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  • Writer's pictureLu Xu

From Archive Fever to Lab Fever: A Symptom and Method of the Humanities

In the second half of this year, The lab book entity books written by Darren Wershler, Lori Emerson, and Jussi Parikka are about to be released. The book uses "Laboratory" as an Archimedes point in the history of science, STS, and media research to explore "how to use the laboratory as a method." The "laboratory" term here is not limited to the scientific laboratory in the general impression but also refers to the laboratory in the humanities, usually manifested in innovative interdisciplinary practice.



The Lab Book: Situated Practices in Media Studies physical books will not be available until the year's second half, but Draft Chapters have open access. The book contains historical and theoretical reflections and interviews with some humanities laboratories.



Taking the opportunity that this new book will be published, this post will introduce the concept of "laboratory fever" by Jussi Parikka in 2016 and its theoretical spectrum. Starting from Derrida's "archival fever," through the achievements of various humanities and art practices, we can see the theoretical space and reflection behind the "laboratory fever."


I. Practice and Metaphor: Archive Fever and Lab Fever


The topic of archival to laboratory fever comes from Jussi Parikka's lecture on "It's not the Archive Fever, it's the Lab Fever" in FilmForum2021. The term "Archive Fever" here refers to Derrida's "Archive fever." Since Derrida's lecture on "archive fever" at the opening ceremony of Freud Memorial in Vienna in 1994 and his book Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression the following year, "Archives" has become an essential keyword in the humanities to discuss the desire and trace of writing. Archives are not only a kind of practice that exists around us but also a metaphor.



Before Derrida, Foucault had talked about the relationship between words and the power behind the archives in the Archaeology of knowledge. As a practice, we know that not all documents (documents) can be called files, and only files considered by authoritative rules to record the original moment and are worth keeping in an approved space are files. The birth of archives is closely related to where documents are stored. Archives are the product of the intertwined material carriers and power.


Derrida's uniqueness lies in the second half of the title "Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression." Derrida uses the concept of "death drive" in Freud's psychoanalysis to discuss the two sides of archives: the desire to preserve life and the desire to die forgotten are two inseparable sides of archives. The return of the death drive like the ghost is not only the dilemma of libraries but also the possibility of file generation: while archives are dying out, archives are also constantly being built. The power impulse to name and establish the file system (the desire to live) and the death drive that the file is forgotten and destroyed exist in the file writing at the same time. "archive fever" (Mal d'Archiv) refers not only to the popularity of archives but also to the mal of archives. "fever" contains both a passion for participation and a metaphor for a disease: trying to occupy files is seen by Derrida as a febrile disease.


How to look at the relationship and gap when the archives evolve from a practice to a metaphor? All archives risk being institutionalized or rigid when rearranged, sorted out, and summarized. But if that's why I Put the archives on hold, then it can only be a zombie film, in the loss of desire to survive and at the same time can only die out. Derrida stressed the pull between the two forces in the archives is not to tell the librarian how to work but to discuss the timeliness of the archives. If you want to understand the archives, you can not follow a compensatory or restorative logic as the original time to open the dust seal but use ghost logic to see the file in the writing of the various traces of bifurcation and return. Therefore, as if Benjamin's double-sided angel, the file is oriented toward the past and the future simultaneously, both to maintain the concern for the past and to look forward to the opening of the end. We can expand archives into a widely used method in the humanities and art today because of the dual timeliness of archives. We can see the mysteries and interpretation space open to the future from the tortuous and strange past.


How to think about laboratory fever? Derrida's archives fever provides a way to think for reference: "the laboratory as a practice" and the laboratory as a metaphor." From archival fever to laboratory heat, it does not mean that the latter is more progressive than the former (linear narrative progress), nor does it mean that the latter is a substitute for the former.


On the contrary, there are many commonalities and complementarities between the two symptoms: the attention of archival research is shifting from the exploration of knowledge to the production process of knowledge, which was buried as early as Derrida's "archival fever," that is when the trend of archival research rose. Compared with archives, the laboratory pays more attention to the process of new knowledge production and meaning reconstruction and emphasizes knowledge production and is the main body.


The relationship between the actors of all parties. In a sense, it can be said that laboratory fever is to rethink archives by remaking files.


II. Imagination and the public: the multiple origins of laboratories


"Laboratory" is one of the most common concepts in the history of science in recent years. As a material entity, the workplaces of early modern alchemists, the anatomical theatres of monasteries, and the kitchen of homemakers were all regarded as the embryonic form of the laboratory in a sense. In the 15th and 16th centuries, laboratories often referred to as workplaces specializing in alchemy / chemical operations (such as melting, combustion, distillation, dissolution, and precipitation) and workshops with corresponding conditions, were called laboratories. In addition to exploring the conversion of metals, these alchemy chemical technologies are also used in the production of medicine, art, and handicrafts, such as medicine, porcelain, and dyes. Maputo's Laboratories of the Art project is to study how Renaissance laboratories promote the flow of materials, people, and knowledge between the arts, crafts, and alchemy worlds, concerning their publication Laboratories of Art: Alchemy and Art Technology from Antiquity to the 18th century. In a word, the laboratory has had the dual attributes of science and art since its birth.


Tracing back to the origin of the laboratory can find two important characteristics. One is operational. The laboratory is always based on a series of practical operations on the ground; the other is publicity. As Lori Emerson said, the laboratory originally had the public function or educational function of the anatomy theater. Before the emergence of the so-called modern laboratory in the 19th century, the laboratory was not only a place to produce knowledge but also a display space for educating and persuading the audience.



The publicity and operation of the laboratory have always been the concern of the history of science and STS research. The vital work in the history of science, Leviathan and Air pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and Experimental Life, discuss how the experiment led by two forms of life in the first modern laboratory in the middle of the 17th century produced "scientific knowledge."


Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer argue that the key to convincing the scientific knowledge generated by laboratories lies in proven technology. The book says that when Boyle argued with Hobbes whether the truth came from an authoritative order, on the one hand, aristocrats and scholars who were witnesses were invited to the laboratory to see for themselves the existence of a vacuum in the mercury tube in the experiment. On the other hand, Boyle and others also tire of showing the laboratory records, operational details, and experimental results. To create the trust of the audience and readers in the text, Boyle and his colleagues deliberately use and superimpose many appositive clauses to provide excessive information and details in a long and ornate style. These details, like realistic novels, were originally an extra product of the experiment, but they gave the reader a real feeling. Not only that, Boyle and his colleagues will use complex engraving techniques rather than simple diagrams to illustrate their experimental process and objects, which in turn reinforces the imaginative evidence provided by the details of the text. Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer believe that readers generate images of the experimental scene in their minds and complete the experiment in the imaginary laboratory. The first witness is the self-evident persuasion of things in the laboratory to come out directly. The second witness is the emergence of imagination in the laboratory. These two key factors will be followed up in future laboratory discussions.


Laboratory narrative and imagination considerations also widely exist in modern laboratories after the 19th century. Jussi Parikka took the Menlo Parker Laboratory and Tesla's Laboratory led by Edison as examples at The Lab Imaginary: Speculative Practices In Situ, which points out that the greatest invention of the 19th century was inventing methods. These emerging technology laboratories were defined not only by experimental devices but also by emerging management forms and unique narrative routines. For example, a shared imagination of the laboratory- a messy table with precision instruments, binoculars, mirrors, a flask filled with mysterious liquids, and drafts full of scribbled equations- is related to Edison's laboratory myth. The image of a failed businessman has become an indispensable part of his laboratory myth and a strategy for him to avoid litigation related to business activities. In Edison's laboratory myth, things act as key witnesses.



Bruno Latour also saw the publicity and importance of things in the laboratory in the study of Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer. As early as the 1970s, he and Steve Woolgar worked as resident anthropologists at the Roger Guillemin laboratory of the Solk Institute of Biology for two years, tracking the production of scientific knowledge in the laboratory. The two co-authors of Laboratory Life point out that the laboratory's power lies in readability. This readability not only allows many mistakes in the laboratory to be made and recorded but also refers to the unique ability of the laboratory to expand the connection between the experiment and the outside world. The latter point is discussed more in his Science in Action. Whether it is Laboratory Life or Science in Action, he presents the laboratory as a theater instead of natural speech in the book with Gertz's deep sketch.


Latour sees the lab as an action to bridge "thing" and "public" but also gives the laboratory the possibility to resist itself. In the 1999 Laboratorium exhibition co-planned by Hans Ulrich Obrist and Barbara Vanderlinden in the Netherlands, Latour's "proof Theater" (Theater of Proof) project, together with artists and scientists, turned the Dutch city of Antwerp into a laboratory, opened a natural scientific laboratory to the public in cooperation with the government, engraved Pasteur's microbial experiment and reactivated the exhibition as a laboratory through a network of different participants.


It is also from this period that the public orientation and knowledge field construction of the laboratory has become the object of concern of scholars. For example, Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar's Laboratory Life, Karin Knorr Cetina's The Manufacture of Knowledge, Michael Lynch's Art and Artifact in Laboratory Science, Latour's Science in Action and Donna Haraway's Situated Knowledge: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial. They are important documents that still need to be returned and pondered today.


Lab workers. Photo David Kilburn. Tate Archive


III. Symptoms and Methods: Laboratories in Humanities and Arts


The origin of the Humanities and Arts Laboratory is far earlier than we think. The rise of the 1960s was accompanied by the emergence of several art laboratories, such as the Drury Lane Arts Lab, founded in London in 1967, and the J. G. The New London Arts Lab at Ballard's Crash exhibition. But the laboratory began to become a culture after the new century. Especially after 2010, laboratories are almost everywhere; media laboratories, creators spaces, humanities laboratories, factory laboratories, science and technology incubators, innovation centers, hacking laboratories, and other laboratories have emerged. Like archives, these laboratories are both natural spaces and symbolic spaces.


‘Crashed Cars’, J.G. Ballard. Found on internet by David Curtis


1970 UFO+TV. Design John Lifton. Tate Archive

In the field of humanities, some new "laboratories" have drawn lessons from the concept of scientific laboratories. Still, they have not fully implemented the shape of traditional scientific laboratories. Scientific laboratories are the physical location of knowledge production, material instruments, experimental equipment, and hands-on skills. Owen Hannaway, a historian of science, defines a scientific laboratory as a place where nature needs to be observed and manipulated through specialized instruments, technologies, and equipment that require not only conceptual knowledge but also manual skills for the construction and deployment of such instruments, technologies and equipment "(Laboratory Design and the Aim of Science: Andreas Libavius versus Tycho Brahe). This definition is difficult to maintain with the spread and diversification of laboratories in urban spaces, cultural institutions (libraries and museums), virtual networks, and university campuses. In recent years, old forms of human infrastructure have been renamed "laboratories," such as the Yale Library's reading room has been redesigned as Frank's Family Digital Humanities Laboratory. Humanities laboratories are based on different types of existing infrastructure, resulting in new forms of implementation and interpretation.


What kind of humanities laboratory can it be? One might think of the Stanford Literature Laboratory founded by Franco Moretti and Matthew L. Jockers. Through the quantitative analysis of literary texts, the laboratory looks for a "more rational literary history." Franco Moretti believes that quantitative research provides an ideal data type independent of interpretation. Combining computational and quantitative methods to study the long-term patterns of literary history (distant reading) has become a new way of scholarly research.


The research results co-authored by the Literature Laboratory have been published online as a "pamphlet" after being rejected by academic journals. Canon/Archive. Large-scale Dynamics in the Literary Field released in 2016. In China, they regard archives rather than classics as the main object of literary research. The archives here are "published literary works preserved by libraries or other institutions" and are regarded as background materials.



It can be found that Stanford Literature Laboratory has brought new methods to literary research and made further attempts in addition to traditional literary analysis. Moratti himself does not approve of positivism and data-driven research. He attaches more importance to how to see the changes in the academic market, literary style, literary category, and social culture from the data. At the same time, like many similar practices, there are still many problems in this literature laboratory, especially in the two aspects of laboratory operation and public orientation.


Taking Loudness in the Novel as an example, the paper holds that the novel is completely composed of sounds, and the narrator's voices are mixed with the representatives of all kinds of characters in the novel, which will be sensed in mind regardless of whether the reader is quiet reading or whispering reading. At this time, the sound is not expressed in words to be heard by others but in imagination. Through data analysis, this paper points out that the use of words in 19th-century novels has changed from loud grammar at the beginning to semantic loudness at the end of the century. However, this paper does not explain how these data are obtained. The algorithms, software, sample databases, and random sampling principles are not explained. Stanford Literature Laboratories (including many humanities laboratories that Franco Moretti doesn't do well) are still black boxes.


If we put the time a little further forward, look at 2009. That year Lori Emerson set up the Media Archaeology Lab (MAL) at the University of Colorado Boulder (The University of Colorado Boulder) to explore another path in the history of technology so that visitors can imagine another present and future possibility. Media archaeology laboratories display many old objects that are considered to appear only in archives or museums. Still, these files are not patched for tandem linear historical models that tend to describe advances in technology and ignore the failure side. On the contrary, the Media Archaeological Laboratory advocates the challenge of existing argumentation and archival interpretation by operating laboratory instruments and writing new archives. Not only that, the media archaeology laboratory pushes the archives from the traditional monopoly to the shared vision, unlike the general archives, which are only open to designated individuals or groups, but allows more and more people to participate in the construction of archives in person. Archives are not a passive entity but a dynamic space-time body, a field of space and democratization for the public.




MAL is a unique laboratory. First, it collects an extensive collection of old media collections, from cameras in 1880 to personal computers and gaming devices from the mid-to-late 20th century (MAL has a collection of complete East German desktop computers and different models of Nintendo devices), including thousands of software magazines and books from the 1950s to the present, and, more rarely, allows and encourages visitors to operate or experience all collections.


Secondly, MAL existed as the archiving space of digital art or digital literature in the early days (because the early research direction of Lori Emerson was the study of digital literature) and later turned into a humanities laboratory that integrates literature research, art experiment, media research, community curatorial and educational expansion and so on. As Lori Emerson said on her blog, she hopes MAL will become a laboratory that is not interested in science but in the laboratory's basics and timing, especially in the pull and even destructive relationships between the past and present and the future.


Finally, the administrative organization of MAL is not hierarchical, and all the facilities in the laboratory can be opened for the research of every researcher. In short, MAL provides a different look at the humanities laboratory and another way to get along with the laboratory and the archives, which should be to participate in the production process of knowledge actively, repair the archives, touch and even decompose the collection, to play with the subjects, and to treat time with an experimental method rather than a sheltered attitude.


It can be found that the intersection of the early Boyle Science Laboratory, the late Stanford Literature Laboratory, or the MAL, which tries to communicate science and the humanities, is an emphasis on the imagination of the laboratory. As Fredric Jameson's famous argument (Slaavoj Žižek and Mark Fisher have made a similar argument), "it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism." Imagining the future is a crucial ability that any research needs.


Lori Emerson regards this laboratory built around innovation, interdisciplinary, and collaboration as a tool to eliminate traditional humanistic research and attribute it to what Rosi Braidotti calls post-humanistic research. In Posthuman Glossary, compiled by Rosi Braidotti and Maria Hlavajova, the study of post-humanism focuses on the diverse relationship between humans and the inhuman. The pursuit of dialogue, cooperation, and reflexive knowledge production. The "doing research by artistic method" (artistic research), which the History of Science Library has introduced, can also be regarded as the product of laboratory heat and post-humanistic research. In artistic research, it is important to explore how to use art to liberate knowledge from fixed experience so that the hard geology of the concept can be loosened to re-inject new thinking or open up space for discussion of new problems. Artistic research distinguishes itself from what is commonly called "research art" in that it "uses" art, emphasizing that art as a method, as a method, is always experimental.


In addition to the above two examples, the humanities, art, design, creative industries, and other laboratory fields emerge endlessly today; they are the best proof of the imagination of the laboratory. Latour pointed out in 2003 that "We have moved from the age of science (the science age) to the era of experiments (the experimental period): technological products that change society no longer come only from the laboratories of traditional scientific institutions, but also from artists and social activists. Here are some of the web stations that summarize these creative laboratories:


Lab of Labs(Istanbul Design Biennale), using a lab to showcase more labs in the field of design and cities.



Map of labs: A map of creative space, creative workshop, media art laboratory, and other practical laboratories.



The Overedge Catalog: New Types of Research Organizations: A list of creative research institutions in history and almost all fields of science, technology, humanities, and so on, from the Wisdom Palace in Baghdad to Gresham College.



What is a Media Lab : the project include many interviews with contemporary media laboratories



As a new trend in universities and an interdisciplinary practice of innovation, there are still many problems to be carried out in the laboratory in the field of humanities and creativity. What is the risk of misappropriation and abuse in the humanities laboratory? What tension exists between the opening of a device in the laboratory, the experiment's operation, and the laboratory's conceptualization, all of which The lab book is thinking about? In his reflection on laboratory fever, Jussi Parikka draws on Thomas Elsaesser's thinking on media archaeology: the lab is not a solution but the symptoms themselves. The symptoms here are not necessarily derogatory terms, and it also means that the emergence of laboratory phenomena is inevitable: laboratories spread to the field of humanities, on the one hand, because the existing infrastructure (offices, libraries, seminars) is no longer enough to meet the needs of contemporary scholars, on the other hand. After all, laboratories as a method can help humanities to think about many problems. As a dynamic community composed of people inside and outside the laboratory, the laboratory is shaped by these communities' knowledge trajectory, virtual space, and infrastructure. The laboratory is not only a symptom but also a combination of methods, theories, and history. The possibility it will bring to the humanities is very worthy of expectation.


Related recommendation


History of Science Library 2.4.1 Laboratories. Click on the Scarlet Letter for more historical explanations of the Laboratories in the collection's introduction.



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