S.Schaffer" (by way of richard barbrook) on Wed, 24 Apr 2002 04:31:31 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Roy Porter

Roy Sydney Porter (1946-2002)
(to appear in Social Studies of Science)

by Simon Schaffer

The sudden death of the historian Roy Porter in Sussex at the age of 55 on
3 March this year deprives a vast range of fields of one of their greatest
scholarly and public practitioners. His many friends and colleagues will
need time to absorb their profound shock and  begin a proper appreciation
of his immense achievements. Master of the history of eighteenth-century
British society and intellectual life, in more than two hundred
monographs, edited books and articles Roy brilliantly charted for us the
paths he reckoned should be pursued in social histories of the earth
sciences and of medicine, of lunacy and enlightenment and, most
entertainingly, of the city. An unbuttoned and mercurial urbanity, indeed,
was one of his most appealing characteristics, both in style and
substance. Roy insisted the best history was messy, that it must attend to
the material, to commodities and to bodies, to 'getting and spending' in
the Wordsworthian phrase he made his own. It was hard to miss, in his
writing and his life, Roy's vital sense of the pleasures of imagination
and civilization.

A high pressure scholar, Roy rarely gave the impression that 'the world is
too much with us'.  Each task was pursued with fizz - his organisation of
many important collections of essays, the direction of major journals in
the field, notably History of Science which he edited from 1972, teaching
in Cambridge, London and the many other institutions he visited and
supported, and his frequent generous participation in the world of radio,
television and the press. His last TV project was an hour-long BBC
programme which turned his Enlightenment (2000) into an accessible story
of secular transformation within eighteenth-century natural philosophy,
politics and social order. 'The future began here in London', he insisted;
then skilfully orchestrated an evocative story of contradictory ambitions,
of stability and radical change, of interests driving men of action who
'lived life to the full' in a newly fashioned public sphere. As he
recalled in a recent interview, 'it hasn't been unusual for me to go down
to the BBC to do a broadcast on the history of cholera and for someone to
say: "the guy who was meant to be talking about the Athanasian Creed
hasn't arrived. Could you fill in on that ?"' In successful broadcasts and
well-honed reviews, Roy seemed effortlessly to turn out a stream of
expertly informed accounts of AIDS and gout, urban planning and political
caricature. He had a great writer's healthy respect for paper. Messages
from Roy would arrive as pithy scribbles on the bottom of one's own
promptly returned letters. All this depended on a bibliographic command
matched by very few. Like his hero Edward Gibbon, Roy used footnotes as
blocks to be quarried and crafted into arguments all his own (I commend a
brilliant vignette on masturbation and capitalism in a note to his 1993
essay on consumption and culture). Roy's library onslaughts are themselves
the stuff of legend. Awaiting (of course) the morning train from Cambridge
to London, one would often see Roy's unmistakably leathered figure already
returning to the capital, his urban cowboy's holsters stocked with rifled
xeroxes after a dawn raid on the University Library's shelves. I still
find his absence from its corridors shocking.

Roy was thus specially fascinated by the tantalising history of the
publicly visible urban intellectual, whose emergence he dated to the
period of enlightenment of which he was the chronicler.  In the long
eighteenth century, Roy urged, 'the city now seemed to promise progress,
peace, profit, pleasure and the erosion of ignorance'. In his masterpiece,
London: a social history (1994), which now reads as a political and
autobiographical testament, he observed the 'perverse logic' through which
'the greater the benefits metropolitan life conferred, the more urban
literati vilified it in a movement culminating in Romanticism, that opium
of the urban intelligentsia'. It was for this reason, too, that Roy found
grounds often to condemn the overly-cloistered pedant and scold the
timorous sense that 'in specialisation lies safety'. Rather, he showed the
virtues of a committed form of learning never afraid to make its lessons
available and accessible, lucid and provoking.

This well-developed interest in public knowledge sat alongside Roy's
repeated argument that one was not to expect nor demand crude traces of
politics or society in the direction and content of inquiry. 'Men of
science have always comprised some sort of mandarinate or clerisy,
cushioned from some of the more obvious and potent social movements of
their day by systems of cultural mediations'. A London professor from
1993, Fellow of the British Academy and honorary fellow both of the Royal
Colleges of Physicians and of Psychiatrists, Roy himself experienced urban
and mandarin life.  He grew up in New Cross Gate in south-east London, his
father a jeweller whose family moved out to suburban, more genteel,
Norwood in the late 1950s. In the epoch of Harold Macmillan's complacently
managed consumer boom, 'it was heaven'. Roy's was a characteristic success
story of the age, now wrecked by Thatcherite attrition and its legacies:
an unexpectedly clever boy, he passed through the local grammar school
under the guidance of an inspirational English teacher to the Cambridge
History Tripos, which he read between 1965 and 1968. If Roy memorably
described Hanoverian Cambridge in his evocative English society in the
eighteenth century (1982) as a 'diet of birch, boorishness, buggery and
the bottle', where Newtonianism was 'evolved in its sleep', he would yet
reminisce about his college, Christ's, as the home of William Paley,
Charles Darwin and evolutionism, and recalled the Tripos as likeably
organised in a 'stately progression' from Gibbon to modernity.
Undergraduate supervision was provided by Quentin Skinner, the historian
of political philosophy; Roy's official doctoral supervisor was the
eminent historian of the Scottish enlightenment, Duncan Forbes. Well
before submitting his splendid thesis on eighteenth century earth history
in 1975, Roy had already become director of studies in history at
Churchill College and thrown himself with energy into the teaching and
debates in history of science which then flourished in his university. In
Britain it was, and remains, rare for trained academic historians to
commit themselves to the fields of history of science and medicine. Roy's
career in this as other respects is therefore well worthy of reflection,
not least because the stories he has so expertly told have often provided
narratives for many sociologists and researchers in science studies
seeking to make sense of the sciences' social place.

Decisive in orienting Roy towards history of science and the study of a
topic linking eighteenth century society with the emergence of systems of
naturalistic thought were close encounters with the prodigious historian
of Darwinism's social reality, Bob Young, and the palaeontologist and
historian Martin Rudwick, both new members of the nascent Department of
History and Philosophy of Science, so belatedly christened in 1972. Roy
often wrote of a 'revolution', or, more judiciously, a 'rethinking of
principles', which marked the historiography of sciences at that epoch.
Whiggism, internalism, and positivism were out; sophisticated intellectual
and social history offered new resources for studying the sciences' past.
'Scientists like to promote the view that science is outside or above
politics', he told a radio audience. 'This has never been true'. It was
scandalous that general histories referred so little to sciences'
historical significance or social place. 'Anachronism, judgmentalism and
history by hindsight' were anathematised. Roy's exposure to these thoughts
was indebted to the seemingly crucial seminar series at King's College
organised from 1968 by Young, in which historians such as Charles Webster,
Frances Yates and Joseph Needham all participated. Young himself recalls
'the dichotomy between internal history and external or social factors'
was a salient theme, though no coherent project emerged from the
discussions. Compare as poetic precedent Roy's evocation of the Jacobin
milieu of English students at the time of the French Revolution: 'it was
bliss to be alive, and better still to be a young clever male graduate; by
the turn of the century, it was hard for a radical to avoid embitterment'.
Before any disillusion set in, Roy's notions of method and history stayed
in conversation with these protagonists' work. These include his dismissal
of grand dialectical materialist surveys of science, technology and
society, such as Desmond Bernal's 'awesome' but 'deeply flawed' Science in
History (1954); his insistence that the notion of the 'Scientific
Revolution' as a purely intellectual transformation of thought-styles was
a recent coinage implicated in Cold War polemics; his sense that it was a
contingent but decisive implication of Yates' inquiries into the occult
philosophy of early modern Europe that 'the disciplinary structure of
modern science came up for question for the first time'; his recognition
of idealist historiography's contempt for the corporeal dimension of
history and philosophy; and, no doubt, his repeated call from within the
Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine for large-scale narrative
histories which did justice to 'the informal and voluntaristic foundations
upon which today's centrally-controlled state-funded science empire is

Many of these themes already became patent in Roy's early work as history
teacher in Cambridge. With other researchers he organised seminars judged
subversive by some senior colleagues, and temporarily overhauled teaching
in history and philosophy of science to shift its focus from disciplinary
to more thematic courses. This was when I first met Roy, as he generously
invited me, a mere graduate student, to teach on his remarkable paper for
the History Tripos based on his own history of earth theories. Roy's
commitment to immersion in primary sources, his cult of giving voice back
to those otherwise unheard in the official past, became apparent. By 1979,
too soon for his Cambridge colleagues, he decided to leave for the
Wellcome Institute in London, citing his enormous college teaching burden.
The publication of studies on the history of geology, including an
important co-edited collection with Ludmilla Jordanova and a witty
contribution on natural theology and creationism to Natural Order under
the editorship of Barry Barnes and Steven Shapin, at once established him
as one of the leading social historians of the sciences in Britain. Roy
subscribed to arguments that only a proper social history could explain
why scientists might resist the claim that scientific knowledge could be
analysed in social terms, and that resources from intellectual as well
as environmental histories could be used to enrich the study of
biographies and institutions.

Certainly the most stimulating, in many ways prophetic, of these earlier
essays is Roy's contribution to the Festschrift for Joseph Needham (1973),
co-edited by Young and by Mikulas Teich, the prolific historian of
biochemistry and chemical technology who was to collaborate with Roy in
editing a fine series of comparative historical studies on enlightenment
and romanticism, the industrial and the scientific revolutions, on drugs
and on the fin-de-siecle. In his contribution to the volume for the
great Christian socialist and sinologist Needham, Roy attacked received
views of economic and industrial demands which gave rise to scientific
geology, as though the relation between industry, science and technology
were those of the 'three persons of the Trinity'. Rather than revert to a
purely autonomous story of disciplinary origins, Roy instead proffered a
story of elites' response to the challenges to their authority mounted by
north British cultures of improvement and measurement. 'Culture and
institutions needed to be modified to come to terms with, embrace and
control new provincial activities and standards'.  Only a new state
formation, acting in the name of Benthamite utility, could engineer the
kind of relationships which bound industrial and genteel interests more
closely. In several respects, through his criticisms of earlier historians
of industrialisation, Roy here produced work consonant with the social
history of such scholars as Jack Morrell and Steven Shapin on British
audiences for science during the later eighteenth-century transformation.
>From then, Roy would play a vital role as interlocutor with several of the
more challenging moves in social history of scientific, technical and
medical knowledge.

Even before his move back to London, Roy launched his singular programme
of prolific scholarship mixed with public reorientation of historical
disciplines. The Ferment of Knowledge (1980), coedited with George
Rousseau, was designed as a call for a new social historiography of
eighteenth century knowledges. I was recruited, for example, as a result
of a brief encounter with Roy as he cycled past, pausing long enough only
to commission an essay on natural philosophy.  Roy's own chapter sets out
a renovated project in the history of earth sciences, recalls the
'revolution in the history of science' carried out since the 1950s, and
appeals for inquiries which would treat the history of exploration
alongside literary, cultural and disciplinary approaches. The volume
includes crucial manifestos by Shapin on the social use of knowledge and
by Roy's new Wellcome Institute colleague Bill Bynum on health, disease
and medicine. Bynum and Porter soon started an exciting research seminar
in the history of psychiatry, leading directly to streams of new
publications under Roy's aegis which opened a fresh historiography of
insanity, reason and their institutions and, with the collaboration of
German Berrios, helped launch a new journal for this field, History of

In many ways, the themes of discipline and its challenges formed the
centre of his new life and work. In the history of medicine, so Roy
recalled, collaboration with like-minded colleagues 'trying to develop new
approaches over and against the rather traditional old docs' internalist,
whiggish histories' proved immensely fruitful. His studies of medical
quackery, of popular medicine and his decisive co-edited reference work,
Companion Encyclopedia of the History of Medicine (1993) drew on this
inspiration. A pair of fine works, In sickness and in health (1988) and
Patient's Progress (1989), co-written with the distinguished historian of
public health Dorothy Porter, admirably set out an historiography which
seeks a perspective 'from below', inspired not least by the approach of
socialist traditions in British history, especially those of E.P.Thompson
and Raphael Samuel. Roy would reiterate that the 'medical truth' inherited
by the Enlightenment was in fact 'a ramshackle edifice', 'largely an
ideological construct, a myth advanced by a medical profession that was
itself not an age-old adamantine institution'. The combination of
ideological diagnosis and insistence on patients' experience prompted
demands for a 'definitive study of the interplay of medical and politcal
metaphors', a project to which London colleagues such as Christopher
Lawrence had already made important contributions. This led in turn to
Roy's explorations of such themes as 'consumption' and 'gout' in their
medical, social and economic senses, and, after an initial highly
suggestive review article (1988) for Past and Present on the use of
graphic prints as historical sources, to one of his last and most
enjoyable works, Bodies politic (2001), in which Roy follows much recent
work in the history of political and cultural iconography in insisting
that 'be they verbal or visual, all facts are artefacts'.

Disciplinarity also dominated Roy's engagement with the histories of
lunacy and psychiatry. In stimulating essays and books, notably two works
of 1987, Mind-forg'd manacles and A social history of madness: stories of
the insane, he urged the need for and possibility of listening to
sufferers' voices. Roy's stories denied the eighteenth-century was
disastrous for the insane and accepted that insanity must be treated as 'a
socially-constructed fact'. The approach was transgressive, seeking to
'dissolve' seemingly self-evident boundaries between disciplines 'to
understand how the cultural and medical boundaries of rationality,
responsibility and art were drawn and redrawn over the centuries'.
Denunciatory pessimism and panglossian optimism about discipline were both
eschewed. Roy's response to Michel Foucault's decisive work on the
disciplines of clinic and asylum was telling. He judged Foucault's Madness
and civilization 'by far the most penetrating work ever written on the
history of madness, and, above all, on the history of reason', then
insisted that there was no 'great confinement' in early modern Britain, no
link between madness and sloth, and no great discontinuity of the kind
both Foucauldians and more orthodox histories of psychiatry divined in the
early nineteenth century with the advent of moral therapy. He ironised on
what he saw as the 'dispiriting' lessons taught by Foucault's followers,
as for example when, in the immediate wake of Foucault's tragically early
death, Roy was in 1985 suddenly called upon to open a major lecture series
in Los Angeles on the career of mind/body dualisms in the eighteenth
century. 'The scale of our loss in Foucault's death is only underlined by
the crass extravagance of his epigoni', Roy declared. Similarly judged
views appeared in Roy's magisterial surveys of the entire history of
medicine and health. His huge monograph, The Greatest Benefit to Mankind
(1997), whose celebratory title was apparently forced upon Roy by his
publisher, balanced a chronicle of the medical advance with an insistence
that 'in terms of its professed aims, the greatest health of the greatest
number, the olympian verdict must be that much medicine has been off
target'. Roy wrote of 'health fantasies' cultivated by science itself, of
the crises of rising expectations and the weakness of investment in
prevention and social health. Though insistent that 'the historian is a
bad physician', clear that his own discipline could never offer sure
predictions nor reliable diagnosis, his reputation gave him a platform
from which to review modish writings on public health and the medical
fantasies of the age. A review of one study of the US health system was
typical: 'unless the practical politics of reform are addressed, all else
will indeed remain yet another bubble of well-meaning false hopes'. It was
typical, too, that Roy's enthusiastic study of the great late
enlightenment reformist physician, Thomas Beddoes, closed with brief
references to the 'natural alliance between doctors, radicals and
revolutionaries' visible in Third World liberation struggles.

 Roy's literary energies seemed most relaxed in his careful biographical
works on such figures as Beddoes, the evolutionist physician Erasmus
Darwin, and, inevitably, on Edward Gibbon. While these studies were to
vindicate his heroes' claims as profound theorists and major activists, it
is hard not to read them for autobiographical traces. Erasmus Darwin
occupies a key place in Roy's enlightenment, an ideologue and man of
action, developing a serious physiologically grounded account of organic
and social evolution, admirably jocose and benevolent. Roy's study of
Beddoes, Doctor of Society (1992), reads this important figure of
enlightenment as an 'anthropologist of cultural morbity' peculiarly aware
of 'the equivocal roles open to the intelligentsia within a liberal
capitalist order'. Some of Roy's finest pages are devoted to Beddoes'
study of the effects of language to mislead or equivocate, to cure as well
as foment disorder and disease. 'He recognised doctors made people sick',
as Roy also recognised. 'Everything was new, brilliant, in a whirl; Beddoes
a prophet of, and commentator upon, modernity: its problems and paradoxes
perplexed him'. With Roy's death we mourn the peremptory silencing of a
brilliant and perplexed intellectual presence just like this. Roy's
decision to take early retirement in 2001, and the move to Sussex with his
devoted partner Natsu Hattori, then seemed to us to be merely a signal of
more surprises, more entertainments, to come. As it is, Roy leaves a
legacy of work and energy which so unusually combines a passion for the
paradoxes of modernity with the enduring social realities of history. 'My
readers may inquire whether, in the conclusion of the present work, I am
now taking an everlasting farewell'. So wrote the 51-year-old Gibbon on
May Day 1788 at the completion of his own masterwork. 'I am fairly
entitled to a year of jubilee', Gibbon pointed out; 'in the ardent pursuit
of truth and knowledge I am not conscious of decay'.

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