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
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.
What does citizenship entail? For many it is not just a passive right but rather comprises a more fragile set of practices, duties, and beliefs that need to be reworked and reaffirmed along the way. It might be useful to think of “citizenship” as a container for a wide variety of ascribed meanings in time. A century ago, when World War I came to an end, many Western nations re-evaluated what it meant to be a citizen, who was entitled to become one, which rights it entailed, and what one needed to know in order to act properly. For the protagonists of suffrage movements, full citizenship could only be realized through the attainment of civil rights and participation in the formal political process, most notably voting. The ability and desire to do that required knowledge.
If you had a conversation about the growing gap between rich and poor almost anywhere in today’s world, you would very likely refer to “the top one percent,” a phrase that evokes the skyrocketing wealth of the superrich. A similar conversation in West Germany in the 1970s or 1980s would have revolved around the latest movements in wage earners’ aggregate share of the national income, evoking images of a society divided into employers and employees. In 1980s Britain, you might have talked about income growth among the bottom tenth of the population, as the government tried to steer the discussion away from income relativities and overall inequality.
In recent decades, a diagnosis of democratic crisis or even of a post-democratic condition has emerged in public debate in many Western states. The rise of electoral abstention, particularly since the 1970s and 1980s, often serves as statistical evidence for this assessment.1 Yet what exactly can abstention tell us about the state of democracy? My current research project proposes to historicize abstention, not as a political phenomenon per se but rather as an object of contention leading to multiple interpretations and practices in the political sphere. To that aim, I inquire how political actors—politicians and officials, but also journalists and political scientists—have handled abstention through the postwar decades in France, West Germany, and Switzerland. Knowledge played a significant role in the ways abstention was framed in public debate. It was accompanied by the development of various forms of expertise on the topic, ranging from emerging political science to electoral surveys.2 Public discourse on abstention became a matter for experts, journalists, and established politicians—none of whom were prone to abstaining from voting themselves.
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
A specter is haunting the current political discourse, the specter of cultural cleavage. More and more observers see the emergence of a socio-cultural gap between a hegemonic, globalist, educated class and an underrepresented, locally anchored underclass. The titles of two studies speak volumes: Cleavage Politics and the Populist Right (2010) by sociologist Simon Bornschier, and "The Class Basis of the Cleavage between the New Left and the Radical Right" (2012) by political scientist Daniel Oesch. Meanwhile, French philosopher Guillaume Paoli observes a cultural confrontation between two societal blocs.1 And in his recent work on the "society of singularities,” German sociologist Andreas Reckwitz postulates a new "cultural class divide"—a polarizing dichotomy between a "new middle class" equipped with high levels of cultural and economic capital and a "new underclass" lacking all of this.2
The postwar was, as it often is, a projecting age. Following World War One, political, military, thought, and other leaders resolved to prevent such a catastrophe from ever occurring again. Projects proposed at the Paris peace talks were many and varied in origin, scale, ideology, and so on. More significant, though, was an overarching commonality in their conceptualization. The projects were defined by a certain way of thinking.
What do governments know? When and why have they generated knowledge about themselves, sovereign territories, the functioning of bureaucracies, legal systems, and the effectiveness of legislation? In other words, how have officials made that capacious concept we call the state legible?
State knowledge took on heightened importance in Central Europe in the nineteenth century with the transition away from remaining vestiges of feudalism. This is especially clear to see during the revolutions of 1848. Over the course of a turbulent two years, revolutionaries protested against a great many things. They most famously called for national unification and the introduction of liberal constitutions, but they also demanded the reform of outdated modes of administration. Such ultimatums were unsettling for governments in two ways. First, they required a rethinking of law, as well as of the kinds of bureaucratic structures and activities needed to bring about a more flexible handling of domestic affairs. And second, they prompted an urgent need to generate knowledge to gage the effectiveness of these initiatives.