Category Archives: easst review

On (not) feeling virtual vibes: An academic mother’s EASST/4S online conference experience

“I can’t feel the panel.” This is how I summarised my first day at the EASST/4S conference taking place in “virPrague” to my partner. Put frankly, I felt a bit frustrated. I had been looking forward to the conference for quite a long time, excited that it would offer me multiple chances: the chance to share findings from my research in a panel on inequality I had set up together with my colleague Nelius Boshoff from Stellenbosch University, whom I was really looking forward to meet again in Prague; the chance to present myself to the STS community, which I am trying to connect with and make myself belong to. Being a post-doc whose affiliation provides a highly interesting space to carry out science studies, yet is not linked with STS institution-wise, I am tasked to build up my scholarly network somewhat on my own – and the EASST/4S conference promised to be a great opportunity to progress in this regard. As much as I was curious about the research presented at the conference, I was curious about getting to know people personally – and, admittedly, as an academic with care responsibilities, I was also curious about having some days abroad, just for myself, even if it was for work. 

These were my expectations, before COVID-19 changed life substantially. When the organisers announced the conference would not be cancelled but shift into virtual space, I was happy and relieved that the efforts of application had not been in vain, yet also wondering which of my initial expectations would materialise, as ‘face-to-face’ interaction would be mediated by technology. 

‘Locating and timing matters’, also for virtual conferencing   

Now the conference started like this for me: I was waiting for my mum to arrive to look after the children, so that I could eventually finalise my presentation scheduled for day two, while I had also selected ten panels (for day one only) which I deemed highly relevant and thought I shouldn’t miss. The first sessions, then, felt rather odd. I was sitting at my desk at home, with an unstable internet connection, trying to follow talks while hearing my children play outside. This was when I first realised how ‘locating and timing’ mattered – also with regard to participating in a virtual conference. My timing had been bad due to the delay in preparing my talk. And my location made it rather difficult to concentrate.

I found it somewhat hard to switch my mind into a conference mood, and suddenly realised how much it makes a difference to physically ‘be’ somewhere. The presentations I listened to were most interesting; however, I couldn’t ‘feel’ the panel. Over the course of the conference, the informal rule and habit emerged that listeners switched off videos and mics during the talks, and only turned them on for asking a question or making a comment afterwards. This was for good reasons, including to save privacy and bandwidth. However, I perceived a downside to this practice, namely that the reaction of the audience during the talks could hardly been grasped. One could not see facial expressions, hear murmurs or laughter in the room, see people taking notes or sending bodily signs that show their intention to engage in interaction. I realised that active listening is obviously only one of various bodily actions which usually take place when I am in a room with a speaker in front. What it also does at a subconscious level is absorbing the ambiance and the audience – and this is what I was missing.

Physical presence matters for discursive exchange 

How much such bodily perceptions matter for the scientific discourse, albeit in a different context, was broached by a panel organised by Mareike Smolka, Ricky Janssen and Cristian Ghergu from Maastricht University, which dealt with “Affects, emotions, and feelings in data, analysis, and narrative”. In the first of two sessions, Mareike Smolka presented insights from on-going research on the relation between affect and collaborative action in interdisciplinary collaborations carried out together with Erik Fisher (Arizona State University) and Alexandra Hausstein (Karlsruhe Institute of Technology).1 They highlighted how tensions that emerge in interdisciplinary collaborations are as much cognitive as they are bodily felt by providing auto-ethnographic experiences such as the situation when Erik Fisher was challenged by a senior member of a research group he was meant to collaborate with in the context of Socio-Technical Integration Research. The text passage they used for illustration is captured by the screen shot below:

 

Figure 1: Screen shot of Mareike Smolka’s talk “From Affect to Action: Choices in Attending to Disconcertment in Interdisciplinary Collaborations” (with Erik Fisher and Alexandra Hausstein).

 

While I was listening to Mareike reading out this passage loudly, I thought: Yes, this is exactly what is lacking in the virtual conference space – the ability to “detect” and “process” the affective dimension of colleagues’ reactions (these are the terms used by Mareike, Erik, and Alexandra), to feel how their comments resonate with my own questions, assumptions, and interests. In a virtual space where you only see one or two faces on a screen surrounded by black squares with white letters, it is hard to feel the affective dimension of our research – “to move with and be moved by” (Mareike, Erik, and Alexandra citing Myers, 2012: 177) other bodies and their curiosities.2

The absence of physical presence complicates the conference situation not only for speakers, but also for listeners, particularly first-time participants who would benefit from experiencing how peers in a scientific community react to each other. This is difficult to grasp on a screen where people appear only to ask the speaker their question. And it also makes it more challenging for ‘newcomers’ to get into the conversation. Not being physically together in a room made it considerably more challenging to sense when the right moment has come to raise my hand (i.e., to click on the blue hand in Zoom), ask a question or make a comment (which in the realm of scientific conferences is also a performative act with image-building effects; see Hitzler and Hornbostel, 2014: 71). Some moments of awkward silence following the end of talks made me think I may not be the only person insecure in this regard. 

Feeling virtual vibes, finally 

What I described so far, however, is not the full picture of my conference experience. During the first two conference days, I somewhat struggled with the lack of immediacy sitting alone in my room while listening to scholars’ presentation. But then on Thursday something unexpected happened: I started to feel conference vibes. It happened while I participated in the panel on affects, emotions and feelings, and in hindsight, I think it happened not only due to the inspiring talks and lively debates starting off in the panel, but also as its topic made me reflect about my own affects as conference attendant. This reflection helped me to reconcile the fact that I was bodily at home, which also meant my kids would sometimes come for a cuddle or climb on my knees, but that I was somewhere else mentally at the same time. On Friday, when I attended the last sessions, the virtual vibes of the conference even made me write some enthusiastic and personal tweets (which I usually refrain from posting): 

 

2 I want to thank Mareike Smolka, Erik Fisher and Alexandra Hausstein for granting me permission to incorporate the screen shot including the vignette, as well as for clarifying concepts and making instructive comments on an earlier version of this text.

 

All in all, and with a bit of time having passed, I see that the EASST/4S conference in its virtual format has actually met a lot of my initial expectations. Although I did not encounter scholars face-to-face, I was able to connect with colleagues and continue exchange via emails, which partly offered more substantial exchange than small talks at a coffee break. This is not to say that I would not have loved to have a coffee break in Prague. However, in hindsight, I see more and more the advantages this virtual format has offered – such as being able to bring my kids to bed after the conference days were over, and to watch recorded sessions I was unable to attend simultaneously. Eventually, the conference made me aware of the fact that I am able to feel virtual vibes, which was truly a new experience to me.  

 

 

1 Their conference paper was titled “From Affect to Action: Choices in Attending to Disconcertment in Interdisciplinary Collaborations”. 

2 I want to thank Mareike Smolka, Erik Fisher and Alexandra Hausstein for granting me permission to incorporate the screen shot including the vignette, as well as for clarifying concepts and making instructive comments on an earlier version of this text. 

 

 

Bibliography

Hitzler R and Hornbostel S (2014) Wissenschaftliche Tagungen – zwischen Disput und Event. In: Behnke C, Lengersdorf D and Scholz S (eds) Wissen – Methode – Geschlecht: Erfassen des fraglos Gegebenen. Wiesbaden: Springer VS, pp. 67–78.

Myers N (2012) Rendering Life Molecular: Models, Modelers, and Excitable Matter. Durham: Duke University Press.​

Presenting a ‘virtual’ paper in a ‘virtual’ conference: adapting to the challenges posed by a pandemic

The plot beckons………..

 

Introduction

This paper is concerned with a reflexive account of the experience of both delivering and listening to presentations in an online environment and the changes that it has generated in terms of pedagogy. In particular, it considers the experience of the use of comics and associated videos as a means of delivering learning (whether this is framed within a conference environment or a more conventional on-campus teaching context). The starting point for this discussion is with the EASST/4S Conference as it was one of the first large-scale, on-line conferences attended by the author. The paper also reflects on some of the other conferences and workshops attended in a virtual format and with the subsequent early experience of on-line post-graduate teaching based on this early conference experience.

 

In the beginning, there was an avatar

 

EASST was to be east but in reality it went everywhere

As the conference went virtual it, de facto, changed the rules of ‘engagement’ around the delivery of papers and how we communicate complex issues in, what could be seen as, a fractured environment. We rely on visual cues from those that we communicate with as a means of assessing understanding, but the flow of most conference presentations doesn’t allow for a fully interactive session due to time constraints. So, what if we could have the best of both worlds. Having a presentation but with the opportunity to answer questions in real time and within the various flows of the presentation.

There is an obvious challenge associated with a virtual conference. How do we ensure that there is sufficient engagement from those who attend the session? Is it enough to simply turn up and present a presentation over the appropriate conference platform? How do we get engagement from those in the audience and, perhaps more to the point, how do we gauge the effectiveness of that engagement when we are busy making a presentation? Finally, how do we design into conference presentations the potential for chance meetings in the virtual coffee breaks? These are things that we often take for granted when attending a conference as we are ‘in the room’ and have a range of visual cues that provide us with feedback. The key challenge of a virtual conference is, therefore, around the processes of engagement. It was as a means of trying to address that issue that we need to look to the work of Aristotle (Gallo 2017).   

 

The rules of virtual engagement?

 

If we take on Aristotle’s’ arguments to heart, then the development of pathos is likely to be a key component of delivering in an online environment as it will allow for a greater sense of engagement from the audience with the presenter. It was an attempt to explore the notion of pathos that drove the underpinning pedagogical approach that is discussed here.

One of the approaches that the author had trialed before the conference was through the use of visualisation – initially as a means of storyboarding the academic content of slides – along with that of storytelling. The next logical step in that process was to develop ‘stories’ that were bespoke to the course being taught. An obvious extension of the visual storytelling approach was though the use of comics as a medium for communication and so a series of avatars were created to provide an additional commentary on the slide deck – usually as a means of provoking and questioning the speaker! The avatars were also embedded in a series of bespoke academic comics that were designed as the spine of the teaching approach.  The purpose of attending the EASST/4S conference was to deliver an academic paper, but also to present a Making and Doing session on the use of those bespoke academic comics. The aim was to outline how comics theory could be used as a means of shaping the structure of a lecture, or presentation, and how the comics approach could be used to explain models and concepts in a concise manner. The approach was aimed at providing a more accessible means of delivering learning to those students who were studying in a second language. Then along came COVID-19 and the impetus changed considerably!

 

The underlying comics approach to visual storytelling

 

A comics-based approach to uncertainty

The theory of comics provides some insights into the ways that visual storytelling can be used as a means of communication (Potts 2013; Eisner 1996). The main elements of a comic-based approach are shown above and consists of images and words being used in a self-reinforcing way to enhance recall and understanding.  There is a strong psychological basis for using the ways in which we process information via our cognitive short-cuts (heuristics) and we can use these processes as a means of developing understanding (through the visualisation of the narrative) and developing recall (Cohn 2013; Eisner 1996). These images and words are framed into discrete elements that are designed to develop meaning within the narrative structure (McCloud 1993). Each of these frames are linked together by the flows of the argument within the overall narrative, thereby allowing for the progression of ideas and concepts. The final element of comics theory relates to the gutters – the spaces between the frames. These can be seen as spaces of emergence in which additional issues can be raised or developed as a function of the interactions between frames to create moments that matter or to offer the potential for alternative interpretations within the narrative structure (see, for example, Berlatsky 2009). Taken together the comics approach provides for a means of providing insights into academic issues and developing insight and understanding. The COVID-19 changed that dynamic and led to a shift from the ‘static’ form of the comic to a more dynamic approach which required the animation of the avatar as a means of addressing the pathos element highlighted by Aristotle.

 

 

Animating the avatar and the emergence of Avatar TV

Right at the outset it needs to be stated that I had not produced a video lecture before COVID-19.  This wasn’t a case of tapping into an existing skill set to turn conventional lecture material into video that could be delivered on-line. The need to pivot from a face-to-face form of delivery under the pandemic generated the impetus to use the software that produced the avatar to generate a talking avatar. That was then inserted into the slide deck and a script produced that allowed the avatar to take over as the presenter. 

The delivery of the presentations took place in two discrete sessions – a formal academic panel and a Making and Doing session. The experience of both sessions was quite different. The panel session was a formal 15-minute presentation which was timed when producing the video. Questions were asked both within the session via the chat function but also at the end in a more traditional way. The impression was that the panel session went well and there appeared to be considerable engagement from the audience. The Making and Doing (M&D) session was a different experience. First of all, the author had limited experience of such a session as it appears to be unique to EASST/4S. Secondly, the time allocated for the session was 60 minutes and this generated logistical challenges in terms of breaking the presentation down into 15/20-minute blocks. The timing is important as 20 minutes appears to be the optimal time period for an online presentation. With hindsight, this introduced uncertainty into the timing as the questions occurred after each block. The level of engagement was such that the presentation came close to overrunning the time slot due to the extent of the questions from the audience in the period between the block delivery. With hindsight, it might have made more sense to deal with the M&D session by utilising a blended approach where the videos were made available prior to the session and this would have allowed the delegates to use the time available for the discussion. This would have been more effective but presupposes that the delegates would watch the videos prior to the session. 

 

 

Concluding Comments

The move to an online format in which the avatar is given voice and put into a self-contained video lecture offers considerable benefits in terms of developing engagement (pathos) compared to a voice-over presentation and, possibly even an on-line, face-to-face lecture. Whilst the start-up cost of producing an avatar-led presentation are higher, if this is part of a wider approach to learning design then the material could be current for several years before it needs to be re-developed. In contrast, a ‘live’ on-line face-to-face session will incur the same time-related costs every time that it is delivered. In addition, the use of the avatar can generate the pathos that was highlighted earlier, especially if the avatar can be given a personality that is different to that of the lecturer. For those who are nervous about appearing ‘on-line’ in a video, the avatar-led approach offers some additional benefits. In terms of a conference presentation, the benefits are not as obvious and the main one is in terms of controlling the timing of the presentation to the timeslot that is allocated. It remains to be seen how this approach will develop in the future, but it could be argued that our institutions will change as a function of the COVID-19 pandemic and we will need to explore new, more student-centred approaches to learning and teaching as a consequence. This is a first step in a brave new (avatar-led) world. 

 

 

Acknowledgements

The author would like to thank Will Varner and Carl Potts of the New York School of Visual Arts and Alan Irwin from Copenhagen Business School for comments on the underpinning construction of the comics approach which is described in this paper. Needless to say, all errors of omission or commission remain those of the author, although a certain avatar may also bear some responsibility as well.

 

 

Bibliography

Berlatsky, Eric. 2009. ‘Lost in the Gutter: Within and Between Frames in Narrative and Narrative Theory’, Narrative, 17: 162-87.

Cohn, N. . 2013. The visual language of comics. Introduction to the structure and cognition of sequential images (Bloomsbury Academic: London).

Eisner, W. 1996. Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative (W.W. Norton & Company Ltd.: New York, NY).

Gallo, C. . 2017. Talk like TED. The 9 public speaking secrrets of the world’s top minds. (Pan Books: London).

McCloud, S. 1993. Understanding Comics. The Invisible Art (HarperCollins Publishers: New York, NY).

Potts, C. 2013. The DC Guide to Creating Comics. Inside the art of visual storytelling (Watson-Guptill Publications: New York, NY).

The Anthropocene, COVID-19 and ontology: some reflections following the EASST/4S 2020 online conference

The Anthropocene event in social theory has reinforced concerns with ontology within STS (Blok and Jensen, 2019). Not only is the Anthropocene characterized by couplings of human and non-human agency, where the boundaries between social, planetary and environmental forces are increasingly blurred (Latour, 2014), but it also displays heterogenous responses and solutions. Permaculture, the Green New Deal, Solar Radiation Management, Extinction Rebellion and sustainable living, more than indicating distinct visions, narratives and repertoires of meaning, can be understood as interventions that aim at assembling particular versions of the world. By recruiting a wide range of technologies, practices and nonhumans, these interventions are “ways of worlding” (Blaser, 2014), of bringing forth specific ontologies: while, on the one hand, there are concerns with the post-political and depoliticizing undertones of the Anthropocene (Swyngedouw and Ernstson, 2018), on the other hand this proposed geological epoch has become a driving force underlying a multitude of social, political and technological devices – the politics and ontologies of the Anthropocene are up for debate.

The panel “The Ontological Politics of the Anthropocene” stemmed from the recognition that there are many Anthropocenes, often illustrated by conceptual iterations such as the Capitalocene, Chthulucene or the Wasteocene. In his presentation, António Carvalho focused on how the Anthropocene can be understood as a driving force behind devices of self-regulation and self-organization, exploring the cases of mindfulness and Planetary Boundaries, thus delving into the articulations if bio and geopower. Camilo Castillo explored the case of the Páramos ecosystems in Colombia, reflecting on the interface of conservation policies and ontological politics in the Anthropocene, including the ways in which ecosystems are differently enacted by indigenous communities and the State. Adam John Standring and Rolf Lidskog, while reflecting on the current climate crisis, drew on Swyngedouw and Ernstson’s work (2018) to argue that there should be a distinction between politics (as a set of practices) and the political (as a site of socioecological conflict). Stefan Schäfer and Cameron Hu explored some of the theoretical intricacies of the Anthropocene, developing an ambitious theoretical framework that recognizes how the figure of the planetary became a recurrent trope for contemporary models – and workings – of sovereignty, the economy and geopolitics. Richard Randell and Robert Braun dialogued with Carl Schmitt’s philosophy to suggest that during the 20th century we have witnessed the emergence of a new Nomos – the Nomos of the Anthropocene – anchored in technoscientific power/violence. Jacob Barton shared an original perspective on the climate crisis, informed by postcolonial and critical race theory, arguing that the term Blanco-finescene is more adequate than the Anthropocene to represent our current planetary zeitgeist.

These different presentations – and the ensuing discussion – reinforced how the Anthropocene – and the socioenvironmental crisis – have triggered distinct forms of practical and theoretical wordling. Although the presenters displayed distinct – and often conflicting – stances on how to make sense of the climate crisis – and even how to name this proposed geological epoch – all presentations recognized the multitude of hybrid forces shaping the Anthropocene, including economics, politics, technology, energy and human and nonhuman agency in general. The ontological heterogeneity of the Anthropocene is particularly well illustrated by the COVID-19 pandemic. As Bruno Latour suggested, the pandemic is embedded “in an ongoing, irreversible ecological mutation” (Latour, 2020). The current pandemic is a clear illustration of the great acceleration fueled by the Anthropocene, since “the pace of economic extraction virulently broke down ecosystems, releasing viral agents that threaten biological integrity” (Carvalho and Velicu, 2020). Entire economic, social and political infrastructures are disrupted by molecular entities, turning nonhumans into fully-fledged agents of history, inevitably vindicating methodological and theoretical approaches that attend to the multitude of dances of agency between humans and non-humans.

While, on the one hand, the current pandemic requires the reinforcement of biopolitical and immunological strategies to fend off the virus – through FFP2 masks, soap, physical distancing, respiratory etiquette and alcohol-based hand sanitizers -, on the other hand the “social” is inevitably affected by the capacity of viral, nonhuman agency – the economy crumbles, flights are cancelled, entire communities are put under quarantine and the virus becomes a novel meta-narrative. The ontological politics of the pandemic are complex. Its webs of associations entail smartphone apps, viral agents, political and ideological stances, information and media flows, epidemiological models, mobility and the State. While it is recognized that the time is out of joint, we witness an attempt to manage uncertainty and the unknown through the State of Exception and by maximizing double delegation processes (Callon, Lascoumes and Barthe, 2009), relying on scientific and medical authorities to deal with the current crisis. While this could be yet another sign of the current “post-political” climate, with the reliance on technical authority presenting a governance bottleneck supported by the biopolitical rule, virus denial seems to be the strategy followed by those who also happen to deny the dangers posed by climate change.

The practical, everyday life implications of the pandemic have turned our lives upside down. Conferences were either postponed or went online. That was the case of the EASST/4S 2020 conference. Airplane tickets, hotel reservations and coffee breaks were replaced by Zoom calls, never ending email exchanges and SlidesLive presentations. How should we make sense of this? What does it tell us about ontology, the pandemic and the Anthropocene?

In order to safeguard our immunological integrity, we have surrounded ourselves with cell phones and laptops and a wide range of technological apparatuses. Digital life is apparently immune to the biological threat – although it presents threats of its own – and it has been turned into the ideal milieu to cope with physical distancing. Online conferences present a number of challenges – chairs have to be trained on how to moderate a session through Zoom, assigning all presenters co-host status; presenters need to be able to record and upload their communications. During the session, one has to make sure that chat messages sent through the SlidesLive link reach all participants, and that everyone is able to use their microphones to pose questions. 

Zoom meetings are the trope of our current condition – the embodied experience of everyday webs of associations is now mediated by a digital layer, an extension of our quarantined selves. Our academic lifeworlds become software affordances. Just when we thought that the managerial and normative machine of Academia couldn’t get any worse, we are thrown into a biopolitical dystopia that replaces physicality by haptic and audiovisual engagements with technologies. No longer physically together, virtual conferences require a careful crafting of our academic avatars and even of our Skype/Zoom backgrounds. 

Although safer and even more “sustainable” – think about the tons of CO2 emissions saved – online conferences are deprived of the fleshy and lively dimensions that often trigger novelty. Think of the eventful dynamics that can lead to collaborations, innovative projects and new theoretical directions. Although it is certainly possible to reinvent academic rituals through digital technologies, pandemic ontologies of isolation (Carvalho and Velicu, 2020) foster a pasteurization of academic interactions.

 If the Anthropocene has been widely criticized for naturalizing the “human” as a whole, thus justifying the expansion of the biopolitical domain to the planetary realm – through techniques of geoengineering (Swyngedouw and Ernstson, 2018) – it is also critical to rethink the technologies – platforms, software, media – that enact the virtual. After all, we can think about the virtual as the condition of real experience (Deleuze, 1991), and as Haraway constantly reminds us, “It matters what matters we use to think other matters with”. In sum, the virtual is immanent to the webs of associations – and technologies – that are put in place to assemble the social, and by engaging with new technologies and software we can look at the virtual as a site of playful speculation, generating new formats for academic interaction beyond “speech” and “discourse”, such as songs, videos, games, virtual reality, etc. – the list is endless.

In that sense, the ontological politics of the pandemic include the wide range of new webs of associations established between human, viral and technological assemblages, the various interventions that are put in place to manage the public health crisis (quarantines, contact tracing, surveillance technologies, denial) as well as changes related to the ways in which we work and live. The 2020 4S/EASST conference can be understood as a case study to imagine new forms of academic collaboration and engagement, and the STS community should delve into the new ontologies triggered by the current pandemic, namely into the articulations of non-humans, digital technologies, work and emerging forms of expression and academic communication.

 

 

 

Bibliography

Blaser M (2014) Ontology and indigeneity: on the political ontology of heterogeneous assemblages. Cultural geographies 21(1): 49-58.

Blok A, and Jensen CB (2019) The Anthropocene event in social theory: On ways of problematizing nonhuman materiality differently. The Sociological Review 67(6):1195-1211.

Callon M, Lascoumes P, and Barthe Y (2009) Acting in an uncertain world: An essay on technical democracy. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Carvalho A and Velicu I (2020) Pandemic Ontologies of Isolation. Undisciplined Environments. Available at https://undisciplinedenvironments.org/2020/04/28/pandemic-ontologies-of-isolation/ (accessed 8.9.2020)

Deleuze G (1991) Bergsonism. New Jersey: Zone Books.

Latour B (2014) Agency at the Time of the Anthropocene. New literary history 45(1): 1-18.

Latour B (2020) What protective measures can you think of so we don’t go back to the pre-crisis production model? Available at http://www.bruno-latour.fr/sites/default/files/P-202-AOC-ENGLISH.pdf (accessed 8.9.2020)

Swyngedouw E, and Ernstson H (2018) Interrupting the Anthropo-obScene: Immuno-biopolitics and depoliticizing ontologies in the Anthropocene. Theory, Culture & Society 35(6): 3-30.

Reflections on the Prague Conference: Much more than a successful coronavirus rescue operation

Introduction

Organizing a large international conference is a truly daunting task, so there is no other way to begin this commentary than by showering praise on the courageous team of organizers behind the Prague2020 conference. From my perspective as a remote participant located in Denmark, every aspect of the online conference appeared to function very smoothly. I can only begin to imagine the amount of invisible work carried out behind the scenes that enabled this mega-event to get off the ground.  

 

A social experiment in remote participation

I happen to know that a great number of other people also enjoyed the conference. Not only did I participate in sessions with lively debates, I also experienced the luxury of hanging out with a group of other Danish STS scholars during the conference. This social interaction was the outcome of an initiative by the Danish Association for Science and Technology Studies (of which I am a board member). A few months prior to the conference, we decided to encourage Danish remote participants to book a room in a particular hotel north of Copenhagen during the conference. Our hope was to create some sort of conference vibe and hold ad hoc meetings and joint activities alongside the conference. We had no idea how many people would buy into this idea, but as it happened more than 20 people booked a room and signed up to a shared Teams page, allowing us to do a bit of ad hoc coordination. We ended up having a very nice “conference dinner” together on the second night of the conference and a fair share of other mingling and serendipitous meetings. We enjoyed a particularly proud moment together when the Danish TANTlab received one of the EASST awards. 

 

Figure 1: A group of conference participants gathering outside the hotel to watch the award ceremony.

 

Normal conferencing?

When thinking about my own experience of the virPrague conference in a Danish hotel, I try to remind myself that there is actually no such thing as a normal conference or a normal way to meet. This point became very clear to me when I recently read the Dutch historian Wilbert Van Vree’s marvelous account of how meeting rules and behavior have developed since medieval times (Van Vree, 1999). With Van Vree’s book in mind, I can begin to imagine what might happen if people from other centuries could time-travel to our last so-called normal 4S/EASST conference, the one in Barcelona 2016. They would surely be puzzled. Medieval warrior groups would be proud to see that the conference organizers continued a procedure they invented – a security guard posted at the entrance made sure that swords, battleaxes, and other weapons were not brought inside. But the same warriors would be absolutely shocked to see that the guards allowed women to enter. People from the medieval church councils would recognize the seating arrangement, with some presumably higher-ranking people sitting in front, lower-ranking people in the audience, and inferior others standing by the walls. But they would ask themselves why the inferior meeting participants by the walls only had to stand for 20 minutes, rather than for hour after hour. People from the debating societies of the late 19th century would applaud the authority of the chairpersons who self-confidently allocated speaking time and occasionally cut people off. But they would also wonder why the people in Barcelona completely overlooked the importance of calling a vote.

 

Some personal experiences

So how did I experience the virPrague conference – being of course not entirely able to shake off my preconceptions of what a normal conference should be like. During other conferences, I have found myself moving from an early phase of wild interest in too many different things to a final stage of severe conference fatigue. The experience of virPrague was similar, but not exactly the same. Before and during the Prague conference, I used the feature on the homepage that allowed me to add items to my personal calendar. This of course made it painfully clear that I wanted to see too much, but the pleasant surprise was that it also allowed me to quickly navigate between sessions in a way that was much easier than trying to move my physical body out of one room and into another without disturbing two presenters and their audiences. For better and for worse, the materialities of the meeting did force me to stick with presentations that I did not find immediately interesting. 

I also found the physical strain of listening for many hours easier to bear. The online format made it possible to move my body to more comfortable positions with my microphone muted and my camera shut off. This meant, of course, that the speaker’s sense of whether their talk had captured the audience and demanded their attention was diminished. I also experienced this with my own presentation. My sense of the audience consisted entirely of the people who responded directly. Luckily, there were a good number of active participants in the session and a good fit between the presentations. But I heard from others, who were unfortunate to be in a thematically scattered session, that it was quite an eerie experience to present to a passive audience. 

The experience of conference fatigue phase caught up with me a little later than I had expected, most likely because the physical and emotional labor was less demanding than that of sitting in a conference hall. When the fatigue hit me, I resorted to some of the old strategies: micro-tourism (in this case going for walk), coffee sessions with other participants, and catching up on other work. I regret that I did not use this phase of the conference to contact people whom I had briefly interacted with during the sessions. This is something I will have to do better in future. 

 

Thinking about the future

I have heard people say that they hope we will never have a strictly online conference again. I too hope that the coronavirus goes away, but I am not so sure about the conference format. Has the climate emergency, as well as the ever-growing size of our STS conferences, made the time ripe for a radical change? I realize that not everything is ideal with an online conference, but neither is the climatic situation in which we have put ourselves. Should we really, mindlessly, continue an academic ritual that causes ever more people to fly to international conferences? I think not. In fact, I will encourage the leadership of 4S and EASST to impose a 10-year ban on STS conferences that require air travel!

How would that work? The quick answer is that no-one knows. But the better answer is that once the decision is made, we will have forced ourselves to ramp up our sociological imagination. What kinds of “normal, inevitable, and necessary” meeting practices need to be challenged? What kinds of new socio-technical meeting formats might stimulate and sustain our STS community? Would it be possible to designate a number of regional locations accessible by train, where remote participants could create new types of conference experiences? What else might we do to engage all generations of STS researchers in different parts of the world? How can we stimulate a broad-ranging experimentation and reflection on new types of meetings? What might we collectively learn from being an STS community and doing STS under these new conditions? All of these questions and many more would immediately be raised by a ban on grand physically co-located STS conferences. The questions would be troubling and demanding, but I believe they would also spark an extremely interesting discussion and collective experimentation within our community for the next decade.

The environmental benefits are clear – far less CO2 would be emitted. But there are also other immediate benefits. For one, just think of the message a 10-year ban would send to other disciplines. The STS community would demonstrate that we are not afraid to throw ourselves into a radical collective experiment, and we could proudly say that we are not just talking the talk about responsibility. In this way, a self-imposed ban would be a great way to renew our claim to be a bold, avant-garde discipline.

With this comforting thought, I shall end this personal reflection on the virPrague conference. I warmly thank the organizers not only for creating a superb rescue plan in the era of the coronavirus pandemic, but also for setting us on a path that might lead to the more sustainable organization of STS in the future. 

 

 

Reference

Van Vree, W (1999) Meetings, manners, and civilization: the development of modern meeting behaviour. Leicester: Leicester University Press.

Navigating 4S/EASST 2020 “virPrague” Conference

This year’s joint 4S/EASST conference entitled “Locating and Timing Matters: Significance and Agency of STS in Emerging Worlds” would be meaty material for a conference ethnographer. I had the honour of being co-chair (with my esteemed senior colleague Tereza Stöckelová) of the programme committee of the 4S/EASST 2020 joint conference that was meant to take place in Prague from 18-21 August 2020. However, as we know all too, this year’s conference did not take place in Prague in a strictly physical sense due to the accelerating onset of COVID-19. 

 

Picture taken by me. This is Alan Irwin during the actual online conference. Apologies for dirty screen – I had no time to clean the blood, sweat and tears from that landed there during preparation period – especially in the final countdown days before the conference commenced.

 

Let me present a time-line first: the premises, number of rooms, extra-conference conviviality and the like were well under preparations by January. Ulrike Felt and Joan Fujimura (the presidents of EASST and 4S respectively), folks from both councils, the local organizing committee (Tereza Stöceklová, Marcela Linková, Luděk Brož, Anna Durnová, Jakub Grygar, David Zavoral and myself), EASST and 4S councils were extremely happy with how things were panning out. With the onset of COVID-19, the Czech Republic opted for an almost complete lockdown very promptly and received praises from the world over as the disease was partially mitigated after several months due to strict restrictions such as legally-mandated wearing of masks everywhere (indoors, outdoors), closed businesses, factories, pubs and restaurants, but also schools and governmental offices. (The government and we – i.e. the large majority of Czechs – thought that we had won the battle against COVID-19, which was, as we see now in the fall, a fatal mistake.) In the midst of the Czech lockdown both 4S and EASST councils, the programme committee and local organizers had to make a decision whether the entire conference would move on-line — whether we would “go virtual”. If I remember well, we barely discussed cancellation, but treated the new normal as an opportunity, an opportunity for a big experiment. 

 

Francis Bacon, Three Studies of the Human Head, 1953. Taken from Fiacci L (2017) Bacon. Cologne: Taschen, p. 72. Words mine. When we learned that Zoom went down in many places around the globe on 25 August we interpreted it in two ways: gosh, had it happened a week before, our Baconian techno-worries would be met; or, had the conference’s smooth running and the participants’ enthusiasm overheated Zoom?

 

What was remarkable nevertheless was the immediately rejuvenated commitment and enthusiasm of all organizational players to do everything we could to make the conference happen. In a sense, the preparation started again and indeed some of us, myself for one, regretted that our colleagues from abroad wouldn’t come to Prague (to try the categorically best and famously cheap Czech beer or to discuss how frequent international flights to conferences cripple the climate). When the decision was taken, many of the organizational ordering had to be quickly re-ordered. Session organizers, session chairs and presenters had to be informed. We had to give some hard thought as to how to “translate” what many of us already knew well – i.e. a “normal” physical conference – into an online, virtual meeting of hundreds and hundreds of people. There were precedents we could follow such as the AAG conference. But did we want to just “copy and paste” what others did? Nope, we were more ambitious: let’s do it our own way. This of course meant that there were as many known unknowns (would people even register after months of teaching via online apps? Weren’t they suffering from “Zoom fatigue”?) as unknown unknowns1. (Retrospectively it turns out it was a tremendous work to synchronize papers into sensible time-zones so that people did not have to present at 3AM.) And so I daresay everyone who took a major part in the organization (especially Steve Coffee, Ulrike, Joan, Wes Shrum, Tereza, David, Luděk, myself) rewired their minds and practices of communication as we held online meetings – in different compositions  – at least once a week. We immediately began negotiations with Czech/US online conference vendor SlidesLive and the preparatory works – as those of you who took part might well recall – took a rather new twist. New systems, new directions, new translations, new thinking. It was tremendously encouraging how many senior colleagues who had the chance to organize either 4S, EASST or joint meetings supported us during the preparation period. Seasoned STS scholar Alan Irwin, on picture above, was one of our great supporters.

 

Mikuláš Medek, A Portrayal of M.d.: An Attempt, 1968 (source: www.dorotheum.cz)

 

Being in the position I was in has been a unique experience. I was for a short while in the “innards” of global STS, its current debates, streams, innovative directions, new interminglings with other corners of the social sciences and many more. I guess all organizers or co-organizers of big conference such as ours who have the privilege to see, co-evaluate and order what is going to be talked about have the privilege of being temporary “epistemic gatekeepers”. All this is not something that unusual – one sees who submits what, assign reviewers; one also sees the ideas and proposals that did not go through. It is indeed a substantive part of the job and a tremendous responsibility weighing on your neck, like big anaconda that often woke me during the night by whispering “Have you forgotten to respond to this or that email? Is it all gonna work? Will people be even interested?” One day in April the anaconda sloughed its skin and turned into a cyborg, a mini-monster that was silent for a while only to remind me that I should forget about a standard conference and re-order myself. Sometimes I went to bed with a Baconian face as a completely new set of questions – often of a technical nature – were softly hissed into my ears from the “phygital” (Zil Vostalová’s concept) anaconda.

 

And finally myself, around 8.30PM on Friday, 21 August. No comments needed…look at wrinkle above my left eye and just look closely at how I breathe. There are number of messages in the eyes too, I would say. Have not done proper self-psycho-assessment yet though.

 

Unintentionally, the shift to “virPrague” – “vir” standing for virus and virtual (credit to Tereza!), interestingly resonated with the “Locating and Timing Matters: Significance and Agency of STS in Emerging Worlds.” Even if Tereza and I were based in Prague, other organizers were in different locations. Prague also served as the main “time-hub” – i.e. the main time-zone that we used, either in scheduling the programme or weekly (in August, daily) meetings, was Central European Summer Time, e.g. Prague time. Some more or less fixed location and strict temporal rules and timing was in play nevertheless – it was Prague. Prague was, if you wish, a “spatio-temporal fix”, a concept used very differently by Noel Castree, David Harvey and Bob Jessop 2004 in their analyses of capitalism was Prague. VirPrague’s spatio-temporal fix, to the surprise of many, worked extremely well – and Prague was in a sense a hub for the conference. In a way then, the conference did and did not take place in Prague at the same time. Hmm, a bit surreal, ain’t it? Is Schrodinger’s cat dead or not? Such surrealism, and surreal humour, has always been part of Prague’s cultural and artistic history.  So all in all, see you in Prague!

 

 

1 To use slightly inflationary Rumsfeld-Žižek conceptual vocabulary.

Neither one nor two: presenting our new editorial team

In this editorial from the new EASST review editorial team…Okay, that sounds a bit too classic… perhaps démodé…Let us start again. It is our pleasure to…even worse.  What if we cut this quick and collectively thank Ignacio Farias for the terrific job transforming the EASST Review over the past years? He has made it a much more central and contemporary communication platform for EASST and a great source for European STS info, including the new STS Live section to discuss contemporary issues. And of course also many thanks to Sabine Biederman and Anna Gonchar for their important work behind the scenes creating the reviews distinct style, and to the international editorial board members for their diverse contributions over the past years. 

That was the right start! Surely it is difficult to replace Ignacio, we know that and, thus… we have decided a transition towards an editorial team consisting of Sarah Schönbauer (Munich Center for Technology in Society, Technical University of Munich), Vincenzo Pavone (Instituto de Políticas y Bienes Públicos of the Spanish National Research Council in Madrid) and Niki Vermeulen (Science, Technology and Innovation Studies, University of Edinburgh). Niki was already part of the editorial board and as such it is very much our plan to continue and consolidate the current path of the EASST Review, but with some new faces and perspectives and with a special emphasis on the importance of collaboration in academia. 

In our view, the EASST Review is occupying an important space, in between the research articles in our STS journals and the activities of our local STS hubs, connecting the STS community on a European level. The section STS multiple is showcasing local groups and their programmes, and we would also like to use this section to showcase the various national STS associations and their activities. Cherish not perish is set-up to tell about new journals and alternative publication platforms relevant for STS but we aim to broaden this further and go beyond publications platforms. We also want to shine a light on the great variety of experiences and impact that STS scholars are having as part of their work as consultants, in political activities, among civil society organizations, in non-academic educational settings and elsewhere. 

STS Live is dedicated to developing contemporary themes and discussing current issues, whereby we invite a variety of scholars to contribute their work and thoughts. In our next issue (coming out in February) we will focus (surprise, surprise) on the impact of COVID on our scholarship and community, but for later issues we already have topics such as environmental pollution and toxicity, experiences and challenges of early career scholars, and the meaning of open science in STS in mind. But we also know that YOU have great ideas on themes and contributions and we welcome ideas and reflections from all EASST members to shape the future of the review. It is OUR Review, after all, and this is what it is all about. We want the EASST Review to be the journal you look out for and the place where you first send an idea or contribution when it pops up in your mind. Thereby we also hope to find new collective ways to expand our EASST online platform, facilitating the flow of information and posting about events, ideas, and contributions in a more immediate way and creating exciting interactions.

This current EASST Review is – as it is every two years – completely dedicated to our conference which took place in August, this time together with 4S. We enjoyed seeing many of you there on the various online platforms and of course we would like to thank the organising team again, as they worked wonders, transitioning from preparing a physical meeting in Prague to the hosting of an online version of Locating and Timing Matters: Significance and agency of STS in emerging worlds. The theme of the conference became even more relevant, creating an alternative conference format which allowed us to still gather in Prague, albeit virPrague. As such it might not be a coincidence that one of the organisers Filip Vostal suggested Kafka’s Runner (1907-8) for this issues cover illustration. For an account of his experience as conference organiser, please see his contribution which is accompanied by reflections of conference participants on topics or sessions from the conference. The first Vir_Conference has generated and shared much more than a huge amount of terabytes in videos, slideshows and image captures. This issue is showcasing some conference innovations, such as comics, podcasts and spin-off meetings, as well as crucial reflections on the effects of current times on academic labour, e.g. on how the digital conference experience can be combined with care. This latter contribution connects to our upcoming issue which hopes to take reflections on academic work in times of COVID further.   

Finally, we want to emphasise the importance of the roles that the EASST president and council members are fulfilling in our European STS community. We have therefore dedicated some space to the announcement of the upcoming EASST members meeting and the call for a new president and council members and would encourage all to consider putting themselves forward. We are looking forward to work with Ulrike Felt and the new EASST president, the EASST council and EASST members, and would welcome all your ideas and contributions to the review. You can reach us at: review@easst.net and we are looking forward to hear from you, as the EASST Review consists of contributions from the community. Next contribution could, indeed, be yours.  

Parting words, returning things

This has been quite a run. My tenure as the editor of the EASST Review began shortly after the EASST conference in Torun, basically with me asking Isaac Marrero to publish one of his photos of the fireworks (remember the fireworks?) on the cover of the following issue. It culminates here. After a fundamentally different, but equally successful conference – without fireworks, but with four times as much attendance and, yes, with productive questions about the role of STS in a fundamentally different world. 

When I look back at these six years, I first and foremost see the faces of two friends and colleagues, who have done most of the invisible work: Sabine Biedermann, who became editorial assistant of the EASST Review in 2018 and Anna Gonchar, who’s been its graphic designer since 2014. It’s great to know that you will outlive me in the Review team! 

A very special and wholeheartedly recognition and my gratitude goes also to Josefine Raasch, who co-edited the Review with me during the first year and then became part of the extremely generous Editorial Board we put together. Let me also thank each one of the members of the editorial board: Vicky Singleton, Tomás Sánchez Criado, Andrey Kutzenov, Liliana Doganova, Michaela Spencer and, of course, Niki Vermeulen, who will be part of the editorial collective taking over from now on – and which is completed by Sarah Schonbauer and Vincenzo Pavone. I am very excited to know the Review is in such good hands. 

I was also lucky to enjoy the unrestricted support and blind trust of two different presidents (many many thanks for that Fred Stewart/Sonia Liff and Ulrike Felt!) and two councils (thank you all of you! You’ll understand you are too many to be named here ϑ). In Salla Sariola, editor of our journal Science & Technology Studies, I found a partner in crime and so much inspiration in thinking about what the Review could aspire to be.

I should probably now write something about our accomplishments during these six years, give you some numbers, for example, or things like that. I won’t. In that line, I will just mention the thing I am happiest with, namely, the section ‘STS Multiple’. I think this is a true treasure. So long live STS Multiple. I would rather use this tribune to speak about the things not yet accomplished.

One major set of concerns throughout the last six years has involved the materiality of the Review as a digital object. I started out with the clear idea that the future of the Review could not be in a PDF-document sent out per email to EASST members. The first step, which we managed to accomplish, was to stop the embargo on the PDF and make it available to the whole STS community. But evolving from a PDF to another material and/or digital form was a cause I stopped to fight for, especially as so many people seemed to be so happy with receiving the PDF in their mailboxes. Be that as it may, the challenge seems still to be to device a better digital presence for the Review.

A second set of ideas and ambitions that only partially came to fruition was to transform the EASST Review into a space for experimentation with and reflection about modes of writing in STS. We had many inventive contributions that went in different ways beyond the minute-like reports of STS events and EASST conferences, and we managed to articulate lively conversations about current issues, such as ‘alternative facts’ and #metoo. But I always struggled with how to convince you, readers of the EASST Review, that this is the place to go with your experimental, inventive, speculative, overtly political pieces of writing. 

Finally, one idea we discussed many times over the years was the dictionary of untranslatable terms and conceptual equivocations. The question was how to account and reflect about the linguistic multiplicity of doing STS and the idea was to ask the national associations to create their contributions to such a dictionary. I leave it out there for whoever might want to make it his or her own. It’d be such a wonderful and interesting resource to expose and reflect about the politics of difference and translation in and through language. 

Be as it might: thanks for these wonderful years. Long live the EASST Review!

Nelly Oudshoorn (2020). Resilient Cyborgs. Living and Dying with Pacemakers and Defibrillators.

This book examines how pacemakers and defibrillators (ICD) participate in transforming life and death in high-tech societies. These implants represent an important case for STS research because they challenge a longstanding tradition of theorizing human-technology relations.  Many theoretical approaches conceptualize the interactions between humans and technologies merely as finite and limited, temporal events and focus on devices that are more or less under the control of humans. However, technologies implanted in bodies often involve continuous interactions that may last a whole life time and their design does not delicate agency to its ‘users’. Because of the persistent and widespread presence of technologies implanted in bodies, understanding the agency, vulnerabilities and resilience of people having these devices has become an urgent concern.  Based on a detailed field work of how people live and die with pacemakers and defibrillators, the book describes how keeping hybrid bodies alive requires the active involvement of ‘wired heart cyborgs’, their close relatives, technicians, nurses and cardiologists, governance and medical infrastructures, and the devices themselves. Importantly, building resilience also includes the phase of dying and the reuse of pacemakers removed from deceased bodies. The concluding chapter develops a new sociology of what it takes to become a resilient cyborg. Inspired by the work of Donna Haraway on cyborgs and companion species, the book argues that implanted technologies can best be considered as body-companion technologies. This concept invites us to approach technologies inside bodies as devices that act as life-long companions requiring extensive work to sustain the multiple, often mutual, relationships between humans and technologies. First of all, the interactions and interdependencies between cyborgs and body companion technologies involve a mutual guarding. Pacemakers and defibrillators have been introduced to keep watch over possibly life-threatening heart-rhythm disturbances to ensure more regular heartbeats. Conversely, people living with these technologies have to watch over the proper functioning of their implants by ensuring that external physical objects, digital devices, (grand)children or intimate partners don’t disrupt their devices. Guarding over their implants to protect them from external harm involves extensive anticipation and disentanglement work in which wired heart cyborgs develop different techniques to build resilience. A second interaction that emerges in this book concerns a reciprocal process of disciplining. During the first months after the implantation, internal heart devices must be disciplined by tuning and re-adjusting their agencies to the agencies of the heart. Conversely, internal heart devices try to discipline cyborgs as well.  Despite this guarding and disciplining, body companion technologies may run wild and even hurt you, as exemplified by fractured leads and inappropriate shocks, even during dying. A third interaction and interdependency between body-companion technologies and wired heart cyborgs therefore concerns domesticating, which, in contrast to guarding and disciplining, only involves work by wired heart cyborgs and technicians. Other important heuristic tools developed in the book include conceptualizing the active engagement of cyborgs in building resilience as work; accounting for their expertise by including sensory experiences and resilience techniques; following the whole life cycle of hybrid bodies, including dying and death; and a sensitivity to difference.

Investigating Cryopreservation Practices in Contemporary Societies: A New ERC Project

In the past twenty years, STS has pro­du­ced important insights into bioscientific and biomedical innovations and the epistemological and struc­tu­ral reconfigurations they brought about in the study of life in the second half of the 20th century. The analysis of the impact of molecular biology and bio­technologies such as organ transplantation, cloning, tissue engineering and assisted reproduction has attracted substantial interest among scholars. However, cryopreservation practices, which constitute the material basis for many of these technologies, have hardly been addressed (for notable excep­tions see Parry 2004; Landecker 2007; Radin 2017).

The project team consists of Thomas Lemke (PI), Veit Braun, Sara Lafuente-Funes and Ruzana Liburkina.

 

CRYOSOCIETIES

Over the next five years, the research project »Suspended Life: Exploring Cryopreservation Practices in Contemporary Societies« (CRYO­SOCIETIES) will investigate the collection, storage and usage of hu­man and non-human organic material by technologies of cooling and free­zing, what are known as cryotechnologies.[1] The project is funded by the European Research Council (ERC) within the Ad­vanced Grant scheme[2] and is based at Goethe University Frankfurt. The project team consists of Thomas Lemke (PI), Veit Braun, Sara Lafuente-Funes and Ruzana Liburkina.

CRYOSOCIETIES will investigate empirically the dynamics and complexities of cryopreservation practices, which until now have hardly been recognised in their profound implications for the government of life in contemporary societies. Employing a set of qualitative research methodologies, the team will explore distinctive fields of investigation and sites of cryobanking. The three case studies (each of them led by one of the postdoctoral researchers) cover the fields of regenerative medicine, reproductive technologies, and conservation biology. They include human as well as non-human cryobanks and medical as well as non-medical applications, scientifically and medically sound, but also speculative or utopian practices of cryopreservation:

    • cord blood storage to prepare for possible regenerative therapies in the future (site of fieldwork: Germany / Ruzana Liburkina)
    • oocyte freezing to extend fertility and rearrange reproductive futures (site of fieldwork: Spain / Sara Lafuente-Funes)
    • the cryopreservation of endangered or extinct species with the prospect of “bringing them back to life” by employing reproductive and genetic technologies (site of fieldwork: UK / Veit Braun)

 

Suspended Life

CRYOSOCIETIES is based on the observation that cryopreservation has opened up the perspective of modifying and mo­du­la­ting temporal pathways and developmental cycles (Landecker 2007). The abi­lity to arrest biological processes in order to reanimate them at some point in the future has profoundly transformed the terms of life. Cryobiology esta­bli­shes a new regime of time that replaces linear by plastic temporalities, altering our understanding and experience of life (and death). Given the tech­nological prospect of stopping and resetting cellular activities, it defines a liminal state in which a biological substance is neither fully alive nor dead (Radin 2013; Hoeyer 2017). Ultimately, cryo­pre­servation practices bring into existence a new »form of life« (Helmreich, Roosth 2010)  charac­te­rised by a permanent deferral of death: »suspended life« (Le Conte 1901). They allow vital processes to be kept in a state of »latency« (Radin 2013) for future revival and generate »a sense of moral, social, and political suspense« (Hoeyer 2017: 211), producing con­cep­tual ambiguity and eroding existing categories of personhood, kinship and pro­perty.

Frozen life is also characterised by a double tem­po­ral suspension. Firstly, it refers to the prospect of interrupting and re­star­ting biological processes, bringing the growth and death of cells and tissues to a temporary halt – a »pause« – in order to allow storage for an indefinite pe­riod of time (at least in principle). Cryopreservation puts bodies – or rather bits of bodies – »on hold«. The technological force at work does not draw from the »the plasticity of living matter« (Landecker 2007: 13) by transforming cells and the body; somewhat paradoxically, cryobiological plasticity rather means that temporal change is blocked and put »on ice«, remaining inert and unmoving. Cryopreservation alters the meaning of biology by halting »natural cycles«, by interrupting the »normal« course of development and decay. Secondly, »suspended life« is an integral part of a more comprehensive »regime of anticipation« (Adams, Murphy, Clarke 2009: 250) that guides contemporary technoscientific and biomedical prac­ti­ces. This regime involves a temporal orientation that conceives of the fu­tu­re as open and contingent but at the same time as malleable and dependent on actions in the present. These modes of anticipation are informed by ra­tio­nalities of prevention and preparedness, and are characterised by en­tang­le­ments of fear and hope linking epistemic orientations to moral imperatives. Within this anticipatory logic, the future is shaped and formed in the present by the cryopreservation of organic material credited with a huge potential for knowledge production and hitherto unknown technological applications. Thus, »suspended life« represents a horizon of possibilities and a form of »promissory capital« (Thompson 2005) that materialises in the present to sustain, improve, foster or control processes of life.

 

Towards a New Regime of Cryopolitics?

Contemporary studies in STS, anthropology and sociology on the political and social impact of the life sciences and biomedical practices draw on the concept of biopolitics introduced by Michel Foucault and widely discussed in the contemporary social sciences and humanities (Foucault 2003). However, the analytic focus has been on “molecular biopolitics” (Rose 2007: 11), while cryobiological and cryopreservation practices have only occasionally been taken into account.

To capture the profound socio-material changes introduced by cryotechnological practices, some scholars have recently proposed the term “cryopolitics” as a way of correcting or complementing the analytic focus on processes of molecularisation in contemporary studies in STS, anthropology and sociology. While the notion originates in debates on the geostrategic significance of the Arctic region in the light of global warming and the dwindling of natural resources in other climatic areas (Bravo and Rees 2006), its current usage addresses the complex strategies of generating, regulating and processing “suspended life”. While “biopower” is characterised by technologies that foster life or let die, as opposed to sovereignty that takes life or lets live (Foucault 2003: 241), cryopolitics operates by the principle making live and not letting die (Friedrich and Höhne 2014; Kowal and Radin 2015). Thus, cryopolitics is characterised by arresting processes of decay and dying, enabling the establishment of a form of life beyond life (as we know it) by exposing living matter to a new onto-political regime, rendering it neither fully alive nor dead.

CRYOSOCIETIES seeks to explore and advance this theoretical proposition further. It conceives of cryopreserved organic material as “suspended life” which points to the multifold intersections of contemporary biopolitics with forms of “thanatopolitics” or “necropolitics” (Agamben 1998; Mbembe 2003; Esposito 2008). However, it is important to contrast “suspended life” with Agamben’s notion of “bare life”. The latter designates a human being who can be killed with impunity after being banned from the politico-legal community and reduced to the status of mere physical existence (Agamben 1998). “Suspended life” radicalises the “nakedness” of life forms, addressing them as disembodied and decontextualised organic matter, dissociated from the network of biological, ecological and social interactions it originated from. But “suspended life” also differs from “bare life” in that it defines a form of life that is not exposed to death at all; rather, it is not allowed to die, being kept in limbo between life and death. Therefore, death no longer signifies the ultimate limit of biopolitical interventions and strategies, but is itself rendered plastic by cryobiological practices to preserve, promote and extend life.

 

Final Remarks

CRYOSOCIETIES seeks to achieve two central objectives. First, the project aims to advance the academic debate on “suspended life”. It will draw on and further promote insights from STS, sociology, anthropology and environmental humanities to grasp the multifold dimensions of artificial cold. CRYOSOCIETIES will provide practice-based knowledge about the ways in which “suspended life” is assembled, mobilised and negotiated in distinctive sites and settings. An empirical examination of how “cryogenic life” is shaped as a set of relations between the biological, the social and the technical, it carves out novel routes for future research. By including different fields and materials of cryobanking, the project will offer a comprehensive account that opens up new empirical venues for studying and interrogating the complexity of “suspended life” in science and society.

Secondly, CRYOSOCIETIES seeks to foster public engagement with and within the field of cryopreservation and cryobanking. It tackles a series of pressing questions of scientific and social relevance. With the increasing importance of the life sciences, biological material has become a matter of growing concern, raising issues of privacy, data protection and possible misuse, but also the prospect of patenting and commercialisation. In addition to sensitising the cryobiological community to the complexities of the social and cultural issues at stake, the project also aims to make a substantial contribution to the public discourse on cryopreservation and cryobanking. We hope it will develop a new conceptual vocabulary grounded in comprehensive empirical research to address the vital question of how freezing technologies shape and possibly transform both biological processes and social practices as well as notions of health, fertility and conservation.

 

For more information please visit the project site: www.cryosocieties.eu
E-mail: cryosocieties@soz.uni-frankfurt.de

 [1]                The word »cryos« derives from Ancient Greek (κρύος krýos) and means »ice« or »cold«.

[2]                Grant Agreement number: 788196. The project team consists of the PI and three postdocs (Veit Braun, Sara Lafuente, Ruzana Liburkina) who are each responsible for one of the three subprojects described below (for further information see the project site http://cryosocieties.eu).

 

 

References

Adams, Vincanne, Michelle Murphy, and Adele E. Clarke. “Anticipation: Technoscience, Life, Affect, Temporality.” Subjectivity: International Journal of Critical Psychology 28, no. 1 (2009): 246-65.

Agamben, Giorgio. Homo Sacer. Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998.

Bravo, Michael, and Gareth Rees. “Cryo-Politics: Environmental Security and the Future of Arctic Navigation.” The Brown Journal of World Affairs 13, no. 1 (2006): 205-15.

Esposito, Roberto. Bios. Biopolitics and Philosophy. Minneapolis/London: University of Minnesota Press, 2008.

Foucault, Michel. Society Must Be Defended: Lectures at the Collège De France, 1975-76. Edited by Alessandro Fontana, David Macey, Mauro Bertani and François Ewald. New York: Picador, 2003.

Friedrich, Alexander, and Stefan Höhne. “Frischeregime: Biopolitik Im Zeitalter Der Kryogenen Kultur.” Glocalism: Journal of Culture, Politics and Innovation 1-2 (2014): 1-44.

Helmreich, Stefan, and Sophia Roosth. “Life Forms: A Keyword Entry.” Representations 112, no. 1 (2010): 27-53.

Hoeyer, Klaus. “Suspense. Reflections on the Crypolitcs of the Body.” In Cryopolitics. Frozen Life in a Melting World, edited by Emma Kowal and Joanna Radin, 207-14. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2017.

Kowal, Emma, and Joanna Radin. “Indigenous Biospecimen Collections and the Cryopolitics of Frozen Life.” Journal of Sociology 51, no. 1 (2015): 63-80.

Landecker, Hannah. Culturing Life. How Cells Became Technologies. Cambridge MA/London: Harvard University Press, 2007.

Mbembe, Achille. “Necropolitics.” Public Culture Vol. 15, no. 1 (2003): 11-40.

Radin, Joanna. Life on Ice: A History of New Uses for Cold Blood. Chicago/London: University of Chicago Press, 2017.

Rose, Nikolas. The Politics of Life Itself. Biomedicine, Power, and Subjectivity in the Twenty-First Century. Princeton and Oxford, 2007, 2007.

Parry, Bronwyn. “Technologies of Immortality: The Brain on Ice.” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 35, no. 2 (2004): 391-413.

Thompson, Charis. Making Parents: The Ontological Choreography of Reproductive Technologies. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2005.

 

Unraveling the landscape: a 360° workshop

The idea behind this workshop was borne out of a previous collaboration between António Baía Reis and Michelle Kasprzak in 2018. At that time, and within the same natural and research setting of Câmara de Lobos, the two authors where brought together by the desire to explore 360° video storytelling and ended up producing a short documentary about the life, achievements, and misadventures of a Madeiran master boat builder. Inspired by this previous experience, they sought to outline a project where they would teach and guide young people to critically and creatively reflect about the world around them using the same emerging storytelling techniques. With this in mind, the workshop gathered a diverse group of people consisting of four finalist students from the bachelor’s degree in Visual Arts of the University of Madeira, a young man from Câmara de Lobos, and an Italian Ph.D. student based on the island.

Drawing from our field notes and by observing this group’s specific dynamics and interactions, one might clearly split this group into three different mindsets, he first consisting of the four university art students. These four students were very much in harmony with each other throughout the entire workshop, especially during the brainstorming that led to outlining the production of the short video. Their approach was evidently aligned with a certain esthetic complexity and abstract way of thinking and approaching problems, quite distinctive of students that are exposed to art history, theories, and practices. They always seemed to try to find subliminal ways of conveying an idea, through the subtleties that artistic expression might encompass.

 

Art students experiencing virtual reality. Courtesy of Michelle Kasprzak

On the flipside, the young man from Câmara de Lobos showed a different mindset, conveyed by a pragmatic way of thinking but overall a mindset that proved to be quite effective in terms of accomplishing a smooth group workflow. His insights and ideas were strong and informative. When facing a creative challenge, he showed a consistent ability to go straight to the point. Efficient creativity might be a good category to define this young man’s approach.

Telmo (young man from Câmara de Lobos) and Mela (Italian Ph.D. student)during the braistorming. Courtesy of Michelle Kasprzak

Finally, the Ph.D. student acted as a typical academic, i.e., balancing between free thinking and scientific analyses of everything that was happening around her, a sort of a limbo between herself as a participant and outsider making detached scientific observations. The idea that diversity triggers creative and innovative outcomes in groups is broadly accepted (Bantel & Jackson, 1989; Austin, 1997). Nevertheless, having different backgrounds and perspectives can create some difficulties. It wasn’t the case with this work group. The combination of the diverse abovementioned approaches clearly contributed to accomplish the goal of this workshop, which was the creation of a collaborative short 360° video.

The workshop took place in the Madeiran Press Museum – in the midst of old press machines and with the ghost of Gutenberg – a quite evocative setting to be thinking and reflecting about storytelling. On the first day, and after quite a thorough team building exercise, the participants were introduced to the most relevant concepts, theories, and practices around 360° video storytelling. This theoretical outline was informed mostly by key studies on immersive journalism (Baía Reis et al., 2018; Jones, 2017; Laws, 2017), and it was focused on concepts like immersion, presence, and emotion in relation to virtual reality technologies to set the basis for understanding how to use 360°storytelling to tell stories yet untold. This was followed by a showcase of a selection of 360° videos using a virtual reality headset to expose the participants first-hand to this emergent practice. Then, we proposed that the group come up with a story yet untold that they wanted to tell about their community that would make sense in virtual reality storytelling. The group decided to tell a story about the unexpected influence of Winston Churchill in Madeira. The third and final days were devoted to shooting, editing, and presenting the short video.

Braistorming and defining the storyline for the 360° video production. Courtesy of Michelle Kasprzak

The brainstorming for selecting the story and the video production processes were clearly the most relevant moments for us to examine, e.g., creativity as both a process and an outcome (Miliken et al., 2003) and how that manifested through the diverse perspectives within the group. During the brainstorming, when everyone was asked about what story should be told, an immediate and clear  idea about doing something on Winston Churchill came from the young man from Câmara de Lobos. Throughout the brainstorming and video production, the inputs of this young man were clearly the ones that established the focus to effectively create a successful collective outcome. One might say that he unconsciously guided his fellow participants and their divergent ideas into a convergent structured attitude. In fact, creative processes require both divergent and convergent thinking for the sustained development of creative outcomes by work groups (Miliken et al., 2003).

Shooting the 360° video in the bay of Câmara de Lobos. Courtesy of Michelle Kasprzak

Furthermore, by assuming a relevant role in the shooting and editing processes, he showed an ability to focus on his tasks and to make quick, simple, and practical decisions. This approach was complemented by a certain artistic finesse that arose from the art students, who tried to think of original ways for conveying the story, and a sort of a mediating approach by the Ph.D. student who throughout the entire process seemed to be mediating ideas by deconstructing them to her fellow participants so that everyone could see its advantages and disadvantages, thus making informed and coherent decisions. Overall, one might argue that the combination of these diverse perspectives led to a fluent, flexible and original creative process. Fluency, flexibility, and originality of thought were, therefore, defining qualities of the final creative outcome (Miliken et al., 2003), the short video about Winston Churchill and his relation to Madeira.

The “Winston Churchill” viewpoint in Câmara de Lobos. The sign says “Winston Churchill painted here in 1950” Courtesy of Michelle Kasprzak

Creative processes and analysis apart, some attention should be given to this most unlikely combination: Winston Churchill and Madeira island. At the entrance of Câmara de Lobos there is a viewpoint which owes its name to the British prime minister Winston Churchill, who painted a seascape depicting the bay in this location. The Winston Churchill viewpoint, located at the entrance of the city of Câmara de Lobos, allows you to enjoy a magnificent panoramic view of the dry dock, the bay, and the town. Built in 1963, it was known at the time as the “Espírito Santo” (Holy Spirit) viewpoint. Later the name was changed, as a way for the picturesque village of Câmara de Lobos to remember and pay tribute to Winston Churchill, since in this location the British prime minister painted the abovementioned seascape depicting the bay. But this is not the only Churchill reference you find in this fishermen’s town. Churchill is everywhere, in restaurants, in guided tours, souvenirs shops, a true “Churchillmania”. With this mind, the short video produced within this workshop explores this phenomenon and counter reacts to it by telling the “true stories” about this town’s old traditions and culture, so deeply related to the lives of fishermen.

The bay of Câmara de Lobos. Courtesy of Michelle Kasprzak

In short, we engaged a diverse group of people in understanding the potential of emerging technologies and how to use them in a creative way to tell stories yet untold in a small neighborhood at the edge of Europe; we promoted an open event where the results were discussed, the short 360° video was showcased, and all the participants had the opportunity to share their experience with the wider community; Finally, we had the chance to academically reflect about this experience by analyzing the various dynamics between the participants, the setting, and the creative processes involved. Having the bay of Câmara de Lobos and the Atlantic as our background, this workshop succeeded in achieving its proposed goals by combining three classical features of science and technology studies: scientific knowledge, technology, and society.

 

 

 

References

Austin, J. R., 1997. A cognitive framework for understanding demographic influences in groups. International Journal of Organizational Analysis, 5, pp. 342-359

Baía Reis, A., Coelho, A. F. V. C. C., 2018. Virtual Reality and Journalism, Digital Journalism, 6 (8), pp. 1090-1100

Bantel, C. A., Jackson, S. E., 1989. Top management and innovations in banking: Does the composition of the top team make a difference? Strategic Management Journal, 10, pp. 107-124

Jones, S., 2017. Disrupting the Narrative: Immersive Journalism in Virtual Reality. Journal of Media Practice, 18, pp. 171-185

Laws, A. L. S., 2017. Can Immersive Journalism Enhance Empathy? Digital Journalism. DOI: 10.1080/21670811.2017.1389286

Miliken, F. J., Bartel, C. A., Kurtzberg T. R., 2003. Diversity and Creativity in Work Groups: A Dynamic Perspective on the Affective and Cognitive Processes That Link Diversity and Performance. Group Creativity: Innovation Through Collaboration, Oxford University Press, pp. 34-62