A Story of Everything

By guest contributor Nuala F. Caomhánach


Nasser Zakariya, A Final Story: Science, Myth, and Beginnings (University of Chicago Press, 2017)

In his A Final Story: Science, Myth, and Beginnings (2017), Nasser Zakariya pries open a Latourian black box to reveal how natural philosophers and later scientists constructed “scientific epics” using four possible  “genres of synthesis”—historic, fabular, scalar, foundational—to frame all branches of scientific knowledge. Their totalizing aspirations displaced outliers, contradictions, and obstructions to elevate a universal, global history of the universe. Zakariya highlights the paradox of the process of science from the 1830s to the present.  He shows how the parallel forces of narration and scientific explanatory methods merely continued to confirm discursive, epistemological and ontological pluralism. The desire to tame this pluralism legitimized the boundaries of science through pedagogy, priority and authority. A panel of historians recently met to discuss the book at New York University, including the author (UC, Berkeley), Myles Jackson (NYU), Hent de Vries (NYU), and Marwa Elshakry (Columbia University), moderated by Stefanos Geroulanos (NYU) (an audio recording of the event is available above).


Prof. Myles Jackson (NYU)

Jackson agreed that the invention of a myth or tradition “usually deals with origin stories and tend to be universal.” Tradition “result[s] from some sort of conflict, or debate, shaken identity, boundary dispute and…[has] a moral dimension.” Jackson emphasized how critical the 1820s and 1830s proved as science began to specialize alongside the invention of the term ‘scientist’ (1834) by William Whewell. He wholeheartedly agreed with Zakariya’s interpretation that for such natural philosophers as John Herschel, the “scientific context is irrelevant, precisely because science is universal.” Jackson elaborated on the conflictual divisions between artisans and natural philosophers whereby makers of scientific instrumentation—crucial for advances in science—were denied the status of philosophers themselves.  This division proved social, cultural and political at the turn of the nineteenth century, as knowledge became commodified, and natural philosophers legitimized their role as creators and curators of science. Jackson mapped out the “contextual moral” for this transition, and pointed to the Industrial Revolution and its effects on Handwerk and Kopfwerk. Natural philosophers insisted that artisans “should reveal their secrets so that their knowledge could be managed and applied universally, a great Enlightenment trope.” Their interest in economic efficiency focussed on replacing artisan skills and human calculators with controllable machines. For these natural philosophers “the key was the unity of science serving as models for other forms of knowledge.” Yet, as Jackson concluded, “there is an ethics for scientific imperative….the usefulness of useless knowledge….a moral argument that we must do it because it is about knowledge itself.”


Prof. Nasser Zakariya (UC Berkeley)

Zakariya agreed that there are “still richer contexts” in the analysis of “matters of material practices.” He acknowledged that his actors “were deeply engaged in reconstruction of both technical craft they were working through, and the theorization of that technical craft.” Discourse drew Zakariya away from material practice, toward his actors’ resistance to a historical synthesis. Their anxieties rested with who they imagined had the expertise to undertake this synthesis. Therefore, the synthesis “starts to construct… despite their democratizing impulses… a particular kind of elite that will carry out that democratization.” For Herschel, an author like Alexander von Humboldt in his Kosmos suggested that “if [synthesis] were possible… people like Humboldt [were the philosophers] to do it and yet we find Humboldt is insufficient to be able to do this.” For Zakariya, the discursive maneuvers in trying to articulate “what is and what is not possible” within these genres is at stake. His actors are not stating that synthesis is not possible, only that a historical narrative of the universe was not possible.


Prof. Hent de Vries (NYU)

For de Vries what is at stake is contemporary scholarship that has returned to the “age-old appeal to myth.” He met Zakariya‘s use of the term “myth” with suspicion, albeit agreeing with its premise. Zakariya echoed Adorno’s and Horkheimer’s concerns in Dialectic of Enlightenment by arguing that “[J]ust as myths already entail enlightenment, with every step enlightenment entangles itself more deeply in mythology. Receiving all its subject matter from myths, in order to destroy them, it falls as judge under the spell of myth” (10). Myth and enlightenment co-evolve into a constricting knot, despite the notion that the foundation of the inductive sciences was based on “the rejection of tradition, mythic authority” (10). With additional knowledge of the physical and natural world, de Vries pointed out the possibility “that there is “a final story” to be told about the emergence of the frames or “genres for synthesizing” knowledge in question.” He emphasized this as “a meta- or mega-narrative, a myth of myth” but problematized that final theories of stories “offer just that” because they are built on  “empirical finalities that are… particular, not general and decidedly partial, but also on account of a fundamental, call it transcendentally grounded, incompleteness, of sorts.” “Or is it?” he asked.


Prof. Marwa Elshakry (Columbia)

Elshakry also probed at Zakariya’s categories of “myth”, “epic” and “universal histories,” out of “genuine curiosities.” She found the main tension was conceptual, not semantic, and was “connected ultimately to [the] alpha and omega of universal history, with myth concerning ultimately and uncomfortably the notion of final ends [and] epic… primarily a concern with origins.”  The quest of the scientists as they vacillated  “between the known and unknown” is to begin to recognize that “this very heroic quest” may also reveal the “story of self-destruction rather than point the way to cures and wonders or the idea that being human… engages us in an extended historical  process of self-destruction.” She wondered about the logic behind the pursuit of “scientific realism as a Hegelian process of negation and  death.” Surely this pursuit suggested that humans can “induce and deduce our own ultimate species death and extinction… and yet we cannot.” Therefore, there was an inherent tension between “the secular humanist order and a sacred one.” She concluded with a tantalizing question “what is the final story—if in our own minds own science narratives or cosmic epics, come up with a good origin, but [we seem in our] collective species being imaginaries incapable of dealing with the problem of death itself.”

Zakariya tackled these questions eloquently. He explained how these scientists did not endorse myth uncritically, acknowledging their awareness of the paradoxes they had adopted. This paradox was a “tendency to have this eruption of a kind of mythic status to the project of knowledge, despite the project of knowledge seeing itself often as undercutting the grounds upon myth stands.” These natural philosophers’ and scientists’ totalizing ambitions forced them to question the very axioms with which the framework was constructed. Zakariya noted the constant reinscription “of the work of doing the totalizing” as these men argued that science was the most effective and natural discipline to tell this scientific epic. Their frameworks were limitless, but as they enlarged these structures, the edges became frayed, and they were forced to brood over questions that “[brought] us back to critiques of reason.”

In response to Elshakry, Zakariya revealed that she had uncovered “a number of elements [he] hadn’t quite thought about.” In answer, he discussed Hermann von Helmholtz ‘s views on the idea of universal history. In a period where thermodynamics was emerging around the contradictory concepts of entropy, enthalpy, and conservation, it began to reflect the impossibility of an infinitely old universe. By integrating thermodynamics into a scientific epic, Helmholtz realised that one must “bear up to this idea that it spells a conclusion of ourselves.” Similarly, these epics, for Zakariya, “forc[e] us to dwell on our mortality as a species.”

This book is a must for scholars in both the sciences and the humanities. Zakariya’s intervention, fusing the physical, natural and human histories, shows how the historical narrative in epic form was not self-evident, and a “strict chronology was not the ultimate arbiter” (126). Political contexts and contests influenced competing worldviews of humanity, the Earth, and the universe, in the professional and the public sphere. He demonstrates how a scientific worldview grows from the kind of questions asked, how these physical and metaphysical spaces are symbiotic, complementing and contradicting at the same moment, and how many universes can emerge. At the core of this narrative is a selection of personalities, from Mary Somerville to Steven Weinberg, who oversaw the totalizing visions circulating between professional and popular epics. As they shoe-horned these visions into a single narrative, some made the synthesis, many others sank, and some were transformed, leaving behind the forces, traces, and circumstances they had come up against. Slowly, the “suburban position of humanity and the earth” revealed the real limits of science (313). In this anxiety, the voice of the scientists metamorphosed into the only voice for the planet itself, thus claiming hegemony over the history of the universe.  The reader travels through Zakariya’s mindfully researched and vividly written tales of the attempt to stage the construction of a whole of knowledge, of everything. Thus, “whatever the future condition of species being and knowing, the universal human story must be maintained in the generic form of an epic” (339).

Nuala F. Caomhanach is a Ph.D. student in the History Department at New York University, and research associate in the Invertebrate Zoology Department at the American Museum of Natural History.

Marcel Schwob and Moody History

by guest contributor Dylan Kenny

Everyone in Paris knew Marcel Schwob (1867-1905). Journalist, critic, slang philologist, decadent symbolist fabulist, whose French Hamlet Sarah Bernhardt acted in 1899, whose 1904 lectures on François Villon were attended by Max Jacob and his friend Picasso, who was the dedicatee of Valéry’s meditative essay on Leonardo (1894) and Jarry’s absurd Ubu Roi (1896), who voyaged to Samoa to visit the tomb of Robert Louis Stevenson (he got all the way to Samoa, but got sick before he could complete the pilgrimage): Schwob left his fingerprints all over the Parisian fin-de-siècle (P. Jourde, “L’Amour du singulier,” in Schwob, Oeuvres). His fiction ranges widely: from vies imaginaires of historical figures like Empedocles, Paolo Uccello, and Pocahontas, to eerie vignettes of war-torn 15th-century France, to Mimes imitating the Hellenistic poet Herodas, who had only just been published in 1891 (W.G. Arnott, “Herodas and the Kitchen Sink“). Schwob combines a philologist’s attention to detail with a fabulist’s elusive suggestion; the result is a thick, mysterious atmosphere blending history and fantasy.

Schwob’s scholarly work was tied essentially to Villon; the lectures he gave in 1904, a few months before his death, were the product of a lifetime of study. Villon is already central in his first book, the 1889 Étude sur l’argot français, written with his friend Georges Guieysse, with whom he had studied linguistics under Saussure and Michel Bréal, a key figure in the history of semantics (P. Champion, Marcel Schwob et son Temps, 43-49).  In the Étude, Schwob and Guieysse argue that argot, as exemplified by the slang of Villon and the coquillards, was originally a technical language used by oppressed classes and criminals to evade authority. It was, and still is, deliberately constructed according to rules, almost literary procedures, which the linguist can induce from the literary record and the structures of contemporary slang. As they explain with dizzying, fantastic scientific metaphors:

This language has been decomposed and recomposed like a chemical substance, but it is not inanimate like salts or metals. It is constrained to live under special laws, and the phenomena which we note are the result of this constraint. The animals of the great oceanic depths collected by the expeditions of the Travailleur and the Talisman are eyeless, but on their bodies they have developed pigmented and phosphorescent spots. Likewise argot, in the shallows where it moves, has lost certain linguistic faculties, and has developed others that take their place; deprived of the light of day, it has produced under the influence of the place that oppresses it a phosphorescence by which glow it lives and reproduces: synonymic derivation (Schwob and Guieysse, Étude sur l’argot français, 27-8).

With the breathlessness of explorers encountering alien life-forms, Schwob and Guieysse announce the possibility of breaking the old codes embedded in Villon’s poems. It was a project that would occupy Schwob for the rest of his life, and through which he would become renowned for his erudition in the Paris literary scene.

Schwob’s only real Anglophone attention has come from dedicated fans of decadent and avant-garde fiction. Wakefield Press published a translation of The Book of Monelle in 2012, the same year the boutique press Tartarus issued a volume of stories (already out of print); most recently, the journal Asymptote published the Herodian Mimes. Like the English medievalist M.R. James (1862-1936), whose formidable philological and historical work has been overshadowed by his ghost stories, Schwob has been remembered for his weird fiction, at the expense of his scholarly efforts.

But are the fictional and the historical so easily separated in the work of Schwob or James? James’s ghost stories imagine a secret, pagan darkness that occasionally rises up to terrify some mild-mannered antiquarian who unwittingly awakens it; they bear the stamp of a lifetime in archives and libraries. Schwob’s elliptical stories of the fifteenth century conjure the world that was the primary object of his scholarly labors. Across Europe, the scholarly efforts of a generation to interpret the classical, medieval, and Renaissance past are perfumed by fantasy. Think of vatic Aby Warburg (1866-1929), who made a note in 1929: “Of the influence of antiquity. This story is like a fairy tale [märchenhaft] to tell. A ghost story for people who are all grown up [Gespenstergeschichte für ganz Erwachsene]” (G. Didi-Huberman, L’Image survivante: histoire de l’art et temps des fantômes selon Aby Warburg, 10). When did historical scholarship develop this pulpy atmosphere? How pervasive was it? Was it serious? Mere ornament? What was the range of its meanings? Only the most coarse-grained view recognizes a common mood between Schwob, James, and Warburg; each of them had very different concepts of history and the work of the historian. How could we tell the story of a historiographical mood? What is the intellectual history of history’s creepiness?

The earliest association of history and terror that I know of is in Book XI of the Odyssey. Odysseus, reciting his story to the Phaeacians, tells of his journey to Hades, where he met the shades of the dead. They emerged, he says, in reverse order of death: first came his companions from Troy, whom he engaged in conversation. Then Hercules, wearing a terrifying belt engraved with horrendous images, rose up and accosted him. Odysseus, though he would have liked to see even older heroes, high-tailed it out of Hades before some yet-older, unmanageable terror emerged, some monster Gorgon from the most archaic past.
The story makes for one of the strangest passages in Homer. I think it must have grabbed the attention of Warburg, who saw archaic trauma at the foundation of the history of culture. Schwob, who cites Book XI in the last of his Mimes, was certainly impressed by its lurid detail. But I wonder if Schwob wasn’t also thinking of this story’s literary character, and the crafty Odysseus weaving his tales for an enthralled audience.

Dylan Kenny is an MPhil student in early modern history at Cambridge. His current research focuses on the place of Herodotus in the work of the sixteenth-century printer and scholar Henri II Estienne.