Category Archives: Jeffrey Sklansky

How are History of Sci/Med/Tech and History of Capitalism Teaching One Another?

Continuing our ruminations on the history of capitalism and its relationship to the history of science/med/tech or to STS (here) (here) (and here), I think we might find some useful categories of analysis in Jeffrey Sklansky’s recent historiographical essay from Modern Intellectual History (Vol. 9, no. 1, 2012). Sklansky’s piece, “The Elusive Sovereign: New Intellectual and Social Histories of Capitalism,” (requires subscription) does what great historiographical works should do: it covers and categorizes a wide literature using analytical categories that shed new light on the assembled works; it reads recent scholarly trends perceptively; and it points the way toward fruitful new avenues of research and analysis. I’ll summarize Sklansky’s approach to each of these aspects, but for our purposes, I will note this first: Sklansky’s analysis suggests to me that the history of capitalism as currently practiced already shares deep affinities with our own dominant historical and methodological approaches.

Framing his essay, Sklansky explains the difference between the “old” and “new” histories of capitalism, being very careful throughout to avoid any claim that the new is better or smarter, or anything of the sort: it is simply a new avenue of investigation that raises interesting research questions and speaks to our contemporary sensibilities and concerns. The old history of capitalism, dominant only a few decades ago, focused on “proletarianization,” on the process of making wage laborers. The new history of capitalism, Sklansky argues, shifts its emphasis toward “commodification”:

The ceaseless process of churning work and wealth into prices and profits effectively converts qualities into quantities, rendering all things countable and commensurable by subjecting them to a single standard of pecuniary value. Joining material life to the abstract power of capital, commodification requires for its comprehension a more capacious kind of historical inquiry, transcending the old division of labor between intellectual and social history. (234)

He goes on to explain attention to commodification forces historians to think about “implicit notions and norms” alongside “formal intellectual systems such as Newtonian mechanics and neoclassical economics.”(234)

Why make this shift? For one, it allows for some productive synthesis. Take for example, the idea of commodified labor. Unlike proletarianization, which assumed a move toward wage labor, applying commodification as a lens for thinking about labor allows for narratives of capitalism that include non-wage labor, including chattel slaves, as well as “paupers, prisoners, ‘coolies,’ peons, sailors, servants, contract laborers, sharecroppers….”(237) Given the significance of slavery historiography over the last generation, it makes sense that any history of capitalism should be capable of thinking about slavery as part of the system, rather than as something exceptional.

A more important reason for the shift may have to do with our prevailing political economies. The story of proletarianization meant more to historians bringing to the past questions raised by their own experience of post-WWII industrial unionism. In our own financialized times, as industrial corporations increasingly and worryingly recede into the past, historians have begun to ask more about the importance of finance, and really of money, over the last few hundred years.

Sklansky divides the existing scholarship into three categories: works “conceiving capitalism” as a:

  1. “form of selfhood or way of being,”
  2. “a system of representation or way of seeing, and”
  3. “a framework of trust or way of believing.” (234)

Number 2 should strike a particular chord with us. Sklansky points to (among others) Lorraine Daston, Ted Porter, Mary Poovey, and John Carson as examples of people who demonstrate the power of new conceptual apparatuses, often constructed with the sciences, to facilitate the reduction of a complex material world into something that can be bought, sold, and traded in markets, to allow “economic actors and activities in all their irreducible particularity [to be] broken down and reconstituted in terms of commensurable units of quantitative value.”(243) Number 1 should sound familiar too, since our field has been paying more heed to scientific selves as of late. And while Sklansky draws few parallels from number 3 to any literature from the history of SciMedTech, I can’t help but think that the movement Sklansky sees to “blur the boundary between selling and speculating, finance and fraud” is related to our own commitments to treat “pseudoscience” as a suspect label, which dates back at least to Shapin’s decision to take phrenology seriously in the 1970s.

Sklansky closes the essay with a call for increased attention to capitalism as a “way of ruling, of establishing and exercising social power.”(246) His idea here is not so much that we should imagine William Graham Sumner’s “captains of industry” to be in charge of everything as it is that we should recognize the way that capitalism created new social and cultural forms that mediate power relations, for everyone from the wealthiest financier to the poorest whaleman. This looks to me like a Foucauldian approach, with the “microphysics of power” originating and evolving in shifting political economies. More specifically, Sklansky points to Ken Alder’s Engineering the Revolution to suggest the ways that states shape industries, markets, and ideology all at once; he points as well to work that shows capital to act as a kind of quasi-state, and to histories of social thought like those by Howard Brick and Dan Rodgers that tie political/economic and intellectual change together.

On the whole, the trend Sklansky sees appears to have been made possible in large part by creative intellectual appropriation: Daston, Porter, Carson, Alder etc. are not “historians of capitalism.” But Sklansky is right in seeing their work as consonant with and constitutive of the project of the history of capitalism. Up to this point, history of capitalism seems largely to have been working in parallel to or even borrowing from the science-studies-turn in history of science.

But I have high hopes that the history of capitalism will increasingly be a resource for us to draw upon, that in the process of appropriating STS for its own purposes, the history of capitalism will show us new ways to think about changes in science, medicine, and technology that are more aware of political economy.