Rosalind Franklin under Žižekian lens — Hal Odetta

rosalind

Perhaps this is “almost a book review”; in truth, this is properly a non-book review. What I am after is to go directly to the dogmatic core and ask, “so what is the author’s take on Žižek and the question of the subject in this book?”

When I saw this book by Esha Shah on ‘the affective history of the gene’, the term ‘affect’ immediately made me think of Deleuze. The author is “an environmental engineer by training and a social anthropologist, historian, and philosopher of science and technology by professional choice”. Well, there’s no Deleuze in this; instead there is a lot of Lacan.

It is a breath of fresh air when a Lacanian looks at scientists’ lives, giving a “reductionist” gaze to reductionist science. As if a violent cut is administered to the usual rhizomatic complexities and thick, phenomenological descriptions of the field, as all interests are collapsed into one question: are scientists free subjects? Finally, we now have a highly accessible (and, no question, enjoyable), Lacan-friendly, delightfully Žižekian, work on “science and technology studies” (STS).

And also a lot of hat-tipping to Sartre. The existential question of absolute freedom and the classic Sartrian line “existence precedes essence” is back with a vengeance. In this post-existentialist book, a clear line emits from Sartre to Lacan, with a proper swerve towards the philosophical concerns of some of the giants of “science studies” such as Peter Galison and Lorraine Daston. The keywords here are: ‘history of subjectivity’, ‘modes of rationality’, and the ever-enigmatic question of scientific ‘objectivity’.

So where is Žižek in this book? Like any good science studies work, the materiality of laboratory instruments and standardized techniques are given central focus. But like any non-Deleuzian, properly-Lacanian take, the complexities (which in the wrong hands would give “atonal” stands) are simply registered (and not tarried over, perhaps even bypassed) and the dilemmas are recast as question of centering “points”.

Here is Shah’s portrayal of Rosalind Franklin in face of the “Patterson method” in crystallography:

Franklin chose the crystallographer’s method of Patterson function analysis to come up with the structure of DNA. A Patterson map was like a contour map showing the peaks and troughs of the X-ray diffraction image. This was a laborious method, requiring methodical registration of intensities of spots on the X-ray picture, which were then transferred onto a map through a series of mathematical calculations. It was acknowledged that the Patterson method needed not only patience and intense concentration during long hours of hard work but also a bit of luck. This exercise proved far more difficult than expected. Not only had Franklin never done this before, but no one had ever tried cylindrical sections before. In Gosling’s words, “it was trying to do a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle” (Maddox 2002 [Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA], 170). A colleague described Franklin and Gosling working on the Patterson analysis “week after week, buried in paper, getting nowhere, buried in tables, slide rules and desk calculations requiring extreme concentration”. “We spent ages, we had to think in three dimensions”, said Gosling […]. Choosing the Patterson method meant, on the one hand, that she was religiously following the methods in crystallography – creating Patterson maps was what “crystallographers would do” […]. On the other hand, this meant that she was going against the current, and in doing so, she was indeed, if not rejecting, then at least questioning the helical hypothesis. The fact that Franklin did not succeed in demonstrating a viable non-helical alternative structure of DNA could be interpreted, as Watson did, as showing that the impossibility of the “choice” was written all over it, and in choosing so, Franklin was an “unimaginative” and “uncreative” scientist. Conversely, however, Anne Sayre strives to prove that Franklin’s choice actually signified “objective” and “empirically sound” and “methodical” science and, in choosing so, Franklin was “one of the world’s great experimental scientists” (Sayre 1975 [Rosalind Franklin and DNA], 146). (p. 122)

x-ray-diffraction

And then the most important moment, the point-moment (excellent example for a Badiouan ‘theory of points’), in Rosalind Franklin’s life as a scientist vis-a-vis her chosen instrument:

Franklin’s choice of the Patterson method for her DNA work was a classic Lacanian paradox of the subject – how every turn of logic reveals its illogicality (Žižek 2006 [The Parallax View]). What looks like a “free choice” of method on Franklin’s side was actually a moment of no choice. For the scientist, no fear is stronger than the “anxiety of influence”, the horror of finding one’s work only a copy, the fear that one’s work will be forgotten or ignored or that nothing distinctive will be ever found in it […]. Franklin was not the kind of person who plucked the low-hanging fruit of helices floating in the air. She was a determined scientist whose science would always have to be distinctly original. She was willing to go a long way and, retrospectively speaking, she even paid with her own life in achieving this goal of originality and precision. A colleague at King’s once found her in the basement X-ray room working late at night struggling to fix the tilting camera, which could be done only when the X-ray beam was on, and she was standing in the beam without the protective lead aprons, too eager to fix the camera […]. Later, she worked on the structure of TMV and polio, and we know that Franklin died at the young age of 37 due to ovarian cancer and polio. What looks like a free choice of rejecting the collaboration with Wilkins and, along with him, the helices hanging in the air was the moment of choosing her own authentic existential self. (p. 123)

The Lacanian Real of choice/no-choice “paradox of the subject” is given an instrument-oriented example: to fix or or not to fix the tilting camera!

Thanks to Žižek’s “parallax view”, a post-Sartrian dialectical formulation is offered by Shah, for our consideration, on the question of the scientist as a “subject”:

The question of choice and freedom is crucial here. To explain this further in terms of Lacan interpreted by Žižek, the subject only retroactively posits the causes of its own existence; freedom is also posited only retroactively. What’s more, the subject does not select from an infinite list of possibilities (as if choosing a product in the supermarket) but chooses the “necessities that will determine itself”. For Žižek, this is the Lacanian paradox of the subject, a parallax moment, the choice that is no choice, or the choice that is nothing but choosing the necessity of one’s own existence and hence no choice (Žižek 2006 [The Parallax View], 25–26). (p. 8-9)

So what does a Lacanian take bring to “science studies”? Data-wise, theme-wise, perhaps not much. On the side of the positivities of this field, the best of Latour or Haraway has already showed us the possibilities we need. At the most minimum (the minimal difference that changes everything), what is given is just the right speculative spirit to open up always the restless, living “abysses” within any of old STS’s “objects of concern”. But read the book!

Hal Odetta is a pen name. He is an anthropologist who teaches at the University of the Philippines and works with the Manobo indigenous peoples of Mindanao.

Notes:

All quotations above are from the book, Who is the Scientist-Subject? Affective History of the Gene by Esha Shah (New York: Routledge, 2018)

The cartoon figure of Rosalind Franklin is from this site: https://www.threadless.com/discover/s/shecience/collection/rosalind-franklin; photo of Dr. Rosalind Franklin and a picture of her crystallographic x-ray of her DNA research is from this site: http://dnapodcast.com/episodes/2014/9/8/2-dont-forget-rosalind-franklin-9814.html

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