Some Preliminary Thoughts

Statement of Purpose


If you got this post as an email, you almost certainly filled out a form long ago, asking for email updates on my life after Facebook. You probably got three or four of them, and then I stopped sending them because it turns out PhDs are hard.[citation needed]

Today, I share why I'm back, what I hope to do, and what you might have missed – as well as a recipe we enjoyed this week!

The plan:

I'm in the middle of preparing for my preliminary exams (one of the last checkpoints before I embark on writing my dissertation), which means that since June I've been reading a few books each week on the history of biology, the history of how people work with data, and the political economy of the social sciences. almost every week. In April/May, I'll be asked to synthesize these 100+ (I've honestly lost count) books into three essays, and then defend them in front of a committee of four faculty. That's a lot of work with payoff only at the end, so I wanted to share some of what I'm reading with folks in the meantime!

So, each week (I hope!), my plan is to share with you:

  1. What excited me, interested me, or confounded me about one of the books I read this week,
  2. What else I'm reading/thinking about, and what's happening in my life
  3. A delicious plant-based recipe—either one we're eating that week, or one I've enjoyed in the past–scroll down for that one!

The reasoning:

I recently left another social media network, partly because it was taken over by a billionaire even more egocentric and capricious than Mark Zuckerberg, and partly because I was spending too much time passively scrolling, and not enough time making things and engaging with people.

I'm hoping this will be a way of dedicating myself to producing something regularly, and the jumping-off point for conversations with you – so I'd love to hear what you've been up to, especially if you happen to be traveling through Madison, St. Louis, or Denver anytime soon!

The book:

Soll, Jacob. The Information Master: Jean-Baptiste Colbert’s Secret State Intelligence System. University of Michigan Press, 2011.


Jean-Baptiste Colbert presents members of the Royal Academy of Sciences to King Louis XIV [via Wikimedia Commons]

One of the three fields in which I'm preparing to take prelim exams is what my professors and I are calling the history of data and information practices. How have people collected, sorted, and used information throughout history? What drives those changes, and what's stayed the same? While we think of data and information as quintessentially modern concepts (we call our era the "digital" or the "information age"), there are often more continuities than may seem at first glance. The last chunk of books and essays I read for that field, all focusing on bureaucracies, are emblematic. The word "bureaucracy" (actually, the French version, bureaucratie) was coined in 1764, at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution and with the Enlightenment well under way.1 The most famous critics of Bureaucracy – sociologist Max Weber, novelists Dostoyevsky and Kafka – were creatures of the industrial revolution, bemoaning the deranged, mechanized order to which the institutions ruling their life aspired.

The Information Master, though, is about France in the 1600s, before the age of revolutions (American, French, Industrial, Communard...), and before the Enlightenment, when Louis XIV ruled. The one thing I remembered from AP Euro about this Louis (two Louises before the one deposed in the French Revolution) was that he was an absolutist, famous for (allegedly, probably not actually) saying "L'État, c'et moi" ("I am the State"). The Information Master explores how Louis, or really his First Minister and Controller of Finances Jean-Baptiste Colbert, made this statement a reality.

Louis's Absolutism meant that he brought the entire French state under his control. Nobles were no longer to be vassals ruling essentially on their own far from the King's authority – they were brought to Versailles to be courtiers. The Parlements (parliament) that gave the nobles a countervailing power to the King in Paris was brought to heel. Louis even attempted, with more mixed success, to bring religion in France under his personal rule, expelling the Protestant Huguenots and declaring that bishops would be appointed and religious law decided by him alone. (The Pope, unsurprisingly, was not happy with this).

The Information Master describes just how important control of knowledge – as in actual physical control of paper documents on taxes, histories, customs, and jurisprudence – were to Louis's control of France. Colbert, by convincing, surreptitious copying, and outright thievery, moved all manner of archives – whether parliamentary records from Paris or the registers of obscure parish churches in the provinces – to the King's library (which was kinda contiguous with Colbert's personal library). With these records under royal control, when it came time to settle a dispute about taxes, or the traditional rights and privileges of a distant bishop or noble, these questions would have to be settled by the King's scholars using the King's records – helping Louis turn france from a feudal patchwork to a unitary state. Nor did Colbert limit himself to the humanistic fields of history and jurisprudence – he realized that by bringing information about prices, geography, the sciences, and other fields under the same roof, he could better control France's ship construction, colonization, and agriculture. To do this, he sent intendants out across the realm, with standardized lists of questions and instructions to watch and learn about their assigned dockyard, factory, or parish. The resentment and fear they inspired from the people they encountered in the provinces certainly gives credence to the idea that Colbert was a bureaucrat's bureaucrat – ruling by his bureau, his writing desk. And if Louis was the State, Colbert was the state's right hand – and left hand, and eyes, and ears...

If Colbert's system was a bureaucracy, it was not a durable one. Upon his death, his many titles (In US terms he was essentially Chief of Staff and Secretary of the Navy, the Interior, and the Treasury, as well as head of the National Archives) were divvied up, and his system of archives and intendants fell apart. His ideas were inspirational – after the French Revolution deposed Louis's great-great-great-great grandson, writer Louis-Sébastien Mercier bemoaned a certain bureaucratic "mania for the quill, which dates to Monsieur Colbert."2 But he shows that something resembling a bureaucracy can arise in very different contexts and political systems than the liberalizing, industrial societies with which we associate them. And he shows above all the power that can come from controlling the material incarnation of knowledge.

The recipe:

This week we made Spicy Thai Peanut Ramen from Rabbit and Wolves—even better with some added veggies (we used carrots and onions).


We've discovered a nice hack for keeping fresh ginger on hand: the day you buy it, cut it into ~half-inch chunks, and keep them in a jar in the freezer. This way it's always on hand, you don't have to worry about how fast/slow you're using it, and the freezing makes it easier to cut when you're ready to use it.

This is Some Preliminary Thoughts, Bennett McIntosh's blog. You can sign up for email updates here, or unsubscribe here.

  1. Felten & von Oertzen (2020), "Bureaucracy as Knowledge"

  2. ibid.

#hist-tech #meta #preliminary-thoughts #recipes