In his 1697 Essay on Projects, Daniel Defoe referred to his era as a “Projecting Age“: a time of schemes, plots and plans to make life (life in general, and the projector’s life in particular) better. Many projects were what we would call scams, and many more looked that way. In a conservative and moralizing age, projects were characterized by their novelty, their claims on the future, and often too by their opportunism and their transgressive embrace of material interests — including self-interest — as springs of action. (Jonathan Swift was not by any stretch of the imagination the first to make fun of projecting, but in his description of the Academy of Lagado, and especially in A Modest Proposal, he was one of the most effective.) Projects were also marked out by what we might think of as their interdisciplinary nature, or perhaps merely their lack of discipline, in crossing or ignoring emergent boundaries between science, economy, society, church and state — seeking political transformations through material interventions in the landscape, or treating the government of different populations as an alchemical problem. All of this might make projects seem far-fetched or innovative, utopian or prescient, depending on one’s point of view.
In short, projects, projecting, and even the despised projectors who engaged in them have a lot to tell us about the early modern world and our own, as Vera Keller and I argue in our coedited special issue of Early Science and Medicine.