A Seminar about Information History: Why?

On May 18th, I hosted a seminar about information history, a topic that seems to have gained momentum in recent years. My interest in information as a historical phenomenon began as an attempt to inquire into the prehistory of the Danish public libraries.1 For some years, I have also had a strong interest in the history of knowledge. Framing things this way might cause readers to think that I assume clear and evident differences between the two. I am, however, much more interested in how they supplement each other than in how I can characterize each as a unique field. It is no secret that the history of knowledge has gained quite a different resonance within history than information history has experienced.

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The Dr. Seuss Controversy and the Serious Business of Curating Knowledge of the World for Children

On March 2, 2021, the 117th birthday of Theodor Geisel, the children’s book author and illustrator behind the Dr. Seuss pseudonym, Dr. Seuss Enterprises announced that it would “cease publication and licensing” of six titles in its collection because the listed books “portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong.”1 A new battle in the political culture wars ensued, with cries of “cancel culture” exploding in the conservative media.2

But who is Dr. Seuss? And why did this action provoke such controversy?

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Online Seminar: Bureaucracy as Knowledge

History of Knowledge Seminar Series @ Utrecht University
“Bureaucracy as Knowledge” with Christine von Oertzen (MPIWG, Berlin) and Sebastian Felten (University of Vienna)

Thursday, June 10, 2021, 15:30-17:00 (CET)
Online via Microsoft Teams (registration not required)

Bureaucracy was a term of critique that in Europe around 1900 became an analytical concept for world-historical comparison, most prominently in the work of Max Weber. Against this background, the multi-authored publication Histories of Bureaucratic Knowledge develops a non-Weberian approach of analysing bureaucratic procedures as knowledge processes, a method we term “bureaucracy as knowledge.” This approach builds on historical epistemology and aims to recover actors’ ways of organising social and natural world rather than to judge them by modernist, Western standards. We found surprising similarities across our cases, such as the use of questionnaires in the medieval Latin West and in colonial German New Guinea, or of calendars in the Ottoman Empire and Central Europe.

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Explain Yourself: Visual Communication in Early Modern Printed Calendars

Bottom rows of the calendar showing the symbols and the user's handwriting.

There is a curious subgenre of printed calendars in early modern Europe called Bauernkalender. Bauer in German refers to a farmer or peasant, so we might literally translate the name of this genre as “farmers’ calendars” or “peasant calendars.” That is not to say they are in any way simple. You know one when you see it because they are all highly iconographic, largely replacing text with image. In fact, the submission of text to image is so severe as to render an individual edition nearly incomprehensible to any reader without a specific kind of tacit cultural knowledge. Therefore, Bauernkalender demonstrate the potentially unsteady relationship between a material text and its ostensibly intended audience. Bauernkalender are not unique in this manner—among almanac calendars, or among any printed editions for that matter—but they are unusual.

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Debating New Approaches to Histories of the Sciences

All are invited to attend the online symposium “Debating New Approaches to Histories of the Sciences,” organized as part of the History of Knowledge Seminar Series @ Utrecht University.

Friday, May 21, 2021, 9:30–17:30 CET
Online via Microsoft Teams (registration not required)

Recent decades have seen the emergence of a number of promising new approaches to the historical study of the sciences. All share the goal of understanding scientific thinking and practice as historical phenomena, but each does so in its own distinctive way: created against different backgrounds and in response to different problem situations within and outside academia they orient themselves around different themes, topics and perspectives. This raises the issue of whether and if so, how, these approaches could best collaborate.

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