Monday, September 22, 2008

J.B. Shank

J. B. Shank is an associate professor of history at the University of Minnesota.

His new book is The Newton Wars and the Beginning of the French Enlightenment, about which the University of London's Colin Jones writes: "Shank offers a fresh and genuinely innovative account of a key period and takes the reader into the scientific and philosophical worlds that grappled with the legacy of Newton, one of the master scientists of the early modern world."

Last week I asked Shank what he was reading. His reply:
I always have several books in different genres going at once, and as I am starting a sabbatical this year I have more than the usual number in process. Since I have sadly finished all of W.G. Sebald's novels, I continue to long for similar stories imbedded in history, memory, and fragile subjectivity. One I read recently that I liked a lot was Pascal Mercier's Night Train to Lisbon. Mercier is a German-Swiss philosophy professor, and his novel is a story of mid-life crisis as moment of self-awakening all set within the recent political history of Portugal.

Related to my on-going work in science studies is Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker's Creek which I read for the first time this past summer. I was drawn to the book by what I knew of Dillard's particular philosophical and theological orientation, but what I also found was a compelling and elegantly written book with a richly humane perspective on natural science and its capacity to excite wonder about nature.

My new historical research focuses on the work of Galileo Galilei, and a technical monograph that is teaching me many things is Domenico Bertoloni Meli's Thinking with Objects: The Transformation of Mechanics in the Seventeenth Century, a study that stresses the hands-on historical contingencies that were essential to the making of modern mathematical mechanics. To better understand the context that produced Galileo's science, I am also returning to a book that is routinely referenced but rarely actually read anymore: Jacob Burckhardt's pioneering The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy first published in 1860. The book literally defined the modern field of Renaissance history, and I am interested in returning to this founding text first hand so as to compare the Renaissance as Burckhardt understands it with the historical literature that his since been generated by his work.

I am also intrigued by Joseph Mali's discussion of Burckhardt in his book Mythhistory: The Making of a Modern Historiography. Mali sees Burckhardt as a classic mythhistorian in his recognition that history is an indissoluble fusion of empirical fact and imagination, and thus science and myth, and since Galileo is another figure fruitfully understood through the frameworks of mythhistory as Mali defines them, I am also interested in reading Burckhardt's account of the Renaissance for the models it may offer for thinking and writing about Galileo.

I also frequently have some philosophical titles on my reading list, and at the top of the pile right now is Peter Galison and Lorraine Daston's Objectivity, an account of the emergence of detached objectivity, and the subjectivity that anchored it, as epistemological and ethical ideals in nineteenth century Europe.

On deck are Paul Ricoeur's recently translated magnum opus, Memory, History, Forgetting and Charles Taylor's A Secular Age, each of which speak, albeit in very different ways, to the particular union of history and philosophy at the center of my own historical research and writing.

In the spirit of the "campaign season," I also read Thomas Frank's new book The Wrecking Crew. This is the third installment in what is an evolving critique of the "New Right" that has overtaken American politics since the late 1970s. Frank's first two books were One Market Under God and What's the Matter with Kansas?, and while I continue to hope that Frank will someday turn his attention toward explaining why the movements that he so brilliantly describes had the power that they did (he treats the development as a kind of mass delusion), his neo-muckraking style (H.L. Mencken is his idol, but he is also a child of the post-Hunter S. Thompson generation) provides the perfect antidote to the on-going absurdities of Fox News and "Red America" political discourse. Indeed, put Frank's three books together and you have the perfect hermeneutic for interpreting every dimension of the Sarah Palin phenomenon.
Read more about The Newton Wars and the Beginning of the French Enlightenment at the University of Chicago Press website.

Learn more about J.B. Shank's work at his faculty webpage.

--Marshal Zeringue