STS Summer School


Check out this call for STS Summer School at University of Wisconsin-Madison. 

Some details:

Science and Technology Studies Summer School: Disclosing/Enclosing Knowledge in the Life Sciences

July 11-15, 2016
University of Wisconsin-Madison
Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery, Madison WI

Applications from students in the sciences, engineering, social sciences, and humanities for a five-day summer school that will provide training in the field of Science and Technology Studies (STS) are invited. This seminar is an excellent opportunity for graduate students who are interested in incorporating social and humanistic perspectives on science and technology into their research, and require an advanced level introduction to the field.

Infrastructure Toolbox

banner-support-infrastructure *

This is a useful resource for anyone writing about or thinking about infrastructure from a big name (Gupta) and a rising star (Anand), it is the notion of an “infrastructure toolbox.”

One of the bottom-line insights appears to be that STS has had an impact on general thinking about infrastructure, in particular, legitimizing the “social” study of it (think: infrastructure ethnography, which I’ve discussed before too, especially in relationship to jugaad). Thus, we ask, what does infrastructure mean, even metaphorically, for “theory-making?”

Here is the opening passage (and it is freely available on-line): 

Continue reading

Our broken peer review system, in one saga


We’ve discussed the peer-review system in science a number of times; this time, as a saga. I’ve had this experience many, many times. If you don’t wish to review the saga, the final section has some alternatives to business-as-usual in the peer-review system.

Originally posted on Family Inequality:

When at last Odysseus returns. When at last Odysseus returns.

Everybody’s got a story. This is the story of publishing a peer-reviewed journal article called, “The Widening Gender Gap in Opposition to Pornography, 1975–2012.” The paper has now been published, and is available here in preprint, or here if you’re on a campus that subscribes to Social Currents through Sage.

Lucia Lykke, a graduate student in our program, and I began this project in the fall of 2012. We came up with the idea together. I did the coding and she wrote the text. Over the course of two years we sent the paper to four journals – once to Gender & Society, four times to Sex Roles, once to Social Forces, and twice to Social Currents, which finally accepted it in July 2015 and published it online on September 21.*

This story illustrates some endemic problems with our system…

View original 4,881 more words

A Yelp for People?


Apparently, yes, according to the Washington Post.

It is called Peeple, and this on-line human-rating infrastructure is more or less the equivalent of rating a meal at a restaurant or a hotel stay. Fortune calls it “truly awful,” the always balanced BBC News says the app “causes social uproar,” while the Guardian suggests that of all apps this is the app “you didn’t dare ask for.” There are also worse things ( “creepy,” “toxic,” “gender hate in a prettier package”) being said about this admittedly odd idea.

For the moment, the promotional website ( seems to be dead at the stick. Continue reading

Race in Material Culture

Some resources I use to teach a lesson about race woven into the lived material world for my STS classes:

Lorna Roth (Communications, Concordia University,  Canada) wrote a read-worthy open-access article for the Canadian Journal of Communication in 2009 “Looking at Shirley, the Ultimate Norm: Colour Balance, Image Technologies, and Cognitive Equity” wherein she documents how “light-skin bias embedded in colour film stock emulsions and digital camera design” despite attempts at correcting such matters during the 1990s. Continue reading

New Zealand Grants River Personhood


Great ANT case for teaching: “New Zealand Grants River Personhood

Want to take it to the next level in the classroom? challenge students to understand how a person-like “state” (in this case, New Zealand) is apparently accorded the ability to do this!

Ask them, which is weirder, a river being a person or a state granting the personhood?

Louisiana Needs a Mud-Hose


Cajun culture on the bayou in southern Louisiana is being eroded as the bayou beneath them erodes, by some estimates, a football field of land lost per day (BBC reports).

Costal restoration projects are planned long-term, over the next 50 or so years, with some palpable success. The BBC link above links Gulf oil exploration to the quickening of erosion, especially based on land mistreatment without recovery efforts. This Huffington post piece, “Oil and Cultural Genocide,” is a little less equivocal.

According to the BBC piece, another culprit is to be identified in the erosion of Cajun culture and that is the Mississippi River, in particular, the way that the mouth of the mighty Mississippi has been channelled and controlled as it flows into the Gulf. Previously, the logic goes, the Mississippi used to act like a giant land-making mud-hose spraying silt across the Bayou thereby rejuvenating the land; however, as the river became more controlled, this rejuvenating process slowed considerably, and in its place these massive land moving operations — featured in the costal restoration projects — took their place.

*The image above is from a great website about Isle de Jean Charles:

Jugaad, Siqizai, Bricolage


New article about jugaad, which we’ve discussed here a bit, by Pankaj Sekhsaria (a graduate student at Maastricht’s Department of Technology and Society) is available on (note: if you click the link, you’ll find the paper starts on page 21 of the larger PDF file — the paper is short and to the point).

Infrastructure Discourse: Poorly Regulated and Explicitly Not Sexy?

John Oliver comments on infrastructure in the news. He comments on how poorly regulated infrastructure is in the US (the low grades America receives on its infrastructure report card) and hints that one of the reasons that we are so inattentive to infrastructure is its explicit “not sexiness.” Catastrophe is apparently one of the only reasons to be attentive to infrastructure …

John Oliver on Stadium Infrastructure

In a humorous account, John Oliver explains why wealthy sports teams are ripping-off American taxpayers via expensive stadium infrastructure, which is an investment that essentially never “pay off” for tax payers in those cities. There are strong opinions about this, suggesting that benefits rarely materialize, which are supported by public research, although there are presumably intangible benefits of having a local team stay local.

Pacification of Rio’s Favelas


Infrastructure is often seen as a pivot-point for addressing social ailments, directly or indirectly. That is what you’ll read — that assumption fully addressed — in Mariana Cavalcanti‘s “Waiting in the Ruins” a book chapter in Infrastructural Lives. What social ailments? Anything in the way of establishing Rio de Janeiro as a world Olympic city.

Questioned is the rhetoric championed by proponents of the favelas pacification programs as a form of “state intervention” — finally! Continue reading

Anti-Crisis and Post-Crisis


At fellow blog “Society and Space” a recent book is under review, namely, Janet Roitman’s Anti-Crisis (Duke University Press, 2014). This discussion dovetails nicely with some topics on Installing Order some weeks ago with guest blogger Peter Bratsis, wherein I was attempting to suggest that “crisis” is a concept that is sort of like a balloon with the air let out of it (or an “empty container” to mix some metaphors ;) ), stating:

Living in a state of semi-permanent crisis can be construed as a license to do nothing. Fatigue sets-in. Apathy ensues. Inaction seems plausible.

In Luca Follis’s review of Janet Roitman’s Anti-Crisis we see something similar. This line sticks out:

But is this global state of affairs merely a reflection of a historical, empirical moment or is it an expression of the ease and haste with which we label events as critical (and by extension the way we approach the broader category of crisis)?

Continue reading

On Revanchist Policy and Water Infrastructure


In “Water Wars in Mumbai,” a book chapter in Infrastructural Lives, we learn an important lesson about infrastructure as a material-social entanglement, in particular, in relation to the poor: infrastructure — or the lack-thereof — can be used to subjugate the poor — thus, reproducing their impoverished state — but infrastructure also, with rare exception, binds the poor to the non-poor. 

This lesson dovetails nicely with Simone’s insights about postcolonial urban environment, and speaks to the fecundity of the chapters housed in the edited volume Infrastructural Lives. Continue reading

Simone on Infrastructure in Postcolonial Urban Environments


AbdouMaliq Simone’s “Relational Infrastructure in Postcolonial Urban Worlds” is a book chapter in Infrastructural Lives, and provides a broader context for understanding the art of urban living with emphasis on adjustment, impromptu innovation (or “jugaad“), improvisation with focus on understanding the negotiated and lived experiences of individuals that inhabit these postcolonial urban “worlds.”

Continue reading

Jugaad and the Workaround


Jugaad is Hindi for “an improvised solution bom from ingenuity and cleverness” (De Vita, 2012: 21). Sometimes referred to as “frugal innovation,” jugaad is a way to think about most of the world’s experience with and approach to infrastructure, according to Vyjajanthia Rao (2015) in an essay featured in the edited book Infrastructural Lives. Defined as “innovative, improvisational urban practices and the objects they produce as temporary “fixes” or solutions to systematic problems,” Rao (2015: 54) notes that while the dominant “decay discourse” overwhelmingly depicts infrastructure as dilapidated and falling apart, this dominant discourse provides an almost too perfect foil for the conviviality and colorfulness with which jugaad is often celebrated with. 


Celebrating jugaad, however, is not an innocent act, especially from the “outside looking in.”  Continue reading

“Infrastructural Lives: Urban Infrastructure in Context”

Line one of the foreword by Arjun Appadurai reads: “This timely book is sure to become a definitive work on the now growing literature on urban infrastructure” (xii).


And Appadurai is not overstepping or overstating by saying as much. “Infrastructural Lives: Urban Infrastructure in Context” is edited by Stephen Graham and Colin McFarlane, both themselves big players in the academic discussion or urban infrastructure. McFarlane has a great blog, “cityfragment” that the book was recently showcased on. Some of the book’s materials are available on google-books here.

I’m reviewing the book this week, and will post commentary about it as I go.

Here are some thoughts and concerns about the foreword, and, thus, the project as a whole: Appadurai is an important figure for the burgeoning area at the intersection of sociology, anthropology, geography, political science, urban studies, and so on and so forth — many are invited to the table to dine on the topic of urban infrastructure. What makes this book extraordinary, Appadurai notes, is the approach:  Continue reading

3:1 — Post-Apocalypse — Post 3 of 3


This week, we discussed the possibility of a post-apocalypse world. Post-apocalyptic fiction, and its relationship to ideology, is where I want to take my post, and, in particular, the notion that post-apocalypse seems more plausible — and far more entertaining — than any other route to post-capitalism. While I had obviously seen reams and reams of this sort of thinking everywhere from great old comics to graphic novels (and older books like “After London” and even older books like “The Last Man”) to loads of cinematic fiction these days like the Walking Dead, Z Nation, and so on, I was probably first struck squarely with the link to capitalism by good old Slavoj Žižek in “The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology” (at least, I think so, and I am thinking about the scene with Rowdy Roddy Piper and the film “They Live” wherein Piper is a nameless grifter and drifter named “Nada” who comes into possession of a pair of glasses that allow him to see through capitalistic advertisement straight down to the level of discourse … and what a painful act it is to engage this reality).

One of the themes that seems to be perpetually associated with post-apocalypse is collapsed, dilapidated, or overgrown, but always kind of recognizable, infrastructure, laying around like an inert and massive scrapheap, as though the surface of the earth were just one big dumping grounds for modernity. The human-infrastructure relationship hums in the background of so many post-apocalyptic thrillers, as if, as we watch such television or cinema on our big screen TVs while the air conditioning also hums away gently in the background, we see and are entertained by this strange relationship between humans and infrastructure that seems destined not to last using the technologies destined not to last (similar to one of Žižek’s concluding remarks in “The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology” see about 1:50:15 …).


If this is the case, and I think — like picking at a scab — that it is, then what is the function of post-apocalyptic thought? I am not particularly picky about what is expressed or in what format it is expressed, but the post-apocalypitc vision of derelict infastructure being displayed on larger and larger TVs with sharper and sharper images seems sort of like an invitation NOT to rock the boat or reflect and instead as encouragement to entertain ourselves — not to death, as Neil would have it, but — into the inevitable post-capitalist world where the human-infrastructure relationship is bound to change BUT not look away a moment sooner than we must.


I just imagine a small group preparing for a world like the Walking Dead, but watching the Walking Dead on Netflix right up until the final moment when they must join the same world.


As a closing sidebar, I was originally going to write about an odd conversation I got into about the possibility of a time after rapture — just one of many possible interpretations of a post-apocalyptic world — where all the faithful would ascend and, hypothetically, at this time the remainder of Earth would be inherited by whomever or whatever was left. This was obviously NOT at all a careful theological discussion. As the discussants were pretty hardcore environmentalists and not one of them religious, they actually pondered whether or not the current abuses of the planet would be more or less bad than whatever rapture brought. Those of you with your ear close to the grindstone in religious studies no doubt already know about some of these discussions as manifest in recent overlap in environmental religious studies. It was a rousing discussion, much of which reminded me — in tone — of Stef’s tale, which initiated the discussion this week.

3:1 — Post-Apocalypse: A Memoir — Post 2 of 3


By C. lectularius

It would have been unthinkable before, but I have a circle of companions. We even have a jokey motto: “life is change.” A feeding doesn’t pass without one of the group uttering it, eliciting knowing smiles, the occasional laugh. Our children and theirs share in our humor, but the joke lies in our generation’s history.

Our earliest memories of life are pregnant with change. From egg to adulthood, we pass through five stages of growth. Our first eight weeks consist only of feeding and molting. Back then, life was change. But for me and many of my kind, change consisted only of that, only of the molt and eventually that glorious passage into adulthood. After that, the days passed in a constant dance of mating and egg laying.

In those days, I experienced my day-to-day transformations alone. They were, after all, personal. There were plenty of opportunities for mating, of course. But these were always the product of random encounters—a sudden awareness of another, anticipation and that sharp pain I’d come to enjoy as males would probe and then pierce my abdomen. But these mating partners and all who shared my harborage were strangers. I took pleasure in the routine transformations that my body would undergo: the wound management, the egg laying. But no sense of togetherness was required to ensure that life’s “changes” could proceed unchanging. Life was change and we all experienced it alone.

I was particularly privileged. I had never left the nest I hatched into. I never had to. Back then, the conditions of my life were blissfully constant. My feedings so routine I took them for granted. My life played out in the sheltered confines of a third floor wing in what I would later come to know as 664 West 46th Street. Continue reading

3:1 — Post-Apocalypse — Post 0 of 3

This week the 3:1 takes a darker turn, but one that is not without some whimsy. We continue on our posts on the “post” with a darker theme: Post-Apocalypse. We take this on with a sense of fun—at least this is the hope. This is born from a pressing need to engage on all levels with the losses that the Anthropocene will hand us. How do social scientists reflect upon these cascades of losses? What can we do to both grieve and fight back against capitalist extraction and evangelical forms of being that lack care for the world and its natural systems?

I begin with a DeLillo-esque story of academic life in the Department of Extinction Studies.

Elizabeth Johnson joins us this week for our romp into the end times. Elizabeth is a Research Fellow of Science, Technology and Culture with the Department of Geography at the University of Exeter. She is interested in how life and its study are increasingly becoming re-valued as part of the innovation economy and growing efforts in ecological securitization.

Nicholas Rowland has generously offered to post on Friday with another playful rendition of a serious topic.

3:1 — Post-Crisis (and back again) — 3 of 3

The notion of “post-crisis” that I opened-up this week with was meant to be a hard press against the post-crisis that I have often heard in discussions about “post-crisis economic planning” — that is, “after a crisis and now things are better” (which likely makes the likes of Naomi Klein retch, as Stef notes in her post). The notion that we are in a semi-permanent state of crisis raised to me the obvious question: does “crisis” really capture anything out of the ordinary? (and so have we exhausted the utility of such a concept?) Continue reading

3:1 Post 2 of 3: Post-crisis and poetry

Dichotomies can be helpful, and Peter Bratsis in his 3:1 on Monday put forth a productive one: Should we think of crisis as a repetition or an exception? I want to take this and riff in a slightly different, but complementary way. For me, thinking about crisis—the ecological one facing the planet—is especially important. The Guardian has recently launched a front-page campaign to bring climate change to the fore in mainstream news coverage.

They are following Naomi Klein’s lead and trying to turn a crisis into an opportunity. This includes calling the Gates Foundation and the Wellcome Trust to divest in fossil fuels and using the recent dip in oil prices to invest in alternative energy. At this point, we are blowing past a 2° C temperature rise (4° C seems likely) and even a 2° C rise will lead to CATASTROPHIC changes in our environment. Prepare for the worst, homo sapiens and all the species we are taking with us. Keeping the coal in the ground and investing in alternative energy is a step to mitigating the damage this economic system has wrought, but the hurt is going to come down. So the question becomes more about how we respond to crisis rather than argue about how we define a crisis, or how we might trace the word back to its true roots, or whether this crisis is quotidian or exceptional. Continue reading

3:1 – Post-Crisis – 1 of 3: (Repetition or Exception?)

At first glance, it would indeed seem to be the case that the constant sequence of crises of the last decade or so points to some loss of meaning and value for the term. However, if we understand ‘crisis’ not as some exceptional moment or state of affairs but rather, closer to its original meaning, as a situation where some action or judgment is needed (‘critical’ as a condition where an active intervention is needed if the system in question, biological or social, is to continue) then things are much more complex. In opposition to some permanent ‘state of exception’, which is indeed a contradictory idea, we are in a continuing ‘crisis’ for some years now if by that we mean that the extended reproduction of western societies (or significant parts of them at least) can no longer be taken as a given.

Here I would say that capitalism as a whole is certainly not in crisis, just the opposite. It is indeed a bit of wishful thinking to declare the crisis of capitalism at a time when concentrations of wealth, corporate profits, and stock prices are all at history making levels (we should keep in mind that, as Marx himself had pointed out, crisis is often the solution, not the problem, for capitalism). Similarly, a great number of capitalist societies, especially many within Asia together with some in Latin America and the Africa, are the in midst of long economic booms with rapidly growing levels of consumption, employment, and economic security. Continue reading

3:1 — Post-Crisis — 0 of 3 (Introduction)


Are we, as a global community, living in a post-crisis world? We seem to be in a semi-permanent state of crisis, either in crisis or on the brink of it perpetually, and, in that context, does a concept like crisis really mean anything anymore? By invoking “post-crisis” we are not talking about post-crisis as in “after a crisis” (for example, in stories like this one about “post-crisis economic planning“); for comic-buffs, we are also not talking about the crazy-cool “post-crisis” events in DC Comics’ publishing history following the 1985-86 Crisis on Infinite Earths (discussed here); this is also not the revamped homo ecnonomicus discussion of the “post-crisis consumer.” The bottom-line: as the global community gets more and more intertwined, non-local crises have local implications and impacts, and if there is always a crisis or a looming crisis somewhere, does “crisis” really capture anything out of the ordinary? (given that crisis means an intensification of difficulty or trouble, and, hence, a perpetual state crisis ceases to be a moment of crisis)

It should be recognized that much of this “crisis talk” is sourced by media outlets that thrive on hyperbole, so, possibly, we are making too much of this; however, the roots of a post-crisis society are possibly deeper than just journalistic portrayals in the media (though they are surprisingly powerful in framing global events). These issues, among others, are what we will discuss this week on our 3:1 on Post-Crisis.


Our guest this week is Peter Bratsis. I know Peter’s work from his outstanding book Everyday Life and the State (for theory buffs, there is a section in this book where Peter claims that Kantorowicz is possibly the greatest state theorist [who wasn’t a state theorist] of all time — a thought which also figures into his new work on corruption). You might also know his other book, with Stanley Aronowitz, Paradigm Lost: State Theory Reconsidered. You can read much of his work here, and perhaps you’ve recently seen him speaking about the rise of the Syriza Party in Greece, for example, on Uprising or on European Ideas.

We welcome him to the blog! 

Infrastructure and Enchantment


A friend recently turned me onto the idea that somebody, somewhere is embedding USB ports into infrastructure in various places around the world — like a treasure hunt (sometimes called a “USB dead drop“). Turns out that some of these early devices were embedded in 2010 by Berlin artist Aram Bartholl. There is even a manifesto — interesting, in my mind. This is part of, I think, the broader DIY culture, and, though it is dated, it is a bit cool.

The idea of inhabiting infrastructure like this — they claim that it is the data equivalent of geo-caching for P2P file sharing, but the implications are bigger — is not merely as an expression of “un-clouding data” or even DIY freedom (from the Borg); the promise of this sort of intervention into infrastructure is “enchantment.” I do mean this, in the Weberian sense of the word, although Weber mainly referred to rationalization and secularization in reference to their de-mystifying or “disenchanting” quality for our world.

The reason I bring this up is that I recently found a documentary film set in San Francisco called “The Institute.” 

The film, for all its flaws, contains something I found powerful about engaging our infrastructure and intervening in it to produce enchantment out of the ordinary. Granted, it is like an artistic way to play in infrastructure, to transform the ordinary world. There is some promise, as idealistic as it might sound, in the logic of these USB dead drops for producing such an effect in our cityscapes. I get the feeling that university settings in urban areas could really make this work.

Planning Against the Political

Originally posted on Path to the Possible:

Jonathan Metzger, Phillip Allmendinger, and Stijn Oosterlynck have a new volume out.


Here is the publisher’s blurb:

This book brings together a number of highly innovative and thought provoking contributions from European researchers in territorial governance-related fields such as human geography, planning studies, sociology, and management studies. The contributions share the ambition of highlighting troubling contemporary tendencies where spatial planning and territorial governance can be seen to circumscribe or subvert ‘due democratic practice’ and the democratic ethos. The book also functions as an introduction to some of the central strands of contemporary political philosophy, discussing their relevance for the wider field of planning studies and the development of new planning practices.

View original

It is called “[Re]Build”


I have just read: 

We propose the creation of a zone of experimentation with the intention of bringing together dissenting agencies with critical practices in hopes of finding prototypes and models for a post-capitalist society. Such a platform calls for a cross-pollination of ideas, a shared and in-depth dialogue, and easily accessible means for hands-on experimentation. This new space will be open to all wanting to participate.

At Deterritorial Investigations Unit there is a call for contributions and participants for a project called “[Re]Build” and part of the hook is in the above italicized text. The full details are here, and, I quote, “Anyone who is interested need only drop us a line here, or you can email me at”

I’ll be answering the call momentarily … 

Free PhD Class at Roskilde University


Free 3-day PhD Course: “Criticizing Contemporary Technology: From Drones to Google Glasses and Self-Driving Cars” w/ Prof. Evan Selinger (RIT, USA)

Deadline for sign-up: Monday 20th April to Søren Riis,

Relevant dates: 29 June 2015 (day 1), 30 June 2015 (day 2), and 01 July 2015 (day 3).

Background: Prof. Evan Selinger is an Associate Professor of Philosophy and the Media, Arts, Games, Design, Interaction and Community Center (MAGIC) Head of Research Communications, Community, and Ethics at Rochester Institute of Technology. In addition to publishing widely on issues in philosophy of technology in the standard academic sources, he has also written extensively for popular media, including places like The Atlantic, Wired, Slate, The Nation, Salon, and The Wall Street Journal. Starting September 2015, he will spend a sabbatical year as a Senior Fellow at The Future of Privacy Forum. You can find out more by going to Prof. Selinger’s homepage ( and following him on Twitter @EvanSelinger.

Summary: In this 3-day PhD course, Prof. Evan Selinger gives a general introduction to the field of philosophy of technology and dedicates a day of presentations and discussions to three disputed topics: obscurity and privacy, automation and the ethics of outsourcing, and technology and public scholarship. The course is developed for graduated students across different disciplines: humanities, media studies, social sciences, IT and engineering.

If you’re in Denmark, happen to be in Denmark, or are close, write Søren!


Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank


“A senior US diplomat said it was up to individual countries to decide on joining a new China-led lending body, as media reports said France, Germany and Italy have agreed to follow Britain’s lead and join the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). A growing number of close allies were ignoring Washington’s pressure to stay out of the institution, the Financial Times reported, in a setback for US foreign policy.” from The Guardian.

Similar stories ran in most of the world papers — Telegraph, NYT, and so on — China wants to fund large-scale infrastructure projects in some of Asia’s poorest countries; the US views the move as a means to up-end the IMF and World Bank (institutions that helped to usher-in the world economy that we know today.

National Geographic Called-out as Colonial


Story at The Guardian: “More than two dozen archaeologists and anthropologists have written an open letter of protest against the “sensationalisation” of their fields, with one accusing National Geographic of reverting to “a colonialist discourse” in announcing researchers had found two city-like sites in the deep jungles of Honduras.”

Should be interesting to see how this unfolds: “Open letter says announcement ignores decades of research and says of indigenous peoples there: ‘It is colonialist discourse which disrespects them’” (in the context of some recent discussion about coloniality and decoloniality on the blog).

Might be a good case study in the intersection of public understanding of science, media, and scientists (as the letter was written by archaeologists.

Is Access to Darkness an Equality Issue?


“… many people have never experienced true darkness,” a report reads. The discussion is mainly about light pollution, and the body-burdens associated with 24 hour light exposure, which are on the rise:

It’s estimated that the amount of light in the night sky globally is increasing by around 6 per cent a year, but that statistic can be deceptive, according to Paul Bogard from James Madison University [author of The End of Night].

There is hope, however, from the marketplace: 

The Amsterdam-based company Tvilight is one of those firms leading the way in the practical roll-out of smart lighting technology. Tvilight manufactures street-based lighting systems that automatically respond to traffic and pedestrians. The idea is to create urban lighting systems that limit light pollution in suburban areas, with lights dimming or illuminating depending on the level of human and vehicular traffic detected.

I get the feeling, however, that access to darkness is going to become another equality issue: the wealthy in wealthy areas will get access to the diminishing resource of darkness based on their access to other resources (which, quite ironically, may have been earned through the bright lights of some other company) while the less than wealthy suffer light pollution. The capitalist logic is breath-taking: Sell them light and then sell them darkness! (this would work as a case lesson for students about resources and access to those resources, especially something as “given” as access to darkness … no doubt, college students have low access to darkness many campus locations)

Infrastructure Making People in Europe circa 2030


Two months ago the European Commission’s Mobility and Transport wing announced “Infrastructure – TEN-T – Connecting Europe,” an approximately €700 billion financial investment (into 2030), which is an extension of previous efforts to unite Europe infra structurally, where TEN-T means Trans-European Transport Networks. Continue reading

3:1 — On “Decoloniality” (and the Nonhuman) — Post 3 of 3

This is the third post from the trenches of the Eastern Sociological Society’s conference in NYC this past weekend. The linked workshop entitled, “Decoloniality and the Social Sciences,” explored such diverse topics as floating medical clinics, non-GMO seed sharing, the high seas, cargo, zombies, pedagogy, dolphins, and derivatives.

For my part, I reflected upon decoloniality and the nonhuman. Elsewhere I have discussed the dolphin and posthuman security, and this topic has stayed on my mind. I recently visited Barataria Bay (home of the bottlenose dolphin, at least until the Deepwater Horizon disaster) and Venice, LA. I found it hauntingly desolate with a devastated post-disaster aesthetic; a place only a true ecologist can love—or an oil exec just off the heliport from the tour of his oil rig.





Pictures taken by the author, Feb 2015

The decolonial literature is new to me, and as I did my due diligence with a literature review, I was intrigued by Mignolo’s insistence on “decolonial thinking and doing.” Decolonial thinking de-links epistemically and politically from what he calls “the imperial web of knowledge.”

In short, we must decolonialize our very ways of thinking and being in the world. This epistemic disobedience is necessary for acts of civil disobedience that transform the world. This means body-politics comes before disciplinary management, or more pointedly, decolonial thinking places “human lives and life in general first.” Mignolo writes:

De-colonial thinking presupposes de-linking (epistemically and politically) from the web of imperial knowledge (theo- and ego-politically grounded) from disciplinary management. A common topic of conversation today, after the financial crisis on Wall Street, is ‘how to save capitalism’. A de-colonial question would be: ‘Why would you want to save capitalism and not save human beings? Why save an abstract entity and not the human lives that capitalism is constantly destroying?

Returning to the nonhuman, can this epistemic disobedience be a tactic that aids in co-creating a more just and kind world for all species on this planet? To rephrase as Mignolo’s question: Why would want to save neoliberal forms of production that destroy the only livable planet accessible to us? Capitalism is destroying more than human lives. It is destroying the very biosphere that allows life to persist and thrive. How is this topic not all that we talk, write, and think about in all epistemic communities? 

In my terms, can decolonialty be used against a human centered politics that takes the biosphere as a place to colonize and deplete?

In many ways, decolonial thinking and doing could encompass the nonhuman. Bodies of color and gendered bodies have been animalized in colonial and paternal regimes. Woman are chicks, bitches, sows, cows, birds. Rod Coronado reminds us that the treatment of wolves in the United States twins the way indigenous people were (and are) treated during North American colonization. In human centered politics, non- human animals are useful only in their kill-ability/eat-ability and nature for its rape-ability/use-ability. They are use value only.

This is another kind of “colonial wound,” (regions and peoples classified as underdeveloped economically and mentally), as Mignolo terms it. If decolonial thinking can link diverse experiences and histories heretofore ignored in colonial/imperial systems of knowledge, can it also create an ecological thinking? If colonial ways of being still can’t allow humans to be full humans, how is it even possible to widen this to the nonhuman world? I hope so, but I also know that hope will wear thin with the changes wrought by the Anthropocene.

Be it trees, lemurs, bacteria, mosquitos, koalas or homo sapien sapiens, we should, as members of a shared biosphere, be able to thrive on this planet—even if the way we thrive is different for all of us. A new complex web of co-worlding—snatched from the imperial one—is the only answer. Accomplice networks must be created. 


Walter D. Mignolo. Epistemic Disobedience, Independent Thought and De-Colonial Freedom Theory, Culture & Society 2009 (SAGE, Los Angeles, London, New Delhi, and Singapore), Vol. 26(7–8): 1–23

3:1 — On “Decoloniality” (and The Genomics of Race) — 2 of 3

The Genomics of Race: Implifications for Digital Cultural Health Capital

Following my involvement in the ‘Decoloniality and the Social Sciences’ Panel Series at the ESS meeting in New York City on March 1st, the editors of Installing(Social)Order have invited me to join the discussion of the theme of Decoloniality here on the blog. Many decolonial writers have made the argument that coloniality should not be reduced to the geographical division of Global North and Global South. Coloniality happens in many forms – which is why they should be resisted, according to Walter Mignolo, with ‘epistemic disobedience’ – in many places, including within and across the societies of the Global North. One major aspect of the relation between colonial power and knowledge within the Global North, especially within the United Sates, is facilitated through the concept of ‘race’, which has recently returned to the forefront of attention both politically (Trayvon Martin, Ferguson, etc.) and within science (genomics). In the following essay, I try to uncover some of the traces of the latter discourse and reflect on some of its political consequences for social scientific and STS research.

‘A spectre is haunting sociology, the spectre of race’. While I cannot be sure how many social science writers have deployed this little trope in the current discourses on genomics, race, and sociology, I find precisely the Derridaean allusion – that it is the trace of something that isn’t even there that becomes grafted and iterated – a powerful notion.
‘Race matters’ (in) biomedical terms. The emphasis in this sentence lies in the act of bracketing ‘in’. Within the social sciences, and the Science Studies may count as part of them, knowledge (practices) produced by the genomic regime, have ‘rebooted’ – is this silly Hollywood-ish word not ultimately fitting here? – the question of the materiality of the concept of ‘race’. Often enough, this ‘reboot’ is conducted with a blind eye to social history and a blind eye to the history of science. You do the math!

A slew of authors within the social sciences seem to blindly accept a scientistic approach (see Shiao et al. 2012), that proposes the following: ‘Genomics operates with a concept of race, sociologists may merely interpret the consequences of biomedical research after the fact.’ (Did one side really lose the science wars? My understanding was that both sides, that fought it, were still happy with the fact that it ended in a perpetual cease-fire agreement that no party actually showed up to sign). These authors then happily propose to discard any idea of the baggage that ‘race’ as a category bestows on people’s lived realities, while this baggage-by-any-other-name still weighs and matters heavily on the lives actually lived.

These realities are co-produced by genomic regimes because they do involve the increasing imbrication of biomedical research and health care practice regimes. President Obama’s recent announcement of a Precision Medicine initiative is just the tip of this ginormous iceberg: The (digital) collection, (digital) storing, and (digital) processing of all kinds of – ever BIGGER – data and biomedical materials, will not only be translated into more precise and personalized medical procedures, but it will also make possible intensified surveillance, control, exclusion, and silencing. Which will be the fault lines that these possibilities will move along as vectors? Should we really be surprised – as I argue in more detail elsewhere (2014, forthcoming) if these are the same old fault lines of social inequality and injustice that have been our concern in the 20th century: Ethnicity, race, age, dis/abelism, and sex/gender?

There is, on the one side, the fact that all these regimes of collecting, storing, and processing require access, competencies, motivations, and specific utilities to be able to participate in the digital informational infrastructures that govern them – and, in turn, their participants. On the other side, there are serious scientific, science sociological, and social scientific concerns: As Fujimura et al (2014) effectively demonstrate, many social scientists like Shiao et al (2012) operate with ‘misunderstandings of genetics’, that

‘ultimately pose an obstacle to studying how discrimination, racism, prejudice, and bias produce and reinforce socioeconomic inequalities and other disadvantages for racially marked individuals in society.’ (Fujimura et al: 220)

What’s at stake is, above all, the question of ‘meaning’ of these practices, how we make meaning, and what we make of it, for example politically (see also: Selg 2013).

At the same time, Janet Shim (2014), in extrapolating on the questions raised in the biomedicalization analytical framework (Clarke et al 2010), shows that when it comes to understanding the health outcomes, practicing(!) physicians’ understanding of ‘race’ differs effectively from the of the lived intersectional realities of patients, which leads Shim to introduce for analytical purposes an innovative notion of unequal construction and distribution of cultural health capital. In biomedical research, health care practice, and public health policy regimes (Roberts 2013), ‘race’ emerges therein as something that is equally ill-understood as a social fact as it is as a scientific fact, but it is understood by a great number of influential individuals as – some kind of scientific-sociological hybrid – ‘fact’. ‘Race’ becomes what I call (forthcoming) an implification – a neologism that combines to implicate and intensification. The deployment of ‘race’ in these biomedical and health discourse both implicates and intensifies, by establishing within the social science and from within the social science an inclusion-and-difference-paradigm (Epstein 2007) for contemporary and future health care. To be included, one has to submit biomaterials and other information for collection, storage, and processing, and one has to be able to do so in the terms of digital information architectures. By inclusion, one becomes reified in differences that are precisely not the lived realities one experiences in standing at the point of one’s intersection(alitie)s, but by the practices of a digital information expert regime. It is in this way that ‘race’ comes to matter anew (see also: Roberts 2012; Benjamin 2013). Expanding on Shim’s proposal, I have developed a concept of digital cultural health care capital (2014, forthcoming) to understand and study this development.

Finally, it is precisely because of this kind of haunting that ‘Black lives matter’: The necropolitical power (Mbembe 2003) in-play is worlded by the reification of race that implificates ‘Black lives’ as mattered in just such way that their lives ‘can be taken away’ – in the neocolonial terms of contemporary neoliberalistic regimes: the way Black lives are ‘matter’ is in terms of a negative interest rate on (the relevance of) life. In other words, the neoliberal regime and the way its practices ‘racialize’ translate Black lives to mean ‘a bad investment’, that is why for the neoliberal political economy Black lives appear mattered less relevant than others.

Benjamin, Ruha. People’s Science: Bodies and Rights on the Stem Cell Frontier. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2013.
Clarke, Adele E., Laura Mamo, Jennifer Ruth Fosket, Jennifer R. Fishman, and Janet K. Shim, eds. Biomedicalization: Technoscience, Health, and Illness in the U.S. 1 edition. Durham, NC: Duke University Press Books, 2010.
Epstein, Steven. Inclusion: The Politics of Difference in Medical Research. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2007.
Fujimura, Joan. H., D. A. Bolnick, R. Rajagopalan, J. S. Kaufman, R. C. Lewontin, T. Duster, P. Ossorio, and J. Marks. “Clines Without Classes: How to Make Sense of Human Variation.” Sociological Theory 32, no. 3 (September 1, 2014): 208–27. doi:10.1177/0735275114551611.
Mbembe, Achille. “Necropolitics” Public Culture 15, no.1 (Winter 2003): 11 – 40
Roberts, Dorothy. Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics, and Big Business Re-Create Race in the Twenty-First Century. New York: New Press, The, 2012.
Roberts, Dorothy E. “Law, Race, and Biotechnology: Toward a Biopolitical and Transdisciplinary Paradigm.” Annual Review of Law and Social Science 9, no. 1 (2013): 149–66. doi:10.1146/annurev-lawsocsci-102612-134009.
Selg, Peeter. “The Politics of Theory and the Constitution of Meaning.” Sociological Theory 31, no. 1 (March 1, 2013): 1–23. doi:10.1177/0735275113479933.
Shiao, Jiannbin Lee, Thomas Bode, Amber Beyer, and Daniel Selvig. “The Genomic Challenge to the Social Construction of Race.” Sociological Theory 30, no. 2 (June 1, 2012): 67–88. doi:10.1177/0735275112448053.
Shim, Janet K. “Cultural Health Capital A Theoretical Approach to Understanding Health Care Interactions and the Dynamics of Unequal Treatment.” Journal of Health and Social Behavior 51, no. 1 (March 1, 2010): 1–15. doi:10.1177/0022146509361185.
———. Heart-Sick: The Politics of Risk, Inequality, and Heart Disease. Biopolitics : Medicine, Technoscience, and Health in the 21st Century. New York: New York University Press, 2014.
Stingl, Alexander. “The ADHD Regime and Neuro-Chemical Selves in Whole Systems. A Science Studies Perspective.” In Health and Environment: Social Science Perspectives, edited by Helena Kopnina and Hans Keune, 157–86. New York, NY: Nova Science Publishers, 2010.
Stingl, Alexander I. “Braining Your Life and Living Your Brain: The Cyborg Gaze and Brain-Images.” In Neuroscience and Media: New Understandings and Representations: New Understandings and Representations, edited by Michael Grabowski. Routledge, 2014.
———. “Digital Fairground ? The Virtualization of Health, Illness, and the Experience of ?Becoming a Patient? As a Problem of Political Ontology and Social Justice.” In Mediations of Social Life in the 21st Century, 32:53–92. Current Perspectives in Social Theory 32. Emerald Group Publishing Limited, 2014.
———. The Digital Coloniality of Power. Lanham, MD: Lexington, forthcoming.
Stingl, Alexander I. “Digital Divide.” In Encyclopedia of Global Bioethics, edited by Henk ten Have. New York: Springer, forthcoming.
Stingl, Alexander I., and Sabrina M. Weiss. “Mindfulness As/is Care.” In Wiley-Blackwell Handbook of Mindfulness, edited by Ellen Langer, Amanda Ie, and Christelle T. Ngnoumen. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 2014.

Alexander Stingl, our guest


Just a quick note that Alexander Stingl has offered to join us this week as we explore ideas related to “decoloniality,” a fresh and growing perspectives about the “other half” of modernity, namely, coloniality, and ways that people might learn to de-link from the colonial matrix of power it is based on.

As I mentioned previously, Alexander played a critical role in getting the topic of decoloniality to the Eastern Sociological Society’s annual meeting (possibly the first time significant time has been devoted to the topic in this venue — so bravo!).

Thanks Alexander!

3:1 — On “Decoloniality” — 1 of 3


“Decoloniality” is our topic for the week. It is immediately important to note that decoloniality is not the political process of decolonizing previously colonized nations (i.e., decoloniality cannot be reduced process of decolonization); decoloniality is not the academic study of living, thinking, and acting in a decolonized land or producing theoretical models of it (i.e., decoloniality cannot be reduced to academic research in post-colonial studies); decoloniality is also not the equivalent critique of modernity that post-modernity offers either (i.e., decoloniality cannot be reduced to post-modernism because post-modernism was/is a critique of Western modernity from the inside).*

In contrast, coloniality is what Walter Mignolo refers to as the “darker side of modernity;” the idea that modern science, modern capitalism, belief in progress, gargantuan architectural and infrastructural advancements (the brighter side of modernity, one might say) all brought with them a few genuine liabilities such as major justifications for colonialism largely based on selective understandings of Europe’s “advanced place in history” and the advent of scientifically based racial hierarchies. Obviously, this dates as far back as the Renaissance.

Coloniality is a logic. We think and act through it; the logic is undergird. It lasts longer than the colonized peoples of a colonized nation are no longer colonized. It is a logic of many things, many things good and bad, for example, a logic of selective intervention, selective classification, de-personalized knowledge, and so on (this is quite complex, so, to those interested, this list will expand as you read more). The impact is long lasting, as well. When a panel of men determine women’s access to reproductive rights, we can see the logic — not in the outcome, but in the very existence of of such a panel being legitimate in the first place; we might say this is the colonization of reproduction (which is not to say that discussing women’s access to reproductive rights is wrongheaded, it is only to say that the idea of intervening into such matters for women or on behalf of women is perhaps not so legitimate as it may at first glance appear). Likewise, when poor individuals living in cramped urban environs, and the “right answer” is to start a war on poverty and intervene into the lives of people, build a massive public housing infrastructure and then step away from such matters, we might say that this is the colonization of poverty. This sort of coloniality is perhaps the most obvious when indigenous knowledge about the environment and nonhuman inhabitants comes into contact with outside forces like the state, for example, in this herring fishery controversy featuring fish, bears, aboriginal peoples, police at fishing docks, and more (one of the more difficult parts of this case is that the fishing industry is not pressing for fishing rights in these waters off of British Columbia and scientists seem to have heard and support local indigenous knowledge on the need to leave herring alone in these fragile waters). So, this is something of the lasting logic of coloniality as might be apparent even now in our postmodern times, and the pillars of science, the state, modern medicine, and the like help to produce the long-lived “colonial matrix of power” (along with all the distinctions Latour is happy to point out regarding the split between human and nonhuman, man and beast, culture and nature, and so on).

The goal of the decoloniality project (writ large) is to “de-link” from the colonial matrix of power by as many means as are possible, and so far, this has mainly implied decolonial thinking and doing (i.e., epistemology and political praxis, respectively). The goal is to identify “options confronting and delinking from […] the colonial matrix of power” (Mignolo 2011: xxvii).

This week, I (Nicholas Rowland), Stef Fishel, and Mary Mitchell, contributed to a panel session about decoloniality at the Eastern Sociological Society’s annual meeting (in good old New Amsterdam … er. New York). This week, we will be talking about the cases we shared at the conference to give readers a sense of what STS might be able to offer this line of research and research activism which largely comes from the non-Westernized world, the Global South, and academically speaking from the humanities. Also, we are deeply indebted to those who presented in the panel and specifically to Sabrina Weiss and Alexander Stingl for overseeing and organizing the panels!

*As you might note the wikipedia page for decoloniality is marked at the top by a message claiming that it is not balanced and fair by wikipedia’s standards. Given what has been discussed about the colonial matrix of power, this is both a cautionary thought and possibly evidence for the difficulties of de-linking from the colonial matrix of power (especially the critique that the piece is not neutral, with the implied message “it should be neutral,” given that neutral can be used precisely to neutralize political or radical ideas).

Ship Breaking in Bangladesh


Worth seeing: The Ship Breakers. Ships, at the ends of their lives, are rammed into the beach, thusly beaching these “end of life” ships onto the shores of ship-breaking yards of Bangladesh, India, and a few other states. The work is dangerous and the environmental consequences are visually obvious. There are other examples here, here, and especially this piece in the Atlantic here.

Free City Infrastructure Course On-line


Thanks to our friends at “Politika i Technologija” we just learned about a free city infrastructure course on-line called “TechniCity (brought to you by the Ohio State University. I’ve got mixed feelings about free on-line courses, but this one might be interesting if you’re curious about how technology is used to engage people in city spaces to help improve our cities. While my usual response is “try fixing bridges” when I am asked about crumbling US infrastructure, the course appears to contain some techniques and strategies for mapping human emotions and frustrations onto cityscapes in order to determine which spots in town are positive environments and which could use some improvement (i.e., where are the traffic jams and unhappy pedestrians).

The two faculty sponsors for the course are up to the task:

Dr. Jennifer Evans-Cowley is the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and Administration in the College of Engineering and Professor of City and Regional Planning in the Knowlton School of Architecture at The Ohio State University. She has passionate interests in technology that can help the public engage in participatory planning for the future of cities. She was named by Planetizen as one of the top 25 leading thinkers in urban planning and technology. She has won numerous awards for her teaching, advising, and research. Cowley publishes and speaks widely on technology and the future of the city. You can follow Dr. Evans-Cowley on Twitter @EvansCowley.

Dr. Tom Sanchez earned his PhD in City Planning from Georgia Tech in 1996 and has since taught at Iowa State University, Portland State University, the University of Utah, and is currently professor of Urban Affairs and Planning at Virginia Tech. Dr. Sanchez conducts research in the areas of environmental justice, technology, and the social aspects of planning and policy. He also serves as editor of Housing Policy Debate and is a nonresident senior fellow of the Brookings Institution. You can follow Dr. Sanchez on Twitter @tomwsanchez.

Teaching STS: Defensive Architecture


Opportunity: Have students map “defensive architecture” and “infrastructural discrimination” on campus or in a local city environment. 

We are not talking about the defensive structures of yesteryear (large, impenetrable fortresses), defensive architecture now constitutes a major infrastructural investment in major cities (even as bridges crumble and roads decay).

What’s the point? Those spikes are about keeping homeless people from laying down or loitering (above, an imagine from China), although many readers might be more familiar with the anti-skate boarding elements of our urban landscape, like these below (the most supremely dick-ish one I could find):


Here is a broader array of these sorts of defensive architectural moves from around the world. This form of blatant infrastructural exclusion (or infrastructural discrimination, if that makes sense) is surprisingly obvious in everyday life.

No doubt, those of you teaching on college campuses have seen elements like this. A viable assignment, especially if you live in an urban area, might be to map (cartographically) where defensive architecture is in your city.


If you’re not in an urban area, then perhaps less obvious forms of infrastructural discrimination might work, for example, sending students around to determine what school entrances are up to code, for example, related to wheel chair entry or fire code. Surely, this won’t make you popular with the higher-ups, especially if you find the college wanting in some regard; however, it will turn campus into a living laboratory for these sorts of infrastructural investigations. A campus map is usually just as easy to get as a city map, after all.

3:1 — Experts Everywhere? Experts Nowhere? — 3 of 3


Water, water, everywhere, but not a drop to drink … 

Earlier this week, Jacob raised the provocative notion that “terrorism expert” was something of an oxymoron drawing attention to how supposed terrorism expert Steve Emerson made some irresponsible public remarks about the concentration of Muslim persons in a number of cities.

But Jacob also shed some light on how the very notion of terrorism does not lend itself to a clean/clear subject to be an expert in because terrorism, on the one hand, has a political dimension that can never really be excised to form a “pure” science (cough) and, on the other hand, terrorism is often in the eye of the beholder (or as Jacob said somewhere, one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter). It all reminded me of some readings in my Social Problems class about terrorism – during class discussion a student (perhaps unknowingly) raised a really important question: “Hey, Dr. Rowland, does it matter that the author of this piece is not at a University and instead works for the government military complex?” (not a perfect question, obviously, but it lead to a great discussion, and, at times, a heated one). Returning to the crisis of expertise in terrorism: my hunch was that some serious traction might be gained by thinking about how persons in this line of work get said expertise during training – given that, as Jacob noted, certificates in this line of work are a dime a dozen – or what sorts of activities a person can be involved in – journalistic work with terrorists inside prisons, for example – that justify their expert status. On Monday, we were questioning the very possibility of an expert of terror(ism); the supposed experts, whom get a good deal of public and political attention, seem not to be experts in the scientific context that the term typically is used (thus, science is used in name only).

On Wednesday, while Jacob’s terrorism experts are rarely questioned and get tons of public attention, Stef’s climate experts are seemingly always questioned and get little public attention (at least, positive public attention, or they are pigeon-holed as participating in some grand debate about “warming”).


So what makes Jacob’s experts – who reach ecstasy on a daily news show – legitimate experts and Stef’s experts – who cringe at the thought of a daily news show – illegitimate experts?

If Lyotard was right about one thing in “The Postmodern Condition” it was his commentary about scientific expertise, especially about how “old fashioned” scientific expertise was being gradually replaced a parallel somewhat pseudo-scientific enterprise that serviced capital interests (think business scholarship and that ilk) and the state (Jacob’s terrorism experts will do). The net result was a plurality of experts, but what Lyotard did not tease out (he was too busy indicating that this was undermining the grand narrative that Science worked so hard to erect over passing centuries) was that this gradual shift toward a plurality of expertises allowed for a whole new game to be played in public arenas: You could have your cake and eat it too, so to say, you could have your (essentially unquestioned) experts while simultaneously challenging the expert-status of some other expert on the grounds that they claim to be an expert. There is a split; a fissure. This crisis of science, as Jacob pointed out in a comment to Stef’s post anticipates my response: Mertonian norms have failed us under precisely the postmodern conditions we live in!

What do I mean by “water, water, everywhere, but not a drop to drink” as it applies to experts? My meaning is simple: The split in expertise means that experts are somehow all around us all the time, but none is to be trusted outright, unless of course there are other non-scientific reasons for doing so.

Consider the anti-vaccination controversy (or movement, though I shudder to call it a movement). Now, it is worth noting that this is nothing new – anti-vaxers have been around for nearly a century (as long as we’ve had vaccinations to be against, folks have been against them). While there is a lot of attention directed at the US these days – because of the thought link between vaccinations and autism (where “evidence doesn’t dispel doubts”) and the recent outbreak of measles at Disneyland – there have been similar international examples in recent history in Sweden, the Netherlands, England, Ireland, and so on. What is it that makes Jenny McCarthy expert enough for a documentary film about “The Vaccine War”?

My sense is that it is precisely the fissure between expertise in the name of science and other expertises in the employ of capital or politics that opens-up seemingly legitimate space to reroute a general sense of skepticism and then target it so that, on the one hand, we can make the calm, sober, and public claim that a climate scientist is biased on account of being an expert (i.e., those scientists can cook-up any data they want, or that they are in a staunch debate that will never be resolved showing that, in fact, they don’t “know” anything definitively anymore), and, on the other hand, we also make the calm, sober, and public claim that a terrorism expert is unbiased because all s/he wants it to protect the nation and “our way of life” (i.e., the terrorism expert is unbiased on principle account of being obviously biased toward his/her home country, a bias “I can get behind”). This compartmentalization of expetises in relation to how bias operates in public appears to be at play; a bold corruption of Mertonian norms.

3:1 — Non-experts Rule? Climate Change in Question — 2 of 3

This frame that Mundy builds in his post is an outstanding one for looking at other areas where expert opinions circulate and influence political debates. Broadly, it seems to me that interrogating how expertise functions in multiple contexts is a crucial academic endeavor given the importance of the issues that expert opinions tend to gravitate around. While Mundy focuses on the ramifications of the failure of expert opinion in terrorism and how this has far reaching effects in other arenas, I can see another area where expert opinion works (or doesn’t)  in complex and contested ways: the climate change “debates” in the US. (I do hate to use the term “debate” when clearly we are dealing with the very real effects of capitalism and carbon).

Climate change cartoon

What happens if expert opinion—in this case, peer reviewed and verified scientific reports of humankind’s influence on the climate—is ignored, downplayed, insulted, obfuscated, by elected officials? In this case, we long for the “untainted expert” to have a say in what are crucial political decisions for the long-term survival of multiple species on the planet.


As Mundy writes, terrorism must have a “political function” rather than a scientific one if we continue to see “experts” speaking about a concept that is “bankrupt”, or essentially contested. In other words, how can we have experts on an enemy that is everywhere and nowhere depending on the political needs surrounding the definitions? This, as Mundy argues, shows that the “Charlatan profile of the terrorism expert reflects the dubious standing of terrorism as a coherent, uncorrupted idea.”

Can we then tease out what is happening in the use of expert opinion in the politics around climate change denial with Mundy’s formulation? Clearly there is something different happening in my example of expert opinion use (or non-use). What if we replace terrorism with climate change denial from the passage above?

Here goes: Climate change denial must have a political function rather than a scientific one. Just like Mundy’s example of so-called terrorism and oil expertise hiding the politics/antipolitics of our age, the politics/antipolitics of climate change denial is happening prior to expert opinion. Expertise is not allowed in the climate change debate as it would invalidate the very terms of the actual argument: one surrounding the misuse and abuse of earth’s resources for a select few based on a system of profit and rapacious exploitation of the politically weak. Importantly, climate change is not the contested concept, but it is being debated as one by non-expert opinion. Non-expert opinion in control of the very means society has to make substantive changes to our impact on earth’s systems.


Like in terrorism and oil, the crisis in expert climate change opinion and its political denial is one of preserving the productive contradictions between those that profit off the denial of human made climate change–the Anthropocene–and those that are frightened of the consequences of admitting that climate change is “real.”  In fact, in another resonance with Mundy’s post, oil and the oil lobby are certainly the power behind keeping climate change from becoming fact.


In the continued struggle of the scientific community to be heard in politics, we can see a positive example of Mundy’s last sentence: “Experts are not above politics nor can they save us from it. But at least they shed light on how power operates.”

We will all feel the effects of climate change–it is too late to change that–but we can mitigate it if we start this very second.  Not only do we need to shed light on how power operates we need to disrupt it. Capture it and reflect it back into the eyes of those bent on earth’s destruction for personal profit and gain.

3:1 — Experts Rule? Terrorism & oil in question — 1 of 3

In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, Fox News issued an apology and retraction that gained some attention the following week. Terrorism experts had made several outlandish claims about the prevalence of Islam in Europe, including the idea that there are “no go zones” ruled by radical Islamists and Sharia law. Le Petit Journal had an amusing send up:

The Daily Show had a reliably funny take as well.

Bearing the brunt of most of the criticism was terrorism expert Steve Emerson, who made the claim that the city of Birmingham is now almost entirely Muslim. The claim was then repeated several times by the network before being fact checked. Here’s Emerson on Fox:

Emerson gained notoriety for his 1994 PBS documentary “Jihad in America.” Critics of Emerson like to point out that he was one of the first terrorism experts to allege a Middle Eastern connection to the Oklahoma City bombing. His proof? Only Islamic terrorism was capable of such wanton destruction and reckless disregard for life.

In its retractions, Fox News essentially threw Emerson under the bus. But this did not stop others from calling into question the very notion of terrorism expertise.

For example, Glen Greenwald, Jeremy Scahill, and Lisa Stampnitzky discussed the controversy and the broader problem of terrorism expertise on Democracy Now! Here, the main allegation against terrorism expertise is its lack of academic rigor, proper institutional accreditation, and political manipulation. Significant attention is also given to the subjective concept of terrorism. The charlatan profile of the terrorism expert reflects the dubious standing of terrorism as a coherent, uncorrputed idea.

Scahill took things further in a subsequent CNN appearance. There he excoriated all of the major TV news networks — his CNN hosts included — for using terrorism, security, and military experts with questionable credentials and financial incentives.

Implicit in such criticisms of the “terrorism industrial complex” are distinctions between real forms of expertise and false ones; good experts and bad experts; real forms of political violence and ideologically fabricated ones.

Indeed, the alleged crisis of terrorism expertise is not simply the corrupt motives of some experts but also the bankrupt nature of the concept of terrorism. How can one have a reliable field of expertise when the object at the heart of the field is so intensely contested? If one person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter, perhaps the concept should be abandoned. But the fact that we don’t abandon it must be suggestive of the fact that terrorism — and so terrorism expertise — serves a political function, not a scientific one. Hence the theory that terrorism is simply a discourse that legitimates US management of the Middle East.

Amid this crisis in terrorism expertise, a much more profound failure of expert knowledge is taking place, one that will likely have massive and far-reaching effects. This is the failure of oil expertise, and it calls into question some of the assumptions driving criticism of terrorism expertise.

The recent decline in oil prices has been largely seen as a boon to US consumers and the bane of Putin’s ambitions. The current glut of oil on the market is often interpreted as a Saudi led effort to undermine the new energy confidence of the United States, green alternatives, Iran, or all of the above. The effects of price crash have yet to be fully understood; the geopolitical ramifications could be enormous. One effect of the 1985-85 oil price collapse — to which the current crisis is drawing comparisons — was the economic undermining of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War soon thereafter.

What is surprising about this new reality of $2 a gallon gas is that we are surprised. The main allegation against terrorism expertise was the subjective idea of terrorism. Oil, on the other hand, is objective.

But for all the purported objectivity of oil — its finiteness, its quantifiability — no one seems to have any idea how much is out there. We will never see $100 oil again or we will soon see $200 oil. Just as the shale oil boom in North America seems to have taken the global oil industry and US politics by surprise, so too has the recent collapse in oil prices — and with it the temporary mothballing of the US gas industry in some areas.

How can these surprises keep happening when the resource is supposedly fixed and — unlike terrorism expertise — the experts are incredibly well trained, objectively credentialed, and housed in the world’s most prestigious universities, corporations, and government bureaucracies?

Next to defense, communications, and space research, it is difficult to think of a modern industrial sector that has more techno-scientific expertise and state power behind it than the oil industry. By oil expertise, one should not think of the handful of neomalthusian or cornucopian writers and academics who extol the virtues and vices of our modern global civilization being premised upon oil. When we think about oil expertise we should be thinking about a class of expertise that includes thousands of geologists, engineers, cartographers, highly skilled laborers, and government officials. Collectively these represent the highest capacities of modern science, technology, and management. And they consistently fail us.

In the case of terrorism and oil expertise, it might be suggested that the common variable that corrupts both fields is state power and geopolitics. That is, whatever objectivity terrorism expertise seems to have and whatever objectivity oil expertise seems to lack is a reflection of the corrupting influence of politics.

The film Syriana is perhaps the ultimate synthesis of these two corruptions.

Robert Baer (played by George Clooney) is a top Middle East terrorism expert with the CIA who is driven to an insignificant desk job because he sees things as they are, not as politics would want him to. Bryan Woodman (played by Matt Damon) is a private sector expert, an energy markets analyst who watches his dreams of helping a Gulf prince liberalize his country go up in smoke — literally. A CIA drone shoots a hellfire missile into the prince’s motorcade just as Baer is attempting to warn the prince. Baer’s bosses in Langley are out to assassinate the prince for being a free market pragmatist who will sell our precious oil to the Chinese.

The corruption of terrorism and oil expertise by state — and corporate — power is a seductive thesis but ultimately unsatisfactory. Both are premised on the notion that uncorrupted expertise is not only possible but desirable. That is, there seems to be a collective expectation that scientific, technical, and managerial expertise — terrorism, oil, and otherwise — should work, and can work under the right circumstances. That expertise doesn’t work is chalked up to distorting outside influences.

To invent nostalgia for the untainted expert reveals the antipolitics of our age. Often the heroes of our culture transcend politics through their expertise in science, technology, and management. Through and with them, we are tempted to imagine and create a world in which government is left behind. Power naturally devolves to the empowered and emancipated individual as we all become global citizen-experts thanks to Google. Lurking behind most criticisms of expertise is an implicit vision of the world that was perhaps first and best articulated by Ayn Rand.

But imagining and making such a world would mean there is nothing to fight over, a world in which there are no secrets and, more importantly, a world in which nature is infinite. As Timothy Mitchell argues, it was oil that allowed us to first create a world in which nature was counted on not to count. Modern economic science then emerged to exclusively render and manage this strange new world. This impoverished, anatural, and yet highly productive understanding of political economy that we call Neoclassical Economics would soon insinuate itself into the very heart of modern governance as Neoliberalism.

The true crisis of contemporary terrorism and oil expertise is the untenable world hiding behind our criticisms of them. It is also the experts’ inability to account for their mutual imbrication. That is, these failures of expertise are the result of oil and terrorism experts’ embeddedness within the imperfect politics of necessity that emerged at the end of WWII when the previous system — direct European control of territory justified and maintained by overt racism — could no longer underwrite the emerging international energy system. To preserve the productive contradictions at the heart of the oil age (its unimpeded flow and the illusion of its scarcity), US power has had to be asserted in the Middle East on an increasing and increasingly haphazard basis. These US assertions of power, to maintain the particular set of relations dictated by oil’s nature, has of course involved violence, of which terrorism is part of the story.

Experts are not above politics nor can they save us from it. But at least they shed light on how power operates.