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From laboratory life to the living and tinkering laboratories of care: a new perspective in STS research?

My aim is to give an insight into an emerging line of thought according to which the European (and North-American) societies are transforming themselves into innovative living and tinkering laboratories of care. The article draws on four thematic units from the 4S/EASST Conference in Barcelona 2016, across which a “career” of the concept of “care” could be remapped:

  • The keynote plenary presentation by Madeleine Akrich on “Inquiries into experience and the multiple politics of knowledge” (Akrich, 2016)
  • “Environments of care: understanding and shaping care by other means”, T152 session
  • “Care Innovation and New Modes of Citizenship”, T062 session
  • “STS and normativity: analyzing and enacting values”, T049 session


Experience vs. expertise

“Patient-centred” care and research are alternative ways of generating “knowledge by other means”, states Akrich. Undoubtedly, there are different forms of producing knowledge, and they all value both experience and expertise, even if the combination of these two might vary from one type of (scientific) research to another. On the one hand, experience of users could be understood as their own expertise intended to bring new knowledge for the “evidence based activism” (Rabeharisoa et al., 2014). On the other hand, experience of the users and patients can appear only as targeted action, with reduced scientific value. It can nonetheless show itself as intermediary tool informing the expertise of the researchers. When following both types of logic, science and technology emerge as mediators between people and their diseases; they are mediators of new experiences.


Towards the patient/user centeredness

But what did determine the switch towards the patient or user “centeredness” as source of “knowledge by other means” in STS? A literature review from the 1980’s onwards shows the evolution of perspectives over the last thirty years.

Innovation in knowledge was traditionally related to laboratory life (Latour, Woolgar, 1979). Translation of practices and networks of human and non-human actors worked together in order to produce explanations and innovative technical and scientific practices. If Latour and Woolgar (1979) experienced the life of a laboratory in order to show the “social construction of scientific facts”, more recent studies attempted to transform the “real” life into their laboratory. One initial solution was to relate technological innovation success to experiences and experiments within confined spaces, with determined rules (Akrich et al., 1988; Woolgar 1991). But this approach showed its limits as the real life conditions of use could change the results obtained within too “controlled” environments.1

During the last fifteen years, another solution took progressively shape, the “living labs”. They are mainly related to the economic or business-centred innovation areas (e.g. European network of living labs2) and often feature their interdisciplinary research (e.g. MIT Living Labs3). For the professionals within this field, the formula of the “living lab” covers those methods developed to involve users in innovation. From a methodological point of view, their multiple attempts at defining the “living labs” remained nonetheless related to confined rules and strategies, not always able to acknowledge the complexity in practice (Law, Mol, 2002), despite the co-creation and co-design processes at work. At the same time, the user became the central figure, as opposed to an “assumed” technical and scientific expert (Ballon & Schuurman, 2015: 10).

Additionally, the same need to see how actors participate to their environment helps maybe to better explain recent research import of theories of care into STS. In fact, talking about co-creation and co-design determines a dynamic point of view on practices, but it won’t be enough to understand what makes people adopt a socio-technical artefact, the processes at stake, the attachment and the adjustments in front of the objects, or the values the actors mobilize into action. Further on, a change of perspective appears when the researcher draws the boundaries of the socio-technical world that emerges in front of her. No trial or test is deliberately imagined into a care theory approach. No rules are given at first, but they can be observed through tinkered methods or methodologies later on. Finally, this stream of research pays attention not only to human or non-human actors, but also to the environment-in-the-making: individuals engage with their material surroundings, take care of each other, tinker activities and shape interdependences. One can therefore call this perspective “a tinkering and living laboratory”, different from a schematic or systemic “living lab” as previously presented.


A living laboratory of care? 

A possible link could therefore be established between patient and user-centeredness in STS, and care theories and practices. All of them focus on the centrality of the collectives of users/patients into an environment-in-the-making. Though a “conceptual” unified definition of care is hard to give, the diversity of practices related to it help us to better grasp its social and political implications. Care is not only about health issues, but also about citizens’ participation to the public space, it is about understanding complex environments.


The environment of care as basis of collective action

It is indeed difficult to talk about care in abstract terms, without referring to situated practices in actual environments of care. This ecological approach draws on different actors engaging through objects into action. The presence of technical artefacts becomes important in the relationship between beings, objects, and places, as shown all along the session “Environments of care: understanding and shaping care by other means”. Care becomes a collective laboratory that both bounds together and unfolds itself throughout different actors. Furthermore, we discover that “the logic of care does not start with individuals, but with collectives” (Mol, 2008 quoted in S. Nicolae’s presentation on “Care and normativity. Exploring a relationship’s career”).

For example, the environments of birth participate to the general universe of care (C. Colosseus). While birth pertains to a medicalized setting in contemporary Germany, an alternative online space of “stories of giving birth” takes shape, in which the future mothers share birth-related practices. The mobilized narratives show means of translating and organizing birth experience that act as forms of help to “improve care in medical obstetrics”, complementary to the midwives activities. Futures mothers and medical professionals thus form together an “ephemeral” collective over the birth time.


Fig. 1: A cloud representation of the most frequent words used into the abstracts submitted to three sessions from the 4S/EASST Conference in Barcelona 2016: “Environments of care: understanding and shaping care by other means”, “Care Innovation and New Modes of Citizenship”, and “STS and normativity: analyzing and enacting values”. The “care” (n=111) appears as the central word of the presentations from the three sessions. It is directly related to “practices” (n=55), “new” (n=48), “STS” (n=44), “research” (n=36), “values” (n=33), “participation” (n=32), “knowledge” (n=28), “life” (n=26), “citizenship” (n=24) or “technologies” (n=23).
Courtesy of the author.


The care as political value in direct relationship to the citizenship

Ephemeral or permanent collectives of care are explored further on. Even if it comes from the health sphere, care is essentially political, as it often organizes itself around topics defined as public or social problems. Therefore a direct link is usually established between care, innovation practices, and citizenship.

The image of a “participatory society” was often evoked during the session on “Care Innovation and New Modes of Citizenship”. The presentations addressed “practices of participation” that determine different “modes of citizenship”. Even if participation was seldom defined and rather suggested through the implementation of technological innovation expected to improve communication or daily activities, the contribution of F. Henwood on “Care innovation and participation in mHealth development: the HIV ‘app’”, or the presentation of K. Ovsthus and B. Ravneberg on “Implications of Introducing Robotics into Home Nursing Care” offered rich insights for further discussions.

Different democratic normativities appear within stakeholders’ engagements in care innovation. “Self-monitoring” as form of “responsible citizenship” (H. Langstrup), but also “independent living programmes for people with intellectual disabilities” (J. Moyà-Köhler and I. Rodriguez-Giralt) show autonomy as value of a good citizen. Care givers work to empower the vulnerable individuals who, at their turn, by gaining more independence in action, “take care” of their fellow citizens, and even of the general “welfare system”, by saving their support efforts.

Formal and informal engagement in care is also observed within small or large-scale interactions. Important examples offer for instance the “telecare innovations” used at the family level (H. K. Andreassen, C. Pope, C. May) or the digital collectives of mothers who develop “practices of associating and sharing knowledge with others” on medical matters like Umbilical Cord Blood Banking and mastitis in Spain. In this case, “sharing knowledge with others” activates care towards a collective action (P. Santoro, C. R. Bachiller). The general role of institutions is however less visible in shaping the value of care until now.


Care beyond the frontiers of humanity

Not all the presentations from the track dedicated to “STS and normativity: analyzing and enacting values” explicitly talked about care, but a good majority took it into account as they organized themselves around the manner in which STS take position in relationship to care. A majority of presentations took up the “registers of valuing” emerging in practice.

The “ageing society” was a constant theme in the three sessions about care mentioned in this article, but was especially present when the normativity questioned its specific actors: “eldercare workers”, “older citizens”, “Euroseniors”. Multiples values seem to appear after a closer study of the practices of care. “Old age” is not only about illness or dependence, but also about dignity or quality of life, e.g. in the proposal submitted by M. Bødker on “The potentially fit – enacting value in old age” or in the presentation of J. Robbins-Ruszkowski on “Valuing Life’s Ends: Old Age in Postsocialist Poland”.

Contrasting the previous session on care, the importance of institutions was underlined and was directly linked to the production of norms. Institutions were discussed for instance as alternative collective care providers, i.e. sources of “non-family-based” practices in China (L. Prueher). Moreover, the robots seem to acquire socio-political dimensions when tested in a “real-life setting” through a results-driven approach with “political interest in welfare technological innovation” (M. H. Bruun). And there is also an “institutionalized palliative care” through which the “naturalization” of “good death” can be observed (B. Pasveer). Beyond the questions of valuing or naturalization, the frontiers of humanity (Remy, Winance, 2010) are raised as main issues related to care practices, i.e. when comparing a neonatal care unit, an animal laboratory, and a dementia nursing home (M. N. Svendsen, L. Navne, M. Seest Dam, I. Gjødsbøl).


Innovative methods and methodologies

Finally, the presentations used a diversity of methods and methodologies, from less usual ones like meta-ethnography (H. K. Andreassen, C. Pope, C. May) to more traditional, but “revisited”, ethnographic accounts, literature reviews, individual or group interviews. As shown by J. Pols, STS include the study of knowledge practices, but dare to take a step further: “studying an object is simultaneously shaping it through material research practices and through concepts and methodologies”. These remarks pave the way towards a dynamic living laboratory process put to work when studying care in practice.



I thank Laura Centemeri, Paola Diaz and Stefan Nicolae for their careful reading of this article and their insightful comments. I would also like to express my gratitude to the EASST Council for their 4S/EASST Conference in Barcelona 2016 support award.


1 The interest of this device was previously discussed: “[…] laboratory experiments are simplificatory devices: they seek to tame the many erratically changing variables that exist in the wild world, keeping some stable and simply excluding others from argument.” (Law, Mol, 2002, 2). Simplifications nonetheless “are used as a basis for action” (Law, Mol, 2002, 3).

2 “The European Network of Living Labs (ENoLL) is a worldwide community of Living Labs with a sustainable strategy for enhancing innovation on a systematic basis. ENoLL aims to support co-creative, user-driven research and contribute to the creation of a dynamic European innovation system, with a global reach.”

3 “MIT Living Labs brings together interdisciplinary experts to develop, deploy, and test – in actual living environments – new technologies and strategies for design that respond to this changing world. Our work spans in scale from the personal to the urban, and addresses challenges related to health, energy, and creativity”


How to inherit from Barcelona?

How to inherit from ‘this’ intervention? This was the question that Lucy Suchman posed in the plenary session with Isabelle Stengers, as she reported on the subplenary session discussing the future of academia in the neoliberalizing institutional environments STS scholars currently work. What to do with the powerful propositions for abolishing authorship, resisting quantification, rethinking academic work? How to make them productive, generative? How to keep them alive, make them public?

In these notes, I would like extend Lucy’s question and ask how to inherit from the intervention that the 4S/EASST conference in Barcelona made (or aimed to make) in the field of STS – an epistemo-political question that takes the form of both, a public recognition of the powerful conceptual proposition made by the local organizing committee through their careful curating of the plenary and subplenary sessions and, most importantly, an invitation to the STS community to engage with such proposition, to inherit from the conference as a situation that provokes thinking.

What did the Barcelona conference stand for? What was the intellectual intervention?

I think the most interesting proposition was not the conference’s motto ‘Science and technology by other means’, which directed attention to multiple engagements with science and technology by “private not-for-profit actors, such as CSOs, patient organizations and new citizens’ collectives”, and how these are “forging routes to explore more democratic and hospitable futures in the times of care, housing, food, financial and environmental crisis”. These questions reflect concerns that have shaped STS’s ethico-political engagements since at least the late 1980s. Thus what the Barcelona conference motto did was to stress this set of concerns as the common ground for any field-wide conversation.

Beyond this, the Barcelona conference entailed a different, perhaps more-subtle, but also more powerful proposition concerning the voices, alliances and visibilities that STS needs to position itself vis a vis the current neoliberalizing/anthropocenic/post-truth situation. The key here, I think, was to highlight the contribution of feminist technoscience studies as not simply one important tradition in STS, but as a critical source to rethink the whole field of STS as a feminist project. All plenary and subplenary sessions, I felt, were carefully attuned to the feminist invitations of thinking with, against and alongside technoscience, reimagining STS as a collaborative endeavour with collectives committed to making visible, and experimenting with other forms of not just science and technology, but of life together. The figure of ‘community by other means’, which emerged in the conversation of Michele Murphy and Madelaine Akrich, grasped very well the spirit of these conversations.

In the same vein, the Barcelona conference gave prominence to current articulations of STS and anthropological modes of thinking and researching. Let me clarify this: this wasn’t about re-invoking the capacities of ethnographic methods for studying science and technology or warning us to not lose sight of humans when studying complex techno-scientific projects and infrastructures. The conference’s recourse to anthropology expressed itself in the invitation to embrace the possibility of refiguring inquiry as a form of collaborative enterprise with STS’ various interlocutors; collaborations that are not only a matter of ethico-political commitments, but also of theorico-conceptual reflexivity.

When I paraphrase Lucy Suchman paraphrasing Isabelle Stengers to ask how to inherit from Barcelona, I don’t want to suggest that the local organizing committee’s programmatic intervention would be the ‘right’ agenda both in academic and political terms for the future of STS. But, more modestly, to simply point out that what we encounter here are propositions that could help us to collectively think about the future of STS as an intellectual practice.

Speaking of which I cannot fail to mention the wicked politics of conference-making.

Barcelona was the first conference organised or co-organised by EASST to be held in a conference centre. There were many good reasons why this came to be the case. The most obvious one was the sheer number of participants (around 2000) and the need to delegate some organizational tasks to professional service providers. However, I think there are also good reasons for maintaining the tradition of university-based conferences. To begin with, this could allow us to not subject our conferencing practices to the surveillance of a security apparatus and to counteract their commoditization up to the last drop of water. University-based conferences, I think, give local organizing committees and the associations involved more leeway over otherwise black-boxed issues, such as what is technically possible, what is economically viable, what is environmentally sustainable, etc.

But, beyond this, university settings are also crucial to situate our knowing and conferencing practices differently. To not encounter each other as academic tourists in global non-places close to a sunny beach, but to attach ourselves to local settings of knowledge production. Whether this type of university-based conferences could continue under the current model of joint mega conferences is an open question. The Barcelona conference managed to at least partially square the circle by organizing a program of parallel activities that took at least some of the conference participants in some critical places of local knowledge production and contestation, such as the visual arts research centre Hangar or the Museum of Design. But it probably requires more than parallel activities in order to practice conferences as learning devices that situate participants in local settings of STS production.

Does History Matter? Techno-sciences and their Historically Informed Policies

This was a one-day workshop in the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens co-organized by the Department of History and Philosophy of Science of the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens and the Centre for Environmental Policy in Imperial College London. It took place on 14 January 2016. The event was coordinated by Stathis Arapostathis, National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, and Peter Pearson, Imperial College London. Funding was secured by the European Association for the Study of Science and Technology (EASST), the EPSRC funded project Realising Transition Pathways, and the project History of Nuclear Energy and Society (HoNESt). The event was based on invited papers and it was attended by 30 scholars in the areas of History of Science and Technology; Science, Technology and Society and Policy and Innovation Studies. More than 100 members of the broader audience and from NGOs attended several of the sessions while the attendance during the final roundtable went beyond 120 people.

The aim was to start a discussion about the role of history and more particularly of the history of techno-sciences in techno-scientific policy making. Emphasis was given on histories of innovations and technologies in the energy sector, environmental innovations and the information and communication technologies. The main questions of the event were: What is or what can be the role of history in public policies relevant to science and technology? What historiographical perspectives are more pertinent to historically informed techno-scientific policies? Can a historian of science and technology have a role in policy and decision making?

Those questions were formulated in the very reflexive context that seems to have influenced the international community of historians. In recent years, historians are seeking to place themselves more centrally in the making of public policies. During the last decade, the extended and dynamic research network History and Policy (http://www.historyandpolicy.org/) has aimed to link historians with politicians, policy makers, policy analysts and journalists. More recently, the book The History Manifesto (CUP, 2014) by Jo Guldi and David Armitage has triggered continuous public discussions about the role of history in public policies of contemporary social, political and economic problems. Beyond this, during the last two decades, historians and sociologists of technology have worked on historically informed policy scenarios and have conducted policy relevant historical research. The new field of Transition Studies emerged through such synergies and approaches (Geels, 2002; Schot and Geels, 2007; Geels,2005; Smith, Stirling and Berkhout, 2005; Bijker, 1999). In this context the workshop aimed to bring together historians of science and technology, sociologists, innovation studies as well as policy analysts, in order to reflect on the role of history in the making of science and technology policies but in the context of the broader dialogue and taking into account existing experiences.


The event was structured around three main areas:

1) Infrastructures, Technologies and the Environment;

2) Innovation Transitions, Governance and Path Dependencies

3) Nuclearities, Techno-sciences and Nuclear Policies.


Audience of the workshop, photograph by author
Audience of the workshop, photograph by author


Furthermore, two roundtables were organized. One roundtable was about the aims and the scope of the research projects that contributed to funding the workshop. The aim was to show how large scale projects mostly in the energy sector promote multidisciplinary research that brings together historians, sociologists, innovation studies scholars and economists as well as legal scholars. The second roundtable and concluding session featured four external commentators who attended the workshop and provided both overall commentary and specific suggestions in relation to how history can be useful for science and technology policy making. These included Yannis Caloghrou, Professor of Innovation Studies in the National Technical University of Athens; Alexandros Kyrtsis, Professor of Sociology and Sociology of Science in the National Kapodistrian University of Athens; Dimitris Ibrahim from Greenpeace and Ioannis Margaris, from the National Technical University of Athens and the HEDNO (Hellenic Electricity Distribution Network Operator). The aim was to have representatives both from epistemic communities different from that of history of science and technology, as well as representatives from NGOs and the industry that could provide the view of stakeholders in science and technology policy making.

In the morning session entitled ‘Infrastructures, Technologies and the Environment’, the papers addressed the construction of environment through technological infrastructures. Vincent Lagendijk advocated a historical approach based on a more symmetrical understanding of the causes and the agendas of the engineers, the state, the municipal authorities as well as the civil society. He argued for more historical sensitivity to the agency of the communities of citizens and infrastructure users in questioning engineering rationality and addressing issues emerged from the logic of civil society. Martin Ivanov provided a policy relevant history of renewable energy sources (RES) and their integration in the energy mix of the Bulgarian regime. He argued that institutional and technological path dependencies as well as the organizational and political culture defined the transition pathway of the energy mix in more sustainable directions. The transition was characterized by strong tensions and the opposition exerted by actors from the coal and nuclear lobbies, the local environmental activists and political engaged communities of citizens, distribution companies and electricity traders. Furthermore, governmental actions and decisions did not facilitate the integration of RES and the entrepreneurial activities of small scale installations. Pressures by the European Union were understood as windows of opportunity by incumbent regime actors to promote their interests, yet innovative initiatives were characterized and influenced by political corruption. Whereas Ivanov argued for the importance of institutions, governance patterns and culture in the making of energy regimes, the paper by Aristotle Tympas and Vassiliki Aggelopoulou stressed the importance of material histories in the making of policies and transitions to a more sustainable future. They argued that it is important to understand that technologies are not neutral and that different technologies are the material embodiments of different socio-political orders. Thus small scale wind parks with wind turbines of reduced height and width organized a different sociopolitical regime from the one organized around a large scale, colossal wind farms with gigantic wind turbines. While the first coproduced the energy regime for a regional or community level, the other coproduced patterns of energy demand that maintained unsustainable urban consumption. So when decisions are to be made, it is important to link technologies with the broader political priorities and with appropriate governance patterns.


Presentation during workshop, photograph by author
Presentation during workshop, photograph by author


The second morning section was dedicated to technological transitions and path dependencies both at the governance and technological level. Yannis Fotopoulos and colleagues argued that the natural gas transition in Greece showed that the political priorities at the transnational, national and local level defined the governance patterns and thus the character of the transition, the allocation of resources, skills and expertise(s). Fotopoulos et al. stressed that governing a transition really matters in the making of the network and the construction of organizational and material configurations of a system. In this context they pointed out the role of experts in visioning and framing energy problems and in directing policies by translating and inscribing them in the agenda of state and government actors.   Furthermore, Fotopoulos et al. argued that in the case of contemporary Greece and in the context of financial crisis transnational actors should be viewed as important players in the transition rather than as actors who only exercised pressures on the national actors.   While Fotopoulos et al. studied the structural characteristics of a specific case study, Peter Pearson showed how history and incumbents matter in shaping structural regime changes and effecting sociotechnical transitions with an emphasis on low carbon transitions. He was interested in theorizing and assessing the agency of the actors and their role in promoting, directing or reacting to a transition. He argued that incumbent technologies as well as organizations can be important influences, negative or positive, on the success of low carbon technologies and policies. Pearson showed that transitions can be conducted and realized in an effective way even under tight schedule, short time scale, and within a context of strong landscape pressures. The issue at stake is to mobilize human and financial capital at state and corporate level as well as to exercise the regulatory power to facilitate the technological change and to facilitate the effective interaction between actors. This is a dimension stressed by Ivan Tchalakov too. He argued that the recent history of information and communication technologies and digital infrastructures in Bulgaria showed that governing successful transitions necessitated choices over technologies, allocation of expertise and skills, the social legitimization through acts of legislative measures and acts of persuasion but also the synergy of local private concerns with civil society initiatives. He reconstructed the sociotechnical networks that were shaped in the struggle against the established state monopoly. The passage from the communist to the liberalization period involved intensive attempts by the private internet service providers to change legislation. Pressures from those actors were strong in order to legitimize a logic of competition. Furthermore, he argued that the low taxes and the high speed of the Bulgarian internet created the setting for entrepreneurial activity of international private interests. This is a condition that has been deemed as necessary for the continuation of the pace and the character of the transition but also of the integration of internet in the developmental patterns of Bulgaria.

In the afternoon session entitled ‘Nuclearities, Techno-sciences and Nuclear Policies’ the papers attempted to reconstruct the stories of the national nuclear programmes of Finland, Bulgaria and Greece from a perspective that could be informative to current trends in policy making. Karl Erik Michelsen addressed the problem of the limits of national self-determination in energy policy. His starting point was the Finnish experience and he argued that small independent nations, like Finland, have only limited self-determination when it comes to energy policy. The country’s struggle to develop a sovereign and independent energy policy had been unequal since the strong pressures and enforcement by the Soviet Union to use Soviet technology, expertise and uranium for the first nuclear power station in the country, which meant that Finland was then locked into a specific technological regime and technologically dependent on the Soviet Union. Dependence continued even for subsequent nuclear power stations despite the fact that they were built with western technology provided by Asea Atom and Westinghouse respectively. The country’s lock in nuclear power made it very difficult both politically and technologically to move away from this regime during the early years of the 21st century. In a context of market liberalization, the ownership of the new nuclear power plant by Russian interests triggered political contestation and conflict while it deepened the country’s technological dependence. The issue of technological dependence was raised in the paper by Arapostathis and Tympas on the story of the cancelled nuclear programme of Greece. The Greek story showed that a nuclear power station was an endemically political project in which experts played an important role in the process of framing the solutions to energy problems. They were key actors inscribing the integration of nuclear power plant not only in the energy mix but also in legitimizing the political priorities of democratic or fascist governments. They showed that the nuclear power plant in Greece was cancelled due to the critical event of a strong earthquake but also to the delegitimization and the politicization of the project that had been achieved by the anti-nuclear movement. Finally, they provided a new understanding of the ‘nuclearity’ of Greece by stressing the fact that while the country was cancelling the nuclear plant it established an interconnection with Bulgaria to purchase electric power produced by the Bulgarian nuclear power plant just kilometers from the north border of the country. The issue of technological dependence and network interconnections was raised by Ivaylo Hristov too. He presented a paper on the transition of the Bulgarian nuclear energy sector from the Cold War to the Liberalization and the period of Bulgaria’s integration in the European Union. Hristov argued that during the Cold War the technological dependency from Russia created the political and social legitimacy of a dominant ideology in which nuclear power was considered as critical infrastructure for the model of the state’s political economy. The collapse of the communist regimes destabilized the energy regime since it provided the political space and the legitimacy of actors from the environmental and anti-nuclear movement to react and question certainties and hegemonies in the energy policy of the country, while at the same time legitimized transnational pressures by the European Union that urged for the decommissioning of the nuclear reactors.

Each session was followed by extensive discussions that culminated with the final roundtable and the reflections by the commentators and the audience. In concluding we can summarize the discussion by stressing four main points that emerged from the papers and the discussions: a) understanding path dependencies is important in policy making since they shape the dynamic of actors, innovation networks and institutions. Only by mapping the sociotechnical networks involved, can a more interventionist agenda follow and effect changes; b) technologies are materialities inscribe and co-produce social order, the developmental paradigm and patterns of innovation. Thus, historically reconstructing the co-production process can inform public policies and public debates in spaces of deliberation. This is particularly important in order to secure symmetry in the engagement of different actors in the deliberation, as well as the condition for overcoming social inequalities in the design and distribution of innovations; c) studying the histories of transnational network interconnections and technological dependencies can help us to understand current technology policies and inform debates about the appropriate directions of contemporary transitions; and d) historical studies at micro and meso levels of analysis require a broader vision to address structural dimensions of sociotechnical networks and thus inform contemporary policies in an effective and efficient way.

The workshop concluded in optimistic and enthusiastic spirit about the linkages and synergies between the history of techno-sciences and innovations and public policies while discussions continued over a dinner in a historic traditional tavern in Plaka the oldest section of the city of Athens.


“Let’s pause for a while, follow a procedure and search for different sensors that could allow us to recalibrate our detectors, our instruments, to feel anew where we are and where we might wish to go. 

No guarantee, of course: this is an experiment, a thought experiment, a Gedankenausstellung.” 

(Field book, p. 1)


»reset modernity!«, photograph by Alexa Faerber
»reset modernity!«, photograph by Alexa Faerber



That voice is familiar. It appears in many texts and lectures, navigating between directly calling on the reader – never without a sense of humour, but seriously upset about the way we continue to act out modernity – and considerately trying out new ideas and forms of de-modernisation. In short: “r-M!”

“Gedankenausstellung” is one of these ideas, coined by Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel, who since their “Making Things Public” (2005), have tried to open up new ways of relating to the world through the mode of the discursive exhibition. In “reset Modernity!” it signals the theoretical work to be done by the visitors once they have gone through the six “procedures” that structure the exhibition. The “field book” is another:

“As the name ‘field book’ indicates, you are invited to do a bit of research yourself.” 

(Field book, p. 2).


»reset modernity!«, photograph by Alexa Faerber
»reset modernity!«, photograph by Alexa Faerber


As an impatient visitor of exhibitions, but an anthropologist passionate about analysing knowledge in the mode of the exhibition, I was most curious about the making of “reset Modernity!” when I visited it on its opening weekend. Would space be reserved for reflection on how this Gedankenausstellung became an Ausstellung? And if so, what kind of spatial arrangement could express the localising qualities of this very representational work?

As it turns out, there was. Firstly in the catalogue, which was too heavy to carry, and will be a source for future reading. Here, a seventh procedure with the title “In search of a diplomatic middle ground” had been added. The chapter provides a visual and textual documentation of the conferences, workshops, symposia and plays that took place in the context of AIME — the ERC-funded research project and network based in Sciences Po’s médialab in Paris. The website, which has been developed as a working tool for the group, contains additional materials, including interviews with Bruno Latour on the question, “What is a Gedankenausstellung?” (http://modesofexistence.org/what-is-a-gedankenausstellung/). When it comes to learning about the making-of process, the photographs of their work sessions are potential sources of information – they show people sitting around tables covered with document folders, bottles of soft drinks and plates of sweets, discussing plans that have been projected on the wall. It features photographs and an audio-visual recording of the curators visiting the ZKM in 2015, bent over plans and examining the future exhibition space. It also shows the “statement of intent”, which prompted the following comment: “It sounds exciting. Stay strong and hold on to your original vision. Alicia Flynn (a year ago)” (http://modesofexistence.org/statement-of-intent-for-the-aime-exhibition-at-zkm-2016/)


»reset modernity!«, photograph by Alexa Faerber
»reset modernity!«, photograph by Alexa Faerber


»reset modernity!«, photograph by Alexa Faerber
»reset modernity!«, photograph by Alexa Faerber

Did they stay strong? And was that the right approach? (It shouldn’t be, see Latour/Weibel 2007: pp. 94-95) They did keep to their plan, and while the catalogue and website document how the research network took on the risks of interdisciplinary work (intertwining research, debate and theatre with analogue and digital design in different locations and constellations) the exhibition includes traces of their original working practice in the form of “stations” implemented in each procedure. Here, thematically related quotes, notes, images and audio-recordings are provided and loosely arranged on a single white wall. These arrangements are aesthetically reminiscent of the associative Warburgian atlas production – without claiming to be exhaustive.

Quite the opposite: These stations point directly to another, virtual actor — potentially a zettelkasten of the AIME team and its collaborators, which could be a probable source for the arrangements. The looseness of the wall arrangements and the virtual zettelkasten cautiously suggest the existence of selection, but not to the ways in which the selection took place. Which lines were drawn between those artworks and references that became part of the spatially, temporally, financially limited exhibition-project? Which artworks and references made their way into the exhibition while transgressing these lines? And which ones never did become a part of it, despite having the strongest of qualifications1 Since much of the “field book” isn’t a “fieldwork notebook”2, the stations don’t offer these types of insights into the representational work. Given that these processes are always driven by tension and passion – which shape the agency distributed between the actors – these walls have a lightness, they breathe and invite the visitor to do the same.


»reset modernity!«, photograph by Alexa Faerber
»reset modernity!«, photograph by Alexa Faerber


But do they provide the quiet that, as Bruno Latour mentioned in an interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist (http://modesofexistence.org/what-is-a-gedankenausstellung/, 26:14), is necessary for a reset? The field book proclaims that they are “a sort of workplace … this is where you will find more information and where you can discuss the path of the inquiry” (field book, p. 2). Here something might have been lost between the original vision and its spatialisation.


»reset modernity!«, photograph by Alexa Faerber
»reset modernity!«, photograph by Alexa Faerber


The very discreteness of this AIME-archive (the table with books at the intersection of three procedures should also be mentioned) is partially the result of the large, all-consuming two-dimensional artworks that surround these stations. Walking through the exhibition, these spectacular images again and again captured my attention: the more-than-realistic, staged photographs of Jeff Wall showing scientific practices; Armin Linke’s photographic work, which seemed to be part of almost every procedure, and simultaneously points to humanity’s intriguing megalomania and smallness and, visible from far away, at the end of the first exhibition hall, the floating walls of film projections in procedure five. The latter, called “Secular at Last”, resonated with the large scale of the other pictures. One work in this procedure is spatially secluded by a triangular installation of screens: “Obama’s Grace” (Lorenza Mondada et al, 2016). Here, the performative force of Barak Obama’s combination of political statement and religious “sound” is disturbingly intensified. An analytical transcript on one of the screens, however, demonstrates the extent to which this intensity stems from both the president and his parish. When standing between these three screens, the need for a way out of modernity’s binding forces could not be more obvious. Time for a Gedankensprung!

Reset Latour!

In press releases and in the impressive catalogue, the new Reset Modernity! exhibition at the Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie (ZKM) in Karlsruhe – (co-)curated by a certain Bruno Latour – is framed as a thought experiment or, in more idiomatic German, a Gedankenausstellung. Having perused through the exhibitions’ 75+ works of various origins and media formats, and thus partaken in the six successive procedures of dis- and reorientation meant to achieve the promised reset, this framing seems to us both highly appropriate and somewhat symptomatic. Appropriate, in the sense that what is being exhibited here, more than photographs and video screens and installation art, is in fact the thoughts of… Bruno Latour. Symptomatic, because in this case as well, German is more precise than English: while thoughts are literally put on display, it seems as if nothing much experimental is happening here. In particular, the detour through other materials seems to make no real difference to how the thoughts unfold themselves.

From start to end, the exhibition looks and feels like a crash course in Latour’s version of science and technology studies (STS). Guided by a field book, we move from laboratory life (a, ‘re-localizing the global’) to the anthropology of techniques (f, ‘innovation not hype’), via more recent interventions aligned to the various modes of existence of the moderns: fictional art (b, ‘without the world or within’), religion (e, ‘secular at last’), morality (c, ‘sharing responsibility’) and politics (d, ‘from lands to disputed territories’). Crashing, indeed, is what modernity is said to be doing, under the weight of ecological crises. Or, to follow the opening video of the show, perhaps the crash has already happened and we are scrambling to face up to its effects? The answer was never entirely clear; just as it was not clear just why modernity needs resetting if, as the curator might say, we were never quite modern in the first place? Perhaps resetting is what happens to critique of ideology, once we stop believing in both critique and ideology?


The article’s co-author engages with the thoughts on display, and in the field book, during Reset Modernity!, photograph by author



With so many interesting ideas flowing around; with such an impressive list of star artists enrolled; and with such a pressing eco-political mandate, Reset Modernity! frankly strikes us as something of a missed opportunity. Not that the show lacks exiting moments, far from it. Strong works of contemporary art, such as those by Simon Starling, Tacita Dean, Thomas Struth and Pierre Huyghe (to name but a few), make it well worth a visit. For anyone familiar with Latour and STS, moreover, the joy of recognition is a palpable one: if you read Reassembling the Social, you will surely enjoy watching Charles and Ray Eames’ promotional video Powers of Ten (and its critical-theatrical deconstruction); and if you follow discussions on the Anthropocene, you will like the enigmatic hybrids of humans and stones conjured by Anne-Sophie Milon and Jan Zalasiewicz (himself a leading geological protagonist). Yet, at the level of curatorial guidance – of which the show has (too) much! – the thoughts on display often curiously falls short of their purported model, i.e. the ground-breaking and thought-provoking writings of… Bruno Latour himself.

Let us give a few examples to illustrate what we mean. During procedure b of the exhibition, the visitor is treated to two striking works by Jeff Wall, the Canadian artist well known for his self-reflexive inquiries into the nature of photographic representation. The choice of artist, of course, is far from coincidental. As many readers of this journal will recognize, Latour has a history of reflecting on one of these works: specifically, Wall’s 1992 photographic rendition of Adrian Walker, Artist, Drawing From a Specimen in a Laboratory in the Department of Anatomy at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver (as the full title reads). In the picture, Walker-the-artist is seen in the laboratory, absorbed in his work of making an anatomical drawing of a detached, mummified limb from a once-living animal. It is a wonderful piece of art, dwelling as it does on the capacity of photography to capture one of those still-rarer moments in scientific practice where artistic competence remains superior in precision to automated inscription.

Latour surely agrees, to a point. As he explains in his brilliant 2005 Spinoza lecture, What is the style of matters of concern?, he is critical of Wall’s gesture: Wall has been blinded, he argues, by the contrivances of this situation, failing to see that its entire aesthetics of matters of fact has been rendered improbable. To his credit, in this 2005 text, Latour re-prints a lengthy response to this interpretation by Wall himself, explaining why it misses what Wall takes to be the key point, to do with the pleasure of all depiction (his own included, of course). Here is the problem, however: at the Reset Modernity! exhibition, this worthwhile exchange is reduced to a mere assertion on the part of the curator. In particular, the other photograph by Wall allows Latour to drive home the point: here, we witness a group of archeologists at work in their field, excavating. Unlike Walker, Latour writes in the field book, scientists “are involved inside what they study”. A nice STS point, for sure. But why do we need Jeff Wall’s photographs in order to make it? Indeed, are we not presented here with a strangely realist, matter-of-factly way of appreciating what is, after all, a highly self-reflexive photographic practice? If scientists are active inside the worlds they study, then what about photographers? Is only STS allowed to determine where the frame starts and stops?



Elevated view of the exhibition layout, with Milon and Zalasiewicz' The Mystery of Brunaspis enigmatica on the floor, photograph by author
Elevated view of the exhibition layout, with Milon and Zalasiewicz’ The Mystery of Brunaspis enigmatica on the floor, photograph by author


A second and related concern arises for us as we start embracing the full diversity of materials on display in the exhibition as a whole: tactile works by world-renowned contemporary artists sit alongside amateur scribblings and installations; videos by Peter Gallison’s STS students stand around the corner from the Eames’ work of design consultancy; a (copy of a) 15th century print by Albrect Dürer shares the space with excerpts from late-20th-century movies. In fact, only the large-size photographs by Armin Linke gives to Reset Modernity! a kind of recurrent visual mark (albeit, we think, a less interesting one than Latour lets on in the catalogue). Such material diversity is of course potentially interesting. It juxtaposes times, spaces, media and genres not usually juxtaposed. It challenges how boundary-work is usually performed in artistic spaces. However, at the curatorial level, nothing much is done with this diversity and its potentials in Reset Modernity!. In fact, and disappointingly, diversity of materials and stylistic genres fails to register anywhere in the thoughts on display, in the (heavy!) narrative being told. It is as if the various thoughts and the various materials, interesting as those registers are, are just not rendered that relevant for each other. Here is a split one would have trusted an STS curator to bridge – especially when that curator has done more than perhaps anyone else to bring to attention the inherent materiality of ideas.

Third and finally, there is the narrative itself, the narrative of what happened to us during the short experience called modernity, and how we might want to reset that experience. Here, as noted, we are treated to a tour around Latour’s universe, slanted towards his more recent concerns: during the show, we move from (ancestral) land to the (modernist) globe; get lost on the way; witness the birth of the environment (out of Nature) and its later morphing into Gaia; only to realize that our imaginary land and utopian globe have both disappeared, leaving us the task of cultivating new careful techniques of attachment to our new and inhospitable umwelt, the Earth. Anyone up to date with Latour’s writings will recognize the (geo-)story. What becomes obvious in this 3-D exhibition version, however, is just hos well Latour’s own wonderful concept of the panorama fits this story of his: we are presented with a 360-degrees full-color projection, with no cracks and fissures, but equally with no visible signs of connection to the world beyond the screen. The panorama, as Latour would say, is nicely suited for preparing its audience, the public, for the collective journey ahead – such, indeed, seems to us the better way of appreciating the Reset Modernity! exhibition. Yet, even the best of panoramas eventually leave you starving for more, for something tangible, connected, entangled, engaged. For the kinds of worlds, in short, which STS is so good at cultivating, and which actor-network theory feeds on, full of gaps and fissures and translations and betrayals.

Few contemporary intellectuals have done more to completely revamp, indeed to seriously reset, all the ingredients of our common world – of science, technology, nature, politics, not to mention the study of their multifarious interrelations, known as STS – than has Bruno Latour. His recent exposition of the modes of existence of the moderns adds new and interesting layers to this already-impressive intellectual edifice, as does his engagement into transdisciplinary dialogues on the fate of our Anthropocene. In the meantime, he has managed to (co-)curate three multi-media art exhibitions, at least one of which (the 2005 Making Things Public) stands as a model for those art-science collaborative endeavors so seriously needed. In light of all this, Reset Modernity! is a parenthesis; not a complete failure, for sure, but neither groundbreaking in any way. Sometimes, resetting your computer is no big deal, just something you do to refresh your extended mind. We suggest a similar procedure here: upon visiting this exhibition, remember to reset Latour (!) and refresh your memory as to just why his thinking matters so much in the first place.

Procedures to deal with modernity without irony

My own interest in this exhibition

Having only witnessed Bruno Latour live in a lecture over two decades ago and having recently (re-)read a large fraction of his work, including his Inquiry into Modes of Existence (2013), I gladly accepted the invitation to take part in the opening event of his exhibition Reset Modernity! My own interest in Latour’s work, including his philosophical work, stems from his combined empirical and theoretical analyses of practices of dealing with uncertainty. Besides having studied Latour’s approach to science and politics (in particular pertaining to global climate change) I was recently triggered by his approach to science and religion (in, e.g., his Rejoicing, 2013). I will here reflect how his exhibition added a useful dimension to the readings I had done before.


Executing procedures with more senses

Latour’s approach in his books is already unconventional, for instance by using fictive narrators. In the exhibition, a whole other dimension of the problématique appears, through a variety of media, alongside what can be addressed through the ordinary mode of reading and thinking. During the opening symposium (and in the book accompanying the exhibition) Latour emphasised that in order to be able to deal with the future ‘our individual instruments’ need to be ‘reset’ (from a false modernity) by a sequence of ‘procedures’ that the exhibition carries out with the participants. And to be honest: I took a whole day to dutifully execute all the suggested procedures, using my guidebook and walking through the exhibition and looking carefully and reflecting on what was shown, and indeed got sensitised to several aspects that had escaped my notice from reading his books. This happened already in procedure 1, relocalising the global, when watching the precursors and Latour’s criticism of the film Powers of Ten (Charles and Ray Eames, 1977). I immediately ordered a copy of Kees Boeke’s Cosmic View: The Universe in 40 Jumps (1957). Latour highlights the ‘complete implausibility’ of the moves in Powers of Ten. One should not jump too quickly to the ‘big picture’. Or, as Latour writes, ‘Earth is not visible as long as it is hidden behind the globe’. Of course I was already open to it and quite prepared, but still the exhibition is accessible to a large audience (actually, it is more accessible than some of Latour’s books).


No irony

Another observation that Latour made during the opening was that none of the work in his exhibition has any form of irony: none of it is critical in the 20th century modernist sense. And he deemed that to be something positive. According to Latour, you do not want to exit from the successes of modernisation. And indeed the exhibition, although it addresses – among other topics – global problems such as climate change, embodies a pragmatist philosophy of hope. Indeed several pragmatist elements are recognisable in the exhibition: avoidance of dualisms; the flux of experience and of the experienced world; reflexivity; responsibility; creativity and inclusivity. The exhibition hence confirms that Latour’s work refers back to the early phase of pragmatism (that of James and Dewey) combined with a sharp analysis of present day connections.


Religion as politics

The least attractive procedure, at least for my own project, was the procedure called ‘secular at last’ focussed on the crossing between politics and religion. The procedure focused on religious film and highlighted the politics of religion. While the crossing of politics and religion is no doubt a problématique of global significance, I had hoped to learn more about Latour’s analyses of science and religion, which he both sees as the result of transformations. In the case of science the interest is in information and representation; in the case of religion the interest is in translation and ‘saving’. In Rejoice, Latour had focused on alterations that happen to people when they utter religious speech and engage (models of) beings that ‘have the peculiar characteristic of bringing persons from remoteness to proximity, from death to life’. I would have liked to see demonstrations of how models of God are used in practice, and how deep uncertainty and ignorance about these models are dealt with and expressed in religious practices. And maybe to explore the crossing with the mode of reference, how science models nature.



To be honest, I have always been sceptical of references to ‘Gaia’. Especially of the popular reception of the Gaia hypothesis as it was put forward, defended and refined by the inventor and independent scientist James Lovelock (the hypothesis being that biota influence the environment in a way that causes a homeostasis in the face of a changing external forcing). While Lovelock and his supporters have consistently tried to accommodate scientific criticism of the Gaia hypothesis by seemingly getting rid of the metaphysical versions, the attractiveness of the Gaia hypothesis for the general public remained precisely what Lovelock cannot suppress himself to say about Earth: ‘It is most certainly an organism—and alive!’ Latour in this exhibition, however, does not at all allude to these metaphysical versions and is able to take a fresh look at Earth, in a grounded way. I found his visual distinctions between globe and Earth enlightening. And also what he indicated during the opening: speaking about Gaia is not about animism: it is to indicate that there was no modernist deanimation in the first place.

Tracing Sociomaterial Practices in Technoscientific Worlds. Stakes and Directions for STS

From 3-5 December 2015 the newly established national organization for science and technology studies STS Austria (see www.sts-austria.org) celebrated its launch with an international conference on the premises of the University of Vienna. This conference, organized with support from EASST and various other institutions, explored living in technoscientific worlds, as the title indicated, and thereto brought together a wide variety of researchers and their work from within Austria, Europe and beyond. From all their contributions emerged a colorful picture of what STS has to offer. Richly exhibiting the shared agenda of the field to make sense of the socio-material practices that surround us (as it was summarized in the closing panel), the conference made a strong case for the relevance of current work in STS. All the more reason for participants in a concluding discussion to consider how to strengthen not only research on sociotechnical practices, but also contributions to practices we study and the way we organize the practices of STS itself.


The closing discussion panel at the STS Austria Conference.
figure1: The closing discussion panel at the STS Austria Conference. Picture by Erik Aarden


The title ‘Living in Technoscientific Worlds’ deliberately opens up a plethora of sites and ways in which people interact with science and technology in their daily lives, and contributions to the conference did not disappoint in mapping many of these ways in great detail. From particular objects to so-called grand political challenges, the program covered the various facets of technoscientific worlds across many scientific disciplines, social domains and geographical locations. Without claiming to either be representative or do justice to this diversity, I came way with many interesting observations, lessons learned and new questions to ask.

As is tradition in STS, various presenters took specific mundane or novel objects and explored their relations to personal identities, social norms, economic ambitions or political imaginations. Among other things, we learned about the ways radio frequency tags in clothing are sold with the promise that they create effortless order and efficiency for the marketplace (or fashion store, as the case may be); how stem cells may be considered different things depending on the model for how to sell them as health care revolutions; or – as Judy Wajcman discussed in one of the keynotes – how our possibilities for digital communication enable the frantic, continuously connected lifestyle we were already committed to – rather than causing it.

Yet STS has also develop particular perspectives on how science and technology affect – and are affected by – sites and forms of living together that have traditionally drawn interest of other social sciences. Various policy-initiatives were critically interrogated, including the transnational travel of elite universities like MIT that turn out to change when traveling away from the US, rather than just being implemented elsewhere. Science also received its due as a profession in contributions interrogating how researchers ‘choreograph’ their interactions in interdisciplinary projects, or how they reflect on the differences and tensions between academic and industrial research from the vantage point of their own careers.

Still further, at various points during the conference discussions moved to interrogating conceptual categories that describe the – perceived – major challenges contemporary societies deal with. ‘Science’ as a category itself is not excluded from this discussion. The challenges science confronts were explored in Maja Horst’s keynote on the various levels at which attempts to communicate science seek to build a widely shared ‘scientific culture’. In related, yet different terms several presenters took up the notion that governance of technoscience needs rethinking, exploring approaches rooted in reflexivity, anticipation, responsibility and engagement as pathways for more socially robust and responsive technoscientific advances.

Across all of the different places, domains and levels of technoscientific worlds addressed in contributions to the conference, presenters – in lively interactions with their audiences – persistently debated the possibilities and limits of the various concepts and perspectives in the toolkit STS provides. What are the differences and implications of the various adjectives for ‘governance’ that (in part) have emerged from STS itself? To what extent are our diagnoses of shortcomings in how scientists conceptualize their publics applicable on new areas? How do we maintain a focus on materiality when thinking about policies, strategies and imagination? What do we ourselves take for granted when trying to unravel the implications of lives in technoscientific worlds?

Questions like these were peppered through a closing session led by Ulrike Felt and Alan Irwin, in which all conference participants were invited to contribute, which formed a fitting conclusion to the conference. This panel both crystallized many of the discussions of the previous two days and provided a helpful baseline for STS Austria in building its presence  – both in STS and in Austria – from its launch onwards. The conversation in this session revolved around various perspectives on both the idea and the practice of ‘practice’ and thereby helped in identifying some of the challenges STS (still) faces in claiming a place in conversing with its technoscientific environment.

One challenging dimension for STS as a field is how it relates to the structural demands of these worlds on how STS works. The field finds itself in a curious position in that regard, since many of its insights on scientific careers, funding mechanisms and indicators of quality and productivity barely find resonance in institutional strategies within STS. While we know that careers are precarious, or that funding requirements and publication scores may shape the issues we focus on and perspectives we develop, several contributions to this discussion implied a variation to the tune that we nevertheless play the game. Can we do more to challenge a system of which we are acutely aware that it has severe limitations?

How scholars in STS collectively respond to this question has important implications for directions the field may take in the future. On the one hand, particularly scholars that find themselves in the transition from junior to senior positions indicated that they miss an awareness of the challenges confronting the next generations in the field – which include, for example, the absence of a perspective on long-term stability due to the short duration of research projects. On the other hand, similar observations were made about geographical expansion of the field and the question how to integrate colleagues from outside Europe, North America, Australia and a few pockets in Asia – and their perspectives on living in technoscientific worlds – in the shared intellectual endeavor of STS. How can STS develop ways to enrich its perspectives on sociotechnical practices into areas it has not (yet) seriously engaged with?

Finally, conference participants also observed how the ways STS engages with its surrounding technoscientific worlds is often influenced by assumptions we carry about ‘outsiders’. Curiously, we often assume interlocutors such as policy-makers to neither understand our conceptual language, nor to be sufficiently reflexive to truly take on board the STS perspective. The question then, of course, is whether we are not too rigid in policing our intellectual tools, whether we aren’t reproducing attitudes we have been critical of ourselves, and whether we thereby not put the potential of our field to participate in conversations on important sociotechnical questions and challenges at risk. As the rich demonstration of STS perspectives in this conference showed, we have many interesting and important things to say. Yet it is to no small degree also up to us to make our voice worth listening to. How then to take serious those ‘outsiders’ that think we can make fruitful contributions to their practices?

The colorful display of STS perspectives on the sociomaterial practices that build the world we live in not only showed why the field is relevant, but also that the questions STS asks are too important to be secluded to an exclusive academic field. If we can draw one conclusion with implications far and wide beyond national boundaries from this conference, it is that both the diversity of work presented and reflexive questions posed to conclude the conference confirm this. While the field of STS thus needs to confront the various challenges of its own technoscientific environment of a disciplinary academy, it simultaneously should remain open to new perspectives coming from new generations, locations or practices adjacent to our own. The concluding panel therefore finished with the observation that there is work to be done for STS in cultivating open encounters with diverse forms of life in technoscientific worlds.

“Making and Doing” at 4S Meeting (Denver): Let’s extend the experiment!

Conceived as “a response to a growing trend among STS scholars in engaging in scholarly practices that produce and express STS knowledge beyond the academic paper or book” (Amir, 2015), the Making and Doing Programme held its first session at the 4S Annual meeting in Denver in November 2015. The idea for this Programme developed from a discussion of scholarly making and doing STS  at the Ecosite/4S meeting in Buenos-Aires (2014). More than 50 presentations were displayed at the 4S meeting. The Programme took the form of an interactive exhibition. Each project was allocated a space of approximately 2×2 meters. The Programme was attention grabbing, notably through performances such as that of Woelfle-Erskine’s (UC Berkeley) “Tell a salmon your troubles” project. This report aims to give a flavour of the diversity and creativity of the exhibits. Despite the specificity of each, we gather them under different headings.


Tell a salmon your troubles” project invites working scientists to relate to another critically endangered species, coho salmon, as affective beings who may notice and respond to human actions. “Tell a Salmon” injects feminist STS practices of reflexivity and reciprocity into scientists’ inter-species thinking. Photograph: Paul Naish
figure 1: “Tell a salmon your troubles” project invites working scientists to relate to another critically endangered species, coho salmon, as affective beings who may notice and respond to human actions. “Tell a Salmon” injects feminist STS practices of reflexivity and reciprocity into scientists’ inter-species thinking. Photograph by Paul Naish


Visual and Sensory Experiences

figure 2: Light Through Prism, Cambridge, Massachusetts, from the series Science, 1958-1961, photograph: Berenice Abbott, 1898-1991
figure 2: Light Through Prism, Cambridge, Massachusetts, from the series Science, 1958-1961,
photograph by Berenice Abbott, 1898-1991

Special attention was given to art for its way of dealing with human sensibility and science. Named “Visual and Sensory Approaches” by the organisers, these exhibits encouraged reflection on the  place of the arts in science, the role of imagination in scientific comprehension and innovation, or simply how science can be a vehicle for artistic production of objects (or the opposite). Berenice Abbott’s work (see figures 2 and 3), presented by Hannah Rogers and Worthy Martin in the installation “Making Science visible”, is representative of this approach. As a photographer of the twentieth century (1898-1991), she produced pictures through scientific experiments, by using technologies of her time and designing a new kind of camera.  She mainly worked with mirrors and magnets to create black and white graphic photographs. For instance, her work influenced the way we currently represent waves or the diffraction phenomenon in a prism. She aestheticized science.

Similarly, work on medical imaging and its visual styles fascinatingly demonstrated the influence of art on scientific research. A striking example was a Norwegian mini-film of thirty minutes called “The Good, the True and the Beautiful” presented in the documentary “Film: Medical Imaging”.

The above are just two examples of projects focused on the importance of image and art. Other exhibits had different aims. For example, a digital installation titled “The Now(here) project” focused on re-presenting Borderline Personality Disorder and “Anarchy of Imagination” challenged ideas about shared space.


Writing and Communicating Experiences

figure 3: Soap Bubbles, New York from the series Science, 1945–1946 photograph: Berenice Abbott, 1898-1991
figure 3: Soap Bubbles, New York from the series Science, 1945–1946, photograph by Berenice Abbott, 1898-1991

A special concern in all the initiatives was the question of “living together”: how can we make knowledge reachable and allow everyone to understand the complex issues of our world? Participants were encouraged to think about science outside textbooks and make it alive. How science can be fun, different, and closer to our everyday life? Innovation in making knowledge reachable relates to the method of communicating science. Some projects offer new forms of publication, of writing and communicating about scientific questions.

Limn magazine works in this direction, by focusing equally on the style and on the content. Limn is an annual magazine, shared in open-access on the Internet and also available in paperback. The articles are short, illustrated and the topics are diverse. Since its creation in 2011 Limn has addressed topics such as “Systematic Risks” (2011), “Food Infrastructures” (2014) or “Ebola’s Ecologies” (2015). Limn is somewhere between a scholarly journal and an art magazine. The goal is to focus on contemporary questions, in an accessible style of reading but contributions are reviewed and carefully edited by the editorial team, as well as shared amongst the contributors.

The digital era has raised questions about accessibility, but moreover about the quality of knowledge. With the vast amount of information around us we need to be able to sort, to shed light on what is working and what is not. Two workshops presented initiatives about notation on the Internet. The aim is to allow its users to mark each other, for example in community sites selling products or services, and also to grade the sites themselves. These projects are “Matters of Care in Crowdsourcing” by Lilly Irani (UC San Diego) and co-authors and “How’s my feedback ?“ by Malte Ziewitz (Cornell University) and colleagues.

The idea of acting to better evaluate is used by lots of websites, but some initiatives were impressive in their ambition: thus, “How’s my feedback” offers to grade some much used sites including “Amazon” or “Ebay”. However, its implementation was challenging, and raised questions at the intersection of STS, design and engagement. Excitingly, these projects aim to show that becoming an actor is a collective endeavour rather than an actor being a receptor of information available on the Internet.


Educational Experiences

A large number of initiatives have also been implemented to create innovative courses or tools that actively engage young people in moving to a more environmentally and socially sustainable future. Using a “public ethics” framework -where ethical issues are prioritised- the “Greening Chemistry” program at UC Berkeley is an opportunity to gather scientists, engineers, designers, business managers, social scientists and environmental health specialists at the graduate level, through a series of courses that interweave STS with practical problem-solving. In the same vein, “Crafting Digital Stories” initiative makes use of short videos to discuss concepts and ways of thinking around sustainability. Through digital storytelling, the Arizona State University and its Biodesign Institute disseminate STS theories and case studies among educators and students.

The Programme as a whole offered concrete tools that sometimes work in tandem with educational projects. These tools aim at democratizing access to information and knowledge. For instance the “Solar Digital Libraries” project (by Laura Hosman) focuses on populations with no electricity or Internet connectivity: a self-powered plug-and play kit (SolarSPELL) was designed to provide access to a digital library over an off-line WiFi spot, with areas struck by natural disasters in mind. “Civic Laboratory: Plastics” is an action-oriented initiative at Memorial University of Newfoundland (Max Liboiron), which aims to create low-cost, open-source methods for monitoring environment and marine plastics. There is a description of do-it-with-others devices on the CLEAR website, which are designed by the people who use them (most of whom are not accredited scientists or engineers) and incorporate politics and values of feminism. This initiative tackles the major problem of oceans and marine pollution in a region (Newfoundland & Labrador) where many scientific protocols don’t work because of the extreme environment.


Paperworks, posters, tool kits… More than textbooks in the conference venue concourse. Photograph by Paul Naish
figure 4: Paperworks, posters, tool kits… More than textbooks in the conference venue concourse. Photograph by Marianne Noel


Similar issues apply to the context of “The Shore line” (Elizabeth Miller, Concordia University). This project is a series of stories about individuals who are responding to the threats of massive developments, destructive storms, and rising sea levels in coastal communities around the world (Canada, the U.S., Panama, India, Bangladesh and New Zealand). This documentary is more designed as a collection of testimonies than a coordination platform but illustrates a commitment around which citizens are engaged on preservation issues. New forms of more meaningful civic engagement are emerging in these initiatives. The approach is for all actors to be involved, often to overcome the lack of information from the administration or government.

There are many ongoing “political” projects, which challenge the relevant authorities on scientific questions. In Canada, the “Write2Know Project” is a letter-writing campaign launched in response to the Canadian government’s “war on science”. Write2Know offers a platform for people to pose questions to federal scientists and ministers on matters of public and environmental health and safety. The record was quite significant: over 4900 letters were signed by people at the time of the federal election in October 2015 in Canada. The Chilean project “Scientific legislation” moves into the same direction: Martin Perez Comisso and colleagues have developed a learning experience to empower undergraduate students in several disciplines with law creation techniques. Conclusions have been delivered to senators and congressmen.  The creation of laws by citizens is a new practice for Chile, experimented with in the civilian-academic format. Last but not least, Citizen-Led Forensics (Ciencia Forense Ciudadana, CfC) is a remarkable humanitarian project directed by relatives of the disappeared in Mexico. It was created in August 2014 with the task of governing and managing an independent and citizen-led forensic DNA database.


A Large Variety of Creative Initiatives

To conclude, we were impressed by the enthusiasm with which diverse and creative initiatives have been embraced by collectives of all types. This summary has covered 15 projects only; we have made choices that are influenced by our interests in specific topics (arts and representation, pedagogy, etc.). Many projects have been completed, which make them easier to describe, but some are still going on. We were surprised that two thirds of the projects came from the North American continent. That has certainly to do with the cost of travelling to Denver. Is there also a link with specific learning methods, STS “styles” or traditions and the availability of funds in countries such as the U.S. or Canada? It is still too early to draw on conclusions.

This report has been jointly written by Julie Le Bot, a bachelor student at the CRI, Université Paris Descartes, where Marianne Noel teaches STS. While Marianne attended the 4S meeting in Denver, Julie was encouraged to review the Making and Doing Programme from Paris, during her short internship at LISIS. She will give a feedback to her classmates during the Spring term. In addition to “traditional” courses based on readings, this will be a way to illustrate how STS insights are applied and implemented in practical processes of production, diffusion and utilisation of science and technology. We hope it will also generate new initiatives!

Experiments with “New Materialisms” – Workshop Report on “Sociology and New Materialisms”

Our workshop “Sociology and New Materialisms” was motivated by two interests: one genealogical, one experimental. The former interest arose from the assessment that the general discussion about new materialisms entered an intellectual climate where, at least in some disciplines, materiality was already a well-discussed matter of concern. We were therefore less interested in the fact that new materialisms put ‘matter’ on the table than we were in how authors from a variety of fields such as  Karen Barad (2007), Jane Bennett (2010), Andrew Barry (2001), Rosi Braidotti (2013), Bruce Braun (Braun/Whatmore 2010), William Connolly (2013) and others have raised the question of materiality differently. We wanted to think about the dis/continuities which are marked by neo-materialist contributions with regard to the broader debate on materiality in the social sciences. Our experimental interest derived from a desire to shift the debate on new materialisms away from a handful of well-established theoretical concerns. We therefore asked our participants to employ neo-materialist ideas and concepts to let them prove themselves vis-à-vis empirical field research.

One re-occurring insight throughout the workshop was that there is no easy answer to the question whether new materialisms are really new or even what they are precisely. The materialist challenge cannot be dissolved into exclusively conceptual answers. We found frictions through theoretical debates and empirical cases, we saw cracks in theories and methodologies, and we experienced the limits of our linguistic capability to express material ontologies and entanglements. The workshop left us with at least five problematizations which mark possible paths for further inquiry, research, and experimentation.


Apparative Materialities

A first problematization points to the question of how we can capture the material conditions of possibility, which are embedded in and constitutive of apparatuses. This challenge aims at a neo-materialist description of society which, on the one hand, goes beyond the anthropocentrism of classical approaches (e.g. Marxism) and, on the other hand, avoids focusing local phenomena.

Here, Sascha Dickel diagnosed an incompatibility between neo-materialist approaches and theories of society. Whereas materialist approaches focus on the social as a local materialization, theories of society stress its articulation in immaterial relations between people. Dickel then showed how digital devices such as the smartphone escape both of these analytical lenses because they constitute relations and collectives through mediation of the material and the immaterial. Therefore, if one wants to grasp the apparative im/materiality of digitalized society, neo-materialist thought should seek to make a difference in the development of both a theory of society and critical social theory.

One take on this problem is the concept of the apparatus, which was addressed in Thomas Lemke’s paper. He developed the notion of apparatuses of government drawing on Foucault’s concept of governmentality and neo-materialist approaches of apparatuses, especially the approach of Karen Barad. He argued that this kind of synthesis properly takes into account the performativity as well as the constitutive entanglements of subjects and objects and opens up new forms of critical engagement: a neo-materialist inspired critique for him is an experimental critique of mapping what is and what might be possible. Hannah Fitsch also used Karen Barad’s notion of the apparatus to analyze and problematize the materiality of computed pictures. She stated a re-materialization of digital images in which actors neglect the implicit and presupposed inscription of gender differences: These are incorporated into the very materiality of the apparatus. While she sees the notion of the apparatus as an important tool for the feminist critique of science she also challenged a neo-materialist critique that merely maps apparative conditions of materialization. She raised the question how such a project might profit from other critical projects such as Critical Theory.


De/Stabilizing Materialities

In a second problematization the inquiry into the apparative function of materialities was confronted with the question of how materiality has destabilizing effects in socio-material settings. Benjamin Lipp showed how empirical research on social robotics might be guided by neo-materialist thought. Drawing on Simondon’s philosophy of technology and Karen Barad’s notion of intraaction he developed an ‘analytics of interfacings’. In conceptualizing interfacing as a process of rendering things in/disposable for one another he argued for a neo-materialist perspective on the techno-material conditions of social robotics. Here, Lipp described how in the course of human-robot interaction materialities have destabilizing effects, which exceed accounts of materiality as stabilizing social order (e.g. Latour’s hotel key). Especially in the course of human/robot interfacings the ’eventful’ character of materialities comes to the fore.

Drawing on Karen Barad’s agential realism Athanasios Karafillidis problematized implicit presumptions of human/technology differences in projects of prosthesis. In scientific research practice, he argued, the first agential cut between human and technology is usually always already made. Here the very practical problem lies in the challenge how neo-materialist accounts of intra-actions as material-discursive events can help to infuse alternative differences into the development of assistive technology. Going beyond cybernetics (but also pointing out convergences of cybernetics and new materialisms), Karafillidis proposed to begin observations and analyses with relatively indeterminate phenomena: importantly for the sociology of technology, organic-mechanic couplings in the case of prosthetics emerge through processes that dis/enable users. Processes of boundary drawing are not only stabilizing processes and neither are prostheses simply stabilizing or enabling devices to begin with. Thus neo-materialist concepts might inspire to account for these ambivalent processes of technologies such as prosthesis.


Multiple Materialities

Many contributors pointed out the multiplicity of emergent materialities and ontologies. Jan-Hendrick Passoth whose paper engaged with the materiality of digitalization suggested that the politics of digitalization would have to deal with their multiple ontologies and their implied politics. He distinguished between three forms of materiality with regard to digital processes: hardware, software and runtime. Where the first materiality lies in the installation and maintenance of physical systems, the second can be found in the resisting materiality of software codes, e.g. in the case of updates. As a third type of materiality Passoth conceptualized ‘runtime’ as practices and apparatuses of prototyping, testing and evaluation. While these material enactments certainly intersect with each other empirically they also engender different versions of the political. In a similar vein, Sabine Maasen focused on multiple materialities with regard to the (re-)construction of selves through neuro-objects. Here, Maasen employed an analytics of milieus of subjectification in which neurofied subjectivities are co-produced through neuro-technologies such as neuro-feedback and brain-computer interfaces. The manifold materializations of neuro-selves enforce a thorough work of synchronization in which identity needs to be reconstructed and refitted again and again through divergent material circumstances.

In an ethnomethodological critique of materialist thought, Thomas Scheffer showed how multiple materialities emerge in actu. He argued that materialist thought all too often draws overarching ontologies without attuning its vocabulary to the situated character of material events. In order to be able to empirically see emerging materialities one would have to abstain from the ascription of absolute characteristics to matter. Matter is not. Rather matters exist.


Withdrawing Materialities

Departing from the multiplicity of materialities, in another problematization participants argued that materiality does not only exist, it also withdraws, fades and becomes fractious. In other words: To not take an agentive or vital account of materiality for granted but conceptualize its capacities one would also have to focus materiality from the side of its disappearance. For example, Ignacio Farías and Laurie Waller showed how certain phenomena are not adequately described in terms of multiple ontological enactments – especially if one takes into account the withdrawnness of objects (Harman). Taking noise as an example, they argued that this is an object of non-tology. In this sense they radicalize the theorizing of ‘withdrawnness’, because they see withdrawn materialities not as a relational effect but rather as indifferent materiality, which provokes speculative practices attaching noise to things. In a similar spirit, Andreas Folkers employed Heidegger’s account of ‘Gestell’ to think about renewable energy infrastructures. Problematizing phantasies of infinite resources, he focused the withdrawing materiality of wind and its consequences for the management of energy supply. Consequently, he argued that the withdrawnness of objects and matter cannot be grasped through the question of what withdraws but rather how the withdrawnness is rendered visible and/or problematized.


Contested Materialities

The withdrawnness of materialities points to another important concern. Emphasizing the fractious and also multiple character of materialities points to their contestation and the fact that particular materializations might stand in conflict with others. To address this contested and competing character of different materializations Andreas Folkers developed the notion of an onto-topology, an analytics of competing and co-existing ontologies. He showed that ontologies in recent debates are either conceptualized as too flat merely repackaging common constructivism with an ontological vocabulary or too deep analyzing historical formations as totalities that can be contrasted. In order to avoid both of these versions, he argued with Foucault and Heidegger for an onto-topology, that is, an analytical perspective that tries to analyze specific ontologies which are enfolded and can stand in conflict with each other. Folkers, thus, emphasized contestation as a mode of mattering.

Whether contestation is adequately theorized in more recent conceptualizations of politics, was one of the questions of Sven Opitz’ paper on cosmopolitics in Bruno Latour and Ulrich Beck. He showed how both approaches operate with ontologies of entanglement, the global risk-community and “Gaia”. In one way or another both approaches suggest that cosmopolitics are the necessary result of this global situation of interdependency. As a consequence, their cosmopolitics oscillate between an over- and a depoliticization but certainly miss a political middleground in which an analysis of concrete power relations and contestation is possible. A con-ceptualization of the political in a neo-materialist vein would have to avoid this tendency: An onto-topological orientation as suggested by Folkers might point in that direction.

It was never our goal to celebrate or dismiss the theoretical orientations framed as new materialisms. Thus, the workshop, to us, brought up more questions and a desire to further link the debates on new materialisms with sociological concerns, theoretically as well as empirically. For this, we proposed five lines of problematization which themselves can conflict: How can we capture the apparative conditions of possibility of materialities and at the same time retain a gaze for the event-character of materializations? How could this eventfulness be integrated in empirical research as well as theoretical accounts in order to be able to think the complex relations of de/stabilization? How can we observe and theorize the multiple modes of matter’s existence, or better: it’s enactment? Moreover, how can we distance ourselves from a concept of matter that just presupposes it as agentive or vital force; how can we integrate its contestation and its multiple ways of withdrawing into sociological analyses?

On the one hand, this range of questions shows that neo-materialist concepts and interventions can provide theoretical resources to tackle fundamental problems of social theory. On the other hand, referring to new materialisms does not provide us a definite answer to the question of the relation between materiality and the social. Instead we hope to have shown that this strand of discussion is open to and in need of further development across disciplines and theoretical traditions.

Bio-objects meet Multispecies Ethnography, Workshop at MIT Anthropology, 30 Oct 2015

On bio-objects: The concept and research network

Niki Vermeulen, Sakari Tamminen, and Bettina Bock von Wülfingen

The bio-object concept and the associated network have grown out of a common interest in issues surrounding the boundaries of the biological sciences and how they meet various aspects of society. The concept was born of the need for a heuristic device allowing the analytic gaze to be focused on a multiplicity of “objects of life” and the myriad processes that render life as an object that can be known, and hence grasped for intervention. The concept is biographically situated in the European STS research scene of the late 2000s, where it emerged in objection to some writings’ implications that the secrets of life can be reduced to genetic code. Thus, it voices opposition to reductionist interpretations surrounding life’s generative potentiality. At the same time, the concept, in effect, posits that work on philosophically and politically framed questions within the social sciences about “life itself” must be informed also by nuanced empirical studies of how the status of “life” is accorded to various vital objects. This endeavor demands a concept that does not carry the historical weight (from moral, philosophical, and religious realms) associated with discourses on “life itself.”


Heather Paxson: talking & tasting cheese, photograph by Sakari Tamminen


The bio-object network brings together researchers who are interested in the new biosciences and, indeed, in bio-objects in all their diversity. Since its establishment, in 2007, the network has, with the aid of EU COST funding, grown quite extensive. With more than 80 members, it spans a broad spectrum of disciplines – sociology, history, philosophy, anthropology, and the life sciences. The COST network, under the name “Bio-objects and Their Boundaries: Governing Matters at the Intersection of Society, Politics, and Science,” concentrates on three key questions:

  • What are bio-objects, and how do they span various boundaries?
  • What challenges do bio-objects pose for governance and regulation?
  • How do bio-objects generate and get generated by various relations – social, cultural, material, etc.?

Bettina, Niki, and Sakari considered how the concept can be used in practice and, through a number of case studies, illustrated where life is presented through relations found, for example, within bioinformatics. They also explored how the attempts at modeling life – to objectify life through relations – are culturally mediated in scientific practice.


Multispecies ethnography

Stefan Helmreich

Taking Kirksey and Helmreich’s article about multispecies ethnography as a point of departure, Stefan explored the socio-historical context of the phenomenon and gave an eloquent update on new arguments drawn from a wide range of literature. He started out with several ways in which dogs can relate to humans, from rescuing us from danger and detecting substances on our behalf to being companions and comforters, then began unpacking these relations as fruitful starting points for multispecies ethnography. He continued by demonstrating how well the multiplicity of relations is often depicted by bio-art and bio-artists, as both help to unwrap the “sacred bundle” of life. In fact, bio-artists have had a much larger role – they were among the first to push forward with ideas in this field, with the Multispecies Salon exhibits held at AAA meetings. Stefan compared multispecies ethnography to various approaches applied in ethnographic research – in research traditions ranging from ethnoprimatology to ethnomicrobiology – and borrowed from their discourse in order to map, analyze, and problematize the idea of multispecies ethnography.


photograph by Sakari Tamminen


What seems fundamental to multispecies ethnography, in a recurring pattern hinted at in the other approaches too, is the explicit effort to shift the boundaries between the researcher and the research object, between knower and the known, and perturbation of the modern dichotomy between the human perspective and the Other. With the modern way so imbued with traditional ethno¬graphic methods and manners of representation, can we render the perspective of the other species visible, through innovative research approaches that break from methods centered on text and the associated senses (the visual and cognitive)? What about sounds and the visceral, especially since we know that our voice is mediated through bio-objects and multi-species relationships, through parchment, paper, and/or the bacterial culture on an iPad screen?


The multi-species world and bio-objects 

Andrea Núñez Casal: microbiomes

Luísa Reis Castro: anthrozoology and pests, mosquitoes

Nadia Christidi: art, science, biology, conflict in the Middle East

Richard Fadok: “bio-inspired design”

Caterina Scaramelli: bovine biopolitics

Michelle Spektor: biometric IDs and databases

Lucas Mueller: aflatoxins

Rijul Kochhar: antibiotic-resistance research in India and the US

Alison Laurence: animals on display

Jia-Hui Lee: anthrozoology in post-conflict zones, olfaction

Peter Oviatt: domestication and commodification of fungi

Claire Webb: the search for extraterrestrial intelligence

Valentina Marcheselli: astrobiology

That a host of species can live with humans (and within a human host) and that these can be conceptualized as both enemies and friends can be viewed in terms of the human microbiome. Immunity as community opens numerous perspectives to health and car, while also showing diversification and inequalities connecting gut, food, and political cultures (Núñez Casal). For instance, while mosquitoes connecting with humans can bring disease, they can also become a public health tool that prevents infections (Reis Castro). In the context of war too, the lines between friends and foes can become reconfigured through multi-species relations. In one example, the Iraq War saw people become objects of destruction, yet the Baghdad zoo and its animals became ground for the reestablishment of social relations and international connections (Christidi).

These patterns are closely connected to differences between security and insecurity, yet another interplay in relations between the human and non-human species. As with mosquitoes as friends and foes, microbes can protect (as in the microbiome) yet can also resist being protected against (as in antibiotic-resistance), through adaptation and their travel through various cultures (Kochhar). In another landscape, through the care of and for water buffalo, wetlands that need protection are also protecting the livelihood of their inhabitants (Scaramelli). However, the balance in multi-species relation¬ships is continuously at stake and reconfigured, or strictly regulated as in the case of aflatoxins (Mueller) or cheeses (Paxson). All the concomitant issues are closely related to the governance of life and modes of governing life.


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photograph by Sakari Tamminen


Another theme that ran through the presentations was the way in which bio-objects and multi species relations are defined by form, smell, and taste. In the case of bio-inspired design, matter mimics life and life becomes active matter in various scenarios of emergence ruled through perceived principles of life, as form and function are blended (Fadok). In spaces that entail such melding, we learned that all smell can be reduced to six chemical components, but are those deconstructed smells still alive (Lee)? And can, in the case of truffles (Oviatt), smells constitute a difference between French, Italian, and Romanian identities?

Finally, the discussions explored the identity of life. In Israel, bodily identity can be transferred to a chip with biometric information (Spektor), creating a split between individual and informa¬tion, an opening for rethinking the meaning of historical and political relations for today and the future. And can another gap be closed, with fossils of political life (such as Mount Rushmore) being subsumed by the category “natural history” (Laurence)? Finally, the quest to seek extraterrestrial life and be able to escape Earth’s tether calls us to re-imagine what life is and how it can be known (Marcheselli), while also raising the question of whether, or how, instruments for finding life are themselves mediating (Webb), bringing bio-objects to life when within a proximity of vital signs – like the hyphen in bio-object concept itself.


Recombination, remixing, repurposing, and more

From the preparations and the initial presentations, it was already clear that bio-objects and the “multispecies” framework are both not only a way of conceptualizing and framing the social study of the biosciences but also a heuristic device to address the complexity and the (shifting) perception of relations between the organic and the non-organic and among various species in their broader social and cultural context. That both concepts focus on relations in a synthesis of material and diverse social-cultural-economic relations makes their relationship worth exploring.

Discussions focused on what the “bio” of the bio-object is and on how it is related to the other “bio”s, such as bio-value, bio-capital, bio-politics, and bio-labor (and/or multi-species labor). Is this a matter of object versus process? What about bio-epistemologies and bio-objectivities? Or does this objectification also take into account the more negative aspects of objectifying? And how should substances such as air or water be added to the picture? Are they bio-objects too? These questions led us to consider politics of engagement, mediation, intersubjectivity, and abiotic signs for “bio”s. Can we also think in terms of lifetimes, of objects-by-bio?

In the case of the microbiome, it became clear that both concepts address the other’s shortcomings: where the bio-object concept does not provide obvious ways to talk about relation-ships among multiple species and the numerous elements of life (the microbiome as a bio-object composed of many bio-objects), the “multispecies” approach does not allow ready analysis of the scientific work that transforms life (e.g., processes of bio-objectification).image1image1

An important observation was made at this juncture; that bio-objects as an analytic category can be used to think about issues of freedom and containment. How does freedom work in application of freedom of movement and pushing the boundaries of life – such as in the creation of a non-free body when data are stored elsewhere and can be stolen: a stolen self?

Related to this is the opening up of the categories of life, into digital representations of life but also into ruins of life and bodies of death. With regard to the material stuff of life, the flesh to the bones, we find categories of life able to be opened through instruments, technological objects such as microscope and satellites that mediate life, through which we zoom in and zoom out. Turning from space to time raises the question of when life ends: Where do the thresholds of life lie, and can we talk about pre-life? This is, quite literally, a matter of life and death. Finally, we can look at symbiosis. Ruins can be conceptualized as runaway life rather than any sort of death. Should we, for instance, understand antibiotic-resistance as the ruins of antibiotics or, instead, antibiotics out of control? And how is this related to cultivation and uncultivated/uncultivable life?

An important issue that arose repeatedly in the presentations and discussions is the primarily Euro- and US-centeredness of these approaches (the “multispecies” approach is more connected to US traditions, and the idea of bio-objects emerged in Europe). While the geographic heritage of both approaches is not surprising, it is important to reflect on this and find ways to expand both arenas, striving for a more global playing field.

Finally, all our presentations and discussions expressed a love for life. Eco-love. Affection for life, living, and the living, expressed through careful observation, analysis, and reflection. We also enjoyed some excellent talk and tastes of gastro-objects: truffles and cheeses.


Opportunities for future encounters

During the 4S/EASST meeting in Barcelona – there will be a bio-object track:

Revisiting bio-objects and bio-objectification: Categories, materialities and processes central to the (re)configuration of „life“ (http://www.nomadit.co.uk/easst/easst_4s2016/panels.php5?PanelID=3917).