Interview with Victoria Pitts-Taylor

Jennifer Singh caught up with Victoria Pitts-Taylor, Professor of Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Wesleyan University and winner of the 2017 Robert K. Merton Book Award for The Brain’s Body: Neuroscience and Corporeal Politics (Duke University Press, 2016). Her book was also awarded the Feminist Philosophy of Science Award from the Women’s Caucus of the Philosophy of Science Association. In our interview, Professor Pitts-Taylor discussed key theoretical lessons of her book, insights on neuroplasticity, and future directions of this work.

Singh: Congratulations on winning the Robert Merton Book Award.

Pitts-Taylor: Thank you. I am very honored.

Singh: What inspired you to write The Brain’s Body and what are the main theoretical lessons your book offers for sociology of science and technology?

Pitts-Taylor: I got really interested in this topic in part because I am interested in how neuroscience is being taken up in all of these different fields, including sociology, although not as much as some other fields like economics.  The neuro-turn worried me a lot, not because I wasn’t interested in the brain and neurobiology, but rather because our field was at risk of taking up neuroscience uncritically.

My background is interdisciplinary, and my STS interests and feminist training taught me to be critical of scientific knowledge, and I saw a lot of inroads that neuroscience was making in the social sciences without that kind of robust critique of how that knowledge production was happening.

At the very same time on the other side, social neuroscientists have become the sociologists and philosophers of our era. So, I think, it’s really important for sociologists to be literate and critical and not just skeptical of scientific knowledge. Some of us are trained to do that and others are not. So, when I started the project I had to learn about neuroscience. But the project was never intended to merely be a critique. I took Bruno Latour seriously when he said, “it has run out of steam.” So, I am also interested in materialism and biological aspects of body and the embodiment. Taking all of those different threads and weaving them together was my goal.

In terms of what lessons there are for sociologists, I think of the book as one road map. One way you can think about how to try to do an assessment of scientific knowledge without being skeptical, while remaining critical. One of things I think sociologists have to offer is a really robust and nuanced sense of what social difference is. When we read social neuroscience we get frustrated at that kind of rudimentary classifications that are sometimes used in terms of race, class, gender and so on, or if any are used at all. So there are an awful lot of claims about neurobiology that either ignore difference or use rudimentary notions of difference. We have a lot to offer to 21st century knowledge if we are scientifically literate.

Singh: Can you tell us more about your approach to feminist new materialisms and new ways of thinking about the body?

Pitts-Taylor: If you read only one chapter of the book you might come away from the idea that it is a critique of neuroscience. But if you read the whole thing, you will see that there are counter-moves that I am trying to make where I really try to take neurobiology as seriously as it needs to be taken. In the fourth chapter especially I really push the idea of what it would mean for feminist theory, queer theory and the sociology of gender to take neurobiology seriously, which we can’t do without being critical of the heteronormativity of the literature on oxytocin, kinship, and attachment. But if we include a critique and robust sense of the pitfalls of making claims of kinship and attachment based on heteronormative models, none the less, we can still think about the neurobiology of attachment and social bonding as a really interesting place to look for resources to understand the stakes of the regulation of kinship. Drawing on the neurobiology literature, what I argue in this chapter is that biological relatedness does not need to be genetic or blood based. I argue that close intimate interactions with other people we care for changes our biology. So, biological relatedness need not be based on a reproductive heteronormative model. If you bring a queer and feminist critique to a deep interest in neurobiology you get a totally different idea of what biological relatedness could be, which I think is really exciting. This kind of relatedness is material ;  includes the body. It includes feelings. It includes more than symbolic representations of discourse.

Singh: The idea of plasticity is an interesting component of your book. What is plasticity and how do you think through this idea in The Brain’s Body?

Pitts-Taylor: Neuroplasticity is a huge area of neuroscientific research and it’s really part of the turn in the late 20th and early 21st century toward new biological models that also includes epigenetics. The idea of plasticity is that the brain is not only developmentally plastic in terms of being able to grow and change in its early years. Increasingly, it is understood as plastic throughout life. So even in adult brains, there is potential for significant morphological changes. Which is really great news. There are a lot of people who have been really interested in plasticity beyond the clinical potential. So what is it mean for nature and nurture? If we have a bifurcation of nature and nurture then we have a very brief developmental plasticity early on. We really get brains that are fixed for life. But if we have this open-ended plasticity then suddenly nurture has a whole lot more to do.

In the chapter on plasticity I take up the implications for some significant social differences like sex/gender and class. I’m looking at sex/gender – using those two terms together as one, like as Anne Fausto-Sterling does – as one place where the politics of the body have come up to the shores of the new neuroscience. People are really excited about plasticity because it means, for example, even if we find differences in adult male and female brains we no longer have to assume that those difference were genetically hardwired, but rather we could explore how socialization could make a difference in creating different kinds of brains. What you get is a biologically deep biosocial understanding of the brain. However, what I try to show is in various ways that plasticity is this really, really broad umbrella concept in neuroscience that in practice actually means different things in different research programs. So there are different kinds of plasticity, there are different processes that are considered to be plastic. There are still different life stages that are thought to be more plastic than others. The different regions are considered to be varyingly plastic. Adding these all together what you get is an economy of plasticity. So if you have something like, in research on the adolescent brain, an immature pre-frontal cortex and a mature amygdala. When some neuroscientists map that on to a localized view of brain function, then can make arguments like, “adolescents have poor executive function and overactive anger issues,” which confirms our cultural biases.

In research on class, you might get a really interesting biosocial picture of how class difference can have neurobiological effects. It really matters then how plastic the brain is and for how long. Are we now going to declare that people are who in the lower social classes have different brains that are fixed for life? The politics are really troubling. And so what I try to show is that plasticity is not a Band-Aid or a prescription for the problems of biological reductionism and determinism, because plasticity is deployed in multiple different way and means many different things. Plasticity gets arrested at different times in different research programs.  Eleanor Maguire’s studies looked at taxi drivers in London who learned the 25 thousand streets of the city to take the license test, and she and her colleagues found some volume growth in the hippocampus. This research was hailed as evidence that the adult brain can change based on learning, which is really exciting. But she also found that some people pass those tests and some people do not pass the test. Maguire speculates that some people have more plastic hippocampi than others. So plasticity is not universally distributed and there is an economy to it. Neuroplasticity is becoming one of the new frontier of social difference, like epigenetics. Because of this, I think that we really need to learn how to read this work and pay very careful attention to the kind of political claims that might be attached to them.

Singh: If you were to write an epilogue, what would you include?

Pitts-Taylor: I dealt only a little bit with race in this book and I would like to return to that. The research that I write about in the book is ostensibly colorblind. But if you read it through a critical race lens you can see that there are actually a lot of racial implications to research on poverty and the brain. Some of my current writing and thinking right now are about how I can understand race as a ghost variable. Like how race is actually operating in this work even though it is ostensibly not there, and what are the racial implications of making claims about poverty, which is a highly racialized phenomenon even if researchers don’t think that they are studying race.

I am also interested in exploring the chronopolitics more than I did in The Brain’s Body. As I mentioned before, there are speculations that some groups are more plastic than others; that some people with certain kinds of experiences actually have the plasticity of the brain reduced. But what really matters here is time. How long does plasticity last? When does it get arrested? I want to address plasticity in chronopolitical terms and there is a lot more thinking to be done.

Interview with Natasha Myers

David Peterson (Northwestern) spoke with Natasha Myers, Associate Professor of Anthropology at York University and winner of the 2016 Robert K. Merton Book Award for Rendering Life Molecular: Models, Modelers, and Excitable Matter (Duke University Press, 2015). In the interview, Professor Myers discussed theoretical innovations and the next directions of her work.

David Peterson: What is the thesis of your book?

Natasha Myers: This ethnography develops new methods in sensory anthropology to show that that science is more and other than what we have long thought it was. It tracks the life science researchers who model the molecular substructure of living bodies, and documents in vivid detail the embodied, sensory, affective, performative, and aesthetic dimensions of scientific practice and pedagogy. The book takes readers into laboratories and classrooms where practitioners in the arts of molecular modeling go to great lengths to cultivate their skills, and to teach others how to see, feel, imagine, and know what they know about the molecular realm. A central claim of the book is that while these researchers publicly avow mechanistic approaches to the sciences of life, relying heavily on machinic metaphors to describe molecular forms and interactions in the texts they publish, close ethnographic attention to the ways they animate molecular life through stories, and through their articulate movements and gestures, shows that more often than not, practitioners deviate from these conventional scripts. Indeed, by documenting renderings of molecular life that waver between the machinic and the lively, this book shows that mechanism, even in twenty-first century life science, has failed to fully disenchant living matter. Asking “What is life becoming in modelers’ hands?” this book amplifies an otherwise muted liveliness inflecting mechanistic accounts of the stuff of life. In their hands, living matter becomes excitable.

Peterson: How do you see this book contributing to studies in feminist technoscience?

Myers: This book takes inspiration from works by Donna Haraway (1991, 1997), Lucy Suchman (2007), Karen Barad (2007), and many other scholars who develop feminist and queer methodologies to examine forms of performativity, affect, agency, embodiment, and objectivity in science. Feminist technoscience is also particularly attuned to the fraught relations between power and knowledge, and between epistemology and ontology, and these are also prominent themes in the book. One of the primary ways Rendering Life Molecular contributes to this literature is by documenting a group of scientists whose practice of objectivity closely resembles Haraway’s (1988) articulation of “situated knowledges.” These molecular modelers acknowledge and even celebrate the profound contributions they make to producing and securing robust visual facts, and they accentuate, rather than disavow, the role embodied knowledge plays in this process. Indeed, for them, objectivity is measured not by their efforts to detach themselves from their objects, or through forms of automation that would keep their subjectivity at bay; but rather, by their willingness to give themselves over to the laborious process of model building, and allow their objects to inform and transform how they see, feel, and know the molecular realm. This book tunes into the stories scientists tell about their intimate relations with their objects of study, and hitches a ride on scientists’ gestures and movements in order to document the affective entanglements of inquiry in the life sciences. Where forms of “mechanical objectivity” would disavow these entanglements, molecular modelers insist on accounting for how they know what they know, on the partiality of their knowledge, and on locating their unique contributions to crafting visual facts. In this way, they demonstrate what feminist objectivity might look like in practice.

Peterson: Can you talk a bit about the central metaphor of your book? How did you come to the concept of “rendering”? How did it evolve?

Myers: Rendering is a widely used term in computer modeling to describe the processing of images to make them appear three-dimensional, but it also has much older and wider meanings, such as when it is used to describe the process of giving oneself over to a practice, or defined as the act of inflecting or infusing a quality into some thing. The concept of rendering took shape for me while I grappled with ways to understand both the performativity of visual facts in science, and how the visual cultures of science are simultaneously performance cultures. What I came to see is that the models that these scientists build are more than just representations of the molecular realm. I was finding that when molecular models were treated as representations at the end-stage of model building, they could at best gesture at the probable configurations of atoms in a molecule, and as such they tended to induce significant epistemic anxieties about the limits of scientific vision and the epistemic failures of scientists. When treated as renderings, however, models became not just things that stand in for knowledge or phenomena; they could also be seen as enactments or performances that generate new ways of knowing and things known. By treating models as renderings I could redirect my ethnographic attention to the practices of model building and the ways that modelers’ kinesthetic knowledge and intuitions shape and are shaped by the molecular realm. The concept of rendering could also shed light on the performative effects of visual facts: to engage models as renderings is to insist that they do more than just re-present molecular phenomena. Indeed, these models rend the world in some ways and not others, pulling, bending, and tearing at the world to render life molecular.

Peterson: You develop the notion of “haptic vision” to provide a richer account of how scientists draw on their sensory capacities. Can you discuss how kinesthetic entanglements either undermine or expand traditional notions of objectivity which tend to rely on a much narrower concept of scientific “vision” as that which can be explicitly represented and reproduced?

Myers: The concept of “haptic vision” is not new, but it acquires new significance in light of the challenges that molecular modelers face in their efforts to make the molecular realm visible, tangible and workable. Protein crystallographers and other molecular modelers have no direct visual access to the molecular structures they hope to make visible, tangible, and workable. In order to build a three-dimensional atomic-scale model of a protein molecule, they must enmesh themselves in complex technological prostheses in order to decipher probable structures from the scattered shadows of X-ray diffraction patterns. Model building is a hands on, laborious, and often wayward process, and to date, methods for deciphering molecular structures from diffraction patterns have not been fully automated. As such, modelers must rely extensively on trained intuition, tacit and embodied knowledge, and aesthetic judgment. Building a model is an affectively charged performance that engages a modeler’s entire sensorium. It is in the process of building and manipulating their models that modelers’ perceptions, sensibilities, and dexterities are entrained to molecular forms and movements. As a modeler builds their model onscreen, they simultaneously articulate an embodied model, to such an extent that the richest, most detailed model of their molecule comes to reside in their kinesthetic imagination. In the process, modelers’ bodies become the most articulate proxies for rendering molecular forms and movements. Molecular modeler’s vision is thus profoundly haptic; that is, what they come to see and know is shaped by a synesthetic tangle of touch, movement, kinesthesia, proprioception, imagination, memory, and intuition. Getting to know what molecules “look like” is not a detached, disembodied, or neutral process; it involves practitioners’ learning to palpate imperceptible realms, and cultivate a feel for the molecular realm (cf Keller 1983). Objectivity, for these practitioners, is thus profoundly situated, embodied, and felt, and the most robust visual facts are those that can be enacted through the articulate bodies of expert crystallographers.

Works Cited
Barad, Karen, Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007)

Haraway, Donna J., ‘Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspectives’, Feminist Studies, 14 (1988), 575–99

Haraway, Donna J., Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York: Routledge, 1991)

Haraway, Donna J., Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium.FemaleMan_Meets_OncoMouse: Feminism and Technoscience (New York: Routledge, 1997)

Keller, Evelyn Fox, A Feeling for the Organism: The Life and Work of Barbara McClintock (New York: W.H. Freeman, 1983)

Suchman, Lucy, Human-Machine Reconfigurations: Plans and Situated Actions, 2nd Expanded Edition (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007)