Two crises in and with STS: From ‘translation’ to ‘re-specification’?
23 June, 2017 § 1 Comment
Slightly amended version of my presentation at the opening plenary, in dialogue with Tiago Moreira and Ana Viseu, of the first joint meeting of RedesCTS and the Portuguese STS network in Lisbon at the Instituto de Ciências Sociais (ICS), 7-9 June 2017 ‘Lost in translation: People, Technologies, Practices and Concepts Across Boundaries’.
For this session we were explicitly asked to reflect a bit on how our work has been “affected by, or has dealt with, different kinds of boundaries, epistemic, geographical, disciplinary, linguistic, and so on.”
This was to be the first step of a wider debate amongst the presenters and the public. But I believe the need for this debate goes beyond this event, and even this network’s meeting. Any comments more than welcome.
In my intervention in this debate, I would like to profit this occasion to mumble or, rather, to think aloud on the process of moving from the uber-activist and hyper-collective intellectual milieu of Spain under austerity in the last years to the context of an ‘entrepreneurial’ public university in Munich, and into the new STS centre of Germany to be more specific.
I will try to articulate my own experience, not as an autobiographical reflection but as a mode of eliciting how moving around has made me undergo two crises in and with how STS is practiced and what its goals might be. I’ll use what these crises opened up to try out an analytic of how to go beyond ‘translation’ as a mode of, maybe paradoxically, making us experience the feeling of being ‘lost in translation.’ And will try to put forward how ‘re-specification’ rather than ‘translation’ might be conveying a more interesting stance into forms of interventive and experimental engagement with the political issues of STS’s form and content.
A crisis with STS ‘as is’
My first crisis was with STS ‘as is’… Yet I think this was a particularly collective one: the collective crisis that lead to the creation of something like this network. Without any intention to speak for anyone, my interpretation is that a space like RedesCTS–an open, allegedly hierarchically flat, and voluntarily interdisciplinary network–was needed for many reasons. Allow me to briefly mention them…
First, because most of us were alone, like lost children, without any kind of institutional backing or context to share our interest in a rather minoritarian field in our surroundings; having to work within or under the framework of highly institutionalised disciplines. Hence, a network, as a form of relatedness, allowed building bridges between traditions, locales, and diverging modes of doing things which had many reasons to be in a potential dialogue: ANT, feminist technoscience studies, science and society, history of science and technology, innovation studies, etc.
Second, a network was quintessential to break even with the ‘Game of Throne-ish’ situation of post-Francoist academia or with the vast precariousness of means most of us have been plunging in since we started our ‘career’ as social scientists, a situation that has only got worse and worse, as you are all well aware. For this, a network with no membership, and allowing hybrid and impure connections, helped many people relate, and even articulate better their multiple belongings and commitments.
Third, this statute might have been part of a wider and even deeper stance that a more vernacular take on STS was needed, since this widely Anglo-Dutch discipline, hence dominated by many times foreign or strange political, historical and academic-institutional concerns was not really helping many of us to relate to our topics of interest, our surroundings, and even our incipient tradition of collective vernacular thought.
Very relevant in the form and composition of a mutable and changing network allowing diverse people ‘to keep on doing stuff’, as well as in the types of debates there taking place, might have been the vicinity in its early stages with the ‘15M’ (the multifarious indignados events), and the gigantic experimentation that has been taking place in forms of collective action. But also, the relevance and importance of ‘trans-feminist’, ‘functional diversity’, and ‘artivist’ ethical and political stances. As much as it had affected other spaces, this became an important vector in allowing for other forms of the possible, the say-able, and the thinkable… to name but a few of the attributes Jacques Rancière uses to define ‘politics.’
Using irony and play the very network even started to become a space for the recursive experimentation of STS, its ideas, and concepts affecting not only content but also its form. And throughout the years, the network has produced its own vernacular lingo: the very network being considered as a ‘prototype’ of other forms of academia, or an interventionist and experimental space to ‘care for formats’ and ‘spatial modes of encounter’ with others. A particularly distributed and uneven mode of searching to articulate the different ecologies of practices we have been inhabiting as researchers, activists, or regular lay people, together with others beyond academia.
I think spaces of the like should not necessarily be thought of as effects of situations of economic or financial crisis. I believe another kind crisis is much more important to account for why people feel the need to open up spaces of the like, according to the potentialities they might have: maybe the wider crisis of legitimacy of academia as an autonomous and disengaged endeavour–we could use here the much abused ‘ivory tower’ epithet–and, in particular, of scientific societies as infrastructures of collective thought and mutual support might be a more apt rendering.
If I had to define what the network has meant for me: This has been a space making available to think on our research situation in terms of both its form and content. That is, addressing the singularity of a particular thematic distribution of topics, as well as the commitment many people had in close dialogue with or even because of their belonging to activist spaces, but also forging relevant local concepts, formats as relevant modes of addressing not-only-conceptual or not-only-linguistic modes of expression, as well as a experimenting with the ‘how-to’ aspects of fostering dialogues with non-academic spaces.
But however ‘nice’ or ‘cool’ these dear spaces have always been; however much they allowed us to talk and do things in more vernacular terms, these never were spaces devoid of troubles, hierarchies or privileges. Besides, the rampant precariousness has not disappeared, and the network has only allowed people to keep connected even when they were losing their jobs or working under horrible conditions.
So, despite many attempts at translating the loss, these translations into the form of a network haven’t stopped the erosion of living under such conditions. I won’t deny the importance of attempts at articulating and finding ways to express it have made people feel less lonely in very complex times, but…
A crisis with the institutionalised politics of STS
Anyway, many of us kept on searching. Some left, and some stayed either because they cared more for the non-career aspects of their lives, or because they couldn’t or wouldn’t or shouldn’t. With no intention whatsoever of becoming a model or an example of anything, but just as a way to have an entry point into a wider argument, let me talk about my very personal case…
After a while, and thinking both that there was no exit and that I needed a change (for many reasons I cannot convey in public), I started searching for jobs abroad. After more than two years of search, I was lucky enough to be offered a well-paid job in an emergent institution, with very nice and clever colleagues, and with funding conditions granting me the opportunity to travel and share my work. Of course, I could here delve into many of the classic tropes of the 1960s migrating Spaniard to Germany, condensed in films and popular myths. And, for the most of the first year, I drowned in some versions of them, feeling really lucky but also really lonely because of what I traded to become an academic migrant (this is something many of you know better than I do).
But everything seemed different: From growing accustomed to thinking together with friends, I had to re-learn how to address a situation I had also been searching for: being treated as a more individualised researcher with his own career. I was also many times feeling a bit isolated, since despite my hopes, goals and aspirations the ecology I had learnt to live and breath in was no longer accompanying me in my everyday life. This was of course very puzzling: From feeling the abundance of possibilities and freedom I had experienced, funding and job scarcity notwithstanding, to being sometimes dominated by a strange feeling of lack of possibilities and options in a place of comfort and financial abundance.
The funniest thing is I sought to allegedly bring to the job the more experimental democratic and collaborative takes on STS issues I had learnt to articulate in the space of this network. And in a way, the job I had to deliver, working in a chair for participatory technology design, teaching both to architects and future STSers, was to bring about some of the methods and formats I had learnt in my own work together with design activists. Of course, as a de-rooted academic migrant I could say my first mistake was forgetting about what I would need to change to address the local context, its issues and problems, something I knew nothing about. To make things worse I knew no German…
However paradoxical this might seem I was, again, ‘lost in translation’ since I had to face the many difficulties or sheer impossibilities of translating the modes of thinking and doing I had learnt in the previous years to a context I couldn’t relate to very easily. In fact, this stupid idea of believing I could do it has made me feel a great sense of loss in many a dark night.
I have also had to face my naiveté or sheer audacity in having forgotten that institutional spaces of alleged financial or funding abundance are not devoid of other problems of scarcity: a chronic lack of time created by the many commitments and compromises that ‘spending money reasonably’ entail; but also, the lack of a generic care for free processes of collective thought that an individualist focus on career and unit-centric demarcations might create; not to speak of the problems deriving from how well-greased hierarchies might operate in places of monetary power…
In any case, my biggest (yet very small for others), or maybe to say it better ‘attainable’ struggle to date has been how to relate to this situation. And, maybe, I could say that one of the things I have been trying to do is searching to translate the politics of the ‘activist design collectives’ I had been working with in the past into a pedagogic agenda for the architects and social scientists I have been teaching to…
Interestingly, the agenda we have been developing in the team, led by Ignacio Farías, has been very much aligned to that. In a way, I’d say we have become interested in addressing how to turn the STS programme of ‘technical democracy,’ or the technoscientific democratisations some of us had been doing research and engaged work on, into something like a ‘teaching technicians to behave otherwise’ programme. What a challenge…
But, indeed, a very interesting one working from the belly of the Bavarian beast–if you allow me the pun to talk about the leading German ‘polytechnic’ university at the core of one of the golden cradles of global corporate capitalism. In a way I’d say we have been searching to translate these STS-minded issues into a way of affecting the future technicians, professionals or experts. This could be nothing more than a small pedagogic stance of one of the older aims of the field: to intervene technocracy. Hence, in the last two years we have been experimenting with different trials, or should I say somewhat ‘learning failures’? Failures in devising a sound teaching programme that have also entailed a whole new learning process for us.
Allow me to indicate a few examples: I talk about failures in capturing the students’ attention or in making them care about some of these things beyond ready-made humanitarian gestures. Students seemed many times uninterested, since we were not helping them be more employable in the job market they search to work in. Also, our teaching methods, based on lecturing, reading and commenting, have proven deeply inappropriate. There have also been failures in establishing productive co-teaching relations with other architects, since our task might not be very legible to them. Hence, as an outcome, our attempts have many times been facing an overall tendency to ‘problem solving’ or suffering from the perpetual reenactment of ‘technical-social divides’.
But little by little we’ve transformed our expectations, in a search for collaborations elsewhere. In fact, our trials have helped us relate with other architects from other places who seem to use a kind of common language, and who are helping us to address how we could be putting modes of design ‘in crisis’ (I am particularly thinking here of Ester Gisbert and her inspiring ‘experiments with craft‘).
Indeed, that is the exploration we are searching to unfold in our last course, titled: ‘Design in crisis: Coming to our senses.’ In it, we are trying to make them aware of the multi-sensory aspects of design practice, searching to teach them through sensory experiments and practices, techniques, tools and devices that I have come across in my ethnographic work on inclusive urbanism. Hence, the aim is to make them collectively prototype a multi-sensory architectural toolkit (a toolkit for a blind architect!): a set of devices, methods, and skills necessary to re-equip their very architectural practice at the same time that we make them ‘come to their senses.’
So far, the results in their embodied transformation make me really hopeful that we might have found a potential prototype: or, to say it otherwise, a ‘line of tension’ to start addressing the issue, at least with our students coming from different European countries. We are also trying to document this experience in order to be able to share it and discuss it with some other colleagues from different countries to address that very issue: how to teach STS to designers or architects when you cannot properly ‘teach them’ the lingo nor the readings?
So far so good. But who and how do we share it with in the very place where we work? Is there anyone at the end of the line? Oh dear, again ‘lost in translation’? Let’s hope for the best…
From ‘translating the loss’ to ‘on-going re-specification’?
The previous two tales share something. They show two situations of a crisis with regards to what STS could be, and an attempt at changing its forms and contents, where we can witness the sheer complexities of seeking to generate overall conditions of change or transformations through these meagre trials and proposals: the joyful and horizontal politics of a prototypical network into transformations at the level of institutions, in the first case; or the contained, narrow, and humble teaching experiments searching to make ‘more sensitive’ architecture students who never felt they needed us–and nobody knows if they are ever going to use what we made them do, in the second one.
Translations that, no wonder, work somehow imperfectly and in strange ways. Yet, we have to resist the temptation of falling into despair, and believing that all we ever do is reaching dead ends. Could it be that the problem lies in how we address these issues as ones of ‘translation’? In a way, this was an old ANT tenet dwelling on the common Latin etymology of translation and treason, which has been captured beautifully in the Italian adagio traduttore, traditore, showing the difficulties and the many cases of untranslatability.
But I’d like to conclude in a less bleak tone, by briefly exploring another trope I think could help us address better what is at stake in these situations, or even find a way to discuss what STS might be allowing us to do when we want to intervene the form, format, and content of our ecology of practices and that of our counterparts in moments of feeling ‘lost in translation’.
In both cases what I think is a stake is not how to ‘scale up’ or merely ‘transpose’ methods, manifestos or ideas from one place to another but how to learn the local art of ‘re-specifying.’ What if that was our task, permanently, whenever we move from one place, discipline or context to another? That is, to re-specify our goals and aims, which means that we have to recalibrate, unlearn and relearn from the context in which we operate, as well as enter in situations that might change us forever, so that we could try to enact an opening.
In all fairness none of the two stories I told could be deemed as ‘failures.’ Indeed, they show that situations have a degree of play, however difficult it might be to find the appropriate tension in which they might become meaningful. Hence, to re-specify might be to open pores, networks, modes of being together and caring for each other’s arguments. Something like third spaces–that is, spaces that are neither fully academic nor fully non-academic, neither fully anthropological nor fully architectural, to use my examples.
What if we were to be always opening up spaces in-between? What if the only way in which our experiences from one place to another could work was to endlessly open up such third spaces of re-specification without wanting to take control of the situation? In a way that was the Zapatista issue: ‘changing the world without taking control.’ However, and precisely in that same Zapatista sense, I don’t mean any of this as an apostle of anything, since we would always need to re-specify even what the preachers say.
I feel that third spaces are always about the concrete and the singular, about what happens, what gathers us in a common experiential tissue. So they cannot be premised on what happened elsewhere. These third spaces should be put together grounding on what in the book In defence of school Masschelein and Simons call ‘free time’–which, by the way, is the Greek etymology for the English term school, skholē. And that is what those third spaces, those pores or networks are all about: lending us time, giving time to each other to ‘re-specify’… Otherwise there’s no learning, because, in a way learning cannot but be to become another, to share our conditions of ‘study’ with others.
These third spaces I am referring to might only work when they are characterized by their intimacy and a certain trust: the intimacy to fail and to err, together, in our re-specifications. And because of that they take an awful time to develop, and a lot of care, since they are constantly on the verge of being shut down. But the experimentation they afford might indeed open up potentialities, modes of doing and mutually sustaining each other in bleak times like this…
Could we now, here, open up one of these spaces? Hence, where do we start?
 See https://easst.net/article/caring-for-a-displacement-in-meeting-formats-report-on-the-4th-meeting-of-the-sts-spanish-network-4-6-june-2014-salamancathere-have-been-other-previous-reports-on-the-network-its-philosophy-and-i/
 Cf. Holloway, J. (2005). Change the world without taking control (New edition). London: Pluto Press.
 Masschelein, J; Simons, M. (2013). In Defence of The School: A Public Issue. Leuven: E-ducation, Culture & Society Publishers (I wish to thank Ester Gisbert for her strong recommendation of this book!).
 Cf. Harney, S., & Moten, F. (2013). The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study. Wivenhoe: Minor Compositions.