Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Inscription

I’ve been avoiding this bit of writing for quite some time. It has been dogging me like a hangnail; or a tiny metal filing sliver in the tip of a finger; or like that tongue attracting flap of skin hanging off the top of your mouth after an encounter with a too-hot pizza. Well, you get the idea.

After separating markings from their underlying media, we must try to understand the nature of these markings and how and why they are used. While Ittelson provides some insight on how these markings come into being, he doesn’t provide any illumination on the role that these markings fulfill within a social environment. We need Latour.

Latour reduces the entire life-world of a natural sciences lab to a “cascade of inscriptions.” During his ethnographic observation of science in the making he observed how scientists and technicians would labour over various apparatus and create inscriptions: they filled out forms, punched in numbers, and took observations:

“It seems that whenever technicians are not actually handling complicated pieces of apparatus, they are filling in blank sheets with long lists of figures; when they are not writing on pieces of paper, they spend considerable time writing numbers on the sides of tubes, or pencilling large numbers on the fur of rats. Sometimes they use coloured papertape to mark beakers or to index different row on the glossy surface of a surgical table. The result of this strange mania for inscription is the proliferation of files, documents, and dictionaries.” (Latour & Woolgar, 1979, 48)

Furthermore, the lab was filled with “inscription devices”: machines that—to an uninformed observer—produced nothing but pieces of paper:

“By contrast with the expense and bulk of this apparatus, the end product is no more than a curve, a diagram, or a table of figures written on a frail sheet of paper. Is this document, however, which is scrutinized by participants for its ‘significance’ and which is used as ‘evidence’ in part of an argument or in an article. Thus, the main upshot of the prolonged series of transformations is a document which, as will become clear, is a crucial resource in the construction of a ‘substance’.” (Latour & Woolgar, 1979, 50)

All of this paper combines to form a scientific journal article—the ultimate product of scientific inquiry. Of key importance in Latour’s work is the idea that after an inscription has been produced, all of the intervening steps are forgotten. In the case of a journal article, the months of labour in the lab gets reduces to a few lines of boilerplate text in the methods section. This labour becomes invisible and therefore rhetorically unassailable. Similarly, in the case of inscription devices, the assumptions and work practices of the engineers who created the device becomes black-boxed and invisible. In Latour’s own words:

“One important feature of the use of inscription devices in the laboratory is that once the end product, an inscription, is available, all the intermediary steps which made its production possible are forgotten.” (Latour & Woolgar, 1979, 63)

This process of stripping off the various modalities in texts is a process of fact creation: “A fact is nothing but a statement with no modality… and no trace of authorship.” (Latour & Woolgar, 1979, 82)

Latour discusses how inscriptions are used to reify rhetoric to the status of fact. He also discusses how inscriptions are ironized through the use of rhetoric by “recruiting” various dissenting views from within the realm of science. In Latour’s world, the cascades of inscriptions produce various elite forms of inscription (e.g., journal articles) that go out into the world and do battle with other inscriptions. The winning inscription becomes canonical and continues without modality or trace of authorship (perhaps until a paradigm shift creates new modalities). These winning inscriptions inherently become ready-to-hand for the continuation of scientific studies. Latour does not, however, investigate the ramifications of a potential technological breakdown where these theories become present-to-hand (i.e., paradigm shift) or where the very apparatus used to create the inscriptions similarly fall into question.

In Latour’s later work, he tackled the process by which these inscriptions travel throughout the world and are used to create new knowledge. According to Latour, inscriptions (through some mysterious homing instinct) tend to accumulate within particular locations that Latour refers to as “centres of calculation”. Centres of calculation are essential for “acting at a distance”:

“…how to act at a distance on unfamiliar events, places and people? Answer: by somehow bring home these events, places and people. How can this be achieved, since they are distinct? By inventing means that (a) render them mobile so that they can be brought back; (b) keep them stable so that they can be moved back and forth without additional distortion, corruption or decay, and (c) are combinable so that whatever stuff they are made of, they can be cumulated, aggregated or shuffled like a pack of cards.” (Latour, 1987, 223)

In the pantheon of inscriptions that are both created by and stored within centres of calculation, Latour ranks the equation as the pre-eminent example of the genre (particular Reynolds’s equation for fluid mechanics). Equations are inherently very mobile and very combinable. Through the use of equations, centres of collection are transformed to centres of calculation.

While Latour’s ideas are interesting, he addresses only a very narrow epistemic window represented by scientists and engineers. Given the highly local nature of work practices (“local all the way down” according to Susan Leigh Star (1996)), Latour’s reliance on a single epistemic culture becomes problematic for our understanding of inscriptions as evidenced by his example of Reynold’s equation. While important and widely understood by engineer’s of all stripes, Reynold’s equation may be completely meaningless to other professionals who have to interact with engineers such as production planners or natural biologists. To a biologist, for example, Reynold’s equation is not an immutable mobile powering a particular centre of calculation but rather an impenetrable and meaningless morass of equations, tables, and nomographs. To non-engineers, even the concept of a nomograph can be challenging (see Ferguson, 1992). In this case, the biologist’s background and training introduces an entire set of conceptualizations and rationalizations that introduce modalities as the biologist and engineer converse. So how do we overcome this epistemic gap? Latour doesn’t give us an answer but Susan Leigh Star does: the boundary object.

References

Ferguson, E. S. (1992). Engineering and the mind's eye. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
Latour, B. (1987). Science in action : how to follow scientists and engineers through society. Philadelphia, PA: Open University Press.
Latour, B., & Woolgar, S. (1979). Laboratory Life : The Construction of Scientific Facts. Thousand Oaks: CA: SAGE.
Star, S. L. (1996). Working together: symbolic interactionism, activity theory, and information systems. In Y. Engestrom & D. Middleton (Eds.), Cognition and communication at work (pp. 296-318). Cambridge ; New York, NY, USA: Cambridge University Press.

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