Review of Jones-Imhotep and Adcock, Made Modern

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Edward Jones-Imhotep and Tina Adcock, eds., Made Modern: Science and Technology in Canadian History. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2018. 376 pgs. ISBN 9780774837231.

Reviewed by Karen Sayer.

Made Modern: Science and Technology in Canadian History originated in papers delivered to the 2015 Science, Technology, and the Modern in Canada conference at York University in memory of Richard Jarrell. Arranged in three parts, the book covers the themes of Bodies, Technologies, and Environments. Grounded in approaches arising from the history of science and technology, specifically Canadian, it also contains material closely aligned with/from environmental history. Well-illustrated (with 2 tables and 30 figures), this is a well-crafted edited collection that consistently places its chapters within the wider question “what is ‘modern’/‘modernity’” In also asking “what does it mean to be ‘modern’ in Canada,” the book asks in particular if there is a Canadian modernity, expressive of its modern Western origins and boundaries, and its project(s) as a nation, from its formation? But as with its origins in the history of science and technology, the collection equally reaches beyond the Canadian/Canada.

There is discussion of the ways that ideas, knowledge, and people flowed through the geo-political bounds of the modern nation: helping Canadian scientists, learned societies, and others to imagine ‘Canada.’ As we see in Dorotea Gucciardo’s “Electric Medicine in Urban Canada, 1880-1920,” Canadian medical practitioners for instance were clearly influenced by texts written in the USA and Europe. In tackling the flow of ideas through geo-political frontiers and the international influence of Canadian figures and organisations outside of its territory, the collection frames up a series of valuable case studies that have a much wider scope and significance. For instance, in Part 1: Bodies we have Efram Sera-Shriar’s tightly-focused “Civilizing the Natives: Richard King and His Ethnographic Writings on Indigenous Northerners,” touching on the revisioning of the ‘civilising’ project and rationalisation of the methods of ethnographic research as that discipline formed. There are discussions too of the ways that boundaries formed around scientific disciplines. Beth A. Robertson’s “Cosmic Moderns: Re-enchanting the Body in Canada’s Atomic Age, 1931-51” explores the ways in which science was interpreted and reinterpreted by society and applied within what might appear to be wholly ‘unscientific’ fields of enquiry including, in this case, spiritualism. In Part 2: Technologies, James Hull’s “The Second Industrial Revolution in Canadian History” argues that the concept of a Second Industrial Revolution can sharpen focus on histories of production, labour processes, and ‘efficiency’ represented in natural environment controls/management, factories, education, policymaking, the civil service, and standardising and regulatory institutions. In “Paris—Montreal—Babylon: The Modernist Genealogies of Gerald Bull,” Jones-Imhotep addresses very precisely the power of actual geo-political bounds to impact both individual and nation through his extraordinarily nice delineation of the layered thinking and legacies behind the development of gunnery that came to sit at the edges of space exploration, and of both Cold and hot warfare. In Part 3: Environments, Stephen Bocking’s historiographical chapter “Landscapes of Science in Canada: Modernity and Disruption” makes the salient point that science was one among many epistemic systems that helped imagine, expand, and shape ‘Canadian’ territory. The landscape that he observes, drawing on historical geography, was made up of many, often contested, spaces grounded in Indigenous local knowledges as well as geologies, ecologies, and the movements of various species. The coherence of such a wide-ranging collection is achieved because ‘modernity’ within Canada – as expressed alongside the formation and definition of the idea of ‘Canadian,’ the legacies of imperialism within rational, Liberal, individualist Western nationhood, and of imperial/territorial conflict – remains central throughout.

A woman measures a substance into a set of small scales in a laboratory, Toronto, 1892. Library and Archives Canada, e002342759.

There is much that will catch the eye of environmental historians in addition to the work in Part 3: Environments. In Part 2 we have Edna Kranakis’s detailed account and exemplary analysis of the legal battles that upended the dominant narrative of scientific modernity in her “Percy Schmeiser, Roundup Ready® Canola, and Canadian Agricultural Modernity.” Adcock’s “Scientist Tourist Sportsman Spy: Boundary-Work and the Putnam Eastern Arctic Expeditions” contributes to our understanding of the way that ‘the Artic’ became a contested territory. Here, many modern nations had vested interests, and she traces the ways in which the Canadian government sought to control what it determined to be its resources via legislation bounding non-human and human actors. Energy historians should dip into Gucciardo’s chapter to reflect on the multiple ways in which modern citizens defined, knew, and shaped their interiority via medically-framed, intimate uses of new forms of energy. In fact, several chapters deal with the minutest uses of electricity, and will make us as environmental historians reflect on its profound integration into modernity where technology mapped bodies, and bodies sought new technology for enhancement. David Theodore’s case study work in “Small Science: Trained Acquaintance and the One-Man Research Team” sits at a related physiological/technological/energy boundary in his history of EEGs, computing, and surgery. Jan Hadlaw’s “Mysteries of the New Phone Explained: Introducing Dial Telephones and Automatic Service to Bell Canada Subscribers in the 1920s” leads us to reflect on the ways in which, by careful training, our physical use of new technology becomes ingrained, and unconscious. Each of these should be considered when we reflect on the ways in which we learn to make energy decisions, including the ways in which everyday uses of technologies with environmental costs become so habitual that those costs become invisible and take effort to step away from. Part 3: Environments of course offers a final set of chapters that form the main focus for environmental historians: as well as Bocking’s excellent framing chapter, we have Andrew Stuhl “‘For Canada and for Science’: Transnational Modernity and the Report of the Canadian Arctic Expedition 1913-1918,” Blair Stein “North Stars and Sun Destinations: Time, Space, and Nation at Trans Canada Air Lines/Air Canada, 1947-70,” and Daniel MacFarlane, “Negotiating High Modernism: The St Lawrence Seaway and Power Project,” plus Dolly Jorgeson’s epilogue, “Canadian Modernity as an Icon of the Anthropocene.”

Canadair DC-4M North Star in Montreal, 1948. Canadian Aviation Museum Photograph Collection, CAVM-05535.

What becomes clear from ‘Environments’ is that asset control, from fish, to land (be that mapped territory, or farmland), plant, people or energy through science and technology was key to Canadian Modernity. This was not unique, of course, but for Canada it became entwined with the formation of the nation state, its place on the world stage, and its geo-location close to the Arctic – part of a very specific axis of relationships, and increasingly criss-crossed by international debate about global Climate Change. These very nuanced analyses address the various fall outs of this, for human relations with other species, cut through with intersectional nuances by gender, class, ‘Race’/ethnicity – especially when entangled with discourses that made hay with the language of ‘native’/’non-native,’ ‘indigenous,’ ‘invasive,’ driven through with longer histories that involved movements of people, resource extraction, or the “administration” of people and places.

Canadian Pacific Railway snowplow in the mountains of western Canada, c.1900. City of Vancouver Archives, CVA-8-23.

I was struck, finally, as I read this between the UK’s first and third Covid-19 lockdowns (2020-21) that armchairs feature heavily – armchair ethnographers (43) and also armchair travellers (72). This is how we must work right now, as historians, but the phrase also highlights a crucial point: the way that the world has been explored and made known through text, not just through exploration on the ground, by boat or by air. People, places, experiences, and non-human animals were categorised and written up within increasing numbers of evermore finely-tuned epistemological exercises, and yes those exercises were enacted physically, and ground-truthed. But this worked systemically, in the end, via models of Western ‘civilisation’ predicated on the importance of distant access to the ‘remote,’ remote access being part and parcel of modernity in its technologies and forms: report, book, film, telephone, computer-generated image, photography.

Feature Image: HBC seaplane in Gravel Point, AB, 1940s. Provincial Archives of Alberta, Charles Eymundson fonds, PR2012.0927/98.
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Karen Sayer

Professor of Social and Cultural History at Leeds Trinity University
Environmental historian researching British nineteenth and twentieth century concepts of the rural, Nature and the countryside, my work focuses on farming and the farmed animal, energy, technology and the body. I currently work at Leeds Trinity University, UK.

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