Jardine on Daston, 'Science in the Archives: Pasts, Presents, Futures'

Lorraine Daston, ed.
Boris Jardine

Lorraine Daston, ed. Science in the Archives: Pasts, Presents, Futures. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017. 392 pp. $37.50 (paper), ISBN 978-0-226-43236-6.

Reviewed by Boris Jardine (University of Cambridge) Published on H-Sci-Med-Tech (April, 2018) Commissioned by Dominic J. Berry (London School of Economics and Political Science)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=49934

Science in the Archives: Pasts, Presents, Futures

What isn’t an archive? Or, rather, what can’t become an archive? Questions such as these hover over this stimulating and ambitious volume—a major output of the Max Planck Institute Working Group “Archives of the Sciences,” a project that has explored “the taking, making, and keeping of data” in a wide range of scientific activity.[1] A specific kind of archival positivism is the subject of the contributions themselves: the world is simply that which can be sorted. As Cathy Gere points out, the human body has (via the genome) come to be seen as an archive of racial difference and evolutionary history. And as David Sepkoski shows, even the earth itself can be thought of as a kind of “Ur-archive”: an already-ordered and almost complete repository of global history, to be consulted by data-hungry palaeontologists. But note: “has come to be seen …”, “can be thought of ….” My initial questions are ill-formed because “the archive” emerges here not as a place, or series of places, but as a way of knowing, or even a process: a logic of order that is the precondition for certain kinds of science. More precisely, archives are produced by certain kinds of scientific activity, and they then come to form the precondition for others. This is what I take Lorraine Daston to mean when she speaks of “third nature” in her introduction. In the field and in the laboratory, “first nature” in transmogrified into “second nature”—the material with which “the scientific work of hypothesizing, testing, explaining, and predicting can begin” (p. 1). But these data-points, observations, photographs, and numbers also bind scientists together into a collective enterprise which draws on and perpetuates “third nature”: the sciences of the archive. Time begets temporality: the long labor of building up these archives and the sheer fact of their survival conjures visions of the deep past and even of a predictable future. Ambition in archive-building can become a search for immortality; on a smaller but more apocalyptic scale each archive described here aspires, as Daston puts it, “to annihilate time,” meaning that archival third nature comes to appropriate (first) nature itself. Nature is not really an archive, but under the archival gaze everything natural can become one.

In the essays contained in Science in the Archives, lofty and enjoyable speculations such as these are counterpoised by the fine detail of case studies and some extremely useful synoptic chapters. The archives here are lowercase: collections of things that are maintained by people. One of the successes of the book is the attention it brings to the often neglected work of maintenance: because looking after materials and data does not often garner citation or count towards discoveries or inventions, archive builders and guardians can fall out of the credit system of the scientific edifice. But their work, and the materiality of the things they work with, is just as much a part of science as a new instrument, theory, or means of communication.

The volume opens with three studies of “the historical sciences”: astronomy, geology, and medicine. Florence Hsia’s and David Sepkoski’s chapters dovetail neatly in their explanation of the multiple archival translations involved in creating, respectively, a catalogue of all historical astronomical observations, and a stable (enough) version of “the fossil record.” For Hsia, the relatively recent idea that all historical astronomical observations could be accessible to researchers masks a complex history of vastly different regimes of organizing and presenting data. For Sepkoski, the concept of “the earth as archive” likewise breaks down into a series of archival steps or stages: the development of an archival sensibility (borrowed from antiquarianism in the eighteenth century); the building up of systematic collections of rocks; the reinterpretation and representation (in catalogues) of these collections on stratigraphic grounds; the collection of these collected collections into synoptic tables; the radically abstracted images of the resulting data as spindle diagrams or graphs.

J. Andrew Mendelsohn strikes a different tone in his chapter on the ways in which medicine has remained a “bookish” science. His conclusions are similar to Hsia’s and Sepkoski: that the archival layers “between observing and knowing” constitute the history of the discipline (p. 86). However, in part because of the emphasis placed in histories of medicine on the growth of direct observation and the development of the clinical “gaze,” the reinterpretation of medicine in terms of its archives has a much more revisionist feel to it. The early-modern turn to empiricism, for example, involved “a renunciation of knowing” (p. 96), precisely because an uncertain but relatively complete record of observations was intended as much for the immediate, practical present as it was for the immediate, unknown future. It was also a matter of prestige, and a specifically urban way of knowing cultivated outside of the walls of the universities. Subsequent archival transformations are tied to genres and publishing norms: encyclopedism in the eighteenth century, and the rise of the scientific periodical in the early nineteenth. The emphasis throughout is on the productive nature of uncertainty, the benefits of forgetting and misplacing information, the success that accompanies failure. This, most of all, is an antidote to the “too much to know” style narratives that are all too common in histories of information: there was never a vast store of facts that required processing and sorting mechanisms, the development of new sciences; rather there were innumerable projects, schemes, data-gathering exercises that generated facts which could then never quite be brought back into order. And, at least in medicine, the chaos was productive: it allowed practitioners to accumulate more data in ignorance of one another; it kept the overall project of finding out open by preventing narrow classification; it permitted a sense of independent corroboration when patterns were eventually spotted.

Mendelsohn’s is the most striking instance of a pattern that emerges in Science in the Archives: archives are shown to have been constructed in ways tied to social, informatic, technological, and political structures; but these specificities have gradually become erased, to the point at which each archival science appears to have a “store” or “warehouse” of data, which is either straightforwardly transhistorical and transparent, or problematic only because of its size or complexity (for which new methods of analysis can be developed). Section 2, with chapters from Liba Taub, Suzanne Marchand, and Lorraine Daston, provides another tool with which to unpick the apparent simplicity of the archive. Here the contributors examine the archival imaginary: Taub explains how certain kinds of texts served an archival function in the ancient world; Marchand explores the relationship between the history of archives (primarily as functions of statecraft) and the archives of history—more specifically the role played in historiographic debates by different kinds of archives, ancient and modern. Implicit in these two pieces, and explicit in Daston’s essay on vast nineteenth-century collections of Latin inscriptions and images of the night sky, is the claim, which I take to be central to the volume as a whole, that looking at collections—the way they were conceived, built up, managed, and used—is a means of breaking down “two cultures” thinking, not simply in order to claim that art and science are one, but to explore the shifting and complex relationships between domains of scholarship and expertise from the point of view of practice rather than idealized division. Here the positivist spirit of the nineteenth century emerges anew as a strange, melancholy state of mind: what else is the collection of “every” instance of a thing than the expression of a fundamental uncertainty about previous attempts to describe it, present attempts to theorize it?

Whatever the cause of this megalomaniac malaise, it didn’t last all that long into the twentieth century. For one thing, the newer positivism seems to have been unperturbed by melancholy. For another, the rise of the experimental sciences put the very necessity of the “sciences of the archive” into question (pity the poor “stamp collector”). And, finally, when (even) newer archives were compiled in the second half of the twentieth century, there was far too much bureaucratic complexity for anyone to have been bogged down with anything as romantic as longing. At least this is the picture that emerges from the essays by Bruno J. Strasser, Cathy Gere, and Vladimir Janković on, respectively, data collections in the experimental life sciences, archives of evolutionary genetics, and climatological archives. These are all cases beset by, as the heading for the section announces, “problems and politics.” Indeed, the achievement of these chapters is the way in which—far from being natural or obviously necessary—archives in the post-World War II era were fundamentally political and inherently problematic. This is because, in each case, two kinds of professional tension intersected: questions over what would constitute “raw” data, and conflicts over control and representation in the archive itself. In the case of biological data, the rise of “open science” required the negotiation of a new moral economy of science, involving professional obligations, an expanding concept of scientific data, and a new (still incomplete) system of credit (Strasser). The various iterations of the archives of human evolution have been beset by even bigger problems, principally because of the way in which indigenous populations are fetishized and have been exploited in the name of universalist and even anti-racist science (Gere). Climate data has suffered from similar complexities owing to the demands and requirements of a wide range of stakeholders, not to mention the mindboggling difficulty of the subject matter itself (Janković).  

In a certain sense the heart of the volume is the final one, “The Future of Data: Archives of the New Millenium,” because here the underlying motivations for the “archival turn” become clear: as Daniel Rosenberg puts it, “We no longer delete, we archive” (p. 271). The turn to archives, which has happened in many disciplines (and has of course long been a subject in its own right: archive studies), must surely be a consequence of the development of the “information economy.” We care about histories of data because we are now aware of ourselves as subjects of data. As Rebecca Lemov puts it, “the ‘self’ is becoming more and more an archive made up of all the moments of a human life through which it constitutes itself” (p. 251). Rosenberg, Lemov, and Matthew L. Jones—the authors of this section—are of course talking primarily about digital archives. This is the realm of the “sciences of the self,” in which Foucault’s two regimes of writing (“lines of words that translate … thoughts”) and discourse (“systems that establish statements as events”) become one. Just think of the massive archives of affect held by Facebook, Twitter, and, in subtly different ways, Google and Amazon.

Yet, if it is the heart of the book, the final section beats a little erratically. The three essays are each fascinating in their own right—but their methods and conclusions are occasionally at odds with the essays that precede them. For instance, a strong common theme of the essays of the first three sections is the way in which archives are treated as sites of conflict, confusion, contingency, and construction (the four Cs of archival historiography?), but in the final section the archives of the self appear as almost naturally occurring phenomena. Here, too, the relationships between “archives,” “information,” “data,” and “knowledge” become slippery. For example, in Lemov’s essay on self-archiving, the subject emerges as a problematically constituted—even a compromised—product of the technologies that can record daily life. Yet, as mentioned, elsewhere in the volume archiving is successfully portrayed as a dynamic process in its own right. Mightn’t this archival complexity also play out in the lived experience of the archival subject (rather than resulting in a kind of ever-deferred reality, as suggested on p. 264)? But perhaps both of these minor criticisms are better thought of as comments on the radical changes brought about by digital media, which can indeed present us with “too much to know,” and really do break down boundaries between older categories.

Returning to the broader questions of archival historiography, it seems to me that there is still further to go in the integration of archival studies and the history of science, still more detail that could be added about the day-to-day labor of archival work and the range of archival methodologies that have held sway at different times. This is not to say that “the Archive” in the Derrida/Foucault sense should be jettisoned in favor of ever more papery accounts of actual archives, or of technically informed histories of archive policy and practice—rather that all three of these need to be considered together. Science in the Archives is essential in this respect, because in the history of science the relationship between knowledge and information (not to mention wisdom) will always remain critical. It is only now that we are beginning to see how that relationship has been altered and even determined over the centuries by archival ways of knowing.


[1]. See the description at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science website, https://www.mpiwg-berlin.mpg.de/research/projects/DeptII_Daston-SciencesOfTheArchives (accessed February 16, 2018).

Citation: Boris Jardine. Review of Daston, Lorraine, ed., Science in the Archives: Pasts, Presents, Futures. H-Sci-Med-Tech, H-Net Reviews. April, 2018. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=49934

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