• “Imaging and Imagining: Magnetic Resonance Technology
and Humanistic Practice” by Megan Ahern
My project pursues a historical analysis of the MRI machine as it has co-evolved with the humanities, focusing on the disciplinary development of cognitive science as it has come to span the humanities and allied social sciences, and on the disciplinary practices of literary critics engaging neuroscience. As scientific and literary attention shifted from neurosurgery and behaviorism to neuroimaging in the late twentieth century, the qualitatively conceived psyche was increasingly supplanted by the quantitatively measured brain. The attention of literary critics shifted, in turn, from psychoanalytic drives or personality typing to a preference for more phenomenological and ephemeral components of experience: emotion, the experience of memory, reader response. In other words, the prevalent technology for practicing psychological science also shaped the contours of literary examinations of the mind, even as the latter added to the power and legitimacy (in the Bourdieuian sense) of the former. Aiming to bridge science studies with a nascent humanities studies, my project will pursue a carefully textured account of the distinctive characteristics variously expressed in disciplinary practices, and imputed to or entailed in magnetic resonance technology, that predispose them toward certain types of questions and investments over others.
• “Climates of Simulation: Monte Carlo Methods across Disciplines after World War II” by Sivakumar Arumugam
The idea of a computer simulation — broadly, a computer program imitating an abstract model of some particular system where analytical solutions to the model are not useful or possible — has now become available across a number of academic disciplines. It has been and continues to be a key disruptive technology since the middle of the twentieth century. I am tracing the career of this technology, and the set of institutions and practices surrounding it, across the natural and social sciences. Simulations sit between theory and experiment; simulations are generative of surprises in scholarly work. I argue that this is why they have remade styles of reasoning across a variety of disciplines. One case study that I am pursuing is climate change. Simulations moved very quickly from the nuclear sciences to meterology — John von Neumann and others were key participants in both areas — and is in its current shape a large scale scholarly enterprise that cuts across a variety of disciplines and, in doing so, reforms contemporary politics.
The Disciplines & Technologies Project is sponsored by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.