requiem for certainty

Ars Synthetica Conference

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Ars Synthetica: The Anthropology of the Contemporary took place this past Friday at UC Santa Cruz.  I organized this event to bring Paul Rabinow, some of his students in UC Berkeley Anthropology, and other colleagues working in collaboration in recent years, down to UCSC to present their work.  At the center of the event as we envisioned it was Rabinow’s newest offerings under the auspices of the Ars Synthetica web forum.  My thanks to all participants (both presenters and audience) for making this such an engaging, inspiring, and generative event.  It is exactly what I needed as I prepare to dive into a solid two weeks of revision and polishing before I send my Foucault manuscript off to the publisher for review.  Following is a short summary of the day’s three sessions.

In our morning session we heard four papers on contemporary biosciences from Gaymon Bennett, Anthony Stavrianakis, Lyle Fearnley, and Tom Schilling.  This was a tremendous session and the small format led to some wonderful conversations afterward that really set the tone for the day.  One common theme that ran through these four papers, particularly well-highlighted in Bennett’s opening talk, were efforts in refashioning an engaged practice of ethics.  Our thinking about ethics has for too long been dominated by a modern moral philosophy which can only take form as a theory which gets applied in order to result in moral judgments.   It is time now for a new model in which ethics unfolds in situ as a practice of reflection located within a context and a history.  For biosciences in the contemporary, the old model of applying theory clearly begins to break down rather quickly and what is needed now is the development of newer modes of ethical engagement.  For me this raises questions of engagement in ethics.  What the old modern moral philosophers had relegated to issues of ‘mere application’ now come to the fore as the central problems we face in developing ethical responses to the challenges we face in the contemporary.  We were joined by Jenny Reardon who has been exploring similar questions in the context of the Science and Justice Working Group here at UCSC.  Particularly valuable in our conversations, at least from my perspective, was an insightful intervention from Donna Haraway regarding the role of fun, play, pleasure, excitation, etc. in the styles of ethical engagement relevant to this work.  This seems to me an excellent way of bringing into view the problems we now face concerning engagement.  One task going forward (for me at least) is to find ways to practice ethical engagement under the sign of excitation, etc..

After lunch, our first afternoon session picked up on themes raised in the morning as Paul Rabinow presented his latest work in the context of the Ars Synthetica web forum.  At the core of this project, and much else Rabinow has recently been working on, is an effort to fashion collaborative forms of inquiry and research as an alternative to the individuo-artisanal modes of knowledge production currently dominant in the broad ensemble of academic practices which can be grouped loosely under the label human sciences.  This seems to me much-needed in the face of the severe pressures now impacting the human sciences especially insofar as many (not all!) of these pressures are self-caused if not self-imposed — since I am junior in my career and still without guarantee of stable employ I will refrain from detailing what these pressures may be.  In the discussion following Rabinow’s presentation comments from James Clifford and Ian Hacking led to discussions on what gets to count as an ethical problem and what venues might be appropriate for we academics who wish to engage these ethical problems.  By this point in the day there was great interest in (re)considering the challenges we face today as academics in our collaborations with those across disciplinary boundaries, with those doing research in other academic sectors (e.g., big bio-labs), with those outside of the academy, and with broader ‘publics’ who have stakes in the practices into which we are inquiring.  Those looking to explore all of these issues should consult an excellent new book co-authored by Rabinow and George Marcus, entitled Designs for an Anthropology of the Contemporary.

Our final session of the day began with three papers from Christopher M. Kelty, Noah Wardrip-Fruin , and Colin Koopman (that’s me) on three related kinds of ‘computer-centered’ objects which we might take as our focus for inquiries into the contemporary.  I spoke about the internet and internetworking broadly (see some of my previous posts on this blog), Kelty spoke on free and open source software (see his excellent book Two Bits), and Wardrip-Fruin spoke on software studies and expressive processing (get a view of his great work at Noah’s site).  We were joined by Warren Sack, whose Conversation Map I just saw on exhibit at the SFMOMA’s ‘Participation’ exhibit.  The ensuing conversations on problems of academic freedom, problems of academic engagement, and possibilities for new open-source models of academic work (publishing, peer review, authorship) were an excellent conclusion to a day of collaborative conversations on our ongoing practices of collaboration.

Let’s keep the conversation and collaboration moving forward.

A final note for those up at Berkeley or otherwise in the Bay Area: There are at least two upcoming events down here at UCSC that may be of interest, namely a talk by Didier Eribon on Feb 18 (who I suspect is also giving a talk at Berkeley) and another with Lorraine Daston on May 11-12 as part of the UCSC Center for Cultural Studies Colloquium Series.


One Response

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  1. Sounds fantastic, I am sorry I missed it.


    January 20, 2009 at 6:22 am

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