Science, Capitalism, and Knowledge Commodities

This working group invites scholars to think about knowledge creation through the analytical lens of capitalist extraction. Why capitalist extraction in particular? Because scientific extraction often occurs on account of the logic of the market and then yields materials refined according to that same logic. This market can be economic, in the case of bio-pirated pharmaceuticals, or intellectual, in the case of the search for dark matter. Historians and sociologists of science have in recent decades insisted on the materiality of scientific knowledge. An emphasis on practices, places, and material cultures have brought knowledge out of the aether and into the hands of laborers, technicians, scientists, and lay practitioners carrying out their actions in concrete settings. Thinking of knowledge in terms of resources or raw materials refined into commodities takes a further step in this direction. Resource extraction opens up questions about the means and social conditions, sometimes in a colonial context, of knowledge production. Refinement sheds light on continuums between the land and the lab, and on the technological systems required to process observations into a final product.

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Consortium Respectful Behavior Policy

Participants at Consortium activities will treat each other with respect and consideration to create a collegial, inclusive, and professional environment that is free from any form of discrimination, harassment, or retaliation.

Participants will avoid any inappropriate actions or statements based on individual characteristics such as age, race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, marital status, nationality, political affiliation, ability status, educational background, or any other characteristic protected by law. Disruptive or harassing behavior of any kind will not be tolerated. Harassment includes but is not limited to inappropriate or intimidating behavior and language, unwelcome jokes or comments, unwanted touching or attention, offensive images, photography without permission, and stalking.

Participants may send reports or concerns about violations of this policy to conduct@chstm.org.

Upcoming Meetings

  • Wednesday, February 28, 2024 1:00 pm to 2:30 pm EST

    Ann Daly, Mississippi State University.


  • Wednesday, March 27, 2024 12:30 pm to 2:00 pm EDT

    TBA


  • Wednesday, April 24, 2024 12:30 pm to 2:00 pm EDT

    TBA


  • Wednesday, May 29, 2024 12:30 pm to 2:00 pm EDT

    Nithyanand Rao, Doctoral Student, University of California, San Diego.



Past Meetings

  • January 23, 2024

    Sajdeep Soomal, Doctoral Candidate, University of Toronto, Alles ist Chemie: Lyon Playfair and the Chemicalization of Economy

     
    This essay looks at how the emergence of synthetic chemistry in the mid 19th century changed the way that economy was conceptualized and governed. No longer would the “economy of nature” be conceptualized as a closed system comprised of natural forces living in perfect harmony and balance, but rather be understood as an open-ended and unbalanced economy brimming with wayward, unstable and dangerous chemical processes that desperately needed to be scientifically governed for the sake of protecting and securing human life. To save European civilization from the perils of chemicalized nature, a new economic agent emerged in the nineteenth century to provide vital aid: the deliberative chemist. To unfurl this story about chemistry and economics, I follow the life, activities and deliberations of the organic chemist Lyon Playfair from the 1830s to the 1850s, starting with the time of his budding interest in chemical philosophies of nature at the Medical College in Calcutta and its subsequent development in the modern chemical laboratories of Justus von Liebig before moving to his time as chief chemist of the Geological Survey of Great Britain and crowning appointment as Special Commissioner of the 1851 Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations. 
     
    Following Playfair helps to reveal how synthetic chemistry proffered a new way of looking at nature that prioritized studying the chemical processes of organic substance (de)formation, rather than focusing too heavily on the chemical constituents of substance. This shift from chemical ontological study to chemical phenomenology lent itself well to thinking about all kinds of production (from agricultural to industrial production) in terms of chemical principles. Playfair and other synthetic chemists actively worked to unify all economic production under the umbrella of chemistry, identifying its key components – time, labour and substance – as chemical, rather than mechanical, processes. More than physics and mechanics; it was the abstract principles of chemistry that promised to reveal how nature worked and equip civilized, European man (who alone had evolutionarily developed the requisite mental facilities to understand chemical principles according to Playfair) all the necessary material-semiotic tools to render the earth more economically productive. Chemistry played a foundational role in the denaturalization of the economy, rendering “economy of nature” in abstract terms and governing it according to speculative chemical principles rather than empirically observable facts. I argue that this functioned as a pre-cursor to the development of neoclassical economics in the 1870s, where Playfair’s intellectual progeny such as William Stanley Jevons would attempt to govern “the economy” based on the abstract principles of mathematical physics (that were built off the insights of physical chemistry). In that way, returning to Lyon Playfair helps to reveal the entwined birth of synthetic chemistry and neoclassical economics, historicizing a critical node in the development of science and capitalism in the 19th century. 

     
    Sajdeep Soomal is a PhD candidate in the Department of History at the University of Toronto. His research focuses on science and technology studies, histories of colonialism, empire and liberalism, and contemporary art practice. He is currently writing about the history and philosophy of chemistry in Canada and working with artists to re-imagine, play with and alter our synthetic surround. He is affiliated with the Technoscience Research Unit at the University of Toronto. 
     
    Personal Website: sajdeep.com
     


  • November 28, 2023

    Tiago Saraiva, Drexel University, will lead a discussion on a chapter in his upcoming book: Decaying Oranges and the Reconstruction of American Democracy. You can find the abstract below and we will post the chapter here on the group page before the meeting at 1pm Eastern on Tuesday the 28th of November.
     
    (Chapter two of The Orchard in the Ruins: Cloning and Racial Capitalism in America and the Global South)
    This chapter explores agricultural surveys as experiments in scientific democracy in the United States during the early twentieth century. Surveys were designed to sustain communities of fruit growers celebrated across the country as exemplars of reconstructed democratic life after the Great Depression of the 1890s. Scientists like Liberty Hyde Baily and G. Harold Powell did not take Americans as objects of social scientific inquiry to be uplifted by progressive policies. Instead, working with the growers they surveyed, Powell and Bailey made them part of the process of scientific truth making; they made them into scientific democrats. The study undertaken here of the Southern California citrus cooperative demonstrates that science produced more than American citizens well adapted to reconstructed capitalism; It produced white scientific democrats and workers of color, the constitutive elements of a new form of racial capitalism.
     
    You can find a copy of the chapter, please do not quote or circulate it.


  • October 24, 2023

    Claire Votava - Doctoral Candidate, UCLA - Science and Work: British Radicalism and Social Responsibility in Science
    Abstract:
    In the late 1960s, prominent British scientists and activists formed the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science. The BSSRS was part of a growing radical movement in science, with roots in the ideologies and practices of radical science in the 1930s. Initially led by Nobel Prize winner Maurice Wilkins, the BSSRS included numerous other distinguished scientists, such as J.D. Bernal, Sir William Lawrence Bragg, and Dorothy Hodgkins, among its members. In particular, the group engaged with a wide range of topics, including a critique of the role of science and technology in contemporary capitalism, informing workers of environmental hazards in the workplace, and the democratization of science. As the years went on, factions began to emerge within the BSSRS—some seeing the group as too radical, others seeing establishment members as evidence of overly-conservative elements. As a result, other groups developed beyond the BSSRS, establishing a broad and varied radical science community in the United Kingdom. The Women and Work Hazards subgroup of the BSSRS, active between 1977 and 1990, sat at the intersection between gender and class in the British radical science movement—providing a space for female workers to express their fears about workplace hazards and experiences with infertility. By honing in on the WWHG, we can better understand the radical critique of science and capital, the experience of anxiety in the midst of technological and scientific change, and imagined alternatives.
     
     
     


  • September 26, 2023

    "The American Tractor Unit and Agricultural Reconstruction of Soviet Russia, 1921-23."
    Maria Fedorova, Macalester College
     
    Abstract:
    The October Revolution inspired a wave of foreign migration to Soviet Russia. In the early 1920s, some Americans immigrated to Soviet Russia in search of an ideological refuge, better pay, and out of solidarity with its revolutionary ideals. Among this number, some answered the call of the Soviet authorities to help the newly formed state in its quest for industrial and agricultural reconstruction.  Inspired by the rhetoric of the October Revolution and the new opportunities for agricultural experiments offered by the Soviet state, these Americans traveled to aid the Bolsheviks in reforming the Soviet countryside. In turn, the Soviet state, beset with a farm crisis, peasant resistance, and the Volga famine in the early 1920s, accepted this help and encouraged the influx of foreign specialists, hoping that foreigners would provide valuable expertise in modern agriculture and technological assistance. Among these ventures was that of Harold Ware, whose spring 1922 initiative sought to bring a tractor unit to Soviet Russia in order to assist agricultural reconstruction.
     
     
     


  • May 23, 2023

    Anna Graber (Assistant Professor, Program in History of Science and Technology, University of Minnesota) will share her recent publication “Depicting Expertise and Managing Diversity in the Urals Mining Industry (1773-1818)," introduce her book project, “Tsardom of Rock: The Earth and Its Meanings in Enlightenment Russia,” and lead the group in a discussion of additional readings on knowledges of extraction in eighteenth-century Russia.

    The following two papers are attached in a zip file:
    1. Anna Graber, “Depicting Expertise and Managing Diversity in the Urals Mining Industry (1773-1819),” in Picturing Russian Empire, ed. Valerie Kivelson, Sergei Kozlov, and Joan Neuberger (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2024), 156-163.

    2. Ryan Jones, “Promyshlenniki, Siberians, Alaskans, and Catastrophic Change in an Island Ecosystem,” in Empire of Extinction: Russians and the North Pacific’s Strange Beasts of the Sea, 1741-1867 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 60-101.  

     


  • April 25, 2023

    TBA


  • March 28, 2023

    Kelley Wilder (Professor of Photographic History, Director of the Photographic History Research Centre, and Director of the Institute of Art and Design at De Montfort University, Leicester, UK) will share her paper titled "Photographic Commerce and the Venus Transits in Britain" on March 28th. Here is the abstract:

    In 1874 and to a lesser extent 1882, photography entered into the heart of preparations and execution of the Venus Transits. For the British Transits, this meant engagement with the nascent photographic industry to procure and produce sufficient photographs, of sufficient quality. At the heart of the British photographic attempts was William de Wiveleslie Abney, an author and chemist at the very heart of British photography. This paper investigates the networks of commerce linked through Abney and his colleagues, showing how British Astronomical endeavours were patterned by the emerging economy of photography.

    Kelley's paper (working version) is now available.
     
    You can learn more about Kelley's work at: https://www.dmu.ac.uk/about-dmu/academic-staff/art-design-humanities/kelley-wilder/kelley-wilder.aspx


  • February 28, 2023

    On Tuesday, February 28 at 2pm Eastern, Albert Park, who is the Bank of America Associate Professor of Pacific Basin Studies at Claremont McKenna College will share his paper "Extracting Nature in Colonial Korea: Integrative Mapping through Agricultural Science." Here is the abstract:
    How was human authority over the non-human world emphasized and strengthened during the Japanese occupation of Korea through agricultural science? What scientific mechanisms of mediation emerged and altered the rhythms and patterns of nature, especially in conditioning the potential energy of nonhuman life? What is the relationship between science and imperialism in the modern world? This presentation examines the intersection between the capitalist modernization of agriculture in colonial Korea, the pathways of science to extract and reconfigure colonial bodies and landscapes as a way to align them with new systems, and the meaning of destruction on the Korean peninsula. It looks at these themes through a reading of The Suwŏn Agricultural Experiment Station, which was one of the largest agricultural stations in Imperial Japan. In so doing, this presentation explores the relationship between science, authority, and systems in the modern world.
     
    You can learn more about Albert's work here: https://www.cmc.edu/academic/faculty/profile/albert-l-park
     
    You'll find the paper and a set of questions for your reading from Albert attached in a .zip file
     


  • January 24, 2023

    Lukas Rieppel, who is David and Michelle Ebersman Assistant Professor of History - Brown University, will lead the group in a discussion that looks at the development of the field since the publication, back in 2018, of Osiris Volume 33, "Science and Capitalism: Entangled Histories."
     
    To look at the state of things in the present, Lukas has shared this piece that he's working on, "Earth Science and Extractive Capitalism in the Age of Empire." This will be our primary reading for the discussion. Those who'd like to reacquaint themselves with the introductory essay from Osiris 33 certainly may do so as well.  You can find both the recent piece as well as the introductory essay in Osiris 33 attached in a zip file.
     
    For more on Lukas's work, see: https://sites.google.com/view/lukasrieppel/?pli=1
     
     


  • November 22, 2022

    Anthony Greco (Doctoral Candidate - University of California, Santa Barbara) will lead our November discussion. His talk is titled "Engineering on Trial: The 1920 Nile Projects Controversy and the Flow and Friction of Scientific Data."
     
    Abstract: A question of circulation has long structured approaches to the history of science across diverse world regions. Scientific knowledge production facilitated both exchange and opposition between cultural barriers. In 1920, the Nile Valley was the scene of a debate between Egyptian and British engineers over competing systems of hydraulic measurement. The controversy offers a fresh perspective on flows and frictions of scientific knowledge. Experts on all sides proffered evidence from a variety of sources, from current meters, gauge-flow charts, and sluice gate readings to interviews with peasants and even medieval Arabic chronicles. This paper explores the controversy though technical reports, political speeches, journalistic articles, public lectures, correspondence, and exhibitions in Arabic and English. By putting hydraulic engineering on trial, the controversy offers a view of “science in action” revealing how the flow of hydraulic measurements from the river bank to the Public Works Ministry encountered the friction labor, language, and the limitations of British imperialism.  

     

    You can learn more about Anthony's research here: https://www.history.ucsb.edu/graduate-student/anthonygreco/
     


Group Conveners

  • eunjooahn's picture

    Eun-Joo Ahn

    Eun-Joo Ahn is a postdoctoral associate at the Yale Center for the Study of Race, Indigeneity, and Transnational Migration. She is interested in mid-twentieth century transnational science from the sociocultural perspective of Korean American scientists. Her dissertation examined the founding and development of Mount Wilson Observatory, an astronomical observatory located near Pasadena, in relation to Southern California's sociocultural and natural environment during the early twentieth century. She holds a Ph.D. in History from the University of California Santa Barbara and a Ph.D. in Astronomy and Astrophysics from the University of Chicago.

     

  • joshnickmc's picture

    Joshua McGuffie

    Joshua McGuffie earned his PhD from UCLA in 2023. He is an adjunct professor at Occidental College in the Urban and Environmental Policy Department and at Moorpark College in the History Department. His research focuses on environmental health and state projects, particularly looking at the work of the Manhattan Project's Medical Section during World War II and the high modernist Cold War. Joshua also serves as a parish pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, currently at the Church of Hope in Santa Clarita, CA.

     

  • leevinsel's picture

    Lee Vinsel

    Lee Vinsel studies human life with technology, with particular focus on the relationship between government, business, and technological change. His first book, Moving Violations: Automobiles, Experts, and Regulations in the United States, was published by Johns Hopkins University Press in July 2019. Since 2015, with his collaborator Andy Russell, Vinsel has organized and led The Maintainers, a global interdisciplinary research network that examines maintenance, repair, and mundane work with technology. Vinsel’s work has been published in several major history journals and has appeared in or been covered by Aeon, the New York Times, The Atlantic, Guardian, Le Monde, and other popular outlets.

     

     

  • Claire Votava

     

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