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The centrality of lateral economic objects: examples from Latin America

On July 1st, 2016 the workshop ‘Social Studies of the Economy in Latin America’ took place at the Science and Technology Studies Department, University College London. The meeting convened a number of scholars who work at the intersection of social studies of the economy, STS, sociology and the anthropology of economic knowledge. The workshop focused on leading research that offers a close-up examination of economic life. In particular, it engaged ethnographic and historical perspectives on the multiple ways in which the economy, culture and technology intersect, and on the way in which economic subjects and objects are constituted and performed.

The kinds of research objects discussed in the workshop go beyond the usual economic entities and processes often examined by Latin American scholars in the social studies of the economy, such as markets, competition, money, economists and finance. Instead, most of the participants investigate assemblages of lateral epistemic objects which play a critical but relatively humble role in the orchestration of the economy, e.g. indexes, databases, economic news and regulatory figures. The research presented aimed to show how the production of different types of knowledge relates to the constitution, contestation and regulation of economic forms and processes, which are considered to be more central in public debate – e.g. inflation, competition, economic prospects and customers. Broadly speaking, three kinds of epistemic objects were discussed: public numbers, private numbers and economic news.

Economic News

Mariana Heredia and Claudia Daniel take a long-term historical view of the way inflation is publically framed and understood in contemporary Argentina. Analysing the way price increases were discussed in the news of the two major newspapers (La Nación and Clarín) between the 1940s and 1990s, they distinguish two clear periods. From the 1940’s to the 1970s, inflation was presented as a social and political phenomenon, in which social leaders representing workers and branch industries played key roles in disputing state involvement in price control. These national newspapers took clear ideological standpoints on inflation, standpoints reflecting different conceptions of the economy. While La Nación represented a liberal vision, Clarín promulgated a more interventionist approach. Notably, inflation during this period was an important problem for liberals, and particularly so during unstable years. Since the mid-1970s, however, inflation has not only continued at three digit levels, they argue, but its framing has also changed. As experts in economics were increasingly called to give their professional advice and opinion, ideological cleavages began to fade. Inflation came to be considered an urgent ‘economic’ problem shorn of clear ideological baggage, a problem involving all members of society equally, without regard to political orientation, a problem requiring the in-depth intervention of independent economic experts. The story they tell shows how inflation moved from being a general social and political problem to a technical, ‘economic’ subject fit only for experts.

In a similar vein, Tomás Undurraga investigates the assemblage of economic news by Brazilian journalists. Based on a multi-site ethnography of two influential newspapers in Brazil, he examines how the production of economic news involves journalists in mediating knowledge claims made by experts, policy makers and the lay public. Undurraga asks whether and how Brazilian journalists experience themselves as knowledge-makers. The paper describes how journalists aim to produce news that is marked by four main features: depth, authorship, influence and expertise. In doing this, this paper shows that journalists are more likely to consider newsmaking a contribution to knowledge when: they have the resources to do proper investigative reporting (depth); they are able to help define the public agenda through their reporting and to express their opinion on events (authorship); they have impact on the field they cover (influence) and their journalistic knowledge is recognised as a form of expertise by readers and specialists (expertise). In practice, however, there are multiple obstacles that make Brazilian journalists hesitant about their contribution to knowledge, including, intensified working conditions alongside other challenges of media convergence, the lack of plurality within the mainstream presses, journalism’s low professional status in Brazil, and difficulty in dealing authoritatively with experts from other fields.

Fig. 1. Workshop participants, from left to right: Tomás Undurraga, Tomás Ariztía, Mariana Heredia, Martín de Santos, Ana Gros, Gustavo Onto
Fig. 1. Workshop participants, from left to right:
Tomás Undurraga, Tomás Ariztía, Mariana Heredia, Martín de Santos, Ana Gros, Gustavo Onto

 

Public Numbers

Neiburg and Gross’ papers examined disputes concerning the production and circulation of public numbers and consumer price indexes through regulatory documents and policies. While public numbers play a key role in defining how the economy is shaped, such numbers are often constituted via historical knowledge practices through which specific versions of the economy are supported and others discarded.

Examining the way in which Argentina’s inflation dispute was framed, Federico Neiburg maps the genealogy and justifications of ‘economic emergencies’ as economic and legal objects. Exploring the state of “national statistical emergency” decreed by President Macri in December 2015, Neiburg discusses the juridical and political implications of intervening in the National Institute of Statistics. In this context, the paper maps a genealogy of devices and justifications for economic emergencies, which aim to suspend momentarily the rule of law and to encourage the normal, independent operation of markets. He shows how economic emergencies open a clear window onto the interconnections between everyday and academic categories relating to the ‘real economy’. Neiburg discusses how  “emergency” regulations designed to govern the economy allow action to be taken in relation to knowledge of economic life, such as the production of indicators. These actions are generally justified in defence of the ‘common good,’ and directly affect the ‘real economy’ and ‘people’s real lives’: prices, wages, contracts, employment, debts, savings and so on. Similarly to Heredia and Daniel, Neiburg shows how the production of ‘emergency’ situations relates to the practical implementation of technical numbers such as indicators.

Ana Gross takes the controversy generated around the validity of the Consumer Price Index (CPI) in Argentina since 2006 as an empirical occasion to observe how public economic numbers are produced in an increasingly decentralized way. She explores two distinctive features of the controversy surrounding the proliferation of alternative inflation indicators: first, the public disaggregation of inflation databases that render the products and prices used to calculate CPI; thus transforming the way in which prices are visibilized; and second, the emergence of alternative inflation indicators based on different temporal modes of release and communication. The paper looks at how the observation, knowledge and experience of public economic numbers becomes re-organised when statistics are disaggregated to the point where they render the specificities of their calculations visible, and when official indicators like CPI become contested by other measures.

Private Numbers

We also examined objects such as databases and visualization techniques that help to shape and materialize economic subjects and states of affairs. These objects, such as antitrust policy charts and consumer databases, illustrate the mediating role that knowledge practices and devices play in shaping central economic objects and subjects – such as consumers, markets, and competition. These objects (Guyer, 2016) cannot be described as necessarily “economic”, since they are also used to enact things that are not necessarily considered economic. Further attention to these epistemic objects, however, expands the way we are prone to describe the economy.

Based on an ethnography of the Brazilian antitrust governmental agency – the Administrative Council for Economic Defense, CADE – Gustavo Onto explores the production and use of documents and graphic artefacts and the role they play in regulating market competition. Antitrust regulation involves a variety of administrative practices aimed at producing knowledge about specific markets, industries, companies and consumers, with the aim of facilitating decisions about, e.g., whether to authorise a merger between two companies, or to condemn anticompetitive practices like those of a cartel. These knowledge practices rely on the production and circulation of different bureaucratic artifacts that are critical for regulators to be able to visualize market competition, usually through tables, charts and percentages. Taking specific merger cases analyzed by regulators as examples, Onto argues that competition is not necessarily an abstract or theoretical notion when seen from the point of view of knowledge practices that frame the possibility of future harm to consumers and other companies. By contrast, he argues that competition can only be understood or visualized by regulators through specific material and graphic techniques that foreground a set of relations of similarity and difference between products, services and companies.

In a similar vein, Tomás Ariztía discusses how consumers are enacted in marketing datamining. Based on an experimental ethnography of the manufacture and analysis of a transactional dataset from a small retail company in Chile, Ariztía describes the practice of ‘number crunching’ – i.e. the process of creating, modifying and datamining transactional data during the production of consumer databases. In doing so, the paper describes the enactment of consumers in datamining as the outcome of a myriad of socio-material practices and devices through which specific accounts of the social world are rendered visible. The paper describes how the consumer that is enacted through datamining is the result of a practical operation of qualification deployed trough different digital infrastructures. In doing so, the paper explores two specific aspects of the production of consumer datasets: first, the central place of error as both a heuristic tool and an outcome of consumer data practices. Second, the paper explores how datamining for marketing purposes relies on multiple, humble valuation processes through which the data that “counts” is defined. These processes involve defining and mobilizing consumers in specific ways, while others are discarded.

Lateral Economic Objects

What do public and private numbers such as consumer price and inflation indexes, market share tables, consumer datasets and economic news have in common? On what grounds can these objects be labelled “economic”? How do they relate to the production of more well-known economic entities and processes, such as markets, prices or firms? In what follows we discuss some common threads among the papers. We do so by proposing two key arguments about the place that lateral epistemic objects occupy in the production of the economy.

First, the objects described are ‘lateral’ since they relate to processes such as indexing, prospecting scenarios and deploying an administrative procedure, which are not necessarily specific to processes of economization. At the same time, however, all these objects contribute to the assemblage of entities that go on to be considered central to economic life, such as consumers, prices, market competition and economic forecasts. This apparent tension points us to one of the core theoretical claims that is supported by a close reading of the work presented: namely, that the different epistemic objects that constitute the economic world do not necessarily relate to the processes of economization described by Çalışkan and Callon (2009; 2010). These objects instead participate in the production of the economy in a subtler, lateral manner. In other words, core economic entities rely on the mobilization of a plurality of non-economic processes and knowledges, which are key in shaping the economy, such as databases, news or excel tables. Core economic processes are therefore not as autonomous and sui generis as the work of Caliskan and Callon is often taken to suggest.

It is in this sense that we term the objects described in these papers as ‘lateral economic objects’. They take part in economization processes only in an indirect manner. They deal with practices and devices that constitute the economy in so far as they mediate further processes of economization, but they may play a similar role in processes that are not overtly economic. The relatively humble operation of, e.g., manufacturing indexes, regulatory documents, economic news, databases and market shares tables contribute to making the economy possible but are not themselves specific or exclusive to modes of economization. Eschewing the centre/periphery binary, ‘lateral objects’ illuminate other processes that are not necessarily less central to the economy but have received less attention in the making of the economy

The previous claim points us to a second, stronger one. As argued by Miyazaki and Riles (2005), not all the objects and practices that shape economic life need to be related in a direct fashion to processes of economization or marketization. Economic life is produced in ways which are not always convergent and that might involve the existence of different frictions in the production of the economy. In this sense, these papers dealing with the production of lateral economic objects illustrate how economic life is produced and assembled in different and divergent places, which are only partially related to one another. The contributors to the workshop thus attempt to develop an understanding of the economy that is open to the multiplicity and contestability of knowledges and materialities that shape economic life.

The focus on the laterality of the objects examined here raises a further question about the Latin American nature of our examples. How do these examples help us to understand the production of the economy in Latin American countries specifically? What do these various research projects focused on Argentina, Brazil and Chile tell us about the specificity of the economies of the region? Going beyond the traditional stereotypes with which the social sciences tend to label Latin America – e.g. as being a laboratory for economic experimentation, as being politically and economically hierarchical and a place of contestation and hoped for political change – these papers shed light on the socio-technical nature of the Latin American economies from an anthropological and sociological perspective. In this sense, the papers discussed here illuminate a second meaning of laterality, one that relates to the place that practices and devices have in the analysis of economic life in this region. In fact, contrary to a meta-narrative reading of Latin American political economy, these papers reveal the nuances and specificities of the economies in the area, and how these economies are locally constructed, governed and contested.

This workshop received funding from the European Research Council under the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007–2013)/ERC grant agreement No. 283754. 

The organizers thank Tiago Mata, Asa Cusack and the members of the ‘Economics in the Public Sphere’ project for helping us put together the workshop

NORDIC JOURNAL OF SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY STUDIES

The following scenario is most likely recognizable to many readers of EASST review. You are with a group of colleagues and friends. You are possibly in a bar, in a basement, or a conference hotel. The voices heard in the room are deep in discussions about an obscure band from the 80s, the latest sci-fi craze or the interpretation of some French theorist. Critical voices delve into the state of the academic publishing system and university policies, as well as the prospects of achieving proper academic tenure any time soon. In sum, you feel slightly uneasy about the state of academia, STS and the world surrounding the ivory tower. The red wine, IPAs and umbrella drinks do nothing to help the situation. The next day you wake up with cottonmouth and a headache, but the world remains the same.

This was our situation, and of course, it still is in many ways. Four years ago, we decided to use the frustration as a catalyst for creative work. The outcome was the launch of what we considered a much-needed scientific journal, catering for the steadily growing, but somewhat disconnected Nordic STS communities, whose scholarship often falls outside the scope of disciplinary journals, while its Nordic field of enquiry sometimes come across as too exotic for the international STS mainstream. This is a paradox in a field where locally anchored and embedded knowledge has always been valued. While NJSTS is an internationally oriented journal, we also want to acknowledge that scholarship emerges from locally situated actions, networks and arenas, and that the importance of this for the scholarship produced should not be ignored.

Further, we wanted to construct an arena where upcoming and established scholars of the north could engage in each other’s work, as well as with the work of interested scholars from other regions. A related question that emerged was the following: is there anything distinctly “Nordic” about our shared breed of STS, and if so – what would this “nordicness” constitute? Thus, the idea of a Nordic Journal of Science and Technology Studies was borne.

Surprisingly, we soon learned that the formal requirements for establishing a scienti c journal were quite relaxed. They concerned avoiding institutional inbreeding, and setting up a peer review process. So we did it! At the first bi-annual Nordic STS conference in 2013, fittingly located in Hell (!), Norway, our journal was launched with serious academic discussions on the agenda. The real launch however, took place at late night hours in an overcrowded hotel room in the very same non-metaphorical Hell.

While the formalities of setting up shop are not an obstacle, we had – and still have – high ambitions for the contents of our entity. We wanted to make a journal like no other, with interesting content in innovative contexts. Now, in the journals fourth annual volume, we can look back at great individual articles and book reviews from scholars in close to all major Nordic STS communities and beyond, special issues exploring exciting themes, and interviews with big international STS-names. Our papers have spurred controversy, been debated, cited, put on curriculums and have been read and downloaded across the globe. In an age where the term “impact” seems omnipresent as academic currency, this is not too shabby for a small, independent journal. In the years ahead, we want to build on this, to make sure the journal stays an open, democratic and relevant arena for high-quality scholarly exchange in the Nordics and beyond, and an outlet that is open to engagement across arenas like science, the arts and industry. Open access on open platforms is key to this, a strategy we will continue to pursue.

To retain the vibrancy of the journal we are interested in manuscripts of different kinds. First, we seek theoretical or empirical research papers. As we do not doubt for a second that ‘the north’ is part of the globe, authors do not need to work in Nordic institutions or have a specifically Nordic focus to publish with us; we are seeking diverse scholarly contributions engaging broadly with both traditional and emerging issues in STS and surrounding scholarly fields. Second, we seek book reviews. On the one hand, we seek authors interested in reviewing specific books; on the other, we seek hints about which books we should explore. Thus, publishers and authors with new books at the intersection of science, technology, arts, media, society etc. should feel free to get in touch.

Figure 1: The front page of vol. 1, issue 1, NJSTS (2013)
Figure 1: The front page of vol. 1, issue 1, NJSTS (2013)

Thirdly, we are interested in more open-ended contributions. These could be short commentaries, essays, interviews, conference reports and other reflections – in principle imagination is what stops you here. Finally, we are always interested in dialogues about the possibili- ties of special issues, sections or other ideas that you might have. As a teaser, we can point out that a thematic, guest edited issue on feminist technoscience is on the agenda, so keep your eyes open for an exciting call for papers soon!

STS is increasingly becoming a global endeavor. At the same time, the local settings where STS is enacted, produce local variants, locally anchored traditions of methodology, theory development and analysis. We want contributions that balance the need to address a global audience, with care for the situatedness of the work presented. Thus, while we have mainly published contributions in English, we are also open for manuscripts in other Nordic languages.

We are a small journal, and we will not be able to compete with top journals on matters like impact factor or rating. However, we are dedicated to being better than such journals on matters of author communication, feedback and reviews. We are also quite friendly people. Therefore, please do not hesitate to get in touch with us if you want to discuss a manuscript or for any other reason!

Contemporary bioscience and its socio-historical analysis

Making Genomic Medicine 

Making Genomic Medicine is a Wellcome Trust funded project investigating the historical and social processes that have produced the current ferment of activity around genomic medicine. The project explores how developments in biomedical science have interacted with changing social and political circumstances – including research policy, the influence of patient groups, and the growth of commercial biotechnology – to frame genomic medicine as a field of scientific, medical and economic promise. The team pursue this research using a variety of different methods and sources including archival materials, analysis of grey and scientific literature, and interviews with key actors including genomic entrepreneurs, physicians, policy advisors, and biomedical scientists. The project is organised around three inter-related strands of research into the history of rare disease, drug discovery, and changing ideas of medical risk. Research Fellow Farah Huzair explores how new biotech-based methods of drug discovery and development have interacted with the chemical engineering approaches more typically favoured by big pharma. Koichi Mikami is examining the role of rare disease organisations in shaping medical policy and practice to promote access to innovative treatments. The third Research Fellow, Catherine Heeney, works on issues of risk in genomics, with a particular focus on how techniques and technologies for conducting genome wide association studies reshaped the field of the genetics of common complex diseases. Building on this research the team has also organised a series of witness seminars and policy workshops bringing together key actors to reflect on the past and possible futures of different aspects of Genomic Medicine.

In pulling together the rich and varied data from the three strands, project PI Steve Sturdy invites us to rehabilitate the idea, originally proposed by Barbara and John Ehrenreich, of the medical-industrial complex (Ehrenreich and Ehrenreich, 1969). From the 1970s, academic bioscience has become increasingly entangled with commercial concerns, especially through the new biotechnology sector and its ramifications into pharmaceutical innovation, diagnostics and informatics. This has been facilitated by favourable policies on, for instance, ownership of intellectual property and marketing of orphan drugs, as well as substantial public funding for genomics research and infrastructure. These policies have in turn been informed by expectations of economic growth among policy makers, and of new and more effective therapies among patients and consumers. More recently, healthcare systems too are becoming increasingly entangled in this biomedical innovation system as suppliers of medical data and clinical research resources. Making Genomic Medicine is documenting key aspects of the pivotal role that genomic science and technology have played, and continue to play, in the development of this medical-industrial complex.

Medical Translation in the History of Modern Genomics

Much of the context outlined above is also shared by Medical Translation in the History of Modern Genomics. Rather than focus on the eventual commercial and clinical applications however, it addresses how DNA sequencing projects – the raw materials of genomics – reflected different expectations of utility in medical practice. The PI has recently been joined by Giuditta Parolini and James Lowe as Research Fellows, and Mark Wong as a Research Assistant who will conduct bibliometric work in support of the historical investigations. Gil Viry, Niki Vermeulen and Ann Bruce, social scientists at the University of Edinburgh, will collaborate in the interpretation of the bibliometric and historical data. As this European Research Council funded project is set to begin in October 2016 here we can only share the preliminary findings of the pilot research.

The project’s primary innovation is to look across a range of international sequencing initiatives rather than focus solely on the Human Genome Project (HGP). It is not well known that at the same time as the HGP was being pursued by research teams in Europe, Asia and America, similar programmes were underway for both the yeast and pig genomes. Preliminary archival research has uncovered a wide variety of perspectives regarding how such projects should actually be designed, and these disagreements often revolved around the ultimate goals sequencing should serve. The possibilities of improving agriculture, developing recombinant vaccines, or achieving personalised medicine — a contemporary excitement that frames Making Genomic Medicine — initially shaped the organisation of the yeast, human and pig sequencing projects. Accordingly researchers focussed on sequencing those parts of the yeast, human and pig genome that seemed to matter most for human and non-human health, as well as the emerging biotechnology industry.

After a few years however it seems that selectively sequencing the genome for diagnostic or therapy significant information eventually gave way to the priority of completeness – full and systematic sequencing displaced medical translation. By looking across the yeast, pig and human genome projects as they developed alongside one another, the project hopes to uncover the common pressures to which these teams responded (or were able to avoid), re-telling the history of international sequencing projects as one in which resource availability and use forced choices between different goals and values. The project builds on an emerging historical interest in genomics, one that combines archival work with social science perspectives to unpack promissory discourses and the objective of medical translation. Its theoretical and methodological frameworks have been outlined in a recent publication by the PI (Garcia-Sancho, 2016).

Meanwhile, the decision to focus simultaneously on human and non-human genetics builds upon a line of research developed here at Edinburgh regarding the history of agricultural science. One of its most recent contributions is worth mentioning briefly as it acted as a springboard for the present project. Historicizing Dolly (funded by the UK Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council) examines the history of animal breeding research in Edinburgh in the late twentieth century (García-Sancho, 2015). The project Research Fellow Dmitriy Myelnikov conceives of Dolly as a product of a number of social and historical processes, including changes in science policy which diminished the role for publicly funded agricultural science and had direct implications for the Animal Breeding Research Organisation (one of the institutions that was eventually recomposed into the Roslin Institute, home to Dolly). These transformations led Roslin to explore new potential commercial applications of their expertise, cloning being just one of a number that they pursued. Another less famous though vastly more significant effort, was the attempt to biologically synthesise useful quantities of human proteins in sheep milk for potential medical application. Here too then we see features that bolster the notion of an emerging medical-industrial complex towards the end of the twentieth century. The final project unpacked here also addresses the biosynthesis of materials as went on at Roslin, but through some of the most recent developments underway in the biosciences.

Engineering Life

The Engineering Life project is also funded by the European Research Council, and addresses the ideas, practices, policies and promises that together constitute contemporary attempts to engineer living things. While the project is therefore much more sociological in emphasis, one way to understand its particular take on biological engineering is through historical contextualisation. Again the historiography described above applies here, adding only that subsequent to the Second World War biological and biomedical scientists were no strangers to discussing developments in molecular biology in terms of ‘genetic engineering’, seeing the operations of DNA as systems, circuitry and networks available for manipulation. In the Engineering Life project, instead of dealing with the notion of genetic ‘engineering’ in an eliminative way (content with engineering’s significance extending only as far as rhetoric or pedagogy or poetry), the project asks what it might mean to engineer biology. It is prompted to do so because of the recent emergence of new communities pursuing synthetic biology. These communities are equally aware of earlier ‘engineering’ aspirations in biology, but often deliberately define themselves in distinction from such precursors. Synthetic biologists claim they are different because of a direct dependence upon, or collaboration with, engineers, engineering tools, techniques, and principles – a dependence that they argue was absent in earlier forms of biological engineering.

The project builds on work undertaken by Jane Calvert, Emma Frow and Pablo Schyfter, all of whom have been collaborating (and collaborating with scientists pursuing biological engineering) for almost a decade (Schyfter et al., 2013). Their backgrounds are diverse, as are those of the Research Fellows associated with the project (Deborah Scott, Erika Szymanski and Dominic Berry), ranging from law and geography, to rhetoric and science communication, HPS, and of course STS. In what follows we outline three of the key areas of research. As with all the projects surveyed here, the methods used are varied, including interviews, archival research, participant observation in science and policy spaces, laboratory ethnographies and art/design collaborations.

Engineering knowledge

One of the central interests of the project is the character of engineering knowledge. Despite extensive social scientific, historical and philosophical studies of scientific and technological knowledge, few projects have explored knowledge produced by engineers. Rather than assume that engineering knowledge is a form of technological knowledge, Engineering Life leaves the distinctiveness of engineering knowledge as an open question. In doing so it takes particular inspiration from Walter Vincenti, who argued that engineering knowledge is a distinct epistemic species. This exploration of engineering knowledge has led the team to engage with a diverse range of writing, including the philosophy of science in practice, pragmatist epistemology, and the sociology of technology.

Engineering organisms

Synthetic biologists work with or on a range of different biological materials and organisms. National, regional, and international institutions of governance are already examining synthetic biology, attempting to decide whether and how to govern those practices and products. Engineering Life is dedicated to exploring the implications, meanings, and effects of these interactions (Scott, 2016). With regard to laboratory ethnography, the project is focussed in particular on research surrounding yeast and plants, the former with an emphasis on international collaboration, the latter with a commitment to placing contemporary science in historical context. Attending to the relations between organisms and those who research them, organisms and their surroundings, and the organism’s significance in experiment, we are contributing to a long legacy of research that is at once social and historical (Clarke and Fujimura eds., 1992).

Reflexive questions

The project is also pursuing reflexive questions about the ways in which social scientists are being mobilised in attempts to engineer life. From the outset, scholars from the social sciences, arts, and humanities have participated in the development of synthetic biology (Ginsberg et al., 2014). This provides novel opportunities for interdisciplinary collaboration, but it also carries risks of co-option and capture. What roles are social scientists, bioethicists, lawyers, artists and designers playing in synthetic biology? And to what extent are these roles consistent with these researchers’ theories, methods, values, and goals?

Still growing strong 50 years of Science, Technology and Innovation Studies at the University of Edinburgh

 

A newly emerging field like Science and Technology Studies (STS) must find ways to navigate a space populated by powerful, typically discipline-based structures. Those involved in fostering STS centres and communities have needed ingenuity in working out how to do this in their particular national and institutional context. STS scholars have, in differing ways, learnt to spin a web at the interstices of disciplinary power blocks, to adapt to changing circumstances, and to navigate periodic radical realignments in this landscape.  In this sense the histories of particular STS centres are diverse, as amply demonstrated in this series of accounts of ‘STS Multiple’, even though they also exemplify strategies for tackling a broadly homologous set of problems.

 

Fig. 1: 2015 ISSTI retreat Newbattle Abbey 8th – 9th June 2015. Courtesy of R. Williams
Fig. 1: 2015 ISSTI retreat Newbattle Abbey 8th – 9th June 2015.
Courtesy of R. Williams

 

A tradition of breaking boundaries

Some parts of the Edinburgh story are well-rehearsed… The origins of SSU can be traced back to an initiative in 1964 to broaden the education of the university’s science undergraduates by the renowned geneticist C. H. Waddington (1905–75) and other leading Edinburgh scientists, including the physicist Peter Higgs. The Committee on Providing a Broader Basis for the Science Degree sought to reduce the separation between the ‘two cultures’ (of the arts and the sciences), which had been highlighted by C. P. Snow’s famous ‘Two Cultures’ lecture in 1959 (Henry 2008).

 

Fig. 2: Members of the Science Studies Unit in the early 1980s Back row, left to right: Mike Barfoot, Steven Shapin, Carole Tansley, Moyra Forrest, Andy Pickering, Dave Smith. Front row: David Bloor, David Edge, Barry Barnes, David Miller. Courtesy of Carole Tansley
Fig. 2: Members of the Science Studies Unit in the early 1980s
Back row, left to right: Mike Barfoot, Steven Shapin, Carole Tansley, Moyra Forrest, Andy Pickering, Dave Smith.
Front row: David Bloor, David Edge, Barry Barnes, David Miller.
Courtesy of Carole Tansley

 

David Edge, a physicist with a PhD in radio astronomy, but then working for the BBC Radio Science Unit, was enlisted to deliver this teaching.  He proposed a new undergraduate course for science students: “to remedy an ignorance … amongst science graduates of major aspects of civilisation,  such as literature, art, religion and philosophy, and of the strategic issues of science [editors note: this refers to the funding and organisation of science], and (b) to bring out the ways in which the development of science has influenced and is influencing, various aspects of human life…”1 David Edge also suggested the proposed new department should also have a research remit and outlined a number of issues that might be addressed. Funding was secured for 5 years from 1966 from the Wolfson Foundation to develop this work on an experimental basis. It was so successful, that, at the end of this period, the university took over funding.

David Edge made a series of inspired appointments: the sociologist Barry Barnes, the philosopher David Bloor, and historians Gary Werskey and later Steven Shapin. These turned  the Unit into an exciting site of scholarly historical and sociological research on science (Barnes et al 2003). Their foundational work established the sociology of scientific knowledge: the idea that the content of science itself, not merely its social context institutions, funding, personnel etc, was amenable to sociological enquiry. Their distinctive and influential ‘strong programme’ in the sociology of scientific knowledge became known throughout the world as the “Edinburgh School”.

David Edge committed his energy to creating a supportive space for this path-breaking scholarship at Edinburgh. He also supported the development of the field more widely, notably by launching (with Roy MacLeod) and editing for 32 years the journal Social Studies of Science.

This decisive step, in opening the production of scientific knowledge up for social scientific enquiry – was just one of a number of ways in which David Edge challenged established boundaries. He also emphasised an interdisciplinary approach that cut across divides between history and sociology –and also the boundary between natural and social sciences.

We recently rediscovered parts of this story. As part of our celebrations of the SSU 50th Anniversary we have been developing a Memory Collection – eliciting recollections from alumni and former colleagues. As we sorted though materials from retired colleagues we encountered other parts of the story that were about to fall out of the institutional memory. We were reminded that David Edge had collaborated with Harry Dickinson – a lecturer in the Electrical Engineering Department with an interest in developing countries. They secured awards from the (then) Science Research Council to fund PhD studentships and postdoctoral research fellowships  on Appropriate Technology. This programme was disrupted by Harry’s untimely and sudden death in the autumn of 1983. This example forces us to reflect upon the uneven processes by which past contributions may succeed or fail to become part of the historical record. We note that certain kinds of communal work, and the contributions of those who fall by the wayside, can easily be overlooked.

The growth of the interdisciplinary Technology Studies programme

Edinburgh’s interdisciplinary tradition took another radical turn in the 1980s, to encompass technology studies, inspired by the edited collection that Donald MacKenzie and Judy Wajcman developed on  The Social Shaping of Technology (SST)  (MacKenzie and Wajcman 1985). Donald MacKenzie had fostered a group, including David Edge, Martin Fransman2 and Frank Bechhofer3, which secured seedcorn funding to create a post of coordinator of social and economic research  on technology, based in the Research Centre for Social Science. Robin Williams was recruited to this post in 1986 and led Edinburgh’s successful bid under a major funding initiative by the UK Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC): the Programme on Information and Communication Technologies (PICT). Its core group was extended to ‘the gang of six’ with the appointment  of Jamie Fleck (like Robin from Aston University Technology Policy Unit) to the Business School.

Edinburgh PICT ran from 1987 – 1995. It formed the core of a strongly interdisciplinary research programme into the social shaping of technology – and in particular Information Technology.

The technology studies research community grew rapidly through the 1980s with major awards from science as well as social science funding bodies.  European links – always strong – became increasing dynamic through Edinburgh’s involvement in a European COST Action – A4 on the social shaping of technology – which provided a platform for many awards under European framework programmes.

In the immediate aftermath of PICT, a number of more or less long-lived specialist groupings emerged such as Martin Fransman’s Institute for Japanese-European Technology Studies (JETS) in Economic and Alfonso Molina’s Technology Management programme in the Business School Innovation and Entrepreneurship group. Consequently, scholarly capacity was distributed across a number of specialist centres.

The Institute for the Study of Science, Technology and Innovation

A key strategic development was the formation in 2000 of the Institute for the Study of Science, Technology and Innovation (ISSTI). This initially brought togeter these specialist centres, SSU, Sociology and the technology studies programme based in RCSS. ISSTI was coordinated by Robin Williams and hosted within RCSS.

Specialisation has benefits but also brings risks of fragmentation of intellectual effort and duplication of effort.  By weaving these groups into a dense framework of collaborations, ISSTI worked to ensure intellectual cross-fertilisation and share the costs of support for the development, conduct and dissemination of research.

 

Figure 3: Science, Technology and Innovation Studies: Interdisciplinary Engagements across The University of Edinburgh Courtesy of R. Williams
Figure 3: Science, Technology and Innovation Studies: Interdisciplinary Engagements across The University of Edinburgh
Courtesy of R. Williams

 

ISSTI’s mission was to present Edinburgh’s work more effectively to external audiences (funding bodies, policymakers, private and public stakeholders) and above all to promote interdisciplinary research.  Aided by a flow of external research funding awards collaboration was extended right across the university. Figure 3 seeks to map some of these engagements.

A distinctive model for Edinburgh research

A distinctive model for Edinburgh research has emerged over recent decades. At its core is an emphasis, building upon the SSU tradition, on work that is empirically detailed and conceptually innovative. The continual engagement with new frontiers – empirically and conceptually – brings a sense of excitement, as exemplified in recent years by Donald MacKenzie’s adventurous intellectual journeys.

Our work has benefitted from The University of Edinburgh’s strengths in Science, Engineering, Medicine and beyond. The confident approach of leading practitioners to their own subjects of study facilitated cross-disciplinary dialogue (supported by Edinburgh’s distinctive collegiate ethos and University policies that strongly favoured interdisciplinarity). Particularly close collaboration was established over the last three decades with Stuart Anderson, Rob Proctor and other colleagues from Informatics in developing a profoundly sociotechnical understanding of how the design and implementation of computer-based systems could create solutions that were more dependable and better matched to user requirements.

Research extended into other areas, with major strands of work on energy,  environmental sustainability and life science innovation.

Fig. 4: Donald MacKenzie welcomes alumni and former colleagues to the Science Studies Unit 50th Anniversary Gala Courtesy of Anna Kuslits
Fig. 4: Donald MacKenzie welcomes alumni and former colleagues to the Science Studies Unit 50th Anniversary Gala
Courtesy of Anna Kuslits

 

Much of this work also involved new and closer kinds of engagement with policy and wider publics. In 1998, Robin Williams and Joyce Tait secured a Research Development Grant from the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council to establish the Scottish Universities Policy Research and Advice Network: Science, Technology and the Environment. This supported the expansion of Edinburgh research and stakeholder engagement into innovation in the life sciences (e.g. in medicine and agriculture). This paved the way for a successful bid by Tait, Williams, Wield and others for an ESRC Centre for Social and Economic Research on Innovation in Genomics (2000 – 2012). The Innogen centre continues after the cessation of ESRC core funding with a focus on innovation generation in the life sciences.

Maintaining a vibrant research community 

A complex ferment has emerged of different kinds of work – ranging from traditional sole scholarship to more collective policy-oriented projects in which STS researchers collaborate with domain specialists and stakeholders. We have been able to foster a vibrant research community through a diverse research ecology of differently configured projects interacting together.

Growth based on external income poses particular challenges for investigators and especially research staff. There are acute pressures with policy-oriented research to meet the needs of government sponsors and innovation communities. Moreover research is shaped by a highly turbulent and increasingly competitive funding context that makes it difficult to develop expertise and reputation in a planful manner. Members of the Edinburgh community have had to learn how to play a ‘multi-level game’ – applying our own analyses of the challenges of interdisciplinary research and policy engagement to our own practice. Researchers, individually or in small groups, are encouraged to consider how meeting stakeholder needs can be combined with addressing personal scholarly goals in terms of building their substantive knowledge base, elaborating underlying conceptual frames and developing methodological skills, as well as advancing their reputation and personal publication record. This may, for example, involve building longer-term programmes of enquiry around a succession of shorter-term awards.

Though much of our work has emphasised engagement with policymakers and wider publics, Edinburgh researchers proactively discuss ways to avoid being cast into particular presumed roles by policymakers or practitioners.

A distinctively collegiate culture has been fostered over the years. Colleagues from different traditions are encouraged to join the weekly coffee meetings. In these and other informal spaces colleagues can identify and explore synergies between different analytical traditions and streams of research. As the various specialist nodes have grown, ISSTI has evolved into a network of research networks allowing specialisation around particular agendas to be coupled with benefits of scale and of scope.

To counter tendencies to fragment between different domains of study and analytical traditions – a key part of our intellectual life is the annual ISSTI retreat where 60 or so colleagues come together for 2 – 3 days – removed from the day-to-day grind of teaching and administration. The retreat involves external keynotes to inspire the community with new ideas; sessions designed to explore common interests and cross-fertilise between the huge array of research under way. These also serve to induce new colleagues and involve them in our distinctive collaborative culture and styles of work.

Wide ranging research engagements

Over the last decade Edinburgh colleagues have managed to establish sustained social science and interdisciplinary research engagements across a very wide range of areas. These include:

  • Social informatics –  close collaboration between STIS, Informatics, Business School  to understand the sociotechnical character and implications of the ICTs–with a closely linked Interdisciplinary Research Group in e-health convened by Claudia Pagliari. Recently this work is applying STS perspectives to understanding and informing the growth of data science.
  • Synthetic biology – STIS scholars like Jane Calvert have developed a close collaboration with synbio researchers.  Rather than becoming cast into traditional roles – for example as the people who address risk governance and innovation – we have sought a more open-ended exploration, working with scientists and also with artists, on what it means to engineer life.
  • Collaborations with Law – our involvement in the Scottish Centre for Intellectual Property and Technology Law led by Burkhard Schafer in Law led to our participation in the AHRC Centre for Copyright and New Business Models in the Creative Industries: (CREATe).
  • Life Sciences – Gill Haddow collaborated with Graeme Laurie and Shawn Harmon to establish the Mason Institute: an interdisciplinary network aimed at investigating the ethical, legal, social and political issues at the interface between medicine, life sciences and the law, particularly in relation to biomedical research and innovation.
  • History of Medicine – the continued importance of historical studies at Edinburgh, also to deepen the understanding of contemporary work, is reflected in recent successes by Miguel Garcia-Sancho and Steve Sturdy in securing funding for the History of Medicine.
  • Science, Knowledge and Policy – Steve Yearley is working with colleagues from Politics in SKAPE – centre for Science, Knowledge and Policy to explore processes of knowledge production, translation and use involved in the development and implementation of policy.

Achieving sustained growth in a challenging environment

Edinburgh scholars have sustained a high level of external research funding. Our continued success has been facilitated by public research policies that have favoured interdisciplinary and collaborative research. This has opened up opportunities to secure research funding from i.a. the Engineering and Physical Science Research Council and the Royal Academy of Engineering as well as ESRC and also to secure funding under EU framework programmes as well as from the European Research Council.

Research funding however provides a rather unstable base for growth in capacity. STS has been seeking ways to leverage strengths in research and teaching to substantially expand our community.

We have managed to take advantage of UK Higher Education policies. In particular since 1996, Research Assessment Exercises (RAE) that measures research excellence and rewards work of international impact. STS has found a welcoming home in Sociology at Edinburgh and nationally; work is returned within the sociology panel in the RAE and its successor the Research Excellence Framework. And Edinburgh STS scholars brought in significant Research Quality income.

Perhaps in parallel with this, the University of Edinburgh has been restructuring. Its previously successful model of supporting small experimental units, was seen as less able to achieve quality and international recognition. From 2000 the university strategy revolved around creating larger units. This came shortly after the failure of the attempt by SSU to establish its status as department within the Faculty of Science. This was a period of attrition – particularly after the retirement and tragic death of David Edge. Staffing levels fell as the turnover of core staff did not always secure replacement.

Across the University small departments in cognate fields were brought together in large multidisciplinary schools. SSU and RCSS became classified as Units within Sociology subject group in the newly formed School of Social and Political Science. To some, things looked bleak. However, these developments also saw a shift in the university’s resource governance systems that held the seeds of renascence. The new planning system in the University of Edinburgh allowed operational units to track income accruing from all sources – from undergraduate and postgraduate teaching, from research income, from the excellence and impact of research outputs. This had the paradoxical outcome of revealing SSU and RCSS as both generating substantial surpluses.

Though some objected that the new arrangements subjected operating units to market pressures, we realised that this exigency created scope to make new appointments for those able to project new income streams –in particular from postgraduate offerings. These formalised resource allocation criteria made us less dependent on diplomatic engagements with senior university decision-makers to advance the claims of STS in competition with established disciplines.

RCSS under the PICT programme had established one of the UK’s first doctoral programmes (the Doctoral Programme of Socio-Economic Research on Technology), convened by Wendy Faulkner. This post had, for administrative convenience, been located in SSU. Its success rejuvenated the SSU’s Doctoral Programme. The two programmes grew in tandem, and it became evident that doctoral students from SSU and RCSS could not readily be distinguished. Building on courses launched for the doctoral training programmes, a modular array of MSc offerings gradually developed. These developments encouraged increasing interaction between RCSS and SSU, despite their different histories and cultures.

The two centres had complementary strengths. RCSS brought in substantial research income and wider engagements, while the SSU survey courses, delivered to large numbers of science students, were suddenly revealed to be highly profitable as they received a higher level of government support than social science students.

The Science, Technology and Innovation Studies (STIS) ‘subject group’

Robin Williams worked with John Henry, who had taken over as SSU Director and Stewart Russell4, RCSS Deputy Director, to explore the benefits of a closer relationship. The first move was the co-location of SSU in Chisholm House, adjacent to RCSS in Old Surgeons Hall. This facilitated intellectual integration.

Our PhD students were also co-located. They have thrived on close interaction with each other and with academic staff. With increasing numbers, research students have become important part of our lively culture: offering mutual support, a strong sense of shared identity. Their enthusiastic support underpins a range of activities including growing use of social media, and, most recently, our own Youtube channel with a growing library of video recordings of workshops and ISSTI retreat presentations.

Eventually RCSS and SSU merged in 2008 to constitute the Science, Technology and Innovation Studies (STIS) ‘subject group’ within the School of Social and Political Science. This new status has enabled a more planful approach to career planning and capacity development – and in particular a strategy for growth based on new teaching development. We have sought to overcome the dichotomy in many UK universities between research fellows and conventional lecturers by creating research intensive lectureships supported by high levels of research income. STIS has a rotating headship. Its founding Head of Subject, Robin Williams was replaced by Steve Study and then Cathie Lyall, who is the current head. Today STIS has over 40 staff and a similar number of PhD students. STIS is the core, but only accounts for about half, of our total community of ISSTI scholars across the University of Edinburgh. This dual identity may seem confusing to outsiders, but is, arguably, key to our success. And by continuing David Edge’s tradition of challenging existing boundaries, building new relationships with colleagues from natural science and engineering, as well as social science and humanities, and by engaging with practitioners, policymakers and diverse publics we look forward to another half century of excitement and growth.

STS by other means?

‘How would STS look like in the future?’ That seemed to be a question many of us asked not only in preparing or organizing but also in taking part in the recent 4S-EASST joint conference in Barcelona: ‘Science and Technology by Other Means: Exploring Collectives, Spaces and Futures’. Prolonging and re-appropriating the conference’s ‘by other means’ motto in presentations, concept work, track titles, or informal jokes, the nearly 2000 participants proved, with great prowess and ingenuity, that this is not only a growing but also a still vibrant and burgeoning field. The many informal meetings, presentations and workshops with regular or ‘alternative’ formats also demonstrated that our field has become a space increasingly triggered and activated by a concern over our collective future: not just as frightened academics facing a job situation without great prospects in a shrinking job market, but also as planetary beings, friends, neighbours, or citizens worried about the somewhat gloomy horizon of our life in common with others.

In her electric keynote talking about the ‘alterlife’ practices of many indigenous communities in the Great Lakes, Murphy did not just make us reflect on our breathing in chemically-loaded spaces. Some of us sensed that something else was also in the air. Something infusing many of us with an air of the ‘otherwise’. Telling us–sometimes surreptitiously but also making itself very palpable–that STS could be undertaken or practised ‘by other means’: not only with a desire to work ‘in, with and alongside’ collectives, but also undertaking many new practices in a variety of other spaces beyond the formal locales of knowledge production. Of course, as Madeleine Akrich warned us in her tour-de-force keynote on patient collectives and their embodied health activism, this more collectivized and spatially diverse ‘by other means’ should not merely direct us to an acritical assumption that anything collective is necessarily better. There are many forms and practices of the collective and we should, indeed, pay strong and dedicated attention to dwelling on the particular ‘politics of collaboration’, such as the ones being articulated, for instance, in scientific societies or associations.

As Isabelle Stengers had beautifully put it elsewhere, and as she summarised in a marvellous detour across the greatest hallmarks of her recent works in the closing keynote, the ‘by other means’ “is not a matter of converting us but of repopulating the devastated desert of our imaginations” (Stengers, 2015: 102)1. In this most daunting of moments, where current forms of academic capitalism and its diverse alliances with Game-of-Thrones-like forms of nepotism are putting our academic–and personal–lives in danger, we need to rethink at great length not only our endeavors as a community of STS-minded scholars, but also the kind of research spaces we would like to populate and bring into existence ‘with and against’ our established forms of institutionalization, so that a more hopeful future for all could be co-articulated.

In the many plans to renew and upgrade the EASST Review, it would be one of our aims to turn this into one of those hospitable spaces. Amongst the many audacious open-source media transformations that our field is suffering affecting the modes of publication of journals and books, the EASST Review would like to occupy a different space, fostering many textual genres ‘by other means’: that literature situated ‘in between’ the conversation and the published paper that would not usually find a home in regular academic journals. But to make it true, we will certainly need your complicity and audacity, to help us reimagine our sections and to discuss and excuse our trials in prototyping a new artefact for our STS community. Will we be able to collectively manage to craft a new line of hope in the horizon of our discipline, perhaps even an STS by other means?

Technosciences of Post/Socialism: Technosciences, materialities and knowledge production in Eastern Europe

The conference held at the public community house and co-operative bar of Gólya in Budapest, between 3-5 September revolved around the role of technosciences in socialism and post-socialism in Eastern Europe.1 The choice of our venue was an alternative to a “high intellectual” site, which hosts a range of cultural events and progressive social movements within a highly gentrified post-socialist urban area, provided an engaging environment and contributed well to encouraging more relaxed and intensive conversations.2 Participants gathered from a very wide geographical and thematic field, from post-Yugoslavia countries to Azerbaijan, with particularly high participation of Polish speakers, apart from Hungarians. The organizers strove to extend the regional scope of Eastern Europe, to encourage reflections upon the comparative and global aspects of technoscientific endeavours. The keynote was held by Johanna Bockman (George Mason University), author of the book Markets in the Name of Socialism: The Left-Wing Origins of Neoliberalism (2011) (a video of the keynote speech is available on the conference website.). She was joined by panel discussants and session chairs Karl Hall (Central European University), Martha Lampland (San Diego University), Tereza Stöckelová (Czech Academy) and Andrzej W. Nowak (Adam Mickiewicz University), and also by our guest discussant Attila Melegh who represented Karl Polányi Research Center for Global Social Studies (Corvinus University, Budapest).

The aim of our event was to highlight issues considered by its participants as rarely present in the forefront of contemporary Science and Technology Studies. Despite the widespread and growing popularity of the field, STS have remained remarkably silent on the plethora of experiences offered by the former socialist bloc in connection to technoscience. On the other hand, various approaches in the social sciences (e.g. political economy, post-colonialism) focusing on Eastern Europe have often treated knowledge production and technology in relatively underconceptualised and sometimes even quite instrumental terms. Connecting these approaches to the rich conceptual apparatus and instructive empirical studies in STS, with the aim to contribute to our understandings of post/socialist technosciences, materialities and knowledge production remains an important theoretical challenge. In addition, empirical studies from the Eastern European region may further extend the conceptual framework of STS toward alternative re-conceptualisations of the “macro,” the “global,” the “political” or the “economy.”

 

Our venue: the public community house and co-operative bar of Gólya (Budapest)
Our venue: the public community house and co-operative bar of Gólya (Budapest)

 

 

Approaching technosciences, materialities and knowledge production in post/socialism

The conference title already hinted two initial points of critical departure: first temporality, then spatiality. On the one hand, the slash in “post/socialism” was deliberately used to underline the constructed nature of chronology and the uneasy historical ruptures or continuities between “pre-socialism,” “socialism,” and “post-socialism” (see e.g. Bockman and Eyal 2002; Lampland 2011; Bockman 2011). On the other hand, the title also aimed to point out both the geographical relativity and the global embeddedness or interconnectivity of “socialisms” and “capitalisms,” while bearing sensitivity to different geographical scales connecting “micro” and “macro” perspectives. Moreover, the plurality of technosciences refers to the spatio-temporal multiplicity of practices, experiences, materialities, modernities and developmental trajectories in “post/socialist” societies. There was wide agreement among conference participants that the liberal critique of “socialism” as an episode in the homogeneous and linear development of authoritarian modernization or “high modernism”, although opening the ground for comparativity, is conceptually inadequate as an ideal-type “carrier” of interests (in J. C. Scott’s words) to grasp the fine-grained cultural particularities, local structural settings, and the interconnectivities or dependencies between geographically varied “modernist” ambitions (Scott 1998). Also, the historically conditioned level of ideological and theoretical debate concerning “socialism,” “modernism” or “centrally planned economy” is in itself inadequate and should be supplemented or challenged by a focus on the more mundane technoscientific materialities and practices of post/socialism.

Despite the perceived monolithic concept of “socialism” and the “socialist era,” the technological developments, material artefacts, infrastructures and built environments created and bore different timescapes, and manifested in both utopian projects and mundane objects. The aim of the first, introductory panel, Post/socialism from the perspective of technoscience was to discover in what ways socialist societies were assembled through various technologies and materialities with different spatio-temporal legacies, and how did these change bodies, subjectivities and affective temporalities? Consequently, sessions revolved around how the everyday experiences and practices of technologies during post/socialism can change our understanding of hybridity, and the intertwined and dialectical relations between the material and immaterial, the human and non-human? Were there any specifically “socialist” regimes of knowledge production in Eastern Europe, and in what ways can the continuities or ruptures of epistemological endeavours and technopolitics change our understandings of academia, political governance, and everyday lives after socialism?

 

Opening up post/socialism for a political economy of technosciences

A body of research has shown that the often essentialized black-boxes of “socialism” and “capitalism,” or “East” and “West” should be contested and opened up for alternative re-conceptualizations (Frank 1991; Verdery 1996; Chakrabarty 2000; Chari and Verdery 2009). One of the main agendas of our panel discussions was to draw on recent insights of global and transnational history in order to counter the internalism and “methodological nationalism” of isolated case studies, which departure from essential traits of the “socialist system” or its country-specific variations when accounting for Eastern European production of knowledge, technology and material infrastructures (Wimmer and Schiller 2002). Many critics have also turned to postcolonial theory to point out that the rather closed and sometimes provincial concept of “socialism”, often treated in a Derridean logocentric binary as the Oriental “Other” of the West, should be situated in different local practices and trajectories, and be elucidated in comparative and global relations (Hann et al. 2002; Outhwaite and Ray 2005; Melegh 2006; Stenning and Hörschelmann 2008; Silova 2010; Cervinkova 2012). Behind the historically constructed conceptual facade of “socialism”, not only is the issue of plural “socialisms” in question, but also the ways of understanding the more delicate flows, the trials and translation effects constituting the technoscientific assemblages of different actor interests and the actor-networks which had produced these “socialisms” across and beyond the “East-West” divide.

However, there seems to be a lack of popularity within STS to reach toward contemporary political economic approaches in understanding technoscience (Birch 2013).1 Apart from previously established micro-ethnographical research in STS on how the “economy,” the “market,” or “value” is constructed (exemplified by e.g. Callon 1998; MacKenzie 2009), in recent years there has developed a body of research signalling concerns for theorizing the political economy of technosciences in a more wider scale (see e.g. Mitchell 2011; Lave et al. 2010; Mirowski and Sent 2002, 2008). Following from the above, the traced networks and relational processes producing “post/socialism” could also be contextualised historically along long-term (longue dureé) economic cycles, and the globally uneven circulations and relations of exchange in knowledge and technology (Tulbure 2009; Gille 2010). Thus Eastern European state-socialist ambitions and efforts toward “convergence” or “transition” can be conceived as a series of centralised top-down politics and policies of governance developed in a semi-peripheral structural setting, being deeply integrated into the capitalist world-system (see e.g. Braudel 1967; Wallerstein 1976; Frank 1977; Chase-Dunn 1980). Our conference acknowledged that the production of knowledge, technology and material infrastructures cannot be fully understood without taking into account the global divisions of labour or the specific material and epistemological positions in the hierarchy of the world-system, according to which local elites and societies produce them. One of the conclusions of the conference was that the term “semi-periphery” might be a more useful term than the region-specific and spatially locked “Eastern Europe” (or similar categories) in understanding these political economic dynamics, and could offer a more transparent and analytically enlightening framework for both comparative analyses and emancipative political agendas.

These insights might lead us not only into acknowledging the relational and networked nature of post/socialist technosciences, materialities and knowledge production, but also into accepting the need for methodologies that can situate the heterogeneous constellations of assemblages and actor-networks in structurally conditioned power relations and dialectically reproduced epistemological positions. Following from the tension of this seemingly structuralist/post-structuralist dichotomy, the organizers proposed three further questions for discussion. In what ways can the monolithic concepts of “socialism” or “post-socialism” in Eastern Europe be deconstructed geographically, to overcome methodological nationalism in a more globalized perspective? Extending the experiences of the first panel, how do our historical and geographical understandings of Eastern European “socialism” change by considering the continuities and ruptures in technology, knowledge production and material-infrastructural legacies throughout pre/post/socialism? And finally, how were then local technopolitical and developmental strategies of semi-peripheral Eastern European technocratic groups embedded into the wider political economic relations of the world-system?

The second discussion panel, Technoscience in the global semi-periphery elaborated precisely on the above theoretical issues, while the third, Studying science and technology in Eastern Europe continued this line to focus on more specific methodological challenges that should be taken into consideration when studying technosciences in the Eastern European semi-periphery. Participants exchanged ideas on their own research designs and empirical experiences, and reflected upon their positions and motivations in producing local knowledge connected to STS. Here it should be added that one of the sessions revolved around the historical conceptualization of technosciences, and more specifically, the origins or varied emergence of STS as a field in post/socialist countries. This issue was exemplified well by Ivana Damnjanović’s paper on the journal Praxis published from 1963–1974 in Yugoslavia, which although developed Marxist and Weberian foundations for the study of technology, later faded out largely due to recession and civil war in the 1980s. One can ponder why STS became generally neglected or in some exceptional cases established in local centres of the region. This is a critical issue, which has mostly been neglected in the field of STS. While the mainstream post-WWII history of technoscience tends to follow neo-institutionalist or neo-evolutionist grand-narratives of the global centre (“military-industrial complex,” “World War II regime,” “Cold War regime,” “mode 2 science,” “post-academic science,” “big science,” “triple helix,” “commercial science,” etc.), alternative developments are generally considered only as recipients of diffusion or belated “catching-up” attempts in the successive stages of modernization, without any reflections on local and peripheral contexts, transnational connections and dependent relations (Pickering 1995; Galison and Hevly 1992; Nowotny et al. 2001; Ziman 2000; Sent 2013; Etzkowitz 1993, 2002; Solovey and Cravens 2012). In the fourth and last panel, participants discussed in what ways practicing post/socialist STS might be different from that in the “West.” It was made clear that they often face similar problems in academia, such as lack of funding or institutional possibilities, and an underdeveloped STS field. From the perspective of EASST it was worthwhile to reflect upon why these uneven relations exist or are maintained, and how can they be countered in light of historical experiences.

 

Conference sessions

Sessions included a range of topics, such as subjectivities and material infrastructures, the technopolitics of nature, the role of engineers and entrepreneurs, objectivity and quantification across East and West, the global circulation of high-tech, and the internationalization of technocracies. Adrian Deoanca’s case study of the Romanian rail reform discovered the relations between the material and immaterial, showing that actor-network approaches cannot capture everyday affective realities, like the temporal performance of rail infrastructures, or the public experience of the socialist state as the provider of modernity with its ideology of visible infrastructures (in contrast to the West). Ágnes Gagyi extended this dichotomy to demonstrate how local social movements in Hungary and Romania emerged under global pressures in the two countries’ modes of world economic integration after the 1973 oil crisis, connected to the import of anti-pollution technology and the lack of hard currency.

 

Karl Hall (CEU) chairing one of the paper sessions
Karl Hall (CEU) chairing one of the paper sessions

 

Some contributions showed great potential for comparative analyses, for example about nuclear and antinuclear movements (Márton Fabók, Sergiu Novac), or the “socialist” computer industry.2 The participants’ impression was that while there are studies about some of these topics, they are usually not approached from a STS perspective. Several papers touched upon how scientist and engineer cultures bore prestige in socialist societies, and the ways the rhetoric of becoming technological nations during socialism was constructed in light of developmental strategies. Leyla Safyutdinova’s paper showed that as post-Soviet Azerbaijan shifted into a resource-based development that was dependent on foreign technology, engineers became “button-pushers” and alienated from the full process of technology development. Zinaida Vasilyeva’s case study elucidated the alternative places of modernity and development in the hybrid terms of the “Soviet entrepreneur” and the state-sponsored innovation “garages” of the NTTM movement for training young engineers (nauchno-tekhnicheskoe tvorchestvo molodezhi). Semi-peripheral, dependent development trajectories were also exemplified by the case of hacking collectives in Poland, Germany and the Czech Republic presented by Marcin Zaród, or by the development of the knowledge economy in Bulgaria addressed by Tina Schivatcheva.

Several papers, such as by Magdalena Góralska, Sergiu Novac and Zinaida Vasilyeva offered insight into the practices of translating practical skills, professional expertise and knowledge or engineering cultures into competitive Western settings. Sergiu’s paper on the nuclear plant in Greifswald (GDR) showed how German engineers developed their expertise, “learning by doing” independently from Soviet assistance. Magdalena argued from her ethnographic research that the post-socialist modernization of agriculture in Poland and the debate on GMOs in 2011 should be interpreted in light of both Soviet heritage and Euro-globalization. An interesting session dealt with how the global discourse of statistical data and quantitative methods were conceptualized, circulated and translated between East and West in the Cold War era. Zoltán Ginelli showed how mathematics was legitimated as a “neutral” field of global discourse, and thus quantitative-rationalist theories of spatial planning were circulated from the USA into the USSR and Eastern Europe by technocratic experts in an era of global economic upturn and consequent rapproachment in the 1960s. András Pinkasz touched upon the same space and era, showing how the difference of the “socialist” from the “capitalist” statistical system was neither connected to immanent characteristics of “socialism,” but to the priority of a “catching-up” industrialization strategy embedded in world-systemic relations, furthered by introducing “capitalist” methods in the 1960s. Similarly, Narcis Tulbure explored data-poor socialist states in Eastern Europe, identifying Romania’s distinct socialist regime of data production through emerging technologies and forms of ideological interventions. These case studies, including Róbert Balogh’s paper on the politics of Sovietized science in the botanical garden of Kámon in Hungary, clearly underlined the need for a transnational and global perspective on the understanding of technoscientific regimes and circulations in and beyond Eastern Europe.

 

Against technoscience?

The provocative keynote speech of Johanna Bockman entitled Against Technoscience, opened with the general question: what is technoscience? She highlighted that although it is about the co-production of knowledge and science (e.g. nuclear physics and nuclear society or subject, or reproductive technology and reproductive subject), but it often carries negative connotations, either related to the market logics and entrepreneurial individual of neoliberalism, or economics and governmentality (Foucauldian biopolitics), or technopolitics and hegemony. This ignites the concern, also debated in the discussion, whether the experience of socialist technosciences is to raise caution about all-transformative visions or to open novel ways to think about utopian alternatives? Were socialist technosciences liberating? Or in what sense did they follow local pragmatic goals? Although much of STS follows Latour and others in looking at technoscience as a tool of understanding, feminists have called for positive, liberating forms of technoscience. It thus remains an important issue how people can intervene in technoscientific projects, whether being elite-driven sciences, authoritarian nuclear physics, conservative and elitist Cold War mentality, etc. Johanna Bockman also disagreed with her previous article (Bockman and Eyal 2002) in that socialist and capitalist technosciences may share certain characteristics, such as being atomizing, individualistic, top-down etc., because the simultaneous development of neoliberalism in Eastern Europe and the Western world cannot be universalized. Her title here referred to thinking about people who are against technoscience in order to create a different world that is not elitist and technocratic, or which might become a different form of socialist technoscience.

According to Bockman, this latter alternative can be captured both by Karl Polányi’s article on “Socialist Accounting” (1922), and by the more global agenda of the Non-Aligned Movement. In the first case, Polányi drew on a popular contemporary idea by Otto Neurath, that the natural economy could be planned, and true natural prices and costs could be known. Polányi’s idea of calculating prices through democracy was part of an indigenous knowledge produced in the 1920s of Red Vienna. In the second case, the representatives of the Non-Aligned Movement in the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) after its establishment in the mid-1960s, in somewhat utopian manner, were hoping to alter redistribution in the global economy. In contrast to the views of the IMF, they promoted economic cooperation between developing countries, global structural adjustment, the redistribution of the means of production, multilateral universalism, in a belief of immediate implementation through the global institutions of the UN. In sum, these were two forms of economic thinking about an alternative of technoscience: Polányi’s socialist world was less elitist and top-down, while UNCTAD’s was a more top-down and elitist world based on a utopian view of egalitarianism. In the discussion, Karl Hall added that early socialist experience and technoscientific optimism was not acknowledged, such as Alexander Bogdanov’s idea of a technoscientific society, which was downplayed against Lenin. Attila Melegh questioned whether the belief in global intervention and planning as means or as a social technique and not as science per se is technoscience at all? Or, if it is technoscience, is it equally repressive, as it supposes to control people in social reproduction and capital accumulation, and the emergence of certain interest groups or elites? The rest of the debate discussed the contrasting realities and normalities of utopianism in socialist technosciences, and the concrete practical and material interests behind their historical emergence. Nevertheless, Bockman’s keynote highlighted a global discussion of technoscientific ideas, and that many of these, like that of structural adjustment, first emerged in the Soviet Union and the “Third World,” and only later developed in the “West.”

 

Discussion after the keynote speech of Johanna Bockman
Discussion after the keynote speech of Johanna Bockman

 

Proceedings

The proceedings of the conference outpaced the initial expectations of the organizers: not only were communication networks and collaborations successfully established, but an edited volume is also in production, including some applicants who had sent in valuable abstracts but could not participate in the event. The already accepted 15 individual papers are divided into five thematic blocks, and the volume includes a discussion section that lends space for the discussants of our conference to share short reflections on the main topics and their individual experiences of studying technosciences in Eastern Europe (for more information on this forthcoming volume, contact the editor, Zoltán Ginelli). As can be seen from the above, EASST provided an important platform for tying together Eastern European nodes of STS scholars, and also gave impetus for future prospects on developing political economic approaches to technoscience.

1 See the special issues of the journals, Spontaneous Generations, “Economic Aspects of Science,” Vol. 7, No. 1; and Social Studies of Science, “STS and Neoliberal Science,” Vol. 40, No. 5.

2 Conference organizer Márton Fabók and speaker Sergiu Novac will convene together with Sonja Schmid a track on Infrastructures of nuclearity: Exploring entangled histories, spaces and futures at the 4S/EASST Conference to be held in Barcelona, 2016 August 31–September 3.

Does History Matter? Techno-sciences and their Historically Informed Policies

This was a one-day workshop in the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens co-organized by the Department of History and Philosophy of Science of the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens and the Centre for Environmental Policy in Imperial College London. It took place on 14 January 2016. The event was coordinated by Stathis Arapostathis, National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, and Peter Pearson, Imperial College London. Funding was secured by the European Association for the Study of Science and Technology (EASST), the EPSRC funded project Realising Transition Pathways, and the project History of Nuclear Energy and Society (HoNESt). The event was based on invited papers and it was attended by 30 scholars in the areas of History of Science and Technology; Science, Technology and Society and Policy and Innovation Studies. More than 100 members of the broader audience and from NGOs attended several of the sessions while the attendance during the final roundtable went beyond 120 people.

The aim was to start a discussion about the role of history and more particularly of the history of techno-sciences in techno-scientific policy making. Emphasis was given on histories of innovations and technologies in the energy sector, environmental innovations and the information and communication technologies. The main questions of the event were: What is or what can be the role of history in public policies relevant to science and technology? What historiographical perspectives are more pertinent to historically informed techno-scientific policies? Can a historian of science and technology have a role in policy and decision making?

Those questions were formulated in the very reflexive context that seems to have influenced the international community of historians. In recent years, historians are seeking to place themselves more centrally in the making of public policies. During the last decade, the extended and dynamic research network History and Policy (http://www.historyandpolicy.org/) has aimed to link historians with politicians, policy makers, policy analysts and journalists. More recently, the book The History Manifesto (CUP, 2014) by Jo Guldi and David Armitage has triggered continuous public discussions about the role of history in public policies of contemporary social, political and economic problems. Beyond this, during the last two decades, historians and sociologists of technology have worked on historically informed policy scenarios and have conducted policy relevant historical research. The new field of Transition Studies emerged through such synergies and approaches (Geels, 2002; Schot and Geels, 2007; Geels,2005; Smith, Stirling and Berkhout, 2005; Bijker, 1999). In this context the workshop aimed to bring together historians of science and technology, sociologists, innovation studies as well as policy analysts, in order to reflect on the role of history in the making of science and technology policies but in the context of the broader dialogue and taking into account existing experiences.

 

The event was structured around three main areas:

1) Infrastructures, Technologies and the Environment;

2) Innovation Transitions, Governance and Path Dependencies

3) Nuclearities, Techno-sciences and Nuclear Policies.

 

Audience of the workshop, photograph by author
Audience of the workshop, photograph by author

 

Furthermore, two roundtables were organized. One roundtable was about the aims and the scope of the research projects that contributed to funding the workshop. The aim was to show how large scale projects mostly in the energy sector promote multidisciplinary research that brings together historians, sociologists, innovation studies scholars and economists as well as legal scholars. The second roundtable and concluding session featured four external commentators who attended the workshop and provided both overall commentary and specific suggestions in relation to how history can be useful for science and technology policy making. These included Yannis Caloghrou, Professor of Innovation Studies in the National Technical University of Athens; Alexandros Kyrtsis, Professor of Sociology and Sociology of Science in the National Kapodistrian University of Athens; Dimitris Ibrahim from Greenpeace and Ioannis Margaris, from the National Technical University of Athens and the HEDNO (Hellenic Electricity Distribution Network Operator). The aim was to have representatives both from epistemic communities different from that of history of science and technology, as well as representatives from NGOs and the industry that could provide the view of stakeholders in science and technology policy making.

In the morning session entitled ‘Infrastructures, Technologies and the Environment’, the papers addressed the construction of environment through technological infrastructures. Vincent Lagendijk advocated a historical approach based on a more symmetrical understanding of the causes and the agendas of the engineers, the state, the municipal authorities as well as the civil society. He argued for more historical sensitivity to the agency of the communities of citizens and infrastructure users in questioning engineering rationality and addressing issues emerged from the logic of civil society. Martin Ivanov provided a policy relevant history of renewable energy sources (RES) and their integration in the energy mix of the Bulgarian regime. He argued that institutional and technological path dependencies as well as the organizational and political culture defined the transition pathway of the energy mix in more sustainable directions. The transition was characterized by strong tensions and the opposition exerted by actors from the coal and nuclear lobbies, the local environmental activists and political engaged communities of citizens, distribution companies and electricity traders. Furthermore, governmental actions and decisions did not facilitate the integration of RES and the entrepreneurial activities of small scale installations. Pressures by the European Union were understood as windows of opportunity by incumbent regime actors to promote their interests, yet innovative initiatives were characterized and influenced by political corruption. Whereas Ivanov argued for the importance of institutions, governance patterns and culture in the making of energy regimes, the paper by Aristotle Tympas and Vassiliki Aggelopoulou stressed the importance of material histories in the making of policies and transitions to a more sustainable future. They argued that it is important to understand that technologies are not neutral and that different technologies are the material embodiments of different socio-political orders. Thus small scale wind parks with wind turbines of reduced height and width organized a different sociopolitical regime from the one organized around a large scale, colossal wind farms with gigantic wind turbines. While the first coproduced the energy regime for a regional or community level, the other coproduced patterns of energy demand that maintained unsustainable urban consumption. So when decisions are to be made, it is important to link technologies with the broader political priorities and with appropriate governance patterns.

 

Presentation during workshop, photograph by author
Presentation during workshop, photograph by author

 

The second morning section was dedicated to technological transitions and path dependencies both at the governance and technological level. Yannis Fotopoulos and colleagues argued that the natural gas transition in Greece showed that the political priorities at the transnational, national and local level defined the governance patterns and thus the character of the transition, the allocation of resources, skills and expertise(s). Fotopoulos et al. stressed that governing a transition really matters in the making of the network and the construction of organizational and material configurations of a system. In this context they pointed out the role of experts in visioning and framing energy problems and in directing policies by translating and inscribing them in the agenda of state and government actors.   Furthermore, Fotopoulos et al. argued that in the case of contemporary Greece and in the context of financial crisis transnational actors should be viewed as important players in the transition rather than as actors who only exercised pressures on the national actors.   While Fotopoulos et al. studied the structural characteristics of a specific case study, Peter Pearson showed how history and incumbents matter in shaping structural regime changes and effecting sociotechnical transitions with an emphasis on low carbon transitions. He was interested in theorizing and assessing the agency of the actors and their role in promoting, directing or reacting to a transition. He argued that incumbent technologies as well as organizations can be important influences, negative or positive, on the success of low carbon technologies and policies. Pearson showed that transitions can be conducted and realized in an effective way even under tight schedule, short time scale, and within a context of strong landscape pressures. The issue at stake is to mobilize human and financial capital at state and corporate level as well as to exercise the regulatory power to facilitate the technological change and to facilitate the effective interaction between actors. This is a dimension stressed by Ivan Tchalakov too. He argued that the recent history of information and communication technologies and digital infrastructures in Bulgaria showed that governing successful transitions necessitated choices over technologies, allocation of expertise and skills, the social legitimization through acts of legislative measures and acts of persuasion but also the synergy of local private concerns with civil society initiatives. He reconstructed the sociotechnical networks that were shaped in the struggle against the established state monopoly. The passage from the communist to the liberalization period involved intensive attempts by the private internet service providers to change legislation. Pressures from those actors were strong in order to legitimize a logic of competition. Furthermore, he argued that the low taxes and the high speed of the Bulgarian internet created the setting for entrepreneurial activity of international private interests. This is a condition that has been deemed as necessary for the continuation of the pace and the character of the transition but also of the integration of internet in the developmental patterns of Bulgaria.

In the afternoon session entitled ‘Nuclearities, Techno-sciences and Nuclear Policies’ the papers attempted to reconstruct the stories of the national nuclear programmes of Finland, Bulgaria and Greece from a perspective that could be informative to current trends in policy making. Karl Erik Michelsen addressed the problem of the limits of national self-determination in energy policy. His starting point was the Finnish experience and he argued that small independent nations, like Finland, have only limited self-determination when it comes to energy policy. The country’s struggle to develop a sovereign and independent energy policy had been unequal since the strong pressures and enforcement by the Soviet Union to use Soviet technology, expertise and uranium for the first nuclear power station in the country, which meant that Finland was then locked into a specific technological regime and technologically dependent on the Soviet Union. Dependence continued even for subsequent nuclear power stations despite the fact that they were built with western technology provided by Asea Atom and Westinghouse respectively. The country’s lock in nuclear power made it very difficult both politically and technologically to move away from this regime during the early years of the 21st century. In a context of market liberalization, the ownership of the new nuclear power plant by Russian interests triggered political contestation and conflict while it deepened the country’s technological dependence. The issue of technological dependence was raised in the paper by Arapostathis and Tympas on the story of the cancelled nuclear programme of Greece. The Greek story showed that a nuclear power station was an endemically political project in which experts played an important role in the process of framing the solutions to energy problems. They were key actors inscribing the integration of nuclear power plant not only in the energy mix but also in legitimizing the political priorities of democratic or fascist governments. They showed that the nuclear power plant in Greece was cancelled due to the critical event of a strong earthquake but also to the delegitimization and the politicization of the project that had been achieved by the anti-nuclear movement. Finally, they provided a new understanding of the ‘nuclearity’ of Greece by stressing the fact that while the country was cancelling the nuclear plant it established an interconnection with Bulgaria to purchase electric power produced by the Bulgarian nuclear power plant just kilometers from the north border of the country. The issue of technological dependence and network interconnections was raised by Ivaylo Hristov too. He presented a paper on the transition of the Bulgarian nuclear energy sector from the Cold War to the Liberalization and the period of Bulgaria’s integration in the European Union. Hristov argued that during the Cold War the technological dependency from Russia created the political and social legitimacy of a dominant ideology in which nuclear power was considered as critical infrastructure for the model of the state’s political economy. The collapse of the communist regimes destabilized the energy regime since it provided the political space and the legitimacy of actors from the environmental and anti-nuclear movement to react and question certainties and hegemonies in the energy policy of the country, while at the same time legitimized transnational pressures by the European Union that urged for the decommissioning of the nuclear reactors.

Each session was followed by extensive discussions that culminated with the final roundtable and the reflections by the commentators and the audience. In concluding we can summarize the discussion by stressing four main points that emerged from the papers and the discussions: a) understanding path dependencies is important in policy making since they shape the dynamic of actors, innovation networks and institutions. Only by mapping the sociotechnical networks involved, can a more interventionist agenda follow and effect changes; b) technologies are materialities inscribe and co-produce social order, the developmental paradigm and patterns of innovation. Thus, historically reconstructing the co-production process can inform public policies and public debates in spaces of deliberation. This is particularly important in order to secure symmetry in the engagement of different actors in the deliberation, as well as the condition for overcoming social inequalities in the design and distribution of innovations; c) studying the histories of transnational network interconnections and technological dependencies can help us to understand current technology policies and inform debates about the appropriate directions of contemporary transitions; and d) historical studies at micro and meso levels of analysis require a broader vision to address structural dimensions of sociotechnical networks and thus inform contemporary policies in an effective and efficient way.

The workshop concluded in optimistic and enthusiastic spirit about the linkages and synergies between the history of techno-sciences and innovations and public policies while discussions continued over a dinner in a historic traditional tavern in Plaka the oldest section of the city of Athens.

Gedankensprüngeausstellung

“Let’s pause for a while, follow a procedure and search for different sensors that could allow us to recalibrate our detectors, our instruments, to feel anew where we are and where we might wish to go. 

No guarantee, of course: this is an experiment, a thought experiment, a Gedankenausstellung.” 

(Field book, p. 1)

 

»reset modernity!«, photograph by Alexa Faerber
»reset modernity!«, photograph by Alexa Faerber

 

 

That voice is familiar. It appears in many texts and lectures, navigating between directly calling on the reader – never without a sense of humour, but seriously upset about the way we continue to act out modernity – and considerately trying out new ideas and forms of de-modernisation. In short: “r-M!”

“Gedankenausstellung” is one of these ideas, coined by Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel, who since their “Making Things Public” (2005), have tried to open up new ways of relating to the world through the mode of the discursive exhibition. In “reset Modernity!” it signals the theoretical work to be done by the visitors once they have gone through the six “procedures” that structure the exhibition. The “field book” is another:

“As the name ‘field book’ indicates, you are invited to do a bit of research yourself.” 

(Field book, p. 2).

 

»reset modernity!«, photograph by Alexa Faerber
»reset modernity!«, photograph by Alexa Faerber

 

As an impatient visitor of exhibitions, but an anthropologist passionate about analysing knowledge in the mode of the exhibition, I was most curious about the making of “reset Modernity!” when I visited it on its opening weekend. Would space be reserved for reflection on how this Gedankenausstellung became an Ausstellung? And if so, what kind of spatial arrangement could express the localising qualities of this very representational work?

As it turns out, there was. Firstly in the catalogue, which was too heavy to carry, and will be a source for future reading. Here, a seventh procedure with the title “In search of a diplomatic middle ground” had been added. The chapter provides a visual and textual documentation of the conferences, workshops, symposia and plays that took place in the context of AIME — the ERC-funded research project and network based in Sciences Po’s médialab in Paris. The website, which has been developed as a working tool for the group, contains additional materials, including interviews with Bruno Latour on the question, “What is a Gedankenausstellung?” (http://modesofexistence.org/what-is-a-gedankenausstellung/). When it comes to learning about the making-of process, the photographs of their work sessions are potential sources of information – they show people sitting around tables covered with document folders, bottles of soft drinks and plates of sweets, discussing plans that have been projected on the wall. It features photographs and an audio-visual recording of the curators visiting the ZKM in 2015, bent over plans and examining the future exhibition space. It also shows the “statement of intent”, which prompted the following comment: “It sounds exciting. Stay strong and hold on to your original vision. Alicia Flynn (a year ago)” (http://modesofexistence.org/statement-of-intent-for-the-aime-exhibition-at-zkm-2016/)

 

»reset modernity!«, photograph by Alexa Faerber
»reset modernity!«, photograph by Alexa Faerber

 

»reset modernity!«, photograph by Alexa Faerber
»reset modernity!«, photograph by Alexa Faerber

Did they stay strong? And was that the right approach? (It shouldn’t be, see Latour/Weibel 2007: pp. 94-95) They did keep to their plan, and while the catalogue and website document how the research network took on the risks of interdisciplinary work (intertwining research, debate and theatre with analogue and digital design in different locations and constellations) the exhibition includes traces of their original working practice in the form of “stations” implemented in each procedure. Here, thematically related quotes, notes, images and audio-recordings are provided and loosely arranged on a single white wall. These arrangements are aesthetically reminiscent of the associative Warburgian atlas production – without claiming to be exhaustive.

Quite the opposite: These stations point directly to another, virtual actor — potentially a zettelkasten of the AIME team and its collaborators, which could be a probable source for the arrangements. The looseness of the wall arrangements and the virtual zettelkasten cautiously suggest the existence of selection, but not to the ways in which the selection took place. Which lines were drawn between those artworks and references that became part of the spatially, temporally, financially limited exhibition-project? Which artworks and references made their way into the exhibition while transgressing these lines? And which ones never did become a part of it, despite having the strongest of qualifications1 Since much of the “field book” isn’t a “fieldwork notebook”2, the stations don’t offer these types of insights into the representational work. Given that these processes are always driven by tension and passion – which shape the agency distributed between the actors – these walls have a lightness, they breathe and invite the visitor to do the same.

 

»reset modernity!«, photograph by Alexa Faerber
»reset modernity!«, photograph by Alexa Faerber

 

But do they provide the quiet that, as Bruno Latour mentioned in an interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist (http://modesofexistence.org/what-is-a-gedankenausstellung/, 26:14), is necessary for a reset? The field book proclaims that they are “a sort of workplace … this is where you will find more information and where you can discuss the path of the inquiry” (field book, p. 2). Here something might have been lost between the original vision and its spatialisation.

 

»reset modernity!«, photograph by Alexa Faerber
»reset modernity!«, photograph by Alexa Faerber

 

The very discreteness of this AIME-archive (the table with books at the intersection of three procedures should also be mentioned) is partially the result of the large, all-consuming two-dimensional artworks that surround these stations. Walking through the exhibition, these spectacular images again and again captured my attention: the more-than-realistic, staged photographs of Jeff Wall showing scientific practices; Armin Linke’s photographic work, which seemed to be part of almost every procedure, and simultaneously points to humanity’s intriguing megalomania and smallness and, visible from far away, at the end of the first exhibition hall, the floating walls of film projections in procedure five. The latter, called “Secular at Last”, resonated with the large scale of the other pictures. One work in this procedure is spatially secluded by a triangular installation of screens: “Obama’s Grace” (Lorenza Mondada et al, 2016). Here, the performative force of Barak Obama’s combination of political statement and religious “sound” is disturbingly intensified. An analytical transcript on one of the screens, however, demonstrates the extent to which this intensity stems from both the president and his parish. When standing between these three screens, the need for a way out of modernity’s binding forces could not be more obvious. Time for a Gedankensprung!

Reset Latour!

In press releases and in the impressive catalogue, the new Reset Modernity! exhibition at the Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie (ZKM) in Karlsruhe – (co-)curated by a certain Bruno Latour – is framed as a thought experiment or, in more idiomatic German, a Gedankenausstellung. Having perused through the exhibitions’ 75+ works of various origins and media formats, and thus partaken in the six successive procedures of dis- and reorientation meant to achieve the promised reset, this framing seems to us both highly appropriate and somewhat symptomatic. Appropriate, in the sense that what is being exhibited here, more than photographs and video screens and installation art, is in fact the thoughts of… Bruno Latour. Symptomatic, because in this case as well, German is more precise than English: while thoughts are literally put on display, it seems as if nothing much experimental is happening here. In particular, the detour through other materials seems to make no real difference to how the thoughts unfold themselves.

From start to end, the exhibition looks and feels like a crash course in Latour’s version of science and technology studies (STS). Guided by a field book, we move from laboratory life (a, ‘re-localizing the global’) to the anthropology of techniques (f, ‘innovation not hype’), via more recent interventions aligned to the various modes of existence of the moderns: fictional art (b, ‘without the world or within’), religion (e, ‘secular at last’), morality (c, ‘sharing responsibility’) and politics (d, ‘from lands to disputed territories’). Crashing, indeed, is what modernity is said to be doing, under the weight of ecological crises. Or, to follow the opening video of the show, perhaps the crash has already happened and we are scrambling to face up to its effects? The answer was never entirely clear; just as it was not clear just why modernity needs resetting if, as the curator might say, we were never quite modern in the first place? Perhaps resetting is what happens to critique of ideology, once we stop believing in both critique and ideology?

 

The article’s co-author engages with the thoughts on display, and in the field book, during Reset Modernity!, photograph by author

 

 

With so many interesting ideas flowing around; with such an impressive list of star artists enrolled; and with such a pressing eco-political mandate, Reset Modernity! frankly strikes us as something of a missed opportunity. Not that the show lacks exiting moments, far from it. Strong works of contemporary art, such as those by Simon Starling, Tacita Dean, Thomas Struth and Pierre Huyghe (to name but a few), make it well worth a visit. For anyone familiar with Latour and STS, moreover, the joy of recognition is a palpable one: if you read Reassembling the Social, you will surely enjoy watching Charles and Ray Eames’ promotional video Powers of Ten (and its critical-theatrical deconstruction); and if you follow discussions on the Anthropocene, you will like the enigmatic hybrids of humans and stones conjured by Anne-Sophie Milon and Jan Zalasiewicz (himself a leading geological protagonist). Yet, at the level of curatorial guidance – of which the show has (too) much! – the thoughts on display often curiously falls short of their purported model, i.e. the ground-breaking and thought-provoking writings of… Bruno Latour himself.

Let us give a few examples to illustrate what we mean. During procedure b of the exhibition, the visitor is treated to two striking works by Jeff Wall, the Canadian artist well known for his self-reflexive inquiries into the nature of photographic representation. The choice of artist, of course, is far from coincidental. As many readers of this journal will recognize, Latour has a history of reflecting on one of these works: specifically, Wall’s 1992 photographic rendition of Adrian Walker, Artist, Drawing From a Specimen in a Laboratory in the Department of Anatomy at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver (as the full title reads). In the picture, Walker-the-artist is seen in the laboratory, absorbed in his work of making an anatomical drawing of a detached, mummified limb from a once-living animal. It is a wonderful piece of art, dwelling as it does on the capacity of photography to capture one of those still-rarer moments in scientific practice where artistic competence remains superior in precision to automated inscription.

Latour surely agrees, to a point. As he explains in his brilliant 2005 Spinoza lecture, What is the style of matters of concern?, he is critical of Wall’s gesture: Wall has been blinded, he argues, by the contrivances of this situation, failing to see that its entire aesthetics of matters of fact has been rendered improbable. To his credit, in this 2005 text, Latour re-prints a lengthy response to this interpretation by Wall himself, explaining why it misses what Wall takes to be the key point, to do with the pleasure of all depiction (his own included, of course). Here is the problem, however: at the Reset Modernity! exhibition, this worthwhile exchange is reduced to a mere assertion on the part of the curator. In particular, the other photograph by Wall allows Latour to drive home the point: here, we witness a group of archeologists at work in their field, excavating. Unlike Walker, Latour writes in the field book, scientists “are involved inside what they study”. A nice STS point, for sure. But why do we need Jeff Wall’s photographs in order to make it? Indeed, are we not presented here with a strangely realist, matter-of-factly way of appreciating what is, after all, a highly self-reflexive photographic practice? If scientists are active inside the worlds they study, then what about photographers? Is only STS allowed to determine where the frame starts and stops?

 

 

Elevated view of the exhibition layout, with Milon and Zalasiewicz' The Mystery of Brunaspis enigmatica on the floor, photograph by author
Elevated view of the exhibition layout, with Milon and Zalasiewicz’ The Mystery of Brunaspis enigmatica on the floor, photograph by author

 

A second and related concern arises for us as we start embracing the full diversity of materials on display in the exhibition as a whole: tactile works by world-renowned contemporary artists sit alongside amateur scribblings and installations; videos by Peter Gallison’s STS students stand around the corner from the Eames’ work of design consultancy; a (copy of a) 15th century print by Albrect Dürer shares the space with excerpts from late-20th-century movies. In fact, only the large-size photographs by Armin Linke gives to Reset Modernity! a kind of recurrent visual mark (albeit, we think, a less interesting one than Latour lets on in the catalogue). Such material diversity is of course potentially interesting. It juxtaposes times, spaces, media and genres not usually juxtaposed. It challenges how boundary-work is usually performed in artistic spaces. However, at the curatorial level, nothing much is done with this diversity and its potentials in Reset Modernity!. In fact, and disappointingly, diversity of materials and stylistic genres fails to register anywhere in the thoughts on display, in the (heavy!) narrative being told. It is as if the various thoughts and the various materials, interesting as those registers are, are just not rendered that relevant for each other. Here is a split one would have trusted an STS curator to bridge – especially when that curator has done more than perhaps anyone else to bring to attention the inherent materiality of ideas.

Third and finally, there is the narrative itself, the narrative of what happened to us during the short experience called modernity, and how we might want to reset that experience. Here, as noted, we are treated to a tour around Latour’s universe, slanted towards his more recent concerns: during the show, we move from (ancestral) land to the (modernist) globe; get lost on the way; witness the birth of the environment (out of Nature) and its later morphing into Gaia; only to realize that our imaginary land and utopian globe have both disappeared, leaving us the task of cultivating new careful techniques of attachment to our new and inhospitable umwelt, the Earth. Anyone up to date with Latour’s writings will recognize the (geo-)story. What becomes obvious in this 3-D exhibition version, however, is just hos well Latour’s own wonderful concept of the panorama fits this story of his: we are presented with a 360-degrees full-color projection, with no cracks and fissures, but equally with no visible signs of connection to the world beyond the screen. The panorama, as Latour would say, is nicely suited for preparing its audience, the public, for the collective journey ahead – such, indeed, seems to us the better way of appreciating the Reset Modernity! exhibition. Yet, even the best of panoramas eventually leave you starving for more, for something tangible, connected, entangled, engaged. For the kinds of worlds, in short, which STS is so good at cultivating, and which actor-network theory feeds on, full of gaps and fissures and translations and betrayals.

Few contemporary intellectuals have done more to completely revamp, indeed to seriously reset, all the ingredients of our common world – of science, technology, nature, politics, not to mention the study of their multifarious interrelations, known as STS – than has Bruno Latour. His recent exposition of the modes of existence of the moderns adds new and interesting layers to this already-impressive intellectual edifice, as does his engagement into transdisciplinary dialogues on the fate of our Anthropocene. In the meantime, he has managed to (co-)curate three multi-media art exhibitions, at least one of which (the 2005 Making Things Public) stands as a model for those art-science collaborative endeavors so seriously needed. In light of all this, Reset Modernity! is a parenthesis; not a complete failure, for sure, but neither groundbreaking in any way. Sometimes, resetting your computer is no big deal, just something you do to refresh your extended mind. We suggest a similar procedure here: upon visiting this exhibition, remember to reset Latour (!) and refresh your memory as to just why his thinking matters so much in the first place.

Procedures to deal with modernity without irony

My own interest in this exhibition

Having only witnessed Bruno Latour live in a lecture over two decades ago and having recently (re-)read a large fraction of his work, including his Inquiry into Modes of Existence (2013), I gladly accepted the invitation to take part in the opening event of his exhibition Reset Modernity! My own interest in Latour’s work, including his philosophical work, stems from his combined empirical and theoretical analyses of practices of dealing with uncertainty. Besides having studied Latour’s approach to science and politics (in particular pertaining to global climate change) I was recently triggered by his approach to science and religion (in, e.g., his Rejoicing, 2013). I will here reflect how his exhibition added a useful dimension to the readings I had done before.

 

Executing procedures with more senses

Latour’s approach in his books is already unconventional, for instance by using fictive narrators. In the exhibition, a whole other dimension of the problématique appears, through a variety of media, alongside what can be addressed through the ordinary mode of reading and thinking. During the opening symposium (and in the book accompanying the exhibition) Latour emphasised that in order to be able to deal with the future ‘our individual instruments’ need to be ‘reset’ (from a false modernity) by a sequence of ‘procedures’ that the exhibition carries out with the participants. And to be honest: I took a whole day to dutifully execute all the suggested procedures, using my guidebook and walking through the exhibition and looking carefully and reflecting on what was shown, and indeed got sensitised to several aspects that had escaped my notice from reading his books. This happened already in procedure 1, relocalising the global, when watching the precursors and Latour’s criticism of the film Powers of Ten (Charles and Ray Eames, 1977). I immediately ordered a copy of Kees Boeke’s Cosmic View: The Universe in 40 Jumps (1957). Latour highlights the ‘complete implausibility’ of the moves in Powers of Ten. One should not jump too quickly to the ‘big picture’. Or, as Latour writes, ‘Earth is not visible as long as it is hidden behind the globe’. Of course I was already open to it and quite prepared, but still the exhibition is accessible to a large audience (actually, it is more accessible than some of Latour’s books).

 

No irony

Another observation that Latour made during the opening was that none of the work in his exhibition has any form of irony: none of it is critical in the 20th century modernist sense. And he deemed that to be something positive. According to Latour, you do not want to exit from the successes of modernisation. And indeed the exhibition, although it addresses – among other topics – global problems such as climate change, embodies a pragmatist philosophy of hope. Indeed several pragmatist elements are recognisable in the exhibition: avoidance of dualisms; the flux of experience and of the experienced world; reflexivity; responsibility; creativity and inclusivity. The exhibition hence confirms that Latour’s work refers back to the early phase of pragmatism (that of James and Dewey) combined with a sharp analysis of present day connections.

 

Religion as politics

The least attractive procedure, at least for my own project, was the procedure called ‘secular at last’ focussed on the crossing between politics and religion. The procedure focused on religious film and highlighted the politics of religion. While the crossing of politics and religion is no doubt a problématique of global significance, I had hoped to learn more about Latour’s analyses of science and religion, which he both sees as the result of transformations. In the case of science the interest is in information and representation; in the case of religion the interest is in translation and ‘saving’. In Rejoice, Latour had focused on alterations that happen to people when they utter religious speech and engage (models of) beings that ‘have the peculiar characteristic of bringing persons from remoteness to proximity, from death to life’. I would have liked to see demonstrations of how models of God are used in practice, and how deep uncertainty and ignorance about these models are dealt with and expressed in religious practices. And maybe to explore the crossing with the mode of reference, how science models nature.

 

Gaia

To be honest, I have always been sceptical of references to ‘Gaia’. Especially of the popular reception of the Gaia hypothesis as it was put forward, defended and refined by the inventor and independent scientist James Lovelock (the hypothesis being that biota influence the environment in a way that causes a homeostasis in the face of a changing external forcing). While Lovelock and his supporters have consistently tried to accommodate scientific criticism of the Gaia hypothesis by seemingly getting rid of the metaphysical versions, the attractiveness of the Gaia hypothesis for the general public remained precisely what Lovelock cannot suppress himself to say about Earth: ‘It is most certainly an organism—and alive!’ Latour in this exhibition, however, does not at all allude to these metaphysical versions and is able to take a fresh look at Earth, in a grounded way. I found his visual distinctions between globe and Earth enlightening. And also what he indicated during the opening: speaking about Gaia is not about animism: it is to indicate that there was no modernist deanimation in the first place.