Category Archives: asection

Infrastructural choreography of STS scholars

Living infrastructures in cities and beyond

The notion of infrastructure became popular in STS literature in the 2000s and in the 2010s (fig. 1). Its popularity might be explained by its relevance to many urban and non-urban systems and networks, at the same it usually demands focusing on particular empirical case-study.

 

Fig. 1. Frequency of keyword “infrastructure” in comparison with other keywords in STS literature. Source: Own elaboration based on Scopus Database and Science Scape tools by the Medialab, Science Po. URL: http://tools.medialab.sciences-po.fr/sciencescape/

 

Infrastructure addresses big urban and technological projects like power networks (T. Hughes), as well as situational interactions between people and things (S. Star, G. Bowker). Infrastructure simultaneously covers the fields of urban studies showing the importance of the processes of privatization, neoliberalization and hybridization of city spaces (S. Graham, M. Gandy, S. Collier), informational technology studies addressing issues of scale, connectedness, categorization, and accessibility of information (G. Bowker, S. Star), mobility studies that tackle with the questions of flows, frictions, connectivity, and also the everyday experience of spaces and places, and many others (J. Urry, P. Adey). This kind of multiplicity of the notion of infrastructure makes it fresh and heuristically useful (?) for thinking the contemporary city and beyond.

Dancing with the Western infrastructural ideal

With all these thoughts in mind, a group of scholars from Volgograd and Saint Petersburg (Russia) with the support of Volgograd State University and European University at Saint Petersburg organized the international conference “Living Infrastructures: Beyond Global North and Global South”, which took place in Volgograd on April 27-28, 2017. The topic itself was devised during a previous workshop in Volgograd when several scholars questioned the position of urban infrastructures in Russia with regard to the Western infrastructural ideal. Based on the ideas of scholars from the so-called “second wave” of infrastructural studies, who criticized the normativity and the Western-centrism of infrastructure concepts in the articles and books of the STS cannon, we sought to articulate the specificity of Russian cases, as well as to emphasize the diversity of infrastructures all over the world. The idea was not only to de-colonize infrastructural studies extending them to Russian cases, but to show the delicate relations between people and the everyday things they are engaged with. “Living infrastructures” became thus a metaphor to remind scholars that infrastructures are dynamic and surprising, simultaneously resilient and fragile. They are ecologically mutually dependent on other life forms. They are not invulnerable or “eternal beings”, as social scientists of Durkheimian denomination thought of societies. They confront risks to their continued existence and have sometimes their own life.

The logo of the conference – the “dancing bridge” in Volgograd – might be seen as the symbol of the living infrastructures idea (fig. 2).

 

Fig. 2. The Volgograd “dancing bridge”. Source: the design logo created by the Volgograd team for the conference.

 

Volgograd’s “dancing bridge” was under construction for 13 years and it connects the central part of the city, very busy and intense one, with the natural outskirts of Volgograd floodplain, establishing a fast connection between different parts of regions at the cost of harming the subtle ecology of the floodplain. Notably, after the construction, the bridge began to “dance”, that is, oscillate because of wind conditions that created a lot of authority concerns and people’s rumors (look at the bridge here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WEQrt_w7gN4). It became an important tourist attraction of Volgograd, although some days after the dancing, with the help of Swiss and German engineers (sic!), the oscillation was stabilized. In this way, the common infrastructural urban object became important part of Volgograd hybrid ecology, its urban narratives and global technological connections.

Organizing and blogging!

Preparing the conference, the organizers decided to “build” a temporary digital infrastructure to liven up an interest in the forthcoming event. The idea was to create a special blog on the WordPress platform, where different topics around the infrastructures could be exposed (https://livinginfrastructures.wordpress.com/about/). The team posted little essays on bicycle mobility, kids smart technological infrastructure, innovation infrastructure, anthropology of infrastructures, the influence of mega-events on urban infrastructures, childbirth infrastructures in Russian central and peripheral regions, and also on the topic of how the urban infrastructure elicit affects and emotions from the citizens. All these essays were disseminated in social media and helped to attract the attention of different scholars and activists to the conference issues. The blog platform attracted hundreds of website visitors.

The infrastucturation of the world

The conference gathered scholars across Russia, India, Bulgaria, Germany, Sweden, and the UK. It was the first STS-oriented conference focused on the topic of infrastructure in Russia ever. The conference was opened with a keynote on “Infrastructuring Mobile Utopia: Global Challenges, Global Responses” by Prof. Monika Büscher (Centre for Mobilities Research,​ Lancaster University) (fig 3). She analyzed cases of material infrastructural breakdown and digital humanitarianism when people converged online to restructure absent governmental. The presentation raised a range of important issues of mobile utopia and dystopia in equipped smart cities, digital and immaterial infrastructure, reflexive resilience in the context of sharing data and the precarity, and creativity in the process of infrastructurization. Three modes were suggested to develop the argument of reflexive resilience – archaeology, ontology, and architecture, in order to contribute to the discussion on relational infrastructure and posthuman relational ethics.

 

Fig. 3. Monica Büscher gives a lecture on the mobile infrastructures that are enacted in the time of societal crises. Source: Lyoubov Torlopova.

 

Ivan Tchalakov (PAST-Center, Tomsk State University / University of Plovdiv) opened the second day with his talk “Ships, Channels, Gravity Wells and Valleys: Towards Deep Space Infrastructures” (fig. 4). The examples of SpaceX and ULA were redefined through Latour’s restored symmetry as transportation for human and nature and as a conquest of the resources to become an infrastructure for the space-scape and interplanetary network. Tchalakov also discussed new private projects that might advance space industry further.

 

Fig. 4. Ivan Tchalakov on the division between the governmental and private space programs.

 

Both keynote lectures revolved around the questions of new and only anticipated infrastructures that should be delicately and intensely investigated by the STS scholars, using conceptual resources from philosophy, activism and social studies of science and technology.

The main topic of the conference was devoted to mobility infrastructures. The session “Mobilities Infrastructures: Speeding Up the Slow, Slowing Down the Fast” gathered scholars interested in changing practices of urban dwellers, the Russian subdued forms of mobility called “marshrutki”, the social infrastructures of public transport, the ambiguity of bicycle infrastructure, bike sharing systems in Russian big cities, and children “smart” mobilities. The multiplicity of the topics challenged participants to ponder upon the possibility to assemble the cases under the head of the mobility infrastructure notion. At the same time, it became very apparent that mobility is an important part of any infrastructures since it makes informational or material units pass through. How to create the infrastructure in such a way to make easier and comfortable to transit units, and at the same time to make people who use this infrastructure to feel comfortable and not alienated – it is a very important question.

The session “Urban infrastructure” drew attention to the relations between city and infrastructure. Participants demonstrated their interest in the influence of politics and policy on urban infrastructures, the access to the latter and the regime of uses. Many Russian cities represent cases of infrastructures with the centralized logic of a planned economy. Despite contemporary neoliberalism scholars’ emphasis on privatized and splintering infrastructures, we may find a lot of examples of path-dependent urban infrastructure, which follows the old and very obsolete logic of planned economy. It opens up the space for thinking about the very principles of urban infrastructure development.

In the session devoted to digital infrastructures, speakers problematized the relations between online and offline: how the space-based digital games connect to the body, perception, and the social order of city; how visualization and simulations of existing and anticipated infrastructures make work with the city space, and help to construct more comfortable and participative infrastructure. The question of representativity also penetrated the issue of media infrastructure in the game development for gamers’ imagination and anticipation of the cultural product itself.

The “Infrastructured Bodies” session tackled with the biopolitical question of a seamless connection between sociomaterial infrastructures and bodies. The speakers demonstrated how infrastructure matters when certain policies and extensive spatiality affect professional work, patients’ access and abilities and how particular enactments of diseases involve people through mobile applications and handmade infrastructures, where technology becomes secondary to knowledge exchange and accumulation.

Finally, the “Infrastructure Theories” session grasped all the previous insights into the concepts of infrastructure with all their range. Forgotten sociological classic Ferdinand Tönnies was considered to be a pioneer in logics of translation (connection of wills) and assemblage (collectives), dealing with a paradox of things as objects in relations of possession and capital. Bruno Latour’s material semiotics with the focus on operations of shifting (shifting-in, -out, -up, down) was considered an important resource for thinking of infrastructures as a type of relation and not as a set of things.

Make them live!

Monika Buscher from the Lancaster University told about how in situations of risk or accidents people start to help each other and make their own living infrastructure that are sometimes more effective than already created and established state and municipal infrastructures. The notion of living infrastructure could be also told about the conference participation as a special infrastructure when people all around the world gathered to talk about the different cases of infrastructure and by this created temporal emotional and narrative infrastructure to make infrastructure be living longer in the minds of scholars. Geoffrey Bowker and Stephen C. Slota in the brand new “Handbook of Science and Technology Studies” named their chapter “How infrastructure matter?”. We believe that the conference “Living Infrastructures Beyond Global North and Global South” in Volgograd advanced further another vital question: “How to think and talk on infrastructures as a living matter?”.

 

Fig. 5. The participants of the conference, who have enacted the infrastructures in the Global North and South for the two days of the conference.

Experiments with “New Materialisms” – Workshop Report on “Sociology and New Materialisms”

Our workshop “Sociology and New Materialisms” was motivated by two interests: one genealogical, one experimental. The former interest arose from the assessment that the general discussion about new materialisms entered an intellectual climate where, at least in some disciplines, materiality was already a well-discussed matter of concern. We were therefore less interested in the fact that new materialisms put ‘matter’ on the table than we were in how authors from a variety of fields such as  Karen Barad (2007), Jane Bennett (2010), Andrew Barry (2001), Rosi Braidotti (2013), Bruce Braun (Braun/Whatmore 2010), William Connolly (2013) and others have raised the question of materiality differently. We wanted to think about the dis/continuities which are marked by neo-materialist contributions with regard to the broader debate on materiality in the social sciences. Our experimental interest derived from a desire to shift the debate on new materialisms away from a handful of well-established theoretical concerns. We therefore asked our participants to employ neo-materialist ideas and concepts to let them prove themselves vis-à-vis empirical field research.

One re-occurring insight throughout the workshop was that there is no easy answer to the question whether new materialisms are really new or even what they are precisely. The materialist challenge cannot be dissolved into exclusively conceptual answers. We found frictions through theoretical debates and empirical cases, we saw cracks in theories and methodologies, and we experienced the limits of our linguistic capability to express material ontologies and entanglements. The workshop left us with at least five problematizations which mark possible paths for further inquiry, research, and experimentation.

 

Apparative Materialities

A first problematization points to the question of how we can capture the material conditions of possibility, which are embedded in and constitutive of apparatuses. This challenge aims at a neo-materialist description of society which, on the one hand, goes beyond the anthropocentrism of classical approaches (e.g. Marxism) and, on the other hand, avoids focusing local phenomena.

Here, Sascha Dickel diagnosed an incompatibility between neo-materialist approaches and theories of society. Whereas materialist approaches focus on the social as a local materialization, theories of society stress its articulation in immaterial relations between people. Dickel then showed how digital devices such as the smartphone escape both of these analytical lenses because they constitute relations and collectives through mediation of the material and the immaterial. Therefore, if one wants to grasp the apparative im/materiality of digitalized society, neo-materialist thought should seek to make a difference in the development of both a theory of society and critical social theory.

One take on this problem is the concept of the apparatus, which was addressed in Thomas Lemke’s paper. He developed the notion of apparatuses of government drawing on Foucault’s concept of governmentality and neo-materialist approaches of apparatuses, especially the approach of Karen Barad. He argued that this kind of synthesis properly takes into account the performativity as well as the constitutive entanglements of subjects and objects and opens up new forms of critical engagement: a neo-materialist inspired critique for him is an experimental critique of mapping what is and what might be possible. Hannah Fitsch also used Karen Barad’s notion of the apparatus to analyze and problematize the materiality of computed pictures. She stated a re-materialization of digital images in which actors neglect the implicit and presupposed inscription of gender differences: These are incorporated into the very materiality of the apparatus. While she sees the notion of the apparatus as an important tool for the feminist critique of science she also challenged a neo-materialist critique that merely maps apparative conditions of materialization. She raised the question how such a project might profit from other critical projects such as Critical Theory.

 

De/Stabilizing Materialities

In a second problematization the inquiry into the apparative function of materialities was confronted with the question of how materiality has destabilizing effects in socio-material settings. Benjamin Lipp showed how empirical research on social robotics might be guided by neo-materialist thought. Drawing on Simondon’s philosophy of technology and Karen Barad’s notion of intraaction he developed an ‘analytics of interfacings’. In conceptualizing interfacing as a process of rendering things in/disposable for one another he argued for a neo-materialist perspective on the techno-material conditions of social robotics. Here, Lipp described how in the course of human-robot interaction materialities have destabilizing effects, which exceed accounts of materiality as stabilizing social order (e.g. Latour’s hotel key). Especially in the course of human/robot interfacings the ’eventful’ character of materialities comes to the fore.

Drawing on Karen Barad’s agential realism Athanasios Karafillidis problematized implicit presumptions of human/technology differences in projects of prosthesis. In scientific research practice, he argued, the first agential cut between human and technology is usually always already made. Here the very practical problem lies in the challenge how neo-materialist accounts of intra-actions as material-discursive events can help to infuse alternative differences into the development of assistive technology. Going beyond cybernetics (but also pointing out convergences of cybernetics and new materialisms), Karafillidis proposed to begin observations and analyses with relatively indeterminate phenomena: importantly for the sociology of technology, organic-mechanic couplings in the case of prosthetics emerge through processes that dis/enable users. Processes of boundary drawing are not only stabilizing processes and neither are prostheses simply stabilizing or enabling devices to begin with. Thus neo-materialist concepts might inspire to account for these ambivalent processes of technologies such as prosthesis.

 

Multiple Materialities

Many contributors pointed out the multiplicity of emergent materialities and ontologies. Jan-Hendrick Passoth whose paper engaged with the materiality of digitalization suggested that the politics of digitalization would have to deal with their multiple ontologies and their implied politics. He distinguished between three forms of materiality with regard to digital processes: hardware, software and runtime. Where the first materiality lies in the installation and maintenance of physical systems, the second can be found in the resisting materiality of software codes, e.g. in the case of updates. As a third type of materiality Passoth conceptualized ‘runtime’ as practices and apparatuses of prototyping, testing and evaluation. While these material enactments certainly intersect with each other empirically they also engender different versions of the political. In a similar vein, Sabine Maasen focused on multiple materialities with regard to the (re-)construction of selves through neuro-objects. Here, Maasen employed an analytics of milieus of subjectification in which neurofied subjectivities are co-produced through neuro-technologies such as neuro-feedback and brain-computer interfaces. The manifold materializations of neuro-selves enforce a thorough work of synchronization in which identity needs to be reconstructed and refitted again and again through divergent material circumstances.

In an ethnomethodological critique of materialist thought, Thomas Scheffer showed how multiple materialities emerge in actu. He argued that materialist thought all too often draws overarching ontologies without attuning its vocabulary to the situated character of material events. In order to be able to empirically see emerging materialities one would have to abstain from the ascription of absolute characteristics to matter. Matter is not. Rather matters exist.

 

Withdrawing Materialities

Departing from the multiplicity of materialities, in another problematization participants argued that materiality does not only exist, it also withdraws, fades and becomes fractious. In other words: To not take an agentive or vital account of materiality for granted but conceptualize its capacities one would also have to focus materiality from the side of its disappearance. For example, Ignacio Farías and Laurie Waller showed how certain phenomena are not adequately described in terms of multiple ontological enactments – especially if one takes into account the withdrawnness of objects (Harman). Taking noise as an example, they argued that this is an object of non-tology. In this sense they radicalize the theorizing of ‘withdrawnness’, because they see withdrawn materialities not as a relational effect but rather as indifferent materiality, which provokes speculative practices attaching noise to things. In a similar spirit, Andreas Folkers employed Heidegger’s account of ‘Gestell’ to think about renewable energy infrastructures. Problematizing phantasies of infinite resources, he focused the withdrawing materiality of wind and its consequences for the management of energy supply. Consequently, he argued that the withdrawnness of objects and matter cannot be grasped through the question of what withdraws but rather how the withdrawnness is rendered visible and/or problematized.

 

Contested Materialities

The withdrawnness of materialities points to another important concern. Emphasizing the fractious and also multiple character of materialities points to their contestation and the fact that particular materializations might stand in conflict with others. To address this contested and competing character of different materializations Andreas Folkers developed the notion of an onto-topology, an analytics of competing and co-existing ontologies. He showed that ontologies in recent debates are either conceptualized as too flat merely repackaging common constructivism with an ontological vocabulary or too deep analyzing historical formations as totalities that can be contrasted. In order to avoid both of these versions, he argued with Foucault and Heidegger for an onto-topology, that is, an analytical perspective that tries to analyze specific ontologies which are enfolded and can stand in conflict with each other. Folkers, thus, emphasized contestation as a mode of mattering.

Whether contestation is adequately theorized in more recent conceptualizations of politics, was one of the questions of Sven Opitz’ paper on cosmopolitics in Bruno Latour and Ulrich Beck. He showed how both approaches operate with ontologies of entanglement, the global risk-community and “Gaia”. In one way or another both approaches suggest that cosmopolitics are the necessary result of this global situation of interdependency. As a consequence, their cosmopolitics oscillate between an over- and a depoliticization but certainly miss a political middleground in which an analysis of concrete power relations and contestation is possible. A con-ceptualization of the political in a neo-materialist vein would have to avoid this tendency: An onto-topological orientation as suggested by Folkers might point in that direction.

It was never our goal to celebrate or dismiss the theoretical orientations framed as new materialisms. Thus, the workshop, to us, brought up more questions and a desire to further link the debates on new materialisms with sociological concerns, theoretically as well as empirically. For this, we proposed five lines of problematization which themselves can conflict: How can we capture the apparative conditions of possibility of materialities and at the same time retain a gaze for the event-character of materializations? How could this eventfulness be integrated in empirical research as well as theoretical accounts in order to be able to think the complex relations of de/stabilization? How can we observe and theorize the multiple modes of matter’s existence, or better: it’s enactment? Moreover, how can we distance ourselves from a concept of matter that just presupposes it as agentive or vital force; how can we integrate its contestation and its multiple ways of withdrawing into sociological analyses?

On the one hand, this range of questions shows that neo-materialist concepts and interventions can provide theoretical resources to tackle fundamental problems of social theory. On the other hand, referring to new materialisms does not provide us a definite answer to the question of the relation between materiality and the social. Instead we hope to have shown that this strand of discussion is open to and in need of further development across disciplines and theoretical traditions.

Bio-objects meet Multispecies Ethnography, Workshop at MIT Anthropology, 30 Oct 2015

On bio-objects: The concept and research network

Niki Vermeulen, Sakari Tamminen, and Bettina Bock von Wülfingen

The bio-object concept and the associated network have grown out of a common interest in issues surrounding the boundaries of the biological sciences and how they meet various aspects of society. The concept was born of the need for a heuristic device allowing the analytic gaze to be focused on a multiplicity of “objects of life” and the myriad processes that render life as an object that can be known, and hence grasped for intervention. The concept is biographically situated in the European STS research scene of the late 2000s, where it emerged in objection to some writings’ implications that the secrets of life can be reduced to genetic code. Thus, it voices opposition to reductionist interpretations surrounding life’s generative potentiality. At the same time, the concept, in effect, posits that work on philosophically and politically framed questions within the social sciences about “life itself” must be informed also by nuanced empirical studies of how the status of “life” is accorded to various vital objects. This endeavor demands a concept that does not carry the historical weight (from moral, philosophical, and religious realms) associated with discourses on “life itself.”

 

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Heather Paxson: talking & tasting cheese, photograph by Sakari Tamminen

 

The bio-object network brings together researchers who are interested in the new biosciences and, indeed, in bio-objects in all their diversity. Since its establishment, in 2007, the network has, with the aid of EU COST funding, grown quite extensive. With more than 80 members, it spans a broad spectrum of disciplines – sociology, history, philosophy, anthropology, and the life sciences. The COST network, under the name “Bio-objects and Their Boundaries: Governing Matters at the Intersection of Society, Politics, and Science,” concentrates on three key questions:

  • What are bio-objects, and how do they span various boundaries?
  • What challenges do bio-objects pose for governance and regulation?
  • How do bio-objects generate and get generated by various relations – social, cultural, material, etc.?

Bettina, Niki, and Sakari considered how the concept can be used in practice and, through a number of case studies, illustrated where life is presented through relations found, for example, within bioinformatics. They also explored how the attempts at modeling life – to objectify life through relations – are culturally mediated in scientific practice.

 

Multispecies ethnography

Stefan Helmreich

Taking Kirksey and Helmreich’s article about multispecies ethnography as a point of departure, Stefan explored the socio-historical context of the phenomenon and gave an eloquent update on new arguments drawn from a wide range of literature. He started out with several ways in which dogs can relate to humans, from rescuing us from danger and detecting substances on our behalf to being companions and comforters, then began unpacking these relations as fruitful starting points for multispecies ethnography. He continued by demonstrating how well the multiplicity of relations is often depicted by bio-art and bio-artists, as both help to unwrap the “sacred bundle” of life. In fact, bio-artists have had a much larger role – they were among the first to push forward with ideas in this field, with the Multispecies Salon exhibits held at AAA meetings. Stefan compared multispecies ethnography to various approaches applied in ethnographic research – in research traditions ranging from ethnoprimatology to ethnomicrobiology – and borrowed from their discourse in order to map, analyze, and problematize the idea of multispecies ethnography.

 

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photograph by Sakari Tamminen

 

What seems fundamental to multispecies ethnography, in a recurring pattern hinted at in the other approaches too, is the explicit effort to shift the boundaries between the researcher and the research object, between knower and the known, and perturbation of the modern dichotomy between the human perspective and the Other. With the modern way so imbued with traditional ethno¬graphic methods and manners of representation, can we render the perspective of the other species visible, through innovative research approaches that break from methods centered on text and the associated senses (the visual and cognitive)? What about sounds and the visceral, especially since we know that our voice is mediated through bio-objects and multi-species relationships, through parchment, paper, and/or the bacterial culture on an iPad screen?

 

The multi-species world and bio-objects 

Andrea Núñez Casal: microbiomes

Luísa Reis Castro: anthrozoology and pests, mosquitoes

Nadia Christidi: art, science, biology, conflict in the Middle East

Richard Fadok: “bio-inspired design”

Caterina Scaramelli: bovine biopolitics

Michelle Spektor: biometric IDs and databases

Lucas Mueller: aflatoxins

Rijul Kochhar: antibiotic-resistance research in India and the US

Alison Laurence: animals on display

Jia-Hui Lee: anthrozoology in post-conflict zones, olfaction

Peter Oviatt: domestication and commodification of fungi

Claire Webb: the search for extraterrestrial intelligence

Valentina Marcheselli: astrobiology

That a host of species can live with humans (and within a human host) and that these can be conceptualized as both enemies and friends can be viewed in terms of the human microbiome. Immunity as community opens numerous perspectives to health and car, while also showing diversification and inequalities connecting gut, food, and political cultures (Núñez Casal). For instance, while mosquitoes connecting with humans can bring disease, they can also become a public health tool that prevents infections (Reis Castro). In the context of war too, the lines between friends and foes can become reconfigured through multi-species relations. In one example, the Iraq War saw people become objects of destruction, yet the Baghdad zoo and its animals became ground for the reestablishment of social relations and international connections (Christidi).

These patterns are closely connected to differences between security and insecurity, yet another interplay in relations between the human and non-human species. As with mosquitoes as friends and foes, microbes can protect (as in the microbiome) yet can also resist being protected against (as in antibiotic-resistance), through adaptation and their travel through various cultures (Kochhar). In another landscape, through the care of and for water buffalo, wetlands that need protection are also protecting the livelihood of their inhabitants (Scaramelli). However, the balance in multi-species relation¬ships is continuously at stake and reconfigured, or strictly regulated as in the case of aflatoxins (Mueller) or cheeses (Paxson). All the concomitant issues are closely related to the governance of life and modes of governing life.

 

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photograph by Sakari Tamminen

 

Another theme that ran through the presentations was the way in which bio-objects and multi species relations are defined by form, smell, and taste. In the case of bio-inspired design, matter mimics life and life becomes active matter in various scenarios of emergence ruled through perceived principles of life, as form and function are blended (Fadok). In spaces that entail such melding, we learned that all smell can be reduced to six chemical components, but are those deconstructed smells still alive (Lee)? And can, in the case of truffles (Oviatt), smells constitute a difference between French, Italian, and Romanian identities?

Finally, the discussions explored the identity of life. In Israel, bodily identity can be transferred to a chip with biometric information (Spektor), creating a split between individual and informa¬tion, an opening for rethinking the meaning of historical and political relations for today and the future. And can another gap be closed, with fossils of political life (such as Mount Rushmore) being subsumed by the category “natural history” (Laurence)? Finally, the quest to seek extraterrestrial life and be able to escape Earth’s tether calls us to re-imagine what life is and how it can be known (Marcheselli), while also raising the question of whether, or how, instruments for finding life are themselves mediating (Webb), bringing bio-objects to life when within a proximity of vital signs – like the hyphen in bio-object concept itself.

 

Recombination, remixing, repurposing, and more

From the preparations and the initial presentations, it was already clear that bio-objects and the “multispecies” framework are both not only a way of conceptualizing and framing the social study of the biosciences but also a heuristic device to address the complexity and the (shifting) perception of relations between the organic and the non-organic and among various species in their broader social and cultural context. That both concepts focus on relations in a synthesis of material and diverse social-cultural-economic relations makes their relationship worth exploring.

Discussions focused on what the “bio” of the bio-object is and on how it is related to the other “bio”s, such as bio-value, bio-capital, bio-politics, and bio-labor (and/or multi-species labor). Is this a matter of object versus process? What about bio-epistemologies and bio-objectivities? Or does this objectification also take into account the more negative aspects of objectifying? And how should substances such as air or water be added to the picture? Are they bio-objects too? These questions led us to consider politics of engagement, mediation, intersubjectivity, and abiotic signs for “bio”s. Can we also think in terms of lifetimes, of objects-by-bio?

In the case of the microbiome, it became clear that both concepts address the other’s shortcomings: where the bio-object concept does not provide obvious ways to talk about relation-ships among multiple species and the numerous elements of life (the microbiome as a bio-object composed of many bio-objects), the “multispecies” approach does not allow ready analysis of the scientific work that transforms life (e.g., processes of bio-objectification).image1image1

An important observation was made at this juncture; that bio-objects as an analytic category can be used to think about issues of freedom and containment. How does freedom work in application of freedom of movement and pushing the boundaries of life – such as in the creation of a non-free body when data are stored elsewhere and can be stolen: a stolen self?

Related to this is the opening up of the categories of life, into digital representations of life but also into ruins of life and bodies of death. With regard to the material stuff of life, the flesh to the bones, we find categories of life able to be opened through instruments, technological objects such as microscope and satellites that mediate life, through which we zoom in and zoom out. Turning from space to time raises the question of when life ends: Where do the thresholds of life lie, and can we talk about pre-life? This is, quite literally, a matter of life and death. Finally, we can look at symbiosis. Ruins can be conceptualized as runaway life rather than any sort of death. Should we, for instance, understand antibiotic-resistance as the ruins of antibiotics or, instead, antibiotics out of control? And how is this related to cultivation and uncultivated/uncultivable life?

An important issue that arose repeatedly in the presentations and discussions is the primarily Euro- and US-centeredness of these approaches (the “multispecies” approach is more connected to US traditions, and the idea of bio-objects emerged in Europe). While the geographic heritage of both approaches is not surprising, it is important to reflect on this and find ways to expand both arenas, striving for a more global playing field.

Finally, all our presentations and discussions expressed a love for life. Eco-love. Affection for life, living, and the living, expressed through careful observation, analysis, and reflection. We also enjoyed some excellent talk and tastes of gastro-objects: truffles and cheeses.

 

Opportunities for future encounters

During the 4S/EASST meeting in Barcelona – there will be a bio-object track:

Revisiting bio-objects and bio-

objectification: Categories, materialities and processes central to the (re)configuration of „life“ (http://www.nomadit.co.uk/easst/easst_4s2016/panels.php5?PanelID=3917).

Center for the Study of Invention and Social Process. Goldsmiths, University of London

The Centre for the Study of Invention of Social Process is an active inter-disciplinary research centre at Goldsmiths, University of London, which was founded more than 10 years ago by Andrew Barry and others. CSISP was opened in 2003 by Bruno Latour with a lecture on the question of “how not to change vehicles” in moving from microto macro- in the social study of” …invention (more on this topic, and choice of label, below).

Institutionally speaking, CSISP has the luxurious if delicate position of being based in the Department of Sociology, while boasting an interdisciplinary membership, with staff and students from across Goldsmiths involved in collaborations and events, including from Design, Art, Anthropology, Visual Cultures and Cultural Studies. CSISP also works with members from beyond Goldsmiths, including Kristin Asdal (Oslo), Carolin Gerlitz (University of Amsterdam) Javier Lezaun (Oxford) Celia Lury (Warwick) Fabian Muniesa (Paris) and Tahani Nadim (Berlin). From the very beginning CSISP has been based in the Warmington Tower on the highest and generally peaceful 12th loor, which a few years ago however was troubled by an asbestos threat, exposed by a leak in the roof. The asbestos fortunately have since been removed, and besides the 12th loor has the benefit of a view of the City of London, which helps us to keep things in perspective, albeit an ensobering one.

Figure 1: The view from Warmington Tower (2012)
Figure 1: The view from Warmington Tower (2012)

Over the years, CSISP has been directed by a variety of Goldmiths sociologists, including Mariam Motamedi Fraser, Mike Michael, Marsha Rosengarten and myself. Michael Guggenheim, Alex Wilkie and Marsha Rosengarten have just become the new Co-Directors of CSISP, as from September I have joined the Centre for Interdicisplinary Methodologies at the University of Warwick. The Centre’s thematic focus has been remarkably enduring over the years. As the official blurb on the CSISP home page has it, the centre centre supports research, projects and events in the broad area of science, technology, society and the environment. This broad and inclusive description echoes the broad substantive focus of our field (at CSISP we like to blame STS for whatever we can); but CSISP makes up for its wide focus through its narrow objective to support and enable – website blurb again – “mutual interventions across disciplines and practices that are concerned with the social: design and social science, computing and sociology, issue advocacy and social methods, biomedicine and social research, the arts and environmental science.”

It does not seem an exaggeration to say that CSISP has developed a distinctive take on interdisciplinary research over the years, which a) explicitly includes creative or ‘generative’ disciplines like design, computing and the arts, b) collaborates with NGOs and activists, including Platform, the International HIV Social Science and Humanities Conference, and the Tactical Technology Collective, and c) has a special focus on enabling practice-based, materially aware, medium-specific forms of methodological innovation that further enables this broad and generative approach to interdisciplinary social research that we and (former) colleagues at Goldsmiths have termed “inventive” (Lury and Wakeford, 2012).

Research projects developed and hosted at CSISP that may help to clarify and exemplify this approach this are:

a) the Pindices installation by Andrew Barry and artist/designer Lucy Kimbell, which consisted of translucent tubes fixed to the wall carrying buttons with accounts of specific acts (e.g. ‘I raised an issue’), and which was part of the Making Things Public exhibition in the ZKM Karlsruhe in 2005.
b) the on-going collaboration between Design and Social Science by Mike Michael, Bill Gaver, Alex Wilkie and others and which produced the RCUK-funded ECDC project in which designers and STS researchers developed an material method and/or prototype device called the Energy Babble, a kind of community-radio which broadcasts digital content relating to energy demand issues and also enables community engagement among the network of its users (via the micropohone) (see the contribution by Alex Wilkie below).
c) Noortje Marres’ ESRC-funded work on Issue mapping online (Figure 2), which brings together STS approaches with digital methods to develop tactics, methods and tools for analysing and visualising public issue formation, including the Associational Proiler, a prototype tool for studying the ‘liveliness of issues’ with Twitter (see www.issuemapping.net and Figure 2 for an early associational proile of #drought from 2012).
d) Jennifer Gabrys ERC project on Environmental Sensing with deploys a variety of sensors and sensing devices to develop materially aware methodologies for the articulation of and engagement with environmental crisis (see www.citizensense.net).
e) the ERC project led by Michael Guggenheim on Organizing Disasters with seeks to analyze the encounter between civil protection organizations and the population and to this end combines field-based, experimental and visual methods (see www.organizingdisaster.net).

Figure 2: Issue proile of #drought on Twitter over time, Noortje Marres, Carolin Gerlitz, Alessandro Brunetti (2012)
Figure 2: Issue proile of #drought on Twitter over time, Noortje Marres, Carolin Gerlitz, Alessandro Brunetti (2012)

The development of social research projects is then key to CSISP – indeed it hosts other ERC projects be sides the two mentioned above, including the project on market problems by Dan Neyland discussed in the next article, and Goldsmiths Sociology also hosts Evelyn Ruppert’s How Data Make a People (www.gold.ac.uk/sociology/research/researchprojects/howdatamakeapeople).

A no less important aspect of CSISP has always been the lively post-graduate culture that it supports, by way the Whitehead Scholarship and the CSISP studentship, and through on-going events such as the CSISP Salon, an informal reading-cum-viewing-and-discussion group, which has been organized by PhD students and post-doctoral researchers over the years (Tahani Nadim, Ann-Christina Lange, Joe Deville, Laurie Waller, Sveta Milyaeva, Vera Ehrenstein, David Moats), and where “members and others meet to debate issues in the field of the social studies of science and technology and beyond,” using an “experimental format that aims to accompany texts with contextual materials in the form of films, news articles, field visits etc..”, as the CSISP Salon webpage puts it.

These and other CSISP events are enlivened by participation of students in Master programmes taught and convened by CSISP members, including in recent years the MAs in Visual and Digital Sociology, as well as by CSISP visiting fellows who join us for a period of a few months to over a year from related, international STS groups and departments, including Anders Koed Madsen (Copenhagen), Nerea Calvillo (Madrid), Priska Gisler (Zurich), Lonneke Van der Velden (Amsterdam), Daniel López and Israel Giralt Rodríguez (Barcelona), Kay Felder (Vienna), Pascale Trompette (Grenoble), Ignacio Farías (Berlin) and Manuel Tironi (Chile).

Events have been very important to the making of CSISP as not only a research centre but also an intellectual place. The last big one was the anniversary symposium Inventing the Social in 2014, which was co-organised by myself, Michael Guggenheim and Alex Wilkie, and brought together speakers to discuss renewed attempts to connect innovation and creativity with sociality, in a range of current fields, from digital media to disaster management and installation art. We are in the process of developing this event into an edited book to be published by Mattering Press, and the poster advertising the event was designed by Alex Wilkie, as most of our many CSISP posters are, and this poster took the form of a long list of events organised in the 10 years of CSISP existence, showing how diverse our topics of interest have been, going from the philosophy of Bergson, open source software, oil and politics, digital societies and so on (www.gold.ac.uk/media/Inventing%20the%20Social.pdf). This broadness could be taken for a lack of specialization, and this would not be wrong, but it also signals the commitment of those who assemble in and around CSISP to work across the registers of theory, research and practice.

Figure 3: Inventing the Social. CSISP anniversary symposium in the Orangery at Goldsmiths, organised by Noortje Marres, Michael Guggenheim and Alex Wilkie, May 2014
Figure 3: Inventing the Social. CSISP anniversary symposium in the Orangery at Goldsmiths, organised by Noortje Marres, Michael Guggenheim and Alex Wilkie, May 2014

Invention, then, is not only an important topic for CSISP but equally presents an important project in which STS researchers and practitioners may engage themselves. Perhaps most importantly, to engage more directly with the ‘invention of the social’ opens up possibilities for broadening our understanding of what it is ‘we’ do: Do we dare experiment with accepted divisions of labour in social research and innovation? Can we include the design and implementation of methodologies for sociality in the social studies recipe book? This is the question that on-going work in CSISP has raised over the least years, and also one that informs the new online, Open Access journal that CSISP will launch the coming year, Demonstrations (www.csisponline.net/2015/03/25/call-for-contributions-for-the-launch-of-demonstrations-journal-for-experiments-in-the-social-studies-of-technology).