Just tonight, I read in The Chronicle, a Duke student-run newspaper, about a walkout staged by some undergrads at the beginning of a talk by Charles Murray, in protest of what they consider him to stand for and of the national policies he had influenced. Murray had co-authored the infamous The Bell Curve Richard J Herrnstein, with the book published in 1994, that reviews had stated as an attempt to correlate the IQ with socio-economic and racial classes (I must say this as I have not read the book). While the students who participated in the walkout did not resent Murray’s presence on campus, they claimed the need of such acts to make their voices heard. Some of Murray’s audiences who stayed put expressed disappointment with the attendees who participated in the walkout, claiming that the latter had passed on an opportunity to debate openly with Murray. However, the main organizer of the walkout, the senior Kamalakanthan, argued that the walkout was necessary given how the event was not conducive to a real debate, and that “…the walkout is sort of an attempt to turn back the relations in power that Charles Murray exerts over our bodies by using our bodies as a symbol of protest.”
Were one to scroll down the article (something not possible with the print copy from whence I have first discovered the story), you will find, well, the kind of stuff you usually encounter online, a mixture of trolls and those with a sincere desire to chime in. Whether one actually is able to generate discursive conversations that could lead to a productive end, through a handful of comments among the haystack of rants, raves, fawns, and insults, are themselves telling of how discourse usually takes place in public space (even if this space is mediated by the digital), which was one of the reasons leading to Popular Science deciding to shut down its comments section (a move that was generative its own series of debates within the science communication and social media world).
That said, let’s return to the story at hand. In this case, the talk was student-organized with the profiled speaker giving his one hour, or perhaps more than an hour of lecture, such as the practice. Towards the end, the floor is open to the audience, and one might have, probably, about 30 minutes for Q&A, and that depends on how busy the speaker’s schedule is and the time for which they have been paid for their appearance – time is money. If the speaker is known to be a crowd-puller, the more expensive he/she will be, and it is unlikely that the organizers can keep him/her for too long. I have not attended too many talks by super-famous speakers, mainly because I couldn’t be bothered, but I have had attended sufficient number of talks, forums, symposiums, colloquiums and roundtables on campus and beyond to get an idea as to what usually transpire in such sessions. Most graduate students remain silent even in events that are suppose to get them talking (especially if the event has a huge audience with a few bold souls scrambling to get their two-pennies in). Unless one comes prepared with questions that one is determined to get answered, whatever it takes (and regardless of what the speaker is saying), or if the speaker has said something that struck such a chord that yours is the first hand up (or the first set of feet to the mic) even before the applause has died down, the ordinary audience member usually requires time to cogitate before any ‘smart questions’ can emerge. Unless the speaker is willing to spend time actually talking to the students before or after his/her talk, the power relations that are already imbalanced from the beginning will just deepened. The very physical setting of an organized talk, with such power differentials at play, makes any form of critical engagement neigh impossible, as in any real dialog. You can ask a question and the speaker has as much right now to answer it, or to skirt around it. Unless you have the starring role as an interlocutor, respondent or interviewer, you are unlikely to have the chance to press on without hogging valuable time and appearing a douchebag.
Hence, the walkout is the loudest form of an opinion that one can form, regardless of what one might think of it. On the other hand, one might ask if it would make a difference whether they decided to walk out 5 minutes into his talk, or more than halfway through. Maybe leaving the hall half-empty in the beginning is meant to rattle the speaker by showing him their displeasure. However, it may also not be effective within the larger landscape, if only because, at the end of the day, the power of discourse lies in the hands of the likes of people such as Murray, who are considered the opinion-makers that powerful decision-makers listen to. But maybe that is not the point.
Therefore, this brings us to how the power of discourse operate within the capital market. While the advent of social media and blogs is supposed to democratize participation from other voices, allowing those without the network and access to the gatekeepers a way to make their opinions visible. But then, you are only as well-known as the readers you have. In the day before professional publications made their digital leap, a semi-professional blogger can achieve a level of fame even if he/she is blogging about the most mundane life events, if only because he/she has the novelty of writing from a different platform and to a demographics increasingly immersed in an online world. But now, even bloggers are trying to get themselves linked to established, or ‘hot’ and coming digital publications, because it spurs their social capital, and this might mean writing on topics that their new patrons would like them to write on (which brings to question the notion of intellectual freedom).
Therefore, while college and school teachers may think of their classroom as a ‘safe’ space for engaging in a multitude of conversations (or as far as the school board or the political powers-that-be allow), where their students could voice their dissent, support, and even cautious critique of an issue, the idea of the safety (though this is not completely true) is also related to impotence. The student may voice strong disagreement with a policy that almost everyone in his/her milieu does, including the policy-makers, and he/she might not be able to affect change immediately. However, if he or she is determined, he/she may be able to explore various alternatives that could command attention to his or her course. Nonetheless, that, in itself, is not an engagement with discourse. A video or blog post or whatever content it is that goes viral is not discourse. Discourse only happens when all participants are willing to commit themselves to keeping an open mind and be equal participants. Discourse is not about deciding which interlocutor has the greater value, but for each participant to contribute to creating new values through exchanges.
Are the students losing the opportunity for a discursive intervention when they walked out? Not necessarily. In fact, the walkout itself might be the starting point for discursive strategies that lays the gauntlet on everyone’s feet. How one picks that up remains to be seen, including the organization of events purported to be of an intellectual nature.
I decided to publish a piece of SF that does what I wanted to do. Here is the abstract:
- •Inter-relationality between macrospace and micro-interactions in the physical real
- •Thought experiments in the human and non-human political turn
- •Foregrounding the importance of sensations and becoming in technology design
- •Building the blueprint for an ontology machine
- •Informational intersection between epistemology and ontology
The science fiction prototype featured in this article is the second chapter of a novel in progress that contains an omnibus of interventions into physics, queer science, feminism, and intellectual history. The title of the article references the notebooks of Erwin Schrödinger, a Nobel-Prize winning physicist who discovered wave theory that superseded Heisenberg’s more complex form of mathematical formalism, therefore changing the way in which interpretation is done. Despite being part of a series, the prototype is written so it could be read as a standalone. The story, combined with a critical explication of its background and intent, produces the contestations illustrating the relationships between physics, the cultures in science and technology, as well as politics extending over the internal and external values of the scientific enterprise. Specifically, the differences between these values are rendered impossible through the epistemic continuity stemming from a shared ontology. At the same time, the prototype also forecasts the possibility of future technologies based on current and possible developments in physics while contesting the notion of a ‘good life’ these technologies supposedly offer. As a politically inclined epistemic move, the prototype will demonstrate points of amplification in the interactions taking place at the microscopic level for manifestation in our macroscopic space. Therefore, the amplified microscopic interactions are in competition with the observables in our ‘meatspace’ dominated by the conventions of classical physics. The prototype also acts as a speculative device for modeling probable outcomes stemming from different constraint sets, thereby acting as an ‘algorithmic’ blueprint for the narration of scenarios produced as an outcome of macro- and micro-entanglement.
- Quantum theory;
- Classical physics;
- Schrödinger’s cat;
- Bell’s Inequality Theorem;
You can see the rest of the article here. Because this is not open access, I cannot make the article freely available. Free free to get in touch if interested.
Science Fiction, Science and Technology Studies, and the History of Science: The sociological connection
Over the week, in the process of revising a dissertation chapter, proposing a chapter on STS and South East Asia, publishing a commentary on scientific literacy in Malaysia, and doing further research and mapping in preparation for revising a journal article that is also a form of creative writing, I have been reading, alternately, science fiction criticisms, revisited critical theory, re-read some papers on the multifarious interpretations of quantum mechanics and the still challenged assumptions surrounding the Copenhagen Interpretation. I also started to read some older seminar papers I had written on science fiction and the way it is used to embody certain events that are logical yet deemed materially implausible (or even physically implausible based on our understanding of the classically illustrated universe), which got me to think about how one can foreground the more materially political aspects of the abstracted and mathematical embodiment in some scientific theories.
While most science fiction writers are not scientists, there are scientists, and practitioners in other fields interested in prediction, measurement, and forecasting who have turned to science fiction as the most concrete way of articulating their theories and thought experiments. Even more covertly, important works by writers such as Ursula K Leguin and Octavia Butler, attempt to question our assumptions and insistence on the hegemonic qualities of terrestrial life forms to as the normalizing method for discussing all possible lifeforms. But the question is, for all the insistence on objectivity and even, the common misconception of members of the public who claim to be fans of science is that, to be scientifically literate equals appropriating a scientistic and positivistic attitude to science.
Science fiction itself is a space that challenges the assumption of a scientistic notion of a sterile laboratory as fieldwork, one that is unconnected to the more social world of funding (a process by which you have to convince a bunch of people on panels and review boards of the authenticity and important scientific contribution of your work); an ignorance of the political quality of the knowledge which one contributes to, as well as of a knowledge that is not detached from the assumptions governing the bodies that produce this knowledge, one where one’s bodies (and bodily identities) resides. It may not matter whether you are studying spatial vectors or a botanical lifeform because the knowledge shaping these derived simultaneously and correlatively from the same knowledge that normalizes our thinking (and defines our taxanomical efforts), and even shapes our relationship to a an idea of the ideal and our perception.
That embedded correlation (in this, I part ways with the speculative realists), the inseparability of that tangle between material and the human, that agential realism that tells you that there is a difference even in the proclamation of agreement and likeness, are all part of the narration of the history of science, science and technology studies, and science fiction. How do some discuss the reality of the physical in philosophy of physics, for instance, while neglecting to mention the role that exclusionary and inclusive practices play in shaping our perception of the real, often at a level that appear oblivious to a complex information system that is not divorced from bodies (and therefore, the identities of race, sexuality, gender, class). Why do most fear to destabilize facts and to standardize the multiplication of one fact into a spectrum of facts, even facts that have been cut off and disengaged from our ready acceptance. After all, the real science is an exercise in exposing the blitheness and masking of questionable practices in the name of the scientific.
How far can science fiction go in making science accountable, or even in acting the parallel role of philosophical, historical, futurological, and utopic/dystopic experimentations out the legitimate contours of scientific experimentation, or scientific practices, remain to be seen, and to be tested. There is the insistence in some quarters that science fiction should not take on a fantastical flight that have no anchor in some form of detectable and logical reality, but are our dreams, that unconscious act that is so important to studies in psychology and psychoanalysis (the latter considered unscientific by those of the Anglo-American scientific persuasion), anchored, even its most improbable turn of events, in the real?
There is still much to be thought of in this matter, but it has got me thinking about how the sociological connection that tends to get dismissed in the discussion of objective knowledge forms may be that methodology for recuperating massacred knowledge classes, especially when we are working with histories of science that lack the archival sufficiency. Science fiction can be the model for the development of this methodology, given its investment at some level of sociality. The question would be, how to transform science fiction from its origin in Western sensibilities on scientific knowledge, to one that is unafraid to interrogate the genesis and origins of myths from which most knowledge are produced in oral cultures. This may then be a way into reconstructing and recuperating histories that were extinguished but not necessarily non-existing.
Written mid-2007, published sometime in 2011 in this blog, republished here now in light of the thematic direction this blog is taking.
A reader of mass media publications may be familiar with how ubiquitous are the words ‘art’ and ‘science.’ Art and science are part of a vocabulary that purports to sell the virtuosity and sophistication of a product, particularly in today’s parlance of the ‘knowledge-economy.’ Many an advertorial feature or headline would promote a particular concept as standing for the ‘art and science of living,’ the ‘art and science of gastronomic adventure,’ the ‘art and science of well-being,’ and the ‘art and science of [fill in the blank with an appropriate noun or adjective],’ to the extend that these two words have become fluffy, inflated lexicons, whose convoluted and rich historical content are lost in transmission. The definition of art and science used in the context of this article is as branches of knowledge within the humanities, social science, natural science and fine art.
In an age of increasing specialization, the national education system had been constructed in such a way as to stream students into a system of rigid classification with pre-determined parameters of what constitute science and art. However, in this instance, art and science had become branches of learning that enable a university system to create academic divisions and departments. It was in the twentieth century that the academies arrived at the apotheosis of knowledge classification with their neat grouping of courses and subjects according to pre-set knowledge phylum.
The Western knowledge system has undergone rapid differentiation since the period of the Industrial Revolution. It was at this time that the Western world saw an explosion of knowledge as rapid technological improvement that allowed unprecedented access to a world hitherto barred from sight and imagination. However, many do not realize that the age of growing rationality was also accompanied by acquisition of knowledge through acts construed as mystical. Metaphysical inspiration produced solid science when chemist and mathematician such as Kekule and Ramanujan made their most potent discoveries through a subconscious act of dreaming; Kekule obtained his structure for benzene, an organic chemical structure, by dreaming of a serpent and Ramanujan received his mathematical inspiration from the Hindu Goddess Namakkal.
If there had been attempts to approach art and science through a systematic, academic construction, this tendency, unbeknownst to many, had taken root since the Renaissance, despite the polymath tendencies of its leading lights. While its main players were dabbling in knowledge areas that seemed to cross between humanities and natural sciences, they were at the same time setting the conditions by which knowledge would later be acquired and transmitted. If Leonardo da Vinci’s capabilities as an artist had enabled him to create very detailed illustrations of the human anatomy and intricate flying machines, it was necessary for Leonardo’s successors to progressively narrow down their scope of study so that the initial rough draft that came about through lightening inspiration could then be transformed into perfectly usable products. Hence, it might not be logical for a person who wishes to create a perfect aeroplane to spend too much time on anatomical drawings for inspiration, unless it is the anatomy of a bird. Moreover, many of the techniques and knowledge developed by the ‘Renaissance men’ had delimiting effects on their successors who were then trained according to the principles first mooted by the men who did not themselves had as many rules to follow.
The tendency in traditional education to train the mind along linear modes of reasoning and logic, whereby academic success is equated with the ability to imbibe and utilize knowledge gained for such ends, it seems that the world is seeing less of thinkers and visionaries and more of technical specialists. Perhaps it is in realization that many an expert has reached the cul-de-sac of problem solving within his or her field that academic departments are beginning to consider exploring new knowledge structures that could freshen and rekindle the fire of their research. At the same time, it could also be a strong desire and need to keep their work relevant to the needs of the times as well as to find creative ways to solve problems. Universities known for their innovative approaches and newer universities seeking a niche to fill are all jumping into the bandwagon of interdisciplinary studies.
Interdisciplinary studies have opened the gates towards redefining the manner in which knowledge is now acquired and utilized, particularly at the research level. One such example would be how students with background in bioinformatics, engineering and art could now collaborate with one another in fields which they would never have imagined themselves to be working on. A good example of such collaboration would be that at the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Media Lab has many research groups that specialize in topics ranging from ambient intelligence (which are technological interfaces that are sensitive and adaptable to moods and surroundings) to new interfaces for musical performances of the future. While I would not provide the mathematics for calculating the increased opportunities in making innovative breakthroughs and groundbreaking discoveries, it is reasonable to suggest that the probability for such events would increase with the addition of these new disciplinary combinations into the existing figures.
In a utilitarian society, interdisciplinary studies is a good way to rejuvenate old and less popular subject areas as the wisdom contained in them could be unearthed and revived. For example, lets say one were to study the literature of an ancient culture. It would be difficult to obtain funding to merely make a study of such literature for its own sake, however much one would argue of its import to human civilization. However, let us say that this literature holds a clue to a particular natural event that has bearings on today’s environment, and provides solid record of particular conditions in the past that would be useful today. Using such an argument, the researcher would be able to increase his or her chance in obtaining funding, especially when the fruit of the research could be transformed into tangible benefits.
Two of humanity’s greatest artistic inventions are products of a marriage between art and science; music and fine art. Music itself had always been an artistic manipulation of the science of sound, whereas fine art is an artistic manipulation of the science of colours, lines and space. It so happens now that music and fine art are two areas that embrace the latest technological innovation. Electronic music was born of a marriage between kinaesthesia and experiments with aural composition. Fine artists are now using digital imaging to recreate for themselves, with some imaginative tinkering, the microscopic and macroscopic depiction of the universe, giving the world an interpretation of science through the lens of art.
UPDATE: i was very remissed in forgetting to mention that our teaching assistant (though by no means just any teaching assistant!) was Caroline Duroselle-Melish, an astute and knowledgeable book historian by training and a librarian at the Houghton Library, at Harvard. She delivered a lecture, on the last day of class, on the circulation of a specific scientific volume produced in Italy, and deftly combined history of the book and bibliographic studies in her examination. I will say more on this when I start putting my notes here.
I know I said I would post notes of my week at the RBS but it turns out that we had to take most of our notes by longhand because all the big old books we got to play with took up most of the table’s space, so no room for laptops other than the laptop of the instructor! So, the notes will have go to up later when I have sort through my never-ending deadlines, but I promise that there will be some interesting pictures to accompany them.
Also, we took a day trip to DC on Wed to visit with the Smithsonian Institution’s Cullman and Dibner’s libraries. I remembered wanting to apply for a fellowship with the Dibner’s when I thought I would be working on an earlier period than I am doing now, but this is still a possibility for future postdoctoral work. It was great looking at the sort of collections that were made not only for the study of the history of science and intellectual history, but how important some of the collections were for the current day scientists to trace to provenance of some of the taxonomic materials they were dealing with. However, I doubt that the books we looked at would be of interest to the scientists in anyway other than as historical artifact, though, even as a person working in 19th and 20th century Transatlantic history of physics (though I do mostly 20th to 21st century stuff for the diss), I found the early stuff useful in questioning the assumptions I have had about the later materials I work on and even the way diagrammatic thinking is put to use.
With Roger Gaskell (the son of late bibliographer Phillip Gaskell), erudite scholar-collector-antiquarian bookseller (in fact, it was reading about the work of antiquarian book sellers from accidentally found volumes, while I was a physics major in college, that turned me on, unknowingly, into book history), It was great learning about books and the art of scientific visuals from the late Middle Ages up to the post-Enlightenment period, and it got me to ask many questions about how visuals can itself be a way for looking at the ontology of ruptures and continuity in thinking about knowledge.
Science, as we know it before the 19th century, was not the science we think of today. What is so delightful in thinking about the knowledge production of that period, beyond the ambiguity in which most display, was the pliability of categories, which only became increasingly reified in the later periods. This, in a way, influences how knowledge and the marvels of it are laid in the text. Of course, there are issues of costs, technology, and even reader reception. But there are other corresponding issues as well relating to censorship, politics, dominant modes of thinking about a certain knowledge, and obviously, the desire of the author. Since all the books we looked at were from the hand-press period, the illustrated prints were produced likewise, through woodcuts, wood-engravings, lithography, linotyping, various metal presses (mezzotinting, aquatinting, engraving, etching, etc). While the class also visited the production of these materials, including the imperfections and mistakes produced, there were also discoveries of the tricks that the artists employed to bring a point across, or as part of artistic license (such as the author of the book himself/herself).
I am intrigue to see what experimental digital work that one can do with the materiality of the texts, which I know some other able scholars have begun working on. But in my case, I would be interested in juxtaposing, such as, 20th century images in physics with 15th century woodcuts and volvelles, and see what would be that result of the outcome.
More interestingly, while science used to be conveyed through books in past times, practices have changed tremendously since, with scientists barely reading books for professional reasons unless they happened to be textbooks, some references, and maybe some monographs. Largely, current day practicing scientists can make do without carting volumes around the way some humanists still do (as not all of our books exist in the electronic form). This is a far cry from what used to be the case in the periods we were examining. While there were the production of cheaper pocket-sized duodecimo (or even smaller), most of these texts were either in folios, broadsheets or quartos (all of that having to do with the foldings of the printing paper).
More to come later in the month, or maybe next month (at least on the topic of the RBS). Now I have to finish up Tansell’s short piece “The Pleasures of Being Scholar Collector” before heading out. Kinda fitting that my first work week day back home started with sorting through piles of rare books that gave me the same allergic reaction as all the old books at Charlottesville did.
P.S On a semi-related, here are some lovely photographs of the hand-production of papers and paperbooks in India.
So I didn’t get around to doing the post on Friday as I promised, as I was busy reading through the material til rather late. But now that I have arrived in Virginia (a 3.5 hour drive where I just took in the scenery and had random thoughts ran in and out of my mind, nothing book history related), and having some time for my reading to percolate, it enables me to think through some of the questions I would like to get at during my time here.
In terms of the Gaskell sections I had to read for class, I managed to get through all the required pages. In continuation from the summary that I had blogged about in the earlier post, this is more centric on the different roles and specific materials used by pressmen and compositors. Among the most important aspects of these, some of which had been mentioned in the previous post, is related to imposition, forme, folds, proofs and corrections, preparation of the paper, inking, pulling and beating at the form, press figures, and cancels.
Much of the above has to do with the real process of presswork and composing of type. The forme that holds the paper is determined by the kind of folds produced for the paper and the folds are given by the short hand ∘. If you wonder where gutter, header, footer, and side margins came from in your word processing, it came from the handpress era when the ‘furniture’ is arranged to kept these parts from being bound (think long form and short form when you look at two-sided printing the next time). Of course, the sizes of the sheets determined the actual folds that might take place, and Gaskell has a table for that on page 86 of the book. Then, there are also the tranchefiles, which are the double chain lines at the deckle edgee, at half a chain’s width from the shorter edges. Of course, each paper would come with watermarks that have been intentionally produced as identity for the paper. The paper will then have to be set on the stone that is the forme. In terms of the arrangements of the gathers of the queers, it does make sense that the better paper will be arranged more towards the outer layers while the more defective (but not too defective ones) are left to the middle. That, of course, depends on what kind of production is in process (I imagine it would be hard to have a paper too noticeably defective if you want to be producing any form of illustration. The first proofs were read off the type that has been impressed on the form. The story of correcting and proofing is pretty interesting in itself, especially that pertaining to the handpress period, and would appear to be rather odious for a book with hundreds of pages and difficult words, which brings us back to the question on whether the printing technique itself determines the kind of books that were being produced at that time, and therefore, influence the popularity of certain genres and literary forms over others.
The particular hand press that Gaskell’s book talks about is the wooden common handpress (there is the copperplate printer’s rolling press, and the iron handpress), and it could be held in the same or different room from where warehouse where the quires of paper are kept. I am particularly interested in finding out as to how the printer decided, probably in conjunction with the author, on the quality of the paper and the format for printing, thus determining in advance how much of what kind of paper to stock. Presumably this will have to be entered into the accounting since the cost of overheads, labor, and raw material have to be accounted for. Of course, it is possible that paper from different runs for different productions do get mixed up along the way, as we would be able to tell by the chain lines and watermarks. The papers that are gathered are then sent off to a bindery, which is not part of the presshouse. As binding is done laboriously done, the cost of it does not go down with the amount of binding that is done: in fact, the cost may go up, which is why for trade binding, the cost of the trade material are kept at as low a price as possible, through the use of calf or sheepskin, which were more plentiful then. While the cheaper productions were sold bound, some of the more expensive scholarly productions, which would include intricately illustrated books, are sold unbound so that the book collector can send it to his binder for bespoke binding.
Gaskell does not go into too much details about decoration and illustration here, other than to provide short explanations to each technique of print illustration, though those details are supplemented by the other texts that I would have to read for the school. But it is interesting to think about the different time periods when the printers first started working with wooden block reliefs in the early modern period and how that gradually moved to the use of metal plates (chief being copper). The different techniques for making plates ranged from engraving, etching, mezzotint, stippling, aquatinting, and color plating. A number of these methods are still in use today, even if the tools are different. I would be interested in finding out how these differ in their production, for the rest of the week, and which are the choice methods for the production of specific.
More on the actual art and techniques of scientific illustrations, beginning tomorrow. I will refer to some material from Gaskell where necessary, but will begin talking at greater length the other readings specifically on the topic of image-making, on top of the notes I will be making for class. Depending on time, I might upload some pictures here everyday, or leave them til I get to go home. I look forward to doing more graphically intense blogging as I begin taking pictures of my book history experience here, and maybe, I might tweet a sample of them if I even have a moment. I will also try to tweet some of the lectures I will be attending. Looking forward as well to visiting some of the rare book haunts around here, while also checking out their amazing collection. Dibner this Wed will be tiring but amazing.
First day of class tomorrow.