Hans-Jörg Rheinberger: Split and Splice: A Phenomenology of Experimentation

Split and Splice: A Phenomenology of Experimentation Book Cover Split and Splice: A Phenomenology of Experimentation
Hans-Jörg Rheinberger
The University of Chicago Press
2023
Paperback $30.00
256

Reviewed by: Aloisia Moser (Katholische Privat-Universität Linz)

How to not cut nature at its joints or malapropisms in science

 

Those who have followed the discussions on metaphor and model may find it difficult to see what is new in Rheinberger’s book “Split and Splice.” His main claim being that in order to gain new knowledge there must be an unforeseen or rogue element in the research process. Metaphor specialists have made a similar claim about language and meaning. Max Black (Black 1955; 1981) and Mary Hesse (Hesse 1963) have proclaimed that what brings us to new meaning in metaphor and models is something that comes on top of using words to refer to something literally. Meaning, especially new meaning, comes from the way we constellate words in new and unforeseen ways, for example using a term that does not refer to a thing instead of another. They also pointed out that sometimes the very materiality of words, for example their sound, creates new meaning, especially but not only in poetry. Metaphor specialists like Hesse have compared the way metaphor works with how models work in science. Models in science must be represented or made visible in a similar way to how language refers to things that do not yet have a name. You cannot do that literally.

When we use language metaphorically, we are not following the theory that we share, we are going against it. “Juliet is the sun” is a sentence that is obviously not true according to how literal language works, but we get its meaning: that Juliet is bright and shining and warm and life-giving, just like the sun. Metaphor specialists tell us that by using language like this we learn something new about Juliet (and by juxtaposing it with Juliet, the sun becomes a little more like a woman called Juliet). If Rheinberger were simply to say that this is also true for scientific models, he would not be saying anything new.

But Rheinberger is not just saying that scientific theories or models are like metaphors – he goes one step further, as does Donald Davidson in his famous paper on malapropism. Davidson claims in this paper that we do not need to use language properly at all, we can basically make nonsensical propositions and they still bring out new meaning, namely through the materiality of the words strung together, through the sounds, or even through similarity of the letters in written language. Rheinberger calls this facet of randomness of the juxtaposition of words in their materiality as “serendipity” – it is malapropism inserted into the experiment. What Rheinberger is claiming is that the scientific method works like a malapropism, which is a much stronger claim than the one that says that models work like metaphors.

A malapropism is a use of language that is not literal and where there is no intention on the part of the author or speaker. With malapropism we are entering a different kind of territory, and Davidson struggled with this in his essay “A nice Derangement of Epitaphs”(Davidson 2005) because he had to explain how meaning could be created even though the speaker was not using words literally and her intentions were not aligned with the words that she used to say something. In fact, in some types of malapropism, the opposite of what is meant is being said and the meaning is still conveyed. Often in a malapropism the speaker makes a mistake, as in a Freudian slip. Or the speaker uses one word instead of another simply because it sounds similar and there was not enough time for the speaker to correct and use the correct word. Davidson goes on to explain that the listener can still deal with this. Whereas language theorists claim that the hearer must “shar[e][ing] a complex system or theory with the speaker” (Davidson 2005, 93), “an interpreter has, at any moment of a speech transaction, what I persist in calling a theory” (ibid. p. 100). But Davidson goes on to say that “as the speaker speaks his piece the interpreter changes his theory, enters hypotheses about new names, changes the interpretation of familiar predicates, and revises previous interpretations of particular utterances in the light of new evidence.” (Davidson, ibid.) So, the speaker starts with an initial theory of interpretation, that she thinks the interpreter shares with her. Then she can consciously dispense with it, and the interpreter must modify her initial theory into an incidental or passing theory. At the end of his paper on malapropism Davidson concludes that there is no such thing as language as philosophers have assumed. There is no clearly defined common structure. Nor is there communication by appeal to convention.

Rheinberger makes a point about scientific theories and methods in Split and Splice that is very similar to the one made about language and understanding in Davidson’s malapropism essay. We need to imagine that the ‘speaker’ in this model is that which we are investigating in a particular investigation, and how that presents itself to or affords itself to us. Things are not simply given. “Data” as Rheinberger aptly says in the first part of the book are not, as the word suggests, simply given, they are already configured from the traces, that the scientific investigator measures. Rheinberger’s point is that there is something rogue about the process of investigation in science, something akin to what happens in malapropism. The experiment is an event, and the scientific process is not literal and unambiguous, but fragmentary and subject to serendipity. And that this is the method by which we arrive at new knowledge.

In a text called Postscriptum (Rheinberger 2022) to the workshop and special issue On Epistemic Times: Writing History 25 Years after Synthesizing Proteins in the Test Tube Rheinberger writes not so much a conclusion, but an outlook on “Conjunctures, Traces and Fragments.” He points out that the title of his book Spalt und Fuge, English Split and Splice was chosen because spalten, to split and fügen, to splice are the two cardinal activities of experimentation and he deliberately avoids using the terms analysis and synthesis. The latter are the logical categories that he claims have been imported into the practice of experimentation. But they did not grow out of them, and they suggest too neat of a division and fusion. Rheinberger writes:

[…] experimentation, as a process of finding one’s way into the unknown, needs more practice-oriented categories in order to apprehend its moves. If you split a log, the wood resists, and the products of your wedging activity will show uneven faces, depending on the knots and inner structure of the trunk. The same holds true for the object of your experimental inquiry. Knowledge of these structures is of the utmost importance for experimental exploration. If you splice a rope or if you graft a twig onto your vine, the points of suture will remain visible as signs of a mutilation. So will the pieces of your experimental activity, if joined to form a whole again. And it is indeed of utmost epistemic importance for the ongoing experimental process not to forget that these sutures always are—and will have to be—provisional. The title of this phenomenology of experimentation, Split and Splice, aims at calling to mind these epistemic uncertainties, inherent in the life of epistemic things. (Rheinberger 2022, p. 517)

Rheinberger emphasizes the “movement of the aleatic” (p. 518), which allows us to see the unforeseen as materialized. A conjecture is triggered by something small but has great consequences. These events, or what Bachelard calls “life-worlds” as “cultures”, provide access to emergence. (Cf. Ibid.) And Rheinberger goes on to call this “serendipity,” like actors who claim that to have been in the right place at the right time. According to Robert K. Merton, serendipity becomes the term for the “eventfulness of the research process.” (Ibid.). In Split and Splice, such conjunctures are treated as grafting activities. They are generally concerned with the interface between instruments and the objects of research, epistemic things. Rheinberger argues that these interfaces are the main loci of resistance and surprise in the research process, which is what the constellation of words in their materiality/sound was in malapropism. He concludes the section on conjunctures with the phrase “Glückliche Fügungen“ – “Happy Splices” (this was the title of one of the papers presented at the workshop). Experiments are subject to happy splices, and we need them. At the end of Split and Splice, Rheinberger points out that the only way scientific experiments can produce new knowledge only if they pay attention to the splits and splices of their experiments and do not whitewash them into neat analyses and syntheses.

The book Split and Splice therefore aims to present a phenomenology of experimentation, which for Rheinberger means that we are looking at the “shapes and contours that scientific experimentation has acquired historically” (p. 1). Here we see the same focus on the materiality of the whole movement of experimentation, not just the individual experiment. It is particularly important for Rheinberger that experimentation is seen as a knowledge-generating process. The various facets of the shapes of the experience are examined both from an “infrascopic” and from a “suprascopic perspective” (ibid.) These shapes shape the form of the book, by looking below and beyond the threshold of perception.

1. The Infrascopic

In the first part of the book, called “the infrascopic” Rheinberger investigates the micrological aspects of experimentation, such as the production of traces, the construction of models, ways of making things visible, grafting and note-taking. These are aspects of the experimental infrastructure and its materialities. Central here is the difference between the experimental space of traces and that of data, as Rheinberger introduces it, the difference between “the order of the graphematic and the order of representation.” (p. 519). Traces that result from the interface between apparatus and target must be made permanent or stored in order to serve as data and to be manipulated in this space, outside of the temporal constraints of the experiment. “Here the traces undergo a change of medium”, Rheinberger writes, “from the medium of the experiment to a medium of a different grain and materiality, be it wire, paper, or the digital” (Ibid.). While he speaks of traces in the experiment, the French word “trace” also means track, path, or mark, and this is what must be kept in mind when reading “trace”. What the trace amounts to is that the meaning of a sign is generated by the difference it has from other signs, and this means that the sign also contains a trace of what it does not mean. In this sense, “trace” becomes a term for a “mark of the absence of a presence, an always already absent present.” (Of Grammatology, Spivak xvii). What then is the notion of trace in Rheinberger’s experiment? Like the meaning of the sign, the epistemic thing gradually gains significance and becomes reified step by step. The most pertinent observation here is that neither “the traditional epistemological conception of induction nor that of deduction will be of help to us” – indeed, Rheinberger thinks that even Charles Sanders Peirce’s notion of abduction will not do, even though it comes close and is usually credited with novelty in the process of scientific investigation. What we get is a notion that Rheinberger calls “subduction.” Abduction differs from deduction and induction in that it does not begin with a general from which the individual is deduced or from individuals which are generalized through induction, abduction is the assumption of a general hypothesis, usually from a singular, which leads to the truth through conjecture or guesswork. In subduction, finally “novelty can come about inadvertently, [that] the unprecedented can be made to happen.” (p. 11) And the space in which this happens is “between the agents of knowledge and their objects of their interest.” (ibid.).

Rheinberger starts with the notion that the original gesture of the modern sciences was to “try[ing] to make the invisible visible.” We try to reveal and make accessible to our senses things that cannot be observed immediately or unmediatedly. And here we see that an “instrumentally mediated disturbance” is needed to make contact with the material. Like the documentary filmmaker who tries to show how the life of a person “is,” she cannot help but interfere with that life through the camera. In the same way, we interfere with our scientific measurements through the instruments that we use and that lead us to new knowledge in the first place.

The point is that this media/technological landscape is the only way in which science exists, and more importantly, this landscape has emerged from the process of knowledge generation itself, Rheinberger writes. Traces are a form of “material manifestation—a form of palpability” (ibid.). They are more rudimentary than what we call a representation, their nature is indexical, it is the primary manifestation of an epistemic thing, and it predates the distinction between writing and imaging. Rheinberger adds here that writing and imaging are our traditional forms of representation, but the trace is their raw material, the raw material of the experimental semiosis. In this sense, the trace is asemic, it is not yet semantic, it does not yet have meaning. But this makes it a puzzle. A trace is a trace of something, but that something is always absent (ibid. p. 13). The trace convinced Derrida that there could be no simple origin. To put it in scientific terms, the supposed origin of the trace is absent “not only in the sense of no longer being here, but in a much stronger sense: it ever was before. We cannot catch the thing that generates the trace in flagrante. Were this possible, we could save ourselves the whole experimental effort” (p. 13.).

The central task is to reflect on the epistemic and technical constitution of trace-generating experimental systems and the experimental environments or landscapes that they form. And this is where Rheinberger’s harsh criticism of the sciences comes in: he argues that this has not found its place in the self-perception of the sciences. What counts for them is the result, the finding. Instead, Rheinberger focuses on the occurrences and events of the experiment. There is neither a knowing “I” nor completed knowledge, the book is positioned in between. And this in-between consists of the traces that are created. There are paths and trajectories in which this happens. Rheinberger points out that all experimentation moves along two different epistemic axes, “depending on whether it is about the exploration of spatial structure or the determination of temporal sequences” (p. 14). In short, what is too big must be miniaturized, what is too small must be enlarged. Processes must be sped up or slowed down. And these procedures are the instructions for generating traces and providing ways of transforming them into data., i.e. ordering and condensing them, so that patterns can emerge that give contours to the phenomenon under investigation. (Cf. Ibid.)

It is time to give an example of such a trace. Rheinberger chooses radioactive substances. Radioactive substances can be measured because they indicate the path they take through the body, and a small amount of the substance can indicate the whole. In short, the system produces and simultaneously registers the traces. But these sequence gels or other experimental traces are transient. They disappear after some time. To capture them, an additional manipulation is necessary, also to make visible what is happening. Here we make the change from medium to data. The invisible intensity pattern is transferred to a sensitive film. In this way, fleeting traces can be transformed into permanent data. Rheinberger uses a word play on data here: “unlike what the name suggests, nothing is “given”—it is all the result of a process. (p. 19).

This is what Rheinberger’s book is about: how experimentation can lead us to new knowledge. And it is the wilder and more material splitting and splicing rather than the controlled and intellectual analysis and synthesis that gets us there.

In the next chapter we come to the model as a figuration that originates in the space of data. In addition to models, we can have lists, filters, orders according to variable criteria, storage, curating, and so on. The data space is quite malleable, writes Rheinberger, because we no longer have to deal with “resistances of the materiality of the experimental process.” However, Rheinberger emphasizes that the data manipulation comes with its own set of complications. We have seen a growth in data space that has been unprecedented in the last half century. This brings with it a new dynamic, that makes it appear as a real space in its own right. Data space now has its own materiality and an inherent unruliness of its own practices. We need to pay attention to this, too, Rheinberger argues.

What makes models both strong and weak is the simplification they offer. Their weakness is that we can forget for a moment that they are illusions. and their strength is that they can be easily reconfigured even as the data changes. (Recently, an Internet meme showed about 10 different kinds of model possibilities for the same kind of data, one of which was the shape or outline of a gorilla). Rheinberger points out that we oscillate between models of and models for. While science is concerned with models of, models for are found in art and architecture. Models of can be divided into functional and structural models. The example of a model organism comes from molecular genetics, we look at ribosomes, which are model organisms. The term “model organism” did not appear until the second half of the 20thcentury and played a decisive role in the development of molecular biology. The ideal model organism has material consequences because of its ideality. Why is that? Because one has to intervene in order to standardize the organism (cf. p. 27). The model organism has been modified and this “determines their character as a research tool” (ibid.). In that the model organism embodies previously acquired knowledge and becomes less an object of investigation than a technical condition of the experimental system. The models served in such a way that a picture “could be grasped at first sight and that suggested further, experimentally accessible questions on the basis of these synoptic premises” (p. 32). Rheinberger argues that the models, in their pictoriality, have the character of affordances, a term we know well from actor network theory and neo-materialistic philosophies. The model as an image becomes a kind of actant. The connection of this production of an illusion or image is not a deficiency of the model, but instead Rheinberger shows that it is an advantage. This is where the English translator curiously called or translated the restriction as malapropism, which triggered the analogy I made at the beginning of this review and my comparison of what Rheinberger does with Donald Davidson’s essay on malapropism. It is all about the new meaning in the metaphor as well as the new meaning that comes from the experiment found in the model. Because of this imaginary fiction, it is easier to formulate expectations and to address them experimentally. We have entered fully into the circularity between model and experiment full on, Rheinberger writes: “The model serves as an indirect source for an iterative process of producing of new experimental traces that, when transformed into data, can be reexamined for their compatibility with the existing model.” Rheinberger goes on to quote Alan Badiou from his early book the Concept of Model, in which he argues that the model, as a transitory aid is destined to deconstruct itself in the scientific process. What Rheinberger wants to point out is that the model represents under a specific synopsis and neglects aspects that do not come into view under the given experimental conditions. But new questions are generated, and the attempted answers continually modify the model.

There is so much more Rheinberger has to say about models; when he distinguishes structural models from functional models, it turns out that the latter attempt to associate functional states with components or regions, while structural models operate away from primary traces or data collections to a mediated form at the level of synopsis. This leads to feedback not only between models and experimental data production, but also between models themselves that refer to the same epistemic object (cf. S. 39). We are not dealing with the question of what the model means and what its reference is, but with a relation between different representations. It is nice how Rheinberger invokes Frege’s distinction between sense and reference by noting that the model either makes sense or it does not. Structural models are thus determined by two main parameters underlying their construction: “the external shape in three-dimensional space” as well as the “Internal articulation and positioning of dozens of macromolecular components with respect to each other” (p. 37). They are not primarily representational models, but rather “a tool of further knowledge production” (p. 39).

Finally, Rheinberger looks at computer graphics models, the latest addition. Here, too, the potential for gaining knowledge lies in the comparison of different models that alternative visualization technologies give us using different data sets. The different technologies are indeed different interferences, since they require different preparation procedures for the probes. “Native, untouched particles, however, cannot be seen or made visible, which makes the manipulation of their stature unavoidable. The only possibility of gaining a robust assessment of their shape is a permanent triangulation between the different results of such manipulations” (p. 44).

Rheinberger concludes the chapter on models with a brief excursion into computer simulations. As epistemic entities they are qualitatively different from other models in that they do not result from experimental traces transformed into data, accompanied by the change of medium in the transformation to data. Simulations operate on self-generated data. This gives them the advantage of allowing us to visualize origins and futures that are inaccessible in real experiment. Since we have computers, simulations have opened up additional space for experimentation that now makes models themselves the object of research. At the end of the chapter, Rheinberger points out something quite fascinating: that we are used to the precession of the simulation type of model from the fields of art and architectures. There, the models are not models of, but models for. “Here, the relation between the model and the modeled is inverted from the start” (p. 45). What this means for the relationship between the sciences and the arts is unfortunately beyond the scope of Rheinberger’s book, but it is widely discussed today, especially since we have begun to talk about artistic research.[1]

Chapter 3 of Split and Splice is entirely devoted to the trope of “making visible.” We have been circling this since the beginning of the book when we talked about synopsis and the imagery of models. Rheinberger believes that making visible is “the fundamental gesture of the modern sciences in their entirety,” and that it speaks directly to the moment of making inherent in the process. But “visualization is always bound to variegated forms of intervening,” (p. 46), Rheinberger continues.

The trace marks the beginning of the process of making something visible and lives from its proximity to the material and its proximity to the tools that bring it into being. “It therefore precedes the critical distinction between image and writing” (Ibid.). Even the practice turn in sociology, history and the philosophy of science has not yet looked closely enough at “what goes on in the space between the knower and the object of knowledge.” Meanwhile Goethe considered contemplation important and pointed to the middle ground. In his study of Newton’s theory of color, he refused to let the mediated quality of knowledge simply evaporate and to pretend that there was direct or immediate transparency. The chapter discusses examples of forms of visualization in the laboratory. We have moved from models to the actual procedures of visual representation that underlie models and preparations. Rheinberger discusses “configurations,” which are procedures of spatial and temporal compression and expansion. The second are procedures of enforcement or enhancement, and the third are procedures of schematization, in order to draw up a typology of visualizations in the sciences.

An exemplary form of compression is the map. Another is the curve, which can synoptically represent a whole series of measurements of one or more variables. This makes patterns visible. Enhancement means that structures, and even processes are made visible by coloring or placing contrasts. The means of enhancement become part of what is to be represented. Deformations must be inherent to the process. This was the earlier example of radioactive marking. One type of enhancement is particularly interesting: biological agents that are introduced to expand. We do not see the bacteria and viruses, but the space occupied by the destroyed bacteria and multiplied viruses. This is certainly not representation by depiction, but it does make the processes in question accessible for further study (cf. p. 60). Finally, schematization is used when processes are too complex. The umbrella term for the schematization is “diagrammatic,” which has recently received a great deal of attention from cultural studies. A pictorial language is developed, a kind of „image regime“ (p. 61). Rheinberger quotes Hertz, a student of Helmholtz, who is said to have said that the sciences produce “internal simulacra” of the things of the world, making possible “different images of the same objects”. Admissible, correct, and useful are the three terms he uses to describe the technical side rather than the epistemological side of experimentation. It is about “the insertion of new apparatus or procedures in already existing experimental setups (p. 67).

Most systems are transformed by apposition. Since with Rheinberger we also are dealing with the translator of Jacques Derrida, who has used the concept of grafting dealing with writing, we find a subchapter on the “Graft of Writing” which beautifully makes the connection between the natural science and the humanities. If grafting is a process of manipulation in which a new connection is made between two separate entities, then we can compare it to nomadic movements as Isabelle Stengers has described them, prerequisites for illuminating the differences in cultural techniques. Derrida spoke of the transposition of linguistic particles from one discursive context to the other, which he called an “iteration”.

Dissemination and grafting characterize the heteroclite and heteronomous, which he considered a crucial feature of the cultural technique of writing. What he meant by this was that meaning spreads like a disease, erratically through the body. Meaning is not linear and cannot be accurately depicted. Grafting is the insertion of something foreign, something that does not emerge from the pre-existing structure. But it requires the pre-existing structure to articulate itself as this other (cf. p. 70) For Derrida, to write is necessarily to graft. Bachelard used the concept of graft in the context of poetic work and images of the elements. The graft adds something new, that cannot be derived from it in the sense of an imaginative derivation. It is “material imagination” as a result of an apposition. Interestingly, the graft is here not understood as a metaphor, he takes it at face value, Rheinberger argues, and it is a figure of “material imagination” (p. 71).

After the grafts come the interfaces, the sutures between the grafted new technology and the pre-exiting technologies. There is also hybridization, which merges two independently established into a new construct. Grafting and hybridization are crucial to the iteration of experimental systems.

The last chapter of Part One deals with the protocols that must be written as an integral part of every experiment. Why are these primary written notes and records important? Because they constantly accompany the experimenter. Notes convey the concrete processes of knowledge formation. They are not an authoritative voice that knows where to go, they are tentative. And that is why they are productive and mostly neglected. As Friedrich Kittler said: “A writing system is an indispensable space of notation for emergent knowledge” (p. 95).

2. The Supra-Scopic

The second part of Rheinberger’s book is as fascinating as the first, because it is about time, but not as time as an object of experimentation, but the temporal course that epistemic processes can take. George Kubler was an art historian, a thinker in terms of structures like Thomas Kuhn, and obsessed with material objects. And with Rheinberger, Kubler is aligned with Derrida as concerned with the “diachronic flow structures of the historical process and its conceptualization” (p. 100). Time is not a fow, but a structure composed of units, each of which carries its own temporality. He departs from the distinction between longue and courte duree of biology and the individual development. He wants to focus on the characters and properties of the objects of culture, the things with which the arts are concerned. In short, he is interested in “figures of temporal condensation of a medium range that he calls “shapes” (p. 101).He wants to see the processes common to art and science in the same historical perspective, without blurring the differences between artistic and scientific things. Utility and beauty are, after all, very different. But the genesis of epistemic things and works of art is not entirely different, since they share at least the trait of invention, change, and obsolescence at least. (Cf. Ibid.) No wonder Rheinberger is interested in Kubler, but not in returning to the “genius religion” of the great man-inventors. Novelty may be an idea, but the sudden inspiration of gifted brilliance is not the answer. Rather, it is the “unprecedented result of a retrojection,” Kubler suggests. Here is the example: An artist and a miner are digging for ore. They can assess the tunnels dug, still there is no guarantee what direction to take. Both artists and scientists move in a terrain of materiality. They are scarred by the paths that have been trodden before. They must confront the materials head on. Like Kuhn Kubler sees the arts as moving towards no goal. We move toward what we want to know. We seize the moment in the given circumstances of possibility. We create a series or a sequence.

Rheinberger then thinks about epistemic trajectories in terms of Kubler. He repeats what Fleck thought, namely that experiments tend to be “carried along by a system of earlier experiments and decisions,” recalling Kubler’s imagery of tunnels and shafts. Rheinberger then lists five kinds of trajectories or sequences that can be specified in the empirical sciences: frames for the production of experimental traces and data. To demonstrate this, he takes a model organism, the flour moth Ephestia kühnella, and shows us how it was used as an object of study to study its spread and learn how to eradicate it. But he also shows how it was eventually replaced by other model organisms because its genetics were too complicated to read.

Epistemic and artistic matters are therefore similar in that what we call the “ingenious ideas” are mainly the researchers who become aware of an option that such a system offers and usually through a new technique or a signal that surfaced in a hidden corner. Cultural novelty, Rheinberger concludes the chapter, is realized in history as the history of things and are closely tied to the materials and the options that emanate from them (cf. p. 114).

The second chapter of Part II is about experiential cultures, which are the specific forms of spatial expansion of experimental systems. Such systems may form ensembles or bundles, in which case they are called experimental cultures. Here we have an interesting glitch in the otherwise excellent translation. Rheinberger writes that the concept of “Sich-Teilen-in” is central, which means literally, “To-Divide-Oneself-Into.” But the translation uses the word “sharing,” which is not the best choice because it brings the meaning too close to the symbolic. Culture is usually tied to the symbolic, but Rheinberger wants to focus on the “materialities of the scientific work in process.” And this is why it is a self-splitting, not a sharing, a division that is material. Rheinberger says the Sich-Teilen-in contains the core of why we speak of cultures here. Aspects of experimentation that are similar are called styles of scientific thought or practice, as well as ways of knowing or doing. But the notion of culture underscores the aspect of material interrelation between experimental systems, a meaning that only emerges as these systems emerge.

Most importantly, Rheinberger does not want to discuss experimental cultures as part of a history of disciplines that looks at institutions. Instead, he wants to define scientific communities in terms of their shared paradigms, and to try to characterize them in terms of shared experimental life forms. This explains at least why the translator has chosen the term “sharing” earlier. Such a shared culture or life form of experimentation is then presented by looking at “in vitro” – the biological test tube culture. The transition from a living system to a test tube system was not simply a transition from biology to organic chemistry – but it was the replication of life under different conditions. The question is: “do we still see nature in the mirror?” In a chapter on culture as an epistemological concept, we get a discussion of the modern use of the term, the distinction between man-made and naturally occurring things (cf. p. 126).

Chapter 8 is called Knowing and Narrating. Reflection of modern science in its own activity. The metaphor of the legibility of the world is used here, and that the letters of the book of nature are inherent in nature and all we do is look for them to be revealed. The image tells us that the scientific discourse is transparent and unadulterated by the media through which it is represented. Against this background, Rheinberger asks: do scientific texts narrate or not? Or are they really descriptive or hypothetico-deductive as we would like to believe. He brings up the distinctions between explanation and understanding, nomothetic and idiographic, knowledge of nature and knowledge of history.

First comes the question of authorship, the question of narrative. Experimental systems embody and realize a narrative structure. Since the experimental order is in a constant state of reorientation, experimental systems not only tell stories, but also change them (p. 136).

This is how we arrive at the poetology of research. Polanyi’s ideas about the agency of things are introduced. What we see here to is that epistemological acts allow us to take the next step in given research situations and that it is the “unexpected impulses” that determine the “course of scientific development” (Polyani p. 141). An experiment must introduce unintended effects, or unexpected results. In a chapter on epistemicity and experimentality knowledge things are characterized as things that leave something to be desired. Their relationship to the world is a search for knowledge. Quoting Claude Bernard, Rheinberger suggests that experimenters arrange situations so that finding becomes possible. He writes “One could describe such searching as a game of eventuation. It is an engagement with the material world that requires, first, an intimate acquaintance with the things at hand, and second (and at the same time) a distancing, the ability to let things appear strange” (p. 143). At this point the term “Serendipity” comes up again, and it stands for the serendipity of research, the fact that a serendipitous byproduct has effects on a theory and produces questions that could not have been asked before. It is about an epistemology of the unprecedented (ibid.)

And finally, towards the end of the book Rheinberger comes to the fragment. Traditionally, the fragmentary has been regarded as a deficient state of things to be repaired by a view from the whole. I recently heard the Slovenian writer and Ingeborg Bachmann Price Winner Ana Marwan, reading from her latest book, Zabubljena, in German “Verpuppt” (Marwan 2023) make the same eulogy or declaration of love for the fragmentary. She said about her novel that she did not want to write a narrative, a whole story that makes sense, but to give priority to small pieces of life. To the momentary beauty of a fragment in time and constellation with other people, and not to the implementation of that piece into a larger whole of a life that makes sense. She argues that this is closer to the way life is and feels as lived, as fragmentary.

Rheinberger wants the fragmentary to be a driving force of the research process and believes that it characterizes “both the natural sciences and the historical humanities” (Postscriptum p. 520). Again, he distinguishes between the scientific activity of dissecting materials in order to gain knowledge of their fine structure and the relations between the parts, and the kind of dissection and fragmentation that for the historical humanists has always been done by time. The humanist finds her material already in a fragmented state and must reconstruct it. For the biological and physical sciences of the past, we have a similar fragmentation by time.

Both epistemic intervention and representation (a distinction made by Ian Hacking) are built on the fragmentary. Our mappings of the world are based on intelligent economy.” Rheinberger gives the example of Borges’ scientist who wanted to make a 1:1 map, without leaving anything out, he wanted to represent the whole, not just a fragment, but such a map would make no sense. Fragments allow for a “resistance to plenitude: gaps, leftovers, omissions” and especially the thing that is absent but left its imprint and is thus an absent presence “at the point of contact as an absent origin.” Here we clearly hear Hans-Jörg Rheinberger, the translator of Jacques Derrida.

In conclusion, Rheinberger presents a book on scientific method that deals in the first part with the spatial and in the second with the temporal problems of discovering any new epistemic object in science. Since we are finding our way into the unknown we need to take epistemic uncertainties as part of the process. Resistance and the influence of our experimental activity are part and parcel of the life of epistemic things.


[1] See the workshop Zufall und Einfall. Medien der Kreativität in Wissenschaft und Kunst. November 9-11, 2023 at KU Linz. The collected papers will be published with Transcript in 2024.

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