Engaging Science and Technology: An Interview with Professor Caren Kaplan
Alexis Caligiuri (AC): What is STS to you?
Caren Kaplan (CK): Well, STS is an interdisciplinary field that brings scholars with training of different kinds in the social sciences and the humanities, and even the natural sciences and engineering, together to explore research questions, and I find that really exciting!
AC: How do you define research question, what sort of parameters do you use?
CK: Most of us who do scholarship define the parameters of the project that we’re working on, and that project usually addresses a big question, like “why” something, or “how” something, or “when” something. And many really good research questions have all of those terms engaged at the same time. So a research question to me is the way one begins a project because, if it’s not a question, it’s not worth doing, since you already know the answer.
AC: So, what sort of research are you working on right now?
CK: I’m working on a book on the visual culture of views from the air in western modernity. The project has an historical scope that begins in the mid to late 18th century and extends to the current moment, and draws on art history, photography, painting, printing, and also looks at map making, cartography, atlases, ordinance surveys, views, and things like that, across various fields, to think about how a primarily military view becomes integrated into everyday life.
AC: What made you want to pursue this project?
CK: Well I had been working primarily as a social theorist on questions of identity and subjectivity, and as I finished a book on that topic, I became more interested in, at that time, how people were looking at location and specificity of place. I was doing a lot of work on cultural geography and that got me into navigation technologies, and that got me into objects, and moving away from only questions of subjectivity and before I knew it, I was thinking about maps and technologies that went with mapping. And that immediately lead me to war (because that’s where it all comes from, usually).
AC: Can we talk about navigation technologies, and how that relates to mapmaking?
CK: Sure! Well, when I first started working on this, I was primarily interested in the Global Positioning System. I noticed, at the end of the first Persian Gulf War, that the global positioning system, which was operational for the first time for that war in the early 1990’s, that as the war wound down, we saw a lot of advertisements for consumer uses of GPS, especially car rental firms, and so I thought that was interesting. So I tried to find out more about it, and the more I found out about it, the more I realized that I needed to find out a lot more about how the representation of a location in space, as well as the technology drawn upon to achieve that representation, had developed over time. And some of the methods used to make something like a Global Positioning System possible had a long history, such as cartography and navigation, especially moving from dead reckoning (which is navigating by sight) to more complicated methods. So, that lead me to learning about navigation in general, and navigation technologies in particular, especially different kinds of mapping.
AC: What got you into STS?
CK: Well I had been reading STS writers. I studied with Donna Haraway (1) when I was in graduate school, we read Bruno Latour, Steve Woolgar, et cetera. I had been introduced to STS literature at a pretty early stage in my graduate studies, so although I wasn’t always engaging it directly, I was reading it and I was aware of what was going on in the field. And, as I started to work more and more on the GPS project, which then turned into all kinds of other things, I knew that I had to start reading STS more deliberately and more consistently, so that’s been going on for a long time. And STS is so exciting here at Davis. I arrived just a little bit before Joe Dumit (2), but as soon as Joe came, Chandra Mukerji (3) was here, and then getting to know Marisol de la Cadena (3), and Carolyn de la Pena (4) also was great. I just immediately gravitated towards people who were in STS. Colin Milburn (5) got hired, and then I just became affiliated faculty, kind of organically.
STS was a happening scene for somebody like me. And it’s so collegial, all of the faculty are wonderful. I really enjoy being connected to STS.
AC: Are you teaching any STS courses?
CK: That’s such a good question and it’s such a sad answer. Because when I came to Davis about ten years ago I was first connected to the Women’s Studies program. I came here to run the Cultural Studies Ph.D program, and so my energies were really occupied with Cultural Studies, and I had things I had to do for Women’s Studies. Then I moved my line to American Studies, which is a teeny tiny department, it’s only a program, it’s not really a department, so it’s been hard for me to get released to teach for STS.
I developed a really cool class for STS and Women’s Studies on Gender and Military Visual Culture, which I am dying to teach again, but I haven’t had a chance to do it in a while. I have STS students taking my American Studies courses a lot, so that’s great. I’m always thrilled to have them because they really see the world a little bit differently in all kinds of good ways, but I haven’t had a chance to teach dedicated classes for STS, and I would love to, so I hope I can do it soon!
AC: That’s so cool! Could you tell me more about your American Studies and Women’s Studies courses that relate to STS?
CK: Sure, I can tell you more about those classes!
For American Studies I teach a class called Objects in Everyday Life, and in that class we look at two different objects every week. And we look at those objects as material objects, as things that are fabricated and made in the world, and ask where they come from and what materials they are made out of and how they get used—and that inevitably touches upon a lot of issues linked to science and technology. Especially my class on aluminum lawn chairs. Ask me anything about aluminum—no please don’t! But I had to learn a lot to do that. So that’s a really fun class, and I think it’s got a lot of STS overlap.
So the other class I teach that I think has applications for STS is American Studies 30, which is called Images of America, and that’s a class that I think you could teach a million different ways. The way that I teach it is with a focus on maps, atlases, landscape representations, and aerial views, so it’s really fun—the cartography part generally really engages a lot of STS people who take the class.
I also teach an elective on war art, which can include some stuff which may interest STS folks, also TCS (technocultural studies) because there’s a lot of digital culture in that class. I do a lot of work linked to digital humanities and I’m really interested in digital culture in general. I work on drones as well as other more recent military technologies that produce imagery, like surveillance and reconnaissance imagery. Some students in STS, who have interests along those lines, might like to take those classes as well.
AC: Considering your background in Women’s Studies and STS, could you share your views on feminist STS?
CK: Well I’ve been a feminist since I’ve been in high school and I can’t imagine any STS which is not feminist. I know that it must exist, but I do it as a feminist and I read it as a feminist, and pretty much everybody else I know does too. So to me, pretty much all STS is feminist STS.
AC: Awesome! How do you personally define and use feminist STS?
CK: I guess my definition of feminism is pretty loose. I would say that there is an attention to power relations, especially in the way that power circulates in an uneven way to produce things like gender as well as other forms of identity. I think that feminist scholars have contributed a lot to that approach, so, doing it as a feminist is one way to get at those kinds of questions and topics.
AC: Cool! Is there anything else that you would like to share with the blog?
CK: Well, I guess I’m mostly thinking about things to say about STS and the students in STS… I think it’s really great to see young women taking STS classes and pursuing STS projects. My mom was a biochemist—well she was almost a biochemist. She wasn’t able to finish her Ph.D in biochemistry because she was really persecuted by the chair of the department, who was the kind of old fashioned sexist that you kind of just can’t even believe ever really existed because they seem like such a cartoon figure. He would tell her things like, if she was in class that she was taking the place of a man who needed to support his family; or if she was sick, it was because God was punishing her because she was a woman taking graduate level classes in biochemistry. Finally he made her so miserable she dropped out of the Ph.D program. That’s kind of a shocking story. I have to say, even though I’m not a scientist myself, and my training comes from the humanities looking towards the sciences, I admire anybody who gets involved with sciences, and especially young women who pursue science training, and thinking about it in terms of society and culture in the way that we do in STS. It just always warms the cockles of my heart—it feels like it’s a good thing to see more women going in that direction. That’s where the feminist part comes out, right?
But frankly, I am really happy to see any young people involved in STS because I think technology and science is so foundational to the world around us; and being able to think about it critically and being able to engage it in thoughtful ways only makes the world a better place. So I’m thrilled to see us have such a healthy, thriving STS program and to see so many students in the program. That’s what I want to say.
AC: That’s wonderful! Thank you so much for your time!
For more information about Caren Kaplan check out http://ucdavis.academia.edu/CarenKaplan
The American Studies Program can be found at https://ams.ucdavis.edu
1) Donna Haraway (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Donna_Haraway)
2) Joe Dumit (http://dumit.net/joe/)
3) Chandra Mukerji (http://sciencestudies.ucsd.edu/people/_faculty-staff/faculty/dept-of-communication/chandra-m.html)
4) Marisol de la Cadena (http://anthropology.ucdavis.edu/people/mdelac)
5) Carolyn de la Pena (http://www.carolyndelapena.com/)
6) Colin Milburn (website http://english.ucdavis.edu/people/directory/milburn, interview http://sts.ucdavis.edu/blog/a-multitude-of-critical-perspectives-an-interview-with-professor-colin-milburn)