All lectures are open to the public, thanks to the generosity of the Klopsteg fund, and (unless indicated otherwise below) are held Mondays 4:30-6:00pm at University Hall in the Hagstrum Room-201.
Program Director: Professor Ken Alder (History)
Schedule for 2019-20
October 14 - Projit Mukharji - University of Pennsylvania, History and Sociology of Science
India emerged as an independent nation-state in 1947. The new postcolonial state maintained much of the legal, administrative and infrastructural apparatus it had inherited from its colonial predecessor. One might say that whilst colonialism had ended, coloniality persisted in the postcolony. Yet, some of its politicians were also keen to imagine, support and implement a new science that broke with the colonial inheritance, viz. inaugurate a decolonial science. It was in this context that parapsychology, a marginal science in the West, became a site for experimenting with new ideas of what science should be and how it could be used in statecraft. In this paper, I shall examine some of these efforts to construct a decolonial science and interrogate the novel ways in which it was yoked to the mundane business of running a new state.
October 21 - Thomas Mullaney - Stanford University, History
What is resolution? What is low resolution versus high resolution, and what determines the boundary between them? Why, in the history of industrial-scale textual production, has resolution favored certain writing systems over others, none more privileged than the Latin alphabet, and none more disadvantaged than Chinese? In this talk, Stanford historian and Guggenheim fellow Thomas S. Mullaney outlines a theory of resolution that seeks to address these and related questions. He focuses on two genealogies of resolution, one derived from weaving and the other from mosaic art. Both genealogies operated in a shared condition of scarcity, operating within an economy of detail that is always limited as compared to the texts or graphics they seek to render, and yet each genealogy has achieved these ends in radically different ways. In the framework of weaving, a preexisting mesh determines the shape and size of the cells, establishing a uniformity that can be traced through to movable type and the modern-day pixel. In the mosaic framework, however, the cells determine the ultimate shape of the mesh, insofar as artisans are able to cut and arrange tesserae (tile, glass, ivory, or otherwise) according to the sizes, shapes, and orientations they need or desire. Mullaney will argue that, although current understandings and practices of resolution are almost entirely dependent on the weaving genealogy, only when we attend to both genealogies can we begin to understand the "politics of the pixel," and the reasons why industrial-age textual production has exhibited such profound asymmetries and inequalities when dealing with the world's different orthographic traditions.
October 28 - Sunil Amrith - Harvard University, History
Earlier this summer, the south Indian metropolis of Chennai came close to running out of water. At the same time, great expanses of the western coast of India lay underwater, with tens of thousands of people displaced by flooding. One of the most fundamental shifts over the past half-century is the coming together of the monsoon’s natural and human history, reflected in mounting evidence that human activity is reshaping the monsoon, making it more erratic and more extreme. Moving from the history of Indian meteorology to broader economic and political debates about water, I shall argue that water has been central to different conceptions of India’s freedom and India’s future.
November 18 - Sarah Richardson - Harvard University, History of Science
Do HeLa cells have a sex? The past decade has seen the rise, under the slogan "Every Cell Has a Sex,” of new scientific disciplines – such as “sex-based biology” and “gender-specific medicine” – centered on the study of sex. Much like “race,” scientific uses of “sex” also interact with the concept of sex in social ontology. As such, scientific uses carry implications for our everyday assumptions about sex and gender roles and for normative projects to bring about gender justice. Through historically and philosophically sensitive analyses of the concept of sex as it is operationalized in experimental research settings, I develop an account of sex as a contested theoretical construct pinned to research context and open to conceptual debate. Choices about how to operationalize the concept of sex in scientific research, I argue, carry ontological, epistemological, ethical, and political implications. This talk frames the broader stakes of claims that every level and component of biological organization has a sex, briefly outlines four stances with respect to the question of whether every cell has a sex, and argues for the merits of one of these approaches, which I call “sex contextualism."
January 13 - Sarah Carson - Northwestern University, History
What exactly is “tropical” about tropical meteorology? Until recently, accounts of atmospheric science have taken Euro-American temperate weather as the universal field for the history of rapid conceptual and scientific developments after 1850, leading to, among other achievements, tolerably-accurate short- and medium-range forecasting. But weather in the equatorial and sub-tropical regions is distinctive, involving powerful hurricanes, pronounced intra-annual oscillations, and seasonal monsoons. With reference to the particular case of South Asia, I argue that the wide semantic field between the literary and the geophysical “tropical” opened up space for creative reinvention and redefinition of atmospheric science in the lower latitudes, lending support to an emerging consensus that meteorology is best understood as a poly-centric science.
Through the production of standardized data, leaders of the India Meteorological Department (IMD, f. 1875) sought to render the atmosphere above South Asia not only bureaucratically manageable, but also comparable across the globe, a project entailing the extension of communication and mapping technologies and the recruitment of Indians as—often reluctant—human instruments. However, architects of this data-generating apparatus repeatedly expressed concern that the tropical environment and its inhabitants made faithful transplantation of European systems impractical, even if the imperial exchequer agreed to devote adequate resources (it didn't). The first part of the talk considers instructional observer handbooks alongside the coercive figure of the traveling “inspector,” whose peculiar responsibility it was to discipline troublesome observers and calibrate their finicky, fragile instruments. Next, I discuss the gradual replacement of expensive, often climatically-unsuitable European instruments with domestic alternatives or new inventions altogether, revealing that the trend toward substitution accelerated because of the requirements of upper-air balloon researchers and the promotion of highly-trained Indian scientists. Finally, I will investigate a short-lived IMD project to gather and statistically assess vernacular weather proverbs, an enterprise grounded in a 1950s nationalist critique of “foreign” methods for studying India’s tropical weather. These cases help us to understand how these figures’ experimentations with local materials and methods over several decades reciprocally influenced evolving theories of tropical “difference” advanced by imperialists and nationalists alike, if for quite different reasons.
January 27 - Madeleine Pape - Northwestern University, Sociology
Gender and sex have long been recognized by scientists and policymakers as important determinants of health whose independent effects can be difficult to disentangle. Nevertheless, a policy was introduced by the NIH in 2015 that focused on sex independently of gender. The Sex as a Biological Variable (SABV) policy promotes the basic and preclinical study of sex as fundamental to the advancement of science and gender equity in health. The policy mandates that preclinical and basic researchers seeking NIH funding, and especially those doing animal research, consider sex as part of their research design. “How did policymakers succeed in separating sex from gender? And, to what extent did they succeed?” This talk examines how scientists and policymakers navigate the complex relationship between sex and gender. I argue that the SABV policy was achieved via a series of ontological and epistemological moves, with the subsequent emphasis on biological sex contested but ultimately legitimized by a diversity of powerful actors beyond the realm of biomedicine. The case of the SABV policy reveals that the distinction between sex and gender–and the biological and the social–is actively coproduced, albeit never fully realized.
February 10 - Rana Hogarth - University of Illinois, History
Interracial sex between blacks and whites predated the formation of the United States, but that did not stop America’s leading eugenicist, Charles B. Davenport from viewing it as a newly emergent threat in the early decades of the twentieth century. Davenport’s published writings on race-crossing, as it was termed, reveal a particular preoccupation with the offspring of black and white parents. These “hybridized” people were, according to Davenport, a “nuisance,” “badly put together,” and “ineffective.” They soon became targets of invasive eugenic studies. Indeed, as Davenport outlined the dangers these so-called “mulattoes” posed to society, he turned not only to Mendelian genetics, but also to antebellum medical texts and lore about black and mixed race people’s bodies. Two of Davenport’s most well-known race-crossing studies: Heredity of Skin Color in Negro White Crosses (1913) and Race Crossing in Jamaica, (1929), closely adhered to antebellum-era scientific investigations into race that took the idea that black people’s bodies were distinctive and inferior for granted. In this way, Davenport’s race crossing studies continued the longstanding scientific impulse to pathologize black people’s bodies; the pathologization of mixed race people’s bodies was perhaps a tragic, predictable corollary. As I argue in this talk, Davenport’s studies measured and quantified mixed race people’s bodies, but they also rehabilitated, refined, and in some cases sanctioned, long held beliefs from the era of slavery about the physical and mental limitations of mixed race people. Davenport viewed this group of people as inherently unfit in ways that had indirect ties to slavery era discourse about race and in ways that have gone largely unexamined in the historiography of eugenics. Eugenicists may have relied on genetics and statistics to predict human traits and behaviors, but they invoked methods and arguments found in disciplines like physical anthropology and ethnology—disciplines that developed and flourished under the system of racialized slavery—to accomplish their aims. Thus, this talk foregrounds the role slavery played in creating both the theoretical and practical underpinnings of eugenic discourse around racial intermixture.
CANCELLED - February 24 - Mar Hicks - Illinois Institute of Technology, History
This talk looks at gender in the history of computing and some of the first examples of transphobic algorithmic bias. It explains how these relate to current concerns about technological hegemony and algorithmic oppression today.
April 20 - Etienne Benson - University of Pennsylvania, History and Sociology of Science
"Environments in the Plural: Reconstructing a Concept’s Multiple Pasts to Reimagine a Movement’s Future"
Historians of science have recently begun to show how the environmental movement that emerged in the 1960s depended on the articulation of a new object of research and concern: “the environment,” conceived as singular, global, threatened, and knowable only through certain highly specialized forms of expertise. This is not the only way that the concept of environment has been understood or mobilized for social ends, however. This talk describes some of the alternative environments and environmentalisms that preceded “the” environment and “the” environmentalism with which we are most familiar, and suggests that these past forms may point the way toward more just and effective environmentalisms for the present and future.
May 4 - Michelle Huang - Northwestern University, English
"Racial Disintegration: Biomedical Futurity at the Environmental Limit"
This talk examines how the privatization of biomedicine and the deregulation of environmental protections are both subtended by race. The unfettered development of “personalized medicine”—meaning patient-tailored preventative, diagnostic, and therapeutic medical interventions—justifies the diversion of both funding and public interest from the environment degradation that disproportionately affects black and brown populations. Put polemically, an emphasis on individualized health solutions excuses environmental racism.
To illuminate how biomedical capital invests in white and Asian American populations while divesting from black and brown surplus populations, this talk argues recent Asian American speculative fiction provides a crucial case study through which to analyze futurities where biomedical infrastructures intensify racial inequality under terms that do not include race at all. It does so by examining two post-Occupy Asian American dystopian novels—Chang-rae Lee’s On Such a Full Sea (2014) and Rachel Heng’s Suicide Club (2018). The racial logics of these future worlds are defined not by individual embodiment but by populational access to medical treatment, and they present an evolving challenge to update notions of comparative racialization in a moment of accelerating social and environmental disintegration.
May 11 - Victoria Pitts-Taylor - Wesleyan University, Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies
"The Chronopolitics of a Gender Disorder"
Scientific, clinical and popular understandings of gender non-conforming bodies and subjects often make explicit and implicit temporal claims about their timeliness and untimeliness. In this talk, I address the temporal framing of gender dysphoria in a recent highly controversial study about transgender-identified youth. I situate my discussion in trans, queer, and disability scholarship on temporality in order to show how this case resonates with broader efforts to manage and control gender variance and transition through normalizing constructions of time and timing. In a range of social and political contexts, the “when” of gender is invoked to pose the question of “if” identities and embodied experiences are true, authentic, and worthy of recognition and support.
May 18 - Sokhieng Au - Univeristy of Iowa, Global Health Studies
"Dismemberment, Medicine, and Cannibalism in the Belgian Congo"
This talk looks at specific acts of cutting open the human body, and the narratives surrounding these acts in the Belgian Congo. It reviews both indigenous Congolese and colonial medical practices of cutting the flesh. It examines the stories created around these acts, in part to interrogate the stability of the categories of the life and death in the colonial setting. The dismemberment of the natural object—the human body—and its representation and reassembly through artefacts in the colonial setting reveal the struggles to define the body and its appropriate use.Back to top