… is the finalisation of a chapter for the edited volume New Representation in Scientific Practice, edited by Catelijne Coopmans, Mike Lynch, Janet Vertesi & Steve Woolgar. MIT Press.
Our contribution is entitled:
Networked neuroscience: brain scans and visual knowing at the intersection of atlases and databases
Anne Beaulieu and Sarah de Rijcke
Brain scans have been in heavy circulation these past 20 years as some of the most fascinating and ubiquitous digital images in scientific and cultural spheres. In this chapter, we analyze how the scans are both digital and networked images that depend on suites of technologies (Shove 2007) for their constitution and meaning. In particular, we will show how the production and reading of brain scans function in different suites, some of which reinforce a modernist, mechanical, pipeline approach to brain imaging, where digital images are acted upon as measurements, and others that highlight the interactive and interventionist potential of digital imaging, where brain scans are constituted as fluid animations. We argue that brain scans come to be associated with specific kinds of authority through complex ecologies of visualization routines in digital visual culture. In particular, brain scans are focal points in arrangements of scanning and database technologies, constituted in electronic networks where individual experiences are mediated by interfaces. New modes of seeing and novel technologies co-evolve with adjustments in particular epistemic approaches, at times resembling earlier practices and at times moving towards new kinds of objectivity.
“New media and new technologies – these not only require critical analysis but may be treated as occasions for exploring and testing assumptions embedded in social science and everyday understandings of the world.” (Moser & Law 2001, p. 12)
The quote is taken from an article by Ingunn Moser and John Law, in which they discuss the ‘Othering’ of disabled people. This is an enactment of personhood, the authors argue, that fits a grander modernist narrative of the romantic vs. the rational subject. Moser and Law call this a ‘trap’, “because it romanticises that Other [in this case, the disabled] by telling stories which celebrate Otherness, difference and passivity by telling of the desirability of silence, nature, immanence and the feminine. The body and emotions are lauded against the cognitive, the rational, and the verbal (…).” (p. 12) Obviously, these dynamics are also common elsewhere. I was reminded of it when I came across this video, in which artist Bradley Pitts and scientist Raymond van Ee discuss their mutual interest in Pitt’s Ellipsoidal Introspective Optic (EIO). The EIO is an optical device, a mirror that reflects the image of the one eye into the other and vice versa. In this case, both Pitts and Van Ee are heavily involved in this ‘Othering’ game, by drawing and re-affirming boundaries between Pitt’s artistic (individual, creative, subjective) and Van Ee’s scientific research (collective, quantifiable, objective). Ironically, while their co-operation was anticipated as an opportunity to build bridges between art and science, the two protagonists in the video inadvertently end up reifying the boundaries between their ‘two cultures’.
Yesterday, we presented an outline of our research to some of the employees of the Tropenmuseum and the Royal Tropical Institute. The weather was lovely, which made our wait for tram 14 a lot more pleasant.
It was very nice to be able to share our plans for the fieldwork at the museum, and to meet the people I will probably be spending lots of time with (as I will be doing the fiedwork in this case study). We had decided to talk briefly about our theoretical interest, before delving into the practical plans for carrying out the fieldwork. We discussed our specific focus (i.e. how images in web-based databases generate a new way of knowing we label network realism), and talked about two research strands that come together in our research. The first is work on web-based databases and knowledge production (f.i. Jenkins 2006 Convergence Culture; Bruns 2008 Blogs, Wikipedia, Second Life, and Beyond: From Production to Produsage), and the second is work on digital technologies and visual culture (Daston & Galison 2007 Objectivity; Bolter & Grusin 2000 Remediation: Understanding New Media; De Rijcke & Beaulieu 2007). We explained our understanding of network realism by contrasting (presumably) the oldest photograph with several slides on the interactive possibilities of the museum’s online database. We think the contrast between two very different practices of objectivity worked well (i.e. Daston and Galison’s mechanical objectivity versus our label network realism), and the audience was responsive of our proposal for the fieldwork. In the discussion afterwards, many interesting questions were raised and suggestions were made. People were open to the layeredness of issues of representation, and seemed willing to have us as a guest, to learn from them. One of the things we will hopefully look into during our stay at the museum (June-September), is the introduction of a new search engine called “digital association,” taking place in that same period.