STHV, Special Issue on Context: Comment Four

Comment four on the July issue of Science, Technology, & Human Values (July is volume 37, number 4).


Recently, I claimed that STHV had produced what I thought was one of the best issues in a while.

I will, in a series of posts over the next month or so, comment on each paper in the special edition on context with comments, criticisms, and occasional tangents.

Fourth paper is “Natures, Contexts, and Natural History” by Brenna.

Original Abstract:

How are contexts made and narrated? This article addresses the question of how to identify relevant contexts for understanding a work of natural history, in this case The First Natural History of Norway, published in two volumes in 1752 and 1753. In addition to offering a rich and complex description of Norwegian nature, this historical work serves as an important source for investigating the ways in which nature was perceived in the kingdom of Denmark-Norway in the middle of the eighteenth century. Nature was manifold, serving as a source of aesthetic pleasure, economic gain, religious reverence, and political power. It is argued that to understand the different natures presented in this book, we need to relate them to more than one context. But how do we determine the relevant contexts? The approach explored in this article is to read the book closely in search of the specific audiences that are addressed. By focusing on the ways audiences are addressed, it is argued, we can make better historical accounts of how natures are conceived and change in relation to different contexts.

Reaction and Commentary:

We get a great piece here about how context matters for historians and for creating historical  explanations, but not without challenging the commonsense ideas about context. In particular, the author states that the historians relationship with context results too easily “a circular logic” wherein the historian is searching for relevant contexts to write about (a precondition to doing history) but also as the outcome of their efforts to provide a historical explanation (thus, context is also the outcome of the contexts we hope to document). Of course, the only way out of this cardboard-box of theorizing is to avoid thinking of context as something “out there” and instead deal with multiplicity and enactment (both from Mol’s writing on the topics). Noting that ethnography is routinely used in ANT to understand these insights — multiplicity and enactment — she tests how they work for historical objects like the Pontoppidan book of Norway/Denmark natural history, which is the centerpiece of the article.

Brenna shows how there is no such thing as nature (as a singularity) in the text (and presummably, outside the text) and instead reveals nature to be plural; and thus, we learn about four natures invoked in the chapter, namely, the king’s nature (nature as asset), God’s nature (depicted as benevolent and orderly), the marketplace’s nature (where nature is bought and sold like so many curiosities to fill our cabinets with), and, finally, the learned community’s nature (as a source of general improvement of knowledge). The author goes onto to hint at the tensions and differences between the only occasionally overlapping contexts of nature (NOTE: for studies of multiplicity, contexts [in the plural] might be a nice way to see the “multiple contexts” of otherwise singular tems like “nature” or “the state” and so on). This part, however, was also somewhat difficult to fully appreciate because the tensions were not particularly tense, and it seemed as though a deeper, more thorough analysis could have been undertaken; however, making it through Pontoppidan’s book might have been analysis enough for one article.

The author concludes on an awesome parallel: trained to some extent in museum studies, Brenna shows us why our historical accounts of the past cannot be similar to a “period room” common to many historical museum collections. A period room tries to typify a particular period of time and pack it into a coherent room for onlookers to observe. As Brenna notes, this is occasionally good practice for the purposes of teaching, the coherent context defies what we now know about the multiplicity of times/contexts. Even if the cost is providing what appear to be less than coherent protrayals of history, we must not write our accounts like period rooms (which also hints that we should not make our period rooms like period rooms). In the final lines, however, the author turns attention to power … and this is difficult to stomach. The claim is that the multiple contexts hint at power relations. From my position, while this may be true, it is hard to say that nature is multiple while then using such a loaded (and multiple) term as power without so much as a basic definition. While ANT served the author well with regard to seeing nature multiple, apparently a few readings about how power is a dirty word among ANTers (and heroically reductive) might have helped the closing lines.

2 thoughts on “STHV, Special Issue on Context: Comment Four

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