A Response to World as Laboratory by Rebecca Lemov

In World as Laboratory, Rebecca Lemov, an anthropologist, writes for a larger audience.

“I think it’s too bad that a lot of scholarly work never gets read, usually because it’s just plain difficult to read,” she says in an interview with Nicole Merritt of MyShelf.com. “Being difficult is sometimes necessary, but sometimes there’s deliberate obfuscation going on … ‘If you can’t understand what I’m saying, I must be exceptionally smart’.”

David Brooks reviewed it at The New York Times, an honor not always bequeathed to anthropological texts.

The paperback is published by Hill and Wang, rather than an academic press, and the book is written in a humorous, even sarcastic tone, in accessible language that feels like a leisure read full of rich philosophical implications and shocking detail.  The focus of the work is how the laboratory became the locus of power and authority, the fountain of knowledge for social scientists and governments alike, eventually contributing to an extension of the laboratory to world settings – so that the United States, as a colonial power, utilized whole peoples for experiments on the premise that human behavior could be understood, controlled, and even engineered on a massive scale.

Lemov also describes how laboratory science, with its emphasis on objectivity and distance from the subjective – as well as the subject – is built around experiments on animals as the ideal approach to studying human behavior and, yes, even the social.  Yet this practice is built on a puzzling paradox: although humans are assumed to function behaviorally in the same manner as animals, animals as nonhumans (and, in some cases, certain humans considered less than civilized) are permissible subjects of often painful and exceedingly demoralizing experiments.  Furthermore, as Lemov demonstrates, laboratory science itself was generated by personalities, men in fact caught up in a range of personal fears and anxieties – in short, subjectivities.  Yet despite these contradictions, laboratory science built on the assumed subject-object, human-nonhuman distinction is as pervasive as ever, if not more so.

Without proposing any conspiracy theories – in fact, Lemov makes it clear that a lot of these guys were wayward do-gooders and philanthropists who couldn’t possibly know the full ramifications of their brand of science – she points to the lasting effects widespread ideas about the social self have on our lives even today, even in the marketplace, in malls, in everyday politics.

With the laboratory, Lamov writes, scientists “built a stressful world that predicted our own: a world in which stress and its effects can actually be engineered, ratcheted up, and in some sense capitalized upon” (101).

Admittedly, this sounds pretty incendiary for an anthropologist, and Lemov certainly doesn’t pretend to participate in any kind of dalliance with objectivity.  There is something very brave and honest about that.  Lemov is an anthropologist – a person with a PhD – but she clearly isn’t ashamed of her own biases, nor is she interested in putting on a veil with her thinking cap.  Perhaps more importantly, she’s talking about things that sound boring and inaccessible – science studies, subject-object distinctions, intentionalities – in a way that is likely to stimulate more dialogue and participation among a wider range of people than your standard stodgy academic article.

Not that those are unimportant.  It’s just that they, too, are part of the laboratory world.

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