Mikhail Bulgakov’s first novel, The White Guard, weaves an affecting story about the power of human connection in times of crisis.1 First serialized in 1925, albeit not to completion, and informed by his own experiences, it employs psychological realism to capture life in Ukraine during the catastrophic Russian Civil War, which had ended only a few years earlier.2 That experience included the wildfire spread of “uncertain knowledge.” Not surprisingly, rumors—as well as talk of rumors—abound in The White Guard, providing a window into a world fraught with uncertainty.
Recently there has been a lot of chatter on academic Twitter reflecting on the need to decolonize various academic fields. Such impulses go to the heart of what histories of knowledge are: People produce, use, translate, and pass on knowledge in specific socio-cultural contexts. Knowledge has a history, and much of that history is bound up with the histories of fields and professions.
As historian of science Lorraine Daston recently remarked, COVID-19 has thrown us back into a state of “ground-zero empiricism.” The manifold manifestations of COVID-19 and the many unknowns involved are provoking scientific speculation that is often based on nothing more than chance observations and personal anecdotes. The radical uncertainty of the current situation, writes Daston, has catapulted us back to the seventeenth century, with almost everything up for grabs, “just as it was for the members of the earliest scientific societies—and everyone else—circa 1660.”1
In August 2019, the city of Bielefeld, home to about 340,000 people in northwest Germany, launched a new marketing campaign based on an old internet joke. In 1994, Achim Held, a computer science student at the University of Kiel, had jokingly spread the rumor that Bielefeld did not actually exist.1 Twenty-five years later, the city’s marketing agency put a new spin on the so-called Bielefeld conspiracy by offering a reward of €1 million for proof that Bielefeld, indeed, did not exist. For once, German humor—quite surprisingly to some—attracted attention far beyond national borders: Entries arrived from participants as far away as China, India, and Australia. Their purported proofs used arguments from such diverse fields as history, physics, and mathematics. In order to make sense of the more complex contributions, the marketing agency’s jury even consulted researchers at Bielefeld’s university and archives. Somewhat less surprisingly, none of the competitors ended up taking home the prize money.2 Proof of nonexistence, apparently, can be quite a nut to crack.
We are all historians of the present. At least we should be. Many fellow historians of knowledge are currently using a wide variety of media to share their experience and research in an effort to put the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic into context. Twitter is one medium where this conversation is especially lively, as Eileen Sperry has noted on Nursing Clio, a wonderful group blog that is also active on Twitter. One can find these parts of Twitter by searching for the relevant hashtags, for example, #histmed (history of medicine) and the much more generic #twitterstorians (historians on twitter).
POSTDOC VACANCY: The Restitution of Knowledge: Artefacts as Archives in the (Post)Colonial Museum, 1850-1939. TU Berlin, April 15, 2020, to April 14, 2022. Application deadline: March 20, 2020. (HT @an_augusti)
CALL FOR PAPERS: The Technology Behind Media Misinformation: The Creation, Detection and Investigation of Fake News. “The Digital Humanities/Digital Scholarship Special Interest Group is calling for presenters to participate in their open session at the IFLA World Library and Information Congress in Dublin, Ireland, from August 15-20, 2020.” Deadline: March 25, 2020. (HT @SwenSteinberg for this and the next two calls .)Continue reading “Knowledge Notes”
What is the history of knowledge? That bigger question came up more than once at the conference Political Culture and the History of Knowledge, as Kijan Espahangizi and Monika Wulz’s report shows. One helpful response to the debates were the 5 Tenets that Shadi Bartsch initially posted on Twitter for the SIFK.
When the writer Anne Brewster (1818–1892) and the sculptor Harriet Hosmer (1830–1908) met in Italy in 1876, their conversation circled mainly around the recently deceased actress Charlotte Cushman. That itself was hardly unusual—Cushman was the talk of the town. During most of her adult life, Charlotte Cushman (1816–1876) was among the most-well known public figures in the Anglophone world. As an American actress who could boast a phenomenal success in Britain with roles as varied as Meg Merrilies and Romeo, Cushman dominated the theatrical scene on both sides of the Atlantic for several decades. While she might be forgotten today,1 she was everywhere during the height of her success. You can’t miss her in databases like ProQuest’s American Periodicals Series and Historical Newspapers or the Library of Congress’s Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Yet if you relied only on these public sources, you’d miss a lot.
Workshop at the Centre Marc Bloch in Berlin, February 18-19, 2020, in cooperation with the Leibniz-Institute of European History in Mainz.