On February 1st, I will discuss Bruno Latour’s ecological politics at the Kairos counter-club in London. I will present his argument and vision for a politics of the earth and explore related work in sociology seeking to advance ecological politics. More info at Kairos
Location: Vout-O-Reenee’s, The Crypt, 30 Prescot Street, London, E1 8BB
In this article, I give a personal view of Bruno Latour’s work on the politics of ecology going back to his work during the early 2000s on the politics of things. Based on my exchanges with Latour over the years, from the time that I became his student in the late 1990s, I show how he developed his understanding of the politics of ecology through a critical engagement with early 20th century theories of a “politics of things,” notably the one developed by the pragmatist philosopher John Dewey. I propose that Latour, who was greatly inspired by Dewey’s book The Public and Its Problems, came to realise through his work on climate change that the ecological crisis poses a profound challenge to the pragmatist vision of material politics. This challenge led Latour to undertake a radical re-construction of the very idea of ecological politics and envision what he calls a politics of the earth. I conclude this text by highlighting a related but different possibility for the re-construction of ecological politics, one that I believe Latour saw clearly, but did not pursue. If we are to succeed in turning politics around ecology, we will need to engage much more deeply with a body of thought which Bruno Latour valued but only rarely – in my view too rarely – invoked in his last writings on ecology, that of feminist politics. Part reflection, part criticism, part homage, this piece then argues that we should turn our attention to feminist politics of ecology, if we want to find ways to continue Bruno Latour’s work for a politics of the earth.
Irena Veisaitė, literary and theatre scholar and Holocaust survivor, was born on January 9, 1928 in Kaunas, Lithuania, and died on December 11, 2020. She is remembered today at the National Philharmonic Concert Hall in Vilnius.
When I landed at Vilnius airport for the first time in my life Irena stood outside waiting for us with a verba, a palm Easter wreath, in her hand. “Welcome to Lithuania!”
We went to Nida. We sat on the slowly shifting dunes by the sea overseeing the Kuršių nerija, a long sand-dune spit, and in the distance, across the water, Königsberg now Kaliningrad. We joked that we could practically see the grave of Immanuel Kant.
Somewhere near was the beach famously visited by Sartre and Beauvoir in the 1960s, and immemorialized in photographs by Antanas Sutkus. Beauvoir wore a beautiful tulband, as you can see in those photos.
At the time I was working on my PhD in philosophy, and I remember trying to convey to Irena why someone of my generation could feel that, at the start of the 21st Century, it was time to move beyond the ideas of Kantian philosophy, which continue to underpin so much of our thinking today.
Knowledge, morality, the polity: these are not necessarily grounded in ideals, in reason, but instead, are always in process, emerge from nature’s unfolding, which is where togetherness ultimately derives from.
Irena was having none of it, in a wonderfully patient, uplifting way.
Later, still seated on the moving dunes, we spoke about NATO, and I again tried to convey my experience – which the conversation we were having revealed to be a rather provincial one – of living in 1990s Amsterdam, where communism was not first and foremost a threat, but an inspiration.
Irena stated, calmly and frankly, that only fools think they and their societies don’t need NATO. She implied that NATO too, in whatever indirect way, could be regarded as an expression of a polity grounded in the ideal of cosmopolitan peace.
I used to think of our exchange in the Nida dunes as a conversation between generations: the post-war humanist (she) and the post-sixties environmentalist (me). I don’t think that anymore, or at least I know now that it is naive to think of our different positions as representing different epochs.
When I think of our exchange now, these last years, as questions of truth, ecology, transnationalism and of what holds polities together are taking on fresh urgency, I feel that time is passing, time has passed. We are now in a different moment than we were then.
It remains possible that we were both right.
Years later, Irena and I were driving through North London, and she talked about the war. At the Highgate intersection – which I believe featured in Doris Lessing’s London Observed – she told me of standing in a long queue, with Nazis picking people out, and she, catching the eye of one of them, sensing his uncertainty, not wavering, and passing through.
On New Years Eve 2018 we shared an orange with Irena, some friends and children. It was a moment full of radiance, us gathered around the table in her home, with the dark, cold Vilnius night outside, sharing an orange.
Last Sunday the musician Sarah Farmer took us for a walk along Coventry’s Music Mile.
She had brought along several speaker-balls which she handed out to us, quite casually, and, after a quick explanation, they pretty much turned themselves on, waking us up with strings rumbling and reassuring blue light.
We were pulled along by this sound emanating from the little speakers, sound that I have a weakness for, slow strokes along violin strings reveberating, as we walked from FarGo Village, into Gosford Park, and up along Walsgrave Road, us following the sound, and Sarah Farmer, who, like a piped piper, walked in front, except she seemed quite unconcerned with us following her.
She, or rather the instruments she has brought along, let us hear different sounds of Coventry, as if picking up signals from the environment around us — Dub, Jamaican steel drums, folk violin play. As we walked, different melodies would emerge from the violin strings reveberating from our little speakers, then fade away, into the background.
I know Dub and steel drums from different places, but these were unfamiliar sounds, almost all unknown to me, a visitor of Coventry, still, after coming here regularly for six years now.
The different sounds had a searching quality, as if they too, were looking still, to figure out how to inhabit this city, which for several of us on this walk, though certainly not all, remains quite unfamiliar. Some of us just arrived in Coventry, literally from the other side of the world.
“Somewhere there.” Sarah, gesturing vaguely, across that wall, is Planet Studios, world famous, for the Asian artists who recorded there, Bhangra music, Asian fusion, and continue to do so, the studios are still going strong.
She points in the direction of the bandstand in Spencer Park, on the other side of the city centre — a park I know, a place to play, to hang out — and tells us the Godivarius may well have been played there, along side T.E. Dunville, who was described by Charlie Chaplin as “an excellent funny man.”
We hear other strings, played by a British Folk legend, unknown to me, who stuck the speaker part of a phone to his violin. Several of us nod, they know him well. He lived in Coventry for some years.
Sarah tells us about a remarkable habit of string instruments in general and violins in particular: when no-one one plays them and they are just sitting in their box, their strings may start resonating with sounds they pick up in their surroundings, when they recognise the pitch of their own strings — G, D, A, E. The technical term, I learn later, for this way of a violin being played by its surroundings is ‘sympathetic resonance.’
We walk into Ball Hill. I believe it is here my partner’s mother lived for several years, right after the Second World War, when she, age 10, arrived as a refugee from Lithuania. I only recognise it now, as we walk up the hill, past the Library, closed and with much reduced opening hours announced on the door, a sombre reminder of a cultural life not quite happening, so much reduced now.
And so we walk, in stops and starts, getting closer to the Coventry Music Museum, and the instrument we are drawn towards, the Godivarius, on display there. This mythical instrument, so it turns out, is also quite real, and can be found in a vitrine on the second floor of the museum, half hidden behind the label describing the man who created the instrument.
The Godivarius, a 19th Century violin, was crafted by a Coventry-based master, Arthur Rowley, who had trained in Italy with a tutor from Cremona (Italy) where Stradivarius is from.
Next time, when I hear “manufacturing” and “Coventry” in one sentence, I will think “violin.”
We arrive in 2 Tone village, where the Coventry Music museum is based, and I have a brief encounter with a man with a twinkle in his eye — he asks, how was it? I registered for this walk, he says, but then I realized it was people who are not from here who are behind it.
There it is, a line drawn between those who are and those who are not, from Coventry, or as Elena Ferrante has it, between those who stayed and those who left. He has a point, in questioning whether we know what we are doing: the Web page announcing the guided walk suggested a very long duration for this relatively short walk.
Onwards, into the museum, where we find Delia Derbyshire, a lifesize cut-out figure, the sound artist and composer of electronic music, also from here, Coventry, and who worked in the illustruous BBC Radiophonic workshop.
She could become that person, at a time when electronic music was not yet the world of famous (mostly) men that it is now, well done. I think of Data Knitting, the book by Sadie Plant about the women coders who programmed computers before coding became associated with the male heroism that marks it now. She worked at the University of Warwick, did she write this in Coventry?
We walk back, past the pub where, appararently, the Specials played Ghost Town, to which I danced as a 16 year old, in a different country, a different city (Hilversum), loving the song without knowing the city it mourns, calls out and celebrates all at once.
23 October 2021
Photos by Nirmal Puwar (Sociology, Goldsmiths).
The guided walk by Sarah Farmer took place on Sunday October 17, 2021, and was organised as part of Sampling Sounds of Coventry’s Future, a series of events created by the Centre for Interdisciplinary Methodologies and the Warwick Institute of Engagement, University of Warwick, for Coventry City of Culture.
When we joined Council in 2018, the Society was playing a key part in the on-going process of transforming the interdisciplinary field of Science, Technology & Society (STS). We support the general principles guiding this project, those of accountability and transparency, and we are deeply sympathetic to the wider vision of developing transnational connections in 4S, strengthening STS in the global South, and de-colonizing STS.
But several decisions have recently been taken in 4S that we strongly believe contravene the above commitments. New committees and positions have been created without due consideration for their impact on the authority of Council and on existing 4S offices. In the last 6 months, all 4S officers have resigned.
Crucially, changes to the Society’s Charter have been proposed that, if approved, will have the effect of further concentrating power in the 4S President. These changes include a revision of the 4S election procedure, which weakens the role of Council in this process. The revised wording does not grant any formal power to Council, such as consultation and approval of the Election slate, moving away from what has been common practice in 4S.
Last week, 4S Council endorsed these changes with a small majority, leaving us with no other way to express our dissent than by resigning. The proposed Charter changes will now be voted on by the 4S membership during the 4S Business Meeting in Toronto.
Our decision to resign is thus motivated by concern about the dismantling of distributed governance in 4S and about the Society’s future. We continue to have confidence in 4S and Council to work towards the shared objectives of accountability, transparency, transnationality and participation in STS.
A participatory research project initiated with Nirmal Puwar (Goldsmiths) and Naomi Waltham-Smith (University of Warwick)
What does the future of Coventry sound like? The emergence of futures depends on many forces, elements, actors, and events, and engaging with the future demands attention to both the expected and the unexpected. In our project, we are especially interested in the role of universities and more precisely, of interactions between the city and its universities, in the making of Coventry’s futures, and what that sounds like. What does the future of Coventry sound like?
What does the future sound like in Coventry? To respond to these questions and to attune ourselves collaboratively to the city’s futures, we will engage in various practices of place-based listening: field recordings, soundwalks, sonic compositions, and performances.
Here is the Innovations Plenary in the words of 4S President Kim Fortun:
To innovate is to move beyond, out of line, skirting predictable directions and outcomes. This is far from straightforward — imaginatively, analytically and logistically. To innovate means being outside usual frames, working counter-culturally, against intuition and usual method. In many settings, innovation is a matter of great urgency: lives and prosperity depend on it. All to easily, however, innovation serves and even exacerbates entrenched hierarchies of privilege, creating something new but sustaining old structures (of wealth, authority, and so on). Innovation is subject — even prone — to capture — becoming a carrier rather than critique of capital and empire. Innovation can also become an empty ideal, cover for business as usual. Innovation is pursued and promised in industry, government, education and NGOS — and in scholarly fields like STS. Scholars need and promise to innovate; indeed, their charge is to create “new knowledge.” Their scholarly organizations — like 4S — promise to scaffold and help sustain this, though what this looks like in theory and practice often receives little attention.
With: Maria Belen Albornoz (FLASCO-Ecuador), Lesley Green (University of Cape Town), Noortje Marres (University of Warwick), Shobita Parthasarathy (University of Michigan).
International workshop, University of Warwick
10 and 11 December 2018
Supported by the ERC project BLINDSPOT, the Sociological Review, and the Center on Organizational Innovation, Columbia University.
With: Jonathan Bach (New School for Social Research), Nathan Coombs (University of Edinburgh), Francisca Grommé (Goldsmiths), Noortje Marres (University of Warwick), Daniel Neyland (Goldsmiths), Joan Robinson (Columbia University), Willem Schinkel (Erasmus University), Luciana de Souza Leão (Columbia University), Antoine Hennion (Mines ParisTech/CNRS), David Stark (University of Warwick/Columbia University), Martin Tironi (Catholic University de Chile), Janet Vertesi (Princeton University).
This workshop brings together established scholars and junior researchers from across science & technology studies (STS), sociology and related fields to discuss new topics and problems in the study of testing in society, and to outline a research agenda for the critical evaluation of testing.
US TV Test Screen from the 1950s
A test can be defined as an orchestrated attempt to reveal an entity’s potentially unknown properties or capacities. A driving exam, a drug trial and a planetary probe are all procedures designed to ascertain the properties of some entity. However, while tests and testing are well-established social forms, the role of test and testing in culture, economy and politics seems to be expanding. With stress testing of financial institutions, smart city experimentation, beta-testing in software development, pilot projects in crime control, and randomized controlled trials in economic development, the protocols, grammars, and logics of testing are becoming increasingly prominent as ways of intervening in society, managing organisations, and enacting public life.
In an age of digital innovation, testing seems to have become ubiquitous, as tests are routinely deployed as a marketing device, a form of governance, or an everyday practice to evaluate the self. Indeed, some have argued that we are increasingly “governed by pilot” (Grommé, 2015). What are the social and political consequences of ubiquitous testing? What are its implications for relations between innovation, organisations, public politics, and everyday life? And what remains of the potential for experimentation as an emancipatory form?
14:00 – 15:00
Hasselt University, in the Old Prison
Over the last decade or so, intelligent technology testing has moved from relatively enclosed environments like the laboratory, the factory-floor and the home into public spaces, such as the street. This places new demands on the capacities of the actors involved – engineers, citizens, social researchers, policy makers and designers, … – to envision a shared, societal future. One way to sum up this challenge is by modifying a well-known and enigmatic precept: In the 1990s, engineering was defined as “sociology by other means” (Law, 1991), but to make this true today we need to add new elements, namely participation and design.
In her lecture, Noortje will unpack and advance this claim by investigating a series of recent street trials of intelligent vehicles in the UK and elsewhere. Drawing on empirical materials, from fieldwork notes to debate maps and a design exercise, Noortje will first show how some key elements go missing in contemporary street trials of driverless cars, and how, for this reason, they risk to fail in their attempt to put a proposed technological future to a societal test. Some trials bracket contestation among road users (drivers, cyclists, pedestrians), while others render the social environment passive, reducing it to a décor for machine performance. The result of this is not only to render the societal future unreal, but also, stupid.
So how, then, can design and social research be combined to re-introduce the missing elements, and stage a public encounter between actors, forces and visions – the car system, the ecological future – that so often remain mute to one another, and which, accordingly, fails to take place?