Global Conversation with Dr. Harun Küçük of University of Pennsylvania’s Middle East Center

By Will Becker

The University of Pennsylvania’s Middle East Center recently announced that Dr. Harun Küçük, Associate Professor in the Department of History and Sociology of Science — will be assuming its leadership as Director on July 1, 2021. Dr. Küçük is a historian of early modern Ottoman science, whose ground-breaking scholarship draws on a wide range of sources and registers, from the Ottoman medical marketplace to astronomical practices, and from natural philosophy to drug recipes. The Global Philadelphia Association had the opportunity to talk with Dr. Küçük recently as a part of our ongoing Global Conversation series.

Will Becker: Hello Dr. Küçük, congratulations on the new Directorship and thank you for taking the time to speak with us. Right off the bat, what initiatives do you hope to see in your new position in the Middle East Center? 

Dr. Küçük: The Middle East Center is very broad in its programming. As it stands, it has two main titles for future programming. First is going to be, as you might guess, the Middle East from a global perspective. This is really about getting an understanding of the Middle East that goes beyond the Middle East. So for example, if you want to look through Islam, you're obviously faced with a geography far wider than the Middle East. If you're looking at the Middle East from a social and economic perspective, the area actually shares a lot in common with Latin America, for example. We want to bring a wide point of view like this into focus. 

Another other thing is the environment, economy, and society – and that’s based on a number of works that have been published in the recent past. 

There are other developments like the Major and the Minor in Middle East Studies. There are departments that teach Middle East-related things at Penn because there are several faculty members in different departments that do Middle East-related research. So history, Near-Eastern languages and cultures, political science, and as far as I know some sociology – all of these things come under the umbrella of Middle East Studies. What we do is mostly advising and guiding students to courses like these. 

WB: You’ve been in the Philadelphia area off-and-on since becoming an Assistant Professor at Penn in 2014. What are your opinions of Philadelphia after being born and raised in Istanbul, which is also a World Heritage City?

Dr. Küçük: A lot of cities in the U.S. don't give you this ‘18th-century vibe’ in the way that Philadelphia does. Engaging with the history is very nice – we almost rented a place that was built in 1765 when we first arrived in Philadelphia. It's amazing that you can rent something that was built so long ago.

But, you know, it's a different experience. I would say Philadelphia's golden age was like the 18th-19th centuries, and Istanbul’s golden age was more like the 15th-16th centuries. I see Istanbul as a very vertical city with a lot of tall buildings, while Philadelphia is a very horizontal city when you look at how spread out it is. Philadelphia has obviously preserved a lot of its history in a good way. Istanbul hasn't really– it has always looked contemporary. If you were to walk around Istanbul in the 17th century, it would look like a 17th-century city. Walk around in the 18th century, it looks like an 18th-century city. It’s almost like it doesn't have a fixed history, except maybe a handful of monuments in what's generally considered the old city, which is relatively well-preserved. But as it stands, most of Istanbul just looks like any modern city.

WB: So tell me about some of your past work with Ottoman sciences like your book Science Without Leisure: Practical Naturalism in Istanbul, 1660-1732, and your recently ERC-funded work, Geographies and Histories of the Ottoman Supernatural Tradition Exploring Magic, the Marvelous, and the Strange in Ottoman Mentalities. I find the work on the Supernatural particularly fascinating.

Dr. Küçük: I'm not a specialist on magic and sorcery by a long shot, but this is something I try to keep in mind, just generally. A lot of technical solutions that might have to do with nature would have been considered magic back then, both in the Ottoman context and in the European context for a very long time, maybe until the 19th century. Researchers would say there was a lot of activity that could fall under the heading of what we consider ‘technoscience’ today. I tend to work on things like medicine, astronomy, physics, and so on.

WB: That’s a very interesting insight, and can you tell me about the book you’re working on now, regarding the long-term relationship between science and monetary capital?

The starting point, if you can call it that, is that science is a separate kind of capital. We don't always see this because natural sciences especially have developed a very close relationship with monetary capital in terms of research and development as well as patents. But of course, you can have research and development, and those can have patents, but you don't necessarily have to use science for those. It's not a symmetrical relationship, as it were. So my guiding question is, if we say that the relationship between science and monetary capital is not a given and that it is a historical development, where does that take us? If science is a separate kind of capital, why does it exist at all in an age where monetary capital reigns? What compels people to invest in education, for example? Why do we have things like humanities education today? Why do people still go into the basic sciences?

People study physics because, while what you do in the physics lab today might not have any economic impact today, it may 50 or 100 years down the line. So, this is quite a different temporal regime than just the temporal regime that you might find in pure capitalism, untainted by science. I'm trying to understand that because without this long-term perspective, you don't have science. You basically have lots of quick solutions, which may address some of your problems, but for other problems, now is already too late. One way to think about this is COVID vaccines, for example. If people hadn't already been working on issues like COVID for decades prior to the pandemic, we wouldn't have a vaccine now. And if you turn to monetary capital in that situation, you will find that it doesn't really have the kind of foresight that scientific capital has. I'm trying to understand how the long-term perspective of science works with or doesn't work with the relatively shorter-term perspective of monetary capital.

WB: Do you think you are moving away from a focus on the Ottoman era in doing so?

Dr. Küçük: I’m never very far from Ottoman things, but I do like a breath of fresh air, you know. Right now I'm just interested in this more theoretical, longer-term question. I'm currently also involved in two fairly major projects involving the Ottoman Empire, though. One of them is about the notions of the supernatural in the Ottoman Empire in the 15th, 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. I'm also working, with my colleague Oscar Aguirre-Mandujano, on an anthology of primary sources regarding science in the Ottoman Empire, which has grown out of a workshop that we had back in 2019.

This conversation has been edited for clarity.