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Wakefield’s Nightmare, Pt. 1: The Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution Chain January 22, 2015

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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This post discusses a new article: Andre Wakefield’s “Butterfield’s Nightmare: The History of Science as Disney History,” History and Technology (2014).

Henry Fuseli, The Nightmare (1781)

Henry Fuseli, The Nightmare (1781)

In the piece Wakefield opposes an instance of intellectualist genesis in technological and economic history, i.e., the idea that technical and economic phenomena are rooted in the realm of elite ideas. Specifically, Wakefield objects to authors who posit a “causal series” linking the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment, and the Industrial Revolution. Even more specifically, he regards this narrative as responsible for serial anachronistic readings of the concept of “oeconomy” in 18th-century philosophy (a subject I’m very interested in), and, consequently of that philosophy’s place in the development of economic and political culture.



More specifically still, Wakefield’s primary targets are the concepts of the “industrial Enlightenment,” as used by economic historian Joel Mokyr, and the “economic Enlightenment,” as used by Marcus Popplow. Wakefield also targets the work of Margaret Jacob and Larry Stewart as abetting the development of the narrative he opposes.

Unfortunately, Wakefield only spends four paragraphs (pp. 10–12) on the subject of “oeconomy,” and only a few more on Mokyr, Popplow, and the question of what varieties of “Enlightenment” we might legitimately speak. The bulk of Wakefield’s essay is divided between contemplation of the pathological and justifiable uses of anachronism in historiography, and an enjoyably sarcastic diagnosis and etiology of his opponents’ positions.

Although I sort of agree with him, I do believe Wakefield’s polemics conceal a more difficult historiographical problem than he supposes.

Wakefield frames his argument by freighting his opponents’ position on the link between the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution with the stigma of linearity, so that it seems like something no right-thinking scholar would accept. As Jakob Whitfield (@thrustvector) asked in the Twitter discussion that brought Wakefield’s article to my attention, “as a histtech guy, am I not contractually required to be suspicious of (at least the simple statement of) that causal chain?” The answer, of course, is, yes, we all are.

We are, therefore, also obligated to contemplate what forces could possibly cause a scholar to take the contrary position. In suggesting a cause, Wakefield doubles down polemically by tracing the pathological narrative at play to the Cold War (as indeed all historians seemingly must). According to Wakefield (9):

[The narrative] consists of renovated Cold War modernization theories that were crafted to battle the scourge of communism during the 1950s and 1960s. Foremost among these modernization theorists was Walt W. Rostow, author of The Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto. Rostow, like Mokyr after him, argued that industrial ‘take-off’ was predicated on having the right kind of culture: democratic, liberal, Protestant, entrepreneurial and scientific.

America's RasputinSuch “Rostowian narratives,” it is broadly held, were elemental in shaping the American Cold War project of exporting American capitalist liberal culture to the world, and in bolstering confidence in that project at home. Although, Wakefield reports, these narratives were subjected to “devastating critiques” (10), not least by such historians of science and technology as Charles Gillispie and A. Rupert Hall (9), those critiques have never “been overcome or even addressed; they have just been ignored” (10).

Critique, it seems, is nearly helpless against the relentless machine of popularization. And modernization theory, and the Whig history of science and technology in general, found no less an engineer (imagineer?) of popularization than Walt Disney:

Many historians of science know about Walt Disney’s scientific propaganda films. The most famous of these might be Our Friend the Atom, which appeared in several installments during 1957. The program represented a joint venture between General Dynamics, which manufactured nuclear reactors, and the US Navy; General Dynamics also sponsored the atomic submarine ride at Disneyland. The host of the show, and the author of the children’s book of the same name, was Dr Heinz Haber, physicist, Luftwaffe pilot, and Nazi war criminal.

Disney’s brand of futurism is indeed rightly notorious for its uncompromising optimism. And you can see for yourself that Our Friend the Atom fits the bill, complete with an ultra-teleological Plato-to-NATO narrative (starting at 8:05):

With the Mokyr-Popplow-Jacob-Stewart narrative linked to “America’s Rasputin,” Nazi atrocities, and (literally) cartoon historiography, who would dare to defend it?

Well, maybe Simon Schaffer.

As we have seen, Schaffer’s 1999 piece “Enlightened Automata” was built around the idea that there was an intimate connection between Enlightenment ideas and the Industrial Revolution. In fact, so adamant was Schaffer on this point that he consigned anyone who might posit otherwise to the dustbin of historiography:

Some historians still deny that enlightened natural philosophies ‘fed the fires of the industrial revolution.’ Others more convincingly indicate the intimate connection between the machinery of natural philosophers’ concerns and that of the new entrepreneurs and projectors. The lettered savants who plied their trade in a culture dominated by interests in economic improvement and civic sensibility were in fact noteworthy contributors to mechanization and its consequences.

One might point out that Schaffer was here referring to Enlightenment philosophers’ mechanical analysis and managerialist aspirations rather than to any direct impact they might have had on technological and economic development. But, lest we be tempted to reconcile Wakefield’s and Schaffer’s points of view in this way, we need only follow Schaffer’s footnote at the end of this passage to find him championing none other than Margaret Jacob and Larry Stewart against the position of Geoffrey Sutton. More on Sutton vs. Jacob in Pt. 2 a future post.

For the moment, though, I would also point out that if we attempted to reconcile Wakefield and Schaffer, we would synthesize an obviously disjointed narrative. In it, we would find ourselves denying the intellectualist genesis of the positive, technological aspects of the Industrial Revolution, even as we affirmed the intellectualist genesis of that revolution’s negative, exploitative aspects.

What should become clear in this juxtaposition is that the Enlightenment, the Cold War, and the science-technology relationship are really all shibboleths in a discourse concerning the nature of right thinking and right polity. In this discourse historical error is regarded as a symptom of deeper, and dangerous intellectual sympathies, e.g. with Rostowian economic history and militant American liberalism. From this perspective, Wakefield and Schaffer are simply using two different versions of the same historiographical gambit, which happen to yield contradictory historical conclusions.

If the points historians choose to make about the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution are mired in larger concerns about virtue and vice, is there hope for developing reliable historical knowledge about the relations between these important subjects? I would say, yes—it only requires a little extra work on our part. In Pt. 2, I will attempt to move beyond the pyrotechnics to consolidate some gains.


1. Whewell’s Gazette: Vol. #32 | Whewell's Ghost - January 26, 2015

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