Does my bug look big in this? – Microscopy, Distance and Power

Happy New Year! Finally, after a fortnight of accidentally cut-off telephone and internet communications and a further week of reading trashy novels and a 200-year-old German cookery book (did you know that Prussians ate dark bread crumbs with cream, bitter beer, sugar and cinnamon as a dessert?!), Mutable Matter is back and blogging. This post is inspired by a pre-Christmas activity, namely the adventurous tracking down of ‘Pollen – The Hidden Sexuality of Flowers’, the predecessor to ‘Seeds’ (many thanks to the lady at the British Library who managed to find the missing book for me at Marylebone Library). One thing that I liked about the book is its focus on the discussion of microscopy and its consequences for human interaction with the ‘natural world’ and other humans.

The microscopy theme follows a bit along the lines of what I am talking about in Worlds Within Worlds: the ‘magical story’ of ‘enter[ing] a fantastic world’. A contrast is built up between perceiving (or misperceiving) pollen with and without the help of a microscope. Without a microscope, ‘most of us are aware of pollen mainly because it may stain our clothes or, more annoyingly and frequently, cause miserable allergenic reactions (hay fever)’. Equipped with the ‘powerful imagery filters’ of the microscope, ‘flowers become continents; microscopes and computers the navigation aids for a new voyage of discovery’.

What I found interesting about this discussion are the additional components of distance, and power and access: Kesseler and Harley write that rather than microscopy bringing things closer, it can create a greater distance. For instance, scanning electron microscopy, ‘put an even greater distance between the viewer and object than the light microscope, a distance mediated by the operator through the use of photography, its very nature lending to an anonymity of authorship and cementing the idea that the camera cannot lie.’ Their argument is that the combination of camera and microscope made not only artists/illustrators vanish from the scientific scene, but also public access: scientists can operate cameras themselves, and what they can capture with these cameras or recording devices is of exclusive interest to scientists who alone can interpret and work with these images. This sounds as if microscopy has created a monopoly on nature observation for science.

Alternatively, somebody with geographic sensibilities could name the distance that microscopy is creating a ‘down there’ – a space that is either only there at the other end of the microscope and does not exist in ‘normal life’, or that is ‘down’ rather than around or inside. In any case, it appears detached.

The book, however, directs the line of enquiry towards the role of the artist and the creation of new audiences.

‘The power of electron microscopy, the versatility of image manipulation packages, and the remarkable qualities of reproduction from high resolution printers, digital projectors and plasma screens mean that the resultant images have a clarity and strength which calls into question the need for any artistic intervention at all.’

The authors emphasise that artistic interpretation and translation is still needed – for making the invisible visible in a manner different from that of scientists, whether that is through focusing on things that scientists see as side issues, through addressing different audiences or through transforming the material they find into something that raises different sorts of questions. They believe in the creation of knowledge, and that ‘knowledge shared is knowledge multiplied’. Therefore, new audiences are needed. So far, ‘botanical images are eaten off, sat upon, slept under’, but no apparent connection exists between the everyday presence and use of these images and… knowledge/awareness of the natural world and our actions towards it? Here, we face the old dilemma again: human oblivion to/disinterest in the workings of nature despite being surrounded by it, even in home-made print!

A contrasting feeling has been voiced over the holidays on the Leonardo YASMIN mailing list (Leonardo is the international Society for the Arts, Sciences and Technology which also publishes a journal with the same name). There, some scientists and artists have expressed their feelings of intimacy with the world through the help of instruments such as telescopes and computers (e.g. “What sensory data mediated by an instrument do you feel is part of your intimate awareness and enjoyment of the world?”). Roger Malina, one of Leonardo’s editors, wrote that ‘as an astronomer, I view new telescopes as a steadily increasing number of senses, new interfaces to the world, that bring otherwise inaccessible phenomena into my intimate awareness. They build into my intuition and instinct my attitude to the world around me.’ In ‘Seeds’, Kesseler expresses a similar sentiment when he talks about his change in attitude being brought about by working with a microscope. Like the authors of ‘Pollen’ and ‘Seeds’, Malina would like to see more involvement of non-scientists in science by ‘making scientific knowledge acquired through instruments an intimate part of daily life’. I am curious how these kinds of discussion develop…


One thought on “Does my bug look big in this? – Microscopy, Distance and Power

  1. thanks for picking up on my comments about intimate science !!
    and i think the point about ‘media’ creating an artifical
    distance is a good one to discuss=am going to point to your
    blog from yasmin


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