—Think

On Epistemic Objects, and Around

By Hans-Jörg Rheinberger
Authors
  • Hans-Jörg Rheinberger

    Hans-Jörg Rheinberger is Emeritus Scientific Member at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin.

Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin. Portable Monuments; Joe Frazier on 15 May 1971 at the Rembrandtplein, not to box but to sing with The Knockouts, 2011. Het Parool, November 8, 2011.

A stimulating evening with Julieta Aranda and Miguel Alcubierre during the event Another Exercise of Desire at the Witte de With on 27 June 2013 has inspired me to cast my thoughts about epistemic things 1For a full development of this notion see Hans-Jörg Rheinberger, Toward a History of Epistemic Things: Synthesizing Proteins in the Test Tube (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997). in the abbreviated form of a mini-essay focused on what could be called a “poetology of research.” Poetology derives from poïesis: a kind of production, or praxis, that has a tendency to go beyond itself. The term “research” carries a similar burden: It is defined as a kind of search that transcends itself in its very iteration—thus re-re-re-search. Research stated in the terminology of desire figures a movement that is solidary with something that one could address in terms of an immanent transcendence. Usually, we associate transcendence with beyondness—beyondity in the sense of an on-to, a goal-directed movement. The movement of re-search, however, is more complicated, more complex. It aims at a different kind of overstepping. It does not aim to step onto something beyond, but rather to step away from a present state of affairs, without the blessing of an anticipated knowledge of whereto. 2More on this is to be found in: Hans-Jörg Rheinberger, Iterationen (Berlin: Merve Verlag, 2005). *Visual ReferenceAdam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin. <em>Portable Monuments; American targets: A ball of fire exploded outward after the second of two jetliners slammed into the World Trade Center. Less than two hours later, both of the 110- story towers were gone. Hijackers crashed a third airliner into the Pentagon, setting off a huge explosion and fire</em>, 2011. The New York Times, September 12, 2001.Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin. Portable Monuments; American targets: A ball of fire exploded outward after the second of two jetliners slammed into the World Trade Center. Less than two hours later, both of the 110- story towers were gone. Hijackers crashed a third airliner into the Pentagon, setting off a huge explosion and fire, 2011. The New York Times, September 12, 2001.

There is a sentence by Michael Polanyi—who started his career as a physical chemist and continued it as a philosopher of science—that I like very much. I encountered it in a book by the late Marjorie Grene, one of the great philosophers of biology of the twentieth century. Polanyi’s sentence is a statement about what we might call the “research situation,” and it reads: “This capacity of a thing to reveal itself in unexpected ways in the future, I attribute to the fact that the thing observed is an aspect of reality, possessing a significance that is not exhausted by our conception of any single aspect of it. To trust that a thing we know is real is, in this sense, to feel that it has the independence and power for manifesting itself in yet unthought of ways in the future.” 3Michael Polanyi, Duke Lectures (1964). Microfilm, University of California, Berkeley 1965, Library Photographic Service, 4th Lecture, 4–5. Quoted in Marjorie Grene, The Knower and the Known (Washington, DC: Center for Advanced Research in Phenomenology & University Press of America, 1984), 219. *Visual ReferenceAdam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin. <em>Portable Monuments; American targets: A ball of fire exploded outward after the second of two jetliners slammed into the World Trade Center. Less than two hours later, both of the 110- story towers were gone. Hijackers crashed a third airliner into the Pentagon, setting off a huge explosion and fire</em>, 2011. The New York Times, September 12, 2001.Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin. Portable Monuments; American targets: A ball of fire exploded outward after the second of two jetliners slammed into the World Trade Center. Less than two hours later, both of the 110- story towers were gone. Hijackers crashed a third airliner into the Pentagon, setting off a huge explosion and fire, 2011. The New York Times, September 12, 2001.

 

This quote has several remarkable features that together capture the poetology of research. The first of these is that it stresses the materiality of the research process: for sure, research involves the mind, but it does not proceed through the mind, rather, research draws the mind into a peculiar constellation. There is matter there, and its condensation into things of research, epistemic things, is the condition for the peculiar structure of the research process. It presupposes an out-there without which it would be idling. The second feature of the quote is that it endows the things around which research revolves with a peculiar kind of agency: a “capacity […] to reveal [themselves] in unexpected ways in the future.” They have the capacity to surprise the researcher, to defeat his or her expectations, to dwarf his or her powers of anticipation with their own revelatory richness. The question of who is the actor becomes blurred, if not reversed. The third point is that this implies resistance, recalcitrance on the part of things—their malleability is limited, you cannot do whatever you want with them. Therefore I am not talking about research activity as an activity of construction. Research is about manifestation—it needs your hands, but they have to arrive at the feeling of where the things are leading them: they are in need of their things. And they are epistemic things only as long as their potential of signification is not exhausted. The very essence of epistemicity is that there is a promise, but a promise of a very particular kind: an expectation that is not held under the power of definition. It is what drives you around a corner without being able to tell you what will show itself beyond. It is the expectation of the new, the new being that, by definition, cannot be anticipated. Lastly, this state of being-beyond-our-will and yet in the realm of our interaction with an epistemic thing not only leads back to the first point of this characterization, it also lays the ground for one of the most basic second-order categories on which science rests: the category of reality. And this category is the reason for the peculiar future-orientation of research: it is research only as long as it can uphold this precarious but essential suspension between the known from which it tries to get away, and the unknown for which the access key is temporarily missing. *Visual ReferenceAdam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin. <em>Portable Monuments, London suicide bombers (L-R) Hasib Hussain, Germaine Lindsay, Mohammed Sidique Khan and Shehzad Tanweer are captured on CCTV at Luton railway station on 7 July 2005</em>, 2011. The Guardian, Thursday April 22, 2010. Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin. Portable Monuments, London suicide bombers (L-R) Hasib Hussain, Germaine Lindsay, Mohammed Sidique Khan and Shehzad Tanweer are captured on CCTV at Luton railway station on 7 July 2005, 2011. The Guardian, Thursday April 22, 2010.

 

We can describe the situation in another way by looking at the individual engaged in the process instead of the things involved in it. From the perspective of the researcher, we have to make do with an act of delegation. Setting up an experimental system revolving around an epistemic thing and exploring some of the inexhaustible aspects of its thingness means to undercut the subject-object relation that exists between an observer and something observed. In an experiment, the act of observing is delegated to a technical object that one brings into interaction with the epistemic thing. But this interaction has to be crafted in such a way that the outcome—the traces this interaction leaves behind—is not completely determined in advance. Otherwise it would be a demonstration rather than a research experiment.

A research experiment must have the potential to engender unintended effects, that is, unexpected outcomes. On the part of the experimenter, this requires a particular kind of attention. Again, Polanyi comes in helpful here with his distinction between two kinds of attention: focal attention versus liminal attention. Paying focal attention to something means to fix the thing before you under one particular aspect, which excludes all others. It can bring this aspect into sharp relief, but it can also become mute. Liminal attention, on the other hand, suspends singular focus in favor of a hovering attentiveness that covers—and leaves room for—a vast field of possible events, none of which can be anticipated with certainty. It is in the nature of any event that deserves this name that it cannot be expected with certainty. In all likelihood, such events would escape the focused mind and senses. Under liminal conditions, however, they can be traced and can disclose the unanticipated. Liminality, that is, helps to bring the unprecedented into the realm of the graspable. *Visual ReferenceAdam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin. <em>Portable Monuments; Gaddafi killed by bullet in head. That’s for Lockerbie. And for Yvonne Fletcher. And IRA Semtex Victims</em>, 2011. The Sun, October 21st, 2011.Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin. Portable Monuments; Gaddafi killed by bullet in head. That’s for Lockerbie. And for Yvonne Fletcher. And IRA Semtex Victims, 2011. The Sun, October 21st, 2011.

 

Epistemic things are thus things that let something be desired. They are at the center of a particular kind of exercise of desire, yes, “another exercise of desire.” They stand for a particular relation to the world: a relation of epistemicity. This relation is exploratory, driven by the desire of finding, not of knowing. The great French experimental physiologist of the nineteenth century, Claude Bernard, expressed this in an exemplary and succinct manner when he confided in his laboratory notebook that, “Where one is no longer in the position to know, one must find.” 4Claude Bernard, Cahier de notes 1850–1860, ed. Mirko Drazen Grmek (Paris: Gallimard, 1965), 135. (It is interesting to note that the unit that can lead to research being published is “the finding.”) Experimenters are specialists in arranging situations in which finding becomes possible. Scientific finding neither obeys the logic of chance nor that of necessity. It obeys a logic of its own, composed of elements of both, and in so doing, undoes the stochastic rigor of the one and the deterministic rigor of the other. It is a game of eventuation, an engagement with the material world that, on the one hand, requires intimacy with the matter at hand, and, on the other, disentanglement, the capacity of rendering strange—of estrangement.

I am convinced that the poet’s and the artist’s activities share the basic feature of this epistemic condition. It is, however, not by chance that at the beginning of this essay I stressed the agency of the material one engages with. In this respect, what unites research materials is eventuation: through a material we step away from what is there, sidestep what is actually realized, toward the unrealized by taking advantage of, to go back to the telling phrase Polanyi uses, its “independence and power for manifesting itself in yet unthought of ways in the future.” It is the conviction that the sciences and the arts nourish themselves from the materials they engage with, constantly stepping away from and over what is already there, without ever being able to precisely anticipate the path they are not merely taking, but creating as they tread.