Talking with Latour about Anthropocene


Latour is at it again! This time Latour is at the Anthropology Museum in Vancouver, British Columbia, taking over Canada. 

Check him out here, it is excellent work.

Short description:

Published on Oct 11, 2013

Dr. Philippe Descola was a Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Peter Wall Institute and Dr. Bruno Latour was the fall 2013 Wall Exchange lecturer, and on September 25, 2013 engaged in a discussion at the Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver about the concept of the “Anthropocene”.

Thanks (STS-Africa) Network for Science and Technology Studies in Africa!

Book Symposium on “The Materiality of Bureaucracy” in HAU – Journal of Ethnographic Theory

For those of you that are interested in the machinery of governance there is a wonderful book symposium in HAU – Journal of Ethnographic Theory. HAU is:

…an international peer-reviewed, open-access online journal which aims to situate ethnography as the prime heuristic of anthropology, and return it to the forefront of conceptual developments in the discipline.

HAU – focus and scope

I know there are many new peer-reviewed, open access online journals out there and sometimes, lets be honest, their quality is dubious. But HAU is really cool, the research is very empirical, the book symposiums very enlightening, and their recent “classics” series is totally fascinating.

The symposium is on Michael Hull´s “Government of Paper”, in itself an interesting read. Here is the list of contributions, check it out!

Book Symposium – Government of paper: The materiality of bureaucracy in urban Pakistan (Matthew Hull)

Materiality, materialization PDF
Constantine V. Nakassis 399–406
Matthew Hull and ethnographies of the state PDF
Katherine Verdery 407–10
The question of the political: Thinking with Matthew Hull PDF
Naveeda Khan 411–15
Travels among the records: Some thoughts provoked byGovernment of paper PDF
Justin Richland 417–20
Paper as a serious method of concern PDF
Stephen M. Lyon, David Henig 421–25
Reflections on dysfunctional functioning in the political economy of paper PDF
Michael Gilsenan 427–30
On signatures and traces PDF
Béatrice Fraenkel 431–34
Messy bureaucracies PDF
Akhil Gupta 435–40
The materiality of indeterminacy . . . on paper, at least PDF
Matthew S. Hull 441–47

On (reading) the Inquiry into Modes of Existence


There is a book that I try to read for weeks now. I always read a few pages, then put it back, pick it up again, read, shake my head and put it down again. You would probably not believe it, but this book is Bruno Latour´s “An Inquiry into Modes of Existence. An Anthropology of the Moderns”.

For those who have not touched AIME yet, Latour´s “new” book is not just a book, it is a book + website + collective inquiry, funded by the European Research Council and run by Science Po´s Media Lab. The printed version, the text, is supposed to be mainly a manual, not the report itself. The collective inquiry started somewhere in 2012, being first introduced at Azim Premji University some time before the french publication of the book in September 2012 and the launch of the platform in November 2012. Anglophone readers could join after the publication of Cathrine Porters translation in August 2013, a german translation by Gustav Roßler will be published this July. The project itself, maybe best described in a short piece published in Social Studies of Science, is what could be called a positive version of the, well, negative points made in “We have never been modern”. It is — finally — tackling a problem that accompanied actor-network theory since its beginnings (or at least: since its first movements outside the lab): If everything is made from networks, and “Nothing is, by itself, either reducible or irreducible to anything else”: how to deal with what the moderns have called the differences of regions, spheres, fields, systems like science, law, politics, religion, organization? How can we flatten our approach without loosing our ability to account for the only kind of multiplicity that modernity has accepted, but continuously misunderstood as domains of knowledge? And what do to with what modernity has positioned at the source of knowledge — the self — or its object — matter?

Latour does that — Whitehead, Souriau, James and Tarde in his backpack and ready to dismiss the “Greimas” part of the “ANT is part Garfinkel, part Greimas” definition — by trying to sketch what he calls, borrowing a term from Souriau, “modes of existence”. Like the “regimes of enunciation” that populated earlier writings, especially those on religion and law and that have the same problem as Greimas’ actants, namely that they invoke a textual, discursive, narrative interpretation of what is at stake, modes of existence try to capture what “passes” through the various heterogenous networks that ANT had described. But of course, as in the case of science, the modes are not domains. There is more than passing reference in laboratories and more than politics in parliaments and more than religion in churches. The modes are the multiple forms of being, not essences — or, in Latour´s words, not being-as-being, but being-as-others — that populate the lab, the church, the parliament and that the moderns have crossed specifically and confused with the values they hold dear. The question that runs through the book is: can we find ways to speak with the moderns about what they hold dear without falling back into the traps that the modern constitution has put all over the landscape: the bifurcation of nature, the subject/object distinction, the crossed out god(s)?

As a long time reader of Latour´s work, I find the book both tempting and troubling, making be shift continuously between agreement and the feeling that something is terribly wrong with it. And since the moment I started reading the book, I am trying to find out what it is that produces that oscillation. I first thought it was the tone: the book is written in a very careful and modest, but at the same time educational, sometimes even cavalier style. But the tone, although puzzling at first, surprisingly funny after a few chapters. Then I thought it was the system of 15 modes and I felt the terror of reification and loosing not only the Greimas, but also the Garfinkel side. But no, that is not really the problem, as the inquiry is explicitly provisional. But the feeling that something is wrong remains. My current guess is that it has to do with the both too broad and too narrow definition of “the moderns”: what is said about religion is mostly about catholic christianity; what is said about law is mostly about discretionary adjudication, a very specific form of dealing with legal means in the Conseil D´Etat. The Moderns are at the same time “us”, “rich westerners”, “white moderns” and a species long gong. I guess expect more sensitivity and caution from something that calls itself anthropology. But I am still not sure that is source of my problem reading this book. Have you read it? Are your experiences similar? Thoughts?


The failures of constructivist language

This is an excerpt from a paper that we will present in Izmir, Turkey, next week as part of the European Workshops in International Studies; we are in the social theory section (big surprise) organized by Benjamin Herborth, University of Groningen, and Kai Koddenbrock, University of Duisburg-Essen.

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(left-over Nazi bell from the ’36 Summer Olympics)

On the failures of constructivist language for our purposes.

In each case, the materiality of the object contributed to its fate. There were clear economic, cultural, and logistic costs and considerations associated with our objects under study being de-constructed, re-constructed, or, for lack of a better term, un-de-constructed, or, put simply, left. Upon even modest reflection, the available constructivist vocabulary seems to fail us in these moments; primarily developed for understanding how things are to be built, we find it difficult to utilize such language for encapsulating and illuminating the processes associated with the allowable decay resistant materials and the slow unintended or unattended-to wasting-away of durable objects.

The only apparent option is to capture attempts at (re)framing — discursively, symbolically, but not practically — the (re)appropriation of monuments in official and unofficial accounts of history. People “make sense” of these ruins, so the classic constructivist interpretation goes. And as soon as they stop or do not care any more there is nothing left to say. That is exactly what Foucault bemoaned when he complained about a historiography that turns monuments into documents. One can easily see that his complaint does not only hold for historical accounts, but for social sciences looking at contemporary issues as well: if we cannot find someone who makes sense of something, then that something simply does not count. But as our cases show: that does not make these massive pieces of concrete, bronze, and iron go away; it does not even leave them untouched. Even when people do not care, forget, or even ignore: the stuff left-over by former state projects stays and shapes what can and cannot be done with it.


(Soviet War Memorial)

As we view the cases, those Soviet War Memorials constitute a kind of classic form of international relations, one held together by international treatise and inter-governmental agreements regarding the conditions of maintenance for the sites. Based on agreements, the materiality of the sites are not to be marred. The formerly-Nazi Olympic bell constitutes another form of international relations that is de facto, meaning, the bell’s unearthing and repositioning outside the Olympic stadium is not the outcome of treaties with another nation or the result of any linger agreement from former German governments. The bell’s durable material hardly needs to be willfully maintained; however, to remove it would require a considerable quantity of will, both economic and cultural. As the international stage observes how Germany will learn to deal with its past, the irremovable bell lingers-on in public view with only modest material transformation, which recognizes without celebrating the past. How Germany relates to the material residues of past governments becomes a form of international relations.


(perpetually graffitied Ernst Thälmann Park memorial bust)

The Thälmann bust appears to us as an example of international relations unquestionably shaped by materiality, or, put another way, as a standing example of material international relations. The costliness of its decommissioning outweighed so greatly the will and coffers of the Berlin city commission that, despite being selected for removal on the basis of historical value, the monument endures (Ladd,1997: 201). Unlike the Soviet War Memorials, the the Thälmann bust is not vigorously maintained; however, it has also not been disabled like the Berlin Olympic bell. The operant or public identity of the memorial in Ernst Thälmann Park is one of a graffitied material behemoth. Creative urban artists embellish the statue and only occasionally and without ceremony is hulk washed of the ongoing alterations that it is subjected to from the public.

In sum, the Soviet War Memorials endure for classical reasons of international relations; the Olympic bell endures, irremovable but intentionally altered so that it no longer bears the inscription of a past government and it is incapable of expressing its material purpose to ring; though its removal was approved by a commission whose sole purpose for convening was to determine how the Berlin cityscape would be selectively altered, through its hulking materiality the Thälmann bust endures in a state of semi-permanent but allowable vandalization.

As we reflect on the monuments to a former age, we think of commentary on the repurposing of the Berlin Olympic stadium. Walter’s (2006: xiii) reflects in an extended passage from a perhaps little-read preface:

“Whereas other Nazi edifices such as the rally grounds at Nuremberg are rightly abandoned, this is a building still very much in use – even playing host to the 2006 World Cup final. Although some argue that a structure so closely associated with the Nazi period should not be used, it would seem churlish (and uneconomical) to abandon so handsome and vast a building. In 1936 it may well have been regarded as an architectural embodiment of the waxing power of the new German Reich, but in 2006, the seventieth anniversary of the Nazi’s Olympics, it stands as a symbol that Germany has the ability to come to terms with its past. Why should it not be used? What harm does it do? The shape of the Olympic Stadium does not register as a symbol of evil in the same way as the infamous entrance to Auschwitz, with its railway lines converging to pass under its all-seeing watchtower. The stadium may well not be free from guilt, but like many associated with the Nazi regime, it does not necessarily deserve the death penalty.”

The language used in the passage above to execute an old stadium produces a clear image in the mind; however, do not mistake it as a heartfelt call from the inner-circles of STS to adopt a relational materialist approach to the symmetrical depiction of humans and nonhumans. Still, there is a kernel of insight worth coaxing into germination.

Sentencing a stadium to death would not only be deemed mean-spirited and irrational by Walters, the implication is that one way to deal with international relations (even with old dead states, like the Nazi state) is through the material relations — what Barry calls “material politics” — of monumental spaces such as architect Werner March’s, on Hitler’s orders, grand Olympiastadion staged in the Reichssportfeld (which was built on the foundation of the previous Olympiastadion from the aborted 1916 Games in Berlin). By material politics, Barry conceptualizes processes by which the material world gets drawn into a dynamic relationship with politics; the material world, as it happens, is an important resource for the practical conduct of politics. In STS, Barry’s approach can be contra-positioned with the old adage that “artefacts have politics,” by which Winner (1986) means that technologies have politics as a quintessential part of their design or contextual situatedness.

Returning to our main line of discussion, Barry’s project is explicitly about dealing with a project under construction, in his case, laying a rather large oil pipeline, while our is about dealing with a project long-since constructed. Barry’s case is emergent; our cases are left-over. For us, this sometimes means intervention or decommission and other times it means preservation or transformation, either way, the state must relate to these residues of past states. While the constructivist language common to STS accounts serves Barry well, we find it wanting and search for alternatives more suitable for conceptualizing and describing decay amid durability and the state of being left behind.

Chinese Constitutional Politics


The video recording of the conference, China-Constitution-Politics, is now available for accessing via mediasite. I was involved in the PM discussion; I reviewed Dr. Larry Backer and graduate student Karen Wang‘s paper “THE EMERGING STRUCTURES OF SOCIALIST CONSTITUTIONALISM WITH CHINESE CHARACTERISTICS: EXTRA-JUDICIAL DETENTION (LAOJIAO AND SHUANGGUI) AND THE CHINESE CONSTITUTIONAL ORDER” which is soon coming out in Pacific Rim Law & Policy Journal; the AM session considered Zhiwei Tong (童之伟) and his new work “Two Issues.”

RECORDINGS: Entire Conference HERE: AM Session HERE: PM Session HERE.

The original schedule is here:


Retrospective on “The Carceral”


A chapter of Michel Foucault’s famous 1977 Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1975, Surveiller et Punir: Naissance de la Prison) is titled “The Carceral.” In a few brief notes, I reconsider the chapter in light of contemporary discussions and literature.

As with so much of Foucault’s work, the chapter starts with a rich, seemingly (but not really) unorthodox example, in this case, the official opening of Mettray, a location where “disciplinary form at its most extreme” was born. Utilizing nearly every form of traditional organizational forms — the family, the army, the workshop, the classroom, and juridical ordering techniques —  such that those “young delinquents condemned by the courts” (as well as, I will note, boys charged, but acquitted, and yet were imprisoned as an alternative to “parental correction”) were to be overseen by “technicians of behavior; engineers of conduct, orthopaedists of individuality.”

As you can see from the quotes, Foucault’s language holds nicely to this day, even if post-foucauldians in governmentality studies have “cleaned-up” the ideas so much so that now we rattle-off “voluntary self-regulation through myriad disciplinary techniques,” it is worth remembering that, earlier on, we used to have to learn what Foucault meant from writing that did not give way to bullet-point-like writing or textbook-like bold terms sitting like warts in our prose. That said, some of the prose does not really hold over time as well as his language choices. When I first read Foucault, I recall his work being mind-blowing and yet, at some level, impenetrable. My colleagues would say something like “this is not sociology as usual,” and while I agreed with them back then (perhaps out of fear — Foucault readers often loved him dearly and not “getting it” was something you would not normally want to reveal in public, which I think now Foucault would have laughed about), now that I have some distance from my initial readings, it is easy to see why Foucault was not sociology as usual: it is not sociology. I do not mean it does not belong among the sociology canons; I mean that it was never “just” sociology; his work always struck me as historical, political, social, etc. but that it was simply not possible to reduce it to any of them. At any rate, I return to the retrospective.

Of course, the penal systems were famous for meticulous notes; “a body of knowledge was being constantly built up from the everyday behaviour of the inmates,” such that in the toughest of prisons, at the hardest of times, surveillance always implied: “I shall note the slightest irregularity in your conduct.” These two quotes, juxtaposed in the above sentence, give you also a sense of Foucault that I only notice now. I used to think that he was a dynamic writer, for a historian (I used to think of him this way); however, now, having done some professional writing, I see that Foucault is a master of shifting registers. He switches effortlessly between gigantic abstractions that seem to swallow-up the entire carceral world, for example with a quote like, “a body of knowledge was being constantly built up from the everyday behaviour of the inmates”; however, moments later, he reduces his voice to a nearly personal tone, as if whispering to the reader (without breaking eye contact, I imagine in my mind’s eye) shifts registers to tell you, the reader, what an person might have heard, as a prisoner, and in these moments, you are both, for example, “I shall note the slightest irregularity in your conduct.” You get the feeling Foucault might have, upon uttering this line, paused for effect. As a matter of style, I will take this form of writing over the bullet-points and bolded-terms, but the executive summarizing of texts into carefully constructed abstracts and sound blurbs (like those that post-foucauldian governmentality studies scholars have reduced Foucault to) seem to win the day in our times.

While all the discussion of discipline, training, and then self-discipline is positively lovely to read, I was stopped dead in my book at this line: in a discussion of supervision and being supervised, “[a] subtle, graduated carceral net,” Foucault writes, “with compact institutions, but also separate and diffused methods, assumed responsibility for the arbitrary, widespread, badly integrated confinement of the classical age.” I have no recollection of reading that line before; however, reading it now, its like a curio box of how the work has been up-taken into contemporary sociology: the emphasis on “[a] subtle, graduated carceral net” feels like the precursor for discussions of networked stateness; having the net replete “with compact institutions, but also separate and diffused methods” serves to underscore that Foucault was not an anti-institutionalist, but that institutions were “separate” (or distanced both practically and analytically) from the “diffused methods” upon which much (if not most) discipline is rendered; from there, we get a feel for jurisdiction as a key mechanism for control and knowledge production (which, for example, Andy Abbott’s work is a cool off-shoot as well as Tom Gieryn’s) when we read the net of institutions carefully divorced from the methods of everyday discipline, “assumed responsibility for the arbitrary, widespread, badly integrated confinement of the classical age.” The sentence, as it were, and for me only in retrospect, twinkles like a curio box of Foucault’s lasting legacy.

Another matter warranting some re-consideration is how sloppy Foucault is and how this general sloppiness is neatly pasted-over by his vivid word choices. For example, in an incredibly sloppy historical gloss of the origins of the prison, we get a paint-by-numbers tour of yesteryear, seeing “colonies of poor, abandoned vagrant children,” those boarded-up “almshouses for young female offenders” whose mothers exposed them one too many perversities, backbreaking “penal colonies” for young men often acquitted but condemned to reform through labor, “the institutions for abandoned or indigent children” as well as “orphanages,” what was left of the institution of “apprentices,” or those “factory-convents” where young girls would tally-away under circumstances of voluntary confinement, and if all of those beautiful and tragic pictures of yesteryear were not yet enough to bully the reader into agreeing not to disagree with the fine points raised by Foucault, we now get bombarded by “charitable societies, moral improvement associations, organizations that handed out assistance and also practised surveillance,” and now I am too exhausted to continue this German machine-gun of corollaric  examples. Still, a point is to be made here, because we have all seen this technique before (some of us, in our own writing), this “exhaust the reader with colorful examples” technique (I am, myself, routinely guilty of this); however, until reviewing Foucault again for my students in social theory today, I had no idea that I was doing this, as if a scholarly mimeograph machine, in the tradition laid-out by Foucault (although, and it would be fitting, perhaps Foucault was copying somebody else that either I don’t know about or whom has been lost in time).

Those are just a few thoughts, having returned to Foucault’s D&P after a number of years.

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Critical Infrastructure and Climate Change


Sometimes things juxtapose themselves. Dmfant wrote a reply about a terrific piece now available on-line, free, as an mp3. Backdoor Broadcasting Company’s academic broadcasts currently host access to the file, which is from:

The Political Life of Things: A One Day Workshop at The Imperial War Museum, London, UK; Nick Vaughan-Williams (Warwick) & Tom Lundborg (Swedish Institute of International Affairs): There’s More to Life than Biopolitics: Critical Infrastructure, Resilience Planning, and Molecular Security

The piece is about critical, self-healing infrastructure, and, of course, require this discussion requires significant use of the “human/non-human” distinction, if only to dash them to bits. Well, while this piece is years old, Dmfant just posted it in response to a previous post about an upcoming event.

There is a piece in the New York Times today about the third time that world scientists united in order to provide a broad response to the public about the realities of climate change. How these two pieces appear to be linked together so nicely is a claim made Tom LUndborg about how the linguistic turn in political philosophy has distracted us, on the whole, from the “social” concern over materiality and a full-fledged research base of studies on infrastructure. Tom goes further, though, claiming that the linguistic turn has made it much more difficult to be fully critical as theorists or, conceivably, as government agencies or even public citizens to take the next step … although, that is where the radio show ends.

PACITA’s 2nd European TA Conference


PACITA’s 2nd European TA Conference

The overall aim of the conference is to take stock of and support the exchange on TA capacities throughout Europe. Following the successful meeting of researchers, TA practitioners, policy makers and civil society organizations at the 1st European TA Conference in Prague in March 2013 we look forward to continuing the fruitful discussions and networking at the 2nd European TA Conference in Berlin. The Conference is organized within the framework of the four-year FP7 project PACITA (“Parliaments and Civil Society in Technology Assessment”). Generally, the PACITA project and the Conference define “Technology Assessment” in a broad sense. TA comprises methods, practices and institutions for knowledge based policy making on issues involving science, technology and innovation, including TA-related fields such as Foresight, Science and Technology Studies (STS) and research on Ethical, Legal and Societal Aspects (ELSA) of science and technology.

We submitted and we’ll let you know if we get a spot (along with some invitations).

Here is our submission:

Session Title: The State as a Concept In Practice

If it is necessary to reflect upon concepts that support democratic problem solving and decision making, then no concept is more important or central to this aim than “the state.” Over the last decade, scholars in science and technology studies (STS) have developed an innovative and useful model for understanding the state. In particular, they show how the state is an academic concept — a theory, to be specific — that is used routinely in the everyday practices of contemporary Continue reading

Presentation and Roundtable: Jan-Hendrik Passoth and Nicholas Rowland on “The Possibility & Contours of State Multiplicity: Preliminary Findings”


Jan and I recently gave a talk at the School for International Affairs in the Law School at The Pennsylvania State University, which is available HERE.

The presentation, “The Possibilities and Contours of State Multiplicity: Preliminary Findings”, featured Jan-Hendrik Passoth (Technische Universität Berlin), Nicholas Rowland (Penn State University) presenting their latest research work on state theory, and Larry Catá Backer (Penn State) as discussant.  The conference was recorded and all are welcome to watch and comment, engage.

Description of the talk:

For at least 100 years, scholars in law, political science, philosophy, international relations, and various branches of sociology have asked: What is the state? And, for at least as long, answers to that question have commonly taken the form of a petty and seemingly endless game of conceptual one-upsmanship. An alternative direction exists from the small world of science and technology studies. State multiplicity. The shift toward seeing “the state” as multiple implies that we understand the state to be, convincingly, both one thing and many things simultaneously. In this talk we draw on more than 100 years of research on the state to document the possibility state multiplicity and then we hazard a few tentative and counter-intuitive conclusions based on our preliminary findings.


The Passoth-Rowland Presentation and Roundtable may be viewed HERE (via mediasite) or on Penn State Law’s Multimedia Page.  It may also be accessed through the Coalition for Peace & Ethics Website: HERE.

Continue reading

Bruno and (Star)bucks


Teaching ANT to students at the undergraduate level can be a difficult endeavor; however, I have come across a viable solution.


But not to keep students awake during boring lectures about Bruno so much as a case study. The rise of gourmet-style coffee in the United States via the mass producer and distributor Starbucks.

The lecture is here; if you’ll use it, drop me a line (njr12 <at>

Continue reading

Surveillance Infrastructure Novel


As weird as it sounds, that’s what “The Watchers” is, but it is also written by Shane Harris who has something of an academic/journalistic background, which the subtitle “The rise of the American surveillance state” clarifies.

The concept developed, the surveillance state, is not really developed for use in theory, but it does seem to have applications for the general public as a (new) way to think about these issues (that Foucault cued us to long ago). Likewise, the book is written in a novelistic style even though it is based largely (if not entirely) on first-hand accounts from people Harris has interviewed. Makes for an interesting discussion: is it worth using the novel format to learn empirical truths about the state, or does the style/format reduce the “weight” of the argument?

I don’t know, but the more our ideas here get in congress with dmfant’s, I wonder if “more useful” is not always better provided “still true” is the baseline.

Teaching the Public Understanding of Science with Ancient Aliens


I have had unprecedented success with a new lesson in STS and I thought I’d share it with you all on the blog. NOTE: I’ve also got a sheet that can be used for students to follow along and it provides some questions to orient discussion after viewing (if you’d like it, it is like some others I’ve shared, for example, related to the “King of Kong” as an easy way to teach students about the scientific community and philosophy of science or a handout used to teach students about controversies in science through a documentary on intelligent design). So, every semester, the chapters on the “public understanding of science” in Sismondo’s introductory text end-up being sort of boring to students.

However, working with a student over the last year, we found another way to “get at” the information. Instead of dealing directly with some of the issues associated with the public and science through the typical lens of “understanding,” we look for the public and science through another lens, that of “misunderstanding,” in this case about what is and is not science.

Enter: Ancient Alien Theorists!


Ancient Aliens” is a series on the History Channel, self-described as:

Ancient Aliens explores the controversial theory that extraterrestrials have visited Earth for millions of years. From the age of the dinosaurs to ancient Egypt, from early cave drawings to continued mass sightings in the US, each episode in this hit H2 series gives historic depth to the questions, speculations, provocative controversies, first-hand accounts and grounded theories surrounding this age old debate.

In class, we just watch one episode, and it has been an incredible source of discussion ever since. During Season One, the fourth episode (which is just perfect for this lesson) is called “The Visitors.” Here is the summary:

If ancient aliens visited Earth, who were they, and where did they come from? Possible historic evidence and beliefs are examined around the world. The Dogon people possess knowledge of a galaxy they claim was given to them by a star god named Amma. The Hopi and Zuni people celebrate Kachinas, gods from the sky, whose headdresses and costumes appear to resemble modern helmets and protective clothing. Halfway around the world, Chinese legends tell of the Han leader, Huangdi, arriving on Earth on a flying, yellow dragon. Was this dragon more likely a spacecraft? Ancient astronaut theorists believe that these are far from chance encounters and that extraterrestrials not only interacted with us, but changed the course of human history.

The key is to ask questions after viewing like:

1. How do these “theorists” use the tools, rhetoric, and, thus, credibility of science to launch their claims?

2. What statements might be made or what portrayals do you see that link ancient aliens to the scientific enterprise? 

After we watched this, understanding how the presentation of scientific ideas (in this case, non-science), the students have literally no trouble dealing with Sismondo’s chapter, which features the deficit model of public understanding and the presentation of science and the scientific enterprise by journalists. The real joy, though, comes when Sismondo starts to discuss how some scientists short-cut the journalism process and go to the public directly — often, out of desperation (enter, again: Ancient Alien Theorists!)

Again, write me if you’d like a copy of the sheet or to discuss the teaching idea.

Images from:

A new direction in political sociology?


These are the proofs for a new paper/article that I’m working on. The piece is based-off of a few new books in political sociology, which I review, tie-together, and then admittedly and self-servingly I use them to suggest that a little STS would help matters out in political sociology. It is a bit academic in places, somewhat nit-picky, but I tried to keep the tone at least a little playful.

Andrew Barry and the Function of Transparency


A lesson in the function of transparency: In Andrew Barry’s masterful new book Material Politics: Disputes Along the Pipeline he goes to great lengths to consider how “transparency” is employed, in this case, the voluntary pursuit of transparency as a means to rationally improve the experience of oil companies as they pursue transnational oil pipelines (for Barry, it is the BTC).

The basic rationale is simple. Instead of dealing with complaints, usually about environmental concerns (i.e., endangered species, etc.) or issue of public interest (i.e., land rights, etc.), the firm could offset those concerns, thus, front-loading as a means of obviating them completely from the process if only they could be transparent enough and maximize front-end accountability. As he writes, his expectation, which was consistent with the expectations of oil company elites at BP, was that:

transparency might … foster informed and rational debate while limiting the scope and intensity of controversy (182)

The manifest function of transparency appears to be an outward attempt to improve the public appearance of accountability and to intentionally limit or reduce the controversy downstream. This seems fully logical: transparency is a means to reduce controversy; to rationalize a process to the point that it appears that everyone is consenting after the fact. Such a logic is, for nearly anybody under the thumb of transparency, assessment, and accountability measures and measurements, something to concern yourself with; that transparency of assessment suffocates the hard discussions rather than engaging or enlivening them.

However, transparency has a latent function too; a function that is cause for hope. Barry warns us:

while limiting the scope and intensity of controversy [is anticipated], this does not occur as anticipated. For as the case of BTC demonstrates, the production of information — in the form of the evolving archive [the host for all matters transparent at BP regard the BTC] — had the effect of multiplying the surfaces on which disagreements can incubate and flourish (182).

Now, there are host of other arguments of vast utility in this wonderful book, but this one sticks out because of recent discussions about assessment, accountability, and transparency in higher education. What Barry makes nakedly plain is that transparency is really a process of deciding what to make present (i.e.,public and transparent) and what to make absent (i.e., not public or transparent, but not identified as meaningful un-present). Thus, transparency is not a thing; it is a (strategic) process of showing and telling as well as hiding and obscuring. However, the hope that shines through — and I am hopeful about this — is that the real solution is right there, in front of us, if know how to look for it. The key is to see assessment and transparency as processes and engage them so that you see them as a whole because only when taken-together will the absences be apparent, and it is with these absences that we might multiple the much needed discussion and discourse surrounding the transparency, accountability, and assessment that so often impose themselves on our contemporary work lives.

Empathy for the Other through wearable tech?

My last post in December was a reflection on technology and politics.  How can we understand the connections between technology and politics, especially given that technology is generally understood as a tool of humans—either neutral as a mirror to our desires and interests, or as evil and uncontrollable progeny of humans as Creator? Think of the Cylons, Skynet, or Arnie as the Terminator. If politics and technology become entangled and rife with ethical issues and ontological angst at multiple levels what about bodies and technology?  What I think of as the “materiality of technology” is another topic that is buzzing through the webs this month….

Two things caught my attention along these lines: Oculus Rift and Google Glass.  Of course, neither of these wearable VR and computer platform, respectively, are new this month, but there has been some heavy rotation on the interwebs.  I guess I could add that I suspect the new Spike Jonze film “Her” has brought quite a few of the underlying issues about technology and our relations with technology to the surface.  Sexuality and intimacy and how they are enhanced or stymied by our tech are always top concerns.  Rightly so, of course, as more often than not plain old low (or old) technology comes along with them: misogyny, racism, sexism, criminality, etc. More broadly, the discussion in the case of “Her” has centered on our need to sexualize technology, to “weirdly” sexualize: is it “homage to form” when we assign inanimate objects gender stereotypes–as Isha Aran points out in her Jezebel essay–or a more disturbing and continuing desire to objectify and create subservient subjectivity for women?

Somewhat counterintuitively, I think that the two products above incorporate a need to both remove material barriers to our technology while creating new ways to materialize, or sexualize, this technology.  Ultimately, it may be more about sensualizing our experiences with technology, not necessarily sexualizing them.  They seem to represent a deep desire to remove “things” from between our bodies and our computers and information (mouse control, monitors, keyboards—ways of externally interacting with computers) with intuitive body controls. Think Robert Downey Jr. in Ironman (watch this) or Tom Cruise in Minority Report (2002). The drive is to interact with our information in radical new ways–in ways that mimic how we manipulate “things” in the world.


Minority Report (2002) 20th Century Fox/Dreamworks Pictures (Remember how this movie blew our minds?  Especially when we found out that this was all kinda old tech?  And now we don’t need those silly gloves.)

This is added to an anxiety that technology is altering or complicating or potentially harming our relationships with others and ourselves.  While we want technology to operate seamlessly, we are wary of its possible pernicious effects.  This is not necessarily unfounded from a bodily point of view.  We are mammals; we need contact with other mammals to mature correctly and to be happy and healthy. Babies need skin-to-skin contact and the elderly who live with a partner, or dogs and cats, tend to live longer than those who live alone. This is not necessarily reductionist thinking, just a biological understanding of limbic connections. Ultimately, we are pack animals. Playing WoW all night and day might be unhealthy for lots of reasons—many of which aren’t necessarily the fault of technology.  Isolationist behavior in any form tends to be damaging if taken to an extreme.  This brings up the other reason I chose these two examples: another impulse that wants to use this wearable tech and less interface to share and swap experiences with others for greater understanding of perspectives other than our own.  To be able to see into the pot and past the steam, as Wittgenstein wrote, of another’s mysterious inner world.

More specifically, I want to discuss two applications of Google Glass and Oculus Rift, and in one case, a hack of these two pieces of technology. Let’s return to firstly to Google Glass.  These are wearable google interfaces to simplify your interaction with information and devices; they are wearable smartphones.  They allow a user to move away from a screen and use the technology without breaking contact with the “real” world.


Sex with Google Glass is a recent app created that allows the wearer to watch and record sex from various angles.The wearer can also sync the glasses with lighting, music and to the Kama Sutra for “ideas”, for example.  It is private and all recordings are deleted after five hours.  Although Google has a strict anti-porn standing, this isn’t exactly watching porn–it’s sharing in its creation, perhaps? Sex with Glass can also allow couples to trade places and see what the other is experiencing.

This brings us  to Oculus Rift.  These are virtual reality goggles, originally funded through Kickstarter, and just out with the “Crystal Cove” prototype.  This prototype is the latest in immersive gaming and virtual experiences.


BeAnother Lab is using the Rift to allow users to experience what it’s like to swap gendersto investigate embodiment, and issues like “Gender Identity, Queer Theory, feminist technoscience, Intimacy and Mutual Respect.” This is part of the The Machine to Be Another Project.  From the website:

More than individuals, we are part of a social collective called humanity. As members of this collective, the perception of our own identity is based on our relation with other people and our social environment: how people see us, how we do act and interact with them, and what self image we project to this society and to ourselves. As part of this collective society, it is clear the importance of understanding the ‘Other’ and ‘Each Other’ to better understand ourselves. This artistic investigation plans to use the recent neuroscience approach of ‘embodiment’ and apply it to investigate the perception and comprehension about the Self based on the comprehension of the “Other”.

While I am not enough of a tech follower to have an educated opinion on the specs and lifespan of these platforms,  what I find most intriguing are these examples of the application of these products.  They seem to be highlighting the desire to be able to experience what another sees and feels; to see through their eyes.  This is an interesting empathic impulse for tech and one that bears further watching and investigation.  If technology is never neutral, as I argued, in the last post, what are the opportunities we have for freedom and ethics within this medium?  If the medium is the message, how do these applications transform the material world?

For those thinking about “ding politik”…next time… the Internet of Things. A future where everything will have an IP.

Easing Sociology into the Non-Modern World?

In a recent post on “Understanding Society”, Daniel Little discussed some recent development in the philosophy of social science: Analytic Sociology, Critical Realism and Actor-Network Theory. Here is how it goes:

Understanding Society: How do the poles of current PSS interact?

Start with a few resonances between ANT and CR. Both are grounded in a philosophical system (Deleuze, Kant), and they both make use of philosophical arguments to arrive at substantive conclusions. (…) But a point of contrast is pervasive: CR is realist, and ANT is constructionist.

(…) The anti-philosophical bent of AS makes it difficult for AS scholars to read and benefit from the writings of ANT scholars (witness, for example, Hedstrom’s dismissal of Bourdieu). The model of explanation that is presupposed by AS — demonstration of how higher-level entities are given their properties by the intentional actions of individuals — is explicitly rejected by ANT. (…)

Finally, what about the relation between AS and CR? On the issue of causation there is a degree of separation — AS favors causal mechanisms, preferably grounded in the level of individuals, whereas CR favors causal powers at all levels. (…) But here there is perhaps room for a degree of accommodation, if CR scholars can be persuaded of the idea of relative explanatory autonomy advocated elsewhere here.

via Understanding Society: How do the poles of current PSS interact?.

Somehow I felt a bit like I was suddenly in an academic version of an episode of Doctor Who, jumping back in time, stranded in 1992. In a paper that came out in parallel to the well know “Chicken Debate” (Collins/Yearly 1992; Latour/Callon 1992), but that was burried in a edited volume (McMullin 1992), Latour moved ANT explicitly away from what until then was called the “Social Studies of Science” and towards a framework to deal with the moderns. He wrote:

“A radical is someone who claims that scientific knowledge is entirely constructed ‘out of’ social relations; a progressist is someone who would say that it is ‘partially’ constructed out of social relations but that nature somehow ‘leaks in’ at the end. (…) a reactionary is someone who would claim science becomes really scientific only when it finally sheds any trace of social construction; while a conservative would say that although science escapes from society there are still factors from society that ‘leak in’ and influence its developmentIn the middle, would be the marsh of wishy-washy scholars who add a little bit of nature to a little bit of society and shun the two extremes.(…)” (Latour 1992: 277)

And then concludes:

“If one goes from left to right then one has to be a social constructivist; if, on the contrary, one goes from right to left, then one has to be a closet realist.  (…) It is fun to play but after twenty years of it we might shift to other games (…)”

Hmmm. Maybe it is not Doctor Who, maybe it is Groundhog Day and we are just waking up again at 6:00 to the voices of Sonny and Cher. Do we really have to have the same debate again, now not in the philosophy of science but the philosophy of social science? Maybe there is a reason to do that – after all, Phil Connors has to repeat his morning routine over and over again until he starts making himself a better man and finally finds a way to love and happiness. After all, Little does indeed think it is important to add “ANT to the menu for the philosophy of social science, at least as a condiment if not the main course” and there are others in that field today that share his opinion. Maybe if we don´t discuss those issues again and try to work diplomatically with the moderns (in this case: AS and CR…) on what they value most, we are selfish and grumpy fools – like the character that Bill Murray played so beautifully. But it is not tempting to know that the sound of “I got you babe” will be with us for a while. Is there a way out? A shortcut? A “shift to other games”?

Abandoned Places


Abandoned places. Stunning visuals.

I am of the mind that abandoned places have something, analytically, to contribute to infrastructure studies. Once you click the link, you’ll see that the producers of this compilation (not sure how many pictures are truly “there’s”) suggest with the opening lines that this is something about what the entire world would like without people, which is sort of a pseudo-apocalyptic comment on global warming, the end of days, and curiosity about “a world without people” (anymore — or this documentary about life after people). The first lines read:

These real life ruins offer an eerie glimpse into a world without humans. Their dark walls inspire a sense of wonder like I’ve never felt before.

This should surprise no one. Perhaps the thought experiment is a good one for students, but generally thoughtful people don’t have to let their minds wander/wonder too far to know what a world without people would look like as our infrastructures remain slowly giving way to the elements.

What else might infrastructural relics like these tell us? Surely, it is fair to say that they would teach us something new every time we returned to them. However, one of the points that these might tell us, which archeologists and anthropologists have claimed for more than a century (and quite longer, I would guess), is that infrastructural remains indicate more than just “people” were here. Many of these remains (pictured above) are not ancient, either, so we don’t need to impose meanings on where these structures came from or how they were used in antiquity. These are contemporary ruins that sit precariously alongside “life as we know it” now. The point? Some, but not all, are state projects, meaning, of course, real people on the ground ultimately produced the structures that “remain,” but the attributional source of the work is a non-human entity called “the state” … these are pieces of evidence that the state exists somewhere, somehow. How to harness that insight for state theory would be a great bridge to infrastructure studies (and infrastructural relics might also be a nice play on literature for infrastructure studies that would sort of be like the relationship between STS and disaster studies, although, there is something really nice about a slow decay as compared to a momentary boom found in most disaster studies — exceptions, of course, exist).

Andrzej W. Nowak on “Ontological Imagination”


Our colleague and friend Andrzej W. Nowak (see him on 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.

Acting in IR?


Recently, Jan and I completed a new paper about how the material infrastructure on states (and our actor-network state idea) might figure into contemporary theorizing about international relations. In particular, we are in the process of contributing to a book about the “human element” in IR, and the resulting paper now can be read, but it is only in draft form.

Check out the paper here or here; we do some of our earliest work on “state multiplicity,” play with decentering the human in IR, and we also dabble with non-scholarly state theorizing.

4S deadline was last Friday; we submitted


Here is our session proposals for 4S in Argentina next year; hopefully we see you there. I think leadership at 4S will select the sessions it wishes to host in about two or so weeks.


First name: Nicholas J.
Last name: Rowland
Co-authors: Jan-Hendrik Passoth
Session Title: STS and “the state”
Session Description:

Consistent with the general theme of the conference, “Science in context(s): Souths and Norths”, we encourage 4S and ESOCITE scholars researching the emerging intersection of STS and “the state” to submit their work. This jointly-held meeting affords us the unique opportunity to balance South/North perspectives on both “the state” and STS, which is a rare opportunity indeed, and will be the source of a rich discussion among participants.

We anticipate hosting a series of papers in a series of “Open Panels.” In particular, we are hoping to find papers that give rise to new dialogues and exchanges on the following four topics:

1. Empirical cases of “the state” as manifest in infrastructure or in everyday life: New and exciting work in infrastructural developments offer fresh perspectives and cases to reconsider dated theoretical approaches to understanding what the state is and what they state is becoming. Likewise, a new line of research in “the state in everyday life” offers a perspective no less fresh that gets at mundane experiences and routine activities that either bring us closer to the state or fend us off from it. How these differ in the North/South divide are of prime concern.

2. Empirical cases of “the state” as manifest in material or in environmental arrangements: State formation has been a perennial question in state theory. However, as scholarship develops, the old theories of the state, which emphasize war-making and international treaties, have given way to new research on the practical aspects of state formation, as in, how do you form a state. Chief concerns in this area are material activities associated with state formation and, crucially, environmental concerns related to forming states in the first place and sustaining them in the long run. Again, how these differ in the North/South divide are of prime concern.

3. Where is the state and where is not the state? State absense/state presence: This topic emerged organically from the last 4S meeting in San Diego, and while it is new to us and is far more experimental than the above themes, we consider it of vast potential. One way to re-think the state is to ask where it is and where it is not. Are there new boarders emerging between states? Are there areas inside of the traditional territorial zones that bound states where the state simply does not appear to be present? Is it possible that the state is present even in its absence, under certain conditions? We don’t know the answers to these questions; it is the most “open” of the open panels.

4. Theoretical approaches to the state and state theory: No doubt, state theory has odd and deep roots in the Northern tradition of scholarship. Ideas that need to be challenged. We anticipate this coming from two directions if we are sensitive to STS and the state. First, in the North, fresh perspectives on the state are emerging through the lens of STS. Second, in the South, fresh perspectives on the state already exist as alternatives to traditional Northern scholarship on the state (and, of course, STS shapes these discourses too).

Please consider sending your abstracts to our set of open panels. The multiple panel format ensures a sustained audience and prolongs the discussion of our work far beyond a single paper or a single panel.

Is STS a bordello or cabinet of wonders?


This is based on some ruminations over the last year, which I’ve mentioned a while back casually and which our now full-time blogger Stef Fishel discussed more recently.

Here goes: Is STS a bordello or cabinet of wonders? (I write in the plural because Jan-H. and I were writing this together)


… we recognize the unorthodox and outlandish agency of “nonhumans” like scallops, microbes, Portuguese sea-going vessels, and British military aircrafts. In fact, the way we just listed those example case studies into the minutiae of STS scholarship is more telling than it might immediately appear. You see, STS is populated by intriguing micro case studies, and, from a far, STS appears to outsiders like a “cabinet of curiosities.” Because our research is punctualized into individual case studies, and these case studies were so routinely juxtaposed with one another during the era of great edited volumes of the 1980s, a look back through history of STS research is akin to opening the door to a cabinet whose contents were filled with every manner of wonderful and ornamental trinkets that somehow capture the grandeur of other worlds even in their miniature size. Also, because this cabinet was populated  during the Science Wars, its contents are all the more precious, and, in retrospect, to this day provide a sense of nostalgia to the scholars who filled it, marking the discoveries they had made, as they passed it down both as a gift and a challenge to the students they trained.

Also, in STS, however:

Before we are accused of fickle sentimentality for our academic home, our cabinet of curiosities might just as well appear as a “bar à hôtesses” to some insiders sickened by the excesses of postmodernity, or the bitter, personality-driven, concept-oriented turf wars over aurthorial copyright that have come to typify STS <FOOTNOTE: At feverpitch in the early 1990s, … collins yearly / latour callon etc.> and, to this day, distract the field from sharing any semblance of unity with regarding agreed-upon phenomenon to study as a group, all of which might spell the end of STS in years to come. Thus, calling our cabinet a bordello might be warranted in certain company.

*This post was largely inspired by Fabio’s early characterization of STS as a “cabinet of curiosities,” which has, since I first heard it, stayed with me. As he put it, STS is:

very anti-normal science. You end up with a cabinet of curiosities than a deep and precise knowledge of a specific issue.

**The picture is from:,d.dmg&psig=AFQjCNFDvgagsuepOr4mm7V0rPzbL4qZCQ&ust=1384557853106096

Latour’s book scoffed


Clever public reviews of products on Amazon has become something of a pass-time for more individuals that I would have thought. For example, reviews of this banana slicer, for which there are 4,530 reviews, are quite entertaining, or for this excellent book How to avoid huge ships we find terrific (and humorous) reviews by members of the public. On How to avoid huge ships, for example, we see this review titled “Reads like a whodunnit“:

I bought How to Avoid Huge Ships as a companion to Captain Trimmer’s other excellent titles: How to Avoid a Train, and How to Avoid the Empire State Building. These books are fast paced, well written and the hard won knowledge found in them is as inspirational as it is informational. After reading them I haven’t been hit by anything bigger than a diesel bus. Thanks captain!

Or, this classic:

it didn’t work for me. i still got hit by a huge ship. i can’t recommend this book at all.

While these are entertaining … what about this one about Latour?


One reviewer of Latour’s We have never been modern raised a point that I had not heard before that the book was “a postmodern joke”:

Anglophone readers probably don’t realise that Latour meant this book as a tongue-in-cheek exercise to capture the postmodern social theory market in his own country by using a postmodern style to show what an illusion postmodernism has always been. But, as fate would have it, when someone sneezes in Paris, an Anglophone is felled with pneumonia. It’s hard to believe that anyone with a firm grasp of the history of the last 250 years of Western culture would find this book anything more than a diversion worthy of maybe a couple of arguments in the pub. It’s telling that historians of science, who are really the people who are in a position to hold Latour accountable to anything he says here, have given the book a chilly reception. Classify this one under ‘Pseud’s Corner’.

Does anyone know if that is true, that WHNBM was just a semi-clever joke?

Teaching STS: Controversies


This is an extension of a previous post about teaching STS. So, teaching controversies is a mainstay of STS; if you need a good film to show, check out “Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial” replete with Steve Fuller weighing-in on intelligent design … and their are courtroom re-enactments and even a decent biology lesson for students that don’t have a strong background in basic genetics and/or evolution.

Of great interest for us is this: the film underscores the utility of theory in face of lame counter-factuals (which uninformed students tend to accept or privilege during discussion). Additionally, there is an incredible discussion, especially for high school or undergraduate students, about the difference between science and non-science. But, better than all of that, there is an implicit display of “truth” in three different forms — which makes for excellent discussion post-film — between “law truth,” “science truth,” and “religious truth,” which is great to show how truth is context-specific and what constitutes truth in law, science, and religion is only rarely overlapping.

Also, I have a handout already made to help students to navigate the documentary. Write me if you you’d like a copy or if you’ve used this clip for your own courses (send to: njr12 at

Lastly, if you’re already teaching Sismondo’s Introduction to Science and Technology Studies, the chapter on “Controversies” can be used with the film because midway through the chapter, Sismondo describes a set of 5 circumstances under which controversies can be “closed up” and those map onto the film wonderfully, making the bridge between in-class reading and an out-of-class film easy.

Lowercasing “sts” and “ant” – What comes next?

On various occasions during the last few months I noticed that we in STS (and we as ANTers especially) have a tendency to talk small when talking big. Some examples needed? Small ones of course? Here they are:

  1. not a theory, not a method”: A classic! Despite its beginnings – does someone still remember the Sociology of Translation or the great methodological subtitle of Science in Action? – nearly every account given of the status of ANT “today” resonates on the “oh, it is not a theory” (starting in 1999 with Latour’s “Recalling ANT”) and the “oh, it is not a method” theme. And while this looks like a withdrawl from “big debates” on theory and method and as a way of saying “we have nothing to offer if you are looking for that”, the answer of what it is, if not a theory and not a method, is: an approach, an attitude. That sounds modest, but has, when takken seriously, massive effects.
  2. “Thin concepts, modest methods, weak explanations”: Now if that is not at the center of the approach…in theory, methods and even in respect to what really is at stake we love to be modest — although we of course are not. Thin concepts are regarded as the strongest possible for thick narratives, modest methods are in fact really demanding and hard to “use” and weak explanations of local, situated and limited phenomena are valuated as far more solid than those with bigger pretense.
  3. “don’t try to get it right!”: ok, we (Nicholas and I) are to blame for that… but reflexivity in STS demands that whenever we studiy epistemic processes and knowledge creation we should not try to know better as our voice is just one more that adds to controversities we study. That was easy when studying technoscience – knowing better than someone working in particle physics or biotech is just too hard. But once we study ourselves or our relatives in economics, population science or political theory it is tempting to know better…but it is better not to try.

It is not just a matter of style: we actually like our concepts, our cases and our methodological rigor to be tiny and gigantic at the very same time. That has a lot of reasons, of course, the history of science studies, the science wars and our, well, not so great experiences with Bruno’s (and Michel’s and John’s) big gestures in the mid 90s being just the least important. After lowercasing science we are lowercasing ourselves. And then? What will follow? Will we stop there? Thoughts?

Biotech for the Academy

My research mainly involves trying to think us out of the conundrum of state-based violence using re-figurations of the body politic.  Actual, structural (since all violence stems from actual violence on actual bodies—the threat of hurt and harm), gendered, normalized, terroristic.

If not out of violence per se, as I suspect it is constitutive of the human experience, into a form of knowledge/power that strives to care for the most vulnerable and nurture the multiple forms of being and becoming that emerge and will emerge…a form of political subjectivity that “judges not as the judge judges,” but, as Whitman wrote in the preface to Leaves of Grass “as the sun falling around a helpless thing.”

A tall order, perhaps but one that is crucial to any political project. How do we, as humans, citizens, neighbors, mammals, etc, tend to our world? How is dialogical space made to open creative re-thinking, -figuring, -imagining about how local, state, and global politics function?

More broadly, what I am wrestling with is life.  How is life included in politics? In our institutions, discourses, or urban planning projects? How do state politics understand life, or to ask the more traditional philosophical question: What is a life worth living? How do we create the conditions needed for realizing the good life? Turns out that life is really complex and messy.  It eludes definition and control.

In earlier posts, I have shown how I chose microbiotic communities and co-evolved parasites in the human gut. Walt Whitman was a sometime poetic counsel for these Uexküllian forays in the worlds of animals and humans.  Technology can also be a part of making choices that privilege certain social configurations over others. In this post, I want to talk about art, biotechnology, and critique. Art is another way to imagine different political configurations and futures.  (Detournement can work, too.)

On Monday night at Hobart William Smith, I attended a lecture by Dr. Steve Kurtz, a professor at SUNY-Buffalo and founding member of the Critical Art Ensemble. Since the late 1990’s CAE’s founding concern shifted from the digital revolution to the biotech revolution. As Kurtz explained, the digital revolution was a difference in degree rather than kind–it increased the level of intensity of communication, but was more a revolution of scale that intensified the bombardment of the sign rather than internalizing that sign.  The biotech revolution, Kurtz argued, was more than a revolution.  Previous to this, the body was sacred and humans could always find some relative freedom inside their body, if no where else.  Biotechnology, on the other hand, is coding the body from the inside out. Life and potentiality is understood through the genetic code.

The posthuman, the cyborg, became a reality in a different way than it had been previous to this biotech revolution.  This could be a utopian future or a nightmare.  What, argued Kurtz, was needed to nudge it toward the utopian?

biotech for the people

People must participate and know the political stakes of biotechnology or it will not be democratic, but controlled by policy makers or corporate interests.  The role of the CAE, and of artists more broadly, is to deliver messages, show the stakes, and the possibilities of these revolutions.


This, as I see it, is the same project as critical social and cultural theory in academia.  Academics also show the stakes of the policies and norms that are, more than likely, controlled by the elite, the corporate, and the tyranny of the minority in the US Congress.

To return to Kurtz’s talk and its resonances with the research I have presented on this blog, what does it mean that the body can be understood, manipulated, enhanced, improved, with technology as an extension of the actual body?

Aimee Mullins, Photo Credit: Howard Schatz

Aimee Mullins

These shifted understandings of the body must deliver emancipatory messages, show the political stakes involved, and bare the possibilities the biotech body for reinvigorating democracy and other forms of participatory governance. Importantly for academic disciplines, as Nicholas and Jan highlight in the “When in doubt, de-Center humans” post, how does this shift affect our disciplines?

When in doubt, de-center humans


The challenge of de-centering humans — especially in the traditional home of human-centricity like sociology or anthropology but also in the humanities — has been gaining attention for years; however, a few ongoing developments are worth considering.

First, in human and cultural geography, our fellow bloggers at THE ANTHROPO.SCENE have recently posted (thanks, dmfant) a video “Decentering the human in human geography“, which is a lecture about ontological, epistemological, and even moral issues related to “human exceptional-ism” in our social sciences. The talk is by Kay Anderson, University of Western Sydney. At 45 or so minutes long, the talk defies simple summary; however, one might hazard this synopsis: humans have been deemed irreducible to nature, but their very ‘humanness’ is precisely predicated on their transcendence of mere beasts; the specialness of humans (and this is no news to long-time readers of ANT), thus, distracts us from material forces of significance; our presenter then historicizes, thus rendering vulnerable, human exceptionalism, treating the concept like an artifact of time rather than one of truth; hence, the lesson is that de-centering humans through historicizing the processes of centering humans, in the first place, and by appreciating humanism’s materiality and smashing the boundary between humans and nature, can we finally get a de-centered view of humans in geography. Of course, there are many more voices in this discussion that have been overlooked (by me, of course).

What makes Anderson’s talk so interesting is that by historicizing the concept of human exceptionalism we can take the concept to be an empirical matter rather than a presupposition for starting analysis (we tried to do this move with reflexivity). But this requires a careful tour of early biological sciences (e.g., Linneaus) and especially naturalists and anatomic crainiology, but in so doing, we realize that the claims toward human exceptionalism, under the bright light of empiricism, were often unstable and frequently revised in substantial ways. While I fully realize that post-humanism has been around for decades (although Haraway’s cyborg seems so odd now, so 90s), Anderson’s shift of perspective is a welcome development, and one, I contend, could be replicated in other areas. Here is the only room for criticism, though: in biological sciences (and perhaps I am raising the boundaries I would just as well smash, but …) there is not such a clear or direct link to the social sciences wrought with human exceptionalism; I agree that Anderson is uncovering the roots of this plague (i.e., human exceptionalism), but once it leaves the proper confines of biological sciences and then it taken-up as a presupposition or justification for “doing anthropology”, for example, the concept has been transported and, to some extent, changed as a condition of transport. Thus, surely, human exceptionalism has historically meant something different in anthropology as compared to sociology, each of which could be uncovered in a future analysis, or, consider, a comparison to international relations, which brings me to my second point … ir.


Second, in international relations, a book is underway that considers ‘the human’ from a post-anthropological perspective. Some of us contributing to the book are using this opportunity to de-center humans too, only this time, it is an experiment to see how far one can de-center humans and still have viable theories for international relations, in our case, theories of the state. The opening lines of the to-be book are above in the image and give one a sense of the tone for the book.

An upcoming event is going to be held at Goethe-Universität Frankfurt am Main4th Global International Studies Conference 2014” (Aug 6-9), which I would love to attend, will no doubt also deal with issues related to de-centering humans. This would be a great opportunity to blend some of the thinking in geography, anthropology, and international relations precisely because the book, which is related to this conference. is considering a “post-anthropological international relations” …

The conference details are:

Our goal is to provide an interaction space in which International Relations research expertise can be shared on an international level and thus contribute to the expansion of a truly global professional network. For this purpose, IR scholars from around the world will meet in Frankfurt and present their research to a broad audience made up of scholars and experts in all fields of international studies. The overarching theme of the conference is „Justice, Peace and Stability: Risks and Opportunities for Governance and Development“. In addition to classical issues in diplomacy, security and development studies, panels and roundtables will pay special attention to novel issues in global politics, including emerging actors in international relations and new forms of south-south cooperation.

Our paper that will be part of the book, opens like this;

Acting in international relations? Political agency in post-humanist state theory


Jan-H. Passoth, Department of Sociology, Technische Universität Berlin

Nicholas J. Rowland, Department of Sociology, Pennsylvania State University


This edited volume sensitizes readers to a budding divide in International Relations (IR); a shift away from crafting overly-anthropological accounts to describe the practice of international relations (ir) and toward what our editors are calling post-anthropological scholarship.[1] The chief difference hinges on the position of the human element in IR; front and center, in the former, peripheral and de-centered, in the latter. The upshot for patient readers is insight into what the consequences of this shift will mean for IR and ir.


Our chapter constitutes an experiment to test the outer limits of this shift. We ask: how far can we, as scholars, decenter the human element before our models of international relations implode? To this end, we selected ‘the state’ as our test case. By only analyzing models of the state, we were finally able to dis-inhabit the state of the human element entirely, but, in the process, we were challenged to re-conceptualize many our otherwise taken-for-granted, anthropological assumptions about political agency. No doubt, some readers will be dissatisfied or un-persuaded by our experiment in post-anthropology; admittedly, we had no choice but to scour many, occasionally incompatible literatures to trace-out a fully uninhabited state in the course of our analysis. That being said, we generally believe that our analysis identifies and explores some of the outer limits of what it might mean to legitimately de-center the human element in IR. This test in post-anthropology also has an important implication for the relationship that binds IR to ir. One of the enduring quests in IR and beyond is to determine a universal, ontologically sound definition of the state once and for all. However, we now take this as a fruitless, if not reckless, endeavor. One viable alternative direction for future IR research would be to formulate and, ultimately, implement a model of the state that is more consistent with models of the state that are used in ir (i.e., out there in practice). Put another way, in IR, we need models of the state that capture the complexity of how models of the state are actually used in ir. This shift requires not a theory, but an approach to theories – a model of models – and we develop this line of inquiry forthwith.

[1] Regarding merely the label ‘post-anthropology’; we are fully aware that this term could quite easily be misinterpreted if taken too far from its orienting context in this edited volume, or if it is taken to be a literal description of our scholarship here. It is important to note that the post-anthropological turn in IR scholarship has nothing at all to do with the long tradition of Anthropology as a discipline, and, coming from the small world of Science and Technology Studies, it is significant for us to be clear that post-anthropology in IR is not a direct challenge to the anthropology of science, which our area of study has done so much to cultivate. From this point forward in the chapter, when we use the terms ‘anthropology’ and ‘post-anthropology’ it will be in the same spirit that our editors layout in their orienting introductory chapter, to wit, our title contains the term ‘post-humanist’, which we see as consistent with this distinction.

Writing Reflexively: Lessons from ANT

Qualitative Sociology is producing a special issue about using ANT to write-up qualitative results.


Original from “Acting Man” at

One of the papers in now available on-line first, which is our paper about writing reflexive accounts from an actor-network approach (not actor-network theory). We had fun writing it, and, once you get toward the end, you’ll see that this paper is somewhat unorthodox …

Our title:

Beware of Allies! Notes on Analytical Hygiene in Actor-Network Account-making

Our abstract:

In science and technology studies (STS), reflexivity is not the foremost political or ethical concern that it is for some postmodernists, feminists, anthropologists, or those earnest students of Bourdieu. For us, reflexivity is a practical methodological concern. When reflexivity is raised in our scholarly communications it is, without irony, about crafting scientific communication (i.e., scholarly accounts like articles or books) reflexively. This paper therefore is an actor-network account of making reflexive actor-network accounts, specifically, in the process of writing-up qualitative research findings. It is a paper about research. It is a paper about the research process. As our empirical contribution, we report on research we previously conducted and about the subsequent steps we took toward a (publishable) way of reporting it. We are trying to honestly disclose how the process of preparing a reflexive account is more than merely a matter of cleaning upthe messiness of data, but also, and perhaps foremost, a process of finding, aligning, and occasionally distancing our accounts from our allies – in our case, actor-network theory (ANT) and reflexivity.

One paragraph with something of a hook:

As we transformed a presentation from the microcosm of professional conferences into a working manuscript for academic, peer-reviewed publishing, we encountered remarks about how reflexive we needed to be during our account-making, in particular, in our methods section. After delving into the reflexivity literature, we concluded that no “amount” of reflexivity could have made our account more reflexive because, in addition to reflexivity being part of the intransigent character of all forms of account-making, overt pleas for the epistemic virtue of adding or subtracting any form of reflexivity is an immediate dead-end for the analysts and a long-term dead-end for whatever (inter)disciplinary homes they inhabit (Ashmore 1989; Latour 1988; Lynch 2000). Our empirical analysis confirmed each of these insights.

Still, the question, “how much reflexivity was enough?” seemed all too real as we accepted critiques of our presentation(s) and received reviews of our paper. For us,
the practical problem was, how do we settle this obviously irresolvable suggestion-turned-

Thus, the oddity that we poke-at in our paper is this: in theory, we know that nothing can be added to a paper to make it qualitatively more reflexive (no additional forms of looping-back or self-referential claims); however, that is precisely what we learn when we review our own experience: it is precisely because, in theory, nothing can make a paper more reflexive that critiques claiming that we are too reflexive or not reflexive enough are so difficult to overcome. These comments are, in theory, incomprehensible, but, in a practical sense, unavoidable if you want to present or publish your work in these academic circles where reflexivity lives…

What Would Wallace Write? (if he were an ethnographer)

David Foster Wallace and Installing (Social) Order on ‘Being Reflexive’ … we wrote this after blogging about these issues for a while regarding excessive hygiene, actor-network attitudes and ethnography, and about style in STS.

Ethnography Matters

Editor’s Note: Jan-Hendrik Passoth ( @janpassoth) is a Post Doc at the Technische Universität Berlin interested in Sociological Theory and Science and Technology Studies. His fellow writer, Nicholas J. Rowland, is an associate professor of Sociology at Pennsylvania State University, as well as a visiting scholar at Technische Universität Berlin. Both work on the sociology of infrastructures, about which they blog at installing (social) order, exploring the sociotechnical nerves of contemporary society.

In this other piece of our “ethnography and fiction” edition, these two researchers give an interesting follow-up to the contribution by Anne Galloway by focusing on a well-known fiction writer: David Foster-Wallace. They compare his work with ethnographic field report and use that as a starting point for a discussion about the importance of reflexivity.


Comparing David Foster Wallace and an average ethnographic field report seems unfair at first. And, it does not get better…

View original post 2,206 more words

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.

Peer Schouten, at it again!

We introduced Peer back in March … well, his paper presented in last year’s 4S meeting at the Copenhagen Business School (and subsequent ISA meeting at London School of Economics) is now in press!

Check it out; its an alternative answer to traditional interpretations of “failed states” in conventional IR research, and, of course, the alternative to orthodox social contract theory appears to be ANT (or, at minimum, ANT can draw our attention to alternative explanations … or, better yet, help us to understand the infrastructural underpinnings that make explanations possible, like those used by our friends in social contract theory [although their friendships seem oddly contractual]).


Cheers, Peer!

Oh, he even mentions as much in the acknowledgements:

Further thanks to the following people for comments on a previous draft of this article:the editors Graham Harman, Maximilian Mayer, the participants in the panelOn States, Stateness,and STS: government(ality) with a small “g”?, Society for Social Studies of Science & European Association for the Study of Science and Technology Annual Conference, Copenhagen, October17-20 2012, and participants in the Millennium/Theory Talks workshop at the Millennium Annual Conference, London, October 20–22 2012.

Homeopathic Infrastructure: Machiavelli on Infrastructure

Recently, an old dissertation fell into my lap and I’d like to tell you about it. I asked my work study to find basically anything about the state and state theory for Jan and I’s book “The State Multiple,” which we are writing now. Well, the dissertation was from 1988 by Michael Soupios, now a storied professor at Long Island University here in the states, where he’s being teaching for three decades and more. His 1988 dissertation from Fordham *(he has multiple PhDs) is titled “Human Nature and Machiavelli’s Homeopathic Theory of State” wherein he tackles the basic quandary set forth by Machiavelli.


Quoting the dissertation:

The terms “homopathic” or “homeotherapy” are of medical origin and refer to a form of treatment in which an element similar to the causative agent of a disease is itself used in attempting a cure. It is precisely this approach that we find offered in Machiavelli’s political formula.

The dissertation goes on to explain how Machiavelli’s vision of humans was basically that we are a bunch of decrepit liars and thieves and, thus, deserved to be treated with as much manipulation and self-service as we would impart on others. Call this, let’s say, a Hobbsian antidote to the crisis of the commons and the natural order of man, although Michael Soupios refrains from the comment (good to stay on topic in a dissertation!). We are not to be ruled and governed by a force that helps us to repress our baser instincts and then choose to be together non-violently as a form of supra-self-interest (sort of like a dynamic where we cooperate just long enough to compete, like children playing nearly any game), and, instead, we see Machiavelli’s view that you treat like with like, or his homeopathic view of states. Michael Soupios tackles fear and force, fraud as an instrument of the state, and creative conflict within the state before setting his sights on how this approach could even be instantiated as a model for International Relations.

The dissertation is fascinating and essentially well-written. Now, this view of politics is politics by political means, if you will. Since this writing, STS has entered the discussion of the state, perhaps foremost by my friend and ally in state theory, Patrick Carroll, who, in his many written works, shows how the state, as we know it (i.e., as an actor, a macro entity capable of action, etc.) is a falsehood of sorts and instead the state is made-up of all things stately such as people, bogs, trees, and all the measurement techniques used to make the state’s ‘self’ register in formal documents of statehood and statecraft. For Patrick, the state is constructed and environmental rather than iconic and abstract; material rather than conceptual.

So, with enough force, could Michael Soupios and Patrick Carroll be collided with enough force to make the argument: if one model for the state is homeopathic (i.e., Mach’s), and if one model for the state is material, then could we have a hybrid theory, a homeopathic-material theory of the state?

If that is the case: what would the infrastructural equivalent of homeopathic statecraft look like? I don’t yet know, as I’ve only just completed the dissertation read, but it seems like a viable option forward if one wants to engage the cocktail of normative and empirical claims-making that is contemporary political theory.

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.


"Viewing the Technoscientific State through the Heteroscope"

“Viewing the Technoscientific State through the Heteroscope: The State, displaced or misplaced?” (could also be called “The Dancer and the Dance”) Alexander Stingl, European University Viadrina, Frankfurt/Ode.


Alexander gave a dynmaic presentation in a style, for example, reminiscent of Deleuze. He opened with an interesting comment about governing and dancing, challenging audience members to rethink concepts they have happily taken for granted for decades. The high-watermark for me was hearing “The new State is, I argue, a nomadic entity that gazes at us just as heteroscopically as we gaze back at it.” The notion of a heteroscope implicates, in my best estimation, the idea of a complex state. Of course, actor-models of the state must be cast out in favor of a more diffuse and networked vision of the state. Put another way, it might imply what Patrick Carroll has been theorizing, namely, the state as a “complex gathering” or, as he sometimes says, “a thing” (the way that a party is a thing, both just one thing and also a thing made of other stuff like people and drinks and cake). The underlying theoretical justification for this ought to be found, and Alexander said as much during the talk, precisely where Patrick Carroll, Jan, and I find it … through the lens of actor-network theory.

I first met Alexander at 4S during the meeting in Copenhagen; however, I’ve seen his work, and he is quite prolific (see cv here).

I first read Alexander’s work in the American Sociologist. His paper, “Truth, Knowledge, Narratives of Selves,” is about:

Starting with a distinction of two types of discourse analysis—the analysis of a discourse and discursive analysis—the article discusses an analytical genealogy of truth and knowledge production, that can fulfill both empirical and archival requirements. The model’s main purpose lies in understanding diagnostic and therapeutic decision-making in doctor–patient interactions.

Stingl’s original abstract for 4S reads:

“How to govern?”, is a question that not only fazes governments, politicians and political parties but an increasing number of (world-)societal actors, enmeshed in the making of science policy and politics of science itself. They are subject to government while licensed to usurp governing positions over disbanded and unevenly organized societal collectivities, imbricated in regimes of governance that are post-legitimized, post-transparent, post-democratic procedures.

As STS scholars, we must critique the acceleration in dependence on techno-scientific practices of knowledge and management beyond the State: Citizens of nation-states and post-national conglomerates, and producers of techno-scientific knowledge demand legitimated representation, representative participation, and transparency, where post-democratic society and techno-scientific embeddedness of decision-making processes on the trans-local scale (trans-local meaning, broadly, that stake-holders and stock-holders do not share the same space of causes and effects) seem to suggest that people paradoxically proliferate and govern their existences in abandonment of the State, while transnational corporate entities rematerialize as quasi-state entities. STS critique demands suggestions for alternative forms of governance and novel conceptualizations of statehood: Does the techno-scientific state emerge naturally from the actual governance practices of actors such as corporations, NGOs and collective actors formed by interested private citizens as stakeholders? Will it redefine the boundaries of empirical and theoretical concepts in displacing or misplacing the State, and how does the state so placed see people and how do they look back? The new State is, I argue, a nomadic entity that gazes at us just as heteroscopically as we gaze back at it.