Adina Asbeck

The Aspect of Activity

Science historian Hans-Jörg Rheinberger on the nature of the experiment

Hans-Jörg Rheinberger is a scientific historian. He not only has a humanistic background in sociology, philosophy, and linguistics, but also a life science background in biology and chemistry. Since adolescence, he has been writing poems and essays. From 1997 to 2014, he was director at Berlin’s Max-Planck-Institute for the History of Science.

In his research, Rheinberger mostly occupies himself with the nature of the experiment and experimental systems, a term he coined for configurations which contain uncertainty, unpredictability and the state of not knowing, “One has to look at them as places of emergence, as structures that have arisen from the development of the sciences in order to discover the unimaginable. They act like a spider web, in that they need to be able to catch everything, without the knowledge of what it is or where it comes from. Experimental systems are precautions taken for the generation of spontaneous events.” It follows that (true) experiments are firstly, open-ended and secondly, that their findings cannot be anticipated. For Rheinberger, the experiment mostly constitutes of a “moment of activity and a moment of uncertainty (…) When doing experiments, one evidently has to combine different aspects within the process. If, say, a biologist is conducting research, the bio materials need to be treated so that they and the applicable technology productively coalesce. Imagine working in a room, in which the equipment is incomplete, or there are disturbing vibrations to be switched off. The whole process is an ensemble of elements – including the researcher, who one day might be more cheerful than the next. It is an ensemble that is constantly under configuration and re-configuration, but is not systematically assembled as e.g. a car, in which every part is built to fit the next for it to work. Indeed, the process exists because there is no working car!” 

What Rheinberger suggests has little to do with the stringent, linear process that generally comes to mind if one thinks of research. Rather, it is reminiscent of a playground of coincidences or more so, a system to achieve serendipity, with neither provides the end result, nor suggests a defined route. The activity aspect plays an essential role in this, as it integrates experimentation where one seeks to generate new knowledge: It is discernible in the rehearsal of a play, a draft, the trial run of an idea in the form of a sketch or model, the composition of different components or in the orchestration of teamwork. “Usually experimenting is teamwork. Even supposing it was not, the work of a single researcher is still collective in that it attempts to disclose the previous findings of the scientific community. The new work is integrated into the debate and at the disposal of everyone from the community who challenges it. At least, that is the ideal, which describes the process at its core – although there may be deviations. Research is conceived as a collective discourse, which in the visual arts possibly features differently – despite the fact that they have brought about the phenomenon of the ‘Workshops’. One simply has to think back to the 17th century and Rubens’s studio. […] Evidently then, it can no longer be a closed-off room, in which the artistic process takes place in isolation.”

Hans-Jörg Rheinberger in search of insights

If one asks Rheinberger, who pens poems when he is not writing for academic purposes, whether he sees any parallels to art, he acknowledges a lot of similarities: “I think artistic work is a practical way of relating to the world and just as activity driven as the sciences. In both cases, it is about pioneering the unknown: a step closer in exploring a topic, of which one does not yet know much. Therefore, the execution of research and the execution of artistic work are generally comparable activities. One engages oneself in an adventure with an uncertain outcome. […] Both are not to be understood as a teleological process, but rather the rejection of a current state, which leaves much to be desired. Essentially, it is unclear where the journey leads. But there is an understanding, that the journey needs to be made – there is no arbitrariness in that. This is a situation in which both artists and researchers find themselves, although they potentially work with disparate materials and techniques. […] It would be wrong to assume, however, that this type of uncertainty equals flabbiness or generality. On the contrary: I believe that someone, who is willing to engage experimentally with a field of study already has a clear research objective in mind.” 

Creativity, for Rheinberger, means going on an open-ended journey while maintaining a clear intention and negotiating the research outcome in dialogue with the material. He believes that there is no method applicable to this and “that one has to have entered a process of confrontation and been truly involved in it, with all the faculties and capabilities available to the specific person.“ Rheinberger’s ideas discern themselves in his reference to the handling of the material and its resistance, “Within the life sciences ‘not everything goes’. The objective is to find out about material processes, which usually are not evident, and the researcher is more or less bound to the material used. No personal mark is to be left on it. In that way it is similar to art. There may be artists who believe that all art is created from within and that it serves as self-realisation. For me, that was never the interesting part, because I think the key issue is how to access one’s own world. The material used in the creative process, be it paint or canvas, is equally as resistant. The creation originates not within oneself, but the material.” Rheinberger does not perceive a restriction in the resistance of the material, but a challenge. To elaborate, he tells us about his poetic output: “Since the age of eighteen, I have been writing and never stopped, although I have also never made it my profession. The point for me, is not to express my innermost feelings, but to engage with a different material, namely language and words, and these can be very resistant. How they are arranged and what can be created with them are materially contingent processes to me. At their very end, things emerge, which one would not have thought of in the beginning, as they configure and originate only in the concrete handling of the word material.“

The complete Interview with Hans-Jörg Rheinberger in German language


Text by Adina Asbeck.
Translated by Vivian Kolster and Stephanie Barnes.
The interview was conducted by Claudia Helmert and Dirk Dobiéy.
Image source: Hans-Jörg Rheinberger.

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