Search results for "science "

Genes and inter-disciplinarity

Author: joe

Friday, 11 November, 2011 - 00:13

The 'gene' is an example of a concept which means something to everyone, but different things to different interests. To mainstream geneticists it is supposed to be the 'molecular unit of heredity'; to lay people the gene is the brute fact that makes us what we are; some sociologists argue that the gene is a social construct; meanwhile a few molecular biologists might also argue that the gene is a convenient shorthand which is otherwise inadequate for the functions we expect it to fulfil.

Each of these different domains brings different conceptions of the gene, often based on disciplinary ontologies which are incompatible, using criteria for factual legitimacy which conflict with each other. The shared use of vocabulary only serves as a mask for the competing accounts of the gene's form, provenance and function. The various morphologies of the gene as they appear in the respective disciplinary approaches often reflect those domains' practices, values and self-preserving interests.

The pursuit of the basic unit of heredity during the 20th century inflected the gene with the pervasive attitudes of the times. As part of the effort to find an explanatory mechanism for heredity as articulated by Gregor Mendel, Wilhem Johannsen's coining of the word in 1909 formed part of the search for a unitary, invariant, material, autonomous and causal 'master molecule' which directed inherited characteristics, phenotypic development and evolutionary variation, which could play the same role in biology that the atom played in physics. As more was understood about the action and dynamism of DNA encoding, the scientific emphasis moved onto 'programming', in which the metaphor of contemporary technological and cultural forms were drafted in to provide a model for the gene's function. By the end of the century, even as the first sketch of the human genome was published, the very notion of a sequence of DNA which had discoverable boundaries, independent causal properties and sufficient reach to account for inheritance, development and variation, was approaching collapse.

At the same time that scientific disciplines intimately concerned with governing the definition and analysis of the gene were gradually developing their ever evolving and nuanced conceptions of its formal properties, the dominant model of genetic determinism was leaking out of the laboratories and journals and into common public understanding. Even if the scientific establishment were to publicly pronounce on the dissolution of the gene in favour of more complex, non-linear, pan-genomic and epigenetic biological development in which a dynamic network of distributed causal processes intertwine with environmental factors to influence individual morphology and heritability, such an epistemic break would be unlikely to reverse the folk-wisdom that can be mobilised to play nature against nurture, account for idiosyncratic behaviour, or even justify dogma and prejudice, by a simple explanatory abstraction which at best appeals to fate and the hand which we are dealt, and at worst ascribes contingent and malleable factors to apparently blind and deterministic forces.

What would it look like to develop shared or non-exclusive ontologies between these competing domains? How might people from each discipline negotiate models that can include different worldviews through accommodation, rather than exclude them through competition? Evelyn Fox Keller's work both as scientist and as a historian of science is instructive. Following her experiences as a woman working within the male-dominated field of science, she contributed to the analysis of the gender-related cultural and social relations that were encoded in scientific approaches that valorised 'master molecules', 'founder cells' and other causal agents in molecular biology, and thus brought into view the way that sciences, because they are caught up in the social order, often discover 'in nature' what they have already put there. However, once her work was championed in the critical field of science and technology studies, she nevertheless maintained that the choice to be either a scientist, or a historian of science, was a false one: it is not necessary to reject all of the accomplishments and affordances of a particular discipline in order to provide a constructive critique of its blind spots or weaknesses. Fox Keller's contribution is salient precisely because she engages with her discipline both as a practitioner and as an observer and critic, rather than merely as an apostate.

The lesson here then is that the bridging between different disciplinary perspectives can't depend on critique alone but must also work by engagement. For example, the partisanship that exists between scientific communities and sociologists of science has little effect on the practice of science as such by its proponents, nor on the engagement with social scientists with empirical problems. Even in multi-disciplinary approaches, such as scientists and artists collaborating in specific research fields, the participants often work in parallel isolation, with non-overlapping methods and dissemination, remaining hermetically sealed from each other's worlds. The challenge of genuine inter-disciplinarity is to bypass 'either/or' choices, and to consider 'both/and' possibilities. How does - or how could - a folk-psychology worldview map onto a scientistic worldview; how might a phenomenological and a positivist approach accommodate each other? What are the consequences for ontology and epistemology in such cases if pursued faithfully?

Categories: inter-disciplinarity, genes, science, ontology, epistemology, Evelyn Fox Keller,
Comments: 0

Wounded research #2

Author: joe

Wednesday, 29 April, 2009 - 07:38

The scrawl on the paper is a residue of a thought, and the reading of it now no more retrieves that thought than water restores dried up remains to their original vitality. I'm looking at the few notes I wrote in the phenomenology / depth psychology masterclass, and wondering if the handwriting itself might give me a clue as to the quality and taste of the thoughts and reflections that provoked them. Still, in the distillery they might briefly miss the port that has left the barrel but soon enough they look ahead to the flavour of the whisky. One of the other participants asked me at the time if I was enjoying the class, and I replied that while it was wonderful to be able to dwell for a couple of days on the place of my self in my work, when it was over I'd still have to return to the pressures of the institution and objectify, alienate and commodify my work and pretend I'd somehow contributed value to a knowledge economy. Actually I didn't quite say that: but that's a fancy way of retrospectively reworking the meaning I think I remember trying to put into brief, friendly, conversational words.

"Objectivity as a performance" is the note on the paper. The discussion turned to the kind of knowledge you'd want a carer to have or use. A doctor needs to slip between different modes - from the caring, interpersonal, individual-focussed human being who talks to the patient about their unique embodied life; to the impersonal, efficient, distant expert who examines your intimate body without judgement. When you visit the doctor and ask him to check your prostrate, you don't want the subjective eye of the appreciative flaneur of the body to be cast over your rectum: you want what Robert refered to as 'the hand of knowledge' to be the hand that touches you; not the hands of aesthetics, culture, poetry. In this respect, the doctor's behaviour is a performance in the strong sense that Goffman would use the word. The embodied, co-presense of two human beings in a room, each of whom have a myriad techniques of the self with which to hold at arms length the blank face of the universe, must always find ways to mediate the event of their interaction: scripts and roles which they understand and which they have already frequently rehearsed. The doctor's role is a difficult one: as any stage actor knows, flicking the switch and moving from one role to another is challenging enough; that the doctor absolutely must play one role, 'dead behind the eyes', but absolutely must not play that way, must 'be there', for the other, only augments that difficulty.

But this legitimation of 'objective knowledge' comes with ambiguity for me: it neither affirms the naive realism that asserts the viability of objective truth, but neither does it deny it. The performance of objectivity by the doctor is comparable to the performance of objectivity by which the drama of science unfolds. Those engaged in the practices and pursuits of scientific knowledge are engaged in a continual enactment of the scripts and signs of objectivity, permitting the collective suspension of disbelief which we all assent to by participating in modern society, and which would crash around our ears should enough of us suddenly nudge our neighbours in the theatre and mention the fact that we're really just decorated monkeys with a knack for communal hallucinations. In either case - the one to one with the doctor, or the continual reproduction of the scientific-technological superstructure - we might ask to what extent is the performance of objectivity a historically contingent phenomenon, or to what extent is the appeal to universal truth a part of the furniture of the mind, or, indeed the furniture of the universe? Of course, we can imagine a world in which those of us in need of care can seek help from others without needing to negotiate our neuroses and thereby demand that our carers perform their schizophrenic roles, and instead meet us with the freedom to be holistic, whole-person healers. But one of the premises of this masterclass is a discipline of depth psychology which is grounded in an archetypal approach to psychoanalysis and psychotherapy, itself a mode of understanding the architecture of the human mind as somehow fixed: the human psyche as a unity in diversity. It helps not at all to say that the structure of the human experience is contingent upon our evolutionary history, if as a species it is still an inescapable, eternal necessity.

Categories: subjectivity, objectivity, knowledge, phenomenology, depth psychology, masterclass, Robert Romanyshyn, science, performance, memory,
Comments: 1

Speculating about the real

Author: joe

Sunday, 08 February, 2009 - 14:29

The anti-scientistic bent which may have been over-emphasised in my narratives lecture series sits oddly with the humanist and rationalist streak that I know is also a fundamental aspect of my thinking.

It is a bit odd that I can call for Dawkins to be made a mullah even while I defend the Foucauldian or Nietzschean critique of knowledge practices and the will to power. Often, I know, I'm just arguing against the prevailing winds of any particular discussion: so maybe newcomers to academic discourse will often use the word 'scientific' as though it simply refers to a collection of precise knowledge we have which is metaphysically true, and so I'll take the critical line in order to problematise such understandings of what science might be. On the other hand, I'll find myself in a discussion with sociologists and phenomenologists and find it impossible to resist arguing that, in at least an important pragmatic (folk-knowledge?) sense if not in a metaphysical sense, we might often find scientists describing a universe in a way which would be true even if there were no humans around to construct (or be interpellated, structurated, socialised, or diagnosed by) such 'truths'.

So that's a dialect between undermining the uncritical acceptance of the feasibility of universal, scientific 'truth-finding' on the one hand, and on the other fighting the same 'absolutism' in Continental philosophy's 'linguistic turn' which denies the knowability of the world. In addition there is the historiographically fascinating journey of scientific knowledge, which brings discourses of progress and democratisation, as well as discourses of imperialism and technocratisation. All on a collision course with my considerable taste for evidence-based thinking, and my utter impatience with woolly credulism and religiosity.

I love the idea of 'science' as 'knowing', but hate it as 'reduction'; I admire it as a pure method, but mistrust it as a diagnosis of humanity; I like it as a myth-buster, but loathe it as mystifying jargon; I'm blown away by its sheer unafraid ambition for discovery, but can't bear its arrogant sense of infallibility and intolerance for critique.

Anyway, for all these reasons, I'm interested in science's own relationship with its history - the schizophrenic attitude it has to the pseudo-Lacanian submission to the laws of the father - rejecting dogma, but building on accepted bodies of knowledge; I'm very intrigued by the current debates being played out by the speculative realists who want to reconnect (what I see as) the phenomenological currents in philosophy with old-fashioned metaphysics; and, of course, I want to figure out this confliction in my own thinking because, frankly, my PhD is doing my nut.

For all these reasons, I thought, as part of my new campaign to write more on this blog, I'd start going through all the material I've circled and bookmarked, or shouted at and whooped over as I've read the lovely crinkly-wrapped New Scientist which arrives every week. I'm not sure exactly what will pop out, whether a specific method of critique will emerge (textual and discourse analysis, deductive reasoning, phenomenological responses, etc) or whether there'll be any trends as to criticism or advocation of what I find. Maybe I'll at least work out some of my conflicted angst about scientific practices. Maybe not. Either way, this post has been by way of introduction. My first go will appear on this blog some time very soon.

Categories: science, positivism, reductionism, phenomenology, philosophy, linguistic-turn, knowledge, dialectic,
Comments: 0

The Transitive Author

Author: joe

Sunday, 08 June, 2008 - 21:00

I've had (this isn't meant to sound as confessional as it does) Roland Barthes on my mind recently. Earlier in the year a student quoted some of him at me in an essay, and I'm afraid I don't think they really grappled with the sense of the text (note I'm not saying they 'interpreted it incorrectly'!) - it was more of a quote-shoe-in to tick the theory box. But the quote - a line I've often glanced over and left behind as I engage in the tmesis of excavating a Barthes text - has kept coming back to me in the form of the question I wrote on the student's paper - 'What do you think Barthes is getting at here?'

Barthes opens The Death of the Author with some introductory questions which help to frame his exercise - he wonders, when a writer writes, whose is the voice? A question that arises because, according to B., writing is 'the destruction of every voice [... writing ...] is the negative where all identity is lost, starting with the identity of the very body writing'. Fine. I love this, and the rest of the essay explores this counterintuitive insight so interestingly that it has made its way into every cultural studies curriculum that ever made a student's life misery. But I find myself returning to the start of the second paragraph - which our friend the student earlier quoted:

No doubt it has always been that way. As soon as a fact is narrated no longer with a view to acting directly on reality but intransitively, that is to say, finally outside of any function other than that of the very practice of the symbol itself, this disconnection occurs, the voice loses its origin, the author enters into his own death, writing begins.
[The Death of the Author]

Leaving aside the discussion of the historicity of the 'idea of the author', and the Foucault debate, and all that, I'm persistently drawn to, and dwell on, that word: intransitively.

To narrate a fact intransitively is to narrate a fact no longer with a view to acting directly on reality.
To narrate a fact transitively is to narrate a fact with a view to acting directly on reality.
To speak transitively is to intend to act on reality.
Write with purpose, with an object.
A subject acting on an object.
To narrate a fact intransitively is to speak no longer with a view to acting directly on reality.
To speak intransitively is to speak without purpose, without object.
[Joe's head, a lot, recently]

Of course, I can understand that B. at this point heads off into his own particular intentional use of 'intransitively' - that is that 'the claim to decipher a text is ... quite futile'. Indeed, the entire business of dwelling on 'what Barthes is getting at' has a bottomless irony which peered into too long gets quite vertiginous. But I am a human being - indeed, I am an impure thinker - and when addressed by a speaker, even if it is across the sea of the 'starred text', the chasm of decades and the incommensurability of two different native tongues, I first reply: 'what do you mean?'

So the word 'intransitively' follows me around. The author speaks without intention in the way that the dead speak to the living - either through the reconstruction of the memories of the living, or in the cynical charlatanism of the medium/critic. But I read transitivity differently (as, I think Barthes would agree, is my right). To speak transitively is to intend to act on reality. To speak transitively is to not only want to change the world, but to attempt to do so. I saw a quote by Hunter S Thompson on, of all places, a Facebook profile, which captured that intention:

Although I don't feel that it is at all necessary to tell you how I feel about the principle of individuality, I know that I am going to have to spend the rest of my life expressing it one way or another, and I think that I'll accomplish more by expressing it on the keys of a typewriter than by letting it express itself in the sudden outbursts of frustrated violence.
[Apparently this comes from The Proud Highway]

But even when writing is not a valve for pent-up rage, who pretends to speak without the intention of changing the world? A dissertation I marked recently also indirectly stabbed at this idea: do documentaries effect social change? Of course it is an impossible question to answer, but it provokes the thought that the documentary form covers a spectrum of approaches - and the approach that pretends to 'reflect' reality, and offer an 'intransitive' factual window onto reality is only the most dishonest form.

A colleague of mine recently gave a seminar on his work. Trevor Hearing explores the documentary film form as a way of engaging in scholarly work - to use film-making both as a research tool, and as a way of communicating academic knowledge. It forces recognition of a dialectic between film and text - the practice of visual 'story-telling' versus the abstract, supposedly 'factual', textual form, and this reveals the hidden values of each. The very things that Trevor's films are made of are human actions and interactions and their interface with the documents, visual, textual, and filmic, that human beings by their very productive nature leave behind them.

But again, what Trevor's stimulating and fascinating work illuminates is the dishonesty of that peculiarly academic practice of writing papers in which the author 'disappears'. The stock comment to write on student essays is often 'try to write less subjectively - be more objective...' - or - 'try not to write in the first person...' what other perspective do we actually expect people to write from? Where is this mythical third person position whence the academic writes? In fact, the academic paper is a worked and reworked artefact, painstakingly laboured over by a human being, in a chair, with a tilting head, and a breathing, aching body. That disappearing 'I' is a fiction. If Trevor's film had so many edits as that supposedly free-standing, evidence-based, objective - intransitive - academic paper, the cuts would leap out of the screen and reek of manipulation. The emphasis on, not the disappearance of, the author is what makes Trevor's film so much more meaningful.

One of the strange ironies of knowledge is that the practices and the discourses are so often at odds with each other. Science stakes a claim to be a 'descriptive' practice - that is, its methods produce descriptions of the world - reflections if you will. This is at the heart of the scientific claim on truth - that language can be bent into a form that faithfully describes and corresponds to brute reality - that language can be made intransitive but faithful. Actually, the real products of sciences are the world-changing technologies that every minute break the human connection to the past. And these extensions of man are made precisely because that linguistic practice is so very transitive, so very laden with rhetorical, persuasive action, discursive power, intention. With our knowledge, constructed as it is from experience and language, we act irreversibly.

I seem to have used Barthes' Death of the Author to argue in favour of the reappearance of the author. Blimey. But then, he is dead.

Categories: barthes, author, post-structuralism, knowledge, transitive, intransitive, writing, truth, science,
Comments: 0

The Science of the Life of the Metaphorical City

Author: joe

Sunday, 01 July, 2007 - 15:39

Saigon is like all the other great cities of the world. It's the mess left over from people getting rich.

P J O'Rourke, Give War A Chance, 1992

That Homer's Odysseus saw many cities and knew the minds of their men signifies the increase of his wisdom through world-weary experience. The biblical depiction of the city is constantly overshadowed by the lost Jerusalem, and tends inevitably to Sodom and Gomorrah. For Sallust and for Bacon, the city is venal, awaiting its purchaser - Rome found its purchaser in Julius Ceaser: but his accession to the consulship through corruption and bribery is not an exclusively antique problem. The ends may justify the means when the means are the norm. Milton's cheerful man sees 'Towerd Cities' as pleasing with the 'busie humm of men' in L'Allegro, but just as Keats later sings that it is 'very sweet to look into the fair and open face of heaven' ... 'To one who has been long in city pent', so Milton, no doubt his inspiration:

As one who long in populous city pent,
Where Houses thick and Sewers annoy the Air,
Forth issuing on a Summers Morn to breathe
Among the pleasant Villages and Farms
Adjoind, from each thing met conceives delight...

Paradise Lost, Book IX, ll445-449

And yet these cities from antiquity would certainly seem to us rural dreams, and it is the countryside which now reeks of ordure. As my brother likes to say, 'I don't like the country. The country stinks of shit.'

We look at the city and see what it is expedient to see, but understanding the city is another matter, and we resort to metaphor in the absence of better ways to conceive them.

I knew a man who was employed as a planner in Slough, which always seemed to me to be too little too late. Surely as O'Rourke implies, the city is an accretion of the short-minded desires of money? In the grander scheme of things, isn't it an organic evolving creature, developing in ways without intention, from causes whose source may seem deliberate at the scale of the individual, but whose macroscopic expression is as blind as the brute force of evolution?

Researchers and economists at Arizona State University have apparently debunked the 'metaphor' of the city as organism. But which metaphor of the city is it that they have debunked? The city as organ connected by the arteries of highways that conduct our cell-vehicles, carrying their payloads of organelle-humans with their protein-transactions? The city as evil chakra of the nation-body producing the tainted urges of consumers, driving us towards the un-nirvana of progress with the dark energy of desire? The city as phenotype, the built extension of man, fashioned from the technologies of industry to produce machines for existence? No, this is city-organism as biological consumer of literal energy, which even as it increases in scale linearly, consumes energy with a surprising and increasingly efficient non-linearity. This seems a rather modest metaphor of the city to pick issues with.

If one thinks of the human mind as a device for pattern recognition, then both metaphor and scientific model are totalising ways of conceiving the world. George Lakoff sees metaphor and metonymy, indeed, as the fundamental units of human consciousness. And it is ostensibly the object of the scientific method to reduce the world to a set of rules which all phenomena can then be shown to positively corroborate. But metaphor, while it forces unity onto disparate entities, is a profoundly productive thing. The complexity of the cultural world around us - including our cities - are products of the richness of metaphorical fertility. Metaphorical production increases the variety of the world, which the scientific method then reduces to ever fewer principles.

It might at first appear laudable for governments to set out to create eco-towns, based on science and planning: 'carbon-neutral', 'asset-owning', 'imagination-showing'. But it seems, however, that the very desire to impose totalised structures onto the lived experience and lived-in environment of people is no more than destructive vanity. Surely there is very little difference between venal men with short-term monetary goals imposing their mark on their city, or men in search of power imposing their designed systems onto entire urban landscapes? Michael Batty: "Cities have never grown in the way that urban planners imagined... which is why the grand plans are rarely successful." (Pearce, F., Ecopolis Now in Eco-cities special, New Scientist, 16 June 2006, 2556)

Fred Pearce observes: " the other end of the scale are shanty towns - organically evolved and self-built by millions of people in the developing world without a planner in sight. These shanties ... are high-density but low-rise; their lanes and alleys are largely pedestrianised; and many of their inhabitants recycle waste materials from the wider city... shanties and their inhabitants are a good example of the new, green urban metabolism. Despite their sanitary and security failings, they often have a social vibrancy and ecological systems that get lost in most planned urban environments."

Fancy that - social vibrancy and ecological systems arising spontaneously in the world of poverty and capitalist neglect. What kind of planning system, based on scientific rigour, can be implemented onto built environments, that account for the metaphorical richness life built from the ground, and how would it deal with the Ghost City and the megalopolis?

The future may well be the ecopolis, non-linear organism, precisely laid out and regimented, carbon-neutral, asset-owning, imagination-showing, under constant surveillance, and ruled totally by the diviners of simulated intention, indistinguishable from the thought police.

Give me open sewers any day.

Categories: city, urban, science, metaphor, eco-town, ecology, shanty-town, capitalism, spontaneous, production, thought-police, surveillance,
Comments: 1

Life on the Web

Author: joe

Friday, 15 June, 2007 - 21:20

While I have the usual reservations about scientific positivism - not so much that it is a kind of imperialism, but rather that it is ultimately a totalising method, leaving little room for the qualitative experiences of people - I nevertheless have no sympathy for those nay-sayers, flatearthers, religious charlatans and general luddites who insist that anything that comes under the nomenclature of 'genetics' is FrankenBad.

Are we determined by nature? Are we determined by nurture? Why would the latter be so preferable to the former? Surely it is the 'determinism' itself that instils the fear. Or, if a creationist, why are you so reassured by the idea that you are determined by a God? How stultifying. And besides, why think of nature versus nurture, as though they are opposing ends of a spectrum? Why not think of nature and nurture as parallel determining, but open-ended, forces?

If the determinism of the physical laws of the universe is able to result in such a diverse and mind-boggling phenomenon as the universe itself with its dark matter, strange quarks, planetary nebulae, disc galaxies and comfortingly reliable gravity, why should we resent being also determined? Given that such determinism nevertheless is so convoluted as to produce the sense of agency that we so dearly cling to and to which we attribute our illusion of individuality, should we not be grateful for the laws that result in it? Wasn't Keats basically full of shit when he moaned about unweaving the rainbow? (I think that's a fair summary of Dawkins' book).

I say all this by way of pre-emptive defence. If you don't like an idea, the easiest way to attack it is to attack its author - and once you have dispensed with that author, all his subsequent ideas become anathema. E. O. Wilson, author of Sociobiology has incurred the wrath of the aforementioned nay-sayers, since his ideas can be caricatured as the basest form of genetic determinism - a gene for homosexuality, a gene for liking people called Alicia, a gene for grazing your knee when you're 12. Evolutionary psychology is an easy target for those who wish to further their own agenda - such as continental philosophers, proponents of the 'blank slate' (not in themselves objectionable, just intellectually weak as demonstrated by Pinker), cognitive scientists, sociologists with no knowledge of biology, and the like.

But I repeat - if there were, say, no gene for altruism after all, would we suddenly cease to bother being altruistic? And if there were found such a gene, would it mean our altruism were worthless? There is category error in abundance here.

So, having attempted to head off, at the pass, the common criticism of Wilson, I stand in awe at the project that is the Encyclopedia of Life. An electronic page on every species known to man. A collaborative project between a number of biological research institutions to make available to everyone our accumulated knowledge of earthly diversity:

When completed, will serve as a global biodiversity tool, providing scientists, policymakers, students, and citizens information they need to discover and protect the planet and encourage learning and conservation.

An excellent intervention of knowledge into the public domain, and an awesome implementation of the power of our network, the determinedly FrankenBad Internet.

Categories: science, biology, genetics, determinism, encyclopedia-of-life, sociobiology, agency, network, public-domain,
Comments: 0

The scientist in the garret

Author: joe

Wednesday, 26 April, 2006 - 23:55

Highly enjoyable viewing recently came in the form of Mark Lawson interviewing Sir David Attenborough. Initially I was frustrated and enraged by a particular line taken by Lawson: having established Attenborough as a secular Darwinian, Lawson then framed his following question so as to imply that secularism, and the scientistic methodology / worldview doesn't allow for value. Given that you don't concede any inherent absolutist, religion-driven moral view of the world, he implied, why even bother trying to communicate your enthusiasm? Indeed whence that enthusiasm?

Part of me hopes, and would once have assumed, that this question was a nice rhetorical BBC type question, placed there to allow someone with the privileged knowledge of the universe to share an understanding with us lesser mortals.

Increasingly, however, I suspect a different reason for this kind of question, which isn't simply to allow the exposition of a position in a debate, but stems from an inability for humans from the humanities to conceive of humans engaged in science as anything but inhabiting a Sartrean existential void.

In other words, people grounded in the arts adopt a similar stereotype of science and scientists as the religious faithful adopt towards the secular. This is particularly ironic since it was the artistic types who first set out to occupy the ennui and angst of the existential attic. But they were drinking absinthe and creating synthetic meanings for themselves - whereas now the scientists have truly removed meaning from all facets of living. Perhaps the artists feel shamed that they were not able to go the whole hog. The irony is, of course, that the humanities have shrivelled into a 'cultural relativist' and correspondingly bleak view of life, while the sciences give us far more food for wonder than any small-minded religious fable.

Categories: science, arts and humanities, religion, david-attenborough, existentialism, Darwinism,
Comments: 0

Richard Dawkins for president of the world

Author: joe

Monday, 09 January, 2006 - 21:41

I have just finished watching the first episode of Richard Dawkins' new series on Channel 4, The Root of All Evil.

Firstly, the most pressing thing to say is that this is the best and most important piece of programming I have seen on the Television since Adam Curtis' The Power of Nightmares.

Secondly, Dawkins must be congratulated for having the courage of his convictions and pressing his views home in the face of undoubted risk from fundamentalist fascists who may now consider him a target.

Thirdly, why did the editors of this programme feel the need to switch a to 'fly-on-the-wall' documentary style whenever Dawkins' exposition veered towards blasphemy? Channel 4 would have shown real conviction by allowing Dawkins to lay out his arguments in the same way that Robert Winston is allowed to present his, or likewise Schama is able to expound on his subject. By using editing techniques to signify that Dawkins is presenting a 'point-of-view', they defeat the entire object of his argument.

Fourthly, I would like to see the BBC dare to produce programming like this in a prime-time slot.

Finally, why are there only two episodes, and not an entire digital channel?

That aside, hurrah, bravo, make the man a mullah, etc

Categories: science, fundamentalism, religion, education, media, fascism, politics, documentary, television, faith, reason,
Comments: 0

Practice-based Research

Author: joe

Monday, 19 December, 2005 - 16:03

This entry is written to address and extend Cath's previous post about theory and practice, and also to reflect on a seminar I attended last week about Practice-based Research.

What are theory and practice?

What Cath has outlined is a common way of looking at what are considered to be two ontologically different activities: creativity and reflection. Creativity is often also called art, practice, production. Reflection is often called research, theory, analysis, criticism. The former is often aligned with imagination, emotion, and that part of human existence which is thought of as 'unrationisable'. The latter is often aligned with systematic thinking, reason, what is 'rationisable'.

There is a lot of merit in thinking of them as ontologically different activities. Artists often consider themselves to be drawing on ineffable, inscrutable, undescribable inspiration. Theorists, in contrast, consider themselves to be engaged in the pursuit of analysing and describing phenomena. You could go so far as to say that the practice of art is based on subjectivity, while theory is based on the pursuit of objectivity.

Since the two activities can be understood in such mutually exclusive terms, it is understandable that individuals see themselves as primarily interested in one or the other. Hence arise compromises in the academic environment: practitioners are goaded into engaging with theory, with the encouragement that a 'critical awareness' will support their practice. And we're all familiar with the reverse situation, where 'academics' are accused of being out of touch with 'the real world' because they deal with abstractions rather than 'production' or 'industry'.

Theory and practice are the same

In the middle of this dichotomy are academic departments like my own which are trying to 'unite' theory and practice in teaching and learning. Rather than having separate strands, some of which address theory issues, while others address production and practice, a new program of teaching has been designed to integrate both.

The discourse on this approach tends to run along the lines of 'diminishing the divide between theory and practice', 'demonstrating the relevance of theory to practice', or 'showing that theory and practice are parts of the same process'. (Interestingly, while there has been a lot of such discourse, there has been very little about how the teaching of theory and practice are integrated. This is left to the discretion of clumps of individual teachers to decide).

The strengths of this approach range over a number of areas: the learning experience for an undergraduate is improved because

The teaching experience can be better because:

However, there is a major weakness to this approach too. This is the danger that theory is taught merely as it serves the objectives of production - theory in effect becomes subservient to practice. This in itself is not the bad thing: any practitioner who engages with theory will tell you that it informs their work. The bad thing flows from this new emphasis.

Theory and practice are not the same

When theory is cherry-picked as it seems to be relevant to practice, it loses its own logic.

For example: I am currently involved in teaching a unit called 'Narratives', which follows on from a unit called 'Images', and which leads into a unit called 'Audiences'; the students are learning Interactive Media. Some of the key ideas that are associated with this 'Narratives' unit inlcude the idea that 'narrativisation' is something that we all do all the time - it's not something that only people we call story-tellers do; that narratives encode, reinforce and query the cultural values we live with; and that the idea that a magician-like author creates a narrative for a reader to correctly interpret is problematic. Key 'theorists' here include Barthes and Foucault, whose dialogic works in the 60s and 70s blew apart notions of what an author is, what a text is, and what a reader is.

Previously, critical thought in the literary tradition of F.R Leavis and others, saw the work of correctly interpreting a text by an author as an exercise in acquiring enough erudition in the field of the text, the author and their period. Such acquired learning then gave that reader the ability to hand down to the rest of us, with less erudition, what this author was really trying to do. AB&F (After Barthes and Foucault), the author and the reader become fused, and the text becomes a hot, creative space where creative, interpretative acts occur. The erudite reader no longer is entitled to a 'correct' reading: the erudite reader simply has a different reading. Every reader, regardless of education and erudition, creates the 'writerly' text as they engage in the creative, productive act of reading. This was revolutionary and profoundly anti-elitist.

In the necessity-driven context of short weekly seminars delivering theory and practice designed to demonstrate their relevance to each other, the revolutionary nature of these ideas is in danger of being lost, and the notions of readerly and writerly texts become simply parts of a vocabulary necessary for assessment. What is the point of talking about the writerly text if there is no understanding of the fact that the writerly text is above all a political idea, rather than a literary one?

Theory is pointless

There is a rather lovely irony in theory AB&F: interpretation is subjective, but no less valid for being so. One does not need to be educated to have valid interpretations of texts. You don't have to know the theory of the writerly text to be constantly producing it. The 'message' of theory today is that you don't need to learn theory. There has been a simultaneous development in critical writing of, on the one hand, work that is impenetrable to lay-people because of the accumulation of jargon and technical mumbo-jumbo, while on the other hand, a message that argues that it is not necessary to become better educated and more learned in order to have valid, productive responses to cultural artefacts. Theory in this reading has become a prank on those who pursue it, and it is therefore no suprise that theorists' writing has developed this shroud in order to conceal the vacuum within. It is admittedly a difficult problem: how, as a member of a segment of the population which has been lucky enough to attain such a brilliant level of learning, do you then preach that such learning is not necessary? When you want to argue that becoming erudite is just an elitist plot, how do you say so without seeming to pull up the ladder to education behind you? If there is no right or wrong, just a lot of discourse, what is the point of anything at all? Who cares whether someone's understanding of the writerly text is political or literary when either interpretation is equally valid?

Theory is not pointless

It may be inevitable that once-revolutionary ideas eventually become obvious and assumed. New generations grow up in cultures where what once seemed earth-shattering is now common sense; they in turn go on to produce new ground-breaking, earth-shattering ideas. The point of critical theory (as opposed to 'being to a theorist'), though, is not to believe the message of theory, but to examine and question obvious, common sense ideas and assumptions. There was an earth-shattering point when mankind began making marks on objects in order to communicate with absent people, yet today we can take it for granted. By engaging with the historicity of that moment, we can enter a place where it seems suddenly remarkable to be a human being, and that the world we live in becomes an amazing organic product of countless revolutionary things which seem now to have disappeared behind the everyday surface of life. On a smaller but more pressing level, questioning the assumptions about the way of the world is a necessary social act in a global culture which is marked by war, immoral economic inequity and cultural conflict on an unprecedented scale.

The pursuit of critical thinking and theory as an end in itself, then, has the strength of allowing all events, developments and works to be seen as political acts, precisely because theory tries to contextualise and historicise those acts, events, developments and works, and shed light on the social and political relations that combine to create that history. This is reason enough that theory should be considered separately to practice, since an artist trying to analyse and compensate for all of the cultural assumptions that may go into producing the work will end in a paralysis of self-censorship.

Theory kills practice

One thing which seemed to emerge from the seminar on Practice-based Research I attended last week was the idea that the creative act in practice, and the systematic thought in theory, are mutually incompatible. In romantic literary terms, we might say that the creative act is inspired by a muse - an unknowable goddess - who provokes, or even produces the creative drive in the artist. In modern language, we might say that art is the product of a creative act of the imagination, which is yet to be deciphered in evolutionary, biological or functional terms. Were the muse to be 'understood', or 'theorised', she would no longer be an inspiring goddess; were the imagination to be deterministically mapped, it would no longer be the magical source of our creativity.

I woud refute this idea for a number of reasons:

Theory is a practice

A tacit assumption that seemed to be at work in the Practice-based Research seminar was the idea that theory is a necessary but unpleasant activity. The seminar appeared to be a long apology for theory. Perhaps this is a reflection of the stereotyped view of theory as a Casaubon activity, dry, solitary, monotonous, incorporating 'bean-counting', dealing with abstractions and generally joyless. It's about spending too much time reading books and writing papers no-one reads.

I suppose that an artist, in the creation of an artefact, even if the motivation is pure self-expression, would acknowledge that at some point the work is destined to be recieved by an audience. And I also supppose that the artist would grant that when an audience enters into a relationship with the work, they too engage in a creative act of interpretation, empathy, outrage, emotion, revulsion, agreement, and reflection.

The act of reading requires the reader to enter into just such an act of creativity, with all the interpretative possibilities that offers. The practice of theory is about engaging in that creative act. And just as an artist would acknowledge that their output enters into a dialogue with other work and doesn't exist in isolation, so the practice of theory is about entering into a dialogue. Writing is a productive, transformational activity, regardless of whether it is conceived in advance as a piece of literary art or a piece of critical writing.

While I was writing this, my computer crashed and I had to start all over again. The content I rewrote was not the same as the first version. I could write this a hundred times, and every time it would be produced differently, precisely because the act of writing is creative and spontaneous.

Traditional Academia

The final thing I want to write about was the presentation of research in humanities as distinct from research in more traditionally academic subjects. Clearly there is a complex problem arising from the history of academia, and the perception that social science research is 'soft' science. There is also a reverse problem, where the humanities see traditional areas like scientific research as having an unwarranted dominance over the arts. Scientific methodologies get described as 'bean-counting' and are accused of being 'patriarchal'.

Partly this is because of the post-structuralist purgatory that has emerged in humanities, where the scientific method is simply seen as a discursive tool by which vast swathes of dead white males rule the world, and a technocratic hegemony reinforces its hold on cultural development. The scientific response certainly ought to be: show us where your theories predict reproducible phenomena, rather than haranguing us from the sidelines with philosophical contortionism.

More fundamentally, however, I think there is a misconception here that only creative arts engage in practice during research. I can't think of a single field of enquiry where the researchers in the field wouldn't argue that what they do is a creative practice. It's actually monumental arrogance to claim that the creative act is the domain of art, while other kinds of knowledge don't involve imagination and creativity. However, it is not so obvious that the arts education system is providing students with the same theoretical rigour provided by sciences.


One only has to look at the rise of creationism, intelligent design, fundamentalism, the increasing mistrust of science in issues of public health and the decline in uptake of science education to see that an anti-Enlightenment sentiment is gaining ground. What part do people (humanities graduates?) working in the creative industries today play in that?

Categories: research, humanities, practice, art, science, theory, creativity, elitism, writing, postmodernism, post-structuralism,
Comments: 1

Solar simulation

Author: joe

Saturday, 08 October, 2005 - 18:44

Well it's been a pretty hectic couple of weeks, what with the start of term and all.

I have, however, managed to launch a pet project I have been developing for a while, which is a 3D simulation of the solar system. The idea is to explore using interactive simulations or tools for learning.

At the moment, the simulation has only basic interactivity, but in time I expect to add in info about the solar system, and interactive responses to actions such as altering the planet size, spin speed and oribtal period.

It's both an experiment in interaction design, and an expression of my nerdy enjoyment of space science and Lingo programming :)

3D Solar System simulation

Categories: learning, interactivity, planets, space, simulation, science,
Comments: 1

Science week part 8

Author: joe

Friday, 22 July, 2005 - 18:35

Final podcast from the OU Practising Science residential school, wherein the author returns, exhausted, to the real world, head full of rigourous knowledge found through well-established methodologies.

Science week part 8 podcast mp3

Duration: 6:21; Size: 3MB

Categories: podcast, science, learning,
Comments: 0

Science week part 7

Author: joe

Friday, 22 July, 2005 - 10:35

The end of the last full day, and the world is full of decay...

Science week part 7 podcast mp3

Duration: 19:18; Size: 10MB

Categories: podcast, science, learning,
Comments: 0

Science week part 6

Author: joe

Thursday, 21 July, 2005 - 08:24

Biology and Titan day. In Life Sciences we looked at mitosis and the effect of radiation on chromosomes, and then I went to a seminar about the latest data from Titan...

Science week part 6 podcast mp3

Duration: 17:46; Size: 9MB

Categories: podcast, science, learning,
Comments: 0

Science week part 5

Author: joe

Wednesday, 20 July, 2005 - 18:55

Last night was karaoke night at the OU residential school. Fortunately I was spared the humiliation of singing, but one of the girls in my tutor group has was fantastic, so you can hear Faye sing...

I'm not very with it in this podcast ;)

Science week part five podcast mp3

Duration: 8:42; Size: 5MB

Categories: podcast, science, learning, karaoke,
Comments: 0

Science week part 4

Author: joe

Tuesday, 19 July, 2005 - 17:13

Group research project today and a very brief post and podcast :)

Science week part four podcast mp3

Duration: 3:51; Size: 2MB

Categories: podcast, science, learning,
Comments: 1

Science week part 3

Author: joe

Monday, 18 July, 2005 - 23:40

Today was field trip day - a trip to Birling Gap and Newhaven on the south coast, to study the geology and ecology of the area and their relationship to each other.

Fantastic day if long and tiring... But really good experience of acquiring raw data and using it.

We looked at the geology of the chalk cliffs, the flint seams and the other rocks and soils at the top, and figured out what they tell us about the history of the area. We also examined the kinds of vegetation on the cliff-tops and figured out how the geological history has shaped the kind of plant life that exists now.

Almost too shattered to speak...

Science week part three podcast mp3

Duration: 16:50; Size: 8MB

Categories: podcast, science, learning,
Comments: 1

Science week pics

Author: joe

Sunday, 17 July, 2005 - 23:36

Phonecam pics of my week on the OU science residential course are growing on flickr now!

Categories: science, photos,
Comments: 0

Science week part 2

Author: joe

Sunday, 17 July, 2005 - 23:16

Wow. Today was chemistry day. We put samples of metal salts into a bunsen burner flame and compared the colours of the flames. Then we did spectroscopy to get a more precise measurement of the different metals' spectral fingerprint. Once you can do this, you can tell what distant stars are made of. How cool.

Then we mixed up different reagents into metal nitrates, and saw which ones produced precipitate and how they changed colour. Then went on to use these techniques to assess the amount of aluminium present in drinking water. Hands-on practical stuff.

Chemistry was always my least favourite part of scince at school, but the stuff we did today was really engaging. The activities are brilliantly constructed and prepared, and the tutors are great.

Tomorrow we do the field trip on the South coast. Early start...

Connecting via mobile is WAY expensive, so sod that, I'm off to find some free wifi hot-spots in town :)

BTW - thanks to 5511 5305 in Brighton whoever you are for letting me stowaway on your broadband wireless!!

Science week part two podcast mp3

Duration: 7:48; Size: 4MB

Categories: podcast, science, learning,
Comments: 1

Science week part 1

Author: joe

Saturday, 16 July, 2005 - 23:50

This is the first of a week of podcasts from my science practise residential school with the Open University.

I've come to the University of Sussex at Lewes near Brighton, UK. The course is SXR103 Practising Science. I'm going to use these podcasts to keep notes of what we do, and see where using podcasting as a learning support will take me.

The first thing I've learnt is that while Sussex Uni doesn't have wireless internet access, I can use my mobile to connect to the internet!!! So these podcasts will be short and sweet, cos its slow and expensive :(

Science week part one podcast mp3

Duration: 3:06; Size: 2MB

Categories: podcast, science, learning,
Comments: 1