Doing it Wrong

Doing it Wrong: The Codification of Error

Sven Dupre


Potsdamer Glashütte, Deckelpokal, Ident.Nr. W-1977,84
© Photo: Kunstgewerbemuseum der Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin - Preußischer Kulturbesitz, photographed by: Arne Psille.

An important aspect of structuring practical knowledge is the codification of error. Rather than writing down how to proceed, authors write down what not to do. Writing down how to do something right, is probably as old as mankind’s writing abilities. Recipes on Babylonian clay tablets suggest as much. However, I suggest that writing about doing it wrong seems to first emerge in the early modern period. Before the seventeenth century the recipe literature shows evidence of silent changes. During processes of transmission authors changed recipes without explicit notification to adapt them to new local and material conditions. Tried in new contexts, recipes seemed to no longer work, or the results were considered unsuccessful. Occasionally, readers of recipes even jotted down that a procedure did not work in the margin of a recipe book. Equally common in the recipe literature is the listing of variations on recipes offering the reader many different ways to do something right. However, seemingly new in the seventeenth century is the process of writing how-to, as found in earlier named or anonymous sources, followed by the explicit signal that a recipe does not work and suggestions for ways to change it to make it work. This is what I would like to call ‘the codification of error.’ Faced with the flood of practical knowledge in the early modern period it seems to be an equally powerful means to reorganize practical knowledge than bringing it together under a limited number of postulates. This paper will thus speak to one of the aims of the workshop, that is, "investigating the inherent characteristics of practical knowledge that can be identified as the causes of the emergence of sharing processes from the perspective of practical knowledge itself." I hope to illustrate this on the basis of writings on glassmaking.