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Getting Experimental: Performing Cognition in the EEG Lab


This dissertation examines and intervenes in cognitive scientific experimental practice as performance. It is structured around an ethnographic study of a cognitive neuroscience lab that uses electroencephalography (EEG) to study processes of language and meaning in the brain. Working from participant-observation, multimodal analysis of interaction, and performance-collaboration, I describe how experiments are designed, performed, and understood by their subjects and researchers, how unruly experimental subjects become competent data sources, and how experiments move through time and space as empirical structures. I describe experiments as complex performances of enfolded interdependency between scientists, human subjects, technologies, and cognitive phenomena. My account of how cognition is performed in the EEG lab bumps up against the descriptive limits of generalized and universalized accounts of performative entanglement. I argue that materializing cognition as a scientific object depends on a reflexive capacity to enact, inhabit and layer relations of inside and outside, subjectivity and objectivity. This dissertation makes an intervention into theories of material-semiotic performativity prevalent in Science and Technology Studies (STS) by developing a local specification of cognitive scientific entanglement as “folding”. I trace this folded form of performative entanglement through different loci of experimental practice. Chapter 1 describes how the central research object of the laboratory, the Event-Related-Potential component, folds together the world and brain. Chapter 2 considers the embodied and intersubjective work of producing “clean” brainwave objects from unruly human subjects. Chapter 3 considers how scientists inhabit one another’s experimental designs through a social practice of reading. Chapter 4 documents a methodological shift from participant observer to collaborator through an iterative experiment-performance that intervenes in the activity of experiment itself.

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