How to Rethink the Global History of Knowledge Making from a Central European Perspective

We are publishing this article in conjunction with the conference Empire of Circulation: Habsburg Knowledge in Its Global Setting.

Empire of Circulation

The Habsburg Monarchy constituted a linguistic, religious, and legal patchwork that was conditioned both by its internal diversity and the region’s centuries-long imbrications and entanglements with the adjacent Ottoman, Spanish, and Holy Roman Empires. It was what Mary Louise Pratt has called a “contact zone,” one that bred innovation.1 Moreover, Central European scholars and scientists creatively grasped and shaped the religious and linguistic plurality of the Habsburg imperial polity, and they did so by entangling their region with the wider world.2 They tweaked, deracinated, and readjusted practices across contexts. They compared, translated, and amalgamated bodies of knowledge, unfolding a set of activities and processes that recent historians of knowledge have termed “circulation.”

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Knowing Otherwise: The Transatlantic Travels of Creative Thinking Expertise in the 1950s

Brainstorming as a way to organize ideation was first practiced in the United States in 1938 in the advertising firm Batten, Barton, Durstine & Osborn (BBDO). One partner, Alex Osborn, later described it as “using the brain to storm a problem,” adding that it should be done “in commando fashion.”1 As a method for thinking freely and wildly, so as to generate “new thoughts and ideas that no individual would have thought of on their own,”2 it was remarkable for its initial combination of conscious effort and play, of tenacious exercise and practices of freedom, and of rationality and irrationality. Brainstorming gained traction in American manufacturing, government, and the military in and after World War Two.3 And while brainstorming developed as a knowledge-generating practice squarely at the heart of military-industrial settings, it was pitted against predominant utilitarian rationalities of management, the military, and bureaucracies, for instance. Practiced in settings that explicitly suspended hierarchical orderings, it was geared toward the democratic expertise of no expertise—where anybody can have ideas. I have hypothesized that in order to overcome the boundaries imposed by modern and emergent rationalities in these settings, brainstorming offered a form of counterknowledge: an understanding that came about by not following the usual rules of thought.4

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Queer Ancestry as a Problem of Knowledge in Early 20th-Century Germany

Frederick the Great (1712–1786) was not a homosexual. Or so claimed the German physician and amateur medical historian Gaston Vorberg in 1921. Scurrilous rumors about the sexual desires of the legendary Prussian monarch had circulated ever since the eighteenth century. Vorberg sought to debunk them using the tools of critical scholarship and source analysis. In his essay "Gossip about the Sex Life of Frederick II," Vorberg defended the straightness of the king on the basis of his “long and arduous research.”

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Affordable Civilization: Education Reform, Textbook Piracy, and the Question of ‘New Knowledge’ in Modern China

Beginning in the second half of the nineteenth century, as the intensified Western aggressions expedited the Qing Empire’s decline, Chinese sociocultural elites started to question the value and relevance of their traditional knowledge system. Believing knowledge to be the secret behind the rise of the Western powers, these elites avidly consumed so-called New Learning (xinxue), that is, general, mostly Western knowledge that was new and foreign for China.1 Importing, translating, and reading books containing Western knowledge were deemed urgent tasks, crucial to the survival of China. As the renowned reformer Liang Qichao (1873–1929) put it, “if a nation wants to strengthen itself, it should translate more Western books; if a student wants to stand on his own feet, he should read more Western books.”2

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Russian Information Politics and the French Revolution

Russia’s support for right-wing politicians around the world has been in the news a lot in recent years. From Ukraine to France and the United States, Vladimir Putin has aligned Russia with political groups that oppose immigration, LGBT rights, and secularism. But this isn’t the first time a Russian leader has been the figurehead of world conservatism.1 After the Congress of Vienna in 1815, Russia was known as the “gendarme of Europe” for its interventions against revolutionary forces all over the continent. Before that, Russia stood alongside Britain in leading the worldwide reaction against the French Revolution.

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Practical Kabbalah and Practical Knowledge: Kabbalistic Manuals and Natural Knowledge in Early Modern East-Central Europe

An impressive handwritten codex at the National Library of Israel embodies the intricacies and peculiarities of crafting, reading, and transmitting practical knowledge in early modern Jewish contexts. The volume, known today as manuscript NLI 8º 1070, was likely produced in the 1730s somewhere in the Polish territories. A variety of local Polish-Ashkenazi traditions are well attested throughout the codex: vernacular and elite, theoretical and practical, of Jewish and Christian provenance, and transmitted mainly in Hebrew and Yiddish, but with elements of Latin, German, Polish, Russian, and Ruthenian.

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The Limits of Book Learning

In 1737, the Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus bitterly complained about the haphazard naming practices of his contemporaries. “The names bestowed on plants by the ancient Greeks and Romans I commend,” he wrote, “but I shudder at the sight of most of those given by modern authorities: for those are for the most part a mere chaos of confusion, whose mother is barbarity, whose father dogmatism, and whose nurse prejudice.”[1] But even after the many editions of Linnaeus’s Systema Naturae ostensibly brought order to the chaos of naming things in the natural world and structuring Western scientific understanding of it, the problem of accurately describing new natural phenomena persisted. Continue reading “The Limits of Book Learning”