Event Review: ‘The Cultural Production of Natural Knowledge, 1700-1850’, The Institute of Advanced Study, University of Warwick (30 October 2010)

At this one-day workshop, speakers and attendees examined together questions that went far beyond the ordinary distinctions of disciplines, periods or institutions.  The event was superbly organised by Warwick University Institute of Advanced Study Early Career Fellowship holders Sarah Easterby-Smith and Emily Senior, who also outlined the day’s themes (for an excellent summary, see go.warwick.ac.uk/naturalknowledge).  The papers were so tremendously wide-ranging that—ironically, perhaps, in relation to the reference to ‘natural knowledge’—there were no ‘natural’ pairings.  Instead, the juxtapositions attempted to align scholarly discussions in innovative ways, providing an exciting model for future interdisciplinary events.

The first session began with Judith Hawley’s discussion of Scriblerian responses to natural philosophy, followed by John Christie’s insights into conjunctions between the writings of Anna Laetitia Barbauld and Joseph Priestley.  After midday, Simona Girleanu talked about the embellisement of 18th-century Paris and Clare Bryant presented her findings on the ‘disorderliness’ of English ballooning.  In the afternoon, Miles Ogborn talked about the ‘talk’ of Jamaican medical botany, which was followed by Melanie Keene on the ‘familiarity’ of mid-Victorian ‘object’ lessons.  The last formal session turned to machines, with Florence Grant’s study of George III’s scientific instruments and Philippa Hubbard’s findings on the use of graphic print cultures in popular science.  The range of topics demonstrated magnificently that ‘interdisciplinarity’ involves so much more than apparently contrasting disciplines; instead, it involves every aspect of our experience – its history and materiality, its pedagogy and philosophy, its images, literature and machines.

At the final session, three leading interdisciplinary scholars (Michael Rosenthal, Claudia Stein and Colin Jones) led an exciting roundtable discussion on what had emerged from the day and its relevance for academia today.  Naturally, in the current climate of harsh HE humanities’ cuts, the issues of what constitutes ‘useful’ knowledge, ‘pure’ knowledge and the usefulness of scholarly curiosity were forefront in people’s minds.  At the same time, it was cause for comment that most of the day’s papers involved specifically English histories and adopted similar scholarly methodologies.  It was an astute observation and one that led to the key question of whether current academic approaches are becoming altogether too familiar to participants in the humanities.  If there is any solution to that problem, perhaps it may lie in the further innovations, explorations and applications of interdisciplinarity.