[Humanist] 28.344 the literariness of experiment?

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Sun Sep 21 13:17:38 CEST 2014

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 28, No. 344.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Sun, 21 Sep 2014 12:07:55 +0100
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: the hidden life of experiment

In his essay "Genesis of Knowledge Spaces and Objects of
Knowledge" (Rethinking Epistemology", vol. 1, ed. Abel and Conant, 
2012), Hans-Jörg Rheinberger asks, how do we get to the hidden life of 
experiment (pp. 291ff)? His vote is for

> the analysis and reconstruction of laboratory protocols and
> laboratory notes, these forms of writing up and rewriting at the
> periphery of the experiment itself, in the production of knowledge,
> that are located in the spaces between the printed text and the
> material event of experimenting.

Citing the example of the French physiologist Claude Bernard (known in 
technological circles for his brilliant idea of the "milieu intérieur" 
of the human body, which strongly influenced cybernetics) Rheinberger 
writes that

> the notes in his journal amount... to a comparison of the
> activity of the experimenter with that of the artist, and stress
> precisely the character of experimenting as 'feeling one's way'.

He notes work showing that,

> studying the laboratory journals themselves as instruments of
> research [allows us to see] them in their positive function as
> primary forms of recording in writing that organize not only the
> knowledge process, but also the everyday life in the lab, and thus
> the space of knowledge production as a whole. Laboratory books are
> hence not simply taken as written traces of experimental activity,
> but are themselves analyzed with respect to their function as
> research tools in their own right.

But, he notes,

> The character of working notes as both epistemological and literary
> tools remains yet to be explored. They form a space in which data,
> the primary yet neglected form of knowledge things, take on shape,
> and are transformed into elements of scientific discourse.

or, in our case, a discourse in the humanities.

> It is in this middle space, in this hybrid region in which research
> objects have not yet become paper entirely, and in which the paper is
> still part of the material experimental event, that one must look if
> one wants to understand how scientific discovery works and thus the
> generation of novelty, if one would like to grasp the experiment, to
> put it in Friedrich Steinle's terms, in its disclosing or exploratory
> form rather than in its demonstrative form.

Text-analysis, manual and assisted, in the service of the history of 
experimental sciences, is one take on the above. But another, surely, is 
the leaping-off point provided by the (if I may) literariness of 
laboratory work, which now that we are all (at least potentially) 
experimenters of a kind, strikes me as strong inspiration.


Willard McCarty (www.mccarty.org.uk/), Professor, Department of Digital
Humanities, King's College London, and Digital Humanities Research
Group, University of Western Sydney

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