Transtechnology Research Seminar Series 2021-22

Drawing Things Together: chance encounters on the dissecting-table

This year’s series continues previous years’ concerns with epistemology, contingency and perception. We embark from the idea that what we know is an accident and that different circumstances or different networks might have produced different bodies of knowledge. We consider the foundational observation from science studies that tools such as Versalius’ scalpel are one of many actors that produced the science of anatomy and its ability to rationalize, and in the end, think about the body in certain ways.

In this seminar series participants are invited to respond to Bruno Latour’s 1985 paper Visualisation and Cognition:  Drawing Things Together which concerns the craft practices of inscribing and describing that constitute modern scientific knowledge. Latour argues for deflating the grand explanations of modern science and technology by talking about the material and mundane, of ‘writing and imaging craftsmanship’ which are “so practical, so modest, so pervasive, so close the hands and the eyes that they escape attention.” (p.3) Latour’s argument that we should look directly at the material where knowledge is produced – taking a Martian view– led us to see that in the case of the biology laboratory, we might say that the laboratory practice itself was that of the “the transformation of rats and chemicals into paper” (pp.3-4).

Here Latour uses the work of artists and the development of systems such as perspective (drawing on Durer) to lay out his notion of immutable mobiles, objects which enable the transport of knowledge between domains, creating networks of information which can be cross referenced through multiple sources brought together to create overarching scientific and bureaucratic systems of knowing. Latour’s inscriptions, the results of measurements carried out using many kinds of laboratory instruments are not simply what we might call data, but the results of an homogenising force in the media that allows that which is not visible to become recorded and fixed in particular and useful ways. As he points out, all of the different facts or inscriptions represented within the same system become comparable. Being able to view them side-by-side allowed early modern scientists to move knowledge forwards by having evidence that was comparable. This knowledge can be drawn on to make arguments and produce facts that, are able to be clarified, checked, made more accurate, or superseded by very different knowledge.

Latour argues that it is the existence of these kinds of objects and forms of inscription that allow certain kinds of rationality to come into being. Far simply shaping perception directly, these immutable mobiles shape what can be known in a more fundamental sense of creating what we understand as rationality itself and enabling us to assemble allies as we argue for the construction of facts generated by our own research practices.

Aside from its great virtue, Latour’s text, published in 1985, is not an especially easy read, but it raises a number of contemporary issues. Part of our work may be to update Latours’ discussion. There are many ways we might do this. For example, in the sensory realm, we may ask how we can draw his argument beyond the visual paradigm that equates sight with knowledge or reflect on the relational and ecological approaches and critiques of the network that followed the development of the actor-network theory (ANT). We invite each contributor to identify a specific passage from the text to engage with in their presentation.

Latour, Bruno (1985) “Visualisation and Cognition: Drawing Things Together”. In, H. Kuklinck (ed) Knowledge and Society Studies in the Sociology of Culture Past and Present, Jai Press vol. 5, pp. 1-40.

Supplementary reading can be found here

Poster examples are online here

Call and guidance for producing your article for the 2022 reader.

Format
All seminar sessions will take place at 13:00-15:00 on a Wednesday afternoon.

Session timetable

September 15th, 2021. Transtechnology Research Meeting and Workshop. Poster creation workshop: Research posters as immutable mobiles.

October 13th. Pamphlets, Networks and Knowledge Communities: Immutable mobiles in an immobile mutable. Dr Hannah Drayson. Chaired by Prof. dr. Michael Punt.

The modest library of Braziers Park contains a collection of pamphlets and ephemera housed in six brown card magazine files. They contain approximately 180 items dating from the last 70 years, since the founding of the School of Integrative Social Research and experimental intentional community at Braziers. Here I present some early thoughts regarding this collection and how it might be considered as a holder of both ideas and of affects. I draw on Bruno Latour’s (1985) science studies concept of the “immutable mobile” –a holder of instrumental inscriptions that enables the transport and translation of information between contexts. Particularly concerned with scientific inscriptions, Latour’s concept is not a perfect fit for an individual pamphlet, or the collection, but it’s development by actor network theory (ANT) scholars (de Laet and Mol, 2000; Law and Singleton, 2004) offers starting points to thinking about these materials and their roles within knowledge-producing communities. For example, paying attention to the physical persistence and mobility of pamphlets as media, or the material and social networks that produced them, quickly leads the discussion beyond common-sense notions of pamphlets as cheap and ephemeral objects. Instead, looking to this collection and its place at Braziers Park reveals the pamphlet as both ubiquitous and persistent. Calling on Myra Seaman’s (2021) work on household manuscripts as “objects of affection” that can be seen to be “part of a community of humans and non-humans”, I will suggest that the collection and other pamphlets found and produced at Braziers can be seen as objects engaged in work to maintain the identity of Braziers Park as an institution, one that might itself be called an ‘immobile mutable’.

  •  de Laet, Marianne and Mol, Annemarie (2000) “The Zimbabwe Bush Pump: Mechanics of a Fluid Technology”. Social Studies of Science, Apr., 2000, Vol. 30, No. 2. pp. 225-263.
  • Latour, Bruno (1985) “Visualisation and Cognition: Drawing Things Together”. In, H. Kuklinck (ed) Knowledge and Society Studies in the Sociology of Culture Past and Present, Jai Press vol. 5, pp. 1-40.
  • Law, John and Singleton, Vicky. (2005) Object Lessons. Organization. 12(3):331-355.
  • Seaman, Myra. (2021) Objects of affection: The book and the household in late medieval England. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

November 10th.  Karen Squire. Pulling the print – discovering the truth of an inscription.

In this seminar we will start to unpack two connected ideas in Latour’s paper Visualisation and Cognition: Drawing things together (1985). Firstly the idea of scientific research processes ending in paper and wasted rats and secondly the role these elements play in making knowledge “more of a fact”. We will start to do this through exploring a certain stage in the printing process; the “pulling of a print” as the moment in which knowledge becomes enmeshed with paper. It is at this point in scientific research that ephemeral knowledge becomes solidified – “immutable”, and transmittable – “mobile”. However I will argue for a more nuanced understanding to this moment and act– and therefore also in the creation of immutable mobiles– than is traditionally ascribed to it in print ontology and perhaps also by Latour. The discussion builds on a previous seminar that explored how the print-matrix might accumulate knowledge as a co-author and we will use some wood blocks to pull some prints together. We will consider whose voice is being enmeshed upon the page at the pulling of the print, and how and when knowledge occurs as a part of the process. The second part of the discussion will then think about how this might link into ideas around hegemony and landscape. Exploring artistic work that relates closely to this issue such as Helen Frankenthaler’s (2000) woodcuts and Michelle Stuart’s  (1979-81) Earth Rubbings, before returning to Latour and Eisenstein to think through implications, the discussion will reflect upon the notion that the printing press was the greatest agent of social change –might it also have been the greatest agent of reinforcing hegemonic truths? Finally, I will speculate upon the possibility that printmaking might be used to in some way archeologically recover alternate stories from the landscape; “to mobilize space and time differently” (p11); and pick up affective, sensorial traces of those people and processes often overlooked in the production of hegemonic truths, and I will review how my print work may be starting to move towards the creation of counterexamples which challenge the accuracy of the story of the scaping of the land.

Helen Frankenthaler. “Madame Butterfly,” 2000 (Goldman 24). Woodcut in 102 colors on 3 sheets of TGL handmade paper, 41 ¾ x 79 ½ in. (overall). Publisher: Tyler Graphics Ltd., Mount Kisco, New York, edition: 33. Image courtesy Ameringer, McEnery, Yohe, New York: https://magazine.art21.org/2012/01/13/the-unabashedly-beautiful-prints-of-helen-frankenthaler/#.YQFAH45Kg2w

Michelle Stuart, Avebury, Kennett Avenue, Stone Circle, Standing Stone, Wiltshire Down Chalk, England (1979-81): https://bentufnell.com/ledger-lines-abigail-reynolds-sophy-rickett-michelle-stuart

December 8th. Christmas dinner and poster session sharing current Ph.D. projects.

January 5th, 2022. Becalelis Brodskis. Points, lines and the virtual:How inscriptions structure perceptions of landscape.

February 2nd. Sarah Turton, Disrupting ideologies; the role of blue in images of the Madonna.

This seminar explores the proposition that the use and persistence of the colour blue in transcendental arts across several cultures is ideologically disruptive. Using the example of blue in images of the Madonna, it contributes to an account of the colour’s role in transcendental art and creative practices. This seminar will elucidate Bruno Latour’s (1985) definitions of the immutable mobile and investigate how and if the image of the Virgin operates as a carrier of dominant ideologies. For Latour, the immutable mobile puts control in the hands of the weakest, creating the very institutions – ‘Corporation, State, Productive Forces, Cultures, Imperialisms’ (Latour, 1985:27) that come into being and dominate because of them. The discussion will ask whether the image of the Virgin Mary is an immutable mobile; a pictorial language used to win an argument, focussing in particular on the attribute of optical consistency. For Latour, optical consistency is one of the more powerful ways in which immutability is reinforced and mobilisation made possible. The work of Michel Pastoureau (2018) supports through his claim that the function of colour is to reinforce hierarchy through optical, chromatic consistency. In this context, the special connection and relation to transcendence of the Madonna image is indicated by the historical and dominant use of blue for her cloak in the West since the 12th century. Engaging with diverse Madonna images, the discussion will pay attention to alternative readings of the function of the Madonna enabled by attending to the role of blue in these images and “the transtemporal movement and affective resonance of particular texts” that continue to provoke responses across generations, in order to usefully think of texts as “non human actors” (Felski, 2011: 574). Considering Latour’s proposed interventions to combat the immutable mobile, and challenge a conception of the Madonna as immutable, the discussion will focus on Mikhail Bakhtin’s (1984) concept of polyphony in conjunction with examples of Renaissance devotion and self-hypnosis.

A useful gloss of Bakhtin can be found at https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Mikhail_Bakhtin.

Bibliography

  • Bakhtin. Mikhail. (1984), ed., Caryl Emerson, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, Theory and History of Literature, vol 8, University of Minnesota.
  • Elkins, Gary R., R. Lynae Roberts & Lauren Simicich, (2018), ‘Mindful Self-Hypnosis for Self-Care: An Integrative Model and Illustrative Case Example’, American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis, 61:1, pp 45-56.
  • Felski, Rita. (2011), “Context Stinks!”, New Literary History, Volume 42, Number 4, pp 573-591.
  • Latour, Bruno. (1985), ed., H.Kuklick ‘Visualization and Cognition: Drawing Things Together’, Knowledge and Society Studies in the Sociology of Culture Past and Present, vol 6, Jai Press, pp 1-40.
  • Oakley, David. A & Peter W. Halligan. (2009), Hypnotic Suggestion and Cognitive Neuroscience, Trends in Cognitive Sciences 13 (6), pp 264-70.
  • Pastoureau, Michel, (2018), Blue: The History of a Colour, Princeton University Press.

March 2nd. Lucinda Guy. Immutable mobiles in the automated broadcast.

According to Latour (1985) ‘the privilege of the printing press comes from its ability to help many innovations act at once’. He lists innovations such as geometry, paper making and coinage. This seminar considers the radio playout system as a similar technology to the press, helping innovations such as microphones, tuning systems, MP3s, to act together to form continuous broadcasts.  

However, such songs are also continually in dialogue with one another, due to practices that make them more mutable, such as sampling, cover versions, and the use of common sounds, rhythms, tempo and words. Across a radio stations output, songs, announcers, adverts etc, form a whole – the sound of the station, which broadcasts non-stop and with a narrow dynamic range.  

Emerging radio forms, that sit within sonic arts and experimental music practice, can use automation to exploit mutability further, by use of fragments, such as individual words or notes, and live feeds of audio or data streams, curating, layering and randomizing these elements to reappear in new combinations. This both continues the familiar experience of radio, as a continuous flow of sound, whilst also breaking from tradition of broadcasting recognisable, repeatable and immutable music tracks.  

The Skylark FM (Guy, 2021) project is a case study to explore the commonalities and differences between these two radio forms, and how Latour’s analysis can support an understanding of the effects they have on listeners and makers.  

  • Guy, Lucinda, (2021), 2021. Skylark FM. [Broadcast Artwork]. https://skylark.fm/
  • Latour, Bruno. (1985), ed., H.Kuklick ‘Visualization and Cognition: Drawing Things Together’, Knowledge and Society Studies in the Sociology of Culture Past and Present, vol 6, Jai Press, pp 1-40.

March 30th. Johara Bellali. A Scenography of the Birthing Room.

This seminar is inspired by Neumann’s (2014) work “Theatres of Medicine, Inside and Outside the Hospital” on medical scenography and entangled embodiment and Latour’s (1985) staging of a scenography of dramatized inscriptions (p.17). After a brief presentation of the history of how obstetrical knowledge has been created, this seminar will present the choices of records that are made visible, in particular, the inscriptions of fetal monitoring and contractions. It will showcase through two superimposed scenes the assemblages in a reconstructed birthing room in a hospital in Berlin, one set of visible inscriptions that follows a mechanical rhythm and an invisible assemblage of allies that is not inscribed (Latour, 1985, pp.22-23). The exploration will focus on the historical prerequisites that led to these particular recordings that create obstetrical knowledge and to the habits, behaviours and protocols (Latour, 1985, p.3) that effect the visible and invisible assemblages of obstetrical care. To conclude, I will leave the birthing room in Berlin and enter the School of Medicine at Kings College, London and present three photographs that inscribed a childbirth with the attempt to make visible the non-inscribed through their display in a medical school. 

Excerpt from Visualisation and Cognition, Latour, 1985, p.17/18

Thus, one more inscription, one more trick to enhance contrast, one simple device to decrease background, one coloring procedure, might be enough, all things being equal, to swing the balance of power and turn an incredible statement into a credible one which would then be passed along without further modification. The importance of this cascade of inscriptions may be ignored when studying events in daily life, but it cannot be overestimated when analyzing science and technology. More exactly, it is possible to overestimate the inscription, but not the setting in which the cascade of ever more written and numbered inscriptions is produced. What we are really dealing with is the staging of a scenography in which attention is focused on one set of dramatized inscriptions.

Excerpt from Visualisation and Cognition, Latour, 1985, p.22/23

A more powerful theory, we submit, is one that with fewer elements and fewer and simpler transformations makes it possible to get at every other theory (past and future). Every time a powerful theory is celebrated it is always possible to rephrase this admiration in terms of the most trivial struggle for power: holding this place allows me to hold all the others (Latour, 1984b : Part 2). This is the problem we have encountered right through this paper: how to assemble many allies in one place. 

Bibliography 

  • Neuman, Annja (2014) “Theatres of Medicine, Inside and Outside the Hospital: Magdalene College, Cambridge. Online at https://www.magd.cam.ac.uk/news/theatres-of-medicine.
  • Latour, Bruno (1985) “Visualisation and Cognition: Drawing Things Together”. In, H. Kuklinck (ed) Knowledge and Society Studies in the Sociology of Culture Past and Present, Jai Press vol. 5, pp. 1-40.

April 27th. Stephanie Moran. Pearl: A Mussel’s Perspective.

Abstract

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History has one of the world’s largest freshwater mussel collections – a collection made up largely of the shells of freshwater mussels, gathered by research zoologists, amateur enthusiasts, volunteers and, in at least one case, by an unknown ‘little girl’. They are housed in rows of metal archival cabinets, organised by taxonomic classification largely determined according to the shape and features of the shells and, within that, by geographical location where they were found. 

If for philosopher Jacques Derrida, archives are about the quest for origins, and for social historian Carolyn Steedman they are about dust, here I argue that they are about human optics. I do this through an account of my attempts to navigate and narrate the Smithsonian’s freshwater mussel collection from the perspective of freshwater mussels, during my recent research fellowship. My argument leans on Daston and Galison’s account of scientific practices of observation (2007) and J.J. Gibson’s ecological approach to visual perception (1979), as well as Wendell Haag’s overview of the literature on freshwater mussels in North America (2012). Beginning with this triangulation of theoretical narratives, I present some images and thoughts towards an optical description of this natural history collection and reflect on approaches to object-based archives in general.

Bibliography

  • Daston and Galison (2007). Objectivity.
  • Derrida, J. (1995) Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression.
  • Gibson, J.J. (1979). The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception.
  • Haag, W. (2012). North American Freshwater Mussels
  • Steedman, C. (2001). Dust: The Archive and Cultural History.

May 25th. TBC

June 22nd. Business Meeting. Planning for following year and research publication.

July 19th-21st The Amazing Field Summer School.