The Cult of the Particular

by John Brewer

HISTORY OF THE MODERN FACT: PROBLEMS OF KNOWLEDGE IN THE SCIENCES OF WEALTH AND SOCIETY • by Mary Poovey • University of Chicago Press • 419 pp • $17.50 pb • 1998

Working in the humanities and social sciences in the modern academy gets more and more like driving in Italy: Lane discipline has collapsed, drivers cut in and swerve off in unexpected directions, and almost any maneuver is legitimate as long as it is first clearly signaled and executed with bravura. The overall effect is intoxicating (but then, no one is enforcing drunk-driving laws), produces more than its fair share of accidents, and encourages either radical timidity or an overwhelming desire to join in the fun. (Don't think this analogy too masculinist; in my experience some of the boldest drivers are nuns dressed in neatly pressed cream habits.)

Mary Poovey, director of the Institute for the History of the Production of Knowledge at New York University, is one of those scholars who love changing lanes: from literary criticism to social theory (lots of traffic here), political theory to science studies, and epistemology to statistics. She handles these moves with great confidence and consummate skill; there is nothing flashy here--no fancy and unnecessary moves--just a cumulative sense of great intellectual power. Her journey requires all of her concentration, for A History of the Modern Fact, as she explains, follows a "circuitous route" that begins in Tuscany's Borgo Sansepolcro with the Franciscan Luca Pacioli's 1494 manual on double-entry bookkeeping and ends in the not-so-brave new world of science and statistics in nineteenth-century Cambridge and London.

The aim of this long peregrination is the recovery of an extended narrative: "The story of how description came to seem separate from interpretation or theoretical analysis; the story of how one kind of representation--numbers--came to seem immune from theory and interpretation." Poovey's concern with the histories of description, number, and fact--three connected but separate notions--is, as she acknowledges, a result of her considerable interest in a certain kind of nineteenth-century arcana: the tables of figures, pages of social description, and policy prescriptions bound together in large tomes of government-commissioned social analysis--texts concerned with human reproduction and body waste, housing and employment. With these relics in mind, she confines her story to "the appearance of the modern fact in sciences of wealth and society" during the 1830s.

Poovey's considerable ambition is to understand how a certain conception of the fact came about, one in which facts were treated as discrete floating particulars, definable, knowable entities, what Poovey calls "epistemological units," prior and somehow separate from but inevitably attached to interpretation. For Poovey, the modern fact, unlike its earlier, Aristotelian counterpart, is concerned with particulars rather than commonalities; at the same time, unlike the postmodern fact, it has a clear external referent in the world. A product of both the empiricism of Francis Bacon and the iconoclasm of Friedrich Nietzsche, the modern fact is exemplified by, but not confined to, number. Its most salient characteristic is the contradiction it embodies. On the one hand, it is a specific, "pre-interpretive or non-interpretive" datum; on the other hand, it is inevitably collected and employed to support systematic interpretive claims. The modern fact appears as the deconstructive object par excellence.

At first glance, Poovey's study seems to fit comfortably into that poststructuralist genre of scholarship that takes commonsensical or self-evident notions--the self, truth, science, the body, history--and reveals them to be changing, historically specific, and ideologically inflected rather than universal, natural, and impartial. This impression is reinforced by her avowed intellectual debts to many scholars in the field of science studies, including Steven Shapin and Bruno Latour, who have taken on the deconstructionist project. But Poovey's work is not simply an effort to unmask the cultural and political forces behind the ostensibly objective assertions of a text. Indeed, she disavows many aspects of the poststructuralist Foucauldian inheritance: She dissociates herself from a purely discursive analysis, and argues for historical continuity rather than Foucauldian rupture.

Poovey's approach is to superimpose "two kinds of historical reading," one that is concerned with recovery and reconstruction of what a text originally meant, the other with the subsequent (mis)readings to which it was put. Much of the book applies such readings to authors who appear in the general histories of economic thought: the mercantilists of the early seventeenth century; William Petty, the sugar daddy of political arithmetic; the Scottish historians, philosophers, and economists, notably David Hume and Adam Smith; and the political economists--Thomas Malthus, David Ricardo, and J.R. McCulloch--demonized by Charles Dickens and Thomas Carlyle. Because Poovey's avowed intent is not to write the history of prequels to modern social science, economics, and statistics but to understand the different ways in which the notion of the fact was established, she works outside and beyond this canon, considering not only bookkeeping manuals but texts about seventeenth-century science and reason of state, eighteenth-century moral philosophy and conjectural history, and nineteenth-century theology.

Each of these texts illustrates a particular way of arguing or thinking about wealth and society. Whatever the intentions of their creators, these writings helped to shape what could or could not be known and said about their subjects. Cumulatively, they exhibit the components of the "modern fact" in the study of economy and society. These components, it turns out, are quite disparate. They include the treatment of economic activity as a system of particulars (as expressed in double-entry bookkeeping manuals and polemics on the state of trade); the notion of a neutral or disinterested realm of knowledge (as posited by Robert Boyle and members of the Royal Society); the identification of economic facts (the achievement of political arithmetic); the subordination of observed particulars to an abstract general theory whose animating concepts--society, the market--remain key to the social sciences; and the development of a new taxonomy of knowledge, embodied by different groups of experts, in which collecting numerical information about particulars (statistics) was separated from interpreting them.

Poovey's wide-ranging and erudite study seems to me to exemplify a growing body of American scholarship that is united not by its subject matter but by what Poovey herself calls "its mode of argumentation." Such works, written by scholars over the tenure barrier but still far from the twilight zone, share a family resemblance, a common "poetics." They are lengthy and learned, formulate an object of analysis that has no obvious place in one discipline, and experimentally apply critical theory rather than produce it.

Eschewing a denunciatory tone, these archaeologies of knowledge are concerned less with power relations than with how various discourses both enable and constrict the creation of knowledge. The tone of such books is reasonable, calm, and accommodating, not rebarbative or evangelical. What does their growing number tell us about the current state of the academy? Bruno Latour, as Poovey notes, optimistically believes that in the late 1990s "denunciation and revolution have both gone stale...instead of really believing in it, we now experience the work of denunciation as a 'historical modality' which certainly influences our affairs but does not explain them."

Poovey, though her work clearly exemplifies a new scholarly civility, is less sanguine. She wistfully comments of Latour's remarks that she wishes they were true and that she believes them premature. In view of the recent bloody contests in science studies, she may be right. But as long as scholars produce work of the quality, range, intelligence, and open-mindedness of A History of the Modern Fact, the new civility will occupy the fast lane.

So perhaps I'm wrong. We're driving not in Italy after all but along a distinctively American highway, where freedom and order, discipline and road rage mix uneasily together. The trick is to get the steering right. •

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