Friday 13 March 2015

"I wish you to know that I am a river about 350 miles long; I have not many tributaries, nor much timber, but I am full of fish."

I recently finished reading a fascinating book by Laura Dassow Walls, The Passage to Cosmos: Alexander von Humboldt and the Shaping of America. It is essentially a biography but pays particular attention to Humboldt's travels through the (mostly South) Americas and his influence on (mostly North) American literature. It issues an impassioned plea for a revival of interest in Humboldt's proto-ecology, his worldly cosmopolitanism and his synthetic, romantic naturalism. I would take issue with most of that but there's no doubt that he's a fascinating character, one whom I intend to learn more about.

For a differently focused but equally enthusiastic take on the man, see John Tresch's glorious essay Even the Tools Will Be Free: Humboldt’s Romantic Technologies (this is reproduced in Tresch's equally excellent book The Romantic Machine).

The titular quotation ("I wish you to know...") comes from one of Humboldt's letters, written upon receiving news that a Nevadan river had been named after him (in addition to hundreds of towns and countless streets all over the US).

I think the thing that fascinates me about Humboldt, even as I admit greater wariness than the above-mentioned authors, is his project. He was a man with a plan: the production of a cosmic synthesis; a singular poetic-scientific vision of the entire universe that would bring readers to understand their interconnectedness, interdependence and shared fate. He was hardly the first to attempt an encyclopaedic synthesis of all knowledge but few have approached it with such poetic gusto.

All of that is completely at odds with where we are now. It is no longer possible (perhaps it was no longer possible even by the end of the nineteenth century—although Élisée Reclus continued Humboldt's project in his own way into the twentieth) to conceive of the synthesis of nature and humanity as a progressive project (at least not without considerable naivety, even stupidity). We know all too well what Humboldt's legacy really was in practical terms: he facilitated, whatever his noble intentions, the colonisation and capitalisation of the very territories, strata and ecosystems that he mapped and surveyed with such superhuman vigour. His pioneering (in every sense) techniques were quickly adopted by state and corporate agents and his quasi-utopian hope for the nascent United States was soon shown to have been misplaced.

He perhaps did more than any other individual (although from another point of view 'Humboldt' himself was a collective of many agents, human and machinic—see Tresch on this point) to join up, to interconnect, to (in a sense) socialise the Americas. He thought, ever so naively, that this would bring peace, progress, harmony. We can no longer be so sheltered. And yet there is something so very appealing in his energy and character. Walls frequently notes that Humboldt rarely writes about himself (he is always intensely focused on the world he is frenziedly vascularising) and yet the charisma simply leaps off the page, even reading his works second hand.

We can no longer be as naive as Humboldt. His mapping, surveying, ethnographing, vascularising, cosmosynthesising project we now understand was, at best, a double-edged sword. His faith in modernisation can only be something of the past. But the interest of him I think is this: he was born just early enough that he could still in all good faith believe in modernisation as a progressive project without having to wear blinkers of such a scale that we can simply dismiss him out of hand as wilfully ignoring the consequences of his actions. He was a moderniser that it is possible to sympathise with even if we cannot identify with his problems as such.

If he had been born any later, his project, his grand synthesis would have been all but unthinkable. Indeed, he struggled against the growing disciplinisation of the sciences even as his gargantuan specimen-gathering exercises necessitated ever greater specialisation (indeed, his brother Wilhelm is remembered for presiding over the reconstruction of the German academic and educational system, as well as being one of the foremost linguists of the era).

He was perhaps the last major figure who could elude the later nineteenth century's obsession with disciplinisation. He exuded an intellectual freedom that had been crushed by 1900 and was perhaps mortally wounded even by 1851. Now that every field of the humanities and social sciences seems (at last) to be deeply concerned with inter- trans- post- or multi-disciplinarity (take your pick), it might be time to reconsider Humboldt in more detail.

I don't share the belief that his romantic, cosmosynthetic naturalism is the answer to our problems today. Nevertheless, better understanding this extraordinary and crucially liminal figure might allow us to better understand our present predicaments, both geo-political and academic-disciplinary, in more sophisticated terms. From this tumbling, darting, indefatigable blur of such prodigious vivacity it seems utterly implausible that there is nothing more to be learned.