Call for Papers

“Envisioning Science”

The 4th annual conference of Natura:

the Interdisciplinary Working Group on Science and Epistemology

Rutgers University

February 27th, 2015

Keynote speaker: Matthew L. Jones,
James R. Barker Professor of Contemporary Civilization, Columbia University

In its general efforts toward objectification, science […] seeks to reconstruct actual perception upon this basis and to close the cycle of scientific knowledge by discovering the laws according to which knowledge itself is produced, that is, by establishing an objective science of subjectivity” – Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Phenomenology of Perception

The work of science has always been visual: from early modern alchemical emblems, to medieval notions of wonder, to contemporary work in 3D imaging software and networks of “a-lives” that only exist on a screen. Unsurprisingly, then, the role of the scientific observer in the history of science has continued to be an action point for conversations across disciplines as diverse as art history, literature, information sciences, visual culture and psychology. While critics such as Jonathan Crary have situated the spectator within a broad trans-historical formulation of cultural paradigm shifts; other critics, such as Katherine Park, Lorraine Daston, Ofer Gal, and Raz Chen-Morris have read the illusory – and often invisible – place of the spectator as tightly linked to the work of knowledge production in the sciences and epistemology.

More recently, work in cybernetics and second-order systems theory has further complicated the role of the scientific observer, transforming early work on autopoiesis to interrogate the spectator’s place within a zone of interaction – an organizational network that implicates them in the structures being observed. Yet at the same time, the role of the observer has been taken for granted as a relatively stable one, even as shifting interfaces have compromised the fragile circuit between the spectator and the object of observation. This conference asks: Can the scientific observer really occupy the “site of non-difference,” as Richard Doyle imagines it, between living and “lively” systems? Or does the rhetoric of objectivity still claim an invisible space for observers, insulating them from a phenomenal engagement with the world? What is the role of visual representation in science? How do new visual technologies alter our perception of past technologies and those who employed them?

Natura: the Interdisciplinary Working Group on Science and Epistemology invites 250-word abstracts on any topic concerning the history, theory, and practice of visual culture and visuality in the sciences. This event is open to graduate students and early career researchers in any area of the arts, humanities, or sciences. Proposals should be sent to by December 15th. Interested faculty or post-doctoral researchers are welcome to contact us about potential roles as panel moderators or respondents.

We encourage the participates of this conference to situate the role of the scientific observer within a larger horizon of engagement, one that opens outward not only to the work of science but also to ethics, the relationship between science and politics, and to the forms of virtual witnessing that today’s (or yesterday’s) consumers of scientific knowledge participate in.

Topics may include (but are not limited to):

  • visual science and the science of vision
  • the scientific gaze
  • objectivity
  • optics
  • regimes of perceptibility
  • scientific illustration and image making
  • virtual witnessing
  • classical and ancient modes of visualization (and their legacy)
  • historical phenomenology and the natural history of vision
  • observation and the role of the observer
  • hermetic and alchemical images
  • wonders and marvels
  • the visual rhetoric of specimen collection
  • visual “prosthetics” from camera obscura, to lens, to screen

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