Controversia Scientia

Hello from Canada! This has very little to do with the topic of today’s post. I’m just taking advantage of this moment to announce my recent arrival in Vancouver, BC. For those of you who don’t know—and I don’t know who that would be since I tweet constantly about my newfound Canadian residency—I’ve just started a new position as an Assistant Professor of Rhetorical Theory and History at the University of British Columbia. And I’m super-excited about it!

Ok enough of that. So, recently I’ve been reading monographs on (medico-)scientific controversy. Rather than review each individually, I thought it might be more useful and more fun to review the three latest at one go. The works that I’ll address in this post span nearly two decades and three disciplines. The first, rhetorician Lisa Keränen’s Scientific Characters, explores “Datagate”—a very public discovery of data fabrication in breast cancer research trials. The second comes from across the pond and was authored by French sociologists of science Michel Callon, Pierre Lascoumes, and Yannick Barthe. Acting in an Uncertain World interrogates several public scientific controversies including the storage of nuclear waste, Mad Cow, and AIDS as part of a large effort to argue for a new vision for technical democracies. The last, despite the title (The Selling of the DSM: The Rhetoric of Science in Psychiatry, which one might expect to have been authored by rhetoricians—I did actually…because honestly, who reads the back cover thoroughly when purchasing on Amazon)–(this epic run-on sentence has clearly gotten the better of me, but I’m going to go with it all the same)—was penned by a pair of social work/social welfare scholars, Stuart A. Kirk and Herb Kutchins. Kirk and Kutchins provide a thoroughly engaging exploration of the development and promulgation of the third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-III)  and the manifold political debates which surrounded including the exclusion of homosexuality, the inclusion of post-traumatic stress disorder, and the relationships among psychiatrists and other mental health professionals (psychologists, social workers, therapists, etc).

Keränen, L. (2010). Scientific characters: Rhetoric, politics, and trust in breast cancer research. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press.

Scientific Characters uses the analytic lenses provided by ethos, persona, and voice to interrogate the nature of scientific controversy. This interrogation focuses on a once renown case of fraud in Breast Cancer clinical trials. In 1994, it was reported that Dr. Roger Poisson (then of Montreal’s Saint-Luc Hospital) had falsified patient records and data reports in a large series of lumpectomy studies. Keränen traces the fallout from this report through various venues and fora including the popular presses of the US and Canada, congressional hearings, and the journal literature. Along the way, she uses her investigation to refine the aforementioned rhetorical notions through studying the public discourse surrounding our chief offender Dr. Poisson and the ultimate study supervisor American physician/researcher Dr. Bernard Fisher.

First a note on Keränen’s analytic categories: Scientific Characters seeks to provide greater clarity to the often muddled and overlapping categories of ethos, persona, and voice. In so doing, Keränen identifies ethos as creditability or character derived from a pattern of behavior, persona as the symbolic construction of the author for the audience, and voice as the embodied stylistic and lexical choices of the rhetor. Nothing is controversial in this taxonomy. I think most rhetors would accept it readily. And I laud Keränen for providing clear taxonomic distinctions between each therm. As Keränen readily notes, this clarity is not always the case. Quoting Robert Allen Brookey, she argues that “rhetorical scholars ‘have seldom kept ethos well located, mixing terms, sometimes using ethos, persona, and voice as if they were identical” (p. 28). I agree, and as I mentioned I find Keränen’s taxonomy clear and effective. I do not, however, entirely agree with her theoretical rational for the taxonomy. Keränen locates her definition of ethos in Aristotle’s Rhetoric. However, I don’t think Aristotle was quite so clear as Keränen wishes he were. My reading of that classic would suggest that ethos is something constructed in the text (and is really rather akin to persona) rather than derived from a life of good behavior. Certainly, not everyone agrees with that reading, but many do. Personally, I think Keränen would’ve been better served if she had located her conception of ethos in Quintilian’s vir bonus bene dicendi (good man [sic] speaking well). But this truly is a minor quibble.

I really enjoyed Scientific Characters and found it to be  great narrative and a solid example of detailed scholarship. That being said, I don’t have that much to say about it other than to suggest that you read it. I could retell the Datagate narrative, but honestly, Keränen does a better job. So, there you go.

Callon, M., Lascoumes, P., & Barthe, Y. (2001). Acting in an uncertain world: An essay on technical democracy. (G. Burchell, trans.). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Compared to Scientific Characters, Acting in an Uncertain World is a completely different experience. Maybe that’s a truism of French sociology. I’ll have to read more of it to find out. In any event, Acting is thoroughly grounded in the European STS tradition with frequent citation to the likes of Latour, Callon, and Woolgar, among others. The text artfully integrates descriptive passages from ethnographic notebooks , keen theoretical analyses, and normative suggestions for the future to technical democracy.

Invoking Latour’s concept of a parliament of things, Callon, Lascoumes, and Barthe argue that the technical controversies of contemporary democracy need to be addressed by recourse to dialogic rather than delgative democracy. Obviously, that needs some clarification. The idea is built on a series of normative propositions, the first interestingly enough is that controversy is good. Yep, you read that right; controversy is good. Why? Because if there’s a public controversy about a scientific and/or technical issue/object, that means more than just the elite scientists or politicians are involved in the discussion and maybe even the decision. Without controversy, so the argument goes, we don’t have democracy, we have technocracy. That’s smart stuff. I wish I’d thought of it.

More to the point, however, the authors argue that to be truly democratic, minority and disenfranchised stakeholders need to be participants in technical decision making. If not, we have a delgative democracy; that is, the discussion and decision-making authority has been delegated to scientists and politicians. (Of course, this is the norm.) But every once in a while people get angry, non-elite/non-technical stakeholders get involved. This is dialogic democracy and requires what Callon, Lascoumes, and Barthe dub “hybrid fora” to function. (Actually, the authors and/or translator dubs them “hybrid forums,” but I’m too damn pedantic to use that pluralization.)

Hybrid fora are those that explicitly invite the participation both of non-credentialed experts and of nonhuman actants (animals, ecosystems, rocks, scalpels, whatever). (Here is the direct link to Latour’s parliament of things.)  Borrowing from Phil Brown, Acting introduced me to a fantastic term for one form of non-credentialed participation—“popular epidemiology.” Popular epidemiology is what happens when there’s a community health crisis, and no one in the medical establishment, environmental agencies, etc can or will address it. For example, when a large group of children in a given community suddenly turn up with leukemia, parents, local officials, and community leaders start to do their own research investigating power lines near playgrounds or illegal chemical dumping from the local factory. It’s not credentialed, legitimate laboratory science, but it’s a critical part of a scientific controversy.

There’s so much going on in Acting in an Uncertain World, that’d it be impossible to cover it all if I devoted an entire post to it. So, I’m not even going to try here. I will say that it’s one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. Almost as exciting as reading Haraway or Latour for the first time. I highly recommend it.

Kirk, S.A., & Kutchins, H. (1992). The selling of the DSM: The rhetoric of science in psychiatry. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers.

Last, but certainly not least, I turn to Kirk and Kutchins’ The Selling of the DSM. An absolutely fantastic book, which would explain why it’s endured through multiple printings since 1992. (My edition was printed in 2008.) The Selling of the DSM is a product of its time—and I don’t mean that in a bad way. Despite being put together by a couple of social work/social welfare professors, it reads like many other STS/RSTEM monographs from the early 1990s. It’s supreme goal seems to be to demonstrate the politicization of an area of science. What differentiates this book from others by more familiar authors like Latour, Galison, Pickering, or Haraway, is that more mainstream STS/RSTEM from that era hope to demonstrate the political elements of all science, while this book seems to suggest that the development and promulgation of the DSM-III was somehow more rhetorical or more political than other scientific endeavors. One of the reasons for this difference is the fact that the authors have a very different stake in the issues at hand than a sociologists or rhetorician has while studying physicists or evolutionary biologists. Kirk and Kutchins’ students (and perhaps even themselves) are mental health providers. The DSM-III had a profound impact in their professional lives—and that impact clearly affected their analysis.

The Selling of the DSM is a thoughtful exploration of the rhetorical dimensions which lead to the development and promulgation of the DSM-III. The authors explored the kairos and exigencies for which revision of the DSM-II was deemed necessary, the negotiations of various committees and organizational bodies, and the proselytization of the new manual after its publication. While little of the manuscript invokes specific rhetorical terminology—other than popularly known constructs such as “argument claim,” it does, at times, reference the work of prominent STS/RSTEM researchers such as Kuhn, Latour, Woolgar, and Bazerman. The only issue, as I have suggested, is that the analysis is not parallel. They do not embrace the symmetry principle. In their criticism of the DSM-III, Kirk and Kutchins seem to suggest that a more scientific—less rhetorical—approach to the manual’s development was possible. Obviously, I don’t agree. But I also don’t want to get bogged down by this critique since it really only applies to the last few chapters. The Selling of the DSM is divided into nine chapters and the first four and much of the seventh read just like any other STS/RSTEM work. It’s only the more normative sections, the ones that will directly impact their students’ (or perhaps their own) work that are more problematic.

While there are many great moments in this book, one of my favorites involves a story about the major protagonist—Robert Spitzer, a psychiatrist who exercised considerably oversight over the development of both the DSM-II and DSM-III. In response to some of the criticisms that Spitzer had received for the politicization of the DSM-III,  he jokingly identified a new psychiatric condition—PSDS (Politics-Science Dichotomy Disorder) (p. 195). For Spitzer, this diagnosis is to be applied to those who allow political decisions to trump their scientific integrity. He, of course, excludes himself from this diagnosis because, while some of his decisions regarding the DSM-III were political, the pursuit of objective science was his root goal. While this approach to PSDS will never be particularly interesting and useful, I still think we should revive the term and that Spitzer was an acute sufferer. In fact, I aim to start using PSDS to refer to those poor scientists who have had such a break with reality that they actually believe that science is an objective apolitical thing.

Another wonderful piece of The Selling of the DSM was Kirk and Kutchins’ reconstruction of the debates over the exclusion of homosexuality form the DSM-III. Much of the text is devoted to charting the arguments—generally conducted through the press, but also through protest actions between gay rights organizations, the gay psychiatric caucus and the rest of the American Psychiatric Association. As most of my readers likely know, homosexuality was indeed left out of the DSM-III. However, the decision to do so was made through some fascinating political maneuvering which involved interrogating the very meaning of mental illness. During the revision third revision of the DSM, the definition of mental illness was a moving target, and it had more to do with deviation from the norm, than the more contemporary approach which involves a deviation from the norm which causes social or cognitive distress. Actually, it was the move from the former to the latter which allowed for the removal of homosexuality form the list of possible diagnosis. Spitzer, who was apparently not a big fan of homosexuality, was at least able to recognizing that being gay does not necessarily cause distress.

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Review of Epistemology of the Concrete (Rheinberger)

Rheinberger H-J. (2010). An epistemology of the concrete: Twentieth-century histories of life. Durham: Duke University Press.

Never before have I read a monograph which has left me so conflicted. In reading Hans-Jörg Rheinberger’s Epistemology of the Concrete, I alternated regularly between extreme engagement with artfully presented moments of keen theoretical insight and something which bordered on ennui as I plowed through dense, plodding historiographic reconstructions. As I was drafting this I had hoped that in writing that bluntly honest yet bipolar evaluation, I would be able to tease out some form of recommendation for or against reading Rheinberger’s work. I find I still cannot. As such, in the detailed review which follows, you’ll find a series of conditional statements (If you have a profound interested in X, then buy this book now!) that will hopefully help you decide on your own if the book is worth your time.

An Epistemology of the Concrete: Twentieth-Century Histories of Life, as the title suggests is a broad and encompassing historiographic treatment of a wide array of moments in the biological sciences of the last century. Rheinberger traces various accounts of microbiology, genetics, and evolution—as well as, periodically, the relationships among the sub-disciplines, in the development of a series of narratives which are, if nothing else, supreme testaments to historiographic rigor. Epistemology of the Concrete is divided into four parts, each containing three to four chapters. Part I, by far my favorite and the reason I would recommend the book to many, is a thoughtful and engaging exploration of recent trends in historiography and epistemology which pay specific attention to the relationships among epistemological theory, scientific objects, and experimental practices. Part II explores four case studies which address the role of various model organisms in studies of heredity and reproduction circa 1896-1945. Part III interrogates a more recent spate of case studies focusing on a series of experimental concepts and apparatuses including genes, liquid scintillation, and biological information. Finally, Part IV serves as something of a coda and offers Rheinberger’s case study fueled suggestions on the future of historiography—viz., his argument that it should include greater focus on laboratory objects, practices, and informal texts.

Theoretical insights

The theoretical and methodological insights articulated in Rheinberger’s text are, without a doubt, the high point of the book. Those of you who have followed any of my scholarship or blog posts of late will know that I have recently become quite enamored with the ontological/multiple ontologies turn in rhetoric and STS. This interest of mine has certainly contributed to my appreciation of Rheinberger’s theoretical work in Epistemology of the Concrete. As the title obviously indicates, Rheinberger has not quite embraced the ontological turn and its attendant turn away from epistemology (cref: Mol, Body Multiple; Latour, Reassembling the Social; Pickering, The Cybernetic Brain, etc). However, his focus on the concrete and the laboratory practices that surround, expose, articulate with, configure, and are configured by those concrete objects is indicative of a significant stride in that direction.

As the brief outline above indicates, the bulk of Rheinberger’s theoretical work occurs in Part I. However, there are additional moments of theoretical insight which build on the first part found throughout the text—with prominent sections in Chapters 8 and 12. The Prologue and first chapter of Epistemology of the Concrete begins by outlining the somewhat recent trend in STS towards an investigation of the specific objects of scientific practice. Rheinberger invokes concepts such as Latour’s “Parliament of Things,” and and Bachelard’s un fait est fait in the refinement of his method—“historical epistemology.”

Ultimately, Rheinberger’s method  is very consonant with rhetorical studies—a discipline which he, of course, does not acknowledge. In any event, invoking Canguilhem, Rheinberger suggests an increased differentiation between the objects of scientific inquiry and the objects of historographic inquiry into science. Specifically, he argues that the primary objects of science are the texts of scientific discourse: “The object of historical discourse is, in effect, the historicity of scientific discourse… (Canguilhem qtd in Rheinberger p. 41). In fact, throughout chapter 3, he implores STS scholars to focus on the “cultural objects” of scientific practice. Though even more to the point is Rheinberger’s work in the last chapter which identifies informal discourses such as lab notebooks as a primary site of historiographic epistemology. Of course those of you with an extensive reading knowledge of STS and STEM rhetorics will note that this argument has been made for sometime—prominently by Latour and Woolgar’s Laboratory Life (see inscription) and Bazerman’s Languages of Edison’s Light. This is another recurring problem of Rheinberger’s book—repeated brilliance, a decade out of date, with little to no attribution. I don’t think this is a question of inattention or poor scholarship, mind you. Rather—as is evident from Epistemology of the Concrete’s references, Rheinberger runs in rather different intellectual circles.

In any event, this rhetorico-epistemic historiography involves the diligent recreation of specific cultural locales of knowledge production in order to understand the nature of those specific—again local—practices, the constituent objects, and the knowledge generation that occurs. As part of this process, he traces the interactions among the philosophies and methodologies of Ludwik Fleck, Edmund Husserl, Gaston Bachelard, and Georges Canguilhem. Ultimately, Rheinberger offers an artful and entailed exegesis of these theoretical conflicts and syntheses, and if (our first conditional) is interested in the nuances of these debates, then one ought to go and get Epistemology of the Concrete immediately…after finishing this post. For my money, the most useful moments in Rheinberger’s theoretical work come from his development of an object-oriented (a term I borrow from Harman’s Prince of Networks) epistemological taxonomy. Specifically, Epistemology of the Concrete introduces or refines four key terms that could be used to great effect in the description of laboratory activities:

  • Epistemic objects: An epistemic object is the material focus of a research agenda. It is that thing about which scientists of hope to create knowledge. (Though as one can see shortly, that thing is not an a priori, but rather a creation of specific laboratory practices situational within specific disciplinary paradigms.) Rheinberger interrogates a number of epistemic objects including genes, wing patters on moths, protein synthesis, noting all the while that the shifting metaphysics of each object was configured by the microculture and experimental practices of the day.
  • Epistemologica: Epistemic objects rendered permanent through material processes. The plastinated corpses at BodyWorld or BodyWorks are the idea avatars of epistemologica. Though so are articulated skeletons, specimen jars, butterfly collections, preserved slides (microscopy).
  • Phenomenotechnique: The idea that laboratory practices do not reveal, but rather produce scientific objects. Different phenomenotechniques would produce different objects even if they are identified as the same item. For example, in Chapter 8 Rheinberger traces the evolving concept of gene in early genetics. In each stage of inquiry, different phenomenotechniques produced different gene concepts. (This is Bachelard’s term which Rheinberger clarifies.) Of course, I found this concept particularly attractive given its affinity to Mol and multiple ontologies theory.
  • “Experimental Systems are material, functional units of modern knowledge production” (p. 244). I.e. experimental systems are the constellation, articulation, network, imbroglio, bricolage of epistemic objects, experimental apparatuses, bank accounts, phenomenotechniques etc that make up a specific modern/contemporary laboratory (or sub-section thereof). If as my definition suggests, there are potentially 30 synonyms for the same concept, why does he come up with a new one you ask? Actually, he has a good reason to; I just don’t agree with it—viz., he wishes to keep the focus on the micropractices of specific labs and not extend the frame of analysis to broad ideological formations and X-industrial-complexes. Not exactly my bag, but I can’t fault Rheinberger for it.

“Fine-Grained Textual Microanalysis”

Did I mention that Rheinberger not only had degrees in philosophy, but also in molecular biology? This biographical fact, perhaps, explains Epistemology of the Concrete’s unending engagement with every minute detail of each case study. As I wrote above, this book is nothing if not a true testament to historiographic rigor—also quite consonant with the Geertzian notion of thick description. Indeed, Rheinberger, recognizing the thinkness of his prose and process, describes them using the subheading for this section—“fine-grained textual microanalysis” (p. 151). Now this normally wouldn’t be a problem for me but there was almost no integration between the brilliant theoretical work and the rigorous case study scholarship. As such, there was significant discord between the first thee chapters of theoretical work and the plodding (sorry, but it’s true) narratives of the subsequent. So here’s where the conditionals really kick in. If you happen to be working on a scholarly project that addresses the same areas of inquiry, then you really do need to get this book. So for example, James Wynn needs this book. (Actually James may have already read this book; he’s just a convenient example.) James does some engaging work on the rhetoric of Gregor Mendel and his reception over time. Rheinberger offers a very detailed account of Mendels rediscovery and continuing impact from 1890s-1950s. I quite enjoyed the chapter which detailed the history of various radiologic devices which were precursors to PET. Similarly, Chapters 8 and 10 could be read as thoughtful precursors to Fox Keller’s Refiguring Life. Whereas she thoughtfully explores the impact of the gene-qua-code/information metaphor in 1980s/1990s bioscientific discourse, Rheinberger traces the earliest origins of the metaphor in a series of papers in the 1950s and 1960s (Chapter 10). Actually, this is one moment where Epistemology of the Concrete is its most rhetorical. Rheinberger tracks the emergence of key terms—information, messenger, code, etc—in three articles authored by the same research group.

Despite my criticism of the absence of theoretical discussion in the midst of Rheinberger’s narratives, I should note that there is one shining exception: Chapter 8. I have no idea why Chapter 8 takes a different tack than all the others, but it is by far my favorite. As far as I am concerned, the highest caliber of scholarship in STEM rhetorics and STS artfully and seamlessly integrates case study narrativizations with theoretical analysis. With this as a benchmark, Chapter 8 is one of the best exemplars of contemporary STS scholarship I have ever read. It cleverly reconstructs the constantly moving target that is the history of the gene concept all the while exploring the epistemological ramifications—both within Rheniberger’s taxonomy and beyond, incorporating insights from complexity theory and fuzzy logic.


I have none. Sorry. There’s just no way to sum up a book that tackles such a wide array of topics in such a wide array of formats. I guess my ultimate advice is go to the library. Read a bit. If you like it, buy it. It is less than $25 on Amazon.

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Review of Vibrant Matter (Bennett)

Bennett J. (2010). Vibrant matter: A political ecology of things. Durham: Duke University Press.

Note: I’ve had this book sitting on my shelf for a month or two now and have been meaning to read it. I was recently prompted to attend to it more quickly and seriously by the following tweet courtesy of NC State’s Lauren Clark.

So if you happen to either love or hate this post, blame her.

Jane Bennett’s Vibrant matter: A political ecology of things explores the recent shift in science and technology studies (STS) towards an ontologal/material foundation for inquiry. As part of this effort, she offers her theory of a “vital materiality” that locates activity and agency at various loci throughout material-semiotic systems. Bennett outlines her primary goals for the text in the following passage:

(1) To paint a positive ontology of vibrant matter, which stretches received concepts of agency, action, and freedom sometimes to the breaking point; (2) to dissipate the onto-theological binaries of life/matter, human/animal, will/determination, and organic/inorganic using arguments and other rhetorical means to induce in human bodies an aesthetic-affective openness to material vitality; and (3) to sketch a style of political analysis that can better account for the contributions of nonhuman actants. (p. x)

In tackling these goals, Vibrant matter is divided into eight chapters, and I would suggest that those chapters can be understood as comprising three parts. (Understandably—given the monograph is 176 pages including all bibliography and indices, these divisions are not explicit.)

In roughly the first third of the text, Bennett explores the agency and vitality of various ‘entities’ that would under the modernist rubric be classified as either objects, collections of objects, or events. (I should note that I struggled greatly in the last sentence finding a collective term to describe these ‘entities’—hence the scare quotes. I’d like to use Latour’s notion of a quasi-subject/quasi-object, but I’m not sure that even that applies to an event, though perhaps it does.) In any event (sorry), Bennett’s foci of analysis include a collection of debris found in a storm drain, a power outage along a major urban electrical grid, Omega-3 Fatty Acids, and Prometheus’ adamantine chains. Her exploration of these ‘entities’ includes a thoughtful, engaging, and eminently perspicuous recounting of the ontological shift in STS. This sub-text includes a careful and diligent exploration of the relationships among and arguments surrounding the ontological/material theories of Foucault, Deleuze, Guattari, Deleuze and Guattari, Haraway, Latour, and Idhe. Furthermore, she artfully interrogates the manifold connections between these ontological/material approaches and critical cultural theorists such as Derrida, Adorno, Althusser, Eagleton, Butler and Hayles. (Of course more than a few scholars from each list belong on both.) This was my favorite part of the book and I would highly recommend its inclusion in any graduate seminar in rhetoric of science or critical theory. The clarity with which Bennett delineates these and explores these manifold approaches is nearly unparalleled. I think even those students resistant to theorization would find these explanations compelling.

Part two is the section about which I have the least to say. The second third of the book interrogates theories of vitalism drawing heavily on Henri Bergson and Hans Driesch. Vital philosophies are certainly not my strong suit, so I’m reticent to evaluate this section. From what I remember from my undergraduate philosophy degree, Bennett’s exploration of this work is thorough and consistent with the standard continental evaluation of elan vital and entelechy. In any event, I found the argument for enlisting a modified vitalism as one way of accounting for the agency of the material, compelling and clear.

The final section of Vibrant matter is the one with which I had the most difficulty. Then I read it again as I wrote this post and changed my mind entirely. (I’ll explain why at the end.) The final section provides a cogent and engaging exploration of the affordances of vital materiality and political ecology. More specific, it offers the twin notions of vital materiality and political ecologies as a way of realizing Latour’s “parliament of things.” In short, if one recognizes the agentive vitality of the material, then one opens the door for something like the civic representation of material entities. And I certainly would support any effort to extend moral considerablity to nonhuman actacts—especially those that that we have most damaged through our environmental recklessness. My greatest disappointment (which admittedly is not all that great) comes from the final chapter of Vibrant matter. There, Bennett argues that political ecologies constitutes a more productive rubric for nonhuman inclusion than environmentalism. She argues this for three reasons: 1) Bennett suggests that environmentalism posits the environment as “a substrate of human culture” and that therefore an ecological model “horizontalizes” humans and nonhumans more effectively (pp. 111-112). 2) She further argues that the agency and vibrancy of matter in her model provides a more democratic alternative to the concept of nature as harmonious equilibrium. 3) And finally, in fracturing the unity of “the environment,” a vital-material ecology embraces the complexity of bodies and embodiment in a way that separates us from the concept of bounded unified human entities and therefore enshrines an ecological model that permeates humanity and human flesh alike.

On first pass, I was unconvinced regarding the distinction between environmentalism and ecologicalism. (I’m sure there’s a better word for that.) However, environmentalism and Bennett describes it does, indeed, exist. Further, I am convinced by her arguments against that form of environmentalism. However, I still do think that her painting of environmentalism denies the richness of traditions—i.e. the ecology of perspectives within the –ism, including the availability of ecologically-oriented environmentalisms.
But I digress. Buy this book and read it twice.

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How big is Rhetoric of Science and Medicine?

Pop quiz! Which journal in rhetorical studies published the most articles in rhetorics of science and medicine between 2005 and 2010? If you had asked me that question two days ago, I would’ve said: “I don’t know. Probably TCQ or RSQ.” Turns out I would have been half right and half wrong. (It’s TCQ, by the way, but RSQ is making a run for the title—more on that later.) So, as you can tell, I wanted a real answer to this question, and, as such, I spent the better part of four days pouring through every single article published in five flag ship journals in rhetorical studies to find out the answer. The data’s below, but first a few notes on methods.

Disciplinary Gerrymandering and R(S)STE2M2

What counts as rhetoric of science and medicine? That’s a very good question—without an easy answer. In order to tackle this assessment, I had to come up with some sort of rubric. I have no doubt—as is the case with any disciplinary gerrymandering—that my rubric will piss someone off. I’m sorry. It’s certainly not my goal to offend anyone by “erroneously” including or excluding them from my taxonomy.

Obviously, I had a few possible titles available to me for the (sub)discipline I’m trying to define: rhetoric of science and rhetoric of science and technology are probably the most popular, but it bothers me that they don’t include rhetoric of medicine. Rhetoric of science and medicine might be a good option, but where’s the technology? Of course, I style myself a rhetorician of technoscience and medicine, but that implies a certain critical stance that not all rhetoric of science has to share in order to be rhetoric of science. The good folks at the University of Iowa are fond of rhetoric of inquiry, but that’s too broad for my tastes. Certainly, that would include rhetorics of philosophy, literary studies, and history. Great disciplines? Yes. Worthy of rhetorical study? Yes. But, still not what I’m going for here. But I am interested in rhetorics of mathematics, having presented on them in the past.

So what about RSTEM—rhetorics of science technology, engineering, and mathematics? (It includes the added benefit of being politically appropriate given today’s higher education funding priorities.) Damn it! I still don’t have medicine in there. I also want social sciences and environmental rhetorics. And here we have now arrived at my absolutely absurd title: R(S)STE2M2….Rhetorics of (social) science, technology, engineering, the environment, mathematics, and medicine. I happen to like R(S)STE2M2 even though it’s slightly unreasonable. I’ll probably stick with RSTEM for the time being. Just know that when I do, I intend S, E, and M polyphony.

I should mention that I have left one very important allied area of inquiry out of my schema—new media studies. The large umbrella of new media studies obviously overlaps in important was with rhetorics of technology. Indeed, when it comes to some studies, it’s hard to tell the difference. Because of this difficulty, I made the hard decision to leave all media out. This means I excluded not only studies of websites and YouTube from R(S)STE2M2, but also inquiries into the history of photography and the printing press. I’m not happy about this. I’m sure others might be incensed by it. (Again, I’m sorry.) I ultimately decided that since finding the line between rhetoric of technology and new media was an impossible task, that I would exclude it all.

Journal Selection

Now that you know which types of articles, I was looking for, the question of which journals arises. I confined my study to five first rate journals in rhetorical studies—major journals from both the English and Speech/Communications traditions:

My goal was to find out the prevalence of rhetoric of science and medicine in the field. So I left out some obvious contenders like POROI and Health Communication. Great journals, but obviously, the percentage of R(S)STE2M2 articles in likely to be quite high—too high to tell me anything about prevalence. (Note: “Articles” includes articles, introduction, review essays, and interviews, but not book reviews.)

Alright, enough blathering and hedging. Here’s the data:

Journal Total RSTEM Percent
RSQ 112 13 12
WC 97 22 23
JBTC 103 20 19
QJS 111 17 15
TCQ 121 40 33
TOTAL 544 112 21

Table 1: Total number of articles, number of R(S)STE2M2 articles, and percent by journal.

RSTEM Articles Over Time
Figure 1: Number of R(S)STE2M2 articles per journal per year. (Isn’t it interesting how there are significant shifts which correspond to changes in editorship–specifically RSQ and JBTC?)

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Self-aggrandizing publication alert

The title says it all. Carl Herndl and I have a new article coming out in volume 41 of Rhetoric Society Quarterly.

Talking off-Label: The Role of Stasis in Transforming the Discursive Formation of Pain Science

S. Scott Graham & Carl G. Herndl

Abstract: This article uses Foucault’s enunciative analysis and stasis theory to explore the rhetorical work of the Midwest Pain Group (MPG) as they struggle to collaborate across disciplinary difference to transform the discourse and practice of pain science. Foucault’s enunciative analysis explains how discourse formations regulate statements, but not how formations can be transformed. We argue that stases can be thought of as nodes in the networks of statements Foucault describes and that stasis theory explains the rhetorical means through which members of the MPG work to transform the discourse of pain science. As the members of the MPG confront the epistemological incommensurability that exists between their individual disciplines, they establish a meta-discourse in which the definitional and jurisdictional stases help them invent a new definitional topos. We describe the way this rhetorical work occurs ‘‘off-label’’ in violation of the discursive restrictions of scientific disciplines, regulatory agencies, and insurance institutions.

If any of this is particularly relevant to your research, let me know, and we can probably get you an early copy.

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Welcome to Part II of my NCA Teaser Posts. (Don’t worry. It’s only a two part series.) In addition to my excitement about Health Comm @ NCA, I’m also very much looking forward to a variety of Association for the Rhetoric of Science and Technology panels (not to mention the pre-conference). And without further ado, my shameless pitch for your to attend my panel. Here’s a short (5 page) precis of my talk…preceded of course by the time, date and location.

TITLE: Thick Theory and the Return of the Real: Ontology, Materiality, and the Rhetoric of Science

SESSION: ARST Best Student Papers Panel

WHEN: Monday, November 15 12:30

WHERE: Parc 55 Hotel, Filmore Room

Recent scholarship in rhetoric of science has argued that the material aspects of discourse warrant additional attention. This presentation argues that this work can be divided into two primary arguments: one that calls for increased focus on material-economic dimensions of institutions and one that seeks recognition for the role objects play in scientific inquiry. Scholarship from both the institutional-material and ontological-material camps rely on theory appropriated from critical/cultural and science and technology studies. Ultimately, this presentation argues that materialist research that articulates this extra-rhetorical theory to concepts from classical rhetoric offers the best way forward for rhetoric of science.

In its current form, rhetoric as a language of criticism is so thin and abstract that… it commands little sustained attention. (Goankar, 1997 p. 33)

RST currently lacks the philosophical vision to synthesize its knowledge into a coherent story about science and technology. (Collier, 2005 p. 296)

Taken in isolation the above paired epigraphs might suggest that little or nothing was accomplished in rhetoric of science in the near-decade of inquiry between 1997 and 2005. This is not the stand I wish to take—quite the opposite in fact. In this presentation, I will argue that the last decade has benefited from significant theoretical development in the rhetoric of science. More specifically, I argue that recent theoretical inquiry in the rhetoric of science has made significant strides in articulating rhetorical theory to critical/cultural studies and science and technology studies (STS). This research has focused largely on combining the analytic resources of rhetoric with critical/cultural and STS accounts of materiality. In making this argument, this presentation is an explicit effort to tend the garden. “Tending the garden” is Collier’s (2005) metaphor for philosophical and/or metacognitive work that seeks to take stock of the insights gained from diverse samples of empirical data. As Collier argues, rhetoric of science is, by and large, a case-study driven area of inquiry.

While I find that case-study research does, indeed, help to engender more robust theory through hammering it out on the anvil of in situ discourse, I agree with Collier that periodic reflection on what we have learned is critical to the development of rhetoric of science as a field. Subsequently, this presentation will be divided into three major sections: 1) an elucidation of recent calls for increased attention to materiality in rhetoric of science, 2) an exploration of how subsequent research has adapted theoretical resources from critical/cultural studies and STS, and 3) an argument suggesting one productive way to continue this research trajectory—namely, through detailed attention to how those critical/cultural and STS theories can be articulated to traditional rhetorical theory.

Twin Materialities

Traditionally rhetoric of science has focused—somewhat myopically—on internal scientific discourse to the exclusion of the institutional and the material. Recognizing this issue, many rhetoricians have called for a reincorporation of materiality in rhetorical studies. Of course, “materiality” means different things to different people. For some this call for materiality is a call for rhetoric to investigate the economic and institutional forces that surround discourse (Graham, 2009; Herndl, 2000; Kinsella, 2005; Scott, 2003). For others, however, the argument for materiality focuses on the objects of reality and might more aptly be described as an argument for a reincorporation of ontology (Graham, 2009; Herndl, 2000; Lynch, 2009; Marack, 2008). Indeed, these demands for a return to ontology and materiality in rhetorical studies of science are gaining volume and momentum. Recent calls for an embrace of reality, ontology, and/or materiality have been placed in rhetorically-oriented journals form a variety of disciplinary homes. These include articles placed in QJS, RSQ, TCQ, and even College English. Lynch’s work in QJS offers a particularly scathing critique of traditional rhetorical of science. Specifically, he argues that

our traditional theoretical resources, do not provide critics a framework within which to account for features of science separated from the public sphere. The absence of such a framework encourages rhetoricians to betray a trained incapacity to transform considerations of materiality into a species of social control or discourse. (p. 436)

As previously mentioned, responses to this “trained incapacity” can be divided into two primary theoretical areas: the institutional-material and the ontological-material. (Though it should not go without noting, that several of these theorists call for both at the same time.)

Arguments for an institutional-material rhetoric of science typically focus on large scientific institutions and the complicated socio-economic mechanisms that surround them. Scholars from this camp typically draw on resources from critical/cultural studies (Scott; Kinsella) and seek to criticize the leveraging of power in material-semiotic networks such as the military and medical industrial complexes. As Kinsella notes, “contemporary science and technology are characterized by unprecedented degrees of institutionalization, and that in these settings the locus of agency has shifted increasingly from the individual to large systems of power/knowledge” (p. 303). Interrogating these systems of power/knowledge requires new theoretical and methodological tools—tools that account for institutional-materiality. Recognizing this, Scott argues for a hybrid rhetorical-cultural study of science wherein the goal “is to map the connections and power relations among science’s heterogeneous actors” (p. 355). Reflecting on the affordances of this approach, Scott argues that,

it also departs from the traditional subordination of these notions to the individual text. Rather than accounting for cultural entanglements as a way to situate and elucidate texts, a rhetorical-cultural mapping discusses specific texts as a way to elucidate cultural entanglements. In such an approach, the shifting intertext itself becomes the primary object of study. (p. 355)

Alternately, the ontological-material camp tends to focus on laboratory and experimental discourse, and argues that rhetoric of science’s focus on published work neglects the rhetoric of the lab. Specifically these theorists suggest that the field’s traditional focus on hermeneutics and representation creates a situation wherein, “rhetorical studies… fails to give the object its due…”(Marback p. 53). Even more specifically for rhetoric of science, Herndl argues that rhetoric needs to embrace “a [new] model of science and scientific argument that integrates the social and the material with the discursive, but which does not abandon the real” (Herndl p. 217). Additionally, Lynch argues that rhetoricians of science tend to be blinded to objects through their own particular terministic screens which “deflect attention from material practice” (p. 442). Furthermore, he suggests that “separating the material in the rhetorical prevents rhetorical critics from considering the interanimation of the two and, more specifically, how the relationship with specific material elements influences rhetorical practice” (p. 442).

Theoretical Appropriations

Despite these divergent uses of materiality, the solution offered by many of these scholars is the same: articulation theory. Graham, Herndl, Scott, Lynch, Marack, and Kinsella all borrow theoretical resources from science studies theorists such as Latour, Haraway, Galison, and Fuller. Indeed such scholars have offered a cornucopia of engaging metaphors they use to help explain this idea of the material-semiotic. Addressing this question, Latour has offered theories of “hybrids” (1991), “collectives,” “assemblages”, “factishes” (1999), and “actor-networks” (2005). Pickering has explored “mangles” and “dances of agency.” And Haraway—queen of the metaphorical—has introduced STS scholars to “chimeras,” “cyborgs” (1991), “networks,” “cat’s cradles” (1997), and “companion species” (2003)—just to name a few.

It goes without saying that many of these concepts (and others) have been incorporated into rhetoric of science. However, their direct appropriation is not what interests me here. In this presentation, I argue that these theoretical constructs are most usefully deployed in rhetoric of science when they are articulated to traditional rhetorical theory. Many rhetoricians have productively used Latour’s actor-network theory to extend the scope of their inquiry, Winsor’s (2007) reinterpretation of Latour’s doctrine of enrollment as a mechanism of rhetorical agency is something altogether different. Similarly, Wilson and Herndl’s (2007) use of Star and Griesemer’s boundary object as rhetorical exigence or Stromer’s (2004) recasting of articulation under the canon of arrangement all accomplish something greater than a simple appropriation. In fact, I argue that these theoretical developments successfully counter Goankar’s charge concerning the thinness of rhetorical theory. Indeed, this work thickens that theory by linking it to highly productive resources in critical/cultural studies and STS. Though explicating a few of these theoretical moves in greater detail, this presentation ultimately will argue that the incorporation of extrarhetorical theory is not enough to meet the challenges leveled by Goankar and Collier. Instead, rhetoricians of science should actively seek out modes of articulation that can link appropriated theory to the rhetorical cannon. In so doing, rhetoricians can find productive theoretical apparatuses for exploring the material-semiotic networks that surround scientific discourse.Selected References

Collier, J.H. (2005). “Reclaiming rhetoric of science and technology: Knowing in and about the world. Technical Communication Quarterly, 14(3), 295-302.

Collins, H.M. & Evans, R. (2002). The third wave of science studies: Studies of expertise and experience. Social Studies of Science, 32(2), 235-296.

Graham, S. S. (2009). Agency and the rhetoric of medicine: Biomedical brain scans and the ontology of fibromyalgia. Technical Communication Quarterly, 18(4), 376-404.

Haraway, D. J. (1997). Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium.FemaleMan©_ Meets_OncoMouse™. New York: Routledge.

Haraway, D.J. (1991). A cyborg manifesto: Science, technology, and socialist-feminism in the late twentieth century,” in Simians, cyborgs and women: The reinvention of nature (pp. 149-181). New York; Routledge.

Haraway, D.J. (2003). Cyborgs to companion species: Refiguring kinship in technoscience. In D. Idhe & E. Selinger (Eds.). Chasing technoscience: Matrix for materiality (pp. 58-82). Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Herndl, C. G. (2000). Rhetoric of science as non-modern practice. Selected Papers from the 2000 Rhetoric Society of America Conference, 215-221.

Kinsella, W.J. (2005). Rhetoric, action, and agency in institutionalized science and technology. Technical Communication Quarterly, 14(3), 303-313.

Latour, B. (1987). Science in action: How to follow scientists and engineers through society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Latour, B. (1988). The Pasteurization of France. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Latour, B. (1991). We have never been modern. (C. Porter, Trans.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Latour, B. (1992). Where are the missing masses? The sociology of a few mundane artifacts. In W.E.

Bijker & J. Law (Eds.), Shaping technology/Building society: Studies in sociotechnical change (pp. 225-258). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Latour, B. (1999). Pandora’s hope: Essays on the reality of science studies. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Latour, B. (2005). Reassembling the social: An introduction to actor-network theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Little, J. (2008). The role of analogy in George Gamow’s derivation of drop energy. Technical Communication Quarterly, 17(2), 220-238.

Lynch, J. (2009). Articulating scientific practice: Understanding Dean Hamer’s “gay gene” study as overlapping material, social, and rhetorical registers. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 95(4), 435-456.

Marack, R. (2008). Unclenching the fist: Embodying rhetoric and giving objects their due. Rhetoric Society Quarterly, 38(1), 46-65.

Pickering, A. (1995). The Mangle of practice: Time, agency, and science. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Scott, J B. (2003). Extending rhetorical-cultural analysis: Transformations of home HIV testing. College English, 65(4), 349-367.

Selzer, J. (1993). Understanding scientific prose. Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press.

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Health Comm @ NCA

The 96th National Communications Association Conference is just around the corner (Nov. 14-17 in San Francisco)! I’ll be presenting with a couple of different divisions including Health Communication. This post is just a teaser. If the paper looks interesting to you, I encourage you to drop by my Scholar-to-Scholar session and find out more. (Scholar-to-Scholar is NCA’s euphemism for a Poster Presentation.) Check it out, stop by, and/or let me know what you think:

Interdisciplinary Communication in Pain Medicine: The Case-Study as Integrative Exigency

Scholar to Scholar Presents: Bridging Organizational, Public Relations, and Health Communication Practices

Tue, Nov 16 – 12:00pm – 1:30pm, Building/Room: Hilton San Francisco / Yosemite Foyer

The increasing proliferation and isolation of medical subspecialties has come with an interesting, though perhaps not unexpected, side-effect: the demand for interdisciplinary collaboration. Most National Institutes of Health and Center for Disease Control research grants now either require or state an explicit preference for interdisciplinarity. However, as is well known to communications scholars, interdisciplinary dialogue is not always easy. Indeed, in some cases it may be nearly impossible. For some time now rhetoricians of science have been exploring the very possibility of interdisciplinary communication under the rubric of incommensurability studies (Ceccarelli, 2006; Harris, 2005; Prelli, 2005; Herndl and Wilson, 2007). This research has suggested that interdisciplinary communication is generally possible in environments wherein different disciplinary stakeholders share “integrative exigencies” (Herndl and Wilson)—i.e. common commitments to practical goals or ethical values. Certainly funding requirements constitute an integrative exigency, as do the ethical commitments that arise from the Hippocratic Oath. Indeed, these shared material and ethical exigencies make medicine an ideal forum for interdisciplinarity collaboration and communication.

However, the possibility of such interdisciplinary communication is not the same thing as successful interdisciplinary dialogue. This paper presents the results of a pilot study which investigates what genres of continuing medical education (CME) are most effective in fostering interdisciplinarity. In so doing, it investigates the discourse of a multidisciplinary pain management educational organization—the Midwest Pain Group (MPG). [MPG and all subject names are pseudonyms.] Pain is a ubiquitous part of the human condition. Whether patients are afflicted with rheumatologic disorders, neurological diseases, or traumatic injuries, they can suffer considerable pain. Subsequently, pain management is both an area of inquiry and a sphere of clinical practice that requires interdisciplinary communication. Recognizing this integrative exigency, members from over twenty different disciplines and subspecialties founded the MPG in order to share scientific and treatment insights across the disciplines. However, the MPG’s efforts are not always successful. Some CME programs foster greater interdisciplinary engagement than others. In the sections that follow, I present the results of my inquiry into the MPG. Using a combination of ethnographic observations, participant interviews, and discourse analysis, I argue that CME presentations with a significant case-study component are more effective that those that focus on scientific research in fostering interdisciplinary dialogue. After a brief discussion of data collection, I will interrogate the case of the MPG first by exploring the integrative exigencies that foster their interdisciplinary discourse. Then I will investigate the different CME genres and the extent to which each genre succeeded in provoking dialogue.

Download Entire Paper (.pdf)

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Cosmopolitics I-1

Stengers, I. (2010). Cosmopolitics I. R. Bononno, (Trans.). Minneapolis: U of Minnesota Press.

*Note: I write about books for a number of reasons. Most often, it’s to share my thoughts or to critique them. In this case, I’m writing as part of an effort to figure out what it (the book) meant. The following post is my attempt at working my way through the first part of an extremely dense and complex monograph. I make no claims to have gotten any of it “right.”

For the past week I’ve been reading book one of Cosmopolitics book one. No, that wasn’t a redundancy. Rather Isabelle Stengers, a Belgian philosopher of science, wrote seven books originally published in French. Those books are being rereleased in English in a two volume series Cosmopolitics I and II. I just came out, II next year.
So, I regret to admit that my recent foray into Cosmopolitics is my first encounter with Stengers. It seems I should’ve known her before. She’s published a couple of important books in philosophy of science and has notably coauthored with renown physicist Ilya Prigogine before releasing Cosmopolitics. I’ll have to go back and check them out when I have more time.

As I mentioned, Cosmopolitics is a seven book (in two volume) collection. In the preface, Stengers says they can be read in any order, though she recommends consecutively as they constitute a step-by-step argument. So, following her advice, I began at the beginning with Book I: The Science Wars. I’ll start off by saying that with a name like that, I was expecting something entirely different. While the themes addressed certainly mirrored many of the issues prominent in the famed Science Wars of the 1990s, there were no overt references to the Sokal Hoax or any of the surrounding events that typically trigger the use of the term “Science Wars” in Anglo-American discourse. (Of course, it’s not lost on me that Stengers is neither Anglo nor American.)

In any event, the bulk of Science Wars is devoted to introducing Stengers’ idea of an “ecology of practices” as the recommended mode of inquiry for philosophy of science. An ecology of practices studies the complex and dynamic relationships among various modes of practice in and around science. The ecological/relational metaphor comes with an attendant focus not so much on the internal regimes of justification—a focus common to much of philosophical/epistemological science studies—but rather a focus on the ways different practices present themselves to one another. In Science Wars, this focus is most thoroughly investigated through Stengers’ notion of “reciprocal capture.” Stengers defines this as a “symbiotic agreement” or a “dual process of identity construction” (p. 36) wherein conflicting practices develop a mutually beneficial relationship. Much of the discussion of this concept focuses on the production of worth, so I understand reciprocal capture as a means whereby different practices reinforce the (perceived) value of one another. (That last sentence was definitely me free-lancing. I’m not quite sure Stengers would put it that way.)
While the ecology of practices focuses on modes of presentation and justification among practices, it does not do so to the exclusion of issues within practices. Borrowing Latour’s notion of a “factish,” Stengers calls on philosopher of science to interrogate science under the rubric of becoming through focusing on the processes of (arte)fact creation. For Stengers’ the creation of factishes is grounded in the management of practical and ontological constraints which she dubs obligation and requirement. These constraints seem very different from the ideological or genre constraints commonly studied by rhetoricians of science. At this point I’m going to attempt to sum up what Stengers means by constraints, but I’d be lying if I implied that I understood the concept entirely. Stengers is working with very complex ideas and elucidating tremendously subtle varioations. Nevertheless, I’ll attempt it:

  • Factishes carry with them an interpretive obligation—that is because of the practical event (experiment) that created the factish, one is obliged to interpret said fact according to that practice/disicipline.
  • Experimental practice requires the ability to render its object a factish or rather an object that can be factishified.
  • Requirements are addressed to phenomena, obligations to experimental practices.

Clear as mud? I’m very intrigued by these ideas and I hope I’ll understand them better as I progress through the text. In addition to ecologies of practices and constraints Stengers deploys a number of other important concepts of particular interest to rhetoricians. I’m not going to go into them in too much detail here, because there’s a bigger issue at stake (about which more in a second). But, he work make liberal use of Derrida’s reinterpretation of Plato’s pharmakon which introduces an important level of discursivity into Stengers’ work. Additionally, she offers us a truly fascinating concept—which I have yet to totally make sense of: the “nonrelativist sophist.” In fact, Stengers argues for a nonrelativist sophist as identity for philosophical inquirers. I hope to find out more about this one soon.
And now one last issue for this post. I was very excited at the outset when exploring this notion of an ecology of practices. It seemed another excellent metaphor with which I could elaborate my sense of technoscience. However, Stengers argues for precisely the opposite:

“That is why the term “technoscience” does not reflect the interweaving of scientific and techno-industrial development but announces the radicalization of a critical position that the distinction between a “disinterested science” and a “dominating technology” can no longer science. Here, I am attempting the opposite.” (p. 76)

In fact, Science Wars is beset with argumentative attempts to recouperate binaries. Despite the ecological metaphor, Stengers views the various practices of science and technology as distinctly different from one another—and not just different, but also having different levels of worth. “not all are created equal” is a recurrent refrain in the book. At various places, she distinguishes between:

  • Science vs techno-industrial practice
  • Fact vs artifact
  • Physics vs. other sciences

And these distinctions appear to be qualitative. At first, I just wanted to accuse her of being a back-sliding modernist, but that would be unfair. While, I am certainly yet to be convinced, Stengers’ arguments are thoughtful and compelling. Furthermore, her arguments are definitely not mere restatements of the modernist case. Rather, her treatment of these binaries is a reinterpretation of them—in light of postmodernity.

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Recent Readings in STS

I’ve been reading pretty voraciously over the past two months and as such, I’ve not had time to keep up with my book reviews. So this is a catch up post. I don’t normally like to tackle so many works in a single review, but if I don’t write about these now I’ll never have a chance to document them. So here we go, in the order I read them: 1) Bruno Latour (2005) Reassembling the social: An introduction to actor-network theory; 2) Annemarie Mol (2002) The body multiple: Ontology in medical practice, 3) Graham Harman (2009) Prince of networks: Bruno Latour and metaphysics, and 4) John Law & Annemarie Mol, Eds (2002) Complexities: Social studies of knowledge practices.

Latour, B. (2005). Reassembling the social: An introduction to actor-network theory. New York: Oxford UP.

Before reading this book, I was somewhat embarrassed to admit that even though I’d published two articles which rely heavily on actor-network theory, I’d not yet read Reassembling the Social. Now that I’ve finished the work, I’m much less concerned. I find that I have much more scholarly/theoretical affinity for the Bruno Latour of Pandora’s Hope or We Have Never Been Modern that I do for the Latour of Reassembling the Social. Latour’s introduction to ANT takes great care to distance ANT sociology (or as he would prefer “sociolology of associations” or “associology”) from critical approaches to power and hegemony. In fact, he specifically objects to any attribution of power or exploration of influence that cannot be directly traced to discrete actants. Certainly, this approach is in keeping with Latour’s vision of a flat ontology wherein all actants hold equal status as subjects/objects/agents/etc. And while I certianly support the symmetrical ontology and agency of human and non-human actants, I think the “flatness” of Latour’s ontology elides the possibility of emergent phenomena. Even Latour admits that all actants are essentially black boxes, that is, they are constellations of elided articulations of other actants. The scalability of this model should allow for black boxing intensely large constellations of actants, e.g. the military-industrial complex or the medical-industrial complex. This is how I would understand attributions of power to “hidden” forces within a Latourian idiom. However, Latour does not seem to be with me on this issue. He’s, perhaps, too empirical. He will admit know attribution of influence without a directly observable articulation and corresponding result.

As quibbles go, however, this is fairly minor. Certainly, I could point to the many, many things Reassembling the Social does well. The one I appreciate most (yet don’t have the time/space to go into) is Latour’s argument that ANT needs to shift away from metaphysical/epistemological/representational inquiry towards the ontological. Actually, his argument dovetails so well with Mol’s that I’ll leave it to her.

Mol, A. (2002). The body multiple: Ontology in medical practice. Durham, Duke UP.

The Body Multiple is a brilliant ethnographic (actually praxiographic) exploration of atheroscleroses in a Dutch hospital. You probably noticed that I typed “atheroscleroses” instead of “atherosclerosis.” That’s very much intentional. Mol’s inquiry explores the multiple different atheroscleroses that emerge from different sites of practice within the hospital. She investigates these different diseases (read different diseases not different manifestations) through multiple ontologies theory. This approach argues that different ontologies (again plural) emerge from different sites of practice. So the reality of atherosclerosis in the out-patient clinic is different from its reality in the pathology lab and still different from its reality in the surgical ward. Nevertheless, these ontologies still coordinate across different sites of practice through the coordinating activities involved in treating individual patients. I can’t say enough good things about this book and I’m very grateful to Christa Teston for pointing me in the right directions. You should check out her post on the book as well.

Harman, G. (2009). Prince of networks: Bruno Latour and metaphysics. Melbourne: & Graham Harman.

Harmon’s Prince of Networks is a work of philosophy aimed at philosophers. More specifically, it seeks to introduce metaphysicians to the collected works of Latour. Harman argues that Latour is, perhaps, the greatest metaphysician of our age and a great travesty has occurred in that he is not recognized as a philosopher at all. Despite being somewhat overly genuflectional, Prince of Networks is a thought-provoking and engaging read. It is divided into two parts: 1) a summary of Latour’s major writings on metaphysics and 2) a critique and extension of his metaphysical theories. Part one focuses on Irreductions, Science in Action, We Have Never Been Modern, and Pandora’s Hope. Through these chapters and the subsequent exploration of Latour’s thought in the second half of the book, Harman argues that Latour’s primary and truly innovative contribution to metaphysics is the invention of a secular occasionalism. Whareas traditional occasionalists argue that God is the root of all causation, Latour replaces God with what Harman dubs “vicarious causation”–a situation wherein “Any entity is able to form the link between others that previously had no interaction at all” (p. 115).

Harman ends Prince of Networks with an argument for his own approach to metaphysics, an approach he calls “object-oriented philosophy.” Object-oriented philosophy begins with Latourian metaphysics as its foundation but rejects ontological flatness. Instead, Harman argues that there is a binary between “real” and “sensual” or “intentional” objects. It’s just that this binary is not necessarily the same as the debunked one between humans and objects. Under Harman’s theory many objects could be the mediators (“real” objects) that allow for the creation of “sensual” or “intentional” objects. While Harman acknowledges that this sounds dangerously close to phenomenology, he objects to this discretion and points out this his elucidation of real vs. sensual objects never once references humans. Ultimately, I’m unpersuaded. I never found that Harman could adequately account for object-oriented philosophy as, in any way, different from phenomenology. Furthermore, I must question the point of distinguishing between the real and the sensual. I’m still not convinced that such a project has any other utility than the leveraging of power. (But I digress.)

It absolutely should not go without noting that Harman makes a passionate and engaging argument for the return of rhetoric in philosophical inquiry. He vehemently objects to the obsessive focus on formal logic and its criticism which plagues analytic philosophy and argues, instead, for an appreciation of the role of rhetoric is philosophical arguments as more than what the Phaedrus would allow. More specifically Harman argues that the objects of philosophical inquiry (for him, the truth) exceed the capacity of language to describe them. As such, he argues, rhetoric and metaphor offer the best approximation of success available.

Law, J. & Mol, A., Eds. (2002). Complexities: Social studies of knowledge practices. Durham: Duke UP.

Finally, I turn to Complexities– another engaging work of STS that I’m pretty sure I was made aware of thanks to Christa Teston. Check out her blog post here. It’s hard (read: impossible) to sum up an edited collection on complexity (complexities, again with Mol, it’s all about the multiplicities) in a few short lines on a blog post, so I’m not really going to attempt it. Complexity has become an important trope in both science and science studies. The metaphors of systems, networks, rhizomes, etc all play on this notion and it’s one that warrants further attention and consideration. Complexities is a start in this directions. It offers ten exploratory essays on the subject from a variety of perspectives. It contributors include philosophers, sociologists, economists, STS scholars and more. I would draw rhetoricians’ particular attention to the introduction (by Mol and Law) and the essays provided by Chunglin Kwa, Laurent Thevenot, Michel Callon, and Annemarie Mol. The peice by Callon, entitled “Writing and (Re)writing Devices as Tools for Managing Complexity” is arguably a work of rhetorically inspired technical communication scholarship. It investigates the written knowledge management practices of two different corporations and provides an interesting bridge between STS-writ large and technical communication.

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Mac Vs. PC International

I realized recently that I hardly ever post about pedagogy and today’s post is designed to remedy that a bit. Plus, I’m doing something I find extra cool (read: amusing) in class this week and I wanted to share it with the world. I should note one thing first: The idea of this case-study was shameless plagiarized from Quinn Warnick. I did, however, do the necessary leg work to find the entertaining videos.

Course: Business Communication
Unit: Accommodating International Audiences
Case: Mac Vs. PC ads US, UK and Japan
Reading: Fowler, G.A. (Mar 1, 2007). “Mac and PC’s Overseas Adventures; Globalizing Apple’s Ads Meant Tweaking Characters, Clothing and Body Language.” Wall Street Journal, p. B1.

Funny Videos:
I’m not going to be the guy that embeds six videos in a single blog post. I just wont do it. So you’ll have to deal with linking. Sorry. Ok, I will embed my favorite below.

Antivirus Commercial




Pie Chart Commercial




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