The Politics of the Handbook

Readers of this blog may have asked themselves what the image identifying the Learning by the Book contributions shows. At first glance, the photo simply contains a row of worn, bound, heavy handbooks on a library shelf. The books are arguably very European and modern; however, they convey an aspect of “bookish” materiality that many of the contributions to this blog, regardless of time period or region, deal with in quite diverse ways. Continue reading “The Politics of the Handbook”

Producing Ignorance: Racial Knowledge and Immigration in Germany

We are members of knowledge societies, but we live in “an age of ignorance.” We are swimming in “oceans of ignorance” that have been consciously, unconsciously, and structurally produced “by neglect, forgetfulness, myopia, extinction, secrecy, or suppression.”[1] Little wonder, then, that there is also a lot of ignorance about the persistence of racism as a structural phenomenon that orders society in discriminatory ways and racial knowledge as a normalized element of our knowledge societies. Continue reading “Producing Ignorance: Racial Knowledge and Immigration in Germany”

Indonesianizing Knowledge, or: The Postcolonial Invention of ‘Colonial Science’?

“We are living in a new age,” President Sukarno proclaimed at the First National Science Congress in 1958, “the age of atomic revolution, of nuclear revolution, explorers and sputnik, of interplanetary communications with the moon and the stars, and the content of the sea.”[1] And the new age, he reasoned, necessitated new roles. If it was up to him, scientists and other academically trained elites would guide Indonesia’s development into the future. Yet there seem to have been two problems. Although Indonesians had conducted scientific research during the colonial era, their number remained insignificant. As a result, Indonesian culture lacked a sense of scientific authorship and ownership.[2] At the same time, “science” had overtly Western and imperialist connotations, against which the new Indonesian state postulated its postcolonial identity. Here I discuss three discursive strategies that Sukarno employed during the 1950s and early 1960s to resolve these tensions and Indonesianize the production of academic knowledge. Continue reading “Indonesianizing Knowledge, or: The Postcolonial Invention of ‘Colonial Science’?”

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”

Reading and (Re-)​Classifying Canonical Instructions of the Past: Commentaries on ‘The Nine Chapters on Mathematical Procedures’ from the 3rd to the 13th Centuries

The earliest extant Chinese mathematical writings include two types of components of particular interest for our discussion on manuals and handbooks. On the one hand, there are mathematical problems that often evoke tasks carried out by officials working in the imperial bureaucracy. On the other hand, there are mathematical “procedures,” or “algorithms” in today’s parlance, to solve such problems. This description fits most of the mathematical books composed in China until the seventh century. Continue reading “Reading and (Re-)​Classifying Canonical Instructions of the Past: Commentaries on ‘The Nine Chapters on Mathematical Procedures’ from the 3rd to the 13th Centuries”

Spinning the Risk: ‘The Effects of Nuclear Weapons’ Handbook

The Effects of Nuclear Weapons was by far the most popular handbook of nuclear defense during the Cold War. Adapted from an original publication of the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory (1950),[1] the handbook was amended and made commercially available for popular use (1957),[2] revised (1962),[3] reprinted (1964),[4] expanded (1977),[5] and even illicitly translated into Russian for use in the Soviet Union (1960).[6] Edited by Samuel Glasstone, a prolific author of science textbooks, The Effects of Nuclear Weapons was described as a “comprehensive summary of current knowledge on the effects of nuclear weapons” and commended by the Federal Civil Defense Administration as “the definitive source of information on the effects of nuclear weapons.”[7] Continue reading “Spinning the Risk: ‘The Effects of Nuclear Weapons’ Handbook”

The Manual as Artifact: On Artists’ Manuals and Craftsmen’s Handbooks

On November 4, 1646, Sir Theodore de Mayerne (1573–1655), first physician to Charles I and the English Aristocracy, decided to spend his day away from his demanding patients and to devote his attention to the vibrant world of colors. He took a good handful of bilberries and carefully inspected the color of their peel and pulp. He then cooked them following a recipe for making a “very beautiful and very oriental” colorant for writing and limning. The recipe he followed has survived as part of an extensive manuscript collection dated to the first half of the seventeenth century. Continue reading “The Manual as Artifact: On Artists’ Manuals and Craftsmen’s Handbooks”