Archibald Post 7: The Performance of Knowledge Production, and Speculative Computing

In The Mangle of Practice: Time, Agency, and Science, Andrew Pickering’s approach is largely aligned with Latour and Woolgar’s from Laboratory Life: he builds on the notion that science is a construction of knowledge, with multiple factors influence the crafting of each fact. Pickering argues that scientific knowledge results from the ‘mangling’ of many factors—conceptual, material, technical, and social—therefore scientific knowledge production is again highlighted as a culture. Facts don’t exist “out there,” waiting for us to discover them; we actively create and craft scientific knowledge. However, Pickering’s approach is unique because he highlights the performative nature of scientific knowledge production. More strongly that Latour and Woolgar, he speaks to a posthuman view of science in which the human and the machine can no longer be separated. Pickering recognizes the

intertwining and reciprocal interdefinition of human and material agency. The performative idiom that [he seeks] to develop thus subverts the black-and-white distinctions of humanism/antihumanism and moves into a posthumanist space, a space in which the human actors are still there but now inextricably entangled with the nonhuman, no longer at the center of the action and calling the shots.  (26)

Claiming that both human and machinic agency drive knowledge production, Pickering only differentiates the two through the idea of intention that he attributes to the former. This “performative image of science, in which science is regarded as a field of powers, capacities, and performances, situated in machinic captures of material agency” is reminiscent of Kirschenbaum’s intent to interrogate the raw material processes that govern knowledge inscription (7).

Ontologically, then, Pickering seems to offer a Kantian world view of the human whereby our reality is just one representation of space and time; a violent yet wholly necessary singular perspective of space and time that allows the human experience. For Pickering, the human and machinic are agents of potentialities, and science is not the evidence of truth, but always a representation of one possible reality. In his chapter on “Facts,” he suggests

that we should see empirical scientific knowledge as constituted and brought into relation with theory via representational chains linking multiple layers of conceptual culture, terminating in the heterogeneous realm of captures and framings of material agency, and sustaining and sustained by another heterogeneous realm, that of disciplined human practices and performances.  (111)

The phrase “representational chains linking multiple layers of conceptual cultures” particularly resonates, as it speaks to the way that science is constantly building upon previously contested and culturally informed data that becomes accepted as scientific fact. Pickering also claims that knowledge is historically located, due to the time-specific constraints and local idiosyncrasies of each moment of knowledge production.

I want to link Pickering’s work to the University of Virginia’s SpecLab (the Speculative Computing Laboratory, cofounded by Johanna Drucker and Bethany Nowviskie), which during its 2000-2008 duration focused on experimental projects with uncertain outcomes. Nowviskie perceives speculative computing as deliberately acknowledging and adopting inefficiency (which we could equate with Pickering’s “mangle”) into its methodology. She writes that

It involves spinning up lots of processes, licensing the machine to perform lots of calculations, pretty much “on spec”—calculations that, importantly, have not been specifically requested by the user nor directly, precisely implied as a need, by the conditions of the system she’s operating […] speculative computing, if taken as a basic spirit or an ethos and a kind of practice, sets up the conditions for actionable creativity, and for responsive engagement with multiple possible futures.  (“Speculative Computing”)

The SpecLab engaged in a host of projects, one of which was titled “Subjective Meteorology: A System of Mapping Personal Weather.” The system used graphics to represent subjective experience and was “created entirely as an act of aesthetic provocation and a work of imagination” (Drucker, 99). Drucker helmed the project and began with ten old drawings of ‘weather maps’ that she had created in the 1970s to represent temporally-specific emotional states. The intuitive nature of her drawings drove subsequent project direction, and digital versions of the system were created, although there is not an accessible working model yet.

Drucker personal weather map drawing

Drucker ‘personal weather map’ drawing

When discussing the entirety of the Lab’s of projects, Drucker finds that “the ultimate lesson of SpecLab is that all forms of interpretation and scholarship are design problems premised on models of knowledge that make assumptions about what their object of study is” and adds that “in our current working lives, we are all digital humanists, and the task of modeling knowledge is part of our daily business” (36). Success! This feeds into our class recognition that it is very likely that the ‘digital’ will be dropped from DH, for the humanities as a whole would benefit from the explicit recognition that digital scholarship and methodologies have become an inherent part of academia.

Works Cited:

Drucker, Johanna. SpecLab: Digital Aesthetics and Projects in Speculative Computing. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009. Print.

Nowviskie, Bethany. “Speculative Computing & the Centers to Come.” 15 November 2014. Web.

Pickering, Andrew. The Mangle of Practice: Time, Agency, and Science. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995. Print.

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