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Cells from icons to symbols molecularising cell biology in the 1980s

Serpente, NR; (2011) Cells from icons to symbols molecularising cell biology in the 1980s. Doctoral thesis , University of London. Green open access

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Abstract

This thesis addresses the visual change that began to take place in cell biology by the early 1980’s as manifested in textbooks. From that time onwards images produced by instruments of a different nature to the optical and electronic microscopes began to compete for visual supremacy. An important consequence of this visuality shift has been the creation of epistemic discontinuity inside the discipline. New areas, such as signal transduction, fully dependent on this kind of visuality began to emerge. The thesis places and argues for this visual shift as occurring in the context of the following related co-productive developments during the 1960s to 1980s: The promotion and expansion of the project of molecularisation into cell biology. The occurrence of deep changes in academic institutions, oriented to mimic industrial set ups based on network functioning and more flexible forms of production. The emergence of textbooks to better prepare newcomers to the discipline for the production needs of the laboratory. An extensive use of new techniques mainly from molecular biology, biochemistry and immunology. And last but not least, the emergence of a new type of scientific self armoured with a new set of moral codes and attitudes. The study is based on a visual examination of the images contained in the different editions (from 1983 to 2008) of the textbook Molecular Biology of the Cell (MBC) by Alberts et al, as the book that heralded molecularisation inside cell biology. The imagery displayed in this textbook is compared with the different editions (from 1948 to 1987) of the originally entitled General Cytology textbook of De Robertis et al, the book that belonged to the microscopical tradition of thought. The theoretical framework I am using to understand this visual shift as occurring in textbooks is based on semiotics and simulation theory. This dissertation argues that the visual change that the discipline of cell biology began to endure from the early 1980s entails an overall substitution of signs from iconic to symbolic forms and that the new symbolic imagery builds its authenticity and gains its widespread acceptance not only from its experimental validity, but also from the traces they contain derived from both indexical and iconic forms. In a more explorative tone I argue that this new symbolic cell biology is at risk of becoming a self-referential system with a remote relationship with the experimental arrangement it originates from.

Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
Title: Cells from icons to symbols molecularising cell biology in the 1980s
Event: University of London
Open access status: An open access version is available from UCL Discovery
Language: English
UCL classification: UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > UCL BEAMS
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > UCL BEAMS > Faculty of Maths and Physical Sciences
URI: http://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/id/eprint/1474279
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