The Story of the Objective Eye

Review #3: Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison’s Objectivity (2007)

imperfect snowflake

To be objective is to aspire to knowledge that bears no trace of the knower – knowledge unmarked by prejudice or skill, fantasy or judgment, wishing or striving.

In their bulky study, Objectivity, Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison chart the history of objectivity by focusing on the thematic changes made to scientific atlases over the course of the last three centuries. Foremost the authors argue that objectivity has a history that is very much distinct from other philosophical and scientific expressions of truth and attempts to represent of the natural world. This claim contradicts the commonsense notion that sees objectivity as mode of thinking that has long dogged humanity, being closely related to rationality, logic and being fair-minded. In stark contrast, Daston and Galison present objectivity as a recent phenomenon, the bulk of its influence taking place during the latter half of the nineteenth century and coinciding with the emergence of photography. They also argue that objectivity shares a constitutive relationship with subjectivity. Both these modes of thinking and being in the world emerge as a consequence of each other. Thus, any history of objectivity is also a history of subjectivity.

Daston and Galison provide detailed accounts of how scientists and atlas makers diligently took up particular practices to assure their objectivity. In the process, these scientists and atlas makers also embodied what Daston and Galison refer to (echoing Foucault) as “a technology of the self.” This idea of scientific self-fashioning underscores an ironic twist to the history of objectivity: In their strident efforts to assure their objective judgment, scientists and atlas makers helped give shape to the modern scientific self. In other words, objectivity, the so-called “will to willessness” (39), was directly responsible for the formation of a version of modern subjectivity. It is this idea of self-fashioning that I want to respond to in my review of Daston and Galison’s book, as it raises questions about gender and normative forms of behaviour that are pertinent to the way ethical values are inscribed and retained: What is the historical relationship between objectivity and masculinity? Did the practices associated with objectivity coincide or conflict with nineteenth-century masculine norms? What place did objectivity accord to women? Were such questions of gender challenged by objective science’s quest for impartiality?

Although Daston and Galison do not substantially deal with gender, a direct relationship between objectivity and male subjectivity is explicit in their argument. While the argument could be made that science in general has been traditionally associated with manliness, the history of objectivity provides concrete examples of how certain aspects of male subjectivity and scientific practice merged as one. “Starting in the mid-nineteenth century,” Daston and Galison explain, “men of science began to fret openly about a new kind of obstacle to knowledge: themselves. Their fear was that the subjective self was prone to prettify, idealize, and, in the worst case, regularize observations to fit theoretical expectations: to see what they hoped to see” (34). To combat these fears, scientists took up a series of practices to cultivate a disciplined persona. These practices included “training the senses in scientific observation, keeping lab note books, drawing specimens, habitually monitoring one’s own belief and hypotheses, quieting the will, and channeling the attention” (199). This period also saw mass publications of inspiration texts and moral guides that similarly portrayed masculinity as an ongoing exercise in restraint and reflection. In this way, the “epistemic virtues” and practices of the aspiring scientist were very much consistent with the general behavior and aspirations of the modern male subject.

According to Daston and Galison, these mid-nineteenth-century scientists were reacting to the overarching goal that predominated much of eighteenth-century Western science: to uncover the truth of nature. As the authors explain, it was during this period that natural history was established as a dominant mode of scientific practice:

Among scientific atlas makers, truth-to-nature emerges as a prominent epistemic virtue in the early eighteenth century – Linnaeus is one of its earliest and most influential proponents… To see like a naturalist required more than just sharp senses: a capacious memory, the ability to analyze and synthesize impressions, as well as the patience and talent to extract the typical from the storehouse of natural particulars, were all key qualifications… Only the keenest and most experienced observer – who had, like Linnaeus, inspected thousands of different specimens – was qualified to distinguish genuine species from mere varieties, to identify the true specific characters imprinted in the plant, and to separate accidental from essential features. (58-59)

This impetus to seek the truth of nature beyond its “particulars” was often expressed as a gender allegory in which the ardent male naturalist would expose the naked truth of female nature or nature would unveil herself before science.

In hindsight we can see how being attentive to the laws of nature would have laid much of the groundwork for objectivity, but for many scientists of mid-nineteenth century the natural history of the Enlightenment was seen as being too general, too artistic, too human. Accordingly, the machine and the factory processes of the industrial revolution took on special significance for this generation of scientists and atlas makers:

For the scientific atlas makers of the late nineteenth century, the machine was both a literal and a guiding ideal. Machines assisted where the will failed, where the will threatened to take over, or where the will pulled in contradictory directions. Machine-regulated image making was a powerful and polyvalent symbol, fundamental to the new scientific goal of objectivity… The machine was patient, indefatigable, ever alert, probing beyond the limits of the human senses… Just as manufacturers admonished their workers with the example of the more productive, more careful, more skilled machine, scientists admonished themselves with the more attentive, more hard-working, more honest instrument. (138-139)

It is during this period that many women assumed a place in urban public life as factory workers. Daston and Galison do make the point that women were also hired in large numbers to work as laboratory and research assistants. Women were generally considered to be less likely to jump to conclusions than their male counterparts because they were seen as serving as “a tacit guarantee that data [they] gathered [would not be] the figment of a scientist’s imagination or preexisting philosophical commitment” (341). Being firmly excluded from the realms of science and philosophy, women were valued for their inherent “machine-like simplicity.”

With time the aspirations of modern scientists shifted once again and the epistemic virtues of mechanical objectivity were also met with criticism. The turn of the twentieth century saw the formation of a new set of scientific practices and concerns that Daston and Galison refer to as “trained judgment”:

Slowly at first and then more frequently, twentieth-century scientists stressed the necessity of seeing scientifically through an interpretive eye; they were after an interpreted image that became at the very least, a necessary addition to the perceived inadequacies of the mechanical one… (311)

The urgency to supplement photographs and other forms of mechanical reproduction brought about a return of the artistic-interpretive function. But unlike the truth-to-nature ethos of natural history, trained judgment was not interested in determining a general type or smoothing out flaws and inconsistencies. Instead, its initial focus was to highlight information that was missed or obscured by mechanical reproduction. Eventually this impetus gave rise to an assortment of manipulated and non-mimetic images that had nothing to do with representing the natural world objectively. Computer simulations and the images generated by such instruments as the atomic force microscope operate in this context. Rather than hidden truths that the scientist manages to reveal, these sorts of images are seen as possible explanations or scenarios that the scientist creates. As Daston and Galison assert, much of the driving force behind science has moved from a mode of representation to that of presentation in which images serve a sensorial or haptic function rather than a truth function. Referencing nanotechnology, they state:

Frequently, the nanographers want images to engineer things… these are images-as-tools, entirely enmeshed in the making, much more than images-as-evidence to be marshaled for a later demonstration. (385).

Here the scientist is clearly more akin to an artist, animator, and engineer rather than an impartial observer of the natural world.

Despite the fact that gender does not play a central role in Daston and Galison’s history of objectivity (issues of race and class are also left incomplete), I still see their text as an effective model for teasing out performances of masculinity and femininity. I am mostly impressed with their methodology, their use of images to delineate the changes inherent to the scientific self. They speak about their method as keeping “two questions front and center: What kinds of practices are needed to produce this kind of image? And what kinds of practices are needed to cultivate the scientific self such that this sight is possible? This history of scientific sight always demands this double motion, toward the unfolding of an epistemology of images, on the one side, and toward the cultivated ethics of the scientific self, on the other” (382). Here is the project of epistemology in a nutshell: accounting for the historical connections between artifacts, practices, and modes of living. By way of a conclusion, I want to propose using Daston and Galison’s method to pursue queer performances of the scientific self. This would also involve placing two questions front and center: What kinds of practices are needed to produce queer performances of science? And what kinds of practices are needed to cultivate a queer scientific self such that these performances are possible? I am sure science has a rich history of queer performance, if one can determine where and how to look.


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