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4S/EASST Barcelona 2016

Reflections from an STS neophyte

Jeffrey A. Christensen

Problem, practice, provocation, politic, and performativity. These five forces are still active in my memory after my visit to the 4S/EASST conference that took place in Barcelona from the 31st of August until the 3rd of September 2016. My participation in this event became a refreshing start to the second year of my enrollment as a PhD student in the Technology and Social Change unit of the Department of Thematic Studies in Linköping University. In the following pages, I invite you to go back with me while I try to make sense of my experiences during this gathering. With so much happening in all of the different tracks and events, a full account of everything that happened is beyond my capability. Instead, I will focus on a few events that stood out to me and reflect on my impressions of them. My trip to the conference proceeded more or less smoothly. While I met a few others from the department at the airport, we were not seated together. I therefore tried to get some reading done for the course that I would soon start back at the University after the conference was over, distracted as I was by the technology that was getting me there and the many kinds of assemblages I was encountering.

August 30, 2016 (12:43)
Maybe it was the person next to me getting up and using the toilet that prompted this reflection, but the collective I am very much incorporated into at the moment even has its own bladder and colon storing a conglomeration of excrements. The steward and
stewardess going up and down the hall passing out coffee, water, and food act as blood vessels carrying nutrients to its various organs. Am I an organ in this body? Maybe I’ve just been ingested temporarily. I also find the view fascinating. From up here it looks like the
white streaks painted throughout the water are solid and unmoving. What other immutable objects become mutable at a closer proximity, or solidified when seen from a distance?

The following day kicked off the official event. I was quite surprised during the opening welcome by the EASST President, 4S President and the local committee to hear that delegates from Turkey had been prevented by the Turkish government from joining the conference. Apparently STS is still radical enough to provoke such a reaction, which I must admit that I found more interesting than the following discussion regarding a report that mimicked the IPCC, a body that considers itself the leading authority for the international assessment of
climate change(1). Johan Schot discussed how it was being constructed around the topic of social progress and social justice, so the normative dimensions of social progress were heavily debated, with various principles and values being proposed as guides for the report. Following this, Saurabh Arora tried to stress his focus on practices rather than values as guides for outcomes, and Eden Medina described her contribution to legal practices and international organizations through this work. Perhaps the most interesting part of this session was when the next speaker, Ulrike Felt, was taking questions about her work and someone from the audience asked a question about the STS take on democracy, voicing considerable concern with the approach this discipline takes and wondering what such a thing might look like or how it could even be ‘relevant’ to democracy. The answer that was provided emphasized that she was working towards something that disrupted the too 'clean cut' versions of these efforts, something that sounded interesting and had me thinking about politics in all its variations for the rest of the session. Andy Stirling brought this panel to a close, discussing his contribution that was titled ‘The multiple directions of social progress’ and reiterating the point that there are many ways of excluding and including that take place in the multiplicities of progress and social justice.

1 https://www.ipcc.ch/organization/organization.shtml

While I had marked many of the tracks the evening before and had circled those events that I thought might be relevant to my studies, I made a spontaneous decision the next morning to attend a track that was discussing problems as its theme. I had actually expected a discussion of Dewey’s philosophy, but was pleasantly surprised when it seemed to be oriented more towards Deleuze, Bergson and Stengers’ work instead. Here I was confronted with phrases that forced me to think and rethink my understanding of concepts and problems, such as “problems are immanent to the actual solutions constructed for them”, and “the best a solution can do is to develop the problem, to force it to mutate”. These articulations were both inspiring and complex, so I decided to chew on them more as I continued exploring the conference.

For my second track, I chose to check out ‘Valuation at the margins’ where I was presented with many rich empirical stories about valuing sound and music, taste and food, mouldy grapes, and fish. A very interesting first question was raised when these were finished, one that expressed my concern with some of these cases, namely that they presented devices, technologies, and standards as resulting in new valuations and not the other way around. However the answer from the presenter was vague and didn't really seem to address the question. I also wondered how the notion of ‘device’ was being mobilized, often in reference to an object or artifact rather than as the dispositif or assemblage more generally, and I found it interesting that sometimes valuation was used to speak about a type of evaluation, assessment, or pricing and sometimes quite a bit more. ‘Politics’ popped up again here when the last question asked about the political motivations for each case, which made me reflect more about the politics of my own project. The next days participants in this track offered equally stimulating stories, cases that discussed the production of emergency time, the ethics and politics of a Frankfurt airport runway, valuations of molecules, and the resilience in the technical dialogue of French nuclear risk governance. While some of these cases were indeed interesting, some of the work through these cases seemed very dry, in the sense that the researchers described their empirical journey or material in STS jargon without performing any puzzles or provocations.

Deciding to chew on this more, I went looking for trouble in the VIP room where I was aware of an Interactive Round Table session titled ‘Does STS Have Problems?’ As the round table convened, I noted the organizing of these problems as they were split between the themes of ‘STS is the problem’ and ‘Politics as a problem’, the former being chaired by Noortje Marres and the latter by Endre Dányi. The first theme staged some captivating performances concerning the limits and empirical focus of STS by touching on the field as instantiated by the nearly two thousand presenters in this conference and drawing a comparison to the ‘good old days’ of a handful of critically engaged scholars. Laura Watts highlighted the poetic and speculative fabulations of STS performativity, prompting me to reflect on what kinds of work are included and excluded from what we know as STS. The next speakers reflected on how we configure our research when methodology is left implicit and discussed some ways of mapping problems in and through this field. The last of these performances echoed a line from James and the Giant Peach by stating that ‘the problem is that there is no problem’, a statement that was used to critique deflationary approaches in STS and call attention to how we participate in problems. While I thought about how I had tried to make this move myself in my
own work, it started occurring to me how strange it was that we were now deflating the deflationary approaches. The next theme addressed politics even more explicitly, with some of the presentations delivering a rallying cry for epistemo-politics as a new approach, voicing concerns with the very concept of politics in STS, arguing that we need to make our contribution to political science and democratic theory more explicit, and voicing concern with the idea of STS as a constituted authority on matters of science and technology. The last of these
stated that STS has taught us a lot about a politics of who afterwards turning to a politics of what. It suggested that perhaps it is now time for a politics of how, making clear that these concerns did not erase the previous ones but rather sought to extend them. The audience also responded to these problems, sometimes by relating to other work in sociology and sometimes by calling attention to problems that were understood as absent in the body of STS work (military technologies and practice was the main concern here). Both the panel and the audience pointed out that some tracks were currently discussing military drones as an example, while others reiterated how STS never has been at rest with itself.

However, as an unusual close to this session given the field and themes discussed, the coordinators of this session decided to ask all the participants to vote on the problems that had been presented, with the aim of identifying the most important or concerning problem of those discussed. Like many of the others from the audience, I decided to abstain rather than become an aggregated element in this demonstration of representative politics, although in hindsight I would be quite interested in hearing what became of these problematic elections.

While I cannot do justice to the many interesting details of the events I witnessed and participated in throughout these days, I hope that these reflections highlight the most concerning themes that I take away from this event. It continues to make me think about how we engage problems in practice, and how our performativities carry political weight. While many of the other events also made me think about other aspects of my own work, and the networking and conversations were critical to the shaping of my PhD topic as it now stands, these
few events are particularly memorable in the sense that they prompted me to look closer at what was included and excluded from STS and the different ways of going about doing this work. Perhaps it is little surprise then that many of the themes I was thinking about in relation to the texts I was reading were also played out in practice. Negotiations took place about which objects and approaches were ‘new’ and which were ‘old’, distributions were made about the kinds of politics that were most relevant or of greatest import, and reminders were given about overlaps and inclusions between the strands of work being done. And yet in spite of all the difference that was present, the assemblage hung together and proved an extraordinary event indeed, both engaging and inspiring for this newcomer to the field. I can only hope that I might soon be able to contribute to the next gathering with my own provocations.

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