World's Fair

Pt 1 | Pt 2

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i-f6f1544c7072207f8bec8d531301a2f8-Whale section.jpg

Part 2 with Graham Burnett, author of Trying Leviathan, follows below. All entries in the author-meets-bloggers series can be found here.

WF: What would you have biologists today take from this book? I ask because you are at some pains in Trying Leviathan to argue for the contingencies of taxonomic systems, which appear always to be in flux, and seem generally to reflect a host of larger cultural preoccupations.

DGB: I don’t think of my book as having special “lessons” for biologists. Indeed, I rather incline away from thinking of my books as having “lessons” for anyone. Perhaps this is a cop-out. But I do not think of myself as that sort of historian. I aim in all my work to recover that which has passed, and to infuse that recovery with a coherent vitality. In this sense, I suppose, the lesson, such as it is, of all my historical writing can be summarized in the following form: “there was a world, and it was like this…” I like to believe that the activity of recovering such worlds and their inhabitants, together with the shared activity of attending on those people and conditions, amount, in sum, to a “bearing” toward life – our own, and that of others; that of the past, of course, but also that of the present and future. In this sense I am at heart a humanist.

WF: But perhaps that was then, and this is now? Presumably modern classification is much harder to entangle in the webs of culture, gender, and race. Doing this sort of thing with eighteenth-century systematics is like shooting fish in a barrel, no?

DGB: This question is a very hard one, as you well know, and it limns a set of nettlesome issues in the philosophy of science. It is one of the distinctive problems of the history of science that it tries to offer historical accounts of findings that themselves purport to transcend history. On the whole, everyone agrees that the truths of nature are necessary, not contingent; they are found, not made. If this is indeed the case, then it would appear that wrong answers in the sciences can be “historicized,” but where right answers are concerned, you are basically supposed to say “thank you.” The theoretical struggles in the field of history of science in the last thirty years, some of which have garnered broader political and social attention, reflect various high-stakes sallies at this problem. Who is the real master of critique? The physicist? The sociologist? Who gets to pull away the last veil?

WF: That’s a nice way to present the symmetry issue and its problems–wrong answers require explanation; right answers need none.

DGB: These questions drew me to the field. Like most historians of science, I was endlessly preoccupied by “epistemological” problems, but seemingly incapable of being satisfied by the way that such issues were handled by actual philosophers (whether this dissatisfaction stemmed from insight or ineptitude remains an open question). At this juncture, however, I must confess to a certain fatigue where these matters are concerned. I have come to feel that these questions, for all their inherent interest and import, mostly conduce to posturing, which can be fun, but can also be boring. It is inherently important under many conditions, and therefore interesting, whether my dad can beat up your dad. But this too leads to a good deal of posturing, much of which is undeniably boring. And when it is fun, it may be morally vicious. At this point my motto is a slight revision of William Carlos Williams’s apothegm on poetry: “no ideas without people.” Which is to say, as a historian, I don’t have anything to offer on whether, in a general way, modern cladistics would yield to a sociologically sensitive investigation. I am inclined to suspect it would, but I’d need to go meet some people, and read some things, and try to figure out what it is like to think the way a modern systematist thinks, before I’d set about telling that story.

WF: You mention the “shared activity of attending on the past.” This leads me to ask you about the style and tone of your book, which seem to me unique. On the one hand, you write with an eye towards a general audience who would be captivated by your near-sleuth-like approach; yet, on the other, the story is packed with asides to insiders in the history of science and science studies. How did that split vision develop as you wrote the book?

DGB: I think of Trying Leviathan as a kind of academic drag performance. Before I came to Princeton I had published two books: one, Masters of All They Surveyed, was a scholarly study, based on my dissertation; the second, A Trial By Jury, was a trade book about serving as the foreman of a jury in a murder trial in Manhattan. Rightly or wrongly, I felt considerable pressure at Princeton to show my bona fides as a professional historian, and to prove to everyone that I was not on a drift in the direction of journalism. This was an annoying feeling, but the demanding expectations of my senior colleagues goaded me to produce a kind of work that I would otherwise have been unlikely to undertake, and of which I am, in the end, quite proud: ruthlessly detailed, assiduously annotated, archivally studious. But even as I was making Trying Leviathan into that sort of book, a little part of me was, I think, relishing the mania of the thing in a slightly deranged way: there was a crazed mini-me-Charles-Kinbote-persona working in the footnotes, if you know what I mean.

WF: Which I found as an extra bonus for the reader, I think.

DGB: You, and a number of other readers, picked up on that “notes from the underground” quality of certain portions of the text. And I am delighted by that. Most readers will miss it, I think, but it does give the book as a whole a slightly queer chewiness. It still amuses me when I look back at it. All I can say is: don’t let junior faculty life kill you!

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Pt 1 | Pt 2

Comments

  1. #1 Lisa
    June 21, 2008

    this is not really that related, but if you like whales, you should read Christopher Moore’s novel, Fluke. Very funny, very creative!
    P.S. This is a history of science book that I would not normally pick up…different time period than mine, very different subject matter. But after reading the interview, I realize that it is quite similar to my own interests…I am particularly interested in how you use this particular case to get at the issue of competing forms of expertise and knowledge in the court room.

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