Lorraine Daston is Director at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science and Visiting Professor in the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. Her work has examined the use of images and objects in scientific practice, the histories of objectivity and probability, and the place of wonders in early modern science. Daston's (co)authored and edited volumes include How Reason Almost Lost Its Mind: The Strange Career of Cold War Rationality, Objectivity, Things that Talk: Object Lessons from Art and Science, and Wonders and the Order of Nature: 1150-1750. We spoke with Daston at her office in Berlin.
Primary Materials: For some time, your research has examined the role of objects and images in science—from photographs to weather tables to glass flowers, underlining the importance of both mundane and wondrous materiality to the making of scientific knowledge. How did you become interested in these questions? Were there existing works or conversations that inspired you or were you responding to a lack?
LD: In the case of images, I really was inspired by a literature outside of my field, namely art history. I had the good fortune in the 1990s to be at the same institution—the University of Chicago—as Barbara Stafford and was familiar with her book on images and science. That was a real revelation to me. Historians of science of my generation were text-fixated, even though in retrospect it seems astonishing because these texts were simply peppered with images. We would really just flip the page, flip the page, ignoring everything but the text. It was only in looking at Barbara’s arresting collection of images that it became manifest to me how we had overlooked an extremely important source, at least as important as the text upon which we had focused. I think the second impetus was in a sense broader. It was a movement within the history of science in the 1990s—the turn toward practices, looking at what scientists actually do as opposed to what they say they do. This had many ramifications but among those ramifications was to look hard at the physical sites of science, as well as the images and objects that were being regularly manipulated by scientists. It’s always an epoch-making moment when you discover a new kind of source. Both images and objects were those kinds of moments in the 1990s for the history of science, and of course we learned enormously from art historians in both cases.
There was within the history of science a branch that had always been concerned with objects—science museums. But curators regarded objects as connoisseurs of those objects, people who already knew an enormous amount about the history of early photography, or the history of early steam engines, or of microscopes. This of course was a treasure trove of specialist knowledge. But it wasn’t knowledge that connected these objects to more familiar narratives about the development of science. That was the challenge for the generation of historians of science working in the 1990s and the naughts of the 2000s. How do you take that kind of knowledge and integrate it with what else the study of scientific practices had brought us? Namely a much enlarged view of who was a scientist, what was science, where could it be done.
PM: It’s been twelve years since the publication of your book Things that Talk, an edited volume that bridged approaches to signification and materiality in art history and the history of science. Can you reflect a bit on the book’s origins and impacts?
LD: The book's origins are clearer to me than its impacts. Exactly because of the circumstances that I described, namely that historians of science were awakening to the importance of images and objects, we thought that it would be extremely fruitful to have a sustained dialogue with art historians. Art history and history of science lead parallel lives in many ways. Apparently without consultation with one another, they are unfolding the same methodological dilemmas, each in its own domain. With objects the discussion had polarized between those people who belonged to the tradition of curatorship and connoisseurship and who knew enormous amounts about the physical properties of these objects—the nitty-gritty aspects of materiality—and those people who belonged exclusively to the hermeneutic or interpretive side who knew a great deal about how these objects had been regarded, their symbolic and epistemological potency, but who were relatively innocent about what they were actually made of. Our thought was that given this striking “parallel universe” phenomenon, it would be very interesting to get together and talk on a sustained basis. We thought that the best way to do this would be to be as concrete as possible and for each of us to pick an object, and that’s why the book, to my mind at least, has a pleasing miscellaneous character to it. Each of those objects is highly voiced; it was chosen because the author or authors had a great deal to say about the object and thought that the object was evocative, hence the somewhat hyperbolic title "Things that Talk." There was no attempt to standardize the objects or to standardize the voice.
PM: In your own contribution to the book, you discuss a singular collection of glass flowers at the Harvard Museum of Natural History—objects that present a unique mix of science and craft, the natural and the cultural. What are the glass flowers? How do they become so evocative and articulate?
LD: The glass flowers were botanical models commissioned by the Harvard Department of Botany in the latter part of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth century from two master glass makers in Dresden, the Blaschkas. The Blaschkas were a Bohemian family so glass came naturally to them. They had originally made costume jewelry but then they had gotten into making decorative aquarium objects. There was a vogue for aquariums in the middle decades of the nineteenth century but as anyone who’s had aquariums knows, it’s extremely difficult to keep both the plant life and the animal life alive. So people began to wonder: Couldn’t we have glass jellyfish? Glass medusae? It was the same way that people buy plastic flowers because it’s so much easier to take care of them than real flowers. These glass marine animals drew the attention of biologists, especially here at the University of Berlin and at a few other German universities. Couldn’t you make models for us of invertebrates, since those are very difficult to preserve for study? That got them into the scientific model business. The Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard had ordered some of their medusae and the head of the botany department there thought that the Blaschkas could probably do the same for plant models. That was the origin of this extraordinary collection. But the Blaschkas outdid themselves. These models cease to be models because they were too verisimilar. Out of the most unlikely of materials, namely brittle, hard, fragile glass, they fashioned perfect imitations of plants, and not just the species and genera of plants but of individual plants. They became wonders, but wonders that no longer have the scientific value for which they were originally intended. And they are still wonders. I think they still attract thousands and thousands of people every year. No one who has seen them ever forgets them.
PM: Can you speak about the notion of “presence”? It is so central to materiality and the case of the glass flowers but is also a crucial concept that arose in the context of the pictorial turn—the emphasis on presence as contrasted with interpretation. Do you see a continuity or connection between the pictorial and the material?
LD: I think it’s always in connection but of course now they’re in contradiction with one another. I think that the virtuality of so much of our experience—the creation of images of everything and the experience of the world increasingly through images—means that the experience of materiality is becoming rarer, more precious, even fetishized. The cult of going to the museum and actually seeing the object and inspecting the impasto, the frame, everything about the physical properties that is erased in putting the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the Louvre collection online speaks to that nostalgia for materiality in a world of images. Although I think that the study of images and the study of objects, materiality, or things began as a hand-in-hand movement, they’ve pulled apart because of our own increasingly digitized visual experience.
PM: In your introduction you note that the book was the product of a sustained interdisciplinary work process here at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science. Can you talk a bit about the design of such interdisciplinary conversations, their challenges, their benefits? Are questions of things and materiality uniquely suited to these kinds of approaches?
LD: To answer your last question first, I don’t think that they were uniquely suited. I think that many topics within the history of science and the humanities more generally could profit from this kind of collaborative endeavor. The potential of such collaborative endeavors has been largely eclipsed by two factors. First, humanists tend to be evaluated as individuals. That’s especially the case for scholars early on in their career; they’re subject to a great deal of pressure to distinguish themselves in a large field of competitors. That meant that all of the scholars, with one exception (at that time), who participated in this project were already established scholars. The second impediment to this kind of collaboration has been, at least within the history of science, a view about the appropriate heft of a topic: of late this has been the micro-study. In part because of the turn to practice and the completely admirable view that you cannot do justice to practice except in great detail, there has been tendency to narrow the scope of what one researches. This has led in many ways to a rise in the quality of the studies produced, but it has had the regrettable effect of shortening the timeline of such studies and also preventing comparison. The aim of these collaborative projects is to counteract those forces.
In the case of the working group that produced the Things that Talk volume, the choice of people was as fortuitous (and fortunate) as the choice in objects; there was no recipe. It was largely because they were extremely fertile and open minds and people who were used to trying to translate the work of their own discipline into terms that would be not only intelligible but irresistible to people in other disciplines. If I may say so, I think that group of people worked very well. The way in which we actually proceeded on a kind of nitty-gritty basis was to meet several times. Before we met we would exchange drafts, assign commentators—one who was as close as we could get to the subject matter and the other who was very remote from it—making sure that historians of art and historians of science criss-crossed. We then discussed and discussed and discussed. This sounds extremely vague but that’s how it worked. I at least found it enormously stimulating. Even to the point where long after that book appeared conversations echoed in mind’s ear, in part because we introduced one another to bibliographies that had beforehand been literally closed books. That was enormously fruitful.
PM: Where there authors, texts, ideas that emerged as particularly useful bridges for shared conversation?
LD: The two that I remember in particular that were suggestive for all of us were Tim Ingold’s work in anthropology and Miguel Tamen’s book Friends of Interpretable Objects, an eccentric but to my mind brilliant meditation about why some objects have a kind of numinosity to them that get us endlessly thinking, endlessly talking. That book really brought us further.
PM: In addition to Things that Talk you have also edited a volume on Biographies of Scientific Objects, which you characterize as a project of "applied metaphysics" of the objects at the center of scientific investigation. Can you talk a bit about "things" and "objects," two words that have circulated in close proximity in recent discussions of materiality?
LD: I will make a very idiosyncratic distinction. “Objects,” at least in my usage, refers to rather abstract entities. So I believe one of the essays in that collection talks about dreams as objects of scientific inquiry. Another talks about the center of gravity as an object of scientific inquiry. These are abstractions, whereas “things” are what you can stub your toe against. They have the kind of weight, obduracy, sharpness of outline of the ordinary things that populate our world.
PM: Looking forward, can you tell us about some of the things you’ve been thinking with lately? What do you think the future holds for studies of the material? What work on these topics have you enjoyed lately?
LD: I think the best answer is simply to answer the last question. It would be presumptuous of me to pontificate about the future of materiality studies. But I can say that the work that has been most stimulating to me has been work which examines material objects in the context of the history of religion. This is quite surprising to me. I do not think of the history of religion—as I do think of the history of art—as a doppelgänger of the history of science. Joseph Koerner’s book on the Renaissance image, which is about iconoclasm in the Protest Reformation; Caroline Bynum’s book on medieval religion; and some work done by Indologists, especially on Hinduism by Wendy Doniger and David Shulman. This is some of the most stimulating, interesting, and counterintuitive work on materiality that I know. The reason is that if there is any kind of opposite of the material—immaterial with a capital “I”—it is divinity. What all of these works question is that opposition. The idea, very present in the history of religion, is that a physical object—a lime wood statue, an icon—can actually be the divinity, not just a representation or an allegory. Even though it its made by human hands, made of paint, made of wood. That is such a jangling idea, one that really undermines so many of our presuppositions about the limits of materiality. I find it a very helpful slap in the face about my own assumptions concerning materiality. And also about the degree to which the taboos on idolatry are still at work in modern intellectual life. I don’t think it’s an accident that metaphors of idolatry recur over and over and over again in the epistemological context, most famously in Bacon but not only there.