Where Do We Find History?

And where should we look for it?

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When there’s not a global pandemic happening, a typical Saturday in West Philadelphia’s Clark Park would see the northern trapezoid of the park overrun with scurrying, LARPing, children. Pre-teens holding Styrofoam shields ward off foam sword attacks while their parents snarf down treats from the taco truck nearby. Across Chester Avenue, more organized groups of smaller children assemble in the park’s bowl for soccer practice. There’s a lot of screaming from both sides, mostly of the happy sort.

A hundred and sixty years ago, the northern edge of what would become Clark Park was the southern end of Satterlee Hospital, the largest Union Army hospital during the Civil War. The 15-acre site hosted 24 wards and 4,500 beds, treating soldiers wounded in battles in Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. I’d venture to guess that it, too, produced a lot of screaming.

A stone from Gettysburg commemorates the hospital, but it’s not clear to me how many casual visitors to the park notice it. The stone’s set back in some bushes along Baltimore Avenue, and the prior usage isn’t mentioned on the park’s main signage. There’s nothing at all to tell visitors that the bowl in the southern part of the park used to be a mill pond and, later, a public dump. As a relatively old American city, Philadelphia’s landscapes are layered, with new uses routinely obliterating the old. Sometimes it seems like half the city is built on cemeteries.

I thought of this history as I read Elizabeth Catte’s Pure America: Eugenics and the Making of Modern Virginia. Inspired by the former state-hospital-turned-luxury-hotel down the hill from her apartment in Staunton, Virginia, Pure America is a history of the state’s eugenics movement at told through landscapes. The book is a story of three Virginia laws: The Sterilization Act of 1924, the Racial Integrity Act of 1924, and the Public Park Condemnation Act in 1928. The first—the most obviously eugenic of the three—resulted in the sterilization of at least 7,000 people between 1924 and 1964. The second sought to ward off the “degeneration” of the white race by prohibiting interracial marriage. The law required citizens to register their race with the state, with a white person defined as “the person who has no trace whatsoever of any blood other than Caucasian” (74). The third allowed the state to remove residents it deemed undesirable or otherwise uncooperative to make way for Shenandoah National Park.

“How,” Catte asks, “could it be that I live at the epicenter of Virginia’s eugenics movement and see almost nothing around me today that tells that story?” (18) It’s not that the history of eugenics is “hidden,” per se. As Catte herself makes clear, the story has been told many times over by historians of race, immigration, science, and medicine. More often than not, though, these stories focus on the logics of the people working out what they described as “science” or the people who whipped up support for the laws or the people who ran the asylums. This is true even for most of the work that tries to understand the harms inflicted by theorists and practitioners of eugenics.

As Catte puts it,

Often, when we talk about eugenics now, even when we are attentive to the lives of the people it ensnared, we emphasize that this was the world that eugenicists were trying to create. Eugenics itself provides the framework for this perspective; it was always building toward a future goal. Sometimes for our own comfort, we also emphasize the failure of eugenicists….That emphasis on remoteness, on the ways that eugenicists tried but failed, sometimes obscures a way of seeing the world they actually made and how it lives on in the present. (24-25)

As anyone who’s ever crossed the threshold of an archive can tell you, it’s simply easier to write histories that convey the perspective of those who hold power than those who lack it. My own sense is that historians of science trained in US and British institutions are particularly susceptible to inadvertently inhabiting their actors’ skin, even when they seek to criticize those actors, because of their commitment to understanding the logics that governed knowledge systems of the past.

How do you tell the histories of those on the receiving end of science or medicine? Catte turned to landscapes. Others, like Jaipreet Virdi, have turned to objects. Virdi’s fantastic new book, Hearing Happiness: Deaf Cures in History, combines memoir and history of medicine with tactile encounters with objects that were, at one time or another, touted as “cures” for deafness. At last fall’s online History of Science Society meeting, she explained that part of the book’s research involved purchasing old hearing aids online and—if she can get the equipment to work—trying them out. As someone who is herself deaf, Virdi has a different sort of access to the embodied, historical experience of say, using an ear trumpet, than would someone without significant hearing loss.

If I taught a seminar on historical methods, I’d assign Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments. Hartman uses the familiar documents of social history—photographs, directories, court documents, police statements—to explore the intimate lives of Black women in early-twentieth-century New York and Philadelphia. She combines readings of documents with landscapes, physicality, the lived experience of a having been young person feeling alive.

Hartman’s starting premise is that the vast majority of the documents used for social history see their subjects as a problem. But Hartman is not interested in the jailor’s gaze. Instead, she uses her sources to craft a “counter-narrative” that seeks to recover these women’s internal lives. This is much more than reading against the grain. It’s about reading between documents, really inhabiting them, to produce a “sensory experience of the city” to “capture the rich landscape of black social life” (xiv). In her “Note on Method,” she describes the book as a “fugitive text of the wayward” that embraces speculation, imaginings, withholding, “moments when the vision and dreams of the wayward seemed possible” (xv).

The field of history of science is at a moment of creative ferment. Some scholars are in the process of expanding/dismantling the thing we call “science” to incorporate stories about non-elite knowledge practices into the discipline. Others want to use tools produced by science to telling stories of epochal change (think Big History). I’m most attracted to an emerging third strand—works like Catte’s and Virdi’s—that attempt to understand and convey the experiences of those on the receiving end of scientific, medical, and technical expertise. The consequences of knowledge production matter just as much as the knowledge itself, but telling those stories requires an entirely different set of methods. It requires building stories from landscapes, physical objects, even smells.

Is the wild turkey that occasionally walks down my street in West Philly looking for the mill pond that disappeared more than a century ago? How did the process of draining the pond and burying Mill Creek—a process driven by late-nineteenth-century civil engineering know-how—change who lived in the neighborhood? Did the people who moved into the new, grand homes surrounding the park consult experts to control the smells, or would have the odors from a trash pit have even registered in the late-nineteenth-century city’s olfactory overload? Did the new residents think about the wounded soldiers who once occupied the grounds? Had their own fathers, uncles, or grandfathers recovered or died at Satterlee Hospital? Is this, too, a eugenic landscape?

Share Never Just Science

It’s now officially been a year since I launched this newsletter—thanks so much for reading! At the time, I’d been talking about, but not writing, a “screed against scientism.” I wanted to use the newsletter format to (maybe) jump-start the process, or at least find some fun in writing. But of course 2020 turned out to be a very weird year for finding “fun” in anything, let alone a project that asked readers to think critically about the difference between “science” and “scientism.”

The events of the past year have transformed the way the American public talks about science. Somewhat to my surprise, this change has mostly been positive. It’s no longer controversial to say that science has always been political. Scientism is still a threat, but more and more people recognize the reactionary dangers of a political stance that starts and finishes with “scientific facts.” With a new administration in place, my hope is that we can continue to have more thoughtful conversations about the relationship of science and politics.

All of which is a long way of saying that this newsletter did not, in fact, trick me into producing a draft manuscript on the perils of scientism. In this utterly strange year, by turns heartbreaking, exhausting, and exhilarating, my lack of a book contract turned out to be a blessing. With speaking engagements mostly cancelled, and too overwhelmed to pitch, I’ve read what I wanted, whether that’s experimental prose poems or memoirs or more theoretically oriented STS. We need new futures, and we’re doing to need more than the historians’ classic toolkit to get us there.

What I’ve learned from this is that I’m increasingly curious about genres of writing that look less like the implied opinion-column style of a newsletter. Unless and until I switch to a compensated model (not off the table! But no immediate plans!), this newsletter needs to maintain my interest, and indulging in a little more editorial flexibility is one way to do that. Looking ahead, some issues may stray further afield from science policy than others.

I still can’t say that writing this newsletter “brings me joy,” but I’m grateful for the opportunity it gives me to articulate my thoughts on topics I hope will be of some interest to you. Thank you for subscribing, and I hope you’ll stick around for whatever comes next!