Author Archive


The Era of Objects

V2_ , the Institute for the Unstable Media is, in their own words

an interdisciplinary center for art and media technology in Rotterdam (the Netherlands). V2_’s activities include organizing presentations, exhibitions and workshops, research and development of artworks in its own media lab, distributing artworks through its Agency, publishing in the field of art and media technology, and developing an online archive.

They just released an e-book called The Era of Objects (the pdf of the book is here) which contains some fascinating and surreal attempts at ‘futurescaping’, mapping out “a heterogenous topography of unevenly-distributed futurity; infinitely extendible; punctuated with features and landmarks.” It draws on everything from ANT to design theory to science fiction – even Bruce Sterling appears with an essay in the anthology. Well worth the read for anyone interested in materiality studies – and also very symptomatic for the sense in which we are finding ourselves to be waking up inside an object.

an interdisciplinary center for art and media technology in Rotterdam (the Netherlands). V2_‘s activities include organizing presentationsexhibitions and workshopsresearch and development of artworks in its own media lab, distributing artworks through its Agency, publishing in the field of art and media technology, and developing an online archive.

aesthetics, material studies, Museion concept, science communication studies

Whither the material culture of science?

A quick quote from Isabelle Stengers interesting book Cosmopolitics I (published in the series Posthumanities), which I feel sums up some of what we try to do at the Museion when we integrate aesthetics, politics, science communication and material culture:

“The sciences, as they are taught, that is, as they are presented once their results are unlinked from the practice of science “as it is practiced,” do not have a meaning that is appreciably different from a religious engine of war, poiting out the path to salvation, condemning sin and idolatry.”

This idea of science as ‘a religious engine of war’ is crucial in understanding some of the denialism and science-scepticism that exists all around us – people are getting weary and wary with the ever-changing landscape of scientific ‘facts’. Showing science as embodied and material practice – science in the making – is, I think, one way of re-linking science as it is taught to science as it is practiced, and thereby hopefully deepening the understanding of what science is/can be.

material studies, science communication studies

Science communication after information

Even more thoughts after reading How We Became Posthuman (other posts are here and here). I think part of my fascination with the book is that it inadvertently articulates what I see to be a watershed change that has happened in the past ten years or so – the change from an informational paradigm to a new, more material one. And working with science communication now, the need to articulate the contours of this change seems urgent.

One of the key elements in Hayles’ book is the detailed analysis of how information lost its body. Information, she argues, gained an almost transcendental status, as something that could move more or less unaffected through different media. It was as if the world was given a new realm of being, a pure digital substratum where information cascaded through different material substrates, changing everything as it went along. This, Hayles argues, lead to vacating an old model of understanding the world based on presence and absence, in favor of a new digital world where informational terms such as pattern, randomness, signal and noise were key. We thought we would leave the flesh behind and submerged ourselves (or at least our brains) in the digital sea.

But it just did not turn out that way. We are now standing on the shore, wet and freezing, attempting to refigure our senses to a new reality (much as Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht suggests in the quote in this post).

This is (amongst other things) why I believe science communication is becoming a political and theoretical focal point. Our understanding of communication itself, how ideas, emotions and affects are spread, is morphing. We need new tools with which to communicate in this new reality; or rather, we need to figure out what this new reality is like and how we should maneuver in it. The contours are at best blurry. If science communication was predicated on a specific understanding of information (signal to noise) and that mode is no longer as valid and obvious as earlier, where does that leave us? If there is a return to presence and absence as a communicative model, where does that leave science communication?

It is symptomatic that Matthew Nisbett (of Framing Science-fame) renamed and relaunched his influential blog as Age of Engagement. The is good reason for attempting to develop new, more material conceptualizations of science communication right now, me thinks.


More on How We Became Posthuman

Some more ramblings inspired by How We Became Posthuman (other post is here).

The interface that was to transform us turned out not to be the human/machine coupling, but instead the human/biology coupling, in which the transformation of biological life inside and outside of us is the key.

The Technicolor wonder of the man-as-machine has faded for the integration of man into the world in its entirety. Machines turned out to not be a specific category in the world, just as man was not. Hayles details in her book the late 20th century obsession and anxiety with androids and AI that complicate the boundaries of subjectivity and the human subject. But today, this boundary making just does not seem to be of the same significance, as more and more we come to realize that subjectivity isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. From a materialist perspective, here represented by Jane Bennett in her book Vibrant Matter:

“The philosophical project of naming where subjectivity begins and ends is too often bound up with fantasies of a human uniqueness in the eyes of God, of escape from materiality, or of mastery of nature; and even where it is not, it remains an aporetic or quixotic endeavor.”

And further:

“The story will highlight the extent to which human being and thinghood overlap, the extent to which the us and the it slip-slide into each other. One moral of the story is that we are also non-humans and that things, too, are vital players in the world.”

This is why the machine/man-boundary troubles implied by How We Became Posthuman (and other boundary problems which are prevalent in a lot of STS) is not really going to cut it these days. As Timothy Morton notes in a particularly grumpy blog post on a recent collection of ecophilosophy (Integral Ecology):

“We just don’t have time for another remix of nature and culture […] It’s not a matter of picking and mixing from the best of “Nature” ideas and “Culture” ideas. Let me just level with you for a moment. Here is my very, very condensed version of Ecology without Nature [Mortons own book] for those of you who don’t have the time: The concepts Nature and culture are fucked. Fuck them. It’s over.”

Could not agree more.

aesthetics, future medical science and technology, general

We were never posthuman

Part of my summer reading has been N. Katherine Hayles very interesting and stimulating book, How We Became Posthuman – Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature and Informatics. The book details the rise of the informational logic of life from the rise of the cybernetic paradigm in the late 1940s and onwards. Hayles writes the book in order to caution against a disembodied and anti-material view of information. She details how an informational mode of thinking came to foreground pattern and randomness over presence and absence, and gave way to a systematic devaluation of materiality and embodiment. As she notes in the introduction:

“A defining characteristic of the present cultural moment is the belief that information can circulate unchanged among different material substrates. It is not for nothing that ‘Beam me up, Scotty’ has become a cultural icon for the global information society.”

What I find most striking in reading the book, however, is that despite it only being published a little more than a decade ago, it gave me an odd feeling of a cautionary vision of a future that never arrived. The science fiction dreams of downloading our consciousness to neural networks or of humanity being overtaken by artificial intelligence or other such visions of a digital world just does not seem to hold the same purchase in our collective unconsciousness today . The undercurrent of fear about the catastrophic effects of a complete disregard for the qualities of embodiment that motivates How We Became Posthuman seems less dramatic a decade later. Partly, I think, because we have woken up inside an object, not a digital mirage.

I am also inclined to read Hayles’ book in this way because I have been reading a series of articles about Marshall McLuhan, who would have turned 100 recently (you can read some of them here and here ). McLuhans ideas about the medium being the message sheds new light on why the future did not turn out exactly as the informationalists envisioned.

Having all the information in the world at ones fingertips turned out, at the end of the day, not to be particularly interesting in itself. Rather, the interesting bit is how the interactions between the materiality of the informational medium change our embodied materiality – a standpoint Hayles would be in complete agreement with, I believe. That which makes us different is not the information itself but the forms of life engendered by the materiality of technology.As Douglas Coupland noted in the Guardian recently: “Let’s face it, Google isn’t making us stupider, it’s simply making us realise that omniscience is actually slightly boring.”

In a sense, then, reading Katherine Hayles’ book confirmed the sense that we have entered a post-informational age, in which information in itself is of less interest than the material forms and routes the information takes. The medium is the message might seem a bit like a cliché but we are only beginning to scratch the surface of what this insight actually might mean for the way we live. Technology changes us not through its content, but through its form – because we are form through and through.

abstracts, conferences, material studies, recent biomed

Molecular being – philosophy between genes and proteins

I have had a paper accepted for the annual joint conference of the Society for European Philosophy and Forum for European Philosophy. Here is the abstract:

Molecular being – philosophy between genes and proteins

In this paper, I will attempt to connect the sparking wires of post-genomic molecular biology and new materialist philosophy, particularly the so-called object-oriented ontology.

Life is changing. The gene has, as historian of science Evelyn Fox Keller wrote some years ago, “had a glorious run in the twentieth century.” Since the publication of the working draft of the human genome in 2000 and the completed genome in 2003, however, it seems that the life sciences are at a juncture, requiring new concepts, terms and metaphors to grasp life in productive ways. It is increasingly being suggested that a straightforward relation between genes and their expressions is not tenable. The faith in the genome as the key with which to understand, decipher and decode ‘life itself’ is changing, partly due to the realisation that the translation process from gene to cell is a world unto itself. In other words, the list of parts that the Human Genome Project revealed turned out not to be a complete wiring diagram.

Post-genomic biomedicine is increasingly turning to the study of proteins for new concepts, terms and metaphors. In the hands of 21st century biomedical scientists, ‘life itself’ is taking on new forms. The understanding of life is shifting towards ideas of a multidimensional material body, made up of a complex system of proteins, where molecular structures, movements and interactions carry out the regulated work of the cell. Post-genomic researchers are no longer satisfied reducing the organism to the informational logic of coding system embedded in biological software (DNA); rather, the organism is now increasingly seen as a substantive, material architecture, filled to the brim with three-dimensional protein interactions.

Molecular biology, then, seems to be reconfiguring its underlying conception of life. And philosophy is similarly finding itself “in the middle of time and in the middle of objects, with a desire to become part of this material world,” as Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht writes. The change from a genetic to a protein-based understanding of life in molecular biology runs in an interesting parallel, I will argue, to the attempts to develop new material and object-oriented ontologies. Using empirical examples from the world of molecular biology and protein research, I will argue that understanding what takes place within molecular biology and its changing conceptions of life can be fruitfully accomplished at the intersections of philosophy, genes and proteins.

conferences, general

Annual SEP/FEP conference on “Philosophy & …”

The annual joint conference of the Society for European Philosophy and Forum for European Philosophy (SEP/FEP) is coming up soon. The call for papers (available here) was held under the title “Philosophy & …” and urged contributors to submit contributions that explore the limits of what can be placed together with, and within, the category of philosophy. Despite the somewhat bleak times for academic philosophy in England (the closing of the philosophy department at Middlesex being the premiere example), the organizers have struck a celebratory and exploratory note in the call for papers:

In a year when the UK has seen devastating cuts in the funding of the arts and humanities, it would be easy to be pessimistic about the future of Continental Philosophy. Yet, while reflection on the challenges ahead is certainly necessary, recent events also offer us the opportunity to respond to those who dismiss European Philosophy, not only with a vigorous defense, but also a demonstration and celebration of the profound impact it has had and continues to have on an enormous range of other disciplines.

So, while this year’s conference follows recent tradition in not having a theme, and thereby welcomes proposals from the broadest range of European philosophical thought, we particularly welcome papers and other contributions that explore the limits of what can be placed together with, and within, the category of philosophy.

Circling the philosophical wagons, so to speak. The conference has keynotes from Joan Copjec, Michéle Le Doeuff and one of my personal favorite philosophers at the moment, Graham Harman. His work under the banner of object-oriented ontology is fresh and stimulating, me thinks. Visit his (incredible active) blog here.

general, science communication studies, social networking, social web media

Facebook and the extended mind

Score one for the usefulness of facebook in science. In January and February, a group of scientists, led by Dr. Brian Sidlauskas, assistant professor of fisheries at Oregon State University (OSU), had been conducting the first ichthyological survey on Guyana’s Cuyuni River. The purpose of the study was to find out which species of fish live in the Cuyuni and get a good estimate of their abundance. After two weeks of fishing, the team had more than 5.000 specimens in their nets. But then trouble came:

“In order to get the fish out of the country,” says Bloom, “we needed an accurate count of each species.” The team’s research permit required them to report this information to the Guyanese government. “We couldn’t leave the country until we turned over our data to the authorities.” Time was of the essence, as Sidlauskas, Bloom and OSU graduate student Whit Bronaugh had to return to North America as soon as possible. But how could a handful of people possibly identify 5,000 fish in just a few days?

The answer became facebook. A Ph.D –student suggested uploading the fish to facebook, and within 24 hours the 5.000 fish had been identified with the help of a network of ichthyologically-minded friends.

This story made me think of the points that Andy Clark makes in his book Supersizing the Mind – Embodiment, Action, and Cognitive Extension about the functioning of what he calls the extended mind. Facebook and other social web media has the same potentials as other tools in our cognitive environment -  like pens, smartphones, computers, fingers or calculators – to become part of our extended mind. And a powerful one at that, given the distributed power of a network of that size.  This raises serious questions about how social web media will influence the way our extended minds work. How will it impact scientific production and what new forms of life will it produce? Crowd sourcing certainly opens for scientific experimentation in new and interesting ways – is one of my favourite examples.

material studies

Waking up inside an object

Perhaps the recent surge towards objects and materiality is connected to a deep restructuring of our collective unconsciousness tied to a sense of ‘waking up inside an object’, as philosopher and blogger Timothy Morton writes about here?

Humans no longer live in a “world” or in an “environment,” and certainly not in “nature.” Global warming spells the end of the world, not in an apocalypse but in an abject living-on in the absence of a meaningful lifeworld bounded by a distant horizon. We have realized that the “world” is actually a gigantic object in which we exist like Russian dolls inside a larger Russian doll.

Anyone interested in Morton’s thought on ecophilosophy can read more in the essay Here Comes Everything – The Promise of Object-Oriented Ontology. I was struck by the similarity to a quote by Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht from an essay entitled Shall We Continue to Write Histories of Literature?, which strikes a similar chord in diagnosing our times:

It is as if, all of a sudden, we found ourselves in the middle of time and in the middle of objects, with a desire to become part of this material world (and perhaps even of its temporality) which experience, for a sheer lack of familiarity, is confusing for us. In other words, we have to learn what it is to be an observer who stands, with his body, in the middle of a material world to be observed.

The ‘we’ in the quote is literary theoreticians and philosophers, but there seems to me to be a deeper resonance at work, evoking something like an early 21st century zeitgeist or some such nebulous notion.

Those interested in the ecological ramifications of new materialisms should attend the Eco-tone workshop in june. Beautiful event poster too:

material studies

Speculations II out now

For those who are interested in new materialist and object-oriented philosophy, the fledgling journal Speculations is a great source for state of the art experimental writing in the speculative realist vein. The second volume has just been released and can be found here. Here is a snippet from the editors introduction, which gives an idea of the kind of writing facing the brave reader:

What Speculations aims at doing, then, is not to represent the dreadnought of a new theoretical position but to open up a window onto the work of thinkers attempting to push farther the limits of accredited knowledge, to take—with each and every volume—a temporary snapshot of the current state of this journey of thought. As editors, the best we can hope is that, like outdated Polaroids, the value of this effort will only be more and more discernible as time goes by.

Those wanting an introduction to speculative realism and object-oriented ontology can find some texts and audio here and here. The open-access published anthology The Speculative Turn – Continental Materialism and Realism gives some more in-depth examples.


Critical or existential materialism?

In the introduction New Materialisms – Ontology, Agency, and Politics, another of the recent anthologies on materialism (you can read about some of the other here and here), editors Diana Coole and Samantha Frost discuss the notion of a ‘critical materialism’. Building on social constructionist arguments, they work to integrate the critical approach of post-structuralists analysis of power with a materialists understanding of the irreducibility of the material realm to culture. In their own words:

For critical materialists, society is simultaneously materially real and socially constructed: our material lives are always culturally mediated, but they are not only cultural. As in new materialist ontologies, the challenge here is to give materiality is due while recognizing its plural dimensions and its complex, contingent modes of appearing.

This view, which is echoed in a lot of ANT and post-ANT studies as well as the growing body of work on biopolitics and biopower, is one of the major stakeholders in the new materialist wave (I hesitate to call it a turn, in order to avoid too much academic spin). Materialism thinking, in this perspective, leads to new critical engagements and analysis of the complex functioning of power and structure. A sort of material networkology, so to speak. For the critical materialists, working with a material approach means resharpening the critical tools and applying it to a new topic.

But it seems to me that thinking materially can also lead to a more existential mode of engagement, which works to restructure the role of the researcher in relation to her field of study (somewhat similar to what I wrote about here). This is represented in, amongst others things, the work of Brian Massumi, Jane Bennett (partly), Kathleen Stewart, Graham Harman, Alphonso Lingis and others. Here, thinking materially leads towards, amongst other things, a material embedded and ultimately experiential founded approach to the world.

This faultline – between a critical materialism that has its eyes intently on the material workings of power structures and an existential material that sees materiality as a way to rework the existential back into the investigation of the world – seems to me to be crucial in understanding the new material literature. Which side are you on (and is it a matter of taking sides)?


Time to re-think the material turn already?

The deluge of publications on the material turn and the new materialism continues. I wrote about two anthologies last week, and now Oxford University Press have a new anthology out, The Oxford Companion to Material Studies. The introductory chapter can be read here. Interestingly, the editors Dan Hicks and Mary C. Beaudry, take a somewhat cautious approach to the idea of a material turn as such. They note the danger that a material turn, if embraced without cautious deliberation and reflexion, “would simply extend, through a rhetorical inversion, the cultural turn of the 1980s.” Thomas and I have argued something similar in an essay entitled “Do Things Talk?” a few years ago (which can be read here). We wrote in that essay that a new materialism would have to work through some fundamental shifts in how the relationship between the subject and the world and between the researcher and the object of study. The editors of the Oxford Companion conclude along similar lines:

The studies collected in this volume lead towards an appreciation not only of the effects of things, but also of things as the effects of material practices (both vernacular and academic). Material culture does not represent a straightforward object of enquiry, simply requiring new vocabularies for interpretation or abstract theorization. Instead, if we take seriously the critique of any a priori distinction between subject and object, then this must also encompass the academic researcher and her object of enquiry.

Ultimately, the editors suggest that it is through a fundamental reworking of the place of the individual in the world that a ‘true’ material turn would come.

When Bruno Latour talks of flat ontologies, these must extend between researcher and object of enquiry, as well as simply between humans and non-humans. Otherwise, we will simply continue to play back and forth across the categories of the cultural and the material: critiquing, collapsing, relating. Imagining that we represent a world, which we can hold at arm’s length, rather than enacting our knowledge of things. It is in this sense—a sense of the radical partiality of our knowledge of the world, which we might celebrate rather than shy away from—that material culture studies will, as Nigel Thrift suggests in his afterword, come of age.

museum studies

The thing about museums

Hot on the heels of Museum Materialities comes another new anthology on museums studies, objects and materiality. It is entitled The Thing About Museums – Objects and Experience, Representations and Contestations and is available for pre-order on Amazon with a publishing date in September. The table of contents looks very promising and can be seen here. Here is the press blurb:

The Things about Museums constitutes a unique, highly diverse collection of essays unprecedented in existing books in either museum and heritage studies or material culture studies. Taking varied perspectives and presenting a range of case studies, the chapters all address objects in the context of museums, galleries and/or the heritage sector more broadly. Specifically, the book deals with how objects are constructed in museums, the ways in which visitors may directly experience those objects, how objects are utilised within particular representational strategies and forms, and the challenges and opportunities presented by using objects to communicate difficult and contested matters. Topics and approaches examined in the book are diverse, but include the objectification of natural history specimens and museum registers; materiality, immateriality, transience and absence; subject/object boundaries; sensory, phenomenological perspectives; the museumisation of objects and collections; and the dangers inherent in assuming that objects, interpretation and heritage are ‘good’ for us.

collections, history of medicine, material studies, museum studies

The museographer and the object

In the process of selecting objects for a new exhibition, I (re)discovered this room:

It is located beneath the roof of the museum, and contains, as the picture shows, literally hundreds of small glass vials with various chemical labels. Most are empty, but a few still has the original contents.

Aside from being a treasure chest for our exhibition, the room also reminded me of the degree to which being in a house filled with things makes me think differently about the history of medicine. This might not exactly be a groundbreaking insight, but is bears repeating often. The material environment we occupy is foundational for our cognitive states. This sentiment is expressed in the following quote from Claude Lévi-Strauss, which, although it is aimed at ethnographical collectors, seem to me to ring true for medical historical collections as well:

The museographer enters into close contact with the objects: a spirit of humility is inculcated in him by all the small tasks (unpacking, cleaning, maintenance, etc.) he has to perform. He develops a keen sense of the concrete through the classification, identification, and analysis of the objects in the various collections. He establishes indirect contact with the native environment by means of tools and comes to know this environment and the ways in which to handle it correctly: Texture, form, and in many cases, smell, repeatedly experienced, make him instinctively familiar with distant forms of life and activities. Finally, he acquires for the various externalizations of human genius that respect which cannot fail to be inspired in him by the constant appeals to his taste, intellect, and knowledge made by apparently insignificant objects.

Claude Lévi-Strauss, “The place of anthropology in the social sciences and the problems raised in teaching it,” in Jacobson and Schoepf (eds.): Structural Anthropology, 1963.

Hopefully, being in the room and selecting vials for the exhibition will nudge us curators towards an exhibition that tries to establish a sense of how foundational the relationship between the individual and the physical environment is. Showing how what we inhabit is what we get, so to speak.


Science as democracy

The University of Copenhagen, and specifically the Faculty for Health Sciences, is in the midst of a huge scandal. The details of the case about wrongdoings of the fallen star brain researcher Milena Penkowa are too many (and juicy) to recount here, but suffice it to say that it has put more science in the headlines of the media during the past months than we see in any given year or two.

There are many interesting points to take from this case. One of them is just how much science you can sneak into the mainstream media when it is anchored in an interesting existential moment, something that could be a utilized much more actively science communication more generally – there are good reason for telling people about science not just as a anonymous fact-producing machine, but instead as a creative, dynamic, intuitive and highly personal undertaking. But I’d like to highlight another point instead, namely that the Penkowa-case reminds us of the functioning of science as a communal undertaking, as an exercise in practical democracy.

The point was driven home to me when I read a recent essay by theoretical physicist Lee Smolin, co-inventor of loop quantum gravity, in which he recounts the some of the theoretical and institutional history of the debates between string theory and loop quantum gravity. In the essay, Smolin writes:

“Science is a kind of open laboratory for a democracy. It’s a way to experiment with the ideals of our democratic societies. For example, in science you must accept the fact that you live in a community that makes the ultimate judgment as to the worth of your work. But at the same time, everybody’s judgment is his or her own. The ethics of the community require that you argue for what you believe and that you try as hard as you can to get results to test your hunches, but you have to be honest in reporting the results, whatever they are. You have the freedom and independence to do whatever you want, as long as in the end you accept the judgment of the community. Good science comes from the collision of contradictory ideas, from conflict, from people trying to do better than their teachers did, and I think here we have a model for what a democratic society is about. There’s a great strength in our democratic way of life, and science is at the root of it.”

This is, of course, an idealized vision, and what is interesting about the Penkowa-case it that it highlights the flipside of this reliance on community, including political and economic ones. But that does not detract from the essential insight that Smolin puts forth: Science is democracy in practice, warts and all. And science has some built in quality checks and unwritten practices that the political community (and us, as citizens) could learn something from. At least it still (occasionally) makes headline news when scientists brazenly disregard the codes of the scientific community, whereas people these days hardly bat an eye when politicians disregard theirs.

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