In this week’s Situated Seminar we met outdoors at OxGrow, Oxford’s Edible Community Garden to discuss two pieces: Noortje Marres & Javier Lezaun‘s ‘Materials and devices of the public: an introduction’ in Economy & Society (2011) and Dimitris Papadopoulos’s ‘Alter-ontologies: Towards a constituent politics in technoscience’ in Social Studies of Science (2011). Since January 2011, OxGrow has turned two unloved tennis courts in the heart of Oxford into a thriving food garden. Doireann, our garden guide explained that OxGrow is a combination of intellectual and physical energy in the spirit of community building. Sitting on the grass we could see a wind generator producing energy, a bee hive, raised garden beds and the new addition, a composting toilet. At OxGrow, planting, weeding, harvesting, composting, foraging and feasting build community.
In this setting, Catherine Montgomery introduced the pieces through four themes: politics, inclusion, materiality and experimentation. Is foraging for food political? Was it a public act? How does a garden, tools, seeds, fruit and veg help us think about materiality, as well as the objects and devices of politics? What was the relationship between politics and publics? With their focus on the materials and devices of the public, Marres and Lezaun offer ways to think about public action and participation. They focus on how materials, a merchant ship, a plastic water bottle, carbon accounting technologies, acquire what they call ‘political capacities’. The idea here is to consider not just how materials and devices shape the construction of publics, but how some objects, environments and infrastructures become invested themselves with political and moral capacities. Papadopoulos is also interested in the processes and practices of politics. His article presents a typology of the four ways that those working in STS-related fields conceive of politics: formalist, participatory, assembly and grounded. In seeking to foreground a materialist politics, Papadopoulos wants to take the best aspects of these four approaches and develop what he calls a constituent politics, which emerges from the account of politics already given in technoscience, but seeks to evolve from the limitations of these approaches by creating material alliances between groups of people and particular non-human others.
Like the examples highlighted by Marres and Lezaun, we discussed how OxGrow is a site of experimentation. In bringing together the idea of experimentation with how the political comes to be constituted, we discussed how the papers both sought to identify the creation of what might be called ‘pre-political spaces’. We questioned how Papadopoulos sought to identify forms of actions and practices before they became codified as politics. How was this to be done? Marres and Lezaun also want to challenge conventional understandings of politics by focusing on mundane and everyday objects. It was suggested that the privilege awarded to ‘artisanal production’ by Papadopoulos may not be ‘material’ enough. Marres and Lezaun suggest that a focus on materials and devices requires a move away from the human. Some queried how this move to go ‘beyond the human’ overlooked the materiality of the human body in public space. What happens to our analysis of the category human in attempts to focus on materials and devices that are usually assumed to be non-human?
Coming back to the question of politics, Doireann explained to the group that people at OxGrow have political concerns, especially about climate change and global food systems. But at Oxgrow, politics is kept ‘low key’. The garden is there for the digging and in offering this kind of material engagement people work together. In reflecting on this comment, it was suggested that STS might not be very good at ‘keeping the politics low key’. Everything it seems is political. What then, is outside politics? And furthermore, what is the benefit of using the public for thinking about politics? And indeed, the emphasis at OxGrow on ‘building community’, as opposed to something called publics suggests that the multitude of ways people see themselves as kinds of collectivities matters for politics and what counts as political action, or participation.
This session was part of the ongoing reading group Encountering Science and Technology Studies: Situated Seminars. Rather than discussing readings in the confines and comfort of a seminar room, we immerse ourselves in locations that speak to the issues at hand. For upcoming sessions, please check the programme.