NATIONAL HISTORIOGRAPHIES OF TECHNIQUES. At the Epistemological Core of the Global History of Techniques", Paris 2023

NATIONAL HISTORIOGRAPHIES OF TECHNIQUES. At the Epistemological Core of the Global History of Techniques", Paris 2023

Gaëlle Beaujean, Marcos Camolezi, Vincent Guigueno, Liliane Hilaire-Pérez, Jérôme Lamy, Anaël Marrec, Gaspard Pagès, Catherine Verna
Université Paris Cité, Musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac
Takes place
In Attendance
From - Until
28.09.2023 - 29.09.2023
Connections Redaktion, Leipzig Research Centre Global Dynamics, Universität Leipzig

This conference aims 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.

NATIONAL HISTORIOGRAPHIES OF TECHNIQUES. At the Epistemological Core of the Global History of Techniques", Paris 2023

Scientific Committee

Gaëlle Beaujean (Musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac)
Marcos Camolezi (GDR 2092 TPH)
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)

Abstract and short CV to be sent by May 10, 2023 to:

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 (Hilaire-Pérez, Verna, 2006; Krige, 2019), whose multiplicity of forms and divergences can be retraced, is not only aimed at questioning the supposed fluidity of globalization processes (Didry et al., 2004), whether it is a question of compatibility of national norms (Méadel, 1993), inertial “path dependencies” (David, 1985), various instances of resistance (Jarrige, 2014) or state control of flows (Krige, 2019). 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 (Winner, 1980; Noble, 1984; Hecht, 1998, 2012; Mitchell, 2011; Kurban, Peña-Lopez, Haberer, 2017; Krige, 2019), 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” (Misa, Schot, 2005).

This political dimension was the focus of Larissa Zakharova’s work (Zakharova, 2020; Hilaire-Pérez, Zakharova, 2016). Going against any nationalistic appropriation of techniques, a tendency as potent in France as in the USSR, Larissa Zakharova showed that supposedly national techniques resulted in fact from multiple encounters that resulted in an “interdependence of territories”—whether the latter be desired or imposed, embraced or negated—and led to various forms of adaptation rather than to a universal and homogeneous form. The adaptations of European and American techniques made by the Soviet industry might be referred to as an example (Zakharova, 2016, 2020). That way, the history of techniques reassesses a general historiographical problematic which aims to understand “national” as a complex construction in the intersection between different logics that have been established by exchange, by permanent recomposition of benchmarks and by continuous comparison between countries (Thiesse, 1999; Marks, 1990).

Moreover, the importance of national histories and the role of re-territorialization processes (“de-globalisation”, according to Pretel, Camprubi, 2018a) in the techno-scientific field, not to mention the large scale of state investments in research (Krige, 2019), lead to a dialectical understanding of the opening and closing borders processes (Krige, Barth, 2006; Hilaire-Pérez, Zakharova, 2016; Pretel, Camprubi, 2018b; Krige, 2019). On the symbolic level, the instrumentalization of technical legacies is placed in extremely varied contexts at the service of a techno-nationalist mythology of power (Schäfer, 2018; Roche, 2019). From this point of view, ex-post reconstructions of “national traditions” of particular techniques constitute a vast field of investigation (Steers et al., 2008). The national narrative of English superiority based on the heroisation of inventive geniuses that lies at the core of the concept of the Industrial Revolution constitutes a case study as well (MacLeod, 2007).

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 (Cohn, Dirks, 1988; Arnold, 2005). 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 (Carnino, 2010; Schatzberg, 2006, 2018; Camolezi, 2021). 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” (Haudricourt, 1987) and promoted a new concept, la technique, as constitutive of humanity (Camolezi, 2021).

The way the field has developed raises a number of issues. One concerns the use of the word “technique”, which has almost disappeared from the English language in favor of “technology”. While the history of technology is increasingly globalized, its research community is increasingly international. As English becomes the lingua franca of modern globalization as well as the language of historians of globalization, the use of the term “technology” has also increased, as John Krige points out (Krige, 2019, p. 15). This raises further questions and invites critical reflection, as the term “technology” is associated with western techniques understood to be applications of science, or at best technoscientific hybrids in the background of the economic growth that characterized this part of the globe from the eighteenth century onwards. As Mikaël Hård explains, historians generally follow “the common understanding of technology as more akin to engineering than to material culture. For example, the hydropower plant, in its close association to the field of engineering, is more likely to be understood as an artifact of technology than, say, bows and arrows” (Hård, 2017). Faced with the limits of the term “technology”, which fails to capture techniques outside the scientific field and, as was the case for many centuries and many regions of the world, historians have resorted to expressions such as “useful knowledge” or “useful and reliable knowledge” in order to restore cultures to their appropriate know-how, skills, and technological knowledge (Mokyr, 2002; Berg, 2007; O’Brien, 2019). Other historians have proposed an examination of the meaning given to techniques in non-western cultures by looking at words used in different societies to refer to processes or aspects of human activity. For instance, looking at the word “way” used among the vaShona hunters of Zimbabwe to refer to a means of action and displacement (Mavhunga, 2014); or “fundi”, used in Kiswahili manuals in Tanzania to refer to a group of tasks ranging from divination, carpentry, and tailoring to playing soccer (Grace, 2021); and the term “gong”, as both an accounting unit for the task and a quantity of work in Song China (Lamouroux, 2010b). The very notion of technique and its resonances in society is enriched when authors choose to give an inclusive meaning to human activity (Mavhunga, 2017; Coupaye, 2022; Grace, 2022).

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” (Baudry, 2017) or those carried by socialism, historical materialism (Daheur, 2023) 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 (van der Vleuten, 2008; Pretel, Camprubi, 2018a, 2018b). 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 (MacLeod, 2007).

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” (Jarrige, 2014). 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, as discussed by Daheur (2023)—, 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 techniques (van der Vleuten, 2008), while approaching these constructions as objects of analysis in their own right.


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