Tag Archives: STS Live

SPROUTs of Hope in Times of Crisis

[SPROUT] noun 1. a shoot of a plant. 2. a new growth from a germinating seed, or from a rootstock, tuber, bud, or the like.

[SPROUT] noun 1. Spontaneous Flexible, Pragmatic, Political, Rigorous projects creating opportunities in times of crisis

The desire to survive. The green sprout of grass growing to the light from the black pipe on the wall. Concept of hope

In March 2020, the world famous pianist Igor Levit was stuck at home, unable to travel and perform. His first reaction, as he said in an interview in the American TV programme 60 Minutes, was to worry about losing his connection to an audience and being confined to just making music for himself. Then he did something unusual: He decided to stream live recitals from his living room. He used an old form, the house concert, and brought it into the 21st century. He invited people into his living room by using social media. His live-streamed recitals immediately caught on. For 52 consecutive days his recitals were followed by hundreds of thousands of people. The reactions on social media expressed people’s gratitude; people were moved by the beauty of Levit’s piano playing, the choice of his repertoire, and his obvious engagement with the music he played. He managed to reach an audience infinitely larger than in the concert hall. Many also discovered piano music they had never heard of.

Levit had taken the classical piano recital to a new institutional form. The format was flexible; he frequently announced the programme on social media no more than a few hours before the event. He often performed in a sweatshirt and slippers, and he was never afraid to show his emotions during beautiful passages, giving the concert an intimacy that is rarely attained in the concert hall. He changed the boundaries between the performer and his audience. His concerts were also political: not so much in what he played, but in the larger context in which he did it. For many of his audience and followers, Levit’s musical performance could not be separated from the courageous political stances that he took against anti-Semitism and right-wing extremism. And for environmental causes: Recently he performed, amidst buzzing chain saws, in the Dannenröder forest near Frankfurt that is in the process of being felled to make way for the construction of a highway. His choice of repertoire in the forest leaves nothing to the imagination: Frederic Rzewski’s Variations on ‘The People United Will Never Be Defeated’, a Chilean protest song. The live stream recitals had another subversive element: They offered content that could otherwise only be accessed via expensive tickets for the world’s great concert halls. Levit declared that the experience transformed him. It made him change the way that he thinks about music. That it is not a luxury but one of life’s necessities.

 

SPROUTing new initiatives

Early March 2020, in San Francisco, Tomas Pueyo, the Spanish-French vice-president of an online learning platform, found himself stuck at home with his three young children while his wife was hospitalised with suspected COVID-19 symptoms. He felt miserable himself, and was worried about the disease and that people were not taking it seriously enough. He had started to share his thoughts about the new virus on his Facebook page. In an interview with Sumiko Tan, editor of the Singapore Straits Times, Pueyo said: ‘One of the things I love doing is going into big, deep problems and really, really understanding them and then communicating them. That’s what I did for the coronavirus.’ When a friend asked him to bring his various Facebook posts together in a single blog post to help persuade his friend’s employer to allow people to work from home, it was read by over 40 million people. People from all over the world volunteered to join Pueyo in his mission to provide evidence-based reporting on the COVID-19 crisis. Pueyo went on to write seven more Covid-19 related articles, among other things, introducing the famous ‘hammer and dance’ metaphor.

One of us (Hendrik) first read Pueyo’s article in early April via one of Pueyo’s tweets. As life-long policy scholar Hendrik was enthusiastic about what he read and decided to write a blog post about Pueyo’s work. It had struck him that until then the media had published a lot of data but in a way that obscured rather than enlightened the issues at hand. Pueyo’s pieces were, in fact, remarkable pieces of policy analysis that, although chockful of tables and graphs, were always question-driven. The data were organised in such a way that the numbers told a powerful story, a story of the success or failure of policy making. Pueyo introduced creative measures (the ‘Hunei’) and used historical data to arbitrate in the vexing issue if lockdown kills off the economy.

Both Levit’s and Pueyo’s initiatives are example of what we have come to call SPROUTs: Spontaneous, Political,Rigorous, Opportunity projects. They both created pragmatic and at the same time political projects that created opportunities in the face of adversity. Relying on social media, they did not merely move something from the analogue world to the digital one, but they created a new form: Levit did so by harking back to an older performance practice that had long been overtaken by modern concert management, giving it a contemporary face. Pueyo took policy analysis out of the university and the government contract and showed how the clever organization of data can effectively address important practical and moral issues. He became a pop-up policy analyst.

 

Our own SPROUT: Solidarity in Times of a Pandemic (SolPan)

These SPROUTs were brought to life by two creative individuals — but SPROUTs can also stem from groups of people or even formal institutions. They can also be organisational inventions. We ourselves have been involved in one for the better part of last year. When the COVID-19 crisis started, a funding body invited Barbara to submit a project proposal on solidarity in times of a pandemic. Two weeks later Barbara and a small group of colleagues in the participating countries submitted a proposal for a qualitative, multinational comparative study on people’s experiences with coping with the pandemic. Just before the project was greenlit, the funding body pulled out due to doubts about the value of qualitative research; some of the decision makers preferred a quantitative survey instead. The news came as a shock. It would not have been the first time that a grant proposal of ours was rejected — but getting an invited one knocked back hurt even more. Instead of reconciling themselves to having lost a few week’s worth of their time, the research team decided to go ahead anyhow — without funding. After all, the research design had been finalised, a fine group of researchers in three countries was ready to go, and the research ethics application had been submitted. All members of the project consortium decided to remain on board, and start their work without funding. Members agreed that they would jointly own the research design and all other materials (topic guides, and so on) as well as all the data generated in the project.

When the word spread about the project — which gave itself the name SolPan (Solidarity in times of a pandemic) — colleagues from all over Europe were interested to join. A mere ten days after the decision to go ahead without funding, research ethics approval had been granted, a topic guide had been developed and tested, and interview teams in nine European countries were busy recruiting interviewees. We were keen on starting interviewing early April when in most of Europe lockdowns had just been put in place. We wanted to capture people’s experiences with having to go to work worried about getting infected, or with being cooped up in their homes, with working online, with complying with rules about physical distancing and wearing masks. We wanted to know what they thought and how they felt about this, and how they reacted to their governments’ efforts in managing the pandemic. We were surprised about the enthusiasm of the group (30+ researchers met in weekly online meetings to discuss progress and troubleshoot problems). So many people were spending time and energy on this project in times when life (homeschooling, online teaching, working from home, caring for children) was difficult enough without a new project to run.

Unbeknownst to ourselves the group had created a research commons. The well-known commons author and activist David Bollier describes commons as people who come together to “manage resources … that preserve shared values and community identity” in fair and participatory ways (Bollier, 2014, 175). The goal is not to chase private gain, but to meet the needs of a community while serving the common good. Particularly pertinent to SPROUTs is his comment that commons “generate value in ways that are often taken for granted — and often jeopardized by the Market/State.” (ibid.) In our case, the creation of a research commons was made possible by using established academic institutional forms and resources. SolPan would not have been possible if senior researchers did not have tenured positions and some leeway in using their time. Some of the senior members of the group were also line managers of colleagues who they could give time to work on this project. Junior researchers postponed work on their PhD research projects and other activites but in return obtained invaluable experience in leading task forces and other working groups within the consortium. Many junior colleagues have now become lead authors on publications emerging from the SolPan project. What makes working on SolPan gratifying is that it indeed restores academic values that have increasingly gotten lost in the corporate university.

Like Levit’s new form for classical music making, and Pueyo’s ‘pop-up’ policy analysis, SolPan has many of the characteristics of SPROUT. Although it arose spontaneously, like in any large-scale research project, the group takes great care to ensure reliable, precise data collection and analysis. Projects that secure funding prior to their kick-off lock the funder and the researchers into a set of contractual agreements and obligations. But when the world around the project’s remit changes, as it inevitably does, it is difficult to change course. The SolPan consortium does not have these constraints. Because SolPan is ‘owned’ by its members, the project’s design is more flexible. Decision making is participatory, inclusive, and deliberative (if not always friction free). Consortium meetings seek to be pragmatic, cooperative, and focused on problem solving. This has the added benefit that it creates strong engagement of many of the members to ‘their’ project. Besides in its aspiration to work as a research commons, SolPan is political also in the sense that does not merely seek to produce new scientific evidence. Solpan consortium members also write blogs and speak to policy makers and the media. We do this on the basis of evidence from our study, but we do so in forms and ways that go beyond providing morally neutral analyses. At the time of writing this blog, a sister consortium, SolPan+, had emerged that now includes research groups in 14 Latin American countries.

 

The New World of SPROUTs

The pandemic has imposed constraints and hardship on society. But out of the chaos and despair, new positive and creative forms have emerged, in music, research, and perhaps other fields. Using digital media, different kinds of SPROUTs are redefining established institutional forms and demonstrating new possibilities. In an important way they are reimagining and redefining the core values that govern traditional societal domains such as science and the music industry. Levit reminded us that music making is at heart an intimate process of communicating joy and emotion between musicians and an engaged, committed audience. This joint process gets easily lost in the concert hall or opera theatre with their exclusive and rigid rules and conventions. Similarly, science has once in the past been about two fundamental motivations. Curiosity, or the excitement of understanding the world around us in all its buzzing blooming confusion by discovering and interpreting patterns. And melioration, contributing to the betterment of the world by applying the results of our investigations. In the practices and conventions of institutionalised science, with its reliance on precarious work, its status hierarchy between theory and action, the jealous guarding of disciplinary territories, the outsized power of gatekeepers, the proliferation of auditing procedures, and the transformation of universities into businesses, these basic, generative passions are easily lost. Tomas Pueyo or the SolPan project show how they can be regained. How the joy of working to achieve understanding and contribute to problem solving can be organised in the interstices of traditional institutions. (Other projects in the domain of science that have several of the key characteristics of SPROUT are the CoronaPanel project at the University of Vienna, and the Recovery study at Oxford, a randomised controlled trials in real-world settings to test the effectiveness of Covid medication, just to name a few examples, and recently showcased in the Guardian as showcasing the strength of UK science.)

SPROUTs emerge because practitioners perceive opportunities in situations of personal and collective distress. SPROUTs represent hope. In his interviews, Levit frequently comments on how the live streaming of his concerts helped him get through the lockdown. The often moving reactions of his virtual audience show how people find comfort and solace in his music making. Despite the pressures and obligations that running a multinational comparative project doubtlessly imposes on the project teams, they serve restorative functions for the immediate participants. We found that working together with many of our colleagues in the SolPan project had an openness and generosity that are not easily found in grant-financed projects. Although we have of course also experienced our share of problems throughout the past months, we think it somewhat miraculous that an unfunded consortium of (now) over 40 members in several countries is still working together after almost a year (during which some country teams have been able to secure funding for parts of their work, but the consortium as a whole is still unfunded).

 

The spontaneity and improvisatory nature of SPROUTs is essential to their success.

Their very essence is that they operate outside established institutional conventions and form an implicit commentary on them. In that sense SPROUTs are, what we would call, ‘constructively subversive’. Their aim is not to destroy institutions — without institutional resources, SPROUTers could not exist. But SPROUTs seek to add to them, to remind them of their original mission by reimagining their latent possibilities. It is essential for this utopian function of SPROUTs to function, that they represent the best that the field has to offer: Levit’s stunning pianism, Pueyo’s brilliant analysis of data, SolPan’s rigorous research design and generous collaborative spirit. We think it is this combination of improvisation and quality that draws people to SPROUTs and enkindles a desire to be part of it.

Finally, SPROUTs are about action. They are pragmatic, actionable solutions to the everyday problems of working in a particular field. There are two sides to this. First, every institution requires ever larger maintenance costs to keep it operational. Concert schedules are set years in advance. Recording a musical performance in the traditional way is a major technical and marketing undertaking. Levit discovered that with a camera, a tripod and some basic streaming tools he could reach an audience of hundreds of thousands within a matter of days. He announced his program hours before the actual recital, contributing to the sense of spontaneity and surprise. Similarly, the usual road from idea, via project proposal, grant application, reviews, revisions, re-application, and award, can easily take a year or more. To have a fighting chance to obtain a grant, researchers needs to more or less specify their findings in advance. The unintended effect is that the world of grant application languishes under a thick blanket of conservatism and risk avoidance. If she is lucky enough to have obtained funding, stringent accountability requirements then distract the researcher from her main task of doing research and interpreting findings. SPROUTs strip away many of these opportunity costs and focus all that energy and creativity on that what matters.

Second, SPROUTs are action-oriented in the sense that they emerge from and contribute to real world problems. This quality is perhaps more apparent in science-based SPROUTs then in other domains. The conventions of academia require that researchers specify upfront what theory they draw upon. PhD students are trained to get their theory in order before they get out in the field to collect data. Obviously, we do not want to make small of theory. We need explanatory theories to understand our observations and to interpret the patterns we have inferred. But in institutionalised social science too often abstract theory has become a shibboleth, a marker that signifies to which academic camp we belong. Abstract theory becomes a way to police the boundary between supposedly serious science and the allegedly lower forms of empirical and applied academic work. SPROUTs are informed by theory and seek to contribute to theory — but they are essentially problem oriented. The questions they pursue and to which they contribute are the urgent issues of our time.

The COVID-19 crisis has changed many aspects of our everyday life. We have reduced commuting, conduct our meetings online, cut down on flying, and given up on living in overpriced apartments in big cities. Some of these changes will be enduring. We think SPROUTs are also here to stay. But organisationally complex SPROUTs cannot survive without the nourishing soil that they require to grow and flourish. SPROUTs show what untapped potential our institutions and our societies contain — but they also need a minimum of facilitation to stay alive. For institutions that are open to this, and willing to support their SPROUTs, SPROUTs can help to reconnect them with their original values. Alternatively, public support for SPROUTs could help societies to expand their organisational repertoires by including creative and innovative practices that break through the very institutional norms, forms and patterns that have led to the crisis in the first place.

We would love to hear from you how to think differently about SPROUT (also if you think we got it wrong!), or if you are aware of other SPROUTs that are worth adding to our list.

[This text first appeared as a blog post on Medium: https://medium.com/@hendrik.wagenaar/sprouts-of-hope-in-times-of-crisis-204aa8dffbec (11 January 2021]

Going Virtual: The ethnographic gaze in pandemic times

What happens to the ethnographic gaze when it reorients from a corporeal to a virtual world? In this essay, I reflect on my personal experiences of doing a virtual lab ethnography as a result of the enduring corona pandemic. By drawing on Haraway’s (1988) metaphor of vision I trace the specific, situated and partial ways of seeing something when a laptop and its screen become the most important visual technology in doing lab ethnography. I reflect on what we can learn from thinking with ethnographic vision for the research process when going virtual.

Under non-COVID-19 circumstances, I would currently be in one of the vibrant cities of Spain. I would start my second lab ethnography for my PhD project, carefully organised months ago. I would be fully immersed into a foreign research culture, exploring the worlds of epigenetic research in an institute for public health and epidemiology. I would use the breaks between observations, meetings, and talks for a little chit-chat, getting to know new people, their work, their motivations, their day-to-day hopes, struggles and concerns. Instead, I stare absently out of my window and watch cars reversing into parking spaces right in front of my flat in Germany while waiting for the next video call. 

After postponing my ethnographic stay several times, I started to play around with the idea of a “virtual ethnography”. Virtual, online, or cyber-ethnography is not a new method but has been around since the early 1990s to study online communities and their social interactions in (predominantly) virtual environments (e.g. gamer communities) (Hine, 2008). The corona measures have suddenly transformed my field site, an institute for public health and epidemiology, into such an (temporary) online community. I started to wonder if there was also a virtual way to conduct a lab ethnography.

A few months into this virtual endeavour, I ask myself: what happens to the ethnographic gaze – besides staring absently out of windows – when it reorients from a corporeal to a virtual world? By drawing on Haraway’s (1988) metaphor of vision in “Situated Knowledges” I explore how to see as an STS scholar when a laptop becomes the most important visual technology for a lab ethnography in pandemic times. Haraway articulates vision as an embodied, partial, and situated way of seeing something. She argues that “[v]ision requires instruments of vision” and that “optics is a politics of positioning” (Haraway, 1988: 586). These instruments of vision are not only our own eyes as an “active perceptual system,” building on the brain to translate what we see (Haraway, 1988: 583). They also include visualising technologies, prosthetic devices that render specific aspects of life and not others visible: the microscopes in the labs, the ultrasounds in the clinics, or – in my case – the computer screens mediating images from a different place. 

In this essay, I do not attempt to make claims on the method of virtual ethnography as such, but to consider my specific experiences to conduct a lab ethnography online. I will reflect on my partial vision that is unavoidably intertwined with the COVID-19 pandemic as it was less a deliberate choice than a means to an end to move things virtually. If we understand ethnographic vision as affected by bodily movements, a sensing that is as much part of assembling knowledge as it is seeing (cf. Ingold, 2000), I ask myself: how will physical distance affect the knowledge gathering process in the long run? Proceeding from these reflections, I will trace which specific version of vision emerges in my virtual lab ethnography by exploring three interrelated aspects: technology, immediacy and location. As I’m still in the midst of field work, this essay can only provide a temporary snapshot of my ongoing reflections on this approach.

 

Technology: screens as prosthetic devices

How does the technical object of a screen interact with the knowledge I’m gathering? Albrecht Dürer’s famous “Draughtsman Drawing a Nude” comes to my mind, which Lynch and Woolgar (1990) featured on the cover of their anthology “Representation in Scientific Practice”. This painting from the sixteenth century shows a male painter drawing a voluptuous, reclining nude woman by using a perspective grid. The painter divided the sight of the women into geometric coordinates in an attempt of an objective and true transmission onto paper. However, as feminist studies have shown at length such an objective practice is the god trick as this example not only shows how representations construct objects, but also “[t]he gendering of this kind of vision” (Haraway, 1997: 180). Analogously, my laptop and its screen have become my perspective grid positioned between myself and scenes at the institute. They become a prosthetic device – ironically equipped with what a big tech player calls a Retina display. While this device allows me to see into worlds that momentarily seem far away, similar to the painting it prompts the question what kind of different object these visual representations construct and the role of my positioning in this construction.

Some of these scenes that I virtually visit are various meetings: one-on-one interview situations, small project meetings with a handful of people, scientific seminars or consortia meetings with over 100 participants. The cameras that capture these meetings and broadcast them onto my screen offer a specific way of seeing: they mediate curated shots where one only sees the parts of a scene actively made visible. Yet, what about the moments that literally stay invisible, e.g. the aspects of the institutional life that cannot be mediated and escape the video frames? Going virtual creates a mobile world that promises to become accessible from everywhere. Simultaneously, certain activities continue outside the online space, such as carrying out laboratory work even if more restricted by COVID-19 measures. This yields inaccessible spaces where one cannot actively go to if not physically present. 

 

Immediacy: seeing and sensing with screen sharing 

Virtual ethnographies need to work with curated shots of institutional life. But they also engender a new kind of immediacy, one where I click on links and instantly become part of a meeting without travelling thousands of kilometres to somewhere. Especially the practice of screen sharing allows us to explore the notion of immediacy and its role for vision in more detail. For instance, one of the central steps in doing epigenetic research in institutes of epidemiology is the statistical analysis supported by computer programs. Researchers use epigenetic data collected in the human cohorts they work with to find answers to their research questions, such as: how does air pollution impact health outcomes via epigenetic mechanisms? Screen sharing allowed me to take part in this practice in at least two ways. Firstly, I attended the institutes’ practical hands-on online workshops to better understand how to do statistical analysis for answering these questions. Secondly, I asked my interlocutors to take me with them through their own work flow. Following them step by step through their analysis, I observed how they filled the generic code with life: adding variables such as sex, age, environmental exposures and other data. 

This technical accessory mediates the epidemiologists’ vision onto my screen, that is, their ways of seeing and interpreting their material. It allows me to engage with their research practice and corresponding tools, to follow their movements, and to verbally point to things that caught my eye. Screen sharing creates immediacy and thereby intimate moments between my interlocutors and me at physical distance. But it is a touch without touching; an experience of the other person’s screen and its content by sensing differently than one would if physically present. How does this sensing without touching impact the knowledge I assemble? – I’m not sure yet.

 

Location: multiple vision in pandemic times

COVID-19 has not only physically impacted my ethnographic work moving it into an online space, but it has also influenced the conversations I have with the epidemiologists and how they need to adjust their research. My interlocutors frequently address issues such as what happens to the regular visits of the cohort’s participants to take biological samples and to check their air sensors in the house? How will they recruit new participants when there are more pressing health questions at stake? Asides from concerns over the practicalities of data collection, the pandemic also affects the epidemiologists’ own vision, that is, their specific ways of seeing and articulating research and problem definitions. For instance, when talking to a scientist about a project on epigenetic changes through metal exposure she referred to the peculiarity that people living in the same household with a person infected with COVID-19 might not get infected themselves. She explained how thinking with this example helps to make sense of her own observation why some people would be more susceptible to toxic exposure than others. Looking at the infection patterns during the pandemic allowed her to understand the virus and exposure not as discrete entities but as being in relation with social position and experiences, age, gender, health status, and genetic makeup, among many other dimensions.

 

Closing remarks

These brief examples show how going virtual yields multiple visions from various locations: from Germany to Spain, from my own position as an early career STS scholar, from scientists trained in public health issues, and from the perspective of an ongoing global health crisis. They allowed for reflections not on the method of virtual ethnography as such, but on my specific experiences to conduct a lab ethnography online due to COVID-19, in which an important space – the lab – stayed invisible. Thus, doing virtual lab ethnography engenders a specific way of seeing and gathering data. Yet it does not create material that is more or less ‘true’ or ‘real’ than in the physical world. It yields a way of seeing that challenges the ethnographer who has reoriented their vision from a corporeal to a virtual world: how to see (mediated)? What and who becomes visible on the screens? Who gets to talk, who stays invisible? Where to see from? How is virtual seeing affected by the ethnographer’s position? What are the limits of virtual vision? What cannot be virtually mediated? How to (physically) sense from distance? And how does virtual seeing translate into written production? While some of these still incomplete questions could also be asked in an on-site ethnography, the need for a prosthetic device, to see with something, makes reflections on vision in pandemic times even more imperative.

 

 

References 

Haraway D (1988) Situated Knowledges: The science question in feminism and the privilege of partial perspective. Feminist Studies 12(3): 575–599.

Haraway D (1997) Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium.FemaleMan©_Meets_OncoMouseTM. New York and London: Routledge.

Hine C (2008) Virtual ethnography. In: Given LM (ed) The SAGE encyclopedia of qualitative research methods. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, pp. 922–924.

Ingold T (2000) The Perception of the Environment: Essays in Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill. London: Routledge.

Lynch M and Woolgar S (1990) Representation in scientific practice. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Pathogenic Imaginaries and Covid-19 Denialism

In September 2020, I and my collaborator Larry Au (Columbia University) received a grant from the Social Science Research Council’s (SSRC) “Rapid-Response Grant on Covid-19 and the Social Sciences” for our project “Viral Agnotology: Covid-19 Denialism amidst the pandemic in Brazil, the United Kingdom and the United States”. In total, 62 projects received funding from the SSRC, on topics touching on all aspects of the social, economic, political, and cultural impact of Covid-19. The aim of grant is to help put social scientists in conversation with the global scientific dialogue on the pandemic’s directions and consequences, and to help spur reflection on how social science can be useful to improve the preparedness of society for future pandemics. 

Our project is ongoing, but I gladly introduce our project to readers of the EASST Review to help stimulate the interest of our colleagues on the topic of Covid-19 denialism, and point to ways in which STS as a field can be useful in thinking through this highly politicized topic.

 

Motivations for the project

By Covid-19 denialism, we refer to a broad range of doubt and skepticism expressed over the existence, severity, and need for public health interventions to mitigate and contain the further spread of SARS-CoV-2. This ranges from anti-lockdown protests, conspiracy theories that Covid-19 is a hoax, and skepticism over the need to wear a mask despite expert support for masking. Curiously, even as the pandemic unfolded and as evidence of Covid-19’s dangers piled up, major proponents of Covid-19 denialism continued to downplay the seriousness of the situation. The contentious encounter between expert discourses and Covid-19 denialism was particularly visible in Brazil, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Jasanoff et al. (2021) in a recent comprehensive report published on the Covid-19 responses in 21 countries, categorized these three countries as “Chaos Countries” because of the inability of state and society to cohere around effective strategies to mitigate and contain Covid-19.

Field hospital in Central Park, New York City, March 30 2020 (Source: BBC News by Getty Images).

Researchers in the past have looked to social indicators as level of education, the development of science and technology in society, and public trust on science as factors that contribute to scientific illiteracy. But these factors clearly do not explain the presence of Covid-19 denialism in many parts of the developed and developing world. Other analysts have pointed to the advent of the digital age and unregulated social media, as sources of disinformation and misinformation. While this is undoubtedly a factor in giving rise to Covid-19 denialism, exposure to fringe sources of information occurs in a wide range of societies, yet not all have succumbed to paralysis in rallying support for public health interventions. Further complicating this is the spread of misinformation by political leaders and heads of state.

Deborah Birx and Anthony Fauci listen as former President Trump speaks at a coronavirus briefing at the White House on March 20. (Source: Washington Post by Jabin Botsford).

Studying a topic such as ignorance is tricky, especially in such polarizing times. Nonetheless, our interdisciplinary backgrounds in STS provides us with approaches to broach this subject with care. Our analysis is based on three steps: (1) contextualize the discourses of Covid-19 denialism addressed to specific topic dimensions of the pandemic, (2) trace the discourses of denialism over time, and (3) see how these framings of the crisis are taken up by different audiences. This will enable us to further understand how the frames of denialism are taken up in different societies and how these discourses account for a fast unfolding crisis.

 

Beginnings of a conceptual framework

Our theoretical starting point comes from Proctor’s (2008) discussion of agnotology. As Proctor writes, “we need to think about the conscious, unconscious, and structural production of ignorance, its diverse causes and conformations, whether brought about by neglect, forgetfulness, myopia, extinction, secrecy, or suppression. The point is to question the naturalness of ignorance, its causes and its distribution” (10). Covid-19 denialism arises from actors behaving consciously with mal-intent, as a byproduct of institutional arrangements and technological infrastructures, as well as the unintended consequences of well-meaning policies aimed at combatting the pandemic. It is this latter factor that we focus on.

Covid-19 patient and overwhelmed healthcare professionals at a hospital bedside in
Brooklyn, New York City, USA. (Source: The Atlantic by Go Nakamura/Getty Images)

We also draw on Eyal’s (2019) recent book on the “crisis of expertise”. As Eyal helpfully notes, there are many parts of science that the public do not question in their day to day lives, like theoretical physics or civil engineering. But when science is asked to make policy decisions that have direct implications on people’s lives, then this policy-relevant science becomes the subject of debate and skepticism. Public health as a scientific discipline has life and death implications, particularly during the pandemic, making it perhaps the most controversial part of science during these troubled times. Covid-19 denialism, should therefore be understood in relation to public health expertise.

Furthermore, Jasanoff (2007) demonstrates that such public deliberations over evidence and knowledge can be studied cross-nationally from the lens of sociotechnical imaginaries, as how a particular society understands the emerging public health crisis will depend on relationships between experts and expertise with social, political, and economic structures. By taking up the idea of sociotechnical imaginaries, we hope to show how dominant forms of pathogenic imaginaries, as seen in public health expertise, contain blind spots that make them susceptible to populist challenges. These blind spots enable insurgent pathogenic imaginaries to mutate and come to dominate public discourse.

 

A brief sketch of Covid-19 denialism in three countries

In our study, we show Covid-19 denialism has been particularly noticeable in public discourses in the United States, Brazil and United Kingdom. Characterized by reluctance and delay, those societies bring similarities in the response to the pandemic by policymakers and the presence of significant opposition to public health measures designed to mitigate the spread of the virus. Partly due to this denialism, Covid-19’s impact on those three countries have been particularly pronounced. Of course, this is only one part of the story. Other analysis, such as from Kavanagh and Singh (2020), note the lack of state capacity in these countries that contributed to the inability to control the spread of the virus. As of January 2021, these three countries are still in the top five number of COVID-19 cases (along with India and Russia) and deaths along (Mexico), according with Worldometer.

President Jair Bolsonaro promoting Hydroxychloroquine in his periodically unofficial online videos on Facebook. (Source: Gazeta do Povo).

In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro publicly disavowed all social-distancing and quarantine recommendations. Bolsonaro suggested that the pandemic was just a global hysteria and insistently perpetuated the myth that it only causes a gripezinha (little flu). Bolsonaro, like Trump, also publicly backed the use of hydroxychloroquine to treat symptoms, even without scientific proof of efficacy and safety. In April 2020, the Brazilian president also fired two health ministers in less than a month who advocated for social distancing and joined protests against a governor who has put economic activities in his state on pause. What little public health guidance that was given, focused on telling the public to “stay home and take care of yourself”, which individualized responsibility for Covid-19 without specifying collective actions taken to mitigate the pandemic’s risks. In 2021, facing an increasingly pressure to start mass vaccination nationwide, Bolsonaro publicly discourages people to get vaccinated and extensively shares unfounded concerns about potential Covid-19 vaccines-associated severe adverse reactions.

Extraordinary silent in downtown London, March 2020. (Source: BBC by Jeff Overs/BBC).

In the United Kingdom, Prime Minister Boris Johnson initially opted for a “herd immunity” strategy before being confronted with catastrophic projections from an Imperial College research group, while facing high pressure from far-right groups to further ease social distancing guidelines. The primary rallying call for the public was centered on the National Health Services: “stay home, protect the NHS, save lives”. While this linked individual action to the desired outcome of protecting the capacity of medical institutions to save lives, the simple dictate to “stay home” provided an easy target for anti-lockdown protesters. In 2021, his attitude completely change since United Kingdom is now the European epicenter of new infections and had unfortunately spreading a new 30% mode deadly virus variant. 

In the United States, former President Donald Trump repeatedly undermined his scientific advisors and tweeted out in support of anti-lockdown protests around the country in a bid to re-open the economy. Public health experts, working around Trump’s obstruction and sabotage, urged the public to stay home to help “flatten the curve”. This imaginary of flattening the curve focused solely on mitigation rather than containment and eradication. The statistical abstraction the pandemic also hindered the ability of the public to fully understand the human toll of the virus. Now, President Biden’s administration has to deal with the great challenge to create a vaccine distribution plan that can outpace the rapid spread of Covid-19.

Through our comparisons of these three countries, we hope to further trace the contours of Covid-19 denialism as a reaction to dominant pathogenic imaginaries and public expertise. 

Cemetery in Manaus, Brazil, after the second wave of deaths in January 2021. (Source: Michel Dantas/AFP).

 

Working during the pandemic

About a year ago, after enjoying a 3-month visiting appointment at Columbia University’s Department of Sociology, invited by the professors Gil Eyal and Diane Vaughan, I left New York City a week before the pandemic was announced by WHO. Since then, me and Larry are working remotely and meeting periodically to discuss different parts of empirical research design, data collection and analysis.

Columbia University in the days before the pandemic was declared by WHO. Source: Personal Archive. February 2020.

Previous connections with each other were very important to make this work possible, since we have worked together on a comparative project that examines the trajectories of genomics and precision medicine in China and Brazil using a similar organizational process (Au and Silva, 2020). We are very proud of how STS is taking social sciences in account in the great global debates on the pandemic. Studying Covid-19 denialism is being a great opportunity to strength our community around a problem to be solved.  

 

 

References

Au, Larry, and Renan Gonçalves Leonel da Silva. Forthcoming. “Globalizing the Scientific Bandwagon: Trajectories of Precision Medicine in China and Brazil.” Science, Technology & Human Values. 46 p. 016224392. 

Eyal, Gil. 2019. The Crisis of Expertise. Cambridge, UK; Medford, MA: Polity.

Hilgartner, S.; Miller, C., Hagendijk, R. (Eds.), Science and Democracy: Making Knowledge and Making Power in the Biosciences and Beyond, Routledge, London. 2015.

Jasanoff, Sheila. 2007. Designs on Nature: Science and Democracy in Europe and the United States. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

Jasanoff, Sheila et al. 2021. Comparative Covid Response: Crisis, Knowledge, Politics. Interim Report. 12 January 2021. Accessed 20 January 2021. Available at https://www.ingsa.org/covidtag/covid-19-commentary/jasanoff-schmidt/. 

Kavanagh MM, Singh R. 2020. Democracy, Capacity, and Coercion in Pandemic Response: COVID-19 in Comparative Political Perspective. J Health Polit Policy Law 1; 45(6):997-1012. 

Proctor, Robert. 2008. “Agnotology: A Missing Term to Describe the Cultural Production of Ignorance (and Its Study).” In Agnotology: The Making and Unmaking of Ignorance, edited by Robert N. Proctor and Londa Schiebinger, 1–33. Stanford, CA: Stanford University.

The shadow theater of dueling modalities: A note on pandemic simulation

Given humans’ ubiquitous desire to know the future, modeling and simulation have arisen as powerful tools for the job. However, the scientific and political aspects of their outcomes—prediction and forecast—can be the target of harsh criticism and dispute. This essay examines recent controversies in the simulation of both seismology and pandemic epidemiology in Japan and elsewhere. We find that disputes over different modalities of perception, as in the intriguing issue of imaging possible alternative worlds versus the singularity of the existing world, may date back to 17th-century philosophy.
I 

In the 1980s, one of the authors conducted field research in Java, Indonesia, on a religious sect headed by a spirit medium who allegedly could communicate with spirits of mythic figures. We visited one of the sacred places in Central Java, where the medium was to serve as an oracle for the guardian spirit of Java for the coming year. Arriving at the village near the place, we were deeply disappointed to hear that we had missed seeing President Suharto and his small company. They had just left the place, allegedly having listened to a similarly high-status spirit through the oracle, probably about the prospects for national politics (Fukushima, 2002). 

 Our irrepressible desire to know the future is all but universal, and analyses of how people construct knowledge about the future are centrally situated among widely diverse fields, ranging from the anthropology of religion to studies regarding “contested futures” in STS. Against this intellectual background, our research group has published an edited book, Forecasting and Society: How Scientific Narratives Construct Society, a collection of conducted comparative studies of future-oriented scientific discourse, such as prediction and forecasting in diverse fields of science and technology (Yamaguchi & Fukushima, 2019). 

Among our topics, seismological prediction (jishin-yochi, in Japanese) has been one of our priorities, given its integral constitution as a complex entanglement of science and policy. Both policymakers and the public in Japan have high expectations for precise predictions of when, where, and how large the impending earthquake will be. In fact, legislation has long been approved for a public action plan when large earthquakes happen (cf. Tomari, 2015).1                        

Such high expectations, however, have met the reality of actual seismological limitations, which fall far short of providing such a high-precision prediction; all they can provide is an imprecise long-term forecast for earthquakes in specific areas, based on a historiographical analysis of past cases (Suzuki & Koketsu, 2019). In fact, seismologists in Japan have carefully avoided using the term yochi (prediction) among themselves, instead favoring yosoku (forecast), which has a subtly milder connotation; however, such a difference is hardly perceptible to laypeople. The legislation mentioned above was approved specifically on the assumption that scientists would provide precise predictions. It was only in 2017 that the law was changed, partly because seismologists failed to predict the huge earthquake ten years ago in northeast Japan. 

Fig 1: National seismic hazard map for Japan (2005). Source: Earthquake Research Committee Headquarters for Earthquake Research Promotion (2005) Report: ‘National Seizmic Hazard Maps for Japan’ Fig. 3.3.1-1 Distribution map of probability of ground motions. p33. https://www.jishin.go.jp/main/index-e.html (Accessed December 25, 2020)
II

Pandemic simulation and its relationship to policy seem to exhibit some different characteristics from simulations for seismology. One of the two authors has long been interested in social simulation, which gives rise to notable differences in policy among countries, eventually leading our attention to pandemic modeling and simulation as a concrete subject of study. This already happened before the global catastrophe caused by the present COVID-19 pandemic. 

One of the major characteristics of Japan’s pandemic simulation is that it has had virtually no place in policymaking, in sharp contrast to the ongoing enthusiasm for seismological prediction. Although concerned specialists regard pandemic simulation as a highly useful instrument for understanding both the expansion of infectious diseases and their prevention, the number of such specialists has been considerably small to be visible to policymakers and, consequently, of little concern. 

As we faced some trouble in finding a proper example of pandemic simulation being used for policy, we extended our search to Taiwan, which had experienced failed policy on the SARS pandemic, from which, ironically in the end, they gained global recognition for their success in controlling the current coronavirus. Eventually, we found that policymakers their regard the use of pandemic simulation considerably positively, with various instances that foreshadowed the coming confusion manifest in countries’ policy processes at present (Hibino, 2019). 

Japan’s management of the present situation has exhibited an intriguing contrast with the Taiwanese case mentioned above. After an initial set of blunders in the case of a cruise-ship infection, Japan appeared to succeed in curbing the expansion of the pandemic until mid-March 2020. Subsequently, in late March, ominous signs of its explosion led to heated disputes in various fields on the proper prevention of viruses. Consequently, the government declared an emergency and asked for an “80% reduction in human interaction,” a number derived from a pandemic simulation by Professor Hiroshi Nishiura, an authority among Japan’s mathematical epidemiologists and a core member of the newly established Action Committee for the Pandemic Cluster in the Ministry of Health. Nishiura even issued a personal message outlining a possible scenario for its expansion: “If no measures are taken, like reducing inter-human interaction, the number of seriously ill patients may reach about 850,000, half of whom will die.” This statement worked to inspire public fear.  

Fig 2 Image of the mathematical models of infectious disease epidemics
(Source: drawn by Aiko Hibino)

In June 2020, when the expansion of the infection seemed to have slowed temporarily, and public opinion appeared to settle down a little, criticism of the foregoing policy measures as excessive rose sharply as the mass media collectively bashed Nishiura, mocking him as “Mr. 80%” by poking fun at his earlier forecast. The reality, however, is not that we succeeded in controlling the pandemic; just as in other parts of the world, we have been hit by second and third waves, which ironically rehabilitated the honors of both Nishiura and his simulation practices. 

In terms of policy intervention, one of the visible contrasts between the prediction (or forecasting) of earthquakes and of pandemics is that the earthquake we are concerned with tends to be a massive, single event wherein policy intervention is largely confined to two periods: efforts aimed at disaster prevention beforehand and post-disaster reconstruction from the damage. Conversely, pandemics must be dealt with differently because political decisions have to be made right in the middle of the spread of the disease, and the event itself lasts longer. It follows naturally that the mode of interaction between science and policy may reveal considerable differences as well. 

 

III

Intriguingly, although our concern has been centered on constructing the future, we realize that most of the criticism against meandering pandemic policies often targeted the past, assuming that an untraveled better past has been unrealized because of faulty policy intervention. In fact, as with the criticisms of Nishiura mentioned above, critics seem to claim that measures had not been needed, as if to say that a better world could have been achieved without such measures and that the critics indeed know what it would have been. 

We wonder, however, whether we can be reasonably sure of this alternative world wherein allegedly better policies were carried out. Such questions bring to mind Sliding Doors (1997), a fascinating movie directed by Peter Howitt, in which the main character, Helen (actor Gwyneth Paltrow), fails to slide into the closing door of a train in the tube in London in one of the two different worlds. In the other, she does succeed in jumping into the train. This results in two different, but similarly gloomy, consequences for her relationship with her boyfriend. 

Commonsensically, we think of the world we have already experienced as unchangeable and the future as being at least somewhat dependent on our choices. However, the power of scientific forecasting makes our future look like a world of necessity, and hence our effort in our edited book referred to above (Yamaguchi & Fukushima, 2019) to deconstruct such a view to leave room for the human will.3 Meanwhile, the rampant criticisms of ongoing pandemic policies—often with rhetoric indicating that things could have been better—remind us of our desperate wish to change even the past or at least to see the other world where we could have slid through the closing door of the tube train. 

Obviously, there is no way of conducting a controlled experiment in the real world: at best, either we implement contrasting policies one after another and learn from their consequences, or we scrutinize the outcome of similar policies carried out in other places. Either way, however, things are far from being controlled in terms of ideal procedures in laboratory sciences. Hence, we are obliged to be patient, as the knowledge produced by such a social experiment is fundamentally limited. However, we seem to easily forget such constraints, probably because we are constantly driven to dream of a better possible world, as seen in the harsh criticisms of actual policies in response to either earthquakes or pandemics. 

 

IV

In this context, strikingly instructive is Stewart (2006) on the encounter between Baruch Spinoza and Gottfried Leibnitz in his biographical work that examines their intersecting lives. The pith of this book deals with how Leibnitz tried desperately to attenuate or eventually to annul the destructive impact of the idea of the singular world of necessity advocated by Spinoza, by creating the concept of multiple worlds of possibility. Ultimately, this concept was introduced to save the role of God, who decides upon the best among these possible worlds (cf. Ueno, 2013).

We vaguely understand, in theory at least, what Spinoza insists upon—the need for patience to understand this singular world of necessity owing to our lack of knowledge. However, it is paradoxical and somewhat amusing that we also share the wish to have a glimpse of, or even to jump to, the alternative possible worlds that Leibnitz mysteriously counterposes.4 At the end of his book, Stewart (2006) refers to Spinoza as the first modern philosopher who thought the world as rigorously singular, whereas Leibnitz is the first modern person with a constant craving for possible better worlds. In this sense, we are all descendants of both these ancestors.

The ongoing situation created by the pandemic is a good laboratory for observing the rapid oscillation, in a matter of a few months or even weeks, between two different ideas about the modality of the world(s). It is like the tropical Wayang theater where the shadow pictures of two modalities, both of which reside in ourselves, are endlessly struggling in a manner quaintly reminiscent of the ancient Javanese philosophy (Matsumoto, 1981).

 

 

1 It is called the Act on Special Measures Concerning Countermeasures for Large-Scale Earthquakes, 1978. 

2 Fukushima (2019) is an experimental essay on the book.

3 Due to space limit, we leave undiscussed the question of how our stance in the book on the issue is related to the argument in the following section. 

4 Stewart (2006) notes, however, that their relationship is fundamentally asymmetrical: that is, Leibnitz worked in the shadow of Spinoza’s influence, the former both co-opting and resisting the latter, not vice versa. 

 

Bibliography 

Fukushima M (2002) The Religion and Politics of Java: An Ethnographic Memoir of Indonesia under Suharto’s New Order. Tokyo: Hituzi Shobo. (in Japanese). 

Fukushima M (2019) A Future Far Away: Forecasting and Society https://www.researchgate.net/publication/335013117_A_Future_Far_Away_An_Essay_on_Forecasting_and_Society

Hibino A (2019) The Ecology of Models in Pandemic Simulation. In: Yamaguchi T & Fukushima M (eds): pp. 113-139 (in Japanese).

Stewart, M (2006) The Courtier and the Heretic: Leibnitz, Spinoza, and the Fate of God in the Modern World. New York: W. W. Norton & Company

Suzuki M & Koketsu K (2019) The Problem of Forecasting Based upon the Past: The Probabilistic Seismic Hazard Maps for Japan. In: Yamaguchi T & Fukushima M (eds): pp. 173-192(in Japanese).

Tomari, J. (2015) 130 Years of the Research on Earthquake Prediction: Form Meiji to The East Japan Earthquake. Tokyo: The Tokyo University Press. (in Japanese). 

Ueno O (2013) The Wonderland of Philosophers: On the Seventeenth Century of Modality. Kodansha (in Japanese). 

Yamaguchi T & Fukushima M (eds) (2019) Forecasting and Society: How Scientific Narratives Construct Society. Tokyo: The University of Tokyo Press. (in Japanese). 

It begins with us: On why our embodied experiences matter in the dis/appearance of worlds

“To ‘de-passion’ knowledge”, writes Vinciane Despret, “does not give us a more objective world, it just gives us a world ‘without us’” (2004, p. 131). In this piece, I would like to reflect about us, STS researchers. Bringing the past 2020 joint EASST-4S conference theme’s ‘Locating and Timing matters’ together with the current coronavirus pandemic, I would like to discuss our embodied “significance and agency in the emergence/occlusion of worlds”(Felt, 2020). Usually concealed in the sphere of the ‘private’, ‘quotidian’ and ‘mundane’, I hope to persuade you that your embodied experiences, – always already situated within specific spatio-temporal frames –, matters. It matters, first of all to you/us, being then crucial for establishing inclusive relationships with our colleagues and ‘epistemic partners’, and, ultimately, for re-passioning our discipline(s).

In all its complexities and demands, our academic labour involves examining, analysing, theorising, writing, explaining, lecturing about scientists, scientific theories, technologies, its policy and innovation frameworks as well as biomolecules, microbes, patients, bodies, non-humans, non-western practices and many other elements. That is, these are only a few of the vast and heterogeneous array of elements that populate our work life. Where are ‘we’ in such a populous list of (other) agents, matter, meaning, and worlds in which we dedicate such a substantial part of our lives? The ‘we’ I am interesting in is an embodied ‘we’, a challenging ‘we’, I believe, for many of us. It is challenging because, as academics, we are trained in and we mostly perform a mind-based ‘we’ instead of an embodied one. 

 

Disembodiment 

While we deeply study processes of re- and de-naturalisation between science and society, processes of our own bodily des-/re-naturalisations remain largely unspoken. Our own body or ‘bodies multiples’ (physical, spiritual, psychological, social, biological and so forth), particularly at their perceptual, experiential levels, has been what Chris Chilling refers to as an ‘absent present’ (2012) in the humanities and social sciences. This is a striking aspect considering that bodies (gendered, racialised, (dis)able, classed, aged, etc) are a key concern of our wider enquiries about ecologies and socio-technics of worlds, particularly with regards to contemporary biomedicine. 

The ‘absent presence’ of our bodies is not only striking; it is also a paradoxical trait of our academic persona with regards to the general consensus within STS against Cartesian dichotomies (subject/object, material/immaterial, nature/culture, rational/irrational). We use the prevalent notions of ‘entanglements’, ‘biosocial’, ‘naturecultures’ and similar material-semiotic companionships and devices as a response to the western precept of the mastery of the mind (read Euro American imperialism and colonialism) over the body (read also non-whites, women, microbes). Yet, in spite of our epistemological registers, I find an evident mismatch between our theories and how we enact them or, to be more precise, why we rarely enact them by bringing them together with our fleshy bodies and lives. Our individual and collective bodies as academic workers, our ‘carnal knowing’ (Sobchack, 2004), are systematically elicited and concealed in our research, partly, as I will elaborate below, as an effect of today’s academic system focussed on ‘outputs’. 

A more unpleasant explanation could also be that our bodies and embodied experiences have never been there. Drew Leder (1990) refers to this phenomenon as the ‘absent body’, by which bodies and related motor abilities disappear from conscious awareness, residing in the ‘background’ of experience. Ignored and silenced, we seclude our bodies into our ‘academic (rational) minds’; as if in a proficient ‘habitus’ (Bourdieu, 1977) of disembodiment (mind from body) we had transcended them, as if we were… ‘transhumans’? 

To complicate the matter more, the current passage from bodily to virtual working presence in many European countries in response to the pandemic, has surfaced as well as enlarged such chronic disembodied (or mind-based) ‘we’ as individuals, collectives and institutions to unprecedented dimensions. However, instead of holding on to dystopian apathy, we might frame this circumstance as a favourable occasion to reflect on the consequences of concealing or even ignoring our physical bodies and embodied experiences from the knowledge-practices we co-create. And if our embodied beings are the fundamental or primal form of engaging with worlds, it begins with me: my own embodied memories and narratives are a required point of passage for the purpose of this reflection-piece. 

Asynchrony 

Accumulating exhaustion from the many tasks and increasing demands of academic life, we are now reclaiming slower modes of knowledge-practices making (c.f. Stengers, 2018). Yet, together with our ‘disembodied habitus’, the structural perversity of the web of productivity and success makes it hardly possible to decelerate (for the many, I believe). This, of course, excludes those able to take time (e.g. to publish…fast!).  In an inspiring plenary session at the joint EASST/4S Conference 2020, Ulrike Felt addressed this great divide between ‘those who can make time and those who are out of time’ as the ‘real expression of power’ (Felt, 2020). Exclusions, she argued,

“are no longer brought about by depriving people of material resources or denying access to specific places or placing them at the periphery. Rather, exclusion occurs tacitly, to simply making it difficult to hardly possible to be an active part of the same temporal-regime; to be able to synchronise and imposing the emergence of specific technoscientific worlds and not others” 

This quote accurately captures a reality experienced by many of us, especially during pandemic/lockdowns and especially for carers (i.e. mainly women). In my case, having my child during my doctoral years in the country with the most expensive childcare of the world (UK), without shared responsibilities or support network, took a huge toll into my postdoctoral prospects. As for the majority of women with family responsibilities, time and dedication can only be fragmentary. Childcare, housework, funding applications, teaching, a bit of research, and back again. 

A bitter consequence of discontinuous time is deceiving those colleagues and mentors who support you and your work. Missing deadlines, conferences, missing ‘opportunities’… In brief, not being able to ‘synchronise’. These vicissitudes, along with an unfortunate episode of abuse of power and appropriation in the race for ‘success’, has shrunken my prospects in academia. 

In addition, another open secret or taboo that I would like to share is that my identities – women, mother, non-native speaker, precarious early-career– have played a role in my truncated academic ‘projection’. I am, after all, easily ‘disposable’. That is, it is obvious that my ‘profile’ (read life circumstances not cv) impedes me to “keep churning out papers” (Aitkenhead, 2013), top requisite of today’s academia. 

Soon after I started confronting these unpleasant realities about my academic career, in early March 2020, I caught Sars-CoV-2, developing its persistent form, what is now known as ‘long Covid’ (Callard & Perego, 2021). 

Chronobioinequalities

For the past decade, I have been studying how and the extent to which human microbiome science is displacing older ideas of immunity as a guarantor of biological identity and individuality. One of the key findings of my research has been that while microbial science renders notions of the self as bounded, universal, and autonomous increasingly difficult to maintain, it simultaneously instantiates new forms of difference – particularly ‘immunitary privileges’ based on a higher microbial diversity – and  reproduces old ones in terms of neo-colonial practices of bioprospecting biodiversity (Núñez Casal, 2019). Moving beyond current medical humanities and STS work on the microbiome, my latest research develops a feminist critical analysis and embodied methodology that draws attention to lived experiences of health inequalities, the social mobilisation of microbiology and local, traditional and profane healing cultures and practices. 

Despite my research being about the entanglements between microbes, embodiment, and inequalities, I succumbed to the Cartesian matrix. Stretched to its limits, my body ‘shut down’ during and long after infection. Defying multispecies conviviality and thus augmenting the current immunitary post-Covid rhetoric, my body was perhaps protecting itself from precarity and exploitation, for all the mistreatment it endured for a long while. Rushing transformed into stillness. As often occurs when we experience illness (Leder, 1990), unable to talk or walk much for months, my body, its physical dimension at least, reappeared back into consciousness.

Among the millions infected with SARS-CoV2– medically categorized as ‘mild’ (Callard, 2020) and thus mostly recovering at home – their vast myriad of mutable and debilitating symptoms often last for several weeks or even months. During the long months of my own convalesce, I observed with a cautious enthusiasm that my individual experiences were part of an emerging and growing collective action around shared experiences of recovering from or living with ‘bodily manifestations’ of Covid-19. I was excited to witness the materialisation of what I call ‘feminist para-ethnographies’, that is, a material-semiotic device of ‘socialised biology’ (Riley, 1983) involving the transformation of silenced and private embodied experiences into shared and collective experiences (Núñez Casal, 2018, 2019, 2021). In confinement, these online support groups, communities and citizen science initiatives were firstly established in Spain, Italy, South Korea, the UK, the US, France, and Finland at the beginning of the pandemic. As occurs with other ‘recalcitrant infections’ (e.g. UTIs) in the absence of appropriate (health)care, dietary changes along with supplements from various medical traditions became crucial elements of online support. They were the only available ways to address the multiple vulnerabilities and inequalities (i.e. healthcare, employment and childcare) experienced by those struggling with ‘long Covid’ at home. 

Illness narratives and embodied knowledge have been fruitful feminist methods to challenge scientific objectivity and positivism for decades (Barad, 2007; Blackman, 2012; Haraway, 1988; Hesse-Biber, 2008; Harding, 1987; Smith, 1999).  Embodied experiences of bacterial and viral infections, however, have been underexplored aspects in the social sciences and humanities, particularly in relation to multispecies ethnographies and social aspects of Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR) (Núñez Casal, 2019). 

Although embodied biographies figure as an indispensable part of the efficacy of more conventional biomedical treatments for illnesses and disorders such as autoimmunity (Anderson and Mackay, 2014), ‘lived experiences’ have been largely devalued in the biomedical understanding of health and disease. Here, Western biomedicine is very ill-equipped compared to the integral or holistic ways of seeing health and disease in traditional and complementary medicine (Mathpati et al., 2020). As such, I believe that the pandemic provides an invaluable opportunity to revert this, co-generating and reclaiming other forms of evidence (e.g. embodiment) and of evidence-making (e.g. lay expertise) as well as different ways of healing.

If, as Felt (2020) reminds us, “we experience time mostly through narratives”, then attending and listening to embodied experiences is a way through which to “render time visible” (e.g. disease progression, recovery, relapses). A helpful example is the high incidence of long Covid in women (Brodin, 2021). Beyond scientific explanations of the role of sex hormones such as oestrogen and other immune determinants, it would not be too adventurous to hypothesise about non-biomedical factors such as the structural inequalities and exhaustion women’s bodies experience (particularly those of the most vulnerable). In other words, being asynchronised produces and reproduces what Didier Fassin calls ‘bioinequalities’ (2009) or, on the other way round, ‘immunitary privileges’ (Núñez Casal, 2019), like racial and ethnic disparities in mortality and vaccination coverage during the pandemic, to name a few. 

 

Becoming inclusive 

Against the erasure of data that truncates the linear and seemingly ‘objective’ scientific knowledge production, our role as connoisseurs, that is, as ‘agents of resistance against a scientific knowledge that pretends it has general authority’ (Stengers, 2018, p. 9), is crucial. Yet, becoming connoisseurs, requires careful reflection on our own positionality and its entanglements in knowledge production. It is not only biomedicine that has devalued local and traditional health cultures, including the role of embodied experiences in health and disease. For many of us, I believe, our own situatedness in the West, even if in dissidence, acts as an inherent impediment. The blooming field of chronobiology, for example, illustrates this well. At the back of the growing interest of today’s biomedicine on temporal environments, metabolism and circadian physiology, there are long genealogies of non-Western medical systems and traditions – knowledge systems that have been studying the spatio-temporal dimension of health and disease for millennia such as Indian indigenous systems of health care like Ayurveda – which biomedical and social sciences and humanities research alike often overlook. Importantly, the ecological nostalgia for a traditional or even ‘ancestral’ past articulated around ‘new’ food cultures in the west (e.g. fermentation, wholegrains, fasting and spirituality, etc) is not only about (mostly non-western) local health traditions and belief systems but, crucially, it also entails the consequential role of women in transgenerational health and wellbeing (i.e. unwaged reproductive labour). Our role as connoisseurs demands an effort to learn from or acknowledge at least knowledge-practices and actors beyond our own (gendered) Western precepts and situatedness. 

To conclude, our embodied being is “not just a location for society and culture” but “forms a basis for and shapes our relationships and creations” (Chilling, 2012, p. 15). As “having fun, doing something we do well for the sheer pleasure of doing it” (Graeber, 2014), I argue, figures as a form of re-passioning our ‘knowledge-in-practice’ about our ‘bodies-in-action’ (Mol and Law, 2004, p. 51). Bringing embodied experiences to the forefront of our critical analysis (either implicitly or explicitly in our research) would (1) make STS research relevant to wider academic and non-academic publics, as well as (2) open up spaces and paces towards ‘sensible’ (read also sustainable and ethical) knowledge-practices in our disciplinary domains, towards the emergence of (inclusive) worlds, worlds that begin with us.  

 

Acknowledgements

I would like to thank my dearest friend and mentor Niki Vermeulen for being always there, ‘available’, in both the quotidian and the academic. I am very grateful for being synchronised early into Lisa Blackman’s pioneering work on embodiment as well as into Louise Chambers’ pedagogy of the body at Goldsmiths. I am very grateful to Coll de Lima Hutchison, Mahesh Mathpati, and John Porter and our ‘Ksobha’ group. Our embodied conversations, compassionate support and generosity are joyful and nourishing sources of inspiration.

 

 

References

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Anderson, W., & Mackay, I. R. (2014). Intolerant bodies: A short history of autoimmunity. Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press.

Barad, K. (2007). Meeting the universe halfway: Quantum physics and the entanglement of matter and meaning. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Blackman, L. (2012). Immaterial bodies: Affect, embodiment, mediation. London, England: SAGE. https://doi.org/10.4135/9781446288153

Bourdieu, P. (1977). Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press. 

Brodin, P. (2021). Immune determinants of COVID-19 disease presentation and severity. Nature Medicine, 27 (1): 28-33. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41591-020-01202-8

Callard, F., & Perego, E. (2021). How and why patients made Long Covid. Social Science & Medicine, 268: 1-5. 

Callard, F. (2020). Very, very mild: covid-19 symptoms and illness classification. Somatosphere. Retrieved from http://somatosphere.net/2020/mild-covid.html/

Despret, V. (2004). ‘The body we care for: Figures of anthropo-zoo-genesis’. Body & Society, 10(2-3), 111–134. https://doi.org/10.1177/1357034X04042938

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The Cosmoethics of New Rights Movements

First of all, I’m not going to explain #metoo, Black Lives Matter, and other new rights movements. They speak for themselves. Their aims and their voices are pretty clear. I’m not looking for what lies behind them. I want to describe what lies ahead of them. I believe these movements and battles are a first wave of a forthcoming storm. I think its main feature is an unlimited proliferation of claims on self-sufficing existence. I mean the following: 

We can, of course, put these movements into the familiar framework of human liberation. They can be legitimately viewed as a next step in the long history of fight for human rights, human dignity, and human equality. But there is something more in them. This is a fight not only for the rights of oppressed groups and persons. The stake is much higher: they open an existential Pandora’s box, they pave the way to a new world where every individual, human as well as non-human, can claim its right for being and worthiness independently of its qualities. We are witnessing the birth of the new ethics suited not for the habitual world of human-human (or human-animal) relationships, but for all imaginable and unimaginable kinds of associations between any monads: humans, animals, plants, rivers, technological artefacts, viruses, planets, gods, anything. #metoo and Black Lives Matter, as the most consistent and charged contemporary initiatives, show that racism, sexism, ageism, nationalism, and all other forms of oppression hidden underneath the modern societies are based on a particular bioethics that makes this oppression possible. This is essentially human bioethics, that justifies not only the supremacy of males, whites, etc., but also the domination of humans as the masters of nature and the only beings that can be active, not just reactive or passive. This ethics creates the opportunities for oppression by providing those who have power with the principle of irreducible differences between monads. #metoo, Black Lives Matter, and other new rights movements suggest that new ethics are coming, ethics that are not based on the principle of difference. This ethics knows no Other, only singularities that can enter into relations with other singularities. They have no qualities. They have no form. They are unary beings that live a bare life reduced to the raw fact of existence. Such kind of ethics is best suited for those who want to have an opportunity to make associations irrespective of who or what can be part of these associations. In a sense, new rights movements build a new language that will be used by humans and non-humans to describe their connections. This new language has two properties: it is not owned by the humans and it is able to describe the endless possibilities of action inherent in any being. That is why so many people is afraid that soon we will live in a world where anyone will claim its own rights: from women to babies, from ants to elephants, from sequoias to mushrooms, from robots to pets. These people are right in their fears: the coming ethics makes no distinction among the actors that are entitled to claim their own rights. Henceforth any act of oppression will be met with resistance predicated on the direct monadic existence. 

So, new rights movements teach us two lessons. First, the old lesson of solidarity in the face of those who deny your dignity, restrict your action, want to make you feel inferior to them, take whatever they want from you, and try to keep you silent. The significance of this solidarity cannot be overstated. This is the eternal source of new forms of communication and communion. Only those that share the same experience of oppression can have force to produce assemblages of unexpected nature. In the future post-human condition this resource of solidarity will be as important as it is today. The second lesson concerns the new ethics, cosmoethics. This ethics undermines the established connection between living and power that Foucault has described as biopower—understood not as technology of governmentality, but as a way of making any monad a conduit of particular human interests. It is this biopower that made Weinstein possible. Cosmoethics will put an end to this biopower by removing any barriers to the configurations of humans, animals, plants, minerals, and stars that can be created if we cease trying to produce any associations through a kind of short circuit fueled by humans’ craving to take an exceptional position in these associations. Such cosmoethics is not based on a maxim made universal law, that is, the maxim of talking, creating the world and others in this world by spoken word. It is based on listening. Only listening to other monads can show us their properties and possible lines of association with them. One of the monads is Earth. If we want to find out how to create a new kind of association with it, a kind of association that will not be predicated solely on the “humanization” of nature, we should learn from #metoo, Black Lives Matter, and other new rights movements, because they provide us with the glimpses of a future cosmoethics that will set the rules for non-destructive alliances between humans and non-humans. 

Invisible violence in STS: Lessons on challenges and tactics from the Chilean feminist movement

“No! No! No is no! Which part do you not understand?! The N or the O?!”

Chilean Feminist Protest

Sharing is a fundamental practice of care (Buehler et al., 2015) and is even more necessary to understand cultural challenges such as the current feminist movement and its implications in Chile. This local movement denounces the phenomena of gender inequity and violence and the patriarchal culture. The figure of a masked young women exposing her nipples is an iconic image of the protests in May and June 2018 in Chile (see figure 1), taking over buildings, media and public spaces.

Figure 1: masked women protesting. http://www.t13.cl/noticia/nacional/bbc/la-marcha-en-topless-contra-la-violencia-machista-y-a-favor-de-la-educacion-no-sexista-en-chile

Universities are at the core of this movement, institutions where the movement has raised demands of basic social values related to respect for and the equity of women’s social roles in Chile.

We could assume the protest was a result of the daily violence experienced by Chilean women: subtle institutionalized harassment, sexist education, the lack of women in high-ranking positions, wage inequality and the endangerement of women’s lives by a culture that insufficiently punishes rape. The Chilean feminist movement has also become a place where women share affection and experiences among themselves and with others.

In this contribution, we extend the reflections and experiences articulated by the Chilean movement to the STS community (see also, Pérez Comisso, 2018). The social commitment of feminist movements focusses on the structural inequity of gender, which we refer as “invisible violence”. Practices, perspectives and experiences in STS can learn from this social movement to incorporate strategies to confront invisible violence in scholarly experience. Violence is a complex and under-examined phenomenon, due to the subjectivity of its definition. Gender violence is difficult to describe when it’s not lived, due to the diversity of subjects and cultures. The feminist social movement challenges us with a main question: Can we know what we cannot directly perceive?

Knowledge as experience is a form of power. Scientific knowledge based on the production of verifiable evidence is a primary concern for STS scholars. This knowledge is found inside black boxes that we need to access and analyze to discover its power dynamics. But violence seems difficult to recognize in current research culture and practices. From the feminist movements, we can recognize the requirement to make evident the violence, including experiences so extreme that humans typically try to avoid. The current feminist movement in Chile offers us four resources that make visible the invisible violence that we want to highlight: non-sexist education, sorority caring, the eradication of harassment culture and empathy.

Figure 2: feminist march June 6th, Santiago Chile, courtesy of Patricia Peña.

Making Violence Visible

The first strategy is non-sexist education. This refers to a set of academic transformations intended to avoid stereotypes in our research and learning and to provide visibility and knowledge of topics and questions produced by and of interest to women, as well as promoting the use of inclusive language and practices in educational context. Francesca Bray (2007) illustrates this situation by acknowledging stereotypes: “Men are considered to have a natural affinity with technology, while women are supposed to fear it or not”. These stereotypes are reproduced in the classroom as well as conferences and publications. A challenge in our field is to identify biased practices and transform them. It is a challenge to incorporate gender symmetry outside of actor-network models and to perform it in everyday learning.

A second strategy is sorority caring. Despite recognizing the contribution that gender studies have made to our field for a long time (Rose, 1997); dominant approaches have yet to incorporate the practices of feminist thought. We understand that positionality is not enough to inspire sorority behavior. The communality of interpersonal trust, support and comprehension provided a safe place for the members of the sorority, creating a care circle. The behaviors of feminist protestants in Chile (#OlaFeminista), Argentina (#NiUnaMenos, #AbortoLegalYa) or the American #MeToo don’t require explanation among their participants because their members connect through a collective feeling. This behavior happens in highly aware communities that recognize common experiences despite the inherent diversity of their members. Observing these elements in our behaviors, we could promote academic support networks in our practices and help to transform the experiences of STS scholars in more positive ways from a community grassroots perspective.

A third lesson in eradicating the harassment culture is the importance of not remaining silent. We refer to harassment as a multifaceted set of practices not limited to sexual harassment, which include several oppressive behaviors such as hierarchical mistreatment, disrespect, institutional injustices and abuse of power. These situations are common in academic life as well in gender violence because harassment is naturalized in several cultures. The feminist movement shows us that direct action is the only of confronting the harassment culture.

Denounce, protest and don’t be silent, a crystalized culture must be broken. Chilean feminists shout, “My body is not to be touched; my body is not for sale. My body is to be defended”, to exemplify how women fight against abuses. In STS recent examples also raise concerns about racial misrepresentation (Mascarenhas, 2018) and the abuse of power in hierarchies (as in the case of #HauTalk), but explicit personal and institutional action is still required to eliminate harassment, at least, in our scholastic communities.

Finally, a transformative insight from the experience of the feminist social movement must be incorporated into STS practices, namely Empathy. We define empathy as a personal skill used to connect with the feelings, thought or attitudes of another person. This is a key issue in feminist movements, which allows women in these social movements to acknowledge their internal diversity (class, nationality, race, age, privilege, etc.). Lack of empathy reproduces a shared blindness about gender inequality and despite long term feminist studies and movements the status quo remains in insensitive communities. A seminal case in arousing gender empathy in STS was the study of household magazines by Ruth Schwartz Cowan (1976). In this study, she overcame the dominant commercial perspective about the electrification of the domestic space, as well identifying an (until that moment) unrecognized industrial and intimate revolution taking place inside the houses of American middle-class housewives. With the techniques of a historian of technology Schwartz Cowan emphasized this cultural transformation, and the condition of women, making visible this fundamental industrial phenomenon. Feminist research is about seeing through our practices, reflecting on our social and intellectual blindness, to be able to observe the invisible.

Figure 3: feminist march June 6th, Santiago Chile, courtesy of Patricia Peña.

Begin for yourself, begin for the other.

Making violence visible is necessary to confront its pervasive nature. As we have learnt from contemporary social feminist movements and from our own tradition of feminist STS, we cannot keep violence encapsulated, ignored or nuanced in black boxes. Nuance is disallowed, not only because it can blur theories (Healy, 2017) but because it can even dissolve the limits of the acts of violence presented in our (research) life. For this reason we propose that exercising empathy is a way to start revealing the realities of systematic violence, particularly that which we do not experience every day.

An active and dialogic engagement is required with these emerging tools, methods and methodologies (non-sexist education, sorority caring, the eradication of harassment culture and empathy) that contemporary feminist movements have highlighted in their protests. In our view, to implement a new ethos of care inspired by the feminist movement and the experience of women (that surround us in the field) we can begin actively practicing empathy in our practices and our assessment of evidence. In the challenge to improve individually and as an academic community, to see things that we otherwise have no direct experience of, Empathy and dialogue will empower us. Those of us who have the privilege of not perceiving some of this violence have a responsibility to learning the consequences of our own blindness through empathy with others.

Violet spots against sexual harassment in the University: an activist collective response from Spain

26th April 2018, 15:00. A bunch of students and some academic staff, female and male, enter a classroom at the Faculty of Political Sciences and Sociology at Complutense University in Madrid. Smiles and waves are exchanged, occasionally nervous, while we sit in circle around the diaphanous space, as seats and tables have been pushed against the walls. After a while the group divides up in four, and each small group moves to a corner of the room. There, the groups prepare, using the technique of the theatre of the oppressed (Boal, 1974), everyday scenes of harassment at the University, and also the typical responses we tend to offer, both as co-students and academic staff. Body is placed on first line to generate a fiction where to rehearse possible solutions. Laughter, tears, and the so often felt outrage draw again in a sharp way while we revive scenes that have passed through our skins. Scenes that bring both shivers and disgust, and the memory of the impotence that we’ve felt all too often. Emotions that get stuck in our chests yet become political, all the while open to collective reflection. Together we learn from our own experiences of harassment and not the least from the way we’ve failed to give support. The feeling of being together and thinking together makes anger return to us as a political tool, transforming “silence into language and action” (Lorde, 1984:40): ¡Escucha, hermana, aquí está tu manada! [Listen, sister, here stands your pack!]. At the end of the meeting -a workshop on support strategies to sexual aggressions, sexual harassment, and harassment towards LGBTQI people-, the recently self-made chapas [pins] of the violet spot that we are collectively building are distributed among the volunteers. Through the low cost, low tech, analogical technology of the violet chapa [pin], we become mobile violet spots accessible to anyone requiring the support of the Somosaguas Violet Spot. 

Fig. 1: Picture of the violet spot chapas [pins]. Courtesy of the author
Somosaguas Violet Spot is an activist, non-institutional network of self-help, collective support that denounces sexual and LGBTQI harassment and sexual aggressions. The collective is formed by academic staff, students and administrative personnel alike, and was recently created in our Faculty. It has been mobilised to counter the absence of effective responses from the academic institutions to the issue of harassment in our University.

The Violet Spot have drawn strength from international mobilisations that make visible and denounce sexual harassment and sexual aggressions prevalent in the media and in the social networks worldwide in the last year – although many of them have a less well known story. #MeeToo in the English speaking world. #NiUnaMenos in Argentina and Latin America. #TomaFeminista, the feminist occupation of Universities in Chile against sexual harassment this May. #Cuéntalo, along with the mobilisations against the outraged trial and sentence in the collective rape case known as “La manada” [the pack], as well as the massive demonstrations of the 8th of march and the success of the feminist strike [#HuelgaFeminista #8M] in Spain. All of them are part of a new feminist global mobilisation wave that move online and offline crying out #YaBasta [#Enough].

The sexual harassment support workshop and the Somosaguas Violet Spot were born with the objective of making the University community as a whole responsible for the vulnerability, discomfort, violence and harassment that gender and LGBTQI people face in University campuses, whereas very often responsibility of the abuse seems to fall back into the assaulted person. We demand institutional responsibility, but we tried to go beyond the current Sexual Harassment and LGBTQI Harassment Protocol at Complutense University passed on 20th December 2016. The protocol treats accusations as isolated and exceptional, instead of recognising them as part of the “organisation culture” of the very institution, as Sarah Ahmed pointed out in her entrance on Sexual Harassment at her blog feministkilljoy, of 15th december 2015. Yet the protocol, now held as an institutional device, is the direct result of ongoing student mobilisations against sexual harassment at Complutense University in Madrid (UCM) initiated in 2013. An example of this mobilisation is the action that took place at the UCM Chancellor’s Office under the slogan “Nos desnudáis. Protocolo de acoso, ¡ya!” [You strip us. Harassment protocol, now!].

The protocol was achieved, but it participates of the institutional inertia, more interested in protecting the institution than the person denouncing, thus provoking revictimizations, invisibility and lack of institutional support. We could have bitterly asked ourselves with Sara Ahmed if the protocol has become a “mechanism of non-performativity”: “when naming something does not bring something into effect or (more strongly) when something is name in order not to bring something into effect” (Ahmed, 2017: 106-107). 

Following Ahmed’s (2017) image, academic institutions -even apparently progressive ones- are part of a “brick wall” that reproduce inequality, and to take out one single brick of the wall requires of an almost heroic effort. #AllMalePanel has raised the issue of lack of female visibility in the Academia and how it very often works as an Old Boy’s Club, were women, LGBTQI, non conforming gender, racialized and functionally diverse people seems to be perpetually “out of place”. “Quiero ser libre no valiente” [“I want to be free, not brave”] was one of the slogans we sang in the different recent feminist demonstrations in Spain. Yet, setting up a sexual harassment complaint at University enhances insecurity and vulnerability. Not only because you need to testify again and again, but also since your testimony will be continuously put into question, as it is identified as an attack to the institution in the first place. 

Providing evidence becomes, then, a key issue. “Matters of fact” become questionable biases constructions, or even “unfortunately misunderstandings” too seriously taken. One word against another. Yet, maybe, as Latour (2004) suggested we could move away from “matters of fact” to “matters of concern”, bringing to the fore the collective effort in sustaining current state of affairs in academic institutions and also assembling together the complex connections held to sustain the lives and bodies of the people harmed within institutional walls. Yet to make of sexual harassment a “matter of concern” is still not enough. We need to think about the assembled work of care required to sustain our lives (Puig de la Bellacasa, 2012; Tronto, 1993). To transform matters of fact into matters of care (Puig de la Bellacasa, 2011). Life entangles in strings that hold us as we also held them, both sustaining it and letting it go (Stengers, 2011). String figures using Haraway’s words that urge us to “cultivate response-ability” through a “collective knowing and doing, an ecology of practices” (Haraway, 2016: 34)

Thus, to resist collectively we have set our particular “string figure”. A rather ordinary clothesline at the entrance of the Students University Cafe. A clothesline to make visible sexual harassment. We have invited all passers-by to peg their own stories of harassment on the clothesline, as a washing out display to give presence to situations usually identified as absent. We wanted to wash out the silence that seems to ghost the university conjuring isolation into collective action. The narratives, many times dismissed as unreal, impossible to proof, take space and become visible, to be claimed as “matters of concern” (Latour, 2004). But the string that holds them together entails a collective effort and learning process. Both the clothesline and the Somosaguas Violet Spot are strings figures: collective caring devices both held by us but that hold us mattering care in particular ways to respond to the unavoidable demand of “staying with the trouble” (Haraway, 2016).

Fig. 2: Picture of the Sexual Harassment clothesline. Somosaguas Violet Spot, May 2018.  Courtesy of  one of the authors.
Fig. 3: Picture of the Sexual Harassment clothesline. Somosaguas Violet Spot, May 2018.  Courtesy of  one of the authors

Acknowledgments: We would like to thank Maria Kristina Rustad Nordang for her committed English review of our article.

 

MerkenMerken

#Metoo & feminist activism in India

When the #metoo campaign spread globally, women in India also used social media to make visible that they had been harassed, sexually and otherwise. The campaign made evident what everyone knew but had not quite witnessed the scale of. Moreover, the #metoo campaign sent verberations through India’s feminist movements in unprecedented and dramatic ways, questioning key ideas of the movement, and means of mobilisation. Solidarity and sense of unity were at stake.

India’s feminist movements have a long and vibrant history, and violence against women has been a key theme in mobilisation, at least since the earliest colonial upper-class women’s movements that politicised sati, widow-burning, in the 17th century, as part of a colonial move to socially legitimise British imperialism of regions covered by the then East India Company. While ‘the woman question’ was also at the heart of the struggle for independence, Hindu nationalist movements adopted oppressive casteist and patriarchal notions regarding gender and sexuality, continuing to subject women to excessive control in the name of honour and protection. Sexual harassment, ‘eve-teasing’ as well as using extreme violence to reinstate male power over and possession of women remain common in households, public spaces, and politics still today, as the ‘Delhi Rape’ in 2012 attests to. Contemporary topics around which feminist, queer, and women’s movements have mobilised include e.g. right to sexuality, caste discrimination, environment and deforestation, sex selective abortion, and women’s health to mention a few.

Access to social media and politicised used of twitter and facebook have led Sonora Jha and Alka Kurian to claim that feminist movements in India were leading ‘a new kind of social media-based ‘fourth wave’ feminism, well before the recent feminist resurgence in the US’. Such movements include e.g. the #pinjratod. and #whyloiter that questioned restrictions on women’s mobility, and violence in public spaces.

To the extent that these movements made explicit important dynamics about sexuality, vulnerability and desire, we propose that it does not make sense to conceptualise #metoo as a ‘global movement’. What we have are various – quite different – articulations that seem to be singular because of the hashtag function. #Metoo appears as though it is a singularity and generates the affect of collective action, when these are actually manifestations of quite different political moments in quite distinct conditions.

Two things come to mind. Moira Donegan argues in The Guardian that #metoo articulates what she calls a ‘social feminism’, and that the feminist detractors of the hashtag articulate an ‘individualist feminism’. Whether this actually makes sense in the context of the UK, the US and parts of Europe is unclear, but such a claim might make sense in deeply individuated societies where neoliberalism is the organising principle. In the Indian context, to make such an argument would be absurd. The #metoo campaign, based on Mehroonisa’s ethnographic fieldwork on student politics in India before, during and after the #metoo moment, supported by Salla’s discourse analysis on the social media content, is precisely the push to alienation, to individuation, to the return to individual injury as the origin of political action. This has undermined collective action and the intimacies that animate and hold women’s collectives together.

The second thing that comes to mind is how the #metoo campaign in India relates to the articulation of female sexual agency and desire as political, as central to a feminist understanding of the structures of patriarchy. Let us do this by reference to another older campaign that claimed the position of ‘global’ – the Slut Walk. In its articulation in Canada, and then in other parts of the west, the primary disassociation being made was between female sexual desire and sexual assault – it was a movement against ‘slut shaming’ and an articulation of the right to be sexual itself. When the same campaign articulated in the streets of cities in India, this crucial element was inverted – it was as though about the demand to be seen as asexual, rather than about the demand to be seen as sexual. It became a ‘I should be able to dress as I want without being sexualised’, and sexualness itself articulated as violence. The same form then articulated almost oppositional ideologies – one the affirmation of female sexual agency, the other, its radical erasure. These dynamics are activated by the central role that social media has in the campaigns on violence against women which had profound implications on feminist activism at large.

Online platforms as controversial spaces of resistance

In October 2017, a California-based lawyer with South Asian roots started a post on her facebook page with names of academic men who had sexually approached or harassed students. She invited victims of abuse, and third party witnesses to contribute to the list and her blog states that this was done to warn students about academic men who might be their teachers and professors and to prevent further harassment. Currently the list runs to 70 names of highly positioned men across colleges and universities in India, as well as in Europe and America. Names are provided in full with affiliations. The description on the page states that all cases have been discussed with the victims as testimonies of the experiences.

The List quickly became the subject of extensive comments on blogposts and social media debates. It was welcomed by many, claiming to break silences around sexual and other harassments through public naming rather than institutional reprimands. The List was also target of criticism by well-known feminists in the country. A response was published on Kafila blogspace signed by fourteen feminist women stating their concerns of naming perpetrators without explication of what happened. They worried that “anybody can be named anonymously, with lack of answerability”. The signatory feminists stated that they remained committed to strengthening formal procedures and principles of justice. When there “are genuine complaints, there are institutions and procedures, which we should utilize”, they stated.

The debate polarised quickly, and anyone asking critical questions or disagreeing was deemed to be a rape apologist. While we do not suggest that violations did not occur, the subsequent discussions, and the conceptual coupling of sexuality and violence, left no space for the possibility of female sexual agency, or even impulse in consenting adult relationship, across professional hierarchies. The debate hovered around a notion of consent, and the erasure of its very possibility in conditions where parties to the transaction are located in structurally unequal positions vis-a-vis each other. Nivedita Menon’s otherwise well-thought through piece  also fails to recognise the problem with this. In relation to the question of relationships between students and teachers, and the attempts to formulate codes vis-a-vis these, for instance, she says: ‘…We are in effect taking the position that in such a situation, the consent of the adult woman to intimacy of whatever kind with a man of her choice, is somehow tainted, that her consent is not to be taken seriously.’ The question of appropriate behaviour is now reduced to whether the woman gave her consent and nowhere is it possible to imagine a woman capable – not of consent, but of sexual desire and sexual agency. This resonates with a longer term move towards a deep conservativism, a discomfort with the sexual per se and a failure of maintaining the possibility of right to pleasure, to desire, and to sexualness in political terms without coupling it with violence. Now, it is as though to speak of the sexual is only possible to speak of violence. Or rather violence is the only idiom remaining for speaking of the sexual in political terms. The point here is that while #metoo in other contexts might not be ‘sex negative’, in the Indian context this is precisely the effect – the reduction of the sexual to violence, the erasure of the possibility of negotiation with power.

Digital landscapes of feminist activism – note for STS

While the case would provide a lot more for the analysis of gender, sexuality, caste, and hetero- and cis-normativity, in this commentary we want to focus on three most crucial points of inquiry vis-a-vis STS. The first should be clear by now: that there is a need to recognise the shift in the role of the digital for feminist activism. From a point where the digital formed one increasingly important part of the political landscape, of the materiality of political action, and political subjectivity, in the aftermath of the #metoo movement, we see what might be considered the mechanism of enclosure – whereby rather than being one part of the landscape, the digital becomes the landscape itself. Here we have a situation where politics is contained within the digital, and the only political subject that remains legible is the digital subject. The affect and intimacy of embodied collective action is not simply diminished in its significance – it is evicted from the newly sequestered realm of the political itself. With this comes the fact that the conditions of political subjectivity in the digital is overdetermined by the logics of the digital – of which there are many elements.

Second, the logic of the digital is that of binary opposition: one is either ‘with us or against us’. There is no space between or beyond these positions and all articulations must be fixed in one or the other position. Those that fail to perform are nevertheless pulled in and fixed through the twin logics of ‘silence is complicity’ (and therefore evidence of being a rape apologist), or ‘silence is the evidence of oppression’. Perhaps never before has this logic been more clearly articulated than around the #metoo campaigns.

Third, stemming from this logic of binary opposition is the reduction of politics to condemnation and/or outrage. This is best thought of in relation to Katariina Kyrölä’s contemplations on the politics of affect, where she argues that today the only way to feel good is to ‘feel bad’. It is almost nostalgic to now think of feminism as a space for dissensus, for thinking together and contestation, for the coming together of a range of different experiences and positionalities so as to act on the varying manifestations of patriarchy. That space has been closed – at least on the digital, it seems. This has unfortunate implications for movements that are committed to reimagining politics in the form of horizontal, deliberative democracy, which recognises that a politics of consensus is necessarily one of hierarchy and which develops a politics of dissensus, of diversity and debate. A politics of condemnation is in this sense antithetical to horizontal, deliberative democracy. And, so, we find the condemnation of those feminist groups that espouse this form. Having ‘failed’ to make statements in support of The List, and condemning the feminists who questioned it, – for a statement of condemnation is not possible when there are multiple perspectives arising from multiple locations and experiences – these groups are themselves immediately condemned as being elitist, upper caste etc., as being assimilationist, for failing to be ‘radical’.

This, in turn, affects the dynamics in these groups themselves as the status of their members comes to be somehow tainted by this ‘failure’ – thereby erasing the work done in terms of embodied, on ground collectivisation, the painful and tiring processes of working through conflict and crisis on the ground, the passion for direct action – of behaving as though the world we demand is already here.

We-too? Sexism, feminism and STS

At the moment, here in the UK at least, it sometimes feels like we’re living in a time warp. Suddenly, the gender pay gap is front page news again. My undergraduate students are getting agitated about the gendered division of domestic labour and presenting papers about how their mothers (born in the 1970s) have had to sacrifice their chances for careers to look after their children. Like their mothers before them, these students are struggling to see their way forward, knowing that they should be able to ‘balance’ work life with having a family, but having little idea how to do this. At the same time, thousands and thousands of women, and some men, are testifying to their experiences of endemic sexual harassment at work and in public spaces online. Everyday sexism has been documented in minute detail and survivors – both well-known and not – have come forward to accuse perpetrators at the highest levels of society of unacceptable and violent behaviour.

Feminism, to put it bluntly, despite having been so powerful, sometimes seems to have achieved so little. Like my students, I regularly find myself caught in a ‘Groundhog Day’ horror at the ubiquity of entrenched global sexism. There is so much complex work left to do.

So, what might STS do to contribute? I’d like to make three suggestions.

1. Fit our own masks before helping others

Let’s first try to sort out our own institutions by openly and clearly addressing issues of inequality and diversity. How are we doing on these matters at EASST Council and in our Departments and Research Centres? Here at Lancaster University, we have worked hard on achieving diversity amongst the keynote speakers for the 2018 EASST conference, but we have not audited sessions: does it matter if we have single-gender panels (see #allmalepanel)? What does the spread of age and academic levels look like, and are we making space for scholars and ideas from the global South? Will ethnic, sexual and other minorities feel safe at the conference? How might the way we all behave at the conference make some people feel less than welcome? Should we adjust our practices to help those who identify as neurodiverse, for example? What assumptions do our ways of working make about bodies and minds that might make academic life disproportionately difficult for some and/or affirm and entrench wider patterns of discrimination and inequality?

We also need to think about the journals we edit and review for. Whose work are we publishing and whose gets rejected (in relation to feminist publishing, see Connell 2015; Roberts and Connell, 2017)? What kind of work are we willing to review and when and why do we say, ‘No, sorry, I can’t.’ For our own writing, similarly, who do we read and cite? And, hugely importantly, what texts and case studies or examples do we teach (see the ‘Why is My Curriculum White?’ campaign: www.dtmh.ucl.ac.uk/videos/curriculum-white/)? Thinking critically about how our practices of selection and citation become naturalised can be hard work, but it’s usually rewarding and can open up rich avenues of learning and inspiration.

2. Contribute our skills and knowledge to academic and public debates on sexual violence

Feminist technoscience studies (FTS) has a long and rich history of exploring sexism in science, medicine and technology design and use. We have, in my view, a huge amount of expertise, empirical, conceptual and methodological, to contribute to academic and political efforts to address sexism wherever it occurs. Most significantly perhaps, FTS has clarified the ways in which non-human actors are enrolled in the networks of practices that materialise discrimination in all its forms. More specifically, there is huge scope for more FTS projects on the rise of social media politics (both feminist and anti-feminist); and on the multiple ways in which sexism remains entrenched in both public and private forms of work. More broadly, STS has expertise to offer in the analysis of social media networks and internet materialities that are of great relevance to analysing #Metoo and other hashtag and online campaigns.

3. Engage with feminist debates on sexuality and subjectivity

Current debates on sexual harassment bring up challenging questions about responsibility, aggression, sexuality, guilt and shame. There are strong debates in online and other media about the best ways to document and address experiences of violence, sexual abuse and harassment and about whether the #Metoo movement ameliorates or exacerbates harm for individuals and for society more broadly. Individual testimonies clearly help us know and demonstrate the multiplicity of harassment forms. Many commentators argue that the accumulation of such reports creates much-needed understanding of the patterning of abuse and harassment; that through collecting stories, we can come to know better who is more likely to suffer abuse within particular institutions such as universities and other work places. But publically naming individuals – victims/survivors and perpetrators – is a fraught business, both legally and socially. Online spaces facilitate rapid reactions and counter-reactions and can fuel aggressive backlash, in both individual and more organised forms. The intensity of hatred voiced online raises real concerns about people’s psychological and physical safety.

To understand the enduring nature of sexism we need viable theories of how sex/gender and sexuality are enacted in and through us as humans. STS has made serious contributions to knowledge in its focus on human-non-human relations, but typically this has been at the (deliberate) expense of paying attention to processes of subjectification and desire. Institutions, practices, materialities, policies, discourses are all hugely important in the production of sexism, but so are subjectivities and relations between people. To gain traction on sexual violence, harassment and discrimination we also need to address the (inter)subjective dimensions of gender, sex and sexuality. There are extensive and wonderful feminist literatures on sexuality, pleasure, shame and violence (see for example Cvetkovich, 2003; Probyn, 2005; Nash, 2014; Berlant and Edelman, 2014) that might really take some STS scholars out of their comfort zones, but which may, in conjunction with more materialist accounts (see for example, Terry, 2017; Race, 2017), provide real traction in thinking about current problems of sexual violence and harassment, enabling us to loosen sexisms’ seemingly locked-on grasp on all our lives.