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This past week, a very interesting discussion has been emerging around the role of models, in the course of work on a new programme of the KNAW on computational humanities. The representational role of models tends to be at the forefront of people’s minds in this discussion. This means that models are seen as representations of the world. In this line of thinking, the power of models is in simplifying or emphasizing certain elements. In being less complex than reality, models enable specific dynamics to be explored. And, in this view of models, they can be evaluated as good or bad representations, depending on their proper relationship to the world.

Models, however, like any other tool, also have a performative function. This means that in building and using them, they shape our understanding of the world and of the questions we pose using models.

In trying to find good ways to bring forward this aspect of models, I have been thinking about the work collected by de Chadarevian and Hopwood and Natasha Myers’ Molecular Embodiments. But mostly I was thinking about David Gooding’s work on Faraday’s drawings, on his visual reasoning, and subsequent work on the role of visual models in scientific discovery. The reasons for drawing on this work are multiple. David’s work can be considered a kind of historical ethnography, which is a very difficult kind of work to do, and one that is especially well done in David’s work on Faraday.  David’s cases are also ‘hard’—because of the areas he looks at, and because of his demonstrations of just how essential the visual was in taking particular steps in the development of knowledge. And finally, David’s orientation to cognitive issues and use of a cognitive vocabulary will go down well with the crowd I’m hoping to engage.

While David’s work remains for me to share with others, I have just heard the sad news of his death.

David was designated as mentor for me, as a new staff member at the Science Studies Center at the University of Bath in 1999. These were tumultuous times for us both (for David: new MSc programme, new love and shortly after new wife, daughters leaving home for uni, diagnosis of a very serious illness…. for me: first job, finishing my PhD, having a baby, figuring out life in the UK with my new husband…). David was a consistently supportive presence throughout all of this, though, not surprisingly, most of our intellectual exchanges took place in writing, and our meetings focused on putting out various fires, admin- or student-related.

More recently, as life seemed to quiet down a bit and as our research interests were again converging, I was looking forward to further working with David, and invited him to join the advisory board for this project.  In this too, David was very supportive.

He was an insightful scholar and a generous and thoughtful man. Besides his work, the memory of the kind gaze he invariably turned on the world also remains with me.

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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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