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National Historiographies of Techniques. At the Epistemological Core of Global History of Techniques

International Conference

Paris, 2023

 September 28-29, 2023

Université Paris Cité / Musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac

Over the last fifteen years, the global history of techniques emerges as a new field of research animated by a strong scientific dynamic and endowed with organizational capabilities. Some collective works and comprehensive overviews published in recent years attest the possibility of drawing lessons from a multi-scalar approach. In contrast to the universal histories that have long dominated the history of techniques and technology, this multi-scalar approach is resolutely critical of ethnocentrism and concerned with restoring the complexity of technical worlds in long-term processes. The epistemological watershed that global history of techniques is creating is driven by critical approaches that challenge the notions of diffusionism and technical transfers promoted since the 19th century—e.g., the paradigm of English superiority—and expanded by colonialism and its imperialist avatars.

Of course, the refusal of diffusionist narratives in favor of heterogeneous processes of circulation of techniques, whose multiplicity of forms and divergences can be retraced, is not only aimed at questioning the supposed fluidity of globalization processes, whether it is a question of compatibility of national norms, inertial “path dependencies”, various instances of resistance or state control of flows. Indeed, at the heart of these approaches is the paradigm of the construction of “technopolitical” regimes, an idea that has dominated the literature for a generation, inviting us to reread transnational political processes—such as European integration for instance—in light of the history of techniques—with the ideas of a “hidden integration” and a “hidden fragmentation”.

In this sense, the global history of techniques intends to understand and historicize these narratives of mystification in the light of a political history of techniques that is capable of bringing to light complex processes of hybridization, intersecting temporalities, embedded territories, polysemies and controversies. It may also explore the effects of domination (colonial, especially) and resistance in the study of technical practices. The global history of techniques thus requires a variety of points of view, methods and conceptual tools.

This is why this deconstructive approach needs to question categories of analysis and conceptual tools, starting with the language of historians. While “technology” has become ubiquitous on a global scale and somewhat emphatically refers to the advanced technological productions of industrial societies (the “new technologies”) as opposed to traditional techniques, this meaning is rather ambiguous, and the term actually polysemic. For a long time, technology has meant the science of technique, the science of arts and manufacturing intentions, opening up the possibility of a science of human activity. This meaning faded during the 19th century, as the science of engineers, the process engineering and the meaning of technology as applied science assert themselves. By the beginning of the 20th century, “technology” was only making its way through small although active circles formed by curators of collections, philosophers, anthropologists and ethnologists who claimed “technology as a human science” and promoted a new concept, la technique, as constitutive of humanity.

This conference aims therefore at restoring the complexity of national historiographies of techniques. Its challenge is to grasp the epistemological and political logics that led to making national frameworks a reference point for understanding technical developments.

On the one hand, we shall encourage analysis of the way languages have been shaped and themes and concepts have been employed by imperialisms and techno-nationalisms, whether those inspired by American-style “technologies of the frontier” or those carried by socialism, historical materialism and contemporary developmentalist policies. If the impact of Eurocentrism on the history of techniques in many parts of the world has nourished an asymmetrical narrative on modernization with, as a corollary, the “backwardness” of non-European and/or pre-colonial techniques, many other instrumentalizations have taken place. It is important to highlight the diversity of discourses and actors that have contributed to forging the universalism of techniques that serves colonial expansions, nationalist aims, the opportunism of entrepreneurs, and in particular the role of engineers who are both coordinators and mediators. It is also fundamental to examine the struggles for the establishment of the nations’ geniuses, such as the cult of the inventor that constituted a challenge from civil society to traditional elites in Victorian England.

On the other hand, we shall revive the efforts of historians as well as the role assumed by various social groups with different political tendencies with the aim of producing contradictory and dissonant analyses, including in Europe, as Erik van der Vleuten has recently shown. It will certainly open a debate on the alternatives for collective management of technical equipment that are claimed by those who use concepts like “appropriate techniques”. We should try to determine how analyses promoting new themes have taken place—e.g., gendered history and critical reflections in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall —, or even to make explicit the multiplicity (and the conflictual nature) of technical trajectories and the complexity of temporalities, in particular in connection with social studies.

This conference thus intends to promote a reflexivity leading us to interrogate categories of analysis forged by the great unifying and teleological narratives and by the nationalistic assignments that can be so easily attributed to techniquess, while approaching these constructions as objects of analysis in their own right.

References

 Arnold, David, « Europe, technology, and colonialism in the 20th century », History and Technology, vol. 21, n°1, 2005, p. 85-106.

Grace Joshua, African Motors. Technology, Gender, and the History of Development, Durham, Duke University Press, 2022.

Hilaire-Pérez Liliane, Zakharova Larissa (dir.), Les Techniques et la globalidsation au xxe siècle, Rennes, Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2016.

Krige John (dir.), How Knowledge Moves. Writing the Transnational History of Science and Technology, Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 2019, p. 1-31.

MacLeod Christine, Heroes of Invention. Technology, liberalism and British identity 1750-1914, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Mavhunga Clapperton Chakatetsa, What Do Science, Technology, and Innovation Mean from Africa?, Cambridge-MA, The MIT Press, 2017.

Misa Thomas J., Schot Johan, « Inventing Europe: Technology and the Hidden Integration of Europe », History and Technology, vol. 21, n° 1, 2005, p. 1-19.

Pretel David, Camprubi Lino (dir.), Technology and Globalisation. Networks of Experts in World History Cham, Palgrave Macmillan, 2018a.

Riello, Giorgio, Cotton: The Fabric that made the Modern World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

van der Vleuten Erik, « Toward a Transnational History of Technology: Meanings, Promises, Pitfalls », Technology and Culture, vol. 49, n° 4, 2008, p. 974-994.

Scientific Committee
  • Gaëlle Beaujean (Musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac)
  • Marcos Camolezi (GDR 2092 TPH)
  • Guillaume Carnino (UTC, COSTECH)
  • Vincent Guigueno (Musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac)
  • Liliane Hilaire-Pérez (UPCité-EHESS, ICT Les Europes dans le monde, Centre Alexandre-Koyré)
  • Jérôme Lamy (CNRS, CESSP)
  • Anaël Marrec (CHS/Centre François Viète)
  • Gaspard Pagès (CNRS, ARSCAN)
  • Catherine Verna (Univ. Paris 8, ARSCAN)

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