2009-2010 ETS/STS Colloquium: “Picturing Nature: Strategies of Visibility”
The multidisciplinary vision of Environmental Studies at Sarah Lawrence, in which the arts, writing, social sciences, humanities, and the natural sciences constitutes a lively intersection: a point of convergence where students can deepen their capacity to understand emerging ways of thinking about environmental problems and solutions. This vision is exemplified by a series of talks open to the entire College community. Titled “Intersections,” the Environmental Studies/ Science, Technology and Society (ES/STS) Colloquium Series” brings cutting edge scholars, advocates, artists and environmental scientists into dialogue with students and faculty. It is supported by the Barbara and Bertram Cohn professorship in Environmental Studies, held by Professor Charles Zerner who holds degrees in law, and architecture, and training in printmaking; the Marilyn Simpson Trust; and the offices of the President and the Dean of the College.
The theme of the 2009-2010 series, “Picturing Nature: Strategies of Visibility,” was coordinated with a yearlong course of the same name taught by Professor Zerner. The talk, series, and the course simultaneously examined strategies of visibility in environmental campaigns sponsored by non-governmental, environmental organizations, governments, and private corporations. The course and the series asked how —in a world saturated with multiple forms of media – do non-governmental groups and other powerful environmental actors use images to mobilize constituencies. Professor Zerner explained: “I hope to expose students to scholarship on how environmental threats, including radioactivity, toxic and other risks are made visible or invisible. How is visibility, broadly interpreted, important in understanding environmental risk, opportunity, and the substances we encounter on a daily basis? There is a second question,” Zerner continued, “linking the arts, humanities, and advocacy: How can artists, writers, those professionals who use the materials and techniques of the arts, whether words or images, fashion strategies of visibility that alert publics and mobilize citizens to fashion a less toxic, more sustainable world? The 2009-2010 series gave students much to consider:
The Idea of Objectivity: “Picturing Nature Rightly” Dr. Peter Galison, Pellegrino Professor of the History of Science and Physics at Harvard University
Dr. Peter Galison focused on changing ideas of objectivity in scientific investigations, including astronomy, botany, and physics, from the 17th century through the early 21st century based on his book Objectivity (Zone Books 2007), co-authored with Dr. Lorraine Daston, director of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin. Galison asks: “What does it means to attempt to “picture nature rightly?” Galison addressed the historicity of the idea of scientific objectivity; stating that the idea of objectivity changes over time. The practices which constitute objective techniques, at different historical moments, are associated with different epistemic virtues. Galison and his co-author, Lorraine Daston, scrutinized scientific atlases from the eighteenth century through the twentieth century to formulate their account of changing practices and ideas of scientific objectivity. “Starting in the 1730s scientific images are an idealized form of depiction. By the 1830s another type of more standardized, procedural “objectivity” appeared in the atlases, in which the observer maintained an ascetic distance from the object being observed. Changing technologies were centrally implicated in shaping ideas of objectivity. By the middle of the 1930s, the “scientific self,” was a trained expert, with the image of a natural object neither idealized (as in the 18th century), nor mechanically produced by instruments (as in the 19th century). “We began to understand ourselves as scientists who could offer interpretations” Galison explained.
By the early twenty-first century the idea of “objectivity” began to assume a new form. As information sciences of simulation, nanotechnology, and bio-engineering arose, scientists became capable of simultaneously “holding the tweezers in one hand,” and “the paintbrush in the other hand.” What does this mean? Galison asserted that bio-engineers and molecular biologists are now entering a world of nature that can simultaneously be observed and manipulated or even created. At the nano-technological level, the power of the artist to create worlds is now being united with the power of the scientific observer to see deeply and accurately.
Picturing Life in Museums, Professor Karen Rader, Professor of Science, Technology, and Society at Virginia Commonwealth University
Dr. Rader, a former SLC faculty member and holder of the Marilyn Simpson Chair for Science and Society delivered an excursus on the changing nature of museums and their relation to nature. The talk, entitled “Life on Display: Live Animals in Science and Natural History Museums, from Spooky the Owl to the "Watchful Grasshopper" was based on Rader’s new book, written with colleague Victoria Caine, entitled Life on Display: The Crusade to Define Biology, 1900-1985. Rader explained that while most animals found in natural history museums are imagined as lifeless stuffed animals characteristic of the early twentieth century, the role of the natural history museum, including the structure and visual appearance of the collections changed during the period from 1945 through 1960. During the post-world war period and the advent of Sputnik, the role of museums was re-imagined to include the recruitment and nurturing of future scientists. Museums were re-conceptualized as recruiting tools. In the 1970s and 1980s displays began to “go live.” Individual, living animals, such as “Spooky the Owl” even became icons. Further, visitors did not simply want to see live animals, they wanted to interact with them. At the San Francisco Exploratorium an exhibit called “Watchful Grass Hopper” contained a series of interactive exhibits. Quirky, sensationalist and fascinating, or not, these exhibits at least made an attempt to engage with the public.
Bio-Molecular Visualization: The Choreography of Scientific Visualization - Professor Natasha Myers, York University, Science, Technology, and Society
Professor Natasha Myers delivered a most provocative lecture entitled “Capturing Life Itself or Captivated by Liveliness?: Molecular Visualization and Ambivalent Encounters with Life in the Contemporary Bio-Sciences.” Myers researched scientists’ behavior in molecular biology laboratories and their pedagogical movements in classrooms at MIT. Myers asserted molecular biologists used their bodies and bodily movements of as instruments of scientific knowledge production. She describes her work in the following terms: “In the scientific literature, proteins are frequently figured as molecular machines; that is, as tiny mechanisms that operate in interlocking assemblages, and which act to build and maintain the body as a higher-order machine. Mechanical models parse living bodies in ways that seem, at first glance, to deaden lively processes. I build on
feminist contributions to the science studies to observe that researchers use their bodies kinesthetically to manipulate and learn protein structures. Such forms of body-work enable modelers to animate their molecular mechanisms both onscreen and through elaborate gestures and affects. I argue that this is not an extra-scientific phenomenon, but one intrinsic to the work of mechanistic modeling.” Myers’ work re-situates body work – the gestures and choreography of thinking scientists -- as intellectual work. In her analysis, the body becomes an instrument of knowledge, rather than an impediment. In Myers’ work, choreography, bio-molecular science, and epistemology are intertwined in unexpected ways.
Nuclear Flash Blindness: Physical or Cultural? - Joseph Masco, Associate Professor of Anthropology, University of Chicago
Professor Joseph Masco’s presentation on, “Nuclear Flash Blindness: The Trinity Site in American Public Memory,” analyzed the ways in which a series of films on nuclear explosions were strategically edited to manipulate the affect and perceptions of pilots carrying nuclear devices and everyday citizens. Masco’s scholarship examines the ways in which American minds and hearts were managed, by social scientists, defense department officials, and film editors during the post war period through the Cold War. In Masco’s own words, “Civil defense ultimately sought to produce an “atomic bomb proof” society in which nuclear conflict was normalized alongside all other threats, making public support for the Cold War sustainable. Civil defense theorists argued that citizens could only achieve this contradictory state of productive fear (simultaneously mobilized and normalized) by gaining intimacy with nuclear warfare itself, by becoming familiar with language of nuclear effects from blast, heat, and fire to radioactive fallout. As RAND analyst I. I. Janis put it, the goal of civil defense was ultimately an “emotional inoculation” of the U.S. public (1951:220). This inoculation, he cautioned, needed to be finely calibrated: the simulated nuclear destruction in civil defense exercises, as well as the atomic test film footage released to the public, had to be formidable enough to mobilize citizens but not so terrifying as to invalidate the concept of defense altogether (a distinct challenge in an age of increasingly powerful thermonuclear weapons which offered no hope of survival to most urban residents). A central project of civil defense was thus to produce fear but not terror, anxiety but not panic, to inform about nuclear science but not fully educate about nuclear war. The micro-regulation of a nation community at the emotional level was the goal.
Lioness, Meg McLagan, Filmmaker
Documentarian and cultural anthropologist Meg MacLagan screened her award winning film Lioness and engaged with students and faculty in conversation about the war in Iraq, getting permission from the military to interview seasoned battle-experienced female soldiers, and the story of how she and her colleague Daria Summers fashioned a powerful vision of war, women, and violence in Iraq.
Lioness tells the story of a group of female Army support soldiers who were part of the first program in American history to send women into direct ground combat. Without the same training as their male counterparts but with a commitment to serve as needed, these young women fought in some of the bloodiest counterinsurgency battles of the Iraq war and returned home as part of this country’s first generation of female combat veterans. Lioness makes public, for the first time, their hidden history. Told through intimate accounts, journal excerpts, archival footage, as well as interviews with military commanders, the film follows five Lioness women who served together for a year in Iraq, With captivating detail, this probing documentary reveals the unexpected consequences that began by using these Army women to defuse tensions with local civilians, but resulted in their fighting alongside Marine combat units in the streets of Ramadi. Together the women’s candid narratives describing their experiences in Iraq and scenes from their lives back home form a portrait of the emotional and psychological effects of war from a female point of view.
The 2009 -2010 Environmental Studies Series embodied the high value Sarah Lawrence faculty and students place upon multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary perspectives on the production of knowledge. This series expands and interrogates different ideas of the environment and human relationships to it across time and space. Charles Zerner and Marilyn Power, with colleagues across the curriculum, are seeking to develop a rich, varied menu of environmentally focused courses, symposia, and other opportunities for interested students. Commenting on Masco’s lecture, Zerner said: “Masco’s recent research is a brilliant demonstration of the institutional politics and aesthetics of environmental visibility. The poetics of images produced by the Department of Defense and the politics of nuclear proliferation are indissolubly linked. Environmental Studies is a site at which the contributions of the arts, humanities, social and natural sciences converge. Sarah Lawrence is well situated to offer students knowledge of the environment across the curriculum. We have a vibrant natural sciences faculty, a strong social science division, and historic strengths in the humanities and the arts.” The 2009-2010 ES/STS Colloquium series on “strategies of visibility” in very different environmental sites offered students and faculty five remarkable instances of this convergence.
Written by Frederic Richter ’10, with Judith Schwartzstein and passages provided by the lecturers’ own materials.