Retooling is an extravagance to be reserved for the occasion that demands it.
—Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
Labs are everywhere, and we can’t stop talking about them.
Media labs, hacker zones, makerspaces, humanities labs, fab labs, tech incubators, innovation centers, hacklabs, and media archaeology labs: these hybrid spaces, which sometimes bear only a passing resemblance to the scientific laboratories from which they take part of their inspiration, are liminal but increasingly powerful. They appear in universities and colleges, wedged uneasily between traditional departments and faculties. They’re also in basements, warehouses, strip malls, and squats. They are stable to varying degrees; many have long-term addresses and an itinerant roster of occupants. Some pop up in one location for a few days, then relocate to another. Sometimes they’re even in mobile trucks in the streets, bringing tools and expertise to children in schools and the general public. When administrators streamline clusters of tools and talent to produce economic value, labs sometimes align with the most ruthless of venture capitalists; in other cases, they are free and open for all to use, disdainful of all commercial motivations.
The first difficulty in talking about labs with any precision is that the metaphor of the lab has permeated contemporary culture to the degree that it can apply to just about anything. Throughout this book, we argue that labs have always already been hybrids and that we need a heuristic in order to study them. Ideally, such a heuristic would help labs of any sort describe themselves, with particular attention to the question of how their lab’s specific composition enables them to go about the task of producing knowledge. As we gathered the writing on laboratories that we found most instructive, a number of analytical categories began to recur: space, apparatus, infrastructure and policy, people, the imaginary, and technique. Each offered a powerful, if partial, perspective on our subject. After some thought, and after conducting dozens of interviews with lab directors and lab participants around the world, we began to realize that the differences between the kinds of analyses that these categories produced were not a liability. When we considered them together, comparatively, a way of mapping the indisputable complexity of laboratory relations began to emerge. As a result, these categories became the components of our heuristic, which we call “the extended lab model.” Eventually, they also became the structuring principle of this book, with each chapter focusing on one category. Each chapter also includes a few case studies, some of which draw further on our collection of interviews, which provide an opportunity to think through the active relations between the aspect of the lab under consideration in the specific chapter and some, if not all, of the other aspects of the extended lab.
This Introduction also includes a case study employing the extended lab model, focusing on a set of photographs of an early-twentieth-century French-language lab at Middlebury College. We then discuss why labs matter, including a clarification of the differences and overlaps between science labs and arts/humanities labs. We conclude with a section on the preemergence of hybrid labs, providing initial thoughts on the performative quality of the act of naming a space as a laboratory. In short, this Introduction offers a condensed summary of the aims of the book and situates it in the context of earlier research on labs as sites of practice.
Finally, before we proceed to tackle the discourse in and around labs, we would like to draw readers’ attentions to the online home for The Lab Book on the Manifold publishing platform—a home that has given us the rare ability to publish nearly final drafts of each of the chapters in this book as well the interviews which heavily influenced the writing of our book and expand on the philosophies, space, infrastructure, and projects of labs around the world. We hope to continue adding lab-related material to the site over the coming months and years, and we invite readers of this book to peruse the materials we have posted so far: https://manifold.umn.edu/projects/the-lab-book.
Lab Discourse, or, Life Is a Lab
The lab is deeply imbricated in all aspects of contemporary culture. Consider some examples.
Bartenders have been modern since the mid-nineteenth century, writing about themselves as “mixologists” to add an air of scholarly scientificity to the process of concocting cocktails. In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, hipster bartenders interested in reviving some of the more elaborate old recipes from the last two centuries picked up this moniker with renewed vigor, taking a scientific-historical approach to the process of making a fancy drink (David Wondrich’s Punch and Darcy O’Neil’s Fix the Pumps are exemplary in this respect; O’Neil, a trained chemist, works as both a university research technologist and a bartender).1 This contemporary combination of lab culture and mixology means that it’s not uncommon to find bars with the word Lab or with lab metaphors embedded somewhere in their name or branding.
Cosmetics is another area where the appearance of scientific metaphors (especially ones from chemistry) makes a certain amount of sense. During the writing of this book, one of the things we came across was the Lab Series of men’s cosmetics. As with bartending, there is a basic connection between the cosmetics industry and organic chemistry, so the comparison makes a sort of sense. Here’s a short passage from their website:
We believe life is a Lab—one in which bold moves, big ideas, and innovation through experimentation rules the day. Since 1987, we’ve been formulating high-tech, high-performance products in our Lab—so you have the confidence to go out and make the most of yours.
As one of the original, men’s only skincare brands, we understand the difference between men’s and women’s skin. Each and every one of our cutting-edge formulas is tried, tested, and tailored to suit the specific needs of guys across the globe. Now in over 30 countries, we’re committed to continually perfecting, improving, and innovating the ideal regimen for men, who, like us, have a true passion for progress.2
Not only is the ideology of progress alive and well here, but life itself has been subsumed to technological advance and its apparatus: Life is a Lab. There are echoes of this belief everywhere—in universities, in government, and in the private sector.
Because discourses of scientificity and creativity coincide in contemporary post-Fordist branding, the lab is also a style . . . or an anti-style. Lab Series is one thing, but what are we to make of the Design Lab clothing line of The Hudson Bay Company (in Canada) and Lord & Taylor (in the United States)? Launched in spring 2015 for “style-conscious millennials,” Design Lab is not just a rapid-fire, amorphous, and affordable series of clothes organized according to vaguely historical “key trends” aimed at the desirable millennial demographic (“Athletic Allure,” “Seventies Style,” “Woodstock Redux,” etc.). It is also a specific place, “a new young contemporary destination in store.”3 What is remarkable about Design Lab, though, is that there is no sign of the trappings of laboratories whatsoever in its displays, imagery, or promotional materials. There are no white lab coats, no safety goggles, no clipboards, no flasks, no beakers, Tesla coils, or scientific instrumentation in evidence. Nothing in the design of the typeface suggests scientificity; there is only a vague invocation of modernity. Recently, cult generic design chain Muji followed suit, with its own “Muji Labo” line, equally bereft of the traditional furniture of the lab. The semiotics in both cases are those of a kind of anti-advertising that is no-nonsense and, well, clinical . . . but even this connotation is muted. Like a Cheshire Cat, the lab has vanished from Design Lab and Muji Labo, and all that is left is its ostensibly pure product: a word so rational that it need not even flaunt its rationality with vulgar imagery.
The idea of the lab is more than a metaphor. Throughout this book, we use the phrase “lab discourse” to describe how the word lab serves as a kind of pragmatic persuasion, ordering, and organization of material and discursive regimes, invoking an entire network of power relations that determine what is and is not possible to say or do within a space designated as a lab.4 The lab does more than mark a space and a genealogy; it also performs and reproduces its assumptions about those histories. “Laboratory” becomes an operative term. It does not simply signify, but operates in various institutional ways, in different conceptual contexts, and across historical periods to denote and connote what a lab should be, what a lab must be, and what a lab might be. The lab is an operational organization of space as much as the references, histories, and uses that include and exclude based on preference. Parts of this discourse are normative and regulatory, parts negotiated, and parts contestatory or oppositional. Every time the word lab is applied to a new kind of hybrid space, the entire network jostles around in an attempt to accommodate or reject this new usage.
Labs as Hybrids
Bruno Latour offers one of the key reference points for the academic analysis of the contemporary research laboratory. In “Give Me a Laboratory and I Will Raise the World,” he writes, “people want to establish elsewhere conclusions as certain as those reached in the laboratory.”5 Because Latour sees the laboratory as “a moment in a series of displacements that makes a complete shambles out of the inside/outside and the macro/micro dichotomies,” the means to this end are obvious.6 Even for scientists, leaving the lab entails losing the power that has been accrued within its hallowed walls, so there is only one way to retain that power. Latour turns it into an exhortation: “If this means transforming society into a vast laboratory, then do it.”7 Still, in the wake of phenomena like the Design Lab clothing line, it’s entirely possible to imagine Latour with his face in his palm, muttering “No, not like that.” The truth of what you desire is often the inverse of what you expect.
One way of thinking about hybrid labs, then, is in the negative. A hybrid lab might be any lab that could give rise to someone saying, “Okay, but that’s not really a lab.” (We talk about this in more detail in chapter 5, “Lab Imaginaries”; Thomas Gieryn calls this technique of exclusion “boundary work.”) The blunt exercise of authority in order to exclude something from the realm of “real labs” is a good reason to look at that thing more closely. In these pages you’ll find séance rooms, apothecaries, home economics labs with human babies living in them, factories, city streets, hackerspaces, industrial laboratories, language labs, railway cars, medieval abbots’ kitchens, laptop networks, basements full of moribund technological devices, performance spaces, wartime radiation labs, artists’ studios, mule wagons, media labs, machine shops, marine biology labs, university closets, and various other hybrids all busily producing knowledge via a range of orthodox and idiosyncratic techniques.
How do we get to the point where we can say something useful about what, exactly, these odd spaces are that insist on their status as labs? A crucial entry point is the recognition that the lab is a way of understanding recurring forms of power and experimentality, not just as a part of the history of science and as a series of tropes that appear in contemporary discourses about labs in the arts, humanities, and culture at large. In We Have Never Been Modern, Latour provides some hints, especially when he is discussing Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer’s Leviathan and the Air-Pump. For Latour, what Shapin and Schaffer’s book describes is “the Modern Constitution”—a division of powers between politics and science, where “Boyle is creating a political discourse from which politics is to be excluded [i.e., modern laboratory science], while Hobbes is imagining a scientific politics from which experimental science has to be excluded.”8 From Latour’s perspective, this arrangement characterized modern life for the better part of three centuries, but something interesting begins to happen toward the end of the millennium. The two discourses begin to move closer to each other, and modern certainties begin to crumble.9 Latour’s explanation for this shift is subtle: what characterizes modernity, he argues, is not the ascension of humanism, rationalism, industrialization, and the sciences but rather a bicameral set of practices that appear to be distinct in order to operate, but which are in fact deeply imbricated.10 The first set of practices, which Latour calls “translation,” corresponds to the production of networks and have to do with the production and proliferation of hybrid forms; the second, which he calls “purification,” produces “the modern critical stance” and regulates the division between the human and everything else.11 It is not that hybrid forms did not exist during modernity, but that the very practices that produced and circulated them with increasing efficiency also necessarily denied their existence.
One of the ongoing tasks for media history, media archaeology, the digital humanities, science studies, and related fields is not only to chart and describe new hybrid forms but to reexamine what we believe we know of the historical record for evidence that this hybridization was always taking place. In other words, this task involves studying the multiple genealogies of labs that demonstrate conflicting forms of practice and values, imaginaries and infrastructures. It is also more about building a richer sense of what the lab is than it is about merely looking at recent forms of laboratories as they appear in media, art, and humanities.
However, as laboratory discourse became increasingly imbricated in the description of various forms of everyday practice, beyond the hybrid objects coming out of labs, labs themselves have also become hybrids . . . and perhaps always were. This is different from observing that, say, artists can and do talk about their studios as labs, or that scientists might imagine (and write about) themselves as poets or artists, or even that a lab might occasionally have a writer or an artist in residence.12 Such practices do not conform to strict borders between art, science, and the humanities. One premise of Siegfried Zielinski’s studies of the deep time of the media and variantology, for example, is that science and poetry have always been entangled.13 The history of the last century is the history of people pointing to the blurry area between art and science, from both sides of the divide. Marxism is a philosophy that, since Marx himself, has insisted on its status as a science.14 Since the dawn of the twentieth century, practitioners of Alfred Jarry’s ’pataphysics have used its rigorous close observation to lead to absurd conclusions and problems that don’t require resolutions.15 The Bauhaus was a major source of modern aesthetic sensibility, but it was also deeply rooted in the tradition of logical positivism.16 The history of film and film research is full of early examples of laboratories measuring the human body as a physical and emotional, affective entity: Hugo Münsterberg’s early-twentieth-century Harvard laboratory is a case in point.17 Later, in the context of bioart and technological culture, groups such as the Critical Art Ensemble mobilized a potent mixture of performance, critical theory, and scientific method for aesthetic and activist ends.
But as Latour, C. P. Snow, Isabelle Stengers, and many others have observed, a division has always been maintained which ensures that, in the dichotomy between science and culture, the sciences always maintain the superior role. This division was established and maintained through modern forms of governmentality that are still very much in effect. Governments create institutions that bestow power onto regulatory bodies, which create policy instruments that outline the approved use of that power in particular locations, according to specific practices. At the same time, hybrid practices continually emerge outside and around the officially approved ones, sometimes feeding back into the system and altering official practice, sometimes creating rogue or alternative practices, sometimes fizzling out entirely.
We are interested in labs, both orthodox and hybrid, because they are specific spaces in which the process of production takes place—hence our subtitle.18 In labs, a particular kind of situated practice occurs, and we want to open the question of how knowledge is produced via these practices, while also taking their infrastructures, architectonics, and intellectual furnishings into account.19 Stengers poses the intriguing question of whether it might be possible to invent a kind of scientific practice not through the development of new forms of lab apparatus but through a different kind of relation to the lab and its equipment by way of “the positive, practical invention of scientific authors who address themselves to nature without waiting for it to confer on them the power of judging.”20 Thus, we are also curious about a related question: what kinds of authors and other subjects do hybrid laboratories produce, and what kinds of statements are they capable of making? Assessing this question requires the creation of a heuristic that will allow us to take an inventory of a heterogeneous range of hybrid lab spaces and their associated practices. We begin describing this framework by way of the following case study on an early-twentieth-century French-language lab.
Consider these photographs of a French-language lab from the archives of Middlebury College in Vermont, dated 1928. A photograph of this lab (Warner Hall, room 5) appeared in print for the first time in the 1929 Summer Session catalog for the French and Spanish Schools at Middlebury. The Middlebury archives hold two versions of this photo session, one of which had been turned into a halftone for printing in the college’s 1929 summer catalog. Both versions depict French school instructors and students at work in the lab. In many respects, these images are the epitome of the way we still think about labs in the arts and humanities. As a case study, they point to many of the issues we should consider when writing about labs today—“the configurations of instruments, practices, and signs that comprise the a priori of a given technical and cultural system.”21 Labs are constituted of such configurations—or, to use the current term of art, “cultural techniques”—that bundle materials and symbols, technologies and discourses into operative chains.22 In particular, the space, apparatus, infrastructure, people, imaginary, and techniques comprise a checklist of aspects that we use as a heuristic when we consider a lab of any sort. There is a processual and inherently interdependent dynamism between these aspects; thinking about all of them in terms of any specific object of study is always helpful, though in many cases the accent will fall on some rather than others. We call this checklist “the extended lab model.”
When we write about the production of space, what we have in mind is the fabrication of differences, divisions, passages, anchors, movements, and positions (whether for resting or working, activity or observation). For Latour and Steve Woolgar, labs can emerge as a result of very subtle differential relations between kinds of space: “The spatial relation between office space and bench space is sufficient to distinguish the laboratory from other productive units.”23 At the same time, the lab is always articulated to different kinds of spaces that help to make sense out of what emerges from its operations. For example, the lab is never far from the office. In this sense, labs are as much a product of social dynamics as they are of stable architecture (which is not to say we are attempting to ignore the material dimensions of labs). The sense we have of the lab as a space is a product of relations among the people, objects, practices, institutional infrastructures, policies, and discourses that it brings together.24
One of the implications of the observation that labs emerge from relations is that a lab is as much a process as it is anything else. At the same time as they allow (or disallow) certain kinds of ongoing, compelling professional and social interactions to occur, labs are themselves always in process, which makes them attractive and frustrating by turn. As John Urry notes, despite all of the discursive claims about the lab being a neutral, static temple of reason, labs are affective and emotional.25 This affective and emotional register is another one of the connotations of “situated practice.” The process of producing a lab folds together various kinds of relations in order to encourage specific forms of space, time, and agency to emerge. Thus, returning to the images of the French-language lab, we ask: what sort of space is emerging?
One of the first things to notice is the amount of staging that is occurring. The photographs are posed; seeing two versions together drives this point home. The images are not a record of everyday occurrences in the lab, captured without the notice of the lab’s occupants while they go about their business, nor are they a documentary record of an experiment in progress. Instead, a fairly large number of people, objects, and devices have been brought together artificially, in a relatively small area at the front of the room, in order to produce an image that conveys something meaningful about what, exactly, this lab does. Above all, the photographs strive to convey the sense that this lab is both heavily populated and busy. Everyone and everything is in the midst of doing something. Some people are operating machinery, others are assisting with the operation of machinery, and still others observe those operations as they unfold. Three or four people are gazing directly at the camera while doing their work or observing others, drawing attention to the nature of their actions as a performance for remote witnesses.
The images, like the room itself, are designed for the process of instruction. This may be a lab, but it is also evidently a classroom. The people in the images are clustered around a teacher’s bench. Students’ writing desks are visible in the foreground, and blackboards and teaching charts (vowels on top, voiced and voiceless French stop consonants below) are in the background. When experiments occur in this space, it is for the purpose of demonstration and communication of ideas about research techniques.
Staging happens in any lab, because it is an attempt to convey the importance of what a laboratory space makes possible. As Gieryn argues, the laboratory is one of the most powerful contemporary versions of what he calls “truth-spots”—particular locations that are privileged sites for the production of truth and economic value through innovation. The Oracle at Delphi is one of Gieryn’s favorite examples from antiquity, but he also writes of the “ultra-clean” lab that Clair Patterson built in the 1950s to study what he suspected were increasing levels of lead in the biosphere. In order to make accurate measurements, the lab had to be free from all ambient contamination via the air, water, or the clothing and bodies of the lab’s occupants. Hypothesizing that the accumulation of polar ice over time might present a gradient measure of increasing levels of lead over time, he ventured to Antarctica to extract a deep-core ice sample and created a “mobile truth-spot” to conduct measurements in situ.26 The lesson in this case is that the space of the lab is not fixed or permanent. It can and does extend its influence out into the world, in a variety of ways, and reconfigure itself or vanish entirely after its work is complete. Returning to our observation that a lab is a hybrid bundle of various kinds of aspects and relations, while a lab may be a specially designated place for the production of knowledge that can appear in the most unlikely locales, a lab is also a lab because of the performance of particular kinds of techniques. Likewise, the cultural techniques in question are the techniques of science in part because they are performed inside the lab. When and if people begin to perform other activities inside a lab, it may cease to be a lab.
Back in the French-language lab, the cross-section diagram of a human head on the blackboard indicates that the focus of the research and teaching taking place here is also material and processual. What is of concern is not limited to the circulation of signs, as the linguistic charts alone might suggest. Rather, the object of investigation is the physiology of speech production, and the means of investigation is the process of producing analog audio recordings through interaction with the lab’s apparatus. For many viewers of these images, the presence of technological apparatus and the interaction of the people in the room is what will identify the space as a laboratory of some sort. But the lab’s apparatus is never passive decoration, or secondary to lab operations. The objects and phenomena studied in the lab “are thoroughly constituted by the material setting of the laboratory,” and this fact becomes most evident when key pieces of equipment break down or when new equipment appears.27
Laboratories are all about the specificity of their articulations. A laboratory is not just a particular bundle of technologies; where they are plugged in, so to speak, matters, as do the articulations of knowledge that enable that bundle, and the ones it enables in turn. As Latour and Woolgar put it, “The strength of the laboratory depends not so much on the availability of the apparatus, but on the presence of a particular configuration of machines specifically tailored for a particular task.”28 Having the right apparatus and keeping it running are vital not just for particular experiments but for entire discursive systems. As Thomas Kuhn notes, scientific paradigms are partly maintained by a “multitude of commitments to preferred types of instrumentation and to the ways in which accepted instruments may legitimately be employed. . . . As much as laws and theory, [instrumental commitments] provide scientists with rules of the game.”29 In this light, the emergence of hybrid labs and their unorthodox use of equipment become a sign of changing material, methodological, and metaphysical commitments in both the academy and our larger intellectual culture.
One way to describe some of the kinds of objects that can and do appear in contemporary hybrid labs, especially in media archaeology labs, is in terms of what Latour and Woolgar call “material dictionaries.”30 These are collections of objects, preprints, data sheets, and other aggregates of things that the denizens of labs need to keep at hand in order to do their work.31 A historical analogue for these material dictionaries is research and teaching collections, especially collections of scientific instruments, which have a long and storied history that also differs from the oft-recurring reference to the archive in humanities theory.
In the left foreground of the images of the Middlebury French-language lab there are two wax recorder dictaphones (different but related models) from Alexander Graham Bell’s Dictaphone Corporation. A third dictaphone, on the instructor’s podium in the center of the image, has been rotated on its stand to make a different aspect of the machine visible, and it is being used in playback mode for listening. Just like the lab’s occupants, its apparatus can also be staged. In Figure 5, both women students are listening to recordings; in Figure 4, the woman in the foreground is speaking into the horn.
Interestingly, there is a sort of media archaeology being portrayed here, as the people in these images are engaging with what was arguably already dead media.32 The machine with the large, dark drum on the right is probably one of Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville’s phonautograms, which were invented in 1857, almost half a century before the trademarking of the word “dictaphone” (which itself occurred several decades before this image was taken). Like a wax cylinder recorder, the phonautogram was an analog device for recording sound, but its inscriptions were intended for visual analysis rather than playback. As Jonathan Sterne has described, Scott, a typesetter, was interested in finding a way to literally transform sound into writing.33 The “phonautographs” the machine produced were part of the early modern “interest in the scientific use of graphic demonstration and automatic inscription instruments,” and part of the scientification of culture in general and humanities labs in particular.34
Consider also the range of tuning forks on the teaching podium, which were probably used in conjunction with the phonautogram. Tuning forks create a sound at a stable (and therefore verifiable) frequency. When recorded on the phonautogram, that sound was used to create a reference image to measure other inscriptions against. In speech research and linguistics, the machines would be replaced by sonograph machines and spectrographic analysis within several decades. The technique remains the same, but the apparatus changes as science equipment manufacturers sell new equipment to lab directors to add to their assemblage.
For Tony Bennett, museums and other hybrid lab-like spaces manipulate objects to make “new realities perceptible and available for mobilization in the shaping and reshaping of social relationships.”35 This is part of “the productive power of institutions.”36 In other words, objects in labs are about more than themselves, because their importance lies in the relations they bear to each other, to the physical world, to the space in which they appear, to the people in those spaces, and to the institutions that position them.
Spatial relations and descriptions of apparatus alone will not solve the problem of what a lab is. Artists can have labs and scientists have offices; in some cases, their spaces and equipment can be indistinguishable from each other. What matters is how these spaces and practices are articulated by discourse to particular institutions that authorize them.
The objects in the images of the French-language lab, and the lab space itself, are also components of a much larger assemblage of institutional and disciplinary infrastructures that allow certain activities to take place. One of these infrastructural assemblages consists of the relations between commercial brands. Much earlier than the current MakerBot brandscapes of hybrid labs, the prominent labels on the machines for the Dictaphone Corporation are a reminder that the technological machinery in this image are also commodities. Brands are also part of the environment of making, and through them the media commodities in this room are part of a network of intercommunicating things that extends far beyond the bounds of the image and the room.37
As Susan Leigh Star points out in “The Ethnography of Infrastructure,” the common notion of infrastructure as a system of technological substrates that is basically invisible until you need it to perform makes clear two of the properties she assigns to infrastructure, namely, embeddedness and transparency.38 But infrastructure also has other characteristics, some of which only become apparent when it breaks down. Infrastructure is always built on top of something else: an installed base, like the infrastructure of the classroom itself, in the case of our French-language lab. Its scope extends beyond single sites and local conventions of practice, and, though it ostensibly embodies professional and technical standards, it can and does cause conflicts for those used to doing things differently in another context.39 In order for any work in the room to be meaningful to anyone beyond its walls, there needs to be a community of people using the same devices in similar ways for similar ends. Infrastructural scale expands out from the lab in both directions, to the macro and the micro. The larger system that makes it possible to communicate research results and publicize the lab’s existence and activities, from the institution itself down to the documents that it produces and circulates, is also relevant. For example, we know from the Middlebury College archives that the school authorized the existence of a College Press Club, an organization peopled by undergraduates under faculty supervision that served as the official news bureau for the college, produced the newspaper that circulates the image, and so on.
In short, considering infrastructure is important because it leads toward an analysis of the institutions that defined, designed, and created that infrastructure in the first place. For Bernhard Siegert, such an analysis is a crucial step that transforms a history of material technology into a history of technology as media; the study has to serve “as a reference system for the analysis of bureaucratic or scientific data processing.”40 What such an approach enables, for Siegert, is the realization that the human and the nonhuman always already have been mixed together inextricably. Modernization, scientification, and militarization do not “dehumanize” a previously whole and sovereign subject. Institutions and their infrastructures manage their various complex mixtures of human and nonhuman components as they see fit, all of which provides the necessary context for the aspect of our model.
We could observe the design and construction of lab equipment on a minute level, obtain and operate or fabricate models of the equipment, and then measure signal quality, but the only way to make sense out of why different choices occur in a lab is via their cultural articulations, which assign value to particular techniques at a given time for reasons that are as discursive as they are technical. In other words, a focus on infrastructure and technology will inevitably return to people, practices, and techniques, as long as they aren’t fetishized as the center of the analysis. People are as much (or more) products of labs as they are producers of them. Labs operate to train and refine their denizens into different kinds of subjects that are all part of the hybrid assemblage, but with varying degrees of power and agency.41
In our French-language lab images, archival records indicate that the named figures in this particular collective include the following (left to right): Gaston Louis Malécot; two female students holding receivers to their ears; Marc Denkinger (rear); Renee Perrot; two male students; Marcel Vigneron. All of the named figures were faculty at Middlebury and their vitae are easily locatable online via the institution’s online databases; the students are identified solely by their station. This is a reminder that, as in any other location, there are gender and power relations at work, shaping knowledge production, including who is identified as what kind of subject, and how they are identified. As such, inside any lab, people interact with the infrastructure in ways prescribed by those power relations. Students interact with the equipment; faculty and staff observe, correct, and coach the students, helping them to perfect their technique. That is, bodies are disciplined to make them amenable to the functioning of the infrastructure, according to existing standards and protocols. The lab is an operative, recursive chain of techniques that applies to bodies as much as technologies.
There are also people who are vitally important to the operation of the lab despite their absence from these images, and those absences are also telling. For example, where are the lab technicians? As William E. Burns describes, early lab spaces, like the Royal Society’s public experimental spaces, had already developed knowledge production systems that required the stratification of subjects as part of their knowledge production processes. Unlike private laboratories, where scientists and natural philosophers could develop and practice their work without fear of failure, public experimental spaces were designed for the performance of tried and tested experiments before witnesses. “Such viewers were expected to be male and upper class, or else their witnessing would have little weight. By contrast, the artisanal-class lab technicians employed by Boyle and other wealthy natural philosophers were expected to be as invisible as possible, except when receiving blame for an experiment gone wrong.”42 Even today, it is all too common for the technical knowledge and industry of the technicians who maintain the lab space, set up experiments, and log results to have their efforts attributed to the professors or to “the lab” in general. The photographer of the French-language lab is also part of this apparatus and played a considerable role in shaping how the lab is depicted here. Like the others who work closely with the infrastructure, it is all too easy to forget their presence. Paradoxically, this erasure is due in part to their technical proficiency.
Counterintuitive as it might first seem, the concept of the imaginary is very helpful in terms of determining how labs function. This is true of both the conventional Lacanian usage of the term and its more specialized media-archaeological usage.
After Lacan, Slavoj Žižek writes of the imaginary as the realm of fantasy, which serves as a kind of psychic wallpaper, covering over the cracks and traumas of lived experience in order to provide a consistent sense of reality.43 In this sense, we can think of the Lab Imaginary as the various sustaining cultural mythologies of laboratory life, both those in media representations of the lab (e.g., Frankenstein’s iconic “mad scientist” lab in James Whale’s Frankenstein, with its Tesla coils and chains and dials and buttons, or Walter White’s meth labs in Breaking Bad—the makeshift one in the RV and the humming stainless-steel factory under the laundromat both loom large right now) and the nonfiction, ideological myths that constitute our sense of the lab in culture at large (the biological lab, the nuclear test facility, food labs and consumer testing labs, the Wuhan Institute of Virology, and the list goes on).
There also is the more specialized sense of the term imaginary that media archaeology uses, which is closer to our own usage in this book. Imaginaries of media relate to the many ways in which uses and materialities, functions and contexts of media are not merely real and actual but fabulated and created in various discursive practices from dreams to consumer branding. Zielinski groups imaginary media into three broad classes: the untimely, which was designed and realized either too early or too late for the historical moment in which it would be appropriate; the conceptual, which only ever appeared as ideas on paper; and the impossible, which are entirely symbolic machines that convey meanings with real impact but could not actually be built.44 In this usage, “imaginary media” becomes a kind of shorthand for discussing these “not quite material” but undeniably effectual forms of media that are not only emerging from science labs but being employed in novel and unforeseen ways in labs across the disciplines, including the humanities.45
Many of the instruments produced by Hugo Münsterberg, the German philosopher and psychologist whom William James invited to direct the Harvard Psychological Laboratory in 1892, are imaginary in the media-archaeological sense. Giuliana Bruno has written in detail about Münsterberg’s lab at Harvard in a way that demonstrates the deep interrelations among the imaginary, lab space, apparatus, people, and infrastructure. Münsterberg’s instruments, she writes, “palpably rendered new worlds thinkable, representable, designing a shareable, common space of knowledge and even crafting a space of imaginary circulation between science and the arts.”46 In this early hybrid laboratory, Münsterberg crafted apparatuses that demonstrated the roles of optical physiology, memory, and imagination in the production of emotion, with a particular interest in the function of film, which he, and Friedrich Kittler after him, identifies as the imaginary media technology par excellence.47 Crucially, Münsterberg was also interested in the larger cultural imaginary, and he circulated his instruments themselves and image catalogs of his instruments to disseminate his ideas and create international scientific congresses for like-minded researchers.48 In that spirit, some of his apparatuses continue to circulate, like his model of the horopter (horizon of vision), seen in Figure 6 at the Lab Cult exhibition in Montreal in 2019, more than a century after its manufacture. Bruno concludes with the observation that, because of such circulation, Münsterberg’s instruments helped people to imagine “modern ways to inhabit sensible worlds and mobilize mental space”; their materiality conveyed a “graphic design of mental life,” which migrated to cinema, turning “experiments into experience.”49
Let’s return for a moment to the phonautograph in the French-language lab. Scott’s agenda for the phonautograph was deeply imaginary in that he wanted to establish that it was possible to produce a form of writing that bore a direct, indexical relationship to sound. For the subjects of these photos, the imaginary motives for using it and the other bits of apparatus on display could have been any one of a range of possibilities: historical interest; teaching method; creating a general air of scientificity in the lab; demonstrating the difference between an indexical analog image of sound and the phonetic notation on the classroom charts; or many other things, depending on for whom the photographer (and ultimately the institution itself, in commissioning and circulating the lab photographs) is performing. Long before media archaeology emerged as a set of theories and methods that investigates the persistence of old media in contemporary media cultural practices and discourses, ostensibly “obsolete” media had its place in the lab environment, making other kinds of arguments than the ones for which it had originally been intended. The photographs remind us, then, that there is a long and honorable tradition of scrounging equipment for labs.50 Moreover, teaching laboratories are often associated with research collections of scientific instruments. Obsolete equipment from an instrument collection can be used to introduce students to fundamental lab techniques at little or no risk or cost.
As Sterne writes, technique “connotes a connection among practice, technology, and instrumental reason: it is a form of ‘reasoned production,’ ‘a way of revealing,’ a ‘means with a set of rules for the game.’ Under the sign of modernity, technique carries a special value and a special valence—it is connected with rationality. Technique brings mechanics to bear on spontaneity.”51 And, as Latour and Woolgar note, laboratory practices extend outside the lab in many areas of culture, even if they ultimately depend on the lab for their existence.52 Learning lab work, then, involves being trained in specific operative chains that can be formalized under the more general heading of a technique, and the deployment of that technique in a specific space is part of what makes a lab into a lab.53
However, Sterne’s The Audible Past provides ample evidence that a seemingly natural practice such as listening is both technical and culturally constructed. Labs train us from ear to hand, from making to thinking, speaking to listening. Learning to speak for recording and learning to hear recordings involves a chain of operations that configures machines to work in concert with people and with other machines, including things like setting reference tones with tuning forks, learning to rotate recording cylinders and drums at the correct speed, reading waveforms, and transcribing recorded sounds into orthographic notation. The collecting and processing of data involve other operations and techniques: gathering inscribed surfaces, establishing grounds for comparison, transforming linear data into numeric form, processing and charting it, and so on.
Our discussion above mostly concerns the symbolic content of the images of the French-language lab. However, the production of images is also technical, which reveals another aspect of how the imagery and imaginaries of labs are produced. Again, the two photographs of the French-language lab serve as a helpful tool for thinking about current labs. We have two different versions of this image, and the differences between them point to the way in which a photograph is always staged for particular audiences to produce particular connotations. First, the figures in the images are tightly packed into a single corner of the room and arranged so that the viewer can see them demonstrating and practicing the activities that apparently take place in the lab on a routine basis. In both the photographic print (Figure 4) and the halftone image (Figure 5), the woman in the center of the composition (identified as Renee Perrot) is blurry. In the halftone, which was prepared for use in the campus paper, she is not facing the camera at all. The other notable difference is that the unidentified female student seated behind the front dictaphone is speaking into the tube in the photograph but listening to it in the halftone. The crop marks on the halftone image indicate a further operation in the editing and production process. There is nothing disingenuous here; the goal of the overall process of photography in this instance is to produce a sense of the lab as a busy space, one where significant and serious acts of student training (and perhaps intellectual discovery) occur. In this particular case we see an active use of electromechanical recording technologies in a scientific exploration of the topic of language use. There is also a strong sense of conviviality here. These people are enjoying their investigations, or at least the production of an image of their investigations. The fact that we can see the artifice gives us a sense in miniature of how the feeling of labs as a space of richly generative activity was produced on a larger scale and embedded itself in the cultural imaginary.
The Extended Laboratory Model
These aspects—space, apparatus, infrastructure, people, the imaginary, and techniques—are what will help us describe situated practice in hybrid laboratories from modernity to the twenty-first century. We have taken them as the chapter titles for this book and use them as a framework for our own thinking about labs, in a model that we refer to as “the extended laboratory.” Any method for studying labs has to be processual and relational, because labs themselves are continually shifting assemblages of cultural and technical components. As with the famous “circuit of culture” heuristic developed by British cultural studies scholars Paul du Gay, Stuart Hall, Anders Koed Madsen, Linda Janes, Hugh Mackay, and Keith Negus, one can begin an analysis anywhere in the extended laboratory model and adjust course according to which aspect of the object of study requires the most emphasis in any particular case; labs emerge in dissimilar situations and at variable scales, so our approach needs to be supple. What’s important is to pass through all of its aspects and to remember that each aspect will be imbricated into the others because real-world lab assemblages are messy, complex, and contingent.54
One of the virtues of such an approach is that it’s inherently comparative. Many aspects of labs are invisible from a singular perspective. A method that requires a comparative approach is, at least, a gesture toward minimizing gaps in analysis, in the tradition of media historians we admire, from Harold Innis to Lisa Gitelman.55 The authors of this book are all interdisciplinary researchers, with a particular focus on media archaeology, but thinking about labs has pushed us far outside our comfort zones, making us delve into the literatures of many scholarly fields, and beyond.
Building a heuristic is also a way of acknowledging the impossibility of presenting a comprehensive survey of the topic at hand. As we describe in chapter 3 (“Lab Infrastructure”), there are far too many labs in general, and far, far too many kinds of hybrid labs in particular, to summarize them with any kind of authoritativeness or certainty. Over the course of this project, our guiding questions shifted from “What are we talking about?” to “How are we going to talk about it?” and “How can we make something that might help the occupants of hybrid labs to describe their own work?”
What Science Labs Do and Why Labs Matter
Operating a lab is a valuable activity in every respect, because it involves the ability to make some kind of truth claim. Even if implied and involved in various cultural and media imaginaries, labs fabricate realities. Consider Latour and Woolgar’s most concise descriptions of what a laboratory is and what it does:
Scientific activity is not “about nature,” it is a fierce fight to construct reality. The laboratory is the work and the set of productive forces, which makes construction possible. Every time a fragment stabilises, it is reintroduced into the laboratory, (in the guise of a machine, inscription device, skill, routine, prejudice, deduction, programme, and so on), and is used to increase the difference between statements.56
In this formulation, labs literally “make a difference.” Labs and lab-like spaces matter because they construct new “forces and realities” out of the objects they work with, and then “those who are empowered to act as their credible interpreters” mobilize these realities and forces in social programs.57 Science labs determine what counts as fact, as opposed to, say, artistic “truth,” which is often relative, multiple, paradoxical, and complex—ostensibly “higher” than fact but often less powerful in a modern context. So, we could also slightly change the wording of the passage from Latour and Woolgar to reflect on the other aspects of the humanities and media labs. Perhaps something like this:
Cultural and media (studies) activity is not “about culture,” it is a fierce fight to construct and deconstruct the material contexts of how culture comes about. The laboratory is the work and the set of productive forces, which makes construction and deconstruction possible. Every time a fragment stabilizes, it is reintroduced into the laboratory, (in the guise of a machine, inscription device, skill, routine, prejudice, habit, meaning, affect, and on), and is used to increase the difference between statements.
Before we move on to other labs that do this work of constructing and deconstructing technological worlds of culture, it’s worth reviewing the literature that describes what we know of the function of scientific labs.
One reason science labs themselves were historically neglected as an object of study is that laboratory practices and techniques have always differed in substantial ways from their official description. For this observation, scholars of labs are indebted to Ludwik Fleck, a microbiologist and one of the first to think about the history and philosophy of science in a manner that also pays attention to practices. In On Historicizing Epistemology, Hans-Jörg Rheinberger has the following to say about Fleck’s contribution:
The “living practice” of the natural sciences must be distinguished from their “official paper form.” It is differently structured, not proceeding as described in books of logic or in textbooks. The practice of the natural sciences in general “cannot be learned from any book,” it can only be found in and learned from the reality of the laboratory. With this demand, Fleck—himself both observer and participant in laboratory life—largely anticipated the sociology of the laboratory that would develop only in the last decades of the twentieth century.58
It wasn’t until the 1970s that science studies scholars like Latour and Woolgar, Karin Knorr Cetina, Stephen Shapin, Owen Hannaway, Andrew Pickering, and Ian Hacking began to really consider what science labs actually did as entities unto themselves. Before that, the notion of “lab” and “experiment” were deeply commingled in the academic literature.
For our purposes, Knorr Cetina’s “The Couch, the Cathedral, and the Laboratory” is an excellent place to start to understand how the practices of scientific activity have come to the fore and how they have been articulated through space, discourse, and the various combinations of materials and symbols that constitute the universe of a lab in a society.59 Knorr Cetina argues that “far from being just the physical space in which experiments are conducted, laboratories have emerged as carrying a systematic ‘weight’ in our understanding of science” (114). For Knorr Cetina, labs make the difference that Latour and Woolgar mention through a process of “reconfiguration” (114, 116, 134). Inside a laboratory it is possible to construct an order that upgrades “the ordinary and mundane components of social life” (134). Different areas of science accomplish their reconfigurations in a variety of ways that “are neither uniform nor consistent” (135). One type of lab uses a variety of technologies to create representations or simulations of real-world phenomena; a second type uses treatments and interventions to process partial versions of phenomena; a third type works semiotically, with the “signatures of the events of interest to science,” employing a “language-transcending” set of technologies to derive significance from their work (123, 135).
The first of these three types, the simulation lab, may be most familiar to humanities scholars, and the most evanescent, because it can be everywhere and nowhere. Thanks to the ubiquity and power of software simulation, anywhere you can take a computer can become a lab, and any computer can be a lab of this type (123). Nevertheless, simulation labs have a long and honorable pre-computer history inside and outside of science; Knorr Cetina also includes war games and psychologists’ observation rooms with one-way mirrors in this category. In this model, the lab is a virtual space, a kind of stage that is only visible when an experiment is being conducted and is for most purposes coterminous with the experiment (125). The prevalence of this type of lab is perhaps one reason why the notion of the lab and the experiment were inextricable for so long.
For Knorr Cetina, the second type of lab is when “laboratories come of age and are established as distinctive and separate entities” (127). This type of lab is a “workshop” or “processing environment” with its own goals, activities, personnel, and apparatus, all of which work together in carefully designed combinations to explore particular effects (127, 128). According to Hacking, this confluence of forces is where laboratory science proper occurs, outside of those sciences “that are chiefly observational, classificatory, or historical”; for him, the laboratory “is a space for interfering under controllable and isolatable conditions with matter and energy, often done in museums . . . but seldom in archives.”60 As with the others who insist on the inscriptive quality of lab work, for Hacking, much of lab work “is about marks and the manipulation of marks.”61 Knorr Cetina is also careful to emphasize that this second type of lab is not sealed off from the world; it is a kind of hub or switching node, “a link between internal and external environments, a border in a wider traffic of objects and observations” (129). In the laboratory’s circulatory regime, people, objects, data, records, and even chunks of experiments constantly flow in and out as they are prepared, transformed, and tested. This type of lab treats all natural objects as though they exist only in an endless series of transitory states, “decomposable entities from which effects can be extracted through appropriate treatment” (126). An analog version of these labs would be the French cathedrals of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, together with the “observation circuit” between them that architects and artisans traveled to see how various changes affected the overall performance of the buildings over time: an instructive example precisely because its spatial quality is all about its relation to the larger outside world.
All sciences involve processing signs and producing texts, but in the third type of lab, “the construction of objects as signs shapes the whole technology of experimentation” (131). For Knorr Cetina, this third category would include both particle physics labs and the psychoanalyst’s office. In both cases, though experiments in such labs begin with signs, they “constantly transcend” the limitations of the symbolic, as they become, “with a certain likelihood, attached to events” that occur in laboratory experiments (131–32). In all three categories, labs serve as the infrastructure that enables experimentation with benches and apparatus, offices and computers, management and custodial staff, utilities, a physical address, and so on, but it is in the second and third categories that laboratories become “objects of work and attention over and above experiments” (128). In these kinds of labs, scientists have to spend at least part of their time taking care of the lab, and at this point a stratification of labor and reward also becomes visible. On the low end of the spectrum, a whole class of people (custodial staff, lab monitors, etc.) becomes necessary, whose job is never to go near the actual experiments but simply to care for the lab and its apparatus. On the other end of the reward spectrum are lab directors and other personnel who have to spend an increasing amount of their time not doing science, but applying for grants, filling out expense reports, promoting the lab and its work, attending meetings, hiring new personnel, and so on. The foregoing, however, should not be dismissed as irrelevant. Hacking considers this sort of work as part of the intellectual infrastructure that is part of what makes a lab possible.62 As many current examples in the media and humanities disciplines testify, labs tend to become associated with such leaders, and having a lab becomes a career goal for many ambitious academics.
As Knorr Cetina observes, as the lab becomes a distinct, permanent facility, experiments can become less so, dissolving into “experimental work” that runs continuously and in parallel (128). In hard science, experiments can reemerge with a vengeance as “counterparts” of laboratories, becoming so large that they require entire international lab networks to run, and can, as a consequence, deplete entire fields of resources for anything else. At this point, the political nature of labs and experiments becomes impossible to ignore (133). They spread across multiple institutional and geographic sites and become, again, less identifiable only as one place. Knorr Cetina’s closing thoughts are about the deep imbrication of labs and the everyday; they are embedded in it and extend out into it (135–36).
Latour and Woolgar also note the connection of labs to the spaces of everyday life while they articulate ways to start discussing the different disciplinary boundaries that are established through having a lab, as well as the boundaries that are established in having a text (not that labs and texts are necessarily separate entities). As they argue in Laboratory Life, there is nothing “special or mysterious” about the difference between the activity of social scientists (and humanists) and scientists: “Both were engaged in craftwork; differences could be explained in terms of resource and investments, and without recourse to exotic qualities of the nature of the activity.”63 The major difference, at the end of the book, is that “they have a laboratory. We, on the other hand, have a text, this present text” (257). On the one hand, we are back to the power of the possession of space itself, whether it is on a laptop or in its own building, and the power of the claims that can be made because of the possession of that space. Small wonder that those outside the sciences have claimed the space of the lab as their own, whether for the necessities of symbolic power or, as is clear in some cases, for hosting specialist apparatuses. On the other hand, texts and inscription are part of even the most scientific of labs.
After a few weeks of observing Roger Guillemin’s lab at the Salk Institute, Latour and Woolgar infamously note that “the laboratory began to take on the appearance of a system of literary inscription” (52). Perhaps in an effort to defamiliarize this inscription process through humor, Latour and Woolgar describe the life in this laboratory as involving a “strange mania for inscription,” noting the “proliferation of files, documents, and dictionaries” around the lab space and its immediate environs (48). Science, like the humanities, is deeply textual in nature, at least at one point in its chain of operations (to refer back to the vocabulary of cultural techniques). It stands to reason that scientists, like other academics, do a lot of writing, because text is still the most efficient medium for research communication. But what is the nature of the writing that inscribes more than just alphabetic utterances and even becomes more akin to the work of technical media? One of the most relevant aspects of Latour and Woolgar’s formulation for us is that in science studies, writing is always deeply material and relational. It requires a range of types of “inscription devices,” which they define as “any item of apparatus or particular configuration of such items which can transform a material substance into a figure or diagram which is directly usable by one of the members of the office space” (51). In other words, the apparatus for inscription involves a particular combination of machines, apparatus, and technicians (58).
Somewhat counterintuitively, what makes a given inscription device valuable is not whether it turns abstract ideas into tangible results but rather how quickly it allows its users to move from “craftwork to ideas” (69). This formulation gives us yet another way to think about the presence of various technologies in humanities labs as mediating relations among machines, humans, materials, from hands-on to conceptual work. In our earlier example of the phonautogram in the French-language lab, its job is not so much to produce a mark that will be read by other machines or humans, but to make students think about sound as a continuous material phenomenon that can be recorded, measured, studied, translated, and discussed by others in the field and by interested members of other publics.
In order to answer the question of how scientific writing differs from other kinds, Latour and Woolgar refer to the work of Kuhn (54). The answer they produce is that the difference between scientific writing and other kinds of writing has nothing to do with the essential quality of the writing. This distinction is a result of scientists locating themselves with a paradigm, or, to follow on Roland Barthes, a “mythology”; Latour and Woolgar eventually settle on “culture” “to refer to the set of arguments and beliefs to which there is a constant appeal in daily life and which is the object of all passions, fears, and respect” (5). In The Mangle of Practice, Pickering concurs: “The most direct route toward a posthuman analysis of practice is to acknowledge a role for nonhuman—or material, as I will say—agency in science.”64 Pickering proceeds to argue for the semiotic as a primary axis of analysis because it treats things and people symmetrically.65 As this definition makes clear, material technologies are articulated to specific techniques employed in a particular space by particular people in order to produce a form of knowledge recognizable by that group. Problems arise when we assume that it’s easy to translate between communities (including a general public).
What holds scientific communities together in the first place, then, is discursive: a shared belief in what Kuhn called a paradigm.66 Though Kuhn does not employ these terms, the function of paradigms is largely ideological or disciplinary, and they are far less homogeneous than he suggests. The study of particular paradigms in school, along with their rules and standards, prepares people for group membership; it is largely involuntary in that you get what your instructors give you. Paradigms and disciplines are constantly performed and repeated. This is not to say change is impossible. According to Kuhn, when a new paradigm does emerge out of some anomaly that normal science can’t account for, its successful reception also involves a lot of textual work: the formation of professional societies, the establishment of new journals, and calls for inclusion in curricula.67 Latour and Woolgar proceed along similar lines, observing that, when labs do manage to constitute a fact, it is then incorporated into a textbook or becomes the condition for the production of a piece of equipment (87). This last operation is important because it is precisely the creation of standard textbooks that allows scientists to continue their “normal” research and rely on the classroom and its literature to do the interpellating.68 Manuel De Landa adds that while textbooks are “notoriously unreliable” as either historical or methodological accounts of scientific practice, they nevertheless contain a sufficient record of what knowledge was transmitted in a given period, and of what a particular generation of researchers holds in common.69 The caveat De Landa imposes is that any analysis of consensus formations “must be complemented by the variation in personal practices, as each practitioner confronts new phenomena, finds new uses for old tools, or is forced to adopt new, unfamiliar ones.”70
Carolyn Marvin contends that technical communities are deeply textual in that they gather around “authoritative texts and their designated interpreters.” Much of the authority of community members derives from grammatical/symbolic functions: “The proper naming of persons, gadgets and concepts in their electrical contexts and relations [is] among the most important performative indicators of technological literacy.”71 Textual cues are also a primary device for identifying outsiders and enemies. If you take its productive and interpretive communities into account, research communication is always partially an exercise in border policing—“who is inside and outside, who may speak, and who has authority and may be believed.”72 As we will see later in this book, humanities and media labs have long been engaged in this border skirmish with the sciences. What really differs (or what differed historically) is the status of the knowledge that the humanities, arts and sciences produce, with or without their own labs.
The Preemergence of Hybrid Labs
What is really happening when someone points at a space that has not previously been considered a lab and asserts, “This is a lab”? The performative quality of this act—using the word lab and all of its attendant connotations to coordinate vast sets of relations between institutions, discourses, people, objects, texts, and practices—comes out in many different contexts and creates effects at many different scales. Such an act of naming can shift entire economies, restructure major cultural institutions like universities, change the nature of the work academics do, and alter many other forms of personal experience, both public and private. This process is ongoing, and its lasting effects are far from predictable.
Shifts between traditional humanities spaces (libraries, seminars, lecture halls), artistic and design studios, and science labs can be tracked historically, not only as a particular modern form of hybridity with a very intensive transformation witnessed across the past decades, but also as a theoretically and thematically insightful way to read modern institutional change, including in universities. The question of whether it is helpful to think about studios or other forms of hybrid labs as labs involves the extent to which the term helps us to consider how they produce and deploy new types of objecthood and subjecthood that can help scholars to enrich their own fields or to solve certain kinds of practical problems outside the lab (what Hacking calls “mission-oriented” work).73
Raymond Williams’s notion of the preemergent is also helpful at this juncture. Perhaps the most useful way to talk about hybrid lab forms that seem to be particularly successful at the current moment, such as media labs, digital humanities labs, maker spaces, and research-creation labs, is as preemergent phenomena. Williams cautions that understanding emergent culture requires seeing beyond immediate practice to new forms, or adaptations of existing ones. This shift in perspective requires a certain hesitancy on our part. Rather than immediately pronouncing that hybrid labs are here to stay and that they function in a specific manner, we need to think carefully about these forms in terms of their relations to dominant practices (such as those that take place in science labs proper) and residual ones (the lab also has a deep time).74
Even in terms of the dominant understanding of how science labs function, Hacking and Kuhn offer some relief from the feeling of impostor syndrome that those working in contemporary hybrid labs might experience. One of the strengths—and limitations—of scientific laboratories and their attendant methods is how they restrict relations with the outside world in order to solve the problems at hand. In “The Self-Vindication of the Laboratory Sciences,” Hacking contends “that as a laboratory science matures, it develops a body of types of theory and types of apparatus and types of analysis that are mutually adjusted to each other . . . ‘a closed system’ that is essentially irrefutable.”75 Labs and their theories verify themselves, but for Hacking this has little or nothing to do with the production of truth. In other words, the various research problems and techniques that scientists undertake do not occur under the sign of total comprehension of some theoretical “fully discoverable set of rules and assumptions.” Instead, they relate by “resemblance and modeling to one or another part of the scientific corpus which the community in question already recognizes.”76 What Hacking means is that scientists themselves use the models that they acquire through (textual) research, “often without quite knowing or needing to know what characteristics have given these models the status of community paradigms.”77
This process of taking up models without fully considering how they achieved their prominent status is not all that different formally from something like contemporary computer and video-game console modding culture, where it’s possible to learn a set of operations and techniques on, say, YouTube, and employ them step by step without understanding anything more about basic electronics theory. As Kuhn writes, for many people “neither the question nor the answer is felt to be relevant to their research.”78 Nevertheless, the problem for scholars is different. The general public doesn’t have to theorize their own work, but we do. The homeostasis that Kuhn and Hacking describe allows labs to accomplish certain kinds of work, but it also forecloses on others. Perhaps some of the leakiness and heterodoxy of hybrid labs is helpful in this respect. As Kuhn notes, both artists and scientists must be able to function “in a world out of joint.”79
The “Why hybrid labs?” question may not be as pressing as it seems; their existence is a fait accompli. However, at the very least we would like to reframe the question in terms of how these labs work. Objects, practices, and tools inside labs may retain their names across the divide of a paradigm shift, but they will not mean the same thing when they are articulated differently, in different relationships. Transfiguration and knowledge transfer are key to understanding why labs are appearing in the humanities and arts. Kuhn reminds us that this is not the same as saying that practitioners in hybrid labs can make truth claims about whatever they please (perhaps a corrective to the worst excesses of reader response theory). “But in some areas they see different things [than the sciences], and they see them in different relations to one another.”80
Our thinking about hybrid labs in this preliminary way has revealed an object that is still very much in process. Accordingly, due to the nature of the object of study as historically dynamic, there is a pressing need for a certain methodological and theoretical eclecticism. As Latour notes, there is a real division between “scholars studying organizations, institutions, public policy on the one hand, and people studying micronegotiations inside scientific disciplines on the other.”81 We want to begin to break this division down, so we will be looking at the categories of the extended lab we have just outlined—space, apparatus, infrastructure, people, the imaginary, and technique—in a series of chapters designed to demonstrate how each of these aspects contributes to a broader understanding of what hybrid labs are and how they function in current iterations of lab discourse. The rest of this book will continue to outline key aspects of labs as performances, labs as (constituted by) technologies, discourses of making and experimenting, and, among other topics, the institutional transformations of which labs in universities are a part. As we pointed out when we described why we chose to develop a heuristic rather than conduct a survey, there is more to be covered. We can only barely touch on the topics of hacklabs, fab labs, and bioart labs, and our notes on makerspaces originate from a particular university perspective that may not be shared by the denizens of non-academic labs. We offer The Lab Book and the extended laboratory model as a platform for further investigations and as a catalyst for continuing research that demands both more specific historical takes and perspectives that differ from our own.