Technologies of Progress: Scientific Encyclopedias and Periodicals in 19th Century Bengal

This project investigates the formation of scientific culture in colonial Bengal through an in-depth study of two genres of synchronization: the stable genre of the scientific encyclopedia, and the unstable genre of the scientific periodical.

Although the project may be seen primarily to fall within the purview of history of science, among its secondary aims, the project seeks to unpack the relevance of the concept of synchronization in understanding futurist projection in disciplines and fields that interface with the natural sciences.

Research questions

How is the concept of synchronization relevant to the process of colonial modernity, especially as it is expressed in the vocabulary of Renaissance phenomenons in colonial contact zones?

Can synchronization explain discursive proliferation or proliferation in scientific knowledge? Given that its origins lie in Enlightenment belief in a unity of knowledge, in what ways is it connected to disciplinarity or the formation of disciplinary boundaries?

What role does translation play in the processes of synchronization?

Periodization, scope and relevance

The production of scientific literature in colonial Bengal may broadly be seen in terms of three phases: the Orientalist phase (1784-1857), the Punarudito (“Renaissance”) phase (1858-1905), and the post-Swadeshi (self-rule) phase (1905-1947). This project looks primarily at the first two phases. The project will be a first of its kind study of the genre of the encyclopedia in Bengal and the significant periodical culture. Utilizing this material, it will seek to demonstrate, through analysis and translation, how a study of synchronization is of particular relevance to what is understood as the Renaissance phenomenon in colonial Bengal and, shed new light on the politics of postcolonial religious and cultural identity that continues to shape the political landscape of the region (Appadurai 1996; Williams 2011) as the continuation of practices of synchronization threaded in the notion of progress.

The Formation of the Medical Archive: Synchronization and the Database

Bibliographic sources indicate 99 medical texts upto 1875 (of which 9 are Materia Medicas), at least 200 medical textbooks in the last quarter of the 19th century (including translations), and 783 science journals between 1870-1900 (of which a majority are in medicine and health).

The material under investigation in the project includes 15 Medical Textbooks and Encyclopedias (generally classified as Pharmacopias, Materia Medicas, and Botanical Catalogues), 10 Comparative journals (6 Bangla/Bangla-English hybrid, 4 English), 3 translated texts from Sanskrit to English and Bangla, as well as two modern medical datasets under development by the Government of India in the present.

Preliminary hypothesis: Synchronization as an epistemological strategy in the material studied distributes knowledge temporally into modern and traditional. It seeks to achieve its effects by developing classification systems or ways of operating with language and data, which may be packaged into container forms or “genres” such as the encyclopedia and the scientific journal. The classification systems cannot exist as such without these container forms, but these forms are not stable and they are accorded varying different degrees of scientificity and immediacy. The genres work in tandem with each other and perform similar work of synchronization, but vary in their scientificity. The goal of synchronization seems to be a separation of one class of data from other data types by employing a new container form. The strategy of linear temporalization fails where the ostensibly traditional systems are modern, resilient and flexible enough to engage with the processes of synchronization. Instead of a linear developmental narrative, multiple systems always exist in entangled relations with each other, adopting and adapting the container forms for their degrees of scientificity. To extend and revisit the argument by Jordheim (2014), genres exist as strategies of synchronization but they are made possible by accommodating entanglement. Hence there exists, at any one time, multiple times, just as there exists within any one genre, multiple genres, and each supposedly pure knowledge tradition, the presence of other traditions: and these times, genres, and knowledges exist in entangled relations with each other. New container forms also continually develop to deal with entanglements. The 21st century databases for instance have developed in response to the internationalization of patent laws in biopiracy debates in India.

Published Sep. 9, 2015 12:23 PM - Last modified Oct. 14, 2016 12:43 PM