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Science, Culture, and Modern State Formation

by Patrick Carroll
University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 2006
290 pp, illus. 12 b/w. Trade, $ US 45.00
ISBN-13: 978-0-520-24753-6.

Reviewed by Enzo Ferrara
INRIM, Materials Department
Torino, Italy


Contemporary civilization incorporates endless amounts of scientific knowledge whose power dominates over our existence and the natural system yet sustains it. The history of modern states in the Western world demonstrates how the quality of human existence can benefit of knowledge, if it is available in full supply. But, the powerful merging of culture, science, and political action can maintain the wealth of nations, as it is prone to endanger them. The present-day cult of utilitarianism and technology is as deleterious for poor societies lacking scientific knowledge as it is a menace for our descendants, until it runs out of control the exploitation of natural resources.

To preserve the benefits that technology and culture can still provide to local and global communities, it is useful to scrutinize the way they affected the formation of modern states and the imaginary between the XVII and XX centuries, as proposed by Patrick Carroll, Associate Professor of Historical and Cultural sociology at the University of California San Diego. Carroll conceives the relationships between science, state, and society through the idea of a "science-state plexus", i.e. the ontologically dense and intercommunicating nature of science and government (Ch. I, "Science, Culture, and State Formation"). According to the author, the modern state was conceptually elaborated and materially engineered through the transformation of scientific thought in "experimental politics" aimed at managing the land and the people.

Tracing the introduction of engine science into colonial Ireland, and showing how that country became a laboratory for statecraft, Carroll captures the centrality of engineering practices in the emerging mechanical philosophy (Ch. II, "Understanding Engine Science"). "Scopes augment human senses - he argues — [and] meters render objects in numbers so they can be manipulated" (p. 7). Engineers moved across Ireland methodically, valuing the land as a commodity and establishing its potential for economics. As a long-term result, the relationship between science and government emerged. Information-gathering states integrated social, economic, and natural, seeking through public enterprises and education to improve human society and its environment and police natural and political bodies (Ch. III, "Engineering and the Civilizing Mission;" Ch. IV, "Engineering the Data State").

A major suggestion of the book is to appreciate the character of the modern state, paying attention to its material culture. Chapter V ("Bio-Population") focuses on the implementation of medical institutions and public health into the rule of natural and political bodies. Showing how medical police became a powerful engine of government and integration, Carroll addresses the further development of state as an "administration of life […] constantly seeking to arrest disease and extend longevity […], health, safety, and population security" (p. 9). Chapter VI ("Engineering Ireland"), which covers agricultural and land management, public buildings, roads, and sanitary engineering, discusses how "natural bodies" became "political issues" through the culture of engine science in a discourse able to develop - at least theoretically - a link between moral improvement and material engineering.

In the "Conclusion", Carroll returns on the subject of modern science as a philosophy of nature and statecraft, moving the discussion on the contemporary techno-scientific state, which is a mutant of its ancestor. The problem is that the Enlightenment idea of liberating humanity from the dictates of nature and instincts was not later corrupted in the instrumental sense: political domination and economic efficiency. The differentiation between interest and understanding - the author warns - is problematic, but this is inherent in human endeavors relating with science and society. "The will to knowledge and will to power are inseparable in the modern period. Each directly implies and genuinely co-constructs the other" (p. 174).

Carroll’s study has implications for investigating, in particular, postcolonial occupations and today occurring nation-building ventures. But, it is helpful also to challenge contemporary dilemmas, such as the role of science and government in mitigating conflicts and supporting environmental sustainability. Additionally, addressing towards the role played by the architects of state and nations, it can be exploited to reveal the command and processes (capitalism, globalization, monopolized power, social control state agencies) responsible for imposing the cultural determinism of the XXI century: the replica of a unique model of state government, embedded within an uncreative and frustrated approach to scientific imaginary and social progress.



Updated 1st July 2007

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