poovey, haraway, and knorr cetina

The Modern Fact, The Problem of Induction, and Questions of Method by Mary Poovey

Poovey’s text is a Foucauldian genealogy about the reification of the concept of modern fact through British history and the unresolved tension inherent to the definition of the concept. This tension, or what she calls an “epistemological peculiarity” about modern facts underlines their ambiguous nature. Sometimes facts can be considered objective, atomic building blocks removed from context and assumption. On the other hand, fact can be construed precisely as evidence in support of a theory or a hypothesis and can never be freed from context or assumption in support of a theory. Poovey grounds her observations in the vicissitudes of this dichotomy, tracking how the definition has changed from the late 16th century to the first half of the 19th century.

She grounds her genealogy in the double-entry book of the 16th century and its use of the financial proto-fact as a proxy for honesty built on simultaneously “objective” albeit arbitrary data. Similarly, she sketches the creation of disciplinarity to approach this “epistemological peculiarity” through the use of experts in deducing models of reality over induction and observations. Over time, the reliance of models and systems created the building blocks for postmodern knowledge or symbols based on symbols without a referent grounding them. In other words, the abstractions based on systematic knowledge eventually became the objects of these nascent disciplines.

Poovey avoids describing this process as one of a rupture from a previous system of thought, rather her history is one of continuity of thought despite the complexity involved. Further, she avoids relying solely analysis of discourses (“rule governed practices”) in her exercise because a study of the epistemology of fact better lends itself to exploring commonalities within discourses and how their eventual disaggregations came to be. Lastly, Poovey argues by quoting Shapin and Schaffer that “questions of epistemology are also questions of social order.”

Poovey makes a point to distance herself from other Foucauldian scholars that often use historical methods to “unmask” the evils of the past. Instead she offers a historical reading that tries to locate the “field of connotations” contemporary with when the text was created and the subsequent history of (mis)readings of that text, instead of asserting the text was blind or duplicitous about its agenda.

Poovey describes her ambitions for the text as follows:

One of my greatest ambitions for A History if the Modern Fact is that it will encourage others to map the complex history of the relationship between numerical representation and figurative language within that epistemological unit I call the modern fact instead of simply asserting, as I too often do here, both that this relationship existed and that it has been obscured by the history of disciplinarity in whose shadow we work.

What this means for social science can be explained by the four themes Poovey lists at the end of this chapter: reconsidering intersection of politics, governance, and objectivity; becoming aware of the role of belief and faith (whether secular or religious) inherent to knowledge systems and the infrastructures they support; “the elaboration of a nontheological discourse about human motivations or subjectivity;” and the reification of abstract subjects and the effects these manifestations have.

A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century by Donna Haraway

The manifesto sets its intentions by describing the ironic myth Haraway is trying to build to integrate feminism, socialism, and materialism. The image of the cyborg ends up serving this purpose best, given its ambiguous nature, straddling both imagination and reality. Haraway’s fragmented and allusion-filled text is obsessed with liminalities and serves as “an argument for pleasure in the confusion of boundaries and for responsibility in their construction.” In other words, the cyborg is a reminder of our complicity in the creation of boundaries but also our way out of those restraints.

Haraway warns that “the most terrible and perhaps the most promising monsters in cyborg worlds are embodied in non-oedipal narratives with a different logic of repression, which we need to understand for our survival.” Cyborgs are not a panacea, they can become the new forms of our domination; for ”we are living through a movement from an organic industrial society to a polymorphous, information system—from all work to all play, a deadly game.” Haraway goes on to describe the modes of domination cyborg worlds may take.

This article was written in the eighties but it’s oddly prescient; Haraway is eerily on target in the dichotomies she catalogs in her “informatics of domination” and the role the information economy and communications would eventually play in our lives. Similarly, what she calls “the homework economy” or the “feminization of labor” is basically equivalent to the contemporary concepts of the “gig economy” or the “independent contractor model.”

Of course, not all is negative and this passage sets up the transition to the more utopic visions of the cyborg identity:

The permanent partiality of feminist points of view has consequences for our expectations of forms of political organization and participation. We do not need a totality in order to work well. The feminist dream of a common language, like all dreams for a perfectly true language, of perfectly faithful naming of experience, is a totalizing and imperialist one. In that sense, dialectics too is a dream language, longing to resolve contradiction. Perhaps, ironically, we can learn from our fusions with animals and machines how not to be Man, the embodiment of Western logos. From the point of view of pleasure in these potent and taboo fusions, made inevitable by the social relations of science and technology, there might indeed be a feminist science.

In other words, by attempting to “self-actualize” the feminist movement for all, the movement reproduces forms of domination and control. Haraway suggests that the only way to we might be able to escape from domination is to embrace the fluidity that science and technology suggest and through a superimposed multiplicity of identities (a chimera), forge ahead illegitimately. By embracing the instability inherent to the cyborg identity, Haraway asserts that “this is a dream not of a common language, but of a powerful infidel heteroglossia.” In other words, the cyborg doesn’t aim to unite, it aims to enrich and diversify through its bastard mutant replication.

Through the metaphor of the cyborg Haraway suggests it becomes possible (if not outright necessary) to escape from the restraint of dualities controlling our society and our bodies. As cyborgs performing social science, it’s our duty, according to Hathaway, to break away from phallogocentric narratives and instead seek and develop the marginal, the imperfect, the insubstantial.

Toward an Understanding of Knowledge Societies: A Dialogue by Karin Knorr Cetina

Knorr Cetina’s approach in this chapter is that of a dialogue to responses to her work. Knorr Cetina states that she “summarized comments made to me about the work I am describing in this book and presented them, along with my responses, in dialogue form.” This isn’t clear from the chapter alone. However, the quote describing her method is included in a transcription note found in the introduction to her book.

The dialogue isn’t exactly combative but it seems that the summarized audience she is speaking for as “reader” is often confused about the nature of her inquiries. Nonetheless, this absence of consensus seems to serve a broader design, as she concludes the chapter by asserting that, “according to [her] model, [the reader and Knorr Cetina] shouldn’t [reach consensus].” Knorr Cetina is thus explaining her broader point about epistemic cultures through the unfolding of this imagined dialogue. The crux of her argument can best be summarized by her perspective on ontology:

For me, ontology is something quite different. It refers to a potentially empirical investigation into the kinds of entities, the forms of being, or the structures of existence in an area. It is an interest that prompts one to look at the way the empirical universe happens to be configured into entities and properties. By not fixing an ontology from the start-by not committing oneself to the thought that the modern world is populated by rational actors, as in rational choice approaches, or by liberal actors, as in political theory, or by systems, as in systems theory-one can see the configuration of several ontologies side by side and investigate their relationship.

Part of the frustration “reader” feels arises from the dynamic, polysemic world of ontologies interacting Knorr Cetina argues for through her piece. To her, knowledge takes local forms from individual dynamics and grows into collective structures, whether as small as individual labs or as massive as High Energy Physics (HEP) experiments. Additionally, the way a knowledge unfolds is wholly dependent on a myriad of historical, environmental, institutional and interpersonal contexts.

“Reader” expresses horror at the implications and seemingly infinite variety this suggests. Nonetheless, Knorr Cetina assures “reader” that knowledge societies are legitimate units of analysis and returns to examples from the HEP world and molecular biology labs to illustrate these differences. For example, according to Knorr Cetina, HEP work often depends on consensus given the size and funding involved with high energy physics problems. As such, summaries of previous work buttress future work, setting the conventions for how constituent labs will operate within large scale HEP experiments and providing a forum for presenting both conclusive results and inconclusive, albeit edifying for the methods involved, results. In contrast, molecular biology labs are much more independent regarding funding and must instead rely on an unstable social bartering system for resource distribution and have a higher likelihood of big personalities dominating the conversation.

The implications for social science are straightforward, especially when working within/among a multitude of disciplinary perspectives. Knorr Cetina suggests through this piece that understanding the different epistemic cultures at play in a complex system should be taken into consideration when attempting to reach consensus. Rather than applying a potentially biased vision of consensus, Knorr Cetina’s piece suggests “variation in the ways agreement, conformity, or stability are reached.”

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