Organized Session

The First: Priority, Failure and Originality in the Making of the History of Science

Organizer

Ahmed Ragab

The Center for Black, Brown, and Queer Studies

Chair

Ahmed Ragab

The Center for Black, Brown, and Queer Studies

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Session Abstract

The question of scientific progress continues to dominate the historiography and public discourse around science and technology. Despite the changing interests of historians of science away from progressive and positivist narratives, the notion of progress, and the attendant discourse of "achievement" continue to underwrite the significance of scientific and "civilizational" worth.
The notion of progress and achievement as a marker of worth is replaced, in the colonial and postcolonial, with a discourse of priority: the First. The first permits the inclusion of the colonized within the canonical narratives of western science without disrupting the hierarchical structures of the global economy of knowledge. It also reiterates the position of the colonized or marginalized as a primitive or a pre-history for the now and the tomorrow. At another level, the "first" is also a font of the original, where firstness and its authoritative detection offer a guarantee against other measures of value such as fairness or distribution. Finally, the temporal complexity of failing before succeeding, of trying or realizing for the first time, offer an intriguing, and essential, component in the production of modern science history and mythology
The papers in this panel explore various aspects in the production of firstness, originality, and priority. From the role played by such category in the interactions of settler and Native American science, to the deployment of the "first" to disrupt or revise a narrative of success and failure, to the chase of realness through exploring the "original," the papers explore the role such category plays in the production of historical narratives around science and technology.

Presenter 1

Transing Our "Litany of Frontier Vignettes": Native Science and the Illusion of Red Progress(ives)

Eli Nelson

Williams College

Abstract

As settler scientific disciplines proliferated and professionalized in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in the United States, Indigenous knowledge production became newly legible in colonial archives, such as in bureaucratic reservation records or in the personal papers of Indigenous students and practitioners of settler sciences. As such, the archival landscape surrounding science and indigeneity in the United States is dominated by the figure of the first: those Indigenous people and institutions who were noteworthy as the first to achieve this status and recognition. The generation of Indigenous intellectuals most credited with this ascent to visibility and inclusion, known as the Red Progressives, were peopled by numerous firsts-the first Indigenous doctor, anthropologist, engineer, geologist, and so on.
This paper explores the archival, narrative, and epistemological significance and utility of the "first" as it relates to Native sciences and scientists. Focusing on the archive and historiography surrounding Dr. Susan La Flesche Picotte (Omaha, 1865-1915), or the "first Native American doctor," whose life has been described as a "litany of frontier vignettes," I trace how firstness structured the epistemology and history of settler science, rewarding and centering crisis, individualism, and ceaseless activity as epistemic virtues and technologies of assimilation and termination. I propose a trans reading of what Elizabeth Povinelli calls the "governance of the prior" in the Red Progressive generation, drawing out the epistemic virtues of a Native science governed by a logic of transition and continuity as opposed to priority and progress.

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Presenter 2

Notes on Awareness: Mabel Lujan and the Firsts of Failure

Barbara Pohl

Yale University

Abstract

Historians often remember Mabel Dodge Sterne Lujan for her bohemian salon in Greenwich Village. During the 1910s, Mabel drew a motley array of artists, anarchists, feminists, and scientists into her Fifth Avenue apartment for vibrant conversation. While hosting these weekly events, Mabel received psychoanalysis from two of Sigmund Freud's leading English translators: A.A. Brill and Smith Ely Jelliffe. Her experiences with Freudian interpretation became the subject of a memoir that Mabel composed in 1938. The manuscript, entitled Notes on Awareness, described the process of self-discovery that she undertook in Taos, New Mexico. All of the personal details unfolded in fictional letters that she addressed to an Indian philosopher. Through her letters, Mabel shared stories about her failures to find awareness; she put her insights of the present in loving relation to those of her past. In this talk, I examine the queer temporality that Mabel enacted in her memoir. Her letters, I argue, eschewed linear narratives of intellectual development. Mabel learned how to queer time with guidance from her fourth husband, a Pueblo man named Antonio Lujan. He pushed Mabel through several transformative experiences, defined by her painful struggles to grasp indigenous epistemology with western scientific methods. The epistolary method that Mabel devised allowed her to interpret these failures as transitional moments for the "first time." As I reconstruct Mabel's narrative strategy, I pick out different firsts that we can use to retell our own histories of science.

Metadata

Presenter 3

Origin Myths: Counterfeit, Computers, and Controlling Currency

Gili Vidan

Harvard University

Abstract

In the 1980s and 1990s an international consortium of central banks, aided by hardware and software developers, launched a mostly covert initiative to thwart the threat of at-home electronic reproduction of passable counterfeit banknotes. While in the US, some efforts were focused on currency redesign and public education campaigns around detection of authentic currency, counterfeit deterrence systems (CDSs) were a technological intervention to defend the originality of issued banknotes against digital malleability. As a shared medium of exchange, money presented a particular knowledge problem about the stability of paper media in a digital age: to be widely accepted and trusted paper money needs to be instantly recognizable as authentic, yet its production ought to remain sufficiently secretive to resist counterfeiting. Targeting the intervention at the software and hardware layer, CDSs allowed the money makers to put a greater distance between what it meant to know money as its intended audience, its user, and know it as a producer. The semi-covert nature of these interventions provided them with the status of urban legends-an often unexamined whisper about the limits of digital freedoms.
Historians of science have often turned away from searching for elusive essentializing accounts of practices and epistemic markers such as truth and authenticity in favor of analyzing the counter-practices that police the boundaries of the real and the fake. This paper looks to the history of technical attempts to secure paper originals against digital fakes as a way to examine not only what constitutes the real and valuable but also trace the dissolving boundary between the digital and the material.

Metadata

Commentator

Ahmed Ragab

The Center for Black, Brown, and Queer Studies