Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Reading :: Memory Practices in the Sciences

Memory Practices in the Sciences
By Geoffrey Bowker

Geoff Bowker apparently likes the term “redolent,” which he uses throughout this book in throwaway descriptions like this one: “Here is an extended quote from Russell Seymour that is redolent of Lyell's concern with archive commissioners” (p.171). But then again, this is a book about memory, and fragrances often evoke memories in ways that other sensory input doesn't, so perhaps this word – with its double meaning of evocation and fragrance – works. And maybe Bowker is trying to get at a sense of memory that is more evoked, more diffuse, and more intimated than the sense that is usually meant in the sciences. After all, this book isn't just about memory but about different types of memories, different memory regimes, and breaks between different memory practices. It's as much about forgetting as it is about remembering.

Bowker is well positioned to write this sort of book: his previous books have similarly dealt with science in practice and with scientific categorization. They're terrific. This book was not quite as compelling to me, but it's still a solid book on how we remember in the sciences.

So how do we remember? Or: “how do scientists figure their own pasts” and “how do scientists figure the past of their entities” (p.6)? Bowker answers that “we generally project onto nature our modes of organizing our own affairs” (p.18) because we understand nature through the archives we have accumulated, and those archives are organized in particular ways. “The empire voraciously gathers as little information as it can” due to high transaction costs, Bowker reminds us in a discussion of railway tickets (p.38). “The imperial archive cannot be understood solely in terms of record keeping. Thee acto of keeping records is itself intimately tied to the conjuring of the social and natural world into forms that render themselves amenable to recording” (p.39).

Bowker explores this theme with several concrete cases drawn from the archives. In Chapter 1, he first describes the new time of the Industrial Revolution, then discusses Lyell's successful attempt to create a special time for geology – a kind of time separate from sacred time and secular time, a geologic time that could avoid contretemps with the church while still telling a story of an ancient, slowly changing Earth (p.52). See p.63 for his discussion of the “day-age” and “gap” theories that Lyell's allies deployed to square the idea of an ancient Earth with the Book of Genesis; these theories are still deployed today. Lyell invented a geologic time – a time that, Bowker argues persuasively, is itself a reflection of industrial time with its division of labor and its parceling of time into regular units (p.69). At the same time, geologic time excludes, or works around, the time of heroes and a literal interpretation of the Bible (p.69). Sounding like Latour, Bowker reminds us that Lyell's concept of time is just as constructed and just as grounded in his own world as these earlier conceptions of time were. Geologic time was invented by treating the Earth as an archive and setting the rules for interpreting it.

In Chapter 2, Bowker looks at a very different branch of science, cybernetics. And here, he argues, we have the other side of the coin. Whereas geological memory practices represent an “explosive, singular memory” that is “working in a world of too few facts per unit time,” cybernetic memory practices represent “the implosive, recapitulative memory practices of the cyberneticians working in a world of too many facts per unit time” (p.77). In cybernetics,

we have seen three kinds of accelerated recapitulation: accelerated social change (whole civilizations in a decade), accelerated data processing (whole centuries of scientific progress in a year), and accelerated philosophizing (whole millennia of useless philosophy taken up and reworked in a trice). … in each case … the unit of historical time is changing such that processes once tied to civilizations and “longue duree” are now attached to individuals/societies and much shorter duration. The ontogeny of cybernetics recapitulates human phylogeny. (p.94)

In Chapter 3, we get to the age of the database and the context in which it is deployed. “The miracle of memory in our time is that memory practices are materially rampant, invasive, implicated in the core of our being and of our understanding of the world – and yet we experience them and discourse about them in terms of their ideal ramifications on some hypostatized entity created to void materiality from the equation: the individual, the nation-state, the people, and so forth” (p.109). And here and in Chapter 4, Bowker explores the study and memory practices of biodiversity – a realm in which the explosive memory of geology meets the implosive memory of cybernetics.

Memory Practices in the Sciences is a challenging book, partially because of its perspective, partially because of its thick cases. If you're interested in the rhetoric of science, or in memory, I recommend picking it up.

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