Friday, February 09, 2018

HPS Departmental Seminar - 'Barnum, Bache and Poe: the forging of science in the Antebellum US'

John Tresch (University of Pennsylvania)

5 February 3.30pm-5pm, seminar room 2, HPS, Free School Lane 

Two opposed tendencies characterised US public culture around 1840: first, a sharp increase of printed matter in which the sites, audiences, styles and speakers for matters of public concern exploded in number and diversity; second, an elite movement to unify knowledge through centralised institutions. In the domain of science, Barnum's 'American Museum' typified the first, while the US Coast Survey, directed by patrician polymath and West Point graduate Alexander Dallas Bache, exemplified the second. The life and writings of Edgar Allan Poe - who trained at West Point, and wrote constantly about the sciences, even as he struggled to survive as an editor, poet and storyteller - pushed in both directions at once. Poe 'forged' American science and letters in two senses: by crafting believable fakes which fed the uncertainty about authority over knowledge, and by lending aid to projects to restrict the flow of information and establish a unified intellectual infrastructure. His work thus offers uniquely astute, if dramatically conflicted commentary on the relations of science and public in a key phase of national consciousness and industrialisation.

John Tresch, associate professor of history and sociology of science at the University of Pennsylvania, has been named Chair in History of Art, Science and Folk Practice at the Warburg Institute. The new professorship will be critical in restoring, developing and elaborating the theoretical, cultural historical and anthropological implications of the work of Aby Warburg, the founder of the institute, and will inspire the kinds of cross-disciplinary work that will help revitalise the possibilities of research in the humanities. Professor Tresch is an historian of science and technology whose work focuses on changing methods, instruments, and institutions in the sciences, arts, and media. His book The Romantic Machine examined intersections between romanticism, science, and utopian politics in France before the revolution of 1848; it won the History of Science Society's Pfizer Award for Outstanding Book in 2013. Supported by a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities, he is currently finishing his next book, The Reason for the Darkness of the Night: Edgar Allan Poe and the Forging of American Science, which examines Poe's life and work in the light of antebellum America's obsession with science and technology. His other ongoing projects develop the concept of 'cosmograms' as a tool for comparing forms of natural order, and explore connections between contemporary neuroscience and traditional monastic practices. He has held fellowships from Columbia's Society of Fellows in the Humanities, the University of Chicago, Northwestern University, the Max Planck Institute for History of Science in Berlin, the Huntington Library, the Cullman Center at the New York Public Library, and the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, and has been visiting researcher at King's College London and at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales. He is editor-in-chief of the History of Anthropology Newsletter. Professor Tresch holds a BA in anthropology from the University of Chicago, a DEA from the École des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales and the École Normale Supérieure in Paris, and a PhD in History and Philosophy of Science from the University of Cambridge. 

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