Project (2012)

Print Seriality and Epistemologies of Search during the Nineteenth Century

Alex Csiszar's project concerned the origins and consequences of the rise of the scientific journal in nineteenth-century France and Britain. He hypothesized that late-century enthusiasm for efficient instruments of search was not a natural reaction to an out-of-control flood of knowledge coming into print, nor did it establish an era in which researchers at last eliminated their reliance on personal connections and ad hoc methods for learning what is known on a given topic in favor of some more formal or rational system of information retrieval. Rather, these events were prompted by, and helped to consolidate, a shift in which scientists increasingly perceived the social and intellectual life of science to be lodged in the pages of the specialized scientific literature, and specifically in the expansive terrain of the scientific periodical. Only when scientific knowledge, figured as a landscape of scientific papers, lurched into visibility, did demands for a total, comprehensive vision of this paper landscape take on meaning and urgency.

The rise of epistemologies of unity and of community—for example those of Poincaré, Mach, and Peirce—must be understood in the context of the material practices of unity that accompanied them, of publishing reforms and cataloguing projects. As scientists professionalized and looked to establish robust boundaries between genuine scientific contributions and the ephemeral productions of the burgeoning mass press, an international system to manage publication appeared to them crucial both for unifying knowledge and for buttressing scientific solidarity. From mid-century onwards, as natural history disciplines struggled to establish standard codes of nomenclature, it became evident that the most perfect coordination rules were abstract nonsense without archiving procedures and publications to provide a substrate in which to operate. By century’s end this worry had spread, and savants across the disciplines were engaging in bibliographical theory and practice.