The 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).
Interestingly, 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.
I 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.
As 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.
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. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995. Print.