On (Collaboration and) Building III: We Must Build to Know

In her book Meeting the Universe Halfway, Karen Barad defines an “apparatus” as any configuration “specific material reconfiguring[] of the world that do[es] not merely emerge in time but iteratively reconfigure spacetimematter as a part of an ongoing dynamism of becoming.” (142)

In Barad’s account, which spins of of Neils Bohr’s philosophy-physics, the “measuring apparatus” for an experiment is the specific set-up that is used to take a particular measurement.  What Barad points out, by way of Bohr, is that the apparatus itself is a part of the material configuration that produces a measurement.  She doesn’t simply mean what the social constructivists mean–that a phenomenon is “made” by the naming of it.  Rather I understand her to be pointing to the fact that a “measurement” becomes a possible articulation of the universe only when a measuring apparatus is in place.  And more particularly, that the type of apparatus one uses determines the type of measurement one can get.

In terms of the sciences, this is a very practical consideration.  Take, for example, the work on parchment surfaces that I put up earlier in the summer. In order to take a “measurement” of the parchment’s surface, I had to build an apparatus.  Ok.  I had to have a physicist build an apparatus (my days of building apparatuses in labs seem to be largely over…sort of…at least of building apparatuses with lasers).  Our apparatus only allowed us to take a certain kind of measurement, that was accurate on a certain scale, and that may or may not have answered the question we set out to address.

But the success of that apparatus is not really the point.  The point here, is that an apparatus had to be built in order to ask the question I wanted to ask of parchment surfaces.

That’s right. In order to answer a question about the roughness or smoothness of a parchment surface, we had to build.  And not just a little.  We had to build an optical data collection, Jason had to invent a spectrometer that could also take images (ok, so he didn’t have to do that for this experiment, but he did invent it and thus made it possible for us to ask both what is the backscattering from a surface and what does that exact surface look like with very little fuss). We acquired parchment samples, prepped them, set up a laser to land on the surface at such an angle that the scattered light could be collected by his spectrometer, etc. etc. etc.  But on top of that, we had to have a software that could decode the electronic information the Isoplane (and the Isoplane itself translated photons into this electronic information in the first place), and a computer that would run such software (my Mac, for instance, would do no such thing).

In fact, when each part of the apparatus is broken down, we discover yet another built thing. Another apparatus.  And that’s precisely the point:

an apparatus is any configuration of material that helps us to make another material configuration legible.

Thus, we see that in order to comprehend the material configuration we are interested in, we may well have to build an apparatus that allows us to take the “measurement” we want to take.

We’re used to this in the sciences.  In fact, we’ve come to expect it. But it isn’t merely true in the sciences.

The very same question I wanted to ask with a scientific apparatus, I had already asked using another apparatus: my fingertips. Indeed, it was because of the measurements of my fingertips, and their interaction with my neurons that I was able to form a question about surfaces in the first place.  I could touch the parchment surfaces and detect differences, but that wasn’t quite enough.  I wanted to be able to speak about the differences I detected to others.  Thus, while one apparatus (my fingertips) was sufficient to “measure” to object in question (the roughness or smoothness of the parchment surface), if I wanted to communicate effectively about that measurement, I needed something to substantiate it.

Now, I could add substance to my apparatus in one of two ways: I could add years and experience until I was an Ian Doyle or somesuch illustrious manuscript scholar when the weight of my “this feels rougher than that” would be taken seriously on the grounds of the rest of my apparatus (that my “feeling” is informed by years of study and thousands of encounters with parchment and is backed up by the structures of the academy and peer review etc. etc.);  OR I could throw some science behind it, which would take me a lot less time but which would add the illusion of “objectivity” to the statements I wished to make on the mere authority that we invest in quantitative information collected from lasers.  The “scientific” apparatus itself lends that kind of information more credibility than my simple (and inexperienced) subjective sense.

But both Ian Doyle and myself had to build the apparatuses that allowed us to produce authoritative remarks (“measurements”) on our respective objects.

And really, it is the mutual investments that we have in the apparatuses that we build that allows us to communicate information with others.

But building an apparatus from scratch–as opposed to, say, a systemic apparatus like Althusser’s “Ideological State Apparatus,” or the apparatus(es) of the academy, or of specific disciplines–requires a great deal of creativity–in every sense of the word.  It requires us not only to createto invent, to produce, to re-shape, but to make and to make it up as we go along.

And this should help us to see the labor of the arts as working in a similar way, albeit to produce (perhaps) a different kind of knowledge.  Take, for example, the work of Samuel Ray Jacobson in his installation at UCSB for the Babel 2014 conference, FLOTSAM in which Jacobson has literally “built” a line to draw attention to the boundaries we draw, to the connections between Coal Oil point and the Pacific Ocean, and to remind us of the precariousness of our position in relation to both (/either?).

And really, isn’t that what it’s all about?  Making what’s important to us legible to others?  And isn’t this what we’re doing? Building, inventing, and working (together, hopefully) to bring that legibility to bear upon our shared interests and concerns?  I think I gestured a bit toward that in my first post On Collaboration and Building: Babel and the Tower, but what I want to point out here isn’t merely that we must work together (collaborate), but that we must build to know.

We must build to see. We must build to distinguish and discern. We must build to interpret.  If we aren’t building, then we are making use of the constructions of others, or of existing systems. That might be acceptable, but it certainly won’t change anything.  It won’t change what we see, it won’t change what we say, and it won’t change our outcomes.


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