Farewell, Michel!

Farewell, Michel!

One of the founding fathers of actor-network theory retires

“Have you heard that Michel Callon is retiring?” When he heard this question, Hervé Dumez, a researcher at the Ecole Polytechnique in Paris, realised one important thing. At least for him, a sentence like this is not performatif. That is, these words will not do much to him; they will not have much of an effect upon his work, his thinking, his practices. Why? Because, we might argue, Callon is very likely to continue to change the way people think about science, politics and society, even though he no longer officially works at the Centre for the Sociology of Innovation at the Ecole des Mines. His texts will continue to be read and cited, he will (hopefully) carry on to do research and publish new work, his influence is set to last. The biggest change is perhaps taking place on the smallest possible scale: his colleagues at the Mines are now left to work without his scientific leadership and he himself can now take the time to focus on other things in life.

To honour Callon’s work, the Centre for the Sociology of Innovation (CSI) organised a conference on the 17th of December last year and edited a book Débordements. Mélanges offerts à Michel Callon (Presses de Mines, 2010). If this would be a dry and mainstream conference report or book review, I would now write something along the lines of: “This article is organised as follows. In the first part, I will concentrate on the conference and in the second I will focus on the book”. But I won’t. The theme of the conference and of the book being “overflows”, I won’t care about frames, disciplines and academic conventions in this farewell piece.

I’ll start with some useless information. At exactly 7.45am on the 17th of December, 12 people showed up in room V115/116 at the Ecole des Mines, the room in which the conference was going to be held. The mission of these people – 10 PhD students, a postdoc and the secretary of the CSI – was simple: move some tables out of the room and move about 150 chairs into the room. Their eyes: looking tired; this was definitely not a time when they usually start working in the morning. But all had volunteered and offered their help. About 15 minutes later everything was ready, one hour and a half before the conference was due to begin! But luckily, the cafeteria of the Ecole des Mines opens early in the morning. Luckily, someone brought croissants and pains aux chocolat. Luckily, the 12 people that gathered this morning are a group of lively, eager, and funny persons. This is, perhaps, one of the key ingredients that has made the CSI such an intellectually stimulating place ever since its foundation in 1967: the fact that it is a small, rather informal structure composed of people that know each other (and each other’s work) very well. 10 permanent members of staff, 4 engineers, 3 postdocs, 17 PhD students, that’s it. This is perhaps a message for policy makers, university vice-chancellors and politicians in general: you don’t need to create big structures or big departments in order to create people – the likes of Callon and Latour – who will have a big effect, people who will change the way a lot of other people think and transform their research questions, or create new ones altogether. You need a pleasant and homely structure. A small, communal structure can do. “One of Callon’s talents has been clearly to create a collective”, Madeleine Akrich, current director of the CSI, would later say in her introductory talk at the conference.

Enough numbers and talk about politics, we need names… The authors of the articles in the aforementioned book: Rémi Barbier, Rémi Barré, Andrew Barry, Dominique Boullier, Geoffrey Bowker, Franck Cochoy, Patrick Cohendet, Jean-Pierre Courtial, Hervé Dumez, Domniqiue Foray, Raghu Garud, Joel Gehman, Armand Hatchuel, Antoine Hennion, Jean-Alain Héraud, Sheila Jasanoff, Alain Jeunemaître, Pierre-Benoît Joly, Patrick Llerena, Peter Karnoe, Pierre Lascoumes, Bruno Latour, John Law, Loet Leydesdorff, Christian Licoppe, Donald MacKenzie, Alexandre Mallard, Peter Miller, Annemarie Mol, Fabian Muniesa, Hervé Penan, Dominique Pestre, Trevor Pinch, Arie Rip, Nigel Thrift.

Most of these people either gave talks or were present at the conference. The key talks that were given that day were an introduction by Madeleine Akrich; a scientometric analysis of Callon’s work by Loet Leydesdorff; a talk on salmon farming in Norway by John Law; an unfinished theatre piece on climate change by Bruno Latour; a closing talk by Callon himself. All along the conference, there were 3 roundtables on themes to which Callon has made important contributions: technical democracy, the boundaries between economy and sociology, and the role of technology and policy in the construction of the economy. For those readers interested to know more about what was discussed at the conference: a great part of the contributions that day can be found in the Débordements book (and about half of the chapters in that book are in English).

A few more words on Callon’s career: He was professor of sociology at the Ecole des Mines de Paris, director of the Centre for the Sociology of Innovation from 1982 to 1994, and chairman of the Society for Social Studies of Science (4S) from 1998-1999. He received the John Desmond Bernal Prize from the 4S in 2002 for his distinguished contribution to the field of STS and the silver medal by the French CNRS in 2007. As the readers of EASST Review certainly know, together with Bruno Latour and John Law he is one of the founders of actor-network theory. The concepts he has coined or redefined are many, including “actor-network”, “translation”, “performativity”, “hybrid forum”, “principle of generalised symmetry” and “technical democracy”. Some of his classic texts are his edited book The laws of the markets (1998) and co-authored book Agir dans un monde incertain: essai sur la démocratie technique (2001, translated at MIT Press) and his articles “Some elements of a sociology of translation: domestication of the scallops and the fishermen of St Brieuc Bay” (1986) and “Techno-economic networks and irreversibility” (1991). His “adisciplined” list of publications is long and impressive. And his contributions have had an effect on many disciplinary fields: STS, research policy, scientometrics, economic sociology, technical democracy. In his own speech at the conference, Callon talked of his “multiple personality disorder” saying “the patient that I am goes from the state of economist, to that of sociologist, then to that of management scientist, then to that of anthropologist, and then again to that of economist and sociologist, without this cycle ever stopping, and detaches himself, with each role change, from his previous identities, without ever being allowed a concrete identity. Commuto ergo sum […].”

Callon’s retirement raises some general questions for the field of STS. Who will be the next key thinkers in STS? A whole generation of key figures is now retiring or close to retiring age, including Donna Haraway, Bruno Latour, John Law, Arie Rip and Brian Wynne. A few have recently passed away (David Edge, Susan Leigh Star, Olga Amsterdamska). So who’s next? Or has the world of STS evolved, matured, developed in such a way that there simply is no space for new ground-breaking thinking? Or is it because our scientific institutions become unable to leave enough thinking time for researchers to develop in-depth ideas. After all, universities and research centres all over the world have become increasingly project-driven, assessment-obsessed, niche-focussed, impact-fanatical, bureaucratically-burdened and new-public-management-infected. Is there enough room to produce creative knowledge about science and technology in such settings?

The speech Callon gave when he received the CNRS silver medal gives us some clues. He says: “The first word that comes to my mind to describe situations propitious for research work is that of otium. […] As you know, otium stands for the leisure time available, and that we devote to thinking, away from business, away from economic and political activities. Otium nevertheless means neither withdrawal, nor reclusion, nor confinement. Otium is the time that you keep to yourself, it’s the time that we devote to travelling, to sabbaticals, it is the moments when one is attentive to what is not programmed. I’ll maybe look a little bit old fashioned and against the grain of current productivism if I say to you that without otium there can be no true scientific research. But I immediately reassure those who might be afraid, here, when hearing the words leisure and free time. Otium should not be separated from negotium, from the activity that leads us all to engage in the public space to publish, to exchange, to conduct business, to care for the life of the city. The alternation between otium and negotium has to be practiced continuously. Neither otium nor negotium are distinct moments in a career, they are present at all times”.

Callon’s personal balance between otium and negotium is likely to change, now that he retires. But, there are chances that he will be producing more work in the near future around his current research interests: sociology and economics of innovation; anthropology of economic markets; experts, concerned groups and political decisions; patients organisations.

A final souvenir from the 17th of December 2010. Callon has just finished his talk. The people in the room all stand up and do a standing ovation. A quite rare and moving thing to see in academic circles. But, for sure, a form of applause and approval that is well suited…