Transtechnology Research Seminar Series 2020-21

Versalius at the Printers: Perception, Representation, and Vocabularies. A Scattered Seminar Series.

Last year’s seminar series brought considerations of the triad of fiction, image and apparatus to bear on our research process. This year we intend to consider the outcomes of research in relation to its mode of representation. As leitmotif we will take the work of Andreas Vesalius, (1514-1564) frequently referred to as the founder of human anatomy. Whether this title is truly deserved or not– as there were many precedents– Versalilus’ research methods and the representation of his ideas that he adopted c.500 years ago relate to much that we do today. He (and others before him) were not content with the orthodox accounts of the object of study and examined the methods and protocols that underpinned those accounts. He asked new questions and, against the grain of the times he became physically involved with the practice of dissection and came to different models of how we might talk about the body as a series of nested systems that were coextensive with other ideas about how the world might be understood.  While Vesalius may not have been the only anatomist, he has remained a point of reference in any history of the idea. The relevance of his work to our own research is the degree to which the way that he captured the insights of his practice contributed not only to their dissemination and acceptance but also, (and perhaps the most interesting question) how much the mode of representation contributed to the kinds of knowledge that he valued. In short what is the productive correlation between research methods and the representation of research findings. 

The virtues and constraints of academic publishing conventions have been widely discussed and critiqued. Of particular interest to us in the past has been how vocabularies form around topics that build an intellectual and (epistemic) solidarity (Rorty, 1989). While Latour (1987) picks this up and invites us to think about knowledge and the communities of production in science, the degree to which this critique has rehearsed the mantra of the artistic Avant Gard for the past 500 years is a less well trodden path. Vesalius presents an interesting case of this in the way that his knowledge claims were codified in woodcuts and other forms of print; media that reinforce the underpinning assumptions of human anatomy, health and its reflection in other knowledge structures. The way which Versalius’ work was presented was instrumental in its adoption in science for a number of reasons; representing innovations in format and distribution as well as in their fundamental approach to the (messy) body as source of empirical knowledge. The example of Versalius’ work offers a thematic frame for considering the ways in which innovations in research communication do not only influence the uptake of ideas, but their fundamental form. As researchers in creative disciplines, the questions of the relation between the knowledge that we are producing and its consistency with the representations that we use to share those insights effectively has already raised many discussions that we will seek to explore in the series as our provisional titles below show. 

Format: A Scattered Seminar Series:
We will begin on the assumption that for 20/21 the seminar series will comprise online meetings using video links. As in many of our previous series, in this year Transtechnology Research registered researchers will be using the seminar series sessions to present work emerging from the research questions of their projects to address the themes of the seminar series. In addition to this we will use video links to extend the programme with sessions with the Transtechnology Research alumni cohort with topic-led conversations.

In support of these dialogues this year we are keeping an online bibliography of the discussions to document the materials that are mentioned, recommended, or discussed.

Shared materials/Reading list

Dates and Provisional Titles 2020-21

All Sessions on a Wednesday Afternoon: from 13:00-15:00. Preceeded by lunch at 12:30.

14 Oct 2020
Dr Agi Haines, Dr Hannah Drayson, Prof. dr. Michael Punt. Versalius at the Printers: A Speculative Design Perspective.
11 Nov 2020
Lucinda Guy. A Cuckoo in the Wood and an Anatomy of a Radio Station.

This seminar introduces two approaches to thinking about the work of the Skylark project. The first section, A Cuckoo in the Wood – recording, reproducing and representing birds and trees in sound takes an expanded definition of ‘record’ to include musical imitation and scoring, mimicking and repetition as well as sound recording with analogue or digital devices, to explore how we listen, remember and recreate encounters with birds and trees, how we take apart and put back together the elements of experiences. In sound recording we can see a tradition of breaking things into parts to better understand and communicate their qualities, offering a sense of objectivity where the recording omits the presence of the person recording. This seminar will use the motif of looking down into woodland in early spring, the artist hears a cuckoo call, a sound that easily carries a mile or more. To the mind’s ear, it is distinct, musical clear. But recorded on a microphone, it is easily lost in the wider place – the white noise of the trees, the roaring of wind; the artist’s own breath and movement. Even before mechanical sound recording technologies became available, other recording techniques that aimed communicate the experience of hearing natural sounds such as bird song would use an instrument like a flute to mimic the cuckoo’s two-tone voice, performing in a similar way to using a highly directional microphone to filter out other sound. The cuckoo is known for being an imposter – a brood parasite (RSPB) who lays her eggs in the nest of another. Its song is also a musical imposter: a tonal melody, amongst the atonal environment. The second section of the presentation will take the launch of Skylark FM as a case study, to dissect the experience of broadcasting and listening to a new radio station, into its legislative, social, technical and economic components. A transmitter in a landscape, like the cuckoo in the wood, demonstrates the need for signal to emerge from noise and the many ways in which separation and filtration allow for a radio station to conform to legal requirements, and reach its audience.

9 Dec 2020
Stephanie Moran. Dog Muscles, Luminosity and Chromatic Experience: a Speculative Octopoid Aesthetics.

This seminar investigates what may or may not be continuous from one (nonhuman) body to another (human) body, in order to address the problem of how to mediate mollusc phenomenal worlds through storytelling practices. In posthuman ethics, there is much recent discussion of relations to and representations of other animals. These offer frameworks for human-nonhuman relations, often based on the idea that humans need to transform themselves and their ways of living and being in the world.

Vesalius’ depiction of a dog’s muscle and a monkey’s bone in a human body suggests a species overlap, projection or adaptation. This seminar considers how Vesalius’ dog muscle might offer a means of analysing fictional phenomenal worlds of octopuses. It reads this in relation to Graham Harman’s ‘weird formalism’, a theory based on the idea that the relationship between viewer and artwork theatrically constitute a new, third object. It then uses these ideas to examines octopus-based experiences of light and colour depicted in the storyworlds of science fiction novel Children of Ruin (Tchaikovsky, 2019) and immersive art installation Altered Ways of Being (Burton Nitta, 2020).

Suggested Reading: Introduction pp.1-11 and pp.23-29 in, Harman, Graham. (2020) Art and Objects, Cambridge: Polity Press.

A pdf with illustrations for the presentation and a copy of the suggested reading is available here.

6 Jan 2021
Linan Zhang. The Liberal Ironist’s Approach to Clinical Knowledge Sharing.

Last year’s seminar series, I explored Foucault’s account of how power has shaped our contemporary account of subjectivity. He admitted the contingency of our selected final vocabulary; yet his power structure argument limits our ability to propose an alternative to the society we have now. In this seminar, I wish to introduce Richard Rorty’s liberal ironism as an alternative perspective and discuss its application to knowledge sharing.

Liberal ironism opens a way of facilitating the interactions between individuals and social groups. Liberal ironists have the spirit of a poet, with a sense of the contingency of the language that is currently used and have a profound understanding of concepts such as the ‘truth’, ‘philosophy’, ‘moral’, and ‘conscience’ that are vastly distinct from that of liberal metaphysicians’. To be ‘commonsensical’ is its biggest enemy – it means to take for granted that statements formulated in these final vocabularies are sufficient to describe and judge beliefs, actions, and lives of those who employ an alternative set of final vocabularies. Although liberal ironists’ goal is not to justify a reason to care about suffering, their sense of human solidarity makes sure they notice sufferings and humiliations when they occur.

This seminar explores the potential application of liberal ironist theory to knowledge sharing. By identifying the non-ironist ‘common sense’ which was taken for granted by both of the sharing parties, I suggest that acknowledging and being aware of these pre-assumptions would facilitate knowledge sharing; such aim can be achieved by adopting a liberal ironist’s mind set.

3 Feb 2021
Karen Squire. Anatomical map making: signification and simplification in representing bodies of flesh and bodies of land.
3 Mar 2021
Sarah Turton. Healing the rup(rap)ture  of transcendental experience in soul transformation; the anatomy of soul in psychonautics and psychotherapy.
31 Mar 2021
Jo Dorothea-Smith. The Anatomy of Visual Spaces; quantum biology and apparatus.
21 Apr 2021
James Sweeting. The anatomy of a deceptive industry – how high technology is masking nostalgic practices.
19 May 2021
Laura Welsman. Vesalius and Laffoley: Operation and Representation in the Diagrammatic and Anatomical.