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Graduate Student Profile: Zeke Baker October 5, 2015

Posted by emmiemiller in Uncategorized.
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Zeke Baker, “Climate Knowledge as a Practice of Government: From Appropriation to Biopolitics,” Session F32: Health and Wealth through Better Weather: The History of Meteorology and the Improvement of Nations. Friday, November 20, 3:45-5:45.

At HSS, I am presenting a paper that seeks to provide an analytic framework for explaining transformations in climate knowledge over time, with an empirical focus in this presentation on how “rational accounts” of weather and climate were coproduced with early American state-making, especially projects that comprised Westward Expansion from 1800-1840. The paper deals with a central paradox: that the formation of a rational basis for meteorological and climatic knowledge emerged alongside state-making practices that appropriated others’ knowledge and livelihood through the “civilization” of American territory, climate, and society. Analysis of findings is conceptually organized around how scientific and state-making practices co-produce government. The project conceptualizes government in Foucault’s sense, as power ordered through knowledge and the formation of social categories, populations and territory amenable to security, management, and discipline.

The panel that this presentation is a part of broadly explores the role of meteorology and related sciences in 19th century government, especially practices of colonialism and empire. Each of us on the panel are grappling with how weather—and its almost wildly various scientific apprehensions—related to projects to improve the health of citizens and the wealth and prosperity of particular nations. The panel is diverse in its disciplinary perspectives, ranging from the history of science, to sociology and art history, and it also presents different cases from the U.S. and from the British and French empires.

I stumbled into this historical research by first studying contemporary climate expertise. I was studying how climate expertise has fragmented in the last decade in a way that, I argue, articulates with state interests to render climate change governable in status quo ways, especially through securitization of its social effects. In other work, I had also studied the formation of modern climate science and its emergence alongside the post-WWII state. This led me to ask whether and how state-making and climate science have been coproduced across a much broader timescale.

Initial investigation into early American natural philosophy immediately shows that climate, and climate change, were extremely important to how scientists and statesmen evaluated the possibilities and successes of that puzzling master-frame of Enlightenment thought—civilization. Many European and American natural philosophers believed that American climate was becoming more moderate, that is, climate was changing along the historical trajectory of Europe, which was also believed to have become more temperate as land was cleared, swamps drained, and civilization introduced to land and society. I evaluate this scientific theory to see how it was substantiated among scientists and how it related to frontier policy and strategy, settlement practices, and policy regarding native people.

The scope of the relationship between the science of American climate and the politics of civilization is staggering, but it is mostly a forgotten history because most of the relevant controversies have been settled, and the paradigms of scientific practice have changed. Climate is no longer central to how physicians evaluate health, as it was well into the nineteenth century. Likewise, disease is no longer a major concern of those migrating and settling in new climates. Until recently, moreover, not many of us believed that climate was changing in response to human activity. We rarely evaluate social progress in terms of how human “constitutions” are fit or unfit for particular climates and lands, and we no longer accept that humans are separable into natural categories or races that align with particular places or climates. One way to deal with this history is to say they were basically wrong, and now we know better. However, historical research is critical in order to reconsider how science grounded the political discourse of “civilization” and its effects. More important to contemporary concerns, historical research compels analysts to probe how meteorological and climate knowledge continues to relate to patterns in social power.

As a historical sociologist and a graduate student, I am going into my first HSS Annual Meeting like something of a first date. I expect a lot of intriguing conversation, enlightening presentations, a lot of fun, and no shortage of those awkward conference moments! If a long-term relationship works out, I would be very pleased.

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