Rare color footage here.
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.
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
It’s hard to have much of a future in the Extinction Studies Department. At least, this is the line passed around in department meetings along with nervous giggles from the young faculty. A motto of sorts: PUBLISH AND PERISH!
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.
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
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
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
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!
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.
Originally posted on Path to the Possible:
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.
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 Edmund.firstname.lastname@example.org.”
I’ll be answering the call momentarily …
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, email@example.com
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 (http://eselinger.org/) 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!
“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.
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.
“… 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)
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
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
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. http://www.emeraldinsight.com/doi/abs/10.1108/S0278-120420140000032004.
———. 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.
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!).
“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).
Man Explores Abandoned Untouched Homes In Europe.
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.
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.
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.
Fascinating — thanks dmf — look at what the internet infrastructure “looks like,” illustrated by example in New York City.
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.
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).
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.
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.
This week on the 3:1 Project, we welcome our contributor Jacob Mundy. Jacob is an assistant professor in Peace and Conflict Studies at Colgate University in Hamilton, NY. His research interests include armed conflicts and humanitarian interventions in northern Africa, and he has done field research in Libya, Algeria, Morocco, and Western Sahara. Jacob’s book, currently in press, is entitled Imaginative Geographies of Algerian Violence.
For this installment of Installing Social Order, Jacob writes on the “terrorism industrial complex” and “the distinctions between real forms of expertise and false ones; good experts and bad experts.”
Nick and I will follow on Wednesday and Friday with our responses and thoughts on expertise and its function.
Tune in tomorrow!
Historically sociology has been entwined with the state, sociology playing the part as both gadfly and confidant. Growing out of early nineteenth century moral statistics, the discipline was related to the regulation of the productivity and industrial morale of ‘labouring classes’. Of course, sociology played a critical role too, troubling the purported objectivity of state rule, exploitation, and the role of the state in codifying relations of class, gender and race. The interplay of these lines of inquiry ran deep into the modern state project. As such, sociology has confronted the ‘public’ as both a technique allied to state rule and, as C. Wright Mills wrote, as a project to transform “private issues into public issues of social structure”. As such, there may be something revealing about a state official slighting a practice that had been central to modern state formation, especially when the slight isn’t just rhetorical but manifest in policy.
The infrastructures that connected sociology to ‘the public’ in Canada have been retrenched. The long form census has been scrapped; and the archives and libraries closed or hamstrung by cuts. This may seem minor but sociology grew out of these public institutions; the advice of Harriet Martineau, an oft-neglected figure in the discipline’s formation, to any social observer was to begin by consulting public records. In this sense, the decline of these infrastructures threatens to put a number of issues and questions outside the grasp of the discipline. At the same-time, largely through tax-credits and other initiatives, this government has sought to relocate rule from the scale of the public to individualized ‘rational’ and risk averse subjects (see Phil’s post on resilience). If society assumes a form where rule shifts from the scale of the public to the individual, violence, poverty and even illness can be explained and ‘governed’ at the scale of personal conduct. Thus, there will be no public where the forces of social structure can become framed as public issues. There will be neither ‘a time’ nor ‘a place’ for sociology.
Under these conditions, what might a commitment to sociology entail? To avoid resorting to vagaries or excluding some projects through ignorance, I will lay out two projects that may be of tactical importance. The recent work by William Walters on the constitution and mobilization of publics through specific materials and technologies offers an important line of inquiry. Re-reading the public as practice offers the chance to recover it, which is necessary for state projects are increasingly making less of the public as a technique of rule. Moreover, if the state and sociology have historically met in service of ‘publics’, it seems appropriate that we should take an interest in the public as something more than a metaphysical concept or guarantee of the liberal state. It may be useful to take a similar stance and ask what infrastructures, institutions and scales of state informed sociology as a practice, and what are its conditions of operation today? Second, the strengthening of the individual as a scale of rule has been a gift to disciplines that seek to displace the social with the biological; here I am referring to the return of genetic explanations in crime and the neurological focus of cognitive psychology. Sociology is confronted by battle-lines similar to those that were in place when it became a discipline. Again, it seems we must demonstrate the social-historical character of the ‘individual’ so as to underscore that individuals conceived in projects of rule are not neutral or abstract but reflect the desires and anxieties of those who rule.
Latour saves the earth once again, this time, at a workshop.
Since the 1980s Bruno Latour has attempted to supplant the prevailing image of science by proposing a pragmatic and anthropological perspective. According to Latour, scientific practices forge ‘objective’ and ‘accurate’ knowledge that speaks on behalf of the world. Latour has written extensively on climate change and ecological politics, and on the challenges posed by the figure of Gaia for thought and for scientific and political practice. However, he has made limited reference to the specifics of the work carried out by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and similar institutions involved in mobilising knowledge for environmental governance.
The IPCC is the leading international authority for the assessment of climate change. Formed in 1988 by the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), the IPCC produces reports that assess and summarise scientific literature on the physical science of climate change, adaptation and mitigation.
The two-day workshop takes as its starting point the idea the Latour’s work can be used to explain and understand the workings of environmental governance, using the IPCC as a prime example.
It happened to me just a few months ago. I’d had the experience last year too; an engaged second year undergraduate had been the source of my discomfort some time ago. I am certain it happens in introductory classes on a recurrent basis at the start of each academic year. It probably happened to you at some point as well. “What do sociologists do?” A simple question. An honest question. The problem lies in the repertoire of possible responses to such an inquiry. On the spot and in the eager gaze of a hundred students, I relied on how I’d seen other profs approach this prickly question lately. The students let me speak of the supposed instrumental value of sociology, things like landing a job in government or at a not-for-profit. I highlighted transferable skills that they could put to use outside of academia like reading, writing and critical thinking. They leaned back and forth as I spoke of the importance of research, the link to policy, the virtue of knowledge, the importance of understanding root causes and historical ties between academia and activism. I may have overplayed my hand by the time I was interrupted. “But what do you do?” I had completely misunderstood the question. Collective pause. The emphasis was on doing. What sociologists do?
Lately there has been somewhat of a disjointed set of claims to be doing something: doing/undoing gender; doing/undoing race; doing/undoing ethics; doing/undoing culture; constructing/deconstructing; even one of STS’s ‘sacred cows’, Latour, has famously engaged in reassembling, a moniker for doing. What can all this doing do? Ventures of this kind, particularly when focused on categories of classification or taken-for-granted concepts, can be fruitful and (perhaps this is a page from the ‘social-sciences-as-reflexivity’ playbook) we ought to be engaged as reflexive researchers. But, as H.S. Becker reminds us: sometimes it’s a matter of context.
While departments are increasingly under measurement pressures imported from public administration and business models, the esteemed entrepreneur is said to be capable of harvesting external funding, albeit increasingly from non-traditional sources, to make-up for purloined research money. Alongside dwindling funding is a call to increase research outputs. Here, the traditional types of ‘products’- publications- are most praise worthy, while there exists a hardened reluctance from the administrative vantage point that alternative forms of dissemination, such as zines or social media, can have just as much, if not more, impact and readership. This atmosphere of doing more with less breeds a risk adverse culture towards inquiry where one is hesitant to spend the necessary amounts of time devoted to a single large project or undertake creative forms of research. So it isn’t all that surprising that there has been a rush to doing, a rush to claim importance through tangibles. However, more and more simply calling whatever it is doing isn’t enough. When some of us say we are doing, we are thinking, analyzing, debating, critiquing or challenging. Most often, rightly so. Harper’s comments on committing sociology point to this sensibility, I think.
What this culminates to, from where I sit, is that the university is being positioned as the de facto institution to train its members, its community and its students in how to be resilient. The aspired resilient subject accepts conditions of existence and internalizes strategies and tactics to navigate a given field. Rather than an impetus to change one’s environment, the resilient subject ideally copes and seeks-out contingency plans. The resilient subject is envisioned as capable of withstanding shocks and rebounding from catastrophe amidst uncertainty. The resilient subject is resourceful and instrumental in her perceived daily actions. It is this instrumentalist story that I was led to recite to a classroom of students. It is this focus on instrumentalism that Harper was recalling: don’t think too hard or ask intangible questions. Don’t be political. I remain unsure exactly what it means to commit sociology, but if I had to guess I’d say it’s something like a vocation, a commitment. That commitment is a political one. Maybe it needs to be recognized as such?
At a time when inter-disciplinary and multi-disciplinary research is becoming the norm, aligning one’s work with any one discipline seems outdated. However recent events in Canada have prompted me to re-consider identifying myself as a sociologist (in-training). On the one hand, the discipline has been put into question by veteran Canadian sociologists (see Curtis and Weir). Whatever side of the debate one takes, sociology’s public utility and institutional longevity have been cast into doubt. On the other hand, the Prime Minister of Canada is openly dismissive of sociology. In the wake of the Boston terror attacks, after one of his political opponents highlighted the need to consider the “root causes of terrorism,” the Prime Minister famously replied that now is not the time to “commit sociology”: terrorist attacks must always be dealt with immediately and only in the severest of terms by state authorities. More recently, Harper refused calls for a public inquiry into the thousands of missing and murdered aboriginal women in Canada, rejecting it is a “sociological phenomenon.” Given our leader’s indifference to sociology, the discipline’s uncertain future, and the general movement towards post-disciplinarity, this hardly seems like the time to dedicate oneself to entering the profession’s ranks.
But Harper’s off-the-cuff remark has, in a way, galvanized sociologists (and criminologists) who have come to the defense of the evidence-based policy-making approach that the Conservatives continue to ignore. And the resulting op-eds and blog posts have consistently made reference to the Conservative Government’s “War on Science.” Since Harper took office in 2006, federal funding for research departments (e.g., Environment Canada, Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Library and Archives Canada, Parks Canada) has been slashed, federal labs have been shut down, and government libraries have closed their doors. The national census even became an object of controversy because of changes made by the ruling government.
As the decision-making processes of the executive branch have become increasingly autonomous, Canada’s knowledge production infrastructure has crumbled and federal scientists have been muzzled. This prompted federal scientists and researchers, in the summer of 2012, to march on Parliament to stage a funeral mourning the “Death of Evidence”. Perhaps this war was begun as soon as Harper was elected. In 2006, the office of the National Science Advisor, previously reporting directly to the Prime Minister, was first moved to Industry Canada; the Science Advisor was never consulted by Prime Minister Harper. Then, at the Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Technology, conservative parliamentarians tried to tar and feather Dr. Arthur Carty over his office and travel expenses. Finally, the national science advisor was dismissed by Harper in 2008, and Canada remains the only G8 nation without one.
Now, it is not my intention to turn this space into a soap box for Canada’s scientific public; nor do I want to constitute some sort of “Harper effect” wherein the scientific apparatus has been manipulated by the sovereign towards clandestine, ideological ends. Rather it is intended as a passive aggressive “thank you” letter. Whatever Harper’s actual views of sociology, he has unknowingly gifted sociologists with an interesting and engaging problematic: instead of approaching sociology from a disciplinary/institutional perspective, we should approach it mainly as a practice that necessarily engages others and oneself. Given the ongoing “war” in the human-park that is Canada, I think it is indeed time to commit sociology, and, like others, am committed, now more than ever, to that label— thanks, both directly and indirectly, to the Prime Minister.
We are continuing the 3:1 format into 2015. We are kicking off the New Year with a series of posts on Post-Disciplinarity or “Committing Sociology.” It might be a stretch to treat Post-Disciplinarity and Committing Sociology as synonyms, but we could not resist, and our panel of three scholars have some unique perspectives on the topic worth reviewing. This time, none of the blog administrators are going to contribute to this week’s 3:1 and instead we have a completely new group of scholars responding to, reflecting upon, and criticizing the notion of and instances of “committing sociology.”
This week contributors — who we are grateful to and eager to hear from — include:
Monday — 1 of 3 — Michael Lait: You might know him from his solid review of Lemke’s Biopolitics, Michael is a student at Carleton University, Sociology and Anthropology working under rock n’ roll state theorist Bruce Curtis. Michael’s current work is about controversy: his “research maps the political situation of Gatineau Park, a 361km² semi-wilderness area located near the Canadian cities of Ottawa, Hull, and Gatineau. … [and, in particular,] how controversies have been mediated by the Park’s publics by way of formal and informal negotiations with the NCC as well as other institutional and government bodies.” He’ll fit right in around here.
Wednesday — 2 of 3 — Phillip Primeau: Phillip is also a graduate student in the same program as Michael at Carleton University, Sociology and Anthropology. His research interests makes for a fine stable of topics: “Governmentality studies, historical sociology, moral regulation, state formation, municipal governance, community capacity building and resilience training.” He also, I have come to find, makes some killer Prezi presentations.
* Image from: http://sd.keepcalm-o-matic.co.uk/i/keep-calm-and-commit-sociology-4.png
In a peculiar turn of events, Shinichi Mochizuki, a mathematician from Kyoto University, is really peeved — maybe even more than a little irksome — that nobody will read and review his solution to the ABC conjecture. To date, no errors have been uncovered, and yet the proof remains unverified. His work sits in a scientific nether region; his work is neither falsified nor supported as truth.
Part of the concern at work in this controversy, we learn, is that the ABC conjecture (also known as the Oesterlé–Masser conjecture) gets its name from a simple equation — a + b = c — but the implications run deep in the mathematical community, especially that it provides answer to deep questions in the theory of numbers (number theory).
“[F]ellow mathematicians,” he claims, “are failing to get to grips with his work.” On balance, however, his proof is 500 pages long of extremely dense material. Mochizuki’s current strategy: Put the proof on-line and wait.
The solution from the mathematical community is for him go on a world tour and share his proof in person. According to a New Scientist essay, however, Mochizuki’s refuses to share his work through a series of talks and lectures — I Will Not Lecture, he is all but saying. Instead, he is proposing to train a few scholars in his technique so that at least someone is able to review his work and determine if there are any errors. My understanding of the math community is limited, but I am fairly confident that this is seen as abnormal behavior among insiders.
I’d welcome some insight from the social studies of science community on this matter. The notion that some discoveries are, in effect, peerless — meaning, even seemingly equal peers in the scholarly community are unable to verify or falsify a truth claim — is relatively rare. Moreover, that Mochizuki won’t go on a “public tour” (let’s say) is also interesting because research in SSS has routinely shown that the frontier of math research is often a dynamic activity undertaken in person with others, which makes Mochizuki’s refusal all the more interesting.
The New Scientist piece chalks it up to pride. I can understand that. It is unconfirmed, but a few stories on Mochizuki indicate that it took him four solid years of work to complete this proof. Possibly, he expected to be warmly embraced by the mathematics community, rewarded, lauded, and raised-up as a public figure of math for the world. Who knows? Mochizuki won’t talk, so we don’t know yet.
This would be great to teach with: because his work sits in a scientific nether region; his work is neither falsified nor supported as truth, which makes this a good case study for teaching students about the philosophy of science, especially about the role of consensus among scholars as well as some more general notions of falsificationism and the work of the early logical positivists.
Nicholas gave us one of our most popular posts this year–a rumination from November 2013. Given its continuing popularity, perhaps the 3:1 Project should take on how we define our disciplines…
Originally posted on Installing (Social) Order:
Here goes: Is STS a bordello or cabinet of wonders? (I write in the plural because Jan-H. and I were writing this together)
… we recognize the unorthodox and outlandish agency of “nonhumans” like scallops, microbes, Portuguese sea-going vessels, and British military aircrafts. In fact, the way we just listed those example case studies into the minutiae of STS scholarship is more telling than it might immediately appear. You see, STS is populated by intriguing micro case studies, and, from a far, STS appears to outsiders like a “cabinet of curiosities.” Because our research is punctualized into individual case studies, and these case studies were so routinely juxtaposed with one another during the era of great edited volumes…
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Thanks to all our guest bloggers during our first installments of the 3:1 Project. We’ll be back in the New Year with another set of posts on the Post.
In his wonderful 1966 book The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences, Michel Foucault concluded on a striking note that has haunted me ever since I first read it, over twenty years ago. He argued that ‘Man’ is ‘an invention of recent date’, but one so powerful that it has been able to reorganize the entire surface and structure of our politics, our sociality, and our thought. The Human became the fundamental source and site of knowledge, a puzzle to be investigated and solved, a thing to be classified and ordered, and more darkly, to be invented, emancipated, dominated, empowered, immunized and cleansed. For so long seen as the source and object of truth, the essence and ground of Being, the mystery of its own emancipation and power over nature, we were told the invention of Man was a rupture in thought that silently organized everything from the sciences of biology and economics to the animating ontologies of the state, democracy or communism. To add to the shock, Foucault also concluded that if Man was a recent invention, it was one ‘perhaps nearing its end’. We could wager—or perhaps hope—‘that man would be erased, like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea’. It was an urgent task, he thought, to awaken ourselves from this ‘anthropological sleep’, this ‘dogmatism folded over on itself’.
The appearance of that rhythmic surge of the sea in Foucault’s eloquent closing metaphor portends the posthuman—given the insistence of posthuman theory that we displace the human from the centre of our thought and bring other species, the agency of matter, and the complexities of systems and ecologies, to the forefront of our ethical and political horizon. No longer is the human a bounded body, but one existentially dispersed among biosphere and biome; no longer is the human a ‘mind’ in awe of the starry heavens above and the moral law within, but an existence ethically bound to the social, ecological and cosmic systems that make it possible; no longer is the human the sole possessor of rights under the law, but other species and ecosystems as well; and no longer can we assume that the individual or the person, along with their collective avatar, humanity, is a secure anchor for rights, dignity and survival. Rather, with the invention of the human came the ability to divide and classify the human—to allocate more or less life, more or less suffering, more or less health, to the point of the ultimate threshold, wherein we decide what kind of life can live. And thus the words biopolitics, thanatopolitics, and genocide, also came into our knowledge.
Yet now we have moved from the era of genocide into the era of extinction, both as a possibility and a preoccupation for philosophy. Nuclear holocaust, mass species extinctions, and non-linear climate change: the triple harbingers and horrors of the Anthropocene, when ‘Man’ is the ultimate agent of epochal system change, suddenly revealed as the victim of his own mastery. So we can date the posthuman to the awareness of the Anthropocene, or the beginnings of the philosophical challenge to humanism that was announced by Foucault. Yet I think we can date it much earlier, to the works of Newton, Galileo, Descartes and especially Bacon, which paired an advocacy of the scientific method and mathematics with a hubristic belief in the unalloyed good of invention, technological progress and the dramatic increase in human power and mastery it would grant. Incredibly, Bacon argued that Man would recover his ‘empire over creation’ that was lost at the fall of Adam and Eve.
It has been a long journey from their vision and what it made possible: the circumnavigation of the earth; long centuries of capital accumulation through slavery and imperialism, investments that made the industrial revolution (and its greenhouse emissions) possible; and since, the multiple and tightly-bound military and technological revolutions that have filled our atmosphere with carbon, unified humanity electronically and endangered every living thing on this planet. In short, the Human was always pregnant with the Posthuman; the Anthropos with the Anthropocene.
Extinction then comes with a profound ethical, and political, demand. We must return to Foucault, and imagine ourselves standing in despair, in 2048, at the edge of a poisoned sea utterly empty of fish, to ask: Can we think our way out of the human before the planet, with a mute and irreversible finality, forces the question on us for real?
As a student I once visited a lecture on “artificial intelligence for social scientists” that confronted me with several provocative scenarios: What if we are approaching an age of intelligent machines? What if humans are about to transform themselves into cyborgs? What if we will be governed by technological systems beyond our control? I was fascinated by these thought experiments – and also suddenly shaken by an ontological insecurity. What if there once will be a society without humans?
The lecture strongly irritated my perspective on the social world. It took a good dose of social science to transform this irritation into productive curiosity: 10 years later I finished my PhD thesis about posthuman utopias. I turned the question concerning posthumanity into a question concerning the social construction of posthumanity. In other words: I regained ontological security in the comforting arms of constructivism. In a way.
Anthropocentric theories that claim that humans construct society (as well as technology and nature) never quite convinced me. My favorite brand of constructivism became Niklas Luhmann’s operative constructivism, a theory concerned with operations which generate social order. In Luhmann’s theory, society does not consist of humans but of social operations. Luhmann’s theory is severly posthuman, because it regards humans – as well as non-humans – as constructs of social operations. Forget ontology! This was Luhmann’s credo. There is no need for ontological insecurity anymore if ontology is “just” a product of operations constructing ontologies. Even if we don’t follow Luhmann’s total disregard for ontological questions, his operative constructivism is still a good antidote against an “ontologization” of the posthuman.
I share Stefanie’s fascination with “[c]yborgs, robots, enhancements, medical technology”, and with posthuman thinking in general. I love to speculate about different interpretations of quantum mechanics. But I am not so sure how it matters for social science “if we are slices, or smears on a universal map of sorts”. Can we escape the trappings of biological interpretations of the human by embracing cosmology? I don’t think that the real value of posthuman theorizing lies in ontological questions. Have we even been human? Are animals actors? Are interactions with machines “real” interactions or just imagined ones? These are fascinating questions, but as a sociologist I don’t believe I that it is my job to answer them.
I rather want to know: How are humans made posthuman? What is the role of technologies (including social technologies and technologies of the self) in this transformation? What kind of actors are included and excluded? How do these processes of inclusion and exclusion reconfigure social relations? Discourses on animals as citizens of “Zoopolis” and experiments with autonomous cars as new actors on the streets are good examples for contemporary renegotiations of the social. They are pressing political concerns as well as expressions of a new ontological insecurity. Posthumanism might help us analyzing these insecurities without falling back to ontological arguments.
However, the posthuman has two problems: the “post” and the “human”…
This summer I presented at a conference at York University where we discussed what it could mean to be posthuman in the context of international relations, and specifically for security studies. How can we define the posthuman? How would we know if we are posthuman? How about if we were never human (Haraway) or never modern (Latour)?
In my work, I write about the more than human; how human bodies, with their many messmates and commensals, can be used to think about politics in a complex, interrelated world. The pure human doesn’t exist and never did. In my side projects and teaching, I like to think about the human and technology. Cyborgs, robots, enhancements, medical technology. I focus on the drawing of the line between who we see as human and who doesn’t make the cut: when do we become nonhuman/posthuman/superhuman in this context? If we have a pig valve in our hearts? Cheetah legs for running? Exosuits for battle? Laser eye surgery? Performance enhancing drugs?
So, for fun I thought I might ask this question: Rather than biologically or technologically, how could we define a quantum posthuman? Metaphorically speaking. There are many new ideas in physics explaining quantum mysteries, new formulations on the behavior of light, and explanations for quantum entanglement, or spooky action at distance. If they aren’t making your mind explode, you ain’t reading ‘em right. What does thinking about bodies at the quantum level do for us up here?
Last month, The New Scientist featured an a new approach to quantum mechanics that explores quantum weirdness as a “sign of many ordinary but invisible universes jostling to share the same space as ours” rather than the early many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics in which the universe splits into pairs of parallel universes when a wave function collapses. In early interpretations, this means Schrödinger’s cat is both dead and alive depending on the universe in which you find yourself. The worlds do not interact.
In this new theory, argued by Howard Wiseman, at Griffith University in Australia, parallel worlds have always existed, and these universes interact by bumping or colliding into each other. This means the number of worlds would be finite and, with careful experiments, scientists could figure out how many worlds there are in total. And, amazingly, this raises the possibility that we could communicate with other worlds—and our twins that live there. Schrödinger’s cats could meet or go to each other’s funerals, I suppose. If there are multiple humans, occupying the same space, experiencing different lives, this seems to take questions of human subjectivity and individuality away from the traditional monist v. dualist debate. Our division between self and other breaks down—we are multiple versions of ourselves, unique but sharing the same space-time. We are always already Othered. Future theories of the human, (the posthuman?) would have to leave behind much of the current thinking that rests on the human as an individual. Like the sculpture above, Quantum Man, what if we are slices, or smears on a universal map of sorts?
I am happy to introduce two new bloggers to the Experiment this week: Sascha Dickel and Anthony Burke. They join Installing Order to write 500 words on the the idea of the posthuman.
Sascha Dickel is senior researcher at the Munich Center for Technology in Society (MCTS). His latest published work is a chapter in the book Post- and Transhumanism – An Introduction entitled “Eternal Debates on Immortality.” His field of interest includes technoscience, techno-social relations & futures, biopolitics, anthropocene, and citizen science.
Anthony Burke is an Australian political theorist and international relations scholar. His published work ranges across the fields of security studies, war and peace, international ethics, the international relations of the Asia-Pacific and the Middle-East, and Australian politics and history. He is Associate Professor of Politics and International Relations at the University of New South Wales (UNSW), Canberra.
I will kick off the week with some musings on quantum mechanics and the posthuman.
Slavoj Žižek explains his concept of “The Event” on Big Think; the event, get this, “retroactively creates it’s own causes.”
He describes how literary predecessors do this (i.e., it is only once the new author is established that the predecessors are obvious or “produced”) and how falling in love is a good example of an event (i.e., the lighting bolt of first love immediately revising all which came before it as merely a precursor for the moment which had not — until that moment — happened yet).
“You are not in love, you just make one night stands maybe here and there. You meet every evening with friends. You drink. You go to blah, blah. Then all of a sudden in a totally contingent way let’s say you stumble on the street, somebody helps you to stand up. It’s a young girl or boy blah, blah. And, of course, it’s the love of your life. A totally contingent encounter but the result can be that your whole life changes. Nothing is the same as they say. You even spontaneously perceive your entire past life as leading towards this unique moment, you know, the illusion of love is oh my God, I was waiting all my life for you. This – something like this would have been the love event. And I think it’s getting more and more rare today. “
Zizek has previously appeared in other Big Think videos like “The Purpose of Philosophy is to Ask the Right Questions,” and “Why be Happy When You Could be Interesting?“
The degrowth movement(s) for alternative economics have picked up a bit more steam with this new book, which includes contributions and endorsements from a wide array of scholars. There is also this introductory video that makes a few peculiar claims.*
*found at: http://jeremyjschmidt.com/2014/12/01/new-book-out-degrowth-a-vocabulary-for-a-new-era/
Check out an essay by Latour on How Forests Think — free, and oddly interesting.
The essay, which is featured in the Journal of Ethnographic Theory (an awesome, peer-reviewed, open-access on-line journal), is about far more than just reviewing Eduardo Kohn’s fascinating and fascinatingly odd book How Forests Think. Latour, using a conversational tone that at times annoying but still quite engaging because of its seriousness, positions Kohn’s book as a tiny little part of a broader movement to equip social scientists in the new shift toward ontology with methods for studying things like nature (i.e., these human-nonhuman carpets of existence).
Latour is an interesting choice to review the book because Kohn — armed with Pierce and semiosis — dishes on good old actor-network theory. Now, it was my thinking that Latour had sort of left behind that old theory-not-a-theory, but in this essay (posted only days ago) Latour defends ANT. Kohn dishes on ANT a bit, but Latour sees the two directions — his and Kohn’s — as more like allies than enemies. In the end, Latour specifies that Greimas’s semiotics allows for some analytical moves that Pierce’s semiotics (adopted by Kohn) does not and vice versa — sharp analysis here:
And that’s the problem I have with the powerful counterpoison Kohn had to rely on to avoid exoticism, namely the use of Peirce’s semiotics. Since ANT has made large use of another semiotics to escape the narrow “realism” that passes as a description of “societies,” I understand the move. But it’s not the same semiotic at all. Whereas Greimas’ semiotics allows multiple registers since every actant can be played out by many actors, Peirce’s semiotics (at least in Kohn’s treatment of it) claims to be an alternative description of what the world is. Each semiotics risks losing what the other gains. If it’s true that Greimas could have difficulties making ontological claims, he can entertain a vast diversity of registers well beyond relations among selves; while Peirce allows strong ontological claims but has to stabilize much too fast all connections into auto-morphisms. And yet, no matter how good Kohn’s book is, the Runa qua Peircian ontology have not become for everybody else the definition of their common world. Hence the danger of stabilizing too quickly what the furniture of the world is, and the necessity of having a semiotic toolkit able to restart the negotiation whenever it has stalled. Such is for me the advantage of Greimas over (Kohn’s) Peirce.
The problem with 99% of the more general discussion about post-method is that it is not about post-method. What’s wrong with 99% of post-method discussion, in general? His name is Jon Law and he titled a book After Method. Much of what we know about post-method is, naturally, influenced by that which is deemed “after method.” It is here that I stop because the subtitle of the book is especially significant. The subtitle “Mess in Social Science Research” is the real title of this book; this is because the book was about finding some way to engage — rather than paste-over and wipe-away — data anomalies or faint “traces” in our findings. There was probably some bogus publisher pressure to use a provocative title, so perhaps this is forgivable, but because the operative discussion about post-method is really about “dealing with mess” so is this post.
After reading that book, I was not post-method. I had a new attitude toward inquiry, but I was not post-method. I avoided seeing method as a privileged avenue with which truth sprang forth, but I was not post-method. I stopped conceptualizing methods as a way to “clear away the junk” and practice “good mental hygiene,” but I was not post-method. Still, we can refer to this general shift in attitude toward and conceptualization of method (perhaps, quite wrongly, as it implicates pre-method, now-method, and so on) as the operative post-method thing most scholars talk about.
What I learned was how to do research a little differently from that book of Law’s. I would not have conceived of writing a research paper about the development of a research paper as a means to tease-out how reflexivity is practically produced in actor-network accounts. Perhaps one of Law’s great contributions, and he is not the only one who gets at “the mess” this way, of course, was to take theoretical questions and make them practical and vice-versa. Just because something is compatible in theory does not mean that we should expect to see this compatibility in the field; in fact, viscous moments like these, Lynch once said, are often the most interesting. Likewise, problems that should not in theory be a problem are a problem in the field. I think of Law’s work on “foot and mouth” some years ago, “Context and Culling.” It did not occur to me that messy findings were findings at all, or that messy findings could help us understand when it was time to improve models of our subject matter based messy findings. In Law and Moser’s paper, they find that — this summary is glossy to a fault, by the way — a government program (designed to cull (i.e., the selective slaughter of, in this case,) herd animals) appeared to be a “success” on the government’s side of things, but upon closer examination, it was revealed that many herders did not kill a single animal in these areas where foot and mouth disease was now under control. The outcome, in Law and Moser’s accounting, was: now that we know this, we need to build better epidemiological models for how such diseases will be handled because a one-size fits all model, which appears to have worked, in fact, only was a success for reasons unrelated to the epidemiological modeling.
What’s wrong with all that?
1. Do we remake Borges’ map, but messier, if that is even possible? (good point, Michael; if we embrace the mess only to reproduce models of the mess that are life-sized equivalents, then nothing has been gained, beyond satisfying cartophilic tendencies)
2. Or, do we imply that messiness is a new one-way ticket — or detour — to scientific credibility now? (an argument Jan and I warned against strongly in our reflexivity paper)
3. Or, do we probe and challenge the mess? (and you can use, as Michael notes, new forms of visual or experimental methods, but, as Jan follows-up in the commentary on Michael’s post, you can also make attempts to wrangle the mess with traditional methods used with a “post-method” attitude)
*Image from: http://www.nccivitas.org/civitasreview/files/2013/09/junk-mess.jpg
Jan has given an excellent start to think about STS and methods. According to Jan, we are in a world of “messiness” “If we look at the conceptual apparatus”, but not so much “if we look at the standard set of methods (especially of qualitative research) still in use.” I wholeheartedly agree with this analysis, and I think it points to what is wrong with the idea of mess, and how mess relates to the world and methods in the first place.
The thinking assumes that in “classical social science” sociologists believed that it is the role of the social researcher to create methods and theories that show the hidden order of the world. First of all, I think that a lot of social science never believed in this logic (most vehemently, Harold Garfinkel, but also Georges Devereux), a long time before ANT and STS came along. Second, – here is my reflexivity boomerang – even a paper like John Law’s cleans up the mess, by following precisely the logic of ordered articles: introduction, thesis, discussion, conclusion. The “need” for order, is not only one of theories of order. It comes from how writing as practice unfolds (one word after another, quite unlike the world) and how scientific writing is standardized. This at least in part has good reasons, as John Law’s lucid article shows. But even if the diagnosis were right, and we disregard the reflexivity boomerang, the treatment is too timid.
From “the world is a mess” does not follow that our methods and descriptions should be a mess. This would simply leave us with a descriptivist duplication of the world, akin to Borges’ famous map that is a copy of the territory. The underlying problem here is that the treatment is a post-structuralist reconceptualization of methods. This is fine with me, as far as this implies to stop using methods as hammers in search of nails, or as identity (as in: I am an ethnographer, I do biographical interviews etc.). But the treatment stops with theoretical thinking about methods, leaving the practice of methods intact. John Law, in sync with most of STS, still does some form of ethnography. Post methods then, is before methods. Or, as I put it in a forthcoming article: Post-method is still based on a very particular kind of doing methods, namely textual loose translations. These are methods, such as ethnography that do one large jump from the world to a text. I prefer widening our set of methods with more and other methods instead: non-textual tight and loose translations.
I would like to suggest to explore such new methods that re-order and probe and challenge the mess. These are methods that do not translate the world into a text, but rather create new worlds. It is very much like what natural scientists do: to translate the world into something different, which then becomes an actant in itself with unforeseen repercussions for the world and the social researcher themselves. This is something very different from both (post-methods and post-structural) descriptivism and doing critical research. It is different from descriptivism because it accepts that social science needs a strong take on methods. It needs to create methods, as forms of intervention and analysis that slice the world in ways that the scientists, and not the world, decide on. It accepts all the things that ethnographers and large parts of STS abhor: creating actual laboratories, doing experiments, tinker with machines, using automated recording procedures, standardizing protocols, using and even designing all kinds of media and materials and even using force to make research participants do things they would otherwise not do, make subjects object to these procedures.
But it is also different from “critical research” in the sense that such methods do not aim towards an outcome that the researchers pre-determine. Such a world is neither a world of mess, nor a world of “post-method”. Together with my colleagues of shared inc., we call it incubations. You can call it what you like, but I suggest that you at least try it.
For this week’s 3-1 we are dealing with the nuts and bolts of social analytics: methods! Are we living in a post-method world? What are its contours? How does it operate? We will try to find out!
In a more than 10 year old paper John Law characterized methods as tools for intellectual hygiene: “Do your methods properly. Eat your epistemological greens. Wash your hands after mixing with the real world.” But what if the problems we tackle are messy? What if trying to tidy them up leads us away from grasping the flavor of what we are studying? Can we deal with the vagueness, messiness, uncertainty and the diffuse character of multiple, not necessarily consistent realities? And can we, on the other hand, understand the performative effects of our standard methods, can we understand “seeing like a survey”? This double move towards social inquiry “after method” lets us migrate to a post-method regime of social research where the nuts and bolts of the infrastructure of our research practice allow us to embrace the heterogeneity, multiplicity and temporality of the social.
But this is more than 10 years ago. It seems to me that approaches like Law’s can be understood as the beginning of a shift in the epistemic order of the (in a very broad sense) social sciences. But like in most shifts that are still ongoing one cannot really tell where we is heading. Where are we now? Did the find our way towards vagueness and messiness? It seems to me that there is a double answer: it is yes if we look at the conceptual apparatus; it is no if we look at the standard set of methods (especially of qualitative research) still in use. But there is hope, I think. There is a quite recent movement in cultural anthropology and it is not so much framed as a methodological innovation, but as a way to cope with the hustles of interdisciplinarity, especially in cases where – as in the case of cultural anthropology and neurobiology – disciplinary answers to a similar problem are usually not very compatible. Co-laboration, not collaboration, para-site(d), not multisited: this attitude towards using not only, but also the standard set of methods in an interventionist, experimental and, sometimes, tongue-biting and ambiguous way. Why does that lead us into a post-method world? Because seen this way, methods stop being means of intellectual hygiene. They even stop being tools for knowledge production at all. They become attempt of intervening, of entanglement. They start to be methods in a literal sense: meta hodos, a transcending road.