Science in Society

Bryn Mawr College

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

November 6
Michael Tratner
"An Anatomy of Cultural Studies Methods:
Can They Be Used to Study the Culture of Science? "

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

Michael Tratner, a former high school math teacher who is now Chairman of the Bryn Mawr College English Department, distributed An Anatomy of Cultural Studies Methods of interpretation and critique. Michael explained that cultural studies, a very distinct field which evolved out of literary studies and political movements, examines the political implications of various cultural practicies. It was his proposal that we apply such queries to the ways in which science is done, by treating the instruments and activities of science as expressive. In what sense does a microscope, for instance, function as a cultural object? What practical and political meaning does it have? How does its use intervene in the social structures of power?

Discussion began immediately, and was quite lively. One particular query, returned to repeatedly, was whether or not it is a mistake to conflate literary interpretation with doing politics. On the one hand, it was argued that, while it may be correct to claim that literary interpretations have political import, it is incorrect to mistake that sort of deconstruction for political action. There is a difference between defining something as political and actually engaging in politics. Showing that science is profoundly political is not itself a political act. It is one thing to identify power relations; it is quite another to claim that doing so is doing politics. Academics are fond of "giving at the office," of asserting that their analytical work is "doing something political." But writing and publishing, while they may gain us tenure, are not the work of social justice. Political action involves modifying cultural practices. It is wrong to conflate highlighting what is political with engaging in political action. Any deconstruction that is not tied to practice, struggle, resistence, that is not a politics born of necessity, that is not consciously attempting to make the world a better place, does not count as overt political action. Making a difference by doing in the field is preferable to constructing knowledge. It's not a matter of thinking, then doing; we must live consciously every day as intentional beings, attempting to be virtous. We may resort to being academics, but our job is to help people live. Those who engage in cultural studies take (inappropriate) pleasure in their heroism and their victimization.

The counterargument asked how we are defining the sphere of action. The robust sense of politics described above valorizes action in the world, but there are different levels and notions of the political. The description of the ways things are may lead to action, or to ways of taking action. The fact of description is itself a political action. The Manhatten Project, mapping the human genome, the superconducting supercollider all posed political problems. Anything which changes the structure of culture (or not?), anything which addresses the structure of power (or not?), anything which alters the distribution of power and hierarchies of privilege is political. The very generation of knowledge is political. It is hard to clarify the nature of relations we have not recognized. Targeting structures, showing how they are structures, is political. Potentially, initially, any gesture constitutes a political act. There is an inevitable division of labor: different folks do different things well. It is churlish and theoretically illierate to dismiss various ways of doing politics. We are all called to be critically self-conscious and reflective about the consequences of what we do.

It was suggested that, rather than "getting lost in the geneology of cultural studies," we might use cultural studies methods as an optic for looking at science as a text that is expressive of a political practice. What does science mean for people in society? How can we understand science as a series of practices? It is frustrating that the work of historians of science is not read or used by scientists themselves. There are bridges to be made, changes needing to occur in the practice of science. The curriculum of science education needs to incorporate an awareness of cultural studies. To treat objects and practices as political agents is a post-humanist gesture; it does not focus on conscious action, but asks questions, for instance, about how labs are organized over time, how we participate in the world through systems of human relations, thereby disclosing that which is political. We must look @ science as a varigated practice. There are various procedures, all with power @ the heart, all mystified. The whole value of the cultural studies "bag of tricks" is to take away the mask that covers intent. The owners of SUVs may not intend to harm the environment, but their purchases are political acts. Conscious intent is not a sufficient guide to political action.

But is there a useful distinction to be made between intent and action? Although we don't perform experiments as political acts, they may have political consequences. Our practices and our goals will reflect the power structures in place. If we use women (or not) in our lab, we're expressing the political structures within which we work. It is possible, even likely, that scientists prefer to believe they are not taking political action in their labs. But science involves the act of exposing the genuine underpinings of the universe. Unbeknownst to us, even if not expressly understood: doing this is a political act, whatever our motives, whatever our investments. Not all politics comes from intent. It might be more useful to think about interests than intent.

Do individuals perform political acts, or do they only become political when they are operating within a group, within structures, within a cultural body? But simply to be aware of one's body is to be political. What are the responsibilities of individual scientists? What are the consequences of our choices? Individual acts of doing science, even collecting data, are inherently political. Agency is about a division of labor between persons and things. It doesn't inhere in the world, but is attributed. Most scientists are implicated in the politics of scientific practice, whether or not they are conscious of doing so. Is it fair or helpful to say they are engaged in politics, when they are partaking in the common sense of their field of study, a paradigm, a disciplinary matrix? If they are unconscious of doing so, that is a profoundly political exercise.

Where does science happen? What is its relation to ethics and morals? For example, what does the debate about stem cell research look like, from the perspective of cultural studies? Stem cell scientists are part of the politics they helped to create. If the embryo is considered a medical commodity, it is because scientists have contributed to a certain view of bodies, of cells, of female bodies with cells growing inside of them, etc. etc. What is purely natural law and what counts as ethical? Our conceptions of that distinction is changing.

The very production of theory of science has radical ethical consequences. Rarely do we understand the scope or impact of what we do. Are we not just trading "one shaping thing" for another? Yes, but it is still worthwhile to see where we are stuck. The feminist critique of the centralized body, for instance, revealed a biased understanding of women's bodies. But the decentralized model which replaced it expresses another bias. We need to understand the political implications of any particular model.

We are anxious that the unit of meaning is not individual any more. We worry, for instance, that we are controlled by "the selfish gene." We have anxieties about the autocratic community, which complicates the way we do science. Mention was made of the kamikaze fighters of last week's discussion of ants. Do ants write diaries? There are many layers to think of. How is/can this conversation be productive for the "pure practice" of science, for bench work? There are certain metaphors implicit in our search for knowledge, and a concrete connection betwen biased cultural metaphors and the way we do science. This is a matter of epistemic priviledge. These are the relations of knowlege to power, of theory to practice.The methods we use, the actions we take, each occur in their own petri dish, each one a medium for politics, each with a different end. Perhaps all this work is recursive.

Another way to understand this division, rather than as practice vs. theory, is as a time course issue: certain problems are not soluable over short periods of time, but involve deeper issues. Consider the distinction as one of short vs. long term. What has been valorized as political action is actually work on short term solutions for existing problems; what has been dismissed as interpretation might also (or better?) be understood as working on issues for which no short term solution presents itself.

Our discussion will continue next week, when Chris Couples, UNIX systems administrator for the sciences, will facilitate a discussion on "The Political Practice of the Sys-Admin," or what he describes as "being judge, jury, and executioner in cyberspace: why system administration is much more than info-mechanics. What does a system administrator do? What should she do? How does system administration fit into a liberal arts college environment? Why is your system administrator a political creature?"

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