial science to actually be charted.  So, now one might be met with a response along the lines of: “How can you say we don’t know about industrial science, when Historian X wrote that book on the subject?”  What is meant here is that in the grand scheme of visible and invisible objects, what you are claiming is invisible is, in fact, perfectly visible, because any prejudice surrounding it has already been broken down.  The critique is thus deflected by conflating visibility with knowledge.

Empirical knowledge becomes something of an innocent bystander in efforts to triangulate one’s way out of the hall of mirrors — no one is hostile to it, but it suffers nonetheless.  As commentary is layered upon commentary, as objects are designated preferentially visible or invisible to various audiences to suit methodological arguments, it becomes virtually impossible to determine who actually knows what.  It almost ceases to matter.  You don’t try and untangle interpretations, figuring out who agrees on what.  You do not organise, arrange, cross-reference, and rearrange your knowledge.  You simply accumulate interpretations.

There are several practical effects of this for writing and understanding history:

1) Because visibility and invisibility are so entwined with historians’ sense of what makes their own writing cogent, our ability to successfully gauge the social visibility or invisibility of certain actors or ideas in the past is endangered.  My favorite example of this is bureaucracy.  Because bureaucracies are generally treated as “official” and thus visible, while those who are governed by bureaucracy and make criticisms of it are, by implication, invisible, the historical importance and power of criticisms of bureaucracy, and the implications for the way bureaucracies were structured and functioned are not well-handled by historians.

2) More prosaically, because the empirical content of a work of history is structured around the work’s argument about what it is making visible, it becmes almost impossible to consult historians’ work as a resource for empirical knowledge.  You are forced to cobble pictures together out of many different sources, most of which will be written with an indifference to your attempts to do so.

3) In this way empirical knowledge of history is really something of an abstract entity that exists within or floats above a broad literature, but is never fully articulated.  You cannot know who, even among professional historians, knows about what aspects of this abstract entity, and it is dangerous to presume one’s audience has knowledge of this or that aspect.  Works routinely must cover the same ground again and again, while adding scattered new content.  Most authors will not have space to delineate exactly what new empirical information their work conveys, making it difficult for all but the most specialist audiences to gauge historiographical progress or decay.

4) Because you cannot presume knowledge in your audience, there is a practical limit to the sophistication of viewpoint, or the specificity of one’s interest, that one can convey in a presentation.  In recent years, this situation has devolved into concerns I have sometimes heard articulated that if you attempt anything too ambitious or intricate, you may bore your professional audience — and then good luck getting any point across at all.  This, however, has generally not been taken to be an obviously bad development, because learning how to entertain your professional audience is understood as a kind of training for entertaining editors, thus making it possible to publish, and so reach and entertain more general audiences, thus making it possible to enlighten them.  As I argued in Pts. 1 and 3, public enlightenment has become an increasingly frequently articulated professional goal.  In fact, providing a palliative to the thinking of general audiences is probably a more frequently expressed mission of academic history (or the humanities more generally) — don’t cut our funding, or you’ll lose your soul! — than is actually arriving at a stronger understanding of history.

5) For all of these reasons, it is increasingly possible to lose empirical knowledge of history, or to fail to have new empirical knowledge “take hold” and have no one actually notice; or, if someone does notice, it is easy to ignore such criticisms without suffering undue professional embarrassment.

Beyond mere knowledge, though, critical insights — supposedly the intellectual core of the cult of invisibility — become similarly endangered.  Because revelatory insights tend to be seen as having to move from the historiographical vanguard, to the historian masses, and ultimately to more general audiences, interlocution among historians tends to decrease over the course of this process.  You lose track of what your insights actually were, what they were responding to, and what value was to be found in the thing that they were responding to.

To recapitulate and expand on a point from Pt. 3 re: the history of science specifically, between 1975 and 1983, in science studies (including history of science) you could, if you tried, locate a set of advanced, interconnected debates about:

1) the relationship between 18th-century natural philosophy and 19th-century specialised science (Schaffer, Cantor — happily I gather studies of natural philosophical reasoning are now making a comeback in certain quarters)

2) whether Mertonian analysis of “ambivalence” in science should be abandoned in favor of Mulkay’s sociology, wherein “norms” are simply rhetorical tools for advancing an “ideology of science”

3) whether SSK was a viable intellectual program for sociologists (Collins), or it should give way to empirical ethnography (Knorr-Cetina)

4) whether proponents of SSK as a methodology for history-writing (Barnes, Shapin) treated the social contexts they so revered with the intricacy those contexts deserved (Rosenberg)

By the 1990s all of these debates had seized on certain catch phrases of those prior debates, and so devolved into go-nowhere missives over whether knowledge was socially constructed (and subsidiary issues about whether scientists should be treated as people, whether we were taking instruments seriously, and so on).  The cult of invisibility had taken hold.  The methodological problems underlying a rapidly expanding, fragmenting, and stagnating historiography were now explained in terms of one’s prejudicial position on the social constructionism question (whichever position you held).  Solve the methodological problem, and restore the historiography.

By and by, as debates over social constructionism became tiresome, the methodological problem was declared solved, and everyone was to be congratulated on their maturity in backing away from petty academic knife-fights.  In fact, I argue, what had been achieved were anodyne solutions to a set of historiographical non-problems.  Not only had we lost sight of the above enumerated issues, we had little sense of what our methodological achievements actually were, and how and when they had been achieved, and very little ability to discuss methodological issues not related to the prejudices of sources and their interpreters.

Further, the methodological ground was prepared for the insidious paradox in which we now find ourselves: you cannot argue your way of a situation defined by the belief that you can get out of problematic situations by arguing about them.  Nevertheless, I believe the present diagnostic exercise worthwhile, because it does hint at what we are missing, even if we require a complete alternative philosophical system regarding the nature of knowledge of history to tell us exactly what we need.

To conclude, here are some thoughts:

  • we need to be able to chart history, rather than simply develop authentic looking portraits of historical episodes
  • to do so, we need to find a better way of linking various individuals’ projects together more strongly than at present to form an integrated (but not necessarily a “Big”) picture
  • we need some reference that will tell us what the state of our chart is
  • a good chart of history should also be a chart of the historiography — we need to know what the historiography contains, rather than simply hoping articles flying through space congeal into a coherent literature
  • such charts will need to be curated, but…
  • the way to connect projects is ultimately through better collaboration
  • really constructive collaborations will only be built out of the ability to argue about the consequences of particular historical details
  • this means we need to find better ways for new research to reach audiences that can make the most use of it
  • this should happen rapidly; if you’re doing something that’s pertinent to me, I don’t want to have to wait five years for it to find its way into publication (and vice versa, I’m sure)
  • therefore, we need to expand the forms of publication we now use — in particular, we need better ways to communicate short-form findings.
  • we also need to break up our present anodyne grande entente — we need to be able to argue about things until somebody has won, or, if necessary, some third way has been found, without having it devolve into existential crises of methodology or vicious knife-fights; on this note, over in sociology, Harry Collins has called for a “Campaign for Real Argument” (after the UK’s Campaign for Real Ale).

Most of these suggestions cannot be brought into being through the production of a sublime portrait embodying them.  They require new ways of doing work, new history-writing tools, new responsibilities for time-pressed scholars (and thus more rationalized ways of meeting our present commitments), and widespread commitment to making it work.  For these reasons, I am not hopeful that the cult can be escaped.

To all readers, I do not anticipate further abstract theorizing along these lines.  I’m pretty sure I’ve gotten everything out that’s on my mind, although there will be further posts on the history of thinking about the “ideology of science”.  Thanks for your indulgence with this series of overlong posts!



1. Matthew Wright - March 17, 2012

Thanks for your thoughs – insightful and interesting. It seems to me, though, that there is a practical aspect. The philosophy of any intellectual endeavour is also going to be guided by personality, and by peer environment. I am working up a post on my own blog about the historiography of hominid evolution and particularly the multi-regional hypothesis, which to me was framed more by contemporaneous post-colonial ideal than by pragmatic science – I recall objecting to it at university in the early 1980s. The reason was ideological. I won’t go on about it in depth here, am still working up my thoughts. The other issue, which I’ve just written into a book (got it away to the publishers 3 days ago) relates to the way contemporary ideology can re-mythologise. That’s certainly been the case for the interpretation of New Zealand history, which has lurched from one odd myth into another on the back of these peer-pressure and contemporary ideological frameworks.. Thanks again for sharing your thoughts.

Matthew Wright

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