Categories as Prisons: or How Not to Write the History of the Scientific Revolution, Part II

Amanda Domingues and Rogelio Scott-Insua
05/06/2024 | Reflections

In our last blog, we talked to Dr. Cañizares-Esguerra about the problems of narratives within the history of science that apply categories originally conceptualized in Europe and North America to understand events that transpired across the globe. In Part II, we continue this conversation.

In your work, you explore the idea of “conceptual prisons” as a metaphorical way of describing how these dominant ideas on science and modernity 'imprison' our thinking, constraining understanding about certain places and preventing the exploration of alternative viewpoints or approaches. What are the current conceptual prisons that you're addressing in your recent scholarship?

There are a few projects out there and the book on Humboldt is one of them. Humboldt is certainly emblematic of scientific exploration, but in the book, we show that he is emblematic of something else: geopolitics of knowledge. He is particularly relevant and important precisely for the reasons we discussed (earlier in Part I of this interview), namely, that he arrives in a continent that is entering the wars of independence. He proved instrumental for numerous liberal patriots seeking independence from Spain, but also for the new national narratives that sought to erase colonial institutions of knowledge. He offers these individuals an erasure of the colonial regimes of knowledge because he is presented as a lone genius, a Columbus of knowledge that had not been done before. As a traveller that discovers—like Columbus—American nature for the first time, he is valued highly by the patriots, who find him very useful for synthesizing knowledge of Spanish American colonial institutions on mining, cartography, statistics, labour, natural resources, among others, that can be used and deployed in conversations with the British (especially) and the French, for diplomatic recognition and financial loans for guns. 

But there is another reason why we wrote the book. There are some biographies coming out that cast the light of an “unknown Humboldt,” a man who is the founding father of ecology, who anticipated critiques of not only the Anthropocene but also of hierarchies and slavery. These biographies erase his history in Latin America. In one of the most recent books about him, which won several prizes in the US and UK, Spanish America appears by not appearing. Humboldt’s one-year-long travel and work in Mexican archives is summarized in one paragraph while the book devotes one entire chapter to his visit to North America, where he spent only a month.

This is an example of a tradition of silencing and erasing sources of knowledge that, ironically (or not), began with Humboldt himself. The main takeaway that we hope for the book is that no matter the size of an archive— how much information one has on a person, expedition, or event— there is always going to be silence.

The Invention of Humboldt On the Geopolitics of Knowledge [Image credit: Professor Jorge Cañizares-Esguerra's book]
What is another conceptual prison that prevents alternative perspectives of Latin American history? In reading other narratives about Humboldt in Latin America, we had the impression that the authors portray Humboldt as a subject visiting a continent only populated by objects. There are no interlocutors, there are no subjects who produce knowledge there, therefore, he doesn't have any peers.

Another conceptual prison in the historiography of science in Latin America is slavery. Slavery in the US is radically different from slavery in Latin America. Not only in terms of scale (while 300,000 Africans arrived in what today is the United States, about six million went to Brazil) but also in terms of the meaning of slavery in the US and in Latin America. 

An important part of this difference lies in the concept of citizenship. While in Latin America former enslaved people created whole communities and could acquire legal personhood by buying their freedom, in the US the creation of free black communities was almost impossible. The constitution of many states (Virginia 1680s, Texas 1841) required free blacks to leave to other states: being black was incompatible with citizenship. So, there's a huge difference between these two “worlds” that historians are not exploring and that their readers are not aware of. 

This lack of awareness, or deliberate omission, occurs because the model of antebellum America has become the epistemological model for understanding our contemporary societies today. According to that model, slavery plays a crucial part in the foundation of American exceptionalism, in the foundation of the colonial legacy of the US. And “slavery” à la USA (together with many more categories that are still insufficiently unaddressed by historians) becomes the model for the rest of the world. So, slavery in Latin America is studied by historians under this prison of antebellum slavery so they can claim they understand processes that were, in fact, radically different. And that is the power of epistemological authority, and geopolitical authority. 

Your book, How to Write the History of the New World, aims to be an alternative history of the new world, read by the North American canon perhaps as claiming that there's a hybrid, an alternative, local history of modernity that is a little different from the normative path of history, which is American exceptionalism. This thought may create an issue because on the one hand, there's an openness to talk about hybridity or localities, but on the other, it is always the idea that whatever is hybrid is the exception to some historical normativity. How do you respond to this trap?

There is this idea of a dichotomy between local and normative. Local is local knowledge and normative is whatever is produced in the Global North. Production in the Global North is seen as normative, not local when in fact it is as local as the other local. But it has the power of geopolitical authority to become normative. So that is where the geopolitics of knowledge really lies: in this metamorphosis of the local into global normative. What I try to do in my work is to show that you can have a different normative, a normative narrative of technology, of technological revolutions that are not local.

What is your next project? What are you currently working on?

I am currently working on two books. The first one is about historical categories and how they render things invisible, things that cannot be seen regardless of the size of the archive. Categories as Prisons (University Pennsylvania Press) explores how historiographical categories organize what questions about the past are permissible and therefore how archives and narratives are organized. The book explores how such categories as the Scientific Revolution, the Reformation, the Baroque, and the Enlightenment have rendered invisible entire chapters of the colonial history of the Americas.

The second one, The Radical Spanish Empire (Harvard University Press), is coauthored with Adrian Masters and offers a critique of the whole package of modernity. We explore how it has framed understandings of conquest and colonization in the 16th century to the exclusion of many things. The book shows that sixteenth-century Spanish America witnessed massive popular participation in the creation of new laws and radical forms of antislavery and abolitionism. The region also witnessed the creation of vast archives of new social and natural knowledge and the rise of systematic skepticism and philosophical pragmatism in governance. The book challenges the Anglo-American liberal notion that parliamentary democracy, humanitarianism, print culture, and the public sphere were the crucibles of modernity.
Amanda Domingues is a Ph.D. Candidate in STS at Cornell University. Her research engages STS, Feminist Theory, and Latin American STS to examine how scientists have combined scientific methods with knowledge from communities. Her focus is the field of archaeology and the recent debates in that field about ethics and community consultation.

Rogelio Scott-Insua is a PhD candidate in Anthropology at Cornell University. His current research explores the ongoing articulation on genomic medicine and psychoanalysis in Brazil, where both disciplines are converging in providing a joint treatment to patients affected by neuromuscular dystrophies.


Published: 05/06/2024