The Lab Book: Situated Practices in Media Studies
University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN, 2022
328 pp., illus. 41 b/w. Trade, $120.00; paper, $30.00
ISBN: 978-1-5179-0217-9; ISBN: 978-1-5179-0218-6.
The field of Science and Technology Studies (STS) includes numerous analyses of laboratory practices. For example, Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) famously described how these practices are shaped by conceptual paradigms that determine what a scientist can perceive and measure. Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar’s Laboratory Life (1979) also examined how these practices were related to other aspects of knowledge production, such as the financing and dissemination of research, and Hans-Jörg Rheinberger’s Toward a History of Epistemic Things (1997) emphasized the importance of objects and apparatuses by examining how the material arrangements of laboratories contribute to knowledge production.
Darren Wershler, Lori Emerson, and Jussi Parikka’s The Lab Book applies a similar approach to the study of humanities labs, which “bear only a passing resemblance to the scientific laboratories from which they take part of their inspiration” (1). They describe these labs as “hybrid” because they occupy the “blurry area between art and science” (8), and they suggest that perhaps all labs are hybrid in this sense, as they all seek to promote innovation through experimentation and testing. Like other STS scholars, the writers also argue that labs reflect a dynamic relationship between various elements, such as people, spaces, objects, techniques, infrastructures, and discourses, which “define what counts as knowledge” (80). An analysis of these elements can thus reveal how knowledge is produced in and through labs—a method they refer to as the “extended lab model” (11). Their description of this method is followed by detailed analyses of several labs, including Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park laboratory, the Media Lab at MIT, and the Media Archaeological Fundus at Humboldt University. This brief list illustrates the range of labs under discussion, which encompasses corporate labs, labs designed for industrial and academic applications, and labs focused on historical preservation.
One of the themes repeated throughout the book is that the increasing number of humanities labs is indicative of broader changes within contemporary academic culture, as “shifts between traditional humanities spaces…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 as a theoretically and thematically insightful way to read modern institutional change” (32). This trend is often interpreted as a sign of the increasing marginalization of the humanities, which has been fueled in part by a desire for corporate investment. The writers note, for example, that there is “an enormous amount of pressure on universities to instrumentalize education” (136) and that “the fetishization of innovation has done substantial damage to the traditional function of the university as memory institution and producer of citizens rather than employees” (212). However, they also argue that labs have an “enormous potential…to change our institutional cultures for the better” (136) and that they “can and should lead to new ways of being a scholar, of training new scholars, and of connecting what happens in the academy to the larger world” (112).
Another repeated theme, inspired by Feminist Science Studies (FSS), is that laboratory practices are informed by gender and power relations that determine “who is identified as what kind of subject, and how they are identified” (18). Labs thus operate within disciplinary frameworks that extend to bodies as well as technologies, and one of the clearest examples is the fact that women were historically relegated to home economics labs and excluded from conducting research in science labs. Power relations also inform financing, as organizations like the MIT Media Lab will “never be able to remain unaffected by funding that comes from U.S. tech companies with the same deeply ingrained racial and gender demographics” (160). This problem became particularly evident after it was discovered that the lab had accepted funds from sex trafficker and pedophile Jeffrey Epstein—a decision that reflects “a particularly troubling form of ignorance of the social complexities of race, gender, and other issues” (166). Nevertheless, the writers conclude that their “extended lab model” offers a way of addressing this problem by showing how “architectures and infrastructures delimit what sorts of knowledge and truth claims a lab can produce” and “what sorts of bodies—gendered and racialized, marginalized and dominant—are incorporated in any situation of knowledge” (243). While labs are often exclusionary, in other words, an analysis of their mechanisms of knowledge production can show how changes to practices and policies have the potential to change their underlying power relations. Labs can even be used to facilitate political critique, like the Hyphen-Labs, which are operated by women of color whose practice of “NeuroSpeculative AfroFeminism combines artistic and design practice, engineering skills and playful takes on contemporary realities in installation and VR form” (243). This is just one example that shows how labs can function as oppositional spaces that enable the imagination of alternative possibilities.
While The Lab Book may not provide any major contributions to the fields of STS or FSS, it clearly illustrates how the scholarship in these fields can fruitfully be applied to humanities research, and it provides a valuable method of analyzing how humanities labs produce knowledge, which will be indispensable to scholars working in this area. Scholars may also take comfort in the writers’ optimistic vision of the future of academic institutions and the power of labs to promote institutional change, although they acknowledge that the kind of hybridity they are promoting can also contribute to “the dismantling of departments and disciplinary priorities” (212). It thus remains to be seen whether humanities labs will be a catalyst of positive change, but this book has presented several inspiring examples of oppositional spaces that will hopefully be the norm rather than the exception.