Thinking objects and thinking uncertainty: Reading Rheinberger

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

Phenomena and instrument, object and experience, concept and method, are all engaged in an ongoing process of mutual instruction… the object itself becomes an agent of the process of knowledge (31)@font-face { font-family: “Cambria”; }@font-face { font-family: “Times-Roman”; }p.MsoNormal, li.MsoNormal, div.MsoNormal { margin: 0in 0in 10pt; font-size: 11pt; font-family: “Times New Roman”; }div.Section1 { page: Section1; }

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.

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