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Reviewing Londa Schiebinger’s Nature’s Body with Bruno Latour’s Science in Action

October 29, 2010

Latour, Bruno.Science in Action: how to follow scientists and engineers through society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987
Schiebinger, Londa. Nature’s Body: Gender in the Making of Modern Science. Boston: Beacon Press, 1993.

Bodies in Action: Scientific Epistemology in the Making
We know that science is not the inspirational genius of a solitary figure working at the bench, collecting specimens, or recording observations just as literary awesomeness is not the romantic product of a starving artist shivering up in a cold attic or by a foul-smelling garret. The production of science we are talking about here is the kind of knowledge production that requires financial injection and institutional endorsements, whether of the Royal Societies or the English throne such as in 18th and 19th century England. It may have started out as a side-project of a cleric or the diversion of a sinecure gentleman, but for science to have the serious, sometimes devastating impact, and continuous financial support that it has today, it is an enterprise that requires as much business acumen and political maneuvering at all fronts (funding, acknowledgment from respected journals, the validation of peers, interests of a talented labor pool) as it does expert knowledge of the increasingly specialized subject matter. That said, is it right to state that the epistemology of science is the result of disinterested observation, analysis and interpretation of nature’s body; or should we also include the picture of science as a culmination of often unconscious/conscious effort to project a particular category of thought, expectations and meaning? How different is Aristotelian science (if we could refer to that as science) from that of Enlightenment (and post-Enlightenment) science, the latter being the analytical project of Londa Schiebinger’s Nature’s Body and Bruno Latour’s Science in Action?

Bodies, organic or inorganic, become the inscribed collective of knowledge manufacturing. One may not glimpse an overt difference between Schiebinger’s discussion of Victorian heteronormative relations in the taxonomy of natural historians such as Linnaeus, and that of Latour’s language of warfare and strategy; both describe a similar need for aligning oneself socially with ‘accepted’ dominant discourses, whether within the configurations of the scientific body or external networks that support that body. Both books are similarly interested in the imperial projects of the Enlightenment and in how ‘Western’s scientific thoughts are transposed in the logical (or alogical) systems of the ‘exotic Other,’ be they the Trobriander islanders or simians. Both books are also interested in problematizing the very concept of science and to ask the hard question of who has the right to science.

We may want to ask about whether the personal experiences and experiments of the human actors have any role to play in the formations of the categories of knowledge. Schiebinger and Latour seem to think so, as the orientation and the interpretative styles of the history of science archives composing their respective projects seem to indicate. In Nature’s Body, one is faced with a particular instance in natural history that traces its story of genealogical origin through Erasmus Darwin and Carolus Linnaeus, and which hereafter followed the fortunes of the Linnaean heritage. As Schiebinger’s goal is to demonstrate how gendered preconceptions and conceptions are never far from the ‘scientific’ excursions and narratives of the ‘scientific’ explorers, even as their priority in privileging certain forms of knowledge is tied to how intimate that form of knowledge is to them. For example, as Schiebinger describes, naturalists are intrigued and obsessed over the sexual lives of the organisms that they study and seek to provide anthropomorphized intentionality to the non-human subjects, including plants. Animals of the mammalian class that seem closest to humans in behavior and characteristics, especially mammals with breasts and who therefore breastfeed, become the subject of exotic imaginings, fantasies and fetishization of the ‘scientists’ who claim to obtain their prescription of gendered roles from scientific ‘authority,’ gleaned through a study of comparative anatomy and physiological functions. While gender seems to be explicitly missing from Latour’s sociology of science, it is implicit in his construction of ‘difference,’ especially differential logics (as well as epistemic asymmetry) that he argues as having pervaded the relationship between the ‘western’ anthropologists and their ‘exotic’ subjects. This epistemic asymmetry stems from the imbalance of capital (profit, power, knowledge) that marks the relationship between the observer and the observed, of the sense of superiority of the ‘researcher’ over that of his ‘subject.’ However, more than once, both Latour and Schiebinger has shown how the ‘subjects’ can, in their turn, trump the observers by behaving unpredictably, the latter stacking up their own truth-claims, tribunals of reasoning, alliances and system of justification. These ‘subjects’ have the power to ‘deceive’ and ‘play’ the foreign observer who has no intention of staying on in the former’s community at the end of the latter’s fieldwork. Moreover, the subjects are sometimes able to grasp the intentions of these foreign researchers without necessarily subscribing to that belief-system. They become complicit in providing the ‘empirical’ evidence these ‘foreigners’ need to serve the latter’s interest.

However, Schiebinger does not spend too much time on interrogating the lines of rupture, discontinuity, misrecognition and misinterpretation in the knowledge formations of post-Enlightenment naturalist science, even though she alludes to cases of intentional misrepresentation, such as in the discourse on race, to justify the inferiority of the non-Caucasian race and to advance the ideology of racial superiority. This is particularly fraught in the discussion of the relationship between apes and Africans (especially male apes and African women) in order to justify the conquest and subjugation of the latter group of people. Latour’s application of ‘black boxes’ to demonstrate how knowledges can still be advanced without the necessity of knowing every intricate details that go into each cycle of knowledge advancement, provide that one can trace back the source of that black box to a possible ‘expert’ who can tell you what really takes place in the black box, creates the impetus for all arguments and counter-arguments that distinguishes a progressing project form what that is stagnating. If one were to take Latour’s notion of the black box and complicate it for use, one can then use the black boxes for looking into instances of rupture and misrecognition that goes on in the course of the explorers’ and naturalists intervention into constructing inter-species knowledge. The black box theory will enable Schiebinger to problematize the way in which knowledge from the field are transmitted, selected and translated back into the salon walls and writings of the western intellectuals. The black box theory would also allow her to intervene more acutely into the issues she has to take with the essentializing theories of race and gender in the imperialistic scientific discourse of European natural histories because she could then point to the gaps and ruptures that are being elided.

In the different arguments ventured by Schiebinger and Latour, the organic body is intrinsic to their arguments on the politics and institutions involved in the accumulation of scientific knowledge. While Schiebinger is more interested in examining how predominant cultures of science are written directly onto the bodies of the organisms studied, especially through the Enlightenment discourse on social justice, democracy, equality, individual rights and agency that were coming out around the long 18th century up to the first half of the 19th century, Latour is more interested in understanding how these bodies interact and intra-act with social circumstances that are both material and immaterial in enabling the production of an especial space for epistemological agency. Hence, for Latour, the organic and inorganic bodies (including cultural and social bodies) are engaged in a mutual relationship of mutual inscription and transformation.

The formulation of Schiebinger’s arguments seems to suggest that the organic bodies of the simians, women, colonized subjects and plants as passive recipients and ‘subaltern’ subjects whose silence represent their lack of agency in responding to their encounter and representation by these dominating male, white ‘scientific’ explorers. She does not suggest the possibility of a ‘secret life’ and ‘silence’ resistances that will give lie to cultural and ideological biases dressed up as science. Latour, on his end, does not bring in much discussion of race and gender in his dealings with ‘exotic’ knowledges, preferring to allow his model of asymmetry that also enfolds nature, culture and capital to stand for the fact. He rhetorically inquires as to whether the scientist who is the person in a lab-coat, doing the hard work of knowledge excavation, is also the person who possesses enough of the technical know-how to sell that scientific production to external stakeholders. But, I do not quite see how he can answer the question that Schiebinger has posed on who has the right to do science, and who can do what science? This is because he is more interested in the question on who cannot do science. Schiebinger’s question stems from her consciousness of the dominance of particular modes of accepted approaches in Enlightenment science, and of how those approaches stigmatize and marginalize knowledge system that are not readily recognizable within the bounds of Enlightenment discourse. As far as Latour is concerned, all the problems that Schiebinger explicates in her book stems from a rigid desire to reinforce categories, and he seems aware of the possibility that these categories were derived from a desire to reinforce certain hierarchies, reward system and superstructures. Moreover, he extends on her arguments by discussing the institutional forces that pushes for the ‘doing’ of science, especially in his discussion of imperial science. He argues for the dismantling of the divisions and structures that reinforce pre-conceived notions and an a priori stance in approaching unfamiliar subjects, which to him are problematic and the causes of epistemic misrepresentations. However, he is aware of problems of resources that prohibit certain groups of society and people from having a voice in the cut-throat world of science because of their inability to catch up with the rapid production of ever newer and more advanced black boxes, something which he discusses at length in his chapter “Insiders Out.”

While “Insiders Out” chapter seems to be the story of marginalization, power-struggle and the entanglement between scientific creativity, innovation, discoveries, and resources in contemporary times, it is also relevant to the narrative of 18th and 19th century natural history. After all, the struggles of non-white men to have their science taken seriously and be given support, and the exclusion of women (and thus the double marginalization of the non-white woman) from the academy, influence the direction and pace in which scientific understanding takes place, as well as the forms of fetishization that are foregrounded. Moreover, the chapter highlights the precariousness of those who attempt to do science outside the circle of support and ongoing conversations, and how sudden changes in political climate and epistemic directions can lead to the sidelining of those without recourse. It also highlights the question as to who has the authority to decide how and when science can be done.

History can have as much domino effect on the cause and events of a scientific enterprise as do the individuals and collective choices that make that history. History is produced through the alienation of bodies and the labors of these bodies. Human history, including its scientific history, is about the physical organization of these individuals and their relationships to nature, regardless of whether it is actual physical nature or natural conditions, or even an abstracted relationship to nature. These are all parts of the Marxist intervention, which is made all the more explicit in the discussion on the privatization of the family and the capital accumulation of the center. Moreover, the gatekeepers of knowledge, the authorities who decide on what constitutes legitimate forms of knowledge, reside in the bourgeoisie, as they are the ones with the networks, connections and political clout to participate in all forms of scientific exploration, especially with the rise of professionalization. While it is possible to start out with nothing but one’s wits and ingenuity, one’s success is predicated on the ability to collect resources that will serve to extend one’s interest. Hence, one needs to accumulate both intellectual and physical property, as well as the intellectual and manual labor necessarily to create increasingly complex knowledge system and instruments. Hence, science does not belong solely to those with vision, aptitude and the necessary expertise. Science can only happen if you work is not ignored by the powers-that-be, as presented in the examples provided by Schiebinger and Latour in their respective books; whether that of the 18th and 19tnh century European women scientists, educated colonial subjects, or Third-World scientists who receive neither support from their governments nor recognition from their international peers.

In their different ways, Schiebinger and Latour talk about the history of science as a history of mobilization. While Schiebinger talks about how political urgency, pecuniary exigencies and particular kinds of ‘science’ dominated the extraction of particular ‘exhibits,’ whether the Hottentot Venus or apes, from their local habitats for import to Europe for the purpose of high-level show-and tell, Latour discusses the mobilization of far-away specimens for the purpose of rendering faraway lands, people and events in the comforts of the European laboratories, where the latter were not subjected to the vagaries of inclement weather and the felicity of the natives. In Latourian terms, mobilization of these material objects and situations was for the purpose of keeping them in a stable environment away from additional corruption and decay. However, both the forms mobilization discussed here are about the possibilities of dominating the ‘other’ within an environment that these scientists have control over. The problem however, was in bringing back the context with these objects, so that they do not merely become vacuous travelling exhibits. The discussion here, more directly in Latour and less evidently in Schiebinger, heralds the beginnings of a scientific knowledge-making that is mediated by instruments and apparatuses, because these instruments and apparatuses provide the contexts that would otherwise be emptied out upon the extraction of events, species or objects from their native territory. This holds true in all subfields of science. However, context can also be distorted and misappropriated to advance a particular objective, whether in the promotion and selling of a drug, or in the justification of eugenics and intellectual superiority of one race over another.

This brings us back to the question of facts and fact making; at what point is a theory transformed into a fact? In the cases of technological determinism, when a theoretical input that forces its way through a process of creation and challenge yields a positive, applicable result, the theory is recognized as a fact. However, what about theories in biology (and particularly genetics) that are politically fraught? We may know a drug works to solve the problem of an epidemic but we do not know yet know if the drug can unleash a different form of epidemic, a few mutational timeline from when it was first injected into the medical system. Moreover, biology is used to explain certain psychological phenomena, and could possibly be utilized to pathologize a particular behavior or inclination. While 18th and 19th century natural history may be willing, to a limited degree, to entertain the possibility of ‘sexual inversion’ in the plants they study, and the polyamatory practices of these non-human organisms, the tight hold that social morality and theology has on anything pertaining to human and ‘human-like’ creatures makes the discussion of non-heterosexual practices a vexing issue, especially for the petit-bourgeois who dominate the study of natural history. Moreover, there are no arbitrarily deterministic tests that could falsify theories that impinge on the social. Latour is against the dichotomy between culture and nature because the boundary of either could never be properly ascertained. Schiebinger has argued that social conditions provide the inspiration to scientific excavations as much as they also determine the interpretive outcome of observations. Hence, as Latour would argue, facts are carried on the hands of actors and through the assembly lines of actants. The facts do not suddenly force themselves on you

Finally, Science in Action and Nature’s Body work in parallel in their attempt to complicate the cause-and-effect at work within the matrix of the scientific body, in both the epistemological or the corporeal body. They try to do this by understanding, in their separate ways, how agency can be enacted or taken away in the interactions between the actors and the actants. While Science in Action attempts various theories to understand and demonstrate that bodies cannot be separated from their contexts and world-spaces, Nature’s Body takes a more conservative approach of allowing selected narratives to speak for themselves, sometimes in ways that are more implicit than explicit. However, both are attempting a sort of feminist epistemology, though nowhere does Latour discuss the actual terms of a gendered body, which is about difference and how one’s interaction with that difference will play a role in the outcome. These two works speak between the lines of at one another, both with separate projects, but with similar interests in epistemology and the genealogy that leads to the current epistemic state. In a way, I see the their epistemological arguments and conjectures as a modern revision of the Aristotelian precepts.

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