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  • When history meets science

    Posted on November 16th, 2014 hungyin No comments

    The reading this week contains On Deep History and The Brain and four essays of “AHR Forum: Investigating the History in Prehistories”, and there are mainly two sets of issues to discuss: the encounters of history and science, and the cancellation of artificial dichotomy, such as history/pre-history, modern/pre-modern, colonial/pre- colonial. I really enjoy these articles but today I am trying to discuss these two issues from a recent experience in a conference, instead of sticking on the readings.

    Last week I went to the annual conference of Society of History of Technology (SHOT) in Detroit, and there was a panel called “Asia as Method”. I went to that panel without any pre-existing idea about what this panel was going on. As this conference was the SHOT meeting, almost all participants were historians of technology. There were historians who study healthy products at early 20th century, and there were also physicists who study the experimental instruments of the 16th century. Thus, the Asia as Method panel was an interdisciplinary moment of history and many kinds of technologies, while it was also interconnection with the Western and non-Western world.

    The panelists were challenged by the audience because this panel named Asia, but most of them were actually studying East Asia. South Asia and other areas were under-presented. Also, most of the East Asian historical studies represent the successful cases of developmentalism, which has been criticized by World-System Theory and other critical theories. The audience of this panel then raised several questions: Is Asian technological experience different from the Western, or even African world? Does East Asian experience of modernization present a colonial story or successful developmental cases? Is historical studies of technology in Asia against colonial interpretations or to follow colonial domination? How to let Asia speak its own story, instead of just providing additional information to the Western-centric academic world?

    There was an interesting point of discussion raised in this panel: there were no clear conceptual and practical distinction between science and technology in some East Asian entities, such as in Japan. Thus, to some extent, the way to illustrate the world in Asia is different from the English world. It sounds an issue of philosophy of language, but here it provides a more radical argument than multiple interpretations for the one world, that the way to understand and analyze the world may totally different among every cultures, and thus there may be “different worlds.” Thus there is legitimacy of a whole historical experience other than the Western-English view, with accumulation of different language, culture and different past. This makes the discussion back to the basic motive of research – how to describe/understand/interpret our own world and our own past.

    The issue then was released from the tension between technology and history, or the West and non-West. All concerns can be considered base on its own research argument. The question is not how technological/historical a study should be, but to what technological/ historical extent can one tell his/her story clearly. Same as the encounters of science and history, it is sometimes indeed problematic that an interdisciplinary study should be more scientific or historical, or should an interdisciplinary researcher be trained by nature science or history. For now, I think it is decided by the story: an interdisciplinary historical research of science and history should stop to write the scientific part at the point that can tell the story clear enough, while in other words, one should provide scientific details that are enough to tell the story. Scientific sources are one kind of useful materials to tell the story, just like achieves.

    Back to the Asian studies of history of technology, I also think the question is not only about history/pre-history, colonialism and/or post-colonialism. It is also about how to reconstruct a world with multiple ways to reasonably reconstruct history beyond academic westernization. The artificial dichotomy of history/pre-history, colonialism and/or post-colonialism are just one interpretation of history and we don’t need to fundamentally block them. The point is there are many kinds of concepts can show the past with continuity. In this sense, I agree with Ogundiran, that “using all the multidimensional sources that are capable of disclosing different kinds of historical knowledge cross-culturally and in the long term” (p.801) can be a way to “be close to the end of prehistory.” (p.801)


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