The lab has always had a significant cultural history as an imaginary site of scientific research as well as a physical one. Like Frankenstein’s monster, the lab imaginary has escaped from the confines of any “real history” of laboratories, becoming much larger than the actual practices of experimentation and scientific knowledge production in the process. Lists of favorite fictional laboratories from television, film, and literature abound on the Internet, and essayists in The New York Times have argued for the existence of “lab lit” as its own subgenre.1 We all think we know what a lab is long before we ever set foot in one, and it’s been that way for over a century. In this chapter, we underline the importance of the lab imaginary as a cultural technique that is a crucial component of the extended laboratory model. The imaginary refers to the different sets of connotations, fantasies, and beliefs that have characterized laboratories over the years, but it also is an element of what labs produce: projects, prototypes, and idealizations of creative activity.
We find it useful to discuss imaginaries in terms of technique because they are devices for the production and maintenance of reality. Michel Foucault argues that the imaginary is not formed in opposition to reality as its denial or compensation; rather, it is born and takes shape in the interstices of repetitions and commentaries, in relation not only to institutions and discourse, but to material apparatus of various sorts.2 As a result, the imaginary of any given period is historically, geographically, and culturally specific, and it changes according to particular material and institutional situations as it is rehearsed and practiced across all manner of cultural sites. For example, in his discussion of Gustave Flaubert, Foucault places the imaginary in relation to a specific media technique of fabulation by way of written words and connects it to institutions of reading and writing such as libraries.
The notion of the imaginary has also inspired a whole range of media-archaeological and media-historical work that focuses on such techniques in the social context of institutions and discourses.3 For example, in his research on the Chinese typewriter, Thomas Mullaney presents a formulation of the imaginary that is helpful when trying to think productively about labs. He describes the “technolinguistic imagination” as “a rich ecology of both machines and ways of thinking about machines,” where the imaginary portion of the assemblage functions as a kind of “conceptual algorithm” that shapes how its thinker considers a given cultural object, often to the exclusion of other possibilities.4 Mullaney’s technolinguistic imaginary bears a family resemblance to psychoanalytic Marxist arguments about the relationship of the imaginary to ideology. But in its continual insistence that the imaginary is a crucial component of the material infrastructure that allows cultural objects to function in the first place, and on the strange continuity of the networks of prototypes, parallels, clones, and failures that surround and inform all technological objects, it’s closer to a Kittlerian discourse network on the media-archaeological formulation of imaginary media.5
Because of the technocultural imaginary that’s part of their infrastructure, institutions like libraries, museums, studios, and labs shift the time, space, and shape of what’s possible within them.6 This shift corresponds to the media-theoretical narrative of the emergence of technical media: “Once memories and dreams, the dead and ghosts, become technically reproducible, readers and writers no longer need the powers of hallucination. Our realm of the dead has withdrawn from the books in which it resided for so long.”7 Like Kittler and other media scholars who owe a debt to Foucault, Mullaney proposes an agonistic stance, where the goal is not to produce a totalizing explanation, but to embrace the differences, inconsistencies, and impossibilities that actively produce history, “and to eschew all expectations that the act of critical reflexivity has the power to liberate us” from our assumptions about technolinguistic modernity.8 Independent of his impressive work on the Chinese typewriter itself, Mullaney’s approach provides several major insights about the technolinguistic imaginary. One is that the imaginary has enormous circulatory power; it crosses vast temporal and spatial gulfs that would not be possible for the physical apparatuses themselves to manage.9 Another is that the technolinguistic imagination does as much to delimit our notion of the possible as it does to encourage it, casting alternative and aberrant technologies into disrepute. In extreme cases, like the Chinese typewriter itself, the result is a hegemonic “technolinguistic monoculture” where anything except new versions of the same become unthinkable.10 So how does this play out in contemporary hybrid lab spaces?
This chapter tackles the lab imaginary by situating labs as speculative spaces that are not just places of knowledge production, but also places of recreation, imagination, and activism. We then discuss the ambivalence of lab imaginaries. Among other pressing issues, we attend to the ways in which the lab imaginary’s temporality is unevenly distributed, with some parts of it lagging behind the times and others oriented toward distant possible futures. In order to assess the impact of entrepreneurial media lab discourse on the contemporary lab imaginary, we examine its articulation to the California Ideology. We conclude, in a similar vein, with a discussion of how the role of university labs has changed after the discourse of entrepreneurship. Now that many universities have shifted from imagining themselves as custodians of historical knowledge to being incubators for startups and fashioners of the entrepreneurs that fill them, what are the implications for academic researchers as well as for the public audience for their research?