Past Event Reflection: Scientific Objects and Digital Cosmopolitanism Summer School at Manipal

Some reflections about the Manipal Summer School (July 20-24, 2015) by Khyati Nagar, PhD Candidate, Department of Humanities, York University, Toronto, Canada

While the lush setting of the Western Ghats, and Karnataka cuisine were alluring to the senses, the ontological questioning of scientific objects, and ideas related to cosmopolitanism, only stirred an appetite for research that still needs to be undertaken. A glimpse into the variety and future scope of faculty and graduate student projects at the Scientific Objects and Digital Cosmopolitanism Summer School at Manipal was particularly thought-provoking. More than just showcasing how an East-West partnership might work, it certainly raised questions about how does one want it to work? Does it mean that one carries ideas and research from one part of the world and present it to each other, or does it mean that one consciously thinks about decolonizing or de-westernizing methodologies to present local knowledge related to materiality and science?

This questioning starts at the very base level of language and makes me think about how the idea of cosmopolitanism can be applied to the local. While contemporary material access to global objects allows one to be cosmopolitan in a sense, as posited by Prof. Sundar Sarrukai, in his opening lecture for the summer school, the idea of cosmopiltanism becomes quite contentious when bringing it in to the local. For example, while the term ‘science’ is more or less translatable to vigyan in Hindi, the concept of science as we envision it in the field of History of Science is not translatable into local concepts of the history of science. If one was to delve into Indian knowledge systems of the ancient past, most of them were recorded in various ‘shastras’ or books of knowledge, and were revered very much like books of revelations. While some of these shastras are related to vigyan (science), many of them are about dharma (religion, duty), anushthan (ritual, ceremony), tantra, yantras and mantras (chants, incantations and magic). Even though the term shastra is very often conflated with the idea of science, it does not do justice to the multitude of knowledge systems included in various shastras.

More troubling are the ideas of ‘materiality’ and ‘cosmopolitanism’ that cannot be directly translated into Hindi. One can certainly impose these ideas and find words that might somewhat convey these ideas in Hindi, but these concepts are predominantly western and a product of the last decade of intense globalization. Cosmopolitanism could be very loosely translated to vishwabandhutva (global brotherhood), but I can’t even find a word that might work to express the idea of materiality in Hindi. I could further complicate this reflection if I were to delve deeper into issues of translation in the many languages spoken in India, and the fact that the concepts of science, materiality and cosmopolitanism are open to a host of interpretations and debate. My point is that superimposing Western ideas of science, scientific objects, thingness and materiality on to local understandings of knowledge systems may not work all that well.

There are no easy approaches to any of these musings. As a PhD student interested in the History of Scientific Visual Culture in early 19th-century India, and one who is an Indo- Canadian at a Canadian University, I often question my positionality. As much as I want to think of new ways to research the local, my thinking is driven by academic traditions rooted in the West. I am a product of postcolonialism and Western ways of thinking at the same time. It is only when I removed myself from such thinking at the summer school, that I found individual talks quite stimulating. I found ideas relating to scientific objects as unified material forms and their existence as perceptual or inferential objects quite useful in the opening talk by Prof. Sarukkai. Prof. McOuat’s talk on Objects, Thingness and Things related quite well to my own interests in visuality. The classification of scientific objects and artifacts depends so much on the observation of the observer. Does the observer see a scientific object as a thing to measure, experiment, enumerate, classify and experiment or is the scientific object created by the observer’s view through a technological device? This kind of questioning has gained momentum in the history of science, as scientific objects are not merely reducible to a set of properties but are agents too, capable of manipulating the observer. The observer is not only the scientist observing through a device but also any individual witnessing the spectacles of science. These scientific spectacles depend to a large extent on the performativity of scientific objects. Since scientific objects are agents that are capable of manipulating bodies, their stories of conception, creation and ownership are also quite significant and Dr. David Pantalony’s expert series of talks on the provenance of objects (conception, creation and ownership) were fascinating! Interestingly, right after I attended the summer school in Manipal, I was collecting data for my own research and realized how hard it is to write biographies of scientific objects. This is mainly due to the deeply bureaucratic nature of archives, museums and the objects housed within them. It is rarely possible to hold and examine scientific instruments from the past, and equally difficult to photograph them. Acquiring permissions at museums and archives in India is no mean feat!

According to Dr. Pantalony, a big part of the cultures of science is its own memory, and sadly when museums label objects, they strip them of their provenance. Scientific objects, and objects that circulate for that matter, are robust not just because they exist in a particular place, but because of the gathering of actors and narratives surrounding them. Some of Prof. McOuat’s references to theories such as the Actor Network Theory remain fundamental to ideas of circulation of knowledge between the East and West, because circulating objects are gatherers of stories and are fundamental to writing histories of science.

While these talks were central to my own research and interests, others talks such as the ones by Prof. Anna Agathangelou were captivating due to their cutting-edge, posthuman approach, as well as for questioning ethics and morality when it comes to the human body. She did so by discussing the repercussions of creating artificial intelligence through the example of the film Ex Machina, and the questioning of reproductive rights and surrogacy when women in the developing world rent their wombs to wealthy, childless couples in Western countries. Like I said earlier, the variety of talks and the possibilities of future East-West collaborations are exciting and need further experimentation with meeting formats, topics, and questioning the very idea of cosmopolitanism.

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