All posts by Sabine Biedermann C.

How to be a good Holobiont? Relating during the COVID-19 pandemic

Holobiont in biology refers to “an organism plus its persistent communities of symbionts” (Gilbert 2017: M73) and was used for decades by scientists focusing on plants. As Scott F. Gilbert explains, animal-focused biologists have struggled to conceive of animals as holobionts, because the concept undermines the deeply rooted notion of an animal’s anatomical, genetic, developmental, immune, physiological, and evolutionary individuality (ibid: M74). The term highlights the never-ending processes and constant multispecies interactions in which a body is immersed, which make up the body and enact its bodily functions (or malfunctions) and needs. Our bodies don´t end at the skin; they contain a myriad microorganisms that flow from one body to the other, mostly inadvertently. This passage of tiny messmates (cf. Haraway 2008) from one body to the next has become suddenly noticeable and feared, with the spreading of COVID-19. Like a well functioning infrastructure, our microbiomes remain silent and invisible, until they are a disrupted, usually portrayed as an attack (cf Martin 1990).

COVID-19 is, of course, not considered to be a symbiont. The war narrative, accurately portrayed 30 years ago by Emily Martin in her work about narratives of the immune system (1990), has been prevalent in discourses about the novel coronavirus. We are all fighting together, as bodies and as humans, against this invisible invasion that puts our lives at risk and dramatically changes everyday existence. The material conditions of our relations, and of our bodies themselves, have changed. The virus transgresses the skin-boundedness of the self; we become increasingly alert to ways in which invisible entities get into us and damage our organs and immune systems.

In order to protect the health system and bio-socially vulnerable people , we have been asked to take responsibility for our microbial trails and to reduce them as much as possible. We have been asked to become skin bounded, to retain the flow and overflow of the microscopic entities comprising us. This is most effective if we stay home alone. But staying home alone has its own consequences. So, we have been bombarded with advice and instructions of how to avoid the spreading of COVID-19. How to properly wash hands; how to put on and remove a face mask; how to open a door without touching the handle; how to do home office; how to do sports indoor; how to stay healthy in quarantine; how to reorganize your kitchen, and so on. Human touch and physical relations with others have become a privilege, but they exist in confinement: big families living together, fearless teenagers, people recovered from COVID-19. The virus has highlighted ways by which we live in different bio-social conditions: for some, the threat of the virus to their immunosuppressed bodies is the biggest risk; for others, staying home with abusive cohabitants, or staying home alone, is a dangerous torment. For some, the home office is a dream come true; for others, it is a task impossible to master in the presence of children or in the absence of an appropriate infrastructure. Our biologies do not exist by themselves; they are entangled in social relations and material conditions (cf. Niewöhner and Lock 2018). A virus has many consequences, not all located within the human body.

As I sit at my dining table staring at the faces of my colleagues, frozen in weird gestures, on the screen of my laptop, probably missing crucial information because of my poor Internet connection, looking at my dry hands and greatly missing the bodily co-presence of my colleagues, I can´t help to wonder: Is this what it is like to be a good holobiont in times of a pandemic? Is this how I take care of my microbiome and all the other microbial compositions out there?

It is complicated enough to care for and participate in the complex choreography taking place with humans, animals and materials around us without acknowledging the vast amount of invisible life that flows inside and between us. But now we are collectively seeing the invisible and being asked to account for it. Perhaps, we should be wondering how to be a good holobiont, and acknowledging the diverse biosocial vulnerabilities inside and outside of us, not only in times of pandemic, but all the time. Remember that germophobic times bring upon massive death on another scale, that of the microbes. As we wash our hands again and again and disinfect surfaces, our little symbionts are dying in masses. Remember that antibiotic resistance is out there, threatening the future of animal health, including our own. Remember that we are always interconnected. Remember that contagion is always a problem for infants, the elderly and for immunosuppressed humans. Remember that microbial activity is crucial to life on earth. It is a hard balance to master, between exposure and protection, and it takes a lot of experimenting. And certainly as STS scholars we should be well equipped to look into these experiments and developments. As Salla Sariola said at the end of her contribution to the Nordic STS conference (2019), citing Scott Gilbert:

 

It is “the time of microbes”

 

 

References

Gilbert, Scott F. (2017) Holobiont by Birth. Multilineage Individuals as the Concretion of Cooperative Processes. . In: Arts of Living in a Damaged Planet. Ed: Tsing, Anna, Heather Swanson, Elaine Gan, Nils Bubandt.  Minneapolis – London: University of Minnesota Press

Haraway, Donna (2008) When Species Meet. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Martin, Emily (1990) Toward an Anthropology of Immunology: The Body as Nation State. In: Medical Anthropology Quarterly.

Niewöhner, Jörg and Margaret Lock (2018) Situating Local Biologies. Anthropological Perspectives on Environment/Human Entanglements. BioSocieties. First Online: 05 April 2018

Sariola, Salla (2019) Bacterial vaccine development in Benin, West Africa: anticipating the post-antibiotic world. Nordic STS Conference 2019.

On being useful? Situating the STS researcher in science and policy

This short piece deals with our ability and need to be useful as STS researchers. In particularly it deals with a common dilemma about how to consider the utility of either our research, or the particular skills we develop. This dilemma is particularly relevant for early career researchers and thus reflects on the Pre Conference Doctoral Workshop – ‘Invent Your Job’, the Panel I organised – ‘What do we still not know about the IPCC?’, and also for me personally in my position as a PhD researcher working on the science-policy interface. It does this to consider my place both in the broader field of STS and society at large.

What follows is not a reflection on a specific event during the conference, but rather brings together some strains of thought and discussions that I had throughout the conference, to connect with an ongoing dilemma that I have as a PhD researcher. As my research deals with science-policy interactions, in international climate change politics, it does away with simplistic linkages between science and policy in line with STS approaches. It recognises that science is not ‘used’, simply ‘taken up’ and absorbed by policy. Indeed, where it has utility, this utility is based on social processes of validation, trust, and negotiation, rather than on scientific merits alone – in the words of Jasanoff (2004), it is co-produced. As a researcher therefore, I continually find myself in a dilemma about how to present the utility of my science, or my contribution, and its place in society – in particular how answerable we should be to the funders of our research. This question relates to our place as academics in society, and more specifically as a personal dilemma for me undertaking my PhD in environmental science, which means that I work in an environment where the utility of research is expected and encouraged. More generally as a doctoral student nearing the end of their PhD of course the question of utility also evolve around consideration of the future job market.

I attended the Pre-Conference doctoral workshop, which encouraged us to think about how we could be creative about the jobs of the future. Thinking not just about what jobs we would like to do, but also how we could potentially create the ideal job for ourselves. Bringing many current doctoral students, and recent graduates into contact to talk about these questions was stimulating and interesting. For the first part of the workshop we partook in walking discussions, walking from Campus to Lancaster centre. The walking discussions involved both discussing STS concepts that we, and others, were using in our research, and what our plans for the future were. Walking in the fields, listening to the birds, and connecting with the land juxtaposed nicely with discussions about the stress of finishing your PhD, and the concerns and uncertainties of the future. The future is uncertain for many recent and future PhD graduates, most of us at the workshop were not yet sure if we wanted to stay in academia, or attempt to forge our paths outside. Is this a dilemma about our usefulness and utility in the so called ‘real world’? One theme that emerged was the conflict between academic accolades and those that are valued by society. As STS scholars, we are often engaged in very concrete and applied subjects and cases, but yet at the same time enjoy getting lost in concepts and theoretical terms, which disconnects us from the systems, groups, and individuals that we study. At this workshop it was easy to find ourselves again getting lost in idealistic and entirely hypothetical situations – for instance we created a new government department, entirely focused on doing things otherwise, and disruption from within. Whilst fun and creative this also highlights the challenges of thinking about our utility in the current way that society is set up. The verdict that I took away from the workshop is that while academic studies in STS prepare us very well for the weird and wonderful, they are challenging to translate to real world situations.

Despite this feeling of slight pessimism about the utility of my work, and the ability to connect and explain, particularly our theoretical approaches to those outside academia (or even my colleages in different fields), I think that as STS researchers we have many skills and attributes that connect us intrinsically to the unique challenges we are currently experiencing politically and socially, across the globe. This was highlighted very clearly in our panel – What do we still not know about the IPCC? – which dealt with how the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is being approached as a research site 30 years on from its inception in 1988. Here discussions surrounding the role of expertise, of social inquiry into scientific processes, and understanding science-politics relationships were central. As the IPCC has been around for a long time, it has been subject to much critique, debate, and improvement over the years. In turn backlash against such critique is also common, particularly from those involved who believe in science’s ability to speak truth to power and see critical accounts as being detrimental to the authority that science has developed. As a result of this, the IPCC’s situation in a Post-truth world, is something that is worth considering, particularly from an STS perspective, and something that we as scholars of science and technology have something to contribute to. The role of experts of all sorts are under fire, and a debate over whether STS contributes to this climate of scepticism has ensued (Collins, Evans, & Weinel, 2017; Lynch, 2017; Sismondo, 2017). Thus, the ‘usefulness’ of knowledge – be that the knowledge produced by an international panel of climate change experts, or the knowledge produced in a doctoral dissertation which studies this – is once again at the centre of investigation.

IPCC 30th Anniversary. www.ipcc.ch

This brings me back to the question of the utility of my PhD research, or how to consider the utility of our STS education outside of the academic field. My location within an environmental science department means making use of STS approaches are not easy, as my deconstructive approach is often taken as criticism without any suggestion of improvement. Following my time at EASST, and the discussions that I had with individuals at the pre-conference doctoral workshop, and our panel, I was inspired to hear about other environments where STS researchers and predominantly natural scientists work more closely together. I could see that these kind of environments require careful planning and thought, rather than taking the form of an add on, but if done right they really contribute to a feeling of utility on the part of the STS researcher. The dilemma I have presented is a personal one, but I also feel that there are implications for the field of STS particularly through a need to help and encourage young researchers to foster their sense of relevance in a broader field – both within academia and outside. In turn, this is a dilemma about the role of research in politics, and indeed society more broadly, and our place as researchers within this.

Climbing over fences. Afterthoughts on the pre-conference doctoral workshop „Invent Your Job!“

Inventing your job is a difficult but not an impossible task. There are ideas by others, that you can join or take the effort of shaping your own ideas to a degree that you can convince and motivate others to join you. There are role models who have successfully constructed their own unconventional job and could help as an inspiration. However, getting engaged in existing structures by communicating STS sensibilities outside of academia could be one first step.

„Invent Your Job!“ — I could not think of a more challenging calling to start into some conference days. Besides the last-minute preparation of my own talk and studying the conference’s program I started the EASST Conference days in Lancaster with the most pressing question — what am I doing after my PhD?

The organizers of this pre-conference doctoral workshop made it even more complicated by asking: how could STS knowledge, sensibilities and practices be translated into existing job qualifications outside of academia or — vice versa — how could we design the spaces ourselves that make place for these STS capacities.

Spoiler alert: These questions were not answered in the workshop nor am I presenting any results in my afterthoughts either. But I got — at least — some perspectives where one could keep on searching for answers.

The organizers offered a set of unconventional settings for exchanging „wild ideas“ about discovering or inventing jobs in unknown terrain: We visited a time-honoured castle with a panoramic view to the North Sea, had sandwiches in a theater, hiked along bumpy meadows and climbed over several fences. During this hike in the English countryside we were holding STS concepts like „invisible infrastructures“ (Star, 1999), „human-machine-interaction“ (Suchman, 2007) or „intra-actions“ (Barad, 2007) scribbled on small sheets of paper in our hands that should lead us in our discussions. The bumpy underground, the STS concepts and the personal stories of unknown researcher from different countries were inspiring ingredients to think about unconventional jobs in the future.

Overcoming Obstacles © Dara Ivanova

We all agreed that there are new societal challenges that urge for new solutions that cannot be found only within existing institutional structures: Hidden political perspectives become louder in European and American countries and the new technologies have unprecedented implications: Navigation apps, search engines and other algorithmic tools shape everyday practices and labour on a small scale but on a large scale technological innovation has become an imperative on political and economic level, shaping contemporary society as a whole. Algorithms make decisions and split up societies into filter bubbles where everyone can spread or follow distinct thoughts rhizome-like on the internet. Software establishes new structures of being instructed, controlled and governed.

Those new power and knowledge hierarchies have to be discussed publicly but there is still an enormous lack of communication strategies that explain opaque software processes to a democratic audience for a better understanding. But is it possible to turn an STS analysis of „invisible infrastructures“ into marketing or government strategies? Could product advertisement sound differently if it would be inspired by an STS understanding of „human-machine-interaction“? And: How much compromises are needed by getting engaged into economic and political structures with STS concepts in mind?

The projects that were developed in the workshop went from an STS driven circus to interdisciplinary translators for companies or constructing get-together apps. All of the ideas had in common that they would bring together spheres and groups of people who are split up by any boundaries. They would use new technology but also well-known analog ideas to inspire new thoughts between them.

Science and Technology Studies have largely elaborated analytical and conceptual tools for societal questions that could be transferred into the fields of software construction, data security, consumer protection and design of platforms for democratic participation. Regarding these ideas we found common role models or best practice projects like the city government of Barcelona who tries to implement new communication tools in politics, letting people participate by deciding online where to spend the public money first — restructuring public water infrastructures, a new swimming pool or computers for schools? In such a project new media becomes an experimental platform for a modern understanding of lived democracy.

STS is known for creating problems and using mess and arguments to arrange and display structures in a different way, constructively redefining terms that were taken for granted. Not only in academia but also on the job market STS knowledge could help investigating new emerging question of shaping society and daily interaction or finding unexpected connections between interdisciplinary spheres: Making infrastructures visible for a larger public, finding terms between disciplinary boundaries, analyzing thought-provoking but understandable phenomena that tell something about society.

Motivating people with your own ideas and searching for constructive structures that support your idea was one main recommendation that I took from the workshop. But „Join a union“ was another: There are already existing channels to make a change and look differently on society outside of academia. It seems to be a negotiation if oneself has to fit in a job description or if a job description has to fit in one’s own imagination. Jobs can be invented but they could also be discovered in unknown terrain by climbing over fences.

Why should a Master’s student go to EASST conference?

When in Lancaster, I could not fail to notice that there were not many Master’s students attending the EASST conference. In the text below, I outline why I think Master’s students should attend conferences such as EASST. I write about meetings with people I would never had the chance to interact with, but also about the process of finding one’s own personal interests in the STS archipelago. Finally I reflect on the restrictions Master’s students might face and how reflecting on them and creating the space for students to participate will be beneficial for STS as a field.

Why were there so few Masters students attending the EASST conference? That was a question which I kept coming back to while in Lancaster. A week after the EASST conference, while discussing with a postdoc about my experience there, he mentioned that when he was a Master’s student he never attended such a conference simply because he did not see himself as part of the community. Giving a consistent answer to why Master’s students don’t attend the conference would be beyond my scope, but drawing on my own personal experience as a Master’s student at the EAAST I explore the reasons why I believe Master’s students should attend the EASST conference and touch upon the practical issues that might restrict them from doing so.

Being in the same room with your heroes and heroines

It’s 10 a.m. on Wednesday, 25th of July, and I am in front of Lancaster University’s Catholic Chapel where a group of people are gathering for the ‘Meeting Soil’ excursion. The registration desk is not open yet so no one is wearing name tags. As we head to the Ecohub garden and the permaculture grounds we are asked to communicate in small groups about who we are, why we are here, but also how we feel about being there. I was excited! What a great conference opener, meeting new people in a garden just to talk—first names only, not much academic talk, just talk. I mention to those I am with that I am based at Vienna University. Someone else remembers that she attended an EASST conference in Vienna back in 2000, where, after an excursion to the anatomy museum, she was on the same bus with Donna Haraway and Susan Leigh Star. Her tone was excited as she shared her memory.

A master’s student wondering at the Ecohub of Lancaster University where interesting conversations took place. Credits: Naoki Matsuyama

Later in the afternoon, I am sitting in a panel discussion. In front of me are my own STS heroines and heroes, many of whom who I know only by reading their name tags. I was enthused. I had read their work in my first semester, so I felt I knew them a little. The feeling was great, but I didn’t get to speak with them. On the other hand, I spoke to many other people whose work I had never read. I spoke with a person who is teaching design students, a librarian from Mexico and a PhD student who is doing fieldwork in India. At these conferences, there are many people whose work you have read in your studies, and they become important to you. I was looking forward to seeing them, and listening to their talks; but I realised that the conference wasn’t only about this. It was also about all the other spontaneous meetings you would never otherwise have had. All the people you wouldn’t have heard of or talked to otherwise.

On making decisions

The moment I got in my hands the conference programme I felt overwhelmed. SO MANY PANELS! Who should I see? The programme was 300 pages long and I needed to make decisions quickly. This pushed me into a filtering process. It was a practical question; I couldn’t go to all of them. I had to choose. This process of filtering invoked a reflection on my own interests, forced me to explore them and to ask myself: which panel will you go to now? It helped me to reflect on my own research and what I feel connected too, but also what other areas I am interested in. I left the conference with a sense of security around what I want to pursue (at least in the near future). It functioned as a filter through which I became more focused, grounded and content.

In the past, I have had many discussions with other students about our academic paths. STS offers so many interesting avenues of study that, when choosing a Master’s thesis topic or a PhD topic, it is easy to feel restricted by the need to pursue just one topic. There is a loss involved when you are interested in so many things, but have to choose just one. At least, this is a feeling that I have had many times. For me, the conference offered a space where I could navigate my several interests and get the chance to explore them further. I got to hear talks and discuss them with people, see what they are currently working on, understand if I could see myself researching these topics and approaches.

Of course, while there are many good reasons why Master’s students could benefit from conferences such as this, there are also a number of reasons they might not be able to do so. These days, being granted a visa can be a problem faced by academics, Master’s students included. From personal experience, I know at least one person who couldn’t join this conference due to visa issues. Finance can also be a considerable barrier. Are both Master’s and PhD student’s considered to be in the same category when fee reductions are considered? PhD students often get funds to go to such a conference whilst Master’s students don’t; so categorizing these groups as the same may disadvantage Masters students. These comments are offered as food-for-thought, for practices of inclusion. My suggestion here is that Master’s students have much to benefit from attending such conferences, just as STS has to benefit as much from such students being there: helping to build community, challenge traditions and create new spaces for an expanding STS.

The Confluence of Design and STS: Reflecting Disciplinary Positions and/or Situatedness

This review reflects my involvement and roles in a panel (B07 “Situating designs”) and a special event (Diseña 12 journal launch) on design and STS. The piece takes this year’s conference theme “Meetings” to discuss how the quite divergent fields of design and STS interact with each other, what challenges, in particular, STS scholars encounter when studying design, but also how the aspect of interdisciplinarity behind both of them is tackled in the everyday “situatedness” of STS scholars and designers alike.

Disciplinary design problems. Installation at London Design Biennale 2016. Photo by the author.

Meetings — this year’s EASST theme — closely recounts my conference participation and attendance. I had just submitted my dissertation (for its defense) the day before the conference. As a result, all I could think of at this singular moment of my PhD was the many familiar and unfamiliar faces I would meet and converse with over the next three days. Yet I wasn’t going to EASST to listen and absorb other scholarly research only. Instead, I had planned and prepared for myself a very active and participatory schedule — chairing a panel I had co-organized, then presenting a paper on my dissertation in a different panel, and finally commenting at a lunch panel. In hindsight, it seemed like I was testing my academic aptness. Although meetings was the conference theme and in some way framed my participation, my actual research focus was on design and STS. Put differently, it was a conversation on the confluence of design and STS.

This conversation on design and STS began as a reunion of two STS doctoral students at 4S 2017 in Boston. Sharing common interests with Peter Fuzesi from Lancaster University in questions around user-technology interactions, the corresponding design processes, and practices, and the role designers play in defining what we understand as design, to submit a panel proposal for us came across as a fitting opportunity to expand our conversation. The proposed open panel “Situating designs” (B07) inquired into the situatedness of design practices and artifacts. The call ultimately brought forth eight papers and two sessions from a multiplicity of disciplinary backgrounds (from architecture to education) and research perspectives: social work for health (Jade Vu Henry, Peter Fuzesi), postcolonial transformation design (Nicholas Baroncelli Torretta), collaborative processes for urban and rural infrastructure development (Sampsa Hyysalo, Kostas Latoufis), and design knowledge production and ethnographical methods in/for design research (Bernhard Böhm, Yutaka Yoshinaka, Goetz Bachmann). While as panel convenors we had the opportunity to stir the direction of the conversations and discussions on questions around design practice and how STS interacts with it, we chose to step back and assign that role to our two discussants who work in the confluence of design and STS — Daniela Rosner and Alex Wilkie.

Although both discussants probably did not deliberately take up the conference theme as a point of orientation, their approach emphasized two aspects of meetings that opened up the conversation in different ways. Alex Wilkie rephrasing Latour’s famous title about the missing masses provokingly asked the panelists in the first session about “the few missing things” either in their presentation or research — what are the problems of design education, where are the politics in a participatory design education project, how can we avoid Western ontologies in decolonization projects, where and how do we understand transformation and transformative processes. Wilkie’s questions and some of the audience’s questions reminded of what is already at stake in the confluence and perhaps in the collaboration of STS and design—namely, that the seeming interdisciplinarity of both areas of research and practice is not generally predisposed to a mutual language of interdisciplinarity. More often, they act inward and outward in very traditional and disciplinary way.

Daniela Rosner’s commentary in the second panel, on the other hand, focused on how the research presented by the four speakers acknowledged how STS and design are connected, as well as how their work reconnects to broader questions prefiguring that. For instance, whereas ethnographers in different social disciplines have intensely studied and recognized their impact on their subject of research, designers adopting ethnographical methods for project-based work either miss this level of awareness or are being to gain that. Other papers, as Rosner noted, revealed a similarity of recognition processes of care practices, maintenance work, or user design activities, which have been essential in the past two decades of STS research and are now taking place in design and engineering work. This “slow” approaching also happens between STS and design as Rosner’s research work and design practice of Rosner (2018) display, but also many other more recent examples demonstrate: reflective design (Sengers et al., 2005), adversarial design (DiSalvo, 2012), studio studies (Farías & Wilkie, 2015), or the special issues in Design Issues (2004) and Diseña (2018).

While the papers in our panel offered a broader focus with a particular emphasis on practice, the special issue of the bilingual (Spanish, English) publication Diseña 12, edited by Ignacio Farías and Tomás Sánchez Criado, and launched at this EASST conference looks at the methodological confluence of design and STS. Titled “Re-learning Design: Pedagogical Experiments with STS in Design Studio Courses,” this collection of essays and design-research projects presents reflections on how the design disciplines and their actors encounter and collaborate with the social sciences, in particular, with STS. I had the privilege to be invited as a guest commentator on the journal launch along Teun Zuiderent-Jerak, and thereby continue some of the conversations from the “Situating designs” panel. But whereas in the panel I could quietly listen to other scholars’ perspective, here the challenge was to comment in 15 minutes on over 300 pages of incredibly diverse and rich material, primarily the work of design professionals and design scholars. Turning the focus onto pedagogy in general and STS pedagogy in “slightly different sites,” as Zuiderent-Jerak called it, helped narrow down and allowed us to reassess our position and the challenges as STS scholars within academic institutions. As many of us often end up being hired in technical universities or engineering departments, the question of pedagogy and the confluence of different pedagogies, be that STS and design, calls for a shift from the predictive model of reading and teaching literature to more experiential pedagogical activities that might involve the practices of design, architecture, engineering, art, and many others. The journal launch at EASST emphasizes the importance of these conversations about our interactions with other substantially different disciplines regardless if that means for research or for teaching.

Finally, and perhaps in continuation of what began in Boston, I met Zoë Robaey, a postdoc researcher on biotech and society at TU Delft, at the Lancaster train station on the way to Manchester airport. She had attended our panel on design but time constraints and convenor duties limited a conversation between us. The overcrowded Saturday morning train offered unforeseen possibilities that EASST’s full schedule would probably not have opened for us. From discussing about her experience in working as a philosopher in an engineering design department and the kind of research one can accomplish in this setup, to how different STS and design appear to be in different parts of the world, this unplanned EASST meeting hopefully opened up new avenues for collaboration, research, and exchange on the confluence of design and STS.

 

References

DiSalvo C (2012) Adversarial Design. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Farías, I and Sanchez Criado, T (eds) (2018). Disena 12: Re-learning Design: Pedagogical Experiments with STS in Design Studio Courses. http://revistadisena.uc.cl/index.php/Disena/issue/view/3

Farías, I and Wilkie A (eds) (2015) Studio Studies: Operations, Topologies & Displacements. London, New York: Routledge.

Rosner, Daniela (2018). Critical Fabulations: Reworking the Methods and Margins of Design. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Sengers P, Boehner K, et al. (2005) Reflective Design. In Proc. 4th Decennial Conference on Critical Computing: pp 49-58.

Woodhouse E, and Patton J (2004) Design by Society: Science and Technology Studies and the Social Shaping of Design. Design Issues 20(3): 1-12.

Encounter, create and eat the world: a meal (workshop)

How can we do STS not about but with food? How can we make the concerns of STS edible? In the workshop Encounter, create and eat the world: a meal at EASST Lancaster we did STS by collectively preparing a lunch. This involved conducting a series of exercises, experiments and tests with ingredients, their relationship to us and the world, and how to prepare them. In preparation for the workshop, we asked all pre-registered participants to:

  • Bring two ingredients amounting to 500 g in total (at least one of the ingredients had to be vegan). Such ingredients might be anything that can be eaten without being further cooked.
  • Prepare four identical cards for each ingredient with a story about the ingredient inspired by STS.
  • Bring their own choice of dinnerware and utensils to eat the food with. This could be anything they liked from the most usual (plate and fork) to the most unusual (some found plastic from the street), as long as ready and clean. They also needed to prepare a two-minute story that they could tell about the sociological, technological and environmental background of these tools.
  • Bring one mechanical kitchen tool of their choice (grater, sieve, hammer, peeler, garlic press, whisk…).

Once in the workshop, people sat on tables in groups of five people. The first activity was to pass your eating utensils to the person on your right and tell them the prepared story. Then, each person had to chose a portion of an ingredient from each of the other four people in the table. As a result, each person had six ingredients in total. All the packaging and food waste was put to the side before starting the tasting exercises sequence, as follows:

  1. Blind tasting: Close your eyes. Then ask your neighbour to feed you a random ingredient. Write down your thoughts.
  2. Bengt af Klintberg, “Event score Nr. 8” (Klintberg is a Swedish Anthropologist and Fluxus artist. The event scores are written instructions for actions): Eat an X (orange) as if it were a Y (apple).

Event score versions:

  1. Eat an ingredient ‘as a mouse or any other animal (it should be an animal that actually eats this food)’.
  2. Eat an ingredient as if it were completely artificial and had no nutritional value.
  3. Eat an ingredient as if it had been blessed by the divine.
  4. Eat an ingredient as if you suspect it may be contaminated by an infectious parasite.

People were asked to read each corresponding ingredient card after the first three tastings and before the last three and an A3 sheet was provided to write down observations throughout the workshop.

After the tasting sequence, participants had to build a dish taking into account at least two of the following concepts: Gender, Ecology, Politics, Health, Human non-humans, Technology, Religion.

For this purpose, participants were able to choose two herbs or spices to include in the dish. These came from ‘Spiritual Flavours Spice Lab’, which is part of Laura Cuch’s research on food and spirituality (www.spiritualflavours.com). Participants also had to incorporate one element from the waste pile, either as a new utensil or a new ingredient.

Finally, people were invited to:

  • Explain how the eating utensils informed /shaped / contrasted with their dish
  • Define a consumption situation that problematised or contradicted the dish logic.
  • Make a drawing of the dish
  • Share their dish with the person to their right, whilst telling the story behind it.

Bon appétit!

* All photographs by ©Laura Cuch, 2018

 

#01 – Ingredients that people have brought to the workshop.
#02 – People choosing herbs and spices.
#03 – Blind tasting exercise.
#04 – Ingredients that people have brought to the workshop.
People choosing herbs and spices.
Blind tasting exercise.
Participant reading a card of a chosen ingredient brought to the workshop by another participant.
#05 – Two participants performing a tasting exercise, which proposed to eat an ingredient ‘as a mouse or any other animal (it should be an animal that actually eats this food)’.
#06 – Participants following directions.
#07 – Someone using a chosen cooking utensil in a different way than its designed purpose.
#08 – Mixing tarragon into a chosen ingredient.
#09 – Having one of the ingredients of the dish blow-torched.
#10 – Participant writing about her experience of the tasting exercises on the workshop sheet.
#11 – Participant about to eat her STS dish.

What does infrastructuring look like in STS? When? Workshop Report

The workshop was organized at the EASST2018 Conference to take stock of empirical insights and conceptual developments around the notion of infrastructuring in STS. We report on the collective process that aimed to critically map and disentangle assumptions, identify blind spots, and chart the varied uses of the notion in STS. By using a hands-on approach inspired by Participatory Design, the workshop contributes to the quest for new ways of thinking and inventing, in addition to proposing formats where collective conceptual experimentation could take place in cross-disciplinary settings.

During the EASST 2018 conference, we organized an experimental workshop with the title Infrastructuring in STS: What does infrastructuring look like? When does it look like that? The aim of the workshop was to stir discussion and reflection on the notion of infrastructuring in STS. The first instances of the use of the term infrastructure as a verb is found in Star and Bowker’s work (Star and Bowker 2002). Since then, it has gained traction in the STS field as can be testified by the close to 100 references we collected as part of the preparations for the workshop. The use of the gerund ‘infrastructuring’ is an analytical measure that shifts attention from structure to process, which has proven to be also appealing to many different research communities, including many design fields (Karasti 2014, Karasti & Blomberg 2018). Widely travelling concepts can be enriched by being influenced by different traditions in the research communities that adopt them. However, as acknowledged in the workshop, enthusiastic use and widespread adoption may also dilute the analytic purchase of this concept if connections between the different understandings of the concept are not maintained. In the workshop, some participants suggested the notion has become inflated, whereas others continued to see its value as the first wave of enthusiasm (with expected easy profits) passes.

We were interested in exploring and opening up the concept in a convivial way, with the daring idea of doing so using a hands-on approach. The possibility offered by EASST 2018 Conference to organise workshops triggered us to take inspiration from Participatory Design (Simonsen and Robertson 2013) with its focus on building together and using material artefacts as a way of thinking and drawing together through actual doing together (Latour 2008). As Noortje Marres elegantly put it in her closing keynote at the 2018 Participatory Design Conference, participatory design allows for “curating deliberate artifactual occasions as ways to reach to issues of entanglements” (Marres 2018). In the workshop, our understanding of entanglement was a conceptual one: what and when is infrastructuring?

Helena points at an image she brought to the workshop, while explaining what infrastructuring looks like. The same activity is going on at another table in the background. (Photo: Sanna Marttila CC BY 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/)

We asked the workshop participants to bring an artefact to the workshop: an object, image, or drawing that would help them talk about “What does infrastructuring look like? When does it look like that?” The artefact would relate to the infrastructuring theme they would want to open up during the workshop. Participants assembled into groups of 5-6, each at a table accompanied by one of the organisers. The first session started with participants presenting their object (Picture 1) and placing it on the table, then introducing the themes and questions they wanted to address. In the second part of the workshop, the participants formed new groups and continued with the previous objects already on the tables, starting to draw connections between them or reflecting on themes they had previously brought up by using a range of materials provided, such as post-it notes, toothpicks, straws, stickers and tape (Picture 2). At the end of this session, each group presented their work to all the participants.

The feedback we received from this workshop was generally positive but also provided some constructive criticism. Participants appreciated the opportunity to have a facilitated critical discussion with peers interested in the same topic. However, some participants found it difficult to engage, think and communicate with the provided workshop materials. In addition, several participants expressed a wish to continue working with the same group throughout the workshop. In retrospect, rearranging the groups did not necessarily work well for the participants. Our idea had been that the afternoon groups would be able to build on reflections that were developed in the morning groups, but it seems we had not sufficiently taken into consideration the extent to which these reflections would be rooted in the dynamics of the specific groups.

Participants discuss while gathered around their shared construction. (Photo: Sanna Marttila CC BY 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/)

To be able to revisit the discussions that occurred at the workshop after the event, we decided to ask for permission from participants to record the discussions at each table. Some participants questioned this choice. They argued that a workshop is something that takes place here and now and is not meant to endure outside the room and the moment. This critique addresses the intent of the workshop. Should the workshop aim to produce an outcome that could travel out of the room, or should the outcome rather be understood as residing within the participants? If the former is the case, are there other ways of preserving the discussions for later contemplation rather than by recording them? Can the material outcomes of the workshop serve this purpose, and in that case how? These are among the issues we will consider when arranging future workshops.

In working with the artefacts that participants had brought and materials provided by the organisers, many different understandings and uses of the notion ‘infrastructuring’ were compared and questioned. One of the participants noted in the feedback form that: “I was surprised that the notion of ‘infrastructuring’ has different meanings in different disciplines and practices”. Some participants were primarily attracted to the notion because of what it can add to the analysis of the empirical, such as a heightened sensitivity to process, practice, and relations. Others emphasised how ‘infrastructuring’ is situated in an ontological discussion so they were primarily interested in whether and how it constitutes a productive contribution to driving this discussion further. The process of understanding how the other participants at the table understood and used ‘infrastructuring’ analytically thus not only contributed to reflection about the concept as such, but also to broader reflections about interdisciplinary differences, similarities and entanglements between STS and disciplines that overlap or share a border with STS, such as Design, Anthropology and Information Systems.

With this workshop we brought to an STS context some practices from Participatory Design where materials, people and ideas are mobilized in collaboration. In the first session, this entailed using participants’ artefacts to talk about the notion of infrastructuring. In the second session, this entailed using different materials, such as modeling clay, straws and thread to explore connections between the objects and themes and to engage in mutual and constructive reflection about infrastructuring. Several participants expressed that talking through artefacts they had brought with them was helpful for the discussion because the objects or drawings concretized the themes that were addressed. The second session, which invited simultaneous reflecting and making, was viewed more challenging. For those who are not used to working with materials for reflection and reasoning, simultaneous thinking and making can initially be experienced as multitasking or sidetracking and thus divert one’s full attention from either. Entering a stage where making is seamlessly integrated with the thinking, may, however, serve to advance reflection. More guidance could perhaps support the transition from talking about artefacts to working with materials. This might take the form of explicit instructions to help overcome hesitancy in the encounter with an unfamiliar process. It could also include the gradual introduction of materials, so that the participants become familiarized with one material before having to deal with another. At the workshop in EASST2018 Conference we did, however, find that the different groups eventually warmed up to the task of thinking and communicating through making (Picture 3).

Detail from one group’s board featuring a person – modelled in clay – standing in relation to infrastructures as living and lived – labelled by post-it notes. (Photo: Sanna Marttila CC BY 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/)

Using collaborative making and building to support abstract reflection seems like a promising direction for joint work on conceptual development. In a few cases we saw how the use of the materials reinforced “performative” aspects of the argument that a participant wanted to make. One example that occurred in several groups is how certain points were stressed by building a connection between concepts or infrastructure elements using bits of modelling clay or toothpicks and pieces of tread, and then smashing them up or cutting the connections while talking. While making is not the only strategy to achieve these types of connections, it is certainly one that could be used more. At a time when social sciences are starting to express interest in building new collaborative relationships with Participatory Design (Marres 2018), we support the quest for new ways of thinking, inventing and sensing collectively; hoping to further develop formats where such experimentation can take place, particularly in cross-disciplinary settings. Using a hands-on approach by working with artefacts appears to be a promising avenue to explore.

Perplexing, experimental and affective meetings at Lancaster conference

I approached this year’s EASST conference with a heightened sense of anticipation and excitement. After all, it is my favourite scholarly encounter, akin to a colourful STS pride parade, and it never fails to provide a strong sense of community and belonging amidst fruitful academic exchanges. That was certainly my experience in the previous EASST conference, and even more so because it took place in my home country, Catalonia, and in a city that is very close to my heart, Barcelona. This year was not so different, as the UK has been my adoptive home country for the past fourteen years and the legacy of the Lancaster Centre for Science Studies looms large in my way of doing and thinking with STS. The conference was also my last stop in the UK, I was about to leave behind my PhD years in Edinburgh and start my new life in Sweden, ready to join my next STS academic home at Linköping university as a postdoc.

At Lancaster’s bus station I was greeted by a group of bus drivers that kindly indicated how to make it to the conference venue; transport has been arranged, nothing to worry about. Yet, and due to a particular tendency to publicly display my practical incompetence, I still managed to head to the wrong bus. The group of drivers called out my attention and teasingly pointed out ‘you should know, you are supposed to be clever going to conferences and talking about books!’. Their observation made me laugh and got me thinking on how something so taken for granted in our academic lives such as attending conferences can be perceived by non-academic others. Are we all just a bunch of intellectuals spending public money on book club retreats? What’s the point of conferences after all? What do we get out of these choreographed gatherings? In what follows I will provide my personal answer in three parts: perplexing, experimental and affective meetings.

More than book clubbing?

Perplexing meetings

The ‘meeting soil’ plenary that brought together Starhawk with Maria Puig de la Bellacasa provided a privileged glimpse into an ongoing conversation between two seemingly disparate authors. It was a generous and unconventional move to open up a conference with a non-STS, non-academic figure in dialogue with a well-known feminist STS scholar. A testimony of STS’ capacity to embrace the other without appropriating it neither adapting it and translating it to its own academic language. Meeting in the difference and celebrating the interference. The point of departure was Maria’s transformational encounter with soils whilst taking part in Starhawk’s Earth Activist Training, thus, the meeting rendered the scholar as apprentice and the activist as intellectual. The dialogue run smooth albeit in an asymmetrical manner, it ploughed through the abundant common ground between feminist STS and activism for ecological justice but it did so by privileging Starhawk’s notion of ‘the sacred’. My curiosity was sparked and my attention tuned in as I struggled with the discomfort brought about by the language of spirituality and feminist essentialism. Such feelings of perplexity are rare and greatly generative, a sense of disquiet always invites to rephrase the questions at stake and to dig into one’s entrenched dualisms to test their obduracy. For in Starhawk’s ecofeminism the spiritual and the political are thoroughly entangled and underpin her ‘Goddess religion’ that in turn also embraces science as part of the solution[i]. Even though my initial reaction was to question what the notion of the sacred could be adding to soil activism, I decided to ‘stay with the trouble’ and embrace the odd as I went along their joint articulation of Earth remediating practices. It was indeed inspiring to see how their assemblage of small stories on bioremediation methods and transformative human-soil relations promoted alternative, affective and ethical ways of being in the world. I was struck by the message that we are all creatures of the soil – humans, animals, worms and bacteria alike – living in and off the soil whilst also being the soil. The ethical and political consequences that follow from this assertion are manifold and have become intrinsic to permaculture initiatives part of a growing culture of regeneration, remediation and repair that seems to be imbued with a stubborn and brazen sense of hope. Maria’s and Starhawk dialogue resonated with Haraway’s, Stengers’ and Tsing’s artful contestations to apocalyptic visions of Earth’s demise. It is their collaborative thinking and doing that generously provides a novel sense of hope and places the work of activism both outside and within academia in a uniquely interdisciplinary and political manner. The conversation also helped to confer a heightened sense of political responsibility to our knowledge-and-world-making practices; it defined STS’ intervention as mediators that work at the intersection of disparate domains and bring them into conversation. STS scholars were called upon as (re)mediators by intervening and interfering in environmental practices and politics. It was certainly worth staying open to an unexpected conversation that acutely brought into high relief STS’s capacity to claim that ‘it could be otherwise’. I personally left the plenary room with a strong sense that after all we might already be living in hopeful times. 

Experimental meetings

EASST has been for me a forum in which I feel allowed to be experimental, to try out new ideas and tentative approaches and offer them for collective discussion. Whilst preparing my paper for Lancaster I felt the usual frustration of struggling to capture with a succinct presentation a whole article, let alone my entire doctoral project. The ethos of Lancaster encouraged me to change gears and instead I opted for providing a thought-provoking and entertaining performance. After a few years conferring in different sites and formats I have acquired a strong allergic reaction to conferences that feature a painful succession of soliloquies directed to a distant audience that merely comes back to life to clap. I am thankful that this was not the case at EASST and that the hard work of the organising team at Lancaster transpired in the many panels that successfully delivered (more) meaningful academic encounters. It was a matter of turning up the experimental and transforming monologues into fruitful dialogues. These experimental meetings offered excellent academic value whilst retaining a sense of fun and consideration to each other because ultimately, we are each other’s audience. 

Affective meetings

The social event at Lancaster conference provided the felicitous conditions for building STS community by night: drinks, food and music. I relish these fleeting festive moments at EASST conferences, where else can you catch up with so many friends, colleagues and turn familiar names into lovely people to meet and chat? Before, during and after dinner we shared a disposition to engage with each other and to nurture our affective meetings that are also essential in our academic relations and productions. STS might not be a well-defined discipline and it might remain a heterogenous field that barely hangs together. However, when we were partying at Lancaster we enacted a sense of collective that hangs (out) together pretty neatly.

Hanging (out) together and building STS community

[i] I am grateful to Joan Haran for providing a clarifying conversation after the plenary and later sharing her working paper ’Bound in the spiral dance: Haraway, Starhawk and writing lives in feminist community’.

Innovation and STS: why, how and for whom?

How to be part of innovations is one of the crucial questions of many academics. This text deals with a question of innovation as a process of re-thinking and re-doing already existing ideas, mainly the academic findings and their consequences on non-academic world. While many academics do admit that our subjects of study are inevitably part of the research processes, the next step should be to innovate the relations outside the academia, especially after the research is done.

For many years now, STS has focused on how different socio-technical matters and worlds are enacted and for whom. In many ways, those questions are turning back to STS scholars themselves. For whom are STS theories and objects of knowledge enacted? One of the questions opened at the plenary Meeting Machines was a question of „applied STS“; similar questions were raised in the panel on multidisciplinarity (what is interdisciplinarity in practice?) and methodography (what is co-laboration in practice?). Connecting these three questions might be useful while thinking about STS and innovations.

Innovation is not necessarily about producing something new, but it also can be about re-thinking and re-making something already existing. According to Craig Calhoun, innovation is mostly “not only coming up with a new idea but continuously improving existing ideas” (Calhoun 2009). To improve existing ideas, it is necessary to co-laborate with those we study, i.e. to mutually involve ourselves with the object of study (e.g. Niewöhner 2016). Co-laborations are nothing new but often rather hidden or silenced. I suggest to keep re-thinking innovations and co-laborations; not only to give voice to those we study, but also focus on our (academic) role in the processes of innovations. Re-thinking the mode of engaging with the object of study can make us be part of, or influence, the socio-technical innovations being studied. Thus, one of the crucial questions of innovations within (social) sciences should be how to co-laborate and engage with our “subjects of study” more and better.

One might wonder why should we co-laborate even better? As one of the scholars noted during a discussion on the question of innovation, „we failed in something. Maybe in explaining. What we do is discussing together how the world works and what who performs, but we fail in communication with people outside academia.“ – „So what should we do?“ asked someone else. Should we engage differently? Or innovate more?

I suggest, we should innovate on our engagements and co-laborations with the world outside academia. For example, Science is entangled with many other world-ings: politics, but also values, cultures, and non-human agencies. At least within the STS epistemic mode, we agree on that. Yet, do we share this, quite innovative, quite revolutionary thought with either specific communities, or even the general public? Is it even possible? How should we innovate our relations with non-academics?

There are no magic answers (certainly not in this short piece of a text). However, if we understood engagement, innovation and knowledge not as final products but as processes, it will make us reflect above asked questions every time, not once but repeatedly, continuously. As much as our co-laborators whose world we study are shaping our research and our findings, we as social researchers are shaping their worlds and their understandings. As social science researchers, we already are part of our „fields“. We do engage in some, more or less explicit, more or less reflected and analyzed, ways. We co-create worlds (or world-ings) we study and shape them back. There are certainly many forms of engagement: sharing and support, teaching and public education, social critique, co-laboration, collaboration, advocacy, activism, to name some of them. Some scholars notice that while doing research, we (at least as ethnographers) tend not to co-laborate with those we do not like. That must have consequences on the disciplines, on the fields of study, and on the relations with others: politicians, economists, broader public. This makes the first point in innovation of the relations between academics and non-academics: to open ourselves to those worlds we marginalize for our lack of sympathy.

The second point should be to think through our communication strategy with non-academics. It took decades after Claude Lorius raised what is now considered to be the first scientific concern about climate change, for the general public, politics, economists, and others to somewhat incorporate it into their ontologies and epistemologies. We should try to learn from this and push the right buttons faster this time. If we want to be part of innovations, not only do we need to accept other reflexivities, but we also need to care about relationships, and to the use of knowledge depending on those relationships – not only before and during the process of research, but especially after the research is done.

We need to find out what is important, how the knowledge is used in practice and whether those we are aiming for and relate to, pick up on what we are saying. To do so, it is not only important to have a thought-through communication strategy (Calhoun 2009). We also need to keep analyzing our own world, our own processes we are living in, and co-laborate with others, including non-academics, on it. Even without magic answers, if we want to innovate, we need to reflect on how to do it, how it has been done by now and what are the limits.

I call for more openness. Let´s open the tower of academia. Let´s take the time and energy to write to the daily newspaper, comment on what is happening – credit academics and junior researchers for their writings, and public events outside academia. Let´s collectively, and openly, talk about changes needed both within and outside academia. Let´s co-laborate with those we do not like (Niewöhner 2016). Let´s institutionalize applied STS. Let´s be creative in methods. And let´s collectively reflect on what we are doing, not only as academics but as part of the broad public. At the end, we will not be alone, in the thinking and doing.

Talking about them with them? Representing objects-subjects in STS Conferences

Following some examples for the EASST Lancaster “Meetings” conference, I use this short paper to reflect on a few of my concerns regarding representation in STS conferences. I review here briefly examples regarding socio-material complexes implicated in the fields of health, medicine and environment as discussed in Lancaster. I suggest that as far as STS conference talks are concerned, a cue can be taken from STS’ own concern with different aspects of materiality, to transform the ways in which objects-subjects of research are represented verbally.

Attending EASST conferences in Torun, Barcelona and now Lancaster, I have gained a certain perspective on how subjects, matters and issues of discussion have evolved. The issues with which STS is engaged have become more varied, complex and numerous. This echoes the complexity and indeterminacy of challenges that figure in public life and discourse, on the backdrop of a changing political context. Changes in climate, environment, health and medicine, data, gender, governance, and regulation. All these, to name just a few, preoccupy STS scholars. As reality is in flux, this is brought forward to be discussed in EASST conferences. The Lancaster conference explored the conjoining of these various changes, as its lead theme of “Meetings” indicates. Yet, as reality multiplies (Mol, 2002), I could not escape the growing impression that discourse multiplies as well and that the gulf between the two, reality and discourse about it, widens.

Figure 1 – Gothic ornaments at Lancaster Priory Church overseeing discourse at the EASST Meeting (photo: Nadav Even Chorev)

I will illustrate what I mean with a few examples from talks I have listened to, or the one I gave in the panel I co-chaired (C26). This last one focused on the state of STS research into the field of precision medicine. Remarkably, in my view, the panel consisted of three full sessions with some members of the audience holding through all of them. Some of the papers clearly addressed problems in precision medicine that have direct implications for practitioners, medical technologies and the sometimes subjugating practices by which these are administered. Above all, the problems discussed impinged directly on patients, their experiences and pre-discursive suffering. Those papers that dealt with patients, but also with clinicians and scientists, including my own, brought quotes and excerpts from interviews and direct observation. Can this type of bringing the voices from the field be turned into actual participation of informants, artifacts and so on? Will such participation distort an STS theoretical approach of some kind or the explanation of knowledge production practices or make them less symmetrical? After all, some of the STS stories told (Law and Singleton, 2000) entailed practices of exclusion (for example, of ethnic groups from Nordic biobanks, or in possibilities to access population-wide genomic studies) or coercion (e.g. in the use of a new respiratory diagnostic technology in the UK). The need to explain and generalize from the idiosyncratic practices on the ground is clear, but can a more direct way of mediating be found (Geertz, 1988)?
This can be viewed as a post-modernistic disconnection between the signifier and the signified. The concept of “fact”, denoting real, hard, undeniable empirical evidence, has lately fallen out of grace. Only a year before the Lancaster meeting, post-truth was debated over the pages of Social Studies of Science (2017). It is not my intention here to decide whether discussions in Lancaster represented an epistemological democratization or retreat from the world. The great majority of presentations and papers that I have had the opportunity to hear were focused on pressing problems that concern people everywhere. However, I wish to use this opportunity to make sense of my concern that the way issues are talked about, is detached from issues themselves. This concern stems in part from my own engagement with an environmental health phenomenon that is associated with long-term adverse problems. The basis for this is an approach that examines effects originating from real-world scenarios. Interestingly, this comes from medicine’s own recognition that science does not exist in a void (Sherman et al., 2016). This understanding has affinity with STS reformative, engaged, underlying aspirations (Sismondo, 2008).

The next two examples pose a more complex case in light of these questions. They deal with two distinct perspectives on issues of environmental contamination and how to act on it. One concerns the plenary titled “Meeting Soil”, the other, a panel on toxicity (A29). In the plenary, two ecofeminists spoke about engagement with soil itself through micro-practices of permaculture. Both speakers, one activist, the other STS scholar, explored the possibilities of pushing beyond legitimate scientific knowledge on soil by recognizing its sacred and affective qualities. One departed from a binary historical narrative to describe this, the other used ‘STS dialect’. Common to both was the grounding, so to speak, and belief in small-scale, grassroots activities and their capacity to instigate environmental improvement. In contrast to the benign tone of the plenary discussion, under the same sun, on the same planet, other man-made environmental harms are taking place, as reflected by papers in panel A29. We are not only constantly exposed to a myriad of chemicals. Exposure relates to multiple social and political practices, from the most mundane to the most powerful expressions of late-modern capitalism. In a sense, toxic chemicals, as understood in this panel too, are a kind of material-semiotic complex: a matter inextricably connected with discourse. Like soil, the challenge is to make the all-encompassing presence of chemicals visible, turning our gaze so as to enable action. As some of the papers have shown, even in the field of chemical exposure, bottom-up actions are possible. Both soil-emanating permaculture and chemical-countering activities are strategies for dealing with imminent environmental threats. What is the difference between regaining the visibility of soil and that of chemicals? Perhaps it is in the metaphorical part of the material-semiotic complex, where soil may be sacred, but health effects of chemicals represent the consequences of a disenchanted world. What kind of political action is required to act on these two different facets of the environmental whole? Grassroot action if possible in both field. Yet, action on the scale of ‘humble’ or ‘invisible minor stories’ can be regarded as a weapon of the weak, while what is necessary is concerted political action on a different scale.

What can be done to address the absence of what is talked about in STS conferences such as that in Lancaster? How to reach for a representation in which the pre-discursive quality (Butler, 1990: 7) of material phenomena can show more directly through metaphorical, ‘material-semiotic’ complexes? How can this pre-discursive quality be articulated while still recounting material agency and performativity (Marres, 2012)? Picking up on the theme of “Meetings”, a preliminary direction could be to ‘meet’ the object-subject of discourse at occasions of discourse themselves, such as conference talks. Instead of “talking about them without them”, create frameworks in which patients, activists, soils, chemical, diagnostic artifacts and abstract data, can play out their own role in presentations. Let object-subjects, be they human or non-human, speak for themselves in a kind of performance styled on citizen science, to allow for symmetry not only in the evaluation of knowledge, but also in its STS conference representation.

 

References

Butler J (1990) Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. London: Routledge.

Geertz C (1988) Being Here: Whose Lift Is It Anyway? In: Works and Lives: The Anthropologist as Author. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, pp. 129–149.

Law J and Singleton V (2000) Performing Technology’s Stories: On Social Constructivism, Performance, and Performativity. Technology and Culture 41(4): 765–775.

Marres N (2012) Material Participation: Technology, the Environment and Everyday Publics. Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave.

Mol A (2002) The Body Multiple: Ontology in Medical Practice. Durham: Duke University Press.

Sherman RE, Anderson SA, Dal Pan GJ, et al. (2016) Real-World Evidence — What Is It and What Can It Tell Us? New England Journal of Medicine 375(23): 2293–2297. DOI: 10.1056/NEJMsb1609216.

Sismondo S (2008) Science and Technology Studies and an Engaged Program. In: Hackett EJ, Amsterdamska O, Lynch M, et al. (eds) The Handbook of Science and Technology Studies. Third Edition. 1. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, pp. 13–31.

Social Studies of Science (2017) Volume 47, Number 4. Available at: http://journals.sagepub.com/toc/sssb/47/4 (accessed 12 September 2018).