Category Archives: Sociology

To interest, amuse, or instruct

Many definitions of story emphasize the fictional part. However, there’s one major definition that gives a wider, and in my view more accurate, interpretation: “A narrative, either true or fictitious, in prose or verse, designed to interest, amuse, or instruct the hearer or reader.”

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But back to hypotheses — and vocations. People become scientists because they want to tell stories, preferably exciting, original ones; and once trained in their discipline they weave stories without cease — stories that attempt to explain how the universe and its inhabitants are made (they also explain why, unless someone insists on intelligent design or intent). Before the stories go into the testing crucible, they’re called hypotheses. Observations or measurements are done in the framework of a story at its hypothesis stage. If a story jibes with reality, it gets renamed to theory. To put it succinctly, science cannot be practiced without stories, without the call and response between story and world. The stories dictate what experiments/observations get done; the stories, to some extent, dictate what conclusions are drawn (and thereby can bias the venture, as all powerful stories do).

Athena Andreadis, who knows whereof she speaks. The sociologically-minded will note the clear echoes from e.g. Haraway and Latour and other STS headz in this description of (techno)science as a narrative endeavour. However, the importance of the “sensawunda” aspect doesn’t always make it through, and I’m interested in working with the notion of the technoscientific imaginary to see if there’s a way to bring that forward.

Contest and re-engineer the universal

“For Laboria Cuboniks, the universal is synthetic – it’s a political category. It’s not something that is discovered, or progressively unearthed, but represents a ‘we’ that is collectively built, and which can be rebuilt in more emancipatory forms. Again, this can be understood as an effort to construct vectors of unanticipated and constructed solidarities. I see this as being in direct opposition to the bloated particularity that has conventionally been passed off as the universal and which has largely cornered the market on popular understandings of the generic since the Enlightenment. Xenofeminism doesn’t want to reject universality – though I totally understand the impetus – but instead wants to contest and re-engineer the universal.

Helen Hester interviewed at The Quietus. I kinda missed xenofeminism the first time round, mired as I was in specifically thesis-pertinent theory at the time; looks like it would be well worth my addressing that oversight.

(And can I just say how good it is to see a music-and-culture organ like The Quietus covering theorists as if they were an important part of the culture? Because it is very good.)

Future fuels and fuel futures

A commendable long essay by Iwan Rhys Morus at Aeon, which should perhaps be added to the list of works that have something to say about #solarpunk, even if it isn’t talking directly to that genre-complex: it’s in part a call for an understanding of “innovation” as a collective endeavour, rather than something individual entrepreneurs (might) do (when suitably incentivised). Definitely repays reading in full, but these were the moneyshot paragraphs for me:

We have been imagining the future of energy and the worlds it will generate for more than two centuries, and the cross-fertilisation between inventors and their literary counterparts continues to shape our imaginings, more often than not by invoking a pervasive individualism. It’s as if we struggle to get away from the notion that energy technologies have a single origin point and so these origins have to be located in specific individuals. Such individualism is often accompanied by the suggestion that only one fuel, be it hydrogen, wind or solar power, will dominate our futures, real or imaginary. Just as coal and steam powered the 19th century, or oil and electricity the 20th century, our stories about future fuels assume that one principal form of energy – solar, wind, nuclear – will monopolise the future. too.

If we want to overcome these imaginative limitations, we need to rethink the sorts of stories and histories we tell about energy, its origins, and its cultures. Though we’re conditioned to see energy revolutions coming about through individual rather than community action, the danger of this narrative – seductive and potentially useful as it is – is that it presents the future and its energies as belonging to someone else. To overcome that, we need to recognise that the expertise needed to make sure that the future is powered how we want is collective.

Here Morus seems to be working in a space where my obsession with the persistently heroic nature of innovation narratives collides with my interest in using narrative writing (and in particular the tropes and tools developed for, but no longer exclusive to, science fiction literature) as a practical and interdisciplinary method for exploring and critiquing potential sociotechnical futures, whether of energy or anything else [external link to an academic paper, but it’s open access, so anyone can read it].

As an almost-but-not-quite postdoc, I’m frequently asked “what is your discipline?”, to which my usual response is “I’m not sure what it’s called, as it appears to be a discipline containing only one scholar, but I can describe it if you’ve got ten minutes to spare”; this piece points at pretty much the space where it resides, though I’m probably coming at it from somewhat more of a bastardised and interdisciplinary STS/sociological perspective than is Morus, who is a proper historian.

(Of related interest would be Karen Pinkus’s Fuel: a Speculative Dictionary, which I reviewed for New Scientist a while back.)

One discipline seeps into another

Rejecting the traditional Marxist idea that the working classes were the seedbed of change, [Deleuze and Guattari] wanted a broader umbrella under which to unite all marginalised groups. They claimed that those oppressed by patriarchy (women), racism (people of colour) and heteronormativity (what we’d now call the LGBT community) were all suffering thanks to the same machinery of despotic and imperial capitalism. It’s only by bringing together these ‘minoritarians’ that an anti-capitalist revolution could succeed. Because the philosophical image of the individual is based on the apparently autonomous figure of the white male subject, it is through a process of ‘becoming-woman’, and of ‘becoming-minoritarian’, that the spectre of individuality can finally be banished.

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Instead of treating different fields of enquiry as cut off from one another, Deleuze and Guattari tried to show where one discipline seeps into another, challenging the centrality of any one of them. Ultimately, they aimed to open thought onto its outside, pushing against the tendency for theoretical work to close in on itself.

Short-ish essay at Aeon. For all the word-salad spilled in the name of “interdisciplinarity”, the academy — or rather, more fairly, the bodies which govern the academy through the distribution of funding — are still pretty determined to prevent that seepage between silos; D&G’s work makes it easy to understand why that might be the case.

(Well, OK, not easy, because reading D&G isn’t easy… but nothing worth doing ever is.)

Recognise the firm beyond the corporation

Firms are best understood as political entities, rather than merely economic organizations. Of course they have economic dimensions. But saying that they are merely economic organisations would be as reductive as to say that states are merely economic organizations. A firm certainly contains the legal structures of capital investment – this is what the legal structures of the corporate charter are for. But a firm is much more than a corporation in the legal sense: it requires the contributions of those who invest their labour in the joint endeavour (the employees, but sometimes also independent contractors or suppliers or users). That whole institutional reality has been missed by economic and legal theories. My suggestion is that it is time to enter into a reconstructive and institutionalist perspective that makes it possible to recognize the firm beyond the corporation: as a political entity where labour investors, crucial actors in the common endeavour of the firm, have not yet been granted the same political rights (i.e. the rights to participate in governing the joint endeavour) as those granted to capital investors. In other words, it is a political entity owned by no one (shareholders only own their shares, as legal scholar Robé has so aptly kept reminding us) in need of being democratized.

Isabelle Ferreras interviewed at Justice Everywhere.