Zones of Doubt

Purity and Power
Zones of Doubt

After finishing the manuscript of Purity and Power, I plan to write a second book on the wider history of commodities and natural knowledge in the long nineteenth century. As part of this project, I am already at work on a research article, which I expect to complete in mid-2016, on the smuggling of frozen Canadian herring into Gloucester, Massachusetts in the 1880s and 1890s. The importation of these herring, taken from Newfoundland’s bays, meant very different things to different groups of Americans and Canadians. To impoverished Newfoundlanders, the arrival of Gloucester boats each December was both an immediate source of income and a longer-term threat to their livelihood. To the U.S. Treasury, dozens of untaxed and lucrative cargoes represented illicit collusion between a town’s population and local officers of the Federal government. In the press, herring of questionable provenance manifested fears of America’s newly opaque and nationwide food-supply networks. And in Gloucester itself, public scandals about fishing practices appeared part of a conspiracy by big business and its allies to deprive the townspeople of their way of life.

Beyond sugar and frozen herring, the state’s very existence in the nineteenth century depended on the taxation of hundreds of imported commodities. From wool and tin to coal and oil, commodities were subjects of fierce public disputes about how, where, and by whom their qualities should be measured. My second book, tentatively titled Zones of Doubt: Science, Commodities, and Corruption in the Nineteenth Century, will therefore constitute a material study of natural knowledge in the spaces where commodities were produced and given value. Warehouses, wharves, factories, refineries, custom houses, and ships at harbor and at sea all shaped the nature of authority and power at the beginning of modern America. Disputes about new scientific ways of understanding natural substances connected docks and factories in Brooklyn and San Francisco to fishing bays in Canada, to farms in the Midwest, and to the Capitol and White House. More broadly, it was through these commodities themselves that people understood and engaged with one another as producers, consumers, and citizens: adulteration, purity, corruption, and honest grading were all concepts that reflected judgments about other human beings and their forms of knowledge. How and by whom the natural world would be known were questions central to the relationships between free labor and slavery, democracy and expertise, republic and empire, and business and the state.

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