Bill Clark or the Ironic Analyst of homo academicus

by Alix Cooper and Wolf Feuerhahn

Editor’s note: In this tribute to the late Bill Clark (1953-2017), Alix Cooper (Stony Brook University, New York) and Wolf Feuerhahn (CNRS, Centre Alexandre Koyré, Paris) reflect on the scholarship and career of their late mentor. As a service to HSS members and indeed, historians of science everywhere, they have also provided access to a full bibliography—supplemented with abstracts where available—of his works.

Humboldtallee! This street name—evoking the famous von Humboldt brothers, Alexander and Wilhelm—seemed to us to be just the perfect address!

During the academic year 1994-95, the two of us had the incredible luck to be hosted at number 11, Humboldtallee under the roof of an institute for the history of science in Göttingen, Germany. The host was not an old and strict German mandarin, but a young, humorous and brilliant Californian researcher: William—better known as Bill—Clark. Despite his youth, he knew, perhaps more than anybody else, about the historical figure of the German “Prof. Dr.” He was able to bring this figure to life, to sketch out all the rituals, habits, and practices of this odd type of human being: not in order to caricature it, but to understand it better and, of course, to understand himself and help us understand ourselves better.

As Bill’s work showed so clearly, given how the German academic system became a model on a global scale during the 19th century, looking at its practices is crucial in understanding how it has continued to structure our own manners, customs, and unconscious behaviors or taboos. One of the lessons he taught was, therefore, that it is not actually possible for one to be a “serious” historian of science. That is, one cannot reproduce the academic manners one analyzes without any distance or irony. A seminar on the history of the seminar has to be of a different type; the same for a PhD, an article, a book on the topic…. A historian of science has to be able to look ironically at his or her own productions.

Bill Clark, date uncertain; Photograph courtesy Patty Clark

Bill Clark, date uncertain; Photograph courtesy Patty Clark

Bill didn’t overtly theorize on this methodological and ethical question, preferring to suggest it more obliquely. He nevertheless mentioned in a sentence of his book Academic Charisma and the Origins of the Research University (2006), that, “irony is for me, moreover, an essential academic attitude about academia, that is, the essence of reflexivity.” And at the end, the question remains: Was it not in order to promote another kind of academic sociability that he scrutinized the history of the academy in the way he did? Bill would probably have smiled at such a “serious” conclusion. But indeed, the preface of Little Tools of Knowledge suggests it:

One fine evening in the autumn of 1992, finding that they had not only made too much pasta and dessert, but also had more than enough wine, Becker and Sabean called up Clark. Though usually resisting invitations entailing he be somewhere within fifteen minutes, Clark found this an offer he could not refuse, as Sabean was departing Göttingen the next day for Ithaca. Unused as they all were to wine, much of the evening quickly became a blur. Two things however still stand out. First was Becker’s dessert, which Clark and Sabean, with heavy hearts, had to admit was the only truly inedible dessert they had ever encountered (and, worse, for a good time thereafter they had other suspicions). Second, were the plans they all laid that eventually led to this volume.

This wasn’t just a rhetorical flourish; indeed, with his co-editor, Peter Becker, he invited an anthropologist (Heidrun Friese) to the conference to study it as a field and published the latter’s article at the end of the book, making the volume doubly reflexive.

In 2006, he added in his magnum opus Academic Charisma that:

This book contains criticism of the sort of academic life and labor that has descended upon us from the German university system. Part of this critique may be motivated by a vague nostalgia for a golden age of college life. Such nostalgia can perhaps lead one to the antipodes of the Germanic university as potential resources to help remedy the ills of contemporary academia. But that is another matter and exceeds the rationale of this book, albeit desiring to offer a history of the present, but still a history, and not a manual of action. Nostalgia must thus be leavened with irony.

As a result of enormous archival labors, to help us be able to laugh together about our academic habits: this is maybe one of the key contributions of William Clark’s work, echoing that of David Lodge.

Bill excelled in the seminar, that form of teaching whose origins he probed in one of his earliest articles, “On the Dialectical Origins of the Research Seminar.” Grinning widely, he would hold up his mug of coffee and ask us and the assembled students to provide an Aristotelian analysis of it, working out its material, formal, efficient & final causes, so that we could prove we understood a text we had just read. Or he might request that we explicate the reasoning of an eighteenth-century German author who posited that there might be varying numbers of lawyers on different planets in the solar system, based on the degree of heat and agitation of particles on that planet. The experience was spellbinding. Both of these examples come from a seminar he taught on “Cosmology and Anthropology in the German Enlightenment.” With his colleague Michael Hagner from the Institute for the History of Medicine, he also co-taught a seminar on “Mad Scientists,” where the texts read ran the gamut from the sixteenth-century Faust-Buch to the twentieth-century shamanic intellectual outsider Carlos Castaneda. Was the mad scientist an outlier from the academic norm, he asked, or rather the personification of it? Seminar meetings were intense. Outside the seminar room, he gave generous and earnest counsel on the rites and rituals of academic life, for example, on the relationship between orality and literacy in the conference talk. The entire time, he was simultaneously within and without the university, taking part in its rites and rituals (like that of the seminar) while also serving as an ironic guide to them.

In some ways, the objects of his study seemed to be very traditional and canonized ones: the history of the German research university, of the research seminar, of the doctor of philosophy, of “the death of metaphysics.” Working on the history of the German university and of academics and that during the Enlightenment? What a traditional topic! How could he manage not to make it boring? The answer is that Bill had read a lot: not only his primary sources—the famous as well as the much less well known, the philosophical as well as the ministerial—but also an enormous number of volumes on the social sciences: Friedrich Nietzsche, Max Weber, Norbert Elias, Michel Foucault, Pierre Bourdieu, Bruno Latour, Clifford Geertz, and Gérard Genette, to name but a few. But here again, he didn’t take them as gurus. He was not Weberian, Foucauldian, or Bourdieuxian; he read them all, but he also read literature and watched TV series. As a result, he had a very singular and self-educated gaze. So the main thesis in Academic Charisma was in no way a Weberian one. In contrast to Robert Merton, who tried to decipher the Protestant ethic of seventeenth-century English science, Bill showed that bureaucratization of science didn’t produce the end of charisma in academia but on the contrary, fixed charisma as a norm. The “modern” type of homo academicus was no mere bureaucratic officer, but rather, a charismatic and original figure. No orthodox Weberian would have accepted such an iconoclastic thesis.

Thanks to what we call with caution his deep learning or “culture”—here again he would probably have laughed at such a serious word, which itself affords an historical undertaking in order to deflate it—he was able to read differently not only the Gesammelte Werke of Kant or Fichte, but also the ministerial registers like Vorlesungsverzeichnisse or course catalogs (which he called “little tools of knowledge”) as epistemic genres.

Bill would almost certainly have read our text with an ironic eye. Is our text a vain undertaking? In its failure to grant him tenure, the academic world revealed itself to be unable to see the importance of having, within its walls, such a clever and distant man, able to be simultaneously serious and funny. But Bill’s gaze should be known, and his writings should be read and re-read. Not like Tablets of the Law, but rather as propositions and therefore to be discussed, debated, and engaged with. We very much hope that even though he never found a tenured position within academia, his writings will continue to spark the recognition they deserve.

A complete bibliography of Clark’s publications, some annotated by Drs. Cooper and Feuerhahn, is available here on the HSS website.