Inspired Part 2: Are Imaging Technologies Enslaving because They Have Lost Their Romantic Ambiguity?

I promised to share more thoughts on Tresch’s fabulous work and Vinsel’s inspiring blog series. One topic that keeps coming up is the distinction between “tools” and “machines.” I am not sure if pursuing this road will lead to any illuminating insight, but since it keeps occupying my thoughts and is so well in line with what is happening in the realm of neuroscientific imaging technologies, I thought I’d give it some more consideration.

Tresch does not considerably elaborate on the difference between tools and machines, but I’ve been wondering if his concept of Romantic ambiguity of engaging with these material devices might help to distinguish the two. Tresch writes about Alexander von Humboldt’s use of scientific instruments: “The observer had to gain the instrument’s assent by entering into a dialog, ‘playing’ with it, becoming familiar with its limits and habits. … Making good measurements meant knowing and adjusting to an instrument’s particularities. … Tool and human became a single unit: the instrument was humanized, and the human incorporated in the machine” (80) I.e., “good” science depended on familiarity with the non-human and the non-natural. Nature was not revealed, but perceived through more or less cooperative and resistant cultural manufactures.—Doesn’t this sound familiar? Doesn’t this remind us of the neurosciences, where validity and persuasive power of inferences depend on sophisticated interaction with imaging technologies and statistical methods?

I remember Ofer Gal’s introductory lecture at the University of Sydney’s Inaugural Winter School in History and Philosophy of Science, in which he laid out that early modern scientists perceived their instruments as mere extension of their senses. The question arises: Was Romanticism the first time when instruments were no longer seen as passive mediators and innocent perfections/extensions of human senses? As Tresch describes it, they were assigned transformative constructive power by Romantic scientists (5, 12, 17, 79 and may others)—the first step, I believe, in acknowledging their world-changing and norm-setting potential, which I assign to machines, not to tools.

Of course, Tresch lays out further Romantic lines of thought that remind us rather of Gall’s intents as a Romantic brain scientist than of contemporary brain research: “The ultimate goal was to create a harmonic although hierarchical union among classes, the association that was at the heart of the Saint-Simonian social vision.” (204) Or: Leroux’ pantheism as “middle point, a milieu between, on one hand, a theological spiritualism that would give ontological precedence to God and the soul, and, on the other, a materialism that would deny the existence of both.” (241) As Gall makes explicit and as I am arguing in my (hopefully soon) forthcoming article on his attitude towards sex/gender differences in human brains, he believed that human characteristics were means of realizing a pre-determined divine world order on the one hand, but that experiences influences behavior and material brain conditions on the other hand.

Tresch’s core argument aims at contesting the seemingly controversial perception of machines as mechanistic apparatuses and material determination on the one hand, and machines as vivid productive agents in the Romantic era on the other hand. What the contemporary neurosciences seem to have lost is exactly this ambiguity in their approach to machines and their objects of study: Pure materialistic positivism seems to reign in the neurosciences, e.g. in Russell Epstein’s conviction that “a scientific theory of art is possible.”—Don’t get me wrong; I am an admirer of Epstein’s brain and work, but I believe the neurosciences have to offer more than just a scientific theory of everything. What about an identification of theories about brain and mind we will never be able to prove nor refute, for example, similarly to Gödel’s incompleteness theorems?

I am wondering if the loss of any Romantic enchantment with scientific instruments (yet to determine if tool or machine!) might turn explorative science (like Gall’s initial organological practice) into a suffocating endeavor of forcing labels on people instead (like Verma et al.’s recent assertion that male and female brains are wired differently, and that this is what finally explains the differences between men and women beyond any sexism—in their view).1 Is this going back to the notion of uncovering Truths of Nature inevitably linked to the insurmountable obstacle of obscurity regarding how these transdisciplinarily developed devices actually work?

Tresch believes that “[i]n themselves, of course, machines neither liberate nor enslave. Yet their manifest powers can be yoked to many kinds of projects at different times and under different circumstances.” (305) I partly (dis)agree. Iron and steel probably don’t enslave, but if we understand the whole complex of data acquisition and interpretation methods as well as popular neurosciences’ authority to be part of an extended machine, these devices certainly know how to fortify suppressive tendencies in society—to the disappointment not only of historians of science or feminist neuro-critics, but also of visionary brain scientists like Russell Epstein, I believe. And this is certainly a feature we would not assign to a “tool.”

1 Since reading my first article to which both Raquel and Ruben Gur had contributed, I’ve been wondering how their marriage influences their neuroscientific research on sex/gender differences in human brains. I just did a little google search and found out that “raquel ruben gur wife” retrieves ca. 2,530,000 hits, whereas only ca. 369,000 results are found for “raquel ruben gur husband.” At least google seems to stick to the prevalent gender bias in identifying women almost seven times more with their being a man’s spouse than the other way round.


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