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Winter School 2014 – abstracts morning lectures

Knowledge in Transit: Objects, Narratives, and Visualizations of the Human Deep Time in Early 20th-Century America

Marianne Sommer

Ludwik Fleck has described the communication of scientific knowledge from esoteric to exoteric circles as an integral part of knowledge production. The process of translating knowledge for non-expert audiences (within and outside science) is accompanied by generalization, hardening, and objectification. Hypotheses become facts when a language of uncertainty gives way to established knowledge. Fleck thus presented a new way of thinking about popularization – that nineteenth-century notion of a unilateral communication of knowledge created inside science in the name of progress, and that was accompanied by the specter of vulgarization. Scholars still recognize the communication of scientific methods and contents as an important movens in cultural change. However, our understanding of the diversity of places and institutions, protagonists, media, and forms of representation that have been and are involved in the production, communication, and transformation of knowledge about the natural world is considerably more differentiated. In the course of the increasing attention that non-scientific contexts have gained in the history of science, James Secord has suggested to subsume scientific knowledge production, popular, subaltern, and indigenous knowledge under the concept of ‘knowledge in transit’ in a global history of science.

More recently, there has been a turn to knowledge cultures, to the everyday life and practices of scientists and the adoption of scientific knowledge in living environments, under the label of Wissensgeschichte in the German-speaking community (which differs from ‘history of knowledge’). With the notion of knowledge cultures is associated the question of whether such an analysis of historical formations and transformations from the perspective of a Wissensgeschichte constitutes a privileged approach to cultural change. Here, the circulation of knowledge has been revived as a unifying concern of research. Philipp Sarasin understands circulation as decidedly material: What circulates are objects, animals, and humans, allowing for the generation of meaning, knowledge, and sociality. This once again goes along with a focus on the materiality and mediality of the discursive and semiotic, and on the process of translation from one medium to the other. Although there is no clear origin from where knowledge circulates, because it is always already intertextual and intermedial, particular ways of passage and itineraries of its objects, the transformations they undergo and the obstacles they meet, might be reconstructed or observed.

In my talk, I discuss some of the approaches currently captured with the label Wissensgeschichte on the basis of my research on the establishment of a mass culture of deep time. I enquire after the role of a particularly powerful institution – the American Museum of Natural History in New York – and its equally powerful president – Henry Fairfield Osborn – in making madiatized ancestors and lost-world stories travel into diverse disciplines and non-academic circles. While I am thus attentive to the unequal power relations, I also try to do justice to the wider discursive formations that shape the institution and its protagonists, as well as to the negotiations that seem to accompany the knowledge from field to exhibition. I ask how scientific objects, i.e. fossil bones and archeological artifacts, are in the Latourian sense always already material, social, and discursive, and how for them to stabilize, they have to be shared within expert networks that form around such exchange. I attend in particular to the processes of translating bones (in the above sense) into printed word, image, and exhibit that then travel through diverse national and local contexts. In the process, they may encounter various obstacles as well as catalyzers or amplifiers. I exemplify how I analyze the ways in which narratives are adapted in order to survive in new cultural environments, and how in the process, they multiply. In doing so, I am also interested in notions and processes of embodiment, in how a deeper history made living is understood and experienced as a history within.

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