Cyborg metaphysics and the integration of science and art

Thoughts from my class “Recent Methods and Approaches” in the Digital Arts and New Media program.

In response to Donna Haraway’s “Cyborg Manifesto” essay.

For some decades, the STS (Science and Technology Studies) community, and to some extent the arts community, has been at odds with the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) community, as most (in)famously exemplified by C.P. Snow’s “Two Cultures” 1956 lecture.

Donna Haraway takes to task this separation in her “Cyborg Manifesto” essay, writing: “taking responsibility for the social relations of science and technology means refusing an anti-science metaphysics, a demonology of technology, and so means embracing the skilful task of reconstructing the boundaries of daily life, in partial connection with others, in communication with all of our parts.”

Although art has traditionally dealt with technology more than science, if at all, and although there are significant distinctions to be made, the distrust of technology as it appears in the service of government, the military, colonialists, and anti-feminists also extends as an antipathy toward science in many cases.

Many attempts to bring art and science closer together are met with the disdainful criticism that the work is “pedagogical”, despite the fact that art pieces for an art audience necessarily requires some illumination of the underlying science if the viewer is to appreciate the piece fully, perhaps in line with Snow’s observation that an artist’s lack of knowledge of the Second Law of Thermodynamics would be equivalent to a scientist’s lack of knowledge of Shakespeare.

Harraway’s argument suggests this attitude needs to change if we are to progress beyond the totalizing, essentialist dichotomies inherent in many stances. I contend that there is still plenty of room for the arts to adopt science, rather than technology, as a subject and for scientists to step down from their pedestal (perhaps erected since Snow, according to his estimation) and engage with the arts more fully.

This might happen in the service of the greater good for both arts and sciences, in purely pragmatic terms. Governments have shown a constant willingness to cut support for the arts and sciences, due to those governments’ short-term and applied focuses. And we have plenty of evidence that infighting leads only to a reduction in proportion of funding allocated to the totality of those fighting disciplines.

For example, the Superconducting Supercollider (SSC) being built in Texas, and which would have discovered the Higgs boson two decades before the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Switzerland, was canceled as a project primarily because the science community was not united behind it, with condensed matter physicists complaining that the high-energy physicists were taking too much of the science budget, without even getting started on how the project was received by those in the biological sciences and outside. As a result of the cancellation, those monies were not redistributed to other fields within science but disappeared from the science budget altogether, making for one of the largest cuts in the science budget in US history.

And, yet, some of those involved in the high-energy physics community were very aware of the need for integration of the arts and sciences. Robert Rathbun Wilson, founding director of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, responding to Congress on how the newly proposed accelerator would help the nation’s security, answered, “It only has to do with the respect with which we regard one another, the dignity of men, our love of culture. It has to do with those things. It has to do with, are we good painters, good sculptors, great poets? I mean all the things that we really venerate and honor in our country and are patriotic about. It has nothing to do directly with defending our country except to help make it worth defending.”

Haraway implicitly calls for more people like Wilson who can see the connection between the arts and sciences, and do something about it. (Wilson placed great emphasis on architecture and public art in the construction of the Fermilab complex.)

By combining forces, both arts and sciences could come to strategic agreement that would aid both fields and demonstrate the potential of STEAM (STEM with Art included) over STEM, both in practical and theoretical terms.

As Snow said in his lecture, “Psycho-analysis once looked like a deep invasion, but that was a false alarm; cybernetics may turn out to be the real thing, driving down into the problems of will and cause and motive. If so, those who do not understand the method will not understand the depths of their own cultures.”

Perhaps Haraway’s cybernetics via cyborg recognition and acceptance could help achieve the understanding and advancement of culture that Snow and others pursue.