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Abstracts for Twentieth Century Think Tank

The Twentieth Century Think Tank offers broad coverage of 20th- and 21st-century topics in the history, philosophy and sociology of science, technology and medicine. The regular programme of papers and discussions takes place on Thursdays over lunch.

Think Tank meetings are held fortnightly on Thursdays, 1–2pm in Seminar Room 2. All welcome!

Organised by Mary Brazelton and Richard Staley.

Lent Term 2020

Show overview

23 January Allegra Fryxell (Pembroke College, Cambridge)
The tempo of modernity: rethinking the history of modern time
Transformations in time and space are fundamental components of definitions of modernity, yet time has only recently gained attention as a crucial category of the modern in historical research. While historians have typically explored changing notions and experiences of time through new technologies or conventions for measuring time, this paper seeks to expand the conceptual definition of time in modernity by arguing for an interdisciplinary approach that brings the history of science into conversations with the history of art and literary studies. Focusing on the period from the late 19th century to World War Two, ideas of time manifest in period philosophy, psychology, theatre and science fiction are used to capture a general sense of temporality (and its relationship to historicity) in early-20th-century modernity. The paper presents a new form of temporality, palimpsestic time, as a common feature of Euro-American modernity that must be taken into account alongside popular theories of 'social acceleration'.
6 February Zhu Jing (University of Warwick)
Non-Han bodies: anthropology, visuality and biopower in China's southwest borderland during the second Sino-Japanese War (1937–1945)
This paper examines the biopolitics of non-Han bodies by probing how ethnicities were classified and conceptualized in Republican China. Extensive anthropometric research was carried out on non-Han populations in the southwest during the second Sino-Japanese War, during which several anthropologists turned to researching non-Han groups under the rubric of frontier politics (边政 Bianzheng). Through imagery, technology and statistics, Republican scholars sought to generate collective physical traits for non-Han populations, in order to justify state interventions, whether for 'civilizing' the non-Han, cultivating the frontier, reclassifying local ethnic groups or constituting a unifying Zhonghua Minzu. The paper emphasizes the legacies of late imperial ethnography on Republican frontier governmentality, in particular the ideas and techniques of representing racial orders through employing imagery and the body as tools. It thus enriches our understanding of the intersections of science, visuality and frontier biopower in Republican China.
20 February Andreas Sommer (HPS, Cambridge)
Scientific naturalism and the modern empirical occult: historiographical and practical issues
Following public debates over the significance of Cornell psychologist Daryl Bem's parapsychological experiments for the 'replication crisis' and standards of scientific publishing, a more recent controversy over the validity of certain 'occult' phenomena in the American Psychologist suggests that controversies over science and the 'supernatural' aren't likely to end any time soon. In this session, I will sketch historical and sociological work on the 'decline of magic' in Western academia from the Enlightenment to the 20th century, and suggest that despite the axiomatic function of 'scientific naturalism' in modern university culture, conceptions of it are as vague today as they were in 1892, when Thomas Huxley enlisted historical claims to replace his coinage 'agnosticism' with that term. Arguing that controversies over empirical tests of alleged occult phenomena ultimately boil down to simplistic historical assumptions regarding scientific practice and metaphysical bias, I will address desiderata in recent historical scholarship on scientific naturalism. I will conclude the session by inviting discussions over whether and how professional historians and philosophers of science should take the risk of intervening in ongoing public disputes on science and the 'supernatural'.


Recommended readings ahead of the session:

  • Cardeña, Etzel. (2018). 'The experimental evidence for parapsychological phenomena: A review.' American Psychologist, 73, 663–677. Response: Reber, Arthur S., & Alcock, James E. (2019). 'Searching for the impossible: Parapsychology's elusive quest.' American Psychologist (Jun 13, Epub ahead of print. Summary: Reber & Alcock [2019]. 'Special report: Why parapsychological claims cannot be true.' Skeptical Inquirer, 43[4].)
  • Mauskopf, Seymour H., & McVaugh, Michael R. (1980). The Elusive Science. Origins of Experimental Psychical Research. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • Noakes, Richard. (2019). Physics and Psychics: The Occult and the Sciences in Modern Britain. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Porter, Roy. (1999). 'Witchcraft and magic in Enlightenment, Romantic and liberal thought.' In Bengt Ankarloo & Stuart Clark (Eds.), Witchcraft and Magic in Europe. Volume 5. The Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries (pp. 191-282). Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.
  • Sommer, Andreas. (2020). 'Reasons not to scoff at ghosts, visions and near-death experiences.'
5 March Helen Tilley (Northwestern University)
Medical heritage as cultural property: pan-African politics and global IP precedents in the 1960s and 1970s
In the summer of 1969, as social movements roiled the world and decolonization continued to transform geopolitics, hundreds of government delegates and thousands of official and invited guests journeyed to Algiers for the Organization of African Unity's First Pan-African Cultural Festival. The government representatives divided into three committees and spent much of the ten-day event hashing out their views on African culture, past and present, and articulating its role in the economic and social development of the continent. Rather than work with a narrow definition of culture, they embraced an all-encompassing view, seeing it as the 'totality of tangible and intangible tools, works of art and science, knowledge and know-how, languages, modes of thought, patterns of behaviour and experience acquired by the people in [their] liberating effort to dominate nature and to build up an ever improving society'. The resulting recommendations came together in a 3,000 word Pan-African Cultural Manifesto, which was adopted by the assembly on the final day without a single dissenting vote. Among their top priorities were the need for member states 'to promote and coordinate research in all spheres of traditional medicine in order to modernize them'; and 'to protect the intellectual property of Africans by suitable legislation'. This talk places this event – including the state, pan-African, and global policies stemming from it – within the wider context of the global Cold War and decolonization. It explains how concepts relating to African culture, including people's knowledge and know-how, came to be encoded not just within the text of model laws relating to copyrights and patents, but also in the programmes of the WHO and Unesco and the constitutions of certain IP organizations, setting global precedents in the process.