Posts Tagged With: history of science

European Mass Culture in the Context of Global War


European Mass Culture in the Context of Global War

The twentieth century was very much a European century.  European imperialism reached new heights and on two occasions European conflicts grew to engulf the globe in war.  Each of the books we read for this session address cultural aspects that contributed to these far-reaching forces of change on the “dark continent.”  Volker Berghahn seeks to explain the “orgy of violence” that erupted from Europe between 1914 and 1945. He attempts to look beyond surface level political causes and to instead explain the structural mechanisms of peace and violence in terms of material well-being.  Simonetta Falasca-Zamponi also draws our attention to deeper shifts in Western culture to help explain the rise of fascism in Italy.  By bringing in the lens of aesthetics, she challenges us to reimagine the way we view politics and how they interact with other spheres of life.  James Andrews also examines the connections between the state and civilian society by looking at the ways in which two separate Russian regimes interacted with scientific organizations that were working on the popularization of science.  Moreover, by situating his study in Russia, Andrews prompts us to question what is meant by “European” and whether or not Russia can be included in that definition.  And finally, Erez Manela directly confronts the definition of European, civilized, and modernized by exploring the ways the 1919 Versailles Treaty affected colonized people across the globe.  By removing Europe from the center of the story, Manela forces us to rethink our concepts of “center” and “periphery” as well as the role that European powers were perceived as playing in international politics.

In Europe in the Era of Two World Wars: From Militarism and Genocide to Civil Society, Volker Berghahn lays out his argument for why Europe fell into total war twice during the twentieth century.  According to Berghahn’s model, Western civilization stood at a cross roads at the dawn of the twentieth century. These cross roads represented two different paths into the modernized, industrialized future.  On the one hand was a civilian model of modern society, in which the modes of production were used to mass-produce consumer goods that were then peacefully mass consumed by a democratic civilian populace.  Berghahn then offers the United States as the epitome of this civilian model (5).  The other option for organizing modern society, according to Berghahn, was the militaristic model.  In this model, “violent men” controlled the government to use the industrial processes to produce weapons of war in order to achieve imperial or racial goals.  The twist in this model is that these products that were mass-produced were not mass consumed, but rather consumed civilians through warfare and death.

Berghahn’s book then, is the story of how European societies faced this confrontation between two competing ways of organizing modern life.  He offers three obstacles to the realization of the dream of “creating a civilian mass-production and mass-consumption society” before 1914:  First, violence still persisted at high levels in schools, the home (strict patriarchy), and in/through the armies.  Second, the unequal distribution of the gains caused by capitalism created tension among classes of people.  And third, and most important, the institution of imperialism, which he understands as Europeans’ attempt to bring up their own standard of living was based on a system of violent exploitation (11-16).  Berghahn understands imperialism as one of the three types of totalitarianism, alongside Communism and fascism (21).  In fact, he concludes the interwar years of 1919-1938 could not be a successful phase of re-stabilization because the stability at home in Europe depended on the continued exploitation of the colonies and the non-Western world (72).

What made the two World Wars different than previous wars was the fact that military leaders and other “violent men” realized that, because of technological advances, any new war would be all encompassing.  Moreover, there was less of a push to protect civilians from this type of war because in a total war, the line between civilian and combatant was blurred or all together ignored.  In addition, authors such as Jünger and Ludendorff, who believed in always being fully mobilized for a total war, “provided the men of violence of the interwar years with not only the pseudo-justifications but to a considerable degree the recipes for their deeds” (84).  This militaristic model of organization penetrated all levels of society so that by 1939, violent measures against civilians had become an integral part of the German way of warfare (100). Berghahn then concludes that ultimately the American model of civilian organization was triumphant.  Fortunately, the destroyed Western European nations were able to pick and choose what they wanted to import from the American model, so that “Europe, too, became a region of the world whose societies were civilian-industrial in outlook” (139).

Berghahn’s argument is a materialistic one in that everything depends on material-well being.  It seems that civilians are only able to interact peacefully and keep “violent men” at bay if they have products to consume.  Moreover, the way that Berghahn discusses violence, it seems that it is something that is contagious and spreads outward from “violent men” to infect an otherwise peaceful human nature, which I don’t find incredibly convincing.  Lastly, he speaks of the triumph of the civilian model over the militaristic one, but what about the fact that the “violent men” of both World Wars were only defeated by violence?

In Fascist Spectacle: the Aesthetics of Power in Mussolini’s Italy, Simonetta Falasca-Zamponi also seeks to explain violent phenomena of the twentieth century, though she focuses specifically on the emergence of fascism.  Unlike Berghahn, she does not focus on modes of consumption, but instead uses the notion of art as a lens to understand the rise of fascism in Italy.  Falasca-Zamponi argues that until her book was written, Emilio Gentile’s notion of fascism as a “political religion” had been a convincing way of understanding the movement.  But, in her book, she argues that fascism should bee seen as an aesthetic, a set of principles similar to those that drive an art form.  In this light, the politician is seen as an artist, sculpting a creation out of his people.

Falasca-Zamponi shows that fascism was only able to emerge and take root as the result of a historical nexus of conditions that was unique to that period.  One condition was the creation of “the masses,” which we have studied in another session.  Several factors contributed to the creation of the masses, including communication technology and an expanding print culture.  A second condition was the “arts for art’s sake” movement, which disassociated art from the arousal of the physical senses.  Under this movement, art was meant to be created and appreciated simply for what it was, rather than for how it made the viewer feel.  A third condition is what she calls the larger shift from the emphasis on “character” to “personality” in Western culture. Earlier, one was meant to embody “character,” which encompassed controlling one’s impulses and making oneself presentable in public.  Falasca-Zamponi argues that new technology and new disorders placed a greater emphasis on “the self” (as opposed to the social cohesion that was kept by members all representing proper character), and thus led to an emphasis on personality, which included “being yourself” while still being likable.  In this model, individuals with strong personalities could both be themselves and compel others to like them (45-46).  A fourth condition that was unique to Italian culture was Italian history; the presence of Rome in Italian history, coupled with the continued presence of the seat of the Catholic Church meant that Italians were accustomed to both a glorious (and glorified) past as well as being surrounded by the pomp, circumstance, and pageantry of the Church.

All of those conditions allowed for the possibility of fascism’s success in Italy.  Mussolini, whom Falasca-Zamponi quotes extensively, saw himself as an artist, a creator.  Under the particular fascist aesthetic (which was never static or complete, but constantly evolving), the politician was an artist who should sculpt the effeminate masses to unlock potential and create powerful soldiers for the cause.  But under the “art for art’s sake” mentality, the artist had no ethical boundaries, and therefore the politician had no ethical limits to what he could or should do.  Mussolini’s personality was perceived as exceptional and this allowed him to step into the role of leader, artist, and creator in one.

Mussolini and his fascists were preoccupied with crafting particular images of the movement.  They created specific (and largely false) histories and myths for themselves, but Falasca-Zamponi reveals the reflexive nature of symbols and myths.  While fascists may have created, through their cultural and political power, particular myths and symbols (ways of speaking, dressing, and living), these symbols took on a life of their own and then defined what the fascists could do from that moment on (118).  In this light, the aims the fascists set for themselves (constant movement, creation, vitality through conflict and violence against bourgeois materialism, capitalism, individualism, and liberal democracy) meant that international war was inevitable.  Once the Italian masses had been sculpted into perfection and inner enemies ousted, the only option open to the fascist movement, which portrayed itself in melodramatic terms as more than a political regime, was to expand its violent vision outwards.

James Andrews’ Science for the Masses: the Bolshevik State, Public Science, and the Popular Imagination in Soviet Russia, 1917-1934 brings our discussion away from violence, and directs our attention to another aspect of European mass culture: the popularization of Western science from the late nineteenth century to the 1930s.  Whereas we saw a complete intrusion of the government into the private sphere in Falasca-Zamponi’s study, Andrews shows us a delicate coexistence of private and state sponsored endeavors to spread scientific knowledge among the masses.  In imperial Russia, the popularization of science was tied to education, and was organized by voluntary scientific organizations through museums and journals.  As with the music journals in Applegate’s Bach in Berlin, print culture played a defining role in the popularization of science in Russia.  After the 1917 revolution, the Bolshevik state provided both political and financial support to these popularization efforts because they were in line with Bolshevik campaigns to spread Enlightenment education and ideals.  Under the New Economic Policy era of the 1920s, the science popularization movement boomed because of increased funding from the state, and the fact that the Soviet state found it important to maintain non-governmental associations (172).  Moreover, because of ties between state officials, association leaders were able to better navigate through the new Bolshevik bureaucracy (59).

Stalin’s cultural revolution, which began in 1928, changed all of this, though.  Enlightenment ideals were now seen as vestiges of a liberal, bourgeois period, and so it became official policy that scientific knowledge was no longer to be pursued or taught for its own sake.  Instead, the emphasis was on the utilitarian aspects of science.  In other words, the masses were no longer seen as creators of knowledge, but instead as the recipients of state-approved knowledge.  But Andrews shows that not everyone was willing to accept this new approach to science that was filled with Soviet propaganda about the superiority of Soviet science and technology.  Workers were able to somewhat define their own interests and let it be known that they did not like the propaganda with a side of science; instead, they wanted applicable, technical training for their jobs.

Examining this study on Russian history raises several questions pertinent to our sessions:  What is modern and what is European?  It is often argued whether or not Russia is a part of Europe, and I think that Andrews’ book shows that perhaps it is important to ask when can Russia be considered European.  Both under an imperial government and a Bolshevik socialist one, Enlightenment ideals spread, sometimes with substantial government support.  It was not until 1928 that the Stalinist government decided to control rather than support scientific knowledge and purposefully identify against Western Enlightenment ideals.  Perhaps at this moment, Russia becomes less European?  It is interesting to also note that Andrews’ book challenges us to rethink 1917 as a complete breaking point in Russian history, because in some ways there are far more continuities across the 1917 line than breaks.

Erez Manela’s The Wilsonian Moment: Self-Determination and the International Origins of Anticolonial Nationalism continues this endeavor of questioning European values and how far they reach beyond the geographic confines of Europe itself.  This study zooms out to look at Europe and America through the lens of Europe’s colonies, areas that are very “European” in the sense that they are an important way European societies define themselves.  Manela studies the effects that Woodrow Wilson’s rhetoric about a new world order based on self-determination and liberal democracy had on colonized people around the world.  Wilson’s 1917 speech (and other subsequent ones) laid the groundwork for what Manela calls “the Wilsonian moment,” which lasts from the fall of 1918, when an Allied victory in the war was assured, to the spring of 1919 when the failure of the Wilsonian promise became apparent.

This Wilsonian moment created an atmosphere of encouragement and hope among nationalists pushing for independence in Egypt, India, China, and Korea.  Though representatives from all of these colonies were barred from the peace negotiations in 1919 (except China, which was not officially a colony, but was the victim of a web of arrangements by foreign powers that checked its sovereignty), nationalists in these territories were able to use Wilson’s rhetoric of self-determination in an attempt to claim their place in the new international order.  The greatest contribution of Manela’s work is that it reveals how anti-colonial nationalism cannot be understood in national terms, but must be viewed in an international context.  Egyptian, Indian, Chinese, and Korean nationalists called for self-determination based on the new international standards that Wilson laid out; they sought to present their case on an international stage; and finally, they sought the aid of international pressure against their colonizer to help them achieve their goal of independence.  Moreover, international media allowed nationalists to know that other peoples were also pushing for similar goals (64).  Manela draws special attention to how the presence of so many Korean patriots abroad played a decisive role in Korea’s national movement.  These Korean patriots living abroad, who were dedicated to international, cosmopolitan liberalism, were able to get around the Japanese censors to gain and share information with Koreans back home and with the world on Korea’s behalf.

Beyond showing how movements for national determinism were placed squarely in international developments, Manela’s book helps explain why anti-colonial revolts broke out across the globe in the spring of 1919.  As it became apparent that Wilson’s promises were meant only for European nations, nationalists elsewhere realized that they were going to get no support from the American president that they had, only months before, adored as a sage-like savior.  But instead of losing hope from the fact that Wilson himself wasn’t going to help, these nationalists still saw power in Wilson’s rhetoric, and so they harnessed it and switched gears.  The first few months of 1919 were filled with revolts and uprisings in Egypt, India, Korea, and China; in each case, independence was won, even if it took decades to achieve it.  But, it’s important to realize that it was only after these nationalists understood the Wilsonian moment as a failed promise that they turned to open confrontation as an answer to their problems.

Ultimately, Manela’s work is a study of power: political power, the power of ideas, and the power of words and their (un)intended consequences.  The revolt against the West by anti-colonialists was not a result of the Great War, but was instead a direct result of the failure of the idealized peace that came afterwards.  While politicians attempted to keep political power flowing from the metropole to the colonies, Wilson attempted to define what it meant to be modern, enlightened, and civilized.  What peoples on the peripheries of the Versailles negation didn’t realize was that Wilson’s definition was narrow, had a blatant racial component, and was only meant to be applied to the West.  But, the power of Wilson’s words could not be undone, and the anti-colonialists took his rhetoric and launched revolts with them.  Manela concludes that while many viewed 1919 as an expansion of imperialism for Great Britain and France, the moment actually laid the groundwork for imperialism’s undoing (11).

In fact, all of these studies reveal how the modern era – with its developments in technology – allowed words and ideas to take on new powers.  On a basic, yet important level, technology allowed more efficient communication among a larger group of people in further corners of the world.  But as Vanessa Schwartz and others have shown, technology (along with other cultural developments) allowed for individuals to think of themselves as one part of a larger “people” or populace.  In short, the modern period saw the creation and rise to prominence of “the masses” as not only an audience, but also an important political tool and player to be considered in all decisions.  These masses acted as both the receptors and tools of political leaders’ ideas, as well as the inspiration for and creators of other ideologies.  As we have seen, the masses allowed for fascism and wide scale violence, but the masses also helped nurture the popularization of Enlightenment ideals and movements for national self-determination.  These are all parts of the European story.

Books under review: 

  1. Manela, Erez. The Wilsonian MomentSelf-Determination and the International Origins of Anticolonial Nationalism. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.
  2. Berghahn, Volker, R. Europe in the Era of two World Wars: From Militarism and Genocide to Civil Society. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2006.
  3. Andrews, James T. Science for the Masses: The Bolshevik State, Public Science, and the Popular Imagination in Soviet Russia, 1917-1934. College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, 2003.
  4. Falasca-Zamponi, Simonetta, Fascist Spectacle: The Aesthetics of Power in Mussolini’s Italy. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

For a longer list of books on Modern European History, see my post here

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European Mass Culture in the Context of Global War by W. J. Newsome is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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European Science & Society in the 19th Century


Science & Society in the 19th Century

  Science, since its inception, has been a noble enterprise, spearheaded by a handful of men in each age, to gently unlock – or in some cases pry open with force – the secrets of nature so that they may be used to improve mankind.  While philosophers and politicians dealt with muddled theories and social (thus subjective) forces, scientists handled “facts,” objective truths that could be held, measured, and thus did not give in to the whims of man.  Or at least this is the idea of science held by most of the Western world since forever, it would seem.  The three books we read for this session not only challenge, but are successful in debunking, this Whiggish history of science’s unimpeded progress.  Moreover, Alison Winter’s Mesmerized reveals that until the mid nineteenth century, “science” as a unified enterprise comprised of experts in specific fields did not even exist.  Gerald Geison’s Private Science of Louis Pasteur calls into question the notion of private versus public spheres, and prompts us to ask what exactly the role of a scientist in society is. The Culture of Time and Space, a very problematic book by Stephen Kern, forces us to completely rethink how we as historians have been viewing the turn of the twentieth century.  Traditional periodization markers fall to the wayside as he emphasizes new themes: conceptions of time and space, the influence of technology, and the interplay of the different aspects of European culture.  All of these books present a much more complicated – and therefore accurate – picture of science’s place in European society.

In Mesmerized:  Powers of Mind in Victorian Britain, Alison Winter explores a Victorian movement that has hitherto been regarded as a fringe fad or margin pseudo-science:  mesmerism.  When “animal magnetism” (as it was sometimes called) arrived in England in the 1830s, it was just one of many practices that questioned the nature of life (40).  In this way, it was similar to other practices, like those that we today would label as “science.”  In fact, Winter convincingly argues that “Rather than occupying a different world from orthodox or legitimate intellectual work, animal magnetism called into question the very definition of legitimacy itself” (5).  Mesmerism, then, helped define science, rather than being a fundamental opposition to it (though, scientists later set themselves in opposition to it).  By highlighting this, Winter is calling into question the allegedly ascending, inherently progressive nature of the scientific discipline.  It was not until this point in time in Victorian England that such a discipline emerged.  It was through discussions of what constituted legitimate knowledge (the mysterious practices of the mesmerizer, or the quantifiable results of lab work?) that science emerged.  More specifically, it was an atomization – or specialization – of knowledge that occurred, thus giving rise to specialists who thought of themselves collectively as “scientists.”

This specialization affected, as well as being affected by, the ascendancy of experts.  In other words, there was a competition between the emerging scientists, mesmerizers, as well as other philosophers who were trying to explain the nature of reality.  This competition was over who had the authority of the knowledge of reality.  The result was a split between trained “experts” and the untrained ‘lay’ masses.  Winter shows that this was not just a metaphorical, abstract debate carried out in journals.  By the 1840s, there were movements for education reform, and even laws that would put the power of medicine in the hands of only those with certified credentials.  “Lay attitudes [also] had to be brought into line with doctors’ own definitions of expertise and legitimacy.  But doctors did not agree on these definitions themselves” (165).  Again, this reveals the haphazard process by which scientists asserted their authority in the nineteenth century (indeed, had to first define authority and then wrest it out of mesmerizers’ hands).

A rather exciting aspect of Winter’s book was the way in which she showed how mesmerism was a nexus of a number of issues for Victorian culture.  Moreover, it does not simply represent a nexus through which we can study that time period; the Britons themselves realized that when they were doing an experiment in mesmerism, for example, they were actually doing an experiment on their society at large.  Mesmerizing revealed attitudes towards gender, class, and race relations.  Most mesmerizers were white, upper-class men, while most subjects were women, either from the same class, or from a lower one.  Because mesmerism was understood as one individual exerting force and control over another’s body, the practice was interpreted as a physical manifestation (and therefore justification) of social stratification.  Moreover, power over one’s body (whether manifested as the ability to control another’s body, or through the ability to halt the powers of the mesmerizer) came to exonerate moral superiority.  Mesmerism also interested priests and pastors because they saw first, a threat to their influence and authority, but also insight into how to increase their own influence, power, and authority over their flocks (247).  Moreover, the “question of whether the effects [of mesmerism] were natural or supernatural made experiments a testing ground for faith and doctrine” (4).  Ultimately, Winter convinces us that these questions, far from being seen as marginal, were very serious for Victorian Britons, because they “understood natural laws as underpinning, or having implications for, social laws” (31).

The implications for mesmerism on notions of race and empire were profound mainly because it caused people to directly think about the relationship between themselves and the empire’s subjects.  It “became the occasion for self conscious reflections about the basis of race, inequalities, and the natural laws that helped one people to bend another to its will” (7).  Winter’s story of James Esdaile and his interactions with a local Indian healer deftly illustrates her larger points.  Esdaile, and those who read his stories, relied on the assumption that the “magician” (as the healer was called by the Enlgish) was but superstitious and gullible.  By projecting superstition onto the Indian/magician/subject, Esdaile portrayed the events as occurring in a way that reinforced the preconceived notions of gullibility and superstition (187).  Moreover, performances such as these reiterated the hierarchies of race and power.  “Although individuals like the “magicians” might be able to produce the same phenomenon, European science alone could discern their cause” (188).  In a final display of dominance, Esdaile obliges the “magician” by performing mesmerism on him, thus stripping him of authority (at least in the eyes of British readers).

A final point on Winter’s book:  As professional science emerged “victorious” (as a Whiggish interpretation would attest), and was able to perform the same tasks as mesmerists (the use of chemical anesthesia to suspend pain, for instance), it dictated the definition of legitimate evidence.  “The emerging scientific disciplines left no place for testimony on new scientific truths, unless it was subservient to laboratory apparatus” (305).  Testimony of events that had already occurred, or were known to occur were acceptable, but “testimony to new, startling truths [mesmerism] were not admissible on its own” (305).  Seen in this light, science emerged not as a progressive movement open to new methodologies, but rather a conservative one bent on defining and keeping authority.

In  The Private Science of Louis Pasteur, Gerald Geison uses a new supply of sources that have only recently become available to reevaluate the practices of famed French scientist Louis Pasteur.  By using Pasteur’s own private laboratory notebooks, Geison reveals a new, more complex, and somewhat ethically ambiguous Pasteur, one that varies greatly from the Pasteur myth that took hold even before Pasteur’s death.  In essence, Geison reveals the “private science” of Pasteur that was confined to his notebooks.  These notebooks revealed that Pasteur played fast and loose with the rules of the Scientific Method, completely disregarding it when it came into conflict with his preconceived notions.  This “new” and private Pasteur downplayed the role of his assistants and collaborators, and even administered his famous rabies vaccine without first testing it on animals.

It seems that Geison is not as shocked by these actual revelations themselves as he is by the fact that Pasteur seemed to have two separate lives. While Geison admits in the introduction that there is no real distinction between “private” and “public” science, he does not seem quite able or willing to forgive Pasteur for fashioning a particular public image of himself while practicing something else in the privacy of his own lab.  This raises questions of what we think about science in general – and moreover, its relationship with “the public.”  It also calls into question the private/public dichotomy that has so pervaded modern Western thinking.  By page 5, Geison admits that science is shaped by the anticipation of how the results will be accepted by an audience (other scientists, the government, or the public at large).  Pasteur chose problems and experiments that he knew would go over well with the public, and that would fit in the expectation of what a public scientist should be doing.  This already calls into question the distinction of private/public.  Also, knowledge cannot be divided up neatly – or at all, however neatly or messily – into private/public.  The work of one individual or generation is built on the knowledge and work of others and past generations, showing that no idea is ever completely our own, or “private.”

But, even while Geison admits all of this, he still seems upset that Pasteur quite consciously performed while in public (he was a “shrewd sociologist of knowledge” Geison states, 132); Pasteur fashioned a public image for himself that Geison deems today is inappropriate for a scientist.  But I wonder if these expectations were the same in the second half of the nineteenth century.  What was expected of a scientist?  It seems like Pasteur (especially towards the end of his life) was somewhat of a rock star, embodying far more than just the quest for knowledge about nature:  a symbol of nationalistic French pride, of the triumph of Western knowledge over nature, and perhaps of racial & intellectual superiority.  Perhaps a scientist (especially one getting paid so much) was meant to have this sort of public prestige.

But this book – and the revelation of Pasteur’s private notebooks – also reveals the discrepancies we have about scientific knowledge.  As science became more specialized and professionalized, the idea grew that science was (and should be) completely objective, removed from the influences of everyday life (even as it strove to explain everyday life).  So, what Geison’s work reveals is that scientists are just like people in other fields who are influenced by a multitude of factors, including (as in Pasteur’s case) religion.  Geison quotes Steven Shapin as stating, “Science, no less than any other form of culture, depends upon rhetoric.”  Geison continues, “And the superficially anti-rhetorical language of most modern scientific discourse is itself but another rhetorical resource or strategy” (269).  I think what Geison is trying to get at is that science, as a mode of thought, a way of understanding, is itself a particular type of rhetoric (or “socially constructed narrative” to use postmodern terminology), rather than being an expedition to discover the real facts that other narratives use to explain the world.  So, Geison complicates the story of science, especially the idea that it exists outside of culture; it is influenced by culture, and is a culture.

Finally, there is The Culture of Time and Space, 1880-1918, Stephen Kern’s provocative – and, I believe, problematic – work on how the ways in which technological innovations changed the way Europeans and Americans perceive both time and space. He pulls from a number of sources – philosophy, psychoanalysis, history, literature, and politics, though is eerily quiet on economics – to show how these changes affected all aspects of culture.  In his final chapters, he then shows what consequences these revolutions in thought and perception had on the “July Crisis” and World War One.  Kern’s basic assertion that technology impacted conceptions of time and space is accurate, and the specifics that he provides are for the most part convincing, not to mention interesting and thought provoking.  But, because I am already running too long, I would rather save my discussion of the ‘specifics’ for our meeting, and use this space, instead to raise some objections I have to Kern’s premises.

First and foremost, I take issue with his talk of “essential” or “basic” aspects of humanity, of “universal” traits.  It represents little more, I think, than an attempt to nail down a singular “human nature.”  He compares the conception of time (and its passing) to hunger: it is an essential expression of being human that we have hunger, and we all conceive of time and its passing. “The structure of history, the uninterrupted forward movement of the clocks, the procession of days, seasons, and years, and simple common sense tell us that time is irreversible and moves forward at a steady rate,” he claims (29).  But what of peoples that experience time so differently, that it is difficult – if not impossible – to compare their conception with our own, or to explain their conception in the terms of our own?  He seems to pay lip service to the acknowledgement (by Benjamin Whorf) that some people “actually experience time differently than we do” (xxii).  But the rest of his book is based on the assumption that we, as humans, experience time and space fundamentally the same around the world, and that we can trace large, sweeping changes and revolutions in these conceptions across large spaces.

I challenge this basic assumption, and view it as forcing our own understandings on others.  Moreover, I think his book misunderstands the processes of causality on many occasions.  For example, when discussing World War One he states, “The drive to expand and control space was universal” (241).  But what is that supposed to mean exactly?  This drive was somehow basically human, perhaps even genetic?  Instead of looking for how a human nature affected/caused political action, perhaps it is more helpful to ask if particular aspects of culture (products of historical processes) produce the government’s desire to expand.  Similarly, he claims that Great Britain and France, as dominant empires, were more confident going in to the Great War; they were less worried about a future, because the past showed that they were “always” there.  Germany, Italy, and Austria-Hungary, on the other hand, had just become modern states, so they “knew” that they were fragile and could disappear in tomorrow’s war.  But did the leaders of these countries think of themselves as new and fragile?  What about all of the attempts to construct histories for themselves (not to mention the very real history that their cultures had, predating national boundaries)?  For example, what about the Heimat movement in Germany that attempted to give the German national history roots in the local, provincial pasts?

I think that Kern’s misunderstanding of this situation (and others throughout the book) stem from his belief in the dialectical nature of knowledge and reality: every thesis must have an antithesis.  Therefore, the opponents in World War One must have been opponents due to diametrically opposed conception of both time and space.  I do not wish to completely dismiss Kern’s book.  But, I do think it is more helpful, instead of setting up dichotomies, to explore how changes in the ideas of time (the anxiety that time had sped up, for example) affected all European leaders and pushed them to act quickly.

The greatest contribution of Kern’s book is that it reveals that a powerful revolution in the way Europeans understood time and space did in fact occur during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  It can be understood as fundamental in so far as the change in conceptions of time and space affected a number of facets of European culture: literature, art, science, warfare.  But I am not convinced that we are talking about fundamental shifts in human nature.

In conclusion, all of these books make us reevaluate the way we understand science and its place in European history.  All of them reveal that European society expressed deeply rooted anxieties about the pace of life, about how the march of time had sped up.  Many saw themselves as shooting into a progressive utopia, while others felt as if technology had them hurtling towards an apocalyptic end.  Second, these books show (if nothing else) that truths and knowledge were not solidified or agreed on; only hindsight makes them appear that way. In reality, definitions and knowledge were up for negotiation, much as they are today.  Third, Geison’s work in particular (and Kern’s in a less direct way) warns us to be careful of applying our own knowledge or standards onto the past.  It seemed that Geison’s understanding of what a scientist should be hindered him from understanding Pasteur’s crossing of a public/private boundary that may not have existed at the time.  And lastly, all three of these authors reveal that Western science is only one way of understanding reality, one method of acquiring and analyzing knowledge.  In short, it is but one genre in the larger literature of human knowledge.

Books under review: 

  1. Winter, Alison.  Mesmerized:  Powers of Mind in Victorian Britain.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998
  2. Geison, Gerald L. The Private Science of Louis Pasteur.  Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995.
  3. Kern, Stephen.  The Culture of Time and Space, 1880-1918.  With a new preface by Stephen Kern.  Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003.

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European Science & Society in the 19th Century by W. J. Newsome is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

For more books on modern European history, see my full list of book reviews. 

Categories: Book Review, Modern European History | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

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