Practopia, or: Science in the Wasteland of Materialism

At the beginning of the history and sociology of knowledge as we know them today, there was a crisis. By the early 1970s, the future of the earth as a natural habitat for prosperity and progress was looking so bleak that many observers began turning pessimistic. Most famously, the Club of Rome declared Limits to Growth in its 1972 report. But other institutions and intellectuals took a similar line. To name just one, Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, an economics professor at Vanderbilt University, probed the depths of history with The Entropy Law and the Economic Process (1971) only to find that Malthus was right all along. In spite of two centuries of industrial frenzy, entropy always was and always would be the reigning earthly principle. Continue reading “Practopia, or: Science in the Wasteland of Materialism”

Projecting ‘World Government’: The Creation of the League of Nations as a Case Study in International Policy-Making

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. Continue reading “Projecting ‘World Government’: The Creation of the League of Nations as a Case Study in International Policy-Making”

State Knowledge in Central Europe after 1848

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called for national unification and the introduction of liberal constitutions, but they also demanded the reform of outdated modes of administration.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. Continue reading “State Knowledge in Central Europe after 1848”

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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Identifying “Indians”: Racial Taxonomy as a Settler Colonial Politics of Knowledge

Settler Colonialism
Settler colonialism is a structure of political relations where a settler population seeks to replace native forms of life and relations with settler communities and, ultimately, to establish a new political community distinct from the colonial metropole. Unlike other forms of colonialism that primarily seek to exploit natural resources or extract labor power from native populations with the intention of enriching the metropole, settler colonialism additionally involves permanent invasion.

Canada’s definition and documentation of “Indians” is a project of bureaucratic knowledge production in service of the continued assertion of settler colonial political visions.1 The Indian Act was introduced in 1876 to assert the terms of the political relationship between the Dominion of Canada and certain peoples the Act defines as “Indians.” The Act has been amended many times, but is remains a current piece of legislation in Canada and still defines “Indian” as a political and legal category of person.2 Defining and identifying “Indians” served the broader project of managing Canada’s so-called Indian problem. From the perspective of nineteenth-century legislators, the “problem” was one of Indigenous peoples asserting nationhood and insisting on claims to the lands where they have lived since time immemorial, thus creating obstacles for settler claims to sovereignty. But it is also a problem of knowledge, which Indian Affairs administrators sought to address through a practice of classification. To apply and enforce the provisions of the Act designed to undermine Indigenous sovereignty and compel their assimilation, “Indians” had to be made visible to state legislators, bureaucrats, and other agents. The definitional work of the Indian Act is both a technique of classification and a way of seeing. Continue reading “Identifying “Indians”: Racial Taxonomy as a Settler Colonial Politics of Knowledge”

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

Hygiene Propaganda and Theatrical Biopolitics in the Soviet Union in the 1920s–40s

The Bolshevik Revolution strove to create a “new man,” a morally and psychologically superior human being. This new man required a complete physical and mental renewal, including, among other measures, the hygienic literacy of the masses. A wide range of media were employed for the Revolution’s ends, including not only various forms of print but also mobile cinemas and theatrical productions. A theater movement aimed at instructing the masses gained strength in the early years of the Revolution, and many theatrical performances addressed prevailing problems in public health. The hygienic awareness of the population was especially crucial during World War I and the Russian Civil War that followed, when diseases flourished in conditions of hunger and claimed millions of lives. In the 1920s, the performances came to local clubhouses and reached even the kolkhoz fields to entertain and educate workers and farmers. Beginning in 1925, theatrical hygiene propaganda was centrally managed by the newly founded Moscow Theater for Sanitary Culture (1924–1947). Continue reading “Hygiene Propaganda and Theatrical Biopolitics in the Soviet Union in the 1920s–40s”