Letter to Student on Writing and Revision

Dear S,

Good to hear from you. I know finals can induce anxiety, but don’t let this one get to you. I think you should stick to your choice, because you like Marcel Mauss and also because writing on him makes good sense. Recall that you shouldn’t be trying to reiterate the values, axioms and methods of science albeit in another set of terms. Rather, you should try to get some helpful perspective on science by stepping outside it. Mauss seems to offer an excellent opportunity to do that. Nor would you be alone in wanting to investigate science from the outside. Bruno Latour has made a very impressive career out of this, starting with his provocative and thorough study of the Salk Institute, called Laboratory Life.


Other sociologists and historians of science, such as Lorainne Daston, Stephen Shapin and Peter Dear (whose essay on Descartes’ mechanical worldview I offered as an optional reading) have done the same, or similar. Precisely because Mauss values holoism, the power of the ‘total social fact’ over construction of the whole from elements, he offers an alternative view of how the world works, both in terms of what he understands other cultures to believe about the world, and in terms of how he understands human communities (archaic and modern) to function.


There’s plenty of interesting and useful ends toward which Mauss can be directed in the study of the sciences. If nothing else, Mauss places scientific thinking into relief, allowing us to see it’s basic contentions as clearly as possible, and perhaps gain the possibility of rediscovering what made assumptions such as the validity of empirical observation and common consensus appear so remarkable, indeed startling and controversial in the first place.

As for your interest in the neglected figure Ludwig Boltzmann, I believe I’ve seen his name in histories I’ve read, though I don’t believe it to have figured with great prominence. I think the answer to the question why we don’t here more about him is one provided by Simon Schaffer, in “The End of Natural History.” Great scientists become heroic figures not only because of what they are able to “discover,” but also and perhaps more significantly, because of what subsequent generations wanted to attribute to them and write about them. Greatness is not necessarily or exclusively inherent, but rather a quality constructed by historiography. Fortunately, for Boltzmann, however, history, as a careful and open-minded reading of Hegel will teach us, is never written once and for all. Rather, each new generation, in order to establish its own identity and independence, revisits and strategically rewrites the past according to the values of its own day, indeed precisely to discover the values of its own day.


This is exactly what we see Rosalind Krauss doing in the final essays I assigned for the semester. In “The Originality of The Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths” and “Sculpture in The Expanded Field,” Krauss returns, in the act of rupturing ties with her paternal figure Clement Greenberg, to the monumental figures of modern art, in particular August Rodin. Applying ideas adopted from the Surrealist Marxist Walter Benjamin, Krauss radically rewrites the history of modern art in order to reveal that the “genius creator,” August Rodin, who ‘sculpted as if with the hand of God’ to have been nothing but an empresario and one of the world’s foremost practitioners of mechanical reproduction. This rewriting affect not only our view of the past, I might add, but also our view of the present. After Krauss identifies the real creative drive underlying Rodin’s output, not a vital energy but rather the compulsive repetition of the death drive, it become possible, in fact incumbent upon Krauss to apply her insights to contemporary art practice.

explores the ways in which the break in style that produced
postmodernism has forced a change in our various understandings
of twentieth-century art, beginning with the almost mythic idea
of the avant-garde

The result of this application of new principles and values is that she discovers the “greatest,” or at least the most exemplary artist of her own day is some masculine and heroic abstract painter of sculptor, but rather Sherrie Levine, a woman whose art consists of taking photographs of photographs. Plagiarism and the copy, as opposed to originality and the authentic article, once discovered as essential to artistic production and elevated to the level of a dominant ethical and aesthetic values, allow Krauss to pronounce the “End of Modernism” (in a quasi-parodic gesture that at once mimics and rejects Hegel’s “End of History”) and the advent of the Postmodern and the Posthuman.

a pointed protest against the official story of modernism
and against the critical tradition that attempted to define
modern art according to certain sacred commandments

Further, just as modernism had its great heroes, so postmodern, in rewriting the past, while rediscover and rehabilitate the great anti-heroes of the past. In the case of modern art, the great rehabilitated figure will be that of Marcel Duchamp. So, though he may be overlooked now, there may well be hope for Ludwig Boltzmann in the future. See, for instance, a relatively recent book co-authored by Lorainne Daston, The Empire of Chance.


Hope all of this is interesting and helpful to you. Best of luck with your final.

Your Teacher

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