Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Frazzetto: Authority of Brain Imaging Pictures

From: Giovanni Frazzetto
Date: Wed, 7 Mar 2007 21:28:23 +0100 (CET)

I would like to followup on Troy Duster and Suzanne Anker’s interventionson “authority” and “repackaging” and will again focus on theneurosciences. In trying to understand (and question) the traffic of brainimaging evidence between the laboratory practice, the world of art and thesocial context, I wonder whether it is legitimate to use and remind us(maybe rather hazardously) of a theoretical notion, that of an ‘immutablemobile” introduced by Bruno Latour twenty years ago. In “Drawing thingstogether”, Latour asks: “How can distant or foreign places and times begathered in one place in a form that allows all the places and times to bepresented at once, and which allows orders to move back to where they camefrom?”He is addressing inscriptions of scientific practices and “worlds” ontoobjects, and in our discussion we can say onto “images”. These images canbe seen as representationconglomerates in which many worlds, practices and definitions arereassembled and made presentable in a different setting. Paradoxically,these inscriptions are not in and of themselves explanatory, but theybecome so when considered mobile.Immutable mobiles, as representational devices, allow scientific practicesto be transported from one laboratory to another, and from one field toanother. In brain imaging studies, the colours, symbols and codesroutinely and conventionally assigned to brain circuits are chosen byscientists to render the inscriptions presentable across laboratories.Those codes are, as Troy Duster has pointed out, not a direct reflectionof how the brain lights up.In the laboratory, fMRI images enjoy an authority based on reproducibilityand, for instance, from the juxtaposed representation of individual brainscans produced in one scanning session that, when assembled, becomeincreasingly significant.When these images exit the realm of the laboratory and get embedded intocontext they are laden with a different valence. I agree that theirauthority changes. And so does their immutability. If we think about it,these products are (or increasingly so) easy to produce. In daily life,anyone could in principle decide to have their brain scanned or tovolunteer in a research study. Brain-imaging pictures get easilytransferred from a ‘scientific’ world to another world, and they assume apower in determining subjectivity, justice and responsibility to name afew. Their authority becomes pervasive and, I would say, reifying.

Giovanni Frazzetto, PhD
'Society in Science'
Branco Weiss Fellow
European Molecular Biology Laboratory

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