Late night ponderings of a graduate student: to dissertate or not to dissertate
Posted ex-post typhoon.
Right now it is a little past and the typhoon is hitting Hayama in full force. I’m not especially scared; the rain spattering against the window and whipping of the wind excites me. When I’m in my bedroom during a storm, I feel a sense of safety and warmth that I can’t easily replicate. The only analogous feeling is being wrapped in an overstuffed colorful quilt in the middle of winter. The advice I was given for this storm was to keep my curtains shut. Not to cut out visual contact with the storm, but to prevent shards of glass from having direct access to my mortal skin. So, yeah, exciting. But a rosy cosy exciting. So curtains closed, lights off, I have been contemplating the future and mulling (fondly) over the past.
Mainly the topic running through my mind is: dissertation. Yes, the big D. And more than anything, I wonder if it’s a sign that instead of having too many ideas of what to write on, I instead have too few. Well maybe to be more precise, I can count the number of ideas I have on no hands.
Instead, there is a set of scholarship that I admire a great deal. It’s the strain of scholarship that makes my blood bubble – but in an excited, typhoon-like way. So more to help me sort out the discombobulated state of my mind, I will make a list of the scholarship that I have come to admire, and perhaps then find some connections or themes among them which will help me on my quest for the big D.
From this list, what themes can I pluck? Firstly, institutions—especially universities— play a key role in many of the books and articles listed: the NSF,
These are topical themes. But also what strikes me is that these works are all extremely close, detailed analyses. It is an exercise is going from the specific (Stanford; Feynman diagrams; “Vestiges”) to the more general (the cold war university; the changing nature of particle physics; science in the Victorian era). Of course, that move is the practice of history—and all good history texts have that element to it. (And bad ones too. It is often comical to see an author argue in an introductory chapter for the uniqueness of the object of study—to in essence highlight the importance and freshness of the scholarship—only to then have to make the argument for the generalizability of the results.) But the ones listed above tend to start extremely narrowly and only carefully, but dare-I-say beautifully, open up. Is this healthy, though? To have a set of close studies which perhaps pile atop each other without any larger picture in mind? Is this the only way? Secord says no—that syntheses may be possible. (He offers one in his “Knolwedge in Transit” article cited above.) Maybe since the historical field at large has made a sea change from large, synthetic works since the 1970s, I’ve been socialized to ignore them? Certainly in the history of science there is no single large paradigm scholars are all subscribing to (except in the loosest way, in a unified attempt to constantly reject a positivist interpretation—beating a dead horse).
Personally, I can’t imagine a history of science without a history of ideas. I know that history of ideas now is quite unfashionable, but many of the histories I’ve read tend to treat scientific ideas superficially or even elide over the ideas completely. (For example, this happens quite often in the scholarship on American science that I’ve read—focusing entirely on institutions and funding.) One can talk about an anthropology of scientists or a sociology of a scientific group or a history of an institution —all without touching the knowledge that is being produced there, except on the most superficial level. Useful and interesting, yes, but it misses the target for everything but: science. And similarly, one can talk about the scientific ideas that are produced, evolved, discarded, picked up, etc., but, well, the folly of that should be clear enough. Ideas do not—cannot—exist in vacuo.
So maybe infrastructure is the path to enlightenment. That is the structure which allows ideas to exist in the first place. Institutions, for example, lie within a larger infrastructure that is necessary for inventing, producing/manufacturing, and sustaining knowledge. The infrastructure not only consists of academic institutions, but DSL cables, printing presses, postal services, researchers and staff members, janitors, funding agencies, and—yes—even culture. Allowing myself to fling around the C word, it seems to me that culture is the central element which binds together all of the material objects of an infrastructure and allows for these objects to exist. In the history of science, there is a concept of “material culture.” Perhaps what we need to do is consider a “cultural materiality.” That is: the cultural elements which allow for the creation, production, and spread of certain types of knowledge. I wish I could make this more concrete, but the ideas are still embryonic.
The connection between the world of lofty ideas and the world of plain stuff—a rehashing of ye olde mind-body dualism—has struck me as the problem left to face. We need to find a modern version of Descartes' pinial gland, the connexion between the world of things and the world of ideas. Norton Wise and others broached the problem early on, and stuck the world of ideas into the world of things. Material culture. So in the “Mediating Machines” article cited above, Wise embeds within the steam engine (material stuff) concepts from both the realm of political economy and natural philosophy (culture and ideas).
I’m just musing now, without having taking my class on material culture (that happens this fall), but what if we made a dialectic between stuff and ideas, and this dialectic then were to create and evolve the infrastructure used to support both the ideas and the stuff. A kind of bootstrap model, where both ideas and things are constantly pulling the other up. And, you rightfully ask, how does this action occur? Through practice. Through the building of steam engines, through the working out of mathematics, through pedagogy. Practice, not the material object like the steam engine, is the mediator. It is the thing that lies betwixt ideas and stuff.
And thankfully practice is one of the current concerns of the history of science community. The practice of reading, the practice of calculation, the practice of teaching, the practice of model-making, etc. And maybe that is the direction I ought to go too.
If you got to here, wow. I don’t know if this helped me much, but maybe I should do a lot of brain dumps. Maybe eventually something useful will pop out. Like a dissertation.