Schultheis Post 7: “Laboratory Life” Reboot: Pickering’s “The Mangle of Practice”

Sixteen years after the publication of Laboratory Life, Bruno Latour’s and Steve Woolgar’s investigation of the scientific lab and its culture resonates in Andrew Pickering’s The Mangle of Practice: Time, Agency, & Science. A quick glance at Pickering’s references and index tells us that these men’s work is part of a larger conversation about the nature of scientific truth, which, for Pickering, involves an examination of “the mangle” or the “fragmented, disunified, scrappy” dimensions of “the conceptual, the social, [and] the material” (1; 3). In other words, “[W]e should see science (and, of course, technology) as a continuation and extension of this business of coping with material agency” (6-7). This emphasis on the physical anticipates the digital humanities for which Matthew Kirschenbaum advocates while also foregrounding The Mangle of Practice’s predilection for posthuman analysis.

What I can’t seem to shake from my mind (post-Pickering) is how unfamiliar disciplines are with one another. This is evident when Pickering discusses temporality and his desire to “understand the work of cultural extension in science as it happens in time” because of the “serious historiographic problems” that arise from retrospective accounts when reconstructing history (3). When I first read this, I couldn’t help but think, “It’s 1995, Pickering. Just say New Historicism” before realizing this predominately literary theory probably didn’t make its way into sociology. For me this highlights the need for interdisciplinary approaches to all fields and reinforces the work we’ve already read by Kirschenbaum, Moretti, and Svensson among others. As we study the “mangle of practice” in literary studies we need to be prepared to reach outside the humanities to see how other disciplines are constructing their realities.

With Pickering’s The Mangle of Practice in mind, I’d like to turn to the University of Viriginia’s Scholars’ Lab’s Makerspace. A space for “tinkering and experimentation,” the makerspace is open to everyone and provides a space for exploring the materiality both in traditional archives and the digital. One project, which studies the categorization of music into genres, explores Spotify’s metadata. By running their code the researchers create several similar lists of genres for the artist or group used; however, each genre list is unique due to the experiments slightly random nature and, therefore, requires human interpretation. As a machine reads a code, written by humans, in order to create a list that must then be read by humans, this experiment in particular mimics Pickering’s “mangle,” as the social, technological, and material intersect.

One thought on “Schultheis Post 7: “Laboratory Life” Reboot: Pickering’s “The Mangle of Practice”

  1. cdeagon says:

    I think it’s interesting that you mention “how unfamiliar disciplines are with one another.” I think this is true, but I also think literature folks tend to be more familiar with science disciplines than vice versa. I encounter this almost on a daily basis with my roommate, who is a grad student in the anthropology dept. Just last night she was explaining to me the organizational structure of a scientific article, which I’m already familiar with. I know they include headings, and a lit review, and methods section. I’m not so sure, however, that she understands how a literary analysis is set up. Perhaps the only difference here is that I’m more open-minded or well-read than my roommate, but it seems to me that the sciences have more permeability into other disciplines than the humanities do.


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