Monday, October 01, 2007

The Condition of Nano-dernity

Chris Toumey’s new article, “Cubism at the Nanoscale,” (2007) looks to the Cubist movement of the early twentieth century to provide cues for how to go about representing nanoscale structures today. Because nanoscale materials are too small to be photographed, the images that we see representing them are the product of a “multistage process that begins with touching the nanoscale, not seeing it, and converting tactile sensations into data, which are later converted into visual sensations” (587). For Toumey, this threatens a problem of credibility should the public discover that representations of nanoscale materials do not have the same “optical veracity” as photographs. To address this (and setting aside the question of the veracity of photographs), Toumey looks to Cubist approaches to representation, particularly their attempts to simultaneously represent multiple dimensions of an object. Drawing on cubist techniques, Toumey poses three suggestions for creators of representations of nanoscale structures: add a temporal dimension through the use of multiple, sequential images; add color(s); add a tactile dimension that permits deeper engagement of the viewer with the nanoscale representation.

While these suggestions are fine and no doubt useful for those concerned with promoting certain public perceptions of nanotechnology, Toumey’s adoption of Cubist techniques runs contrary to their Cubist intent. Cubists, unlike Toumey (c.f. 587), had no interest in improving the correspondence between an image and reality. Indeed, Cubism marked a tremendous social upheaval, manifested in a variety of social domains, and which centered on a crisis in traditional conceptions of reality and knowledge. Concern for the veracity of a representation is a preoccupation that Cubists directly questioned. Through the abandonment of classic techniques of painting, including representations of Euclidean space, and the refusal to view painting merely as a tool for the representation of nature, Cubism rejected enlightenment rationality. In turn, Cubism sought multiple modes of representation, resulting in fragmented objects unrecognizable to those who thought that painting should replicate nature. This constituted a profound loss of faith in the connection between knowledge and progress; between signified and signifier; between rationality and an objective reality.

Toumey hails Cubism to take us in the opposite direction: to better represent the empirical nature of nanoscale materials. This divergence is made clear by Toumey’s characterization of the goals of Cubists to enlarge “the viewer’s knowledge of the reality of the object in a picture.” I argue that the goal for Cubists was rather to challenge the very possibility knowledge as coherent and singular. This challenge and crisis manifest in the Cubist movement is forgotten in Toumey’s characterization. His application of Cubist aesthetics to representations of nanoscale structures is thus remarkably un-Cubist to the degree that it seeks to “add to our empirical knowledge of the objects that exist at the nanoscale” (589).

Thinking about representation at the nanoscale, however, does raise some interesting questions. What Cubism and Toumey’s invocation of it in the context of nanotechnology are grappling with are the limitations of representation in the context of shifting relationships between space and time. Following Harvey (1989), if cultural modernism sprang from a “radical readjustment in the sense of time and space in economic, political and cultural life” (260-1) then by analogy, we might see the problem of representation at the nanoscale as a similar readjustment of our sense of time and space – a radical continuation of time-space compression. If, as the forecasters suggest, we are on the front end of a major readjustment to the world economy and to our many manners of living as a result of nanotechnological innovation, perhaps Toumey is out front by hinting at a similar crisis in representation to that which began after the middle of the 19th century. As the commercialization of nanotechnology floods our lives with events, practices, and produts that may be undetected by human sensory organs, whose risks or benefits are frequently invisible, the understanding and expression of social meanings takes on new dimensions. How will we represent those aspects of human experience that are invisible, un-touchable, un-smellable but powerful, potentially dangerous, and highly profitable?


Harvey, David. 1989. The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.

Toumey, Chris. 2007. "Cubism at the Nanoscale." Nature/Nanotechnology 2:587-9 (October).

1 comment:

  1. Joe-

    Great post. What was missing for me was any discussion of how other scientific disciplines have grappled with this issue of representing physical phenomena in the past (astronomers being the example that comes to mind). Also, the issue of real vs. electronic artifacts came to mind. Finally, I am wondering about the creation of nano-images for scientists-only audience versus the pretty pictures that are shown to the public. What counts as a scientific image?

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