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QMCECS Seminar: Tita Chico: 14 October 2015

October 7, 2015

All are welcome!

Queen Mary Eighteenth-Century Studies Seminar: Semester 1, 2015-2016

Wednesday 14 October 2015

Prof Tita Chico

(University of Maryland, College Park)

Bad Science: A Literary History

Chair: Markman Ellis.

Time: 5.00-7.00pm.

Venue: Seminar Room, Lock-Keeper’s Cottage Graduate Centre, Queen Mary University of London, Mile End, London, E1 4NS

Convenors: Prof Markman Ellis, English (; Prof Colin Jones, History (; Prof Miles Ogborn, Geography (; Prof Amanda Vickery, History (, Prof Barbara Taylor, English and History (, Prof John Barrell, English (

[Travel instructions: Central Line or District Line to Mile End. Exit tube station, turn left down Mile End Road, cross Burdett Road, go under the Mile End Green Bridge (a large yellow bridge), over the canal, and the college is on the left. The Lock-Keeper’s Cottage is the third building on the right].


Prof Tita Chico

“Bad Science: A Literary History”

University of Maryland

For experimental philosophers, particularly those involved with the founding of the Royal Society, a major preoccupation was the matter of training the observer, the “modest witness” that Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer, and later Donna Haraway, have described. The modest witness is a gentleman thought to have enough privilege to be beyond self-interest and to transcend bias and the personal judgment that threaten social order. For Robert Hooke, this results in “a sincere hand and a faithful eye” of the experimenter who merely records. Robert Boyle renders the modest witness implicit by instead focusing on how, for instance, air in his famed air-pump “constantly and regularly offer[s] it self to our observation.” For Sprat, these are “equal Observers without dependence.” Responding to Shapin and Schaffer, Haraway has illuminated the patriarchal ideology that underwrites the modest witness, which assumes a model of gender difference that it in fact produces. For contemporaries, blind to the gender difference they institute, the stated differences are instead generational and based on rank – older ways of seeing produce error, as do artisanal methods.

In contrast to the Royal Society’s publications, such as Philosophical Transactions, Boyle’s New Experiments, and Hooke’s Micrographia, the late seventeenth-century literary archive provides us with seemingly innumerable failed experimental philosophers, a panoply of what might be called “immodest witnesses”: Margaret Cavendish pillories the bear-men in The Blazing World for their narrow and speculative views; Thomas Shadwell leaves Sir Nicholas Gimcrack sexually and financially depleted at the end of The Virtuoso; and Aphra Behn dupes and ultimately reprimands Ballarido, with his 20-foot long telescope in The Emperor of the Moon.

All of these figures emblematize a deep-seated skepticism concerning the Royal Society and the experimental project more generally. However, an exclusive critical focus on these so-called “failures” threatens to take the satirists’ words at face value (always a problem, of course) and threatens to foreclose consideration of what these writers were arguing against, beyond a quick assessment that they were ridiculing the Royal Society.

The modest witness—the objective scientist—is of course the ultimate winner of history and the literary satires could well be said to be the losers. In this paper, however, my focus will be on the losers’s losers – that is, on late seventeenth- and eighteenth-century texts that imagine the successful and beneficial practice of experimental philosophy, but within a self-consciously literary framework that explores the inherent immodesty of the witness whose interest productively factors into scientific debate, education, and civic society.

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