Science / Writing / Communication


Elizabeth Bishop

American University of Cairo, Cairo, Egypt

Copyright © 2001 by Elizabeth Bishop, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. Copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.

Review of:

Timothy Lenoir, editor. Inscribing Science; Scientific Texts and the Materiality of Communication. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1998.

  1. Why would postcolonial scholars incorporate recent histories and philosophies of science in their reading lists? One answer is that postcolonial historians' research agendas address many queries raised among historians of science. Inscribing Science's index suggests that Donna Haraway is as central to the book's intellectual project as are Thomas Kuhn and Charles Babbage (all three merit two entries apiece).

  2. Inscribing Science places texts -- the material of communication -- at the center of scientific thinking. In the introduction, Paul Feyerabend's Against Method is credited with urging scholars to trace knowledge-production, remaining sensitive to scientific practices' "concerns about tacit knowledge, experimenter's regress, interpretive flexibility, and negotiated closure of debate . . . [contributing] to newer accounts of science as a disunified, heterogeneous synerg[y] of activities." Steve Woolgar and Bruno Latour took up this challenge with Laboratory Life.

  3. Disunited and heterogeneous, laboratory life and knowledge-production activities lead to the printing of texts. In this way, Feyerabend's challenge conveys science studies to Derrida's On Grammatology. Bringing these essays together, Timothy Lenoir builds from Derrida's transmutation from linguistics into generalized semiotics to ask (first), is science a textural system; and (second) how would Derrida's idea of the supplement appear in scientific writing practices? (p. 8). Of the contributors, Friedrich Kittler, "On the take-off of operators" and Hans-Jorg Rheinberger "Experimental systems, graphematic spaces," develop most directly from the Derridean point of origin.

  4. The first quarter of the book concretizes the materiality of textural communication. In Lorraine Daston's "The language of strange facts in early modern science" the scientific revolution's researchers' record their amazement and wonder confronted with variation in the natural world, providing a suitable starting point for those who have read within Foucault's Archeology of Knowledge. Robin Rider's "Shaping information: mathematics, computing, and typography" suggests that the visual design of text calls on values common to the mechanical and the electronic ages. Brian Rotman ("The technology of mathematical persuasion"), Friedrich Kittler and Bernhardt Siegert's witty "Switchboards and sex: the Nut(t) case" introduce three divergent definitions of operators, as symbols and individuals positioned outside the text block, clarifying dominant narratives in communication with that which is hors du texte.

  5. Up to this point, the description of modern science refers exclusively to a global North. The book's second quarter provides a glimpse of the ways in which European scientific modernity is linked with an imperial position. David Gugerli's "Politics on the topographer's table: the Helvetic triangulation of cartography, politics, and representation" brings an analysis of language differences and political power to its conclusions about the formation of modern nationhood. In the subtle "Writing Darwin's islands: England and the insular condition," Gillian Beer compares Darwin's correspondence with publications resulting from the "Beagle" voyage. Beer suggests that human events -- immigration and colonialism -- informed his ideas of the natural world.

  6. A further group of essays on the aesthetics of visual representation in the published scientific record comprises the collection's third quarter. Alex Pang introduces "a world in which pictures are oddly plastic, images are born and die in baths of acid or under a retoucher's tool, the real and the unreal are sometimes indistinguishable, and the words used to describe photographs are unfamiliar" as researchers and printers allocated value among representations of stellar phenomena ("Technology, aesthetics, and the development of astrophotography at the Lick Observatory, " p. 225). Phillip Prodger's "Illustration as strategy in Charles Darwin's The expression of the emotions in man and animals" and Simon Schaffer's "The Leviathan of Parsontown: literary technology and scientific representation," engage other visual strategies that researchers -- sensitive to reading publics' capacities and interests -- deployed.

  7. Robert Brain's "Standards and semiotics" transfer this group of essays' analytical timbre, returning to issues of language and text. Brain globalizes the discussion, citing Kittler, Timothy Mitchell, and Eugen Weber's contributions to the material history of national linguistics on the Continent and in the colonies. In the course of a history for in vitro protein biosynthesis systems, Rheinberger proposes a unit of research -- the experimental system -- which must be considered as consisting of "simultaneously local, social, institutional, technical, instrumental, and above all, epistemic units" ("Experimental systems, graphematic spaces" p. 287). The irrepressible Richard Doyle follows, turning the disembodied gaze from nowhere and everywhere to A-life, in "Emergent power: vitality and theology in artificial life." By Lisa Bloom's assertion that "representations of masculinity, technology, science, and empire are co-articulated" (in "Science and writing; two national narratives of failure" p. 328), many of postcolonial historians' concerns regarding language, representation, gender, race, cultural position, and power have been raised in intriguing juxtapositions.

  8. Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht's contribution, "Perception versus experience: moving pictures and their resistance to interpretation," synthesizes discussions ranging beyond this book, on the nature of post-Enlightenment subjectivity, and this nature's influence on the representation of motion. Gumbrecht's essay carries the volume's scope from modern science studies, and embraces critiques originating within Continental philosophy.

  9. Inscribing Science: scientific texts and the materiality of communication indicates a transformation in the history and philosophy of science studies in general, as well as in the career of its author. The editor's deft selection, the uniform quality of the contribution's insights drawn from disparate topics, and the power of the concluding essay, determine the collection's value. Inscribing Science is offered within a series, "Writing science," edited by Lenoir and Gumbrecht; other titles in the series include Lenoir's earlier Instituting Science and Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht and K. Ludwig Pfeiffer's Materialities of Communication. Inscribing Scienceis available in paperback, suggesting its use in upper-level history courses.

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