Anne-Françoise Schmid
On Contemporary Objects (2012)

What does it mean to understand a contemporary object? It means to make a wager that cannot be entirely justified by the history of epistemology. But a wager that, nonetheless, is not merely arbitrary, that is not simply a conjecture or a figment of the imagination.

We are led to make such a wager, once we perceive that we are unable to understand certain contemporary objects without excluding something from them, without somehow mutilating the object that we wished to understand.

Our problem, then, is that we begin with a conviction, a common sense, that these objects exist, and that they harbour important questions for us. And yet when we describe them within any one discipline, or even a so-called ‘interdisciplinary’ combination, we always miss our target, and end up with a partial description.

I myself was led to this conclusion by reflecting upon the contemporary position of the researcher. Myself and my collaborator Jean-Marie Legay discovered that our colleagues, whatever their disciplines, had great difficulty in interpreting their results, that is to say, in placing them in a relatively coherent set. Perhaps the problem was that of defining the object of research. And then the question arose: would admitting complex objects change something in the practice of research itself?

It seemed to us that classical theories of epistemology could not account for the multiplicity of contemporary manifestations and methods of science.

Epistemology had always functioned according to an image of science based on the opposition, or the complementarity, or the continuum, between theory and fact, between theory and observation, between theory and experience, between justification and verification. This structure was able to offer a kind of homogeneous space for the heterogeneity of scientific phenomena. But this was achieved only at the price of reducing this heterogeneity to a matter of differences between disciplinary practices.

Science was said to be a question of accounting for facts through theories, in various domains. Objects that did not sit neatly within a domain were accounted for through a division into various sub-disciplines, each with its own authority.

The consequence of such a structure is that certain other important ingredients that are a part of the scientific approach, are seen either as some kind of intermediary between those two major poles, helping us to move between facts and theories; or as practices that are a sort of pragmatic appendage of science, but do not belong to what can truly be said to be ‘scientific’.

In this way, when one tried to fit them into these classical terms, models and modelisation often came to be understood as ‘mediators’ between theory and experience, and simulation as a quasi-factual construction between experience and the real. Or else, they were treated as linguistic, as pragmatic means to create zones of communication and exchange between scientific disciplines, without really being a part of what is identified as science. Of course, they may well be intermediaries and languages, but this doesn’t mean we can avoid the fact that they are excluded from science, and in fact are often treated as suspect, as a part of science that will be discarded once one reaches a theory.

I have proposed a way of treating this problem, which is to admit, in their relative autonomy, all the ingredients that one encounters in science, without placing them into that structure, by rendering them generic – that is to say, relatively independent of the disciplines in which they happen to be constituted. There is theory, there is observation, there is experience, there are models, there are simulations, there are measurements, and they do not have to be related to one another according to the same order of magnitude or the same ‘grain’ of science. The type of computational precision available today, no longer places side by side just mathematics and observable phenomena, but mathematics, information technology, and fragments of various scientific disciplines (for example, biology and materials science, in synthetic biology). We must therefore open up the epistemological field of science.

Given the amount of time scientists spend building, testing and revising models, especially complex computer simulations, they can’t any longer be understood in the classical terms of epistemology cannot account for them.

What does this mean for objects? Classical epistemology allows us to think objects that are complex, in the sense that they cannot be characterised by one discipline alone. The interesting thing about complex objects is that, in one sense, they are given, they propose themselves to us as problems (how can we describe bilharzia, how can we describe a farm, etc…), and then we hope that disciplinary perspectives will allow us to ‘recover’ the object. The biologist Jean-Marie Legay, who developed the idea of the complex object in this sense, said he is very interested by Poincaré's theorem on the forms that cover a surface. This is also a way of thinking about interdisciplinarity.

But it seems that we must, alongside complex objects, introduce a new type of objects, which treat otherwise what is unknown, which take account of the intentions or projections on or in the object as almost instantaneous objective appearances of the object; Non-manipulable objects, which no longer oppose subject and object across a phenomenological distance. I have called these ‘integrative objects’.

This is not only a philosophical point, it also has a direct significance in scientific methodology and practice.

For example, take a genetically-modified fish, as the object of a research project. We can treat it as a fish plus a genetic manipulation, so that the principal discipline will be molecular biology, with other disciplines having to make an appearance subsequently, to resolve obstacles that are met with along the way (traceability, law, international commerce, consumer perception, and, in the end, the study of the risks involved, and ethics). But instead, I suggest we could treat this object as a kind of unknown ‘X’ whose properties are distributed in an unprecedented way between different disciplinary forms of knowledge. An object with multiple dimensions, each of which is a discipline.

This is exactly the way that designers and inventors think: Not by seeing the object as the result of a disciplinary rationality, even a composite one, but by putting an unknown X into relation with islands of knowledge that cannot all be foreseen in advance.

As is the case for designers, such integrative objects would not be obtained through a relation of proximity (by taking a list of existing objects, and proposing a supplementary variation), nor through a combinatory algebra (by extracting and re-integrating different properties to make new objects), but by under-determination (what does an object become if we hypothetically subtract from it a property considered to be natural?) We are then constrained to seek other types of knowledge, of knowhow, to constitute a new object X.

The interest in speaking of integrative objects is that they are unknown (we have to treat them as an ‘X’), and that they are never entirely accounted for by disciplines. In fact, we cannot ever put the pieces together and entirely synthesise them. None of the disciplinary characterisations gives a rule of unity for the whole of the object. But also, each time a researcher ‘remakes’ such an object, it is shaped by their intentions and their partial perspective.

Faced with objects that, from the point of view of any particular scientific discourse, are partial and incomplete, but are treated by common sense as real, such an epistemology tries to provide the theoretical means to account for their objective appearance of unity, without ‘reducing’ them.

Robin Mackay has remarked that such a notion of the object could apply quite well to pressing contemporary problems, such as obesity, depression, or environmental change, which have, at once, biological, social, economic, political and even aesthetic dimensions.

Another characterisation of these objects is that they are not the realisation of possibilities, but that they first and foremost propose an impossibility, for which one has to generate new relations between knowledges. A little like in algebras of extension, where the solution of an impossible equation gives us the rules to construct a new set.

Isn’t this precisely the kind of object we would like to address today? We are faced with objects that are, at once, acts of aggression and choreographed performances and technological simulations and training exercises. We have to find a new way to describe such objects; in a certain sense, they exist in a properly interdisciplinary or non-disciplinary place, a place described by the points at which they becomes unknown to each discipline.

Moreover, with reference to the question of models and simulations, this position enables us to think of models, neither as ‘abstractions of reality’ or particularizations of theory. Like design solutions, models and simulations belong in the interstices between the search for systematic knowledge (reduction to the simple and elementary), and practical demands (where one has to handle complex objects that do not entirely fall within any one domain of knowledge). This has a pertinence for me when I am trying to rethink the relation between theory and facts in science. But perhaps it could also be useful in thinking about the relation between virtual scenarios and real facts, in the case of something like a wargame – maybe it is even a return of the gap that Clausewitz himself understood as always existing, in between the theoretical strategic model and the fog of war.

Can one transcribe an ‘integrative’ object in pertinent fashion in art? In any case, with such objects, the classical limits between science, art, technique, aesthetics and ethics have to be rethought. None of these categories, as useful as they may be, can account for a contemporary art object. There is the image, art, computation, algorithms, military strategies, gaming, partial forms of projections, and thus ethics. All these characterisations might momentarily appear to account for the unity of what one ‘sees’, ‘perceives’, ‘understands’ ‘acts’, or ‘simulates’ in it. But they do not allow us to give a full concept, or a rule of the ‘real’ of the work. But doubtless the meaning of all these terms will be modified, with and without the traditional perspective, or the traditional division of disciplines.

The integrative object is not a limitation of classical knowledge, but a treatment of knowledges of this ‘X’ type, whose effects are distributed in different modes and without synthesis. Through this approach, we can make partially coincide, in sciences, in art, in philosophy, aspects that were treated separately, and we can separate aspects that were overhastily identified with each other. The distinction between art, sience, philosophy, is no longer given, but reconstructed via hypotheses.

The theoretical framework is what I call a non-standard epistemology, which does not claim to describe the disciplines directly, but allows us to enumerate them as a number of neutralised states, without disciplinary authority or sufficiency. Each state can be understood as theory, as exercise, as simulation, as strategy, as projection of the ‘I’, and ‘others’, like a cloning of the real – but none of them will provide a continuous vision of this real.


Anne-Françoise Schmid is a researcher at the École des Mines de Paris, and author of L’âge d’épistémologie: science, ingénierie, ethique, Que peut la philosophie des sciences?, and, with Jean-Marie Legay, Philosophie de l’interdisciplinarité. Correspondance (1999–2004) sur la recherche scientifique, la modélisation et les objets complexes.

On Contemporary Objects was translated and published by Robin Mackay in Simulation, Exercise, Operations, Urbanomic, 2015.