Archive for June, 2011

Thinking objects and thinking uncertainty: Reading Rheinberger

June 30, 2011

Review #2: Hans-Jorg Rheinberger’s An Epistemology of the Concrete: Twentieth-Century Histories of Life (2010)

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Early on in An Epistemology of the Concrete: Twentieth-Century Histories of Life, Hans-Jorg Rheinberger invokes the rich phenomenology of Gaston Bachelard to make an argument for the importance of the epistemic object. Rheinberger’s epistemic object extends from scientific equipment to model organisms and to fundamental concept-objects like the gene and the genome. Along with Bachelard, this emphasis on the object also echoes Karen Barad’s call for agential realism. Like Barad, Rheinberger is interested in foregrounding the constitutive nature of matter and meaning. Both authors present matter and meaning as a constantly unfolding and fragmented dialogue. In this way, Rheinberger’s history of science is distinguished from standard narratives of progress that feature the heroic scientist-creator, labouring in isolation to advance scientific knowledge in a series of inspired moments of unprecedented insight. His emphasis on objects rather than thought also distinguishes his project from the convention in epistemology to stress discourse as the driving principle of scientific and technological advancement; the episteme being seen as the collective discursive field that determines the limits of meaning for a given period, the thoughts that could be possibly thought. By insisting on the concrete, Rheinberger, like Barad, insists that matter matters.

At first glance Rheinberger’s book is deceptively chunky, as it is made up of an assortment of previously published essays that he divides into four thematic sections that all deal with the composition of scientific knowledge. In the first section Rheinberger provides a sketch of four men who played a definitive role in outlining the epistemology of science: Bachelard, Fleck, Husserl, and Canguilhem. The second section introduces us to four model organisms that similarly played a definitive role in shaping biology: Pisum sativum (pea plants), Eudorina elegans (unicellar green algae colonies), Ephestia kuhniella (flour moths), and the tobacco mosaic virus. The third and forth sections are made up of brief accounts of genetics experiments, scientific instruments, microscopic preparations, and laboratory note taking. Together the chapters of the book constitute an assemblage – an archive of biological epistemologica – that illustrates Rheinberger’s contention that certain objects consolidated disparate lines of research to shape our notion of twentieth-century biology. In this way, Rheinberger activates or performs his argument, rather than laying it out in a didactic fashion.

Rheinberger also makes the point that the generative relationships between objects and ideas are never fixed and thus they can fall out of favour and be rendered obsolete. “Epistemic objects,” he asserts, “are by nature made to be surpassed” (222). For an epistemic object to have the potential to incite and channel scientific research it must embody a degree of uncertainty. In other words, it is the sense of the unknown associated with a given epistemic object that underwrites its usefulness in how we acquire knowledge. To this end, Rheinberger states:

The specific experimental practices observable in modern research fields give rise to concepts that are bound up closely with the objects of that research. As such, they constitute attractors that despite their imprecision – even one suspects because of it – acquire to one degree or another the power to guide people’s thinking and advance the world of research. Occasionally entire disciplines are built up around one or a few of these imprecisely defined epistemic objects… The atom was long such an object in physics as was the molecule in chemistry and the species in evolutionary biology. In classical genetics the gene took on this on this function. (154)

Rheinberger further contends that science should adapt itself to the generative effects of uncertainty by adopting a fuzzy or uncertain logic and methodology. To make this argument Rheinberger cites Lofti Zadeh’s current research in AI. Zadeh contends “there is an incompatibility between precision and complexity. As the complexity of a system increases, our ability to make precise and yet non-trivial assertions about its behavior diminishes” (as quoted in Rheinberger, 169). Picking up this theme of useful uncertainty later on in the text, Rheinberger reminds us that the domain of the experiment is supposedly meant to be a place in which we depart from tradition and test new ways of thinking and conceiving the world. “An experiment,” he states, “is not only a test or an examination, as it may be at times. More frequently, it is an exploratory movement, a game in which one plays with possible positions, an open arrangement”  (247).

Our Friend the Atom (1957)

While reading Rheinberger’s accounts of genetics experiments done at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute during WWII and Lyle Packard’s invention and successful marketing of the Liquid Scintillation Counter, a famous episode of The Wonderful World of Disney kept playing in my head: Our Friend the Atom (1957). The episode is comprised of both live-action and animated segments. The live-action segments feature Dr. Heinz Haber, who we are told is a “noted German science in the field of nuclear energy.” Haber guides the viewer through the physical and moral issues that comprise/entangle nuclear fission. To illustrate the potential dangers involved we are shown a cartoon allegory in which nuclear fission is represented as an all-powerful genie. We are told that this literal genie in the bottle will provide us with an endless supply of energy, which, in turn, will revolutionize commerce, our ability to grow crops, and vastly improve the health of people the world over. Predictably, we are also warned that these miraculous powers come with grave responsibility and, if the genie is not treated with the utmost respect, he/we will release a destructive wrath with unimaginable consequences. What is striking about this cartoon is the hubris and celebration of power it advocates despite its graphic warning of global annihilation. Scenes unfold in which giant nuclear plants feed electricity along extensive networks of power lines linking the cities of the US and the globe so that commerce, agriculture, and medicine are thoroughly integrated and harmonized. Trains carrying nonrenewable and dirty sources of energy like oil and coal are halted and then sent in reverse, miraculously returning their cargo to the land. Radioactive cocktails (bubbling with radioisotopes) are given to the sick to flesh out hidden cancers, which are then treated and cured with radiation therapy. Similarly, radioactive material is introduced to crops and livestock to trace and bolster their intake of nutrients. In this new wonderful world, radiation poisoning is not an issue. It seems to be completely excised, which would suggest that when the project is to revolutionize the world with nuclear power the question of risk is rendered silent. There is clearly nothing fuzzy or uncertain about such aspirations and goals. They would not allow for Rheinberger’s purposefully unassuming and playful epistemology. To conclude, I want to stress that Rheinberger is not calling for a sloppy or less serious science, but is instead championing a creative and thoughtful mode of research that avoids reductive and normative ways of thinking. The incentive behind acknowledging the complexity or entanglements of life should not lead us to dangerous simplifications and disentanglement but to multiplicity and unpredictable discoveries.


Becoming Brittlestar, Becoming Agential

June 30, 2011

Review #1: Karen Barad’s Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglements of Matter and Meaning (2007)

Brittlestars don’t have eyes; they are eyes. It is not merely the case that the brittlestar’s visual system is embodied; its very being is a visualizing apparatus. The brittlestar is a living, breathing, metamorphosing optical system. (375)

Brittlestars are part of the menagerie of fantastic creatures invoked in Karen Barad’s Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglements of Matter and Meaning. As Barad explains, the brittlestar has no brain and as such it is alien to our understanding of animal life. Instead of having a brain-driven or concentrated morphology, it exists as a diffused network of interconnected parts. Its body is constructed so that its exterior surface acts as multiple microscopic receptors of diffracted light. Changes in the light are relayed to a diffused nervous system so actions can be taken. For example, through its compound “eyes” or ocular structure the brittlestar might detect a predator and seek camouflage amongst similar-looking plants and coral. The idea that this brainless animal is able to act and make decisions is a direct challenge to our Cartesian notion of thinking and being. The brittlestar cannot be conceived as a non-thinking or less intelligent animal because its way of knowing and being in the world has little to do with our understanding of intelligence. We literally cannot think/understand the brittlestar. Our descriptions fall short and are riddled with endless quotation marks around “eyes,” “seeing,” “knowing,” “individual,” and “action.” Barad makes the point that this struggle to understand the brittlestar is the very same struggle we face with quantum physics: We literally cannot think/understand quantum physics because it also does not coincide with the Cartesian human subject or Newtonian physics.

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In a text that advocates a radical restructuring of how we live and understand life, perhaps we should not be surprised to encounter all-seeing brittlestars along with lesbian lizards, genetically-engineered spidergoats (goats that lactate a form of spider’s silk), and, of course, Schrodinger’s cat. We have encountered this darn and damned cat many times before. In countless primers to quantum physics, Schrodinger’s cat is placed in a makeshift cabinet to disappear into a netherworld of quantum mechanics, where it is both alive and dead, both an unresolved paradox and a sadistic truth lesson. But it is these other creatures that catch my interest. In a book that tackles the philosophy-physics of Niels Bohr, I was not expecting to learn biology, as I assumed that I would be far too busy trying to hold the quirky and contradictory ideas of quantum mechanics in my head. The fact that the reader is presented with a thorough exegesis of Bohr’s philosophy-physics, as well as critiques of Foucaultian power, poststructuralist calls for performativity, and applications of ultrasound technology and genetic engineering, speaks to the extent of Barad’s project. Barad is a specialist but she is also pluralist. She is a physicist, a feminist, a teacher, a philosopher, and obviously an avid reader. Her interdisciplinary approach is part and parcel of her overarching argument: to comprehend the complexities of quantum physics, one must first acknowledge the entangled dynamics of life. But Barad’s call to meet the universe halfway is not simply a matter of adopting an interdisciplinary approach. She is clearly advocating a much more transformative project that can be expressed tautologically: To understand life in a thoroughly different fashion, we need to understand life in a thoroughly different fashion. To make a quantum leap, we need to make a quantum leap.

Barad’s response to this call to do things differently is agential realism, which she argues involves adopting a worldview of “intra-action,” a constant process of unfolding, becoming, “worlding.” She adopts the neologism “intra-action” rather than interaction as a way to emphasize “the mutual constitution of entangled agencies. That is, in contrast to the usual ‘interaction,’ which assumes that there are separate individual agencies that precede their interaction, the notion of intra-action recognizes that distinct agencies do not precede, but rather emerge through, their intra-action” (33, italics in the original). Agential realism can be understood as the productive encounter of matter and meaning, but we need to reconfigure our notion of matter and meaning so that neither precedes the other. This interdependency shares much it common with actor network theory. Barad too argues for a version agency that is seen as not something one has or processes, but as the result of a network or the exchange between parties. “Agency is not an attribute,” asserts Barad, “but the ongoing reconfigurings of the world. The universe is agential intra-activity in its becoming” (141). But where actor network theory focuses on the assemblages of meaning that emerges from the exchange between fixed entities, human and nonhuman, Barad insists on a much more fractured/compounded/diffractive notion of agency and life. Life does not begin or end with the human or the nonhuman, nor the material world and the social world. These things, categories, or ideations only ever have a contingent frame of reference. Meaning and material only ever have fixed properties in a fictional sense. Where, for example, do I stop and start being human? Where does the nonhuman world start and stop in the composition of my humanness? These are the sorts of fractious questions that agential realism demands.

Barad’s project of agential realism can perhaps be best described as her augmenting the ontological dimensions of Bohr’s physics. Despite Bohr’s own ontological shortcomings and biases, Barad champions his interpretation of the complementary nature of matter and meaning as a “proto-performative” and “proto-posthumanist” accounting of the world. Barad begins with Bohr’s resolve that we cannot separate experimental observations from the observational apparatus, and the two only have meaning as an intertwined phenomenon. As Barad explains:

Bohr argues that the indetermnacy of the measurement interaction is of profound consequence: Since observations involve an indeterminable discontinuous interaction, as a matter of principle, there is no unambiguous way to differentiate between the “object” and the “agencies of observation.” No inherent/Cartesian subject-object distinction exists. (114)

This ontological principle will eventually lead Barad to the brittlestar as an embodied example of agential realism and this related or compounded idea that we cannot separate ourselves from the measurements or agential cuts that we deploy to make sense of the world. Like the brittlestar, we wear these agential cuts as part of our being in the world. And it is here that I want to end my review: with Barad’s call to think through this unusual animal as a way of meeting the universe halfway. The brittlestar, like the famous double-slit experiment, can be thought of as diffraction device. Not only does it diffract light but it is also a liminal creature/phenomenon that diffracts humanist notions of subjectivity, agency, unity, and spatiality. Part of the brittlestar’s liminality is it’s sexuality: “some species use broadcast spawning, others exhibit sexual dimorphism, some are hermaphroditic and self-fertilize, and some reproduce asexually by regenerating or cloning themselves out of the fragmented body parts” (377). This sexual diversity reinforces the point that to account for the brittlestar or quantum physics in all their complexities, we are required to think in a radically different fashion. In this dual process of rethinking and unthinking – thinking agentially – humans will eventually lose some of their familiar shape. In other words, in our attempts to account for the unfolding complexities of the universe, we cannot help but to become somewhat posthuman, quantum, and brittlestar.