Getting to the Politics of the Matter

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[my latest blog post for @SituSci…]

What is that quiet tapping noise? No, it’s not my fingers hitting the keys as I type, and it’s not Morse code either, at least not as you would traditionally hear it. It is the sound of knitting needles tapping out a very peculiar pattern of knits and pearls. But I’m getting ahead of myself…

York recently hosted a timely and exciting conference, “Materiality: Objects and Idioms in Historical Studies of Science and Technology”. Materiality is a hot concept these days in science and technology studies and associated fields of history, anthropology and philosophy, and as I was first drawn into STS via the feminist science studies branch of “new materialism”, I was eager to attend. It seems these days that materiality takes the form of two impulses: (1) engaging with the material objects of social scientific and historic studies of science, and (2) the creative production of material outputs within academia. The first impulse, of turning to the sociality and meaning of things themselves, is in many ways a response to the discursive turn of postmodernism in which language for a time seemed to replace the stuff of the world. Of course, science has always engaged with the material, while STS scholars have tended to investigate the social elements of these interactions. Whether it is about time we too engage directly with material objects of study, or whether this misses or weakens the point of STS, remains an open debate. The second impulse holds the allure of producing something you can touch, feel, share and display, rather than books and articles that few outside ones field are likely to ever read. This is a seductive trend, allowing for increased creativity in producing something your friends and family might actually relate to. It also intersects in interesting ways with maker culture.

The two impulses can work together to great effect. In the opening public lecture, Peter Galison showed us how even time has a materiality. He argued that the theories of Einstein and Poincare both gained strength from their practical applications to the problem of synchronizing time. For instance, the use of air pulses pumped through pipes beneath the streets to distribute standardized time pneumatically in Bern inspired Einstein to think about the problem of synchronizing clocks over space, leading him to posit that a clock of pure light would appear different for different observers: that there is “no universally audible ‘tick tock’”. The problem of synchronization exceeded the material or physical elements and moved into the political, as people resisted the imposition of a standard time centred in Greenwich England, crying “Give us back our sun!” and spawning acts of terrorism against the Greenwich Observatory in 1894. Rather than simply writing about these historical happenings, however, Galison wanted to do something different. In describing his resulting artistic collaboration with the artist William Kentridge entitled “The Refusal of Time,” he spoke of how they structured their participation to be more than a science advisor for an art piece or adding an artistic element to a science exhibit. Instead, they aimed to use these art forms to delve into and expand the questions they were encountering.

Touch, See, Critique?

The next morning we heard various examples of the first impulse, the ways in which historians of science are engaging with historical objects. Carla Nappi asked us to consider objects as constellations, and materiality as the capacity for creating relationships exerting a form of agency. In her example of the 18th century translation

Participants interact with historical objects

of European anatomy texts into Manchu, she showed how it was less a matter of translating terms than of translating the human face itself between languages and cultures. Tina Choi enrolled railway guides in countering the dominant view of earlyrailway history as an antagonistic societal force. These material objects shed light on the more positive role that the rail played in developing geographical knowledge and understanding in Victorian society. Katey Anderson used torsion balances to tell a story of geophysics becoming international in the interwar period. Following these finicky, cumbersome and quickly-outdated instruments allows for convincing shifts in scale, for example from scientific research laboratories to transnational capital projects such as petroleum prospecting. In this way torsion balances serve as an embodiment of the ideal of internationalism, though not unproblematically.

Peter Galison provided examples of the second impulse in his keynote address to the conference, which focused on the production of documentary films as a form of academic expression and scholarship. In his new documentary project on nuclear waste, he asks the question: what difference does showing make? For example, what does nuclear waste actually look like? (The amusingly bizarre answer is peanut butter). There are ways in which materiality can bring an immediacy, acting out a phenomenology of actual experience. But this highlights one of the key concerns raised at the conference, particularly with this mode of material academic production: is the critique missing? Are we too likely to take these objects and images as real, without questioning the negative spaces, the exclusions, the displacements, the other stories our objects may be obscuring? Objects, too, are politics by other means. There is a danger in visual outputs (or material or of other sensory modes) that the critique will be missing or missed, but during some of the discussions I began to wonder whether this is any more of a danger than with texts.

The Politics of Printing and Playing

There was plenty of opportunity to explore and engage with the material of the conference, which included ample hands-on sessions as well as scheduled time to view and play with the associated interactive art pieces. There were a few 3D printers on site, and we were invited to try scanning objects and watch the software in action translating visual data into 3D plans. For those of a more historical bent, there was an interactive exhibit of broken scientific experiments as well as a collection of instruments of unknown purpose to investigate. Lego-lovers and armchair engineers were invited to explore the tactile grammar of mechanical construction and recombination, and those intrigued by the intersection of music, movement, ancient instruments and digital harmonics could dance for Cameron Murray and Alasdair McMillan’s “sonic sphere”.

A concern voiced that relates particularly to maker and DIY culture is that we fetishize these materials without asking deeper questions. These plastic objects can feel hollow and as empty as the lattice framework on which these coloured plastic shapes emerging emerge line by minuscule line. There also seems to be a certain deterministic inevitability to it all, as though humans have finally found a way to make the world exactly as we want it. Yet even these plastic figures can surprise, as seen in these two masks printed on different planes.

Things have a language too, speaking to us through relationships sometimes called implicit or tacit knowledge. I was particularly impressed by the way one PhD candidate, Devon Elliot, mobilized this much-hyped technology to produce useful data. By building 3D doll size replica models of historical stage magic tricks, he uncovers small deceits contained in the instructions that would not have been necessarily evident to a strictly text-based historian.

Although in some ways, 3D printing replica masks and playing with Lego may seem indeed to warn of a trivialization of the politics that lie beneath; however, the discussions going on between participants while they built, touched, played, poked, unraveled and moved, told another story. I came away feeling that there is a wealth of potential research projects here, from investigating the political economy of 3D printing (just who is buying these pricey 6 to 7 figure printers? Is it Disney? The military?) to questions of what it might mean to patent form (could an unknowing conference participant’s scanned arm become the next version of HeLa?).

Knitting it Together

My favourite moment of the day was Kriten Haring’s silk scarf-scroll, which she hand-knit in morse code to contain Leibniz’s text on how the Chinese emperor might be persuaded to accept Christianity via his interest in binary numbers. What drew me to this particular intersection of the material and the discursive was the way in which it (literally!) knit together such distant time periods and technological eras, and made tangible something that in the contemporary world can feel both ubiquitous and never quite real. Binary systems underlie so much of our digitally mediated world, that I relished in the sight of this reversal: binary becoming cloth. The piece itself was beautiful, as was the story of how this creative idea was born. It was a beautiful example of a clear and elegant spanning of academia and art that allows people to actively engage with bit-by-bit creation.

Edward Jones Imhotep concluded the day with a fascinating peek into the mind of the infamously eccentric Canadian composer Glenn Gould and how his philosophy of technology can be seen in, and perhaps was influenced by, his love of splicing. This complex editing of pieces of magnetic tape translates material into ideas. Gould is known for putting disjointed ideas together, and though his work has been taken up by thinkers such as Edward Said and Georgio Agamben who dismiss his frequent mentions of razorblades and magnetic tape as though these are quirks, Imhotep argues that these material elements are actually central. Gould modified matter in the pursuit of structure, but it’s also the action that is important, with splicing allowing a return to the judgment and interpretation that he saw lacking in the contemporary concert-hall experience.

What we do and what we think are not separate spheres, but constantly feed and shape each other. Matter matters to thought, and discourse matters to matter. This was the essence of new materialism that first drew me in years ago. I am pleased that these discussions continue.


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