Perplexing, experimental and affective meetings at Lancaster conference

by Sara Bea

I approached this year’s EASST conference with a heightened sense of anticipation and excitement. After all, it is my favourite scholarly encounter, akin to a colourful STS pride parade, and it never fails to provide a strong sense of community and belonging amidst fruitful academic exchanges. That was certainly my experience in the previous EASST conference, and even more so because it took place in my home country, Catalonia, and in a city that is very close to my heart, Barcelona. This year was not so different, as the UK has been my adoptive home country for the past fourteen years and the legacy of the Lancaster Centre for Science Studies looms large in my way of doing and thinking with STS. The conference was also my last stop in the UK, I was about to leave behind my PhD years in Edinburgh and start my new life in Sweden, ready to join my next STS academic home at Linköping university as a postdoc.

At Lancaster’s bus station I was greeted by a group of bus drivers that kindly indicated how to make it to the conference venue; transport has been arranged, nothing to worry about. Yet, and due to a particular tendency to publicly display my practical incompetence, I still managed to head to the wrong bus. The group of drivers called out my attention and teasingly pointed out ‘you should know, you are supposed to be clever going to conferences and talking about books!’. Their observation made me laugh and got me thinking on how something so taken for granted in our academic lives such as attending conferences can be perceived by non-academic others. Are we all just a bunch of intellectuals spending public money on book club retreats? What’s the point of conferences after all? What do we get out of these choreographed gatherings? In what follows I will provide my personal answer in three parts: perplexing, experimental and affective meetings.

More than book clubbing?

Perplexing meetings

The ‘meeting soil’ plenary that brought together Starhawk with Maria Puig de la Bellacasa provided a privileged glimpse into an ongoing conversation between two seemingly disparate authors. It was a generous and unconventional move to open up a conference with a non-STS, non-academic figure in dialogue with a well-known feminist STS scholar. A testimony of STS’ capacity to embrace the other without appropriating it neither adapting it and translating it to its own academic language. Meeting in the difference and celebrating the interference. The point of departure was Maria’s transformational encounter with soils whilst taking part in Starhawk’s Earth Activist Training, thus, the meeting rendered the scholar as apprentice and the activist as intellectual. The dialogue run smooth albeit in an asymmetrical manner, it ploughed through the abundant common ground between feminist STS and activism for ecological justice but it did so by privileging Starhawk’s notion of ‘the sacred’. My curiosity was sparked and my attention tuned in as I struggled with the discomfort brought about by the language of spirituality and feminist essentialism. Such feelings of perplexity are rare and greatly generative, a sense of disquiet always invites to rephrase the questions at stake and to dig into one’s entrenched dualisms to test their obduracy. For in Starhawk’s ecofeminism the spiritual and the political are thoroughly entangled and underpin her ‘Goddess religion’ that in turn also embraces science as part of the solution[i]. Even though my initial reaction was to question what the notion of the sacred could be adding to soil activism, I decided to ‘stay with the trouble’ and embrace the odd as I went along their joint articulation of Earth remediating practices. It was indeed inspiring to see how their assemblage of small stories on bioremediation methods and transformative human-soil relations promoted alternative, affective and ethical ways of being in the world. I was struck by the message that we are all creatures of the soil – humans, animals, worms and bacteria alike – living in and off the soil whilst also being the soil. The ethical and political consequences that follow from this assertion are manifold and have become intrinsic to permaculture initiatives part of a growing culture of regeneration, remediation and repair that seems to be imbued with a stubborn and brazen sense of hope. Maria’s and Starhawk dialogue resonated with Haraway’s, Stengers’ and Tsing’s artful contestations to apocalyptic visions of Earth’s demise. It is their collaborative thinking and doing that generously provides a novel sense of hope and places the work of activism both outside and within academia in a uniquely interdisciplinary and political manner. The conversation also helped to confer a heightened sense of political responsibility to our knowledge-and-world-making practices; it defined STS’ intervention as mediators that work at the intersection of disparate domains and bring them into conversation. STS scholars were called upon as (re)mediators by intervening and interfering in environmental practices and politics. It was certainly worth staying open to an unexpected conversation that acutely brought into high relief STS’s capacity to claim that ‘it could be otherwise’. I personally left the plenary room with a strong sense that after all we might already be living in hopeful times. 

Experimental meetings

EASST has been for me a forum in which I feel allowed to be experimental, to try out new ideas and tentative approaches and offer them for collective discussion. Whilst preparing my paper for Lancaster I felt the usual frustration of struggling to capture with a succinct presentation a whole article, let alone my entire doctoral project. The ethos of Lancaster encouraged me to change gears and instead I opted for providing a thought-provoking and entertaining performance. After a few years conferring in different sites and formats I have acquired a strong allergic reaction to conferences that feature a painful succession of soliloquies directed to a distant audience that merely comes back to life to clap. I am thankful that this was not the case at EASST and that the hard work of the organising team at Lancaster transpired in the many panels that successfully delivered (more) meaningful academic encounters. It was a matter of turning up the experimental and transforming monologues into fruitful dialogues. These experimental meetings offered excellent academic value whilst retaining a sense of fun and consideration to each other because ultimately, we are each other’s audience. 

Affective meetings

The social event at Lancaster conference provided the felicitous conditions for building STS community by night: drinks, food and music. I relish these fleeting festive moments at EASST conferences, where else can you catch up with so many friends, colleagues and turn familiar names into lovely people to meet and chat? Before, during and after dinner we shared a disposition to engage with each other and to nurture our affective meetings that are also essential in our academic relations and productions. STS might not be a well-defined discipline and it might remain a heterogenous field that barely hangs together. However, when we were partying at Lancaster we enacted a sense of collective that hangs (out) together pretty neatly.

Hanging (out) together and building STS community

[i] I am grateful to Joan Haran for providing a clarifying conversation after the plenary and later sharing her working paper ’Bound in the spiral dance: Haraway, Starhawk and writing lives in feminist community’.