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Situating Science Cluster Workshop at McGill University


August 27, 2010 Posted by | Conference/Workshop, Epistemology, General History of Science, Instrument | Leave a comment

Things That Talk (McGill Course)

HIST 410 / CRN 10131 (McGill University, History Department)

Things That Talk: Understanding Early Modern Objects

Fall 2010

Time: TTh, 8:35am-9:55pm
Place: Leacock 31 (and field trips!)
Office hours: Tuesday 2-4
(OR by appointment)

Instructor: Jean-François Gauvin
Office: 3610 McTavish, room 35-3
(514) 398 3130

email: Jean-francois.gauvin (at) mcgill.ca


The goal of this seminar is to look at objects (coffee, clothing, fireworks, books, air pump, tulips, etc.) and try to understand what they represented and what they meant in the early modern period. Material objects are natural, artificial, manufactured, symbolic, scientific, economic, social, political and much more. Indeed, how can a simple object such as coffee beans threaten the political spectrum of seventeenth-century England? What can we learn about the social and economic culture of seventeenth-century Holland by studying «mere» tulips? What can the use and manufacture of fireworks in the eighteenth century tell us about the close interaction of the artisan and savant communities? This course is not limited to the historical analysis of objects, seen through secondary literature. It is also about methodological approaches to the study of things: how to proceed in framing an argument centered on a material object—whether an early modern tulip or a contemporary iPhone. We live (and always have lived) in a human-built world, a world overflowing with material objects that constantly influence our life, economy, culture, and society in general. Though the subject is vast (we are not even touching on archeology and anthropology), the course has been divided into three sections, all dealing with the early modern period: everyday objects, scientific and technological objects, and theoretical approaches to things. Together, they give a very good account of things and their key role in the study of intellectual, science and social history.

The seminar is a reading-intensive course, which means there will be no written assignments. Besides what could be considered a heavy reading load, there will be «fun» outings in museums in order to be confronted with some of the things discussed in the books. What can we learn from those «museum objects» and how can we use them in our own study of history?

Note: please see me if you are concerned about pre-requisites or background. The course combines social, cultural and intellectual history, and does not require technical knowledge in the natural sciences.


(Books *13* are available at the Paragraphe Bookstore AND on reserve in McLennan-Redpath Library)

  • Daniel Roche, A History of Everyday Things: The Birth of Consumption in France, 1600-1800 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).
  • Daniel Roche, The Culture of Clothing: Dress and Fashion in the Ancien Régime (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).
  • Brian Cowan, The Social Life of Coffee: The Emergence of the British Coffeehouse (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005).
  • Adrian Johns, The Nature of the Book: Print and Knowledge in the Making (Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 2000).
  • Anne Goldgar, Tulipmania: Money, Honor, and Knowledge in the Dutch Golden Age (Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 2008).
  • Paula Findlen, Possessing Nature: Museums, Collecting, and Scientific Culture in Early Modern Italy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996).
  • Steven Shapin & Simon Schaffer, Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989).
  • Chandra Mukerji, Impossible Engineering: Technology and Territoriality on the Canal du Midi (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009).
  • Simon Werrett, Fireworks: Pyrotechnic Arts and Sciences in European History (Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 2010).
  • Ursula Klein & Wolfgang Lefèvre, Materials in Eighteenth-Century Science: A Historical Ontology (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2007).
  • Michel Pastoureau, Black: The History of a Color (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008).
  • Lorraine Daston & Peter Galison, Objectivity (New York: Zone Books, 2007).
  • Jean Baudrillard, The System of Objects (Verso Press USA, 2005).

Assessment Structure

1. Overall class participation (including field trips): 50%

2. Oral summaries and analyses of specific readings: 50%


This seminar is designed in such a way that all the work is focused on reading, analysing and discussing books on a specific topic. No further research or writing is expected from the students. The final grade is based only on oral assignments and participation.

In accord with McGill University’s Charter of Students’ Rights, students in this course have the right to submit in English or in French any written work that is to be graded.

McGill University values academic integrity. Therefore all students must understand the meaning and consequences of cheating, plagiarism and other academic offences under the code of student conduct and disciplinary procedures (see www.mcgill.ca/integrity for more information) / L’université McGill attache une haute importance à l’honnêteté académique. Il incombe par conséquent à tous les étudiants de comprendre ce que l’on entend par tricherie, plagiat et autres infractions académiques, ainsi que les conséquences que peuvent avoir de telles actions, selon le Code de conduite de l’étudiant et des procédures disciplinaires (pour de plus amples renseignements, veuillez consulter le site http://www.mcgill.ca/integrity).

Class Schedule

2 Sept: Intro: Things that Talk (from a now famous book edited by Lorraine Daston)

Part one (5 weeks): Everyday Objects

7 Sept: Roche, History of Everyday Things

9 Sept: continued & bring one everyday object to class

14 Sept: Cowan, Social Life of Coffee

16 Sept: meet the author day: Brian Cowan

21 Sept: Johns, Nature of the Book (chaps 1-2 and conclusion)

23 Sept: continued but class in Osler Library (chap. 7-8)

28 Sept: Roche, Culture of Clothing

30 Sept: class held at the McCord Museum


7 Oct: Anne Goldgar, Tulipmania

Part two (5 weeks): Scientific and Technological Objects

12 Oct: Findlen, Possessing Nature

14 Oct: Continued

19 Oct: Shapin & Schaffer, Leviathan and the Air Pump

21 Oct: class held at the Stewart Museum (meet at Metro Ile Sainte Hélène at 8:30am; TAKE TAXI for return, instructor paying)

26 Oct: Murkeji, Impossible Engineering

28 Oct: Movie day: Ridicule

2 Nov: Werrett, Fireworks

4 Nov: Guest Lecture: Jean-Baptiste Fressoz, Postdoctoral Fellow, Harvard University


11 Nov.: Klein & Lefèvre, Materials in Eighteenth-Century Science

Part three (3 weeks): Conceptual Approaches to Things

16 Nov: Pastoureau, Black, The History of a Color

18 Nov: Movie day: Secrecy

23 Nov: Daston & Galison, Objectivity

25 Nov: Continued

30 Nov: Baudrillard, System of Objects

1 Dec (not 2 Dec): class held at the Fine Arts Museum, David and Liliane Stewart decorative arts room, instructor pays for it. Meet at entrance at 6:00pm.

August 26, 2010 Posted by | Courses, Instrument, Museum | Leave a comment