The Innovation Prohibition and the New Science of Politics in the Early Modern Atlantic World

Lunchtime Lectures
Tuesday, February 19, 2019
12:00 p.m.–1:00 p.m.
Science History Institute
315 Chestnut Street
Philadelphia, PA 19106
United States

Join us for a Brown Bag Lecture by Alex Mazzaferro, a postdoctoral fellow at the American Philosophical Society.

This talk offers an overview of my book project, which recovers the pejorative former meaning of the term innovation, an early modern synonym for rebellion, and argues that that concept’s fraught exportation to the New World gave rise to an empirical approach to political knowledge. I show that methodological borrowings from an emergent natural science allowed leaders in British North America and the Caribbean to develop new forms of governance capable of thwarting the various forms of “innovation” they saw threatening their settlements, from mutiny and heresy to native warfare and slave revolt. But even as eyewitness reportage helped colonial elites to sidestep the early modern prohibition on innovation—setting in motion the concept’s late-18th-century rehabilitation—it also made their transgressive rejection of precedent all the more conspicuous, fueling a powerful underclass critique of colonialism’s novelty. Ultimately, I argue that the process of colonization helped to secure empiricism’s status as a major Western epistemology and rendered experientially informed improvisation the essence of modern sovereignty.

About the Speaker

Alex Mazzaferro is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the American Philosophical Society (APS), where he is overseeing an ambitious digital bibliography project listing all works published by APS members from 1743 to 1865. A specialist in early American literature, with an emphasis on the intersections between the history of science and the history of political thought, he is at work on a book manuscript entitled No Newe Enterprize: Empirical Political Science and the Problem of Innovation in the Colonial English Americas. His articles have appeared in Early American Literature and Early American Studies, and he has been the recipient of fellowships and grants from the American Council of Learned Societies, the Mellon Foundation, the Library Company of Philadelphia, and the Society of Early Americanists. Mazzaferro earned his PhD in English from Rutgers University in 2017.

About the Series

Brown Bag Lectures (BBLs) are a series of (mostly) weekly, informal talks on the history of chemistry or related subjects, including the history and social studies of science, technology, and medicine. Based on original research (sometimes still in progress), these talks are given by local scholars for an audience of the Institute staff and fellows and interested members of the public.