In the summer of 1971, an eleven-year-old boy in Gothenburg, Sweden, wrote a letter to the pioneering environmentalist Hans Palmstierna. The boy had recently read a report on the environment in a youth magazine and was shocked. “Is our little Tellus really in such bad shape?,” he asked, adding that it was terrible that there were people who destroyed the environment just to make money. “They should be given a real lesson” for everything they had done to “people newly born.” Now it was his generation, those born in the 1950s and 1960s, that would be forced to “fight against humanity’s possible downfall.”
Humanity has long wished to know the universe. This desire has been present in nearly every civilization, culture, or community of human beings. Knowing the universe has always been extremely challenging, notwithstanding diverse approaches to the task—scientific reasoning, ancestral respect, the identification and worship of divinities, to name but a few. Nevertheless, there is a common gesture when we connect to the universe. No matter in what time or place, humans look up to the stars and wonder. We exhibit a common attitude as well, overwhelmed by how much we do not know about our own universe.
“It would be difficult,” the former officer George Gleig wrote in 1825, “to convey to the mind of an ordinary reader anything like a correct notion of the state of feeling which takes possession of a man waiting for the commencement of a battle.” Nonetheless, he tried to do just that. Time, Gleig asserted, “appears to move upon leaden wings”; one experienced a “strange commingling of levity and seriousness within him—a levity which prompts him to laugh, he scarce knows why . . .”1 Departing for service was both “striking” and “harrowing”; peace was “dull” and resulted in “jealousy”; a siege was “galling” and “disagreeable,” producing “absolute hatred” between the besieging and the besieged.2
Louis Agassiz (1807–1873) was a young student at the University of Munich when Johann von Spix and Carl Friedrich von Martius returned from their expedition to Brazil. Among the many items and specimens the German naturalists brought back were fish. The methodology they had followed on their journey through what was then part of the Portuguese Empire was typical of naturalists in the field: They observed, collected, and in some cases classified. Then, back in Europe, they studied the amassed material. Their journey through the exuberant and unfamiliar natural environment had lasted three years (1817–1820). In this geographical and temporal context, the fish and marine species were rarities that few scientists could address with authority within the framework of European natural history. The observant naturalists were nonetheless able to classify species unknown in Europe while also learning about these species’ natural environments.
German migration in subtropical South America began in the early nineteenth century. It lasted for almost 150 years and shaped one of the most extensive projects of transnational forest colonization and global agricultural exchange in history. This experience catalyzed the formation of different bodies of knowledge, many of them currently either lost or “fugitive,” as Glenn Penny characterizes German migrant knowledge in Central America.
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.
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?
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.
Nearly two years ago, Shadi Bartsch tweeted five tenets for understanding knowledge that now appear the on website of the center she directs at the University of Chicago, namely the Stevanovich Institute on the Formation of Knowledge. These tenets deserve further elucidation and discussion, a process I'd like to begin on this blog, starting at the end:
- Knowledge at any given time is exactly equal to what people think is true. As such, sub-knowledges, unauthoritative knowledges, and disputed knowledges can all exist simultaneously inasmuch as “people” is a plural concept.
“Freedom through knowledge” was one of the slogans of Planned Parenthood’s first national campaign in 1942.1 Publishing pamphlets, posters, and testimonials under the headline “Planned Parenthood in Wartime,” the organization related contraception to the need for women workers in the war industries, the urgency of high maternal death rates, and the superiority of American democracy over totalitarianism. This was the organization’s first campaign since changing its name from the Birth Control Federation of America to the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. The campaign and the new name marked a shift in focus from promoting birth control, that is the use of contraceptives once there were too many children in a family, to advocating child spacing, the idea that couples should consciously plan the arrival of their children from the beginning of their marriage.