Academic year 2007-08


What Do Objects Really Know?

Wednesday 4 June, 14.30 - 16.30, Research Forum South Room

Texts: Peter Galison, “Cloud Chambers: The Peculiar Genius of British Physics,” in Image and Logic: A Material Culture of Microphysics (London: University of Chicago Press, 1999), 65-142; Pamela H. Smith, “Artisanal Epistemology,” in The Body of the Artisan: Art and Experience in the Scientific Revolution (London: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 59-94.

Present: Matthew Hunter, Francesco Lucchini, Caroline Arscott, Liz Reissner, Florina Kostulias.


The session began with MH reading a synopsis of the previous meeting. Conveners MH and FL then gave a brief explication of the choices behind the readings for this week: Pamela Smith’s “Artisanal Epistemology” and Peter Galison’s “Cloud Chambers: The Peculiar Genius of British Physics.” FL noted the presence of a strong biographical element in both of these texts. It was queried whether this was the influence of disciplinary tradition within the history of science (wherein “stories of great men” still find a place) or perhaps even revealed the hand of the publisher (as both books are published by University of Chicago Press). CA observed that, for her, Galison’s narratival approach fit with the nineteenth century Romantic imagination and the worldview of the agents who were at the core of his story. Still, FL pointed out that Smith too had structured her account around big names (Dürer, Leonardo, Jammnitzer and so on), all of whom were glossed as “artisans”—a refreshingly subversive label, as CA noted.  Discussion then centred on whether the cloud chamber could be thought of in relation to the working category of the clever object. KR asked if it was the chamber that was clever or the various experimental strategies into which it was introduced. MH observed that he had the cloud chamber itself as a useful case for thinking about clever objects insofar as Galison positions this instrument as a hybrid entity formed at the conjunction of two major traditions in modern particle physics—what he calls “image” and “logic.” So Galison argues: while it partially answers to the “mimetic” tradition of experiment whereby the scientist aims to recreate natural phenomena in the laboratory, the cloud chamber as developed by Wilson was also crucially informed by the “logic” or quantitative-analytic tradition of physical inquiry. The experiments into which the instrument was emplotted and even the physical structure of the instrument itself answered to this bifurcation; thus, it might be said to embody intelligence or cleverness in a particularly interesting way. Thinking in light of the previous meeting’s discussion of factura and especially Koerner’s reading of the interplay between illusionism and material resistance in painting, CA asked how we might parse out the tension between the mimetic action inside the cloud chamber; the analytic or abstractive enterprise into which cloud chambers were enlisted; and the material resistance, factura or noise generated by the instrument. The very interesting overlaps between the strain under which mimesis was put in both art and science of the later nineteenth century through attempts to represent natural phenomena were noted. The question of the “object-ness” of the cloud chamber was then examined. MH asked if the cloud chamber might be seen to torture everyday notions of object in a way that previous readings had not done. For, where previous art-historical narratives had generally begun with specific, material artifacts and made arguments more or less from them, Galison’s “cloud chamber” is no one particular thing. It is rather an accretion of designs, modifications, theories and experiments. FL called attention to the mass production of the cloud chamber noted in the chapter. Would a mass-produced cloud chamber be as “clever” as the one generated by Wilson? Would it be so if it were only used casually—perhaps for the production of charming optical effects as a kind of light entertainment? In other words, asked CA, what is the status of commerce in this story? For whereas commodification seems to threaten the seriousness of knowledge made with a mass-produced cloud chamber, commerce provides a central engine for the cultures described by Smith. (Although it was not noted at the time, I don’t think this is an entirely fair characterization of Galison; he makes much, especially later in the book, of commerce-based metaphors and indeed emphasizes in this chapter how the cloud chamber was formed in the “trading zone” between image and logic traditions.)  The final portion of the discussion then focused on Smith. Following from CA’s observation on the importance of commerce to Smith’s story, MH proposed that this book should be seen as an extension of what might be called the Zilsel or “craftsman and scholar” thesis. According to this claim, what was important in the formation of modern science and what used to be called the Scientific Revolution was less grand theory or mentalities but the flow of communication—typically sparked in urban, commercial centers and by mercantile classes—between university-educated scholars and those who knew how to work with their hands. CA observed that Dürer acted like a bridge for Smith between these scholarly worlds and those of the artisans. This provoked a wide-ranging debate on the extent to which the author was justified in reading figures like Dürer, Leonardo and so on as artisans even as she quoted them claiming to be in possession of special, divinely-given powers that differentiated their work from that of other men—in other words, as they claimed to be artists. Attention was drawn to the following passage from Smith interpreting Wenzel Jamnitzer’s Merchel Table-Center of 1549:  Jamnitzer clearly meant to display his own powers of creation in this work as well as his ability to imitate nature, both in the sense of producing an accurate representation of nature and in understanding the processes of smelting and metallurgy (or alchemy) in order to create this representation. (78) What is this supposed to mean? Does imitation really amount to scientific knowledge? Is the claim that the work combines imitative rendering of natural surfaces (vegetal fronds, life casts, etc.) and emulation of the generative forces that make metals and structures within the earth? Might this be evidence of how such objects are clever? Pursuit of such questions prompted open discussion on the hyperbolic levels of “realism” ventured in this and other works of Renaissance metalwork. Drawing from his own research, FL noted how he was trying to theorize the agency of incredible intricacy in vegetal forms of metalwork, which CA likened to Roland Barthes’ account of the “reality effect” in nineteenth century literature. Rather than calling attention to the opacity of the medium, such inundations of detail paradoxically conspire to convince the percipient of the reality of the text or spectacle.