McGehee Post 7: Everything inMangles

GastonThe Mangle of Practice by Andrew Pickering is not what I would describe as a light read. It speaks to a particular audience, one that I don’t find myself dwelling within or having full access to, but as a teacher once told me in an undergraduate lit course, and as I tell my own students, just because material is difficult to grapple with doesn’t mean it’s valueless.

A much larger picture exists here than my brain is willing to grasp at times. I don’t have trouble following Pickering’s line of thought, but I do have trouble conceptualizing ideas such as “agency,” “material agency,” “human agency,” “performativity,” “idiom,” and “performative idiom,” in the given context. Pickering leaves some of these terms up to interpretation and application, while others get more explanation, but often with conceptual bits and pieces the reader is assumed to have a grasp of. My lack of familiarity with the very building blocks Pickering deploys cause me to flip back every other sentence and make sure I really understand the concepts presented. Halfway through the first chapter, I still don’t precisely know what he means by “a fully performative understanding of science,” and this is merely the outline for what’s to come in the rest of the book. The issue for me lies in a lack of ability to apply these concepts, I suppose, or to see them in a real, physical way. While Pickering follows the work of Donald Glasser, I am not a physicist, and many of his examples and descriptions of the bubble chamber go over my head.

However, despite my resistance and overall lack of understanding on many conceptual elements, I found connections between the mangle and Latour and Woolgar’s Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts (1979) that served as a somewhat steady path through the material. Again, science is presented as a constructed reality, both humanist and scientific fields remain flawed in their closed-off-ness from one another, and the study of SSK in Pickering’s Mangle, serves an important purpose in exposing these flaws.

“Thus if we agree that, as already stipulated, we are interested in achieving a real-time understanding of scientific practice, then it is clear that the scientist is in no better a position than the sociologist when it comes to material agency” (14).

Part of my resistance comes from an uncertain knowledge of SSK itself, and no expertise to agree or disagree with what is presented. Yet, I was further intrigued by the Actor-network theory presented in the book, as well as the symbiotic, posthumanist relationship between human and machine: “Human and non-human agents are associated with one another in networks, and evolve together within those networks…we need to think about both at once” (11). The application of mind-body connection to the computer (or the machine) goes against traditional scientific practices, and reminds me of our debate on the computer as a neutral or non-neutral tool.

“…as the actor-network insists, there is no difference between human and nonhuman agents…I am not alone in thinking that there are serious problems with these ideas when it comes to the analysis of science…the idea that, say, human beings can be substituted for machines (and vise versa) seems to me a mistake…Semiotically, these things can be made equivalent; in practice, they are not” (15).

powerInterestingly, the word “power” makes its way into Pickering’s discussion of the machine. He goes on to conclude that machine is a reflection of human practice, and therefore, our class discussion of the computer as fallible because it is created by humans, falls in line with Pickering’s assessment. “Gestures, skills, and so on—all of these aspects of disciplined human agency come together with the machines that they set in motion and exploit” (17). Pickering furthers the relationship of human and computer, showing that “it works both ways.” The human uses a machine posited as neutral, and a tool which knows more than humans, therefore backs up a users findings or doesn’t, for their intended purposes, and the information is then seen as an impartial fact. “…While the two are not continuously deformable into one another…they are intimately connected with one another, reciprocally and emergently defining and sustaining each other” (17).

It seems then that the word “mangle” is incredibly appropriate when discussing how all of these elements interact with one another. In my mind, “mangle” appears physically as a mess of string with knots around and connecting to other strings, perhaps the string is, in fact, a single string that appears many. Ultimately, they are fused together; you cannot pull on one without pulling on another; you cannot isolate any single part of the mangle. The mangle isn’t just relegated to science and SSK, but temporal emergence, posthumanism, material agency, and human agency as well. Much of what Pickering lays out for us appears paradoxical or as a circular reference.

cyborg1I came across Donna Haraway’s “A Cyborg Manifesto” while digging around the internet for more information about post-humanism. The text describes itself as “an effort to build an ironic political myth faithful to feminism, socialism, and materialism.” I looked to this for a more physical space to ground my understanding and application of Pickering’s concepts.

Pickering acknowledges social factors in science, telling us that human interest and need guides our development of new machines. But we don’t get into the neo-liberal aspects seeping into this guidance. “Human interest” in Western culture is also guided economically for production value. When this happens, as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, the interest becomes corrupt and leaves out vantages from women, people of color, lgbtq, and other minority groups. Haraway’s manifesto addresses the collection and synthesis of material on a much deeper level.

“Modern medicine is also full of cyborgs, of couplings between organism and machine, each conceived as coded devices, in any intimacy and with a power that was not generated in the history of sexuality…we are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism. In short, we are cyborgs. The cyborg is a condensed image of both imagination and material reality, the two joined centers structuring any possibility of historical transformation. In the traditions of Western’ science and politics—the tradition of racist, male dominant capitalism; the tradition of progress; the tradition of reproduction of self from the reflections of the other—the relation between organism and machine has been a border war” (Haraway, 292).

It seems important to name these things (or risk erasure), which are perhaps implied as SSK, but which warrant no further discussion by Pickering when we talk about how we collect material. Glasser’s human identity in society, for instance, doesn’t seem to be a social factor worth mentioning in the mangle, when this position has likely led him his position and influenced his experiments.

cyborgAs we discussed in last weeks reading, the machine itself is feminized and presented as somehow neutral without any discussion of how this might affected “othered,” feminized bodies, by which I mean a category enveloping anyone with undesirable, weak, or feminized traits, such as women, PoC, lgbtq, disabled and so on.

Pickering’s text misses a certain element of humanity, if I’m being honest, but I don’t think he’s trying to come from that perspective in the first place. The text feels cold and clinical (another point of resistance for me), much in the way a scientist might report on something. Maybe I’m just searching for something more radical, like Haraway’s manifesto. To me, these philosophical text which seek to solidify concepts like the mangle, or affect, or anything that is hard to peg down, act as a window into a particular mind’s view of things. These texts reinforce themselves throughout, which calls into question, at least for me, their credibility. I’ve been thinking about the issue of credibility in academia a lot over the last couple of years.

Pickering mentions “imitation” and “original thought” halfway through the text as part of the social factors influencing scientific collection and representation of date in scholarship. In a neo-colonial institution like the academy, we are taught to work within a specific rhetoric, to use certain language, and to reference previous scholars. I wonder then how anyone can have an original thought or refrain from imitation when working within such parameters, and when working with material from the past to decipher and synthesize present material. If reality is corrupted from the beginning, and we build our reality and our scholarship from corrupted and impartial material, then how do we go about continuing our own scholarship? This is yet another paradox, another mangle. We cannot pinpoint and dismantle neo-colonialism without studying the past, and our conceptual reality of the past and recycled data of the past is inaccurate to begin with.

The mangle then encompasses everything.

Works Cited:

Haraway, Donna Jeanne. “A Cyborg’s Manifesto.” Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. Chapter 18. New York: Routledge, 1991. Print

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

One thought on “McGehee Post 7: Everything inMangles

  1. Ffionn says:

    Hi there! My name is Ffionn and I am a member of Darren Wershler’s “Mess & Method” course at Concordia.

    First of all, I’d like to say that I read a few of your posts and found them all really interesting. I decided to comment on this one, though, since I mostly felt like my comments on the others could be summed up with a series of nods in agreement.

    I thought juxtaposing Pickering’s Mangle with Latour’s Laboratory was useful, as I also feel like these texts mutually inform one another. I also see you working through that question of material agency and supposed neutrality that I keep coming back to as being such a complicated predicament. I also don’t think it’s possible for a thing (or in your specific case, a computer) to be neutral, but I think that problems always start to arise when we talk of these things having their own agency, as well. When we talk of how computers aren’t neutral, that they have the ability to either deny or grant access to (certain types of) knowledge, to affirm one’s status, etc., I always see a danger in this type of assignation of agency. I see a danger in it because, if one only takes into account the computer’s agency and not the human network it exists in, then it gives those from the priviledged group the ability to deny responsibility. Maybe this is less applicable to your specific discussion of computers, but it was something I kept coming back to as I was reading through some of Latour’s other work for our own class. Basically, I feel like exposing the ways that something isn’t neutral is useful but ascribing it agency can also be so easily co-opted by those with [shitty? can I just say shitty? Trump-ian?] views/politics to mean that it is not the responsibility of the human to do something about it.
    I do agree with both you and Pickering about how humans and tech “are intimately connected with one another, reciprocally and emergently defining and sustaining each other” (17) and I think that, in the right hands, this sort of thinking can be really useful in terms of thinking through the ways tech discludes certain folks and what can be changed so that it doesn’t (like what you mention in reference to ‘human interest’/who gets left out); I just fear what happens when the thinking isn’t in the right hands.

    I also feel like so many of the authors who talk about material agency do so as though writing it is ~just this fun new way of thinking~ and not as though it’s coming out of any particular politics or real *need* for systematic change — which you can see through their disinterest (their ‘coldness’ as you refer to it) in discussing the axes on which such theories would intersect with various forms of oppression (and even those that do feel pretty tokenizing, I’d say). This is also why I liked that you brought Donna Harraway into the conversation. Of course, she doesn’t cover everything, but it’s when theories actually encounter THE REAL LIVED LIVES OF MARGINALIZED FOLKS that they, for me, begin to matter.

    I think the questions that you end on are also particularly pertinent and something I’ve been trying to work through as well. How do we change the system when the system is all we know? What alterations can we make? What alterations will even be heard? Again, who has the authority (the majority)?


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