Report from a Summer School in the Netherlands
REPORT ON WTMC SUMMER SCHOOL 2016
Between the 21st and 26th of August 2016, I had the opportunity to attend the WTMC summer school on STS and Time in Ravenstein, the Netherlands, on the premises of the former monastery Soeterbeek. Bernike Pasveer and Govert Valkenburg from Maastricht University coordinated the event and twenty doctoral students attended it, all but me from different Dutch universities.
WTMC stands for the Netherlands Graduate Research School of Science, Technology and Modern Culture. It is an inter-university graduate research school based in the Netherlands and comprising scholars from a variety of social science disciplines and academic institutions across the country. These scholars unite in the shared vision of making Science and Technology Studies (STS) visible as a field, in the Netherlands and wider, by providing advanced PhD training, thus stimulating quality research, and encouraging debates about the role of science and technology in society. Summer schools represent a crucial component of this vision, especially in inviting doctoral candidates to interact with each other and with established scholars, and in the process to reflect critically on theory and method as well as on their own research design and findings.
WTMC organised this year’s summer school around the theme of STS and Time with Ulrike Felt from the University of Vienna as the anchor lecturer.
That STS had only rarely addressed time in systematic ways was a motivating force behind this choice of theme. The summer school handbook reads: “it is surprising how undertheorised time has remained” in STS “and how sparsely it is turned into an explanandum”, i.e. “something to look into rather than take for granted, something emergent rather than the stable baseline for what, and against which we study and write about our topics.” Given its topical relevance – as that which “organises everything we do” – it was imperative that STS brought time back into focus, not only as contextual element to consider but as the object of study in its own right. Ulrike felt brought this to the attention and several other guest lecturers joined her in this cause: Stanley Blue (Lancaster University), Marli Huijer (Erasmus University Rotterdam & The Hague University of Applied Sciences), Peter Peters (Maastricht University), and Willem Schinkel (Erasmus University Rotterdam).
Doctoral students added to this scholarly mixture too, and not only through their engagement in the lectures – for which we were most prominently encouraged – but also by presenting their ongoing research projects. Seven presented, including myself, with topics ranging from “anti-facial recognition masks”, through “smart mobility” and “emergency care”, to “responsible innovation” and “tele-vulnerabilities in the Netherlands”. I presented my work on the case of Future Walking: Time, Space and the Organisation of Imagining.
Through lectures, group activities, and discussions, the summer school aimed to explore the ways time was “constitutive of what we make known and how we know it” and how the multiple “temporal infrastructures” of society were produced, entangled, and sustained.
Towards this aim, each PhD participant received in advance a “reader” with literature on the topic of time. This literature comprised work by classic STS scholars such as Bruno Latour, as well as that of authors less prominent in the field, for instance Barbara Adam and Henri Lefebvre. In reading carefully through these latter works, I initially felt unease, especially as certain theoretical claims on their part largely diverged from my acquired STS sensibilities. For example, Adam begins with fundamental differences between “material” and “biological time” – say, the time of life and that of inorganic matter. And, while critical of tendencies to naturalise a so-called “linear clock time”, she was naturalising, through her work, rhythmical processes as inhering in nature. Similarly, Lefebvre discussed rhythmicity as essential feature of reality. It was unclear to me, and, as I later on found out to my colleagues-participants also, how these propositions fitted a practice-oriented STS logic sceptical of fundamental divisions and essentialist claims. This puzzle became a discussion topic during
the summer school. Some saw these readings problematic, urging a critical stance, while others cautioned against taking them at face value. These emphasised that the problem was not with what Adam or Lefebvre wrote but perhaps with how we read them. This was a major lesson from the summer school – not to dismiss these writings for straying STS logics, but to understand them as invitations to think time differently.
From within and without STS, then, the literature spoke to five interrelated subthemes, each of them corresponding to a day at the summer school.
The first was that of “social acceleration”, i.e. the ‘speeding up of social life’, in relation to which we jointly reflected on how this became a dominant narrative and why it might carry the danger of limiting our view on the role of time in society. Correlatively, with the second subtheme of “trajectorism” we delved deeper into the matter, discussing assumptions of linearity, objectivity, and progress both as contemporary forms of thinking and talking about time and as taken-for-granted notions in social scientific accounts of contemporary life.
The third was the subtheme of “ownership”. In this context, we discussed: Who owns time and who controls it? Do technologies incorporate “their times”? Does the organisation of societies allow for temporal autonomy of individuals? These questions tied closely with the following subtheme of “temporalisations” – i.e., the ways different temporalities matter, how different personal and social rhythms interrelate in processes of community-making. Finally, on the fifth and last day, we focused on “academic time”. We reflected on the temporal structuring of academia, the naturalising of the ways in which we performed research through say projects and programmes, and how we measured and accounted for ‘output’, our ‘career scripts’, and so on.
Of particular significance in developing these subthemes were group activities. These were many during the summer school, but, for the sake of brevity, I would like to just mention the following. We were to
“reflexively destroy a time device”. The title of this exercise evokes the image of physically destroying a clock with one’s mind. And indeed, we were asked to do precisely that – to destroy, strip a clock to its individual components, through questioning it: the connections between its parts, how we relate to their composition, how we make sense of their movement, sound, and materiality so that we may ultimately call it a ‘thing’ as abstract and fleeting as time. For this exercise, we were divided into four groups – mine was given to destroy a toy clock. This clock did not show time, but rather introduced children to it – by playing with its arrows and figurines, children learned time. Like children, we too played with it. We moved it around, turned it upside down, displaced its figurines, and in the process speculated on the purpose of such actions. With this, we also reflected upon our own childhood – upon how we learned to read and feel time by playing with similar such toy clocks; how our parents told us that ‘That particular figurine represents number ten. It’s ten o’clock.’ The social and practical character of linearity and objectivity in connection to time was thus made visible. First, as children, we played with this toy clock, essentially in order to forget about the play. We then, as adults, read only time from clocks, to finally speak and think about owning, lacking, giving, and taking this time as well as structure our activities including research accordingly.
And in the spirit of this exercise, I should not forget to note on the play – the informal, fun aspects of attending the summer school. Reflexively destroying a time device was fun. It was also fun to meet interesting, often like-minded individuals, exchange experiences during meals and over a glass of red wine. Not to forget the laughter and pleasure derived from getting to know people with different life histories and future trajectories, while sitting on a garden bench in front of Soeterbeek, and enjoying the surprisingly pleasant climate that the Netherlands had to offer. I mention all that on this final note, not as a way to report on what happened in between more substantive educational moments. These informal aspects were on the contrary constitutive of the summer school and its time.
The summer school was academically a very useful experience. And it was fun!
Technology and Social Change is an interdisciplinary research unit focusing on how social actors create and use technology, and how technical change is woven together with cultural patterns, daily life, politics, energy systems, learning, and the economy in history and society.
The objective for Tema - The Department of Thematic Studies is to pursue excellent research and education at undergraduate and advanced levels relevant to society.
Last updated: Wed Dec 14 11:46:10 CET 2016