Notes from the 4S/EASST 2016 conference, Barcelona

Recently I flew to Barcelona to attend the 4S/EASST Conference, an event that occurs every four years where the European Association for Science and Technology Studies (EASST) and the Society for Social Studies of Science (4S) get together for panel sessions, keynotes, networking and all the other things associated with conferences. It was my first time at purely academic mega-conference (i.e. something over ~1,000 people), let alone focused on STS. What follows are some of my impressions of what I saw and heard, admittedly based on a very poor sample of perhaps 16 tracks and 3 keynotes out of the total 185 tracks and 5 keynotes; not a ‘representative sample’ as the peer reviewers might say.

So, what’s hot and cold in the world of STS? Here are some keywords that I noticed circulating across the program and the presentations I saw: elements and the elemental (see: John Durham Peters’ ‘Marvellous Clouds’ but, more frequently, ‘Elemental Ecocriticism’ edited by Cohen and Duckert), chemicals or the toxic, infrastructures (meaning the built environment but also, in other cases, everything material), embodiment (emergent Deleuzian bodies, but often not with explicit Deleuzian names), aftermath and alterlife, Anthropocene (but with a little trepidation or doubt), anticipation and futurity, evil (see: the [great] ‘Infrastructures of Evil’ panel), life and liveliness, worlds and worlding (see: Anna Tsing, ‘The Mushroom at the End of the World’; Isabelle Stengers), and thinking ‘with and against’ problematic actors. Whereas here is a list of terms and rhetorical techniques that have an ‘ideological’ status, in the sense that their circulation and use are both dominant and comparatively under-discussed: participation, trouble and troubling (both as verbs), using objects as organizing metaphors (i.e. infrastructure, element, virus/bacteria, a given nonhuman actor), the use of art objects as argument or data, ethnography (meanings vary widely), governance, actors, networks, and assemblages (pace Latour, Stengers et al.).

While the researchers that I saw were focused on many concerns, health research and its various related fields were the number one. Health took researchers to chemicals and their effects (from PCBs to cancer medications), it took them to bodies from the protozoic to the planetary (exposed, affected, affecting), it took them to ethics (of medical practices and, more generally, care for and with others), it took them to environments (in as much networks of health professionals are always concerned with bodies and bodies are always bodies-in-places). The other key objects would be economics, infrastructures (of: energy production, computing, software, education, and more), food (systems of production, consumption etc.) and, if I had to name one more, maybe art.

If health was the dominant concern then ‘relation’ is the dominant condition, but whereas it seems that there was a recent moment when relation was (choose your term) radical / disruptive / resistant /non-hegemonic / anti-essential in relation to power… now many people are not so sure that relation is such a good thing. To briefly sketch three effects of this uncertainty: 1) as at most conferences I have attended (across cultural studies, anthropology and geography), there was a fair amount of work which was positioned as ‘talking back’ to binaries, troubling tidy logics, or disturbing modernist abstractions. In many cases, here, this formed the basis of a presenter’s politics or contribution, sometimes gesturing to other ways of composing the common / economy / intimacy / space in more equitable ways, occasionally by pointing to non-dominant actors who need to be heard. So, 2) there was little explicit Deleuze / Bergson / vitalism in the words people said, but many implied and sublimated D-isms in their arguments. But, 3) besides critiques of neoliberal economics and their effects on given worlds, academic and otherwise, there was little explicit politics on show (one of the groups keynotes and Stengers’ keynote being exceptions). That is not to say that people did not make strong arguments but that their political grounding or stakes were sometime hard to actually name. For me this was summed up in the (excellent) presentation by Nootje Marres on the Volkwagen ‘defeat device‘. As Marres put it, she wanted to ask: can we say a technology is ‘evil,’ when one of the tenets of STS is that technologies are ambivalent?

[Sidenote: I feel like there’s a link to made here to influential work like Tsing’s, noted above, which is worthy of a much longer discussion. Take, for example, Jedediah Purdy’s critique of Tsing’s most recent book (here), and the ‘egalitarian, anti-systematic pluralism’ that he associates with a related stream of scholarship. Faced with a need to ‘support a new view of humanity’ on a polluted and possibly doomed planet, many of the influential arguments provided can be summarised (far too briefly and with a lot of unwarranted rewording) as framing existence as vulnerability, relation, and co-becoming and, as an ethical claim, calling for the cultivation of ‘more careful’ or better vulnerabilities, relations, and co-becomings. But is this program politically convincing? Is ‘making kin’ (via Haraway) with others (if that’s what we [and they!] want to do) going to win over our opponents or stop our destruction? There is probably also a link to be drawn here to the name checks I did hear in peoples’ papers, which were often not philosophers but rather STS scholars or anthropologist-philosophers, including, but not limited to Beth Povinelli, Marisol de la Cadena, and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro; these authors’ phrases provided navigating points within poetic descriptions of technical phenomena. (I should say that, to be clear, my take on the conference is no doubt heavily shaped by my own interests and the types of papers I sought to see. If the above sounds like criticism, then it is one directed at myself and my own research also, and the questions that are occupying me and directing my reading)].


One of the more creative conference rooms.

Feminist STS was reasonably well-represented at the conference. Notably, there were a number of panels that focused specifically on Feminist STS, amongst which I heard some frustration about the current articulation of gender and science. One striking conversation occurred during a panel discussing Banu Subramamiam’s Fleck Prize-winning Ghost Stories for Darwin, featuring Subramamiam, Jenny Reardon, Stefan Helmreich, and Evelynn Hammonds (shout out to Subramamiam for some very funny and direct responses to the panel and audience’s questions). Fairly deep into the panel, Hammonds reflected on the many annual ‘women in science’ events that she is invited to. They’re very pleasant, Hammond said, but no one at them (or promoting them) seems to identify as ‘feminist’. This is odd, she continued, because no one at ‘women in science’ events can say why there are ‘women in science’ events in the first place.

The conference was an excellent event and I look forward to future iterations, as well as the Asia-Pacific Science, Technology and Society Network (APSTSN) conference next year in Melbourne. In closing, if you have a question or difference of opinion on a matter of fact (or interpretation!) please let me know – these are just some thoughts assembled from my notes across four days running in and out of conference rooms, charged with syrupy conference coffee (and without wifi).