Episode 8: Rendering Renderings Themselves…

Today I offer you all a final audio-visual experiment. I have abstracted a number of examples of the ways the word “rendering” has been used in the books and articles we read in this course. I have also included a couple examples of the word as it was used in some of the primary sources I read in Bernie Lightman’s “Contexts of Victorian Science” course. To bind these abstractions I have included a number of loosely related visual renderings of bodies, instruments, buildings, mythical beings, etc.  The music is, once more, a collection of new and old recordings blended together to create a jarring listening experience. One sample is a slowed down recording of my brother, Liam, playing the trumpet. A close friend, Robert Feetham, is featured reading an excerpt from David Hume’s An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. Everything else has been produced on guitars and keyboards lying about my tiny apartment. I would suggest putting on headphones and putting the YouTube player on fullscreen, but feel free to engage with this rendering however you see fit.

It has been a lot of fun doing my postings, and it has been equally enjoyable reading/watching/listening to everyone’s renderings. It’s been a great class!

Thanks everybody,



Episode 7: Questions of Scale…

I would like to put Stefan Helmreich’s Alien Ocean: Anthropological Voyages in Microbial Seas in casual conversation with another, though much shorter, text that I recent completed:  Bruno Latour’s War of the Worlds: What about Peace? The approach to writing, and the reaction to reading, both books are remarkably different. Helmreich’s book is a rich, detailed, rigorous and thoughtful account of recent advances and misadventures in marine microbiology. Latour’s work, on the other hand, is a reactionary, passionate and unstable critique of the relationship between science and twenty-first century capital.  Despite, or perhaps because of, these differences my goal is to highlight connections between how these two pieces speak to issues of identity and taxonomy that proliferate in a world of local, situated and contingent forms knowledge and knowledge practices. At the same time, both works speak to the increasing political and economic uses and abuses of technoscience. I see both works highlighting problems related to Donna Haraway’s conception of biological research in the late capitalist era:

Difference is theorized biologically as situational, not intrinsic, at every level from gene to foraging pattern, thereby fundamentally changing the biological politics of the body (Haraway, 1988, p. 594).

War of the Worlds

War of the Worlds is, in some ways, Latour’s response to the post-9/11 crisis of identity in the Western world, and was almost certainly inspired by France’s refusal to participate in the United States’ war on terror.

Latour offers an interesting and provocative critique of the modern era, one which recalls arguments put forth in We Have Never Been Modern. Latour adjusts his position ever so slightly, in order to comment on more recent socio-politico-economic issues. Conceiving of it as a “few short centuries of violent spasms”, Latour argues that, looking back, the so-called episode of modernization was peaceful “since disagreements could never go very far. They affected representations, but they never touched the substance, the very fabric of the world” (2002, p. 17). Indeed, in Latour’s account, only secondary qualities were at stake, never the fabric of the West. Though sometimes passions and representations might have gotten in the way, the modern mindset, defined broadly by Latour, sought resolutions based on objective scientific facts. As a result, the West was unified. Sure, it was capable of war, but never wars of science.

By the late twentieth century, culminating in what were called “the Science Wars”, it was clear that objective facts could not, in themselves, be used to smooth over political and social disagreements. The peace that Latour caricatures as the character of the modern episode had been long forgotten.  In fact, it could very well be the case that the modern era, or at least the way it had so often been portrayed historically, never took place.  As Latour puts it, again echoing his argument in We Have Never Been Modern, “I have become convinced that the best way is to treat ‘modernism’ as an anachronistic interpretation of the events in which the West participated” (2002, p. 19).  In sharp contrast to his caricature of modernism, Latour argues that these days the West proliferates with multiple ways of conceptualizing culture and nature, ways of asking and answering questions of political, social, economic and medical import. This unease which is so indicative of the 21st century West is, for Latour, the result of the loss of our capacity to rely on the importation of indisputable facts to smooth over cross-national and cross-cultural conflicts.  Facts can no longer solve political problems, because they are themselves embedded in political and economic interactions. There is no longer an objective science, but multiple sciences, studying multiple interactions and processes at multiple scales which, at times, come into direct political, social and economic conflict with one another. As Latour puts it:

We are now facing wars of the worlds. Mononaturalism has been replaced by a monster inconceivable only ten years ago: multinaturalism (to use the neologism devised by Eduardo Viveiros de Castro) which has joined in the devilish dance started by multiculturalism–after the latter was blown to pieces by the hypocritical tolerance it entailed. No one wants to be just tolerated anymore. No one can bear to be just one culture ‘among others’ watched with interest and indifference by the gaze of the naturalizers. Reality is once again becoming the issue at stake (Latour, 2002, p. 22).

Latour follows up this statement with a spiteful critique of the conjunction of two words repeated “ad nauseum” in contemporary discourse: globalization and fragmentation. For Latour these words tend to cancel each other out, “for they indicate, respectively, the crisis of unity and the crisis of multiplicity” (2002, p. 22). The concept of globalization is particularly despised by Latour, because it implies that the people of the West are somehow more unified than ever before. Contrary to such an implication, Latour argues that “our age is much less global than it was, say, in 1790, 1848, 1918, 1945, 1968 or 1989” (2002, p. 22). To make matters worse, fragmentation is problematizing the concept of multiplicity in much the same way that globalization problematized the concept of unity. Fragmentation, according to Latour “is beginning to make tolerance look equally problematic, if not positively dangerous” (2002, p. 23).

The ultimate goal of Latour’s essay is to show that both globalization and fragmentation have given way to contradictions, and constant opposition from competing perspectives. It becomes impossible to replicate, or reproduce, the rhetorical usages of these terms when faced with physical and material conflicts and crises.  Reference to globalization masks the particulars, the differences, that make bodies, nations and, indeed, the Earth itself function. On the flip side, reference to fragmentation masks the unique ways in which distinct entities can be found to be quite similar.

Alien Oceans

I was reminded of Latour’s work when reading chapters two and three of Helmreich’s Alien Ocean.  I was fascinated by Helmreich’s engagement with the taxonomic crises that followed the discovery of Archaea.  In one of Helmreich’s succinct summaries of a complex issue, something which seems to characterize his work, he argues that “‘Life’ becomes uncanny, alien to itself, often most keenly when we seek to replicate or reproduce it in our classifications–through such vehicles as the representations of genes” (2009, p. 97).  Indeed, in chapter two, “Dissolving the Tree of Life”, Helmreich shows the instability of classical forms of classification when faced with the unruly nature of Archaea. The most obvious solution, for instance, of classifying Archaea as the foundation of all life, resulted in a confusing and contradictory system of classification. What is at stake, in Latourian terms, is the fabric of life, the fabric of the world itself.

The result was a debate across disciplines, religious beliefs, institutions and nations, about how best to approach the development of a new and inclusive system of classification.  Helmreich doesn’t describe anything even somewhat resembling an agreement about how the scientists implicated were going to proceed. What he highlights is a proliferation of approaches, a wide array of arguments and claims about what matters when dealing with the tree of life. One of the more telling arguments cited by Helmreich was that of Dr. Doolittle:

What’s happening now is that ‘phylogeny’ is being extended to describe any pattern of similarity that can be mapped onto a tree. But that’s not what Darwin meant by natural, genealogical classification. Extreme people like me wouldn’t deny that there is a pattern, just whether it is equivalent to a tree of life. The question is: Are you discovering what an organism is, or are you simply deciding what to call it” (quoted in Helmreich, 2009, p. 89).

What’s at stake is not simply how scientists will re-imagine and re-arrange the so-called “tree of life” but also what kinds of questions can rightfully be asked when assessing what gets placed where under any new taxonomic system. At the same time, Doolittle’s argument questions what exactly constitutes life itself. When a microbe such as Archaea has the power to redraw the entire map of biological classification, where lies the life? Speaking directly to Haraway, Helmreich suggests that life is understood differently at the microscopic level and at the level of entire organisms. But he seems to add that these differences are shaped by relations between levels. Archaea are not simply different than entire organisms, they also have the power to reshape how we conceive of organisms.

In chapter three, “Blue-green Capitalism”, Helmreich turns his attention to the relationship between marine microbiology and twenty-first century capitalism. Again, the focus is on the instability of definitions and the contradictions that exist across disciplines and institutions who are trying to extract microbial bodies in the interest of producing marine biotechnologies. One of the best examples offered by Helmreich, and one which resonates with my own field experience, was how differently he conceived of MarBEC between visiting their website and being on-site at their headquarters.  When Helmreich went to  MarBEC  he discovered that the organization was “sinking”, due to their inability to follow through on their promises. Again, Helmreich beautifully captures the contradiction between his engagements with the website and the time he spent on-site:

Indeed, the MarBEC website–part of what had drawn me to this fieldsite–had been expertly realized, giving the impression of a network of people who knew exactly what they were doing. Perhaps their logo–a swooping light blue spiral suggesting the profile of a tumbling wave–should have tipped me off, for it also resembled, with its Fibonacci curl, the curve of a snail shell. Maybe MarBEC had been an elaborate shell game (2009, p. 117).

In this example, the relationship between speculative capital and the practice of microbiology is tricky to assess. The difficulty of producing biotechnologies is masked by the promissory rhetoric used to ensure government and commercial funding interest. In this example there is no unity between the messages that make up the MarBEC website and the technical and difficult nature of the work that actually goes on at MarBEC.

In Helmreich’s account microbiology has opened a number issues related to identity and geography. The question of who should be allowed, if anybody, to navigate the seas around Hawaii for blue-green capital leads to interesting debates about the geography of biodiversity. In the bioprospecting example, Helmreich quotes a “university chemist” who argued that “most of the biodiversity that is currently found in Hawaii is part of the common global biodiversity that is not owned by any particular person or nation” (quoted in Helmreich, 2009, p. 138). Such an argument could be convincing to a certain segment of the population, but to another it ignores the geographical boundaries that define biodiversity.

In Chapter Four, “Alien Species, Native Politics”, Helmreich offers an example that really brings home the confusing and contradictory relationship between marine microbiology, international politics and global capitalism. Discussing the problems faced by invasion biologists, Helmreich provides a metaphor offered by Gro Harlem Brundtland, former director of the WHO, who claims that: “In the modern world, bacteria and viruses travel almost as fast as money. With globalization, a single microbial sea washes all of mankind” (quoted in Helmreich, 2009, p. 147).

Like Latour, Helmreich highlights the problematic relationship between global unity and fragmented cultures indicative of both twenty-first century technoscience and capitalism. Simply put, global biodiversity is a problematic notion, since certain lifeforms cannot survive in certain environments, and the proliferation of alien lifeforms in certain environments could mean the unanticipated demise of other lifeforms.  In describing biodiversity, researchers and the general public face problems of distinguishing between native and alien species, or distinguishing between natural and cultural means, modes and methods of proliferation.  This is true, regardless of scale. What Helmreich highlights is the fact that these problems are just as prevalent when classifying human populations and relations between nation-states as microbial bodies. His connection to Latour’s book is made ever more apparent in chapter five, “Abducting the Atlantic”, when Helmreich talks about Chunglin Kwa’s distinction between romantic and baroque approaches to complexity. Similar to the rhetoric surround globalization, Helmreich summarizes the distinction as follows:  “Romantic visions gaze upward towards a unified, integrated, over-arching, holistic systems, like Gaia. Baroque approaches to complexity tunnel downward to the intricate, convoluted, endlessly and multifariously recombining–to, for instance, networks of marine microbial consortia” (2009, p. 184).  Like Latour, Helmreich sees the issue being the simultaneity of these approaches. Neither one is limited to a specific historical period. Words like Renaissance and Baroque don’t capture historical time in this instance, they are used to highlight the ways in which space, time and scale are conceived by different thought collectives in different locales, working on projects funded by different combinations of public and private funding agencies, asking questions of distinct social, political and medical import.

Episode Six: Visceral Humanity, Vengeful Animality and Robot Archaeologies

Nicole Shukin’s Animal Capital: Rendering Life in Biopolitical Times has pricked me, like Barthe’s “punctum”, causing a visceral and personal reaction.  Unlike Melinda Cooper’s Life as Surplus, which Melissa rightly criticized for its bloodless take on a messy political, social and economic topic, Shukin’s work serves as a provocative, engaging, insightful, irritating and inherently problematic example of what a postmodern engagement with concrete examples is capable of. For all the puffery that the academy can spew about fetishism, reification, globalization and the end of history, Shukin’s work is useful if only because it tries, though often fails, to show readers the value of academic bloodletting. Through Shukin’s critical lens we are reminded not merely of the lack of recognition of the historical, social, political and economic tissues of capitalist production and accumulation, but also the importance of remaining critical even when reading the titans of postmodern scholarship. What I found most engaging in Shukin’s work was her lack of hesitation when it came to criticizing some of the major pitfalls of even the most radical post-Marxist critiques of commodity fetishism.

Indeed, in the twenty-first century the human relationship with earthly nonhumans represents neither a mutually beneficent, utopian family nor a unidirectional, imperialist plot, where humans simply hold captive their animal subordinates, in order to abstract their material and symbolic capital. As Shukin makes abundantly and frustratingly clear throughout her book, there is a constant political, economic and, dare I say, social interchange (interplay?) between humans and nonhumans. The problem, as is so often the case, is that people have failed to acknowledge these mutual interactions, choosing instead to symbolically, and physically, displace these material-semiotic engagements. As she states in her postscript, “[a]s the ability to distinguish between animal and capital dwindles in the globe-mobile of market culture, or as animal life ceases to mean and matter in ways capable of challenging its symbolic and carnal currency as capital, market discourses themselves fetishize animal alterity” (Shukin, 2009, p. 225). In what follows, I want to share with you some examples that came to mind while reading Shukin’s book. Rather than offering a detailed analysis, I want these examples to stand on their own, in the interest of inspiring a conversation with you, dear colleagues.

Killer Killer Whales…

It is only fitting that we read Shukin’s the same week that The Cove won an academy award for “Best Documentary”; the same week that another documentary, Food, Inc., was nominated for the very same award; and the same week that an experienced trainer was fatally attacked by a killer whale at Sea World.

Robot Archaeology

In 1954 Groff Conklin edited a collection of short science fiction stories called “Science Fiction: Thinking Machines”. The book was the fourth in a series of collections that included “Science Fiction: Adventures in Dimension” and “Possible Worlds of Science Fiction”. Perhaps the most exciting, and certainly the shortest, of the stories contained in the volume on thinking machines was a story by Alan Bloch, entitled, “Men are Different”. The story takes place in the distant future, where groups of robot archaeologists scour the universe to find out “what really made men different”. The narrator of the story puts it in these humble, but telling terms:

I’m an archaeologist, and Men are my business. Just the same, I wonder if we’ll even find out about Men–I mean, really find out what made Men different from us Robots–by digging around on the dead planets. You see, I lived with a Man once, and I know it isn’t as simple as they told us in school (Bloch, p. 207)

The robot archaeologist recounts its schooldays, when robot scientists suggested that “Men are very much like us–and the skeleton of a Man is, to be sure, almost the same as the skeleton of a Robot, except that it’s made of some calcium compound instead of titanium” (Bloch, p. 207). Indeed, the archaeologist never seems even remotely aware of the fact that its ancestors were, more than likely, invented by and put to work for the very species it wants so desperately to understand. The robot archaeologist claims to have met the last Man in the galaxy, on a field trip to “one of the inner planets” (p. 208). The robot archaeologist remembers that , after teaching this man how to speak its language, it hoped to bring the man to its home planet. It is what happens next that resonates so profoundly with Shukin’s text. As a result, I will quote the conclusion in its entirety:

One day, for no reason at all, he complained of the heat. I checked his temperature and decided that his thermostat circuits were shot. I had a kit of field spares with me, and he was obviously out of order, so I went to work. I turned him off without any trouble. I pushed the needle into his neck to operate the cut-off switch, and he stopped moving, just like a Robot. But when I opened him up he wasn’t the same inside. And when I put him back together I couldn’t get him running again. Then he sort of weathered away–and by the time I was ready to come home, about a year later, there was nothing left of him but Bones. Yes, Men are indeed different (Bloch, p. 208).

The Wild Gourmets…


Episode Five: Jenna’s First Day

The different nouns that I engage with, and the different verbs I use to engage with them all have profound and unique implications and consequences, each altering my body and mind in specific and irreversible ways. This week’s readings warn me about the problems that may arise from a superficial engagement with the world around me. I think Jenna might have learned something too…

Episode Four: The Production of Multiform Narratives of Biological Processes

Again, this week’s rendering is a playful mash-up of some old and new research. I don’t make a very direct argument, but I think the thoughts and considerations are certainly relevant to this week’s readings. For instance, it might be helpful to think about the CAVEman, described below,  in relation to the Visible Human Project discussed in Waldby’s book.


There are really four dimensions, three which we call the three planes of Space, and a fourth, Time. There is, however, a tendency to draw an unreal distinction between the former three dimensions and the latter, because it happens that our consciousness moves intermittently in one direction along the latter from the beginning to the end of our lives ( the time traveller from H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, 1895)

On November 29, 2001 a large American software development company unveiled what they described as a “a bold and innovative project in the field of computational biology” (Aronson, 2001). The project was to be developed at a large Western Canadian research university and would be directed by an internationally renowned molecular biologist and biochemist. The project was a co-funding venture between the software company, the research university, Genome Canada, as well as other public and private funding bodies. The pleasantly vague motive was to “enhance research and development opportunities” between the Canadian research university and the large American software company. The project, slightly more specifically, would involve a team of bioinformaticians developing a system to help genomics researchers make sense of complex and diverse sets of genomics data. As a representative for the software company stated, “one of the biggest challenges we have in post-genomics is finding ways of understanding the tremendous amount of complex data that is generated” (quoted in Aronson, 2001). The proposed system was to allow researchers to store, organize, combine and project a range of data sources, but would also be used as a tool for the study of genetic diseases. The most fascinating component was the proposed development of a four-dimensional virtual “representation biological system with a Java-3D enabled Cave Automatic Virtual Environment” (Aronson, 2001). The proposed model was notable for its addition of “a fourth dimension that simulates real-time activities including a beating heart, flowing blood and breathing” (McCarl, 2007, p. 1).

Cave Automatic Virtual Environments (CAVE):

consist of multiple stereo displays, from two to six walls; round displays have been described as well. To achieve a cubed display, which provides the full CAVE functionality, at least four walls are necessary, with three of them forming a U-shaped enclosure and the fourth wall being a floor display. Each wall is operated through a separate graphics unit (graphics card or processor on a multi-processor graphics card), ultimately providing the illusion of a three-dimensional view with the help of stereo goggles, which allow each eye to experience a slightly different perspective. (Turinsky & Sensen, 2009, p. 602).

Researchers wanted to use a CAVE to project a functional virtual model of the human body, which could be sold as a genomics training and research software kit to research universities and hospitals.

The four-dimensional modeling project was organized into five components. Four of these components were separate Canadian biomedical case studies with their own research objectives. These four components served as sources of experimental data and user expertise. The fifth component was the genomics research facility, which combined the knowledge gained from these four components into a unified four-dimensional system for data analysis and visualization. This system featured a virtual anatomical atlas of the human body, which researchers referred to as the CAVEman.

The four-dimensional modeling project and the CAVEman were meant to help researchers “create visual maps of information about diseases that have a genetic component, such as cancer, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s” (4D mapping). As the genomics research facility’s homepage explained, to “accomplish these goals, the team is building an environment where data derived from advanced medical imaging techniques is merged with omics information (genomics, proteomics, and metabolomics) to create a unified physiological model of an organism” (4D project overview). Researchers hoped that this system would be capable of handling diverse case studies, and would be generic and extendible to new research scenarios: “[i]ts goal is the development of a complete…3D-enabled anatomical atlas of the human body, and to create a generic data mapping mechanism between the atlas and biomedical patient data” (4D mapping). The project supported, and combined, three main sources of biomedical data: 1) Medical imaging data such as those derived from functional Medical Resonance Imaging (fMRI), Computed Tomography (CT), Positron Emission Tomography (PET), and microscopy; 2) Anatomical organ reconstructions in the form of 3D surface-based models and digital atlases of the organism’s anatomy; 3) Time-varying biochemical concentration data such as those from gene expression microarrays, proteomic studies, pharmaco-kinetic studies, and metabolomic experiments (Development core visualization).For the head programmers at the genomics research facility, it was crucial that these various data sources be seamlessly combined:

The image-based visual environment needs to adapt to this variation to provide the user with the best possible imagery of genomic data in a given context. As more and more Web-based tools and services become available for biologists, such a visual environment should also be able to integrate and link to those seamlessly. (Soh, Gordon, & Sensen, 2009, p. 396).

By combining a variety of data sources, the four-dimensional models could enable researchers to see patterns in a patient’s data that would be impossible to discover by simply observing a flesh and blood human body, or by observing static images produced by individual imaging technologies. Both the CAVEman, and the virtual environment in which it would be projected, would be generic. This meant that they would not only be open to new research scenarios, but also compatible with most computer systems and display units:

While CAVE systems, operating based on proprietary software environments, were in use approximately 10 years before we installed our machine, our system was the first one to operate based on a generic programming environment, as Java 3DTM can be used on almost any Java-enabled computer, from Windows and Macintosh personal computers, to Linux servers and mainframes. In addition, Java is a generic programming environment that is often taught as the first programming language to Computer Science undergraduate students. (Turinsky & Sensen, 2009, p. 602).

Researchers initially hoped that the four-dimensional modeling project would be completed in September of 2007. By the middle of August of 2008, however, researchers were still grappling with a number of issues, including software and hardware limitations, and the difficulty of knowing what exactly their virtual models could and would be used for. With these concerns in mind, and no definitive conclusion in sight, the genomics research facility was/is a ripe resource for inquiries into the changing face of biomedicine and techoscience in the twenty-first century.


Consider, for instance, how similar this:

is to this:

It is interesting to note similarities between the rhetoric used to describe the CAVEman, and promotional spots for popular science fiction films. In a 1967 promotional spot for the motion picture Fantastic Voyage, the narrator exclaims, “[F]our men and a beautiful girl, off on a fantastic voyage. Actually entering inside the human body. Exploring an unknown universe, unknown dangers!”. Later he remarks,“[i]f you thought it was too late to experience something entirely new on the screen, Fantastic Voyage will be a stunning experience. For you are going where no man, or camera, has ventured before!” Similarly, one of the main selling points for the CAVEman is the possibility of walking through his high-resolution digital body. Much like the narrator in the preview for Fantastic Voyage, the host of Daily Planet relies on rhetoric and hyperbole to make this point: “In the CAVEman, scientists can walk  right through their experiments and into the CAVEman’s high res body” (Ingram, 2009). Later he proclaims that “[s]cientists can fly through the CAVEman’s chest and gawk at his damaged heart” (Ingram, 2009). Like the description of experiencing Fantastic Voyage in a movie theatre, Daily Planet host Jay Ingram describes the experience of being immersed in the CAVE as an incredible journey through the human body.

It should be noted, however, that the CAVEman does not really function as well as the Daily Planet piece suggests. It is incredibly slow, its demonstrations currently do not unfold in real time, and it is still very difficult for researchers to model the human body at the molecular level. Researchers do walk in the CAVE, but no more than three or four steps in any direction. Walking too fast could slow down the demonstration. CAVEman researchers do not do anything which resembles “flying”, although the goal is to create an increasingly realistic illusion that users are effortlessly floating through the human body.

It is important, however, not to get bogged down in the limitations of a project like the CAVEman. Like a science fiction film, the development of the CAVEman serves as prophetic vision of the possibility of possibilities in twenty-first century technoscience. Even if the CAVEman never lives up to its potential, it can be used to highlight the potential benefits, as well as the ethical and social implications, of the increasing reliance on computers in biomedical research.

The majority of people working on the CAVEman work in a field called bioinformatics, a field that relies on knowledge of computer science and design rather than knowledge of biological processes. The CAVEman was built using data obtained from living specimens, and for the purpose of studying living phenomena. But, at the same time, it is a cultural product, and a piece of digital art, built using technologies and methods very similar to those used by video game developers and graphic designers. The employees building the CAVEman walk a fine line between science and art, with many  having attended art schools, or worked in commercial video game development.   As a result, it is important to understand that these researchers have opened up not only the scientific, but also the narrative and artistic potential of the CAVEman.  They can, with increasing detail and accuracy, project the story of genetic diseases within the virtual theatre of the Cave Automatic Virtual Environment.

The virtual models built by genomics research facility employees have the potential to tell, what Janet Murray refers to as “multiform narratives”. Multiform narratives can be told from a number of perspectives. For Janet Murray, the multiform story’s importance is the result of “the dizzying physics of the twentieth century, which has told us that our common perceptions of time and space are not the absolute truths we had been assuming them to be” (1997, p. 34). The power of these electronic narratives is precisely their ability to allow researchers to avoid coming to definitive conclusions, conclusions which are often unnecessary and which stand in the face of a generally accepted understanding of the natural variability of the outside world. As Janet Murray argues, “In a shape-shifting world, stories often do not come to a clear end point. Electronic narrative teases us, holding back its gifts. The labyrinth is tricky, full of dead ends, uncertainties, questions that do not resolve” (1997, p. 173). When people play video games, or immerse themselves in virtual reality environments, they are liberated by a number of choices, choices which are not present in uni-directional media like television, most films and novels which follow traditional linear narratives. Computers afford us a seductive lack of closure. As Murray puts it, “[b]ecause of its ability to both offer and withhold, the computer is a seductive medium in which much of the pleasure lies in the sustained engagement, the refusal of climax” (1997, p. 174). The power of computers is their ability to provide an environment which is similar to, but in many ways better than the real world. According to Murray, “the never-ending, ever-morphing cyberspace narrative is a place to revel in a sense of endless transformations” (1997, p. 175). In terms of applications of CAVEs in technoscientific research, the seductive nature of this narrative potential lies in the computer’s ability to resist climax and conclusions. As Murray argues, this should be considered a virtue: “to be always in search of secret information, in pursuit of refused reward can be…riveting” (1997, p. 173).

Certainly, I do not mean to exaggerate the significance of a project that has yet to produce much in the way of knowledge about the processes of genetic diseases.  Nor do I believe that the CAVEman’s narrative potential represents some utopian ideal.  There are, to be sure, a lot of problems that could arise. I think, however, that it is important to think about the benefit of being able to study large-scale projects, such as the four-dimensional modeling project, before they are widely used in studies of genetic diseases. Given its uncertain future, and the uncertain use value of the CAVEman, the four-dimensional modeling project provides little more than insights into the potential future of biomedicine.  At the same time, however, it also offers insights into the potential ethical and political problems that could arise from, for instance, affording bioinformaticians a greater role in the asking of scientific questions.  These are all concerns worthy of consideration and scholars, both those in biomedicine and STS, could benefit from asking these questions before widespread application of the four-dimensional modeling project.


Aronson, D. (2001, 29 November). University of Calgary faculty of medicine chosen asSun Microsystems center of excellence for visual genomics. Retrieved from http://www.sun.com/products-n-solutions/edu/announcements/calgary.html

Fleischer, R. (Director). (1966). Fantastic Voyage [Motion Picture]. United States: Twentieth Century Fox.

McCarl, A. (2007). CAVEman is a pioneer in virtual medicine. Impact. Ottawa: Association of Faculties of Medicine of Canada.

Murray, J.H. (1997). Hamlet on the holodeck: The future of narrative in cyberspace. New York: Free Press.

Ingram, Jay (Host). (2009, January 27). Virtual CAVEman. Daily planet online.Retrieved from http://watch.discoverychannel.ca/daily-planet/january-2009/daily-planet-%20january-27-2008/#clip134711

Soh, J., P. Gordon & C. Sensen. (2009). Genomic data visualization: The bluejay system.

In C. Sensen & B. Hallgrimsson (Eds.), Advanced imaging in biology and

medicine (pp. 395-409). Berlin: Springer.

Sun centre for excellence in visual genomics. 4D project overview. Retrieved from http://www.4dbioinformatics.ca/

Sun centre for excellence in visual genomics. CAVEman: 4D mapping of genomic andmedical information. Retrieved from http://www.visualgenomics.ca/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=111&Itemid=194

Sun centre for excellence in visual genomics. Visualization. Retrieved from http://www.visualgenomics.ca/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=118&Itemid=202

Turinsky, A.L. & C. Sensen. (2009). Virtual reality meets functional genomics. In S.Krawetz (Ed.), Bioinformatics for systems biology (pp. 601-613). New York: Humana Press.

Episode 3 (Print Edition): A Brief Introduction to the Wonderful World of Anatomical Fictions

This week’s readings have given me the opportunity to go back to something I began writing for my Master’s thesis, but stopped due to time and space limitations. A lot of the research for this piece was done a while ago, but a lot of it has been written this afternoon, with the hope that it will be deemed relevant to this week’s readings, and serve as a precursor to next week’s readings.  The goal is to offer a broad and general history of the production and dissemination of representations of human anatomy. The simple argument put forth is that all representations of human anatomy are cultural products, linked to culturally specific methods of abstracting information and culturally specific expectations of what constitutes art and knowledge. However, until very recently no one would talk about representations of human anatomy as being research subjects in themselves. Always they were used to detail the work of science, and to make up for the natural decay of flesh and blood human bodies. In the realm of contemporary science, most anatomical representations have been understood as training and teaching resources. This is changing, and has been since the development of complex computerized atlases of human anatomy. I will get to that at the end of this post. Next week I will deal with the development of a contemporary, four-dimensional model of human anatomy. (I must admit that it is very exciting to be in a course where most of the material is new to me but, thankfully, there are two weeks that are right up my alley).

The production of anatomical fictions is nothing new, and representations of human anatomy have always blurred distinctions between science and art:

From the early wall paintings of ancient Egyptians to the recent advent of computer graphics, medical illustrators have employed a variety of techniques and materials to enrich the art of medicine. Over the centuries, medical illustrators have captured the variety of physical findings observed in the clinical, surgical, or postmortem settings and transferred them to a permanent medium. (Calkins et al., 1999).

Contemporary representations of human and animal anatomy are simultaneously indebted to the pursuit of scientific knowledge, the passions of visual artists and the cultural production of new media technologies for displaying or projecting these representations. According to Calkins et al, “[t]he illustration of medical subjects took place before the advent of papyrus, paper, and similar materials” (1999, p. 120). Prior to 1500 B.C., Egyptian, Babylonian, Chinese, and Indian civilizations “were some of the first to provide medically related illustrations recorded on nontraditional media such as stone, bamboo, silk and metal” (Calkins, et al. 1999, p. 120). These studies, however, are often regarded as “examples of art in medicine that did not serve to elucidate scientific text associated with the advancement of anatomical study” (Calkins et al., 1999, p. 120).

Scientific anatomical inquiry owes its origins to the Greeks. According to von Staden, “[i]n the first half of the third century B.C, two Greeks, Herophilus of Chalcedon and his younger contemporary Erasistratus of Ceos, became the first and last ancient scientists to perform systematic dissections of human cadavers” (1992, p. 223). Herophilus, however, did not illustrate his dissections, choosing instead to simply describe human anatomy in his On Anatomy. Singer (1925) suggests that although Aristotle’s most famous anatomical text, Historia Animalism, is based on dissections of nonhuman animals he was “the first individual of record to illustrate human anatomy based on legitimate scientific study” (Calkins et al., 1999, p. 120).

During the Renaissance anatomists would hold public dissections of human cadavers. As Von Dijk argues, “during the early Renaissance, watching an anatomist perform a dissection was the only way for future doctors and artists to get a sense of the body’s insides” (103). Both scientists and artists would develop complex drawings of human anatomy based on these public dissections. These drawings were used for medical research and training purposes, but were also displayed as impressive artistic feats.

According to Bernard Schultz, the rapid development of anatomical knowledge during the Renaissance was “inexorably related to the printing medium” (1985, p. 23). Schultz maintains that the “printed illustrations in these medical texts acted as an effective means of communication, for their exacting reproduction allowed for a convergence of ideas not previously attainable and so hastened these advances in anatomical research” (1985, p. 23). Both anatomists and artists drew from the anatomical illustrations featured in early medical texts. Schultz describes a culture where “now anatomists and arts could commonly draw from a quickly evolving source of anatomical literature” (1985, p.23). The summit of these developments was reached by Vesalius in 1543 with the release of his book Fabrica.

Donatello is often regarded as the first artist to dissect a human body (Calkins, et al., 1999, p. 124). However, Leonardo Da Vinci is the renaissance artist most commonly recognized for his contributions to the study of human anatomy. According to Calkins et al., Da Vinci completed nearly thirty dissections and “obtained a sound comprehension of human anatomy” (p. 124). However, it is not clear whether we should describe Da Vinci as an artist or an anatomist. Frank Netter (1956), for instance, describes Da Vinci as the founder of physiologic anatomy. Others, however, regard Da Vinci as merely “an artist and thinker principally who dabbled briefly in the study of human anatomy” (Calkins, et al., 1999, p. 125).

Illustrated anatomical text books followed closely behind the invention of the printing press. Jacopo Berengario da Carpi (1460-1530) is recognized as the first anatomist to include drawings to accompany his text. With new media comes new means for projecting complex illustrations of the human body. These new media can be simultaneously exploited by artists and scientists.

Margaret Matt’s Human Anatomy Coloring Book is a great example of a resource which highlights the importance of anatomical representations to both the scientific and the artistic worlds. Consider for a moment the subtitle of the book: “An entertaining and instructive guide to the human body—bones, muscles, nerves, and how they work”. A publisher’s note on the the first page of Margaret Matt’s books argues that:

There is no better time to learn about human anatomy than now, when we are constantly bombarded by new developments in the burgeoning health field, and there is no better way to learn than with the Human Anatomy Coloring Book, a useful, accurate introduction to the human body for children and adults, and an enjoyable coloring book as well. (Matt, 1982, iv.)

The book is touted by its publisher as both a useful teaching aid and a resource for entertainment and expression. Its author and illustrator hope to “provide true anatomical detail at the same time they render organs and other structures clearly, with an eye toward the drawings’ usefulness for instruction and coloration” (1982, iv). One is meant to enjoy the process of coloring individual organs while keeping in mind that “the coloring keys provided are not intended to be naturalistic; rather, wherever possible, they have been developed with the functional relationships of the body in mind” (1982, iv). This coloring book, however, is incapable of allowing researchers to produce new knowledge about human anatomy, or the processes of diseases.

As visual media technologies became more detailed, so too do the representations of human anatomy scientists and artists were capable of producing. Bassett and Glauser’s Stereoscopic Atlas of Human Anatomy was developed using a complex combination of imaging technologies, dissection techniques and stereoscopy. According to Dr. Robert Chase, “the process…consisted of meticulous dissections of cadaver regions by Dr. Bassett which Gruber would photograph in stereo. Gruber devised a special camera for this work that used a transilluminated background to eliminate shadows” (1994, p. 19). Bassett was a medical doctor, Gruber a photography specialist. Mr Gruber would travel “from Oregon to Stanford every few weeks to photograph 30 to 50 dissections that had been prepared by Dr. Bassett” (Chase, 1994, p. 19). Once photography was completed, the selected transparencies were taken by two artists, Ruth Ogren and Harriet O’Neill. The two used tracing technology “to outline dissection specimens. They then filled in details in line drawings for subsequent labelling and structure identification” (Chase, 1994, p. 19). The image transparencies, which were taken with “35mm Kodachrome film were carefully registered for stereoscopic viewing, they were then reduced to 16mm View-Master format” (Chase, 1994, p. 19). Even though the majority of the people working on Bassett and Gruber’s atlas were visual artists of various stripes, upon its completion the atlas was “recognized worldwide as an excellent reference for serious students of Anatomy” (Chase, 1994, p. 22). The popularity of the atlas was associated simultaneously with Gruber’s precision, the artistic talents of Ogren and O’Neill and also with the popularity of the View Master at the time of its development. According to Chase, “[t]he years from 1940 to 1966 were bonanza years for View-Master in terms of sales and profits” (Chase, 1994, p. 23). With the decline in popularity of the View-Master came the decline in popularity of Stereoscopic Atlas of Human Anatomy. It was a feat of scientific and artistic ingenuity as well as a product of popular culture.

With the rise in popularity of computers there has emerged a number of new means, modes and methods for developing complex representations of human anatomy and biomedical data. As Catherine Waldby argues, “[t]he computerisation of medicine over the last fifteen years has transformed that field of knowledge in dramatic ways. Computerisation has touched most pedagogical, clinical and research practices” (1997, p.). One of the earliest examples of applying the power of the computer to the representation of human anatomy was the Visible Human Project (VHP). Developed by the United States Government’s National Library of Medicine, the VHP is:

a quest to create digital image ‘atlases’ of entire human bodies which could be manipulated in the space of the computer screen. The atlases were to be, like all anatomical atlases, not merely displays of the body’s surface morphology but also representations of the body’s interior, a project to precisely make that interior ‘visible’ (Waldby, 1997, p. 6).

The VHP takes actual human bodies and renders them as three-dimensional digital data. The VHP was developed from photographs which were taken after a human cadaver (of a death row inmate who was killed by lethal injection) went through a process of cryosectioning. In cryosectioning, the body is frozen and subsequently cut into smaller individual pieces (Jastrow and Vollrath, 2003). Each of the separate pieces were then photographed and, in the space of a computer, reformed into a virtual model closely resembling the human cadaver from which the initial photographs were taken (Waldby, 2000). According the Waldby the images developed by the VHP:

look like the ‘real thing’, the way a body would look if sliced across its breadth. Once restacked the slices can be reformulated into the simulacrum of a whole body, a body which looks opaque and self-enclosed but which can be opened out at will in any way desired, to any depth, and then re-closed, completely at the disposal of vision (Waldby, 1997, p. 3).

Again, however, the VHP is best understood as a training tool. Although the VHP has been used in the development of numerous projects and initiatives at a wide range of North American research Universities, for the most part the VHP data sets are being used as complex, three-dimensional teaching aids.


Calkins, C.M., Franciosi, J.P., & Kolesari, G.L. (1999). Human anatomical science and illustration: The origin of two inseparable disciplines. Clinical Anatomy, 12(2), 120-129.

Chase, R.A. (1994). The stereoscopic atlas of human anatomy.

Matt, M. (1982). The human anatomy colouring book. London: Dover Publications

Von Staden, H. (1992)The discovery of the body. Human dissection and its cultural contexts in Ancient Greece. The Yale journal of biology and medicine, 65, 223-241.

Waldby, C. (2000). The Visible Human Project: Informatic bodies and posthuman medicine. New York. Routledge.

Episode Two: functionalism and the anatomy of modern music

NOTE: I will be updating this post over the next couple of days, when time makes itself more available.

For my rendering this week, I have taken a part an old composition of mine. I have anatomized this piece in order to highlight the role of rhythm as the backbone of music. I then slowly reveal the melodious and, finally, the harmonious elements of the piece. Before we get to the rendering, however, I would like to situate this piece within the context of nineteenth century musical theory and composition. Continuing the theme of last night’s post, I would like to consider the role of functionalism in the theory and composition of modern music.

According to Herbert Eimert:

It would never have occurred to a musician in the 19th century to define a note by its pitch, duration, and intensity. At that time a note was understood through its relationship to other notes and through its relationships to tensions within the structure of a chord. The 19th century did not ask ‘what was’ a note, but only ‘how did it function?’

An increased emphasis on musical theory led to a understanding of tones and pitches in terms of how they functioned. As Leonard B. Meyer has argued, “[i]nsofar as one wishes to understand an event or object, particularly one involving human purposes or needs, one defines it operationally of functionally…In very simple-minded terms, a finger is to move, a piano is to play, and a piece of music is to enjoy through understanding” (p. 295). In much the same way that Cuvier described organs in terms of the functions they served, music in the nineteenth century can be understood in terms of a hierarchy of functions, or principles.

Music is composed of three distinct elements, which allow one to recognize gradations of simplicity and complexity. The most basic and universal element of music is rhythm. Melody is a slightly more complex musical principle, incorporating rhythm within itself. Harmony is the latest musical principle to develop. Harmony has the least universal appeal, and can only be appreciated through a more complex and subtle understanding of musical theory and composition.

Like the zoophyte that lacks the processes, organs and secondary functions of higher order species, a piece of music that is based solely on rhythm lacks the complexity of melody and harmony found in higher forms of music. Higher forms of music, like an opera, or a symphony, feature all of these elements, arranged in distinct and complex fashions.  The differences between types of musical compositions are only on the surface, related simply to the extension of the principle of rhythm.