Organized Session

Underground Labor: Earth Workers, Evidence, and Erasure

Organizer

Patrick Anthony

Vanderbilt University

Chair

Lukas Rieppel

Brown University

Metadata

Session Abstract

This panel approaches science from below, re-centering labor in new histories of paleontology, archaeology, and ecology in the modern era. Delving into the underground "field"-caves in Southeast Asia, mines in Central Europe, and dinosaur dig sites in North America-we contribute to Daniel Rood's recent call for a "global labor history of science" (Manning and Rood, 2016). Here, where landscapes become "workscapes" (Andrews, 2008), our presenters grapple with the (in)visibility of labor in scientific practice. Following "invisible technicians" into the earth (Shapin, 1989), we ask how the erasure/exposure of various actors reflects the value of skilled labor in these sciences? With what strategies, and to what ends, did hewers and dinosaur hunters gain and wield authority of their own? What assumptions regulated the economies of scientific evidence extracted from the subsoil? And to what extent did underground environments invert the social hierarchies that reigned above ground?
In the panel "Underground Labor," we follow the politics of the earth through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, drawing inspiration from recent literatures that have shown how the subsoil, far from being a neutral space of disinterested science, can be understood as a political arena where normative claims about social order are inscribed into the earth's stratigraphy (Yusoff, 2018; Bobbette and Donovan, 2019). These authors have powerfully revealed the deep history of erasure and exploitation in the "geologizing gaze" of settler colonialism (Braun, 2000). Working parallel to these trends, historians of science have pointed to the underground as a "contact zone" for the circulation (and negotiation) of elite and vernacular knowledges (Fors, 2015), a unique scientific site peopled by "earth workers" whose "flickering visibility" reflects gendered cultural norms (Barnett, 2019). By viewing underground practices from these perspectives, we join a growing body of scholarship that illumina

Presenter 1

The Field Man: Skill and Identity in Underground Scientific Research at Dinosaur National Monument and Agate Fossil Beds

Jeremy Vetter

University of Arizona

Abstract

This paper considers the "field man" as a social type in the history of science, focusing on underground paleontological research in the American West in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The field man possessed a hybrid identity, combining scientific knowledge with distinctive physical practices, lower social status and western background with eastern institutional affiliation. He was highly respected and recognized for field skills, such as fossil prospecting and digging, or the management of human relations with less assistants and locals. But the field man was not himself a field assistant or manual laborer. He was a colleague, though a colleague with a distinctive role, with a strongly masculine identity. In order to make the distinctiveness of the field man's role and identity clearer, I compare two examples: Albert "Bill" Thomson, of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, at the Agate Fossil Beds in Nebraska; and Earl Douglass, of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, at Dinosaur National Monument in Utah. The field men were keen observers. They knew how to find things in the field, but they also knew how to locate their finds scientifically. They were knowledgeable about science but less formally educated than their colleagues. In the labor process, they remained subordinate throughout their careers, working under metropolitan bosses or directors who valued their field skills. Moreover, while typically their verbal and writing skills were less highly polished, they were also adept at relating to others, and their positive interactions with local people in small towns and rural areas were vital to their success in the field. In short, the field men possessed an identity that corresponded with their central role as hybrid participants in the practice of field science, joining together the worlds of cosmopolitan science and practical field skills.

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Presenter 2

The Unknown Discoverers: Scientific Practice and Knowledge Production in Postcolonial Indonesia

Paige Madison

Arizona State University

Abstract

Excavation sites are unique spaces of knowledge construction, composed of a range of actors from scientific elites to "unknown discoverers," the "unsung, uneducated local laymen who have silently found many bones" (Jacob, 1967). These locations have recently garnered attention from historians of science both this quality of social diversity as well the character of increased difficulty of scientific practice at these sites. Field sites are often complex, uncontrollable, and irreplaceable. Given that the diverse actors at these locations are often stratified in various social, economic, and political ways, how do they work together to understand the complex history written in the earth?
This paper examines the particular scientific practices-with attention to the cross-cultural exchanges embedded in those practices-that lead to knowledge production in the science of human origins (paleoanthropology) in twentieth-century postcolonial Indonesia. I concentrate on a single field site, the cave of Liang Bua, using its history of excavations from 1950-1989 as a case study of exchange across a wide range of actors and cultures. Zooming in on the role of local, non-elite actors (the "unknown discoverers"), I argue that their role in the scientific process has been consistently diluted. Using archival materials and oral history interviews, I explore ways to make these "earth workers" more visible (Barnett, 2019).
Island Southeast Asia is a particularly fruitful place to investigate the nuances of knowledge production through scientific practice, and the importance of exchange and circulation therein. It is a relatively unexplored region by historians of science, yet one that has been identified as having extraordinary promise given its history of cultural and political exchange. Wrestling with the role of laborers in this part of the world will help uncover how knowledge about the human past is dug from the ground and produced.

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Presenter 3

The Production of Sustainability: Labor Relations and "Rival Ecologies" in Central European Mines, ca. 1800

Patrick Anthony

Vanderbilt University

Abstract

This paper revisits the early history of "sustainability" (Nachhaltigkeit) to explore the "rival ecologies" (Jonsson, 2010) of elite and common miners in Germany around 1800. Where recent scholarship has focused on the conceptual invention of sustainability in scientific forestry and soil science, I turn to its production within the labor relations of hard rock mining. The case of Prussian savant Alexander von Humboldt, sometimes celebrated as a forefather of modern ecological thinking, is particularly revealing of the politics then embedded within sustainable practice. Returning to Humboldt's tenure as a mining official in the 1790s, I re-position him within a generation of reformers who strove to purge the industry of "irrational" folk beliefs and instill conservative, "oeconomic" values in laborers. They did this through "Free Mining Schools" designed to curb the "Raubbau," or rash over-exploitation of mineral resources, carried out by private investors and their self-appointed foremen. Humboldt and his ilk thus set out to mold a new generation of mine foremen, agents of sustainability answerable to state administrators alone. But common miners had an ecological framework of their own: centuries-old traditions of resource management governed by spiritual entities and entrenched in the folklore and vernacular knowledge of a rich oral culture.
Approaching the mine as an inter-cultural contact zone, this paper analyzes the conflict between and co-production of elite and vernacular environmental knowledges. Specifically, I argue that the sustainable program promoted by elite administrators like Humboldt drew, in fact, upon the environmentalisms of the laboring classes. In this, I re-situate the "proto-ecological" worldview associated with Humboldt's worldly travels (Sachs, 2006) in the local working worlds of silver mining, while drawing miners' ecologies into a broader, global history of what Joan Martinez-Alier has called "the environmentalism of the poor."

Metadata

Commentator

Lydia Barnett

Northwestern University