Modest Witnesses

By Sean SilverDecember 7, 2018

Modest Witnesses

The Experimental Imagination by Tita Chico
Minds in Motion by Anne M. Thell

HISTORY IS LITTERED with crucial conceptual leaps made by people whose training was in seemingly unrelated fields. For every Sir Isaac Newton, who studied mathematics on his way to taking the Lucasian Chair in that discipline, we find someone like Joseph Priestley, whose education was in the Classics, but whose most important mark on history was the discovery of oxygen. Back up further still, and all we find are polymaths: Galileo was a lecturer in the arts, specializing in perspective and chiaroscuro; Francis Bacon was a statesman and writer of moral and imaginative essays, even while he was laying out the ground rules of the new science; Leonardo’s groundbreaking anatomical studies developed directly from his labor as a sculptor, and incidentally as an outgrowth of his training in engineering and architecture.

Generally, we account for all these well-rounded intellectuals by imagining that their moment was different from ours. We call them Renaissance Men, and marvel when occasionally someone similar turns up in our own time. Perhaps we suspect that these early polymaths were polymaths because all knowledge was new. Maybe we notice that the disciplines hadn’t become disciplined yet, or suspect that the first advances could come easy, while the depth and complexity of modern knowledge means that specialization is now necessary. But an increasing number of scholars are insisting that there is something more fundamental at stake — that science is by its very nature an imaginative enterprise. When Steven Pinker, in his popular defense of the Enlightenment, says that science is the offspring of “Reason” (sometimes with a capital R), he is no doubt voicing a common claim. “[R]eason,” Pinker summarizes, “is prior to everything else.” A closer look, however, suggests that science began as a humanist undertaking, and depends for its method and force on continual imaginative renewals. Science, that is, might best be ranked alongside the arts as one major variety of imaginative expression.

Two recent books make the case that the birth of the sciences relied on a series of personal transformations and imaginative leaps. Tita Chico’s The Experimental Imagination and Anne Thell’s Minds in Motion each locates essential creative acts, of people actively imagining themselves other than they are, as the crucial developments that inaugurated the Enlightenment. Chico sketches out what she calls the “experimental imagination,” a mixture of plot forms and rhetorical aesthetics, which underwrites the profound social and cultural transformations of the British Enlightenment. She traces the long, difficult disentanglement of objectivity from poetry and romance — or, really, the construction of objectivity as one creative mode of discourse among others. Thell describes the active invention of the rational subject at the loose and mobile margins of the Empire. She examines what it meant for people to come to grips with new cultures and unfamiliar objects, where British subjects learned to relay strange events as scientific facts. Together, they argue for an age of reason as an imaginative triumph. This, they claim, is not accidentally true; it is not an accident that the characteristic figures of the early Enlightenment were also artists, or drew on resources from the novel or romance. Such commixture is built into science as a genre.

Like the egg of Columbus, the premise of Anne Thell’s Minds in Motion seems obvious only after we are shown it in action. In a series of compelling case studies, Thell shows authors of travel narratives repeatedly encountering the central problem of any empirical project: how to relay a personal, particular experience in a way that renders it public and universal, how to invent knowledge that can exist outside the viewpoint of the knower. The standard theoretical resource for work of this stamp is Bruno Latour’s Actor-Network Theory, which stresses the importance of a whole assemblage of persons, technical machines, and routines in the production of scientific knowledge. Much of Latour’s early work was spent in laboratories. Since then, he has come to lean on studies like Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer’s Leviathan and the Air-Pump, which offer histories of empirical knowledge through philosophical and scientific texts. But the claim is the same; for a history of the sciences, we must go where the sciences are practiced.

Thell’s resource is more surprising; she locates the invention of the scientific observer in the authorial voice of travel narratives. What we now call “travel narrative” is a capacious genre. It includes maritime journals, epistolary reports, accounts collected in newspapers and other periodicals, proto-science fiction texts, and so on. The genre was buoyed partly by the consuming habits of 18th-century city-dwellers, who were enjoying the fruits of empire without being able to visit all the places where luxury goods were produced. It benefited also from the print revolution, which saw the sudden explosion of print media. But it borrowed a seriousness from the emerging empirical sciences, which mandated the collection of vast archives of facts. It is because of this mandate that many of the names we associate with the British Enlightenment, like John Locke, were inveterate readers of travel narratives. This also helps account for the credulity of people we now associate with the early modern sciences; they were hungry for facts, but sifting fact from alternative fact has all along been a difficult proposition.

Every travel author negotiated this tension. They learned to relate the exotic and the outlandish as though it were mere, familiar truth — which, in many cases, it was. And in developing this batch of techniques, this genre of narrative, they also pioneered the protocols for the fact. These were not the people we normally associate with the scientific enterprise — not least because the scientific enterprise was still being invented. They were not the people we would think of as rational or reasonable observers. They were poets and pirates, vagabonds and professional travelers, authors of imaginative fiction and tireless, ink-spotted editors. But each leveraged the same trick. Each worked to relay the details of a strange and wonderful world in a way that lent it to the seriousness of a scientific enterprise.

Travel narratives therefore relied on a double act of imagination. They afforded their readers the delight of imagining strange new worlds — the typical imagination-work we associate with literature. It is for this reason that the genre of travel narrative is the forerunner of modern science fiction and fantasy. But travel narratives also manufactured a new kind of witness, the rational observer necessary to science, humanism, and progress. Taken as a genre, travel narrative literally imagines that person into being. This is the second, and more magnificent, variety of imagination work: the one that involves a profound personal transformation. From this mixed mélange of hack authors and opportunists, aristocrats and idle travelers, editors and fabulists, a new species of person was born. After Donna Haraway’s influential formulation, we now recognize this specimen of person as a “modest witness”; the modest witness was the one who could transform an experience, however unlikely, into something with the ring of a fact.

Tita Chico’s Experimental Imagination is more interested in immodest witnesses, “bad scientists,” and people struggling to invent the rules of discourse and of observation which would finally make modern forms of data-driven rationality possible. Like Thell, Chico makes a particular effort to examine people normally left out of the grand narratives of progress — like the dazzlingly paradoxical Margaret Cavendish, whose very marginalism has catapulted her into canonicity. This is because people like Cavendish were acutely aware of the work required to invent themselves as men and women of reason. While the modesty of men generally refers to varieties of mental labor, Chico notes, it almost always refers to bodily deportment and physical discipline for women and the poor. Establishing themselves as creatures of reason and rational discourse was, therefore, a particularly manifest labor in the writings of these more vulnerable authors.

The modest witness is just one form of the literary labor that went into the invention of science. For the principal texts of the early British Enlightenment are continually constructed through techniques pioneered in literature, such that it might be most useful to think of Enlightenment science as a literary enterprise through and through. Viewing science this way means beginning with the most basic literary trope of all: the turn to metaphor which was both the delight and dread of authors writing in the early modern scientific mode. The principal writers of the British Enlightenment each took a turn denouncing rhetorical flourishes, preferring instead what they tabbed the “plain style,” in which a proposition should be composed of a relation of facts. These claims, which are often posed in beautiful rhetorical sentences of their own, are some of the best-known legacies of the writings of Robert Boyle, John Locke, Robert Hooke, and other names of the early British Enlightenment.

But metaphor, Chico observes, is what makes their work possible in the first place — a feature of early modern knowledge production often commented upon by the practitioners themselves. This metaphorical labor comes in two flavors. In one case, a theory or total worldview is explained through a rhetorical flourish. The majestic regularity of the universe was repeatedly found to be usefully similar to the inner workings of a clock, a poetic trope that has only lost some of its sublimity by becoming familiar. This form of comparison is more obviously likely to be recognized as poetry, and more likely, therefore, to be treated with a mild measure of suspicion. But the other form, often called “analogy,” appears to be crucial to the advance of new insights. Boyle’s Law, a beautifully simple rule relating air-pressure to temperature and volume, relied on a crucial comparison with the springiness of wool fibers. The comparison releases a set of conceptual possibilities, where the handling of a familiar material guides insights in an invisible medium.

Some of these metaphors are chosen deliberately, to make sense of a complex situation. Others are simply a necessary part of what it means to conceptualize. But these transactions generally leave a linguistic residue, in, for instance, the “pressure” of the air, which remembers “pressure” of one body against another, like a hand on a batt of felt. And while these metaphors can become dead ones in the course of time, in the doing of science they remain very much alive. They are active metaphors and voluntary choices, the poetics of a rational undertaking.

Taken together, then, Thell and Chico pose the argument that the early Enlightenment sciences were continually sustained as literary experiments. As Chico establishes, the same people who were crucial to the sciences were themselves invested in the literary arts, as poets or painters, dramatists or the writers of romance and public-facing essays on literature, religion, and the arts. Robert Boyle attempted an epic on the pattern of the great French romances; Margaret Cavendish was an accomplished playwright who framed her natural philosophy in a novelistic travel narrative. John Locke dabbled in poetry. Trained in the arts and steeped in them, these early practitioners repeatedly lean on the basic plot forms of romance and epic to structure narratives of transformation and discovery. Experiment is a micro-narrative not unlike a comic plot, beginning with a problem, but organizing its resources toward a solution. And the broader rhetoric of scientific “progress” is itself a literary trope, organizing time according to a voluntary plot. The idea that we are coming from somewhere, trending toward somewhere else, the central ideas of Enlightenment and rational progress: this is the very stuff of quest narrative or the novel, or the empirical study and grant application, depending on how you look at it.

It can today seem risky to suggest that the imagination is at the root of the sciences. We commonly think of the sciences as the field of facts, and art as a pleasing sort of deception. But these two books argue for fact as itself an achievement of literary and poetic form — especially in the rhetorical modes that make certain kinds of witnessing possible. Reminding us that facts are made isn’t to say that they don’t provide us with access to the real. On the contrary, remembering the imaginary institution of the empirical sciences reminds us what their pioneers knew all too well: that experimental knowledge has been, from the start, a rhetorical enterprise and a struggle to persuade. If we find ourselves, therefore, at another moment where the sciences have been thrown into doubt, remembering their imaginary institution suggests an important route forward. If scientists are authors, and facts are metaphors, what we need is rather more than less poetry: not so much Steven Pinker’s rationalist defense of progress, but labor like Siddhartha Mukherjee’s intimate history of genes, or Ruth Padel’s remarkable studies of Darwin. Stating the truth isn’t enough; facts are as delicate as the institutions that establish them. Rather, if it was the imagination that gave rise to the sciences in the first place, then the imagination surely should be avowed as an agent of their defense.


Sean Silver teaches at Rutgers University. He is author of The Mind Is a Collection, and curator of an online museum of the same name.

LARB Contributor

Sean Silver teaches at Rutgers University. He is author of The Mind Is a Collection, and curator of an online museum of the same name.


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