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Cultural Studies

Vanishing Points of Representation: How They Change and Why

by Gábor István Bíró

More than twenty years after Representation in Scientific Practice (ed. Michael Lynch, The MIT Press 1990), the original authors teamed up with a new generation of STS scholars to revisit scientific representation in the digital era. Martian soil, brain atlases, nanoimages, webinars and minimally invasive surgery are being introduced here through doing and seeing practices of scholars in specific settings. Boundaries are being deliberately blurred between visual and nonvisual representations, qualitative and quantitative methods, thinking and writing, being and meaning, epistemological and ontological work, and even between science and nonscience. What unifies these essays is the discovery of how and why scientists change these vanishing points of representations by their embodied seeings and doings every day. Chapters explore how expert accounts are being produced, seen, disseminated, contested, and emphasize how the act of representing builds trust for a particular audience and context, even as it diminishes it for others. Unlike the first book, this one develops a ‘turn to ontology’ as its framework narrative. while some of the contributors are cautious about opening up to, or proceeding towards, such a ‘turn to ontology’, others explicitly embrace it and even aim to give it a more solid foundation.

Mental representation, according to Rene Descartes' Treatise on Man (image: public domain, source: Wikimedia Commons)

Mental representation, according to Rene Descartes’ Treatise on Man (image: public domain, source: Wikimedia Commons)

The Preface of the book gives us an account of how scholars have addressed issues of representation from the 1980s onwards, and also offers insights on how their practices of representing scientific representation formed in tandem with an interdisciplinary community. We are shown the road taken from the Visualization and Cognition workshop held in Paris in 1983, to a special issue of Human Studies: A Journal for Philosophy and the Social Sciences five years later, and finally to the Representation in Scientific Practice, the very book this volume revisits more than twenty years later. The second chapter, “Drawing as: Distinctions and Disambiguation in Digital Images of Mars”, shows how Martian soil was made visible in a specific setting and how this individual vision became available for the perceptual space of a larger research group. Vertesi suggests ‘drawing as’ instead of “seeing as” to emphasize that the process of representing is about selecting certain aspects of the thing we want to represent and promoting one way of seeing it. By stressing certain aspects and choosing one way to see the phenomena we efface other aspects and visions. Making a specific compositional difference in the Martian soil visible is seen here inherently tied to making other aspects invisible.

Doing and seeing are similarly intertwined in Coopmans’ chapter about how a series of webinars on visual analytics claimed to give insights and get more customers by bouncing between immanence and conditionality in its rhetorics. On the one hand, the simplicity of making things “pop out” or “give up” their secrets just by clicking on a ‘Show Me’ button suggests that what we are looking for is immanence, always already present in the dataset just waiting to be revealed. On the other hand the need for “configuration maneuvres” and entangling practices suggests that expertise and skills are vital for visual analytics. Sight is being promoted as a royal road to knowledge in these webinars, and despite there usually being a reminder that we first have to be crowned to take it, a lot of unskilled peers are attracted by its visible potential.

The fourth chapter explores how digital scientific visuals get their meaning via practices of organization and manipulation on computer screens and beyond. Ala? argues that visuals “stretch out” from screens to the world of “imaged and working bodies” as practitioners use gestures, verbal and non-verbal communication in their tinkering with the phenomena. She points out that, although these extensions of digital scientific visuals may aid our understanding of phenomena, they are, in fact, mostly being “tamed” or expelled from representations. Just like Vertesi’s notion of drawing as suggested that the selection of aspects and the promotion of one way of seeing discourage other aspects and “seeings”, Ala? suggests that somehow we lose our grasp on the phenomena by taming the extensions of their visuals.

The fifth chapter uses Csordas’s synthesis of Merleau-Ponty’s habit-body concept and Bourdieu’s habitus to show how surgeons’ ability to see is being shaped by the routine use ofminimally invasive surgery in specific surgical environments. Bodily habits of surgeons are seen here as emerging from and being shaped by social interactions during their years of training. Prentice argues that the operative site becomes the spectacle as the surgeon’s senses and interventions interact with it. Minimally invasive surgery might modify the relations of senses in surgical settings but not the way that doing, being and meaning interact in these. The spectacle is “brought into being” through the actions of the surgeon, and it is where her “actions take place”.

The sixth chapter demonstrates how exploring chalk and board activities might help us better understand mathematics. Barany and MacKenzie suggest that chalk and blackboard seminars are useful for making the “experienced material performance” of mathematics visible for a group of researchers by giving “shared partial access” to the otherwise off-the-records activities of mathematicians. Their efforts to decode their colleagues’ papers, and to encode their own intuitions and understandings, are seen here as crucial for making genuine contributions. By providing access to their work-in-progress, mathematicians can get feedback more easily which helps them in their encoding activities.

In the seventh chapter, Rijcke and Beaulieu examine brain imaging atlases. They find that digital, computational and networked technologies are both involved in the shaping of brain atlases and show how protocols make images aggreable, comparable and trustworthy. Practitioners are seen here using interfaces to “orient scans” as visual evidence and raise their authoritative status. Images are “not only reveal epistemic objects, but constitute relations and opportunities”. In spite of how the different epistemic regimes of the data-driven approach and the radiological tradition coexist and cross without meeting in such brain atlases, their resilience is not without limits. Atlases get increasingly “entwined with networked infrastructures” as their implementation spreads. Rijcke and Beaulieu introduce a relational kind of looking in which images are seen as a dataset in relation to parameters of the atlas. They spot changes in the way we interact with visual information, in what counts as such information, and in the way we produce visual knowledge.

The eighth chapter explores how biological engineers put working machines into organisms. Practices of rendering molecules as machines are seen here as providing a specific way of visualizing and intervening. According to Myers such renderings are what makes the substance, significance, body and meaning of emerging technoscientific objects. Machine renderings are seen here as ways of securing and promoting some kinds of “matter, meaning and forms of life” instead of others. They tell us what is seeable, sayable and imaginable in circumscribed disciplinary environments.

The ninth chapter shows how the three genres of representation changed in the recent decades of using digital technology. First, the design-and-vision genre became more popular, extending the influence of the artists’ impressions through the embodiment and dissemination of promises in modes of visualization. As a second genre, mapping became more sophisticated and some of it has even been delegated to imaging devices. Ruivenkamp and Rip emphasize that mapping what is “out there” is a kind of encoding which changes based on what audience or use it is intended for.The third genre is tracing, which means practices of following entities based on the traces they leave behind. Galison’s notion of “pictures and propositions” is used here to show that in nanoscience propositions are almost absent and the whole discipline is oriented towards exploring new phenomena and a specific kind of imaging able to capture them. The authors argue that the evolution of the three genres brought about a blurring between depicting what is “out there” and the practices of mapping and highlighting for a specific use or audience. There might even be a new mode of representation that is no longer interested in being faithful to what is “represented”. In the new regime, images are being optimized in terms of functionalities that “range from resemblance, to design, to visions that mobilize”. Hybridity of images is integral to the new genre of design and vision. Images are seen as hybrid monsters because they include expectations about technoscientific objects and how they might evolve into “visions of possible entities and their functionalities.” Ruivenkamp and Rip leave open whether a new mode of representation is being established as they deem it equally possible that these hybrid monsters will be tamed or, at last, expelled.

The tenth chapter is explicitly built around a shift toward a new ontology of scientific vision. Computational visualizations and simulations in science are seen as challenging the distinction between qualitative and quantitative methods. The authors argue that the apparent blurring of qualitative and quantitative goes deeper and necessiates a new ontological approach. Carusi and Hoel suggest a new kind of technologically mediated vision which revisits the relations between vision, technologies and objects by taking into account both the co-constitutive and the reciprocal nature of these relations. The argument follows the lines of Merleau-Ponty and Uexküll on measuring bodies in a circuit with their surroundings and emphasize that vision involves measuring, which in turn involves observation, as these processes “intermediate each other”. Technological mediation is seen here opening up the scene for multidimensional ontology. If we inject symbols and instruments into the circuit, the perceiving body’s existential relations to its surroundings will be modified, which means new things are becoming seeable and old ones stop being so. Carusi and Hoel show hybridity as an ever-present trait of embodied vision.

The eleventh chapter explores how fancy, heavily rendered images of subatomic features might be seen as unconventional in departing from the pictorial idioms of scientific journals, but as conventional in following the ones found in popular media and art. Mody shows how average users and virtuosi interact with everyday and unique microscopes and what we can learn from this interaction. Interpretations and microscopes of virtuosi help to convey the phenomena when average ones are insufficient. Understanding and dissemination of findings, on the other hand, rely more on how phenomena can be seen by average users and their average microscopes. Mody argues that the scientists’ decision on their representational strategy usually depends more on their target audience, career aspirations, and their organizational and disciplinary settings than on the conventional or unconventional nature of their data. Conventional pictorial idioms can lead to revolutionary findings while innovative ones can make modest contributions look spectacular.

James Clerk Maxwell's representation of the electromagnetic field (simplified and redrawn; reproduced with permission from Axel Gelfert, How to Do Science WIth Models: Springer 2016)

James Clerk Maxwell’s representation of the electromagnetic field (simplified and redrawn; reproduced with permission from Axel Gelfert, How to Do Science With Models: Springer 2016)

The twelfth chapter addresses how editors of leading journals cultivate further the “technology of trust” by defining guidelines for digital image-making. By urging to make the image-making processes visible, editors revisit a procedural and mechanical ideal of objectivity and strengthen gatekeeping at the increasingly blurred boundaries of representing and intervening.The thirteenth chapter stresses that the study of representation needs to focus not only on the local settings of representational practices but also on the wider cultural, social and political context. Giraud shows how the Laffer-curve was transformed from a napkin-sketch to an academic research tool and how different practitioners used this fairly simple tool for advancing opposed arguments. Changes in seeing and using economic expertise turn out to be related to political and disciplinary shifts – shifts that also influenced how specific economic experts identified themselves and did their internal boundary work.

The final chapter explores how the same research can give rise to diverse narratives and characterizes “immaturity” as a stage and “dangerousness” as a trait. Dumit shows that choosing a brain narrative comes first, and experimental design follows. Each statement then reinforces one meaning and by-passes others. By choosing the social category of “adolescence”, “riskiness” or “dangerousness”, one also chooses a narrative to build further, thereby running the risk of losing one’s grasp on what is actually happening. Losing meaning variability is seen here as the collateral damage of cultivating a specific narrative. Neuroscientists and psychologists are both described as doing boundary work in this chapter, as each side claims their discipline to have higher explanatory power of complex human behaviors than the other. Wrong views about the brain are seen as connected to wrong views about neuroscience, eventually leading to issues of integrity in science and scientists.

The seven brief reflections in the second part of the book are more theoretical. Daston brings up the issue of what is re-presented in creating representations and suggests abandoning the distinctions of presentation and representation, and of creating and interpreting representations. Lynch gives an interpretation of the nature of Wittgensteinian captivity and draws attention to the contingency of information and of reference giving an expressive account of what holds us captive in representations, and how. Woolgar gives a brief account of a turn to ontology to better address the issue of representation. Practices of representation are not so much a matter of struggling to re-present what is “out there”, rather they enact, or bring the world into existence, in a specific way. Revisiting representation by tinkering with multiple ontologies might be a struggle for the scientist but Woolgar suggests it may be a fruitful one. Suchman addresses how we represent practices and what might be wrong with it. She argues for knowing practices to be taken into account in our daily practices of representing representational practices. Law argues that “collateral realities” of representational practices are not just social and material but also metaphysical. Kemp shows how “reality” is being constructed by using rhetorical devices to build trust in science. Last but not least, Latour gives us an account of why it is not the visual we need to focus on most in our studies of scientific visual imagery.

This book could be an excellent addition to any graduate-level STS course and is a must-read for anyone interested in what came after the ‘practice-turn’ of philosophy of science, and where our discussions of representation currently seem to be heading. Maybe the exact ‘place’ of the vanishing points of representations cannot be found in this volume, but we can learn from this thought-provoking book how and why scientists struggle to change them in the digital era.

Catelijne Coopmans, Janet Vertesi, Michael E. Lynch and Steve Woolgar (eds.),
Representation in Scientific Practice Revisited
Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 2014
ISBN: 978-0262525381
384 pages, Paperback, US$ 40.00

Gábor István Bíró is a PhD student in the Doctoral School of History and Philosophy of Science, Budapest University of Technology and Economics.


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