Episodes in the history
of hybrid objects
Università di Bologna
Dipartimento di Filosofia
Centro Internazionale per la Storia delle Università e della Scienza
Episodes in the history
of hybrid objects
edited by
Giuliano Pancaldi
Università di Bologna
Dipartimento di Filosofia
Centro Internazionale per la Storia delle Università e della Scienza
Cover: iStockphoto
Bologna Studies in History of Science, 13
CIS - Dipartimento di Filosofia
Università di Bologna
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40126 Bologna - I
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Copyright © 2011
CIS, Dipartimento di Filosofia, Università di Bologna
ISBN: 978-88-900162-6-4
Questo volume è stato stampato con il contributo del
MIUR, 2007NFSABZ_005
Fotocomposizione: Linosprint, Bologna
Finito di stampare nell’Ottobre 2011 dalla Tipografia Negri, Bologna
Giuliano Pancaldi
Early work on electricity and medicine in the Bologna
Academy of Sciences: Laura Bassi and Giuseppe Veratti
Marta Cavazza
Giovanni Aldini e l’elettricità animale
Gian Carlo Calcagno
From body to machine: electro-medicine in mid-19th
century Italy
Christian Carletti
Electrical hybrids
Luca Iori 65
Electrification in the agricultural development of India
Rupsha Banerjee, Kamanda Josey Ondieki
Visualizing life: inside the protocol of the molecular genetics
Daniela Crocetti
La terza mutazione metafisica: saggio sul sacro
Francesco Martini
Notes on contributors
Giuliano Pancaldi
That a wide range of topics in the long history of science and technology are better studied by avoiding the strict disciplinary boundaries
that were enforced in 19th- and 20th-century science, is by now agreed
upon by many historians.
The papers in this volume adopt this perspective, and apply it to a
number of episodes in the history of the dense interrelations between
the study of electricity, the life sciences, and technology, from the mid18th century to the present. As the reader will realize, the volume does
not aim to highlight – much less to cover – the main episodes or turning points. The common thread, rather, is the attention the authors pay
to the hybrid objects that have proliferated along the borders between
the study of electricity and the life sciences, be it the electrostatic machines used for medical practice and teaching in 18th-century Italy –
immediately before Galvani and Volta entered the scene (M. Cavazza),
or soon afterwards (G. C. Calcagno, C. Carletti) – or the electrophoresis
techniques used in present-day genetic testing (D. Crocetti). Another
common perspective the authors of the volume share is that science
and technology are better studied together, rather than separately, and
that to get a view of what “life” was at different times, the technologies
of life – such as hybridization (L. Iori), agriculture (R. Banerjee and K.
J. Ondieki), or the human-computer interface (F. Martini) – are no less
important than the life sciences themselves.
“Hybrid objects” have had a conspicuous following among historians and philosophers of science over the past ten or twenty years. The
authors of the present volume are aware of the fascinating reflections
produced on the subject by authors such as Bruno Latour and HansJörg Rheinberger. In the pages that follow, however, the emphasis will
be mostly on the details of the historical episodes discussed, rather
than on epistemological claims.
Early work on Electricity and Medicine
in the Bologna Academy of Sciences:
Laura Bassi and Giuseppe Veratti
Marta Cavazza
On the Bologna Institute of Sciences
Before entering into the heart of the topic, I will spend a few words
on the origins and organisation of the Bolognese Institute of Sciences
and Arts. In particular, I think it is important to explain how the opening up towards Europe was one of its original distinguishing features,
even when it still only existed in the projects of its creator and founder,
Luigi Ferdinando Marsili. Thanks to the events of an adventurous life
as a soldier and scholar, Marsili had had firsthand experience of the
studies undertaken in the main European centres of learning and of
the cultural policies of the most advanced states. All this made him
aware of the backwardness of Italian scientific research and the obsolescence of the country’s institutions, especially its universities, which
had the mission of passing knowledge down to new generations. As
a member of an ancient family of the Bolognese nobility, his efforts
concentrated on his native city. It should be borne in mind that, since
the early-sixteenth century, Bologna had been part of the Papal State,
jointly governed by the Papal Legate and a Senate that represented the
highest ranks of the city’s aristocracy. 1
1. On Marsili, see M. Cavazza, Marsili (or Marsigli), Luigi Ferdinando, in Noretta Koertge (ed) New Dictionary of Scientific Biography, New York, Scribner’s, 2007; R. Gherardi,
Potere e costituzione a Vienna fra Sei e Settecento: il «buon ordine» di Luigi Ferdinando Marsili,
Bologna, Il Mulino, 1980; J. Stoye, Marsigli’s Europe: the Life and Times of Luigi Ferdinando
Marsigli, Soldier and Virtuoso, London, New Haven, 1994; A. McConnell, L. F. Marsigli’s
Voyage to London and Holland: Luigi Ferdinando Marsigli’s Studies, Commerce and Friendships
in Holland, 1722-23, in C. S. Maffioli; L. C. Palm (eds), Italian Scientists in the Low Countries in
the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, Amsterdam and Atlanta, GA, 1989; A. McConnell
The Flowers of Coral. Some Unpublished Conflicts from Montpellier and Paris during the Early
18th Century, History and Philosophy of Life Sciences 12, 1990. pp. 51-66; A. McConnell.,
L. F. Marsigli’s Visit to London in 1721, and his Report on the Royal Society, Notes and Records
of the Royal Society of London, 47/2, 1993, 179-204. On the peculiarities of the Church’s
8 / Early work on Electricity and Medicine
In 1709 Marsili addressed a proposal to the Senate for the reform
of the ancient University of Bologna, which was floundering in a state
of deep crisis, with the aim of bringing it up to modern standards.
Significantly, his project was entitled “Parallelo dello stato moderno
della Università di Bologna con l’altre di là de’ Monti” (Comparison of
the current state of the University of Bologna with others beyond the
Mountains). On the one hand, the said document makes reference to a
not so distance time, when Italian science was still considered authoritative in Europe, mentioning in particular the Florentine Accademia
del Cimento, and above all the teachers of the Bologna University,
Geminiano Montanari, Marcello Malpighi and Giandomenico Cassini.
They had all been influenced by Galileo Galilei, but were also open to
different ideas from countries north of the Alps, where they were held
in great esteem. This was especially true of Malpighi, whose works
had been published in London thanks to the intervention of the Royal
Society, and Cassini, who in 1669 had been called to Paris by Louis XIV
to set up and direct the new great Observatoire. On the other hand, the
detailed comparison with the institutions of Northern Europe served
to highlight the dramatic lagging behind of the University of Bologna
and the need to align it with the universities and academies of northern states. 2
The severity of Marsili’s diagnosis was not enough to overcome the
opposition of the conservative faculty and senators. At this point, he
proposed the creation of a completely new institute, independent of
the university and expressly devoted to the teaching of modern experimental disciplines: the Istituto delle Scienze e delle Arti di Bologna
(Bolognese Institute of Sciences and Arts). He succeeded in obtaining
the approval of both Senate and Pope for a project that brought together under one roof a library, a physics laboratory, a chemistry laboratory, a natural history museum, a military arts museum, and an astronomy observatory. The tower to house the latter would be built in an
state, see P. Prodi, Il sovrano pontefice: un corpo e due anime, Bologna, il Mulino, 1982; on
the mixt government of Bologna, see De Benedictis, Repubblica per contratto. Bologna, una
città europea nello Stato della Chiesa, Bologna, il Mulino, 1995.
2. On the Bolognese cultural milieu of the last decades of the seventeenth century, see
M. Cavazza, Settecento inquieto. Alle origini dell’Istituto delle scienze di Bologna, Bologna, il
Mulino, 1990, pp. 31-148; M. Cavazza., Lo Studio, la scienza e i gesuiti a Bologna nella metà
del Seicento, Giornale di Astronomia, 32, 2006, pp11-19; A. Angelini, Introduzione, in A.
Angelini (ed), Anatomie accademiche III. L’Istituto delle scienze e l’Accademia, Bologna, il
Mulino, 1993, pp. 13-58;
Early work on Electricity and Medicine / 9
internal courtyard of Palazzo Poggi, the Institute building, following
suggestions and drawings from Paris. In addition, special rooms were
allocated to host the meetings of the Accademia delle scienze (Academy of Sciences) and the Academy of Fine Arts, which constituted important sections of the new institution. The former was the result of
the transformation of a private academy, the Accademia degli Inquieti
(Academy of the Restless Ones), which, through subsequent reforms,
was to become increasingly in line with the model of the Académie
des Sciences of Paris. Marsili’s collaboration with the Inquieti academicians dated back to several years before, when they became the main
co-actors in the realisation of his project for an Institute that, as he liked
to put it, “taught more by the eyes than by the ears”. 3
It is worth recalling that the Institute and the Academy of Sciences
were distinct bodies, regulated by different statutes. Nonetheless there
were also areas of intersection. For example the Institute’s teachers
were also members of the Academy. Moreover, the two institutions
shared a Secretary, who had the important task of overseeing the publication of the transactions relating to both. This overlap may generate
ambiguity, but for convenience sake, I will often use the terms Academy of Sciences and Institute of Sciences without distinction.
The reception of Northern Knowledge in the Institute of Bologna
The Bolognese Institute of Sciences and Arts was inaugurated in
1714 and ceased to exist as such in 1802, when the Napoleonic government transformed it into the National Institute of Sciences, Letters and
Arts. The main document attesting to its history and scientific output
consists of the 7 volumes in 10 tomes of the De Bononiensi Instituto atque
Accademia Commentarii, published on a rather irregular basis from 1731
to 1791. Because the first volume also includes the history of the Institute’s foundation and the summaries of many dissertations presented
from 1704 to 1714 at the Accademia degli Inquieti, this work provides a
somewhat comprehensive picture of the scientific activity undertaken
in Bologna throughout the eighteenth century. However, it is crucial to
compare and integrate the official picture of the Institute offered by its
3. Cavazza, Settecento inquieto, pp. 7-15; pp. 57-78; Angelini, Introduzione, pp. 58-78.
10 / Early work on Electricity and Medicine
secretaries to Italy and Europe in the Commentarii, with the wealth of
original sources preserved in the city archives and libraries. 4
This is necessary also to our understanding of the role played by this
institution in promoting the circulation of scientific knowledge, and
especially in the reception in Italy of doctrines developed in Northern Europe together with their respective experimental practices. The
relations and exchanges among its exponents and northern scientific
culture unfolded on different levels, which can be studied either independently or jointly. I have identified as many as eight different aspects to be taken into account in the perspective of a broad-spectrum
research on this topic. I shall attempt to illustrate them briefly.
The first concerns the policies allowing the enrolment of foreign
fellows of the Academy of Sciences. New members were appointed
by the academicians according to quotas pre-established of Bolognese
and foreigners. In some cases, however, the rule was violated due to
sovereign intervention, as in 1755, when Benedict XIV imposed the
special appointment of Pieter van Musschenbroek, Charles Marie de
la Condamine, François Boissier de Sauvages and Jean-Baptiste Le
Rond d’Alembert. Some numerical data confirm the importance that
the academic and political authorities of Bologna attributed to the issue. According to a rough calculation, overall, during the eighteenth
century there were a total of 775 academicians, 156 of which were foreign members: 85 French, 33 Germans, 14 Swiss, 8 English, 7 Spanish,
4 Slav, 3 Swedish, 3 Dutch. The correspondence that many of these
foreign associates held both officially with the secretaries, and with
several Bolognese members, is obviously an important source for the
reconstruction of the network of relations surrounding the Academy.
A systematic study of such epistolary networks has been started only
for the French (more than 50% of the total number) and the English
(less than 7%). 5
4. On the Commentarii, see Angelini, Introduzione, pp. 170-192; for a detailed summary of the ten tome’s contents of this work, see W. Tega (ed), Anatomie accademiche I. I
Commentari dell’Accademia delle scienze di Bologna, Bologna, il Mulino, 1986. For a critical
accounts of the research work done in the diverse discipline of the Institute, see W. Tega
(ed), Anatomie accademiche II L’enciclopedia scientifica dell’Accademia delle scienze di Bologna,
Bologna, il Mulino, 1987.
5. On the pope’s policy towards the Institute, see Angelini, Introduzione, pp. 207-215;
M. Cavazza, L’istituto delle scienze di Bologna negli ultimi decenni del Settecento, in G. Barsanti,
V. Becagli, R. Pasta (eds), La politica della scienza. Toscana e stati italiani nel tardo Settecento,
Firenze, Olschki, pp. 435-439. For a general account of the history of the Institute see M.
Cavazza, Innovazione e compromesso. L’Istituto delle scienze e il sistema accademico bolognese del
Early work on Electricity and Medicine / 11
A second path, only partially explored, centres on the policy regarding the purchase of foreign books for the library. Already prior to
the Institute’s foundation, Marsili, using a list drawn up by Eustachio
Manfredi, had purchased a series of basic modern works on natural
philosophy, mathematics, astronomy, chemistry etc. During the century, the library of the Institute, enormously expanded its collection of
books and journals thanks to new purchases and, above all, donations
by patrons or the authors themselves. 6
A third aspect, also partly investigated, arises in connection with the
above point, again concerning the information available in Bologna on
the most recent scientific developments and, more precisely the role of
“filter” played by the Academy’s secretary in the selection of books de
re scientifica for presentation during its meetings. This custom had been
introduced during the time of the Inquieti, and was made obligatory
by an article of the academic laws in 1714. The lists reconstructed by
Annarita Angelini show that many of the books in question (about 146
out of a total of 444), were foreign, and, with the exception of about ten
from Spain, all originated from Northern Europe. 7
A fourth area of interest concerns the exploratory journeys abroad
undertaken by Bolognese academicians, recalling the “merchants of
light” of Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis. This quotation is somehow justified if we remember that Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle called the
Institute of Bologna the “Nouvelle Atlantide du chancelier Bacon realisée”. I mention two cases: the journey to Paris of Domenico G. Galeazzi in 1714, specifically for the purpose of gathering information on
instruments, experiments and new theories, and the extended visits of
L. F. Marsili in 1722 and 1723, first in London, then in Holland. In London he met Isaac Newton, Edmund Halley, John Woodward and Hans
Sloane, took part in a meeting of the Royal Society, and purchased instruments and naturalistic materials for the Institute’s collections; in
Settecento, in A. Prosperi (ed), Storia di Bologna 3. Bologna nell’età moderna (Secoli XVI-XVIII).
Cultura, istituzioni culturali, Chiesa e vita religiosa. (II vol), Bologna, BUP, 2008, pp. 317-374.
6. Gherardi, Il ‘politico’ e ‘altre scienze’. On the library of the Istituto (now Biblioteca
Universitaria di Bologna), the only comprehensive work is F. Arduini, La Biblioteca Universitaria, in A. Emiliani, R. Predi, G. Adani (eds), I luoghi del conoscere. I laboratori storici e
i musei dell’Università di Bologna, Milano, Pizzi, 1988, pp. 161-169.
7. See the text of the Leges and the list of the books in Anatomie accademiche III., pp.
517-521, pp. 411-438.
12 / Early work on Electricity and Medicine
Holland he met Antoni van Leeuwenhoeck and Frederik Ruysch, and
attended the chemistry lessons of Hermann Boerhaave. 8
A further valuable opportunity of exchanging ideas and information were the frequent visits to the Institute of foreign natural philosophers and mathematicians, for whom the Bologna Institute was
an unmissable stop on the Grand Tour. Information on such visits has
been passed down especially in their letters and travel journals. Two
recently studied cases of note are the five-month stay in Bologna of
Anders Celsius between 1733 and 1734 to participate in the Academy’s
astronomic research and observation, and the journey of Abbé Antoine
Nollet in 1749, who wished to verify the efficacy of an allegedly Italian discovery relative to the therapeutic use of electricity, one that had
been directly sponsored by the Institute. While the former episode is
evidence of the enduring prestige of Bolognese astronomy, the second
is instead an index of the low esteem in which Italian science was held
in the mid-eighteenth century. 9
The sixth line of enquiry is the purchase or imitation of foreign-built
scientific instruments. This aspect was of considerable importance to
an institution that was, like the Bolognese one, oriented toward experimental research and teaching, and in which there predominated an experimentalist and anti-metaphysical approach. In the teaching activities undertaken at the Institute it was forbidden to impart theoretical
lessons, as these were the prerogative of the University. For example,
during the Institute’s first twenty years, when the teacher of experimental physics was Iacopo Bartolomeo Beccari, the practical exercises
organised for students were mainly to do with thermometers, a topic
that nonetheless implies theoretical questions such as the weight of
8. F. Bacon, New Atlantis; in R. L. Ellis, J. Spedding, D. D. Heath (eds), The Works of
Francis Bacon, London 1887-1892, 7 vols., III, pp. 129-166. B. L. B. de Fontenelle, Eloge de
M. le Comte Marsigli, in Ouvres, Amsterdam 1754, 6 vols, VI, p. 283; on the journey of
Galeazzi to Paris, see S. Belli, Le “camere” di Fisica dell’istituto delle scienze di Bologna (17111758), Phd thesis in History of Science, University of Bari, 1993-1994, pp. 79-85; on that
of Marsili to London and Holland, see A. McDonnel, L. F. Marsigli’s Voyage to London and
Holland, 1721-1722.
9. Cavazza, Sweden Science in Bologna during the 17th and the 18th Centuries, in M. Beretta,
Tore Fragsmyr (eds), Sidereus Nuncius and Stella Polaris. The Scientific Relations between
Italy and Sweden in Early Modern History; Canton Masss. SHP, 1997 pp. 79-98. P. Bertucci,
Sparking controversy: Jean Antoine Nollet and medical electricity south of the Alps, Nuncius;
20/1, 2005, pp. 153-187. P. Bertucci, Back from the Wonderland: Jean Antoine Nollet’s Italian
Tour (1749), in R. J. W. Evans, A. Marr (eds), Curiosity and Wonders from the Renaissance
to the Enlightment, Aldershot, Ashgate, 2006; P. Bertucci, Viaggio nel paese delle meraviglie.
Scienza e curiosità nell’Italia del Settecento, Torino, Bollati Boringhieri, 2007.
Early work on Electricity and Medicine / 13
air or the existence of the void. Beccari continued to make use of the
same old pneumatic pump that Marsili had made at Aldorf in 1696.
This explains the enthusiasm of his assistant Galeazzi, in Paris in 1714,
when Wilhlem Homberg showed him a more recent one, probably of
the cylinder type invented by Boyle and perfected by Ian van Musschenbroek; he later tried to describe it in a letter to Beccari, also with
the help of some sketches. The Institute would obtain an air pump
similar to Homberg’s one only in 1743, with the arrival of Dutch instruments made by the same instruments maker and purchased thanks to
the intervention of Pope Benedict XIV. 10
On the same occasion, an electric machine was also bought, the first
ever owned by the Institute, together with several prisms with which
to reproduce Newton’s optical experiments. It is worth mentioning
that in 1728 Francesco Algarotti and Francesco Maria Zanotti finally
succeeded in performing such experiments using an Iceland spar crystal brought directly from London by the academician FrancescoVandelli. Among those arriving from Holland, there were also machines
for the mechanics demonstrations required in a course of Newtonian
physics. In reality, the Institute already owned some copies built in
the 1720s by its own instrument makers using the figures and instructions given in Willem Jacob s’Gravesande’s textbook Physices Elementa.
These and other examples are proof of the close connection between
the availability of certain instruments and the possibility to assimilate
and verify particular theories, or as in the case of studies on electricity,
to catch up with Germany and Great Britain. This area, too, has been
partially explored, but there is still a lot of work to do. 11
Regarding a further possible research issue on the role played by the
Bolognese Institute in circulating in Italy scientific knowledge developed abroad, I refer to a source that in importance should probably be
in first place, i.e. the citations of foreign authors and experimentalists
found in the Commentarii. At present no such quantitative citation survey on the entire text is available, however, thanks to the summaries
and indexes published in 1987 in the above mentioned book edited
10. On Beccari’s teaching of pneumatic physics, see Belli, Le “camere” di Fisica, pp. 6678; M. Cavazza, The Teaching of Experimental Sciences at the Institute of Sciences in Bologna,
Alma Mater Studiorum, 1993, pp. 172-173.
11. On Algarotti’s experiments, see below; on the Dutch machines, see Willem Jakob’s
Gravesande, Physices elementa mathematica; experimentis confirmata, sive introduction ad
philosophiam Newtonianam, Leiden, 1720; Belli, Le “camere” di Fisica, pp. 168-176.
14 / Early work on Electricity and Medicine
by Walter Tega, it is possible to obtain a first rough estimate. Taking
the Institute’s entire duration, we encounter approximately 170 foreign names, nearly all from Northern Europe. Not all the names are of
similar weight: Newton is cited 26 times, Leonhard Euler 10, Gottfried
Willhelm Leibniz 9, Pieter van Musschenbroek 8, Pierre-Louis Moreau
de Maupertuis 5, Georges Le Clerc de Buffon 3, and Carl Linnaeus just
once. It would be interesting to extend the research to establish whether the citations of foreign authors are more numerous in the complete
texts of the academic dissertations, that is in the section of the Opuscoli,
or, as I suspect, in the section of the Commentarii, where the abstracts
of the dissertations are presented and commented by the secretaryeditor. My hypothesis, already verified in some cases, is that, at least
in the volumes edited by Zanotti, i.e. those published until 1767, in
the abstracts reported by him the names are more numerous than in
the full texts. Indeed, Zanotti was eager to link the research of his colleagues to previous or similar work undertaken not only in Italy, but
also in Europe, especially those reported in scientific journals. When
appropriate, he would highlight elements of novelty. 12
I refer to one of many possible examples: when the secretary, in the
first part of the II volume of the Commentarii published in 1745, with
the title “De adamante aliisque rebus in phosphororum numerum referendis (About diamonds and other things to be numbered among the
phosphori), presents Beccari’s work on the classification of phosphori,
read to the Academy in 1743, and published complete in the Opuscoli section of the second part of the same volume (1746) with the title
“De quamplurimis phosphoris nunc primum detectis Commentarius”
(Commentary on several newly detected phosphori), he is at pains to
point out that it is the result of a decade-long research on the subject.
Above all, he compares it with the parallel work undertaken in Paris by Charles Dufay, also arriving at the discovery of the phosphoric
capacity of diamonds. Dufay published his research before Beccari,
whose subsequent experiments sought to verify the French hypotheses
on the causes of the phenomenon of phosphoric light, but with negative results. Zanotti nevertheless defends the validity and originality
of Beccari’s work and discoveries. His aim was clearly to underline the
organic character of the research carried out by the Institute, and to
12. Anatomie accademiche I.
Early work on Electricity and Medicine / 15
present the various efforts as contributions to an on-going debate that
encompassed the entire European scientific community. 13
Electricity and the Institute of Sciences: Bassi and Veratti, a scholarly couple
Laura Maria Caterina Bassi 14 (1711-1778) was the only woman in
Europe who had graduated in Philosophy and been awarded a chair in
the same subject; this happened at the University of Bologna in 1732. In
that same year, Bassi became the first woman member of the Academy
of Sciences.
Giuseppe Veratti (1707-1793) obtained a degree in Philosophy and
Medicine in 1734. Although trained as a physician, he was strongly
interested in physics, a matter which was part of the philosophical curriculum. In 1737, he was given a university position to teach it, and
some years later a second position in the field of anatomy. In the second half of the 18th century he became assistant to the professor of
experimental physics at the Institute of Science. Veratti, like one of his
masters, Beccari, was one of the many Bolognese physicians of the Settecento who tried to apply the principles of the Newtonian physics to
the study of organisms. By the end of the century, the most famous exponent of this approach was Luigi Galvani, the discoverer of electricity
in animals. Galvani had been a pupil of Veratti and Laura Bassi. 15
The following citation shows the close interaction among scientific
interests and private feelings in the life of Veratti and Bassi. In ending
a letter to his wife during one of the rare periods he spent away from
13. Commentarii, II, 1, pp. 274-303; idem, II, 2, pp. 136-179; Anatomie accademiche I., p. 131
and pp. 156-157; Dufay, Recherches; On Beccari’s studies on phosphoric light, see Gomez,
The Bologna Stone, pp. 16-23.
14. The following works are only a part of recent bibliography on Bassi: Elio Melli
(1988), Laura Bassi Veratti: ridiscussionie nuovi spunti, in Alma Mater Studiorum, La presenza
femminile dal XVIII al XX secolo, CLUEB, Bologna, pp. 71-79; Alberto Elena, «In lode della
filosofessa di Bologna»: An introduction to Laura Bassi, Isis, 82, 1991, pp. 510-518; Paula Findlen, Science as a Career in Enlightenment Italy. The Strategies of Laura Bassi, Isis, 84, 1993,
pp. 441-469; Gabriella Berti Logan, The Desire to Contribute: An Eighteenth Century Italian
Woman of Science, American Historical Review 99, 1984, pp. 785-812; Beate Ceranski,
«Und sie fürchtet sich vor niemanden». Über die Physikerin Laura Bassi (1711-1778), Campus,
Frankfurt-NewYork, 1996, and Marta Cavazza, Una donna nella Repubblica degli scienziati,
in Scienza a due voci, R. Simili (ed.), L.S. Olschki, Firenze, 2006, pp. 61-85.
15. On this intellectual tradition, see Nadia Urbinati, Physica, in W. Tega (ed.), Anatomie
accademiche II. L’Enciclopedia scientifica dell’Accademia delle scienze di Bologna, Il Mulino,
Bologna, 1987, pp. 123-154.
16 / Early work on Electricity and Medicine
Bologna, Veratti writes: “Remember the electrical Machine, the love I
feel for my Children and to Yourself, who are the greatest wealth I possess on this Earth”. 16
This letter was written at the end of the year 1746; their married
life had begun eight years before. It offers evidence of the couple’s
affectionate solidarity and scientific collaboration. In 1738, the marriage between the first woman to obtain both a university degree and
a lectureship, and a young physician, her colleague at the University
and at the Academy of Science, had not been well regarded by society. It was considered a blemish on the image of the virgin Minerva,
the symbol of learned Bologna, with whom the young Bassi, with her
education and dialectic ability, had been identified. By marrying, she
had transgressed the confines assigned by nature and society to her
gender. However, at the same time, the very public exhibition of such
a “prodigy”, which drew to Bologna the attention of European men of
culture as well as travelers on their grand tour, had aroused the ire of
the townspeople, who found it scandalous that a young, unmarried
woman was frequenting places of mixed company, such as aristocrats’
salons and exclusively male gatherings, such as the Academy’s meetings. 17 In order to escape this dually complex situation, Bassi decided
to marry and, as we know from one of her letters, chose Veratti only
after he had promised that he would not hinder her in her studies. 18 In
fact, her new marital status increased Laura’s chances of taking part in
social and scientific life, despite her pregnancies and numerous children. In 1746, when the abovementioned letter was written, she had already had five children, three of whom had survived, and there would
be a further three in the years to come. The couple’s home became a
seat for literary salons, frequented not only by scholars of science but
also by poets, amateurs, and travellers.
16. Veratti to Bassi, from Ancona, 26 November 1746, in Lettere inedite alla celebre Laura
Bassi scritte da illustri Italiani e stranieri, con biografia, Bologna, Tipografia G. Cenerelli,
1885, pp. 153-154.
17. P. Findlen, The Scientist’s Body: The Nature of a Woman Philosopher in Enlightenment
Italy, in The Faces of Nature in Enlightenment Europe, L. Daston, G. Pomata (eds.), BWVBerliner Wissenschafts-Verlag, Berlin, 2003, pp. 211-236; M. Cavazza, Between Modesty and
Spectacle: Women and Science in Eighteenth Century Italy, in Italy’s Eighteenth Century: Gender
and Culture in the Age of the Grand Tour, P. Findlen, Catherine Sama, Wendy Roworth (eds.),
Stanford University Press, Stanford, 2009.
18. Bassi to Giovanni Bianchi, Bologna, 26 Aprile 1738, in B. Ceranski, Il carteggio tra
Giovanni Bianchi e Laura Bassi, 1733-1745, Nuncius, IX, 1994, 1, pp. 207-231; on Bassi-Veratti’s
wedding, see also Ead., «Und sie fürchtet sich vor niemandem», cit., pp. 86-94.
Early work on Electricity and Medicine / 17
It was only because of her marriage that Bassi managed to avoid
the merely representative and ornamental role to which the authorities in Bologna had relegated her. Without the status of a marriage or
the material and moral support of her husband, Bassi almost certainly
could not have successfully attained the two goals that permitted her
to effectively carry out her research and her teaching—if not exactly
on the same terms as her male colleagues, then nearly the same. She
obtained the first of these goals in 1745, when she and Veratti were able
to convince Pope Benedict xiv to nominate her as a member of the new
class of the Benedettini academics that he had created to stimulate the
scientific output of the Academy. The Benedettini received a stipend
but were expected to attend the sessions of the Academy assiduously
and to present at least one original paper per year. 19
The second goal that Bassi managed to attain due to Veratti’s collaboration was the opportunity to teach on a regular basis, albeit at
home. In 1732, when the lectureship of Philosophia universa was assigned to her, the Senate had pointed out that, because of her gender
(ratione sexus), Bassi could only hold lectures with the consensus of
her superiors and on exceptional occasions. Bassi had tried to have
this constraint removed so that she could teach under the same conditions as her fellow professors, but these efforts were in vain. Finally,
in 1749, in her own home she set up a school of Experimental Physics
that was highly successful as it filled a gap in the studies available in
the city. The University offered only theoretical teachings, whereas the
experimental courses of the Institute were too abridged and produced
few results.
The main prerequisite of a school of this nature was the availability
of a physics laboratory equipped with all the instruments, machines,
and materials essential to meet all the needs of the discipline. If only
because of the high costs involved, Veratti’s agreement and collaboration were clearly critical to the success of Bassi’s enterprise. Thus, at
their home the couple had an impressive set of tools (among them, as
referred to in the letter above, an electric machine) that they used for
19. M. Cavazza, Una donna nella Repubblica degli scienziati, cit., pp. 68-70. Pope Benedetto
xiv (Prospero Lambertini) is considered to be the refounder of the Science Institute of
Bologna, which was in a grave crisis during the 1730s. The institution of the new academic
class was part of his strategy to promote the institute’s activity and increase its scientific
productivity. There were 24 Benedettini academies and they received an annual budget,
but members were obliged to participate assiduously in the academy and to present at
least one original annual report each year.
18 / Early work on Electricity and Medicine
their research and also for the medical therapy proposed by Dr. Veratti.
To open the school, it was necessary to expand this collection with new
tools; in turn, over time, the school acquired a great deal of recognition. In 1820, a Bolognese aristocrat acquired the school’s equipment
from Paolo Veratti, the couple’s son, and drew up an inventory of it.
In this document credit was given only to Bassi, who by that time was
part of the academic pantheon of Bologna. 20
The school also turned out to be a good investment because it attracted numerous students as well as the fact that in recognition of its
benefits to the public the Senate awarded Bassi a considerable increase
in salary, in 1759. Courses were held throughout the year and Bassi
continued teaching them until shortly before her death in 1778. Thereafter, her husband assumed these responsibilities. One of the first students to attend the school was Lazzaro Spallanzani, who always referred to Laura Bassi as his “venerata maestra”. 21
The fact that Bassi’s professional success also meant an increase in
the family’s income suggests that the couple’s efforts were not wholly of an idealistic nature. In any case, their solidarity is apparent in
their agreed-upon strategies for obtaining recognition in the scientific
community and in the unanimous choice of which faction to support
whenever there were divisions within the academic or political community. It was also manifested in their cultivation of shared scientific
friendships. Moreover, their habit of working together, along with
their reciprocal affection and respect, may have had an important
influence on the evolution of their respective research interests. One
example that seems to verify these statements is the roles that Bassi
and Veratti played, individually and as a couple, within the early community of Italians studying electricity, in a period extending from the
initial discussions on the subject (1747-1752) to the end of the 1770s,
20. Inventario delle macchine componenti il Gabinetto una volta della fù Sig.ra Dottoressa
Laura Bassi Veratti, ora di ragione del N.U: Sig. Cav. e Conte Carlo Filippo Aldrovandi Marescotti,
in Archivio di Stato di Bologna, Archivio Aldrovandi Marescotti, n. 430, pp. 24. The inventory is published in Marta Cavazza, Laura Bassi e il suo gabinetto di Fisica sperimentale:
realtà e mito, Nuncius, X, 1995/2, pp. 715-753: 741-753.
21. On Bassi and Spallanzani’s relationship, see Marta Cavazza, Laura Bassi “maestra”di
Spallanzani, in Il cerchio della vita. Materiali di ricerca del Centro studi Lazzaro Spallanzani di
Scandiano sulla storia della scienza del Settecento, W. Bernardi and P. Manzini (eds.), Olschki,
Firenze, 1999, pp. 185-202, and Ead., Spallanzani professore di fisica newtoniana, in La sfida
della modernità. Atti del convegno internazionale di studi nel bicentenario della morte di Lazzaro
Spallanzani, W. Bernardi and M. Stefani (eds.), Olschki, Firenze, 2000, pp. 95-109.
Early work on Electricity and Medicine / 19
i.e., the years just prior to Galvani’s theories on animal electricity. 22 The
couple’s research activity took place in their home laboratory, in the
Physics department at the Institute of Sciences, and during the meetings held at the Academy of Sciences.
At the time of the aforementioned letter, the availability of an electrical machine at the Verattis’ house made it the only private place in
Bologna where it was possible to perform electrostatic experiments.
Judging from what is known about the equipment available at the
house, 23 the machine is likely to have been an improved version of the
Hauksbee model invented at the beginning of the century. A description of the machine can be found in the travel diary of Jean Antoine
Nollet, who visited the Bassi-Veratti laboratory in 1749. The machine is
described as a multi-globe machine, similar to the one designed by the
German professor Johann Heinrich Winkler around 1743-1745, which
very quickly spread all over Italy. A number of details in Nollet’s description suggest that some of the parts of Veratti’s machine were made
in Venice, where this model of electrical generator was well known due
to the public demonstrations of the Saxon physician Christian Xavier
Wabst and the Flemish experimenter Francisco Bossaert. 24
The Institute acquired an electrical machine only in 1743. It was a
single-globe machine moved by a multiplying wheel (according to
the Hauksbee and Gravesande models) and belonged to the extensive
collection of experimental physics instruments that the Institute pur22. J. Heilbron, Electricity in the 17th and 18th century. A Study on early Modern Physics,
University of California Press, Berkeley-Los Angeles, 1979; W. D. Hackmann, Electricity
from Glass. The History of the Frictional Electrical Machine (1600-1850), Alphen aan der Rijn,
Sijthoff, 1979.
23. “Antique electrical machine with two cylinders and two crystal globes, in one of
which there was a tap made in Holland to raise air with a pneumatic machine, fire would
heat the globe, an iron bar, which serves as a conductor”. (Inventario delle machine, cit.,
p. 751). For a “classification of the principal electrical machines”, from 1600 to 1850, see
Hackmann, Electricity from Glass, pp. 11-13.
24. “La Mach.[ine] Electrique de Mr. Verati a une Roüe de 3 pieds et demi de diametre,
deux poupées assez solide set des cylindres dont les uns sont de cristal de Venise, les
autres de verre blanc fait a Boulogne, ont environ 21 pouces de diam., et 8 a 10 pouces
de longueur” (J. A. Nollet, Journal du voyage de Piémont et d’Italie en 1749, Soisson, Bibliothèque Municipale, MS 150, p. 229; Hackmann, Electricity from glass, pp. 73-82, 267. I
was able to read Nollet’s Journal, thanks to the kindness of Paola Bertucci (see reference).
The crystal bells (poupées) of Veratti’s machine resemble those of the electrical machine
portrayed in G. Pivati, Nuovo dizionario scientifico e curioso, sacro e profano, Venezia, Milocco,
10 vols., 1746-1751. On Wabst’s and Bossaert’s electrical performances in Venice, and on
the quick spread of Winkler’s electrical machine in Italy, see Paola Bertucci, Viaggio nel
paese delle meraviglie. Scienza e curiosità nell’Italia del Settecento, Torino, Bollati Boringhieri,
2007, pp. 126-129.
20 / Early work on Electricity and Medicine
chased from the Dutch instrument-maker Jan Van Musschenbroeck,
made possible by the generous financial support of Pope Benedict XIV.
Until then the Bolognese physicists had worked on pneumatics, fluid
dynamics, mechanics, and Newtonian optics. 25 It was only towards
the end of the 1740s, much later than other European centers of learning, that they began to show some interest in the phenomena of electricity. The role of the Bolognese Academy in expanding research on
electricity in Italy was recently explored by Paola Bertucci, in a book
focused on the travel across Italy of the Abbé Jean Antoine Nollet, in
1749. 26 Nollet went to Italy in order to judge for himself the controversial experiments carried out by a number of Italians, who thought
that electricity might act as a vehicle for introducing into the human
body pharmaceutical products contained within sealed glass tubes for
the treatment of certain illnesses. The Academy was directly involved
in discussions about the use of electricity in medical therapy. These
discussions, which took place in Italy in the years 1747-1749, became
a matter of debate throughout Europe, thanks to Nollet. Some years
ago, this episode was referred to by Simon Schaffer as an example in
support of his theories on the social aspects of scientific evidence. 27
Controversy arose following publication of the book Dell’elettricità
medica, by the Venetian Gianfrancesco Pivati, who was a solicitor, writer, and cultivated self-made expert in physics. Pivati was a member
of the Academy of Bologna, where his book was published in 1747 in
the form of a letter addressed to the Secretary Francesco Maria Zanotti. The Academy entrusted to Veratti the task of experimental verification of the efficacy of the therapeutic method proposed by Privati.
The experiments by which the latter maintained he had confirmed the
therapeutic efficacy of electricity were presented at the Academy and
made known to a wider public in a book published in Bologna in 1748,
which was subsequently translated into French and printed in Geneva
in 1750. 28
25. For the history of the Institute’s physics laboratory, see Stefano Belli, Le “Camere”
di Fisica dell’Istituto delle Scienze di Bologna (1711-1758), doctoral dissertation, Università
di Bari, 1993-1994.
26. Bertucci, Viaggio nel paese delle meraviglie. Scienza e curiosità nell’Italia del Settecento,
cit. On Nollet’s travel, see also, Ead., Sparking controversy: Jean Antoine Nollet and medical
electricity south of the Alps, Nuncius, XX , 1-2005, pp. 153-187.
27. Simon Schaffer, Self evidence, Critical Inquiry, 18, 1992, pp. 327-362, reprinted in
Questions of evidence. Proof, practice, and persuasion across the disciplines, J. Chandler, A. I.
Davidson and H. Harootunian (eds.), University of Chicago Press, Chicago, pp. 56-91.
28. Giuseppe Veratti, Osservazioni fisico-mediche intorno all’elettricità, Bologna, Dalla
Early work on Electricity and Medicine / 21
Classical histories on electricity also mention the experiments on atmospheric electricity carried out by researchers in the Bolognese Academy in 1752, immediately after the French experiments in Marly. These
experiments were among the first in Italy to confirm Franklin’s hypotheses about the identity between atmospheric and artificial electricity. In
this episode too, Veratti was one of the main protagonists, immediately making the results known to the public. 29 Both these experiments
concerning atmospheric electricity and the lightning-rod, and those of
1748 on therapeutic electricity were widely reported in the 1755 edition of the Academy’s Commentarii. 30 As a result of these works, Veratti
gained a minor place in the history of electricity, although probably a
smaller one than he deserved.
Laura Bassi, by contrast, has been almost totally ignored by historians of electricity, which is quite unjust considering that she presented no less than seven dissertations on electricity to the Academy,
a number surpassed only by her husband’s. That her contribution has
been forgotten is, however, quite comprehensible, since the texts of
these papers have been lost; only their titles and dates of presentation
are known. This is the only time when Veratti’s name is more prominent than his wife’s, but this is true only historically because at the
time she was well-respected by her colleagues. The example of Nollet
serves to illustrate this point: after his return to Paris, he continued to
correspond with her also about other areas of experimental physics. In
particular, one long letter that he wrote is significant because of the description Nollet gives of one of his new inventions, a square in which
it is possible to conduct “electrical fire” in order to create luminous designs at one’s desire. The French experimentalist eventually included
this letter in the 1767 edition of his Lettres sur l’Électricité. 31
Volpe, 1748 (French translation: Id., Observations physico-médicales sur l’électricité, Génève,
chez H.-A. Gosse, 1750).
29. Antonio Pace, Benjamin Franklin and Italy. The American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, 1958, p. 2. Giuseppe Veratti, Osservazione fatta in Bologna l’anno 1752 dei fenomeni
elettrici nuovamente scoperti in America, Bologna, Dalla Volpe, 1752.
30. Commentarii, III, 1755, De electricitati caelesti, pp. 200-204.
31. Antoine Nollet, Lettres sur l’Electricité dans lequelles on trouvera les principaux phénomènes qui ont été découverts depuis 1760, L. Guérin et L.F. Delatour, Paris, 1767. For the
(shorter) version of the letter actually received by Bassi, see Lettere inedite alla celebre Laura
Bassi, cit., pp. 99-102.
22 / Early work on Electricity and Medicine
The research program
As pointed out above, Bassi’s training was different from Veratti’s.
Her best-known contributions, mainly because they were published in
the Commentarii, dealt with problems of pneumatics, hydraulics, and
mechanics, solved at times by analytical methods. 32 She did share with
her husband, however, a passionate interest in electrical phenomena
and, later, in studies on fixed and on inflammable air. Her presence
can be clearly felt in all three of the major lines of research in electrical
phenomena carried out at the Academy in Bologna from the 1750s to
the 1770s. As clearly delineated by Veratti in his papers of 1748 and
1752, these three closely linked lines were:
1) The Newtonian epistemological approach, which, in the wake of
the Queries in the Opticks, attempted to find principles capable
of linking physical phenomena (light, heat, electricity, and magnetism) with organic phenomena (the effects of electricity on the
growth of plants and on muscular movement, “electric” fish, and
phosphorescent fish).
2) The study of the effects of “electrical fluid” on living organisms
and on their functions. It was mainly Veratti, and then Galvani,
who took research to the borders between physics and physiology. As mentioned above, despite holding a post in those years
as a lecturer in physics at the University, Veratti was a physician,
a pupil of Iacopo Bartolomeo Beccari, likewise a physician, but
also a professor first of physics, then of chemistry, at the Institute
and the University. Indeed, with very few exceptions, among
them Laura Bassi, all the Bolognese scholars of electricity had
degrees in medicine.
3) The support of the single electrical fluid theory proposed by
Franklin and systematized in a Newtonian framework by Giambattista Beccaria, with whom the Academy, through Beccari,
Bassi, and Veratti, held a close and fruitful relationship. Even
when most of the Italian electricians supported Symmer’s “double fluid” theory, the Bologna Academy remained faithful to
32. Works of Bassi in the Academy’s Commentarii: De aeris compressione, II, first part,
1745, pp. 347-353; De problemate quodam idrometrico, IV, 1757, pp. 61-73; De problemate quodam
mechanico, IV, pp. 74-79; De immixto fluidis fluidis aere, VII, 1791, pp. 44-47; on their contents,
see Logan Berti, The Desire to Contribute, cit., pp. 805-808; Ceranski, «Und sie fürchtet sich
vor niemanden», pp. 131-162.
Early work on Electricity and Medicine / 23
Franklin. 33 An official guide to the Institute published in 1780
stated that the machines and instruments in the room dedicated
to electricity were intended to illustrate Franklin’s and Beccaria’s
theories. 34
In the concluding section of his book on medical electricity, Veratti
presented the results of a series of tests aimed at demonstrating the
“physical qualities” of what he sometimes calls electrical “force”, and
other times electrical “virtue” or “matter”. Among these, the first and
best-known one was the capacity to attract certain bodies and repel others. Veratti rejected explanations of a mechanistic type, such as Nollet’s
(whom, however, he did not mention by name), and instead believed
that electrical phenomena are a result of attraction, which he defined
as the “general source, from which the principal phenomena of nature
spring”. He was of the opinion that, like attraction, “electrical virtue”
was “scattered and spread universally throughout corporeal nature”.
Finally, he put forward a “conjecture” that “there may be much analogy and similarity between electrical fluid and light”. Newton showed
that light is attracted or repelled by bodies in different ways. The same
was true for “electrical fluid”. Why shouldn’t one think that “these two
marvellous fluids” are “one and the same thing”? 35
The path in search of analogies that made it possible to link different phenomena was followed uninterruptedly at the Academy in
Bologna, first by Veratti, who in academic meetings of 1758 and 1759
proposed an analogy between “magnetic virtue”, “electrical virtue”,
and fire; second by Laura Bassi, who in 1777 maintained that there
was an affinity between bodies that retain heat and those that retain
electricity; and third by Galvani, who in 1786 hypothesized that there
is a similarity among flame, respiration, and “electrical vapor”, and in
1791 finally publicized the results of experiments proving the existence
of electricity in animals and its identity with common electrical fluid 36.
33. Benjamin Franklin, Experiments and observations on Electricity made at Philadelphia
in America, E. Cave, London, 1751. B. Beccaria, Elettricismo naturale e artificiale, Torino,
Stamperia di F. A. Campana, 1753. On Beccaria’s stay in Bologna, and on his influence on
the electricians of the Academy, see Urbinati, Physica, pp. 146-149. On Symmer and the
controversy about the electric fluid nature, see J. L. Heilbron, Robert Symmer and the Two
Electricities, Isis, 57, 1966, pp. 7-20.
34. Giuseppe Angelelli, Notizie dell’Origine, e Progressi dell’Istituto delle Scienze di Bologna
e sue Accademie, Bologna, Nell’Instituto delle Scienze, 1780, p. 110.
35. Veratti, Osservazioni fisico-mediche, pp. 126-141.
36. Veratti, Esperimenta magnetica, in Commentarii, VI, 1783, pp. 31-44; for Bassi, see
the title of the paper presented to the academy on 6th June 1777: Sopra la proprietà che
24 / Early work on Electricity and Medicine
This research program was undoubtedly also fueled by the great influence Beccaria had on the Bolognese scholars. 37 Originally, however,
as Beate Ceranski suggests, there might well have been discussions
and exchanges of opinions between Bassi and Veratti. In the years
1747/1748 and after, the couple was engaged in different fields, and,
in fact, Laura’s notes on electricity date from after 1761. Ceranski is
of the opinion that Bassi deliberately remained in the background in
order not to harm the fame of her husband as an expert electrician,
whose book she promoted forcefully by means of her own personal
network of relationships. 38 However, that she was in fact already profoundly interested in the debates about electricity is proved by a paper
entitled ‘De aere in fluidis contento’, which she presented at the Academy in 1748. 39 The subject discussed was the cause of air bubbles that
are formed in different liquids contained in vases when air-pressure is
eliminated. Bassi felt that the cause was the attraction carried out on
the air within by the walls of a jar and the liquids contained therein,
which were of different densities. She began the paper by establishing an analogy between the behavior of air and that of light. She then
observed that “both these fine fluids”, in crossing different barriers,
“obey the laws of attraction and repulsion”, exactly like electricity,
whose tendency to accumulate in the extremities of bodies and corners
she recalled. 40
It is therefore clear that even if the two partners were focused on
different topics, they still shared a model of interpretation. This no
doubt arose from their habit of exchanging ideas, encouraged both by
the fact of living together and by their experimental activities, which,
while concerned with different subjects, were carried out side by side
hanno molti corpi, che ritenendo più degli altri il calore, ritengono più degli altri ancora
l’elettricità (Angelini, p. 370); L. Galvani, Dell’accordo e delle differenze tra la respirazione, la
fiamma, e il fiocco elettrico uscente dal conduttore acuminato della bottiglia di Leyda, in L. Galvani,
Opere scelte, G. Barbensi ed., Torino, UTET; Id., De viribus electricitatis in motu muscolari,
Commentarii, VII, 1791.
37. Urbinati, Physica, pp. 148-149.
38. Ceranski, «Und sie fürchtet sich vor niemanden», cit., pp. 165-169.
39. This paper, preserved in manuscript form in the Archive of the Accademia delle
Scienze, was not published during Bassi’s life, unlike another on the same subject, similar,
but not identical, presented in 1747, and inserted in the VII volume of the Commentarii
(pp. 44-47). Both the version have been edited by Ceranski, in an Appendix to her book
«Und sie fürchtet sich vor niemandem», cit., pp. 258-270.
40. Ibid, p. 268. On Bassi’s acceptance of Newton’s natural philosophy, see Elena, «In
lode della filosofessa di Bologna»: An introduction to Laura Bassi, cit.; Logan Berti, The Desire to
Contribute, cit., pp. 793 and 807; Ceranski, «Und sie fürchtet sich vor niemandem», cit., passim.
Early work on Electricity and Medicine / 25
in the same laboratory. Ceranski wonders which of the two had more
influence on the other. She tends to favor Laura, who had first appreciated Newton many years before and who had on several occasions
publicly repeated his experiments on the composition of white light as
explained in the Opticks. 41
The physics laboratory in the Veratti house, in which there was a
considerable quantity of electrical instruments, was in the mid-1750s
an essential point of reference for some young physicians and physicists, the supporters of Haller’s physiological doctrines, including
Leopoldo Caldani and Felice Fontana. Haller’s distinction between
sensitivity, a nerve property, and irritability, an independent property
of the muscles, was attacked in Bologna by Tommaso Laghi, who, at
a session of the Academy in 1756, defended the traditional doctrine
of animal spirits circulating in the nerves as the only cause of muscular movement. He also proposed the hypothesis that nervous fluid
was of an electrical nature and that muscular contraction was caused
by electricity passing from the nerve to the muscle. In a later session,
Caldani defended Haller’s theories. The latter had not carried out his
experiments at the Institute but privately, in the presence, besides that
of Fontana and other young friends, of more authoritative figures,
such as Francesco Algarotti and Bassi and Veratti themselves. The experiments, which required the electrical stimulation of various organs,
and hence an electrical machine, had been carried out in the laboratory
of the couple. It was Fontana rather than Caldani who performed the
experiments, using cats, calves, and, above all, a great number of frogs
as test animals. Electricity was considered by the two researchers to be
the most powerful stimulus, capable of arousing reactions in tissues
and irritable organs, even when any other stimuli were ineffective.
They both, however, rejected the idea that nervous fluid was of the
same nature as the electrical one. 42
One of the first epistemological objections to their acceptance of this
theory was that it would have questioned Haller’s system, which they
41. Ceranski, «Und sie fürchtet sich vor niemanden», p. 169.
42. Caldani L.M.A, Sull’insensività ed irritabilità di alcune parti degli animali. Lettera
scritta al chiarissimo e celebratissimo signore Alberto Haller, in Fabri G.B. (ed.), Sull’insensività
ed irritabilità halleriana. Opuscoli di varj autori, Bologna, 1757, pp. 269-336, in part. p. 325.
On the controversy between Haller’s Bolognese supporters and the local advocates of
the iatromechanic tradition, see M. Cavazza, Vis irritabilis e spiriti animali. Una disputa
settecentesca sulle cause del moto muscolare, in Marco Piccolino (ed.), Neuroscienze controverse.
Da Aristotele alla moderna scienza del linguaggio, Bollati Boringhieri,Torino, 2008 ,pp. 49-74.
26 / Early work on Electricity and Medicine
supported, and the idea that there was a force within muscles that was
independent of nerves and sensitivity. Moreover, as R.W. Home explained, in an article published in 1970, Laghi’s analogy was unacceptable on the basis of Franklin’s and Beccaria’s theories about electricity,
with which Caldani and Fontana agreed. 43 It may well have been Bassi
and Veratti who were behind their conclusions, since they were the
first supporters of these theories in Bologna. Both Caldani and Fontana
were regular visitors to the couple’s house, where Fontana also carried
out his first experiments, described in his book about the iris, in addition to those on irritability. 44 Veratti’s agreement with the hypothesis of
a single electrical fluid had been reached after reading Beccaria’s 1753
work Artificial and Natural Electricity. We know that he repeated those
experiments there shortly thereafter. It was probably on the basis of his
recommendation that Beccaria was elected a member of the Academy
in the spring of 1755. He came to Bologna in October and repeated the
experiments described in the book in the physics laboratory at the Institute, also availing himself of Bassi’s and Veratti’s collaboration. The
latter eventually presented Franklin’s Experiments and Letters on Electricity to the academics on November 6th of the same year. 45
A life of scientific success
The experiments repeated by Beccaria in Bologna included one on
the motor effects of electrical stimuli, also quoted by Laghi in his dissertation against Haller: using Franklin’s magic square, he conducted
electricity through two copper wires joined to the tendons and muscle
in the thigh of a live chicken: the spark that was set off made the muscle
contract. It has been said of this experiment that “it recalls surprisingly
Galvani’s first tests”. 46 However, neither Caldani, nor Fontana, nor Veratti evidently interpreted the results as a proof of the analogy between
nervous and electrical fluids, and thus in opposition to Haller’s prin43. Roderick W. Home, Electricity and the Nervous Fluid, Journal of the History of
Biology, 3, 1970, pp. 235-251.
44. Felice Fontana, Dei moti dell’iride, Giusti, Lucca, 1765. For the experiments made
by Fontana in the Veratti laboratory, see his letter from Pisa, on 25 March 1759 in Lettere
inedite alla celebre Laura Bassi, cit., pp. 210-213.
45. Annarita Angelini (ed.), Anatomie accademiche III. L’Istituto delle scienze e l’Accademia,
Il Mulino, Bologna, 1993, p. 345.
46. Urbinati, Physica, cit., p. 146.
Early work on Electricity and Medicine / 27
ciples of physiology. Veratti would return once again to the theme of
the effects of electric shock on animals in a series of experiments also
using Franklin’s square; these were presented at the Academy in 1769
and 1770. In his opinion, the shock caused an upset in the functions
of nerves and the destruction of the gluten in the muscles and, consequently, of the irritability of the fibers. 47 This conjecture, therefore, can
still be seen within a Hallerian framework. In the following years, Veratti changed his mind; however, in the 1791 volume of the Commentarii
the account of these experiments is placed alongside Galvani’s De viribus electricitatis, in which Haller’s doctrine of irritability was rejected
and muscular contractions were explained as the effect of a flow of
animal electricity from the nerve to the muscle. 48 In fact, in his innovative research, Galvani could always count on the advice of Veratti, who
proposed some experiments to him, as autographed documents at the
Academy prove. In those documents Galvani highly praises not only
Veratti but his wife as well. 49
Veratti’s lasting appreciation of Haller can also be explained by the
friendship that continued to tie him and his wife to the two foremost
Italian followers of Haller, Caldani and Fontana. In 1761, after moving to Padua, the former even offered to take on the task of obtaining
two vacant chairs for the couple at that University, one in experimental
physics and the other in mathematics. 50 Here, however, the relationship between the couple and Fontana is of greater interest to us. In
1758, Fontana had moved to Tuscany, where he had been entrusted by
the Grand Duke’s government with setting up a large public physics
museum. 51 If his letters to Veratti were mainly concerned with matters
pertaining to his works on irritability and the iris, those addressed to
Bassi, greater in number and to a large extent unpublished, are extremely interesting from the point of view of the history of electric47. G. Veratti, De animalibus electrico ictu percussi, Commentarii, VII, 1791, pp. 41-44.
48. L. Galvani, De viribus electricitatis in motu muscolari, Commentarii, VII, 1791, pp.
49. The influence of Veratti’s experimental work on the scientific training of Galvani,
has been recognized and well documented by Marco Bresadola in Marco Piccolino, Marco
Bresadola, Rane, torpedini e scintille: Galvani, Volta e l’elettricità animale, Bollati Boringhieri,
Torino, 2003, pp. 118-120.
50. Caldani to Veratti, from Padua [1761, in Lettere inedite, cit., pp. 204-206.
51. On Fontana’s scientific and cultural achievements in Florence, see Simone Contardi,
La Casa di Salomone a Firenze. L’Imperiale e Reale Museo di Fisica e Storia Naturale (1775-1801),
Olschki, Firenze, 2002; see also the monographic issue of the journal Nuncius: Journal of the
History of Science, devoted to Felice Fontana and his collections (XXI, 2/2006).
28 / Early work on Electricity and Medicine
ity. The first reason concerns the history of instruments: Fontana often
speaks to his correspondent, whom he refers to as “an honor to women
and the envy of men”, about the machines acquired or constructed
for the museum. Among the former was a Nairne electrical machine,
which was a novelty for Italy, while the latter included an enormous
machine, constructed by the museum’s mechanics, which could produce violent sparks like those obtained with the Leyden jar. Fontana
also describes a “little electrical machine” constructed in Florence under the guidance of its inventor, the Dutchman Ingenhousz, to whom
he had first been introduced by Bassi. One such “little machine” had
been constructed for a nobleman in Milan, but had first been sent to
Bologna so that Bassi might have a copy made of it. 52
But Fontana does not only discuss instruments with Laura Bassi; he
also confides to her that he is not fully convinced by Franklin’s system
because it does not explain all phenomena. On the one hand, Franklin’s
work is confirmed by “irresistible experiments”, which he has carried
out personally. On the other hand, he says that he has found several
proofs that “restrict the over-generic propositions of Franklin’s followers”, although they are not such as to prove the single fluid theory
wrong. This letter is dated 1768. As is known, like most Italian scholars
of electricity, Fontana would later publicly support Symmer’s double
fluid hypothesis. We do not have Bassi’s replies to these letters, but
in a letter of 1775 Fontana attributes to her an “ingenious” defense of
Franklin’s system, which, nonetheless, does not convince him. She had,
in fact, accepted the corrected version of the single fluid theory proposed by Beccaria, who in 1767 had introduced the concept of “vindicating electricity” to explain the phenomena of repulsion between
bodies with a negative charge. On June 7, 1771, Bassi presented a paper
to the Academy entitled Sopra l’elettricità vindice, the text of which,
unfortunately, has been lost. Veratti was not converted to the double
fluid theory either, so much so that in the years 1778-1780 he dedicated
his courses at the Institute to the demonstration “with experiments” of
“Beccaria’s and Franklin’s system”. 53
Such fidelity is not surprising, as after Beccaria’s visit to Bologna
52. Fontana to Bassi, 8 February 1771, and 30 April 1775, from Firenze (BCAB, Collez.
autogr., XXIX, 8027 e 8029). Fontana to Bassi, 10 June 1768, and 9 May, 1775, from Firenze
(BCAB, Collez. autogr. XXIX, 8024 e 8028).
53. For Veratti’s courses, see in BCAB the local gazette Diario Bolognese Ecclesiastico e
Civile (years 1779 and 1780).
Early work on Electricity and Medicine / 29
in 1755 his ties with the scientific community in the city had grown
even stronger. Beccaria obviously saw in the favour shown him by the
most authoritative Italian scientific academy a shield against the attacks made on him in his own city, Turin, first by the Cartesians and
then by the opponents of Franklin. In 1758, he published in Bologna
a work whose title (translated) was Atmospheric Electricity in the form
of letters to Beccari, the President of the Institute. The letters contain a
theoretical and experimental defense of the Franklin system. Most of
the experiments described had been carried out in Turin, but Beccaria
also recalls that some had been done in Bologna, in the presence of
Beccari, and with the participation of Bassi and Veratti. One in particular, aimed at “establishing the universal diffusion of electrical vapor”,
and indirectly “the contradictions of electricities”, had been suggested
to him by Laura Bassi, a woman who, Beccaria wrote “does not dislike good reasons but never tires of experiments”. The test was enormously successful. Another experiment is described in detail, this one
proposed by Veratti, whose aim was to counter any objections to the
“contradictions of the two electricities”, and his considerations about
this topic are reported. 54
Beccaria’s collaboration with the Bolognese couple, especially with
Laura, continued in the following years by means of letters. Some of
hers have survived and she is often the bearer of messages from her
husband or speaks of scientific experiments they have performed together, for example, tests on atmospheric electricity conducted in their
country house, since these had been banned in Bologna after terrified
public reactions to lightning-rod experiments carried out there in 1752
and 1753. Perhaps under the influence of Fontana, Bassi admits in 1769
that she had previously had “various doubts about the contrary nature
of electricity”, adding that she would like to speak to Beccaria personally about it. In their correspondence, they often spoke of another trip
on the part of the latter to Bologna, and hence another chance to carry
out experiments together, but this journey was never to take place.
Beccaria expresses his gratitude for his Bolognese friends’ support and
on more than one occasion promises Laura that he will dedicate one of
his papers to her. Like Caldani and Fontana, he frequently sends the
couple people anxious to meet them and be introduced into the Insti54. Giambattista Beccaria, Elettricismo naturale ed artificiale. Lettere, Stamperia di Colle
Ameno, Bologna, 1758, pp. 29-30.
30 / Early work on Electricity and Medicine
tute. Like Fontana, who considered their home to be the most open
and welcoming in Bologna, 55 he was sure that they would be at these
people’s disposal. As his points of reference in Bologna, he also sends
the couple copies of his books for distribution among other scholars at
the Institute.
This role as intermediaries among researchers in other cities and the
Academy was valued by both of them, but especially by Laura Bassi.
In the 1770s, above all, various scholars, especially young ones, sent
her their publications, described their discoveries to her, or offered to
dedicate their next work to her. Three such scholars were not simply
by chance connected to the Franklin’s supporters’ group. One of them
was Giuseppe Campi, who sent her a collection of Franklin’s works,
the first to be translated into Italian, which he edited in 1774. 56 The
second one, Marsilio Landriani, also engaged in a defense of Franklin,
asked her for her opinion about a new type of portable barometer he
had invented, but the main topic of this letter was more concerned
with debates about various types of air, which at that time was of great
interest among those studying electricity, including Bassi and Veratti. 57 The third, and most famous, of Bassi’s correspondents was also
interested in electricity and in inflammable air. This was Alessandro
Volta, who sent her a short work in 1771 containing a description of
a series of new electrical experiments, and in 1776 his first two letters
about inflammable air in marshlands and, in the following year, the
complete work. In 1777, when he sent her his pamphlet describing a
pistol that works with inflammable air, he announced in advance a
new invention, the lantern using inflammable air, and his intention
of dedicating its description to her, whom he defines as the “beautiful
ornament of natural sciences, and the light and glory of her sex in our
Italy”. 58 In these letters by Volta, and in the only reply of Bassi’s that
is extant, we are struck by the now-aging Bassi’s enthusiasm for the
young Volta’s inventions. This enthusiasm was obviously shared by
Veratti, who even after his wife’s death would continue to acquire all
55. Fontana to Veratti, march 1766, BCAB, Coll. Autogr., XXIX, 8024-8031, n. 8031.
56. Campi to Bassi, from Milan, 8 August 1774 (BCAB, Collez. autogr., XIII, 3868).
57. Landriani to Bassi, Milan, 4 luglio July 1777, BCAB, Collez. autogr. XXVII, 10054.
58. Volta to Bassi, 15 July 1771, and 15 June 1777 from Como, in Lettere inedite, cit.,
pp. 157-159.
Early work on Electricity and Medicine / 31
the new instruments invented by Volta for the laboratory that the couple had built up together over the course of so many years. 59
Public recognition of a woman scientist
The competence and merits of the Bassi-Veratti couple in spreading
knowledge about electrical phenomena, through their research and especially through their teaching, were officially recognized in Bologna.
In 1776, the Senate decided to reorganize the teaching of physics at the
Institute. Various proposals were made, including separation of the
course on electricity from the rest of experimental physics. Bassi and
Veratti were asked to organize the new course together, but they replied that this division would have caused several problems of a practical nature. The Senate accepted these comments and decided that the
course would indeed be divided, but into one on general physics and
the other on experimental physics. The latter was entrusted to Laura
Bassi as chief professor and Veratti as her assistant. However, since he
had already assumed this role in previous years he this time expected
to become the professor. The solution adopted, which was granted in
response to Bassi’s insistent applications in the previous years – and
in recognition of her merits and fame “throughout the Republic of
Letters” – obviously had to be approved of and accepted by Veratti,
who would become first professor only two years later, that is, after his
wife’s death. 60
The situation that arose was undoubtedly paradoxical for the time,
yet significant in the equally paradoxical way in which Laura Bassi
and Giuseppe Veratti were seen by their contemporaries, i.e., as a couple engaged in the same work albeit not a truly equal couple, because
one of the two members enjoyed public recognition and social esteem
that were far greater than the other’s. The greater honor was paid not
to the man, the husband, as was to be expected then, and even to some
extent nowadays, but to the woman, the wife.
59. See the long list of electrical instruments in the section devoted to electricity of the
Inventario delle macchine, in Cavazza, Laura Bassi e il suo gabinetto di Fisica, cit., pp. 751-753.
60. On the re-organization of the courses of physics at the Institute at the end of 18th
century, see Marta Cavazza, The teaching of the experimental sciences at the Institute of Sciences
in Bologna, in Alma Mater Studiorum, 1993, pp. 169-179; and Ead., Fisica generale e fisica sperimentale nelle istituzioni scientifiche del Settecento, Studi settecenteschi, 18, 1998, pp. 321-342.
32 / Early work on Electricity and Medicine
The paradoxical aspect of this situation can only be understood if
it is considered within the context of gender relationships of the time.
The extraordinary fact in the daily relationship of the couple BassiVeratti is that it was based on reciprocity, as established in the agreement made before they married. One of its consequences was that it
allowed for a gender role division and a hierarchy that were absolutely
new and against the laws and customs of the time. By respecting this
agreement, Veratti allowed Bassi to pursue her scientific studies and
intellectual profession while maintaining her role as wife and mother
and thus a harmonious family life. The conciliation of these two roles
showed that the access of women to knowledge was not a danger capable of destroying the family and of generating social chaos - as was
claimed by moralists, philosophers, and the lay public, and not only by
adherents of Catholic conservatism.
Even in a town like Bologna, where in the Settecento a handful of
women received public recognition for their knowledge, Laura Bassi
was unique. One of the other prominent women of that time was Anna
Morandi, whose fame was similar to that of Bassi but was achieved
after the death of her husband, the ceroplastic sculptor Giovanni
Manzolini. It was only then that Morandi’s contribution to the field
of anatomic ceroplastics was recognized, which freed her to carry out
original research. This work resulted in her being placed in charge
of the practical anatomy courses in the university. 61 Without doubt,
the fame of Bassi and of Morandi was due to their research and their
didactic abilities but also to their extraordinary positions in society.
The ancien régime was neither able to accept the idea of all women’s
right to education and to participation in public life, nor to admit a
conjugal agreement based on equality. In such a cultural context, the
Bologna’s episodes of celebration and recognition of the learning of a
number of women were possible only because they were functional to
the strategies of power and propaganda of male political and religious
authorities, who counted on the exceptionality of such women and of
61. On Anna Morandi, see Rebecca Messbarger, Waxing Poetic: Anna Morandi Manzolini’s Anatomical Sculptures, Configurations, 9, 2001, pp. 9-65; Ead. The Lady Anatomist: the
life and work of Anna Morandi Manzolini, Chicago, Chicago University Press, 2010; Ead., As
Who Dare Gaze the Sun: Anna Morandi Manzolini’s Wax Anatomies of the Male Reproductive
System and Genitalia, in P. Findlen, W. Roworth, C. Sama, (eds.), Italy’s Eighteenth Century:
Gender and Culture in the Age of the Grand Tour, Stanford University Press, Stanford, 2009,
pp. 251-27; Miriam Focaccia (ed.), Anna Morandi Manzolini, una donna fra arte e scienza.
Immagini, documenti, repertorio anatomico, Olschki, Firenze, 2008.
Early work on Electricity and Medicine / 33
the public posts appointed to them in the academy or in the university
in order to gain fame for themselves or their town.
The imbalance in the public recognition granted to Bassi and to Veratti was not due to a lower appraisal of the value of his contributions;
but it accounts for the role of icon of cultivated Bologna assigned to
her. The city’s prestige in part arose because of the wide dissemination of her case, unique in Europe. Veratti not only consented to this
situation, even when he was not benefited but disadvantaged by it as
in 1776, but on many occasions supported the efforts of his wife to effectively improve her conditions as a teacher and researcher.
A true change in the role of women in society and in the family
necessarily implies a contemporary change in the role of men and in
the prevailing gender hierarchy. In 18th century Italy, Laura Bassi and
Giuseppe Veratti invented a model of gender relationships that remained novel for a very long period of time. It is also worth noting that
then new research topics, placed at the intersection between electricity
and medicine, somehow favoured the introduction of the new model
of gender relationships that we have explored in this paper.
Finally, we must keep in mind that the necessary background for
Bassi’s and Veratti’s research on electricity was provided by the Institute of Sciences, even if a substantial part of it was made at home,
in their private laboratory. It was thanks to the discussions with their
academy colleagues, to the interaction with the students, to the availability of the electrical instruments in the institute’s rooms, and to the
increasing space given to the study of electrical phenomena within the
institute, that research on electricity was institutionalized. An important shift compared to when, before the 1740s, electricity was only an
amusing subject in aristocratic conversations, or a popular attraction.
Giovanni Aldini e l’elettricità animale
Gian Carlo Calcagno
Agli inizi degli anni Novanta del Settecento compare un testo, divenuto ben presto famoso – il De viribus electricitatis in motu musculari
Commentarius–, 1 destinato a legare indissolubilmente alla questione
dell’elettricità animale 2 i nomi dell’anatomista e fisiologo Luigi Galvani e del nipote, il fisico Giovanni Aldini; e destinato a promuovere un
ampio e variegato dibattito nella cultura scientifica (e non solo scientifica) del tempo, in Italia e fuori d’Italia.
L’ interesse per gli effetti particolari del “fluido elettrico” sugli (e
negli) animali era peraltro presente nel Settecento anche ad altri tra gli
1. Luigi Galvani, De viribus electricitatis in motu musculari Commentarius, “De Bononiensi
Scientiarum et Artium Institutio atque Academia Commentarii”, 7, 1791, pp. 363-418. A
questa prima edizione seguì poi una seconda, De viribus electricitatis in motu musculari
commentarius, cum Ioannis Aldini dissertatione et notis, Societas typographica, Mutinae, 1792.
2. Sulle ipotesi intorno alla natura dell’elettricità emerse tra XVIII e XIX secolo si vedano, segnatamente, Giuliano Pancaldi, Volta: Science and Culture in the Age of Enlightenment,
Stanford University Press, 2003; Marcello Pera, La rana ambigua, Einaudi, Torino 1986. Cfr.
inoltre Marco Bresadola, Early Galvanism as technique and medical practice, in Paola Bertucci
and Giuliano Pancaldi (ed. by), Electric Bodies. Episodes in the history of medical electricity,
Università di Bologna – Dipartimento di Filosofia – Centro Internazionale per la Storia
delle Università e della Scienza, Bologna 2001, pp. 157-179; Id., Galvanismo senza Galvani:
la ricezione dell’elettricità animale in Inghilterra, 1792-1794, in Filosofia, scienza, storia. Il dialogo
fra Italia e Gran Bretagna nel XVIII secolo, Convegno internazionale di studi, Ferrara 3-4
giugno 2004, a cura di Andrea Gatti e Paola Zanardi, Il Poligrafo, Padova 2005; Raffaella
Seligardi, What is electricity? Some chimical answers, 1770-1815, Centro Internazionale per
la Storia delle Università e della Scienza, cit., pp. 181-208; Marco Piccolino e Marco Bresadola, Rane, torpedini e scintille, Bollati Boringhieri, Torino, 2003. Limitando altri rinvii
bibliografici a testi che, pur in forma molto sintetica, mettono bene a fuoco alcune questioni fondamentali, sono ancora utili Carlo Castellani-Luca Usuelli, voce Galvani, Luigi,
in Scienziati e tecnologi dalle origini al 1875, 3 voll., Mondadori, Milano 1975-1976, volume
I, 1975, pp. 556-558; Enrico Bellone, La polemica sull’elettricità animale, Ivi, volume III, 1976,
p. 599; Bern Dibner, Giovanni Aldini, in Dictionary of Scientific Biography, 1, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1970, pp. 107-108. Si veda anche Tirsi Mario Caffaratto, voce Luigi
Galvani, in Grande Dizionario Enciclopedico Utet, Torino 1994 (ristampa IV ed), vol. IX, p. 67.
36 / Giovanni Aldini e l’elettricità animale
scienziati – da Albrecht von Haller a Lazzaro Spallanzani – in un più
ampio contesto di attenzione ai fenomeni elettrici in generale. 3 Ma il
De viribus electricitatis proponendo al mondo scientifico una serie di
accurate esperienze, 4, relative alle reazioni prodotte su un preparato
neuromuscolare di rana, intendeva collocarsi oltre le ipotesi già formulate in precedenza da altri studiosi italiani e stranieri. Il testo evidenziava, in particolare, la presenza di un fenomeno che appariva del
tutto nuovo, per cui le contrazioni del preparato si producevano anche
senza l’intervento di elettricità esterna (statica o atmosferica), mediante il semplice accostamento, ai nervi lombari e ai muscoli, di un arco
bimetallico che veniva a chiudere il circuito.
Tutto ciò permetteva al Galvani e all’Aldini di sostenere l’ ipotesi
di una elettricità specifica degli organismi animali. Entrambi, inoltre,
stimavano importante – per ulteriori ricerche – comprendere il funzionamento dei nervi e osservare il comportamento dei muscoli ai fini di
una più approfondita conoscenza dell’eziologia di alcune malattie e
di una migliore valutazione delle proprietà terapeutiche dell’elettricità
prodotta artificialmente 5.
All’origine del fenomeno della contrazione neuromuscolare – osservata per la prima volta quasi dieci anni prima della pubblicazione del
3. Legata variamente – a volte anche in ambito scientifico – allo “status ambiguo della
cultura della meraviglia e della curiosità”, l’ elettricità si presenta nel Settecento come “la
moda del secolo” (Paola Bertucci, Cure prodigiose e meraviglie elettrizzanti. Il duello filosofico
tra l’abbé Nollet e Gianfrancesco Pivati, in Storia, scienza e società. Ricerche sulla scienza in Italia
nell’età moderna e contemporanea, a cura di Paola Govoni, Università di Bologna - Dipartimento di Filosofia - Centro Internazionale per la Storia delle Università e della Scienza,
Bologna 2006, p. 47).
4. Le sperimentazioni e le ricerche di Galvani e di Aldini (e il dibattito che ne scaturiva)
avevano come referente immediato l’Istituto delle Scienze di Bologna che, grazie ai legami
che intratteneva con le principali istituzioni scientifiche garantiva una buona diffusione
dei loro lavori anche all’estero ed era in grado di raccogliere gli echi che le discussioni
sull’elettricità suscitavano nel resto d’Italia e in Europa. Tra le fonti che registrano questa
situazione e più in generale il ruolo di produttore (ma anche di mediatore) di cultura
scientifica svolto dall’Istituto sin dalle origini, fonti che – per brevità – citiamo qui una
sola volta, vanno ricordate, Collezione Autografi II (Biblioteca comunale dell’Archiginnasio);
Carte Canterzani. Autografi (Biblioteca dell’Università di Bologna) e i già segnalati De Bononiensis Scientiarum et Artium Instituto atque Academia Commentarii, Bononiae 1731-1791, 7
tomi; e, in particolare, tra i lavori di Aldini, oltre a quelli che verranno citati nel prosieguo,
si vedano Giovanni Aldini, Memoria intorno all’elettricità animale, “Opuscoli scelti sulle
Scienze e sulle Arti”, t. XVII, 1794; Id., Lettera intorno all’elettricità animale, “Opuscoli scelti
sulle Scienze e sulle Arti”, t. XIX, 1796; Id., Memorie intorno ad alcune elettriche esperienze,
“Annali di Chimica e di Storia naturale”, t. XIV, 1797.
5. Vincenzo Pallotti, Aldini, l’Istituto delle Scienze di Bologna e il dibattito sull’elettricità
animale tra tardo Settecento e primo Ottocento in Italia e fuori d’Italia, CdL in Storia, Seminario
di Storia della scienza e della tecnica, Bologna 1979.
Giovanni Aldini e l’elettricità animale / 37
De viribus electricitatis – vi era stato peraltro un evento casuale, come
dichiarava lo stesso Luigi Galvani, rammentando la “scoperta, che per
caso facemmo, di un circuito di un tenuissimo fluido nervoso, che,
mentre avveniva il fenomeno, si svolgeva dai nervi ai muscoli e che è
simile al circuito elettrico, che si svolge nella bottiglia di Leida”. 6
La scoperta poteva anche essere fortuita, ma la lunga verifica cui
Galvani l’aveva sottoposta era stata rigorosa, con una mutuazione, in
parte, dalla fisica, sia delle tecniche di sperimentazione sia delle spiegazioni teoriche. Comunque è stato sottolineato come, alla luce delle
ipotesi di Galvani, fatte proprie da Aldini, i muscoli – ai quali l’ elettricità prodotta dal cervello perveniva attraverso i nervi – erano da immaginarsi come un condensatore, con la superficie esterna di segno
negativo e la superficie interna di segno positivo. Rilevano, a questo
proposito, Carlo Castellani e Luca Usuelli, 7 che, seguendo questa interpretazione, l’ elettricità veniva “trasferita dai nervi alla parte interna
dei muscoli, dove si accumula[va]; mentre la parte esterna del muscolo” non poteva caricarsi d’ elettricità perché “separata dai nervi a opera della sostanza oleosa e coibente che avvolge[va] questi ultimi”. Si
veniva, così, a creare una “differenza di potenziale tra parte esterna e
interna del muscolo”.
Il meccanismo della contrazione muscolare rilevata negli esperimenti può così essere spiegata come manifestazione, attraverso “la
connessione tra nervo e parte esterna del muscolo”, di un “‘disquilibrio elettrico’ tra le due parti” esterna e interna, così come poteva
suggerire un fenomeno, ormai consueto in sede di fisica sperimentale:
la scarica di una bottiglia di Leyda, 8 appunto.
Il problema delle condizioni di produzione (e della natura) delle
esperienze presentate nel De viribus electricitatis, problema che veniva risolto ricorrendo alla nozione di una elettricità animale dotata di
caratteri propri ed esclusivi, polarizzò ben presto l’attenzione del ‘collegio’ dei più valenti fisici, chimici e medici europei, che riservavano
all’argomento spazi sempre maggiori. In questo contesto Galvani si
6. Luigi Galvani, Le forze elettriche nel movimento muscolare […], Parte III, “Le forze
dell’elettricità animale nel movimento muscolare”, in Enrico Benassi (a cura di), Memorie
ed esperimenti inediti di Luigi Galvani, Celebrazioni del secondo centenario della nascita
di Galvani, Cappelli, Bologna 1937; la traduzione italiana del De viribus electricitatis è di
Benassi e si trova alle pp. 85-230.
7. Castellani, Usuelli, Galvani, Luigi, cit., p. 558.
8. Mario Gliozzi, voce Volta, Alessandro, in Scienziati e tecnologi dalle origini al 1875,
vol. III, cit., p. 243.
38 / Giovanni Aldini e l’elettricità animale
presentava come il protagonista – la figura dominante –, in particolare
per il suo apporto a livello di riflessione teorica intorno ai nuovi fenomeni osservati, ma anche il nome e i contributi di Aldini circolavano; 9
e per le sue qualità di sperimentatore si veniva affermando come un
importante collaboratore dello zio. Però, mentre le accademie scientifiche facevano dell’elettricità animale tema privilegiato di discussione
e la ‘repubblica delle lettere’ agiva da amplificatore e catalizzatore di
un dibattito che si sarebbe rivelato ricco di consensi, ma anche di forti
dissensi, si imponeva anche la figura forte di un antagonista – Alessandro Volta – che godeva già di grande rilievo e prestigio nella comunità
scientifica italiana ed europea. 10
Ci troviamo qui, comunque, di fronte ad alcuni dei più interessanti aspetti della crescita delle scienze sperimentali e naturali tra tardo
Settecento e primo Ottocento, crescita notevole anche per la presenza
di tradizioni e di interessi scientifici diversi, che proprio le discussioni
sul galvanismo – il termine, coniato da Volta, conobbe presto una larga
diffusione – andavano evidenziando. Ad ogni nuovo esperimento e ad
ogni nuova argomentazione teorica sul versante galvanistico si contrapponeva un altro esperimento e un’altra argomentazione di segno
contrario da parte di Volta. Questa polemica favoriva non solo la circolazione dei lavori, che contenevano le tesi contrapposte, nell’ambito
della comunità scientifica, ma pure la divulgazione di quelle stesse tesi
presso un pubblico più ampio. Tutto ciò quindi era ricco di sviluppi
non solo per l’apertura di importanti ed ulteriori territori alla fisica e
alla fisiologia, ma anche per i riflessi culturali generali: i rinvii al vitalismo ma pure al meccanicismo, l’uso che di certi fenomeni e, soprattutto, di certe interpretazioni poteva fare la Naturphilosophie, e via
A Luigi Galvani va il merito di aver avviato questa problematica e
a Giovanni Aldini di averla fortemente sostenuta per più di dieci anni,
consolidando entrambi, tra l’altro, ulteriormente la fama dell’Istituto
bolognese e dell’annessa Accademia delle Scienze 11 a livello europeo.
9. Già con la seconda edizione del De viribus electricitatis (vedi qui nota 1).
10. Vincenzo Pallotti, Aldini, l’Istituto delle Scienze di Bologna e il dibattito sull’elettricità
animale tra tardo Settecento e primo Ottocento in Italia e fuori d’Italia, cit.
11. Vincenzo Pallotti, Aldini, l’Istituto delle Scienze di Bologna e il dibattito sull’elettricità
animale tra tardo Settecento e primo Ottocento, cit.; sull’Istituto bolognese cfr. Marta Cavazza, Verso la fondazione dell’Istituto delle Scienze: filosofia libera, baconismo, religione a Bologna
(1660-1714), in Aa. Vv., Sull’identità del pensiero moderno, Firenze 1979; e sempre di Marta
Cavazza, La “Casa di Salomone” realizzata?, in Aa.Vv., I materiali dell’Istituto delle Scienze,
Giovanni Aldini e l’elettricità animale / 39
Aldini, in particolare, che già aveva dato prova in varie relazioni
all’Istituto della sua preparazione nella fisica sperimentale (e, in particolare, in elettrologia), stimolato, sin dall’inizio, dai lavori di Galvani
nel Teatro anatomico, aveva curato, come si è già accennato 12 la nuova edizione – quella di Modena del 1792 – del De viribus electricitatis,
che aveva assicurato agli esperimenti e alle ipotesi del Galvani una
maggiore diffusione rispetto a quella ottenuta con l’edizione del 1791
a bassa tiratura.
Ma la nuova edizione valeva, soprattutto, come risposta a richieste
di aggiornamento. L’ introduzione dell’Aldini, infatti, non era solo una
premessa di carattere storico, al fine di sottolineare nel panorama delle
ricerche di fisiologia la frattura e la novità – rispetto alle conoscenze
che si erano venute acquisendo sui rapporti tra fenomeni elettrici e
organismi animali – introdotte dallo zio, ma rappresentavano anche
il tentativo di fare il punto di una situazione che appariva fluida ed
ambigua, tentando di ricondurre le posizioni concettuali, le tecniche
d’indagine, le risultanze degli esperimenti di Valli, e dello stesso Volta
e di altri, entro l’ orizzonte teorico prospettato da Galvani. L’ intervento
di Aldini, inoltre, e va rimarcato, mirava anche a presentare un quadro
del suo personale approccio agli esperimenti galvanici, approccio che
risultava peraltro, in questa fase della sua attività scientifica, ancora
strettamente legato all’impostazione metodologica e alle conclusioni
che caratterizzavano il discorso dello zio.
Tuttavia, con il moltiplicarsi degli studi sul ‘modo di produzione’
del fenomeno individuato per la prima volta nel De viribus electricitatis,
andavano peraltro consolidandosi anche i dubbi sull’interpretazione
dell’ elettricità animale, come del tutto diversa dall’elettricità prodotta
artificialmente con le macchine elettrostatiche, e quindi non riducibile
a questa.
Mentre Galvani proseguiva con prudenza e abbastanza defilato –
come era nel suo carattere schivo – le ricerche in laboratorio e cercava
di consolidare le proprie elaborazioni teoriche, Aldini, il più stretto
collaboratore, si poneva sempre più in evidenza, non solo per le sue attitudini di ottimo portavoce, ma anche per le sue capacità di sostenere
polemicamente il discorso galvanico; e così facendo tendeva a divenire
cit. Si veda inoltre C. Gentili, Il modello “epistemologico” dell’”Institutum Scientiarum et
Artium” di Bologna, Ivi.
12. Vedi qui nota 1.
40 / Giovanni Aldini e l’elettricità animale
il referente principale di ogni critica che poteva essere mossa, sia a singoli aspetti galvanismo, sia al galvanismo a tutto campo.
Nel 1793, sulla base di esperienze iniziate nel 1792, Alessandro Volta
aveva portato un efficace attacco all’ edificio teorico costruito da Luigi
Galvani, 13 e difeso a spada tratta da Giovanni Aldini: i metalli, che intervenivano nell’esperienza fondamentale attorno a cui si sviluppava
il discorso galvaniano sul nuovo fluido elettrico, non potevano essere
considerati, secondo lo scienziato comasco, conduttori di un’ elettricità
interna animale, in quanto che erano invece essi stessi a produrre tale
elettricità. Nella spiegazione proposta da Volta i metalli erano, dunque, i motori, mentre gli organi degli animali rimanevano, invece, passivi: le contrazioni muscolari degli arti delle rane erano “dovute a un
apporto d’ elettricità ‘estrinseco’ […] e non già ad un principio attivo
[…]”. 14
Nel frattempo, però, il galvanismo era entrato a far parte dell’insegnamento a Bologna come nuova branca della fisica sperimentale,
evidenziando, tuttavia, l’esistenza di incerti confini tra la stessa fisica e
la fisiologia. L’Aldini, sollecitato dai suoi allievi e dai membri dell’Istituto delle Scienze, fornì una prima risposta alle obiezioni del Volta,
quando, nel 1793 e nel 1794, sostenne davanti agli scienziati bolognesi
due dissertazioni, 15 presentando numerose esperienze, che incontrarono l’ approvazione del Galvani. Nella prospettiva di continuare (e
sviluppare) i temi intorno a cui si era articolato il De viribus electricitatis,
Giovanni Aldini, tra l’altro, voleva dimostrare che le contrazioni del
preparato neuromuscolare si ottenevano anche impiegando un arco di
un solo metallo.
Ottenuti risultati positivi da questo nuovo esperimento, Giovanni
Aldini poté a sua volta confutare la tesi secondo cui solo in presenza di
metalli tra loro diversi veniva prodotta l’elettricità animale: ribadendo
l’analogia tra la scarica di una bottiglia di Leyda e il comportamento dei muscoli delle rane, si dichiarava convinto che nelle contrazioni
muscolari così ottenute si manifestasse un arco elettrico tutto interno
all’organismno animale.
La risposta di Volta e dei suoi sostenitori non si fece attendere. Ma
Galvani ed Aldini poco convinti dalle obiezioni che recepivano come
13. Vincenzo Pallotti, Aldini, l’Istituto delle Scienze di Bologna e il dibattito sull’elettricità
animale tra tardo Settecento e primo Ottocento in Italia e fuori d’Italia, cit.
14. Castellani, Usuelli, Galvani, Luigi, cit., p. 558.
15. Giovanni Aldini, De animali electricitate dissertationes duae, Bononiae 1794.
Giovanni Aldini e l’elettricità animale / 41
artificiose, ribadivano le loro posizioni e scioglievano definitivamente
ogni riserva – se mai c’era stata – sull’azione non determinante dei metalli, mettendo a punto una tecnica che consentiva di ottenere le contrazioni anche senza il loro impiego. Si trattava di un esperimento di
grande importanza escogitato dal Galvani, che il nipote proponeva,
nel vivo del dibattito, in vari giornali scientifici 16. Aldini, pur consapevole dei punti oscuri dell’ipotesi galvaniana, la considerava come
una legge universale della natura, che permetteva di interpretare in
maniera corretta le esperienze che venivano compiute nelle Camere
dell’Istituto delle Scienze. 17
Tutto ciò spingeva Aldini ad insistere negli esperimenti con le sole
sostanze animali, anche al fine di ridefinire con sicurezza il momento
della morte di un individuo. Parallelamente Galvani si rivolgeva allo
Spallanzani, chiamandolo a giudicare e le sue riflessioni e le risposte
al Volta; sottolineando, inoltre, come gli esperimenti condotti lo inducevano, in particolare, a valutare molto criticamente la congettura
che attribuiva ai metalli ogni capacità nella contrazione. Sosteneva il
Galvani, in particolare, che l’ elettricità animale descriveva un circuito
(passando dal muscolo al nervo e da questo facendo ritorno al muscolo).
L’ Aldini, intanto, indirizzava i lavori dello zio e i propri al segreterio dell’Institut National di Parigi, al fine di ottenere una loro ulteriore
diffusione, raccogliere così, possibilmente, nuove adesioni attorno al
discorso sull’ elettricità animale, e rafforzare l’immagine dell’Istituto
delle Scienze come importante centro di ricerca e sperimentazione 18.
E non fu probabilmente un caso che alcuni tra i massimi scienziati, da
Laplace a Berthollet, avessero richiesto proprio in questo periodo di far
parte dell’Istituto scientifico bolognese come membri stranieri. 19
Le vicende politiche in continuo mutamento, dopo l’occupazione
francese di Bologna del 1796, assorbirono, però, tutte le energie di
Aldini, che, come docente, partecipava a vari comitati per l’ istruzione pubblica del Dipartimento del Reno. L’ Aldini, come suo risultato
più importante riuscì in questo torno di tempo a strappare a Napo16. Vincenzo Pallotti, Aldini, l’Istituto delle Scienze di Bologna e il dibattito sull’elettricità
animale tra tardo Settecento e primo Ottocento, cit.
17. Cfr. Gian Carlo Calcagno, Giovanni Aldini, un fisico bolognese tra scienze sperimentali e
tecniche protoindustriali, in Studi di storia della scienza e della tecnica, Genova, Cds, 1981, p. 89.
18. Vincenzo Pallotti, Aldini, l’Istituto delle Scienze di Bologna e il dibattito sull’elettricità
animale tra tardo Settecento e primo Ottocento, cit.
19. Ibidem.
42 / Giovanni Aldini e l’elettricità animale
leone l’assenso per l’organizzazione dell’Istituto Nazionale Italiano a
Bologna, 20 grazie anche alla presentazione delle esperienze sul galvanismo, che richiamava l’attenzione sui recenti successi della città nel
campo delle scienze.
La diminuita attività di ricerca di Aldini tra 1798 e 1801 non si spiega, tuttavia, solo con l’impegno politico e con quello accademico nello
Studio (teneva l’insegnamento che era stato del suo maestro, Sebastiano Canterzani), ma anche e soprattutto con il vuoto che aveva lasciato,
nel dicembre 1798, la morte di Galvani, la sua vera guida teorica, vuoto che imponeva ormai nuovi orientamenti insieme alla difesa delle
vecchie posizioni, ritenute dall’Aldini ancora sostanzialmente valide.
Questi anni sono peraltro decisivi nella controversia sull’elettricità animale. A cavallo tra i due secoli, Alessandro Volta conquista, infatti, con
argomentazioni sempre più convincenti, la maggioranza dei fisici europei, mostrando come prova delle sue ipotesi il nuovo apparecchio
elettromotore, la pila. 21 Le esperienze con la pila, e il fatto di essere già
riuscito in precedenza a misurare l’ elettricità che si otteneva ponendo
a contatto combinazioni di conduttori metallici e non metallici in una
indagine in cui non intervenivano parti animali, inducevano il fisico
comasco a ricondurre definitivamente anche i fenomeni osservati sugli
animali entro la teoria del fluido elettrico artificiale. Pur non riuscendo ad evidenziare quelle ragioni della produzione e della circolazione
dell’elettricità nella pila e nell’organismo vivente, che rimandavano al
campo della chimica, Volta poteva concludere che la partita era chiusa
in suo favore.
Così, quando Aldini riprese la sua attività di ricerca, Volta aveva già
ricevuto dalle istituzioni scientifiche più importanti i massimi riconoscimenti e la sua teoria risultava generalmente accettata. Ma mentre,
in varie parti d’ Europa, da un lato i fisici costruivano pile sempre più
potenti, dall’altro i chimici e i medici, proprio con l’impiego del nuovo
apparecchio, tendevano a ritagliarsi spazi d’ indagine nuovi ed autonomi. Ed emergevano, quindi, proprio tra i chimici e i medici, anche i
primi motivi di dissenso con l’ impostazione e la teoria voltiana.
20. Nacque nel 1802 dalla trasformazione dell’Istituto delle Scienze di Bologna, che
divenne nel 1810 sezione bolognese del Regio Istituto Italiano di Scienze, Lettere ed Arti
(nuova denominazione dell’ Istituto Nazionale italiano), che ebbe sede centrale a Milano.
21. Il fisico comasco costruisce la pila a corona di tazze e a colonna alla fine del novembre 1799,e ne comunica l’invenzione alla Royal Society. Due anni dopo, nel novembre
1801, espone le sue ricerche all’Institut de France, presente Napoleone, che propone per
Volta una medaglia d’oro.
Giovanni Aldini e l’elettricità animale / 43
Aldini, comunque, fu tra i primi a condurre esperimenti con la pila,
davanti ai professori e agli allievi dell’Istituto delle Scienze. Oltre a
produrre vari effetti elettrochimici per lo studio dell’ossidazione dei
metalli, della decomposizione dell’acqua, dell’effetto scintilla, egli applicava la corrente di apparecchi variamente composti alle parti animali. Questo era il segno di una nuova direzione delle sue ricerche:
mettere alla prova la teoria di Volta alla luce dei più recenti lavori degli
scienziati inglesi e francesi, e trovare ulteriori fondamenti all’esistenza
di un’elettricità animale come fenomeno distinto e specifico, di cui l’Aldini, nonostante tutto, restava convinto sostenitore.
Egli si assumeva, pertanto, il compito di aggiornare le esperienze
che Galvani aveva eseguito, adattandole ora alle ultime tecniche, cercando peraltro di riportare entro un orizzonte teorico galvanistico le
nuove sperimentazioni rese possibili dalla pila. Con ripetuti ed ingegnosi esperimenti, Aldini sosteneva, infatti, che la pila era capace di
produrre le contrazioni solo in quanto smuoveva il fluido vitale dell’organismo: l’ animale era una macchina in grado di produrre da sola un’
elettricità, che, posta in circolazione, fungeva poi da suo motore. Riteneva di poter verificare tali ipotesi muovendo dalla tecnica di Galvani
– tecnica portata ad un’estrema semplicità 22 – per ottenere contrazioni
senza metalli dal contatto di rane ‘preparate’ con parti sottocutanee di
altri animali, e dallo studio di pesci elettrici. Ed era proprio la struttura
anatomica della torpedine a suggerirgli l’ ipotesi che in ogni animale si
trovasse una sorta di pila, o sistema di sostanze nervose e fibrose, il cui
contatto era assicurato da un “arco di umidità”. Tutto ciò faceva emergere, peraltro, nell’attività scientifica di Aldini, accanto agli evidenti
momenti di continuità con quella di Galvani, anche un processo di distacco (che si sarebbe accentuato negli anni successivi con esperimenti
spettacolari, ma rifiutati dalla comunità scientifica dei fisici): la vecchia
impostazione di Galvani risultava, inoltre, almeno parzialmente, abbandonata proprio alla luce della “pila animale”, che faceva apparire,
a giudizio dell’Aldini, la nuova ricostruzione in laboratorio come un
artificio più idoneo ad imitare e a spiegare la natura. 23
22. Vincenzo Pallotti, Aldini, l’Istituto delle Scienze di Bologna e il dibattito sull’elettricità
animale tra tardo Settecento e primo Ottocento, cit.
23. Lo stesso Volta nella memoria epistolare del 20 mazo 1800 “presenta l’ invenzione
della pila non come l’ ultimo anello di ricerche sperimentali durate oltre otto anni, ma
come una ricostruzione o imitazione dell’ organo elettrico dei pesci elettrici, che anche
Cavendish aveva tentato d’imitare mediante una batteria di bottiglie di Leyda” (Mario
Gliozzi, Volta, Alessandro, cit., p. 246). La memoria del Cavendish, nota al Volta, è del
44 / Giovanni Aldini e l’elettricità animale
Le linee di questo orientamento, che conteneva, secondo Aldini,
elementi in grado di sbloccare la rigida antinomia Galvani-Volta, furono impostate nel laboratorio dell’abitazione dell’Aldini e nell’Ospedale S. Orsola, mentre i primi risultati vennero definiti nell’assemblea
dell’Istituto delle scienze del 1802. Contemporaneamente alla pubblicazione di estratti della sua opera intitolata Saggio di esperienza sul
galvanismo, 24 in varie sedi italiane e straniere, Aldini si mise in viaggio
– come era frequente tra gli scienziati – per divulgare direttamente le
proprie ricerche, raccogliere maggiori adesioni intorno alle sue idee
sull’elettricità animale, contando inoltre, al fine di ampliare il campo di
diffusione dei propri lavori e delle teorie galvanistiche, probabilmente
(anche questo non era un fatto eccezionale) su possibili appoggi degli
ambienti legati alla massoneria. 25
A Parigi Giovanni Aldini compì esperienze all’ Ecole de Médicine,
alla Salpetrière con Pinel, si adoperò alla fondazione di una Società
Galvanica, e, soprattutto, comunicò il suo punto di vista alla classe di
scienze fisiche e matematiche dell’Institut National. Se l’ accoglienza
all’ istituzione scientifica francese non fu certo delle più entusiastiche,
è anche vero che i medici si dimostrarono, invece, interessati a questi
Aldini privilegiava ormai chiaramente la ricerca degli effetti (non
esclusi certo quelli più raccapriccianti) prodotti sul corpo umano dalla
pila. Il progetto di applicare in campo medico i ritrovati delle scoperte
galvaniche, già maturato in Italia, sembrava realizzarsi fuori d’Italia:
Aldini andava infatti indicando nel galvanismo un mezzo terapeutico
nei casi di annegamento, asfissia, malattie mentali. 26
1776. Osserva, peraltro, Mario Gliozzi che questa derivazione della pila di Volta dalla
‘pila animale’, appare poco credibile, in quanto l’ apparato del fisico comasco, rispetto
ai tentativi del Cavendish, appare sorto da “ben altri studi e fondato su principi affatto
diversi” (Ibidem).
24. Saggio di esperienza sul galvanismo, Bologna 1802.
25. Antonio Aldini (Bologna 1755-Pavia 1826), fratello maggiore di Giovanni (che era
nato a Bologna nel 1762), risulta affiliato alla massoneria negli ultimi anni del Settecento
(probabilmente l’affiliazione era avvenuta a Milano presso la loggia “Real Eugenio”). Cfr.
Marco Adorni, Massoni bolognesi nelle vie di Bologna, in Giovanni Greco (a cura di), Bologna
massonica. Le radici, il consolidamento, la trasformazione, Clueb, Bologna 2007, p. 215; cenni
a rapporti tra “un esponente di spicco della muratoria britannica”, Lord James Bruce,
studioso scozzese eclettico e l’Istituto delle Scienze negli anni Sessanta del Settecento
in Fabio Martelli, Suggestioni della massoneria anglosassone a Bologna nel Settecento, Ivi, pp.
101, 105. Inoltre, pagine di notevole interesse sui rapporti tra scienziati e massoneria, in
particolare nel Settecento, si trovano in Gian Mario Cazzaniga (a cura di), La Massoneria,
Storia d’Italia, Annali 21, Einaudi, Torino 2006.
26. Cfr. Giovanni Aldini, General Views on the Application of Galvanism to Medical Pur-
Giovanni Aldini e l’elettricità animale / 45
In Gran Bretagna la fisica ufficiale rifiutava perlopiù di farsi coinvolgere nelle dimostrazioni delle sue esperienze – curiose, shoccanti,
sbalorditive – che mettevano sul tavolo dei laboratori cadaveri e animali smembrati. Se si eccettuano un resoconto fatto alla Royal Society e
alcune recensioni favorevoli di qualche fisico ‘eccentrico’, furono sempre solo i medici e i chirurghi di Oxford e degli ospedali londinesi a
manifestare un attivo interesse per gli esperimenti aldiniani; interesse
che si concretizzava nell’assistenza fornita durante le prove sul potere
stimolante del galvanismo nella riattivazione della respirazione e, in
generale, di varie funzioni muscolari. I risultati di queste esperienze
confluirono in un lavoro pubblicato nel 1803 in lingua inglese, 27 al fine
di consentire una più ampia diffusione di una nuova tecnica, che dichiarava come proprio fine quello di “riportare in vita” gli operai asfissiati nelle miniere o i marinai annegati. 28
Tutte le esperienze compiute in questa fase furono, poi, compendiate, in francese, in un’opera del 1804, dedicata a Napoleone. 29 Rappresentava il tentativo, attraverso un’ampia raccolta di dati, di stabilire
non una teoria completa e organica; bensì una serie di proposizioni sulle proprietà fisiche, chimiche e terapeutiche del galvanismo. Gli esperimenti che vi figurano evidenziano, poi, un’ ulteriore messa a punto
delle tecniche produttrici delle contrazioni con soli organi animali; 30 e
non mancano indagini sulla trasmissione del fluido galvanico a distanza di cui si cercava di rilevare la velocità di propagazione (attraverso
l’esame dei moti convulsivi di rane nei porto di Calais e nella Senna). 31
Rientrato in Italia, l’Aldini doveva assistere, però, ad una sempre
minore incidenza dei suo contributi in un dibattito che appariva in
via di conclusione. Eppure egli cercherà di dimostrare ancora la circolazione di una elettricità particolare, specifica, negli animali, volgendosi infine, da filantropo, all’ invenzione di apparati per scopi
medici. Nonostante la diffusione delle sue opere e la collaborazione
pose. Principally in Cases of Suspended Animation, London 1819; si vedano anche, sempre
dell’Aldini, An Account of the Galvanic Experiments, London 1803; Précis des expériences
galvaniques faites recemments à Londres et à Calais, Paris 1803; Essai t théorique et expérimentale
sur le galvanisme, Paris 1804.
27. An Account of the Galvanic Experiments, cit.
28. Ibidem.
29. Essai t théorique et expérimentale sur le galvanisme, cit.
30. Gian Carlo Calcagno, Giovanni Aldini, un fisico bolognese tra scienze sperimentali e
tecniche protoindustriali, cit., p. 93.
31. Vincenzo Pallotti, Aldini, l’Istituto delle Scienze di Bologna e il dibattito sull’elettricità
animale tra tardo Settecento e primo Ottocento, cit.
46 / Giovanni Aldini e l’elettricità animale
prestatagli da vari scienziati, si assisteva, in generale, ad un rifiuto
delle sue ipotesi.
Alessandro Volta, con l’invenzione della pila, aveva aperto nuove
prospettive e, soprattutto, era riuscito ad inquadrare i fenomeni elettrici in una teoria sufficientemente solida e coerente da essere considerata
nel suo complesso, nonostante le voci di dissenso, come la più convincente. In essa le esperienze di Galvani (e in parte di Aldini) finivano
per essere accettate, ma come casi speciali, come giochi di conduttori
non metallici. E non c’ era più spazio per le obiezioni di fondo. Agli inizi dell’ Ottocento, con il successo di Volta, sembrava certamente a molti
ragionevole, almeno di fatto, considerare superata 32 la questione del
galvanismo. Solo così si comprende il quasi totale isolamento del fisico
bolognese in Italia, e, come si è già detto, la fredda accoglienza dell’Institut National di Parigi e il disprezzo di una larga e autorevole parte
dei fisici inglesi, come se Aldini fosse stato nulla più che un ciarlatano.
E in Italia era proprio il fisico comasco il più duro nello stroncare l’opposizione (ma anche qualsiasi mediazione) dell’Aldini, giudicando (e
non sempre a torto, invero) le sue ricerche come arretrate, incongrue,
da macello, vanamente spettacolose, inumane, in definitiva non degne
di seria attenzione scientifica.
Peraltro il contributo – diretto e indiretto – dello scienziato bolognese all’ apertura di quelle che si venivano rivelando, e ancor più si
sarebbero rivelate in futuro, importanti nuove frontiere del sapere nei
punti di intersezione della fisica con la fisiologia, non è certamente da
trascurare. E questo va detto nonostante i numerosi fraintendimenti
e le contraddizioni che la maggioranza dei fisici ritenevano di dover
riscontrare in alcuni suoi esperimenti che apparivano altamente discutibili, in teorizzazioni opinabili, nell’inadeguatezza di varie soluzioni
proposte, tutti fatti che venivano rilevati nella sua opera scientifica, soprattutto nella seconda stagione del galvanismo, quella successiva alla
32. In realtà la questione dell’ elettricità animale rimase aperta sino agli anni Quaranta
dell’ Ottocento. “Giudicando dal punto di vista odierno la polemica Galvani-Volta”, ha
osservato Ludovico Geymonat, “dobbiamo riconoscere che sia l’uno che l’altro avevano
ragione nella pars construens e torto nella pars destruens […] esiste infatti sia un’ elettricità animale (seppure da intendersi in modo alquanto diverso da come la intendeva
Galvani) sia un’ elettricità originata dal contatto di metalli eterogenei […] tanto l’ una
scoperta quanto l’ altra fuoruscivano completamente dal quadro concettuale del Settecento” (Ludovico Geymonast, “L’esigenza di una più ampia sperimentazione nelle scienze
della natura” in Storia del pensiero filosofico e scientifico, Milano, Garzanti, 1972, I ed., vol.
III, (1971), cap. VIII, p. 258).
Giovanni Aldini e l’elettricità animale / 47
morte di Galvani, quella del vero galvanismo senza galvani, in tutti i
Giovanni Aldini diffuse ampiamente e ostinatamente difese la teoria
galvaniana dell’esistenza di un fluido elettrico animale dotato di caratteri propri ed esclusivi rispetto al fluido elettrico comune o artificiale
riferibile all’ambito inorganico. Si trattava di una teoria inesatta che,
tuttavia, non solo sollecitò anche le stesse ricerche del Volta, ma pure
contribuì a lasciare aperta la questione dell’elettricità animale, anche
quando su di essa era calato di fatto il silenzio, questione con cui poi fisici e fisiologi, da Leopoldo Nobili a Carlo Matteucci, a Emile Du BoisReymond – dovettero misurarsi ancora nel corso della prima metà dell’
Ottocento. 33
33. Cfr. Vincenzo Cappelletti, I fenomeni elettrici e la fisiologia sperimentale, in Scienziati
e tecnologi dalle origini al 1875, vol. III, cit., p. 600; Id., Fisiologia ed elettrofisiologia, Ivi, p.
657; Id., Du Bois-Reymond, Emile, in Scienziati e tecnologi dalle origini al 1875, vol. I, cit., pp.
431-433; cfr., inoltre, Giuseppe Moruzzi, voce Matteucci, Carlo, in Scienziati e tecnologi dalle
origini al 1875, vol. II, 1976, pp. 354-355; e nel vol. III, cenni sul Nobili, in Enrico Bellone,
Il concetto di potenziale e la legge di Ohm, p. 629.
From body to machine: electro-medicine
in mid-19th century Italy
Christian Carletti
1. The medical background to electricity
When it was published by the Milanese firm Editori della Biblioteca
in 1864, Plinio Schivardi’s Manuale teorico pratico di elettroterapia (Theoretico-practical manual of electro-therapy) was the first systematic
work on electro-medicine to appear in Italy, after promising research
in the field of experimental physiology dating from the mid-century.
Many reports on electro-therapy had recently come out; one such regarded the case of Doctor Bougard, “one of Belgium’s best electropractitioners”:
«sixteen epileptics were treated by him […] with complete success in two
cases. The first was a fourteen year-old girl who had had epilepsy for about
two years, for ten had not uttered a word and was already in a state of total
imbecility. For three months he applied 15 minutes’ electricity and cured
her altogether. He nonetheless continued the treatment from time to time.
One year later, she was still in good health and in full possession of all her
intellectual faculties.
The second was a twenty year-old cobbler given to onanism and hard liquor;
he had had epilepsy for several months and his intelligence was already
dimmed. For nearly two months he underwent 15 minutes’ electro-therapy
every day and the effect of the electricity was apparent from the first day or
so, though he did not abandon the two vices which were seen as the cause of
his condition. One year later he was still healthy, his intelligence improved.
In this case-study by Dr Bougard […] which omits not the slightest circumstance of no practical interest, the most important details are left out. What
apparatus did he use? What kind of electricity did he apply? What method
did he follow?”. 1
1. Plinio Schivardi, Manuale teorico pratico di elettroterapia, Milan, Editori della Biblioteca,
1864, pp. 256-257. Bougard was a member of the Société Royale des Sciences médicales
et naturelles de Bruxelles. For the original, see Bougard, “Quelques considérations sur
l’épilepsie. Application de l’électricité d’induction au traitement de cette maladie”, in
Journal de médecine, de chirurgie et de pharmacologie 17 (1859), pp. 328-345.
50 / From body to machine: electro-medicine
The drift of Plinio Schivardi’s questions as a young doctor at Milan’s
Ospedale Maggiore was technical, not concerned with speculation on
aetiology. His attention focused on the machine: What equipment?
What electricity? What method? It was the device that riveted the expert’s attention, the diagnostic or therapeutic tool, eclipsing the girl’s
temporary dumbness and “imbecility” and skating over the sexual
practices and alcoholism of the cobbler. Failing a description of the
equipment used, a report on diagnosis or treatment could not be taken
as reliable.
Instrumentation as a means of dialoguing with the disease was fast
becoming the focus preferred by the powers of science, bent on detaching the patient from his clinical and personal history and consigning him to the doctor, deprived of all sense of belonging. Machina vs
machina: the body in the hospital bed should be stripped down to its
material essence, a simple congeries of nerves and muscles governing
function, ready in turn to be transformed by the host of machinery
ranged alongside to study its cogs, measure its efficiency and repair
any faults.
The success of electro-medicine from the second half of the nineteenth century onwards would be incomprehensible without considering this shift of perspective which infected western medical culture,
altering the bounds of research, changing the concept of ‘pathology’
and boosting the use of machinery. The rise of scientific medicine and
the laboratory had posited a new comparison between the human machine and the scientific machine. This called for new thinking as to the
relation between body and therapeutic techniques, and also the position of therapy in evolving medical science.
Reduction of the human body to a device and the ensuing new approach to the person as body, which deprived the former of privileges
which the vitalistic Naturphilosophie had granted, is one of the core
processes in this transition and is commonly traced to the research of
Johannes Müller, mainly published in his Handbuch der Physiologie des
Menschen between 1837 and 1840. 2 Although Müller’s work actually
contained residues of his youthful penchant for romantic philosophy,
preserving a narrow line between teleology and experimental ambi-
2. Johannes Müller, Handbuch der Physiologie des Menschen für Vorlesungen, 2 voll.,
Coblenz, Hölscher, 1837-1840.
From body to machine: electro-medicine / 51
tions, nonetheless the power of his deterministic approach to medicine
proved the dominant influence. 3
Amongst others, his school had trained Hermann von Helmholtz,
Ernst Wilhelm von Brücke and Emil Du Bois-Reymond. Leading the
field in medical science for half a century to come, Müller’s pupils
threw their master’s caution to the winds, joined forces with Carl Ludwig (whom they worked with in Berlin, 1847) and grounded the interpretation of human physiology exclusively on physics and chemistry,
removing all reference to the obsolete vitalistic position. 4
Only a few years after these German beginnings came the echoing
research of Claude Bernard and his Introduction à l’étude de la médecine
expérimentale, published in Paris in 1865. In this Bernard claimed the
status of a laboratory scientist. The medical studies he described were
definitively set on an analytical course and, thanks to increasingly efficient equipment, were gradually incorporating the investigative methods of experimental science. 5
This is the time interval, between the late 1840s and the mid 1860s,
when the change of climate and new approach pioneered by Paris and
Berlin took root and began to circulate. This would be the crucial reference point for electrical practitioners and their growing ambition
to raise their subject to a branch of science based on rigorous laboratory techniques. They were emboldened by their familiarity with
machines-meet and drink of the new experimental science. This put
them in a leading position, as did a working knowledge of electricity.
The fact of working on an object of physics whose technical success
was now beyond all dispute lent force to their expectations.
The crucial problem of electro-physiology was the function of the
currents that ran through the body’s muscle and nerve networks. Carlo
3. On science in the romantic period, see: Andrew Cunningham, Nicholas Jardine
(edd.), Romanticism and the Sciences, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1990; Stefano
Poggi, Il genio e l’unità della natura. La scienza della Germania romantica 1790-1830, Bologna,
Il Mulino, 2000. On the relationship between romantic philosophy and scientific medicine,
see: Michael Hagner, “Scientific Medicine”, in David Cahan (ed.), From Natural Philosophy
to the Sciences. Writing the History of Nineteenth-Century Sciences, Chicago, Chicago University Press, 203, pp. 49-87; Timothy Lenoir, The Strategy of Life. Teleology and mechanics in
Nineteenth-Century German Biology, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1982.
4. Paul F. Cranefield, “The Organic Physics of 1847 and Biophysics Today”, in Journal
of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 12 (1957), pp. 407-423. See also Bynum,
Science and the Practice of Medicine in the Nineteenth Century, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1994, pp. 97-99.
5. Claude Bernard, Introduction à l’étude de la médecine expérimentale, Paris, Baillière,
1865, especially the first part, Du raisonnement expérimental, pp. 11-100.
52 / From body to machine: electro-medicine
Matteucci and Claude Bernard went into the ‘behaviour’ of electricity
in organs and tissues; this spurred the Berlin physiologists to work
and would become the fulcrum of controversy pending a solution.
Meanwhile there was the physics of electricity, in which the medical
‘electricians’ had long glimpsed an interpretive paradigm. Little by little it came to influence physiology, which in turn sought new paths of
investigation in medicine.
Helmoltz’s work, to cite the most well-known example, had become
the classic case of borderline research. Poised between electrical physics and electro-physiology, Helmholtz took telegraphy – synonymous
with progress and potential for nineteenth-century science – as the
most plausible term of comparison by way of explaining electrical
transmission in bodies. His propensity for mixing different disciplines
reflected an urge to hitch medicine to something that had already
borne precise fruit in the technology of communications. 6 In 1860 Alfred Garrat, author of one of the main treatises on electro-medicine
published in the United States – significantly entitled Electro-physiology and Electro-therapeutics – confirmed the connection and stated that
progress in medical science had led it “to form new and close ties with
nearly all the departments of physical science, though nowhere more
intimately and indissolubly than in the case of electricity”. 7
Besides providing persuasive interpretations, electro-physics was
able to supply the new machinery of physiological research. Use of
such equipment had gained distinct importance since the 1855 treatise
De l’Électrisation localisée et de son application à la physiologie, à la pathologie et à la thérapeutique was published in Paris. Duchenne de Boulogne’s
900 pages and more showed that electricity applied by the machines
and methods he had devised or modified could act effectively on the
nervous-muscular system and produce a systematic analysis of how it
worked, as he would explain some years later in Mécanisme de la physionomie humaine. 8
Another great mid-18th century protagonist of electro-medicine,
6. Christoph Hoffmann, “Helmholtz’ Apparatuses: Telegraphy as working model of
nerve physiology”, in Philosophia Scientiae 7 (2003), pp. 129-149.
7. Alfred C. Garratt, Electro-physiology and Electro-therapeutics, showing the best methods
for the Medical Uses of Electricity, Boston, Ticknor and Fields, 1860, p. 1.
8. Guillaume Benjamin Duchenne de Boulogne, De l’Électrisation localisée et de son
application à la physiologie, à la pathologie et à la thérapeutique, Paris, Baillière, 1855; Id., Mécanisme de la physionomie humaine ou analyse électro-physiologique de l’expression des passions,
Paris, Renouard, 1862.
From body to machine: electro-medicine / 53
Robert Remak, had worked in the same field, though with substantial differences in the type of electricity and application techniques. A
practising doctor and teacher at the Berlin University Medical Faculty,
Remak, too, considered electro-physics and the experimental method
learned at Müller’s school as a sine qua non for any serious use of electric instruments for diagnosis and treatment. He was already a firm believer in experimental physiology by 1855 when he dedicated his work
Über methodische Electrisirung gelähmter Muskeln 9 to Claude Bernard. A
few years later in 1858 he went further, his Galvanotherapie der Nerven
und Muskelkrankheiten defending the importance of electricity for the
whole medical community. 10
2. The second long wave of electro-medicine
This changing scenario and new research formed fertile ground
on which electro-medicine would revive. As early as the eighteenth
century the use of electricity in medicine had caught the attention of
specialists and amateurs, and had penetrated some hallowed institutions. But only in the second half of the nineteenth century was there
any appreciable growth in the number of hospitals and universities in
Europe and the United States that had departments where electricity
gained independence and broke into the ranks of recognised practice.
At the same time there was an exponential increase in the amount of
research and publications specifically devoted to electro-therapeutics.
England and Italy played a secondary role in the first phase of this
new “long wave” of electricity, and it was no accident that both Julius
Althaus and Plinio Schivardi had to train abroad before introducing
the new practice to their respective countries. France and above all
Paris formed the spearhead: we have already mentioned Duchenne
who moved to Paris in 1842 and chiefly worked at the Hôpital de la
Another active in the capital at that period was Alfred Louis Becquerel who conducted research on electro-therapy at the Hôpital de
la Pitié and in 1857 published a Traité des applications de l’électricité a
9. Robert Remak, Über methodische Electrisirung gelähmter Muskeln, Berlin, Hirschwald,
10. Robert Remak, Galvanotherapie der Nerven und Muskelkrankheiten, Berlin, Hirschwald, 1858.
54 / From body to machine: electro-medicine
la thérapeutique médicale et chirurgicale; in his turn, François Nivelet
published his Électricité médicale in 1860, followed two years later by a
Guide pratique du médecin électricien. 11
Auguste Tripier, another of the “electricians” who championed the
revival of electro-medicine and had grown up with one eye trained on
experimental physiology and the other on electricity, had worked as
a lab-assistant for Claude Bernard at the College de France. His Manuel
d’électrothérapie dates from the years when he was transcribing and
editing Bernard’s lessons and would see the press in 1861 with Duchenne’s own publisher, Baillière. Tripier’s most incisive work, Leçons cliniques sur les maladies des femmes came out later, in 1883. 12
These were certainly the most talked about studies, surrounded by a
crop of lesser publications: Ernest Onimus’ lessons on electro-therapy
to the École pratique at the Paris Faculty of Medicine, the works of the
Russian physiologist Élie de Cyon whom Claude Bernard had invited
to work in France, as well as studies by Henri Desplats and Auguste
Toutain. 13 At the same time interest in electro-medicine topics was reflected in the appearance of specialist journals such as L’Électrothérapie,
Revue internationale d’électrothérapie and Annales de l’électro-thérapie 14;
and likewise in the feverish activity of instrument-makers like Adolphe Gaiffe and Joseph Charriere who yearly added to their commercial
catalogues with machines and inventions that a public of specialists
found more and more irresistible.
Paris was the first fulcrum of such frenzy; the other pole of attraction
11. Alfred Louis Becquerel, Traité des applications de l’électricité a la thérapeutique médicale
et chirurgicale, Paris, Baillière, 1857; François Nivelet, Électricité médicale: De l’électrisation
généralisée, ou d’une méthode simple, facile et inoffensive d’appliquer l’électricité au traitement
des maladies internes, Nancy, Vagner, 1860; Id., Guide pratique du médecin électricien ou théorie
des appareils volta-magnétiques et exposé sommaire des données pratiques acquises a l’électrothérapie, Leiber, Paris, 1862.
12. Auguste Tripier, Manuel d’électrothérapie. Exposé pratique et critique des applications
médicales et chirurgicales de l’électricité, Paris, Baillière, 1861; Id., Leçons cliniques sur les
maladies des femmes, thérapeutique générale et applications de l’électricité à ces maladies, Paris,
Doin, 1883.
13. Ernest Onimus, Guide pratique d’électrothérapie, ed. Ernest Bonnefoy, Paris, Masson,
1877. On Cyon see Luigi Traetta, Élie de Cyon: un fisiologo dimenticato, Lecce, Pensa, 2003.
Together with Charles-Marie Gariel, Henri Desplats was the author of Élèments de physique
médicale, Paris, Savy, 1870, a work which devoted over 200 pages to electricity, which circulated widely outside France and enjoyed a new edition in 1884. Auguste Toutain was the
author, among other things, of the book Électricité médicale. Nouvelle méthode d’application
de l’électricité pour la guérison des malades, Paris, André Guédon, 1870.
14. L’Électrothérapie. Journal d’électricité medicale only came out in 1880, the Revue internationale d’électrothérapie appeared monthly in Paris from 1890 to 1905, while the Annales
de l’électro-thérapie came out in Paris as of 1863.
From body to machine: electro-medicine / 55
was the German cultural area. Here again, the reputation of a Robert
Remak, any more than a Duchenne in France, fails to do justice to the
dozens of works on electro-medicine by German hands, published in
the space of a few years.
Pride of place among the scholars systematically applying electricity to medicine must go to Hugo von Ziemssen. Ziemssen trained in
Berlin under the powerful protective wing of Rudolf Virchow whose
personal assistant he became. He graduated in 1854 with a dissertation
on the effects of electricity applied to the human body. In 1863 he was
appointed professor of special pathology and therapy at the Erlangen
polyclinic and in 1874 took up the same chair at the Medical Faculty of
Munich’s Ludwig Maximilians Universität. His study on electro-diagnostics and electro-therapeutics entitled Die Elektricität in der Medicine
went to five editions between 1857 and 1887 and would long remain a
benchmark for the international community. 15
Equally well-known and cited by scholars of the day was the 1869
Untersuchungen und Beobachtungen auf dem Gebiete der Elektrotherapie by
Rudolf Brenner, a German doctor who had worked at St. Petersburg
where he set up a private electro-therapy clinic and was appointed
consultant to the Maximilian hospital in electro-therapeutics and the
treatment of nervous diseases. Later Brenner would return to Germany and become professor of electro-therapeutics at Leipzig. 16
Other works well-known to contemporaries, though as yet little
studied, are the Compendium der Elektrotherapie by Reginald Henri Pierson which appeared in Frankfurt and ran to three more editions between 1876 and 1882, and his Frankfurt colleague Theodor Clemens’
research work Ueber die Heilwirkungen der Elektricität. 17 In point of reputation few could equal Moritz Meyer and Wilhelm Erb. The former
was a Berlin doctor who invented electrical instruments and wrote Die
Elektricität in Ihrer Anwendung auf die Practische Medizin, first published
15. Hugo Wilhelm von Ziemssen, Die Elektricität in der Medicine. Studien, first ed:
Berlin, Hirschwald, 1857. On Ziemssen see Angelika Pierson, Hugo Wilhelm von Ziemssen
(1829-1902). Die wissenschaftlichen Arbeiten, doctoral thesis, Ludwig Maximilians Universität Münich, 2006.
16. Rudolf Brenner, Untersuchungen und Beobachtungen auf dem Gebiete der Elektrotherapie,
Leipzig, Giesecke & Devrient, 1869. For a biography of Brenner see “Rudolf Brenner, ein
bedeutender Elektrotherapeut aus Mitteldeutschland”, in Physikalische Medizin und
Rehabilitation 13 (1972), p. 66.
17. Reginald Henry Pierson, Compendium der Elektrotherapie, first ed. Frankfurt, Auffarth, 1876; Theodor Clemens, Ueber die Heilwirkungen der Elektricität und deren erfolgreiche
methodische Anwendung in verschiedenen Krankheiten, Frankfurt, Auffarth, 1876-1879.
56 / From body to machine: electro-medicine
in Berlin, 1854, translated into English in 1869 and frequently re-issued in subsequent years down to the definitive version of 1883. For
his part, Erb was one of Germany’s most eminent neurologists. After
formative years in Heidelberg, he worked in Munich and then Leipzig where in 1882 he would publish his Handbuch der Elektrotherapie,
a work that found its way into Ziemssen’s general therapy series, was
instantly translated into English and became a staple of any electromedical specialist’s private library. 18
The other major pole of reference in the German-speaking area was
the Allgemeines Krankenhaus in Vienna, where Friedrich Fieber succeeded in opening a department of electro-therapeutics in 1867. Fieber’s
Compendium der Elektrotherapie and Behandlung der Nervenkrankheiten
mit Elektricität played a prime role in overcoming medical practitioners’ reluctance to adopt the new electrical techniques. 19 Fieber’s persuasion campaign was helped by his being far from isolated in Vienna:
in the 1860s there was not only Ernst Brücke working there, one of the
four Berlin school physiologists who had signed the 1847 manifesto
for the founding of experimental medicine, but also Benedikt Schulz,
August von Haerdtl, Moriz Benedikt and Moriz Rosenthal, all active
in the field of electro-medicine. With his 1865 publication Die Elektrotherapie, ihre Begründung und Anwendung in der Medizin, Rosenthal was
perhaps the leading light of Viennese research in the field of electricity applied to nervous diseases, and his name was known through
translations and extensive circulation of his works. 20 Yet the Vienna
school’s reputation was primarily due to Moriz Benedikt, esteemed by
Erb and Charcot, and himself author of an Elektrotherapie published in
1868. As of 1875 Benedikt became director of the Department of Electro-therapeutics and Neuropathology. 21 The other Viennese centres
for electro-therapeutics that deserve at least a mention were the Josephinum Academy and, after that closed in 1872, the military hospital.
18. Moritz Meyer, Die Electricität in Ihrer Anwendung auf Practische Medizin, Berlin,
Hirschwald, 1883. Wilhelm Erb, Handbuch der Elektrotherapie, Leipzig, Vogel, 1882, third
volume of Handbuch der allgemeinen Therapie, ed. Hugo von Ziemssen, Leipzig, Vogel,
19. Erna Lesky, The Vienna Medical School of the 19th Century, The Johns Hopkins
University Press, Baltimore and London, 1976, p. 349. Friedrich Fieber, Compendium der
Elektrotherapie, Vienna, Braumüller, 1869; Id., Die Behandlung der Nervenkrankheiten mit
Elektricität, Vienna, Czermak, 1873.
20. Moriz Rosenthal, Die Elektrotherapie, ihre Begründung und Anwendung in der Medizin,
Vienna, Braumüller, 1865.
21. Moriz Benedikt, Elektrotherapie, Vienna, Tendler, 1868.
From body to machine: electro-medicine / 57
This background formed the careers of electro-specialists like Franz
Chvostek who taught electro-therapeutics at the Academy in 1867, and
above all Rudolf Lewandowski, MO at the hospital, a close co-worker
of the instrument-maker Joseph Leiter and author, among other works,
of Die Elektrotechnik in der praktischen Heilkunde. 22
3. Plinio Schivardi and introduction of the new electrical approach in Italy
The foregoing long but necessary list bears witness to the climate
of expectation surrounding electricity which took hold of the medical
community from the mid-1850s onwards. That the phenomenon has
hitherto received little attention is because, whereas the schools of Paris and Berlin were driving physiological research towards experimentation promising certain progress, the revival of interest in medical
applications of electricity seemed a hang-over from the obscure past
which had spawned another culture, quite alien to the modernisation
in progress, and hence was destined to a rapid demise. Such a misreading of the signs fails, of course, to take stock of the droves of doctors
who applauded the slow but sure emancipation of physiology from
anatomy and hailed the emergence of experimental physiology based
on chemistry and physics. This they saw as a solid platform on which
to revive electro-medicine.
Schivardi was one such physician. Born at Brescia in 1833, he was
engaged by the Milan Ospedale Maggiore in 1857. After his highschool years at Brescia and Desenzano he had moved to Padua and
begun to read medicine there, later moving to Vienna where he graduated in medicine. 23 He learnt to value instrumentation in medicine
through working with the Bohemian doctor Joseph Škoda whose Abhandlung über Perkussion und Auskultation he translated, and also with
the German physiologist Ernst Wilhelm von Brücke. His knowledge
of electro-medicine was the result of collaboration with Friedrich Fie-
22. Rudolf Lewandowski, Die Elektrotechnik in der praktischen Heilkunde, Vienna - Pest Leipzig, Hartleben, 1883.
23. Archivio dell’Ospedale Maggiore di Milano, Medici-chirurghi: Plinio Schivardi,
stato personale e di servizio.
58 / From body to machine: electro-medicine
ber and Moriz Rosenthal, both in service at the Vienna Allgemeines
Krankenhaus. 24
When Schivardi returned to Italy, specialists in the field of electrotherapeutics were in short supply. Duchenne, dedicatee of his work,
was still unknown and few had Schivardi’s grasp of English, French
and German, so that most of the treatises published in Europe were
still beyond them.
Had that been all, it might have passed. But the problem was much
more serious, Schivardi discovered. Not only was there a dearth of
Italian specialists in electro-medicine, there was a proliferation of charlatan healers, including some from abroad, who continued to wax rich
on “shock” treatment.
One such was “Monsieur Tirat” whose cabinet for electro-applications at one of “the most debonair and well-patronised” addresses in
Milan was attended by men and women of all social classes. 25 In 1865
Schivardi resolved to visit this “wonder-worker” to see for himself
“how the birds are snared”. The room he describes had antiquated
machines in the corners at which were seated a number of persons
connected by non-insulated copper wires. The amusing scene Schivardi witnessed is a convincing sample of charlatan practice, a kind of
burlesque that continued to enjoy approval by the authorities:
In one corner of the room we saw a priest […]. He sat astride his chair,
frowning, with a plate over his heart area and a discharge device in his
hand, working his lips as though saying the breviary. But every so often,
the irregular current giving rise to the occasional violent shock, the worthy
cleric’s face would contract in pain, before returning to repose”. 26
The scene was “a pretty picture”, writes Schivardi, and the figure
of the credulous priest starting as he recited his prayers was evidently
too good to miss as an opportunity of ironising at relations between a
narrow-minded conservative Catholic world and the promise of development through scientific progress. Another drama was being acted
out in the same room, however. A young girl of plebeian extraction
was here the victim of sinister chicanery pursued outside the hospital
precincts. This time the picture was less amusing:
24. Joseph Škoda, Trattato di percussione ed ascoltazione, translated by Plinio Schivardi,
Milan, Editori della Biblioteca, 1864.
25. Plinio Schivardi, Una visita al gabinetto elettrico del signor Tirat in Milano, Milan,
Chiusi Publishers, 1865, pp. 3-4.
26. Ivi, p. 4.
From body to machine: electro-medicine / 59
“She had a tumour on the left side of her neck, to which Tirat applied a
broad brass plate. He handed her the discharge device and unceremoniously twiddled the settings from maximum to minimum. The poor girl first
gave a terrified jerk on her seat and a cry of pain, her hand convulsing, before settling to endure the strong current with some fortitude. After about
ten minutes’ application, Tirat prodded the tumour frowningly, then took
one of his famous broad belts from a drawer and handed it to the girl, saying: c’est une pile de Volta, en trois jours vous êtes guerie! It costs 60 francs”. 27
Incompetence, mixed with greed and ignorance, here showed their
worst face. The belts Tirat peddled, writes Schivardi, were nothing
but “galvanic poultices” invented in the France of the Fifties: bi-metallic chains which, the galvanometer test revealed, produced a lowintensity direct current of no worth whatever, if one reflects that the
skin “only lets strong currents through, while weak ones decompose
upon it and disperse”. 28 To Schivardi, the Tirat belt was a mere “device for simpletons”. Thus, he scoffed, “in Milan 30, 60 or 80 francs
will buy you two pieces of zinc and copper sewn into a shabby pouch
of leather!” 29 The currents Tirat applied to the priest were no more
effective, the machine being inappropriately connected, producing irregular current, with non-insulated conductors and without the least
notion of electro-physiology.
If he were to produce objectively valid results and analyses, the
budding medical ‘electrician’ that Schivardi had in mind to train must
begin by taking a distance from such practices and learn abut the experimental techniques being applied to laboratory animals. He should
especially learn to prepare a “galvanoscopic frog” following the method perfected by Matteucci, the basis of all other experimentation. An
electro-physician must, at the very least, learn to use the galvanometer
and dynamometer, essential tools of research as performed by a master like Du Bois-Reymond; he should practise distinguishing between
effects obtainable from a living body and those from a dissected one. 30
It was also essential to know the chemistry of “muscle respiration” and
the differences between various types of current, in particular the effects of direct versus alternating current. The wrong choice could have
27. Ivi, p. 5-6.
28. Ivi, p. 8.
29. Ivi, p. 10.
30. Plinio Schivardi, Manuale…, cit. pp. 155-157.
60 / From body to machine: electro-medicine
dire consequences and even cause death, as Schivardi had proved on
cats. 31
Yet another controversy regarded the direction current should be
applied in. The international debate pitted those who thought exciting a nerve by current between centre (brain or marrow) and nerve
periphery depended for its effect on the direction, versus those who
thought it had the same result whatever the direction. The professional
of electro-medicine should be au fait with these cruxes, gain expertise,
sift the relevant scientific bibliography and take up a position.
At least in principle, virtually any doctor who opposed the practices
of charlatans like Tirat would have to agree on the need for such an approach. The second step must be that of persuading the new “electrophysician” to go down to the laboratory and get to grips with electromedicine by the consolidated methods of experimental science, beginning with physics. In his Manual Schivardi actually went a lot further:
he expected the doctor to be skilled with machinery the Italian milieu
knew nothing about and trusted still less.
Ranging from the various kinds of battery in commerce, to the electro-magnetic machinery for charging them, from the hand-operated
electro-magnetic devices exploiting Faraday current to the various
sorts of rheostat, interrupter switch and discharge device, Schivardi
gave his readers a thorough overview of the material an electro-doctor
must learn to handle. It was explicit that a mere doctor would not do:
this was to be a hybrid figure combining medical knowledge with an
electrical technician’s know-how. The last waverings as to this heterodox profile versed in workshop and laboratory would be dispelled by
some of the most original pages in the Manual. This is where Schivardi
discounts the French- and German-manufactured models as generally
inaccessible to Italian doctors’ “modest fortunes”, cautions against relying on unskilled local constructors, and decides to give the reader a
minute account of how to build a home-made electro-therapy device. 32
One kilogram of copper wire, three ounces of silk, half a day’s pay
for a workman to sheath the wire, one coil, one brass tube, two switches and six terminals were practically all one needed, following Schivardi’s instructions, to assemble a “Volta-Faraday device” suitable for
most applications.
31. Ivi, p. 159.
32. Ivi, p. 146.
From body to machine: electro-medicine / 61
“It has two currents,” he explains,” the diameter and length of the wires
to produce it is the fruit of long experience, it has a tube dimmer which is
the best way of dosing the electricity exactly, and an alternating currentbreaker that works properly all the time. It looks smart, can be carried easily,
weighs little. It runs on any battery. If a lower drawer is added to the first
model, this can contain two Marié-Davy elements, a couple of sponge-type
discharge devices, a metal brush, a discharge device on a bent olive stick,
and the result is a apparatus equipped for all ordinary requirements. Not
least, and not to be spurned, the low price it costs and the safety of careful
workmanship. 33
Such skills, plus the know-how gained in his years at the Vienna
school, made Schivardi the unquestioned authority on electro-medicine. As early as 1862 at the competition arranged by the Dell’Acqua
Foundation, the Milan Ospedale Maggiore had honoured Schivardi
in acknowledgment of the topical subject he had mastered, “requiring the work not just of the doctor, but the physicist and mechanic
too”, an area where “in order to shine and carry conviction, ingenuity is not enough: at all junctures one needed experience and rigorous
demonstration”. 34
Hardly was the first edition of his Manual out when Schivardi found
a mouthpiece for his expertise in succeeding Felice Dell’Acqua as editor of the Rivista elettrologica. Forming part of the Annali Universali, this
was the first and most authoritative specific coverage of the subject. Its
declared purpose was “to announce in digest the opinions, controversies and main facts” pertaining to electro-medicine. 35
In the first issue he edited, Schivardi began by lamenting the lack
of original publications in Italian journals and doctors’ apathy about
that electricity which “is daily applied in every hospital of Europe”,
whereas Italy still viewed it “with a smile of contempt” or used it when
desperate, “expecting miracles”. 36 The only authors who had recently
done worthwhile research in this field, apart from Felice Dell’Acqua,
were Giacinto Namias at Venice, Crisanto Zuradelli at Pavia, Gustavo
Simi at Leghorn and Giuliano Manca in Turin. Nothing else of note on
the subject could be reported, wrote Schivardi. 37
33. Ivi, pp. 151-152.
34. Andrea Verga, Rendiconto della beneficenza dell’Ospedale Maggiore e degli annessi pii
istituti in Milano per gli anni solari 1861-1862-1863, Milan, Manini, 1865, p. 158.
35. Felice Dell’Acqua, “Rivista elettrologica”, in Annali universali di medicina 31
(1859), pp. 134-168.
36. Plinio Schivardi, “Rivista elettrologia”, in Annali Universali di medicina 53 (1864),
pp. 190-205, cit. p. 191.
37. Ivi, pp. 194-195. The short work by Giacinto Namias, Sui principi elettrofisiologici
62 / From body to machine: electro-medicine
By way of rectifying the embarrassing situation, a few yeas later Schivardi applied successfully to open a new ‘window’ devoted to electromedicine in another of the main nation-wide periodicals. Thanks to his
efforts, from 1866 onwards the Lombard edition of Gazzetta medica italiana, edited by Gaetano Strambio, carried an Appendice elettrojatrica. 38
Thereafter Schivardi was not alone in his campaign. In following years
periodicals elsewhere in the peninsula began focusing on electro-medicine. In 1871 Giuliano Manca, an electro-practitioner who had previously worked in Turin, brought out the first issue of the Roman Giornale di elettroterapia. As of 1873, Temistocle Santopadre’s efforts brought
out Il Galvani at Urbino. From 1883 on, Francesco Dichiara published
his Gazzetta clinica di elettroterapia at Palermo. 39
Besides the spate of articles that cannot even be cited here, some new
monographs soon made their appearance. On the heels of Schivardi’s
revised edition of the Manual in 1874 came Domenico Mucci’s Manuale
di elettroterapia galvanica, published at Pavia in 1883, and Giulio Mariani’s Elettroterapia which Hoepli of Milan brought out in 1888. 40 Meanwhile the leading authors of Germanic research were being translated
into Italian: Elektrotherapie by Moriz Rosenthal, and Die Elektricität in
der Medicine by Hugo von Ziemssen in 1874; the Compendium der Elektrotherapie by Reginald Henry Pierson in 1877; Wilhelm Erb’s 1883
Handbuch der Elektrotherapie; Elektrodiagnostik und Elektrotherapie by Rudolf Lewandowski in 1883 and Konrad Rieger’s Grundriss der Medicinischen Elektricitätslehre in 1892. 41
che devono indirizzare gli usi dell’elettricità e sui metodi più acconci a giovarsene nelle singole
malattie, Venice, Cecchini, 1859, is of particular importance.
38. The first issue of Appendice elettrojatrica appeared in the Gazzetta medica italiana.
Lombardia, XXV (1866), pp. 33-44.
39. The Giornale di elettroterapia appeared from 1871 to 1873, Il Galvani, giornale di elettroidro ed aero terapia from 1873 to 1875, the Gazzetta clinica di elettroterapea from 1883 to 1884.
40. Giacinto Namias, Sui principii elettrofisiologici che devono indirizzare gli usi dell’elettricità, Venice, Cecchini, 1859; Domenico Mucci, Manuale di elettroterapia galvanica, Piacenza,
Tedeschini, 1883; Giulio Mariani, Elettroterapia, Milan, Hoepli, 1888.
41. In alphabetic order: Wilhelm Erb, Sull’uso dell’elettricità in medicina, 1883 (1st ed.
Erb, Handbuch, cit.); Rudolf Lewandowski, Manuale di elettrodiagnostica ed elettroterapia. Con
nozioni di fisica propedeutica pei medici pratici, Milan, Vallardi, 1892 (1st ed. Lewandowski,
Die Elektrodiagnostik und Elektrotherapie einschliesslich der physikalischen Propädeutik, für
praktische Ärzte, Vienna, Urban & Schwarzenberg, 1892); Reginald Henry Pierson, Vade
mecum di elettroterapia ad uso degli studenti e dei medici pratici, Verona, Drucker & Tedeschi,
1877 (1st ed. Pierson, Compendium, cit.); Konrad Rieger, Fondamenti di elettricità medica,
Modena, Saracino, 1892 (1st ed. Rieger, Grundriss der Medicinischen Elektricitätslehre
für Ärzte und Studirende, Jena, Fischer, 1886); Maurizio Rosenthal, La elettroterapia e le
sue speciali applicazioni alle malattie nervose e muscolari, Naples, Pasquale, 1874 (1st ed.
Moriz Rosenthal, Die Elektrotherapie, cit.); Hugo Wilhelm von Ziemssen, Elettroterapia,
From body to machine: electro-medicine / 63
This shift in interest would shortly be reflected in the organisation
of institutions as well. One of the first university courses was run by
Eugenio Lace Del Pozzo who held the post of free teacher of electrotherapeutics in Turin from 1867 to 1876. 42 A chair of electro-therapeutics was inaugurated at Naples University by Francesco Vizioli in 1877,
though it was not until 1886 that this clinic rose to a cabinet of electrotherapy directed by Vizioli. 43 Simone Fubini at Palermo was appointed
to teach neuropathology and electro-therapeutics from 1885 to 1888, 44
while Cesare Brunelli taught the Rome course of electro-therapeutics
from 1883 to 1888. 45
In Milan, which had spearheaded the diffusion of electro-medicine
in Italy thanks to Schivardi’s efforts, the Istituto Pneumo-Elettroterapico opened in 1875. Inaugurated by Carlo Forlanini and later directed
by Giulio Mariani, this Institute chose to obviate the lack of suitable
equipment for applications by going fully autonomous and equipping
a workshop “to construct and maintain” equipment which might also
be commissioned and sold. 46 An 1880 brochure for the new electrotherapy centre advertised “voltaic and faradaic applications” both on
site and – a first-ever move – in people’s homes. The price ranged from
5 to 10 lire, depending on the option chosen. 47 It was clear to the public from the commercial slant and therapy price-list that the promoters had an ambition, the manifesto rested on an analogy: if physicists
could promise to bring light-bulbs into the home, doctors were not to
be outdone: they were all set to deliver electro-therapy as a domestic
Naples, 1874 (1st ed. Ziemssen, Die Elektricität in der Medicine. Studien, 1st ed: Berlin,
Hirschwald, 1857).
42. Ariane Dröscher, Le facoltà medico-chirurgiche italiane (1860-1915), Bologna, CLUEB,
2002, p. 382.
43. Ivi, p. 170, 205.
44. Ivi, p. 484.
45. Ivi, p. 311.
46. Ivi, p. 8.
47. Istituto pneumo-elettroterapico di Milano, Milan, Bernardoni, 1888, p. 7.
Electrical Hybrids
Luca Iori
“He bends down to the earth and asks for nothing:
knowing too well the earth is a traitor which gives and does not give.”
(Emanuel Carnevali)
What is a hybrid?
The current definition of the word “hybrid”, as given by the Encyclopaedia Britannica, is the “offspring of parents that differ in genetically determined traits”. 1 From this definition follows that natural hybridization, at least in cross-pollinating plants (opposed to self-pollinating ones) is as old as the plants themselves. We could even go as far
as stating that every offspring of a cross-pollinating plant is, in some
respects, a hybrid. Nevertheless, in the history of plant-breeding the
term has usually a more restricted meaning. The hybrid in this context
is the result of a cross between two varieties (i.e. two plants, usually
but not necessarily of the same species, bearing different traits) already
known, either intentional or not .
The history of controlled plant hybridization is a long one. Pioneers
like Patrick Shirreff were already experimenting with hybrid varieties
of wheat during the 19th century 2 while the first experiences with artificial crosses can be traced as far back as the 18th century, in the work
of Thomas Fairchild. 3 The turning point is usually indicated in the rediscovery of Mendel’s laws at the beginning of the 20th century. Mathematical ratios in the distribution of traits and the concepts of dominant
versus recessive traits promised the possibility of controlling better the
hybrid’s offspring, thus improving the reliability of a source of varietal
1. “hybrid.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia
Britannica, 2011. Web. 31 Aug. 2011. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/277999/
2. J. R. Walton, Varietal Innovation and the Competitiveness of the British Cereals Sector,
1760-1930, The Agricultural History Review 47(1): 29-57, 1999.
3. R. Olby, Origins of Mendelism, Chicago and London, University of Chicago Press,
1966. See also J. H. Perkins, Geopolitics and the green revolution: wheat, genes, and the cold
war, New York, Oxford University Press, 1997.
66 / Electrical Hybrids
innovation deemed as uncertain. This traditional reconstruction is still
popular even if it has been convincingly challenged by historians of
science and technology. 4
Reconstructing the history of plant hybridization, however, is not
the aim of this paper. 5 I will dwell on it just enough to be able to discuss a less-known aspect of the history of the hybrids: the point in
time and space when they were about to go electric. The public history
of the rise and fall of elettrogenetica (electrogenetics), as the new science was called, began with a publication by the Italian horticulturalist Alberto Pirovano in 1922. 6 Pirovano was a non-academic outsider
that belonged to the plant-breeding tradition. In order to understand
Pirovano’s methods and objectives, it’s useful to look at plant-breeding
through a research program on hybrids that at the time represented in
Italy the state of the art: Nazareno Strampelli’s (1866-1942). 7 This story
will answer the first of our questions: why was electricity investigated
as a possible source of varietal innovation? What was plant-breeding
After the analysis of Strampelli’s research program (and a brief electrical intermezzo) I will introduce Alberto Pirovano (1884-1973) and
discuss the main concepts and experiments he included in his already
mentioned first book. Through Pirovano’s work we will see that electricity was considered for some years a possible source of speed and
control in the creation of new plant varieties, only to be later discarded.
Some of the electrical hybrids survived, but only because it was possible to ignore their origin.
4. P. Palladino, Between Craft and Science: Plant Breeding, Mendelian Genetics, and British
Universities, 1900-1920, Technology and Culture 34(2): 300-323, 1993; J. Harwood, Styles of
scientific thought: the German genetics community, 1900-1933, Chicago, University of Chicago
Press, 1993; T. Wieland, Scientific Theory and Agricultural Practice: Plant Breeding in Germany
from the Late 19th to the Early 20th Century, Journal of the History of Biology 39(2): 309-343,
2006; C. Bonneuil, Mendelism, plant breeding and experimental cultures: Agriculture and the
development of genetics in France, Journal of the History of Biology 39(9): 281-308, 2006.
5. The reader interested in the subject will find the book by Noel Kingsbury extremely
interesting. See N. Kingsbury, Hybrid: the history and science of plant breeding, Chicago,
University of Chicago Press, 2009.
6. A. Pirovano, La mutazione elettrica delle specie botaniche e la disciplina dell’eredità
nell’ibridazione, Milano, U. Hoepli, 1922.
7. The historical role of Strampelli’s wheat varieties, heavily diffused in the Italian
landscapes by the fascist regime (after the declaration of the equally harmful, useless
and successful Battaglia del grano ‘Battle for Grain’ in 1925), has recently been discussed
by Tiago Saraiva: see T. Saraiva, Fascist Labscapes: Geneticists, Wheat, and the Landscapes of
Fascism in Italy and Portugal, Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences 40(4): 457-498, 2010.
Electrical Hybrids / 67
Nazareno Strampelli (1866-1942), agricultural geneticist and breeder
Professor Gian Tommaso Scarascia Mugnozza, renowned agronomist and agricultural geneticist who originated with others in the
1970s the durum wheat cultivar “Creso” (still in use today), called
Strampelli’s program “the best of his times” 8. The main achievement
of Strampelli’s program was the development of various wheat varieties (released to the public in the 1920s) with a very short stem (dwarf
varieties) and early maturity, many years before the famous similar
results of Norman Borlaug. 9 An analysis of the character and limits of
Strampelli’s program is thus a good way to familiarise ourselves with
the challenges that electrogenetics hoped to answer.
Nazareno Strampelli was born in Crispiero (Castelraimondo,
Marche) in 1866. He studied at the Portici school of agriculture in Naples and later graduated in Agricultural Sciences at the University of
Pisa. Strampelli arrived in Rieti in 1903, after some years spent in minor positions at the University of Camerino. There, he was appointed
to the newly established itinerant chair of agriculture. Founded at the
beginning by local institutions, itinerant chairs of agriculture were intended as a mean to spread technical knowledge among farmers. The
professor chosen for the post had to give a number of public lectures,
act as an advisor for farmers and landowners, and carry out experiments with fertilizers in order to advertise their benefits and encourage their use. Due to the local nature of the institution, there were a lot
of differences around the country in the activities carried out and in
the resources that the holder of the chair could use. The state soon became the main financial actor, but the control over the chairs was very
loose, at least until 1907. 10
Why did Strampelli choose Rieti? The job was not prestigious or
well paid, and the city, although beautiful, was (and still is) a very
small one. The reason, as Roberto Lorenzetti has written 11 has to be
8. G. T. S. Mugnozza, The contribution of Italian wheat geneticists: From Nazareno Strampelli to Francesco D’Amato. In the wake of the double helix, University of Bologna, Avenue
Media, 2003.
9. M. H. Ellis, D. G. Bonnett et al., Borlaug, Strampelli and the worldwide distribution of
RHT8, Wheat Production in Stressed Environments 12: 787-791, 2007.
10. M. Zucchini, Le cattedre ambulanti di agricoltura, Roma, G. Volpe, 1970.
11. R. Lorenzetti, La scienza del grano: l’esperienza scientifica di Nazareno Strampelli e la
granicoltura italiana dal periodo giolittiano al secondo dopoguerra, Roma, Ministero per i beni
e le attività culturali, Ufficio centrale per i beni archivistici, 2000.
68 / Electrical Hybrids
found in one of the actors of our story: wheat. Among the Italian farmers of the time, the Rieti Valley was known as the only place of production of the Rieti Originario, a wheat cultivar celebrated for its resistance
to rusts. 12 The production of Rieti seeds remained a local enterprise:
for reasons not clear at the time the variety used to lose its precious
resistance after one or two generations. This situation created a sort of
natural monopoly in the commerce of the Rieti seeds, and many frauds
that were compared to those of the Chianti wine’s trade (Gli è come del
Chianti: fortunato colle, che in nome suo si dà da bere a tutto il mondo). 13
No matter how valuable, Rieti was not perfect: the plant was highly
susceptible to lodging. 14 Strampelli had, from his first experiment of
hybridization in 1900, 15 the dream of developing new varieties that
inherited both resistance to rusts and lodging.
In his first years of activity in Rieti, Strampelli successfully completed all the teaching and counselling assignments required. 16 Simultaneously, however, he was devoting more and more time to a vast number
of experiments ranging from testing different compositions of fertilizers to the effects of small amounts of various substances in the terrain,
and from the effects of plants on the terrain to the effects of electricity
on wheat growth. Along with these experiments, Strampelli was also
developing a selection program for the Rieti cultivar and beginning a
work on hybrids that, expanding year by year, ended up as the main
activity of the chair. In 1907 the itinerant position was turned by law
into an experimental station specially conceived for research on cereals. 17
Despite the changes that took place from 1904 to 1919 (when a na12. “Rusts” (it. Ruggini) was the common name used for a family of plant diseases
caused by different types of fungi.
13. “It’s like Chianti: lucky hill, in its name they give all the world a drink”. The quotation, from a 1882 issue of the agricultural newspaper “Il Giornale del Villaggio” is taken
from Lorenzetti (op. cit.). The (rough) translation is mine.
14. “Lodging” refers to the condition in which the plant stem is permanently bent
(due to adverse weather conditions or the plant’s weight).
15. Conducted in Camerino, the experiment (a cross between wheat varieties Noé and
Rieti) was suspended after the second generation, due to the apparent chaotic distribution
of traits among the offspring.
16. Archivio di Stato di Rieti (ASR), Archivio Privato Strampelli (APS), Box n. 5
Folder n. 7.
17. Strampelli’s experiments of selection and hybridization were not limited to wheat
alone, but improving wheat remained the main priority for him. Discussion of the work
on other plants (that would unnecessarily add to the complexity of the picture sketched)
will be conducted elsewhere.
Electrical Hybrids / 69
tional institute for cereal genetics was created in Rome) and after, the
organization of the hybrids research program remained peculiar and
recognizable. It can be usefully described as a true “system”, articulated in 4 different phases. I call it a “system” because the parts, although
separated in time and space, only make sense if considered together.
The parts I will quickly discuss are: Collection, Hybridization, Selection
and Assessment. After the explanation, I will turn to the limits of such
an experimental program, before introducing the birth of electrogenetics. A fifth part could be individuated, namely Multiplication and
Distribution. Since this was the part that went through major changes,
changes that did not correspond to similar ones in the other parts, 18 it
will not be discussed in this paper.
Collection, hybridization, selection, evaluation: a complete varietal innovation
system in four steps
Collection was the first step. With the word collection I want to highlight the systematic effort that Strampelli made in order to obtain various types of wheat seeds from a lot of different places across Europe
(Italy, England, Netherlands, France, Serbia) and beyond (Lebanon,
Eritrea, Morocco, Russia, America). Letters were written 19 to various
agricultural institutions and individuals asking for seeds. A lot of the
material accumulated was later used for crosses; from the beginning
however the aim was also to collect as many varieties already cultivated with success elsewhere as possible, creating a comprehensive
archive of “viable” seeds varieties. The “quest for seeds” had a peak
in the first years of the Rieti chair, with 1904 being a crucial year, but
did not reach an end afterwards. The Akakomugi variety, the Japanese
wheat that brought short stem and early maturity in the genetic pool
available to Strampelli, was sent to the experimental station by a seed
trader in 1911. 20
Hybridization was the second step. The method of hybridization
used by Strampelli is described in a 1907 publication 21 and in a later
18. Thus suggesting a more independent status of this phase.
19. ASR, APS, B. 16, F. 11.
20. ASR, APS, B. 19, F. 3.
21. N. Strampelli, Alla ricerca e creazione di nuove varietà di frumento a mezzo dell’ibridazione, Roma, U.C.E., 1907.
70 / Electrical Hybrids
one in 1932. 22 In the 25 years span that separates the two, only minor
changes to the procedure were made.
As is well known, wheat is a self-pollinating plant. That means that
in natural conditions a plant is both male and female. Usually therefore reproduction happens within a single plant, and cross-pollination
is a rare event. 23 To prevent self-pollination and to cross two different
plants, one of the two (the choice does not influence in any way the
final result) has to be castrated, i.e. anthers are removed (see Fig. 1).
The castrated plant is then called the “female” one.
Fig. 1. 24
The male plant is the one from which the pollen is taken: the usual
mean was opening the anthers with tweezers and collecting the pollen
into a sterile recipient. Soon afterwards the pollination had to be carried out with a little brush on the female plant. Since the pollen had to
be fresh, flowering time of different varieties had to be synchronized.
That was accomplished initially using south-facing walls and cellars,
turning later to greenhouses and refrigerators when they became
available. Even though cross-pollination is a rare event, female plants
in Strampelli’s program were isolated using parchment cylinders and
cotton. The end result of this step was a set of seeds, hybrid seeds.
22. N. Strampelli, I miei lavori: origini e sviluppi - i grani della vittoria. Origini, Sviluppi
Lavori e Risultati, I. N. d. G. p. l. C. i. Roma. Roma, Lacroix, 1932.
23. This is also the reason, as Harwood (op. cit.) has written, why reproduction of
single plants in isolation was a cheap and effective way of preserving a type “in purity”,
24. This fine image was made in 2007 by Mariana Ruiz, who was generous enough
to put it into the public domain.
Electrical Hybrids / 71
Selection was the third step, and the one over which Mendelian theories had the biggest influence. Hybrids were known for being all similar
in the first generation. From the second (obtained by natural self-pollination) however, differences in traits started to appear. The main problem for the breeder was thus obtaining a plant with the desired traits that
also “bred true”, maintaining all those traits in its offspring. As in the
French case narrated by Bonneuil, 25 selection of promising individual
plants started for Strampelli in the second generation. The reasoning
behind this decision was straightforward: according to his understanding of Mendel’s law, the diversity between the hybrid’s offspring was
nothing but a mathematically ordered distribution of antagonist traits.
Let’s imagine two plants, called a and b. Plant a has a beard around
the spike, while plant b hasn’t got one. Let’s imagine also that the beard
form is recessive to the beardless one, which is dominant. If we cross
them, all their offspring ab will not display a beard. If we let ab individuals self-pollinate, however, their offspring will behave differently,
and according to Mendel’s second law we will obtain: 26
– ¼ of homozygote individuals aa: they will always display a beard
and their offspring will constantly do the same;
– ¼ of homozygote individuals bb: they will not display a beard and
their offspring will never do so;
– ½ of heterozygote individuals ab: they will not display a beard, but
their offspring will sometimes do, according to the same distribution we just described.
The actual problem of putting this scheme to use is that it’s not possible to determine by observation alone if the beardless plants we obtained are reliable homozygote bb or variable heterozygote ab. If we are
working with small numbers, distribution will not be so precise either.
Also, our experiment was trivial because we limited it to a single trait
(bearded vs. beardless). Since the traits come in antagonist couples, for
n couples the possible forms are 2n, so for instance 10 couples of traits
can produce 1024 different forms. 27 How could this knowledge be useful for Strampelli and other breeders?
25. Bonneuil, op. cit.
26. Let’s also note that for this mental experiment we don’t need to talk about genes.
27. This mathematical model, used by Strampelli from the first decade of the 20th century, does not consider the phenomena of linkage (i.e. some genes are inherited together
more frequently than others), unknown at the time.
72 / Electrical Hybrids
This forces us to rethink claims of control and design that were frequently made by breeders at the time. Nevertheless, Mendelian theory
had practical applications: it told the breeders that if they kept tracking
the offspring of individual hybrid plants and choosing among them
which one to reproduce by self-pollination (Selection), they could finally reach homozygosis for the desired traits. Their hybrids will become fixed. The theoretical number of forms could also tell if repeating
a cross made sense or not by a comparison with the actual number of
forms observed in the field.
The price of fixing a hybrid was huge, both in terms of the time
required (some varieties developed by Strampelli reached the final
stage of the process in 10 years), space for their cultivation, and money
(the hybrids could not produce any profit before the distribution and
multiplication phase). The isolation of specific forms and the tracking
effort across generations relied heavily on the personal skills of the
breeder himself, both in observation and planning. The end result of
this phase was a fixed hybrid: a plant with a set of traits that were
originally separated among its own ancestors (the couple of the initial
cross) and that were inherited in a reliable way. Was the work finally
over? Not yet, as we will see in the last step.
Assessment was the last step. Even if the results of Selection were in
some sense final (the genetically determined traits were secured) all
the previous steps did not guarantee any reliable information on the
plant’s behaviour in different environments. The breeder could use
his experience to make an educated guess about the ideal conditions
for a specific cultivar and its average harvest, but in order to be sure
he had to perform tests. Strampelli spent his entire life working in the
public sector, maintaining a strong ideology of public service: releasing a wheat variety without being entirely sure about its behaviour
was never an option. To perform the assessment of the fixed plants,
Strampelli organized a network of experimental fields (later experimental stations) in different locations: the first three he managed to
set up had to give data about the growth in valleys (Rieti), mountains
(Leonessa) and arid terrains (Foggia). After a round of internal tests,
promising seeds were baptized with a name and progressed towards
one or two rounds of additional external tests, sending them to agricultural institutions (schools and experimental stations) across the
country. Only at this point could tested seeds be sold or distributed
to farmers.
Electrical Hybrids / 73
The limits of an early 20th century “state of the art” hybridization program
A less abstract account of this system of varietal innovation should
take into account the Multiplication and Distribution phases; nevertheless we have now the sketch of a well-organized research program
on hybrids at the beginning of the 20th century that gave impressive
results. This bird’s eye view also emphasises some features (e.g. the
parts in which the work is divided, the mix between scientific laws
and personal skills) that I believe are not limited to Strampelli’s work
or wheat alone. If this is true, it should be possible also to discuss the
shortcomings of such a program not only as specific features of a single
experimenter’s work, but as common limitations that breeders working with hybrids at the time had to face in one way or another.
The two most apparent limitations in the hybridization program
outlined are without doubt the time required and the vast amount of
resources, both in terms of work and land, necessary to obtain the final product. Strampelli’s program was extremely careful: a more aggressive attitude could have accelerated the process a little, at least in
the Assessment phase, but not during the fixing part (the most timeconsuming). Both limitations can be ascribed to a more general one: a
lack of control due to the exclusive availability of indirect manipulation
instruments in some of the crucial steps.
At first glance, the usage of the expression indirect manipulation could
seem a paradox: the manipulation of plants by artificial pollination is
clearly a very direct manipulation. On the other hand, this operation
does not guarantee any particular arrangement of selected traits in the
offspring. After the cross, there is no way for the breeder to properly
control the process: he can only reinforce a particular outcome through
selection once it has appeared. The breeder knows from theory how
many forms a particular cross can give, but he cannot choose in advance which ones will grow from his seeds. His role is to choose. In order to be able to choose, it’s his duty to set up a sufficiently large space
of possibilities in which the promising plants can appear. When this will
happen (and exactly where in his carefully arranged fields) he has no
way to tell or know. 28 He can directly manipulate plants, but the ma28. This idea of indirect control resonates with what Bonneuil (op. cit.) has written:
the history of plant breeding in the 20th century it’s not gene-centric. How could it be,
since genes are not used in actual practice?
74 / Electrical Hybrids
nipulation of what determines traits (and thus of the traits themselves)
always remains indirect.
This situation accounts for the long time a new hybrid variety could
spend in the making before being considered stable and released to the
public. The public image of the breeder’s work was of course different:
Strampelli was called in Italy “the wheat magician”, and he maintained
that the breeder had the power, given enough time and patience, to design the perfectly suited plant for a chosen environment. Sometimes
he compared the breeder to a sculptor; at other times, maybe more
properly, to a mosaic artist. 29 A peculiar mosaic artist, we should add,
one that could not make his own tiles.
With every long process howev er, sooner or later a question appears. What if something could speed it up? What if a way it’s found to
overcome those limitation? Now we know some of the answers: a lot of
new varieties, including the already remembered “Creso”, were later
obtained through induced mutations, via an ingenious use of radioactivity. Nevertheless, it should not come as a surprise that this was just
one among many roads that were taken in the research for new plant
varieties. Speed and control were at first sought in other places, and
one among them was electricity.
Intermezzo: electricity and the hybrids, a missed rendez-vous.
The story of electricity and the hybrids could have started in Rieti.
In the fall of 1904, Nazareno Strampelli put in four pots about 22
pounds of soil and 5 wheat seeds each. 30 Every pot was surrounded
by a cage, but every cage was a little bit different from the other (see
fig. 2).
Every cage had the same amount of wired surface, keeping the
amount of sunlight and air circulation received similar. The wiring
was done differently for each cage (see Tab. 1):
29. ASR, APS, B. 19 F. 3.
30. N. Strampelli, Di una speciale azione elettrica sulle piante, Atti del vi Congresso
internazionale di chimica applicata, Rome, 1906.
Electrical Hybrids / 75
Fig. 2.
Tab. 1.
Upper part
Copper wires were electrified with direct current. Strampelli recorded a slight enhancement of growth in cage C (copper wiring
in the upper part of the cage), and thought of a possible effect over
nitrogen absorption. The effect however was too small to be of any
practical interest and the experiments were later interrupted. Meanwhile Strampelli’s work on hybrids was travelling through the phases
already described, scaling-up accordingly, and putting on hold a lot of
the alternative roads that were considered, started or planned in 1904.
Nevertheless, his experiment was not forgotten: the idea behind it was
not extremely original (more on this below) or exciting, but the careful
planning and the presence of a control gave a reliability to his data on
the effects of electricity on plants that was not common.
76 / Electrical Hybrids
The possible rendez-vous between hybrids and electricity was
thus missed. It happened anyway some years later, due to another
researcher that knew, among the others, about Strampelli’s work: Alberto Pirovano.
Alberto Pirovano (1884-1973) and the tentative birth of electrogenetics
Alberto Pirovano was born in Vaprio d’Adda (near Milan) in 1884,
from a family of horticulturalists. At least from his 15th birthday he
started to be involved in his family’s activities, while studying at the
same time (by himself) 31 botany and physics. In 1922 he published a
book about the “electric mutation of botanical species” 32 (La mutazione
elettrica delle specie botaniche) that was well-received among Italian biologists. 33 Pirovano’s career flourished along with his experiences with
electricity: in 1924 he became chief of the Laboratorio di elettrogenetica
(Laboratory of electrogenetics) in Belgirate and in 1927 he moved to
Rome as the first director of the newly established Istituto di frutticultura e di elettrogenetica (Institute for fruit growing and electrogenetics). 34
Even if his approach was considered promising, some of the theories
and conclusions he drew from his experiments were criticised (although initially not in an hostile manner) from the start. 35 Pirovano’s
name is nowadays remembered not for his electrical studies (later labelled as unscientific) but for the grape varieties that he developed (the
cultivar Italia being one of the most successful).
What was electrogenetics? Which kind of machines and experiences
were tried? What relation had those with the long tradition of experiments involving plants and electricity? And, finally, what results as
31. In his 1922 book, Pirovano remarked in the introduction that “I don’t have yet a
precise system of observation” (Pirovano 1922, my translation).
32. Pirovano, op. cit.
33. A. Volpone, Gli inizi della genetica in Italia, Bari, Cacucci, 2008.
34. For those biographical information about Pirovano, I am indebted to Alessandro
Volpone (Volpone, op. cit.). His book offers a very useful overview of the researchers
involved with research questions that now we see as concerning “genetics”, while at the
time were scattered among different disciplinary traditions.
35. R. Savelli, Osservazioni su anomalie fiorali in “Cucurbita” e su presunti effetti della
“jonolisi” del polline, Bullettino della Società Botanica Italiana: 71-79, 1926. Savelli’s paper
offers a clear example: he questions some of the experimental results of Pirovano while
praising at the same time his work as an horticulturalist and highlighting the simultaneous presence of “lights and shadows” in Pirovano’s work. Savelli, as we will see, later
criticized more vehemently Pirovano.
Electrical Hybrids / 77
an applied science could electrogenetics offer or promise? To answer
these questions, we should turn toward a close examination of Pirovano’s 1922 book.
Such an examination will start with the discussion of the main difference between Pirovano’s work and the long tradition of experiences
on electricity and plants available to him. I will then turn to a reconstruction of Pirovano’s main biological ideas and the action on germ
plasm he called jonolisi. A brief overview of the machines used (with a
detailed example) will conclude this partial immersion in the first book
of the Milanese horticulturalist and give us enough details to discuss
his claimed results on induced mutation and control of the hybrids.
Electrogenetics and électroculture: differences and relations
“Électroculture” is a French word that was used (not exclusively)
to designate the use of electricity to activate plant germination. 36 Duchatel and Ferone de la Selva lists the key dates in the years between
1770 and 1925. 1770 is the year in which Jean-Antoine Nollet, abbé and
crucial figure for the history of electricity, died; 1925 the year in which
the director of the French institute of agronomical research E. Roux
decided to suppress the chairs that were teaching électroculture in the
French agricultural schools. This time interval is conventional: every
author attempting to trace back in time the uses of electricity in agriculture has to decide when to begin 37 and were to stop. Pirovano is not
mentioned anywhere in the paper: rather than showing a lack of information, this confirms his position as an outsider, and the precarious
scientific status of his studies. The first chapter of Pirovano’s 1922 book
is devoted to a quick overview of the previous practical experiments
known to him: the strong conclusions about their ineffectiveness and
the originality of his approach can tell us something more about the
differences and the relations electrogenetics had with électroculture.
Pirovano’s main historical source for previous attempts was Arturo
Bruttini’s “L’influenza dell’elettricità sulla Vegetazione e sui prodotti
delle industrie agrarie”(The influence of electricity on vegetation and
36. J. Duchatel, G. Ferone de la Selva, Les tentatives d’utilisation de l’électricité comme
activateur biologique en agriculture, Bulletin d’histoire de l’électricité(10): 87-101, 1987.
37. Duchatel and Ferone de la Selva writes about pickets that were inserted in the
terrain during Charlemagne’s era.
78 / Electrical Hybrids
agricultural industry products). 38 Bruttini was professor of agronomy in Rome. Published in the famous “handbook” series by Ulrico
Hoepli, the book was an over-400 hundred pages long attempt to summarize all the experiments and experiences ever recorded in Italy and
elsewhere on the effects of electricity on plants and fruits. Bruttini’s
book was divided in four parts 39 and ended with the author’s own
experimental work. Pirovano’s aims were different: not interested in
a complete review he reorganized the discussion of the experiences
collected by Bruttini along the different categories of electrical stimuli
(electrostatic, atmospheric, current, magnetic field) and the objects to
which they were applied (plants or seeds). The conclusion reached by
Pirovano was clear:
“The conclusive summary of this chapter brings us to acknowledge that
electricity has not been proved useful for agriculture, whatever its direct
application”. 40
This failure however instead of discouraging Pirovano, fuelled his
own opinions about what he considered to be the main error of the
previous attempts. Seeds and plants were already complete entities and,
as such, they had means to protect themselves against induced modifications. To have an effect, manipulation had to be carried out before the
seed was formed. After some unsuccessful trials on partially formed
seeds, Pirovano choose the pollen as its main experimental object. 41
This emphasis, and the focus on mutation put Pirovano’s work in a no
man’s land between biology and physics. As remarked by Volpone, 42
no matter how tempting, we should restrain from using the rhetorical
model of the “forgotten pioneer”. Not surprisingly for a self-taught
scholar his biological ideas were a complex and original combination
of different theories and unorthodox opinions that usually were not
seen together. A more useful category for understanding Pirovano’s
38. A. Bruttini, L’Influenza dell’elettricità sulla vegetazione e sui prodotti delle industrie
agrarie, Milano, U. Hoepli, 1912.
39. The four parts were: atmospheric electricity, lightening, storms and earthquakes;
vegetal electrophysiology; influence of electricity on germination of seeds and plant
growth; influence of electricity on products of agricultural industries.
40. This quote from Pirovano, p. 27 (op. cit.). The translation from the original Italian
text is mine.
41. Pirovano decided to manipulate the pollen (and not the plant’s ovules) both for
practical reasons and biological ones. A strong cultural factor is also evident: the feminine
was left untouched due to a supposed caring role.
42. Volpone, op.cit. p. 81.
Electrical Hybrids / 79
work could be that of the scientific “rebel”, discussed in the book edited by Harman and Dietrich 43. The Tolstoyan thesis of the authors – that
every rebel seems to rebel in his own fashion – is accurate for Pirovano’s case as well. The challenge that he brought to Italian biology tells
us something about the plurality of roles that a scientist could play,
being at the same time a maverick in one field and a respected figure
in another. Does this make Pirovano a rebel? Let’s leave the question
open for the moment.
Botany, genetics and Jonolisi
According to Pirovano, 44 botanical species were fixed entities: the
only exception to this rule were hybridism, polymorphism and mutation. Pirovano however maintained that hybrids were just a transitory
combination of pure ancestral species, and were thus forced to segregate until the original form was reached again. A more important role
had to be ascribed to mutation: taking the concept from Hugo de Vries,
mutation was considered by Pirovano an inheritable and permanent
abrupt modification that created a new species. After a dismissal of
both Lamarck’s theories and Darwin’s, in order to distinguish between
variation limited to the individual and variation inherited Pirovano
referred to Weismann, trying an unlikely composition between his experiences as an horticulturalist and the germ plasm theory of the German biologist. The middle ground was found in the following compromise: even if horticultural enhancement did not modify a species
in a substantial way, nevertheless it helped forming a good responseto-stimuli habit. The background of the horticulturalist is manifest in
the terminology chosen too: species selected by breeders had, from
time to time, to be rinsanguate (literally “re-blooded”) by crosses with
wild-type ones. According to Pirovano, every attempt that disrupted
the natural equilibrium of the plant, no matter how improved the final
result, was balanced by nature in some other way, to preserve a sum of
vital energy constant.
To dodge this inherent resistance of the plant, a variable electro43. O. S. Harman and M. R. Dietrich, Rebels, mavericks, and heretics in biology, New
Haven, Yale University Press, 2008.
44. Pirovano, op. cit. p. 33.
80 / Electrical Hybrids
Fig. 3.
magnetic field could be applied to the pollen: Pirovano thought that
stability of the species could only be explained with a stability in the
molecular structure of the germ plasm. A direct action could thus bring
disorder (and variation) in the atom composition of the plasm. This action was called by Pirovano jonolisi (see Fig. 3).
The figure represents an imaginary atomic system inside a chromosome, before and after the jonolisi process. The process was supposed
to shake the stable arrangement of atoms creating a new one: the new
organisation could, if it was one of the few life-compatible, give birth
to a mutated plant. Pirovano tried to show both the possibility and
the limitations of the new approach: pure materialist conceptions, he
wrote, could not account for the distinction between living and nonliving matter; a concept of the “vital mechanism” was missing. He considered the theory of Valentin Haecker, a German geneticist, 45 the most
perfect one; 46 yet for him
“… it leaves a great gap in the main point: the soul of living things, the true
core of existence”. 47
45. J. Harwood, Styles of scientific thought: the German genetics community, 1900-1933,
Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1993.
46. Pirovano does neither explain what he intends for “Haecker’s theory” or which
Haecker is he referring to. If, as I think, “Haecker” stands for Valentin Haecker (18641927) then it’s possible that Pirovano’s remark was related to the Pluripotenz theory, that
postulated a plastic conception of the hereditary material.
47. This quote from Pirovano, p. 63 (op. cit.). The translation from the original Italian
text is mine.
Electrical Hybrids / 81
It’s not clear from the text if Pirovano considered the limitations in
the scientific answers to the question “What is life” permanent or not:
the discussion seems also to satisfy a sort of narrative function. 48 The
point is maybe more related to the difficulties and possible mistakes
that an experimenter had to face: molecular architecture had to be
disrupted while preserving the fertility of the germ plasm. Too much
jonolisi could transform the plasm into an inert substance; not enough
of it and the plasm could be unaffected. This fragility of the plasm, together with the cost of radium, was the reason why radioactivity was
eventually discarded by Pirovano as an agent of mutation. Pirovano
did some experiments with a machine made by the Parisian Banque
du Radium, but considered it too strong for his purposes. The delicate
mechanism of life had to be handled with care: the level of irradiation
could not be adjusted and it was important to preserve a reasonable
ratio of fertility. 49 Electro-magnets, on the contrary, could guarantee
control over the degree of power used. Pirovano wrote that variations
in the magnetic field induced an electrical current in the pollen: a frequent variation could move things around, like a rolling stone starting
a landslide. Which machines were used to do that?
Machine meets pollen
In the introduction of his 1922 book, Pirovano acknowledges for
the development of his machines four persons: Carlo Viscardi, an
engineer, Egidio Mazzucconi, an electro-technician, the latter’s chief
foreman Giuseppe Rodegher and another engineer, Corrado Landi,
for the high frequency instruments. Unfortunately no additional information is given in the text, and the particular individual contributions are not discussed in the chapter devoted to the machines used.
Nevertheless, the mutual relation between different machines and the
kinds of experiments conducted seems to indicate a prominent role of
Pirovano himself. Three types of electro-magnets are discussed and
48. The discussion of the question “What is life” comes just after the tentative explanation of the jonolisi process and the imaginary diagrams. The jonolisi explanation seems
to highlight the possibility of manipulation and subversion of pre-determined natural
order. The following discussion on natural limits that cannot be trespassed and the limits
of scientific explanation brings the reader back to a more conventional level.
49. Pirovano compares the fertility of magnetized poppy plasm with the irradiated
one, stating that the former’s percentage of born seeds is 19 times that of the latter.
82 / Electrical Hybrids
Fig. 4.
shown in various complete machines. The first one was used in open
air, directly on the plant: the magnetic field was applied to the bud
of the flower. Due to low intensity, the duration of the experiment
was between two and three days. The second and the third one were
meant to act instead on collected pollen with direct (second type) or
alternating (third type) current. The second type is the one reproduced in Fig. 4. For our aims, it is not necessary to examine in detail
each instrument used by Pirovano: a simple one is thus explained in
its different parts below.
On the right a little spark gap permits a measure of the effect: the
gap is connected to a secondary coil wrapped around the primary coil
A and insulated using silk and paraffin. Coil B could be lowered or
lifted using crank M. Commutator C could change P and P’ polarity.
The movement of Coil B allowed for a smooth insertion of the pollen
between the two and the reduction of empty space afterwards. To produce the variation in the magnetic field, electrical current was quickly
switched on and off. 50 Variations in the current had to be abrupt to obtain the final result. After a presentation of his instruments, Pirovano
could finally discuss the results of his experiments, both on the induc50. Pirovano listed three different types of switch that could be used to operate his
Electrical Hybrids / 83
tion of mutations and in the “discipline of heredity in hybridization”.
Had the hybrids finally been tamed?
Pirovano’s electric mutations
Pirovano’s methods permitted an almost endless amount of possible
combinations between plants, intensity of magnetic fields and instruments. However, no systematic effort was made to present (or plan) his
experiments, that were listed in a simple chronological order 51. Some
of the experiments had a control sample: the pollen chosen for this role
was kept into a protective storage box designed to keep humidity out
for a time equal to that of the treatment. This control however (when
present) was the only safety net the reader could expect from Pirovano’s book: in thirteen subsections a vortex of attempts was presented,
differing in the plants used (a lot of different varieties of Cucurbita,
Papaver, Althea, Lunaria, Helianthus, Cheirantus etc.) in the duration of
the treatment and in the treatment itself (machine used, intensity of
the field, type of current used etc.). Pirovano thought that results could
come just from a fine tuning between the electro-magnetic action and
the particular variety chosen for the experiment. To accomplish this,
he made no effort to set the supposed mutagen agent apart, frequently combining different types of stimuli together. A typical example is
found on p. 146, one of the many experiments conducted by Pirovano
on opium poppy.
Two pollen samples (a and b) were used:
a) The pollen was exposed to ultraviolet light coming from a sparkgenerating device. The electrical current was alternate and interrupted with a switch. The distance of the pollen from the spark
(3mm, about 0.11 inch.) was 20mm (about 0.78 inch.). The experiment lasted for 1 hour and 30 minutes.
b) Same as a) with the addition of a magnetic field (details not specified).
Pollen a) gave birth to a lot of deformed plants that did not survive
for a long time; however among them was one abnormally large but
sterile. Pollen b instead generated a dwarf variety (see Fig. 5)
51. Pirovano recognizes in the text the incomplete status of his data, for example on
p. 170.
84 / Electrical Hybrids
Fig. 5.
From the data offered it was impossible to understand exactly in
which way the alteration was obtained, or if the results were replicable. A lot of the claimed mutations were not as straightforward as
a vast reduction in height: for instance, in an experiment discussed
on p. 155 the pollen of a Cucurbita pepo (courgette) was exposed to a
magnetic field (4750 gauss) for 30 minutes. Among the offspring of
40, the alleged mutation obtained was slight modification of colour in
one exemplar and a slight modification of shape in another. Pirovano
knew about the shortcomings of his experimental approach; nevertheless he thought that a lot of his results (like the image above) showed
the possibility to reach in the future major horticultural improvements
through the creation of new varieties. If mutation produced unnatural
individuals that were unable to survive by themselves (while bearing
desirable traits) the horticulturalist could supply the necessary aids,
meeting the market’s demands. How could those results, that we can
now regard as modest, inspire such a vision of extended plant manipulation and control? According to Pirovano’s theory, the barrier that had
caused électroculture’s ineffectiveness had been overcome: electrical
action on the plasm could allow for extended modifications. Limited
results could be blamed on the difficulty to find the perfect amount of
stimuli, different for each plant. A vast experimental work was waiting: greater experimental results were near.
Electrical Hybrids / 85
Pirovano’s electrical hybrids
Pirovano considered his results on hybrids his most important
achievement. His discoveries, he thought, could bring a revolution in
plant breeding: long screenings in the field, searching for promising
individuals, could be replaced by some special operations performed
over few grams of pollen.
The chapter on hybridization once again reveals the mixed background and the peculiar biological explanations of the author. According to Pirovano, the hybrid had in itself “two confused faces”: every
cell of the hybrid belonged either to the maternal line or the paternal
one; every cell was, using his term, pure. The hybrid thus was guided in
its development in two different directions, and had to reach an equilibrium 52. A fixed hybrid was nothing more than the reappearance of
a pure species. At the same time however, an explanation of Mendel’s
laws was given: how could Pirovano combine a conception of heredity
as composed of separated factors with his conception of the species as
an indivisible unity?
A solution of this puzzle is not given in the text. Even if on p. 182
Pirovano wrote about the “distinct and independent unity” postulated
by Mendel, he did not see any contradiction with his conception of the
hybrid as the outcome of a fight between two different germ plasm.
The confusion may have been helped by a mistake in the account of
Mendel’s laws made on p. 194-195.
Pirovano lists 3 different “Mendel’s laws”, stating that they are no
more than a classification of the possible outward appearances of the
hybrids, in the form “if… then”:
1) If all F1 plants resembles one parent, then among F2 plants ¾ will
show the dominant character and ¼ the recessive one.
2) If all F1 plants have an intermediate trait, then among F2 plants
½ will show again the intermediate trait, ¼ the maternal one, ¼
the paternal one.
3) New traits appear.
As the reader probably knows, those are not Mendel’s laws. The
52. The struggle for equilibrium was even more complicated in professional plant
breeding. Pirovano maintained that a lot of traits sought in the market were antagonist in
their behaviour, making the development of new varieties a true challenge for the breeder.
86 / Electrical Hybrids
source of Pirovano is a book by Maiocco 53, the first Italian textbook of
Genetics 54. In Maiocco’s book the laws are correctly defined: however
the explanation of the first one (the principle of uniformity, from p.
38) includes a discussion that elucidates why the principle is named
“of uniformity” and not “of dominance”. The reason being that in the
experiments on heredity three different kinds of behaviour had been
observed, all three of them showing uniformity but not dominance.
The three cases are those described above: how could Pirovano mistake them for Mendel’s laws (that were already discussed and known
in Italy many years before Maiocco’s textbook) is not clear. 55
If a hybrid plant was the result of two competitive forces then jonolisi could change its development by weakening in advance one of them.
Chromosomes, wrote Pirovano, were the “builders of the species”, and
jonolisi could act over them. One of the surprising results claimed was
the ability of turning a recessive trait into a dominant one. The pollen of the plant bearing the usually-dominant trait could be treated
with a magnetic field suppressing its guiding force. Not only, but in
some cases it was possible to obtain fertile offspring from a hybrid
cross that usually gave a sterile descent. Again, like in the mutation
chapter, Pirovano submerged the reader in a flow of different experiments (grouped in 16 categories) with a great degree of variation in the
experimental condition chosen.
A cross between two different varieties of poppy, opium (used as
the male plant) and bracteate was one of the experiments that gave an
impressive result: a diagram on p. 217 shows that the usual outcome of
this cross was a sterile F1 generation of plants all similar to the mother.
With jonolisi however the result was different: half of the plants showed
maternal traits while being fertile; the other half was sterile and of intermediate aspect. Other experiences on poppy showed an influence in
the pigmentation of the flower according to Pirovano’s theory. Pirovano claimed also impressive results in his studies on courgettes. In
one of his experiments he obtained a marked increase in productivity,
and commented that as a proof of the immediate results that could be
achieved with jonolisi in the improvements of cultivated plants.
The offer that electrogenetics could make was huge: the complete
53. F.L. Maiocco, Le leggi di Mendel e l’eredità, Torino, Fratelli Bocco, 1918.
54. Volpone, op.cit.
55. In other sections (for instance on p. 200), Pirovano seems to be more familiar with
Mendelian concepts; it’s possible that the confusion is limited to the laws’ names.
Electrical Hybrids / 87
control of the hybrids’ behaviour and the induction of stable mutations. According to Pirovano, electrogenetics could become – if sufficiently studied and funded – a new source of varietal innovation and
a perfect complement for the practices already used in the breeding
Contested results
The book ended with a plea for collaboration between botany, electric engineering and genetics. As Volpone 56 has written, the plea was
answered to some extent. Despite the unconventional biology of Pirovano, the book offered a lot of raw materials and suggestions for scientists interested in the interaction between electricity and plants. In the
following years, however, the results claimed by Pirovano were contested: Savelli, from the Rovigo agricultural station dedicated to sugar
beet cultivation 57 discussed in many papers the lack of proofs offered
by Pirovano’s book and the subsequent publications of the electrogenetics laboratory in Belgirate, contesting also the identification of some
plants used for generating hybrids. Savelli mentioned a cross between
a courgette (cucurbita pepo var. melopepo) and a pumpkin (cucurbita maxima var. aurantiaca), claiming that the latter was not a cucurbita maxima at
all, like the great Russian scientist Nikolaj Vavilov (1887-1943) had said
to him after being showed a picture from Pirovano’s 1922 book. Savelli
could also offer other pictures, sent by Nazareno Strampelli, demonstrating that unusual results in shape were not an unusual outcome of
non-electrical cucurbita crosses. The main problem seems to be a generalized lack of knowledge about specific outcomes of hybridization on
specific varieties. This lack of knowledge left always open the possibility of attributing results simply to the cross while denying a particular
effect of the magnetic field. The presence of a control group was not
enough to exclude this possibility; the use of a pollen-storing closet
(lightly heated to evaporate humidity) added another interference.
Already in 1925 the Journal of Heredity had published a short review
of Pirovano’s book by L. H. Flint 58 not favourable to the Italian horti56. Volpone, op. cit. p. 82.
57. R. Savelli, Intorno all’ibridabilità ed alla partenocarpia di “Cucurbita”, Nuovo Giornale
Botanico Italiano 34: 511-517, 1927.
58. L.H. Flint, Electrogenetics, Journal of Heredity 16(6): 215-216, 1925.
88 / Electrical Hybrids
culturalist. Flint remarked the industrial and governmental support
that the Belgirate laboratory had, while expressing doubts on the reliability of Pirovano’s data. The main issue was the already mentioned
diversity in the nature of the electrical treatments, and the lack of a
systematic effort in the study of the supposed electrogenetic phenomena. Even taking Pirovano’s results at face value, it was impossible to
determine with certainty what exactly had an effect. Flint hoped that
the Belgirate laboratory could produce more trustworthy data by following “a less pretentious and more carefully controlled program”.
The industrialist and governmental support could also explain why
reactions to Pirovano’s ideas from the “official” science became more
and more hostile: in 1922 he was a private experimenter opening a
promising field that could be further explored and developed by more
conventional researchers. Some years later however he was the chief
of a laboratory supported by the state and attracting private funds,
claiming results that were not replicated by others and explaining
them with a biology that became year by year more odd and unconventional, while genetics in Italy was still struggling to find academic
institutionalization. In 1927 an institute was created in Rome, increasing this conflict.
In 1934, the first (and only) congress of Elettro-radio-biologia was held
in Venice. Pirovano was among the speakers, but it’s evident from the
proceedings 59 that his position as an outsider had not changed: two
other papers presented concerning agriculture (by the Italian B. Riccioni and the Indian S. S. Nehru) and electricity were more closely related
to the électroculture tradition. The title of the conference was maybe
more related to the presence in the honorary committee of Guglielmo
Marconi and to the 12 reports on electricity and muscular tissues presented by A. Romano, professor of electro-radio-biology in Naples.
The core of the conference was radiobiology, with some sparks of electricity appearing in the background. In 1957 the institute published a
book summarizing and celebrating the results of the research facility. 60
Pirovano’s main theories remained unchanged, and he still claimed
that variations observed by him could offer support in equal manner
to Lamarckism, Darwinism, mutationism and hybridization. Every
59. S.I. Rad, Atti del primo congresso internazionale di elettro-radio-biologia, Primo Congresso Internazionale di Elettro-radio-biologia, Bologna, Licinio Cappelli, 1935.
60. A. Pirovano, Elettrogenetica: esperimenti su vegetali, Istituto di Frutticultura e di
Elettrogenetica, 1957.
Electrical Hybrids / 89
theory could have its place. Some additional experiments with X-rays
were conducted, but Pirovano again expressed scepticism toward the
practical utility of the mutations obtained by this mean.
No matter how unconventional his biology, Pirovano was a very
skilled plant-breeder. His 1957 book has some wonderful pictures of
plants and flowers obtained both in Belgirate and in Rome. The variety Italia (the result of an ordinary cross) is still one of the best-selling
grapes cultivar in Italy. The mission of the Rome institute (to create
new variety of fruits) was accomplished, and Pirovano continued to
be a central figure for the research facility even after his retirement 61.
In the post-war years his biological ideas, almost unchanged, were entirely discarded, with the notable exception of a pro-soviet Italian scientist, Orfeo Turno Rotini. 62
Conclusion: mixed results for a mixed work
Pirovano’s work was, in some respects, a hybrid in itself. It combined a typical breeder approach with a theoretical search for meaning
and explanation of practical results. The breeder approach was evident
in the acknowledgement of the horticultural tradition not only regarding practices, but also theories about how plants could be improved and
which kind of entity a plant was (an organic unity that had to reach a
difficult equilibrium and not a set of atomized components). The interplay between plant breeding and biology has been explored as a
conflict between practice and theory; while this approach is useful to
cast a wide-ranging picture it can at the same time hide the principles
and theoretical ideas that breeders had. 63
Pirovano’s approach resembled a “whatever works” one: this led to
an unsystematic combination of different stimuli and procedures that
was maybe effective on the varietal innovation level but discredited
61. C. Fideghelli, Alberto Pirovano, Informazioni dai Georgofili, Firenze, Accademia
dei Georgofili, 3, 2009.
62. Notable because, as Volpone (op. cit. p. 81-82) has written, Pirovano was supported
during his scientific career by the fascist regime. According to Volpone, Rotini after a
celebration of Pirovano in his 1953 “Taccuino sovietico” (soviet handbook) as an Italian
Michurin or Lysenko, never mentioned him again, even when using some of Pirovano’s
ideas in other papers and books.
63. This makes sense just if we accept to use the word “theory” in a loose manner, as
a set of interrelated ideas with explanatory aims.
90 / Electrical Hybrids
and complicated his theoretical efforts. Let’s think again about Pirovano’s experiences with radium: the strong effects observed could have
been the start of a fruitful research program in the hands of a geneticist. To the breeder however it was unconceivable to put a process that
produced a scarce amount of viable seeds at the core of a research program. The kind of clear, unambiguous data that Savelli and Flint were
asking from the Belgirate laboratory could be obtained from a research
program focused on the process of magnetic irradiation itself, and not
on the final horticultural results.
The unsystematic nature of Pirovano’s work is even more significant
if compared to Nazareno Strampelli’s system of varietal innovation.
Strampelli’s work was focused around results as well, but the search
for certainty in the hybrids’ behaviour was considered more important than speeding up the process. Through his program, Strampelli
was acquiring at the same time knowledge about the process (the specific behaviour of traits in wheat hybridization) and obtaining results
(new wheat varieties). In Pirovano’s case, it was not possible to reach
this compromise. I think the main reason of this failure can be found
in the great range of possible variations in the electrical irradiation
phase, something that has no obvious comparison in hybridization
From his equally ingenious and chaotic experiences, Pirovano
drew theoretical conclusions too easily, without sufficient proofs and
(perhaps more importantly in the years before the second world war)
without an official university legitimation. If this theoretical boldness
could be forgiven in 1922 as the tentative speculation of an amateur
pioneer, later it was impossible to do so. Genetics was growing at
a very fast pace, turning innovators into latecomers in very short
amounts of time.
Nevertheless, the hybrid nature of Pirovano’s work should prevent
us to call him a “rebel”. The same features of his approach (discussed
above) that made him an outsider in biology and prevented him from
obtaining a legitimate role among geneticists secured him a long, successful career in plant breeding. New varieties, if judged useful, could
be accepted without questioning the theoretical claims made. Their
electrical identity could be conveniently forgotten. Pirovano however
kept his faith in the effects of electricity because of the results obtained.
For him they could not be explained away by hybridization alone. In
his 1957 self-published book he was still asking on p. 140:
Electrical Hybrids / 91
“il precitato Pero 610 è un bastardo fra due cultivar maturanti rispettivamente in
ottobre ed in febbraio. Pur considerando la probabile natura poliibrida dei genitori,
quale causa può giustificare la sua maturazione protratta a luglio?”
(The already mentioned Pear-tree 610 it’s a crossbred between two cultivar
maturing in October and February. Even taking the probable poly-hybrid
nature of the parents, which cause can justify its maturation in July?)
Pirovano’s work is now remembered mainly as that of a successful
plant breeder. But even successful innovation in plant breeding has to
face a question that can be difficult to answer: what exactly did work?
Pirovano thought he had an answer; genetics however went toward
a different direction. Mutations were studied as a legitimate topic of
investigation in itself, thus using the most effective sources for obtaining them. The correlation found by H. J. Muller in 1926 between radiation and lethal mutations was not an unwelcome obstacle but a striking result. Many new varieties in the plant-breeding sector were later
obtained through the same x-rays that Pirovano discarded after some
experiences as “too strong” to produce useful variations.
Still, induced mutation became a major source of varietal innovation,
albeit attained with different means. Direct manipulation is definitively
something we can regard as typical of contemporary agricultural research. So we should say that some of Pirovano’s ideas survived after
all, just like his grapes, even if we still don’t know precisely what exactly worked and how. The hybrids did not become electrical in the
end, but they were, nevertheless, mutated.
Visualizing life: inside the protocol
of the molecular genetics laboratory
Daniela Crocetti
DNA has rapidly acquired vast symbolic currency in contemporary society, interpreted as the “book of life”, or the biological key to
who we are. 1 Genetic testing transforms invisible biological material
into the digital representation of the gene sequence. Hidden processes
such as electrophoresis, thermal cycling, among many others, translate physical parameters, such as length, into nucleotide coding. In this
chapter we will be looking at the intersection of molecular genetics
laboratory practices and the interpretation of DNA. The interpretation
of DNA ambiguously refers to both the social interpretation and scientific interpretation, the significance of which can easily be intertwined.
The scientific interpretations of DNA that we will be looking at are
the visualization processes that lend to a diagnostic technique in the
laboratory. In the end of the 1970’s sciences studie began to look to the
laboratory to unravel the creation of scientific truths, 2 turning their attention to practices that reveal the boundaries of the scientific habitus,
observing the scientific process as an artisan profession. Latour argues
that by observing scientific practice we are not discussing whether a
scientific fact is valid, but what scientist (and the network of actors
involved in reinforcing a scientific fact) think this fact does and means.
The meaning of the scientific object is where the scientific fact is transformed into a social object and practice.
The scientific practices that contribute to the steps in the process are
accompanied by social practices such as colleague interaction, hierar-
1. Susan Lindee, D. Nelkin, The DNA Mystique: The Gene as a Cultural Icon. Ann Arbor:
Michigan University Press, 2004.
2. Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press,
1962; Latour Bruno, Woolgar Steve: Laboratory Life: The Social Construction of Scientific Facts.
Beverley Hills: Sage, 1979.
94 / Visualizing life
chy and so-forth. However, as Latour 3 implies, one of the most significant social process in the laboratory is the attribution of significance
and meaning to a scientific artifact. In the molecular genetic laboratory
the digital bio-data results of the testing processes are translated into
the social realm when practical significance is given to the material being manipulated. Genetic test results in-of-themselves have no innate
meaning, they acquire meaning in context.
This chapter intends to unpack some of the complexities of the genomic scientific artifact by looking at the laboratory techniques involved in molecular genetic testing. We do not mean to imply that
there is a hidden meaning attributed to DNA in the laboratory practice,
but rather demystify the hidden meaning attached to DNA in social
discourse. The laboratory processes are, on one hand, visualization
techniques that convert biological material into data with medical and
scientific value, and on the other hand, protocols that utilize and combine a multitude of scientific theories that run from electrical theory,
to wave theory, to thermodynamics, among others. These laboratory
processes invoke scientific theory (from reification to useful models),
tacit knowledge, and the contemporary symbolic value given to genetic testing.
By walking through an average week at a medical molecular lab, we
can break down the practices that convert a biological blood sample
into a digital genetic sequence that may or may not have diagnostic
relevance. One of the aspects we will be addressing is the myriad of
scientific theories that contribute to each step in the visualization processes. What emerges on a superficial level is a world full of copyrighted
machines, chemical solutions, and processes, which technicians utilize
to convert the biological material to the “image” of genomic information. These practices, however, contain not only a complex network of
scientific processes, but also the tacit knowledge that the technician
acquires through the repeated practice and the understanding of the
potential desired result.
Ethnography in the laboratory setting attempts to revel the knowledge reflected in the practices, and also revel how practice effects the
portrayal of knowledge. Kuhn and later Latour looked to the laboratory to unpack the creation of a scientific Fact through social practice.
3. Latour, Science in Action: How to Follow Scientists and Engineers Through Society, Milton
Keynes: Open University Press, 1987.
Visualizing life / 95
Here, however, we will also be looking at how other scientific technologies lend validity to the process of genetic testing, and how they contribute to the transformation process (or visualization process) from
the material to data. The interpretation of this data is yet another issue,
rife with discrepancies.
Practice and tacit knowledge expose the embodied knowledge, the
givens, and the already accepted scientific theories that contribute to
the complexity of genetic testing. Medical practice essentially reflects
a useful model of scientific theory, aimed at achieving a specific result.
Therefore, one of the other aspects we will be briefly addressing is the
apparent conflict between the mechanistic model of genetics that the
practice of genetic testing tends to represent, and the complex models
of genetics found in either the scientific theories of epi-genetics, or the
social theories reflected in bio-ethical debate.
Our attention is easily drawn to the last phase of genetic testing, in
which the electropherogram brings us towards our chain of nucleotide
letters, the second most common public image of DNA after the double helix. We are drawn in by the list of letters that represents genetic
sequencing, because it makes what we intuit as complex, seem so simple. However, before we can read and interpret our genetic sequencing
results, we must render DNA visible and useful.
The power of representation
The symbolic power of the gene, DNA and genetic medicine have
been explored by historians such as Susan Lindee and Dorothy Nelkin, 4
who claim that the “DNA Mystique” has captured the medical and
public fancy to a point where the genetic component of a cure or research program in itself becomes a marker of validity. This is possible
because DNA is portrayed as the symbolic biological locus of heredity,
the passage of traits from one generation to the next. People often say:
“it’s in his genes”, when someone acts like their parents or family. In
molecular biology the passage of complex traits is believed to be an intricate process involving much more than just DNA. 5 However, sym4. Nelkin Lindee, 2004.
5. Michel Morante, A History of Molecular Biology, Cambridge: Harvard University
Press, 1998.
96 / Visualizing life
bolic logic pushes DNA, and genes, to represent even complex social
traits such as behavior and identity.
Lindee and Nelkin argue that genetic symbolism is powerful because it fits so easily into other social metaphors: that kinship is in the
blood, that race is biological, that people have “natural” abilities, that
physical disability is a sign of overall dysfunction, and so forth. They
are quick to point out that these social metaphors are not based on
scientific facts, but use scientific facts to reinforce the naturalization
of social inequality. The overlapping symbolism in eugenic discourse
and genetic testing makes the terrain of what genetics means and does
Lindee 6 discusses the positivist rhetoric surrounding genetics in
Moments of Truth in Genetic Medicine, rhetoric that offers genetics as a
potential miracle for every ailment. Genetic medicine is currently primarily genetic testing, which offers itself as a diagnostic tool that does
not add any new therapeutic option to pathology treatment. However, diagnosis itself can be a fundamental aspect of treatment. Lindee
points out how patient groups will lobby for genetic research, feeling
that they are not being taken seriously otherwise. A genetic marker can
put a disease or syndrome on the map of pathologies, creating funding
systems, attention, etc. The genetic marker, however, has the primary
function of imbuing pathology with biological reality. With a genetic
marker one can say “I have this” with certainty, as opposed to referring
to a set of symptoms.
Of course this symbolic dance with undisputable biological truth
and identity is what makes the genetic discourse so interesting and
tricky. A genetic marker may often aid a linguistic shift from saying, “I
have this syndrome” to “I am this characteristic” as can be the case with
mental illnesses and physical differences (I have/am schizophrenic/
disabled etc.). Based on the social use and/or prejudice surrounding a
medical diagnosis, patient groups might seek or shun genetic testing.
In both cases, the genetic marker is imbued with the power of the final
truth of biological explanation. 7
In some cases the genetic personhood metaphor has been extended
to include complex social traits such as behavior and sexual identity.
6. Lindee, Moments of Truth in Genetic Medicine, Baltimore: John Hopkins University
Press, 2005.
7. Ryna Rapp, Testing Women, Testing the Fetus, The Social Impact of Amniocentesis in
America, NY: Routledge, 2000.
Visualizing life / 97
Popular science reporting is rife with discovery of genes for bi-polarism, homosexuality, compulsive behavior, and so-forth. Many molecular biologist argue that it is currently impossible to find a singular
biological marker for complex traits that may or may not have biological components such as behavior. Utilizing Lindee and Nelkins argumentation, we could imagine that it is the DNA mystique itself that
creates research funding for projects that are potentially scientifically
un-sound and have no therapeutic value.
Genetic testing can be broken into two primary categories, prenatal
and post-natal. Pre-natal testing carries with it the negative association
with the eugenics movement and the moralization of normality. Nikolas Rose 8 discusses the nuance of genetic diagnosis as being “potentially unwell”, highlighting the link between the predictive nature of
genetics and identity. In a similar manner Margaret Lock 9 refers to the
increase of genetic testing as the new divining, a new diagnostic tool
that indicate probabilities, much like the ancient Greek oracles. Pre-natal testing reflects not only our expectations of what technology, or biomedicalization, should be able to do for us, 10 but also the expectation
that we reject a perceived imperfection. 11 Ryna Rapp postulates that
this “modern divining” incurs social pressure to do something about
this advanced knowledge. Rapp indicates that potential mothers will
be shamed or held accountable for choosing to continue a pregnancy
where prenatal testing has revealed a genetic variance associated with
syndrome categories.
The laboratory setting we will be looking at deals primarily with
post-natal testing. The genetic markers in question, that we will meet
in the next section, evoke Rose’s conception of bio-sociality. The genetic markers are laden with the potential for the individual to be un-well,
as well as identity implication. The genetic markers sought by this specific laboratory have, in a relatively short time, wed themselves with
the definitions of the syndromes they represent. The markers therefore
8. Nikolas Rose, Carlos Novas, Biological Citizenship , in Ong, Aihwa, J. Collier, Stephen,
eds., Global assemblages: technology, politics, and ethics as anthropological problems. Blackwell
Publishing, Oxford, 2004, 439-463.
9. Lock Margaret, Eclipse of the Gene and the Return of Divination, Current Anthropology,
Volume 46, Number S5, S47-S70, 2005.
10. Ettore Elizabeth, Reproductive Genetics, Gender, and the Body, London: Routledge,
11. Rapp, 2000.
98 / Visualizing life
affect the identity of the individual, and the identity of the diagnostic
In genetic testing, DNA is visualized, converted from an invisible
component in a blood sample to a visible digital representation. As
Luc Pauwels 12 reminds us, these scientific visualization practices seek
not only to render the invisible visible, but also to provide a scientifically useful representation of the biological material. DNA material is
converted into bio-data through a complex series of processes that involve chemical additives, light wave technology and electro-processes.
One of the final steps in genetic testing, genetic sequencing, utilizes
DNA electrophoresis to separate DNA fragments by size. The end result of this process visualizes the DNA strand as a digital list of letters
that represent the nucleotide sequence.
Genetic testing (in its many guises, from adult diagnostic testing, to
pre-natal testing, to forensic testing) provokes a wide variety of debate
and conflict of opinion, largely centered on two axes. The scientific
axis questions the accuracy and utility of a mechanistic representation
of genetic material. The social axis questions the relationship of DNA
to personhood and identity. The debate that surrounds genetic testing
finds its home in this last step of the testing procedure, in the electropherogram of the nucleotide sequence. Can this digital representation
really tell us who we are, what is right or wrong in our body, who we
came from? The reductionist image of DNA irks our sensibilities surrounding our complex sense of identity, yet it also irks branches of
science that insist on a complex model of the organism.
Genetic testing seems to offer a biological model, which follows the
Mendelian ‘one-gene one trait’ model, implying a mechanistic vision
of DNA, life and the body. This is in contrast with Epi-genetics and
other branches of molecular biology that view genetic material as part
of a systemic process, in which the mere chemical structure of nucleotides does not in itself “code” for anything if taken out of its specific
biological context 13. Epi-genetics points to simple factors, such as temperature and timing, which can drastically change the development of
an organism while maintaining the same genetic material. Epigenetic
but also bioethical, historical and sociological discussions around the
12. Luc Pauwels, Visual cultures of science: rethinking representational practices in knowledge
building and science communication, Dartmouth: Dartmouth College Press, 2005.
13. Eva Jabolonka, Lamb, Marion, Evolution in Four Dimensions, Mass: MIT Press, 2005.
Visualizing life / 99
practice of genetic testing question the limits of the mechanistic model
of genetics. The sociological critique mirrors the epi-genetic critique;
that life cannot be encapsulated in one biological process.
Evelyn Fox Keller 14 indicates that from the beginning of the twentieth century the study of inheritance split into two separate studies, genetics (transmission/inheritance) and embryology (development). Historians such as Garland E. Allen 15 maintain that many contemporary
uses of the term “gene” in both scientific and lay usage mirror many
of the same connotations and implications of the original Mendelian
concept. Allen links this to the attempt to redefine biology as a “hard”,
experimentally-based science and the adherence to a philosophy of
mechanistic materialism in the development of the discipline itself.
Petter Portin divides the history of genetics into three periods.
1. the period of the ‘classical gene,’ based on Mendel’s original …
2. the period of the biochemical or developmental gene… (19301955); and
3. the period of molecular genetics, beginning with the discovery
of the structure of DNA and continuing through the Human Genome Project (HGP) …concerned with the molecular structure of
the gene and its functioning in the transcription and translation
(1955-present). 16
One could add a fourth period of Evo-Devo (Evolution-Development) and Epigenetics (environmentally influenced), both of which
re-shift the focus of genetic study to embryonic development, and
the impact of internal and external environment factors (such as environmental changes) on gene expression 17. In the era that Mendel’s
research was rediscovered, we see biology shift from a descriptive
discipline that is concerned with comparative anatomy and taxonomy
to an experimentally based science. At the same time, there was the
paradigm shift from evolution by special creation to Darwin’s theory
of natural selection.
14. Evelyn Fox Keller, The Century of the Gene, Cambridge MA: Harvard University
Press, 2000.
15. Garland Allen, ‘The Classical Gene: Its Nature and Its Legacy’, in Rachel A. Ankeny
and S. Lisa, Parker, eds., Mutating Concepts, Evolving Disciplines: Genetics, Medicine, and
Society, Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2002, pp. 11-13.
16. P. Portin, ‘The Concept Of The Gene: Short History And Present Status’, Quarterly
review of Biology, 68, 1993, pp. 173-174.
17. Allen. 2002, p. 13.
100 / Visualizing life
Allen maintains that the shift toward experimental biology was facilitated by younger researchers’ interests in embryological differentiation and development. 18 Yet he also maintains that this attempt to
remodel biology as a “hard” experimental discipline was modeled not
after the experimental physics of the early twentieth century, but after the classical positivist model that was canonized, at the time, in
textbooks. He states that this encouraged adherence to an atomistic,
mechanistic model as opposed to a holistic model.
Allen summarizes mechanistic materialism as; 1. Parts are distinct
from the whole, 2. The whole must be studied through a break down
of its parts, 3. There are no “emergent” properties in the whole that
come from the association of its parts, and 4. Systems change over time
only due to external factors. He sums it up by stating: “Finally, the
mechanistic worldview is basically atomistic, viewing phenomena in
terms of a mosaic of separate, interacting, but ultimately independent parts”. 19 Allen points out the imbedded contradictions in the paradigm by stating:
…that embryologists have know for virtually a century that development is not a mere unfolding of invariant form.
…the Mendelian paradigm involved raising a variety of genotypes
under the same, or controlled environmental conditions but did not
consider it necessary to do the converse-…This “oversight” would
seem to be no accident, but rather the result of a strong commitment
to the mechanistic view of the gene as a stable unit (like the chemist’s
atom) that invariably produces the same effect regardless of conditions. 20
Holmes indicates the continuation of the mechanistic model within
the shift to the ‘molecular’ phase of genetics.
The ‘molecular’ phase of genetic research was initiated by the ‘discovery’ of the structure of DNA in 1953 (Watson and Crick 1953). The
structure of DNA gave rise to the idea that there was a one to one
relationship between the gene (DNA sequence) and protein (amino
acid sequence). This, Rheinberger argues, brought about molecular
genetics which “transformed its boundary object, the gene, into a material, physiochemical entity” which was given “informational quali18. Allen, 2002, pp. 15-17.
19. Allen, 2002, pp. 16-17.
20. Allen, 2002, pp. 34-45.
Visualizing life / 101
ties” (Rheinberger 2000, p.221). The particular view of genes located
at definable positions on the chromosomes led researchers to use linkage and physical mapping as a research technology to locate the two
genes. This discussion highlights that as with other genes, the technology used to ‘locate’ the genes led to the view that there was an actual
physical DNA sequence identifiable as a gene ‘for’ the specific phenotype of interest. 21
It is the mechanistic and Mendelian shadow on genetic testing that
disturbs what we understand genetic testing to mean. When we look
for the gene ‘for’ the specific phenotype of interest are we saying that that
gene defines the phenotype (manifestation of development in an individual)? Or as disability theory fears, are we saying that variations
of genetic markers means a pathological person (or even an immoral
person as implied by early eugenics)? We are intuitively afraid that the
mechanistic model implied by genetic testing will over step its boundaries and define personhood by genetic markers.
For instance, forensic genetic testing looks for the genetic sequence
believed to be unique to the individual. This information is often contested for a myriad of reasons, but primarily because the genetic profiles constructed in the lab cannot be said to be unique to one person,
or even unique to a hundred. The genetic sequence is certainly more
unique than eye color or blood color, yet we do not know yet the great
variety of similarity of bio-data between individuals. However, as in
diagnostic genetic testing, forensic genetics already knows what it is
looking for when it runs a genetic test, the marker of the suspect, like
the marker of the suspected syndrome.
As Staffan Müller-Wille 22 has observed, it is important to distinguish between the reification of a scientific object (even if it comes from
scientific literature) and the “useful model” of scientific production.
In most cases, genetic testing is not seeking to mechanistically define
the individual through its genes, it is instead look for a genetic marker
that will confirm what the medical team already thought was the case
based on anecdotal information and other symptoms. Finding the ge21. Ingrid Holmes, Genetic Sex; “A Symbolic Struggle Against Reality?”-Exploring Genetic and Genomic Knowledge in Sex Discourses, Doctoral Dissertation: University of Exeter,
2007, p. 155.
22. Müller-Wille Staffan, Hybrids, pure cultures, and pure lines: From nineteenth-century
biology to twentieth-century genetics in Studies in History and Philosophy of the Biological and
Biomedical Sciences, vol. 38 (4), 2007, pp. 796-806.
102 / Visualizing life
netic marker of a suspected syndrome can greatly aid treatment by
canceling-out the use of dangerous or useless therapies. That DNA,
genetics, and genomics have taken on more symbolic meaning than
the materials themselves can actually provide or perform is beyond
a doubt. The reification of genomic information has lent itself on one
hand to a positivistic faith in what this information can provide for
humanity, and on the other, a plethora of bioethical quandaries about
how to deal with the rise of the new quantities of biological data being
gathered and stored.
The laboratory practice of genetic testing evidences a certain need
for the mechanistic model, while absorbing a myriad of techniques
from different scientific disciplines. However, medical practice has a
specific scope, and when this scope is serving patients, how can medicine deal with complexity? The crisis of determinism becomes a problem
of practicality and practice.
Data creation
This representation of the average process of molecular genetic testing comes from a two-year period of intermittent observation in a University Hospital in Italy. The lab I frequented was the primary Italian
lab that tested for a handful of genetic markers that indicate certain
DSD (Divergence/Disorders of Sex Development) syndromes. The lab
can be considered representative primarily of the testing protocol for
these genetic markers, secondarily of Italian laboratory practice. As
Mol 23 indicates in her own research, this laboratory setting is neither
exemplary nor unique to the national context, but provides interesting
insight into the practices involved. There is little space in this context
to discuss the ethical conundrums of DSD treatment, 24 while the entrance of molecular testing into care protocol has had interesting and
unexpected repercussions. Let it suffice to say that the gender identity
implications underlying DSD diagnosis highlight the identity aspects
of the genetic discourse.
23. Annemarie Mol, The Body Multiple: Ontology in Medical Practice, Durham: Duke
University Press, 2002.
24. See Alice Dreger Domurat, Intersex in the Age of Ethics, Maryland: University
Publishing Group, 1999; Morland Iain (ed.), GLQ Intersex and After, Vol 15, n. 2, 2009.
Visualizing life / 103
In this lab they test for 6 genes that are implicated in CAH (Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia), AIS (Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome) and
5-alpha reductase (Syndrome name and genetic marker are the same).
This lab receives blood samples from all over Italy, rendered doubly
anonymous through a coding system. Molecular testing became routine for DSD in this university hospital in 2000. Since then, the DSD
team has been expanding their research on the other DSD health factors implicated by the genetic markers. At this point, however, molecular testing primarily supports diagnosis accuracy and corresponding
gender assignment. As we will briefly discuss later, the molecular testing has had the unexpected repercussion of diminishing irreversible
non-consensual childhood surgery (one of the bioethical hotspots in
DSD treatment).
In a clinical context the visualization of biological data acquires a
secondary component that is the communication of the genetic test
results to the patient. As is the case in most medical genetic laboratories, in this lab the technician already knows what they are looking for
before they start the testing process. The anecdotal and physical data
acquired in medical interviews has already lead the medical team to
suspect a diagnosis, or a potential genetic marker. The genetic test result adds a level of biological authority to the hypothesized diagnosis.
Different types of visualization techniques can effect the interpretation of the accuracy of the data, rarely the interpretation of the results
themselves. As we will discuss later, the combination of the presumed
genetic pattern result and the tacit knowledge of the technicians leads
to either a positive or negative result, not a grey-scale interpretation
that may or may not reflect a scientific paradigm. Therefore what initiates as a mechanistic genetic testing protocol, evolves into a multiplemodel diagnostic process.
Molecular diagnosis is a highly mechanical process, not a philosophical experiment on human variation. The laboratory procedure
tries to isolate the molecular component that is associated with the diagnosis they are leaning towards. I accompanied different technicians
through the steps that lead to the isolation of the genetic marker,
who were clearly experts in laboratory procedure, not necessarily in
gender or social theory. I was shown how to extract, purify, determine the concentration of, and then amplify the DNA. The DNA is
then read and analyzed for the specific marker that is being looked
for. Hidden in the blood is the significant biological object that will
104 / Visualizing life
be read. However, this object must be manipulated in several ways
before it is palpable as useful data. Is it always DNA as it is bonded
to other chemicals, spun, heated and measured? For practical purposes in the lab, yes.
One blood sample will go through the same procedure several
times, to test for the different suspected markers but also to guarantee
the accuracy of the result. One blood draw provides enough biological
material to perform multiple tests, and leave stored material for future
use. Blood comes in from all over Italy, and sometimes directly from
one building over by foot. The day I arrived in fact we received local
blood that had already been coded to protect the patients identity. The
only remaining identifying factor was the suspect diagnosis.
They brought me to the ward where they did the blood draws, four
beds in a room, and on the way, we passed the psychiatrist and head
endocrinologist, with the family of a child with a 5-alpha reductase diagnosis that we discuss later on because of how the genetic test result
effected the route their therapy took. It certainly seems like a miracle
to render DNA sequences visible, through this cleaning and replication process. It also requires a lot of patience. Throughout the various
processes we added chemicals and centrifuged, taking always-smaller
samples, rendering what had once looked like blood into a clear liquid like water. For the child diagnosed with 5-alpha reductase, the
process of rendering visible the molecular material had changed his
life in many ways: from the medicalization techniques he would live
through, to the assigned-gender he would grow in.
To extract the DNA we took 3ml of blood and added a patented
solution (Cell Lysis Solution) to break the cells. Each technician had
their area of speciality, their tacit knowledge and their quirks. My first
informant had been with the lab for 30 years, from before the time in
which you needed a specialized degree to be a molecular lab technician, and he was a local. He explained to me the progression of techniques and abandonment of others from radioactive processes to siphoning chemicals like one does with gasoline.
They searched for sex hormones and growth hormones, now they
look for genetic markers. He was very clear that he was a good technician: clean, organized and through, not particularly interested in the
latest genetic theories. He seemed to portray the idea that it was all
similar in the end; machines, solutions and protocol changed, but the
process was the same.
Visualizing life / 105
“Non so per che cosa, so fare le cose”. 25 He told me, I don’t bother
with why they do things; I know how to do things. But this was obviously ironic, he had little things to say about everyone, he had perhaps been there as long as anyone, mastering the techniques as they
changed. He implied that he always handled the extraction due to his
tacit knowledge: the others left things a mess, an obstacle to accuracy.
There were glass jars everywhere, like a glassmakers workshop, but
everything was sterile with surgical plastic inside. Disposable products place the responsibility of sterility on the manufacturer, removing
it from the lab.
It was like returning to college chemistry: titration (drip), and centrifugation. Every step used different droppers with differing levels of
accuracy, and different centrifuges for differing sample sizes. The first
(extraction) process broke the cells to extract the DNA, through the
use of a chemical solution and the centrifuge. The second step purified
the DNA with a second chemical solution (Nuclei Lysis Solution) and
again the centrifuge. To arrive even near the DNA one needs to know
how to unpack it by inviting the unwanted material to separate away.
Besides the glass jars, we had entered into the world of standardization
and patents. The right tools for the job 26 are increasingly being decided
outside of the laboratory, by manufactures and increasingly international protocols.
One of the brochures reads: “In today’s world of DNA analysis by
multiplex and real-time PCR, the importance of high-quality, purified
DNA cannot be underestimated. Finding a suitable DNA isolation
system to satisfy your downstream application needs is vital for the
successful completion of experiments. This DNA purification chapter
addresses general information on the basics of DNA isolation, plasmid growth and DNA quantitation (sic) as well as how purification
by silica can help increase your productivity so you spend less time
purifying DNA and more time developing experiments and analyzing
data…For ease-of-use, Promega offers an array of conveniently packaged DNA purification products that can isolate DNA in less than an
hour using much safer methods”. 27
We purified with a Wizard ® genomic DNA purification kit. As we
25. 3/3/10.
26. Adele Clarke, J. Fujimura eds., The Right Tools for the Job: At Work in TwentiethCentury Life Science, Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992.
27. Omega instructional brochure.
106 / Visualizing life
followed the instructions from the kit, however, I found every step had
its own non-written tacit-knowledge aspect: agitate like this, it should
look like this when it comes off the bottom, etc. The first several rounds
of centrifugation left the blood sample red, a clot floating in the CLS,
which is dispersed and then put back together through the aid of a
protein solution. Another round of the centrifuge cleans away the red
blood cells and we are left with a clear liquid.
The first “miracle” of DNA visualization is performed by Isopropyl
alcohol (C3H8O) that reconsolidates the material and you can see the
DNA floating on the bottom of the plastic vile. That is, you have created something you can look at under a microscope, to the layperson it
just looks like a little dirt in water. When you remove the liquid there’s
a little substance that seems like tiny strands of cotton. The cleaning
process is replicated with alcohol and then the DNA is re-hydrated.
The samples are then kept in different fridges based on their properties.
On a different day in a different room we determined and amplified
the DNA. The previously cleaned sample is “read” by a 260/280 nm
wavelength. When DNA is isolated from organisms, frequently some
protein remains present in the DNA solution. Protein is tightly bound
to DNA and complete removal of protein is not always possible. To
determine the concentration and purity of the DNA solution, the absorbance of UV light is measured in a spectrophotometer. Both protein
and DNA absorb UV light, but they have different absorbance curves.
The peak of light absorption is at 260 nm for DNA and at 280 nm for
protein. When you would run a spectrum of absorbance with varying
wavelength, you should see that both curves slightly overlap in the
area between, and including, 260 and 280 nm. Thus, when a solution
contains both protein and DNA, absorbance at 260 nm is mainly due
to the DNA present, but a little bit by the protein. At 280 it is the other
way round. By dividing the two absorbance values, one can calculate
the purity of the DNA solution. If the solution relatively free of protein,
then one can take the absorbance at 260 nm as a measure for concentration of DNA.
The barely visible cotton strands of DNA are visualized in yet a different way, as light absorption, yet this bio-data still has no practical
application, it needs to be further manipulated.
In the amplification process different enzyme primers are added to
a standardized chemical mixture in a process called the Polymer Chain
Visualizing life / 107
Reaction, which multiplies the chain to seem infinite. 28 The entire process was infinitely standardized, not necessarily by medical protocol,
but by the machines themselves and the companies that provided
the chemical mixtures designed for the machines. The chemical compounds came in boxes with instructions as detailed and fairly identical
to those followed in the lab. Names of processes were often parallel to
the name of the machines, such as the Amplification PCR System 9700
Applied Biosystems.
The polymer chain reaction method relies on thermal cycling, consisting of cycles of repeated heating and cooling of the reaction for
DNA melting, and enzymatic replication of the DNA. 70º C opens the
molecule, at 95ºC the primer attaches itself, and at 68ºC the chain forms.
Primers (short DNA fragments) containing sequences complementary
to the target region, along with a DNA polymerase (after which the
method is named), are key components that enable selective and repeated amplification. As PCR progresses, the generated DNA is itself
used as a template for replication, setting in motion a chain reaction in
which the DNA template is exponentially amplified. PCR can be modified to perform a wide array of genetic manipulations. 29
The prepared solutions are complimented by a control and a water
sample. Technicians often use their own bio-mater in the control process, as a way to make sure they have not contaminated the samples.
Some labs do not let XY men participate in parts of the testing process
due to fear of Y chromosome contamination.
The amplified DNA is purified by yet another patented process,
using the QIA quick spin kit and the QIAquick Nucleotide Removal
Kit. The slogan in their instruction pamphlet reads “making improvements in life possible!”. The kit includes the right size tubes, so there
is no need to have separate lab supplies. A small kit runs about 100$,
almost something you could use at home. However their kit requires
also the use of their “cube”. Their brochure reads: “Automated DNA
cleanup. The QIAquick PCR Purification Kit and QIAquick Gel Extraction Kit can be fully automated on the QIAcube. The innovative
QIAcube uses advanced technology to process QIAGEN spin columns,
enabling seamless integration of automated, lowthroughput sample
prep into your laboratory workflow. Sample preparation using the
28. 3/9/10.
29. Description synthesized from written lab instructions and oral instruction.
108 / Visualizing life
QIAcube follows the same steps as the manual procedure (i.e., bind,
wash, and elute) enabling purification of high-quality DNA. The QIAcube is preinstalled with protocols for purification of plasmid DNA,
genomic DNA, RNA, viral nucleic acids, and proteins, plus DNA and
RNA cleanup... A detailed protocol for using QIAquick spin columns
on the QIAcube is provided with the QIAcube.”
The technician counts as he lays out the sample in the machine with
the buffers, he says that everyone develops different methods to make
sure that they haven’t skipped any. At this point we have 20 samples
for every patient tested. The plastic vials have gotten so small there is
nothing left visible or even imaginable to the naked eye.
At this point the extracted, purified, determined, amplified, re-purified DNA is loaded on the Agarose gel and “viene dato voltaggio”
(literally: given voltage). This is where the physical entity of the DNA
falls away and is transformed into digital data.
One of the instruction manuals reads:
“DNA electrophoresis is an analytical technique used to separate
DNA fragments by size. Because you developed primers to amplify a
specific segment of DNA, after PCR you should know the size of the
amplified DNA fragment. DNA molecules which are to be analyzed by
DNA electrophoresis are set upon a viscous medium, the gel, where an
electric field forces the DNA to migrate toward the positive potential,
the anode, due to the net negative charge of the phosphate backbone
of the DNA chain. The separation of the DNA fragments from your
PCR reaction is accomplished by exploiting the mobilities with which
different sized molecules are able to traverse the gel. Longer molecules
migrate more slowly because they experience more drag within the
gel. Because the size of the molecule affects its mobility, smaller fragments end up nearer to the anode than longer ones in a given period.
After some time, the voltage is removed and the fragmentation gradient is analyzed by comparing the PCR products to a ladder (DNA
products of known size; see below) that is run simultaneously.
As gel electrophoresis progresses, the DNA fragments in each tube
migrate down the capillaries, the smaller traveling faster than the larger; this orders the fragments so that the smallest fragment exits first.
As each fragment exits the capillary tube, it is hit with a laser beam
that excites the fluorescent dye attached to its terminator nucleotide.
A camera captures an image of this fluorescence. (Keep in mind that
each of the four nucleotides has its own unique fluorescent dye and
Visualizing life / 109
thus there are four possible fluorescent images.) The electropherogram
(that interprets the electophoresis) is a graphical representation of data
received from a sequencing machine. 30
The electro-process exploits what we know about charges in molecules to move and order them for measurement and visualization.
As in all of the previous processes, chemical or electrical manipulation
of the DNA is a means to an end, an essential part of the process, yet
not essentially part of the bio-data itself. These manipulations of DNA
have the aim to rend DNA visible, palpable and useful. The assumptions is that the essential material of DNA, what it needs to communicate to use, is not changed in anyway by these processes, but rather,
exposed and emphasized.
The final result of these chemical electrical manipulations is the series of letters we have come to associate with nucleotide sequences, or
genetic patterns. Two technicians spend the rest of the afternoon reading the sequences to each other, first to identify possible contamination
or mistakes, then to compare the sequences to “normal” sequences,
30. Sequencing a Genome: Inside the Washington University Genome Sequencing
110 / Visualizing life
and already established variant sequences that are associated with certain syndromes.
The technicians who read the electropherogram are not just well
trained technicians capable of recognizing errors in a long string of letters. They are scientists who are well trained in genetic theory as well.
Ironically they are the first to tell you that a genetic marker indicates
a spectrum of development possibility, not necessarily a problematic
pathology. The meaning they give to the test results is primarily empirical: the digital data says these chemical properties are present in
the DNA. Underlying this meaning is the belief that this digital data
will help the medical team treat the patient.
Data in action
The communication of genetic test results relays meaning onto the
digital rendering of the DNA, meaning that directly refers to scientific
and social disputes. As we saw in the beginning of the chapter, the
scientific dispute reflects the interpretation of genetic material as either
independent/mechanistic or system-dependant. The social debates instead question the role of biological variation in disease and identity
In the last ten years the new figure of the genetic councilor has been
instituted to explain genetic data to the patient. The genetic councilor
often translates seemingly determinist digital genetic bio-data into the
language of genetic probability and possibility. This particular lab does
not have a referring genetic councilor. Therefore, the head geneticist
at the lab told me that many parents (and adult patients) call her directly asking for further information, yet she does not have an official
role in diagnosis communication. The geneticist implied that the other
doctors (not trained in genetic testing) are more likely to portray the
genetic results as deterministic biological truths.
There can be an understanding gap between popular conceptions of
Mendelian genetics (one gene: one trait), and molecular genetics that
relies to some extent on a developmental model. The geneticist must
explain two factors that have emerged in molecular genetics, the complex model of development that goes beyond the chromosomes, and
the difference between a genetically-based syndrome and being unwell. Molecular genetics represents the genomic paradigm, in which
Visualizing life / 111
the performance of the genes and their interaction with non-genetic
factors are the objects of research. The genomic concept has difficulty
mapping directly onto the dualistic social model. This philosophical
issue can be instrumental in helping patients understand and accept a
previously unheard of difference. 31
The practical work of the genetics lab plays out in various practical
ways: diagnosis communication, statistical evidence of development
and molecular markers, implications for postponing early irreversible
interventions. Molecular testing is generally performed after birth,
thereby the bioethical debates such as fear of eugenic elimination practices can be limited to chromosomal prenatal diagnosis and not molecular genetic testing as of yet.
In a London research, a radical difference was found in pregnancy termination in case of Klinefelter’s syndrome diagnosis, based on
whether a gynecologist or a genetic counselor communicated the chromosome test results. 32 Pregnancy termination rates were higher when
the diagnosis was communicated by a gynecologist. These results have
been repeated in several other countries. 33 Authors explain their findings by proposing that a genetic counselor is more likely to explain
genetic indicators as representing a varied spectrum of development
as well as having more updated information about genetically-linked
syndromes. In fact, the Italian Klinefelter’s patient group promotes genetic research because they feel it will show how common and diverse
the syndrome is.
The geneticist of the lab said, “Parents call me asking, ‘they’ve found
this genetic marker, what does it really mean?”. Genetic counselors are
appearing in certain medical fields, such as cancer, but ironically not
in this sensitive arenas where adults/parents must make decisions for
children/patients. The statistical data on DSD and other geneticallylinked syndromes can be more up-dated in research fields that specifically treat these issues. This makes all the difference in communica31. Margaret Lock, Allen Young, Alberto Cambrosio, Living and Working with the New
Medical Technologies Intersections of Inquiry, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
32. S. Hall et al., Counselling following the prenatal diagnosis of Klinefelter syndrome:
comparisons between geneticists and obstetricians in five European countries, Commun. Genet,
4, 2001, pp. 233-238.
33. Kim Yon-Ju, et al., Parental Decisions of Prenatally Detected Sex Chromosome Abnormality, J. Korean Med. Sci., 17, 53-7, 2002; G. Mezei et al., Factors Influencing Parental
Decision Making In Prenatal Diagnosis Of Sex Chromosome Aneuploidy, Obstet Gynecol.,
104(1), 2004, pp. 94-101.
112 / Visualizing life
tion, from portraying the syndrome as a serious genetic illness to a
genetic variation.
The other implication of molecular testing for this lab is gender assignment, the focus of so much of DSD medicalization. Molecular testing provides much greater accuracy in diagnosis, even though even
the geneticist indicated that many people diagnosed with DSD do not
have any of the established genetic markers. 34 However when the genetic marker is present, it will distinguish the diagnosis from the once
catchall category of PAIS (Partial Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome).
Historian and biologist Ingrid Holme wonders:
Yet as the historical analysis of the shift between the one sex to two
sex model indicates, 35 it remains to be seen whether the social sphere
will respond by incorporating this new evidence into the tacit, everyday understandings of sex or seek to maintain the binary and fixed
relationship(s) between men and women by governing them as males
and females. 36
In a previously mentioned case, molecular testing revealed a 5-alpha reductase genetic marker, changing the original PAIS diagnosis.
As noted by Gilbert Herdt 37, in the context of western bio-medicine,
5-alpha reductase is now given a male gender assignment, but this has
not been the universal outcome across time and culture. In western
biomedicine PAIS was generally assigned the female gender, but this
was largely due to the perception of genital surgery outcomes (easier
to create female genitalia than male).
I saw them as they returned from of another series of tests, conducted primarily because they had agreed to raise their child as a boy. The
geneticist indicated that they had always believed the child to be boy,
but wanted to raise the child as a girl due to the genital appearance. As
in many of these cases, the DSD team members were having trouble
convincing the surgeons that they shouldn’t operate.
After the genetic test result came in, a cautious model was invoked.
The parents were counseled to raise the child as a boy with a micro34. Interview 8/3/10.
35. Thomas Laqueur, Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud, Cambridge,
MA: Harvard University Press, 1990.
36. Holme, 2007, pg. 2.
37. Gilbert Herdt, Mistaken Gender: 5-Alpha Reductase Hermaphroditism and Biological
Reductionism in Sexual Identity Reconsidered, American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol.
92, No. 2 (Jun., 1990), 1990, pp. 433-446; Gilbert Herdt, Third Sex, Third Gender: Beyond
Sexual Dimorphism, in Culture and History, NY: Zone Books, 1994.
Visualizing life / 113
phallus and postpone surgical intervention. In the meantime the clinicians would see if the child’s phallus responded to topical testosterone
treatment. Due to faith in the implications of genetic markers, irreversible surgery was avoided. This case, among others, gave weight to the
members of the DSD team who opposes irreversible early childhood
genital surgery. In this case the parents’ dis-ease 38 with their child’s
non-standard body was medicalized through counseling and hormones instead of the surgical manipulation of the body of their child.
The belief in Western biomedicine that 5-alpha reductase indicates a
male gender identity directly shifted care protocol in two key manners: the proposed acceptance of a boy child with a micro-phallus, and
the advice to postpone surgical intervention until the patient is selfdetermining. The locus of gender identity was to some extent defined
by the molecular genetic marker.
Vernon Rosario hypothesizes that the complexity of genetic expression promoted by molecular research will lead to an equally complex
model of sex and gender that he calls quantum sex. 39 However, historian Garland Allen references his own difficulty in relaying a nonmechanistic or non-deterministic model of genetics in teaching upperdivision college students. 40 One gene-one trait model is inaccurate, but
easier to understand. The professional use of genetic counselors may
help in the diffusion of a non-deterministic model.
In fact, even experts sometimes express opinions that reflect the
influence of appearance, behavior and phenotype on what they think
about a patient’s genetic make-up. I heard contradictory comments
in some cases, for instance, in the case of an XY adult, one technician
commented, “poor thing she thinks she’s a lesbian, but really she’s a
man”. The patient had an uncontested female identity throughout her
life, combined with female sexual object choice. This same technician
firmly believes that XY individuals with Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome are women. Yet, the patient in question had a mixed molecular
marker similar to 5-alpha reductase that is associated with potential
male gender identity in the western bio-medical context. This technician will insist that XY chromosomes do not make you a man, yet
38. A. Kleinman, Interpreting illness meanings, Medical Encounter, 3(3), 5-7, 1986.
39. Rosario, Rosario, Vernon, Quantum Sex: Intersex and the Molecular Deconstruction of
Sex, in Morland, ed., GLQ Intersex and After, Vol. 15, N. 2, 2009, pp. 267-284.
40. Allen, 2002, p. 43.
114 / Visualizing life
sometimes a molecular marker is taken to indicate the same determinacy that chromosomes once did in gender determination.
Despite occasional genetic opinions that could be perceived as deterministic, the geneticists generally advocate for a complex, developmental model. This genomic model generally refutes the deterministic
language of the ‘gene for x social trait’, but rather, as Fox-Keller suggests, views genes as processes. 41 New genomic research continues to
affirm an increasingly interrelational model of sex development. As
Holme indicates:
The view of the body as an active process is widespread in the discussions
of the paradigm shift from studying single genes in genetics to studying
genetic networks in genomics 42.
In the hospital laboratory individual genes are targeted for very
practical reasons in order to promote more accurate diagnosis.
Visual representations in science differ significantly in terms of how
they relate to what they purport to represent (i.e. their representational
and ontological status) …Visual representations in science may refer to
objects that are believed to have some kind of material or physical existence, but equally may refer to a purely mental, conceptual, abstract
constructs and/or immaterial entities. 43
The visualization processes that convert blood samples to electropherograms and genetic digital data are standardized procedures that invoke a myriad of scientific theories and techniques, as well as the social
metaphors that DNA represents. The interpretation of DNA is contextually based, facilitated by the visualization process itself. In the laboratory setting, DNA is a physical object that must be manipulated before
it can be read and acquire meaning. Ironically, DNA loses its physical
identity, transformed into digital information, before it acquires meaning for this laboratory context.
By taking a walk through the actual practice of genetic testing we
41. Evelyn Fox-Keller, Making Sense Of Life; Explaining Biological Development With
Models, Metaphors And Machines, Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2002.
42. Holme, 2007, p. 171.
43. Pauwels, 2005.
Visualizing life / 115
can see that the commitment to the deterministic model implied by the
practice is ambiguous. 44 The laboratory practice relies on the assumed
predictability of chemical interactions, aided by heat, speed, light and
electricity. In digitally visualizing DNA we are manipulating its material support as well as its ontological status. Laboratory procedures
rely on a mechanistic model, but the interpretation of the visualized
genetic sequence is no longer faithful to deterministic reasoning. DNA
becomes data, contextually based information.
The DNA mystique, the positivistic rhetoric surrounding DNA and
its cultural symbolic value has induced the need to visualize DNA in
ever-increasing settings. Therefore, it is somewhat impossible to separate the social interpretation of DNA from the scientific interpretation.
We look for genetic sequencing in the laboratory, because we have already decided it is an essential piece of information. We also believe
that not only is DNA essentially unaltered by the visualization process,
but that the digital result tells us exactly what we need to know about
that genetic segment.
However, the DNA mystique may be stronger in a social context
than in the laboratory. One could argue that in the laboratory context
DNA loses its super-status that it acquires in social debates, and becomes one of many biometric parameters. Genetic test results are a
support to an already suspect diagnosis, and are interpreted in context
of both biological and anecdotal evidence. The eugenic (and deterministic) risk increases when genetic tests are pre-natal, and there is no
context in which to interpret the genetic information.
The DNA mystique feeds off the increase of biomedicalization, and
the increased reliance on biometric data in defining the healthy body.
These practices seek to read the body through a digital interpretation
of its material and function. The practices of the molecular genetic lab
are aimed at producing this biological data. It is the context; the scope
of the laboratory, the orientation of medical team, and the training of
the practitioners, which gives meaning to this data.
44. Mauro Turrini, Se Vedo solo il Bianco e il Nero, non Vedo le Sfumature: Stili Visuali e
Incertezza nei Labratori Clinici di Citogenetica, [If I only see the Black and White, I don’t
see the gradations: Visual Styles and Uncertainty in Cytogenetic Clinical Laboratories]
Etnografia e Ricerca Qualitativa 1/2011, 2011.
Electrification in the Agricultural
Development of India
Rupsha Banerjee and Kamanda Josey Ondieki
This paper aims at understanding how electricity, which for most of
us is a taken for granted commodity, played a role in rural and agricultural progress, considering that even as we write a large part of the
Indian population still resides in unelectrified rural areas.
India covers a total area of 3,287,263 sq km with a landmass of
2,973,193 sq km and water 314,070 sq km having a coastline of 7000
km. The climate varies from tropical monsoons in the south to temperate in the north and has arable land of 48.83%. 1 India receives an average annual rainfall of 1,208 millimetres and a total annual precipitation
of 4000 billion cubic metres, with the total utilisable water resources,
including surface and groundwater, amounting to 1123 billion cubic
metres as about 39% of the total cultivated area, is irrigated. India’s
inland water resources include rivers, canals, ponds and lakes and marine resources comprising the east and west coasts of the Indian Ocean.
By virtue of the sheer geographical size and the area that it covers,
India is often referred to as a subcontinent, sharing its borders with
China, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Burma, Nepal and Pakistan. As of 2010,
the GDP of India was growing at 10.4% per year, with the service sector making up 54% of GDP, the agricultural sector 28%, (with major
agricultural products including rice, wheat, oilseed, cotton, jute, tea,
sugarcane, and potatoes) and the industrial sector 18%.
India being a federal state since 1950, the Constitution laid down
a demarcation between the legislative and the administrative power
1. CIA World Fact Book https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/
geos/in.html, accessed: 6th October 2011.
118 / Electrification in indian Agriculture
between the Center and the states; 2 however matters related to electricity, economic and social planning were joint responsibilities of both
the Centre and the states as it came under the concurrent list. In the
power sector, policy setting and implementation was divided between
five ministries: the Ministry of Power (MoP), the Ministry of Coal, the
Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas, the Ministry of New and Renewable Energies (MNRE) and the Department of Atomic Energy, and
government commissions and agencies. Central Electricity Authority (CEA) was a body under the MoP which co-ordinated energy efficiency and energy conservation measures, and the Central Electricity
Regulatory Commission (CERC), under the MoP, acted as an advisory
body to the central government on matters of national electricity policy, and specified technical standards and norms for grid operation and
maintenance among other issues. 3
The State governments also had considerable responsibilities in the
power sector as they were responsible for the implementation of national laws. They had the authority to set their own laws and regulations to be applied on their territory. 4
Role of Electrification in Agricultural Development
Performance of the agricultural sector is fundamental to economic
and social development and critically determines the success of efforts
in poverty reduction. Therefore, access to power for agricultural use
contributes to reducing poverty by increasing employment, incomes
and real wages and by reducing food prices for rural and urban poor.
Energy is required for activities like production of inputs (manufacture of fertilizer, seed, agrochemicals etc.), irrigation (lifting and transportation of water), mechanization of farm operation like land preparation, weeding and application of pesticides/ herbicides, harvesting,
storage (including drying and refrigeration) and post-harvest processing and value addition. Sources of this include animate energy (human
2. India has 28 states and 7 Union Territories with the Prime Minister being the head
of the state.
3. S. Chowdhury and m. Torero, Power and Irrigation Subsidies in Andhra Pradesh &
Punjab, IFPRI, Washington, 2009.
4. Because of this setting, the implementation of power sector reforms differs in each
Electrification in indian Agriculture / 119
and draught power), diesel oil or electricity. Over time, the share of
diesel oil and electricity has increased steadily and now constitutes the
major sources of energy for the agricultural sector.
The role of irrigation in agricultural productivity growth following the green revolution in India is well recognized (Chowdhury and
Torero, 2009). 5 Electrification of pumpsets for irrigation is the primary
example of the direct way in which rural electrification brings about
agricultural change (Samanta and Sundaram, 1983). 6 The use of other
electrical farm equipment has been rather limited in India, and hence
has not been discussed in many studies. As mentioned, since antiquity, farmers in India made efforts to overcome the vagaries of weather
through exploitation of groundwater resources (Niez, 2010). 7 In the
mid-1960s, planners recognized the need to raise agricultural productivity by adopting modern techniques of production. This resulted
in transformation of India from a situation of food-deficit into a food
surplus. Provision of adequate irrigation contributed significantly towards the success of the package of modern inputs that were promoted. Irrigation was a basic input on which the use of high-yielding variety (HYV) seeds, fertilisers, etc, depended significantly (Jain, 2006). 8
Access to electricity enabled water from great depths to be lifted and
used. Electrified pumpsets even when charged the normal tariff could
deliver groundwater in the most cost effective manner (Niez. 2010).
The availability of electricity in rural areas probably has more indirect than direct impacts on agriculture. For instance it leads to changes
in sources and modes of irrigation, which in turn affects the irrigated
area of farms, cropping intensity and cropping pattern (wet crops can
be grown and cropping in different seasons becomes possible). Some
of the common changes include replacement of inferior cereals by superior cereals, increased use of high yielding strains, and growing of
wheat instead of grams and other pulses in the dry season (Samanta
and Sundaram, 1983).These changes may also trigger alterations in
production factor proportions such as use of labour (human and ani5. Ibid.
6. B. B. Samanta and A. K. Sundaram, Socioeconomic Impact of Rural Electrification In
India, Discussion Paper D-730 Energy in Developing Countries Series January 1983 Operations Research Group The Center for Energy Policy, 1983.
7. Alexandra Neiz, Comparative Study on Rural Electrification Policies in Emerging Economies, Information Paper, International Energy Agency, OECD, 2010.
8. J. Varinder, Political Economy of Electricity Subsidy:Evidence from PunjabMunich Personal
RePEc Archive, MPRA Paper No. 240, 2006. Online at http://mpra.ub.uni-muenchen.de/240/.
120 / Electrification in indian Agriculture
mal) and adoption of other agricultural innovations. The combined effect of all these changes would be measured in higher productivity
and incomes, in turn leading to improvements in rural quality of life
(see Figure 1). Another important point to note is that irrigation acts as
an impetus to use of these inputs and can thus be viewed as a necessary condition for innovation. Increasing use of innovations such as
high yielding varieties, fertilizers, farm mechanization and pesticides
requires adequate controlled irrigation, barring which their effect on
agricultural productivity would be negligible or even negative 9 (Foster
and Tatman, 1937). The use of these innovations is in turn expected to
increase crop yields.
On the other hand, adoption of rural electrification depends on conditions like groundwater availability and absence of canal irrigation
(Samanta and Sundaram, 1983). In addition, unlike residential connections, the effect occurs over a longer term in the agricultural sector.
Installation of an electric pumpset may mean switching from the existing mode and source of irrigation. The farmer may be unwilling to dismantle or abandon current practices unless they physically deteriorate
or become highly uneconomical. Risk averse farmers may wait to see
the impact of the capital investment made by others before adopting.
Background of Rural Electrification in India
Rural electrification in India had a much checkered history considering the use of electricity in rural areas was virtually nonexistent until
1933. One out of every two hundred villages was served with electricity supplied through hydroelectric stations (Samanta and Sundaram
1983). With the rural electrification policy in India undergoing a series
of changes, it manifested through shifts in the role assigned to electrification in the process of rural development in India, the story beginning a little before the Five Year Plans 10 were set into motion.
9. Ingredients of fertilizers dissolved in soil moisture have to be taken up from the
soil by a plants roots. If there is not enough soil moisture concentrated salt solutions can
damage the plant roots and if it is very dry, small crystals of salts can get in contact with
the roots, burning them. C. Foster, E.C. Tatman, The Influence of Soil Moisture and Fertilizers
on the Specific Electrical Conductivity of Tomato Plant Sap, American Journal of Botany, Vol.
24, No. 1, 1937, pp. 35-39.
10. The Five Year plans were the basis of the development agenda which was taken
up by India after gaining independence in 1947. The economy of India is based in part
Electrification in indian Agriculture / 121
Fig. 1.
122 / Electrification in indian Agriculture
When India gained independence in 1947, the ones who were given the responsibility to run the nation were very aware that it was a
herculean task which was ahead of them especially when it came to
adequate infrastructural development of the country. An important element of this development was the spread of electricity in both the urban and rural parts of the country. Rural electrification was also an important step towards boosting agriculture production through the use
of electricity for irrigation. However, rural electrification was looked
upon just as a bi-product of the overall efforts of supplying electricity
to all parts of the country.
It is interesting to note that the power sector was governed by the
Electricity Act of 1910 and Electricity Supply Act 1948, till about 2003.
The former did not make any specific mention about rural electrification whereas the latter merely stated as an objective the need to extend
electric supply to rural and remote areas. When the Electricity Supply
Act of 1948 was passed, it was seen as a significant step as it led to the
creation of the State Electricity Boards (SEB) 11 in every state, whose
responsibility was to provide electricity to everyone including the remote areas and the new state electricity boards took over the power
supply from the private utilities. This shift in responsibility of power
supply from private to public sector was expected to have a positive
influence on developing a policy to extend electricity to rural areas to
bring about economic as well as social benefits (Samanta and Sundaram 1983). The concept of universal electrification, though noble was
not followed by the SEBs as the areas for electricification were chosen
based on commercial viability.
Rural electrification, though it took a backseat with the SEBs, was an
important development agenda as the farmers since time immemorial
were making efforts to overcome the vagaries of the monsoon through
exploiting the ground-water resources (Neiz, 2010). As a major political instrument to win votes, hurried, adhoc power supply extension
programmes were taken up in almost all the states, and villages were
declared electrified by just extending the electricity grid to the village
on planning through its five-year plans, which are developed, executed and monitored
by the Planning Commission. Currently the country’s 11th Five Year Plan is underway.
11. The SEBs functions as autonomous institutions even though the jurisdiction over
electricity is shared between the central and the state governments. They have the authority to set and collect electricity tariffs and are responsible for generation, transmission
and distribution of electricity.
Electrification in indian Agriculture / 123
limit and getting one single connection (agriculture or domestic) energized in a revenue village (Sankar T.L, undated). 12
Nevertheless, power development became part of the first tubewell
scheme in India for irrigation in Uttar Pradesh (a state in the Northern part of India and also one of the areas of the success stories of the
Green Revolution). With the advent of the Grow More Food Campaign
in 1939, 13 electricity was considered essential for lifting water from rivers or wells for agricultural purposes. Further before 1950, electricity
was introduced in the states of Madras and Karnataka for pumping
water for agriculture, mostly from open wells or tanks (Samanta and
Sundaram, et.al, 1983).
The 1st Five Year Plan (1951-1956)
The first five-year plan was presented to the Parliament of India on
8 December 1951. Since it was the first one after independence, the
emphasis was on agriculture and irrigation, which included investments in dams and irrigation. Of the total planned budget of INR 206.8
billion (US $ 23.6 billion in the 1950 exchange rate) 27.2% was allocated
for irrigation and energy, 17.4% for agriculture and community development, 8.4% in industry and 47.24% in other sectors. Hence since
there was so much of stress laid on agriculture and irrigation, power
development in general and rural electrification in particular clearly
could not be overlooked. The plan provided for an outlay of INR 270
million for rural electrification against 1.3 billion for power projects.
As a promotion method of electricity usage in the rural areas, it was
suggested that the government would provide assistance in the form
of loans to enable people to take advantage of the power supply for
productive purposes.
It was expected that availability of electricity in rural areas would
assist cottage industry particularly in the handloom sector. Though the
plan realised the importance of rural electrification, most of the budget
allocation was directed towards industrial development as opposed to
agricultural development. By the end of the first five year plan, when
a scheme of expansion of power facilities to provide employment was
12. T.L. Sankar, Rural Electrification, (undated), www.adb.org/Documents/Reports/
...36248.../36248-BHU-TaCR.pdf, accessed: 09/25/2011.
13. The Grow More Food campaign was launched by the British mainly overcome
the effects of the Bengal Famine.
124 / Electrification in indian Agriculture
introduced, the emphasis was on electrifying small, medium-sized
towns and suburbs of the large towns already electrified. Exploiting
irrigation potential by using power received low priority in practice;
the reasons being shortage of power due to lack of infrastructure and
funds as penetration into rural areas on a large scale meant heavy investments. Nevertheless, with the ending of the first five year plan,
39% of the villages were electrified in the population range of 5,000
to 10,000 as compared to 11% in 1950 (Samanta and Sundaram, et.al,
The 2nd Five Year Plan (1956-1961)
The total budget for the second five-year plan was INR 480 billion
and focused on industry, especially heavy industry. Domestic production of industrial products was encouraged in the 2nd plan, particularly
in the development of the public sector. The plan assumed a closed
economy in which the main trading activity would be centered on importing capital goods. The plan also promised to electrify all towns
with a population of 10,000 or more and 85 percent of those towns
with 5,000-10,000 population. In addition, 8,600 villages with population less than 5,000 were to be provided with electricity. Although
the plan realized the importance of extending services to rural areas,
the magnitude of investment restricted such expansion (Samanta and
Sundaram 1983).
According to the plan, provision of electricity supply to villages
and small to\wns with a population of less than 5,000 entailed heavy
expenditure and hence had to be phased over a longer period. The
financial planning integrated urban and rural schemes so that the surplus from the revenues realized from urban and industrial consumers
would act to reduce rates charged to rural consumers. It was expected
that with the increased speed in rural electrification, there would be a
considerable increase in the number of electrified wells, for pumping
water for irrigation, hence there was no particular effort or attention
put in direct intervention regarding the process of agricultural development through electrification. Under the presumption that wherever
electrification had reached, it would automatically facilitate irrigation,
the consumption of electricity for irrigation was placed at 4% of the total budget of the second five year plan. Therefore a strategy of directly
integrating electrification as a part of rural development was lacking.
Electrification in indian Agriculture / 125
The 3rd Five Year Plan (1961-1966)
The third one laid stress on village electrification than targeting either the agricultural or the industrial sectors. Like the first two, the
plan failed to recognise the importance of rural electrification in the
development of the rural economy. It explicitly stated that one of the
important objectives was to develop efficient small scale industries in
small towns and rural areas in order to increase employment opportunities. Though it mentioned that in several states of India, electricity
was being used increasingly for irrigation pumping, it did not assign
importance to electrification in agricultural development. Still it is interesting to note that by the time the third five year plans were coming
to an end, there was a considerable amount which was spent on rural
electrification for extending power supply to the agricultural sector, as
a result of funds which became available from carryovers of some of
the projects from the previous plans. The third plan spent about INR
12.5 billion on the power sector, of which 1.5 billion went for rural electrification (Samanta and Sundaram 1983).
The period of the third five year plans was a volatile period for India, as on one hand the policy makers were trying to set the country’s
development in motion, and on the other hand the country was trying
to defend her borders from the not so friendly neighbours. The beginning of the third five year plan saw a war with China in 1961, which
was followed by a war in 1965 with Pakistan. 14
The Three Annual Plans (1966-1969)
If two wars within a span of three years were not enough, by the
time the third plan was ending, India witnessed the first of a series
of severe droughts having a direct impact on agricultural production.
The situation was so grave that the government decided to suspend
the Fourth Five Year plan for a few years until 1969. Instead it came up
with annual plans for three years as a means of finding respite from the
natural calamity which had shaken the agricultural sector to the core.
There was an urgent need felt to have small scale irrigation to stabilise agricultural production and the National Development Council 15
14. http://news.bbc.co.uk/hi/english/static/in_depth/south_asia/2002/india_pakistan/
timeline/1965.stm, accessed: 12th October 2011.
15. The National Development Council is the highest decision making body on development in India.
126 / Electrification in indian Agriculture
took a decision to shift the emphasis on rural electrification to punpset
electrification to promote the Minor Irrigation Program (Samanta and
Sundaram, et.al, 1983).
The severe series of drought, turned out to be a blessing in disguise
for the agriculture sector, as the Minor Irrigation Program ensured that
a source of irrigation was located in the farmer’s own field and under
his control; thus a deliberate strategy being put into place to electrify
pumpsets. Another significant development was the appointment of
the Rural Credit Review Committee by the Reserve Bank of India (RBI)
for providing credit for agriculture with the proposal of creation of an
autonomous credit agency for rural electrification at the national level,
with a view to undertaking a large-scale program of rural electrification to supply power for small scale irrigation. This led to the creation
of the Rural Electrification Corporation Ltd. (REC) in July 1969 which
designed the electrification process in different areas based on the classification of the level of development to be achieved. It now had two
functional areas, namely, Special Project Agriculture (SPA) and Special
Project Industries (SPI).
The 4th Five Year Plans (1969-74)
The fourth five year plans were formulated during the Prime Ministerial tenure of Indira Gandhi. This period saw yet another war in
1971 which eventually led to the creation of Bangladesh, an underground nuclear test and most significantly the Green Revolution.
Though because of the war and the nuclear tests a lot of funds were
redirected for defence expenditure, the aim of the fourth five year
plan was establishing a better balance between generation, transmission and distribution, integrating agricultural development with
power development.
The National Commission on Agriculture, which was set up during this period, made a strong recommendation for stepping up rural
electrification to make electricity available for pumpsets and rural industries in all villages by 1990.
The Fourth Five Year Plan emphasized that the REC programs
would give precedence to electrifying tubewells and pumps for irrigation. It was expected that area plans for small scale irrigation would
be prepared to reach the optimum level and these plans would be
closely linked with rural electrification programs designed to provide
Electrification in indian Agriculture / 127
electricity to clusters of wells or tubewells. At the end of the plan, the
number of pumpsets electrified was 2,1126,000 as against the target of
1,800,000; with an amount of INR 8.43 billion constituting about more
than one-third of the planned expenditure on power (Samanta and
Sundaram, et. al, 1983).
The 5th Five Year Plan (1974-79)
The process of rural electrification was integrated in the Minimum
Needs Program (MNP) 16 introduced in 1974 as part of the Fifth Five
Year Plans; the idea being to achieve economic growth with social justice. Stress was laid on employment and poverty alleviation justice
with focus on self-reliance in agricultural production and defence. It
was during this phase of the plan that subsidies in various areas were
introduced as part of the MNP. In addition, the Electricity Supply Act
was enacted in 1975, which enabled the Central Government to enter
into power generation and transmission.
Under MNP the target was to provide electricity to 40%of the rural
population. For the first time the plan contained a specific target of
electrifying about 1,300,000 pumpsets. About 81,000 additional villages were targeted to be electrified, taking the total number of electrified
villages to 238,000. The plan was originally to coincide with the period
1974-1979, but ended in four years because of the change in government (Samanta and Sundaram, et. al, 1983).
The new government which took over in 1978 suspended the five
year plan and in turn introduced two annual plans for the remaining period. A Committee on Power was appointed by the Ministry of
Energy, to examine the functions of the SEBs and Central Organizations engaged in the electrification process along with the functions
of the Rural Electrification Program. 17 According to this Committee it
felt that rural electrification should cover broader fields other than just
power for agriculture like domestic and street lighting, and power for
rural based industries. It was of the opinion that the so far the largest
consumption of electricity in the rural areas was going for running agricultural pumpsets. It was further suggested that the State Electricity
16. It was introduced with the holistic aim of an overall development in health nutrition and infrastructure in the rural areas.
17. Point worth noting is that the new Government which was led by Morarji Desai was
a non Congress Government who until 1978 has been in the center since independence.
128 / Electrification in indian Agriculture
Boards should prepare on a block-by-block basis prospective program
for rural electrification in consultation with the small scale irrigation
development agencies as well as explore the feasibility of combining
it with the Integrated Rural Development Program (Samanta and Sundaram, et.al, 1983). 18
The 6th Five Year Plan (1980-85)
The beginning of the sixth five year plan marked the end of the Nehruvian era and the beginning of the economic liberalization in India.
Nevertheless, the sixth plan continued the concept of the MNP and
renamed it as Revised Minimum Needs Program (RMNP). The Plan
emphasised the need for assured power supply as a vital input for
accelerating minor irrigation programs. It stressed the need for closer synchronization between the rural electrification program and the
development of lift irrigation to achieve rapid progress. It stated that
there would be minimum restrictions imposed on power usage in irrigated agriculture.
The plan proposed to electrify 2,500,000 additional pumpsets during 1980-1985 so as to have 7,500,000 electrified pumpsets by 1984-85.
Special attention was paid in the states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West
Bengal, Orissa and Madhya Pradesh which had a large untapped
ground water potential. 19 Rural electrification as an instrument of
rural development assumed considerable importance during this period.
The 7th (1985-90) and 8th (1992-1997) Five Year Plans
The Seventh Plan marked the comeback of the Congress Party 20 to
power. The plan focussed on the boost in food production by increasing the availability of irrigation facilities. It aimed at a significant reduction in poverty and improvement in the quality of life for the poor
in the villages through better access to electricity. As the seventh five
18. This was done with the scope for developing non-agricultural demand through
the establishment of village, cottage and small scale industries.
19. http://planningcommission.nic.in/plans/planrel/fiveyr/welcome.html, accessed:
20. The Congress was the single largest party in the country till 1994 when coalition
governments became the order of day.
Electrification in indian Agriculture / 129
year plan drew to a close, India went through both a political and economic turmoil 21 because of which the eighth five year plan was suspended for two years and replaced with annual plans.
During the interim period of the 7th and the 8th plan, the annual
plans were the starting point of the power sector reforms with respect
to the new liberal economic model being adopted by India. The first
step towards this was opening up the power generation to the private
sector in 1991 without making any changes in the market or regulatory
structure of the electricity industry. The reform had limited success
as it did not add to sufficient generation capacity and failed to attract
private investment because of the weak financial health of the SEBs.
During the eighth five year plan, the power sector saw another wave
of reforms. In 1996, a Common Minimum Action Plan for Power (CMNAPP) was framed which led to a significant change in the market and
regulatory structure and pricing. Independent regulatory commissions
were set up at the union and the state level, with the restructuring and
the corporatization of the SEBs. The SEBs were unbundled into three
enterprises namely generation, transmission and distribution which
was better known as the Orissa model. 22 A state electricity regulatory
commission (SERC) was created to separate the price setting from operations (Torero and Chowdhury, 2007).
In addition, the plan acknowledged that though agriculture had
been subject to wide year-to-year fluctuations due to the weather factor, wherever there was availability of irrigation and power on an assured basis, agriculture had performed well in terms of its response
to the high-yielding varieties, intensity and diversification. With the
objective of strengthening the trends particularly in the Eastern region
and in the dry belt, the plan called for participation of private initiative
in creating infrastructure like power plants, roads, bridges, medium
and minor irrigation projects, and social housing among others. It laid
stress on the promotion of cost-effective technologies for the develop-
21. Between the period of 1991-92, Rajiv Gandhi. India’s former Prime Minister and
Congress’s Prime Ministerial candidate after the general elections, was assassinated by a
suicide bomber followed by India going into a heavy foreign exchange deficit because of
which the structural adjustment programs had to be got about to prevent the economy
from collapsing . This marked the beginning of the liberalization and privatization in India.
22. It was named the Orissa model as this was the first state to acknowledge and
implement these reforms. The other states were more or less reluctant to do so but with
the act being passed they had no choice but to relent.
130 / Electrification in indian Agriculture
ment of renewable and non- conventional energy resources and enlargement of the coverage of Integrated Rural Energy Project. 23
The 9th Five Year Plan (1997-2002)
The ninth five year plan was formulated in the backdrop of India’s
Golden Jubilee year of independence. The priorities were the agricultural sector and emphasis on the rural development along with generation of adequate employment opportunities and poverty reduction.
The plan emphasized reforms of the power sector in the States, including reform of power tariffs, to make the State Electricity Boards financially viable. This was seen necessary to expand public investment
and to create credibility among private investors selling power to State
Electricity Boards (SEB). In addition, the Government of India introduced the Electricity Regulatory Commission Act 1998, as an attempt
to depoliticise tariff setting by permitting states to establish independent regulatory commissions (Neiz, 2010).
As part of the continuing reforms to the power sector, towards the
close of the 9th plan, the federal government introduced the Electricity
Bill 2001. The bill was intended to replace the previous Indian Electricity
Act of 1910, The Electricity (Supply) Act of 1948, and the Electricity Regulatory Commissions Act of 1998 (Torero and Chowdhury et.al, 2007).
The 10th Five Year Plan (2002-2007)
The tenth five year plan was probably the most important of all the
five year plans formulated after India’s liberalization, as it was during
this period that the Government of India rolled out a number of new
schemes related to rural electrification.
The first among the many was the passing of the Electricity Bill 2001
under the name of The Electricity Act 2003. The new act gave impetus for further reforms by allowing increased competition in the sector
and making the state regulatory commission as a mandatory requirement. It allowed open access to distribution and transmission (Torero
and Chowdhury, 2007). It provided the framework for the power-sector reform at the state level. Among other provisions, it required the
23. http://planningcommission.nic.in/plans/planrel/fiveyr/welcome.html, accessed:
Electrification in indian Agriculture / 131
establishment of an independent electricity regulatory commission at
the state level and the separation of its transmission activity from the
state electricity board (Birner, et.al, 2011). 24
The Accelerated Rural Electrification Program (AREP), which became operational in 2002, provided for interest subsidies of 4% to the
states for the Rural Electrification programs. The AREP proposed to
cover electrification of un-electrified villages and household electrification with an approved outlay of INR 560 billion under the 10th plan.
The interest subsidy was made available to the state governments and
electricity utilities on loans availed from institutions like REC, Power
Finance Corporation (PFC) and National Bank for Agricultural and
Rural Development (NABARD) under the Rural Infrastructure Development Fund (RIDF). 25
The next one, the Rural Electricity Supply Technology Mission
(REST) was initiated in 2002 with the objective of electrification of all
villages and households progressively by the year 2012 through local
renewable energy sources, decentralised technologies along with conventional grid connection. It adopted an integrated approach which
aimed at identifying and adopting technological solutions, review of
current legal and institutional framework and make changes where
necessary, promote, finance and facilitate alternative approaches to rural electrification and co-ordinate with various ministries, apex institutions and research organizations to facilitate meeting national objectives (Bilolikar and Deshmukh 2005). 26
The year 2005 witnessed the launch of the Rajiv Gandhi Grameen
Vidyutikaran Yojna (RGGVY) 27 by the Ministry of Power and the Remote Village electrification (RVE) Program by the Ministry of New and
Renewable Energies (MNRE) in 2005. The former aimed at 100% electrification of all villages and habitations of the country which meant
electricity access to all households and free electricity connection to
BPL (Below Poverty Line) households. In order to achieve the objectives, the RGGVY proposed creating Rural Electricity Distribution
Backbone (REDB) with atleast one 33/11 KV substation in each block.
24. R. Birner, S. Gupta and N. Sharma, The Political Economy of Agricultural Policy
Reform in India: Fertilizer and Electricity Supply for Groundwater Irrigation, IFPRI Research
Monograph., Washington, DC, 2011.
25. Neiz, 2010.
26. Rajkiran Bilolikar and Ravi Deshmukh, Rural Electrification in India - an overview.
MBA (Power) Management, National Power Training Institute, Faridabad.
27. Translated as Rajiv Gandhi Rural Electrification Scheme.
132 / Electrification in indian Agriculture
There would be a Village Electrification Infrastructure (VEI) with at
least one distribution transformer in each village/habitation along
with Decentralised Distribution Generation (DDG) systems where the
grid is not cost-effective or feasible (Bilolikar and Deshmukh, 2005).
The latter (RVE) was initiated to supplement the efforts of the Ministry of Power (MoP) through measures of renewable energy sources
by the Ministry of New and Renewable Energies (MNRE). The Remote
Village Electrification programme (RVE) was responsible for electrifying un-electrified remote census villages (with a population of less than
100 inhabitants) and remote un-electrified hamlets of electrified census
villages where grid connection was either not feasible or not economical as these areas were located in forests, hills, deserts or islands and
where DDG projects were not implemented by the RGGVY of the MoP.
Under the RVE programme, solar photovoltaic home lighting systems
and power plants, small hydropower plants, biomass gasification systems in conjunction with 100% producer gas engines or with dual-fuel
engines using non-edible vegetable oils and oil based engines, biogas
engines, were the most commonly used by the MNRE. However, the
vast majority, 95%, of remote census villages taken up for electrification under the programme were provided with solar photo-voltaic
home lighting systems (Neiz, 2010).
Electricity Subsidies in Indian Agriculture
Farmers are interested in water, and electricity is only a means of
accessing water. Along the same lines, a crop only requires the water
and, unlike a computer, does not need to consume electricity. There
are a large number of subsistence farmers whose livelihood and subsistence depends on agriculture. The only solution to their poverty is
to provide water to their lands. They usually take risks while exploring the site for drilling a well and struggle to put together money for
purchasing the pumpset. If he/ she has to pay for all these and also for
electricity at the same cost as other users, the investment may result in
negative return. Hence, while pumpset farmers are entitled for power
at lower rate, the subsistence farmers will have to be given electricity
at substantially lower rates. In many countries, subsidy is provided to
agriculture in different forms especially for poor farmers as a means
towards food security (Niez, 2010).
Electrification in indian Agriculture / 133
Fig 2. Groundwater use for agriculture.
Source: Tushaar Shah. What ails Indian Agriculture? A Reality Check on Our
Irrigation Policy. International Water Management Institute - www.iwmi.org).
In rural India, access to affordable and reliable electricity was expected to meet the energy requirements of the agricultural sector by
energising irrigation pump sets as well as small and medium-sized industries, cold chains, health centres, schools, etc. Village electrification
hence became popular with political groups and states vied with each
other to get the 100% village electrified status (Niez. 2010). The country
has increasingly relied on groundwater extraction for agriculture and
is currently the largest extractor of groundwater, consuming 250 cubic
km of groundwater annually. Between 1960 and 2000, irrigated area
more than doubled mostly from tube well irrigation (Chowdhury and
Torero, 2009). Population pressure on land and demands of intensive
diversification of farming are cited as the main drivers of the groundwater boom since 1975 (Figure 2). The country now has over 20 million
irrigation wells and 0.8 million are added each year. Every fourth cultivator owns an irrigation well and non-owners depend on groundwater markets. However, in irrigated areas that are dependent on diesel
pumps, rising diesel prices are hitting small-holder farmers hard.
Inputs like electricity constitute a significant share of agricultural
subsidies in developing countries often driven by the influence of pressure politics (Jain, 2006). In India for example, the amount spent on
electricity subsidies for agricultural users exceeds state spending on
134 / Electrification in indian Agriculture
health or education. Electricity subsidies enable agricultural users to
access electricity at prices below the marginal cost of supply, thereby
lowering the cost of irrigation and groundwater extraction, an essential input in agricultural production (Badiani and Jessoe, 2011). 28
The emergence of electricity subsidies in Andhra Pradesh and other
states in the late 1970s can be seen in the context of the Green Revolution, which started in the mid-1960s, and the debate about declining
terms of trade that emerged in the 1970s. When electricity connections
for pump sets were first introduced, they were metered, and farmers
had to pay a volumetric price. In any case, subsidies in support of the
Green Revolution were initially part of a strategy to achieve the national goal of food self-sufficiency. They gained prominence again in the
1970s as a political strategy to win farmers’ votes (Birner et al., 2011).
As agricultural products and the need for a stable water supply increased during the green revolution, the farming workforce organized
into a powerful political coalition (Badiani and Jessoe, 2011). The actual rate of electrifying pumpsets was modest in India until 1975 when
a movement was launched in Karnataka seeking supply of subsidized
power to agriculture as water supply for irrigation provided from surface irrigation sources was charged at highly subsidized rates. Karnataka sharply reduced the tariff for pumpsets. This measure, proved so
popular as a political plank that states with large pumpset population
embarked on a race of competitive concessional tariffs for pumpsets
resulting soon in some states declaring “zero” tariff for power supply
to agriculture. States such as Punjab, Tamil Nadu, and Andhra Pradesh
decided to provide free electricity to farmers to support their agriculture (Niez, 2010).
The trend connecting elections and electricity pricing began in Andhra Pradesh in 1977, when the Congress party was the first in India to
campaign on the basis of free power. Since the late seventies the Governments of the States have been under pressure from certain lobbies
to provide “free power” supply to farmers. This has been used as a
patent tool for mobilizing political support by different parties. However, the experience of “free power supply’ to agriculture has shown
that it is not sustainable. By 1989, the Andhra Pradesh government
was spending 25 percent of total expenditure on agricultural electricity
28. Badiani, Reena, K. Jessoe, Katrina, Electricity subsidies for agriculture: Evaluating the
impact and persistence of these subsidies in India (draft version), 2011.
Electrification in indian Agriculture / 135
subsidies, and politicians were required to maintain these subsidies to
either gain election or remain in power (Dubash and Rajan, 2001; cited
in Badiani and Jessoe, 2011). 29 For example in 2004, the Congress Party
on Andhra Pradesh campaigned on free power (Dubash, 2007; cited in
Birner et al., 2011). The same happened in Punjab where electricity was
supplied without collecting any user charge in the second-half of the
1990s. The number of pumpsets electrified each year rapidly increased
in the eighties & slightly decelerated in the nineties with the initiation
of “Power Reforms” in several states. From 1995, the power reform
process was initiated in India: the first step resulted in Electricity Regulatory Commissions (ERCs) at the state level, and it became necessary
for SEBs to render accountants for a public debate (Niez, 2010).
This practice of selling electricity at the subsidised rates to the agricultural sector reveals the state’s submission to interest group politics. These policies have been, by and large, non-discriminatory in nature (Jain, 2006). Currently electric power for rural pumpset usage is
subsidized by all the states in India, the subsidy being estimated at
1.1% of GDP. Users are charged a highly subsidized, flat, annual fee
that varies with pumpset size (Dossani and Ranganathan, 2004). State
governments are authorized to set electricity prices, therefore electricity prices vary across states. There is also substantial heterogeneity in
prices across time; this occurs because states respond to economic and
political pressures by changing agricultural electricity subsidies (Badiani and Jessoe, 2011).
Subsidy in electricity for irrigation in agriculture worked as a strong
incentive for farmers to buy electric pumps, to use irrigation, and to
shift production to irrigated crops. Partly due to rapid growth in irrigation owing to subsidized electricity, the total food grain production
in India increased by more than two-folds in less than forty years between 1960 and 2000. Two states that played important roles in this increased production are Andhra Pradesh and Punjab, which also highly
subsidize electricity for irrigation (Chowdhury and Torero, 2009).
The expansion and uptake of tube wells for irrigation was largely
expedited by subsidized electricity prices, which reduced the price of
groundwater extraction. In turn, this growth in irrigation increased
agricultural yields, lowered food prices and increased demand for ag29. Dubash, K. Navroz K. and Ranjan, Sudhir Chella, Power Politics: Process of Power
Sector Reform, in India Economic and Political Weekly 36(35): 3367-3387, 2001.
136 / Electrification in indian Agriculture
ricultural labor (Badiani and Jessoe, 2011). Despite several setbacks,
subsidized tariff and cross subsidies have helped the economy in the
villages. The leapfrog in the agriculture sector was contributed in no
small measure by the availability of cheap / free electricity (Mishra
2008). 30 Previously suffering from food deficits, India became a food
surplus country thanks to rural electrification efforts geared towards
the agricultural sector (Niez, 2010). World Bank(2001) reported that
electric pump owners in Haryana and Andhra Pradesh were found
to have the highest average annual gross incomes followed by diesel
pump users. Water purchasers and rainfed were the lowest on average while canal users fell in the middle. All types of electric and diesel
pump owners on average tended to use various materials (fertilizers,
pesticides, farm cultivation services such as tractors and animal draft,
non-irrigation diesel, etc) more intensively than the canal, water purchasers and rainfed farmers.
(Birner et al., 2011) identifies two schools of thought regarding electricity subsidies in India; one that is market-oriented and the other
welfare-oriented. The argument that subsidies stifle public investments, and hence contribute to slow growth, is central to the marketoriented discourse. The overuse of groundwater is attributed mainly to
the flat-rate tariff and free electricity, which give farmers no incentives
to save water. The electricity subsidy is also seen as a major reason for
distortions in the choice of cropping patterns, encouraging farmers to
cultivate more water-intensive crops. They argue for privatization of
the power sector, often referring to the experience of other countries.
In the welfare-state-oriented story line, the major problem is described as an agrarian crisis, and farmers’ suicides are seen as its major
indication. The crisis is attributed to unfavourable relations between
input and output prices, which lead to indebtedness, and subsidies are
considered as a legitimate and necessary instrument of relief. Overuse
of groundwater is acknowledged as a serious problem, but it’s not ascribed to electricity pricing since the hours of power supply are limited. They also argue that farmers cannot apply excessive irrigation as
it may lead to crop damage. The welfare-state-oriented discourse also
attributes changes in the cropping pattern to the promotion of paddy
30. K. Rajiv Mishra, Looming crisis of Indian Power sector: A sustainable delivery model for
rural electricity through local entrepreneurship development. A Report on Rural Electrification
in India. IC2 Institute - University of Texas, Austin 2815, San Gabriel, Austin, Texas - 78705.
Electrification in indian Agriculture / 137
cultivation by the government, rather than the electricity price. They
argue that privatization efforts in India have not met expectations (e.g.
cases “the Orissa model” and Delhi are frequently cited as examples).
The other major argument holds that privatization serves the interests
of multinational companies who do not care about the needs of the
people, especially the poor. Although both discourses acknowledge
that metering the electricity supply would be useful, they disagree on
the feasibility and costs of this measure. Many in the welfare-state discourse coalition argue that the transaction costs of introducing metering are prohibitive.
Electricity Subsidies - A Solution still seeking answers
India from the time of independence has always opted for a mixed
approach in its economy. Nevertheless, it can be said that till 1991
when the economy officially opened up to save her from going into
a foreign exchange deficit, the approach was that of a welfare state.
Therefore for most, the issues of subsidies and flat tariffs was a necessary measure which was seen as a government’s duty to provide for
its citizens considering that agriculture was primarily rain fed in most
parts of the country. All the same, as mentioned there was an argument
from the market-oriented approach that subsidies were responsible for
the stifling of public investments hence contributing to slow growth
(Birner et.al, 2011).
During the mid-seventies to early eighties, most of the SEBs shifted
away from metering electricity sales to agriculture consumers and introduced the flat rate tariffs based on the capacity of the pumps (Sinha,
2003). 31 However, the mechanism of pricing in the form of subsidies
and flat tariffs has come under a lot of speculation and predicament
both from the supplier as well as the consumers.
Depletion of Groundwater: It has been claimed that subsidized electricity fosters excessive use of water for irrigation, thus degrading a
vital natural resource. The line of argument is that with the availability of subsidies farmers have been using their pumpsets to pump
out as much of ground water as they can without any accountability
31. Sinha, Sidharth., Management of Power Supply to Agriculture (draft version), Indian
Institute of Management, Ahmadabad, 2003.
138 / Electrification in indian Agriculture
thus leading to depletion in ground water and adding to the already
impending crisis on water availability. In addition, the pressures of
the market and failing returns on food crops because of uncertainty
of climate has made a large group of farmers diversify into cash crops
which are water intensive, which requires them to use more water
than what would be required for food crops (World Bank, 2001). In
Punjab, for example, the number of electrically-operated tube wells
has increased from 600,000 in 1990-91 to 750,000 in 1999-2000 (Jain,
In Andhra Pradesh and Punjab, the cost of electricity for irrigation
for the majority of the farmers is fixed per month since they pay a
monthly fee based on pump capacity (Horse Power). It implies that at
the margin, farmers incur almost a zero cost for irrigation in the shortrun. Farmers have incentives for production substitution and extend
production to more water intensive crops. Since the fifties there is a
significant shift of production patterns towards rice and wheat which
are more water intensive in nature (Torero and Chowdhury, 2007).
Quality of Supply: In 2000, agricultural users in India consumed
32.5% of electricity but contributed only 3.36% of revenues. The lack
of revenue generated from agricultural consumers has caused State
Electricity Boards (SEBs) to operate at an annual loss. In 2001, the SEBs’
rate of return on capital amounted to 39.5% (Tongia, 2003). To fund
these subsidies, the states resorted to cross- subsidization and charged
higher prices to the industrial and commercial sectors, where the prices charged often exceeded the marginal cost of supply. This increase in
production costs encouraged the use of captive power plants by commercial and industry sectors, thereby lowering the base from which
the SEBs funded these subsidies (Badiani and Jessoe, 2011).
Distribution losses due to widespread theft has further aggravated
the situation, resulting in inadequate and deteriorating quality of supply of electricity to farmers; frequent power outages and voltage fluctuations which have led to damage of equipments of the farmers and
the need for constant repair (World Bank, 2001). The users’ irregularity
in paying electricity bills and resistance to tariff revisions has led to
difficulty in cost recovery leading to perpetuation in the problem of
electricity supply.
Other categories of customers, such as the domestic and industrial
sectors have been burdened with heavy tax rates to support the deficits
created by the provision of free electricity to agricultural consumers.
Electrification in indian Agriculture / 139
As a consequence of this free power provision, utilities in these states
have been unable to supply reliable electricity to their industrial sector, thus reducing their competitiveness vis à vis other states. In addition, controversies over the allocation of free power to farmers have
worsened because farmers are using their electric pump sets for other
purposes than irrigation (Niez, 2010).
Power rationing to a large extent has led to SEBs being unable to
handle the demand of electricity and often has become problematic
for the farmers as they don’t have access to water during the times
when irrigation is most required for the crops. As mentioned, with the
fluctuations in the electricity leading to burnout of their equipment,
farmers lose time in repairing and reinstalling motors and organising
alternative sources of water for their fields (World Bank, 2001). As is
said that if the right medicine is not available at the right time, a dying person cannot be saved; similarly, inspite of subsidies and in some
states supply of free electricity, when the electricity is not available at
the time when farmers need it the most, they resort to diesel pumps
which end up being much more expensive thus raising the transaction
cost of the farmers. Hence, in this scenario, the farmers do not mind
paying for the electricity, as unreliable supply of electricity turns out to
be costly in the long run.
Metering Issues: One of the solutions suggested for rectifying the
loss and wastage of electricity was through the metering of electricity where meters would be installed and farmers would be charged
according to the meter reading. When a study was carried out in
Haryana, 32 contrary to the assumption that farmers would be willing
to try out this system, the farmers refused and among the several reasons that farmers rejected this proposition, the primary ones were: i)
that it was necessary to house the meter in a safe waterproof place
and the farmers were unwilling to construct the room or shed for the
meter ii) the farmers apprehended that since the meter is installed they
would be questioned for the extra consumption for other purposes and
the unauthorised load would be detected; iii) they felt that the cost of
reading the meters would be an extra financial burden to the utility
(Sinha, 2003).
32. Northern state in India which has not only been one of the ground zero areas
of the Green Revolution, but also of farmer political pressure on maintaining free and
subsided electricity.
140 / Electrification in indian Agriculture
Increase in socio-economic disparities: When the subsidies and the flat
rate tariffs were introduced it was done with the objective of providing
irrigation facilities leading to increase in food production amongst all
farmer groups. However, under the state’s non-discriminatory electricity subsidy policy, the farmers having economic and political power
have managed to get early access to electricity connections; the surplus
arising from partial or full price concessions on sale of electricity to the
agricultural sector benefit only these farmers. This trend has caused
large socio-economic disparities and divided the agricultural society
into the classes of haves and have-nots.
The availability of either free or partially priced electricity has contributed towards increasing income inequalities within the agricultural sector by making the irrigation cost almost nil for the haves. Those
who have access to inadequate, unreliable and poor quality electricity
have to irrigate their crops through the use of diesel pump-sets. In the
presence of very high and continuously rising diesel prices, this imposes a huge cost burden on farmers for producing the same quantity
of output. It is due to this reason that the average cost of production
has remained quite low for the haves whereas it is relatively high for
the farmers in the other category (Jain, 2006).
Studies carried out in states of Punjab, Maharashtra, Karnataka
and Andhra Pradesh have shown that the major beneficiaries of the
subsidies are the large and the medium farmers most of whom can
afford to pay the full cost of power including the return on capital employed (Sinha, 2003). Approximately 39% of the subsidies accrue to
large farmers who represent 15% of electric pump set owners and less
than 2% of all rural households. Marginal farmers, who represent 39%
of all electric pump owners, receive 15% of the subsidy (Torero and
Chowdhury, 2007). As a result, the actual costs per unit that the small
and marginal farmers incur for irrigation is usually higher than the
large farmers see Fig. 3.
Financial Solvency of the SEBs: The policy of providing non-discriminatory electricity subsidy to the agricultural sector has weakened the
financial soundness of the SEBs (Jain, 2006). From 1975 there was a
gradual deterioration of the finances of the SEBs arising initially due to
subsidized power supply to agriculture, and later due to the increasing
indifference of the top management of the SEBs in the rural areas. As
a result, the entire governance system in rural distribution management collapsed. The agriculture developmental agencies did not till
Electrification in indian Agriculture / 141
Fig. 3. Skewed distribution of irrigated land and subsidy.
Source: S. Chowdhury and M. Torero (2007), IFPRI, Washington.
the 1990s prepare and implement plans for ground water utilization,
nor guide the farmers or the Electricity Boards to encourage pumpset
electrification by way of appropriate cropping patterns and water use
with economic rationality and environmental optimality (Niez. 2010).
Thus, irrigation pumping for agriculture has been cited by many
as one of the principle causes of poor cost recovery of SEBs and a
prime cause of the poor financial health of the SEBs. (Bilolikar and
Deshmukh, 2005). Even though the share of agriculture in electricity
consumption has increased many folds, the share of agriculture in the
revenue has essentially remained the same resulting in a significant
deficit and therefore a significant increase in the subsidy. Reforms have
not yet been successful and costs of supply have been going up reducing the possibility of cross-subsidization of agriculture from other sectors such as industry and commerce. A reduction in cross-subsidy has
added to the odd further.
There is a serious lack the financial resources, skilled personnel
and management culture in the SEBs, for instance, to block persistent theft of power and recover the revenue losses that arise from the
same (World Bank, 2001). Hence it appears that the SEBs in India
142 / Electrification in indian Agriculture
Fig. 4. Power Supply to Agriculture: The Vicious Cycle.
have entered into a vicious cycle where they cannot ensure quality,
availability and reliability in power supply due to the mentioned
limitations, low tariffs from farmers and the farmers unwillingness
to pay higher tariff unless the SEBs improve their supply (Torero and
Chowdhury, 2007).
Possible Solutions to Problems related to Subsidies in Indian Agriculture
There have been numerous speculations on the need for subsidies in
the agricultural sector. As mentioned earlier the market–oriented approach has questioned the need and are of the opinion that they should
be avoided as far as possible (Birner et. al, 2011). Nonetheless, in a country like India where majority of the farmers are subsistence farmers,
doing away with subsidies will be like a death knell on them. There is
no denying that, given the way in which the entire issue of electricity
supply has been handled so far both in terms of management and efficiency, subsidies have resulted in losses rather than the objective that
it was started out with, i.e., holistic agriculture development. Therefore,
there have been various options which have been proposed to address
the problems related to subsidies in Indian agriculture.
Electrification in indian Agriculture / 143
Targeting of subsidies: It has been proposed that any form of subsidy
should be meant and confined to the subsistence farmers and poor
farmers with less than probably one hectare of land under cultivation
using ground water in permissible areas (Niez, 2010).
A price discrimination strategy is proposed based on the size of the
farmers plot and on the implementation of a two part tariff mechanism. If low-demand consumers or high-demand consumers want to
consume more electricity, they will need to pay a charge over the marginal costs for each unit above their fixed charge. Assuming that such
a strategy is put into place, the foreseeable outcome will be a more
progressive and efficient use of resources.
Strategies to address costs related to the subsidy programs: State governments have proposed a range of strategies, including independent regulation, metering of agricultural pumpsets and raising prices (Dossani
and Ranganathan, 2004). 33 Birner et al., 2011 suggests measures that include increase of agricultural tariff, reducing tax evasion, time restriction of supply, promotion of energy saving devices by both making
them compulsory or using incentives, and reducing electricity theft.
There is need to examine carefully the price that could be charged to
all agricultural consumers or atleast to selected segment among the
pumpset farmers (Niez. 2010) as irrigated agriculture is critical to the
Indian economy. Hence a nuanced approach to reforming agriculture
pumping tariffs is needed.
However, a sudden and substantial shift away from current pricing
of electricity for agriculture could jeopardize agriculture, an activity
that is the primary source of livelihood in rural areas, accounting for
72% of India’s population (Bilolikar and Deshmukh, 2005). Therefore,
what is required is scheduling power supply when it is needed most
through reliable timed-delivery (determined by rainfall and soil moisture requirements) in accordance with the local agriculture needs and
during off-peak hours to reduce costs.
In addition, the agriculture subsidies can be provided directly to
the consumer in the form of a smart card that incorporates low tariffs
for the first block of ‘lifeline 34’ consumption (Bilolikar and Deshmukh,
33. R. Dossani and V. Ranganathan, Farmers’ willingness to pay for power in India: Conceptual issues, survey results and implications for pricing, Energy Economics 26 359-369, 2004.
34. It emerges from the concept of lifeline irrigation or life-saving irrigation by providing moisture at the most critical stage of phenological growth of the plant e.g. flowering
or before the soil moisture content reaches the permanent wilting point (PWP) of the crop.
144 / Electrification in indian Agriculture
Devolution of responsibilities and collective action at the grassroot level:
This can be achieved by creating transformer-user associations or energy cooperatives, which can be possibly linked with groundwater-user
associations (Birner et al. 2011).
Joint ownership of pumps appears to be an important mechanism
for enabling small and marginal farmers to gain access to an electric
pump (World Bank, 2001). Farmer groups should be encouraged to demand quality supply from utilities, regulatory commission, and politicians and utilize community based groundwater management measures. Generation and distribution of power could also be decentralized
to the local level by using a co-operative model, franchise model or
involvement of the Panchayat Raj Institutions. 35
Technical solutions for soil and water management and institutional mechanisms for control of groundwater exploitation: There is a need for reduction of water-intensive crops and cultivation practices by introducing
incentives for other crops or water-saving techniques. Expansion and
improvement of surface irrigation and application of groundwater recharge measures should be encouraged.
In addition, legislation should be in place to physically control the
digging of new wells whether water is to be raised by electricity or
any other means. There is an urgent need to prepare district-wise or
even village-wise maps classifying areas into: i) where ground water
can still be exploited; (ii) where ground water could be exploited only
with permission which should be decided by approval of the village
Gramsabha, 36 and (iii) where it is strictly prohibited as it is already
over-exploited (Niez. 2010).
Reliable services: A move towards greater cost recovery must be accompanied by reliable services that meet the needs of agriculture (Bilolikar and Deshmukh, 2005). For instance, a technical but costly way of
addressing the problem of voltage fluctuation could be by using a voltage stabilizer to the power supply connection (World Bank, 2001). 37
In order to provide reliable services, the staff responsible for manage-
35. The Panchayat Raj Institutions or local-self governance institutions were as a result
of the the 73rd and the 74th Amendments made to the Constitution of India in 1993 as a
part of decentralization process which gave powers for the formation of autonomous
governance structures in the urban and rural areas.
36. The legislative and executive body of the village Panchayat.
37. World Bank Summary Report (2001), India - Power Supply to Agriculture Volume 1
Energy Sector Unit South Asia regional Office.
Electrification in indian Agriculture / 145
ment of electricity production, transmission and regulation should be
given adequate training and incentives.
Integration with other agricultural development programs: It is increasingly being realized that supply of electricity to agricultural pumpsets in rural areas cannot be arranged in the best interest of individual
farmers and the farming community without incorporating efforts
to educate farmers, in appropriate water management practices. For
starter, this would require working out optimal cropping patterns area
wise and if required even village wise by the Agriculture and Water
Development departments of the state government (Niez. 2010).
Integrating rural development programmes and broader powersector reform strategy with rural electrification could create a synergy
for promoting agro-based industrial activities and productive use of
electricity in rural areas (Bhattacharyya 2006).
Policy options that enhance income of poor households: Both the welfarist
and the market-oriented schools of thought broadly agree that the income situation in the agricultural sector is a major concern. Hence, it
is important to identify policy solutions that do not further reduce the
incomes of poor rural households, even in the short term. Therefore
working on policy options that would increase the income of this community will have better prospects of success. (Birner et al. 2011).
The Government of India realized the importance of incorporating a
strategy of electrification for agricultural purposes in its five year plans
only after a series of severe droughts hit the country during the late
1960s. This need was further actualized during the Green Revolution
that saw unprecedented improvements in agricultural productivity. It
can undoubtedly be claimed that electrification played and continues
to play a significant role in the agricultural production process. The
main contribution has been in the electrification of pumpsets for irrigation.
However, the amount spent on digging a well and purchasing a
pump is an expensive affair for most smallholder farmers. In addition, charges for electricity consumed would make it difficult for them
to recover their costs and still make a reasonable return after selling
their produce. Hence, the electricity subsidies have acted as a buffer
146 / Electrification in indian Agriculture
to ensure farmers get a decent income from their produce; but it soon
became a political tactic to keep the farmer lobby groups happy and
acquire votes. Furthermore, there have been issues regarding distribution of benefits, financial solvency of the SEBs and unreliable supply
of electricity. With better targeting and cost recovery mechanisms, the
subsidy programs have a potential to further enhance and sustain agricultural livelihoods.
La terza mutazione metafisica
Francesco Martini
Lo scrittore Michel Houllebecq, nel prologo al suo romanzo ‘Le particelle elementari’, 1 descrive ciò che egli chiama ‘mutazione metafisica’. Per dirla con le sue parole:
[...] le trasformazioni radicali e globali della visione del mondo adottate dalla maggioranza [...] 2
Nello stesso prologo l’autore francese identifica le due grandi mutazioni occorse in Occidente: il Cristianesimo prima, che si andava sostituendo all’Impero romano proprio quando quest’ultimo era all’apice
della sua potenza, e l’avvento della Scienza moderna dopo che avrebbe cominciato a minare le basi del Cristianesimo proprio alla fine del
Medioevo, cioè del periodo durante il quale la visione del mondo cristiana era adottata universalmente dagli uomini, dalla società e dagli
stati per regolare ogni aspetto della vita individuale e collettiva. Infine
Houellebecq si spinge oltre e sempre nel prologo introduce il leitmotiv
dell’intero romanzo, dichiarando che uno dei suoi protagonisti darà
l’avvio alla terza e per certi versi più grande mutazione metafisica della storia, e cioè l’avvento di una nuova generazione di esseri (umani)
clonati e perfettamente consapevoli della loro esperienza pregressa: in
altre parole una nuova specie oltre l’uomo, nata dall’uomo, che avrebbe sconfitto definitivamente la morte.
Al contrario di Houllebecq, la cui ispirata valutazione sui cambiamenti di paradigma all’interno del pensiero umano potrebbe aver at-
1. M. Houellebecq, Les Particules Elementaires, Flammarion, Paris, 1998.
2. M. Houellebecq, Les Particules Elementaires, cit., pp. 7-8.
148 / La terza mutazione metafisica
tinto proficuamente anche dai lavori di Julian Huxley, 3 noi crediamo
in primo luogo che la terza mutazione metafisica del pensiero occidentale sia già in atto, identificando tale evento con la nascita dell’età
informazionale, 4 e secondariamente che tale stravolgimento nella visione del mondo, condivida in qualche misura, una reinterpretazione
dell’ambito del sacro, così come avvenuto, se pur diversamente, per
le due mutazioni precedenti. Come infatti il Cristianesimo reinterpreta l’ambito del sacro tipico della religione ebraica, così l’avvento della
Scienza Moderna reinterpreta e ridefinisce l’ambito del sacro tipico
della religione cristiana, che da motore causale di ogni fenomeno naturale e sociale, diventa mero fondamento religioso. Per dimostrare questa tesi partiremo dall’analisi della relazione che risulta tra le più caratteristiche della nostra era, e cioè la relazione uomo-computer. Vedremo
come in realtà questa attinga molto più di quanto si possa essere portati
a pensare, alla sfera del sacro e di esso ne reinterpreti le caratteristiche.
Vedremo anche come tale relazione influenzi l’interazione diretta tra
individui fino alla identificazione di un nuovo tipo di interfaccia ibrida,
che si potrebbe davvero reinterpretare come uno dei luoghi/momenti
principali per l’accesso ad una dimensione trascendente canonizzabile
in un vero e proprio rito. Infine cercheremo di capire, da un punto di
vista epistemologico, le implicazioni di una tale analisi nel contesto
dello sviluppo tecnologico contemporaneo.
Dobbiamo però subito precisare alcune cose che potrebbero dar luogo a fraintendimenti.
Innanzi tutto, è bene ribadirlo, crediamo che la relazione uomo-computer e non il computer in sé come mezzo tecnologico, riveli caratteristiche interpretative ricadenti nel dominio del sacro, intendendo con
esso quella categoria ermeneutica che a partire dall’Ottocento si è sviluppata fino ai giorni nostri e vede nel romanticismo tedesco e nel positivismo francese i suoi due momenti principali di rifondazione, sulle
ceneri dell’interpretazione individualistica e personale del trascendente che era tipica delle grandi religioni monoteiste.
In secondo luogo vogliamo chiaramente prendere le distanze da
tutta quella retorica più o meno consapevole, che spesso ha investi3. Il grande biologo evoluzionista Julian Huxley, fratello maggiore del più noto Aldous,
è del resto citato più di una volta nel romanzo (Houellebecq, 1999, pp. 157-162).
4. Per una definizione appropriata di tale concetto si può consultare proficuamente il
primo volume della triologia di Manuel Castells, The Information age: economy, society and
culture (M. Castells, The Rise of the Network Society, Blackwell Publishing Ltd, Oxford, 1996).
La terza mutazione metafisica / 149
to la tecnologia di un ruolo messianico se non addiritttura religioso.
Lontano dunque dalle utopie tecnologiche tipiche del ‘Technological
Sublime’ di Leo Marx 5 o dell’ ‘Electric Sublime’ di Carey, 6 o infine dell’
‘Electronic Sublime’ di Carey e Quirk, 7 ci piacerebbe invece sottolineare come il cosiddetto ‘Informational Sublime’, coniato da Robert
Pepperel in un editoriale su Leonardo, la prestigiosa rivista della MIT
Press su Arte, Scienza e Tecnologia, 8 potrebbe costituire un utile spunto da cui partire. Riferendosi infatti a ‘La condizione postmoderna’ di
Lyotard 9 (Lyotard, 1979) Pepperel sostiene che:
In it he argued against totalizing systems of thought, such as Marxism, and
argued instead for a plurality of ideas supported by the free flow of information through computer networks. It is a measure of the report’s farsightedness that its proposals raise few objections, even eyebrows, today.
Poi aggiunge:
In The Postmodern Condition, Lyotard also argued for a re-engagement with
the sublime, that combination of excitement and anxiety we experience
when confronted with the boundlessness of nature and the cosmos. Many
of us have had the thrill of discovering a like mind through the Internet or
some remote correlation to our own work on-line. As search engines grow
in size and sophistication and social networks become places for exchanging
ideas, the potential for such links multiplies. At the same time, we are drawn
into a vast edifice of data that can overwhelm as much as it excites. Could we
begin to feel some of the same awe at this boundless realm of information
that earlier generations felt towards the extremities of the natural world – an
information sublime?
Ebbene quello che noi sosterremo è che non solamente, con le dovute differenze, la relazione uomo-computer – che è bene subito identificare come una relazione di comunicazione – potrebbe essere caratterizzata da quel sentimento del sublime che le antiche generazioni provavano al cospetto della natura, ma che un tale sentimento, perlomeno
declinato nell’ambito informazionale, in effetti rientra a buon diritto
nella sfera del sacro. Arriveremo anche a ipotizzare che in realtà una
delle possibili cause di tutto ciò è da ricercarsi proprio nella condizio5. L. Marx, The Machine in the Garden, Oxford University Press, New York, 1964.
6. J. W. Carey, Communication as Culture, Routledge, New York, 1989, rev. ed., 2009.
7. J. W. Carey and J. J. Quirk, “The Mythos of the Electronic Revolution”, in J. W. Carey,
Communication as Culture, cit., pp. 87-108.
8. R. Pepperel, “Informational Sublime”, Leonardo, MIT Press, October, Vol. 42, No. 5,
2009, pp. 384-384. Le due citazioni seguenti sono disponibili alla stessa pagina qui indicata.
9. J. F. Lyotard, Le condition postmoderne, Edition de Minuit, Paris, 1979.
150 / La terza mutazione metafisica
ne negata di modernità che affligge l’Occidente e che così bene Bruno
Latour ha descritto nel suo ‘We have never been modern’. 10 A differenza dunque di quello che ha sostenuto Lyotard nel suo report sullo
stato della conoscenza, 11 non solo la scomparsa delle ideologie di fatto
non ci ha traghettato nella post-modernità ma al contrario, l’avvento
dell’era informazionale, da una parte ha causato la scomparsa delle
ideologie, e dall’altra ha portato alla ribalta l’esistenza degli ibridi, 12
cioè la testimonianza più diretta della nostra non modernità. Ed è proprio dall’anelito ad un concetto di modernità che constantemente ci
sfugge, e che ci era stato lungamente promesso dalle utopie così ben
rappresentate dai sublimi tecnologici, elettrici ed elettronici, che nasce
quella tendenza al sacro che crediamo di aver riscontrato nella relazione tra uomo e computer. Anelito che si sostanzia in un desiderio di
‘conoscenza’ che inevitabilmente è destinato a rimanere inappagato,
e che impone un ripiegamento su processi ambigui, arbitrari e spesso
più casuali di quanto crediamo, di selezione e gestione delle informazioni che danno origine a veri e propri ibridi epistemologici, fatti di
sensazioni e output di programmi, credenze e bit di testimonianze indirette e di tutta una serie di relazioni umano-digitali che danno adito
a rifuggire in una dimensione trascendente che trova nel sacro il suo
più immediato ambito di attuazione.
In terzo luogo precisiamo anche che occuparsi della relazione uomocomputer, non è affatto riduttivo nei confronti della più generale relazione uomo-macchina. Questo perché i computer, ovverosia macchine
elettroniche di elaborazione digitale dell’informazione, costituiscono
il kernel di molti dispositivi tecnologici che caratterizzano, e in buona
parte regolano, la vita di ogni giorno nelle società occidentali: per fare
un esempio, si pensi solo che quando impostiamo un programma per
il bucato su una lavatrice, stiamo in realtà comunicando con un computer (collocato sulla scheda elettronica presente ormai in ogni elettrodomestico bianco), che spesso è programmato secondo una logica
fuzzy, e che si prenderà cura di tutto il ciclo di lavaggio.
Infine, precisiamo anche che il nostro punto di vista non sposerà
gratuitamente determinismi sociologici o tecnologici, né tantomeno si
preoccuperà di far ricadere le analisi di questo lavoro entro confini in10. B. Latour, We have never been modern, Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA,
11. J. F. Lyotard, Le condition postmoderne, cit.
12. B. Latour, We have never been modern, cit.
La terza mutazione metafisica / 151
termedi, quali ad esempio quello dell’Actor Network Theory. Piuttosto
ci preoccuperemo di utilizzare strumenti, non solamente sociologici,
che all’occorrenza possano essere più calibrati di altri nella spiegazione dei fenomeni che andremo a considerare.
Il primo paragrafo descriverà la relazione uomo-computer, mettendo in particolare evidenza il ruolo di applicabilità del concetto di ibrido
e introducendo la nuova metafora di ibrido epistemologico di derivazione informazionale o, in breve, di ibrido informazionale. Nel secondo paragrafo esamineremo, se pur sommariamente, le caratteristiche della
sfera del sacro, così come definite nell’ambito disciplinare dell’antropologia, della sociologia e della religione. Nel terzo paragrafo parleremo
inizialmente dei processi di comunicazione da un punto di vista culturale, esaminando la dicotomia proposta da Carey 13 tra Ritual View e
Trasmission View. Quindi applicheremo una tale analisi alla relazione
di comunicazione specifica uomo-computer, da un punto di vista informazionale e tenendo ben presente anche le evidenze di pertinenza
del sacro, isolate nel secondo paragrafo. Nel quarto paragrafo metteremo insieme tutte le analisi condotte in precedenza in modo da delineare un quadro esplicativo del rapporto tra sacro e relazione uomocomputer. Nel quinto ed ultimo paragrafo stenderemo le conclusioni
finali e daremo indicazioni per possibili sviluppi futuri del lavoro.
1. La relazione uomo-computer: un ibrido epistemologico
Nel 1997 il supercomputer parallelo Big Blue costruito da IBM, ottenne per la prima volta nella storia delle sfide scacchistiche uomocomputer, la vittoria in un six-game match con il campione del mondo.
L’avversario era Garry Kasparov, a detta di molti, uno dei più forti giocatori di tutti i tempi. Garry Kasparov non la prese bene. Subito dopo
aver perso l’ultimo incontro, avanzò dei dubbi sulla leale conduzione
del gioco da parte dei tecnici, che avevano controllato il buon funzionamento del computer durante tutto il match. In particolare, il campione
russo sostenne che alcune mosse particolarmente originali di Big Blue
non potessero essere ascrivibili a semplici output del programma di
gioco, quanto piuttosto, a geniali suggerimenti inseriti ad hoc dai tec13. J. W. Carey, “A Cultural Approach to Communication”, in J. W. Carey, Communication as Culture, cit., pp. 11-28.
152 / La terza mutazione metafisica
nici affiancati, segretamente, da qualche Gran Maestro Internazionale
di scacchi 14. La rivincita, che inizialmente aveva richiesto Kasparov,
non fu accettata da IBM che avrebbe voluto riprogettare la macchina
prima di sottoporla nuovamente ad una sfida in un six-game. D’altra
parte il campione russo rifiutò di sottostare a questa condizione. Le
polemiche infine cessarono, ma il dubbio a molti rimase: Big Blue era
davvero riuscito a superare il Test di Turing nel gioco degli scacchi
oppure c’era stato un piccolo aiuto umano?
L’episodio sopra descritto è esemplificativo della diatriba che fin dal
1950 agita gli animi dei filosofi, degli psicologi cognitivisti, dei logici
e non ultimo degli informatici. Una diattriba che si può appunto far
risalire alla metà del Novecento, anno in cui Alan Turing in un famoso paper dal titolo “Computing Machinery and Intelligence” 15 si pose
per primo il problema dell’intelligenza delle macchine di elaborazione. Tale problema avrebbe dato origine a tutto un filone di studi che
vennero inaugurati ufficialmente al Dartmouth College nel 1956, durante un seminario estivo organizzato da J. McCarthy, nel quale veniva
coniato per la prima volta il termine di ‘Intelligenza Artificiale’. 16 Già
Turing comunque nel 1950 aveva cercato di fornire una risposta alla
questione, e sulla scorta della sua enorme fiducia nella logica e nella
capacità di calcolo delle macchine, ideò un test che da allora in poi
avrebbe preso il suo nome e che, in breve, ascriveva una qualche forma
di intelligenza a qualunque dispotivo fosse in grado di passare per
umano in un gioco di imitazione. 17 Sulla scorta però degli studi successivi nei campi più disparati tra i quali l’informatica, la linguistica, la
psicologia e la logica solo per citarne alcuni, ci si rese conto che il Test
di Turing era in realtà troppo debole, e quindi consentiva la creazione
di falsi positivi: alcuni sistemi riuscivano a superarlo, perlomeno sotto
certe condizioni, e tuttavia non potevano in alcun modo dirsi intelligenti, secondo almeno la connotazione che anche solo il senso comune
14. H. Feng-Hsiung, Behind Deep Blue: Building the Computer that Defeated the World
Chess Champion, Princeton University Press, 2004.
15. A. Turing, “Computing Machinery and Intelligence”, Mind, New Series, Vol. 59,
No. 236 (Oct.), 1950, pp. 433-460.
16. J. McCarthy et al., Proposal For The Dartmouth Summer Research Project On Artificial
Intelligence, Internal Report, Stanford, 1955, disponibile a: http://www-formal.stanford.
17. Per gioco di imitazione si intendono attività quali telefonate, quiz orali, chat online, partite di scacchi e in generale tutte le attività in cui è possibile confrontarsi senza
conoscere l’identità dell’avversario.
La terza mutazione metafisica / 153
attribuiva a tale caratteristica. 18 Per questi motivi John Searle nel 1980
concepì il Paradosso della Stanza Cinese, 19 un esperimento mentale
non molto differente dal ‘paper machine’ Gedankenexperiment che
Turing aveva descritto in un suo paper nel 1948, 20 con il quale voleva
argomentare contro quella che lo stesso Searle definiva ‘Strong View of
AI’ o ‘Strong AI’. In breve, usando la descrizione dell’esperimento che
Searle riassunse concisamente nel 1999 per The MIT Encyclopedia of the
Cognitive Sciences: 21
Imagine a native English speaker who knows no Chinese locked in a room
full of boxes of Chinese symbols (a data base) together with a book of instructions for manipulating the symbols (the program). Imagine that people
outside the room send in other Chinese symbols which, unknown to the
person in the room, are questions in Chinese (the input). And imagine that
by following the instructions in the program the man in the room is able to
pass out Chinese symbols which are correct answers to the questions (the
output). The program enables the person in the room to pass the Turing Test
for understanding Chinese but he does not understand a word of Chinese.
Searle poi aggiungeva:
[...] The point of the argument is this: if the man in the room does not understand Chinese on the basis of implementing the appropriate program for
understanding Chinese then neither does any other digital computer solely
on that basis because no computer, qua computer, has anything the man
does not have.
Con ciò sostenendo che per l’esecuzione di appropriati programmi,
un computer, cioè una macchina di calcolo o ancora, una macchina
per l’elaborazione delle informazioni, non ha niente di diverso da un
uomo. La qual cosa ci autorizza ad affermare, che per Searle, a dispetto di Turing, l’essenza dell’intelligenza vada ricercata altrove. Aldilà
comunque dell’intento originale dell’autore, che verteva sulla confu18. Sul ‘senso comune’ in relazione a processi culturali quali appunto quello
dell’apprendimento e dell’elaborazione intelligente si veda ad esempio il saggio di Clifford Geertz ‘Il senso comune come sistema culturale’ (C. Geertz, 1983, “Common Sense
as Cultural System”, in Local Knowledge. Further Essays in Interpretative Anthropology, Basic
Books Inc., New York).
19. J. R. Searle, “Minds, brains and programs”, Behavioral and Brain Sciences, Cambridge
University Press, Vol. 3 (3): 417-457.
20. A. Turing, “Intelligent Machinery”, report for National Physical Laboratory, in
Machine Intelligence 7, 1948; B. Meltzer and D. Michie (eds.), 1969; also in Collected Works
(Volume 1).
21. J. R. Searle, “The Chinese Room”, in R.A. Wilson and F. Keil (eds.), The MIT Encyclopedia of the Cognitive Sciences, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999.
154 / La terza mutazione metafisica
tazione della tesi secondo la quale l’Intelligenza Artificiale sarebbe
capace di una comprensione simile a quella umana, basandosi esclusivamente sulla elaborazione di programmi predeterminati, 22 quello
che a noi invece qui preme sottolineare è l’accostamento operato prima
dal matematico inglese e successivamente dal noto filosofo americano, tra macchine di calcolo ed esseri umani. I due casi riportati sono
a riguardo esemplificativi, in primo luogo poiché hanno dato adito in
letteratura ad un dibattito che ancora oggi risulta attuale e fecondo, 23 e
secondariamente in quanto, pur argomentando tesi divergenti, condividono entrambi l’idea che l’elaborazione di un insieme finito di istruzioni predeterminate, sotto opportune condizioni, 24 sia un compito che
non riesce a differenziare un essere umano da una macchina di calcolo.
In altri termini, l’uomo e il computer, durante la loro interazione, procedono sulla base di una comunanza di atteggiamenti o, se vogliamo,
di una comune impostazione epistemologica, che di fatto si sostanzia
in un analogo trattamento di qualsivoglia insieme di istruzioni predefinite, indipendentemente dal tipo di istruzione e dall’ambiente nel
quale vengono eseguite. I matematici e i logici riconosceranno in questa ‘comune impostazione epistemologica’ nient’altro che il processo
di astrazione alla base di qualunque dispositivo elettronico digitale, e
cioè la Macchina di Turing Universale. 25 La cosa però che a noi preme
porre in evidenza è il fatto che, almeno da un punto di vista razionale,
cioè logico, i computer ‘elaborano’, dunque ‘ragionano’ più o meno
come ragioniamo noi umani, ma soprattutto comunicano tra loro in
modo analogo a quanto facciamo noi, cosa che tra l’altro affonda le
proprie origini nella costruzione delle prime macchine elettriche, attività che a partire dalla seconda metà del XVIII secolo e soprattutto
22. Tesi che Searle stesso nel 1980 battezzò come ‘Strong AI View’ nel suo ormai famoso
articolo Minds, Brains and Programs in the journal The Behavioral and Brain Sciences (cit.) in
contrapposizione all’analoga definizione di ‘Weak AI View’ che lo stesso autore riservò
invece a tutti gli studiosi che ritenevano (e ritengono ancora oggi) che l’unico apporto
che le macchine di calcolo potessero fornire alla comprensione della mente fosse quello
tipico di meri strumenti di elaborazione.
23. Un’utile base di dati, anche se introduttiva, per uno sguardo aggiornato sul dibattito attuale intorno al problema dell’Intelligenza Artificiale in filosofia della mente e nelle
scienze cognitive, declinato secondo il Turing Test o The Chinese Room è la Stanford
Encyclopedia of Philosophy disponibile al link: http://plato.stanford.edu.
24. Con ciò intendendo che tale insieme finito di istruzioni deve essere un ‘algoritmo’
ossia deve comunque essere una procedura finita, deterministica e terminante in un tempo
finito (Frixione e Palladino, 2004).
25. Per una definizione di “MTU” si veda ad esempio: M. Frixione e D. Palladino,
Funzioni, Macchine, Algoritmi, Carocci, Roma, 2004.
La terza mutazione metafisica / 155
dagli inizi del XIX secolo ha caratterizzato buona parte dello sviluppo
tecnologico occidentale. Risalgono infatti a quel periodo i primi studi
sull’elettricità animale e sulla funzionalità nervosa del corpo umano,
studi che sarebbero stati presi come base di partenza, sulla base di processi di astrazione analogici, per lo sviluppo di alcuni dei più famosi
dispositivi elettrici. 26 A riguardo ad esempio, John Francis 27 suggerisce
come le prime riflessioni sulla costruzione del telegrafo, avessero preso il via dagli studi, quali quelli che conduceva Galvani, sui sistemi
nervosi presenti negli animali e negli esseri umani. Samuel Morse poi,
è noto che più volte confrontò le linee telegrafiche con l’apparato nervoso, e Alessandro Volta costruì le prime versioni della sua ‘batteria’
prendendo a modello l’organo di produzione di elettricità di alcuni
pesci. Se dunque come abbiamo appena visto, il funzionamento di un
computer non è poi così distante dal tipo di ragionamento (logico) e
dal modo di funzionamento (elettrico) dei quali gli esseri umani sono
normalmente dotati, ha ancora senso la classica distinzione naturaleartificiale nell’ambito della relazione di comunicazione uomo-computer? Probabilmente, sulla sola base dell’analogia elettrico-computazionale che abbiamo descritto, tale distinzione conserverebbe la propria
validità. Questo è anche uno dei motivi, ad esempio, che hanno condotto al fallimento degli approcci appartenenti alla Strong AI: la storia
dell’Information Technology ha sconfessato le illusioni cibernetiche di
Norbert Wiener, mostrando come la simulazione di alcune tra le più
alte abilità cognitive umane, quali ad esempio il ragionamento logico
matematico, non rendesse i computer neppure sufficientemente ‘intelligenti’ per riconoscere esattamente un volto o uno stato emotivo di un
individuo, o per sostenere un normale colloquio con un essere umano,
per compiere cioè alcune tra le attività più banali che ognuno di noi
porta a termine ogni giorno. 28 Il paradigma computazionale di Wiener,
che prevedeva di trattare gli animali, gli uomini e le macchine come
sistemi cibernetici equivalenti, anche se auspicante la realizzazione di
una conoscenza artificiale che riflettesse in pieno il complesso sistema
26. A riguardo si consulti l’ottimo volume di Laura Otis, Networking, Communicating with bodies and machines in the nineteenth century, The University of Michigan Press,
Michigan, 2001.
27. J. Francis, A History of the English Railway: Its Social Relations 1820-1845, 2 vols.,
Longman, London, 1851.
28. È il cosidetto paradosso di Moravec. Si veda H. Moravec, Mind Children, Harvard
University Press, Cambridge (MA), 1988.
156 / La terza mutazione metafisica
del pensiero umano, 29 aveva portato alla realizzazione di sistemi di
calcolo estremamente potenti ma anche fastidiosamente stupidi, ovverosia privi di quell’intelligenza di ‘senso comune’, per usare un’espressione di derivazione antropologica, così ben rappresentata da Geertz, 30
che gli uomini avevano sviluppato dalla notte dei tempi. Non stupisce
dunque che la costruzione alla fine degli anni ‘80 di basi di conoscenza
che incorporassero unicamente l’analogia computazionale uomo-macchina si sia risolta in clamorosi fallimenti, 31 e abbia portato numerosi
studiosi (e imprenditori...) ad interrogarsi più a fondo sul modo di interazione tra utente e computer. Di lì a poco, con l’avvento delle GUI 32
e delle reti digitali di computer, la relazione uomo-macchina sarebbe
radicalmente cambiata, costringendo, a nostro avviso, anche a ripensare profondamente la dicotomia naturale-artificiale che a partire dalla formulazione originaria di Herbert Simon 33 aveva percorso, bene o
male indenne, tutto l’arco della seconda metà del Novecento, almeno
fino alla coniazione del concetto di ‘ibrido’ da parte della Actor Network Theory. 34 A riguardo analizziamo la definizione di ‘oggetto artificiale’ di Simon, così come presente nell’ultima revisione al suo testo
The Sciences of Artificial: 35
1. It is produced by human (or by intelligent beings) activity;
2. It imitates more or less nature, while lacking the whole characteristics of natural things;
3. It can be characterized in terms of functions, goals and adaptation;
4. It can be discussed both in terms of imperatives or as descriptives. 36
Si può notare come la caratterizzazione che abbiamo fornito della
29. N. K. Hayles, How we became posthuman: virtual bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and
Informatics, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1999.
30. C. Geertz, “Common sense as Culture”, cit.
31. A. Hatchuel and B. Weil, Experts in organizations: a knowledge-based perspective on
organizational change, Walter de Gruyter, Berlin-New York, 1995.
32. Graphical User Interface, le interfacce grafiche di interazione con l’utente che sin
dalla seconda metà degli anni ’80 cominciavano a sostituire l’ambiente esclusivamente
testuale degli elaboratori elettronici (Manovich, 2001).
33. H. A. Simon, The sciences of the artificial, (3rd ed.), MIT Press, Cambridge (MA), 1996.
34. B. Latour, We have never been modern, cit.
35. H. A. Simon, The sciences of the artificial, cit.
36. Questo criterio fa riferimento alla possibilità tipica degli oggetti naturali, sempre
secondo Simon, di poter essere identificati in soli termini descrittivi, al contrario di quelli
artificiali in cui comunque sarebbe presente una dimensione normativa.
La terza mutazione metafisica / 157
relazione uomo-computer non rispetti esattamente i quattro criteri sopra descritti. In particolare la seconda, la terza e di conseguenza anche
la quarta condizione mal si applicano agli ‘artefatti’, sempre coniati da
Simon e definiti come ‘interfacce tra l’ambiente interno di un agente e
quello esterno nel quale si trova il medesimo agente’, che costituiscono
i luoghi, eventualmente virtuali, 37 ove si manifesta una tale relazione.
Ad esempio, si pensi solamente al desktop di un normale pc: affermare che la scrivania virtuale, realizzata attraverso una GUI e connessa
tramite un browser con milioni di potenziali archivi digitali, scrivanie
virtuali, applicazioni per servizi web tra i più disparati (quali l’home
banking, la prenotazione on-line di biglietti aerei e così via), contenuti
multi-mediali e la lista potrebbe continuare a lungo, imita una scrivania
naturale, significa in realtà commettere due errori vistosi; in primo luogo poiché nessuna scrivania ‘reale’ è neppure lontanamente paragonabile alla scrivania virtuale citata nell’esempio, sia per quel che riguarda
la quantità di fruizione di informazioni, sia per la qualità, sia anche per
i tempi e i modi. I più restii potrebbero sostenere che una scrivania virtuale siffatta assomiglia più ad un intero ufficio e su questo tono altri
converrebbero di estendere ancora di più l’analogia: dunque si potrebbe facilmente affermare che una tale scrivania virtuale sarebbe analoga
ad un ufficio, collegato in qualche forma (tramite tunnel sotterranei o
prese d’areazione utilizzabili all’occorrenza per l’invio di documenti) 38
a numerose biblioteche, centri automatici di stampa, stazioni radiotelevisive on-demand ecc... Va da sé che una tale analogia è banalmente
fuorviante. In secondo luogo poiché, anche nell’ipotesi di poter effettuare l’accostamento tra il desktop di un pc e una classica scrivania di
un ufficio, quest’ultima rappresenterebbe comunque già un artefatto,
che a sua volta difficilmente potrebbe essere messo in relazione analogica con oggetti naturali, se non quanto alla composizione materica. Per
quanto riguarda invece il terzo criterio, sempre riferendosi all’esempio
37. A seconda dei casi, e comunque non è determinante ai nostri fini, i luoghi che
rendono possibile l’instaurarsi di una relazione uomo-computer possono essere dei dispositivi fisici di input quali il mouse o la tastiera, desktop virtuali, pagine web, terminali
di servizio, ecc...
38. A riguardo corre l’obbligo di rammentare i sistemi di posta pneumatica che insieme
all’invenzione dell’ascensore e successivamente del telefono, diedero grande impulso, negli
Stati Uniti d’America, allo sviluppo in altezza degli edifici a partire dalla seconda metà
del XIX secolo in poi (F.A. Randall, History of The Development of Building Construction in
Chicago, University of Illinois Press, Illinois, 1949, (2rd ed.) revised by J. D. Randall, 1990).
Tuttavia, solo per fare un esempio, sarebbe alquanto difficile ipotizzare tubi sufficientemente ampi, da permettere il passaggio di tutti i volumi dell’Enciclopedia Brittanica.
158 / La terza mutazione metafisica
del desktop di un normale pc, anche se è pur vero che in origine un
tale ambiente virtuale è progettato secondo determinate specifiche di
progetto che includono quindi obiettivi, funzioni e capacità di interazioni e adattamenti predefiniti, nel momento in cui un tale ambiente
viene a contatto con l’essere umano, ecco che si vengono a creare tutta
una serie di non funzioni, cioè funzioni non definite a priori, volte a
perseguire nuovi obiettivi attraverso interazioni non predefinite, né
predefinibili in alcun modo. Esemplificativa, a riguardo, è la relazione
che si è stabilita nella primavera del 2011 tra la popolazione giovanile
di alcuni stati del Nord Africa e del Medio Oriente e i due principali
social network presenti sul World Wide Web: 39 nessun progettista di
Twitter o Facebook avrebbe potuto mai immaginare che il loro lavoro
sarebbe stato impiegato come una vera e propria ‘arma’ contro i regimi
oppressivi da parte di una consistente fetta delle popolazioni, che erano stati sotto la dittatura di quei regimi per decenni. In questo senso si
pensi alle nuove interazioni tra questi dispositivi e le popolazioni che
hanno dato origine alla cosidetta Primavera Araba, interazioni che di
volta in volta si sono plasmate in relazione alle diverse aspettative che
gli utenti, o meglio, gli agenti, intrattenevano con quegli stessi dispositivi (computer, smart phones, tablet ecc...): da armi come già detto, a
possibili luoghi di dibattito/scontro, da servizi di intelligence paralleli
a sistemi di controllo strategico geografico e temporale, da strumento
informativo che permettesse di conoscere l’atteggiamento degli stati
esteri, a potente strumento di diffusione di notizie riservate verso paesi
terzi, e potremmo continuare ancora. La conseguenza di tutto questo è
che siffatte relazioni vengono a perdere quella sorta di obbligatorietà
normativa prevista dal quarto criterio, e possono essere descritte, come
abbiamo appena visto, in modo totalmente nuovo e cioè come ibridi di
carattere prettamente informazionale. Con ciò intendendo, un’entità naturale e artificiale allo stesso tempo, incorporante l’impossibilità da parte
degli esseri umani a dominare e purificare i risultati delle loro azioni,
tramite essa esplicate, dalla aleatorietà, insicurezza, ambiguità, arbitrarietà, emotività che normalmente le affliggono e che la modernità ha
sempre cercato di depurare in quanto componenti ‘naturali’ dell’essere
umano, ma che in ogni caso risultano comunque contaminati da qual39. Sulla cosiddetta Primavera Araba del 2011 si può consultare l’approfondito dossier
on-line a cura di Swissinfo.ch al seguente indirizzo: http://www.swissinfo.ch/ita/speciali/
La terza mutazione metafisica / 159
che forma di cultura, anche solo quella del ‘senso comune’ definita da
Geertz nel suo saggio ‘Il senso comune come sistema culturale’.
In tale ottica si può inquadrare, se pur con le dovute distanze che
appaiono comunque significative, il punto di vista che si rifà al concetto di ‘Interfaccia Culturale’ coniata da Manovich nel suo ‘Il linguaggio
dei nuovi media’. 40 In particolare tale dispositivo è definito come segue:
I will use the term “cultural interfaces” to describe human-computer-culture
interface: the ways in which computers present and allows us to interact
with cultural data. Cultural interfaces include the interfaces used by the designers of Web sites, CD-ROM and DVD titles, multimedia encyclopedias,
online museums and magazines, computer games and other new media
cultural objects. 41
E successivamente così precisato:
The language of cultural interfaces is a hybrid. It is a strange, often awkward
mix between the conventions of traditional cultural forms and the conventions of HCI — between an immersive environment and a set of controls;
between standardization and originality. 42
Concetto dunque che, pur estremamente interessante, non riesce
tuttavia a catturare appieno l’eredità dell’aspirazione al modernismo
tipico delle società occidentali contemporanee. Questo poiché la caratterizzazione della relazione insistente tra uomo e computer, cristallizzata nel concetto di Interfaccia Culturale, è chiaramente declinata
in ambito estetico e semiotico piuttosto che epistemologico e socioantropologico. E lo stesso concetto di ibrido impiegato da Manovich
poco ha a che vedere con quello da noi utilizzato, mutuato da Latour
e adattato ad un contesto più prettamente informazionale. Quello che
infatti andiamo sostenendo è che la relazione uomo-computer è già di
per sé un’enorme raccolta, organizzata e stratificata di dati culturali,
mediati da atteggiamenti psicologici, culturali ed emotivi che di volta
in volta variano da individuo a individuo, o addirittura mutano anche
per uno stesso soggetto a seconda dei tempi e dei modi di consultazione. Il punto è che quando stabiliamo una relazione con un computer,
in realtà stiamo rapportandoci con una enorme mole di sapere in parte
40. J. Manovich, The Language of New Media, MIT Press, Cambridge (MA), 2001.
41. Ibidem, pp. 80.
42. Ibidem, pp. 96.
160 / La terza mutazione metafisica
naturalizzato, un sapere che potremmo definire socio-tecnologico, 43
che dobbiamo poter gestire per accedere a quella che Manovich chiama appunto ‘cultura’, e cioè tutti i più diversi tipi di contenuti digitali presenti on e off line, ovverosia un’altra enorme mole di sapere
socio-tecnologico di origine, sviluppo e tipologia, molto spesso ignote.
E in questo sta a nostro avviso l’aspetto caratteristico dell’aspirazione
negata alla modernità: per quanti meccanismi di depurazione si possano implementare nella costruzione delle interfacce culturali deputate all’implementazione della relazione uomo-computer, tale relazione
apparirà necessariamente spuria, contaminata cioè da quei caratteri
non artificiali, quali l’ignoto, l’incertezza, la paura, l’ambiguità, la vaghezza e non ultimo la speranza, che costringeranno l’utente o meglio
l’agente a rifugiarsi in un atteggiamento epistemologicamente debole
che risulterà fondato non più sulla conoscenza, bensì sulla credenza.
Il punto di vista moderno che, nell’ambito informazionale, si fondava sulla scissione del paradigma sintattico da quello semantico, 44 si è
dimostrato una pura, questa sì, utopia. L’avvento dell’era informazionale ha sancito una volta per tutte come, in realtà, la depurazione della
semantica dai paradigmi sintattici sia un’operazione fallimentare, e in
maggiore misura proprio là dove tale depurazione appare più spinta
e facilmente ottenibile, come appunto nella relazione uomo-computer.
Il senso che tale relazione costantemente richiede all’attore umano produce dunque ibridi epistemologici di derivazione informazionale, fatti
di sensazioni e output di programmi, credenze e bit di testimonianze
indirette, e di tutta una serie di relazioni umano-digitali che danno adito a rifuggire in una dimensione trascendente che, vedremo, trova nel
sacro il suo più immediato ambito di attuazione.
2. Breve introduzione al sacro
I termini sacer e sanctus rivelano una comune radice indoeuropea,
sak, che definiva un valore di pattuizione, indicando quindi una san43. È bene precisare che stiamo usando il termine ‘socio-tecnologico’ come sinonimo,
forse più esplicativo, del termine ‘digitale’, anche se in entrambi questi lemmi viene
comunque eclissata la componente ‘naturale’ a vantaggio di quella culturale sociale e
44. Per una interessante trattazione del paradigma sintattico, quale fondamento dello
sviluppo del pensiero logico e matematico, si veda l’ottimo ‘Il computer di Platone’ di
Luigi Borzacchini (L. Borzacchini, Il computer di Platone, Edizioni Dedalo, Bari, 2005).
La terza mutazione metafisica / 161
zione in relazione a determinate offerte. 45 La cultura latina, nel corso
del suo sviluppo, ha originato due coppie di termini antagonisti, sacer/
profanus e sanctus/sine sanctione, che rendessero efficacemente gli ambiti di applicazione del lemma originario. In particolare, con Sacer i latini
intendevano tutto ciò che era collegato o dedicato agli dèi (atti, oggetti, luoghi ecc...), mentre con la parola sanctus sancivano l’ufficialità di
ogni descrizione nell’ambito dell’appartenenza al sacro. A partire dal
XIX secolo, si sviluppano poi tre tradizioni culturali che reinterpretano
l’ambito del sacro. La prima è di origine tedesca e si rifà all’area protestante, declinando il sacro non più come descrizione di un esclusivo
rapporto con un Dio, come era stato fino ad allora per le tre grandi religioni monoteiste, bensì come particolare esperienza vissuta, sempre
da un punto di vista soggettivo, al cospetto di una totalità misteriosa,
quale ad esempio la natura o l’arte. A questa tradizione è ascrivibile,
ad esempio, il rapporto tra il movimento romantico e l’ambito del sacro. La seconda tradizione invece nasce in Francia, da Rousseau in poi,
evolvendosi con il positivismo attraverso il pensiero di Saint-Simon e
Comte, e vede nel sacro l’ambito privilegiato di consistenza delle forze di integrazione e coesione sociale che presiedono alla nascita e allo
sviluppo delle società: in tal senso il sacro è ciò che spinge l’individuo
all’azione, e costituisce il fondamento del suo legame sociale. 46 Infine,
sulla base della nascente antropologia culturale, si sviluppa nell’Inghilterra vittoriana, mediata dalla tradizione francese, un’interpretazione
del sacro che ne cambierà alla fine radicalmente lo statuto ontologico:
da proprietà caratteristica di tutto ciò che è in qualche relazione con il
divino, a sostanza trascendente e fondante di ogni religione; da potenza straordinaria di un Dio che si manifesta nella natura, cioè energia
caricata di un’emanazione divina, accostarsi alla quale può risultare
fatale, come ad esempio con l’elettricità, 47 a emanazione di potere ed
eccellenza umana quale quella tipica del mana o del tapu polinesiani. 48
Infine, seguendo l’interpretazione di Durkheim (Durkheim, 1912) e
della scuola sociologica francese, sviluppata in particolare dai suoi al-
45. G. Filoramo, Che cos’è la religione, Einaudi, Torino, 2004.
46. Ibidem.
47. È Robertson Smith, pastore della Chiesa presbiteriana scozzese, che in particolare
utilizza la metafora dell’elettricità come metafora dell’energia divina che può donare la
vita o la morte a seconda che si rispettino le prescrizioni fondanti per il suo uso. In G.
Filoramo, Che cos’è la religione, op. cit, pp. 92.
48. G. Filoramo, Che cos’è la religione, cit., pp. 93.
162 / La terza mutazione metafisica
lievi Hubert e Mauss, 49 sulla base della tradizione francese ma anche
degli studi di ‘Comparative Religion’ e antropologia culturale, il sacro
viene a possedere un carattere di universalità, assolutezza e irriducibilità (Filoramo, 2004) che ne fanno un elemento di ordinamento del reale. Esso è considerato, in quanto fatto sociale, indivisibile e contagioso.
La dicotomia sacro/profano viene così a interpretare quella tra società
e individuo, e consente di depurare dal sacro quegli aspetti individualistici e utilitaristici tipici invece della tradizione tedesca. Se dunque
il sacro è un qualcosa di culturale e sociale, ne deriva che può essere
ben rappresentato da qualsivoglia oggetto/luogo che ne incorpori la
determinazione, ma è anche vero che tale determinazione si evolverà con l’evolversi della società. Su questa linea di pensiero si inserirà
successivamente l’elaborazione di Callois e del Collegio di Sociologia 50
che vedrà nel sacro, a dispetto della crisi in cui versavano gli istituti che
lo ‘amministravano’ un po’ ovunque, e cioè le chiese o confessioni, una
componente fondamentale del rinnovamento sociale, una sorta di “inconscio sociale”, se pur antitetico alla coscienza sociale di Durkheim.
In particolare come scrive giustamente Filoramo:
[...] il nucleo centrale della nozione del sacro propria del Collegio è la sua
ambiguità o ambivalenza, e cioè il suo essere insieme puro e impuro. Mentre
il suo lato “destro”, positivo, lo connette all’ordine sociale, in quanto garante
delle regole e delle interdizioni, il suo lato “sinistro”, negativo, lo lega al
sovvertimento e alla trasgressione, alla logica parossistica e orgiastica del
dispendio improduttivo. 51
Culmine di questa concezione sarà il testo ‘L’homme et le sacré’ di
Callois 52 in cui, da una parte il sacro viene visto come potenza e forza
indivisibile, onnipresente, pericolosa, efficace ecc..., e dall’altra viene
contrapposto, dialetticamente, al profano, quale dimensione di sua degradazione, che al contempo ne permetta anche la creazione, il mantenimento e il mutamento. Per chiudere questa breve introduzione al
sacro, dobbiamo anche aggiungere che già nel 1977 il sociologo David
Bell, nel British Journal of Sociology, si chiedeva se stessimo assistendo
49. H. Hubert und M. Mauss, Mélanges d’histoire des religions, Félix Alcan, Paris, 1909.
Mauss addirittura si spingerà oltre ed arriverà a definire la religione come “l’administration
du sacré” (M. Mauss, “Les fonctions sociales du sacré”, in Oeuvres, Vol. 1, Minuit, Paris,
50. D. Hollier, Le Collège de Sociologie (1937-1939), ed., Gallimard, Paris, 1979.
51. G. Filoramo, Che cos’è la religione, cit. pp. 103.
52. R. Caillois, L’homme et le sacré, Gallimard, Paris, 1963.
La terza mutazione metafisica / 163
ad un ritorno del sacro, 53 dopo il processo di secolarizzazione tipico
delle società industriali. In generale, le risposte a questa domanda
sono state positive. Chi ha sostenuto che il sacro, in quanto aspetto
fondante del sociale, non fosse mai sparito ma semplicemente si fosse
nascosto, eclissato, o trasformato, come ad esempio Ferrarotti; 54 chi invece andava affermando che il sacro si stesse addirittura rafforzando
nella sua rilevanza sociale, in quanto garante di un determinato ordine
del mondo e di valori rassicuranti e, al contempo, armonizzanti con
la natura e l’universo, valori che lo sviluppo industriale e tecnologico
stava profondamente minando. 55 In ogni caso usando le parole dell’insigne storico delle religioni Giovanni Filoramo:
L’attuale disseminazione del sacro negli interstizi più diversi della società –
in quel quotidiano che pareva essere stato completamente dissacrato dalle
moderne discipline del sospetto come la psicoanalisi, ma anche in quelle
sfere dell’agire sociale, come la politica e la scienza, che parevano essere diventate le più profane e, dunque, le più immuni dal contagio di questo virus
particolare – per un verso è certo figlia del tempo: la pervasività del sacro, la
sua capacità di metamorfosi, quel suo aspetto a prima vista parassitario che
lo porta a vivere alle spalle dei fenomeni più diversi, ricordano la cultura
del simulacro e del bricolage tipica del postmoderno. Per un altro verso, però,
se la categoria del sacro è ritornata ad essere centrale nelle Scienze delle
religioni è anche perché, in una società secolarizzata, il sacro costituisce una
delle modalità possibili per dare ordine e coerenza ai significati socialmente
condivisi: individui e comunità, infatti, che non si ritrovano più a condividere valori comuni, per dare senso alla loro esistenza, conferiscono a oggetti
e simboli un valore assoluto, consacrandoli e, con ciò stesso, separandoli e
assolutizzandoli. 56
Per quanto finora detto possiamo a grandi linee individuare due
tendenze di fondo nell’esplicazione del sacro: la prima si rifà ad una
visione individualista, in cui il sacro è declinato come rapporto del
soggetto con fenomeni apparentemente inspiegabili, non gestibili e per
certi versi incomprensibili, ma che in ogni caso instillano nel soggetto
un senso di meraviglia, stupore, paura e insicurezza che si risolve in
un anelito intellettuale ed emotivo verso una dimensione trascendente che possa fungere da conforto, che possa rassicurare e confermare
l’individuo nella bontà o conformità del proprio atteggiamento nei
confronti della propria esperienza. Dall’altro il sacro è considerato un
mero fatto sociale: da collante e motivo ordinatore della comunità, a
53. D. Bell, “The Return of the Sacred?”, British Journal of Sociology, 28, pp. 419-449.
54. F. Ferrarotti, Il paradosso del sacro, Laterza, Roma-Bari, 1983.
55. J. Ellul, Les nouveaux possédés, Fayard, Paris, 1973.
56. G. Filoramo, Che cos’è la religione, cit., pp. 110.
164 / La terza mutazione metafisica
fondamento di uno dei fenomeni sociali per eccellenza: la religione. In
ciò risiede per certi versi il fondamento della morale e di buona parte
delle regole sociali che disciplinano la collettività: il sacro, in questo
caso, garantisce l’esistenza della società radicando le norme fondamentali comunitarie in una relazione di esclusività con il trascendente.
In entrambe le accezioni considerate si vengono poi a creare determinati comportamenti formalizzati attraverso una precisa codifica simbolica ed esclusiva, denominati riti, che garantiscono l’accesso al sacro
per i più disparati motivi: commemorazione, investitura, prevenzione
da accadimenti negativi, evocazione ecc... Non indagheremo oltre il
concetto di rito, che di per sé richiederebbe una trattazione a parte. Ai
nostri fini sarà sufficiente identificarlo quale processo caratteristico di
instanziazione, consumazione e riproduzione del rapporto tra individuo/società e sacro.
3. Il processo di comunicazione uomo-computer da un punto di vista culturale
Come giustamente suggerisce Carey in ‘Communication as Culture’, 57 sulla base dei suoi studi su Dewey, un processo di comunicazione
sorge per rispondere a bisogni che possono appartenere, a seconda dei
casi, ad una visione rituale o trasmissiva dell’utilizzo di informazioni,
intendendo così esplicitare i due modi principali per i quali gli essere
umani sono portati a condividere messaggi, frammenti di esperienza,
sensazioni, istruzioni ecc... La prima attiene alla sfera della formazione
sociale e religiosa delle comunità e giustifica, sempre secondo Carey,
la radice comune di termini quali ‘comunicazione’, ‘comunità’, ‘comunione’ ecc...; la seconda invece riguarda la funzione di trasmettere
messaggi nello spazio esclusivamente a fini di controllo e regolazione
di individui, gruppi di persone, società nel loro complesso, o per dirla
con le parole dello stesso Carey:
If the archetypal case of communication under trasmission view is the extension of messages across geography for the purpose of control, the archetypal al case under ritual view is the sacred ceremony that draws persons
together in fellowship and commonality. 58
57. J. W. Carey, “A Cultural Approach to Communication”, cit.
58. Ibidem, pp. 15.
La terza mutazione metafisica / 165
In modo epistemologicamente più corretto, possiamo anche dire che
la Ritual View attiene al dominio della conoscenza sociale, ovverosia
prevede che i processi comunicativi avvengano,
[...] not in the trasmission of intelligent information but in the construction
and maintenance of an ordered, meaningful cultural world that can serve as
a control and container for human action. 59
Al contrario la Trasmission View, sempre secondo Carey, attiene alla
pura trasmissione di informazioni e pertanto ricade nello statuto classico del paradigma comunicazionale dove, solitamente, un mittente invia una stringa di simboli opportunamente codificata, attraverso una
canale di trasmissione, ad un destinatario che poi opportunatamente
la interpreta, cioè la decodifica in modo da conoscere il contenuto del
messaggio originale. Questa seconda chiave ermeneutica si rifà ovviamente agli studi di Teoria della Comunicazione di Shannon e Weaver, 60
e costituisce di fatto la modalità più immediata alla quale attinge non
solo il senso comune, ma anche qualunque disciplina scientifica che si
occupi di Comunicazione propriamente detta. La distinzione descritta
da Carey e da lui utilizzata principalmente nello studio storico dello
sviluppo del telegrafo negli Stati Uniti d’America, si rivela ai nostri
fini estremamente utile nel momento in cui andiamo a declinarla nei
confronti della relazione uomo-macchina, relazione che come abbiamo già detto, ed è bene ribadire, è fondamentalmente una relazione di
comunicazione. 61 A tal fine si riportano nella Tabella 1 (Tab. 1) le caratteristiche salienti dei due differenti approcci, da noi estrapolati sulla
base dell’analisi di Carey nel suo magistrale ‘A Cultural Approach to
Communication’, opportunamente sistematizzate e rielaborate al fine
di delineare uno schema teorico da poter successivamente utilizzare
in modo comparativo nei confronti della relazione uomo-computer. È
opportuno però precisare, come del resto fa anche Carey, che un processo di comunicazione potrà essere esaminato secondo i due differenti approcci, in modo tale da ricavarne sempre elementi di analisi utili
ad una sua valutazione complessiva. In altre parole, in un qualunque
59. Ibidem, pp. 15.
60. C. E. Shannon and W. Weaver, The Mathematical Theory of Communication, Urbana:
University of Illinois Press, 1949. Foreword by Richard E. Blahut and Bruce Hajek; reprinted in 1998.
61. D. Müller et al., “Communication without sender or receiver? On virtualisation
in the information process.”, Poiesis Prax, 5, 2008, pp. 185-192.
166 / La terza mutazione metafisica
processo siffatto coesisteranno molto spesso caratteristiche evidenziabili da entrambi gli approcci, anche se probabilmente, uno dei due, di
volta in volta, avrà un maggiore potere esplicativo rispetto all’altro.
Inoltre è bene subito dire che se pur originariamente concepita secondo un’ottica di TW, la HCR si è evoluta con l’evoluzione dei dispositivi hardware e software che servivano a implementarla. Ma si è evoluta anche, e non poco, con l’evoluzione 62 dell’atteggiamento culturale
delle società occidentali, spesso acquisendo caratteristiche che, come
vedremo, meglio si possono spiegare tramite un approccio RW. Tutto
ciò premesso, possiamo rivolgerci immediatamente all’analisi della relazione uomo-computer. 63
Le prime HCR, fondate sulle interfacce testuali, restituivano una
rappresentazione della realtà molto poco descrittiva e in gran parte
normativa. Tramite i computer si potevano descrivere alcuni processi
che erano rigidamente configurati per consentire limitate rappresentazioni, vietando tutte le altre. La realtà filtrata da un elaboratore digitale era semplicemente una sequenza di stringhe, espresse in formati
predefiniti, che vincolavano l’essere umano entro i rigidi confini delle
etichette. Agli albori dell’informatica, tutto o quasi era etichetta.
Con l’introduzione degli ambienti grafici, la possibilità descrittiva
della HRC si è ampliata enormemente, e nello stesso istante molti vincoli normativi sono caduti. Ma solamente con lo sviluppo di Internet
si è avuta una rappresentabilità, virtualmente senza limiti, della HRC:
pagine web, email, video, immagini, testo scritto, linkati insieme hanno dato origine ad una molteplicità rappresentazionale che addirittura
ha superato i vincoli di ciascuna modalità, creando descrizioni della
realtà molto più veridiche di qualunque altro dispositivo l’uomo avesse mai implementato. Si pensi solamente alla HCR fornita da Google
Map: l’agente ha la possibilità di interagire dentro una mappa tridimensionale fotografica sfruttando punti di osservazione che difficilmente potrebbe sperimentare nella pratica. Il potere rappresentativo
di una simile HRC consolida il paradigma della Ritual View: l’interazione uomo-computer diventa funzionale al consolidamento di una
visione del mondo che serva da contenitore alla possibilità di esplora62. Il termine evoluzione è usato come sinonimo di ‘cambiamento’, e dunque senza
alcun riferimento a valutazioni di carattere morale o sociale.
63. D’ora innanzi, per brevità di esposizione, indicheremo con l’acronimo inglese in
maiuscolo HCR la relazione uomo-computer e con le sigle sempre in inglese RW e TW,
gli approcci rispettivamente di Ritual View e Trasmission View.
La terza mutazione metafisica / 167
Tab. 1: Ritual View and Trasmission View in a communication process.
Dimensioni di Analisi
del Processo
di Comunicazione
Tipo di Rappresentazione
della Realtà
Dimensione Spaziale
Dimensione Temporale
Obiettivo del Processo
di Comunicazione
Ritual View
Transmission View
Tendezialmente Chiusa,
Locale ad un determinato
Mantenimento di una
comunità nel tempo
Aperta. Multi e Transsistemica. Globale.
Trasmissione di messaggi ai
fini di regolazione
e controllo
Atteggiamento Culturale
Religioso, Sacro
Antropologico: scambio di
conoscenza (Esplorazioni,
Espansioni, ecc...), Profano
Modalità di Interazione
Narrazione, Dramma, Rito
Message Oriented/
Computazionale (Macchina
Universale di Turing)
Output del Processo di
Confirmation (Rappresen(Rappresentazione
tazione di un determinato
di messaggi)
ordinamento sociale)
Tipo di partecipazione al
Valutativo, Selettivo
Processo di Comunicazione
in un Ruolo Sociale
Ambito Epistemologico
zione umana. In tal senso vanno anche i dispositivi GPS, i rendering
architettonici con i quali l’agente entra in contatto non appena si porta su un sito dedicato, o per cambiare ambito, i portali di news, dove
viene messa in atto un paradigma rappresentativo tendente alla più
ampia descrizione possibile, multi-contestuale, multi-mediale e multimodale della realtà. In questo senso la descrizione della realtà fornita
da una HCR mira alla rappresentazione di un determinato ordine del
mondo: ciascuna singola interfaccia deputata all’implementazione di
una HCR crea un preordinato sistema in cui l’agente possa operare, in
base alle preferenze dello stesso, e al suo modo di agire. La chiave di
questi sistemi di interazione è da ricercare in alcuni concetti base incorporati nella HRC, che permettono la creazione di rappresentazioni
conformi ad una certa visione ridotta e contestuale del sistema sociale
di riferimento. Per usare le parole di Durkheim, che l’autore riferiva
alla società nel suo complesso, ma che nel nostro caso ben si adattano
alle HCR:
168 / La terza mutazione metafisica
[...] society substitutes for the world revealed to our senses a different world
that is a projection of the ideals created by the community. 64
Tali concetti sono quelli di personalizzazione, semplicità, contestualità,
coinvolgimento e memoria. Grazie all’implementazione sotto varie forme
di queste caratteristiche, l’agente si ritrova, tramite le HCR, in un sistema liberamente preordinato, che delega al medesimo agente un predefinito ruolo all’interno di un ordine socio-digitale, che si modifica
di volta in volta, in base allo storico delle proprie interazioni. Quando,
ad esempio, interagiamo con un portale di acquisti on-line, il sistema
di riferimento è il supermercato, e il ruolo dell’agente è esclusivamente quello del consumatore. La HCR consente, e non a caso, di ricordare i propri acquisti, in virtù unicamente di essere utenti loggati e
non anonimi. L’individuo quindi che si identifica, ritrova il patrimonio
delle proprie informazioni, preordinate e pronte ad essere riutilizzate
al meglio. La dimensione temporale del rito diviene evidente: l’identità digitale del singolo acquirente è conservata con il duplice scopo
di fidelizzarlo e di consentirgli un riconoscimento basato sui ricordi
personali. D’altra parte quando acquistiamo un libro su Amazon, l’interfaccia ci mette in condizione di poter acquistare altri libri attinenti,
in base alle preferenze espresse da agenti che hanno compiuto lo stesso acquisto, a significare la nostra appartenenza ad un determinato
gruppo di persone con analoghi gusti o necessità in merito di lettura.
Di notevole interesse poi, sono gli store multi-mediali quali Itunes di
Apple Inc. In questo caso l’HCR, davvero spartana, permette all’utente,
con un semplice click del mouse o del touchpad, di acquistare qualunque contenuto disponibile sul portale, senza preoccuparsi di account,
modi di pagamento, condizioni e modalità di consegna, reperimento
del prodotto ecc... La contropartita è che l’agente si trova in un sistema
chiuso: la musica scaricata da Itunes, protetta con il sistema FairPlay, è
riproducibile solamente su lettori Apple, e cioè computer, cellulari o
dispositivi mobile sempre di marchio Apple, ma non può essere utilizzata altrove. 65 Il rituale della scelta in questo caso viene compiuto in una
comunità ben definita, chiusa all’esterno, che in ogni istante conferma
l’agente nella sua appartenenza.
64. E. Durkheim, Sociology and Philosophy, Free Press, New York, 1953, pp. 95.
65. In realtà la musica scaricata da Itunes, può essere riprodotta sotto opportune
condizioni, e dopo numerose cause per anti-trust alla Apple, anche su altri dispositivi, se
pure con determinate limitazioni. Quello che a noi preme sottolineare, è che il sistema in
origine, era stato concepito con la finalità che abbiamo descritto.
La terza mutazione metafisica / 169
Di particolare interesse risulta anche esaminare la modalità d’interazione di una HCR. A riguardo si è passati da sistemi di interazione
con gli elaboratori esclusivamente Message Oriented/Computazionali, sintetizzati nell’interfaccia a riga di comando, la famosa Human
Computer Interface o HCI testuale, che ha dominato la scena informatica fino alla metà circa degli anni ‘80, o addirittura fino ai primi anni
‘90 in particolari ambiti lavorativi quali quelli delle banche, a sistemi
misti, Narrativi e Message Oriented/Computazionali, che incorporavano nella HCR delle GUI articolate con cui l’essere umano potesse
familiarizzare, senza avere timore di sbagliare comando o di non riuscire a impartirne neppure uno. Sono questi i dispositivi caratterizzati
da sistemi operativi grafici, come ad esempio il MAC OS di Apple, o
Windows di Microsoft nei quali, pur risultando disponibile un discreto
livello narrativo, è comunque ancora ben presente un aspetto Message
Oriented/Computazionale che spesso costringe la relazione HCR entro
i rigidi termini delle istruzioni a riga di comando. 66 È solamente con la
seconda metà degli anni ’90, che vede la crescita esponenziale di Internet e del World Wide Web in particolare, che la relazione HCR diventa non solo quasi esclusivamente narrativa, 67 ma ne travalica i limiti,
spesso sconfinando in una modalità tipicamente drammaturgica che
rivela sorprendenti analogie con veri e propri riti, cioè atti consumati
nell’ambito del sacro. Per fare un esempio si consideri la modalità di
accesso al principale social network oggi esistente: Facebook. Ebbene
l’utente, non appena riesce a loggarsi, processo questo che in ogni caso
può essere automatizzato in varie forme, leggi reso implicito, si trova
ad operare in una pagine web multi-mediale dove sono in atto nello
stesso istante numerose rappresentazioni, cioè drammaturgie e narrazioni, ad opera dei soggetti ‘amici’ dell’utente che si è appena loggato.
Alcuni commenteranno qualche notizia che li ha particolarmente colpiti, enfatizzando il loro punto di vista e tendendo sempre a rafforzare
la loro ‘originale’ interpretazione della realtà, altri racconteranno, sem66. Cosa questa più vera per i sistemi Windows che per quelli Mac, anche se, per
numerose operazioni di configurazione e acquisizione delle informazioni, anche sui
primi Mac, era necessario interagire in modalità a riga di comando (e lo è per certe cose,
necessario tutt’oggi).
67. Con ciò intendiamo dire che ovviamente, in una qualunque HCR, sarà sempre
presente in una certa misura, una modalità di interazione tipica dell’approccio TW, cioè
Message Oriented, ma che tale modalità, negli odierni sistemi digitali è trascurabile se
non per compiti o agenti altamente competenti e specializzati, quali gli amminastratori
di sistema, i programmatori o gli hackers.
170 / La terza mutazione metafisica
pre in modo multi-mediale, il proprio vissuto cercando di instillare
o comunque causando implicitamente commozione, commiserazione,
curiosità, fastidio, gelosia, apprezzamento ecc... in tutti coloro che vedranno o ascolteranno il loro racconto; altri ancora rilasceranno notizie
più o meno originali assurgendo al ruolo di vere e proprie agenzia di
stampa, cercando però sempre al contempo feedback al proprio lavoro
non remunerato; molti cercheranno di coinvolgere più utenti possibili
in iniziative e progetti più o meno orientati al business nei quali sono
impegnati al momento, e potremmo continuare a lungo. In tutto questo, il nostro utente iniziale che si è appena loggato, comincia ad interagire con un’interfaccia virtuale, costituita dal dispositivo fisico con cui
si è connesso ad Internet e dalla pagina web del Social Network, che
lo catapulta in una modalità di relazione tipicamente narrativa, dove
il classico paradigma Message Oriented/Computazionale non serve
più a molto: quello che invece è fondamentale è la capacità da parte
dell’utente di essere al contempo spettatore e attore dello spettacolo
in atto. Ecco dunque che egli può improvvisarsi Amleto e dichiarare che c’è del marcio in Danimarca, oppure può confessare le proprie
emozioni ad un pubblico di altri utenti attraverso la pubblicazione di
video, audio e testo scritto che tutto insieme fornisca una rappresentazione adeguata del proprio status psico-emotivo. Il punto è che in realtà l’agente sta in ogni caso interagendo con una macchina, un Server
Web, in questo caso, che a parte sessioni di chat-on line, non garantisce
in alcun modo che la pagina web sia consultata in tempo reale 68, né
che i suoi contenuti sia visionati o saranno visionati in futuro. Quello
che però spinge il nostro agente ad interagire come se in realtà queste due cose accadessero è una sorta di fiducia, accompagnata da una
buona dose di speranza, che in realtà quella pagina web sia una vero
e proprio luogo/momento reale di condivisione emotiva e di scambio
di informazioni, anzi in molti casi accade che il nostro agente riconoscerà quella pagina web come uno dei pochi (se non il solo) luoghi/
momenti in cui poter provare una simile esperienza. Tutto questo ri68. Facebook, se opportunamente configurato, può dare solo indicazione se la connessione di un utente è attiva, ma questo ovviamente non garantisce in alcun modo che
l’utente stesso stia visionando i contenuti on-time: a causa del multitasking che ormai quasi
tutte le piattaforme permettono, un utente potrebbe aver lasciato aperta la connessione
e tuttavia essere impegnato in altre attività o addirittura non essere neppure più davanti
al terminale di collegamento. La cosa è applicabile anche ai dispositivi di tipo mobile, in
cui in ogni caso un utente potrebbe lasciare una connessione aperta senza accorgesene o
comunque mentre non sta affatto consultando il proprio dispositivo.
La terza mutazione metafisica / 171
suona potentemente con il concetto di Simulacro, così come teorizzato
da Baudrillard, 69 con la radicale differenza, a nostro avviso, che ciò che
l’agente sta sperimentando non è pura finzione, né tantomeno illusione racchiusa in un oggetto, bensì un’esperienza ibrida, fatta di credenze
e conoscenze, di emozioni e stringhe di dati, in cui consuma un vero e
proprio rito di investitura, consolidamento e rinnovamento del proprio
ruolo sociale all’interno della comunità reale di riferimento. In tale accezione, la HCR diventa un dispositivo privilegiato di accesso ad una
dimensione del sacro in ottica sociale (cfr. §2), che tuttavia non esaurisce tale ambito. Per capirlo è sufficiente esaminare l’accesso ad un
motore di ricerca sul Web. Il punto di vista qui è radicalmente opposto
e la dimensione narrativa/drammaturgica sembra davvero non riscontrabile, in quanto l’utente si limita a digitare una stringa di testo in una
casella predefinita a tale scopo, inviando successivamente la richiesta
al Server Web che gestisce il motore. Ma non è così. Un primo indizio
su quello che stiamo affermando si può riscontrare dalla presenza del
bottone ‘I’m feeling lucky’, sul portale del motore Google. Tale bottone,
premuto dopo aver indicato una chiave testuale nell’apposito campo,
produce un unico risultato che dovrebbe essere attinente con quanto
andavamo cercando e che corrisponde al primo risultato selezionato
dal motore in una normale ricerca. Il punto è che utilizzando tale bottone, Google non visualizza nessuna alternativa e rimanda direttamente al primo sito trovato. L’utente che utilizza il bottone ha un duplice
vantaggio: in primo luogo non è costretto a sfogliare centinaia di migliaia di potenziali risultati e in secondo luogo, non ricevendo alcuna
pagina di selezione, non viene bersagliato da pubblicità contestuale
che potrebbe essere fonte di distrazione. Ma tale bottone è scarsamente
utilizzato: meno dell’1% delle ricerche, che in ogni caso si stima facciano perdere all’azienda oltre 100 milioni di dollari l’anno di mancati
introiti pubblicitari. Meno dell’1% delle ricerche significa comunque
qualche miliardo di ricerche l’anno, che vengono condotte con la ‘speranza’ che il motore, sulla base di una chiave testuale indicata, estragga
il risultato giusto al primo tentativo, magari con un po’ di fortuna. Speranza o fortuna che del resto è alla base della giustificazione addotta
dai vertici dell’azienda, in un’intervista a marketplace. Per dirla con le
parole di Marisa Meyer, vicepresidente allo sviluppo nuovi prodotti:
69. J. Baudrillard Le Système des Objets, Gallimard, Paris, 1968.
172 / La terza mutazione metafisica
[...] Mayer: You know Larry and Sergey had the view, and I certainly share
it, that it’s possible just to become too dry, too corporate, too much about
making money. And you know what I think is really delightful about Google and about the “I’m Feeling Lucky,” is that they remind you that the
people here have personality and that they have interests and that there is
real people. 70
Google è quindi disposto a tollerare una perdita simile per ricordare
ai propri utenti che stanno interagendo con un dispositivo fatto dagli
uomini e per gli uomini. A riprova viene utilizzato il fattore fortuna:
insomma l’idea è quella di far passare il messaggio che al primo colpo,
se si è fortunati – e gli esseri umani a volte lo sono – potremmo davvero trovare il risultato giusto. La cosa a nostro avviso imbarazzante
è che in ogni caso miliardi di ricerche ogni anno sono condotte con
una simile irrazionale speranza dietro cui non può che nascondersi
un atteggiamento fideistico che ripone un’incondizionata fiducia nelle
capacità del motore di ricerca, indipendentemente dal contesto in cui
si potrebbe operare. Un tale approccio comunque caratterizza anche
le normali ricerche effettuate su qualunque altro motore. È questo il
secondo indizio per affermare che anche dietro a quella che può sembrare una normale interazione Message Oriented/Computazionale, si
nasconde in realtà una modalità rituale che sconfina nell’ambito del
sacro. A riguardo si pensi che per una singola chiave digitata, i risultati che normalmente escono fuori assommano a diverse decine di
migliaia se non milioni. Dinanzi ad una simile quantità di potenziali
sorgenti da consultare, cioè dinanzi ad una moltitudine informazionale che spesso si rivela di origine, contenuto e modalità ignote, la HCR
dovrebbe capitolare: la vita umana sarebbe troppo breve anche solo
per esaurire i risultati di una sola ricerca. Per sfuggire a questo apparente paradosso, ecco che da una parte la HCR mette a disposizione
alcuni utili strumenti, quali ad esempio il famoso PageRank di Google
o algoritmi analoghi per gli altri motori di ricerca, che tentano di restringere i risultati, o meglio visualizzano prima i risultati considerati
più affidabili, 71 e dall’altra l’agente si trova a dover operare, in modo
70. http://marketplace.publicradio.org/display/web/2007/11/19/face_of_google/.
71. Sarebbe da valutare, cosa che sarà svolta in altra sede e costituirà una degli sviluppi futuri al lavoro, anche il concetto di ‘rilevanza’ così come estrapolato dai motori di
ricerca sulla base degli algoritmi di selezione che ne costituiscono la base operazionale. In
questa sede ci basti sapere che tali algoritmi si fondano, sempre e comunque, su indicatori
epistemologicamente deboli, cioè il cui ambito epistemologico ricade nel dominio della
credenza o della testimonianza (si veda: N. Vassallo, Per sentito dire, Feltrinelli, Milano,
La terza mutazione metafisica / 173
continuativo, una scelta sulla base della propria cultura e della propria condizione psico-emotiva. Scelta che da un punto di vista meramente probabilistico sconfina nell’estrazione casuale equiprobabile ma
che tuttavia viene compiuta, spesso inconsciamente, come se fosse il
risultato certo di una valutazione razionale. Già solo questo sarebbe
sufficiente a identificare, nell’atteggiamento dell’agente, una forte componente appartenente all’ambito del sacro. Potremmo infatti affermare
che l’agente, di fronte alla sconfinata potenzialità informativa del web,
che lo mina nel profondo delle proprie certezze e lo lascia stordito ed
estasiato, se non addirittura intimorito, reagisce con una sorta di investitura mistica nella HCR: l’unione ibrida della cultura dell’agente,
del suo stato psico-emotivo e dei dispositivi software utilizzati per la
selezione, creano di fatto un atteggiamento di pseudo-razionalità, con
cui l’agente riesce a finalizzare la ricerca. Tale atteggiamento, davanti
ad una totalità stupefacente e apparentemente non gestibile, è perlappunto?? una delle due modalità di manifestazioni del sacro che abbiamo indicato nel paragrafo precedente (cfr. §2) e costringe l’agente a
rifugiarsi nel dominio epistemologicamente più debole della credenza,
anziché in quello della conoscenza.
In definitiva la HCR, se pure fenomenicamente ancora Message
Oriented/Computational, diventa luogo/momento di esplicitazione di
un rito che contempla numerose e differenti narrazioni/drammaturgie, instaurantisi indipendentemente dalla volontà dell’agente e dalla
logica di programmazione degli algoritmi di selezione. La rilevanza
di un certo risultato diventa così vera e propria epifania o meglio ierofania, che investe non solamente lo spazio della ricerca ma anche
l’agire dell’essere umano, che si trova così coinvolto in una dimensione
informazionale dove l’atto dell’interpretazione diventa compito fondativo per la costruzione di una propria ontologia epistemica in continua
4. La terza mutazione metafisica: l’era informazionale
Secondo Castells l’avvento dell’era informazionale ha ridefinito le
basi materiali dell’intera società. Come l’insigne sociologo precisa:
2011). D’altra parte non sottolineremo oltre che i risultati di un motore di ricerca spesso –
sarebbe curioso investigare la porta? di questo avverbio – riescono a soddisfare le richieste.
174 / La terza mutazione metafisica
Verso la fine del II millennio dell’era cristiana numerosi eventi di portata
storica trasformarono il panorama sociale della vita umana. Una rivoluzione
tecnologica, incentrata sulle tecnologie dell’informazione, cominciò a ridefinire, a rapidi passi, la base materiale della società. Le economie di tutto il
mondo diventarono globalmente interdipendenti, introducendo un nuovo
tipo di relazione tra economia, stato e società, in un sistema a geometria
variabile. 72
E ancora:
[...] In un mondo di flussi globali di ricchezza, di potere e di immagini, la
ricerca dell’identità, collettiva o individuale, conferita o costruita, diviene la
fonte essenziale di senso sociale. 73
[...] Disorientati dalle dimensioni e dalla portata del mutamento storico, la
cultura e il pensiero del nostro tempo spesso abbracciano un nuovo millenarismo. Profeti della tecnologia esaltano la nuova era, applicando impropriamente a tendenza e organizzazioni sociali la logica a malapena compresa di
computer e DNA. La teoria e la cultura postemoderne si lasciano andare a
celebrazioni della fine della storia e, in parte, della fine della ragione, considerando persa la nostra capacità di comprendere e trovare un senso, persino
nell’assurdità. L’assunto implicito è l’accettazione della completa individualizzazione del comportamento e dell’impotenza della società di fronte al
proprio destino. 74
Fulcro di questo radicale cambiamento sono stati, e sono tutt’ora,
il computer e lo sviluppo delle reti digitali, in particolar modo di Internet. La relazione uomo-computer diventa così il luogo/momento
per eccellenza dove si manifesta l’interazione tra individuo e società:
il computer in tale accezione assurge a termine medio di raffronto tra
il singolo e la comunità, e incorpora caratteristiche volte alla realizzazione del processo di comunicazione tra di esse. Questa triade uomo,
computer e società è alla base della rivoluzione informazionale e ridefinisce il senso di numerosi dispositivi ermeutici di carattere psicologico e sociale. L’interazione tra uomo-macchina e società è ciò che in
realta sta cambiando il volto della civiltà umana, e non la macchina
‘computer’ di per sé, o l’utilizzo che ne viene fatto dagli individui o
dalle diverse strutture organizzate socialmente. Lo studio dello sviluppo dell’era informazionale è insomma il luogo privilegiato di analisi di
una mutua costruzione della società e della tecnologia, ovverosia della
72. M. Castells, The Rise of the Network Society, cit., pp. 1.
73. Ibidem, pp. 3.
74. Ibidem, cit., pp. 4.
La terza mutazione metafisica / 175
co-costruzione 75 delle dinamiche instaurantisi tra agenti/utilizzatori
di una determinata tecnologia e la tecnologia medesima. La società in
rete, o informazionale che dir si voglia, 76 ha portato alla ribalta quella
‘cosa’ che già Wiener agli inizi degli anni ’50 aveva distinto dai due
stati ordinari dell’esistente, materia ed energia, 77 e cioè l’informazione.
Sostanza sfuggente, bisognosa di potenti strumenti interpretativi, ma
anche mera quantità matematica tendente a rappresentare il disordine
di un sistema (in modo analogo all’entropia). L’informazione permea
ogni interstizio della società, ma soprattutto si sposta velocemente e
genera enormi flussi di dati che ogni giorno, spesso in modo nascosto,
bombardano i nostri sensi e il nostro cervello. Se Cartesio nel Seicento
era arrivato al ‘Cogito ergo sum’, oggi potremmo ben dire di essere alla
soglia del ‘Sono informato dunque sono’. La portata di questo fenomeno è enorme ed è sotto gli occhi di tutti: non importa elencare i singoli
ambiti applicativi delle tecnologie dell’informazione. La nostra vita si
sta trasformando in un continuo processo di selezione di informazioni,
con l’unico criterio che abbiamo a disposizione: la razionalità o logica
che dir si voglia. Questo però non è stato sufficiente a produrre quegli
effetti benefici che già McLuhan si augurava negli anni ’60:
The computer, in short, promises by technology a Pentecostal condition of
universal understanding and unity: 78
E non lo è stato, a nostro avviso, proprio perché si è cercato nella relazione con una macchina ormai divenuta indispensabile quel riscatto
alla limitatezza umana che quella stessa macchina ci sbatteva in faccia
quasi ogni minuto della nostra esistenza. Limitatezza che ha portato,
sempre secondo noi, l’interazione uomo-computer a sconfinare, secondo certe caratteritiche che abbiamo evidenziato nel paragrafo precedente, nell’ambito del sacro. In altre parole, proprio perché il computer
non è stato capace di garantire quella pentecostale condizione di com75. N. Oudshoorn and T. Pinch, How Users Matter, eds., MIT Press, Cambridge (MA),
76. Sebbene noi preferiamo usare il termine ‘informazionale’, in accordo con Castells
(M. Castells, The Rise of the Network Society, cit.) è chiaro che l’avvento dell’era informazionale di fatto corrisponde alla nascita della società in rete. Tuttavia, a nostro avviso, esempi
di società in rete, se pure con caratteristiche assai diverse, si sono avuti numerose volte nel
corso della storia: basta solo interdersi su quali dispositivi sociali concentrare l’attenzione
al fine di rilevare le caratteristiche tipiche di una rete.
77. N. Wiener, “Cybernetics in History” in The human use of human beings: Cybernetics
and society, Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 1954.
78. Citato da J.W. Carey and J. J. Quirk, “ The Mythos of the Electronic Revolution”, cit.
176 / La terza mutazione metafisica
prensione e unità universali, l’individuo si è rifugiato in un atteggiamento mistico a difesa della propria limitatezza e soprattutto a difesa
della limitatezza della produzione di certezze nella sua relazione con
il computer. I paradigmi dell’Intelligenza Artificiale, non solo hanno
sconfessato la presunta intelligenza degli elaboratori ma, purtroppo,
hanno evidenziato anche che, quella che noi consideriamo spesso intelligenza, e cioè una logica capacità di calcolo e previsione, è in realtà
una componente marginale del pensiero, o comunque una componente che non è sufficiente a sviluppare una facoltà di pensiero intelligente
e questa, a tutt’oggi, è la sola cosa che i computer sanno fare!
Il desiderio della modernità di riuscire a costruire una società tecnologicamente ‘pulita’ o ‘pura’ e totalmente funzionale all’essere umano
è miseramente naufragato: la relazione uomo-computer, come abbiamo visto, non solamente non garantisce quella ‘conoscenza’ e ‘capacità’
per cui è stata progettata, ma addirittura ci obbliga a confrontarci con
dispositivi concettuali, tipicamente umani quali il bottone ‘I’m feeling
lucky’ del motore Google, dove la componente casuale domina incontrastata. L’età moderna, e in questo siamo decisamente d’accordo con
Latour, non c’è mai stata proprio perché vagheggiava una condizione
di riscatto dalla natura e quindi dall’uomo, che affidava allo sviluppo
tecnologico, il quale tuttavia ha mostrato chiaramente quanto invece
di quella natura umana da purificare ad ogni costo ci sia ancora nelle
interfacce culturali digitali, e quanto questa componente influisca sulle
scelte che siamo costretti a fare ogni giorno.
L’ibrido epistemologico di natura informazionale è lì a testimoniarlo:
quella sorta di mixité tra esperienza ed emozioni umane e capacità di
calcolo e memoria digitale restituisce un paradigma epistemologico
basato non sulla conoscenza, bensì su credenze più o meno suffragate
da testimonianze digitali indirette, da sensazioni del momento, da elaborazioni computazionali anch’esse digitali e dalla propria capacità di
validazione. Per usare le parole di Nicla Vassallo:
Se apparteniamo all’e-generation, come mostra un recente studio dell’University College London, guardiamo le pagine web senza leggerle, manchiamo di analisi critica, pecchiamo di conservatorismo nell’affidarci ai motori
di ricerca più commerciali, disponiamo di abilità tecnologiche di facciata.
Del resto, l’essere “always on” induce, oltre una certa qual ignoranza, incapacità a concentrarsi a lungo, cali d’attenzione, dipendenza di vario genere,
vuoti di memoria: ostacoli cognitivi non indifferenti a ricevere e offrire testimonianze nel mondo virtuale e in quello reale 79.
79. N. Vassallo, Per sentito dire, cit., pp. 113.
La terza mutazione metafisica / 177
Tutto questo anche perché la relazione uomo-computer, da un punto di vista informazionale, ha radicalmente cambiato alcune categorie
semantiche sia a livello individuale che sociale nei processi di comunicazione. Ad esempio, non solo la comunicazione si è scissa dal trasporto, cosa del resto che già Carey 80 aveva sottolineato riguardo alla tecnologia del telegrafo, ma anche dall’identità dei soggetti coinvolti nel
processo comunicativo. E se per certi versi anche il telefono andava in
questa direzione, tuttavia oggi l’anonimato dell’identità riguarda anche le macchine: in Internet comunichiamo spesso con dei Server Web
in modo analogo a come facciamo con le persone. Inoltre, la comunicazione si è decisamente resa indipendente anche dal luogo: attraverso
i dispositivi mobile, ciascuno può comunicare senza badare a dove si
trovi, purché abbia una copertura del segnale. Anche sul tempo del
resto, come sottolinea Castells 81, l’avvento dell’era informazionale ha
inciso profondamente. In particolare nell’interfaccia uomo-computer
la dimensione temporale perde di significato: il flusso informativo garantisce un eterno presente, in cui l’individuo spesso basa la propria
scansione temporale non sul trascorrere dei minuti o delle ore bensì
sulle differenze informazionali con cui ha a che fare. Il multi-tasking
implementato su differenti piattaforme, moltiplica la percezione temporale dell’agente che sperimenta così la sensazione di una dilatazione
temporale che di fatto impedisce la storicizzazione delle interazioni, se
non per fini predeterminati dalle stesse macchine, quali ad esempio il
consumo. E senza quest’ultima non ci può essere vera esperienza, ma
solo contingenza.
Ecco dunque che l’individuo, obbligato ad essere sempre connesso
con le proprie interfacce culturali presenti su computer, smart phones,
palmari, tablet, lettori audio-video ecc..., sperimenta una frammentazione del proprio patrimonio culturale personale e sociale che lo proietta in un limbo fatto di enormi quantità di informazioni che richiedono voracemente un senso che però stenta a manifestarsi. In questo caos
umano-digitale, l’accezione rituale dei processi di comunicazione diventa predominante, fino a confluire, come abbiamo visto nel paragrafo precedente, in veri e propri riti tendenti alla conferma della propria
individualità a dispetto della propria limitatezza, alla base dei quali si
rileva una fiducia, cioè una fede, molto spesso incrollabile nella capa80. J. W. Carey, “A Cultural Approach to Communication”, cit., pp. 12.
81. M. Castells, The Rise of the Network Society, cit, chapter 7.
178 / La terza mutazione metafisica
cità trascendente dell’interfaccia culturale. Da conoscenza a credenza,
da certezza a speranza. Il Just in time informazionale che sperimentiamo ogni giorno ci costringe ad un costante impegno ontologico sulla
determinazione di un senso alle nostre attività digitali: questo senso
però, spesso, sembra sfuggire o addirittura ci relega in una posizione
di anonimato, per evitare il quale necessitiamo di imporre la nostra
individualità. Le interfacce culturali sempre più ci permettono di interagire in qualità di soggetti e sempre meno in veste di interroganti. Un
soggetto possiede emozioni, è talvolta irrazionale, ha bisogno di certezze anche quando queste certezze non possono esistere. Le interfacce
permettono quindi al soggetto di manifestare le proprie contraddizioni
attraverso veri e propri riti che non hanno altro scopo se non, da una
parte, quello di confermare l’agente sul proprio ruolo all’interno del
sistema sociale di appartenenza, e dall’altra di farlo sentire meno solo.
Le interfacce culturali sono diventate i nostri migliori amici, le entità a
cui affidiamo le nostre speranze, i nostri sogni, le nostre paure e tutto
questo per aspirare ad una redenzione che, inevitabilmente, le medesime interfacce non possono che procastinare. E in questo eterno rimando e ritorno, ecco che l’agente si ritrova in una dimensione atemporale
e non localizzata, che molto assomiglia alla dimensione sociale sperimentata da coloro che vivevano dopo la terza mutazione metafisica nel
romanzo ‘ Le particelle elementari’ citato all’inizio. Come a dire che,
forse, la spinta al sacro, e alla ricerca di un senso, nell’enorme patrimonio informazionale con cui ci confrontiamo ogni giorno in parte trova
le sue ragioni d’essere nella sconfitta o meglio, nella rimozione del concetto di morte che così bene si attua nella relazione uomo-computer.
5. Conclusioni e sviluppi futuri
Il lavoro che abbiamo svolto, è bene precisarlo, contiene una forte
componente di provocazione: le interfacce culturali sono ovviamente molto utili e grazie ad esse la società occidentale sta vivendo una
mutazione che, a nostro giudizio ma non solo, è paragonabile alle due
mutazioni metafisiche citate nell’introduzione. Nel breve spazio di
una trentina d’anni, la relazione uomo-macchina è cambiata radicalmente e ha cambiato, e sta cambiando, la società in ogni suo aspetto:
dall’economia, alla politica, dalla cultura alla religione. Quello che volevamo fare in questo breve saggio era solamente attirare l’attenzione
La terza mutazione metafisica / 179
su determinate modalità evidenziabili nella relazione uomo-macchina,
in modo da sollevare la questione delle ricadute in termini individuali
ma anche sociali, che una tale relazione può provocare e sta provocando. Il nostro parere, aldilà dell’anelito al sacro e della conferma del
soggetto agente nel proprio sistema di riferimento sociale, è che una
tale relazione dovrebbe essere restituita alla sua vocazione più sincera
e cioè quella di dispositivo ibrido attraverso il quale è possibile svolgere numerosi e svariati compiti. Non amiamo il funzionalismo, né
tantomeno l’utilitarismo, ma nella pseudo-follia umano-digitale che
crediamo di aver individuato una rivalutazione della Transmission
View all’interno dei processi di comunicazione umano-digitali sarebbe quantomeno opportuna, ma soprattutto eviterebbe, un domani, di
incorrere in sistemi di controllo analoghi a quelli implementati nel corso della storia da tutte quelle strutture sociali che, in qualche misura,
hanno sempre amministrato il sacro: cioè le religioni.
Per quanto riguarda gli sviluppi del presente lavoro, da un punto
di vista epistemologico crediamo sarebbe interessante indagare i seguenti aspetti:
– approfondire l’analisi della Ritual View e il conseguente anelito
al sacro da un punto di vista epistemologico: andare a confrontare i dispositivi ermeneutici presenti in letteratura di teoria della
conoscenza con il problema di garantire una determinata qualità informativa ai dati reperibili in rete. In questo senso sarebbe
possibile, da una parte reinterpretare i diversi approcci (affidabilismo, causalismo, coerentismo ecc...) in una prospettiva informazionale e dall’altra esaminare le ricadute epistemologiche dei
paradigmi presenti in Scienza dell’Informazione volti a garantire
una determinata qualità informativa (firme digitali, certificati di
qualità ecc...);
– utilizzare lo schema astratto al quale si rifanno tutte le reti digitali,
che prevede l’importante concetto di ‘livello di astrazione’, per
l’analisi della relazione uomo-computer andando ad investigare
se un tale concetto può essere di aiuto nella spiegazione dei fenomeni occorrenti alle interfacce culturali;
– esaminare nell’ambito della Ritual View dei processi di comunicazione uomo-computer, il concetto di ‘informazione semantica’
e cercare di comprendere quanto questo concetto possa essere
applicato alle teorie semantiche presenti in Teoria dell’Informazione;
180 / La terza mutazione metafisica
– porre in relazione la vaghezza di natura informazionale, di cui abbiamo parlato nei paragrafi precedenti, con la vaghezza di natura
epistemologica codificata in logica e filosofia del linguaggio. 82
Da un punto di vista storico e socio-antropologico potremmo invece
considerare i seguenti sviluppi:
– raffrontare le analisi condotte in questo lavoro, appronfondendole ulteriormente, con l’accostamento operato prima da Benjamin 83
e successivamente dalla Scuola di Francoforte 84 (Deutschmann,
2001) tra religione e capitalismo;
– esaminare da un punto di vista storico il legame tra lo sviluppo
dell’era informazionale e la nascita delle interfacce culturali;
– andare a investigare le ricadute nell’ambito del lavoro e del denaro, della relazione uomo-computer così come da noi esaminata.
Infine, per coloro ai quali questo saggio possa sembrare ardito, se
non futuristico, coloro cioé che faticano a vedere aspetti dell’ambito
del sacro nella relazione uomo-computer, concludiamo ricordando
la famosa affermazione di McLuhan: “One thing about which fish know
exactly nothing is water, since they have no anti-environment which would
enable them to perceive the element they live in.”
82. Per una panoramica aggiornata sul tema della vaghezza nei due prescritti ambiti
si può consultare: R. Dietz and S. Moruzzi, Cuts & Clouds, eds., Oxford University Press,
Oxford, 2010.
83. W. Benjamin, Capitalis as Religion, translated by Rodney Livingstone in W. Benjamin, Selected Writings, Harvard University Press, Cambridge (MA) - London, Vol. 1,
1996, pp. 289-290.
84. C. Deutschmann, “The Promise of Absolute Wealth: Capitalism as a Religion?”,
Thesis Eleven, 2001, 66:32.
Rupsha Banerjee, an Indian national, has a background in social work
(MA, TISS India), and planning and development (M. Phil, IIT
Bombay). She has served as applied sociologist at the International
Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT). Her
research interest is on the socio-economic, technological, and institutional aspects of adaptation to climate variability and change in
agriculture. She is currently a doctoral student at the International
Center for the History of Universities and Science (CIS), University
of Bologna, Italy.
Giancarlo Calcagno is sssociate professor of the History of science and
technology in the History Department, University of Bologna. He
edited Ingegneri e modernizzazioni. Università e professione nell’Italia
del Novecento (Bologna, Esculapio, 1996), and has published extensively on technological utopias, including: Utopie et technologie (in Vita
Fortunati and Raymond Trousson eds., Histoire Transnationale de
l’utopie littéraire et de l’utopisme, Paris, Champion, 2008).
Christian Carletti is postdoctoral research fellow at the Interdepartmental Research Centre ASPI (Archivio Storico della Psicologia Italiana), University of Milano-Bicocca, Italy. During the last few years
his research has focused on the diffusion of an “electric culture” in
the nineteenth century, paying special attention to the interactions
among experimental practices, business ambitions, and social expectations. He is author of several articles, published in national and
international journals.
Marta Cavazza is Associate Professor of History of Science at the University of Bologna. Her research focuses on scientific institutions
in seventeenth-and eighteenth-century Italy, especially in Bologna
and Emilia. Her publications include Settecento inquieto. Alle origini
dell’Istituto delle Scienze di Bologna (Bologna, 1990); La corrispondenza
di Pietro Mengoli (with Gabriele Baroncini, Firenze 1990), and numerous essays on gender in eighteenth-century Italy, in particular
the presence of women in the scientific academies and universities,
including «Women’s Dialectics, or the Thinking Uterus: An Eighteenth-Century Controversy on Gender and Education», in L. Daston, G. Pomata (eds.), The Faces of Nature in Enlightenment Europe
(Berlin, 2003), pp. 237-257, and «Between Modesty and Spectacle:
Women and Science in Eighteenth Century Italy», in P. Findlen, W.
Roworth, C. Sama (eds.), Italy’s Eighteenth Century: Gender and Culture in the Age of the Grand Tour (Stanford, 2009).
Daniela Crocetti is an independent STS researcher, associated with the
Philosophy Department at the University of Bologna. She recently
completed a doctoral project on DSD (Disorders of Sex Development), that looks at biomedicalization of the gendered body from
historical and anthropological perspectives. The contemporary use
of molecular genetic testing, from laboratory techniques to bioethics and disability theory, was a key aspect of her project. Her current
research focuses on genomic technologies and how they relate to
new models of defining pathology, the body, and identity. In 2007
she organized the Italian portion of an UK-based, EU analysis of
transgender people’s experience with healthcare. She currently participates in the Italian research group ‘De Morbo’, that focuses on a
multi-disciplinary study of disease and illness experience.
Luca Iori holds a Master degree in Philosophy, and is currently a Ph.D.
candidate in the doctoral programme in Science, Technology, and
Humanities at the University of Bologna. His dissertation deals with
the role of agricultural genetics and plant breeding in 20th century
Italy, focusing especially on the period before the second world war
and the role of the Italian breeder Nazareno Strampelli (1866-1942).
His dissertation research benefits from a collaboration with the University of Exeter. Luca Iori contributes with a philosophy column to
the Italian fanzine “Youthless”.
Francesco Martini holds a ‘Laurea’ in Management Engineering at the
Politecnico di Milano, with a thesis on “Representation and certifi-
cation of data quality on the web”. A synthesis of the thesis abstract
was published as a research paper in the Proceedings of the Ninth
International Conference on Information Quality (ICIQ-04), MIT’s
annual conference on Information Quality. He is now a Ph.D. candidate in the doctoral programme in Science, Technology, and Humanities at the University of Bologna. His doctoral project focuses
on computer networks and the theory of knowledge, as it is usually defined by epistemologists. He also takes care of information
technology as an IT Manager in a private company, and in his free
time he studies the history and sociology of science and technology
as a member of the CIS group at the of University of Bologna. Last
but not least, he likes writing novels and plays.
Kamanda Josey Ondieki, a Kenyan national, has a background in agricultural engineering (Bsc. JKUAT, Kenya), and technology management (Msc. Surrey, UK). He served for three years as associate
professional officer in the International Crops Research Institute for
the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT). His assignment as institutional
innovation specialist involved research on institutional change, and
the development relevance of international agricultural research.
Currently he is pursuing a Ph.D. at the Division of Social and Institutional Change in Agricultural Development, University of Hohenheim, Stuttgart, Germany.
Giuliano Pancaldi is professor of the History of science, and head of
the International Center for the History of Universities and Science
(CIS) at the University of Bologna. His books include: Darwin in Italy.
Science across cultural frontiers (Indiana University Press, 1991), and
Volta. Science and culture in the age of Enlightenment (Princeton University Press, 2003). He is currently working on a study of Lord Kelvin’s
laboratory at the University of Glasgow, and on a book addressing
the social history of the life sciences in a long-term perspective.
“Bologna Studies in History of Science”
Editor: Giuliano Pancaldi
Frederic L. Holmes, Eighteenth-century chemistry as an investigative enterprise, 1989, 144 pp.
John L. Heilbron, Weighing imponderables and other quantitative science
around 1800, 1993, 337 pp.
Frederic L. Holmes, Between biology and medicine: The formation of intermediary metabolism, 1992, 114 pp.
Peter J. Bowler, Biology and social thought: 1850-1914, 95 pp.
I laboratori dell’università. Un incontro Bologna-Oxford, a cura di Anna
Guagnini e Giuliano Pancaldi, 1996, 127 pp.
Robert Fox and Anna Guagnini, Laboratories, workshops, and sites. Concepts
and practices of research in industrial Europe, 1800-1914, 1999, 214 pp.
Luigi Galvani International Workshop. Proceeedings, edited by Marco
Bresadola and Giuliano Pancaldi, 1999, 215 pp.
The structure of knowledge: Classifications of science and learning since the
Renaissance, edited by Tore Frängsmyr, 2001, 158 pp.
Electric bodies. Episodes in the history of medical electricity, edited by Paola
Bertucci and Giuliano Pancaldi, 2001, 298 pp.
Natura, cultura, identità. Le università e l’identità europea, a cura di
Giuliano Pancaldi, 2004, 213 pp.
Storia, scienza e società. Ricerche sulla scienza in Italia nell’età moderna e
contemporanea, a cura di Paola Govoni, 2006, 304 pp.
Impure cultures. Interfacing science, technology, and humanities, edited
by Massimo Mazzotti and Giuliano Pancaldi, 2010, 256 pp.
Electricity and life. Episodes in the history of hybrid objects, edited by
Giuliano Pancaldi, 2011, 184 pp.

- CIS, University of Bologna