Podcast recapping the Futures & Foresight Science Conference

After the Futures and Foresight Conference in Warwick in December, three members from the Association of Professional Futurists (APF), Andrew Curry, Wendy Schultz, and Tanja Hichert, sat down and recollected their takeaways and highlights from the conference and recorded it as a podcast. As the first in an occasional series of “Compass” podcasts, we were honored that Matt’s presentation was able to generate some laughter from them (you will find their recap of Matt’s talk at 15:30 about our work in this paper, this one, and this one). Perhaps readers of Installing Order would like to contribute some podcast material in the future (!?) — we would be happy to put it on the blog.



Happy New Year from ISO!

The blog is making some big changes in 2019: 

Cheers and Happy New Year! 

* image from: http://www.walkwithgod.org/where-am-i-going/


Using STS to study Futures Studies

Image result for scenario

The field of futures and foresight science (FFS) has problems that science and technology studies (STS) can help to understand. Based on recent publications, insights from STS have the potential to shed new light on seemingly intractable problems that inevitably come with the scientific study of the future. Questions like: What is a scenario?

Consider this quote from a prominent scholar in the field:

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Managing Concurrent Futures: Prospective Action in Cardiology Care


There is a paradox in clinical uncertainty management. While contemporary medical education and training dismisses prognosis in favor of diagnostic and treatment skills, prognosis is ever present in daily medical life. In fact, physicians arguably engage in more prognostic behavior than most other professionals because, bound by their duty to heal, they are routinely called upon to concurrently navigate short-term and long-term care goals. With new accumulating evidence establishing prospection (i.e., the mental simulation of possible futures) as a central organizing principle of cognition and behavior, and with more clinicians warning about the central role of prognosis in clinical decision making, concerns about the relative neglect of prognostic training are becoming louder. Yet, although there is much writing and some fairly robust guidelines about how physicians should do prognosis, very little is currently known about what the process of medical prognosis actually looks like on the groundI begin to fill this gap in my forthcoming book How Doctors Make Decisions, based on a three-year ethnographic study of hospital cardiology.

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Guest Blogger: Phaedra Daipha


I am pleased to announce that Dr. Phaedra Daipha, whose first book I wrote about and enjoyed, will be a guest blogger on Installing (Social) Order this month (October, 2016). She is going to be telling us about her recent work in a new post every week or so. Personally, I am excited to learn more about her work about forecasting (weather forecasting, in this case) and especially her re-thinking of decision-making that extends in new directions previous models of “decision science” from the business school crowd, organizational analysis, and organization studies.

Dr. Daipha a cultural sociologist working at the intersection of STS, organization studies, and social theory. Her research agenda centers on the nature, practice, and institutions of knowledge and technology production, with an eye toward understanding the development and transformation of systems of expertise and the emergence of new forms of coordinated action. She has employed a number of methods and data sources to examine such diverse fields of knowledge and technology production as academic sociology, weather forecasting operations, the commercial fishing industry, and medical care.

Despite the diversity of method and empirical focus, however, her work consistently pursues the following substantive themes: decision making in complex sociotechnical systems; visualization and expertise; object-centered sociality; and professional boundary work. She has pursued these topics in a series of papers, culminating with her recent book,
Masters of Uncertainty: Weather Forecasters and the Quest for Ground Truth.

She is currently in the process of completing her forthcoming book, How Doctors Make Decisions: The Role of Prognosis in Cardiology Practice, based on two and a half years of comparative fieldwork. This book builds on her previously developed model of the process of decision making to highlight the practical, materialist, prospective, and situationist character of clinical judgment and care. But it also considerably extends her earlier conceptualization by applying it to a decision-making field that is interventionist (rather than consultative), that relies on cross-functional (rather than single-specialist) teamwork, and that operates within a significantly longer window of uncertainty.

Welcome aboard! 

Memory Architecture and Infrastructure–Post 3 of 3

What about the ethics of memory?

Looking at the debate that has ensued thus far it seems important to make a distinction between personal memory and collective memory. As I wrote in an article for Critical Military Studies, one should be careful with conflating what an individual remembers with what a community, or nation, remembers. For Avishai Margalit, in The Ethics of Memory, collective memory is “shared memory” with the “we” as collective or communal, not a simple aggregate of individual memories, but built instead on a division of mnemonic labor. This shared memory travels from person to person through institutions (archives) and communal mnemonic devices (monuments) (Margalit, 56).

Remembrance is an act symbolic exchange. With this distinction, we needn’t worry as much about memory as such, or about who is speaking for whom, but rather what ethical engagements follow from remembering together. This remembering can be less about “exercising sovereign power” as Jordan writes and more about the experiences we share as a community and what this means for our actions in the future.

In fact, these shared memories can produce an obligation on a community beyond sovereign control; each of us has a responsibility to keep memories alive, but all shoulder this burden in some way. This, in turn, makes shared memory’s relationship to morality and action different from that which stems from individual memory. This is memory that is based on keeping promises to generations that preceded and those that will follow. Memorialization and monuments can fulfill this ethical call, and have in many cases. It is when nation building and state politics try to control this process and dictate what a people should remember that ethical engagement tends to fall away.

Collective memory must be a relationship to the future; it must be a promise to the future. In this, monuments are less about what happened and more about where we are going. As Margalit writes “the memory that we need to keep our promises and follow through on our plans is this kind of prospective memory…to remember is to know and to know is to believe” (Margalit, 14).

This can be about deploying policy decisions, but it can also mean one policy might be followed rather than another based on what we are allowed to remember together. This makes Jordan’s MAI productive, but what ethics that follow from that productivity are unclear and must be understood contextually.

Post 1 of 3: The Architecture and Infrastructure of Memory (MAI)

Leviathan Monument

Hobbes’ Leviathan frontispiece revisited: Dingpolitik and object-oriented governance.


What is the connection between the Chinese National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) and the National Holocaust Monument currently being built in Ottawa, Canada? (Chalmers:105) Though this question seems rather peculiar at first, the answer is far less obscure when considered within the context of memory architecture and infrastructure (MAI). This is because MAI is intricately bound up in both remembrance and sovereignty.

The connection between memory and the authority or power to govern is nothing new: the correspondence between the two was established in early Greek mythology. According to Hesiod’s Theogony, the ability to rule over others was granted to certain favoured individuals by the Muses through their unique bond with their mother Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory and guardian over what should be remembered. As history would have it, memory would be stolen from Mnemosyne along with Hephaistos’ fire (thanks to our friend Prometheus) and humanity (led by the privileged few) became able to record their own past via material culture and technology. Mnemonic technologies (texts, film, photographs, commemorations, digital memory, the internet, etc.) have become increasingly complex, varied, and augmented as those responsible for filling the void left by Mnemosyne go about constructing our past(s).

However, though the figuration of memory has changed over time, the relationship has remained very similar: those who possess the ability to shape what is remembered and how it is re-collected are in an auspicious position to exercise sovereign rule, and inversely, those who wish to maintain such authority take a special interest in doing so. This is in part why memory studies scholars have written so extensively on both the more recent proliferation of commemorations (memorials, monuments, etc.) and their role as part of modern state attempts to reconstruct the past. The salience of state-sponsored memorials and monuments is particularly distinguishable in national capitals, where commemorative landscapes are often extremely composite and interconnected.

As a specific example of mnemonic technology, memorials and monuments are durable structures that have become delegates or heads of populations that are the punctualized result of previously formed assemblages composed of a multiplicity of actors (politicians, special interest groups, community organizations, artists, architects, city planners, academics, government organizations/departments, etc.). To say that these sites and their structures are delegates is to say that they ‘speak’ on behalf of the array of different actors who had gathered to establish them (and have since become ‘silent’ – an effect of punctualization), but it is also to say that they represent histories, specific events, ideologies and ideals, among other knowledges. Additionally, they participate in a discussion with a host of other such memorial delegates that exist within local, national, and international commemorative networks: with other delegates representing punctualized networks that then come together to form even larger commemorative networks.

It is these networks that form what is referred to here as memory infrastructure, or the organization of various punctualized assemblages that have been made durable (and to an extent more stable) through practices of art, design, and architecture.

Why is it important that we recognize MAI? Just like roads, sidewalks, trails, electricity, the internet, power plants, etc… MAI facilitates (and limits) possibilities and creates complex connections between these possibilities for both individuals and governments. This is how Canadian economic or foreign policy can be connected to a mass genocide in Europe during the 1940s (as well as a myriad of other seemingly unrelated issues). Memory infrastructure and architecture establish thoroughfares that align a variety of translated interests in order to guarantee (as much as possible) a certain range of agencies: in this case, the governments ability to successfully deploy policy decisions.

Infrastructural Lives, Reviewed

Add this one to your reading list: Steve Graham and Colin McFarlane have edited a book, which has just come out, Infrastructural Lives

Contributors include AbdouMaliq Simone, Maria Kaika, Vyjayanthi Rao, Mariana Cavalcanti, Stephanie Terrani-Brown, Omar Jabary Salamanca, Rob Shaw, Harriet Bulkeley, Vanesa Caston-Broto, Simon Marvin, Mike Hodson, Renu Desai, Steve Graham, and myself.  Arjun Appaduria kindly provided a thoughtful foreword for the book.

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3:1 — Post-Neutrality — Post 1 of 3


Thirty years ago, in 1985, the historian Mel Kranzberg proposed a “series of truisms” starting with Kranzberg’s first law: “Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral.”

Eighteen years later, in 2003, the law professor Timothy Wu coined the term “network neutrality” to refer to a “a system of beliefs about innovation.” Wu characterized defenders of this system of beliefs as “Internet Darwinians.” He approved of their theory of innovation—namely, that the Internet should be “indifferent both to the physical communications medium ‘below’ it, and the applications running ‘above’ it.” As a result, Wu argued, network neutrality was an “attractive” and “suitable goal of Internet communications policy.”

The simple version of my argument here is: listen to Kranzberg, and be wary of Internet Darwinians. Technologies aren’t neutral, so we shouldn’t defend norms or make laws that pretend they are.

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Pankaj Sekhsaria: Guest Blogger


Pankaj Sekhsaria (doctoral candidate from Maastricht University Science and Technology Studies) will join us for the next month on the blog. You might recall mention of research on jugaad, but Pankaj’s work is so much more than that. If you review the academia.edu page, then you’ll see a substantial amount more about jugaad, including an engaging and well-read newspaper piece about the topic,  along with a piece in Current Science, India’s leading science journal, and there is also a chapter is an edited volume that is worth the read. Pankaj is also author of The Last Wave, a novel that is engrossing — I’m learning — and that was well-received on the topic of deforestation and, I think, finding meaning in a world ravened by capitalism’s insufferable appetite.

This is truly a joy to welcome Pankaj to the blog. Please join me in welcoming our guest.

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

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

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


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

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


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

We welcome him to the blog! 

Alexander Stingl, our guest


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

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

Thanks Alexander!

3:1 — On “Decoloniality” — 1 of 3


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Daily Show had a reliably funny take as well.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3:1— Post-Disciplinarity or “Committing Sociology” — Post 2 of 3

Fields of Illusion

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?

3:1— Post-Disciplinarity or “Committing Sociology” — Post 1 of 3


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.

3:1 — Post-Disciplinarity or “Committing Sociology” — Pre-Posting Post


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 UniversitySociology 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 UniversitySociology 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.

Friday — 3 of 3 — Aaron Henry: Like Michael and Phillip, Aaron is of the great program at Carleton UniversitySociology and Anthropology. Like me, Aaron is into states and state theory. He has a cool paper about how privacy figures into discussions/controversies regarding security and pacification that is worth reading. He works with Bruce too, but Justin Paulson appears to be his main advisor (I know Paulson only by reputation and a book he co-edit Capitalism and Confrontation).
Welcome aboard, gents!

* Image from: http://sd.keepcalm-o-matic.co.uk/i/keep-calm-and-commit-sociology-4.png

3:1–Posthuman–Post 2 of 3

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”…

3:1 Experiment…this week…the Posthuman….

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.

3:1 — Post-Method — 2 of 3

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.

3:1 — Post-STS — 3 of 3

First of all, I have to start with thanking Nicholas for such a warm welcome. I am still a little surprised, but (at the same time!) delighted by the invitation to join the @installingorder.org community.

With respect to this post, I have had the additional privilege of being the last person to respond to the question of “Post-STS!?”. I think the posts by Nicholas and Jan, have setup this conversation quite succinctly in terms of whether a world Post-STS would mean success or failure for STS as a interdisciplinary practice. I am going to shy away from this question. Mostly owing to my own biases (for the lack of a better word!), I have not been able to foresee this possibility.

I once asked Wiebe Bijker out of sheer curiosity, “What is NOT STS?” He smiled and said that every once in a while when he teaches a class, he asks his students to think of a problem that they think is outside the purview of STS and then, within the next few minutes, he turns the same problem into an STS problem. The trick, he said, is to understand that science, technology and society are thick concepts as well as “things” that are ubiquitous and the so-called STS toolkit is amorphous enough to be used productively to understand them.

So, within this context, I have tried to figure out what would a post-STS world look like? I have stared at the question for a couple of days now and then, I started to wonder when and how did the STS toolkit become concrete enough that we reached the stage of looking for a post-STS toolkit? How can I tell you what would be “Post-STS?”, when I don’t know the answer to the question: “What is STS”? To reach post-“Something”, we need a present-“Something” and my feeling is that the present-“Something” for STS is still in the making.

STS remains in a state of becoming because we engage with “wicked problems” that first need to be described or explained (whatever your choice of methodology!) before a possibility of intervention can be imagined. We celebrate multiplicity, plurality, and alternative imaginations of knowledge(s), technique(s) and expertise(s) but don’t necessarily resolve the problems that we try to elicit. Whether we simplify work within science studies as waves or enumerate traditions of recurring and partially overlapping preoccupations in STS scholarship, we are still figuring out new methods and strategies that have to keep pace with the development of new forms of technoscience. This entity/concept/”thing” called technoscience is NOT static enough for us to be able to situate ourselves concretely in a relationship with it.

Maybe post-STS lies within the hope of that resolving ways of engaging with technoscience or maybe it lies in our confidence to move beyond description or explanation to intervention, but, till then, it is the questions that we ask that makes STS unique: What is our place as humans in a world that is surrounded by “things” embedded in different and often conflating forms of technoscientific knowledge(s)?

Welcome Ranjit Singh (Cornell University)


“Greetings from Ithaca,” our guest blogger Ranjit writes.

He is currently working on the history of the turn to technology studies within STS in the mid-1980s (which is, I think, related to this talk he gave a while back cleverly called “Back to the Future“) under the supervision of Prof. Trevor Pinch (who graciously loaned us all those 4S newsletters — they are on their back to you in the mail, Trevor, I promise).

He will be the final blogger for this week’s 3:1 on Post-STS.

Welcome aboard from the @installingorder.org community, Ranjit Singh!

*The image is of Rockefeller Hall on Cornell University’s campus where Trevor and Ranjit work.

The 3:1 Experiment


The 3:1 Experiment

An experiment in rapid, concept based, multidisciplinary digital conversations.

Who is invited?

Sociologists, theorists, anthropologists, archaeologists, political scientists, philosophers, economists, and everybody in between.


The experiment is transdisciplinary. No discipline has jurisdiction over this experiment; no discipline will receive the right to one-up another.

What is it? Dialogues, exchanges, conversations, texts, literature, journalism, poetry, and writing.

Most importantly, it must always be ephemeral, reactionary, and rapid.

The 3:1 Experiment is an investigation into rapid-fire trandisciplinary blogging.

3 writers: 1 concept … and we limit ourselves to 500 words each so each of the three writers must get straight to the point straight away.

Think of that feeling in the final two minutes of a presentation…

12 more slides left…

Just that last crucial point…



Installing (Social) Order is launching a new format in digital conversations called “The 3:1 Experiment” and it will take the format described above.

Three interventions: 1 topic

3 writers: 1 concept

3 bloggers: 1 blog

Three exchanges in 500 words or less


In the first round, we will introduce—without irony—posts about Posts. You know them; they’re all so Postmodern.

Post-method. Post-empire. Post-nature. Post-culture. Post-science. Post-irony. Post-revolution. Post-war. Post-state. Post-fashion. Post-horror. Post-nihilism. Post-future. Post-empiricism. Post-security.

So, coming-up next: Three perspectives on what happens after…

Blog a bit…it’s only 500 words.  Shot from the hip.


Contact installingorderblog@gmail.com 

Guest blogger: Endre Dányi for one time only


Long time blog readers, you may recall that Endre was a guest blogger for us doing a great, great series on Parliaments (6 parts in all, count them, one, two, three, four, five, and six!). Looking back, the six posts make a nice collection.

He has been keeping busy lately in a project that was featured on the EASST website (for his collaborative work on “Mattering Press: New forms of care for STS books.”).

He will join us again for a blog post specifically about mattering press and perhaps tell us a little about a talk he recently did about open-access and samizdat.

As Endre told me:

The term ‘samizdat’, coined by the Russian poet Nikolai Glazkov in the early 1950s, means self-publishing and refers to both the various processes of producing texts unauthorised by the state, and the outcomes of those processes: mostly literary and political writings that could not have appeared in official periodicals.

Image from: http://pbs.twimg.com/media/BiIbVQSIYAAICQb.jpg

Song as a emotional and political attractor

In this interesting post, Andrzej talks about singing, and the political significance of breaking-out into song and the state infrastructures of em0tion.–Nicholas

Tunisia already signed a new, more democratic constitution. It is a small step toward rebuilding the state after the Arab Spring.

Using this example, I would like to discuss something different — the role of emotions in the making of politics. Such a statement is, today, quite obvious. We discuss the role of emotion in politics since at least Machiavelli. This subject takes Martha C. Nussbaum in her latest book Political Emotions Why Love Matters for Justice. But as an STS scholar, I think that we should be more specific and empirical.

What is interesting for me is looking for concrete emotional machines, emotional attractors, which are creating a political force. I am thinking about particular songs, which bring people together (remember Tarde’a law of imitation); I would like to threat such songs a attractors which starts, condense processes of self-organization.

Let me follow one of such songs, let begin form Tunisian version, by Emel Mathlouthi:

and other version of this song form Tunisia:

This song is a Arabic version of Catalan song “L’Estaca” written by Lluís Llach against dictatorship of Franco.

And it was very popular under title “Mury” as anticommunist song in Poland during Communist regime:

Maybe, if we care about “the State,” democratic politics and social emancipation, we should sing more? But remember that song is only a attractor — an empty container — which can be filled by different thing. This ambiguity is quite nice shown by Zizek analysis of Beethoven “Ode to Joy” in his last movie “Pervert guide to ideology”.

Dawn of (neo)Augustine world?


In this post, guest blogger Andrzej Nowak considers recent developments in the Ukraine and what they might be telling us about social order. –Nicholas

Events in Ukraine, especially streets fights between government forces and multitude of protesters, are still “fresh” — in statu nascendi, the time for  analysis is before us. I would like to risk a hypothesis that the Ukraine could be treated as a picture of near future. Nearly twenty years ago Wallerstein, in his apocalyptic vision, says that:

Much as I think that the next 25-50 years will be terrible ones in terms of human social relations the period of disintegration of our existing historical social system and of transition towards an uncertain alternative I also think that the next 25-50 years will be exceptionally exciting ones in the world of knowledge. The systemic crisis will force social reflection. I see the possibility of definitively ending the divorce between science and philosophy, and as I have told you I see social science as the inevitable ground of a reunited world of knowledge. We cannot know what that will produce. But I can only think, as did Wordsworth about the French Revolution in The Preludes: “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive. But to be young was very Heaven!”

When we look closer for is happening on (Euro)Maidan (in Kiev), we can risk, that this is a glimpse of the future.


This future will be apocalyptic (neo)Agustinine  world – time of cities in siege, empty spaces between them. It will be a time of neo-feudalism and return of medieval imagination. I hope Ukraine is not on path which leads to Syrian “Augustine world”, but I am quite pessimistic.

We are at the dawn of a new epoch that may well be as chaotic as that one and that may come upon us more quickly because of the way the electronic and communications revolutions, combined with a population boom, have compressed history.

Bu go back to Ukraine, I am Latourian, I suppose to show some evidence. Being an empirical metaphysist, I will give a voice to actors themselves.

First, take a look at this picture: http://news.yahoo.com/ukrainian-protesters-occupy-government-buildings-075337566.html

Or this catapult (trebuchet) used by protesters:

And at the end, look at this picture: http://i.imgur.com/xPvHEWh.jpg

Andrzej Nowak joining as Guest Blogger


Our colleague and friend Andrzej W. Nowak from Adam Mickiewicz University (Uniwersytet im. Adama Mickiewicza w Poznaniu) in Poznań, Poland, is joining the blog as a Guest Blogger.

Please welcome him.

I’ll introduce him through a bit of information that he sent me recently. He shared with me this 3-min film, which briefly shows the police’s violence at the Economic University in Poznan, PL. The police attacked a small group of people peacefully protesting against a pseudo-‘scientific’ lecture (“gender as a destruction of the human and the family”) delivered by a priest (& lecturer from theology dept at Adam Mickiewicz University).

The event took place on 5th Dec. Unfortunately, Andrzej couldn’t find any news in English.

Andrzej is falsely accused in Polish right wing blogs as well as a few newspaper as a hooligan; someone who was main provocateur of this event. Just the right sort of company for us on the blog!


*And the photo above was taken at the event by one of Andrzej’s friends.

P.s., when I first asked Andrzej to join the blog he wrote back: “I don’t have time to make science when I really did STS and State exercise (batons, shield, electroshocks)” (!)

Happy Holidays! See you all next year

This has been an interesting year for all of us at installingorder.org. We had a number of good topics this year and we are very happy that the blog is now way more interactive than it was before. We have been a little quite over the summer, sorry for that, but we are back since 4S 2013 in San Diego which was a great conference and a fantastic meeting for all who study societies sociotechnical nerves.

Stefanie Fishel joined us, first as a guest blogger, then as full time author. Thanks for the great input, Stef! Next year will see guest bloggers again, starting with Andrzej W. Nowak from the  Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań, Poland. (See his TedXPoznan talk on youtube, sad that I don´t speak polish). We are looking forward to that! And there will be more! Expect 2014 to be as interesting as the last.

For the rest of the year we will, as most of you will too, take a little break and rest over the holidays. Have yourself a merry Christmas, if you want to have it, or happy Hanukkah, if that is yours, or a great flying spaghetti monster gathering. However you spend your days, think about Santa´s little elves at Amazon, FedEx or DHL and about the massive infrastructural work necessary to let you have some Eggnog, Chestnuts or that box of Breaking Bad episodes that you need for the upcoming festivities. See you all next year!

Andrzej W. Nowak on “Ontological Imagination”


Our colleague and friend Andrzej W. Nowak (see him on academia.edu) from Adam Mickiewicz University (Uniwersytet im. Adama Mickiewicza w Poznaniu) in Poznań, Poland, just put a new paper on-line and it deserves some attention.

His new paper “Ontological imagination: Transcending methodological solipsism and the promise of interdisciplinary studies” is available free here. This let’s the cat out of the bag, so to say, but here goes:

To conclude, without phronetic politics, ontological analyses are only an esoteric game, whereas politics and critical reflection are blind without a posthumanist, historical ontology.

Nice, no? If you don’t know Nowak or his work, we have mentioned him on the blog before with regard to our annual 4S meetings. This year, his talk at 4S with the long title “The fragile life of the state and its ambivalence: from the vaccination commando to the anti-vaccination movement. Merging Actor-Network Theory with World-system Analysis” was outstanding. At one point, the crowd was audibly gasping when Nowak discussed the state as akin to a jar of pickles — see the original slide below and then a follow-up slide where he makes the claim (in person) even more forcibly:


DSC07030 - Copy

At any rate, I will post about presentation as part of a series starting in the new year. So, his new paper. Here is his provocative abstract:

This text is a presentation of the notion of ontological imagination. It constitutes an attempt to merge two traditions: critical sociology and science and technology studies – STS (together with the Actor-Network Theory – ANT). By contrasting these two intellectual traditions, I attempt to bring together: a humanist ethical-political sensitivity and a posthumanist ontological insight. My starting point is the premise that contemporary world needs new social ontology and new critical theory based on it in order to overcome the unconsciously adapted, “slice-based” modernist vision of social ontology. I am convinced that we need new ontological frameworks of the social combined with a research disposition which I refer to as ontological imagination.

Andrzej wants nothing more than to slam together, with so much rhetorical force that they fuse, the likes of C. Wright Mills and Bruno ANT Latour. Do accomplish this, he follows the lead of Flyvberg, stating:

My starting assumption is that one of the problems plaguing the contemporary humanities and social sciences is their isolation from social problems (Flyvbjerg 2001: 166). … Today we know that these fictively-traced boundaries of modernity
cannot be upheld (cf. Beck 1992, Feenberg 2010: 181). The ozone hole, anti-vaccination movements, energy security, terrorism and religious revival do not fit simple modernist frames (cf. Latour 2011).

It initially reminded me of Latour’s Politics of Nature (which I reviewed), but as I read on, I am not so sure. In fact, I am now thinking that perhaps Nowak got it better than Latour did.  In the end, Nowak’s “ontological imagination” amounts to this:

The notion of ontological imagination is conceived as multi-faceted, and if one follows Mills and draws and analogy to sociological imagination, at least three main aspects thereof can be listed: methodological, sociological-historical, and moral-political. Let us characterise each of them. The methodological aspect of ontological imagination is, above all, the abandonment of the ideal of science as theory and letting go of the illusions related to humanistic fundamentalism (Abriszewski 2010: 143-157). Using ontological imagination requires noticing the complex network of actors that construct our collective, in accordance with the principle of symmetry, raised by Bruno Latour (Latour 2011). The second aspect consists in the response to the challenge posed by the so-called reflexive modernity and to the fears evoked by technoscience (Nowak 2012). It is the hope that disseminating such sensitivity and cognitive disposition will help to empower groups and individuals in the world of technoscience.

Check out the conclusion for the real push: to be ontologically imaginative will also require us to engage real social problems and perhaps engage in the social change we supposedly only study…

To be, for a moment, critical: The term “ontological imagination” (though sociological in form and function in Andrzej’s use) is not an original term; in fact, this idea has been used elsewhere, for example, in literature, on blogs, in books, and even lectures, often featuring pragmatist thinker William James who, it seems, is not featured in Nowak’s work.

Welcoming back Stef Fishel

Our guest blogger emeritus Stef Fishel is joining us now as a full-time site blogger. Join us welcoming her back to the blog!


Stefanie Fishel received her doctorate in Political Science from Johns Hopkins University and a Master’s degree in International Relations from the University of Victoria. Dr. Fishel approaches International Relations using techniques and inspirations from Science, Technology, and Society (STS) studies, the philosophy of science, and biology. She is currently at Hobart William Smith Colleges in the Department of Political Science.

I met Stefanie at the 2012 Millennium Conference at the London School of Economics during a post-conference workshop about how actor-network theory and international relations might fit together (if at all). During her stint as a guest blogger in April, she wrote us some interesting and unusual posts about microbial roommate, homeopathy and Walt Whitman, the bodies politic, materialist directions in international relations, and technologies of sharing and caring.

Welcome back and welcome aboard!

Cataloguing our microbial roommates

On the NYT site this morning I ran across an interesting video entitled “The Jungle Indoors” and a companion article “Mapping the Great Indoors.” Subtitled “Getting to Know Our Microbial Roommates,” the article and video discuss the ecology of our homes.  Humans are an indoor species spending as much as 90% of our time indoors, and ecologists have become interested in learning about these intimate relationships that have gone unnoticed thus far.  How do humans “colonize” the places we live and how can understanding these relationships lead to better health are the main questions behind this study.  What I find infinitely intriguing is that this study (and studies on the microbiome in our guts and skin) are generally reported with a sense of wonder and even awe at the magic of these relationships:

“But as humdrum as a home might first appear, it is a veritable wonderland. Ecology does not stop at the front door; a home to you is also home to an incredible array of wildlife.”

If, as Weber wrote, we have lost our sense of enchantment with the modern world, these morsels remind us that this may not be entirely the case.  Plus, it opens up discussions about our built environments and structures, along with what it might mean to live together with all kinds of “roommates.”

Homeopathy, Autopoiesis, and Global Complexity (with Walt Whitman)

Nick’s previous post about Machiavelli and the homeopathic state got me thinking about different approaches and sources that can inspire and provoke new ways of thinking about old problems or stagnant institutions.

As you know from the last post I wrote, one of the ways I do this in International Relations is by drawing on STS and biology. Microbes, nations, parasites, guts, and bodies became lively containers and contaminated states to better capture the flows, immersions, circuits, and heterogeneities between and amongst a plurality of actors. These are new models of affectivity to provoke and invoke new forms of intelligibility in politics and social life.

To bring this affect based in material entanglement and poetic critique of the status quo to the fore, another place I draw inspiration from is Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman’s collection of poetry. They provide a productive subtext to the analysis of IR. I draw the insights garnered from Whitman and his poetry into the text and practice of international relations. Whitman penned that poets were best suited to “strengthen and enrich mankind with free flights in all directions not tolerated by ordinary society.” Poets know no laws but the laws of themselves, and are beholden to “mere etiquette.” Whitman said “Often the best service that can be done to the race, is to lift the veil, at least for a time, from these rules and fossil-etiquettes.”

Walt Whitman project’s was one of cultural and literary revision against the prevailing notions of the body and its relation to politics and sociality. Whitman produced texts that extended his reader’s conceptions of the body and the literary, and especially how these categories interact to exceed or overrule the cultural constraints of the time. Through Leaves of Grass, and its many revisions, Whitman joyfully supported the body as a fluid self struggling to negotiate identity and difference while committed to being responsive to as much of the world as possible.

Whitman can speak directly to my conceit of the contaminated state as I defined it my first post. When pondering the strength of America in regards to its relationship to wealth and poverty, Whitman cautions the rich to maintain strong stomachs as the wealth of the civilized world was built from “rapine, murder, outrages, treachery, hoggishness, or hundreds of years ago, and later, so in America.” He continues that it is the working- people, “vast crops of the poor, desperate, dissatisfied, nomadic, and miserably waged populations” that can truly offer a cure to the ills of American democracy.

“Curious as it may seem, it is in what we’d call the poorest, lowest characters you will sometimes, nay, generally find glints of the most sublime virtues, eligibilities, heroisms. Then it is doubtful whether the State is to be saved, either in the monotonous long run, or in tremendous special crises, by its good people only. When the storm is deadliest, and the disease most imminent, help often comes from strange quarters—(the homeopathic motto, you remember, cure the bite with the hair of the same dog.)”

He wrote that the true prosperity of a nation was not demonstrated by the wealth of a special class, or a “vulgar aristocracy,” but by having the bulk of people provided with homes and a fair proportion of the profits. It is this bulk of people denied these where the “glints of the most sublime virtues” will be found in a country. Simonson, a Whitman scholar, writes that Whitman “calls us to develop a democratic ethos directed toward recognizing and finding place for the world’s variety—not just its obvious beauty, but its “terrible rude, forms” as well (2003, 370).

With Whitman as poetic counsel, I approach the global with humbleness and care, but with a conviction that seeing possible alternative global orders is of the utmost importance. I hope to refresh a belief in the importance of plurality and respect for life in International Relations knowing full well that there is no one option that makes right that which is wrong with the world, but nonetheless we must respond. For this, Whitman offers a model for a cosmopolitan and pluralistic society based on complex individualism not dominated by rational choice. This response may not be as an actor who identifies a problem and then “fixes” that problem, but it creates awareness that humans are part of the problem itself, and as individuals we are likely to be party to many of the crises we are responding to globally and locally. Therefore, an ethos of care for the world is crucial.

To nurture this ethos, it remains important to offer creative and disciplined thinking about the relation of life to politics in the international. Too often the discussion in IR theory centers on negative instantiations of biopower, or a “becoming corpse” as Rosi Bradiotti writes. I take life as a creative intensity that can offer new solutions, and new ways of engaging with the world. Placing an idea of life as vital at the center of politics leads to two important implications: a rethinking of ethics and responsibility leading to a, said so beautifully by Bradiotti, “diffuse sort of ontological gratitude is needed in the post-human era, towards the multitude of nonhuman agents” that support us (2006, 270). This diffusing, or flattening, of social action and ties into a continuum of dynamic object interactions, or translations, between humans and nonhumans, states, bacteria, biomes and parasites, made the nested and imbricated nature of politics in the body politic more visible.

Another implication is explicitly political: we will need to organize collectivities and political organizations that reflect these “dreams” of nested subjectivities. As Latour queries, “Once the task of exploring the multiplicity of agencies is completed, another question can be raised: What are the assemblies of those assemblages?” (2005, 260). These discussions should be open, inclusive, and careful to reflect the values and ethics we feel are necessary in creating mutual public space.

The Bodies Politic


Political theory and philosophy often speak of the body politic as multiple, or as a composite being.  Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan is, for IR, our most familiar image and idea of how multiple bodies form into larger bodies.  As Latour points out in the introduction to Making Things Public,  Hobbes Leviathan always included more than human bodies:

But in addition to the visual puzzle of assembling composite bodies, another puzzle should strike us in those engravings. A simple look at them clearly proves that the “Body Politik” is not only made of people! They are thick with things: clothes, a huge sword, immense castles, large cultivated fields, crowns, ships, cities and an immensely complex technology of gathering, meeting, cohabiting, enlarging, reducing, and focusing. In addition to the throng of little people summed up in the crowned head of the Leviathan, there are objects everywhere.

As Latour stresses, this political body is filled with actants (Latour’s word that blends and loses the so-called modern distinction between a subject and object).  Actants have varying degrees of “agency,”  but more importantly, it is the connections, or translations between actants and what assemblages these connections form, that shows the unfolding story of communal life.

To add to this busy and complex assemblages of actants, I throw in the human body itself as a microcosm of these same connections and entanglements.  The human microbiome, studied and understood anew through metagenomics, systems biology, and epigenetics, becomes a body multiple, too.

By way of example, bacteroides are commonly found in the human intestine where they have a symbiotic, or commensal, relationship with humans.  They aid in breaking down polysaccharides that the human body would not otherwise be able to process.  Fifteen to twenty percent of our daily caloric intake is absorbed in this manner.   There are new studies that suggest that gut microbiota both cause and can be the cure for autoimmune disorders like allergies and irritable bowel syndrome and, according to the Committee on Metagenomics,   “[T]hese functions are conducted within complex communities—intricate, balanced, and integrated entities that adapt swiftly and flexibly to environmental change.”.

Consider, again,  that the DNA of other life forms in our body outnumber us 10 to 1–many of these invisible to us up until recently. To take metagenomics and the microbiomes of the human body seriously means the human body becomes a community, not only a container–a “mutualistic human-microbial”  series of interactions.  Not only are we embedded in our environment, but our bodies are home to our own communities of micro flora and fauna.

If we extrapolate this to the macro level and the idea of the body politic, what can these commensal, host-guest relations teach us about human communities?  Writ large: The State as Person (the body politic) based on these lively human containers becomes dynamic, pluralistic, permeable, heterogeneous. This idea of composite bodies is nothing new, as we spoke above about Hobbes’ Leviathan, humans have imagined, and tried to create societies that respect diversity while securing freedom, but these diverse bodies may need decidedly different security regimes. Regimes that flow, and understand complex systems–both emergence and other perturbations in the system (noise, as Serres, said)– differently. The body and the body politic as a hybrid forum, a nested sets of complex permeable, rather than autonomous bodies need different security assemblages.  It certainly puts a different spin on issues such as immigration (immigrants and diseases are often linked), for example.  We always already are immigrants and guests and aliens, necessarily.  This is health, not sickness, in a body as multiplicity. Purity and isolation will slowly poison this body from the center out, like a closed petri dish.

The preservation of the body and the body politic has had multiple figurations–the state and nation, of course, looming the largest in this horizon of politics, but these figurations have never quite worked because few have quite captured the extent to which we are blended and imbricated with each other–both between and across species boundaries.  These leakages, or how these problems exceed the capacity of the sovereign state and the system of sovereign states,  are the problems of modern politics.  We can see them reflected in current debates in international politics like immigration, refugees, predator states, and climate change, to name but a few.  These may be more aptly defined as symptoms of a larger misunderstandings about how relationships are formed with multiple bodies coexisting in a mutual biosphere.

I have tried, from the perspective of the human body as understood through metagenomics, to show the similarities between relationships in the internal relations between members of microbiotic communities in the human gut and the relations between members of a political society. If, through research like this, we can no longer uphold the fiction of autonomous selfhood–a hard shelled container body that collides with other bodies and has clearly defined and rational interests (bring up biology and physics); what must that mean for institutions we “create in our own image?”

The Cabinet of Curiosity and the Levels of Analysis Problem in International Relations (IR)

Last October during the Millennium conference, Materialism and World Politics, STS and IR theorists met on the last day to discuss potential collaborations and resonances between the two discourses.  “Materialism” as a theory and as a methodology made a helpful facilitator for this conversation. One of the main points the discussion centered on during the conference was what “subjects” could be “objects” of study in each discourse.

It came down to this: STS likened choosing its subjects and objects of interest to looking into a “cabinet of curiosities.”  IR is decidedly wedded to its levels of analysis. The sovereign state and the international system of states, and–to a lesser degree–the sovereign individual. These are the legitimate subjects/objects of study in IR.  Of course, these levels are being pushed and questioned, as is evidenced by the conversation we had in London, but they figure large in the epistemology of IR.

To return to the subject of “bodies,” there is something puzzling about how IR, as a discourse and a practice, speaks of the body, or, more specifically how IR theorizes and and understands the human body in this tripartite schema of system, state, and individual.

In other disciplines, there has been an increased interest in the study of the body as a social and material phenomenon beyond a scientific or medical perspective, but, until recently, IR has never much about the human body. Conversations and analysis have focused on the state, and on the individual as connected to states.

But, how is this “individual” understood beyond the civil and legal terms that dominate our field?  Not just as a voter or a rational actor, but as an actual, material body that can be fragile, leaky, diseased, sold, colonized, male, female, multiple?

This body is a powerful body, one that cannot be fully securitized or regulated, but its seductive power to IR theorists is unmistakable.  Folllowing in the footsteps of Machiavelli, Hobbes, Kant, and other precursors that IR has adopted as its own, IR theorists have understood or likened the state to a person (Wendt and constructivism), or used body metaphors to describe it (organs of government, for example).

This “state as a person” debate and bodily metaphors show that the body never really disappeared (as sociologists and social theorists already said in the 1980s and on), it was just less visible. A variety of recent literature in IR, and the conference in London, can attest to a new (renewed?) interest in concerns of the flesh, so to speak.  This may be due, in part, to a concomitant questioning the sovereign state as the legitimate subject of study, and most relevant actor in IR in a complex, interconnected, and globalized world with diverse actors and multiple relations of power and accountability.

This is certainly where STS has the most to offer IR–some promiscuity, as Deleuze would insist upon, in methods and subjects/objects of study. Cabinets of curiosities rather than hierarchies and levels.


Technology for Everyday Sharing and Caring

Last night at Colgate University, we brought in a speaker for our Global Engagements program.  His name is David Crawford, and he is an anthropologist at Fairfield University.  It was a really terrific talk–he works in rural Morocco–about experience of globalization in urban and rural places.  During the talk, he spoke of hearing an Amish farmer speak at the Yale Cooperative Ag School.  At the beginning of the talk, the farmer told the audience that his community had no tractors, but they did have a washing machine.  Dr. Crawford joked that this distracted him through the entire talk: why a washer and not a tractor?  The answer: Tractors make it possible for one man to use too much land, and to be able to work the land by himself.  Horses and plows put each community member into a place where he has to ask for help and to recognize his communal relations.  The amount of land that can be tilled is less, therefore leaving more for future generations.  All the hay harvested in day needs to be collected before it gets wet.  This is more than one man and one horse can do so he has to ask for help from the neighbors.

This is a much different idea of technology: this Amish community deliberately integrates their choices about what is important into the technology they choose to employ.  They have washers because laundry tends to be a solitary chore that, if done without a washing machine, is very time consuming and laborious.  The technology here frees up the women to pursue other chores and spend more time with their families and the wider community (I forgo a discussion of gender politics here, though I am sure one is warranted).

These choices deliberately bind the community together for the future.

This was one of those talks that get the gears turning in your own head. For my work, it directly ties into how we think about the technologies of the self and our bodies.  I asked in the last post: What kind of body politic is needed if we understand our bodies as “walking ecosystems,” “planets,” “superorganisms,” or “human-bacterial-hybrids?”  What choices about technology can we make that would bind us together rather than create “individuals”?  This may be radically different than the state form we currently have…

What about the technology in your life? What choices are integrated into your life because of the technology you use?

Greetings, with a broad introduction


Over the next month, I will share research from my book in progress, New Metaphors for Global Living. This research, through the hermeneutic potential of the life sciences and the theoretical insights of science, technology and society studies (STS) and new materialism, gestures toward an idea of connectedness of diverse bodies that broadens understandings of relationality, both as bodies in states, and as states in the international community. Specifically, I borrow genomic and immunological theory, as understood by new scientific research, to argue that heterogeneity is the condition of possibility for the production of new subjectivities and communities.  This is applied through metaphorical frames like the body politic and biomimicry.

A specific and central aim of this research is to apply sustained critical pressure to the individual and the state as currently defined in International Relations.  To aid in this critique, I create an analytical structure able to identify and celebrate plurality without erasing internal diversity, or coding the external as strange and dangerous to a perceived unity within.  I propose a pair of novel metaphorical framings to build a different conception of humanity’s myriad ties to world: Lively vessels and contaminated states provide new metaphors named for the processes that intertwine multiple bodies into composite ones.   These metaphorical conceits recognize that human agency is part of an assemblage of multiple actors, and called attention to the nonhuman beings that aid in keeping the human body, and its biosphere, alive.

International Relations joins in the dialogue between bodies and science by bringing the latter half its title to bear on the discussion: “relations” trumps the “inter-national” through the body politic as a nested set of permeable bodies rather than hard-shelled nation-states competing in anarchical conditions ruled by fear and exclusion. These metaphorical techniques, aided by STS and new materialism, create a language to discuss the processes that intertwine multiple bodies, both the social and the political.  It is crucial to rethink the politics that follow from these entanglements. The question then becomes: What kind of life is possible—what kind of body politic is neededif we think about “nestedness” and symbiosis rather than exclusion, competition, and purity?

Guest Blogger for April: Stefanie Fishel

Stefanie Fishel received her doctorate in Political Science from Johns Hopkins University and a Master’s degree in International Relations from the University of Victoria. Dr. Fishel approaches International Relations using techniques and inspirations from Science, Technology, and Society (STS) studies, the philosophy of science, and biology. She is currently at Colgate University in their Peace and Conflict Studies area.

I met Stefanie at the 2012 Millennium Conference at the London School of Economics during a post-conference workshop about how actor-network theory and international relations might fit together (if at all). Andrew Barry was the keynote speaker. In all, it was great.

In her LSE talk, “Lively Vessels and Contaminated States: Biological Metaphor and Global Politics” Stephanie described … well, I’ll let her fill you in over the next month.

Join us in welcoming Stefanie to the blog!

Locating the state? Kathryn Furlong

“Locating the state? Infrastructure, scale and the technologies of governing, a Colombian case.” Kathryn Furlong from Université de Montréal. Jan and I first learned about Kathryn’s work when discussing infrastructure, and in particular, the issue of scale, which was spurned by a discussion with Hendrik about flat infrastructure. Subsequently, we invited Kathryn to blog with us on installing order where we even saw a few precursors for the work she presented at 4S/EASST this year in a post from about a year ago.


So, this year we saw a great presentation about understanding the relationship between scale and infrastructure. In her old published work, Kathryn Furlong in Progress in Human Geography titled “Small technologies, big change: Rethinking infrastructure through STS and geography“, we also saw the underpinnings of an understanding about scale. In the conclusion of that paper, which could have gone on at much greater length, there is an important Latourian twist included about “inversions” of scale (even if “large” and “small” are ultimately unsatisfactory with regard to measuring scale):

“This paper signals the need to look beyond infrastructure as a single unit, static in its physical state and social and environmental effects. Breaking infrastructure down into assemblages of small technologies that matter enables one to see the possibility to employ small change to mediate large problems.”

One of the ways that she ‘makes good’ on her previous claims about getting away from seeing infrastructure as ‘a single unit’ is to get at the idea that technologies might be hybrid (per the picture below) or, using my lens in ANT, seeing more of the multiplicity in water was a gathering point for many visions of water … in Kathryn’s case, this is a slide about comparing city wanter and rainwater. For example, her data collection shows that citizens consider rain water ‘more clean’ or ‘higher quality’ as compared to city water piped in from afar, but this importantly depends on the location of the person and the water.


This all becomes even more interesting when applied to some of the central questions of state theory (e.g., what is a state? how do we make them? what can they do? can they do anything? etc.). Kathryn presents a commonplace distinction between the “North” and the “South”, but only for a moment, in order to get at the notion that in the Global South, the combination of government and infrastructure (which are otherwise imbricated in the Global North, comprising much of what is thought to represent ‘the state’) does not appear to operate in similar ways. Of particular importance, I think, is the idea that when a government attempts to impose a ‘unified infrastructure’ they will for sure end-up creating some sort of non-uniform thing variously composed of  especially in areas, and Kathryn contends, where infrastructure has not played a significant role in the previous years or decades (what she calls ‘omnipresent infrastructure’).


Kathryn’s original abstract:

In the North, many authors have noted the passage from government to governance; that is from centralized and hierarchical to more diffuse and inclusive forms of decision-making (Jessop 1998; Peters and Savoie 1995). Infrastructure networks have experienced similar shifts, from the exclusive “black box” to more malleable and participatory systems (Furlong 2011). Yet, in many contexts in the Global South, including Colombia, neither the government, nor infrastructure managed to cover the whole of the state territory. By examining such a case, this essay seeks to add relief to some broadly held conceptualizations about the state, infrastructure and governmentality. One of these is in relation to scale. Drawing on critiques of scale (e.g. Marston et al. 2005), the essay questions where to locate the state in relation to issues of infrastructure and governing. Where the state has clearly not been omnipresent, it is easier to see how the assumed hierarchy of state scale breaks down. This is exemplified through the case of regulatory attempts to create a uniform infrastructure sector, which have yielded perhaps as much change in regulation as they have in service delivery. Moreover, where infrastructure has not been omnipresent, rather than imposing a new “black box”, managers may have to compete with a variety of pre-existing technical and social practices resulting in new forms of hybrid infrastructures. As such, just as new technologies create shifts in governing (e.g. the internet), the introduction of absent technology can yield shifts in both governing and how the technology is traditionally conceived.

"Acting from a distance: States, scales, spatiality and STS." Govind Gopakumar

“Acting from a distance: States, scales, spatiality and STS” was presented by Govind Gopakumar of Concordia University in Canada. Govind is Associate Chair and Assistant Professor at the Centre for Engineering in Society.


I first met Govind at last year’s 4S conference in Cleveland, OH, where he gave a terrific presentation on infrastructure and the Indian state. See below (CV available here):

“Knotty and Naughty: Seeing the Indian State through a Technoscientific Lens,” Society for the Social Studies of Science (4S) Annual conference, Cleveland, November 4, 2011.

I was immediately impressed by the work, which draws largely on Patrick Carroll‘s incredible and longstanding research on the technoscientific state. In fact, Govind had a book coming out that I subsequently reviewed for the Social Studies of Science, which you can check out here and was featured in a special issue about water (because Govind’s book is about water infrastructure in Indian citites and states).

Keep in mind that our 2012 theme for the panels was “On states, stateness and STS: government(ality) with a small “g”?” Govind rose to the challenge of seeing governments and governmentality with a “small g” — the small g meaning that instead of answering big questions in sociology by referring the power of macro structures that (must exist but) are always just immediately beyond firsthand observation (such as ‘the state’), we instead go to the micro-machinery of their makings (or even their underpinnings). And so, Govind did.

He took up the case of literally building state capacity, in this case, of infrastructural reform especially of the transformation of transportation. In the end, and these were short presentations that we asked emphasize theoretical points of relevance, Govind comes to a great conclusion. The state is not just out there (the state being the high-modern understanding of states as omnipresent actors forcefully shaping domestic and international matters of interest), the state comes to us during what he called ‘encounters’.


As if Erving Goffman and Theda Skocpol had been fused together into some hybrid-Franken-theorizers, Govind suggested that of course the state is not out there, but that we occasionally come into its tenacles in the minutae of our daily lives, during spectacles where the state’s proverbial ‘muscles’ appear and are subsequently flexed, but also during (and this was quite nice) periods of construction, reform, and maintenance where the ‘dirigiste’ state is obvious.

In this way, instead of seeing like the state (a reference to Scott’s book from the 2000s), we see the state. We see these points of encounter (my words) as moments or locationalities wherein the state can be penetrated or penetrates our lives as citizens. These “close encounters” of another kind might just prove to be a great way to conceptualize the issue of macro-states from a relational, irreductive vantage point.

Bravo, Govind!

More on water infrastructure in India

This is a follow-up on the review of Govind Gopakumar‘s new book on water infrastructure in India named Transforming Urban Water Supply in India.

I am now convinced, after reading the first few chapters, that India is a near perfect setting to study water infrastructure as it matters for states (both federal and subnational) — in a post-colonial period, deep democratic roots were fashioned from a doctrine of subnational state autonomy and a federal polity; water, thus, becomes a state and federal issue, but states are mainly left to the task of organizating, implementing, and maintaining water supplies, cleanliness, etc. All this complexity withstanding, urban infrastructure reform is beset by relatively low levels of urbanization, neoliberal urban reform policies, and genearlized global pressures and opportunities.

Using a multi-method and multi-site approach, Gopakumar takes us to three metropolitan areas in three subnational states: the city of Bengaluru in Karnataka, the city of Chennai in Tamil Nadu, and the city of Kochi in Kerala. Each case is carefully selected for their differing response to reform, mainly, in the form of resistance or acquiescence, and the relative autonomy of the subnational state from the federalized state of India.

If that were not enough, the case of India is a great one for state theory, and Gopakumar covers a lot of this territory in his review of the literature. India is presented as both a strong and weak state; strong enough to keep boarders and avoid decay, but weak enough that it failed to promote massive economic and social development. Additionally, even as India began to fortify its infrastructure, social interests co-opted the state aparatus thus making it increasing an “embedded” state too soft to enforce regulation and became overly accomodating to its many and diverse state stake holders. In this way, India was overloaded by engaging in too many endeavors, without delegating enough of these responsibilities to local, subnational states. As Sinha (2005) argued, the developmental state suffers not just practically, but also conceptually, and Gopakumar (2012:18) suggests that we must transcend ‘inherited scholarly barriers and mental containers that have prevented disaggregation of the state in critical analysis”! The problem he identifies, echoing Sinha, is that the overarching theme of state action overwhelmingly adopt a state-as-an-actor metaphor, as either a benevolent state aiding in the development of the country or a malevolent state preying on its people and resources.

The role of states in infrastructure studies seems nearly unquestionable at this point in research.

More notes from Medell??n, Colombia


The role of the City in Infrastructural Extension

An interesting aspect of the Medellín story in the last post is not just the enormous success of EPM, but also the role of the City.

Among key challenges with respect to the provision of municipal utility services today (in my opinion) is the strong current in the academic, practitioner, and donor agency literature that local government’s role in the provision of utility services is essentially to stay out of the way. The utility is to be as independent from municipal government as possible, and the municipal government should not interfere. I see a couple of problems with this: (1) ensuring access to and the consumption of services like water involves social action that is beyond the scope of utilities; and (2) the success of utilities cannot be made sustainable in municipalities that are not themselves stable, i.e. the health of municipalities has a direct baring of the health of local utilities. I will deal with point (1) below and point (2) in the next post on Canada.

In the case of Medellín, despite the fact that they have 100% coverage (or very close) in water, sewer, and electricity throughout the urban region, they have a significant problem with access to consumption. Due to high levels of poverty and displacement within and to the city, there are also high levels of disconnection from utility services. Several programs at the state, municipal, and utility level try to help to improve the economic access of poor households (as physical access already exists). On the state level, these include nation-wide cross-subsidy requirement from wealthy to poor neighborhoods and price regulation. On the municipal level, programs include a monthly water allowance of 2.5m3 per person per month for poor households (the “minimo vital”) that is paid for by the City, as well as a version of Contratación Social in which the city pays for the infrastructure extension done by EPM instead of the community taking on a loan from the company.

In addition, a probably more interestingly, the City has implemented a range of programs to help raise the standard of living in marginalized barrios. In a presentation on the “minimo vital” at last week’s Interamerican Dialogue on Water, Mauricio Valencia Correa, a municipal representative, discussed the relevance and potential impact of the “minimo vital” as one tool among a series aimed at improving the quality of life and reducing inequality in the City. The “minimo vital” was of no relevance without a host of other programs including, the construction of quality day cares, libraries and colleges in poor neighborhoods, programs to improve mobility and livability (like stairs on the steep paths, paved walkways etc.) and transportation access like the Metrocable (metro by cable car) to the marginalized neighborhoods (see pictures).

I think that this makes a very important point. This is that access to water services is not strictly a technical problem to be solved by utilities. Rather, it speaks to broader social problems that must involve local government in their resolution. These include improvements to social cohesion, social equity and mobility, education, opportunities for women (day care), and quality of life. Without these, access to a “minimo vital” in water means very little. For utility services to be accessible in a meaningful and sustainable way, a holistic approach to the municipality must be taken rather than one that seeks to separate utilities from municipalities and focus on services while ignoring broader social problems.


More notes from Medell??n, Colombia


The Empresas Públicas de Medellín and Habilitación de Viviendas

Medellín is Colombia’s second largest city with a population of approximately 2.3 million. Like many large cities in Latin America, a significant portion of its population lives in extreme poverty. According to Colombia’s most recent census, conducted in 2005, 12.4 percent of the then population could not meet their basic needs (DANE, 2005). Medellín’s Development Plan for 2008-2011, registered the number of informal housing units at 85,168, or nearly 17 percent of all homes in the city (González Zapata, 2009, 129). Surveys conducted in the informal settlements of La Cruz, La Honda and Esfuerzos de Paz Uno, show a high percentage of displaced among their inhabitants (up to 76%), a predominance of female headed households (up to 65%), dependence on work in the informal economy (up to 70%), and a majority of persons earning less than the minimum wage (up to 90%) (Associación Cambiemos, 2010, RIOCBACH, 2010).

 The Empresas Públicas de Medellín (EPM, The Public Utility Companies of Medellín) is a multi-utility corporation owned by the city of Medellín, its sole shareholder to which it pays a minimum annual dividend of 30 % of net revenue. EPM provides water, sewer, gas, and electricity services in Medellín and in a number of other municipalities in the Department of Antioquia and Colombia. EPM’s net profits in 2010 were US$ 773.4 million of which US$ 450 million was transferred to the City of Medellin (EPM, 2011a). It is among the City’s primary employers with 5,830 employees. EPM is also the majority shareholder in a range of affiliates across utility sectors; the “Grupo EPM” boasts over 10 million clients and 10,644 employees (Empresas Públicas de Medellín, 2011b).

Through a program called Habilitación de Viviendas (rehabilitation of homes), EPM has been extending utility networks to the city’s marginal inhabitants since 1964. This program provides long-term low-interest loans to marginal neighborhoods in order to enable them to pay for infrastructure extension. Today, 35 percent of EPM’s “clientes” have become so through this program.

In 1998, EPM modified the program to “Contratación Social” (social contracting). Instead of contracting to a private construction firm to do the work for Habilitación de Viviendas, EPM contracts to the local community leadership (the JAC), which hires all local labor. The program helps to generate employment, results in a variety of urban improvements (stair cases, reinforcement of walls, paved walkways etc), generates profits in the community, results in better infrastructure, and helps to build the JAC’s capacity to continue acting as a contractor for other projects in the City, thus generating more local employment and income.

Photos @Juan A. Aristizabal 2011

Hello from Montreal!

Thank-you Nicolas for the introduction and thanks to Endre for his interesting posts over the last month. I like the idea of following a theme. So, taking my inspiration Endre, I’m going to focus not parliaments but on underground infrastructure. Given that this is admittedly a very broad topic, I’m going to try to hone in on a couple of themes that Nicolas has suggested are of interests to followers of Installing (Social) Order.

So, in short, over the next few weeks, I will endeavor to get us into a conversation on the following issues related to how we conceive of infrastructure as people who study it, who use it, who build it and who manage it.  First, following up on Nicolas’ poste regarding the Small technologies, big change article, I will take another look at the concept of the black box and the relationship of the users to infrastructure. In subsequent posts, I will look at scale and the role of municipalities in questions of infrastructure management, users and the politics of infrastructure, the idea of “differentiated” infrastructures for low-income users, and infrastructure as “sunk cost” versus infrastructure as a “base” for community investment. Having, focused mostly on the municipal scale, in my final posts at the end of the month, I would like to take a look at other scales (including different kinds of scale not based on administrative boundaries) in thinking about infrastructure.  

I’m looking forward to your reactions and feedback on these issues.

Before, getting started, I think that it would be great to try to keep in mind some of the ideas that are being discussed on the blog as we think through questions related to infrastructure. Following up on the Endre’s statement with respect to parliaments that “the legislative machine should operate smoothly, but not too smoothly” and the recent posts on Foucault, I would draw your intention to the work of James Ferguson. In his book The Anti-Politics Machine (1994), he asks us not to focus on why development projects don’t work, but why they do work the way they do, i.e. whose or what purposes does it serve? Ferguson, draws this notion from Foucault’s analysis of the prison. On page 254 of his book he writes:

 In a situation in which “failure is the norm”, there is no reason to think that the Thaba-Tseka [a development project in Lesotho] was an especially badly run or poorly thought out project. … But it may be that what is most important about a “development” project is not so much what it fails to do but what it does do; it may be that its real importance in the end lies in the “side effects” … Foucault, speaking of the prison, suggests that dwelling on the ‘failure’ of the prison may be asking the wrong question. Perhaps, he suggests,”one should reverse the problem and ask oneself what is served by the failure of the prison; what is the use of these different phenomena that are continually being criticized; the maintenance of delinquency, the encouragement of recidivism, the transformation of the occasional offender into a habitual delinquent, the organization of a closed milieu of delinquency.” (Foucault 1979: 272).

These ideas have a lot of resonance in infrastructure, the management of which has been heavily criticized leading to a host of solutions which themselves seem to create other types of problems, but also other types of benefits. Good ideas to keep in mind.


Thank you, Endre Dányi Welcome Karthryn Furlong!

Endre Dányi, a student of Lucy Suchman and John Law at Lancaster University’s Department of Sociology, joined the blog for the month of October into November wherein he shared six great posts about what I suppose we could call “the Parliament multiple.” A real highlight for me was Endre’s point about Parliamentary efficiency: “There’s a double demand here: the legislative machine should operate smoothly, but not too smoothly.” That is an idea worth developing in this age of hyper-efficiency and transparency! Bravo!

So, from Installing (Social) Order, thank you for your detailed and throught-provoking posts, and we hope you stay engaged in the discussions here on the blog.

Kathryn Furlong is the project director the “Water, Urban, and Utility Goverance” and assistant professor in geography at University of Montreal. She was first mentioned on the blog as a “new scholar to watch” because of her paper “Small technologies, big change: Rethinking infrastructure through STS and geography” published in Progress in Human Geography. The paper illuminates a few ways that STS might learn from geography, and the inverse is also presented. After our meeting at 4S a few days back, I am not convinced that STS has a ton to learn from geography on the topic of infrastructure. She is currently attending a conference, and will hopefully tell us a little about it and other topics over the next month or so.

Karthryn, welcome aboard!

Endre’s sixth (and last) post

This is the last post, and as I promised in the beginning it’s about political subjects, but before addressing the topic let me very quickly summarise what I’ve done so far. In the second post I argued that focusing on the construction of the Hungarian Parliament in the end of the 19th century is a good entry point to examine liberal democracy as a historically and culturally specific political reality. Although this political reality was challenged and transformed in numerous ways in the 20th century, the Hungarian case nicely illustrates that we’re still (or once again) inhabiting the ruins of the Gründerzeit. At least this is what I claimed in the third post. One of the main characteristics of this less-than-two-hundred-year-old political reality is that it consists of multiple modes of doing politics — if it seems to be singular, then it’s an ongoing achievement in which the parliament building plays a crucial role. Not only does this peculiar place help to define the boundaries of a political community, regulate the ways in which that community handles political issues, and establish certain connections among those issues, but it also maintains that the material practices associated with these very different processes are simply different aspects or components of the same model of governance.

This is when things get complicated. If a parliament effaces multiplicity, then — following John Law & Annemarie Mol’s train of thought — revealing this multiplicity, making it visible, is a political act. But how does such an ontological political exercise relate to other ways of doing politics? How does it relate to other ways of being political?

It took me a long time to realise that it’s actually possible to think about the Hungarian Parliament as a disciplinary apparatus — a device that produces both political objects (symbols, laws, ideologies) and political subjects (citizens). Based on the three modes of doing politics outlined above, the political subject of a liberal democracy could thus be defined as an individual who belongs to a political community (the Republic of Hungary), who is well-informed about a wide range of political issues (from animal rights protection to trade agreements with New Zealand), and who knows how to participate in politics (voting). To be sure, this figure is as fictional as that of the rational consumer, but the work it does should not be underestimated. Here’s why.

In the beginning of my fieldwork, I decided to follow the tried-and-tested STS strategy and research representation practices as if I knew absolutely nothing about the technologies, persons and places that were involved in those practices. This, I thought, was a terrific way to problematise taken-for-granted concepts and open up seemingly natural procedures associated with liberal democracy. However, as I soon discovered, even this strategy had its limits. While it would have been perfectly fine for me as a researcher from Lancaster not to have a clue how the Hungarian Parliament worked, it was not at all fine for me as a Hungarian citizen. Asking basic questions about history, constitutional law, party politics in the legislature turned me not into a curious analyst but an ignorant member of the political community. An idiot, as Isabelle Stengers would put it.

My initial response to this strange situation was rather panicky. Whenever I stumbled upon something interesting, I had the horrible feeling that I ought to have known it from school, the newspaper, or my friends and family. But after a while I realised it wasn’t the lack of knowledge that was causing me trouble. It was the clash of different kinds of knowledges — the clash of histories with personal memories; of abstract regulations with everyday encounters; of sophisticated analyses with emotional readings of recent political developments. To use Helen Verran’s words, what I experienced were moments of disconcertment, which had to be privileged and nurtured, valued and expanded upon. But how?

I could have possibly written something about this — a chapter on the genealogy of citizenship in Hungary, for instance. But that would have been too impersonal. For, and this is my point, I as a political subject was as much implicated in the production of a particular political reality as the Holy Crown or the Parliament’s Information System. And if I wanted to interfere with this reality, I had to find ways to perform things differently. To perform the Hungarian Parliament differently. So, in my dissertation I decided to juxtapose the empirical chapters with semi-fictional texts called Walks, which aimed to show (rather than explain) multiple orderings at work. (Major sources of inspiration were W.G. Sebald’s books, especially Austerlitz and The Rings of Saturn) What’s more, by exposing the limits of these orderings, they aimed to create some space for being political without fixing the categories of politics. It’s difficult to tell whether I was successful or not, but if you’re interested, you can have a look at an earlier version of these Walks here:

Walk 1: http://dl.dropbox.com/u/4496011/danyi_walk1.pdf
Walk 2: http://dl.dropbox.com/u/4496011/danyi_walk2.pdf
Walk 3: http://dl.dropbox.com/u/4496011/danyi_walk3.pdf
Walk 4: http://dl.dropbox.com/u/4496011/danyi_walk4.pdf
Walk 5: http://dl.dropbox.com/u/4496011/danyi_walk5.pdf

(Please do not cite or circulate them without permission!)



I really hope you enjoyed reading these posts about the Hungarian Parliament as much as I enjoyed writing them. Many thanks to Jan-Hendrik, Nicholas, Hendrik and Antonia for inviting me — I’m looking forward to continuing our conversations on this blog, and hopefully in person.

Endre’s fifth post

A Parliament can be regarded as a centre of calculation in a liberal democracy, but it’s a rather strange one at that: on most days it’s completely empty, and even when it is full of politicians, one has the feeling that the debates that take place in the richly decorated chambers are mere perfomances. At least this is what a journalist told me once, complaining that all the decisions on the Hungarian National Assembly’s agenda had already been made somewhere else — in party meetings, closed committee sessions, or one of the proverbial smoke-filled rooms of politics. He said he felt cheated whenever he had to report on a plenary sitting, and when he learned about my interest in the material practices of political representation, he immediately thought I was on a mission to find out what was going on behind the curtain, in the backstages of the Parliament.

Sometimes it was a bit like that, but now — more than three years after the beginning of my fieldwork  — I think it’s more appropriate to say that I was interested in staging processes, rather than the front-stage and the backstage(s) of democratic politics as such. Let me unpack this.

On Monday, 31 March 2008, which was incidentally the first day of my fieldwork in Budapest, the parliamentary faction of the Alliance of Free Democrats announced that it wanted the party to quit the socialist-liberal coalition, which by then had been governing the country for six years. The main reason for this was that two days earlier the socialist Prime Minister unilaterally decided to sack the liberal Minister of Health, blaming her (and her party) for a failed healthcare reform. Being the smaller partner in the coalition, the Alliance of Free Democrats was suddenly confronted with a dilemma: either they swallowed the insult, stayed in Government, and risked becoming politically irrelevant, or they joined the Opposition, and lost whatever power they still had in various ministries and other public institutions. The parliamentary faction believed the latter to be the better option, and this was supported by the party’s Executive Committee. However, the decision to quit the governing coalition could only be made by an exceptional party congress, which was quickly convened for 27 April 2008.

This was a full-blown government crisis, and I was right in the middle of it. In the end of March 2008 I travelled to Budapest to examine how political representation worked in practice by shadowing a Member of Parliament for three-four weeks. The MP who agreed to participate in this strange exercise happened to be the deputy faction leader of the Alliance of Free Democrats, whom I knew from early undergrad times — we studied sociology together at the Eötvös Loránd University. In 2002, the same year I finished my degree, he became one of the youngest MPs in the Hungarian National Assembly, and in 2006, the same year I began my PhD in Lancaster, he was re-elected. He was the only person I knew in the Parliament at the time, and so I was incredibly happy when in the end of 2007 he agreed to become part of my research. Neither of us would have thought back then that the shadowing period would be so intense.

How much biographical detail is required to make my story interesting and credible? Should I disclose the MP’s name, age, and place of birth? His marital status? His favourite hobby? His view on religion, human rights, and climate change? I don’t know. STS has not been very good at dealing with persons — after all, doing away with ‘great men’ narratives has been one of the most important aims from the outset. One of the few — and often misinterpreted — examples for how a person could be analysed as one of many entities is Bruno Latour’s work on Louis Pasteur, which is about a drama that took place on several stages. (The reference here is not necessarily The Pasteurization of France, but Chapter 4 of Pandora’s Hope) The first (part of the) drama was an ontological one: a nonentity had to be turned into a character. The second was an epistemological one: Pasteur had to  claim the authority to make claims about that character. As Latour says, the experiment was

‘a story tied to a situation in which new actants [underwent] terrible trials plotted by an ingenious stage manager; and then the stage manager, in turn, [underwent] terrible trials at the hands of his colleagues, who test[ed] what sort of ties there [were] between the first story and the second situation’ (p. 124).

While the stages Latour focuses on are laboratories and academic settings, I think the concept of staging works really well in the realm of conventional politics. (For a similar argument see Lisa Disch’s fascinating paper here.) It is possible to say that in the spring of 2008 the Alliance of Free Democrats faction — including the MP I was shadowing — conducted an experiment that took place on several stages, including TV studios, street demonstrations, the party headquarters, and the Parliament. Their task was simultaneously to make liberal voters distinguishable from socialist voters, and to make the claim that the liberal party was their true representative in the National Assembly. Although the experiment ended with a single decision — at the exceptional party congress about 80 percent of the delegates voted in favour of quitting the coalition — it could not be reduced to a single moment. None of the stages were irrelevant to the other. The reason why the Parliament could be thought of as the front-stage of democratic politics was not because the performances in the debating chamber were more important than in other places, but because between the elections in 2006 and 2010 it was the only place where the sovereign could be seen.

Endre’s fourth post

So the parliament building in Budapest is an inhabited ruin — a memorial to a political community that is sometimes defined in cultural, sometimes in legal-political, and sometimes in moral terms. Fine. But since 1989 it’s also the home of the National Assembly, which is the ‘supreme body of State power and popular representation’ in the Republic of Hungary. At least this is what Article 19 of the Constitution says. It is the supreme body of popular representation because it is the only entity in the current political regime that has the right to create and modify laws, which are considered to be expressions of the will of the people.

The creation and modification of laws, I’d like to argue, is another distinct mode of doing politics in a liberal democracy. Unlike the one concerned with drawing the boundaries of the political community, it has hardly anything to do with the past as such. Its temporality is defined more by the legislative process, which begins when an issue takes the shape of a bill, and appears as an electronic document in the Parliament’s Information System called PAIR.

A short detour: there’s a fascinating discussion in STS about issues, and the ways in which they can create their own publics. Noortje Marres has a couple articles on this (see, for example, this one), and so does Bruno Latour (a good summary of his position is available here). What I find really interesting is that the formation of issues is largely invisible from the Parliament’s perspective, just as parliaments are largely invisible from most STS scholars’ perspective. Perhaps it is time to rethink the status of hybrid forums (Michel Callon and his colleagues’ term — see Acting in an Uncertain World) as alternatives to parliaments, and focus instead on the traffic that happens between the two realms.

Back to PAIR. In one of the chapters of my dissertation I examine the Parliament and its Information System as a legislative machine, the main function of which is to turn bills into laws. (Yaron Ezrahi argues the machine is one of the two main metaphors in modern politics — the other being the theatre. See his article here, and, of course, Andrew Barry’s Political Machines) In the chapter I make the claim that the operation of this machine is regulated by two documents, the Constitution and the Standing Orders, which can be read as the Users’ Manuals to the legislature. Describing how they work — not as abstract texts, but as ordering devices — helps to understand what kind of politics is enacted by (this version of) the Parliament. So here’s a rough-and-ready reconstruction of the legislative process:

The first phase is the distribution of issues. The Constitution clearly defines who has the right to submit bills to the National Assembly, and the Standing Orders specifies the format these bills have to take. (They need to be addressed to the Speaker, they need to contain a justification, an assessment of social and economic impact, etc.) Once recognised as bills, issues are forwarded to various Standing Committees, which in turn decide whether the bills are suitable for debate. If they are, the so-called House Committee determines the National Assembly’s agenda — this is when bills are distributed not across space but across time.

The second phase is the debate of the bills. It happens in several rounds, and the Standing Committees play an important role in it, but the plenary sittings in the House of Representatives are structured in a way that most discussions occur between the Government and the Opposition. Two main characteristics of the debate are worth emphasising: 1) that it’s a public event, which means people can follow it either in person or on TV and the web, and 2) that it has a time limit. Even the longest and most tedious debates have to come to an end at some point.

The third, and final, phase is decision-making. Again, this happens in more than one round, and some bills require stronger support than others to be approved, but the making of the decision almost always takes the same form: electronic voting. When the Speaker asks the National Assembly to decide the fate of a bill, all MPs in the House of Representatives have to press one of three buttons on their desks: ‘aye’, ‘nay’, ‘abstain’. A moment later the result appears on a large electronic screen, and the Speaker moves on to the next item on the agenda. But this is not the end of the story. Once approved, the text of the proposed law has to be checked by the Legal Department, and signed by the Speaker and the President. The former testifies that the legislative process went according to the rules and procedures laid down in the Standing Orders, and the latter that the text is in harmony with the Constitution.

There’s a lot to be said about the process, and the persons and artefacts that make it possible, from shorthand writers to microphones, but let me briefly summarise what kind of politics is enacted by the legislature. It is defined as a series of public debates that take place in the Parliament. These debates are about well a defined object between the Government and the Opposition, and sooner or later lead to a clear decision. If the decision is positive, a bill becomes a law, which — as I said earlier — is considered to be the expression of the will of the people.

You think this is too thin? Too naive? Too technical? You think real politics happens elsewhere? In cafes, party meetings, and street demonstrations? I’ll address these concerns in the next post…

Endre’s third post

What do we learn about liberal democracy if we focus on the (construction of) the Hungarian parliament building? In the previous post I argued that one the one hand we learn that it’s a political reality that first came into being neither in 600 BC, nor in 1989 AD, but sometime in the 19th century, and on the other hand we learn that at the time it was not a singular model of governance, but consisted of three distinct modes of doing politics. I also argued that what the parliament building did in the turn of the century was that it held together this political reality, which was supposed to last hundreds of years. But it only lasted a little more than a decade.

Between 1914 and 1989 the building in the centre of Budapest witnessed two world wars and three revolutions, as a result of which hardly anything that Imre Steindl once cast in stone is valid anymore. Today, the neo-Gothic palace that was once the largest parliament building in the world makes a rather grotesque sight in a country of only ten million people. Just how grotesque, I think is wonderfully captured by Hungarian writer Lajos Parti Nagy:

[…] It is as if a talented, up-and-coming pastry-chef had once dreamt of something big, awful and uncontrollable. The dream is long gone with the river, but the stone-pastry fossil is still there. It looks like its own model, made to scale of matchsticks, carved out of lard and marzipan. It looks like it is painted, stitched, batiked, patchworked, embroidered, knitted, forged of moonlight, copper, tin, iron staples, bullet shells. It is so unreal I cannot dislike it, I’m used to it, it belongs to me, along with all the coarse absurdities of my country’s history. It is the lamentably false and imposing fulfilment of a desire. An ‘in-the-meantime’ disproportionate monster, designed for a different, earlier country.
(My – not very eloquent – translation. The original version is available here)

I find Parti Nagy’s words captivating. And yet I believe it is not simply the twists and turns of the 20th century that make the parliament building an analytically interesting entity. As an inhabited ruin, it also helps to understand the workings of a distinct mode of doing politics – one that is as much concerned with the definition of a political community in the beginning of the 21st century as it was in the end of the 19th century.

In one of the chapters of my dissertation I draw on Geoffrey Bowker’s Memory Practices in the Sciences to examine how the parliament building works as a memorial today. The premise is that, similar to the Austro-Hungarian period, the present and the future of the political community in the Third Republic is envisioned (and materialised) as the extension of the past it creates for itself. This past, however, consists of several, often conflicting, claims of continuity.

The first claim of continuity takes material form in the Holy Crown, located in the Cupola Hall of the Parliament. This fascinating object, which is often referred to as St. Stephen’s crown, is widely regarded as the symbol of a thousand-year old state, and defines the political community in very broad cultural terms: anyone who feels Hungarian is Hungarian, including those living outside the current borders of Hungary. (This is, of course, a can of worms – those interested in opening it should have a look at László Péter’s thorough article here)

The second claim of continuity is associated with the Parliamentary Collection of the Library of the National Assembly, which treats the 1848 revolution and the first democratically elected government as the absolute threshold in Hungarian history. The emphasis is on the term ‘democratically elected’, which denotes a radical shift in the logic of sovereignty. According to this logic, power stems not from God or the Holy Crown but from the people – a term that in this context refers to the collective of those who have the right to vote.

But what if voters want to use their power to exclude certain groups from the political community, either to ‘purify the nation’, or to ‘realise the dictatorship of the proletariat’? The third claim of continuity has less to do with the state and the nation than with a society, held together by a moral commitment to fight all forms of tyranny. As several statues and memorials in the square in front of the parliament building show, in the Hungarian consciousness this commitment is exemplified by the 1956 revolution, which might have been crushed by force, but from the early 1980s onwards served as one of the most important sources of inspiration for the illegal democratic opposition, and then for the new National Assembly set up in 1990.

Needless to say, I’m oversimplifying things, but my point is this: if we use the Hungarian parliament building not simply to reconstruct the political history of Central and Eastern Europe in the 20th century, but more as a device to analyse how liberal democracy works today, then I think it makes sense to say that one mode of doing politics is (still) very much concerned with the tension between a cultural, a legal-political, and a moral definition of the political community. 

Endre’s second post

What do buildings do? The question has been addressed several times in STS (see, for instance, Thomas Gieryn’s paper here, and Michael Guggenheim’s paper here), but I don’t think it’s possible to find a general answer. So let me be more specific: what does the Hungarian parliament building do?

I spent a long time thinking about this question, both during fieldwork in Budapest and during writing-up in Berlin. One day I decided play a game and pile up as many books as I could find in the Grimm Zentrum – Humboldt University’s new open shelf library – that had an image of the Hungarian Parliament on its cover. The result was quite surprising: the books fell into two distinct categories. Either they were about the parliament building, which was constructed in the end of the 19th century, but had nothing to say about politics, or they were about the current political regime, born after the collapse of communism in 1989, but had nothing to say about architecture. There was materiality on the one hand, and democracy on the other.

The only exception I could find was a large-sized exhibition catalogue, published in 2000 by the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest. The title of the catalogue was House of the Nation: Parliament Plans for Buda-Pest, 1784-1884, and according to the preface, it was supposed to be more than a supplement to architectural history – it was meant to be the documentation of the realisation of ‘a ramifying high-political programme’. To understand what this programme might have meant, I decided to follow a material semiotic strategy, articulated in John Law’s Aircraft Stories (especially in Chapter 2), and do an anti-reading of the catalogue. The aim was not to faithfully reconstruct how the imposing Parliament was built in the centre of Budapest, but to explore what made its construction possible – indeed necessary.

The answer is that there was not one but at least three reasons for its construction. The first had something to do with the political community. I don’t want to go into the details, but Hungary in the second half of the 19th century was still part of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, and so the demonstration of the country’s autonomy was of crucial importance. The story about how the Hungarian government came up with the idea of celebrating the 1000th anniversary of the conquest of the land in 1896 would have been a nice addition to Eric Hobsbawm & Terence Ranger’s The Invention of Tradition – the point is that the permanent home of the legislature was intended to be a memorial of the thousand-year-old nation.

The second reason is much more prosaic. After the Austro-Hungarian compromise, signed in 1867, the two houses of the Hungarian Parliament moved into two temporary locations, and for more than three decades the House of Lords held its sessions in the main hall of the National Museum, while the House of Representatives assembled in the place of a former military barracks. The latter was too small, the acoustics was bad, the insulation was even worse, and there was hardly any room for the administrative staff. If Hungary wanted a new parliament building, many MPs argued, it had to be large enough to accommodate both houses, the entire administration associated with the legislature, not to mention its library, archives, post office, and so on.

So the new parliament building, which was commissioned in 1880, had to be memorial-like, and it had to be large. But this doesn’t explain why it had to be neo-Gothic. Indirect evidence suggests the decision to choose Imre Steindl as the architect of the Hungarian Parliament was made by former Prime Minister Gyula Andrássy, who was very much impressed by Steindl’s neo-Gothic designs. Not because he was interested in revivalism as such, but because he wanted the new parliament building to resemble the Palace of Westminster as much as possible. He was absolutely fond of English political culture, and his understanding of parliamentarism was strongly influenced by his regular visits to London. He thought it was important to have an independent legislature, to have a House of Representatives that consisted entirely of  elected members, but he was against the extension of the franchise to workers and women, and was definitely against republicanism. As a liberal politician, he believed a constitutional monarchy was the best model a modern nation could hope for.

To make the long story short: the anti-reading of the House of the Nation catalogue revealed that there were at least three different reasons for the parliament building’s construction in the end of the 19th century. In my view, these reasons or justifications (see Luc Boltanski & Laurent Thevenot’s On Justification) point towards three changes in the practice of doing politics: the definition of the political community, the specification of the legislature’s continuous operation, and the birth of the professional politician. I think it’s fair to say that these three changes together constituted the high-political programme mentioned in the catalogue – a political programme that could just as well be called liberal democracy. And what the Hungarian parliament building did, at least until the First World War, was that it held together this political reality, which consisted of three distinct modes of doing politics. What these were and what they look like today is going to be discussed in subsequent posts…