Note keeping

Yesterday, I saw a talk by Hans-Jorg Rheinberger, Director of the MPIWG. The title was “The Economy of the Scribble.” It is worth the footnote that “economy” in its Aristotelian sense, is gaining currency among cultural studies people. On my shelf is Catherine Waldby and Robert Mitchell’s Tissue Economies, by all opinions a really important book. There was no blood in Rheinberger’s talk, it was mostly about paper. With a really nice example from botany, Rheinberger pressed the idea that notes: the material practices of producing and distributing them, are critical to understand knowledge making. His metaphors were still unstable. At times notes were “containers,” at other times “reversible inscriptions,” and there were such things as “constellations.” He added that we can (encore une fois) reconsider scientific research communities in terms of the note taking and sharing.

It is all very sexy, as sexy as history can be. I caught myself lamenting that what I do is so very different from this both grand and detailed scrutiny of the scientist in action. It is odd to confess that I would like to dig into a study of a scientific drawing, a table, a graph, and the scribbled and stained notes that adjusted its creation. Why is it so romantic?

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2 thoughts on “Note keeping

  1. First, because most archives were cleared up of these testimonies of the “science in the making”
    Second, because when you have the material, it’s extremely difficult to make it speak.

    Such is my experience with Jacob Marschak’s -unsorted- archives: opening an old unnamed folder; wandering between the hundreds of undated, crumpled, notebook sheets or bills with a quick handwritten quote by Pascal, Bachelier or Churchill. Looking astonished at the tens of newspapers articles on horse races, police inquiries and incredible subject captioned with abbreviations. Lifting two, three or more torn drafts of a paper; finding cut, sticked and recut pieces of notes for a lecture, laboriously spelling out pencil comments in the margins of these notes (No, never; and what about Hilter?, ect.).Being thrilled as a gold seeker and yet at lost: how to interpret all this?

    Any suggestion?

  2. There is such a thing as too much information! What I know of the kind of notes/papers that have been used in this way is that they:
    1. are very well inventoried, ie. archivists have gone through them and determined dates and other archival details, and
    2. speak to specific problems, ie. building a machine, writing a seminal paper. In fact, one could argue that all these studies are myopic, they only consider evidence that is very close to the critical moment, and fail to have a bird’s eye view. They are all micro-histories.

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