Science and the Senses: Perturbation

From the Series: Science and the Senses

Photo by Jean Bernard.

I vividly remember how, on certain nights in my childhood, my brother and I would be herded toward the entrance hall of my parents’ house, where the Carl Zeiss Ultraphot II microscope still stands. This was a huge machine from the 1960s, one of the relics that my father would rescue from the constant upgrading of his lab required by so-called scientific progress. To me, as a child, it was some sort of abstruse, mysterious device. Taking up a large portion of the hall, it was a massive object, coming with its own table, which was usually covered with a thick gray drape to protect it from dust. Above the oculars, there was a giant, round screen typical of the 1960s design, all curves and matte metal. On those nights, my parents—both freshwater microbial ecologists—would take off the drape, turn all of the lights off, and turn on the screen to show my brother and me the wonders of microscopic worlds.

Growing up with experiences like this, the notion that science forgets the sensory never made much sense to me. Perception was present and was much more than just that: it entailed the full spectrum of emotions, passions, senses, and the kind of fascination and wonder that only the natural world can inspire. Still now, when I converse with scientists in the course of my fieldwork, I see that wonder and I find the senses present in all kinds of ways. Yet the role of the sensory is shifting. I hear it whenever my mother discusses her work with me: so many of the younger scientists with whom she works are oblivious, she tells me, to the sensorial engagements that she grew up with. “They don’t even count them!” she exclaims, referring to the microorganisms in their samples. “How can you know what you have if you don’t even look in the microscope?” The sensory dimensions of molecular biology are replacing the time consuming, eye-wrenching work of counting by microscope. More advanced techniques allow the scientist to determine what is in a sample without ever putting it in a slide under a microscope. Or so their proponents claim.

The problem with these changes is not so much the depersonalization of sensorial experience. Rather, it is the increasing confidence in new methods and the assumption that these are unproblematic and fully objective. The story goes that 16S rRNA analysis tells you what organisms you are dealing with with the certainty of a fact. Of course, most people working with these techniques know better. But as students have less time to get their degrees and are pushed forward faster, they have less time to doubt and to fully grasp the limits of their newly acquired sensorium. Often these techniques rely on advanced knowledge in other fields, far from the expertise of those who use them, thus hiding their limitations by design. Those who depend on these prosthetics are easily alienated from the nitty-gritty details of the materialities in play, and have little sense of what the limits and constraints of those prosthetics might be.

This is a problem, and not only for us who are engaged in social studies of the sciences. It is an important obstacle and a serious threat to scientists and to their work. For, as Donna Haraway (1997, 33) would have it, science done in this way gets “in the way of a more adequate, self-critical technoscience committed to situated knowledges.” So in an effort not only to critique, but also to aid the sciences in getting to a more critical, modest, situated, weak objectivity—the stuff of Sandra Harding’s (1986, 160) successor science—challenging our understanding of the sensory in scientific practice is crucial. Merely pointing, maybe with some nostalgia and romanticism, to how things are changing does not help: indeed, it is part of the problem, confirming the epistemological excuse that objectivity is the opposite of subjectivity and that the personal is counter to the truer aspect of the impersonal.

A better way to resist such binaries, I think, involves perturbing what the senses are understood to be. The mainstream narrative of the sensory, that which supposedly is missing in science, needs to be recast and rearticulated to make space for a more nuanced, response-able understanding of the sensorial. The reassembling of the sensory I am thinking of moves it away from a (still Kantian) theory of knowledge that depends on a clear-cut distinction between subjects and objects. Calls to bring the senses back to the sciences often fall victim to the same assumptions: they are still about one distinct self located in, but separated from, the world and perceiving, through her senses, this world outside of her. This is the basic mechanism of Western contemporary thought, articulating the epistemological and ontological framings we go by. But I suggest that attending to modes of attention complicates this theory of knowledge.

I am thinking here of how María Carozzi (2005) uses this term in her article on the embodiment of academics. The body of the scholar, she tells us, is a particular one, shaped and directed by a specific mode of attention that refuses to acknowledge a number of perceptual and sensorial aspects. It privileges a limited set of perceptions: the supposedly more conceptual ones of modern intellectual life. Carozzi traces this form of embodied attention to the monastic tradition of the European Middle Ages. But we can imagine other histories of attending. Different practices allow for different modes to emerge, and different social contexts accept, allow, refuse, or force specific modes of attention to be embraced. It is not only the academic who directs and controls her attention in this way, but also the modern subject writ large. Rearticulating the sensory away from the binary of subjects and objects might mean looking toward William James’s (1890) theory of emotions and Vinciane Despret’s (2004) reading of it, or to U.S. feminist technoscience and its Continental articulations in science studies.

Reinscribing the senses away from a dualist and realist theory of knowledge is feminist intervention at its best. Allowing for messier worlds, this approach does not rely on heteropatriarchy to be taken seriously. It challenges human exceptionalism and its reliance on a single version of the human: the white Man, with capital M, who monopolizes Western philosophy. Once the arboreal figure of Man has fallen, the rhizomes, bushes, grasses, and fungi that had been stunted in its shade can grow back, thickening the undergrowth of worlds.

This re-scription is useful when considering the scale of the microbial and the scientific sensorial apparatuses proper to it. But it is equally useful for thinking and doing on another scale, which is central to my current work: that of the planetary. Having been sucked into the maelstrom of the Anthropocene, my research tries to resist the traction of this notion and its mainstream political currents. To do so, I attend to the figure of the planet. The planetary scale is the motor force of the Anthropocene, on which the gears of the vast machine of sustainability rely. The way in which the Anthropocene frames global environmental change depends on the same sensorial apparatuses that make the planet. But in the process of making environmental emergency, the Anthropocene also risks remaking the planet Earth in its own image, perpetuating dangerous elisions and tensions and forgetting the limits of its own planetary sensorium. In resisting the notion of the planetary, then, I attend to it historically and praxiographically—but also, one might say, scientifically. My aim is to flesh out not only the continuities in the histories of this notion and its object, but also the gaps, interruptions, and diversions that characterize it. In doing so, I aim to offer inspiration for unfolding alternative constellations of the planetary. Here, the planet emerges not only as an object; it complicates the clear distinction between subjects and objects that informs the official epistemology of modern science. Rethinking the sensory in terms of modes of attention (and distraction) can, I think, play a crucial role in this rearticulation of the planetary away from received theories of knowledge, toward a world in which knowing is just one among a multiplicity of practices and doings/undoings that make worlds in which living together, willy-nilly, is done.

Attending to the sensorium of the planetary highlights the technosocial apparatuses that are at work in making planetary vision possible. It imagines as nature not only the planet, but also satellites, spaceflight, remote sensing, radioisotope tracers, global circulation models; the vast machine of climate-change science policy; social phenomena like the green economy and austerity; and the discourses of extinction, loss, adaptation, and proliferation that characterize the Anthropocene. Considering these sensory mediations as relational and historical modes of attention and distraction inflected across heterogeneous materials and sites allows us to attend to how knowing, doing, and living with the planet are enacted in the same gesture. This move can restore the sense of wonder that I saw in the screen of my childhood to the sciences.


Carozzi, María. 2005. “Talking Minds: The Scholastic Construction of Incorporeal Discourse.” Body and Society 11, no. 2: 25–39.

Despret, Vinciane. 2004. “The Body We Care For: Figures of Anthropo-zoo-genesis.” Body and Society 10, nos. 2–3: 111–34.

Haraway, Donna J. 1997. Modest_Witness@Second_Millenium. FemaleMan©_Meets_OncoMouseTM: Feminism Meets Technoscience. New York: Routledge.

Harding, Sandra. 1986. The Science Question in Feminism. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.

James, William. 1890. Principles of Psychology, Volume 2. New York: Henry Holt.