Stephen Hawking, Dis-Incorporated

Stephen Hawking ‘the man’ observes a social construction of Stephen Hawking: Genius Professor Oman episode of The Simpsons.

Stephen Hawking ‘the man’ observes a social construction of Stephen Hawking: Genius Professor Oman episode of The Simpsons.

Good reasons to review Helene Mialet’s Hawking Incorporated

I am writing a thesis about how academics become “disincorporated” (that is to say, the various elements that come together to turn a person into an academic get sliced and diced and manipulated and redistributed) when they move to a new country. I owe a lot in my work to the work of several brilliant Science & Technology ethnographers: Annemarie Mol, Susan Leigh Star, and Hélène Mialet high amongst them. By coincidence, I was rereading Mialet’s fascinating ethnography, Hawking Incorporated: Stephen Hawking and The Anthropology of the Knowing Subject, when the news broke of Hawkin’s death. Although this is by no means a recent book – it was released in 2012 and much of the fieldwork took place in the 90s – I thought I’d share my thoughts on it with you, so that you, too, can reflect on this extraordinary life from an ethnographic perspective, and perhaps even question in which ways Stephen Hawking’s life was similar to your own.

The extended network of the human mind

The core argument of this book is that every human who uses technology is part of a network; an extended, distributed web of competencies and actions that are sometimes performed by our own flesh-and-blood body/brain, and at other times are performed by various different technologies (I’ve written more about the related idea of academics as cyborgs here, in case you’re interested). The term ‘technologies’, in this case, is used in the broadest possible sense – as W. Brian Arthur would put it, technologies are simply any means of fulfilling a human purpose, an assemblage of practices and purposes, and include the entire collection of devices and engineering practices available to a culture (W. Brian Arthur in Aronson, 2010). Thus, a pencil and paper are as much a technology as the latest smartphone, and this is important because it makes clear that this is not a new phenomenon. In fact, Plato apparently complained in the Phaedrus, referencing Socrates’ views, that this new fandangled technology called a ‘book’, which all the kids were learning how to read and even learning how to write themselves, was going to be the downfall of learning and knowledge, and maybe even society:

“If men learn this, it will implant forgetfulness in their souls; they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks” (Plato in the Phaedrus, in approximately 370BC).

This is in some ways a similar argument to Mialet’s, although she embraces the idea, rather than objecting to it! Essentially, if we take things out of our brains, and plug those ideas into something else in pursuit of a goal, we are extending our cognition and creating a network of technologies to assist us in achieving success.

So what does all that have to do with Stephen Hawking?

Mialet spent 14 years, from 1996 to 2010, exploring the idea that Stephen Hawking, although undoubtedly a brilliant scientist, was NOT the epitome of the popular imaginary about scientists. In this popular perception, the theory goes that to do great science, all you need is a great brain, that it is actually ideal to be free of bodily concerns so that one can truly focus on ideas. In both formal and informal media, this is a common perception of Hawking. A quick Google search produces headlines and quotes such as, “Stephen Hawking, the world’s finest brain”, “Stephen Hawking’s beautiful mind and soul”, and this quote, my favourite: “Despite the loss of use of his body — or perhaps because of it — Hawking’s mind has remained free to roam the cosmos, investigating its deepest secrets through an incredible power of will, imagination, and mathematics”. Since his death, these headlines have been even more emphatic. The Washington Post: “Stephen Hawking was the ultimate image of mind over matter”. Bloomberg: “Stephen Hawking showed the power of an unconstrained mind”. And NPR: “’He Broke Boundaries With His Mind’: Public Pays Tribute At Stephen Hawking’s Funeral”. These are just a few of the tributary headlines espousing the unlimited potential of the scientist’s great brain.

So, it seems that the public want to perceive Hawking, and scientists more generally, as the traditional, and seemingly more objective ‘brain in a jar’, able to do almost (but not quite) magical things with their minds that mere mortals are incapable of, because they’re distracted by more worldly pursuits. Perhaps it makes us feel safer to imagine that there are geniuses out there, whose devotion to solving the puzzles of the universe is so devout that they do not have time for the concerns of the flesh.

But after many years of observing Hawking both up close and via his distributed network of technologies, technicians, students, nurses, writings, and media appearances, Mialet concluded that, without this extended network, this ‘great brain’ would actually be trapped inside Hawking’s famously disabled body. As she describes it:

“Hawking [in contrast to Einstein’s perceptions of human cognition]… does not think like a machine. Rather he cannot think without the machine—his computer—to which he is connected, or without the collective that works day and night to ensure the smooth functioning of his genius” (Mialet, 2012, Kindle Locations 1810-1813).

Making the invisible, visible

Importantly, these factors – Hawking’s disability, his reliance on an extended network in order to produce scientific discoveries – do not make Stephen Hawking unique, Mialet argues. They simply allow us to observe the workings of a theorist, in ways that are basically impossible with other theorists because the work is usually performed more privately, behind closed doors – thinking, reading, writing, private discussions with students and colleagues that rarely get reported in a scientific paper or a newspaper article, but were nonetheless essential in moving the theorist’s thinking forward. With Stephen Hawking, this is all on display. We are able to see the workings of the genius in collaboration with his network, even though the media, and popular perceptions, have generally chosen to allow those workings to remain invisible.

As Mialet wrote in a recent tribute to Hawking, following his death:

“My book is constructed around this cinematographic idea of zooming in and out of my subject, of being far away or close to him…when I started my research, I had access to him through newspapers and the press, as we all do, and so I had a sense that I knew who he was because very often the same stories were recycled and written over and over again about him. But this conception broke down when I met him for the first time in person. My first interview with him was very destabilizing, because I felt that I didn’t know where he was anymore. I was not familiar with dealing with someone who was so disabled, so I didn’t know how to communicate with him. Everything was mediated through the computer he was using at the time to communicate… he was not displaying any form of body language that is so useful to read to understand another person or a conversation…” (Helene Mialet in conversation with Tobias Rees for the Berggruen Institute, 2 April 2018).

Mialet goes on to explain how, in that very first zoomed in, face-to-face conversation with Hawking, two full years after she began her project, she observed the way that Hawking had to delegate so many tasks to the collection of people (nurses, assistants and PhD students) and technologies (his wheelchair, the computer on his wheelchair on which he laboriously typed words using a slight movement of one finger, the synthesised voice device that gave volume to his typed words, etc.) that surround him. This meant that it was impossible to conceive of him as the lone genius anymore. The work of his network was made visible, and this made it possible to envisage the work of any theoretical scientist. “He was making visible what we normally don’t see, these different collectives that we all need, to a certain extent, to work and think and act” (Mialet with Rees, 2018).  

Zooming out and finding Hawking

Perhaps the chapters that are most interesting in relation to Hawking’s recent passing are those in which his flesh-and-blood body are not present, or where it’s presence is of less importance. As Mialet examines the role of his assistants, his students, and the media in the social construction of ‘Stephen Hawking: the great genius’, she also shows the subtle ways that some part of Hawking the man remains present, imposes himself on each interaction within his extended network. Rather than positing that being distributed means that ‘the real’ Hawking is lost, she shows the ways in which he shapes this social construction; the part he has played in creating the tropes that the media recycle; the ways that he imposes his ‘will’ on others:

“Hawking’s singularity is constructed by the different media at work; one of them, the press, constantly recycles tropes having to do with his American accent, the coincidence of his birthday with the year of Galileo’s death, the role of his wife in his survival, and so on. At the same time, his singularity also appears in the nodes and interstices of the networks of humans and machines to which he is attached: he resists, he doesn’t want to change his programs, he doesn’t want to change his voice, he doesn’t want to change his Web page, he runs over the toes of those he doesn’t like, he plays with his yeses or nos, he plays with his disability, or he refuses to delegate” (Mialet, 2012, Kindle Locations 4181-4187).

Through the musings of these chapters, Mialet essentially posits that Hawking is just as present in the social constructions of him as he ever was in his corporeal form – perhaps more so. If we accept this premise, then we are the lucky ones, because for us, Stephen Hawking, the man and the genius, can live on forever.

[Image by Sheldon Cooper PhD, available at:]

Further reading:

Mialet, Hélène. 2012. “Hawking Incorporated: Stephen Hawking and the Anthropology of the Knowing Subject”. University of Chicago Press. Chicago.

Mialet, Hélène. “Stephen Hawking lived beyond his body”. The Atlantic, March 17, 2018.

Rees, Tobias. “Helene Mialet remembers Stephen Hawking”. Berggruen Institute, April 2, 2018.


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