Well-pressed stories?

The Mangle in Practice: Science, Society, and Becoming. Edited by Andrew Pickering and Keith Guzik. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2008. Pp. xiv+306. $84.95/$23.95.

“While the appliance was originally used to wring water from wet laundry, today mangles are used to press or flatten sheets, tablecloths,…” (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mangle, n.d.)

(Review 9/19/09; published in Technology & Culture)
This anthology (hereon: TMIP) takes up and extends Pickering’s (1995) depiction of scientific practice as mangling, that is, not determined by prior plans or other social forces, but emerging over time in an open-ended way as human agents—scientists and engineers—and non-human agents—machines, instruments and other materials—accommodate and resist each other. Such “temporal emergence” and “becoming” allow us not only to make better sense of science, but, Pickering conjectured, to overcome what is wrong with “the hegemonic mainstream interpretive frameworks in the humanities and social sciences” (TMIP, viii). TMIP’s well-written case studies and theoretical discussions show how widely his framework can be applied—the essays encompass Dutch painters, the lower Mississippi, eucalypt fires, hog farming, domestic violence, economic theory, chinese medicine, erosion of the Mårup church by the North Sea, environmental management and restoration, agile software development, bodies in opthamalogical research, soviet semiotics, and Heideggerian philosophy. The anthology is exemplary—its essays are unified (around Pickering’s conjecture) and refer to each other in ways that show that the authors have digested each other’s drafts and noted points of agreement and difference. As Pickering commented in his keynote address to the 2001 Taking Nature Seriously conference, his anti-disciplinary, mangling paradigm has allowed him to meet and learn from “strange people”—”one can’t get bored.”

What can Technology & Culture readers expect to learn from the cases and theory? Some of the diverse topics will surely be new, but narratives of scientists and engineers having to adjust their plans as they encounter resistances and accommodations from their materials and human parties will not. (Akera 2006 provides exemplary case studies in this vein.) Readers may sympathize with Koutalos’s concern about the bodies—of research organisms and scientists—omitted from scientific accounts, but will already know that scientific exposition is governed by constraining conventions. Anyone who has heard of actor network theory (ANT) and Bruno Latour (e.g., 2005) will be familiar with society or culture envisaged in terms of contingent association of heterogeneous elements subject to reassembling over time, not Society as a structure outside, and potentially determining, of developments in science and technology. But T&C readers may not go along with the flattening of the cultural/social that happens when narratives and theory discount not only the regularities in the resistances and accommodations that agents experience but also human agents’ conscious awareness of such regularities as social structure or structuredness. After all, practitioners do not treat everything always as a matter of open-ended experiment (although readers might be intrigued by the suggestion of Marick, the agile software designer, that manglish studies could become performative [TMIP, 198], which would make them self-exemplifying, not after-the-fact reconstructions). Indeed, Pickering’s notion of “tuning,” discussed at several points, can be read as humans seeking reliable associations with human and non-human materials. In this and other ways, the “post-humanist” symmetry of human and non-human agency, much invoked in these essays (as in ANT), is hard to sustain consistently.

Readers may wonder if symmetry is necessary in a world of temporal emergence. Once it is acknowledged that people’s plans, as well as their assessment of heterogeneous resources on which the plans are based, continue to change as the people attempt to realize the plans and see what emerges, non-human things and other conditions have have causal weight even if the concept of agency is reserved for humans. (This weight is evident as soon as we ask what, in practice, it takes to modify a scientific claim, the reliability of a technology, or some other given aspect of science; Taylor 2005, 100-106, 130-131). Is anything gained by anthropomorphizing the non-human and by reducing to the common denominator of resistance or accommodation human purposes, motivations, imagination, and understandings (albeit imperfect) of social structuredness?

Indeed, important dimensions can be lost. Adaptive environmental management (AEM), to pick a TMIP case familiar to me, only looks open-ended and a matter of scientists accommodating to resistance from non-humans because of the particular bounding in time and framing of Asplen’s account (TMIP, 169ff). When AEM is presented as an ideal, which Asplen does, it is very manglish, involving knowledge, plans, and action continually reassessed in response to developments—predicted and surprising alike. But, enlarge the frame to include the practice and we would see a “thick of things” replete with interest group politics well known to mainstream social science (Walters 1997). On that note, the “thick of things,” “complexity,” and “inextricable hybridity” are much invoked in TMIP, but not especially evident in the anthology’s cases. Readers will find much more emphasis on disturbing a big Culture and Nature opposition, with the latter subject to domination and control at the hands of “traditional science.” Now, accommodation to Nature did indeed seem salient, to pick up on another of TMIP’s cases, when I talked with relatives and friends who had close encounters with the southern Australian forest fires of early 2009. More than once I heard the fatalistic assessment that, if people wanted to keep living surrounded by eucalypts, recurrent major loss-of-life events would have to be accepted. Yet, in the company of others with experiences to share, the same people moved on to discuss competing designs for cellars to protect one from fires, poring through the revised building codes developed by government panels, forging new community alliances, being silenced in public meetings by those who could invoke loss of a house or family member, and so on—all the stuff of mainstream sociological and historical accounts. Similarly, the big opposition symbolized by TMIP’s cover—command and control the Mississippi or accommodate by letting the river burst its levies and carve a new channel to the sea—is readily unpacked once we examine the historical dynamics among unequal social groups in areas such as New Orleans (e.g., Davis 2004).

I view references to “ontology” in TMIP (and ANT) as moves to frame what is included and excluded in analyses and in “doings” based on those analyses. T&C readers might learn more from detailed accounts that expose the diverse practical considerations faced by different human agents as they establish knowledge and reliable technologies. Such cases might be more boring and less strange yet at the same time more profound politically than the well-pressed stories of TMIP.

References

Akera, A. (2006). Calculating a Natural World: Scientists, Engineers, and Computers During the Rise of U.S. Cold War Research. Cambridge, MA, MIT Press.
Davis, M. (2004). “The Divisions Stay the Same; The onset of Hurricane Ivan demonstrated that little progress has been made toward addressing racial inequalities in Louisiana.” Tomdispatch.com (accessed 12 Aug. ’09).
Latour, B. (2005). Reassembling the social: An introduction to actor-network-theory. Oxford, Oxford University Press.
Pickering, A. (1995). The Mangle of Practice: Time, Agency and Science. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.
Taylor, P. J. (2005). Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.
Walters, C. (1997). “Challenges in adaptive management of riparian and coastal ecosystems.” Conservation Ecology 1(2): 1, http://www.consecol.org/vol1/iss2/art1 (accessed 12 Aug. ’09).

Peter Taylor teaches and directs programs at the University of Massachusetts Boston on critical thinking and reflective practice, especially about environmental and health sciences in their social context.

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