Saturday, September 12, 2015

The Scramble for Africa - Thomas Pakenham

The dark continent. Before the rivers and lakes were charted, before trading routes were hacked through the bush, before maps became filled with lines and the blank spaces were seen to contain numerous tribes, Africa was a foreboding darkness suggesting both untold dangers, and undreamed of possibilities. Between Cairo and the Cape, was a vast hinterland. While missionaries and explorers led the way, bringing back news and rumor, Europe's colonial powers played their diplomats and colonial offices against one another - parsing out vast tracts, with only a cursory appreciation for what the land contained. Though hoped-for fields of gold, ivory, and palm oil could titillate the dreams of men like Stanley and Brazza, European dreams of African promise were often left to colonial administrators; men whose charge was rationalizing and managing a wilderness. Behind Livingstone's banner of the "three C's" - commerce, Christianity, and civilization - colonial rhetoric often traded on the possible future of a continent to be manged without the yoke of a past.

Pakenham's work provides a single-volume account of the transition from the years of exploration, through the period of colonial wrangling, and into the early forays of Africans trying to assert their right to self determination. These years of the so-called "Scramble for Africa" saw some of Europe's most famous, and infamous, 19th century statesmen contesting with one another to extend their nations' claim to empire and African hegemony. Here we witness Disraeli and Gladstone, Bismarck and Leopold, extending empires and contending with foes, both foreign and domestic. While the careful reader might find that Pakenham gives short shrift to the untold millions of Africans who became, some knowingly, most unknowingly, dispossessed of their homelands, his approach is one which clearly prizes the political and diplomatic character of the period. In essence, the streets of London, Berlin, Rome, and Paris, the political whims of European peoples and governments, encroached upon African villages and people, many of whom had never seen a European. As the fingers of empire reached deeper into the continent, European political and military action was broadly manifest. Attempts at control and custodianship of African lands often pivoted-upon political and diplomatic relationships far away. In the hands of the few, the livelihoods, homes, and freedom of many unaccounted for - primarily black - faces were bandied about and, all-so-often, overlooked. As commerce, Christianity, and civilization illuminated Africa, Africans themselves increasingly became a part of a globalized world in which their concerns were given scant consideration.

Pakenham's work is a triumph for weaving together the colonial and metropolitan experiences which spanned both continents. By placing these numerous colonial stories into a single volume, disparate places are brought into stronger contrast and conversation with one another. While this cannot but short-change indigenous peoples, it provides an overview of the continent as it was conceived in the halls of power: a vast blank territory, ripe for the taking.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Leviathan and the Air-Pump - Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer

"solutions to the problem of knowledge are embedded within the practical solutions to the problem of social order... practical solutions to the problem of social order encapsulate practical solutions to the problem of knowledge." p. 15

What is the role of experimentation and the experimenter-as-scientist in society? What counts as knowledge and who gets to judge? In this seminal work, Shapin and Schaffer look back to experiment in its infancy. Before experimentation was the given mode of creating scientific matters of fact, the role of experiment was the source of great controversy. Robert Boyle and the Royal Society of London sought to create a safe space of expertise where experiments could take place and be carefully examined as to the knowledge of the natural world which they conveyed. Pitted against these gentlemen-experimentalists (the term scientist would not be coined until much later) was Thomas Hobbes, dean of 17th century political philosophy and an accomplished natural philosopher in his own right. While Boyle and his associates claimed to be working towards a true account of nature, Hobbes saw a closed society of patricians seeking to rival his hoped-for undivided and all-powerful sovereign. For Hobbes, who held the right to speak on behalf of nature was always a fraught proposition. Any arena in which the state took a back seat to alternate moods of power and truth - whether it be an experimental society or the Church - was potentially an arena in which rebellion and social unrest could foment. Boyle believed his experiments could speak to truths which existed in addition to the given social order. Hobbes knew that speaking for nature would always be potentially transformative for the state.

Shapin and Schaffer agree with Hobbes: "We argue that the problem of generating knowledge is a problem of politics, and, conversely that the problem of political order always involves solutions to the problems of knowledge." There's is a political sociology of knowledge production. Yet, this is not to fall into a social constructivist trap. Recognizing that who is authorized to speak for the world will impact what is spoken of the natural world need not suggest that reality is entirely fabricated by the human component. How do we recognize when something has attained the status of fact? What methods are employed to render experiment intelligible, both to those present and also those absent? What is the measure of sufficient proof? What conventions of practice would be accepted? These are all questions pertaining to, but not defined-by, experimental epistemology. Boyle inverted the necessity of such question by claiming that only things which could be tested via experiment could attain the lofty status of facts. In relation to the above questions this is a form of putting the cart before the horse. For Boyle, knowledge was a matter of shared belief. True belief was only able to be examined collectively via demonstration - this would always overrule an individual's singular position. For Hobbes, the problem was the disparity existing in the distance between causes and effects. Boyle looked to effects first and sought to explain them; Hobbes found this an irreducible difficulty (similar to the problem of infinite hypotheses) and thought only that which was made by people, could be understood. For Hobbes, knowledge comes from the common assent of first principles, which then lead to a knowledge which is clearly manifest within the human purview. Authority, not wisdom, makes all laws.

It would seem that Boyle wins the battle. Scientific experiment appears as the premier mode of constructing knowledge within the world. Yet, Shapin and Schaffer argue, both Hobbes and Boyle saw a causal connection between the structure of knowledge communities and the acceptance of the knowledge produced. What Boyle did not recognize was that his ability to create knowledge, within the experimental or any other space, was contingent upon a variety of political and social factors. What is known by people is always by the hand of people. It is not the story of triumphalism over nature, but of great work, both seen and unseen, to create spaces and techniques where knowledge is possible. Experiment is a social and political activity which is both dependent and bears upon the world and the society we inhabit.