Kelly Whitmer (Sewanee)


Ort: Historicum K 026

Zeit: 16-18 Uhr

The goal of preserving or prolonging youth for as long as possible has a complicated history. It is one closely linked to the history of capitalism, including the establishment of new patterns of economic growth that rely heavily on the valorization of industry and novelty, and has long been the focus of sustained scientific research. Efforts to prolong youth (and extend life) continue unabated today and are supported by some of the wealthiest individuals in the world. Yet these demands for the young and “the new” can be immensely disruptive, as recent work on innovation and environmental degradation is showing. Youth-centrism can also be damaging socially, resulting in the marginalization of older adults and ageism. At the same time, young people have been, and continue to be, sources of new ideas and future-focused energy. Recently, scores of activists have breathed life into what is an extraordinary, largely youth led movement to combat climate change. The abilities of young prodigies in mathematics, music and chess continue to make headlines. Why is this? My soon to be finished book, Useful Nature(s), recovers historical efforts to investigate the power of the young and to direct it, strategically, toward scientific and economic advancement. In the process, it expands our understanding of youth as a category of analysis in the history of science, a field in which young people have mostly been portrayed as “in training” (or “scientific personae” in development) rather than as powerful collaborators, laborers and even wellsprings of ingenuity. Mounting interest among historians of science in the scientific household, invisible technicians, artisanal expertise--and their centrality for the realization of scientific work--has created new opportunities to reconsider the issues this study foregrounds, as have recent calls for more attention to youth and age as analytical categories more generally. In the period I focus on, c.1600 to 1800, professional educators, political economists and other intellectuals frequently commented on young people’s physical agility, their flexibility, ingenuity, unique abilities to learn languages quickly and seemingly tireless desire to play. They viewed this as evidence that the young were natural resources (ie. “natural riches”), whose powers –like those of trees, metals or other naturalia–were frequently mismanaged, misunderstood or ignored. My study considers how ideas about nature’s generative powers, along with “oeconomic” ideas about nature as a storehouse of untapped riches and potential were also applied to the young body. I make a case for pedagogy as an art of extracting the power(s) of the young, drawing attention to how some contemporaries used object pedagogies (alongside other techniques such as gardening or distilling) to study nature’s generative powers. I consider these alongside
mounting interest in child prodigies, the relationship between age and ingenuity and “useful projects” specifically focused on benefiting from the “natural industry” of the young.

Vortrag im Rahmen des Oberseminars "Perspektiven der Wissenschaftsgeschichte".