Impressive Brains: Latour and Bechdel, Cartoons and ANT

“I am not a closed circuit; I don’t trust my own subjectivity. This is why I try to get as much outside-assertion as I can.”—It’s almost a month ago since Alison Bechdel stated this confession during her keynote address for the Queer Method Conference at Penn on October 31st. I suggest you find a way to get to know her work, listen to her, and see her (!). But try not to freak out during Q&A and tell her how much you admire her, or she will ask you to “please, keep cool.” Afterwards, I suggest you go home and read Latour’s Reassembling the Social.

Not only that Latour obviously likes cartoons (Fig. 1) and other vivid illustrations of his concepts (a classmate of mine made a list containing dozens of his hilarious analogies; I will ask him for an electronic copy, and try to post it here), he seems to respond to some of Bechdel’s uncertainties concerning subjectivity. Since he promises to revalue objectivity (124 f.), subjectivity as opposed to objectivity loses relevance. In transforming the concept of objectivity, Latour offers Bechdel a tool to write about herself in a “warm, interested, controversial” way (125) without making use of her untrustworthy subjectivity: His concept of objectivity as “the presence of many objectors” (ibid.) could grant Bechdel a new perspectivity avoiding her supposedly treacherous subjectivity.

Bechdel already employs “relativity” (146) as suggested by Latour: In knowing her limited view of the world, she prepares her sketches by photographing herself in different poses—or “standpoints” (ibid.). These changes of perspective allow her to reveal and create more and more ties between objects, objectors, and objections. Latour’s view of ANT as method for generating complex accounts (138) is also well in line with Bechdel’s agenda: Her practice in drawing and shading is literally multi-layering (cf. 144), and her attempt to imitate Charles Joseph Minard’s skillfulness in creating a graph of her mother’s life illustrates her belief in the importance of displaying multi-dimensionally entangled relations.

Bechdel’s amazing method of researching and historicizing can serve as an intriguing exemplar for dealing with ghosts a historian of science might discover in the archives, for how to bring them back to life, give them a voice, do “history from the inside out,”1 and yet be aware of the modifying power of my own interpretation. Besides, giving such a painstaking account of real people is one of Latour’s complexity “tests” for “good ANT account[s]” (30). They are particularly interesting in juxtaposition to his appreciation for standards and metrology. According to ANT, successful “description[s]” (147) should be at least as “interesting” (30), fidgety (128 f.; 138), and complex (138) as what they portray.

Latour’s requirement might sound rather puzzling at first, since a model as detailed as the original is certainly of little value—we could as well build globes with a 12,715.43 km diameter (still not willing to let go of the metric system, sorry). Moreover, Latour’s conviction that standards are inevitable features of “being human” (230) does not seem to harmonize with his demand for complexity, at least not at first glance. It appears to me that he draws a line between standardizing practice on the one hand, and the non-structuralist assessment of a society acting this way on the other hand (cf. 153). Ties and agency in the realms of scientific activity can certainly be traced very well if one follows these travelling “universals” (229); they are necessary and enabling for science itself, and fruitful starting points for ANT analyses.

How does this relate to my own project?—I like the idea of challenging neuroscientists with the request for a more complex model of the brain, for a less reductionist way of thinking and researching. Still, precisely the standards they set offer me a starting point for my analyses, helping to uncover how and where these scientists build landings on which they can rest, find a common basis for arguing, hopefully also re-orienting themselves, and deciding on further steps. Standards of this sort can be social agreements, collective vocabularies, accepted methods, common beliefs, shared technologies, and many more. Unlike Bechdel, however, I do not want to uncover my own history; therefore, I should avoid posing on these landings in order to prevent drawing sketches of myself modelling for the researchers I am trying to display. The history I want to write should much more be inspired by looking the archival ghosts or active researchers over their shoulders, using the glasses they wear.

That is certainly not easy to achieve, but luckily, Latour offers quite some helpful suggestions for writing a good social history of science: Do not attempt to uncover causalities, reasons, or the motive in actions; instead, only try to formulate influencing factors (52); know the science before you start writing about it (57); do not succumb to the belief that science is singled out of other human activities (101); if you are able to deal with “shifting ontologies,” you chose the right field to become a pioneer pretty easily (119); do not try to imitate a scientific style in your writing (125); do not abuse your actors as string puppets to found your claim or hide your lack of insight (130); go for source-based case studies and leave your frames on the wall (143)—and don’t be too creative, “[d]on’t fill it in” (150). I hope this last suggestion is not directed against Alison Bechdel. If you watched the videos, you should realize that she did a pretty good job.

1 Only one of David Barnes‘ great advices.

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