Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Metaphorizing Science Studies

Anne Dalke and Liz McCormack
"Moored Metamorphoses"
Tri-Co Science Studies Group, 2/21/11

I. en route to our revised course on
"Gender, Information, Science and Technology,"
we attended a Mellon23 Workshop on "Feminism and Science"
@ Scripps in January,
and garnered (among other things) Subramaniam's 2009 article in Signs,
"Moored Metamorphoses: A Retrospective Essay on Feminist Science Studies"

II. our plan this evening is to use that essay as a way to
a) locate our own shared project and
b) invite you to talk together about
how it applies to (explicates or interrogates??)
work you all are doing in science and science studies

III. we'll close with some metaphorizing, and talk a little
about how/why that might work as a teaching tool
I.  Reading/talking notes for Subramaniam's article

field began w/ theoretical critique of the sciences,
then took off in numerous directions/lack of consensus
sciences have proven resistant to feminist intervention:
still surrounded in clock of "pure science," objectivity,
they claim an" epistemic purity": unbiased, apolitical, value free
her punch line: feminism can change science if it is willing to change itself
she gets to this through three laborious stages:

I. History: "moorings"
1) what it means to be a woman in science
(early, undertheorized work; best efforts in curriculum transformation)

2) fundamental critiques of science (w/ 6 themes:
* questioning presumed objectivity/value neutrality (critique of power, esp. in biological sciences: embeddedness of gender relations, biological determinism, science of difference, entrenched practice of reifying bodily differences)
* raising concerns about the reduction of women's bodies to reproductive capacities
(analyzing the oppressive/liberatory possibilities of reproductive technologies)
* attending to gendered images, language, metaphors (=cultural and visual studies of science)
* challenging boundaries between nature and culture
(re-imagining the world as a system of "naturecultures,"
reintegrating science w/ community, environment, activism)
* examining the scientific-industrial complex
(identifying science's embeddedness in the economy,
tracing the hegemony of science to circuits of global capital)
* raising questions about practice of objectivity,
its ability to produce value-free knowledge
(move to imagining new knowledge grounded in alternate formulations/feminist methodologies:
"situated knowledges, social knowledge, strong objectivity, agential realism")

3) analyzing scientific culture and practices
* Traweek: "the culture of no culture"
* mythology of science a historical, genealogical production
* shaped by colonial expansion, confronting alternate knowledge systems
* all this work nation bound (U.S.-centric context)

II. Present: "metamorphoses"
1) profound loss as field shifted away from women in science 
* move from "pipelines" to "politics" and "power":
* persistent culture of martyrdom in "gender equity projects,"
with the leaks, not the pipe, seen as the problem

2) still grounded in biological sciences
(w/ some focus on consequences of technological innovation)
* limited/problematic ideas of both feminism and science:
both must be understood in the plural
* liberal feminist politics aim to level the playing field,
but systemic inequities are deeper than individual discrimination
* need to better articulate liberatory politics of feminist science studies,
broaden idea of study beyond binary gender formulations
(Karen Barad's account of material-discursive practices)

3) gender still theorized as unproblematic, universal
(w/ few intersectional analyses of race/ethnicity/class/sexuality/nationality/colonialism)
* science naturalized discourses re: group inferiority
* need to understand race and gender as constructed, intersecting, relational
* race erased in macro world of social policy,
as it is made more vivid in micro world as a genetic category
* poised to explicate intersectionality:
how/when did biological categories of difference emerge?
how translated into social categories of difference?

III. Imagines a Future: "unmoorings"
significant move from feminist critiques of science to feminist science studies,
but feminists have not yet embraced the  transformative power of this reconstructive project,
to develop new theories, methodologies, epistemologies

re-cast science and humanities, feminism and science,
not as binary oppositional practices, but stressing
similarities, commonalities, resonances
evolution of sex-gender binary cemented humanities/
science binary in women's studies
women's studies sanctions female ignorance of science:
science a world w/out women; women's studies a world without science:
refusal to incorporate sciences into the core of women's studies

but emergent scholarship in sexuality studies has exploded
the boundaries of sex and gender, biology and social construction,
re-thinking nature and culture not as oppositional but co-constructed
time to move beyond early moorings: the focus on biology,
separation of science culture from knowledge production,
unitary understandings of feminism and science,
reinforced binaries of humanities/sciences, biology/society
women/women's studies scholars need to take on ethical
practices of science, be agents of future knowledge

III. Where our thinking and practice fits in the history/
present/future described by Subramaniam

IV. Where your work fits....?

V. Metaphorizing....

"moored metamorphosis" is Subramaniam's metaphor for both the
development of feminist science studies and her intellectual transformation

what metaphors might you use to describe the field of science studies?
your relation to/transformation in/location in that field?

why we would do this; or,
what it means to think metaphorically

Susan Sontag, in her "Illness as Metaphor" (1978) wrote compellingly about the need for "an elucidation of ... metaphors, and a liberation from them", at least particular ones. What was on her mind was the problem of the constraints on the potentially doable which inevitably arise from the words we use to make sense of things, and the associated limited array of possible actions which the words represent and evoke.

--What is a metaphor?

--What does the word mean (literally)?

bear/with/carry across/

μετά (meta), “‘between’”) + φέρω (pherō), “‘I bear, carry’”)

What does it do (pragmatically?)?

Metaphor talks about a concept by describing something similar to it.

Metaphor & Simile--by Robert Lovejoy
A metaphor has a tenor and a vehicle,
is both abstract and concrete.

Luisana: A metaphor is a story...
incredibly useful because they provide the learner
with a “mental back-and-forth;”
requiring a compare and contrast between
two resembling ideas/things/etc....

Alison Cook-Sather: Finding New Metaphors for Education
(from "production" and "cure" to "translation")

Scott Gilbert (Swat Biology) on Science's "Fictions":
The way we think is channeled by the similes, metaphors and analogies we use.
A simile describes a "rational similarity,"
and an analogy states the similarity explicitly.
But a metaphor "hides the source of the identity,
and so heightens emotion and undercuts rationality."
The essence of a metaphor is understanding one kind of experience
in terms of another, and the fit is always going to be inexact....
Metaphor is important precisely because it hides the logic of association
(think of all the words which imply that "argument is warfare,"
or "argument is a path").

George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By:
foreground some aspects of an identity
between two items, while backgrounding others

All metaphors fall short
Where inquiry GETS serious is just where this happens,
where the image won’t “carry” the idea “across,”

where you start to see how the limits of our language can limit our world
(and vice versa: how limits of our world limit our language)

necessary feature of discourse whenever we try to cope with a new concept
(optional only after we achieve mastery?)
we make sense of all new experiences in terms of previous information
lack of directness makes metaphor effective:
allows students to express attitudes they could not express directly

Metaphors work when (and because)
they are incorrect, untrue, inaccurate, and subjective...
precisely because they are "wrong."
Once any metaphor becomes dominant, it
influences, limits, and controls subsequent actions...
for that reason the metaphor needs to be negotiated by the group.
What happens when students and their teacher are
working from fundamentally different root metaphors?

The key is to contextualize rather than
simply categorize or evaluate these metaphors:
what are they telling us about the students' conception of and attitude
towards the process of doing science
(as well as the students' conception of and
attitude toward the teachers' role in that process)?
What are we doing to contribute, positively or negatively,
to that conception and attitude?

Metaphors are a starting point for dialogue about these issues....

they can help us learn what we need to teach, and how to teach it...

--our co-writing on this topic:
Metaphor and Metonym
Synedoche and Surprise

Banu's essay, pp. 963-4: "The metaphor of the pipeline has endured as the metaphor in discussions of the recruitment and retention of girls and women in science....metaphors and language are powerful and evocative; they embody dreams and visions. But feminist analysis can also develop an alternate analysis of this metaphor. We could argue that the pipeline metaphor is [not] a good one to describe the ... thrill of discovery and exploration. We could also describe the pipes as long, dark, dingy, impenetrable tubes and masses of metal crisscrossing the terrain of industrial capital. We could describe the pipe as one that contains, constrains, limits, and cuts off the oxygen of the travelers within. Imagining the regimented travels in pipes that give the travelers no agency in their journey, we might start rooting for the leaks and for those who escape the drudgery of of pipe travel. And this, I believe, has been the crux of the difference between the literatures on women in and women/gender and sciences. In one the leaks are seen as a problem, and in the other the problem is the pipe itself...why do we want to encourage young girls and women who find the pipes inhospitable to enter them? Instead, why do we not rejoice at the leaks...? (emphasis added)

UCSC Science and Justice Training Program

Another example: Karen Barad's metaphor "all the way down"
@ SLSA, Indianapolis, Thursday, October 28, 2010, after Karen's talk,
“When Time is Out of Joint,” where she said that
--"we are part of nature we seek to understand"
--"quantum queerness"; "Q=queer=undoing identity"

she got a question about her "negotiating between
microscopic and macroscopic scales:
"is it just a metaphor?? or something more?? Why is it???"
the questioner was "troubled by the convergence
of metaphysical and physical ideas"

this made her furious:
"people are continually trying to enclose what I’m speaking about
w/in the microscopic: a containment of the queerness of it all
(okay for atom to be queer, not the cat)"

“just a metaphor” calls up a conventional understanding of language,
dependent on a belief on “something over there,” separate
textuality doesn’t work that way
Barad's work is another way of thinking about connectivities and disjunctions,
one that problematizes easy inheritances, mixes them up

1) as far as physicists know, there are not two domains, micro- and macro-

Newton’s equations are a good approximation to Schroedinger’s;
but nothing in the universe says the laws change from one domain to the other

2) lots of stuff we thought was too big is now
included in quantum entanglement phenomenon:

birds perceive fields of radiation, etc.
part of difficulty is tracing the entanglement
notion of convergence presumes prior separation;
physics now tell us about what mystical traditions have long known,
about the metaphysics of presence
Bohr: not about disturbance, but entanglement...

See also Chapter 7 of Meeting the Universe Halfway, where
entanglement is a way of thinking about ethics and social justice

Going back to distill and reflect on our own list of metaphors:
what do they say about our sense of our (shared?) project?

What presumptions underlie the metaphors
we use for the intra-action of feminism and science?

How might those metaphors and presumptions
differ from those of our students?

What can we do w/ what we've discovered together?


Anne Dalke's picture

Archiving the conversation

Thanks to all for our our conversation last night. I record here some of the "moments" that I found most intriguing, as an archive for myself and perhaps as a stepping off point for further discussion among us and others.

We began the conversation by placing ourselves in the framework established by Subramaniam's essay: I found myself responding to the call to gender studies scholars to become conversant with science; Liz responded, reciprocally, to the call to scientists to learn more about the nuances of gender studies.  We then asked other participants to place themselves with reference to the essay. Given our varied locations in relation to the field of feminist science studies, we offered of course a wide range of responses, from

*an independent scholar who wanted a fuller exploration of the limit of (rather than a simple return to) the "pipeline" metaphor (sometimes the leaks are actually productive, as when, for example, feminist science studies gave rise to a range of new women's health initiatives, which have in turn affected the practice of science)

*a biologist who felt "written out", as a man and practicing scientist, from Subramaniam's narrow, "dry, not juicy" account of a discipline, one that didn't offer resistance ("was a mirror, not a hammer"), but simply attended to "how we interpret the interpreter," rather than "how we change society"; what is needed is a much longer and broader history of feminist critique, one that incorporates (for instance) early cartoons by biologists of "Sexism Satirized," economics (especially Marxism), religious thought, scientific facts and texts, and queer theory, rather than just insisting on her hypothesis

*a scholar in the medieval history of science who found Subramaniam's critique a worthy project, providing a "valid, accurate history of feminist science studies" aimed to "shake up her field," and so directed at a different, recognizable and meaningful audience, asking them if "we are a profession yet?"; this scholar felt himself challenged by the article to recognize how little he deals with gender in his work on early astrological texts ("there are very few women involved"); he needs to do more to acknowledge that the figures he studies "can't be treated as unproblematically men," and to highlight their relation to larger social institutions

*a philosopher of mathematics who found himself provoked by the essay to reflect on what influence his work has on science, "whether it matters"; with the emergence of "meta metaphysics," questions arise about the whether the abstractions of philosophers of science could or should influence the practice of science: what does intervention mean? what does it look like? how to measure it?

*a sociologist of science and technology who noted that Subramaniam looks only at the "feminist part" of Science and Technology Studies, and fails to situate her project within that larger field, which highlights issues of class, race, and capitalism, and looks @ the "triple helix of government, business and science" as dimensions needing attention in any attempt to democratize and reform scientific practice; the "missing level is all the sociological stuff" (and yet STS doesn't look @ the practices of education--@ how knowledge gets transmitted).

We discussed what happens to  all fields "with a reform agenda" (STS, black studies, women's studies, queer studies), once they enter the academy, and encounter a backlash. There are barriers to reform both in how we teach and in the disciplines themselves, which are structurally resistant to reform. Fields like STS and Women's Studies then enter "a state of suspended animation," staying focused on old attacks, "going down the old rabbit hole" of debates about expertise, with the "club" of the "old guard" continuing to dominate the field (cf. this to how the California skateboarding culture operates!).
To end the evening's conversation, Liz and I asked all participants to "metaphorize" their understanding of the field of science studies, and their location within it. Again, there were a range of responses (though the overall sense was a very negative one):

*"Skate Betty" on a graffitti 1/2-pipe
*someone who believes in the transitional metaphor of metamorphosis (=that larvae can become adults)
finding himself "trapped" in a narrative of "arrested development"
*someone sadly conducting an autopsy of the ghost of a dead body that doesn't know it's dead
*a piece of blotting paper, trying to sop up (and so bring together?) the contrary properties of oil and water
*water flowing around static rocks (dynamic, headed someplace--though in light of this conversation,
the rocks seem to be getting larger, the water reduced to a trickle!)
*an unobtrusive parasitic plant
*someone able to make out successfully, if with difficulty, what is being reflected in a distorting mirror
*a dung beetle, pushing a ball of dung
*a master chess player, who able to perform an insightful critique of the game,
trapped in the entirely ineffectual role of playing chess in a cafe.


Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
To prevent automated spam submissions leave this field empty.
5 + 1 =
Solve this simple math problem and enter the result. E.g. for 1+3, enter 4.