A curious and useful life

What follows is an abstract of the research project I am currently working on. It is scheduled to run until early 2015 and is funded by the Bank of Sweden Tercentenary Foundation (Riksbankens Jubileumsfond). The preliminary title of the project is A Curious and Useful Life: Pehr Löfling and the Globalization of Knowledge, 1729–1756. If you read Swedish, there is more information on the project blog. And if you are working on anything even remotely related I would be happy to hear from you – please contact me!

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Pehr Löfling (1729–1756) was one of the most prominent students of naturalist Carl Linnaeus. During a brief life spent in Sweden, Spain and South America, he became deeply involved in the globalization of knowledge that Linnaean natural history represented from the middle of the eighteenth century. He was directly engaged in the formulation of some of his teacher’s new principles and methods; he contributed to spreading them in the European Republic of Letters; and he was given a rare chance of applying the Linnaean ideas in a colonial context, where they both challenged and were challenged by indigenous epistemologies.

The goal of my research is to understand how different stages and aspects of the globalization of knowledge impacted on and were affected by individual lives such as Löfling’s. Based on an approach that David Livingstone has called “life geography”, I will primarily analyse three encounters and the spaces (literally situations) in which they occurred: between Löfling as a young man and the Linnaean circle in Uppsala; between him as a Linnaean “apostle” and Spanish botanists in Madrid; and between him as a European colonial naturalist and the Amerindians of the Orinoco region in present-day Venezuela.

Some of the questions I hope to address are: What do these exchanges and their outcomes tell us about the theory and practice of Linnaean natural history? How did space, location, place affect the allegedly universal science that Löfling represented? Finally, what role did the motives of curiosity and utility play in his scientific work as it evolved over the years?

Hello world!

The innocent energy and eager optimism of the default WordPress “first post” title is irresistible. It is also firmly rooted in computer and programming history, which makes it seem quite appropriate for the introduction of a blog where certain aspects of digital technology will be one of the main themes. Add the fact that I will likely have trouble enough coming up with a good title for the next post, and I will not even try to improve on this one.

I am a reader (associate professor) of history at the University of Gothenburg in Göteborg (Gothenburg), Sweden. This blog is intended to serve as an outlet for writing about a variety of topics that interest me, but with a clear focus on two main areas. The first is my own field of research, which can roughly be described as 18th century Linnaean travel in a global history of science context. The second is the hard-to-define but fascinating set of questions, opportunities and challenges that arise out of the encounter between humanities scholarship (including teaching), digital technology and social media.

My attempts to grasp and learn about the issues related to the emerging Digital Humanities, especially Digital History, gave the impetus for launching the blog and will be echoed in many of the posts here. Another, more practical reason for trying my hand at blogging in English is that it helps me improve my writing skills in a language that is not my first. In my current research project I expect to write a number of articles and book chapters in English, and regular posting here seems like a good way of practising. In other words, any feedback on the spelling, grammar and idiomatic usage of British English is very welcome!

And what about “useful curiosities, past and present”? Well, to me it sums up fairly well some of the questions and the categories I often work with and think about. I will have to elaborate in later posts, but “utility” and “curiosity” is often seen as polar opposites, not least in contemporary discussions about how to prioritize research funding, while in reality the relationship between them is much more complicated. For one thing, what is merely curious today may turn out to be very useful tomorrow – and how do we even start to define what “useful” actually means?

Many of the early modern naturalists I have written about wrestled with similar distinctions and their consequenses, which is one reason I find these travelers so interesting. For all the risks of applying simple labels I think “useful curiosities” captures much of what the whole Linnaean endeavour was about, including its inherent contradictions and ambivalences. By studying their struggles we understand our own better, which is yet another reminder that history itself is not only curious but can be very useful indeed.

(Edit 3 Oct. 2013: This was the inaugural post for my English-language blog at the address https://kennethnyberg.org, which has since been merged with a Swedish blog of mine.)