Analysing vulgarisation: when a fact is a clue

When Fontenelle wrote the Dialogues on the plurality of worlds, he was working in the libertine tradition of Cyrano de Bergerac and in the heretic tradition of Bruno.

By his own account, he was bringing the new philosophy down from the level of abstraction (and mathematics) in which it was couched, in order to make it understandable for those, for instance, adored novels such as the Princess de Cleves.

And on the account of historians who study the early enlightenment, Fontenelle was a ‘vulgarizer’ or ‘popularizer’ – terms which have been applied to him at least since Emma Marie Sioli’s book on Fontenelle in 1910. In order to answer the question of motive and audience, historians often have recourse to a sort of warmed over classical economics explanation – it is the consumer that did it. That is, there was a ‘demand’ for books on natural philosophy. Sometimes this is expanded into the idea that there was, somehow, more leisure for reading. Or it is mixed with the idea that this consumer class of readers was female. The latter actually does suggest something a bit more sociologically complex, since it links the demand story to education. Women were excluded from academies and colleges of the type that were open to males of a certain class. But they were not illiterate. And so, if we take the demand story a step further, we could link it to the way knowledge was manufactured, and where it was manufactured.
In other words, we can step out of the magic wand model, in which demand is waved in the air, and things simply appear, into another world in which demand is mediated through the division of labor, and division of labor is mediated by organizational settings.

When La Bruyère makes his cutting remark about Fontenelle’s appeal to the “bourgeoisie’ and the ‘provincials’, his idea is that the bel-esprit vulgarization is a matter of cheapening cultural goods, and distributing them among people who don’t know any better. Although one might turn the tables on this characterization – for even as La Bruyère wrote in the confidence that he knew the eternal place of the Ville and the Court, the centralizing politics of Louis XIV and Colbert were producing changes that would quickly undermine the place of those two eternities – his assumption is used even now in defining popularization.

In Marie-Francoise Mortureux’s essay on the formal linguistic properties of ‘vulgarization’ – which the French prefer to popularization – she quotes a definition proposed by Jacobi and Shninn: ‘… to consider the results of research, the objects of knowledge produced by science and to identify the strategies of actors in view of assuring their diffusion among peers and outside the circle of specialists.”

Mortureux makes a sharp eyed assessment of the implications of this definition, among which is the fact that “the evaluation of its effects does not give us any institutional procedure (contrary to teaching beginning classes, and even continual [educational] formation).”

In Gadda’s mystery, That Awful Mess on the Via Merulana, his police detective, Francesco Ingravallo, thinks, privately, that the usual police procedure of matching an effect to a cause is, in fact, a misunderstanding of our causal cosmos:

“He sustained, among other things, that unforeseen catastrophes are never the consequence or the effect, if you prefer, of a single motive, of a cause singular; but they are rather like a whirlpool, a cyclonic point of depression in the consciousness of the world, towards which a whole multitude of converging causes have contributed.”

I belong to the Ingravallian sect myself, and take it that in examining the unforeseen catastrophes that dot the weather system of history, one has to look for points of depression or attraction in which multiple causes are involved. In understanding the production of knowledge outside of the institutionalization of its assessment – in other words, being ‘well informed’ – we have to look at a more complex picture then is given to us by the idea of the ‘rise’ of such and such a class and the ‘demand’ for such and such a commodity. This is my rule of thumb in studying the formation of character under capitalism. We have to be on watch, then, for changes in unexpected regions, of which we have only, in retrospect, blurry pictures taken by, as it were, our satellites, our witnesses, our writers, our surveyors working on quite opposite premises for purposes of their own. We have to understand the fact as a clue – and thus always half imaginary.

– Using this method, surely, surely, on those starry nights in that parc belonging to the country estate in Normandy where Fontenelle teases and instructs and is gently rebuffed by his ravishing hostess, the blonde marquise de G***., what is happening, unbeknownst to both players, is the development of one of those depressions in the weather system of the ancien regime.