After Culture: Reflection on the Apparition of Anthropology in Artificial Life, a Science of Simulation

Essay Excerpt

The anthropology of science often scrutinizes the practices of people for whom "culture" has become a common-sense term. In North America and the United Kingdom at least, where the concept has traveled from anthropological enunciation into popular consciousness, most scientists are happy to describe their work as emblematic of their disciplinary culture or as textured by its location in academic, corporate, and/or military cultures. They have accepted C. P. Snow's founding assumption in The Two Cultures (1959) that science, like the humanities, is a cultural formation. So, although Sharon Traweek famously found that the American physicists of whom she wrote possessed "a culture of no culture" (1988:162), we might note that many scientists have in fact come self-consciously to dwell in "culture," to view themselves through an anthropological optic. Moreover, a recent volume of interviews with contemporary scientists entitled The Third Culture (Brockman 1995) suggests that such figures as chaos theorist J. Doyne Farmer and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins have taken on the work of bridging the gap between Snow's estranged humanists and scientists, creating the "third culture" that Snow, in the second edition of his book, The Two Cultures: A Second Look (1963), hoped would emerge from the ranks of literary intellectuals and social historians.1 John Brockman, editor of The Third Culture, declares that "what traditionally has been called 'science' has today become 'public culture' " (1995:18), "rendering visible the deeper meanings of our lives, redefining who and what we are" (1995:17).2 But if many scientists have come to see science as culture, it is only in partial connection with their anthropological interlocutors. The science wars of the 1990s made this much clear. Nonetheless, tuning into how scientists invoke "culture" in their self-descriptions is essential if anthropologists of science are to understand "science as culture" as well as the public legacies of their own discipline's articulations of the culture concept. (612)

Helmreich, Stefan. "After Culture: Reflection on the Apparition of Anthropology in Artificial Life, a Science of Simulation." Cultural Anthropology 16, no. 4 (2001): 612-627

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"Cultural Anthropology November 2001 Cover." November 2001.

Editorial Footnotes

Cultural Anthropology has published a number of articles on biopolitical economy including Jean M. Langford's "Gifts Intercepted: Biopolitics and Spirit Debt" (2009), Anand Pandian's "Pastoral Power in the Postcolony: On the Biopolitics of the Criminal Animal in South India" (2008), and Peter Redfield's "Doctors, Borders, and Life in Crisis" (2005).

Cultural Anthropology has also published articles on expert knowledge. See for example Carlo Caduff's "The Semiotics of Security: Infectious Disease Research and the Biopolitics of Informational Bodies in the United States" (2012), Eva Hayward's "Fingeryeyes: Impressions of Cup Corals" (2011), Andrew Lakoff's "The Genetic Biothreat, or, How We Became Unprepared" (2008), Michael Montoya's "Bioethnic Conscription: Genes, Race, and Mexicana/o Ethnicity in Diabetes Research" (2007), and Mette Svendsen's "Articulating Potentiality: Notes on the Delineation of the Blank Figure in Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research" (2011).

About the Author

Stefan Helmreich is the Elting E. Morison Chair and Professor of Anthropology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He received his M.A. and Ph.D. from Stanford University. He has worked as a Postdoctoral Associate in Science and Technology Studies at Cornell University, an External Faculty Fellow at the Center for the Critical Analysis of Contemporary Culture at Rutgers University, and as Assistant Professor of Science and Society at New York University. Helmreich's research examines the works and lives of contemporary biologists puzzling through the conceptual boundaries of “life” as a category of analysis. He has written extensively on Artificial Life, most notably in Silicon Second Nature: Culturing Artificial Life in a Digital World (University of California Press, 2001), which won the Diana Forsythe Book Prize from the American Anthropological Association.  His most recent book, Alien Ocean: Anthropological Voyages in Microbial Seas (University of California Press, 2009), won the Senior Book Prize from the American Ethnological Society and the Gregory Bateson Book Prize from Society for Cultural Anthropology.

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"Silicon Second Nature." November 2001 via University of California Press.

Multimedia

University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC) 50th Anniversary of C.P. Snow’s "Two Cultures" Lecture Series

Questions for Classroom Discussion

1. What was the nature of the debates referred to as "the Science Wars"? How do those debates intersect with the concerns of the so-called crisis of representation in anthropology?

2. Helmreich's article engages disciplinary reflexivity from multiple angles: he documents the Artificial Life scientists’ recognition of themselves as "perspectival knowers", while also offering some perspectives on how anthropological concepts have been taken up outside of anthropology, and what they look like from other perspectives. What explanatory power does the "culture" concept retain here, and how is it less useful? What social and cultural work does the concept perform?

3. How does Helmreich position himself in the field? How is his relationship to his interlocutors mediated by the "culture" concept? What are the practical consequences for the ethnography of science of the Artificial Life scientists' use of "culture" and their perception of anthropology?

Related Reading and Links

Artificial Life Journal

International Society of Artificial Life

Biota Publications, What is Artificial Life? Short essay by Christopher G. Langton

Synthetic Genomics, the work of Craig Venter (The Guardian, May 20, 2010)

Homo microbis and the Figure of the Literal, Stefan Helmreich's commentary on Dorion Sagan's "The Human is More than Human: Interspecies Communities and the New 'Facts of Life,'" Society for Cultural Anthropology Culture at Large Forum. Presented at the 110th Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association, Montréal, Quebec, Canada, LA, November 16-20, 2011.

Video: "Nature/Culture/Seawater", Stefan Helmreich's presentation at the 2010 SCA Meeting, "Natureculture: Entangled Relations of Multiplicity"

Additional Projects Involving the Author

Stefan Helmreich's latest book, Alien Ocean: Anthropological Voyages in Microbial Seas, is a study of marine biologists working in realms usually out of sight and reach: the microscopic world, the deep sea, and oceans outside national sovereignty. Working alongside scientists in labs and at sea, Helmreich charts how revolutions in genomics, bioinformatics, and remote sensing press marine biologists to see the sea as animated by its smallest inhabitants (marine microbes), which are being rendered meaningful as pointers to the origin of life, barometers of climate change, raw materials for biotechnology, and analogues for extraterrestrial life.

Stefan Helmreich discusses his book Alien Ocean:

Additional Works by Stefan Helmreich

"What Was Life? Answers from Three Limit Biologies." Critical Inquiry, 2011 37(4):671-696.

"The Emergence of Multispecies Ethnography" (with S. Eben Kirksey) Cultural Anthropology, 2010 25(4):545-575. (See also supplemental material for the November 2010 issue on the Cultural Anthropology website.)

"Blue-Green Capital, Biotechnological Circulation and an Oceanic Imaginary: A Critique of Biopolitical Economy." BioSocieties, 2007 2(3): 287-302.

"Life is a Verb": Inflections of Artificial Life in Cultural Context. Artificial Life, 2007 12(2): 189-201.

"How Scientists Think; About 'Natives,' for Example. A Problem of Taxonomy among Biologists of Alien Species in Hawaii." The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, Incorporating MAN, 2005 11(1):107-127.

"Artificial Life, Inc.: Darwin and Commodity Fetishism from Santa Fe to Silicon Valley." Science as Culture, 2001 10(4): 483-504.

"Flexible Infections: Computer Viruses, Human Bodies, Nation-States, Evolutionary Capitalism." Science, Technology, and Human Values, 2000 25(4): 471-490.

"The Spiritual in Artificial Life: Recombining Science and Religion in a Computational Culture Medium." Science as Culture, 1997 6(3): 363-395.

Editorial Overview

"The anthropology of science often scrutinizes the practices of people for whom 'culture' has become a common-sense term. In North America and the United Kingdom at least, where the concept has traveled from anthropological enunciation into popular consciousness, most scientists are happy to describe their work as emblematic of their disciplinary culture or as textured by its location in academic, corporate, and/or military cultures" (Helmreich 2001, p. 612). Nonetheless, tuning into how scientists invoke "culture" in their self-descriptions is essential if anthropologists of science are to understand "science as culture" as well as the public legacies of their own discipline's articulations of the culture concept. In this paper Helmreich examines how awareness of abiding in "culture" shapes the way scientists understand the work they do. Helmreich questions how distinctively anthropological versions of "culture" entered into circulation in the lifeworlds of scientists. In the wake of literary, feminist, and postcolonial renovations of the anthropological project—reassessments that pushed many ethnographers away from a scientific quest for laws toward more interpretive examinations of meaning, representation, and power—how different are contemporary cultural anthropologists' notions of culture and those of practicing scientists? And what happens when these notions encounter one another? There are surely a variety of answers to these questions, but in this article Helmreich offers one informed by fieldwork among a group of scientists who were particularly attuned to anthropological formulae.

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