Post 7 Kirtz: Pickering Presents Practice as a Way to the Posthuman

Pickering Summary

During an informal roundtable with students, Pickering states that the ‘social’ as we know it is not a stable, continuous thing, but changing and influencing other parts of our lives at every moment in a variety of ways. The social does not preempt the networkscientific, in fact “the social along with its many dimensions is continually transformed, and becomes something new in and through scientific and technological practice” (EUSPchannel). This is nowhere more evident than through Pickering’s book The Mangle of Practice: Time, Agency, and Science, which posits that symmetrical relationships through dialectics, such as resistance and accommodation, human and machine, and practice and representation, illustrate the continual tension that drives the world forward. There is no center to these relationships, and instead social interests “co-evolve with the fields of machines and instruments and bodies of knowledge and all of these things become something new in relation to one another all the time” (EUSPchannel). His argument is crystallized in the following:

“I argue that scientific practice is, in general, organized around the making (and breaking) of associations or alignments between multiple cultural elements, and that fact production, in particular, depends on making associations between the heterogeneous realms of machinic performance and representation, in a process that entails the emergent mangling and interactive stabilization of both. Articulated knowledge and machinic performances are reciprocally tuned to one another, I suggest, in a process that involves the artful framing of already captured material agency.” (Kindle Locations 545-549).

Therefore it is not enough to think about the social and scientific influencing each other but instead to insist upon the material agency as a key player as well as the human. The connections to actor-network theory are evident throughout, from the early mention of Latour in the acknowledgments to the semiotic approach that Pickering articulates. The dialectic rises again in this semiotic approach, so deeply embedded with the dualism between metonymy and metaphor, between signifier and signified and thus it is easy to understand how Pickering arrived at his conclusion for his methodology. However, I am already speculative about the possibilities or rather limitations that a semiotic approach confines the social-scientific relationship(s) to. What does defining things (objects), people (humans), and research (knowledge) into categories of abstraction and concrete representation do to the things or people or research that is already silenced or ignored? How does it truncate or perhaps obfuscate things that were hidden, such as gender misrepresentation in STEM or racial bias in DH?

Pickering’s Case Study

Throughout chapters two to four Pickering develops several case studies of scientists to illustrate his concept of the “mangle” of practice. What he describes is the “real-time” of practice (Pickering), which is the “being” there or the “in-it” of science that draws obvious parallels to making or doing of digital humanities. In the case study of Donald Glaser and his use of the Bubble Chamber, Pickering explains the frustrating process through which Glaser had numerous attempts of trying different gases and iterations of the chamber itself (the material) which in turn shaped the goals of Glaser. This ultimately illustrates the resistance and accommodation of the science and social as Glaser’s research was problematized not only by the material constraints but by how the knowledge was produced, circulated, categorized, funded and informed further material and cultural studies.

These connections are highlighted by the discussion on big science and little science that describe the bureaucratic and structural difficulties within institutions. This has been a theme throughout our course and is brought up by many of the other blog posts. It also highlights the connection to both Latour and Woolgar’s Laboratory Life and Brand’s Media Lab, which address the hierarchical structure associated with research. Implicit in these is the anthropocentric focus, as the hierarchical structure places emphasis on certain types of knowledge and credibility, which stem from certain researchers. I’ve been thinking about the posthuman in relation to Pickering’s concept as he develops it. Pickering posits that the posthuman is developed through this “mangle” as a symmetry is evolved through a negotiable relationship between the scientific and the social (human agency and material agency) when through an actor-network type structure. For example, Pickering argues that although Glaser formulates his goals in terms of typical human agency (i.e. wanting to understand knowledge for his own purposes and in human terms), he executes this through material agency (i.e. the tuning of the machine and its feedback); thus “there is, then, a temporal and posthumanist interplay here between the emergence of material agency and the construction of human goals.” How then can the posthuman be articulated? Is this a way to escape the institutionalized hierarchical structures that associate knowledge with specific individuals? How can this be applied to some of the topics we have been thinking about like gender and race or minorities? What about the connection to Hayles’s concept of the posthuman (I’ll address this in my presentation)?



Works Cited

EUSPchannel. “The mangle of practice and the mangle in practice. New studies on the established topic.” Online Video Clip. YouTube. YouTube, 28 Dec 2011. Web. 18 Oct 2015.

Pickering, Andrew.


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