Cosmopolitical sensitivities in STS practice: How to continue a panel session after is it is over?

by Michaela Spencer

This piece reflects on the panel ‘Of Other Landscapes’ held at EASST Lancaster in 2018. Recognising the particularly warm, playful and yet serious atmosphere of academic exchange which emerged in this session, I raise the question of how do STS sensitivities travel? Are there ways that the particular spirit of this panel might be extended after it is over?

‘Where do worlds meet, and how? What count as good or bad meetings of worlds? And what are the implications of such meetings for analysis and politics?’ These were the questions that we posed in a panel jointly convened at EASST Lancaster by Endre Dányi and myself. The panel was called ‘Of Other Landscapes’ and we addressed these questions by focusing on ‘landscapes’ as both the objects of and the conditions for the meeting of worlds.

This panel topic was sparked by questions arising in our own research project called ‘Landscapes of Democracy’. Through this project (funded partly by the DAAD and Charles Darwin University), we’ve been able to travel between our current home places in Germany and northern Australia, learning about the places and material practices of democratic politics. Tracking back and forth, we have done ethnographic fieldwork in various parliamentary settings – such as the German Bundestag and the Northern Territory parliament in Darwin – and of situations where different ways of doing politics abut and abrade, for example, moments where government policy practices encounter Yolngu Aboriginal Australian practices of governance and law in northern Australia.

Within the panel session at EASST, there were many other experiences of ‘worlds meeting’ that researchers brought with them and elaborated in their presentations. Research ranged from issues arising in conflicts over land and resources in the Taranaki valley New Zealand to the lived past and present cityscapes of the AIDS crisis in New York, and the challenges of orchestrating experimental ethnographies of encounter on the island of Madeira in Portugal. However, what caught us pleasantly by surprise was the particular spirit of warmth, curiosity and generosity that seemed to pervade the room for the duration of the panel. This spirit seemed to emanate as much from the audience and their keen interest to listen and participate, as it was prompted by the presenters and their careful scholarship. It is of course very hard to capture elusive atmospheres like this on the page, but there are a few moments that stand out.

Displaying pictures of the Tunisian coast, Amade M’charek spoke to us about meeting Mohsen, a beachcomber and artist, who picks up fragments – shoes, water bottles, pieces of clothing – washed up on the beach near where he lives. This was the first time Amade had spoken about Mohsen and this stretch of coastline in front of an academic audience, and the stories were raw in their immediacy. In the audience, we felt a strong upwelling of emotions as Amade gently wove connections between bodies on the beach, rubbish piles in the sand, and memorial art pieces supporting acts of remembrance. We could see how for those lost on this coastline, the possibility of biography had run out; and yet, here before us and with us, other stories were persisting as we listened in gentle silence.

Soon after, Laura Watts invited us into electric worlds and imagined futures on Orkney Island. Here questions of translation and storytelling arose again, with the form and the style of the presentation pointing directly towards the insufficiency of (certain) academic words and texts. As the presentation drew to a close, the question for the audience was: how to respond? Sitting with the uncertainty of finding a way, Laura suggested that responses did not have to be in words, but could also take other forms. Without hesitation, Anna Mann, Laura’s sometime collaborator, put up her hand to ask a question. When it was her turn, Anna said nothing but quickly jumped up from the audience to give Laura a hug. ‘I’ll take that as a comment’ said Endre in his position as chair.

Then, towards the end Su Hu gave a presentation in which she showed us maps from a 1886 Chinese geographic publication, pointing out the multiplicities of a landscape arising in the mapping practices of Chinese cartographers. Responding to this material, Annemarie Mol posed a question which I think went something like this: ‘So while you have pointed to the Chinese maps as presenting geographies as multiple, surely both Chinese and Western maps embed both singularity and multiplicity. How do you account for this?’ Su paused for a second, and then unashamedly responded that ‘your question is too hard’. Laughing, we accepted that as an excellent answer. As did Annemarie, who encouragingly responded, ‘that’s OK, I’ll give you ten years,’ and by doing so helped to support a particular STS figure – one who does not have to be fully formed to be brilliant.

As STS scholars, we are interested in how ordering concepts and devices travel, what spatial relations they produce. Certainly, these stories and meditations emerged during this session at EASST, provoked by the panel topic ‘Of Other Landscapes’. However, the experience of being in the room for this lively and generous event seems to spark another question, namely how do STS sensitivities travel? Might there be ways to hang onto this this warm, playful and yet serious atmosphere of academic exchange, which appeared in such a welcome fashion on the final morning of the conference?

Having returned home to our respective places and academies, this remains a lively question for Endre and I, as we seek to continue on not just the academic program gestured to in this panel session, but the spirit of generosity and inquiry that it also seemed to provoke. For example, how might such a spirit be nurtured within an emerging STS Master’s program at the Goethe University in Frankfurt, as Endre continues to be involved in its development? Likewise, how might such sensitivities be nurtured within a new TopEndSTS group in Darwin, of which I am a part? Of course, the Landscapes of Democracy project will also continue on, and traffic will flow between Germany and Australia. However, through the experience of this panel, it has become clear that there are many more allies and contributors to this effort, and that it is through these links and connections, these supportive and collaborative efforts, that this STS sensitivity may continue to breathe and grow.

*Note: I’d like to extend my gratitude and thanks to Endre Dányi for his contribution to this piece, and to all the panelists and audience members who joined us for ‘Of Other Landscapes’. We hope to see you again soon.