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Pathogenic Imaginaries and Covid-19 Denialism

In September 2020, I and my collaborator Larry Au (Columbia University) received a grant from the Social Science Research Council’s (SSRC) “Rapid-Response Grant on Covid-19 and the Social Sciences” for our project “Viral Agnotology: Covid-19 Denialism amidst the pandemic in Brazil, the United Kingdom and the United States”. In total, 62 projects received funding from the SSRC, on topics touching on all aspects of the social, economic, political, and cultural impact of Covid-19. The aim of grant is to help put social scientists in conversation with the global scientific dialogue on the pandemic’s directions and consequences, and to help spur reflection on how social science can be useful to improve the preparedness of society for future pandemics. 

Our project is ongoing, but I gladly introduce our project to readers of the EASST Review to help stimulate the interest of our colleagues on the topic of Covid-19 denialism, and point to ways in which STS as a field can be useful in thinking through this highly politicized topic.

 

Motivations for the project

By Covid-19 denialism, we refer to a broad range of doubt and skepticism expressed over the existence, severity, and need for public health interventions to mitigate and contain the further spread of SARS-CoV-2. This ranges from anti-lockdown protests, conspiracy theories that Covid-19 is a hoax, and skepticism over the need to wear a mask despite expert support for masking. Curiously, even as the pandemic unfolded and as evidence of Covid-19’s dangers piled up, major proponents of Covid-19 denialism continued to downplay the seriousness of the situation. The contentious encounter between expert discourses and Covid-19 denialism was particularly visible in Brazil, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Jasanoff et al. (2021) in a recent comprehensive report published on the Covid-19 responses in 21 countries, categorized these three countries as “Chaos Countries” because of the inability of state and society to cohere around effective strategies to mitigate and contain Covid-19.

Field hospital in Central Park, New York City, March 30 2020 (Source: BBC News by Getty Images).

Researchers in the past have looked to social indicators as level of education, the development of science and technology in society, and public trust on science as factors that contribute to scientific illiteracy. But these factors clearly do not explain the presence of Covid-19 denialism in many parts of the developed and developing world. Other analysts have pointed to the advent of the digital age and unregulated social media, as sources of disinformation and misinformation. While this is undoubtedly a factor in giving rise to Covid-19 denialism, exposure to fringe sources of information occurs in a wide range of societies, yet not all have succumbed to paralysis in rallying support for public health interventions. Further complicating this is the spread of misinformation by political leaders and heads of state.

Deborah Birx and Anthony Fauci listen as former President Trump speaks at a coronavirus briefing at the White House on March 20. (Source: Washington Post by Jabin Botsford).

Studying a topic such as ignorance is tricky, especially in such polarizing times. Nonetheless, our interdisciplinary backgrounds in STS provides us with approaches to broach this subject with care. Our analysis is based on three steps: (1) contextualize the discourses of Covid-19 denialism addressed to specific topic dimensions of the pandemic, (2) trace the discourses of denialism over time, and (3) see how these framings of the crisis are taken up by different audiences. This will enable us to further understand how the frames of denialism are taken up in different societies and how these discourses account for a fast unfolding crisis.

 

Beginnings of a conceptual framework

Our theoretical starting point comes from Proctor’s (2008) discussion of agnotology. As Proctor writes, “we need to think about the conscious, unconscious, and structural production of ignorance, its diverse causes and conformations, whether brought about by neglect, forgetfulness, myopia, extinction, secrecy, or suppression. The point is to question the naturalness of ignorance, its causes and its distribution” (10). Covid-19 denialism arises from actors behaving consciously with mal-intent, as a byproduct of institutional arrangements and technological infrastructures, as well as the unintended consequences of well-meaning policies aimed at combatting the pandemic. It is this latter factor that we focus on.

Covid-19 patient and overwhelmed healthcare professionals at a hospital bedside in
Brooklyn, New York City, USA. (Source: The Atlantic by Go Nakamura/Getty Images)

We also draw on Eyal’s (2019) recent book on the “crisis of expertise”. As Eyal helpfully notes, there are many parts of science that the public do not question in their day to day lives, like theoretical physics or civil engineering. But when science is asked to make policy decisions that have direct implications on people’s lives, then this policy-relevant science becomes the subject of debate and skepticism. Public health as a scientific discipline has life and death implications, particularly during the pandemic, making it perhaps the most controversial part of science during these troubled times. Covid-19 denialism, should therefore be understood in relation to public health expertise.

Furthermore, Jasanoff (2007) demonstrates that such public deliberations over evidence and knowledge can be studied cross-nationally from the lens of sociotechnical imaginaries, as how a particular society understands the emerging public health crisis will depend on relationships between experts and expertise with social, political, and economic structures. By taking up the idea of sociotechnical imaginaries, we hope to show how dominant forms of pathogenic imaginaries, as seen in public health expertise, contain blind spots that make them susceptible to populist challenges. These blind spots enable insurgent pathogenic imaginaries to mutate and come to dominate public discourse.

 

A brief sketch of Covid-19 denialism in three countries

In our study, we show Covid-19 denialism has been particularly noticeable in public discourses in the United States, Brazil and United Kingdom. Characterized by reluctance and delay, those societies bring similarities in the response to the pandemic by policymakers and the presence of significant opposition to public health measures designed to mitigate the spread of the virus. Partly due to this denialism, Covid-19’s impact on those three countries have been particularly pronounced. Of course, this is only one part of the story. Other analysis, such as from Kavanagh and Singh (2020), note the lack of state capacity in these countries that contributed to the inability to control the spread of the virus. As of January 2021, these three countries are still in the top five number of COVID-19 cases (along with India and Russia) and deaths along (Mexico), according with Worldometer.

President Jair Bolsonaro promoting Hydroxychloroquine in his periodically unofficial online videos on Facebook. (Source: Gazeta do Povo).

In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro publicly disavowed all social-distancing and quarantine recommendations. Bolsonaro suggested that the pandemic was just a global hysteria and insistently perpetuated the myth that it only causes a gripezinha (little flu). Bolsonaro, like Trump, also publicly backed the use of hydroxychloroquine to treat symptoms, even without scientific proof of efficacy and safety. In April 2020, the Brazilian president also fired two health ministers in less than a month who advocated for social distancing and joined protests against a governor who has put economic activities in his state on pause. What little public health guidance that was given, focused on telling the public to “stay home and take care of yourself”, which individualized responsibility for Covid-19 without specifying collective actions taken to mitigate the pandemic’s risks. In 2021, facing an increasingly pressure to start mass vaccination nationwide, Bolsonaro publicly discourages people to get vaccinated and extensively shares unfounded concerns about potential Covid-19 vaccines-associated severe adverse reactions.

Extraordinary silent in downtown London, March 2020. (Source: BBC by Jeff Overs/BBC).

In the United Kingdom, Prime Minister Boris Johnson initially opted for a “herd immunity” strategy before being confronted with catastrophic projections from an Imperial College research group, while facing high pressure from far-right groups to further ease social distancing guidelines. The primary rallying call for the public was centered on the National Health Services: “stay home, protect the NHS, save lives”. While this linked individual action to the desired outcome of protecting the capacity of medical institutions to save lives, the simple dictate to “stay home” provided an easy target for anti-lockdown protesters. In 2021, his attitude completely change since United Kingdom is now the European epicenter of new infections and had unfortunately spreading a new 30% mode deadly virus variant. 

In the United States, former President Donald Trump repeatedly undermined his scientific advisors and tweeted out in support of anti-lockdown protests around the country in a bid to re-open the economy. Public health experts, working around Trump’s obstruction and sabotage, urged the public to stay home to help “flatten the curve”. This imaginary of flattening the curve focused solely on mitigation rather than containment and eradication. The statistical abstraction the pandemic also hindered the ability of the public to fully understand the human toll of the virus. Now, President Biden’s administration has to deal with the great challenge to create a vaccine distribution plan that can outpace the rapid spread of Covid-19.

Through our comparisons of these three countries, we hope to further trace the contours of Covid-19 denialism as a reaction to dominant pathogenic imaginaries and public expertise. 

Cemetery in Manaus, Brazil, after the second wave of deaths in January 2021. (Source: Michel Dantas/AFP).

 

Working during the pandemic

About a year ago, after enjoying a 3-month visiting appointment at Columbia University’s Department of Sociology, invited by the professors Gil Eyal and Diane Vaughan, I left New York City a week before the pandemic was announced by WHO. Since then, me and Larry are working remotely and meeting periodically to discuss different parts of empirical research design, data collection and analysis.

Columbia University in the days before the pandemic was declared by WHO. Source: Personal Archive. February 2020.

Previous connections with each other were very important to make this work possible, since we have worked together on a comparative project that examines the trajectories of genomics and precision medicine in China and Brazil using a similar organizational process (Au and Silva, 2020). We are very proud of how STS is taking social sciences in account in the great global debates on the pandemic. Studying Covid-19 denialism is being a great opportunity to strength our community around a problem to be solved.  

 

 

References

Au, Larry, and Renan Gonçalves Leonel da Silva. Forthcoming. “Globalizing the Scientific Bandwagon: Trajectories of Precision Medicine in China and Brazil.” Science, Technology & Human Values. 46 p. 016224392. 

Eyal, Gil. 2019. The Crisis of Expertise. Cambridge, UK; Medford, MA: Polity.

Hilgartner, S.; Miller, C., Hagendijk, R. (Eds.), Science and Democracy: Making Knowledge and Making Power in the Biosciences and Beyond, Routledge, London. 2015.

Jasanoff, Sheila. 2007. Designs on Nature: Science and Democracy in Europe and the United States. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

Jasanoff, Sheila et al. 2021. Comparative Covid Response: Crisis, Knowledge, Politics. Interim Report. 12 January 2021. Accessed 20 January 2021. Available at https://www.ingsa.org/covidtag/covid-19-commentary/jasanoff-schmidt/. 

Kavanagh MM, Singh R. 2020. Democracy, Capacity, and Coercion in Pandemic Response: COVID-19 in Comparative Political Perspective. J Health Polit Policy Law 1; 45(6):997-1012. 

Proctor, Robert. 2008. “Agnotology: A Missing Term to Describe the Cultural Production of Ignorance (and Its Study).” In Agnotology: The Making and Unmaking of Ignorance, edited by Robert N. Proctor and Londa Schiebinger, 1–33. Stanford, CA: Stanford University.

The shadow theater of dueling modalities: A note on pandemic simulation

Given humans’ ubiquitous desire to know the future, modeling and simulation have arisen as powerful tools for the job. However, the scientific and political aspects of their outcomes—prediction and forecast—can be the target of harsh criticism and dispute. This essay examines recent controversies in the simulation of both seismology and pandemic epidemiology in Japan and elsewhere. We find that disputes over different modalities of perception, as in the intriguing issue of imaging possible alternative worlds versus the singularity of the existing world, may date back to 17th-century philosophy.
I 

In the 1980s, one of the authors conducted field research in Java, Indonesia, on a religious sect headed by a spirit medium who allegedly could communicate with spirits of mythic figures. We visited one of the sacred places in Central Java, where the medium was to serve as an oracle for the guardian spirit of Java for the coming year. Arriving at the village near the place, we were deeply disappointed to hear that we had missed seeing President Suharto and his small company. They had just left the place, allegedly having listened to a similarly high-status spirit through the oracle, probably about the prospects for national politics (Fukushima, 2002). 

 Our irrepressible desire to know the future is all but universal, and analyses of how people construct knowledge about the future are centrally situated among widely diverse fields, ranging from the anthropology of religion to studies regarding “contested futures” in STS. Against this intellectual background, our research group has published an edited book, Forecasting and Society: How Scientific Narratives Construct Society, a collection of conducted comparative studies of future-oriented scientific discourse, such as prediction and forecasting in diverse fields of science and technology (Yamaguchi & Fukushima, 2019). 

Among our topics, seismological prediction (jishin-yochi, in Japanese) has been one of our priorities, given its integral constitution as a complex entanglement of science and policy. Both policymakers and the public in Japan have high expectations for precise predictions of when, where, and how large the impending earthquake will be. In fact, legislation has long been approved for a public action plan when large earthquakes happen (cf. Tomari, 2015).1                        

Such high expectations, however, have met the reality of actual seismological limitations, which fall far short of providing such a high-precision prediction; all they can provide is an imprecise long-term forecast for earthquakes in specific areas, based on a historiographical analysis of past cases (Suzuki & Koketsu, 2019). In fact, seismologists in Japan have carefully avoided using the term yochi (prediction) among themselves, instead favoring yosoku (forecast), which has a subtly milder connotation; however, such a difference is hardly perceptible to laypeople. The legislation mentioned above was approved specifically on the assumption that scientists would provide precise predictions. It was only in 2017 that the law was changed, partly because seismologists failed to predict the huge earthquake ten years ago in northeast Japan. 

Fig 1: National seismic hazard map for Japan (2005). Source: Earthquake Research Committee Headquarters for Earthquake Research Promotion (2005) Report: ‘National Seizmic Hazard Maps for Japan’ Fig. 3.3.1-1 Distribution map of probability of ground motions. p33. https://www.jishin.go.jp/main/index-e.html (Accessed December 25, 2020)
II

Pandemic simulation and its relationship to policy seem to exhibit some different characteristics from simulations for seismology. One of the two authors has long been interested in social simulation, which gives rise to notable differences in policy among countries, eventually leading our attention to pandemic modeling and simulation as a concrete subject of study. This already happened before the global catastrophe caused by the present COVID-19 pandemic. 

One of the major characteristics of Japan’s pandemic simulation is that it has had virtually no place in policymaking, in sharp contrast to the ongoing enthusiasm for seismological prediction. Although concerned specialists regard pandemic simulation as a highly useful instrument for understanding both the expansion of infectious diseases and their prevention, the number of such specialists has been considerably small to be visible to policymakers and, consequently, of little concern. 

As we faced some trouble in finding a proper example of pandemic simulation being used for policy, we extended our search to Taiwan, which had experienced failed policy on the SARS pandemic, from which, ironically in the end, they gained global recognition for their success in controlling the current coronavirus. Eventually, we found that policymakers their regard the use of pandemic simulation considerably positively, with various instances that foreshadowed the coming confusion manifest in countries’ policy processes at present (Hibino, 2019). 

Japan’s management of the present situation has exhibited an intriguing contrast with the Taiwanese case mentioned above. After an initial set of blunders in the case of a cruise-ship infection, Japan appeared to succeed in curbing the expansion of the pandemic until mid-March 2020. Subsequently, in late March, ominous signs of its explosion led to heated disputes in various fields on the proper prevention of viruses. Consequently, the government declared an emergency and asked for an “80% reduction in human interaction,” a number derived from a pandemic simulation by Professor Hiroshi Nishiura, an authority among Japan’s mathematical epidemiologists and a core member of the newly established Action Committee for the Pandemic Cluster in the Ministry of Health. Nishiura even issued a personal message outlining a possible scenario for its expansion: “If no measures are taken, like reducing inter-human interaction, the number of seriously ill patients may reach about 850,000, half of whom will die.” This statement worked to inspire public fear.  

Fig 2 Image of the mathematical models of infectious disease epidemics
(Source: drawn by Aiko Hibino)

In June 2020, when the expansion of the infection seemed to have slowed temporarily, and public opinion appeared to settle down a little, criticism of the foregoing policy measures as excessive rose sharply as the mass media collectively bashed Nishiura, mocking him as “Mr. 80%” by poking fun at his earlier forecast. The reality, however, is not that we succeeded in controlling the pandemic; just as in other parts of the world, we have been hit by second and third waves, which ironically rehabilitated the honors of both Nishiura and his simulation practices. 

In terms of policy intervention, one of the visible contrasts between the prediction (or forecasting) of earthquakes and of pandemics is that the earthquake we are concerned with tends to be a massive, single event wherein policy intervention is largely confined to two periods: efforts aimed at disaster prevention beforehand and post-disaster reconstruction from the damage. Conversely, pandemics must be dealt with differently because political decisions have to be made right in the middle of the spread of the disease, and the event itself lasts longer. It follows naturally that the mode of interaction between science and policy may reveal considerable differences as well. 

 

III

Intriguingly, although our concern has been centered on constructing the future, we realize that most of the criticism against meandering pandemic policies often targeted the past, assuming that an untraveled better past has been unrealized because of faulty policy intervention. In fact, as with the criticisms of Nishiura mentioned above, critics seem to claim that measures had not been needed, as if to say that a better world could have been achieved without such measures and that the critics indeed know what it would have been. 

We wonder, however, whether we can be reasonably sure of this alternative world wherein allegedly better policies were carried out. Such questions bring to mind Sliding Doors (1997), a fascinating movie directed by Peter Howitt, in which the main character, Helen (actor Gwyneth Paltrow), fails to slide into the closing door of a train in the tube in London in one of the two different worlds. In the other, she does succeed in jumping into the train. This results in two different, but similarly gloomy, consequences for her relationship with her boyfriend. 

Commonsensically, we think of the world we have already experienced as unchangeable and the future as being at least somewhat dependent on our choices. However, the power of scientific forecasting makes our future look like a world of necessity, and hence our effort in our edited book referred to above (Yamaguchi & Fukushima, 2019) to deconstruct such a view to leave room for the human will.3 Meanwhile, the rampant criticisms of ongoing pandemic policies—often with rhetoric indicating that things could have been better—remind us of our desperate wish to change even the past or at least to see the other world where we could have slid through the closing door of the tube train. 

Obviously, there is no way of conducting a controlled experiment in the real world: at best, either we implement contrasting policies one after another and learn from their consequences, or we scrutinize the outcome of similar policies carried out in other places. Either way, however, things are far from being controlled in terms of ideal procedures in laboratory sciences. Hence, we are obliged to be patient, as the knowledge produced by such a social experiment is fundamentally limited. However, we seem to easily forget such constraints, probably because we are constantly driven to dream of a better possible world, as seen in the harsh criticisms of actual policies in response to either earthquakes or pandemics. 

 

IV

In this context, strikingly instructive is Stewart (2006) on the encounter between Baruch Spinoza and Gottfried Leibnitz in his biographical work that examines their intersecting lives. The pith of this book deals with how Leibnitz tried desperately to attenuate or eventually to annul the destructive impact of the idea of the singular world of necessity advocated by Spinoza, by creating the concept of multiple worlds of possibility. Ultimately, this concept was introduced to save the role of God, who decides upon the best among these possible worlds (cf. Ueno, 2013).

We vaguely understand, in theory at least, what Spinoza insists upon—the need for patience to understand this singular world of necessity owing to our lack of knowledge. However, it is paradoxical and somewhat amusing that we also share the wish to have a glimpse of, or even to jump to, the alternative possible worlds that Leibnitz mysteriously counterposes.4 At the end of his book, Stewart (2006) refers to Spinoza as the first modern philosopher who thought the world as rigorously singular, whereas Leibnitz is the first modern person with a constant craving for possible better worlds. In this sense, we are all descendants of both these ancestors.

The ongoing situation created by the pandemic is a good laboratory for observing the rapid oscillation, in a matter of a few months or even weeks, between two different ideas about the modality of the world(s). It is like the tropical Wayang theater where the shadow pictures of two modalities, both of which reside in ourselves, are endlessly struggling in a manner quaintly reminiscent of the ancient Javanese philosophy (Matsumoto, 1981).

 

 

1 It is called the Act on Special Measures Concerning Countermeasures for Large-Scale Earthquakes, 1978. 

2 Fukushima (2019) is an experimental essay on the book.

3 Due to space limit, we leave undiscussed the question of how our stance in the book on the issue is related to the argument in the following section. 

4 Stewart (2006) notes, however, that their relationship is fundamentally asymmetrical: that is, Leibnitz worked in the shadow of Spinoza’s influence, the former both co-opting and resisting the latter, not vice versa. 

 

Bibliography 

Fukushima M (2002) The Religion and Politics of Java: An Ethnographic Memoir of Indonesia under Suharto’s New Order. Tokyo: Hituzi Shobo. (in Japanese). 

Fukushima M (2019) A Future Far Away: Forecasting and Society https://www.researchgate.net/publication/335013117_A_Future_Far_Away_An_Essay_on_Forecasting_and_Society

Hibino A (2019) The Ecology of Models in Pandemic Simulation. In: Yamaguchi T & Fukushima M (eds): pp. 113-139 (in Japanese).

Stewart, M (2006) The Courtier and the Heretic: Leibnitz, Spinoza, and the Fate of God in the Modern World. New York: W. W. Norton & Company

Suzuki M & Koketsu K (2019) The Problem of Forecasting Based upon the Past: The Probabilistic Seismic Hazard Maps for Japan. In: Yamaguchi T & Fukushima M (eds): pp. 173-192(in Japanese).

Tomari, J. (2015) 130 Years of the Research on Earthquake Prediction: Form Meiji to The East Japan Earthquake. Tokyo: The Tokyo University Press. (in Japanese). 

Ueno O (2013) The Wonderland of Philosophers: On the Seventeenth Century of Modality. Kodansha (in Japanese). 

Yamaguchi T & Fukushima M (eds) (2019) Forecasting and Society: How Scientific Narratives Construct Society. Tokyo: The University of Tokyo Press. (in Japanese). 

It begins with us: On why our embodied experiences matter in the dis/appearance of worlds

“To ‘de-passion’ knowledge”, writes Vinciane Despret, “does not give us a more objective world, it just gives us a world ‘without us’” (2004, p. 131). In this piece, I would like to reflect about us, STS researchers. Bringing the past 2020 joint EASST-4S conference theme’s ‘Locating and Timing matters’ together with the current coronavirus pandemic, I would like to discuss our embodied “significance and agency in the emergence/occlusion of worlds”(Felt, 2020). Usually concealed in the sphere of the ‘private’, ‘quotidian’ and ‘mundane’, I hope to persuade you that your embodied experiences, – always already situated within specific spatio-temporal frames –, matters. It matters, first of all to you/us, being then crucial for establishing inclusive relationships with our colleagues and ‘epistemic partners’, and, ultimately, for re-passioning our discipline(s).

In all its complexities and demands, our academic labour involves examining, analysing, theorising, writing, explaining, lecturing about scientists, scientific theories, technologies, its policy and innovation frameworks as well as biomolecules, microbes, patients, bodies, non-humans, non-western practices and many other elements. That is, these are only a few of the vast and heterogeneous array of elements that populate our work life. Where are ‘we’ in such a populous list of (other) agents, matter, meaning, and worlds in which we dedicate such a substantial part of our lives? The ‘we’ I am interesting in is an embodied ‘we’, a challenging ‘we’, I believe, for many of us. It is challenging because, as academics, we are trained in and we mostly perform a mind-based ‘we’ instead of an embodied one. 

 

Disembodiment 

While we deeply study processes of re- and de-naturalisation between science and society, processes of our own bodily des-/re-naturalisations remain largely unspoken. Our own body or ‘bodies multiples’ (physical, spiritual, psychological, social, biological and so forth), particularly at their perceptual, experiential levels, has been what Chris Chilling refers to as an ‘absent present’ (2012) in the humanities and social sciences. This is a striking aspect considering that bodies (gendered, racialised, (dis)able, classed, aged, etc) are a key concern of our wider enquiries about ecologies and socio-technics of worlds, particularly with regards to contemporary biomedicine. 

The ‘absent presence’ of our bodies is not only striking; it is also a paradoxical trait of our academic persona with regards to the general consensus within STS against Cartesian dichotomies (subject/object, material/immaterial, nature/culture, rational/irrational). We use the prevalent notions of ‘entanglements’, ‘biosocial’, ‘naturecultures’ and similar material-semiotic companionships and devices as a response to the western precept of the mastery of the mind (read Euro American imperialism and colonialism) over the body (read also non-whites, women, microbes). Yet, in spite of our epistemological registers, I find an evident mismatch between our theories and how we enact them or, to be more precise, why we rarely enact them by bringing them together with our fleshy bodies and lives. Our individual and collective bodies as academic workers, our ‘carnal knowing’ (Sobchack, 2004), are systematically elicited and concealed in our research, partly, as I will elaborate below, as an effect of today’s academic system focussed on ‘outputs’. 

A more unpleasant explanation could also be that our bodies and embodied experiences have never been there. Drew Leder (1990) refers to this phenomenon as the ‘absent body’, by which bodies and related motor abilities disappear from conscious awareness, residing in the ‘background’ of experience. Ignored and silenced, we seclude our bodies into our ‘academic (rational) minds’; as if in a proficient ‘habitus’ (Bourdieu, 1977) of disembodiment (mind from body) we had transcended them, as if we were… ‘transhumans’? 

To complicate the matter more, the current passage from bodily to virtual working presence in many European countries in response to the pandemic, has surfaced as well as enlarged such chronic disembodied (or mind-based) ‘we’ as individuals, collectives and institutions to unprecedented dimensions. However, instead of holding on to dystopian apathy, we might frame this circumstance as a favourable occasion to reflect on the consequences of concealing or even ignoring our physical bodies and embodied experiences from the knowledge-practices we co-create. And if our embodied beings are the fundamental or primal form of engaging with worlds, it begins with me: my own embodied memories and narratives are a required point of passage for the purpose of this reflection-piece. 

Asynchrony 

Accumulating exhaustion from the many tasks and increasing demands of academic life, we are now reclaiming slower modes of knowledge-practices making (c.f. Stengers, 2018). Yet, together with our ‘disembodied habitus’, the structural perversity of the web of productivity and success makes it hardly possible to decelerate (for the many, I believe). This, of course, excludes those able to take time (e.g. to publish…fast!).  In an inspiring plenary session at the joint EASST/4S Conference 2020, Ulrike Felt addressed this great divide between ‘those who can make time and those who are out of time’ as the ‘real expression of power’ (Felt, 2020). Exclusions, she argued,

“are no longer brought about by depriving people of material resources or denying access to specific places or placing them at the periphery. Rather, exclusion occurs tacitly, to simply making it difficult to hardly possible to be an active part of the same temporal-regime; to be able to synchronise and imposing the emergence of specific technoscientific worlds and not others” 

This quote accurately captures a reality experienced by many of us, especially during pandemic/lockdowns and especially for carers (i.e. mainly women). In my case, having my child during my doctoral years in the country with the most expensive childcare of the world (UK), without shared responsibilities or support network, took a huge toll into my postdoctoral prospects. As for the majority of women with family responsibilities, time and dedication can only be fragmentary. Childcare, housework, funding applications, teaching, a bit of research, and back again. 

A bitter consequence of discontinuous time is deceiving those colleagues and mentors who support you and your work. Missing deadlines, conferences, missing ‘opportunities’… In brief, not being able to ‘synchronise’. These vicissitudes, along with an unfortunate episode of abuse of power and appropriation in the race for ‘success’, has shrunken my prospects in academia. 

In addition, another open secret or taboo that I would like to share is that my identities – women, mother, non-native speaker, precarious early-career– have played a role in my truncated academic ‘projection’. I am, after all, easily ‘disposable’. That is, it is obvious that my ‘profile’ (read life circumstances not cv) impedes me to “keep churning out papers” (Aitkenhead, 2013), top requisite of today’s academia. 

Soon after I started confronting these unpleasant realities about my academic career, in early March 2020, I caught Sars-CoV-2, developing its persistent form, what is now known as ‘long Covid’ (Callard & Perego, 2021). 

Chronobioinequalities

For the past decade, I have been studying how and the extent to which human microbiome science is displacing older ideas of immunity as a guarantor of biological identity and individuality. One of the key findings of my research has been that while microbial science renders notions of the self as bounded, universal, and autonomous increasingly difficult to maintain, it simultaneously instantiates new forms of difference – particularly ‘immunitary privileges’ based on a higher microbial diversity – and  reproduces old ones in terms of neo-colonial practices of bioprospecting biodiversity (Núñez Casal, 2019). Moving beyond current medical humanities and STS work on the microbiome, my latest research develops a feminist critical analysis and embodied methodology that draws attention to lived experiences of health inequalities, the social mobilisation of microbiology and local, traditional and profane healing cultures and practices. 

Despite my research being about the entanglements between microbes, embodiment, and inequalities, I succumbed to the Cartesian matrix. Stretched to its limits, my body ‘shut down’ during and long after infection. Defying multispecies conviviality and thus augmenting the current immunitary post-Covid rhetoric, my body was perhaps protecting itself from precarity and exploitation, for all the mistreatment it endured for a long while. Rushing transformed into stillness. As often occurs when we experience illness (Leder, 1990), unable to talk or walk much for months, my body, its physical dimension at least, reappeared back into consciousness.

Among the millions infected with SARS-CoV2– medically categorized as ‘mild’ (Callard, 2020) and thus mostly recovering at home – their vast myriad of mutable and debilitating symptoms often last for several weeks or even months. During the long months of my own convalesce, I observed with a cautious enthusiasm that my individual experiences were part of an emerging and growing collective action around shared experiences of recovering from or living with ‘bodily manifestations’ of Covid-19. I was excited to witness the materialisation of what I call ‘feminist para-ethnographies’, that is, a material-semiotic device of ‘socialised biology’ (Riley, 1983) involving the transformation of silenced and private embodied experiences into shared and collective experiences (Núñez Casal, 2018, 2019, 2021). In confinement, these online support groups, communities and citizen science initiatives were firstly established in Spain, Italy, South Korea, the UK, the US, France, and Finland at the beginning of the pandemic. As occurs with other ‘recalcitrant infections’ (e.g. UTIs) in the absence of appropriate (health)care, dietary changes along with supplements from various medical traditions became crucial elements of online support. They were the only available ways to address the multiple vulnerabilities and inequalities (i.e. healthcare, employment and childcare) experienced by those struggling with ‘long Covid’ at home. 

Illness narratives and embodied knowledge have been fruitful feminist methods to challenge scientific objectivity and positivism for decades (Barad, 2007; Blackman, 2012; Haraway, 1988; Hesse-Biber, 2008; Harding, 1987; Smith, 1999).  Embodied experiences of bacterial and viral infections, however, have been underexplored aspects in the social sciences and humanities, particularly in relation to multispecies ethnographies and social aspects of Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR) (Núñez Casal, 2019). 

Although embodied biographies figure as an indispensable part of the efficacy of more conventional biomedical treatments for illnesses and disorders such as autoimmunity (Anderson and Mackay, 2014), ‘lived experiences’ have been largely devalued in the biomedical understanding of health and disease. Here, Western biomedicine is very ill-equipped compared to the integral or holistic ways of seeing health and disease in traditional and complementary medicine (Mathpati et al., 2020). As such, I believe that the pandemic provides an invaluable opportunity to revert this, co-generating and reclaiming other forms of evidence (e.g. embodiment) and of evidence-making (e.g. lay expertise) as well as different ways of healing.

If, as Felt (2020) reminds us, “we experience time mostly through narratives”, then attending and listening to embodied experiences is a way through which to “render time visible” (e.g. disease progression, recovery, relapses). A helpful example is the high incidence of long Covid in women (Brodin, 2021). Beyond scientific explanations of the role of sex hormones such as oestrogen and other immune determinants, it would not be too adventurous to hypothesise about non-biomedical factors such as the structural inequalities and exhaustion women’s bodies experience (particularly those of the most vulnerable). In other words, being asynchronised produces and reproduces what Didier Fassin calls ‘bioinequalities’ (2009) or, on the other way round, ‘immunitary privileges’ (Núñez Casal, 2019), like racial and ethnic disparities in mortality and vaccination coverage during the pandemic, to name a few. 

 

Becoming inclusive 

Against the erasure of data that truncates the linear and seemingly ‘objective’ scientific knowledge production, our role as connoisseurs, that is, as ‘agents of resistance against a scientific knowledge that pretends it has general authority’ (Stengers, 2018, p. 9), is crucial. Yet, becoming connoisseurs, requires careful reflection on our own positionality and its entanglements in knowledge production. It is not only biomedicine that has devalued local and traditional health cultures, including the role of embodied experiences in health and disease. For many of us, I believe, our own situatedness in the West, even if in dissidence, acts as an inherent impediment. The blooming field of chronobiology, for example, illustrates this well. At the back of the growing interest of today’s biomedicine on temporal environments, metabolism and circadian physiology, there are long genealogies of non-Western medical systems and traditions – knowledge systems that have been studying the spatio-temporal dimension of health and disease for millennia such as Indian indigenous systems of health care like Ayurveda – which biomedical and social sciences and humanities research alike often overlook. Importantly, the ecological nostalgia for a traditional or even ‘ancestral’ past articulated around ‘new’ food cultures in the west (e.g. fermentation, wholegrains, fasting and spirituality, etc) is not only about (mostly non-western) local health traditions and belief systems but, crucially, it also entails the consequential role of women in transgenerational health and wellbeing (i.e. unwaged reproductive labour). Our role as connoisseurs demands an effort to learn from or acknowledge at least knowledge-practices and actors beyond our own (gendered) Western precepts and situatedness. 

To conclude, our embodied being is “not just a location for society and culture” but “forms a basis for and shapes our relationships and creations” (Chilling, 2012, p. 15). As “having fun, doing something we do well for the sheer pleasure of doing it” (Graeber, 2014), I argue, figures as a form of re-passioning our ‘knowledge-in-practice’ about our ‘bodies-in-action’ (Mol and Law, 2004, p. 51). Bringing embodied experiences to the forefront of our critical analysis (either implicitly or explicitly in our research) would (1) make STS research relevant to wider academic and non-academic publics, as well as (2) open up spaces and paces towards ‘sensible’ (read also sustainable and ethical) knowledge-practices in our disciplinary domains, towards the emergence of (inclusive) worlds, worlds that begin with us.  

 

Acknowledgements

I would like to thank my dearest friend and mentor Niki Vermeulen for being always there, ‘available’, in both the quotidian and the academic. I am very grateful for being synchronised early into Lisa Blackman’s pioneering work on embodiment as well as into Louise Chambers’ pedagogy of the body at Goldsmiths. I am very grateful to Coll de Lima Hutchison, Mahesh Mathpati, and John Porter and our ‘Ksobha’ group. Our embodied conversations, compassionate support and generosity are joyful and nourishing sources of inspiration.

 

 

References

Aitkenhead, D., (2013, December 3). Peter Higgs: I wouldn’t be productive enough for today’s academic system. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/science/2013/dec/06/peter-higgs-boson-academic-system?fbclid=IwAR11gjnevdeRVbwHwNDwmmcQ4NfJ_082iJP7mMuY_46M1812LvXxMmwxr78

Anderson, W., & Mackay, I. R. (2014). Intolerant bodies: A short history of autoimmunity. Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press.

Barad, K. (2007). Meeting the universe halfway: Quantum physics and the entanglement of matter and meaning. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Blackman, L. (2012). Immaterial bodies: Affect, embodiment, mediation. London, England: SAGE. https://doi.org/10.4135/9781446288153

Bourdieu, P. (1977). Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press. 

Brodin, P. (2021). Immune determinants of COVID-19 disease presentation and severity. Nature Medicine, 27 (1): 28-33. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41591-020-01202-8

Callard, F., & Perego, E. (2021). How and why patients made Long Covid. Social Science & Medicine, 268: 1-5. 

Callard, F. (2020). Very, very mild: covid-19 symptoms and illness classification. Somatosphere. Retrieved from http://somatosphere.net/2020/mild-covid.html/

Despret, V. (2004). ‘The body we care for: Figures of anthropo-zoo-genesis’. Body & Society, 10(2-3), 111–134. https://doi.org/10.1177/1357034X04042938

Fassin, D. (2009). Another politics of life is possible. Theory, Culture & Society, 26(5), 44–60. https://doi.org/10.1177/0263276409106349

Graeber, D. (2014). ‘What’s the point if we can’t have fun?’, The Baffler, 24. Retrieved from https://thebaffler.com/salvos/whats-the-point-if-we-cant-have-fun

Haraway, D. (1988). ‘Situated knowledges: The science question in feminism and the

privilege of partial perspective’. Feminist Studies, 14(3), 575–599. https://doi.org/10.2307/3178066

Haraway, D. (2016). Staying with the trouble: Making kin in the Chthulucene. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Harding, S. (Ed.). (1987). Feminism and methodology: Social science issues. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Hesse-Biber, S. N. (2008). ‘Feminist research’. In: L. M. Given (Ed.), The SAGE encyclopedia of qualitative research methods, vols. 1 & 2, (pp. 335–337). Los Angeles, CA: SAGE.

Leder, D. (1990). The absent body. Chicago, ILL: University of Chicago Press. 

Mathpati, M. M., et al (2020). ‘Population Self-Reliance in Health’ and COVID 19: The need for a 4th tier in the health system’. Journal of Ayurveda and Integrative Medicine

Mol, A., & Law, J. (2004). ‘Embodied action, enacted bodies: The example of hypoglycaemia’. Body & Society, 10(2–3), 43–62. https://doi.org/10.1177/1357034X04042932

Núñez Casal, A. (2021) ‘Feminist Para-Ethnographies: A Proposition for a ‘Critical Friendship’ Between Embodied Experiences and Microbiome Science’. In J.V., Nicholls, E.J. & Denis, F. (Eds.)., Critical Friends and the Choreographies of Care. London Journal in Critical Thought. https://research.gold.ac.uk/id/eprint/29500

Núñez Casal, A. (2019). The microbiomisation of social categories of difference: An interdisciplinary critical science study of the human microbiome as the re-enactment of the immune self. PhD thesis, Goldsmiths, University of London. https://doi.org/10.25602/GOLD.00026597

Núñez Casal, A. (2018). ‘Feminist para-ethnographies: attuning matters of fact and matters of concern in microbiome science’, Fresh Perspectives: Social Research on Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR), The British Academy, London, September 10, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3wGZ3WT1ktM&t=1s

Shildrick, M. (2002). Embodying the monster: Encounters with the vulnerable self. London, England: SAGE.

Shilling, C. (2012). The body and social theory. London, England: SAGE. Retrieved from http://www.sagepub.com/books/Book235613siteId=sageus&prodTypes=Books&q=9780857025333&pageTitle =productsSearch

Smith, L. T. (1999). Decolonizing methodologies: Research and indigenous peoples.London, England: Zed Books.

Sobchack, V. (2004). Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. 

Stengers, I. (2018). Another science is possible: A manifesto for slow science. Cambridge, England: Polity Press.

The EASST Review has COVID-19

It’s been roughly a year now of living with COVID-19. Seemingly nothing has been left untouched or unaffected in many countries on earth. To put it in the words of the EASST council in April 2020: “we have been catapulted into a different world”. Yet how different it has actually become will keep us all busy for a long time. It has been a year of changing lives, changing routines, changing work practices, changing relationships, changing mobility patterns, etc. These changes go along with new forms of co-living with microbes; international and national containment policies configuring potential new forms of nationalism; debates no health infrastructures and their economic/social/political/cultural embedding; diverging public health approaches and national risk discourses; public negotiations of scientific expertise; and scientific production processes gaining increasing attention. The COVID-19 pandemic also demands us to ask about disparities in the work place and educational sector, in health measures and health care and – related to that –social and environmental justice. 

Since the pandemic has gained momentum, scientific work has also changed along with it: academic labour has shifted into home settings, reshaping boundaries between work and private life; teaching takes place in online formats and so do our meetings, workshops and conferences; empirical work is most often suspended or translated into virtual work e.g. virtual ethnography; the short-term format of third-party funded academics has unveiled its precarious side-effects; the necessity of mobility in and for academic work and careers has been given a different twist.

Along all such interventions into our lives and ways of living, one could say that COVID-19 opens up major tensions of postmodern times. Yet this global state of emergency also makes one thing strikingly clear: the importance and need for STS research. This research is not only essential in and for current social and political developments but will stay important in the aftermath of this current pandemic and for potential pre-waves of new pandemics to come. Hence, we find it of utmost importance to continuously reflect on and channel STS voices on how the COVID-19 pandemic infects our work, and our thinking on presents and futures. Consequently, this issue presents our ‘STS Live’ section on COVID-19, containing reflections on its impact on early career research, on research agenda’s and new ways of doing STS research. The various contributions share a call to action, from an embodied STS to sowing our thinking in and across societies. 

We also present a new section to you called ‘Translations’. This came out of longer discussions on the need to pay attention to the multiple languages in which our work is performed, with valuable meanings and understandings getting lost in English translations, and vice versa, some books or articles not reaching those who do not understand the language they are published in. In addition, we hope that this section can host some articles on the impact of STS work, showing translation from academia to society. Our new section wants to give a platform on which we can show and reflect on shifts in meanings of STS and its concepts across borders, languages and times. The inauguration of this section pays attention to ‘socio-technical’ translations in Latin America and expands the meaning of ‘solidarity’ through engagement with Austrian healthcare for refugees. 

As always, we are grateful for our authors and contributors to the EASST Review, to the above sections as well as our other standing sections, including ‘STS Multiple’ featuring the Techno-Anthropology (TANT) group at Aalborg University in Denmark, ‘Cherish not Perish’ on the new Manchester University Press STS book series ‘Inscriptions’, and ‘STS events’ with a report on the webinar “Back to Normal? Social Justice & DOHaD in the COVID Era” hosted by the MCTS (TU Munich) and the university of Southampton. Especially in these pandemic times which often leave no time to volunteer additional time to our STS community, the efforts of those who can contribute are very much appreciated. This also allows us to give a heartfelt thank you to the EASST council members who are leaving us and who have devoted their time to EASST over the past years. And we congratulate our incoming members and new president Maja Horst who has written a welcoming statement in our ‘news from the council’ section. We are looking forward to work with the new council in the upcoming years!

Finally, we would like to call on all of you to keep contributing to the Review. All thoughts and ideas for the sections above are welcome. We also are aware that the STS live section on COVID is only giving a glimpse of all COVID related research and challenges, so if you would like to react or contribute, there will be a place for that in the next Review.

Wishing you all the very best and take good care,

the editorial team  

Special general meeting of EASST members

Dear EASST members

I write to inform you that the EASST Council has called for a Special General Meeting of EASST Members on December 4, 2020 from 1-3pm (CET). View the agenda with a zoom link for the meeting.

The 2020 virPrague EASST/4S conference happened under exceptional circumstances.  While the EASST General Meeting went through the agenda and reported on all essential points, it had to be done in a rather speedy manner.  Council thought that there were several aspects which would deserve discussion with our membership in a framework that gives us a bit more time (2 hours).  Furthermore there is the suggestion for an amendment of the constitution which needs voting by members.

You are cordially invited to join and contribute to the discussions on the agenda. If you have specific questions please address them to easst@univie.ac.at.

What is a scientific society for?

Traditionally, scientific societies have been conceived as organizations whose main mission was to defend the interests of their members.  Consistent with that vision, when it comes to publicizing them, much emphasis has been placed on the advantages they offer to those who become new members.

However, if I had to encourage joining the EASST, I would focus not as much on the benefits that it can bring to its members, but for the contributions to the common good that the existence of this association makes possible.

Certainly, there are benefits, but they are not only for members, but for the community of reference of that society as a whole. This is especially important in our case, because we are not a big community. It is true that STS has been gaining practitioners throughout its not very long history, but it is obvious that it does not constitute a field of study around which are gathered a number of academics comparable to other scientific disciplines. Therefore, a scientific society like EASST allows to start and/or sustain initiatives that are absolutely necessary for the maintenance and recognition of the community.

Whate are these EASST contributions?

– EASST organizes periodic scientific meetings that allow not only the dissemination of knowledge, but also the establishment and consolidation of collaborative relationships between colleagues from different countries.

– It contributes to make possible the publication of an open access quality journal such as Science and Technology Studies.

–  It gives out awards that recognize the trajectory or achievements of academics in this field of knowledge.

– It assists local organizations with financial support for symposia or other academic activities. For instance, it played a key role in the support of the first meetings of our REDES CTS, the STS network established since 2011 between Spain and Portugal.

– It supports young people at the beginning of their academic careers by ensuring that they have a voice on their Council and that they find the support they need to participate in community events.

–  It publishes and distributes an organ of expression, EASST Review, which has as its main objective to make visible the activity and concerns of the community

Obviously, to make all this possible, people are needed to support the association. Being a member is, without a doubt, already a contribution. But it is also obvious that membership alone is not enough. We need a strong Council to develop so many crucial activities. This is why we need people who are willing to give a little more. A little bit of their time, a little bit of their work capacity, a little bit of their enthusiasm to enable everything good that EASST does to be realized and, if possible, to go even further.

We want EASST to become a privileged interlocutor for all those actors who understand the importance of the interactions between science, technology and society in the contemporary world, whether they are government agencies or activists and members of social movements. Because to understand our present we need more science and technology studies, we need more EASST, we need you.

Upcoming EASST elections

Dear EASST community,

end of this year EASST will call for elections for new Council
members. The Council manages and governs the development and
priorities of EASST as a key infrastructure for supporting STS in Europe.

Please consider running at this election, and motivate your peers –
students, postdocs, lecturers, professors. Do chat with current
council members if you want to learn more – see for the current
members https://easst.net/about-easst/easst-council-members/

All the best
Ingmar Lippert

Everything you ever wanted to know about hacking (not Ian)

When the inevitable announcement came that the EASST/4S conference would be online due to the Covid19 pandemic, my heart sank. Of course, it was absolutely the right decision but having spent many weeks in online meetings with colleagues and students, I could not imagine that I would voluntarily spend four days zooming into virtual Prague. Spoiler alert – I did not manage four days. I tried, but was easily distracted by other work, and frustrated by seeing names and faces of dear friends and colleagues in little rectangles on my screen. Plus there was the perennial EASST/4S problem of too much choice, and not being able to visit those particularly fascinating sessions scheduled at the same time.

Thus I am very glad that the organisers of the panel Hacker Cultures: Understanding the actors behind our software decided to go a different route. The panel was organized by Paula Bialski (University of St. Gallen) and Mace Ojala (IT University of Copenhagen). With funding and technical support from the University of St. Gallen and Height Beats, Bialski and Ojala produced a series of podcasts. Instead of simply asking the panelists to prepare 15-20 minute audio presentations, the organisers conducted interviews with each of them. This resulted in a series of podcasts, providing a rich collection of insights into hacking, its history and future, its technologies, standards and practices, the implications for work and learning, and more. 

 

Episode 1: Morgan G. Ames (Berkeley) – Throwback Culture: The Role of Nostalgia in Hacker Worlds

Episode 2: Minna Saariketo & Mareike Glöss (both Stockholm) – In the Grey Zone of Hacking? Two cases in the Political Economy of Software and the Right to Repair

Episode 3: Annika Richterich (Sussex and Maastricht) – Forget about the Learning: On (Digital) Creativity and Expertise in Hacker-/Makerspaces

Episode 4: Alex Dean Cybulski (Toronto) – Hacker Culture Is Everything You Don’t Get Paid For In the Information Security Industry

Episode 5: Jérémy Grosman (Namur) – Algorithmic Objects, Algorithmic Practices

Episode 6: Stéphane Couture (Montréal) – Hacker Culture and Practices in the Development of Internet Protocols

Episode 7: Ola Michalec (Bristol) – Hacking Infrastructures: Understanding Capabilities of Operational Technology (OT) Security Workers

Episode 8: Sylvain Besençon (Fribourg) – Securing by Hacking: Maintenance Regimes around an End-to-End Encryption Standard

Episode 9: R. Stuart Geiger & Dorothy Howard (both San Diego) – “I didn’t sign up for this”: The Invisible Work of Maintaining Free/Open-Source Software Communities

 

 

In keeping with hacker ethics (and yes hackers have ethics, they are not all criminals), the podcasts will remain open to anyone who is interested. The organisers and panelists are happy for the podcasts to be shared with students and colleagues. A short description of each episode is provided in the podcast description. This is a great resource for teaching, not only while we are all trying to offer education online. The podcasts individually or in combination could be incorporated into syllabi and resources for students long into the post-covid future. I’ve already recommended these to colleagues who are planning to incorporate it in their courses, aimed at computer scientists as well as those studying STS-informed courses in the humanities and social sciences. It is also an inspiration for how we could think differently about the form that online events take.

The Hacker Cultures podcasts can be found here:  http://www.buzzsprout.com/1323889 

Transplanetary Ecologies: A New Chapter in Social Studies of Outer Space?

Social scientific research of the related disciplines of Astronomy and Space Science, Exploration and Industry has already emerged early in the history of Science and Technology Studies (STS). In fact, one of the first monographs specialising in a sociology of a scientific discipline presented a detailed study of the development of Radio Astronomy in Britain (Gieryn and Merton, 1978). As these fields are often considered at the forefront of scientific research, it is perhaps no wonder they have a particular panache for stirring up interesting controversies, while capturing the imagination of both STS scholars and various public(s). 

The STS interest in the field has particularly intensified with the increase of scientific “presence” in outer space. Whilst the 1960s Space Race may have been a fruitful field of study for (geo)political reasons, the wider social studies interest in Space Exploration begun once its pool of participants moved beyond the young, male, military pilots of those early years. In particular, the idea of the space “shuttle” and research-oriented space stations has renewed STS interests in the societal co-construction of knowledge and technology off-Earth. Hence, since the 1980s, a steady stream of STS(-related) research interests and literature has emerged (as shown in Table 1).  

 

Concerns Phenomenon Technology Focus (STSish) Literature
1980s Space Exploration Perspective Shift Shuttle Philosophy Overview Effect (1987)
1990s Space Habitation Inclusivity MIR  Politics
2000s Space Travel Interconnectedness ISS Sociology Cosmic Society (2007)
2010s Planetary Habitation Localisation  Curiosity Anthropology   Placing Outer Space (2016)
2020s Transplanetary Ecology Systemisation … Data/AI Interdicsiplinary

Table 1 – An evolution of social studies of outer space since 1980s and towards transplanetary ecology. Source: Author. 

 

In particular, the shift in scientific interest from “observing” space to “exploring” it, coinciding with the loss of Astronomy’s socio-politically prestigious time-keeping role, changed the perspective on Astronomy as the dominant space science and gave rise to “Space Science” instead. Astronauts’ accounts of the “experience” of the Universe – in contrast to astronomers past relational positioning within it – invited a shift in perspective on the Earth as well as towards the Cosmos (White, 1987).  These new perspectives were “socialised” with the opening up of international cooperation in the post-Cold-War era, bringing to bear the “overview effect” of the visual experience of the Earth from Space, transcending (national) borders and highlighting the fragility of the biosphere. 

This also led to a shift in social perspectives on space exploration, leading to a focus on  global interconnectedness and wider citizen participation in science and technology development via the Internet. Although notable conflicts remaied in play, such as the divisions over the rising tide of private actors’ involvement in potential commercial projects from “space tourism” to resource extraction, i.e. “space mining” and a new geopolitical rivalry (i.e. US vs China). Together, these developments gave rise to sociological studies of a broader range of current and proposed space-related activities, termed as studies of “Cosmic Society” (Dickens and Ormrod, 2007) or “astrosociology” (Pass, 2006). 

Moreover, since the 2000s and with the quickly expanding number of extra-solar-system planets being discovered, Astronomy and Space Science turned towards localisation of life (elsewhere) in the Universe and its associated place-making (Messeri, 2016). As place-making is a complex and deeply rooted cultural practice, social scientific research of such extra-terrestial life turned to anthropological methods and participatory studies, combining novel types of laboratory studies with the examination of public discourse and imaginaries. For STS scholars, these deeply personal experiential journeys within already exploratory science contexts brought to the fore the interest in studying the art and science of domesticating the unknown through age-old techniques of visualisation and storytelling. 

More recently, STS studies of Outer Space sciences are taking the systemic turn, as through expansion of those place-making tools and near exponential increase in interest and perspectives, places are fast evolving into environments. This interplay between natural and social phenomena in the highly contested yet vastly open-ended Universe gave rise to an ecology of (trans)planetary systems – biological, technological and intellectual. Such synergic, yet also conflicting, presence of multiple interests led to the need for a more interdisciplinary set of STS enquiries, combining multiple social scientific approaches and often crossing – ontologically and methodologically – into the natural sciences. 

One attempt at coordination and mutual support of these new efforts is the Social Studies of Outer Space network (www.ssosnetwork.org), formed following the 2018 EASST conference in Lancaster. The network experiments with topics as well as methods, for instance through taking part in the Innovating STS exhibits on the STS Infrastructures platform at the 2019 4S Innovations, Interruptions, Regenerations conference in New Orleans (Alvarez et al., 2019), using visuals and textual metaphors to explore the socio-political materiality of the “empty vacuum” of outer space. 

As showcased and discussed in the “Exploring Otherworldly Ecologies” panel at the 2020 Locating and Timing Matters: Significance and agency of STS in emerging worlds EASST/4S conference, STS work in this area comprises of innovative and peripatetic studies. These cover significant ground, from the analysis of the social (co-)construction of specific (trans)planetary environments (Mars, the Moon, etc.) and their relational position vis a vis the Earth, to the use of space technology closer to “home” in co-shaping social and political perspectives on our environment. In either case, technology and knowledge exists in their own (eco)system – raising questions of appropriation (i.e. whose interest they serve), appresentation (i.e. how are they “behaving” when deployed/envisaged) and approbation (i.e. what are the issues at stake). 

 

Figure 1 – A capture of the Social Scientists in Outer Space social event at EASST 2020 (virtual) conference. Source: Author.

 

Similar interests were also discussed by colleagues in the “Who are the Publics of Outer Space?” panel, in particular the interplay between participation and farming of present and future technoscientific projects and visions. Critically, actor groupings (i.e. space agencies, citizen scientist, billionaire entrepreneurs, scientific communities, minority groups) are often interchangeably both protagonists and audiences of outer space imaginaries, often simultaneously (re)producing and disrupting institutional regimes. These contested, yet symbiotic, relationships fold into an ecology of actor engagement. In these complex contexts temporal, geographical and cultural environments interact to co-produce structures of social power, which (uncomfortably for many of us who study this field) sits at the core of societal “expansion” into outer space. 

Aside from examining it, is this expansion into outer space to be celebrated, condemned or should we try help to co-construct it? As such discussion fell a little outside the “official” remit of our panel sessions, these normative challenges were explored as part of “Social Scientists in Outer Space” networking event (see Figure 1 below). In a bout of STS-inspired reflexivity, we also had to acknowledge our fascination with the subject matter field (and knowledge thereof, as shown in a virtual quiz!). This echoes the initial assertion that this “final frontier” attracts not only curiosity, but also a degree of admiration. The inherent mystery of what is unattainable by direct experience has been an age-old source of social power – and the technoscientific means with which it is exerted give rise to similar phenomena. 

After all, having discussed all of the above at the first virtual EASST/4S conference, we had first-hand experience of the (awesome?) impact of technological mediation – both in its inclusivity as well as exclusivity – as we gazed from cyberspace to outer space. 

The development, organisation and delivery of these events and encounters would be impossible without an amazing group of dedicated colleagues who deserve a special mention – Michael Clormann (Munich), James Lawrence Meron (Basel), Lauren Ried (Berlin), Denis Sivkov (Moscow), Alexander R. E. Taylor (Cambridge), Richard Tutton (York) and Nina Witjes (Vienna) – as well as all our presenters and participants. 

 

 

Bibliography

Alvarez, T., Clormann, M., Jones, C., Taylor, A., Tutton, R., Vidmar, M., 2019. Social Studies of Outer Space.

Dickens, P., Ormrod, J.S., 2007. Cosmic Society: Towards a Sociology of the Universe . Routledge, Abingdon.

Gieryn, T.F., Merton, R.K., 1978. The Sociological Study of Scientific Specialties . Soc. Stud. Sci. 8, 257–261.

Messeri, L., 2016. Placing Outer Space. Duke Univerity Press,  Durham, NC.

Pass, J., 2006. Astrosociology as the Missing Perspective. Astropolitics 4, 85–99. https://doi.org/10.1080/14777620600762865

White, F., 1987. The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution, Third Edition, The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution, Third Edition. https://doi.org/10.2514/4.103223

Knitting unruly kinships through design, a world-making assemblage

De-centering the human is vital in order to recognize that the human is never an isolated, individual entity, as imagined in mainstream design practice (Forlano, 2017), but a material body. A body as any material, embedded within the material currents of our lifeworld (Ingold, 2007, 2010), including socio-technical systems, or the natural environment. Moving into the realm of materials requires also a critical distance to the words of design and making both of which denote certain intentional undertones such as a mental plan on part of the practitioner (Keller, 2001) subscribing to hylomorphic model of creation (Ingold, 2010). Far from shaping matter that is inert, practitioners are “itinerants” (Guattari & Deleuze, 2000) and “wanderers, wayfarers, whose skill lies in their ability to find the grain of the world’s becoming and to follow its course while bending it to their evolving purpose.” (Ingold, 2010, p. 92). In that sense, instead of merely being designed or being made in a passive state, materials grow (Ingold, 2007), resist (Şahinol & Taşdizen, 2020) and become elements in assemblages in naturecultures, linking and unlinking (Taşdizen, 2020a, 2020b). 

An assemblage is ever-becoming and never stable. It is a constellation of heterogeneous elements, both assembled and assembling (Deleuze & Guattari, 2000), meaning, each element is being shaped by the context it is placed (or places itself) in, but also shapes that very context it is a part of (Beaubois, 2015). Following this, I introduce the concept of design as assemblage, in which any practitioner (designer and user) is only a moment in the life trajectory of creation process, and not the focus, in an attempt to challenge approaches that have prevailed mainstream account of design writings (Julier, 2000). In that sense, design as assemblage provides a leap through which to escape the long-standing and most often unquestioned design matrix of the designer and his regimes of function for the imagined needs of a priori human user. By moving away from the abled, European, white, male human designer/user paradigm that is prevalent in conventional Ergonomics, design as assemblage takes pride in its materiality, and the affordances that unfold (Gibson, 1977), and become affordance assemblages (Taşdizen, 2020a). Design as assemblage shuns away from crafting a specific audience or a user group, and it does not insist on a formulated vision in the form of a use scenario, determining each and every possible script. It is born out of and gives further birth to function regimes (Beaubois, 2015) yet does not target for it is unfinished, open, and entangled in the multiplicity of material flows, inviting “queer uses” (Ahmed, 2019), “non-compliant knowing-making” (Hamraie & Fritsch, 2019) and knitting unruly kinships in ways unfamiliar to a trained eye. The human, then, is not the sole user, but just another user whose agenda is usually just louder. When leaving the terrains of the human for crip, multispecies, citizen worldings, design as assemblage casts itself adrift into the unknown, the multiple, the unanticipated, the whatever-you-make-of-it, the “ocean of materials” (Ingold, 2007), and it never stays still. It is vulnerable against the material currents and is willing to shape and be shaped whatever comes its way. An ecological lens at the co-shaping of materials not only de-centers the human as the only actor, but also recognizes the agency of other humans and non-humans within socio-bio-technical entanglements (Şahinol, 2016). Such an approach helps surface both the resilience and obstinacy but also the emancipatory plasticity of the material in-question, moving consciously away from hylomorphic accounts and the notions of materials as passive matter (Ingold, 2010) which have downplayed their significance for decades resulting in anthropocentric frameworks. Similar to the sand slipping through the fingers while some of it sticks and remains, design as assemblage not only shifts the minute if one were to approach, albeit temporarily, but one would then become an element oneself, a participant who has shaped and is shaped. Design as assemblage is unfinished and messy, emergent and ever-changing. Unruly kinships, then, occur first and foremost through unconventional yet affording assemblages of materials of various histories and of diverse non/human qualities, which are brought together by other materials such as non/human bodies or the environment.

 

Figure 1. A re-purposed yoghurt packaging that accommodates dry cat food and serves as a food container for the street animal. The food container is placed in the middle of two columns, each of which is made with three pavement stones. The columns are covered with a kitchen tray to prevent weather conditions, such as rain, spoiling the food. On top of the tray, another pavement stone is placed utilizing its weight to capture balance in the design. The entire assemblage resides on a corner pavement behind three internet and telephone infrastructure boxes placed in an L-shaped layout, creating a safe space for the street animal and its food. Photograph: Burak Taşdizen, 2019, Istanbul.

 

The emphasis on the body is significant as it reorients the gaze on bodily skills rather than professional titles. These kinships, then, help to dissolve the established, the most visible and the professional in design research and practice. It rejects knowledge hierarchies and the marginalization of novel making practices, and is attuned to grassroots imaginaries, queer uses, knowledge ecologies, skilled practices and alternative future-makings. Thus, they include grassroots citizen initiatives regarding the care for nonhuman animals (Figure 1) (Taşdizen, 2020a, 2020b), for they challenge and complexify the conventional definition of the user/designer of the city by including citizen as the designer, and an animal as both the designer and the user. The citizen or the animal as the designer is a radical step moving away from notions of regulated participation towards more contested territories in which multivocality is abound as the animal in-question shapes design directions (Westerlaken, 2020). In a similar vein, the Internet, with its prolific tools such as the Wix.com, which provides templates for non-designers to design websites, enables anyone with access to Internet to participate in shaping its landscape and eliminates the necessity of “expert knowledge” (Owens, 2020). Design as assemblage muddles boundary work efforts through its rejection of the hierarchization and dichotomy of professional vs amateur, as there are no separate designers and users but rather designer_users, IKEA hackers, Zoom (co)hosts who are also participants. 

Design as assemblage is zoe-centered (Braidotti, 2019) instead of human-centered. It is a multispecies knitting community, an orchestra of skilled bodies and materials, a spectrum of non/professionality. It is an arrhythmic rainbow spinner of companion species, amateurs, crips, urban infrastructures and wastelands, all of whom amalgamate and become with, only to stop and move in separate directions. It is the emergent Zoom culture wherein academics with Internet connection together with endless universe of PDFs, PowerPoints and YouTube tutorials lead to international conferences. It is a swarm of Hornet users and the hashtag technology finding a crack against recurring pride bans to flourish into online publics, contested spaces for (un)learning masculinities (Taşdizen, 2020c). It is the hand, the needle, and the working yarn going into flow, which is interrupted by yet another knitting pattern (Taşdizen, 2017). It is arrhythmic but constant, temporary yet abundant, repetitive yet resilient. It is everything but professional, rejecting the meta-narrative of creativity that has colonized design practice, although it could be poetically creative and beautifully strange (Fuad-Luke, 2013). It is a queer teacher encouraging disruptive uses to dismantle the existing in order to open up spaces for those bodies that have been historically excluded and marginalized (Ahmed, 2019). It is not only world-making, but also world-dismantling (Hamraie & Fritsch, 2019). Design as assemblage, in a repeating yet resilient manner, knits unruly kinships across bodies of different species, of different abilities, of different categories of scholarly ordering. It does not cast off, so what has been (in)scripted further unravels and entangles…

 

 

References 

Ahmed, S. (2019). What’s the Use?: On the Uses of Use. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Beaubois, V. (2015). Design, Assemblage and Functionality. In B. Marenko & J. Brassett (Ed.) Deleuze and Design (pp. 173-190). Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. 

Braidotti, R. (2019). A Theoretical Framework for the Critical Posthumanities. Theory, Culture & Society, 36(6), 31-61. 

Forlano, L. (2017). Posthumanism and Design. She Ji: The Journal of Design, Economics, and Innovation, 3(1), 16-29. 

Fuad-Luke, A. (2013). Design Activism: Beautiful Strangeness for a Sustainable World. London and Sterling, Virginia: Earthscan.

Gibson, J. J. (1977). The Theory of Affordances. In R. Shaw & J. Bransford (Ed.) Perceiving, Acting and Knowing: Toward an Ecological Psychology (pp. 67-82). Hillsdale, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Guattari, F., & Deleuze, G. (2000). A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia: Athlone Press London.

Haraway, D. J. (2016). Staying with the trouble: Making kin in the Chthulucene. Durham and London: Duke University Press. 

Hamraie, A., & Fritsch, K. (2019). Crip Technoscience Manifesto. Catalyst: Feminism, Theory, Technoscience, 5(1), 1-33.

Ingold, T. (2007). Materials Against Materiality. Archaeological Dialogues, 14(1), 1-16. 

Ingold, T. (2010). The Textility of Making. Cambridge Journal of Economics, 34(1), 91-102. 

Julier, G. (2000). The Culture of Design. London: Sage.

Keller, C. M. (2001). Thought and Production: Insights of the Practitioner. In M. B. Schiffer (Ed.) Anthropological Perspectives on Technology (pp. 33-45). Albuquerque, New Mexico: University of New Mexico Press.

Owens, S. (2020). Making and Unmaking Expert Knowledge in Design. Paper presented at the EASST + 4S Joint Conference: Locating and Timing Matters: Significance and Agency of STS in Emerging Worlds, Online. 

Şahinol, M. (2016). Das techno-zerebrale Subjekt: Zur Symbiose von Mensch und Maschine in den Neurowissenschaften. Bielefeld: transcript-Verlag.

Şahinol, M., & Taşdizen, B. (2020). Everyday Cyborgs: Men with Implanted/Transplanted Hair and its Eigensinn. Paper presented at the EASST + 4S Joint Conference: Locating and Timing Matters: Significance and Agency of STS in Emerging Worlds, Online.

Taşdizen, B. (2017). Politics of the Knitting Pattern: Ethnography of Knitting Practice and a Women’s Knitting Community. (Master’s Thesis). Middle East Technical University, Retrieved from http://etd.lib.metu.edu.tr/upload/12621423/index.pdf.  

Taşdizen, B. (2020a). Dis/media Assemblages Surrounding the Care for Street Cats of Istanbul. Paper presented at the EASST + 4S Joint Conference: Locating and Timing Matters: Significance and Agency of STS in Emerging Worlds, Online. 

Taşdizen, B. (2020b). İnsanın Dışında, Tasarımın Ötesinde: Sokak Kedileri, Geçici Birleştirmeler ve Tasarım Aktivizmi [Other Than Human, Beyond Design: Street Cats, Temporary Assemblages and Design Activism]. In A. Turanlı, M. Şahinol, & A. Aydınoğlu (Eds.), Türkiye’de STS: Bilim ve Teknoloji Çalışmalarına Giriş. Istanbul: İstanbul Teknik Üniversitesi.

Taşdizen, B. (2020c). #ÖneÇıkarılanProfil’ler, #SağlamTipler ve Diğerleri: Hornet’in Anlık Bir Fotoğrafı [#FeaturedGuys, #SağlamTipler, and Others: A Snapshot of Hornet]. Beyond Istanbul (Spatial Justice and Gender), eds. C. Özbay & Z. G. Göker, in publication process.

Westerlaken, M. (2020). Telling Multispecies Worlds: Traces of a Counter-Concept to Speciesism. Paper presented at the EASST + 4S Joint Conference: Locating and Timing Matters: Significance and Agency of STS in Emerging Worlds, Online.