Faculty Activities: Jeffrey Kirkwood at SCMS

Scientific Fictions_Blog Image

Gaston Quiribet, still from Fugitive Futurist (1924).

This weekend, Assistant Professor Jeffrey Kirkwood will be attending the annual conference of the Society of Cinema and Media Studies in Atlanta, GA.
Kirkwood is chairing a panel called “Scientific Fictions,” on which he will also be presenting a paper titled “Cinematic Empiricism around 1900.”

Scientific Fictions: Facts are defined to a great extent by the conventions of the media through which they are represented. Eighteenth and nineteenth century hand-drawn scientific atlases sought to depict “average types” of plants, organs, and animals, in the late nineteenth century Ernst Mach used Schlieren photography to capture images of high-speed ballistic objects, and more recently reconstruction algorithms have been used to produce images of everything from nebulas to neuroreceptors. In each case, the truth of the image, inscription, or recording is tied to beliefs about how the medium intervenes in the correspondence between the depiction and what is depicted. However, such media technologies have also been used to generate fictional or counterfactual realities as a way of exploring and expanding the boundaries of the cultural and scientific imaginary. NOAA uses prediction algorithms to visualize the potential outcomes of climate change, social scientists frequently “backtest” theories about future developments using past data, and the scientific-psychologist-turned-film-theorist Hugo Münsterberg evisaged using cinema as a simulation to test the reactions of streetcar drivers to potentially hazardous situations.

In all of these cases, the value of the insights derives from what is possible, rather than what is actual, requiring new beliefs about how the operations of media govern our understanding of the world as it is, as well as how it could be. Engaging with the emerging interest in notions of counterfactuality among media scholars and historians of science, this panel turns to think about how scientific fictions are structured and represented by the medium of their expression and what it might mean to have an objective vision of something that cannot—by definition—exist. With this in mind, the panel will seek to answer questions about how scientific fictions are represented or visualized, how one can discriminate between legitimate fictions, the possibility of a hermeneutics of counterfactuals, and what implications counterfactuality has for theorizing the “materiality” of the medium. If is true, as the physiologist Emil du Bois-Reymond claimed at a conference on “The Limits of the Knowledge of Nature,” that that the “mechanical paradigm” of scientific knowledge provided merely an “extremely useful fiction,” it is the purpose of this panel to uncover the ways in which such fictions are constructed.


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