Animate Biology: Data, Visualization, and Life's Moving Image
Nocek, Adam James
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The dissertation, Animate Biology: Data, Visualization, and Life’s Moving Image, develops a concept of scientific aesthetics in order to counter the neoliberalization of scientific visualization practices. In particular, the dissertation investigates how 3D molecular animation is a visualization practice that uses technologies developed by the entertainment industry (Pixar and DreamWorks) to animate data sets. The project shows how there is controversy among scientists regarding the scientific value of using this technology, since scientists disagree over whether computer animation is capable of accurately visualizing biological data. Drawing on Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison’s scholarship on the history of scientific visualization, the dissertation intervenes in this debate by arguing (1) that representation, instead of objectivity, is the epistemic norm that determines the scientific value of images, and (2) that representation is fully operative in 3D molecular animations. I argue that what is often missed in debates over the value of computer animation is that representation has undergone many transformations in the history of scientific epistemology, and that it now obeys the logic of flexibility and competition that exemplifies neoliberal market values. In other words, the problem with molecular animation is that representation determines its scientific value, and this is what needs to be overcome. Over the course of four chapters, the dissertation uses the methods of media archeology to discover a genealogy for scientific visualization that does not rely on the values of representation; it will then use this as the basis for generating non-representational values for computer animation in biology. The dissertation contends that an aesthetics of the scientific image developed out of the twentieth-century avant-garde science films of Jean Painlevé, as well as the aesthetic philosophies of Immanuel Kant and Gilles Deleuze, offers a genealogical and conceptual framework to understand how computer animation could become a visual medium for scientific aesthetics that resists neoliberal value production in science. The first chapter, “Molecular Control,” situates molecular animation within the field of biological data visualization, and argues that the distinct advantage of the technology, according to its proponents, is that it gives spatial and temporal form to invisible and static data sets. However, opponents argue that the technology takes far too many liberties with the interpretation of data, and so does not provide a reliable form of visualization. Relying on scholarship from Daston, Galison, and other historians of science, the project investigates the historical emergence of epistemic norms in scientific imaging, and demonstrates that what has remained constant, at least since the eighteenth century, is the value of representation (and not objectivity). The chapter takes issue, however, with Daston and Galison’s insistence that the limitless recombination and flexibility of digital and nano imaging spells the end of representation in scientific visualization. Drawing on work by Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, Alexander Galloway, among others, the chapter argues that representation is still the dominant epistemic value in scientific imaging, it’s just that it has undergone a fundamental transformation: it now obeys the rationality of the neoliberal market. Using this framework, the chapter demonstrates how computer animation, especially with its development of automated design techniques, exemplifies representational values in neoliberalized technoscience. In this way, molecular animation testifies to the latest shift in scientific representation, and also exposes the limitation of more “internalist” histories of science, such as Daston and Galison’s, inasmuch as they are too often blind to the co-production of market and epistemic values. The second chapter, “Micro and Nano Imaging,” investigates two case studies from the history of scientific imaging that appear to thwart representational values. In particular, the chapter inquires into whether these instances could provide a framework for non-representational values in scientific visuality. The first case study comes from early twentieth century molecular cinematography. Drawing on scholarship from Hannah Landecker and Lisa Cartwright, the project examines how the techniques of “micro-cinematography,” introduced by Jean Comandon, Alexis Carrel, and others, made significant contributions to our understanding of the temporal development of living systems. However, micro-cinematography did not garner support from the wider scientific community. In fact, its extensive use of time-lapse techniques were often criticized by scientists for introducing too much “subjective” or “aesthetic” intervention into the observation of natural systems. But where the annals of science tend to write off micro-cinematography due to its failure to accurately represent natural systems, the dissertation shows how representation is very much at stake in these early moving images. Drawing on Daston and Galison’s work once again, the chapter contends that micro-cinema relied on a form of representation that wouldn’t take hold in scientific epistemology until decades later: namely, the uses of the scientist’s “trained judgment.” In other words, micro-cinema doesn’t thwart or disregard representation; rather, it anticipates its transformation. The second case study that the chapter draws on is nanomanipulation. In this domain of technoscience, seeing the world through a microscope and bringing it into existence have merged into the same process. The chapter investigates current nanoimaging technologies that are indebted to the work of Don Eigler and Erhard Schweizer, who first used a scanning tunneling microscope (STM) in 1989 to write their company name, IBM, at the atomic scale. While humanities scholars, such as Luciana Parisi and Nathan Brown, have noted the aesthetic implications of nanotechnology, the dissertation contends that the meaning of the “aesthetic” has been subsumed under the values of engineer-scientists: each manipulation indexes future applications and markets rather than purely aesthetic, or creative, manipulations of matter. The project therefore demonstrates how nanoimaging is still beholden to representational values, even though the technology alters matter as it views it. Overall, the chapter contends that neither micro nor nano imaging thwart representation as the premiere value in scientific imaging, and that each practice upholds representation, but only insofar as it finds a way to incorporate aesthetics into its logic. The third and fourth chapters of the dissertation then investigate how the “aesthetic” could become a form of resistance to scientific representation, by inquiring into whether there are instances of visual aesthetics in science that cannot be incorporated into representational values. To this end, Chapter three, “The Scientific Avant-Garde,” considers work from a scientific filmmaker who has always been on the fringes of scientific acceptability: Jean Painlevé. In particular, the chapter examines Painlevé’s fraught relation to the scientific community, and his subsequent embrace of avant-garde filmmakers and painters, especially the Surrealists. Through a close analysis of several decades of Painlevé’s work, especially from the 1920s to the 1960s, the chapter shows how he sought to undermine the persistence of anthropocentrism in science film by using formal techniques that he shared with other avant-garde filmmakers (including Luis Buñuel, René Clair, Fernand Léger, Hans Richter, and others). The chapter traces the development of these techniques in his cinema, and argues that it is by means of them that his work consistently challenges the human presumption to represent “Nature.” In particular, his films demonstrate how “Nature” is always in excess of human categories used to understand it. Chapter four, “Disinterested Aesthetics,” situates this interpretation of Painlevé’s work within a history of aesthetic philosophy. In particular, the dissertation uses Deleuze’s Kantian-inspired aesthetics to understand the philosophical significance of privileging aesthetics over representation. Drawing on Deleuze’s book on Kant, as well his major philosophical treatises, Difference and Repetition and the Logic of Sense, the chapter examines how Deleuze reverses the privilege given to Kant’s notion of “sublime” over the “beautiful” in Continental aesthetics. Deleuze argues that the sublime has far less radical implications than the beautiful does, inasmuch as judgments of beauty, as explained in the Critique of Judgment, are “disinterested judgments” that reference sensible intuitions that are without categories. I then show how Deleuze uses this insight to create his own aesthetic ontology in which there is always an excess of sensibility over pre-given concepts. The chapter concludes by arguing that Painlevé’s cinema expresses a similar aesthetic vision by producing images of Nature that are purely disintegrated, without a pre-given category to subsume them. The conclusion of the dissertation, “Molecular Aesthetics,” examines whether Painlevé’s “disinterested aesthetics” can help us develop alternatives to representational values in contemporary scientific cinema. The project proposes that molecular animation has the potential to have a vastly different meaning than it currently has. I argue that what’s significant about animation is that it gives spatial and temporal dimensions to data that biologists have never seen before. In other words, animation “defamiliarizes” biological data for scientists; it gives visual form to what has none. In this way, the project suggests that molecular animation is always implicitly generating “disinterested aesthetic judgments” among scientists, but that they are immediately transformed into what can generate neoliberal value. The dissertation ultimately contends that the seeds for an aesthetic critique of neoliberalized technoscience are already implicit in molecular animation.