Against clubbishness: an interview with Will Thomas and Christopher Donohue, authors of the blog Ether Wave Propaganda (2/2)

In the second part of our interview, Christopher Donohue and Will Thomas discuss the possibilities offered by scientific blogging. Despite the usefulness and heuristicity of writing posts (clarifying theoretical or empirical aspects of a research that has just started, moving forward in the exploration of new objects of study, facilitating the flow of fresh ideas, interacting with other scholars, and so on), they both point out the fact that this activity is still far from being considered a legitimate part in an academic career. And at the same time, it requires a significant investment in time, energy, collective coordination and discussion. So there is something of a dilemma in the pursuit of this cognitive aspiration, and we thought it was useful, even essential, to reopen the interview on this issue. We also wished to ask what is their position towards the idea and practice of debate and open criticism (organized skepticism, in Robert K. Merton’s terms) within the academic world, given that we still think that it’s easier to engage in critical thinking and discussions in the US than in France. Another thing: like the Carnet Zilsel, EWP has its obsessions. The long series of posts written by Will on Simon Schaffer’s oeuvre is a good example. For its part, Christopher took the opportunity of this interview to announce the forthcoming publication of a series on Joseph Agassi, a now totally forgotten philosopher of science. (We also take this occasion to publicize that Chris will give a talk on Agassi in the Sociology of Science [a.k.a. “SoS”] Seminar of the Printemps, on March 20, 2015.) To sum up, we are delighted to have caused this interesting transatlantic conversation, and we hope that the discussion will continue for the coming years!

Even today, it seems that researchers are cautious about the idea of being involved in a scientific blog. It is true that it takes time and, above all, that this sort of contribution is not taken into account in the academic CV. This blurs the boundaries between ordinary usual scientific contribution evaluated within the peer-review system (which represents a huge temporal investment), and the desire to popularize and communicate on topics in a much more spontaneous manner. What is your position on these issues? How do they resonate in the United States? Could we say that it challenges the professional ethos of researchers?

Will Thomas (WT): Blogs can be a distraction if you’re not self-disciplined enough to budget your time, and I don’t think they can be anything other than a supplementary item on a CV, simply because of the lack of peer review involved. But they can also be a good investment in terms of their ability to help develop ideas. Alex Wellerstein’s blog is really great at this.

Interestingly, I think that due to universities’ emphasis on documenting “impact”—as well as the “evangelical” streak running through the humanities (i.e., the belief that ultimately research should speak to a public need for humanistic ideas)—the popularization function of blogs is fairly well accepted by now. I can’t think of any instances where I’ve heard someone look down on that. (Again, Alex has had great success in addressing the public, though he does have the advantage of writing about nuclear weapons!)

(credits: Charlie Broome, via Flickr)
Give Me a Keyboard and I will Raise a Blog (credits: Charlie Broome, via Flickr)

The biggest barrier, I think, is that many senior scholars look on blogging as something that is beneath their dignity. In my experience, scholars are reluctant to let people see what they are doing before their ideas are well polished. When they do write for blogs, one definitely gets the sense that they are mounting the lectern rather than talking off-hand, and calling attention to questions about details they don’t know the answer to. They want to project a kind of knowing authority. They might also have a sense that Internet discussions always get invaded by trolls, which is not my experience when you’re working in a specialized area. I think even the ugliness of the word “blog” may have something to do with it—it’s easy to disdain. This is too bad because there are at least some senior scholars, who I think could make good use of the medium. Their participation would do a lot to integrate it into the scholar’s accepted toolkit. Continuer la lecture de Against clubbishness: an interview with Will Thomas and Christopher Donohue, authors of the blog Ether Wave Propaganda (2/2)

Against clubbishness: an interview with Will Thomas and Christopher Donohue, authors of the blog Ether Wave Propaganda (1/2)

When we thought about the possibility of creating an academic blog more than one year ago, we immediately thought of what is for us one of the best references on the subject: Ether Wave Propaganda (EWP), a history of science blog created by Will Thomas in 2008 co-animated since then with his colleague Christopher Donohue. Their posts deals with various subjects on the history of science and technology; they are always informative and well-argued, frequently caustic and constantly uncompromising. The reading of EWP has been a breath of fresh air for us, and we tried to replicate what we understood from this side of the Atlantic as a productive and ambitious “thought-collective”. We too wrote our Zilselian “manifesto “ (a contre-manifeste!) and we strive to implement it in all our posts. And that is why we decided to conduct an interview with our colleagues of EWP, focusing on a series of issues that we all confront in our research, as we shall see in the next paragraphs. We wished to identify Will and Christopher’s motivations; we also wanted to understand the history of their project since the very beginning, and finally their positioning within the field of Science and Technology Studies in the U.S. The following questions were prepared by the entire team of the Carnet Zilsel (Thomas Béraud, Volny Fages, Morgan Jouvenet, Jérôme Lamy, and Arnaud Saint-Martin). We’ve left the responses in English in order to preserve the freshness of the words and their possible double meanings (!). We are quite excited that it has been possible to create such a transatlantic conversation. The interview is divided in two parts. The second part will be published next week.

First of all, could you explain to us the genesis of EWP? In which intellectual and professional context did you create the blog? What were the initial motivations and the problems you wanted to cover? You have already written this story (cf. here and there), but it would be interesting to go back on it because maybe your perception evolved since then…

Will Thomas (WT): I finished my PhD at Harvard University in June 2007 and took up a three-year postdoc at the American Institute of Physics in September. At that time I had become frustrated by the tendency of the historical literature, which others (I later learned) had also noticed and described as “fractured.” There simply wasn’t much engagement or coherence among historians’ books and papers, among their projects and interests, except maybe at a very broad, thematic level, although I think even that is more feigned than real. I had also found much of the prior professional literature on my dissertation (now my book) topic misleading. That created space for me to make (I think) some strong contributions, but it was also, in some ways, disillusioning to discover that I couldn’t trust the professional literature.

 Ether pur, Tubes Sterilises Clin, Musée Somme 1916 (copyright: Great War Observer, 2013, via Flickr)
Ether pur, Tubes Sterilises Clin, Musée Somme 1916 (copyright: Great War Observer, 2013, via Flickr)

The AIP postdoc also traditionally did some teaching at the University of Maryland, so I took the opportunity to do an introductory history of science class in the spring of 2008. I had a really difficult time finding any straightforward, synthetic literature to guide my studies of periods and subjects I hadn’t previously concentrated much on. That, too, seemed to me symptomatic of larger methodological issues that I didn’t think were being addressed. Chris Donohue, then a master’s student, was assigned to be my teaching assistant for that course, and he can talk more about that experience and how he got involved with EWP.

Anyway, it seemed to me that, while there was some methodological discussion in the literature, there was no way of having sustained, probing methodological discussions. With most people, you really didn’t even know if they had noticed the things I was noticing, or if they had opinions about them. I had become aware of blogging, and it seemed like a good way to have sustained, informal, heuristic conversations. I started EWP on New Year’s Day 2008. There were a couple of history of science blogs already, but the phenomenon really only took off a couple years later. Even now, I think EWP remains in a distinct minority as far as its heuristic and methodological orientation is concerned.

It is encouraging that Michael Bycroft’s Double Réfraction and Carnet Zilsel have picked up on this general style. I don’t think Alex Wellerstein’s Restricted Data follows EWP in quite the same way. Alex was a colleague of mine at Harvard, and was my successor in the AIP postdoc position. I admire what he is doing with his blog. It is in the same spirit of learning, and probing the boundaries of what we know. A lot of blogs simply replicate the same non-heuristic “show-and-tell” spirit of scholarship that EWP was reacting against. Popularization is a legitimate use for blogs, but it’s not the peculiar potential that I saw in the medium.

Christopher Donohue (CD): I was Will’s teaching assistant at the University of Maryland in his history of science class, in, I believe, 2005. Although now we agree broadly on the connections between history and philosophy of science and the problems in the academic community, when Etherwave Propaganda began, there was no such consensus or even clarity of approach. Will brought me on to Etherwave when I was his research assistant at the American Institute of Physics, but the conversations which began that started much earlier. Continuer la lecture de Against clubbishness: an interview with Will Thomas and Christopher Donohue, authors of the blog Ether Wave Propaganda (1/2)

Géophilosophie du colonialisme. John Locke et la préhension de l’Amérique

À propos de Matthieu Renault, L’Amérique de John Locke. L’expansion coloniale de la philosophie européenne, Paris, Éditions Amsterdam, 2014.

Qu’il existe une série de rapports complexes, ambigus, dialectiques et/ou contrariés entre la façon de connaître et le lieu où elle se déploie constitue, aujourd’hui, un quasi-truisme en sociologie et en histoire des sciences. « Les savoirs sont produits localement » constitue une antienne bien souvent transmutée en une pure incantation. C’est peu dire que les terrains explorés donnent rarement à voir comment s’agencent concrètement l’implantation géographique et les savoirs. L’ouvrage de Matthieu Renault constitue une heureuse exception. L’angle qu’il a choisi d’explorer – le rapport de Locke au colonialisme américain – lui permet de croiser fermement et subtilement géographie épistémique et géopolitique de la domination. Fermement, parce qu’il ne perd jamais le fil de sa démonstration, même lorsqu’il opère des détours géographiques. Subtilement, parce qu’il s’agit de démêler, dans les lectures antérieures, les impasses ou les brouillages interprétatifs.

coverIl est indispensable de situer les fondements de la philosophie politique de John Locke dans le contexte colonialiste. Matthieu Renault rappelle un fait peu connu et pourtant essentiel : Locke a mené une longue (quoiqu’intermittente) carrière coloniale. Il a ainsi été « secrétaire des lords propriétaire (…) de Caroline (…) » (p. 18). Dans la continuité de cette pratique gestionnaire d’une colonie américaine, il participe à la rédaction des Constitutions fondamentales de la Caroline, en 1669. Le philosophe est également secrétaire du Council of Trade and Foreign Plantations qui règle les conflits entre les deux rives de l’Atlantique au sujet des appropriations de terres. Locke est enfin actionnaire dans deux compagnies commerciales et esclavagistes en direction de l’Amérique et de l’Afrique (p. 19). Pour autant, il n’a jamais mis un pied sur le Nouveau Continent – même s’il a caressé l’idée, lassé qu’il était de la corruption britannique.

Géographie et entendement

Locke parsème ses écrits (et notamment l’Essai sur l’entendement humain) de nombreuses références à la navigation et à la géographie. Cette dernière est en quelque sorte la science initiale, au double sens du mot : elle est celle qui initie la connaissance et celle qui doit être première dans l’éducation des enfants (p. 38). Fondée sur une heuristique de l’ouverture et donc du déplacement par-delà les limites, la géographie symbolise l’idéal d’un décloisonnement des frontières disciplinaires pour viser une « (cosmo)politique des savoirs » (p. 39). Cette question des limites fait retour sur l’océan lui-même : la tentation impériale de l’Angleterre trouve à s’incarner politiquement dans une pratique d’appropriation des masses liquides qui s’articule aux principes d’une connaissance de ces espaces sans propriétaires (reconnus).

Le charme discret du colonialisme. Bacon's Castle, en Virginie (crédits : Alexandra Fomicheva, via Flickr)
Le charme discret du colonialisme. Bacon’s Castle, en Virginie (crédits : Alexandra Fomicheva, via Flickr)

Continuer la lecture de Géophilosophie du colonialisme. John Locke et la préhension de l’Amérique