Science in Society

Bryn Mawr College

2002-2003 Weekly Brown Bag Lunch Discussion
"The Culture of Science

October 23
Tomomi Kinukawa
"The Scientist's Body"

Prepared by Anne Dalke
Additions, revisions, extensions are encouraged in the Forum

Tomomi Kinukawa started off our conversation with two interrelated questions: What are the cultural meanings of the alleged "disembodiment" of scientists? And how does the scientist's "disembodied body" participate in producing scientific knowledge?

Her queries picked up on earlier presentations in this series, particularly on Samantha Glazier's description of her socialization into the culture of science as a "washing away" the physical body. Tomomi had tried to become a scientist in Japan, but her "body refused it." In her attempt to acquire the different bodily presentation she needed, to "become a Japanese man," Tomomi's body became sick, delivering the message that she was not to become a scientist. Her experience of being pressured to "transform her body," to "distance the body stuff," to become unaware and inattentive to it, has led her to question how scientists discipline their bodies into those of objective knowers. The experience of how we think is written on our bodies. Tomomi argued that we need to situate our knowledge, to identify where it comes from, to acknowledge how our bodies participate in the sort of knowledge we are creating.

In what ways do scientists produce historical knowledge? How can we study this production? What kinds of rituals and props do we use to perform our disciplines? Can we look at the movement of the body off stage? Certainly, we can meet each other and converse. As a historian sharing an office with Xenia Morin, who is a chemist, Tomomi was able to study a performing scientist who, in turn, studied her as a performing historian. In "eternal reciprocity," they smiled at and mimicked each other. Everybody is an uncomfortable performer, so it can be useful to listen to all our stories of performance.

How might we transform ourselves as knowers? (Do we want to?) We might use the space of interdisciplinarity, such as this discussion series. But how can we further engage in body stretching over disciplinary boundaries? How can we move our bodies? We might, for instance, re-consider the relation between center and periphery. How can we bring these brown bag discussions back to the rest of our academic work? (Would we be ostracized for doing so?)

The work of Sharon Traweek of interest because she was one of the early women anthropologists of science, one of the first to seriously to address questions of gender, and one of the few to leave the central labs in American cities to go to the "borderlands." In "Bodies of Evidence: Law and Order, Sexy Machines, and the Erotics of Fieldwork among Physicists" (available on E-Reserve for HISTB 296 ), Traweek questions the opposition of subject and object, to show that if research is done according to this dicotomy, certain knowledge is lost. What new knowledge will be produced if we engage the body? And what is the meaning of the term "body"? Does it encompass all the physical activities we perform?

Discussion began w/ the acknowledgement that scientific knowledge depends on bodies, which are equipped with some sensors and lack others. Scientific descriptions are necessarily biased by our bodies, limited in what we can perceive (for instance, we cannot apprehend unaided the movement either of molecules or of continents). But always fundamental is the import of body on knowledge, the dependence of knowledge on the body. Scientists can also extend their bodies with instruments (microscopes, telescopes) which allow them to see larger and smaller things; they can then leave "chunks of these bodies" in their labs.

Bodies are also sites for social construction; we are actors engaged in interactions. Some disciplines, such as theater and dance, provide particularly explicit ways of noting interaction, but we each perform our disciplines differently, and might become more self conscious about how we do so. Reference was made to an earlier discussion on the different ways in which humanists and scientists perform their professional papers. Scientists who are more embodied in their daily work look more embodied in performance. Scientists set aside the text as a primary authority and engage in a larger degree of interactivity in their professional performances than do humanists. In contrast to the more formal performance of humanists, that of scientists is improvisational. They are impatient with performances which are not dynamically interactive. Their demonstrations are more theatrical (or more commercial?): carefully constructed performances intended to engage their audiences, to move and influence their patrons.

Or would it be more accurate to say, not that various disciplines attentuate the Platonic body in different ways, but rather that each discipline operates with a different conception of the body? Perhaps each of us chose our discipline in part based on what level of bodily comfort we preferred. In textual work, there is a smaller sphere of concentration; the work needs to be more tightly focused. In theatrical work, full sized human bodies incarnate ideas. Perhaps scientists' bodies are less able to sit still. Language of the body is used to praise the accomplishments of a molecular biologist, for instance, who has "good hands," "golden hands," is "good at the bench," or a "gene jockey." Ecosystem scientists valorize their embodied activities in the field; theoretical scientists are more disembodied.

The goal in math is to be objective; the body is only an observer (and yet a fundamental principle in physics is that all observations are influenced by the observer, that there are no incipient properties). Theorists and mathematicians, like literary scholars, may have unextendable bodies, disassociable body parts. Consider the different styles in presentation once common among scientists: mathematicians used blackboards and chalk, physicists overheads and biologists slides (though all the groups now make power point presentations). What do these different sorts of performances say about the ways in which various kinds of scientists are either more physical or oblivious to the body?

Also relevant is the historical question of social hierarchy. The culture of gentleman scientists described by Mario Biagioli in "Tacit Knowledge, Courtliness, and the Scientist's Body" (see also E-Reserve for HISTB 296) drew on lower class hands-on practices to make themselves better observers. How scientists perform inside and outside the lab also may differ. How is their knowledge transformed when they move from off stage to on stage, to communicate with a general audience? Generally, one does not see a scientist's body in performance. Are they "faking"? Is there a clear distinction to be made between mind and body, between an identifiable self and a professional self? Or are scientists simply giving a selected performance, one which doesn't present the self any more than it showcases mistakes? There is a logic to this selection: scientists aspire to the general, not the particular; although every body is different, scientists attempt to describe what is invariant.

Our discussion will continue on October 30, when our topic will be "Decentralization and Self-Organization: Not Just for Ants." Pamela Geer, a Keck Fellow in Mathematics and Computer Science, plans to talk a bit about ant colonies, the collective behavior of the colony system, and several areas of study in which decentralization and self-organization are evident.

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