Spring 2019

Thursday Lecture Series: Observation and Obfuscation

“An Engine, Not a Camera”: Photography in/as the History of Combustion

In late 1862, a curator from London’s Patent Museum named Francis Pettit Smith traveled to Birmingham on a collecting mission. Seeking to acquire a prototype of James Watt’s steam engine from the Soho manufactory established by Matthew Boulton in the mid-1760s, Smith unearthed an unusual set of chemo-mechanical images. With these images, Smith quickly made a daring intervention as much into the imagining of Enlightenment industrialism as to the consolidating history of photography. Claiming the images (then identifiable as replicas after paintings by Angelika Kauffman, Benjamin West and other leading, Georgian Academicians) as photographs, Smith’s story moved the medium’s invention from the 1820s/30s back to Soho in the final decades of the eighteenth century. While Smith’s intervention was convincing to many leading photographers in the 1860s, it found its greatest opponent in Matthew Piers Watt Boulton, grandson of the Soho industrialist. Boulton’s antagonism is surprising on many levels; for, not only did he effectively destroy Smith’s story, but Boulton simultaneously integrated the curator’s chemo-mechanical findings into his own aircraft designs. This paper argues that, far from being an obfuscating red herring fished from the depths of photo-lore, these contested, material appropriations of eighteenth-century chemical experimentation by Smith and Boulton disclose some broader, inconvenient truths. They allow us to observe the extensive imbrication between major programs of what would come to be called “photography” and combustion-engine research.  >>

Thursday Lecture Series: Observation and Obfuscation

Categories as Prisons

I am interested in how dominant historiographical categories that work well for a handful of western European societies have come to stand for general theories of knowledge and modernity. In this case, I want to explore how such categories like the public sphere, print culture, the republic of letters led to alleged breakthroughs: the Scientific Revolution, centers of calculation, the Enlightenment, namely, the vast accumulation of new empirical knowledge that transformed the global economy, leading to the Industrial Revolution. >>

Thursday Lecture Series: Observation and Obfuscation

Testing Hearing with Speech

The measurement of hearing is fraught with unique uncertainties. If to measure means to “assign numerals to events,” audiologist Ira Hirsh queried in 1952, while his field was professionalizing in the United States, “what are the observable events in hearing?” The key attributes of sound had first to be enumerated before they could be turned into probes for “sounding out” the ear. It’s one thing to calibrate pitch and loudness, but quite another to take on timbre and intelligibility, the definitions of which remain topics of immense debate. In the case of speech audiometry—the subject of this talk—I argue that the quantification of “hearing loss for speech” derives from articulation testing in the field of telephone engineering. More specifically, the molding of speech sounds into yardsticks of “useful hearing” arose in the historical context of Quality Control, as did the notion that human hearing should be “screened” and inspected in industrial fashion. >>

Thursday Lecture Series: Observation and Obfuscation

Mapping Time in the 20th (and 21st) Century

In the last ten years, maps have come under attack. With the rise of the digital humanities and spatial history, traditional two-dimensional graphics are now seen as woefully inert and retrograde. We hear that “a map is just a bad graph” that “cannot handle time”; we are told that “maps [are] static while movement is dynamic.” But these statements fundamentally misunderstand the temporality of maps—both from a theoretical and a practical point of view. In response, this talk offers a historical argument and a forward-looking proposal. Historically, mapmakers since the mid-nineteenth century have used many distinct strategies for showing time on maps, and I offer a new vocabulary for describing these techniques, especially in comparison to the temporality of photography and cinema. Some maps may indeed be “snapshots,” but this does not make them timeless, and the interactive maps of today still have much to learn from earlier approaches. Beyond this historical research, I also make a case for mapping time in new ways—or at least in ways that have remained quite rare—with examples from my own mapping work. >>

Special Events

We the People: Public Workers in Service of America

Organized by Christopher Florio (SOF 2016-19), this symposium on the history of public work in modern America gathered established and early-career scholars working to recover the history of public work, a crucial sector that has indelibly shaped both American labor and the American state. The symposium was the first of its kind -- the first time historians studying public workers exclusively gathered together to collaborate, share findings, and demarcate the state of the field. It is an opportune moment. The history of public workers sheds light on some of today’s most relevant social and political issues: the renewed prominence of teachers’ unions, stagnant American wages and the disappearance of the vaunted middle class, the stubborn persistence of racial and gender discrimination, and the destructive results of the ongoing disinvestment in government and social infrastructure. Public workers are among the most organized and yet, most threatened of workers in the contemporary United States. The goal of this symposium was to provide the groundwork for a subsequent edited volume that will shape how both historians and the public at large understand, recognize, and engage public work in the United States. >>

Thursday Lecture Series: Observation and Obfuscation

My Life as a Spy: Investigations in a Secret Police File

"There's nothing like reading your secret police file to make you wonder who you really are."  With these words Katherine Verdery begins her book My Life as a Spy, an attempt to understand the practices and mind-set of the Romanian Secret Police, who had kept her under constant surveillance for over three years of research between 1973 and 1989.  In the present talk she describes what reading this file was like and meditates upon her relations with friends who informed on her, as well as with secret police officers she tracked down. >>

Thursday Lecture Series: Observation and Obfuscation

Maoist Bromides, a Presidente Gonzalo Cult, and an Andean Cultural Revolution

Full title: Maoist Bromides, a Presidente Gonzalo Cult, and an Andean Cultural Revolution: The Curious Allure of the Shining Path Ideology   The Shining Path led a vicious guerrilla war in Peru from 1980-1992 that culminated in more than 70,000 dead, over half at the hands of the Shining Path itself. A small Maoist party that defended the Cultural Revolution, the Shining Path developed an ideology that seemed to run against history and have little prospects for success. It not only vilified other leftist parties and their heroes (from Fidel Castro to Peru's Juan Velasco Alvarado), but also sustained a stark class analysis. Their pamphlets and brochures reproduced Maoist formulas and rhetoric, barely adjusting them to the Peruvian reality.  This presentation will examine how this derivative and harsh discourse helped attract thousands of followers. >>

Thursday Lecture Series: Observation and Obfuscation

“To stop the clock of busy existence”: paralysis and temporal and spatial modes in Victorian Lit

Full Title: “To stop the clock of busy existence”: paralysis and temporal and spatial modes of observation and obfuscation in Victorian literature This lecture explores how literary writers invoke paralysis to comment on anxieties about the relationship between mental and embodied knowledge, in light of neurological debates on organic vs. functional causes of paralysis and the problems of interpreting the legible signs presented by the paralyzed body. Specific examples will be drawn from the fiction of Charles Dickens and George Eliot in addition to children’s literature. >>

Thursday Lecture Series: Observation and Obfuscation

Envisioning the Kibbutz: Americans and Israeli Cooperatives in the 1960s and 1970s

In the late 1960s, tens of thousands of American toured, sojourned, or moved permanently to a kibbutz in Israel. These communal and cooperative agricultural communities captured the imaginations of Americans for a variety of reasons.  Some sought out the kibbutz as a symbol of Zionism, or an experiment in communal living, or simply a curious feature of modern Israel.  But for a number of Americans, the kibbutz offered up the promise of economic independence and prosperity at a moment of increasing economic crisis.  This lecture explores how Israel’s kibbutzim became embedded into the developmentalist designs of Africans Americans in the 1960s and 70s.  At the height of the Black Power era, and amidst rising anxieties about “black Jewish relations,” a prominent group of US civil rights leaders, Jewish American groups, and Israeli policymakers sought to extract the kibbutz from its Zionist roots and plant it into the soil of the American South. >>