In the last two issues, we had the first installment of our new section ‘STS Live’ dedicated to discussing the notion of alternative facts. We would like to thank the amazing group of colleagues that were willing to contribute to this conversation! The ‘STS Live’ section is not a fixed, but a recurring feature of the Review – we plan to curate at least one ‘STS Live’ conversation per year. The aim is to practice response-ability, to open up dialogical spaces where we can collectively reflect and respond to pressing matters of concern. We haven’t decided yet which issue to invite colleagues to address in 2018, so your ideas are extremely welcome (you can always reach us at: email@example.com)
STS’ capacity to respond to current political developments in ways that are attuned to those who are also challenging the ‘reasonable politics’ of our ‘guardians’, as Isabelle Stengers calls them, is an old concern in our field. Notably, the last years have seen an interesting development towards more ‘inventive’ engagements in science and technology often based on collaborations with activists, artists and designers and aimed at prototyping alternative infrastructural arrangements and aesthetic articulations of techno-scientific worlds. Think of the success of the Making and Doing events at 4S conferences (http://www.4sonline.org/meeting/sts_making_and_doing) or the renaming of Goldsmith’s CSISP into CISP: Center for Invention and Social Process (https://www.gold.ac.uk/cisp/overview/). There are indeed dozens, if not hundreds of examples. But looking back a bit, I think it is fair to say that Bruno Latour’s exhibitions at ZKM have made a major contribution to open up STS towards such inventive engagements.
Here I would like to report on my attending to Bruno Latour’s lecture-performance Inside (https://vimeo.com/237215710/48cd03ffcd) and reflect on the challenges of STS inventions. Inside, staged by the French scenographer Frédérique Aït-Touati, with whom the Latours wrote the radio play Kosmokolos (http://www.bruno-latour.fr/sites/default/files/downloads/KOSMOK-JULIE-ROSE-GB.pdf), was presented last September in the context of the Festival Der Maulwurf macht weiter. Tiere / Politik / Performance [The mole keeps on going. Animals / Politics / Performace] at the beautiful theatre HAU, a true temple for experimentation in the contemporary performing arts in Berlin. My first surprise happened upon arrival to the theatre: I met only one STS colleague in the audience. The place was not packed with STS friends and colleagues, as I somehow imagined when heading to HAU, but with a mixed audience, whose exact provenience I cannot quite tell (although see below).
The second positive surprise was to see what Latour is up to these days. Long done with the writing of a non-modern Constitution and the staging of Gaia, Latour is now experimenting with the visual representation of a new cosmology. How to literally redraw the cosmos? Which alternative visual imaginaries are necessary to remap and represent our entanglements within and beyond the ‘critical zone’, which broadly equates to the ‘biosphere’? Latour’s project reminds me of the kind of intervention Alexander von Humboldt did with his drawings of the Chimborazo volcano and how these drawings were crucial for advancing his reinvention of nature and the cosmos. Indeed, Latour’s Inside lecture-performance achieved something that has been so difficult to achieve in the various ZKM exhibitions: engaging in the production of aesthetic forms that cannot be reduced to an illustration of theoretical propositions and that actually challenge the audience to come up with a different language.
Or so I thought… until the lecture was over and the Q&A began (not included in the video). It was a short, but catastrophic Q&A marked by three interventions. The first one was a confession of not having understood much and a request to explain what is a vortex – the key topological figure that Latour used to articulate this new cosmo-graphy. The second was a long rant about the lack of effort by “professors” to relate the broad public, by making interventions one could not just politically, but even discursively relate to, in the sense of understanding what it is actually being said. The third one was a rant about not allowing the previous person to continue her rant, for after she was given a response someone else took the microphone to ask something different – a meta-rant moment that led the chair to call it a night and invite everyone to continue the discussion over some drinks at the bar of the theatre.
The more general question, of course, is what are we aiming at when embracing invention as a mode of STS scholarship. Oftentimes STS’ inventive engagements are celebrated as a form of political intervention in public controversies and current affairs. But the difference cannot be overstated. When composing songs, writing poems, programming bots, designing board games, writing play scripts, curating exhibitions or drawing ethnographic comics, STS scholars do certainly address non-academic audiences. But to think that such inventive engagements can only be a means to articulating matters of public concern, to make things public, would involve underestimating both, the capacities of publics to engage with standardized forms of knowledge and, most problematically, the role of inventive engagements as a research method.
Indeed, the most interesting statement during the Q&A was none of the above. Asked about what kind of political intervention he expects these visual experiments to have in current climate policy, Latour, demonstrating his difficulties understanding the question, said something like: ‘What? This? No. I don’t expect it to have any impact whatsoever’. If we consider this statement problematic, the question is then whose problem that is, for equating invention with intervention seems dismissive of how different these research methods are (cf. Zuiderent-Jerak 2016).