Experimentalization of Life

Prof. Dr. Hans-Jörg Rheinberger, Max-Planck-Institut für Wissenschaftsgeschichte Berlin

In this project, "experimentalization of life” refers to a process that began in Europe around 1800 and involved a series of efforts to reconfigure science, art, and technology. After experimental physiology had established itself as one of the leading disciplines of the 19th century, psychology, linguistics and many other disciplines became laboratory-based enterprises. Experimental cultures emerged in a variety of places, as for example in literary movements relying on automatism, procedures of chance, and montage. At the same time, philosophers started to reflect upon the broader implications of this renewed turn to experimentation. In addition, experimental media such as photography and film transformed the fine arts and the sciences. Entire cities became fields of experience in which people undertook all sorts of experiments in living.

This project investigates the experimentalization of life with a focus on the material culture of instruments, buildings, and supply technologies. Topics include the dialogue between music and experimental acoustics as it started in the 1850s, the changing role of model organisms in physiological and zoological laboratories, and the importance of experimental kits in defining and distributing the pedagogical ideals of laboratory practice in the early 20th century. The project studies the emergence and development of physiological and psychological time experiments from Helmholtz to Proust, it explores the ways in which ethnography, musicology and linguistics used – or abused – Prisoner of War camps as experimental research sites, and it traces the transformation of early 20th century reading techniques into objects of scientific exploration. In addition, the project investigates the coming into being of "experimental epistemologies” in authors such as Gaston Bachelard and Edgar Wind.

The project has successfully shown that the "experimentalization of life” is not a one-dimensional process that can be easily equated to "mechanization,” "rationalization” or "modernization.” Rather, experimentalization is a complex and highly distributed process that integrates and differentiates, i.e. configures, various aspects of scientific, artistic and technological activities in ways that allow phenomena of mechanization or modernization to occur.

The project involves doctoral and postdoctoral scholars from disciplines such as the history of science and technology, art history, media studies, biology, psychology, musicology, cultural studies, and philosophy. It is being carried out in cooperation with universities and research centers in Germany, England, and the United States. National and international meetings, workshops and conferences are devoted to topics such as "Life and Societies”, "Sounds of Science” and "The Shape of Experiment”. Many results have already been published as articles in international journals, as monographs and edited volumes. In addition, the "Virtual Laboratory” of the project collects and displays relevant source material as well as the results of ongoing research and makes them accessible online.