Tag Archives: epistemology

Visual Studies for Modelers

In the framework of the conference Modeling Science, I presented a paper entitled ‘The view from nowhere: digital visualizations of science and the God-trick’. The audience was mainly made up of model and simulation builders, working from a very data-driven tradition. Many of them had a physics background, and very little affinity with social theory or cultural analysis. A main part of my presentation was a visual argument, in which I contrasted Powers of Ten and Zoom, and tried to make visible the difference in epistemologies of these two zooms. I’m not sure I was able to convince the entire room to embrace situated knowledge, but they did laugh in the right places, which is an indication that we connected. And I think the talk contributed to creating that interface between modeling and science studies that has been developing over the past few years, thanks to Andrea Scharnhorst‘s work, and to activities at the VKS.

Here is the abstract of my talk:

This contribution is an invitation to consider models and simulations as forms of visual knowing. This approach enables the analysis of two tendencies in many visualisations of science: the ‘view from nowhere’ and the seamless zoom. The epistemological and political implications of these tendencies will be teased out in a visual argument that contrasts two versions of a ‘zoom’ in the world (the film Powers of Ten and the book Zoom). The value of situatedness (i.e. acknowledging points of view, mediation or origin) in order to produce responsible representations of science will be explained. Conceptually, the talk will draw on the work of Donna Haraway, Svetlana Alpers, and Bolter & Grusin among others. Forms of visual knowing are further explored in a number of projects of the Virtual Knowledge Studio (Knowledge Space Lab, ‘Can you see what I know?’ and Network Realism).

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A while ago, at the workshop Visualising the Public Sphere: Ethics and Politics from YouTube to Google Earth,held on Wednesday 18 February 2009, we presented the project to an audience of VKS researchers and of philosophers from the University of Groningen. realismslide

One of the topics of discussion that came up in relation to our presentation had to do with the concept ‘realism’. Why, asked Hans Harbers, were we using such an ontological term, when our approach so clearly addresses epistemological questions? In a first instance, several meanings of realism were laid out, and we signaled that not all of these were germane to our project. (For example, one of the uses we want to make of realism is in contrast to the ‘cyber’ or ‘virtual’ claims about Internet-mediated reality, in order to draw attention to the consequential and material practices to which the images are put.)

Later on, in the closing discussion, Paul Wouters returned to this issue, urging us not to be too quick to agree to disagree. What does it mean that different currents have appealed to the term realism? How, precisely, do these projects differ, intellectually and politically?

Since then, I’ve been noting all the ways in which realism arises in the various material we produce, consult and use, and how it is often set up as part of a dichotomy (as, indeed, we have been using it to set up a contrast with the virtual): Realism/Romanticism, realism/constructivism, etc. All these oppositional uses of the term have a different history and political valence. The variety of axes along which realism can be placed is probably also the underlying reason why several wise readers of drafts of the project proposal suggested we remove the term. Indeed, there are good reasons not to have a ‘can of worms’ in a project proposal, but, perhaps perversely, I kind of like the arresting (and for some, irratating) connotations of the word.  So we’ll be sticking with it for now, taking on board that a careful and judicious use of the term will mean constantly foregrounding what we mean by it. And this in turn requires being attuned to the various meanings of the term for our audiences, including current reflexive and revisionist projects around Realism.

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