I love how having a “real life outside the Department”1 contributes to my work-related ideas. Most of the time, however, they remain work-related ideas, and cannot be transformed into actual reading and writing, since what I am currently working on are mainly the assigned readings for my weekly classes. Be that as it may, living the “real life” meant attending Mariposa‘s new member orientation on Sunday, where I found myself sitting next to a Penn teacher (whose name I will not tell, since I am not sure if she wants the world to know that we met, and that it happened in this specific location). Before the two-hour ideological indoctrination started, we spent a few minutes talking about our work and mutual acquaintances in the HSS Department. As it turned out, she had co-authored several papers on the history of arts and sciences with Penn HSS faculty. Thanks to our introduction-to-rule at Mariposa, I found out her name (as well as gender self-identification and food co-op experience), and was able to google her department website in the evening.
This is how I found out that she has submitted an article on “new organology” to Osiris, which should be published very soon. Even though I suspected it might deal with musical instruments instead of brains, I obtained a draft, and found many thoughts also suitable for Gall’s organology (= early phrenology) and recent neuroscientific research: The article touches very briefly on fMRI as an instrument with agency, comparable to self-playing musical instruments with “diabolic” notions.2 The paragraph aimed at contrasting several contemporary instruments—like fMRI and bubble chambers—from previously used instruments—like the microscope. The latter were intended to extend or replace human imperfect senses, denying that their use modified human perception and scientific reasoning.
I have a theory about fMRI or similar data generating and analyzing machinery complexes, but I would need to go into “the field” or to the historical records to elaborate on it. As for now, I can only share some ideas: I find fMRI to be a completely different type of instrument than a microscope in so far as it is not meant to perfect the human gaze on the brain, but to create a new and reliable computer-aided, statistically proven view of and in human matter—and beyond. An fMRI seems to be not only a supplement to a human organ, but a newly developed type of organ, purposefully implemented in a non-human agent: the unfailing machine and the statistical analysis of its data. This machine is intentionally distinct from the scientist, and presented to be—at least in principle—totally reliable, unbiased, and apolitical. Unlike the “diabolical” self-playing instrument, these new apparatuses seem to guarantee immaculate perception and data analysis, while human reasoning has been proven to be prone to errors as well as socially and ideologically influenced.
Scientists, as it seems to me, created a new type of instrument, a complex of data acquiring and analyzing tools with agency, and handed over the responsibility for reliability to their creation. Self-playing musical instruments might have seemed scary or “diabolical” because of their creative agency, while fMRI is worshipped for its ability to display what is in principle unperceivable by humans. Something in the way people use instruments and perceive their artifacts seems to have changed. I want to get back to this later, including some thoughts on models and simulations.
1 Kate Dorsch in advising my cohort on how to keep your psychic balance in grad school.
2 If I cited the article, you would know who she is, right? So I will not present a reference here. You can find out yourself pretty easily if you are interested.