Alberto Corsin Jimenez on knowledge practices, anthropological anamorphosis and the 2010 World Cup

This week’s “Issues in Scale” seminar featured a paper by Alberto Corsin Jimenez, currently Senior Scientist at Spain’s National Research Council. Alberto’s primary interest is in the history and anthropological theory of knowledge practices. His recent field sites include the nitrate mining communities of the Atacama desert in Chile, humanities scholars in Madrid and management consultants in Buenos Aires. After his talk, Alberto sat down with Malte Ziewitz to answer a couple of questions.

Thank you for visiting, Alberto. Your biography says that you are a “Senior Scientist at Spain’s National Research Council”. To British ears, that sounds an awful lot like someone looking at grant applications all day.

Alberto Corsin Jimenez

Alberto Corsin Jimenez

Well, Spain’s National Research Council is a research-only institution. Maybe some people are familiar with Germany’s Max Planck Society or France’s CNRS. Spain’s National Research Council is the same thing – a university where people are employed to do only research and no teaching. There is only limited administration because all the work that comes with teaching, curriculum examination and syllabus approval and so on – well, none of it is there. So it has nothing to with funding, the management of funding applications or any of that. In the British context, it’s a misnomer.

Sounds like a pretty good environment to work in.

It is a fantastic environment, yes!

The paper you gave at the seminar was titled “How knowledge grows: an anthropological anamorphosis”. Can you explain in a few sentences what it is about?

Well, I can try. If you substitute the word anamorphosis for perspective, I think the title will probably make a lot of more sense: how knowledge grows from an anthropological perspective. The word perspective has been mobilised in recent times in certain quarters as a very strong analytical category. One, it is used to legitimise certain forms of cultural relativism. So depending on your perspective, you do this and that. Two, in some anthropological literature as represented in the works of Eduardo Viveiros de Castro or Marilyn Strathern, perspectivism has become an idiom, a means for describing alternative ontologies.

What I was hoping to do was to show that perspectivism and perspective in the Euro-American tradition, the tradition of enlightenment philosophy, have a particular origin: the rise of a historical episteme, of a mode of knowledge in renaissance Europe. At this time in history, when certain new practices and new ideas about how knowledge worked took place, perspective was closely aligned with the work of optics, with understandings of how things changed size, with ideas about what it meant for a thing or a human being to have an effect on something else. How could Galileo have an effect on the moon? Via the operation of the telescope. So that assemblage of notions and practices, optics, perspective, scale, size, the role of human vision, the role of the human body – there was a particular assemblage in renaissance Europe that legitimated some of those ideas.

So one of the things I was trying to do in my paper was to see, excavate and recuperate some of the sensibilities that enabled the putting together of that complex alignment of ideas about optics, scales and size to illuminate our own current practices. When we talk about perspective today, when we talk about scale today, when we talk about the importance of an object-oriented epistemology and the agency of objects – when we deploy those arguments today, are we conscious of the way they were knit together back in renaissance Europe? And can we learn anything from that original alignment that could illuminate our own practices today?

I would like to stress, though, that I am not a historian. So it is not the historical assemblage itself I am after. My interest is rather to inquire into the mutual animation of certain concepts and practices over each other – scale, size, perspective, objects, bodies. When some of these notions are superimposed over others, certain effects are made visible. I was hoping to describe the different ways in which such visibilities have been brought into the open at different points in time – to better understand what the consequences might be for those of us who do similar things today. That was the bit I was trying to do.

In your paper, you draw on an incredibly wide range of resources, from anthropology, science studies and feminist theory to English literature and the history of art. Do you actually have a field site in which you explore some of the issues at the moment?

I do, yes. I just started about four months ago a collaboration with another Spanish anthropologist called Adolfo Estalella. It is an ethnography of a media lab in Madrid, which is a space where artists, technologists, hackers, software engineers, architects, academics and social theorists come together to experiment and test some ideas. In particular, they produce prototypes of new forms of visualisation, prototypes of do-it-yourself scientific and cultural experiments. So it’s an ethnography of what we call the Cultures of Prototyping. That’s my most recent fieldwork project.

Would you actually consider yourself an STS scholar?

I wouldn’t refuse the label, but whenever I describe myself I do tend to describe myself as an anthropologist. My relationship with STS is ethnographic and theoretical. I think it’s very difficult to do good social theoretical work today without engaging with STS literature. STS has revolutionised the field of social theory for good. It’s opened up new vistas, new field sites, new analytical strategies. So anthropologists but also philosophers of science, historians of science, sociologists, actually anyone working on the production of knowledge, be it from a historical or a contemporary angle, has lots to benefit from looking at STS. So my own encounter with STS is firstly theoretical. It’s important to engage with that literature, what that literature is producing nowadays. But it is also ethnographic because, although not always deploying the same kinds of sensibilities and paying attention to the same kind of processes, the anthropologist and the STS scholar have a lot to learn from each other.

You are currently working on a book about “The Height, Length and Width of Social Theory”. Without giving too much away, what’s the argument?

Well, that’s a provisional title. What the book looks at is how what I call the proportional imagination has pervaded a lot of what social theory does and what philosophy has been doing – or how it actually inflects the Euro-American enlightenment tradition. An understanding of how human subjects position themselves vis-à-vis the world through a relationship of magnitude. My claim is that is has been very difficult for Euro-American philosophy and social theory to describe the encounter and the emplacement of the human being in an ontological terrain, that is in the world, in words other than those of vis-à-vis encounters, of a relation of magnitude, of an encounter of proportions of some kind. So you have Kant looking up heavens and dazzling about the mystery of the cosmos in the same terms as Galileo did when he looked through his telescope in the same terms as the 19th century sociologist called Gabriel Tarde did when he marvelled about the new sciences. So this sense of the magnitudinal relationship through which man describes his relationship to some kind of otherness inflects all kinds of accounts in my understanding, all kinds of accounts in the trajectory of enlightenment philosophy. It’s very difficult to escape that mode of description. Things like supply and demand, the physics of the economy, are all about a balance of forces and a balance of powers. Balance of powers is also the idiom deployed in international relations to describe the work of diplomacy and the ethics of diplomatic work. So we just find what I call the proportional imagination all over the place, sometimes explicitly so, sometimes less so. I am interested in how that imagination is pretty much all over the place.

Do you already have a publication deadline?

No, I am just finishing the introduction. That will take some time.

Okay, one last question: who will win the World Cup 2010?

Oh, I think I should say Spain. But I’m going for Argentina. I think Messi could play alone and probably win the World Cup on his own.

Thank you for your thoughts.

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