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

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.

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. Through a blue glass darkly, depictions of Christ as immutable mobiles.

March 2nd. Lucinda Guy. Superimposition and Serendipity (or serendipitous superimpositions).

March 30th. Johara Bellali. Blockchain recordings of birth and other inscriptions.

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

May 25th. Laura Wellsman and Jo Dorothea-Smith. Titles TBC.

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