Fishy parables

by Chris Sugden, DPhil student in Science and Technology Studies

John Law of CRESC and Open University gave the penultimate talk in the STS group’s series on scale, with the title ‘Fishy Parables’. Law used data collected during ethnographic fieldwork in a Scandinavian salmon farm to illustrate the difference between what Chunglin Kwa terms ‘romantic’ and ‘baroque’ modes of understanding complexity (including issues of size and scale). This difference, Law argued, allows us to understand and counter the dominance of certain styles of thought.

For Kwa, the romantic style of approaching complexity concerns the goal of unification. All entities of interest are understood to be part of a wider system, and looking at the way the system operates is the best way to understand those entities. So in the case of the salmon farm, events taking place as part of a daily work routine can best be understood through their relationship with overarching processes such as labour and capital flow. The salmon farm and its inhabitants are not so interesting in themselves, the romantic style suggests, but rather they are illustrative of and influenced by something larger.

The baroque style, by contrast, approaches complex entities as wholes in themselves, not unitary but rather ecosystems to be explored, ever-downward. If the romantic view is “society as organism”, Kwa writes, the baroque view is “organism as society”. For Law, this can be seen in the case of the salmon farm if one notices the internal complexities of the work routines and their parts: the tacit knowledge and skill of the workers, for example, or how a mechanism for weeding out and killing undesirably slow-growing fish tells stories about the economics of feeding.

Law argued that the baroque mode includes the romantic: in particular, the idea of unification that is central to the romantic mode can be deployed in the baroque, but with the recognition that conceptual unification and systematization are narrative strategies rather than inevitable, objective procedures. Part of the value of creating a distinction between the romantic and the baroque, therefore, is that it provides an additional vocabulary through which to disclose and describe the politics of analyses otherwise held to be apolitical.

Kwa C, 2002 “Romantic and Baroque Conceptions of Complex Wholes in the Sciences”, in Complexities: Social Studies of Knowledge Practices Eds J Law and A Mol (Duke University Press, Durham, NC and London) pp 23-52.

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