September 15, 2018, von: Peter Müller

Notes from the other side: a 4S Sydney conference report

Alright, as promised, I will provide you with a little report on my experiences with and impressions of this year’s 4S conference in Sydney, Australia. The conference’s overall theme had been “TRANSnational” MCTS, something that was well reflected altogether by the conferences content and also by the ‘performance’ of its participants, with many of them traveling very far to make it to the conference venue. The 4S took place, once again, at a full scale conference center which provided a nice, professional atmosphere and also good coffee (although coffee in Sydney seems to be generally quite sour, not my favorite choice…). The views from the panel rooms have been great (a fact which had been reported frequently on twitter!) but not distracting, and the AV technology worked amazingly well – something which is, as far as I can tell, a first time event!

However, before I am going to actually talk about the scientific and intellectual events of the 4S 2018, I want to give a(nother) note on the ongoing development of conference culture: that the (joint) lunches are disappearing as well as other formerly obligatory stuff like pens, bags, notebooks. Why is this happening? Is this an ecological development or a rather economic effect? Or both? On the one hand this was really something inconvenient and unexpected. On the other hand, (more) important stuff seems to receive increased monetary support like travel funds for students and people from smaller universities or economically weaker countries. So, basically, I am fine with that; I just need a reminder to take pen and paper when going to conferences. And no, these note-pages within the programme-journals do not count (you might, as well, drop them)! It might be worth a note that these programme books did not include abstracts this time, making it a hard first day task to plan your conference attendance.

After all, I do not want to sound that unsatisfied (and you really have to cancel that our for I am a very grumpy person), especially since the opening receiption and social dinner this time featured free drinks (including all drinks!). As usual, it had been a nice, and interesting social event; involving a lot of enjoyable socializing, snacking, and other stuff. Since the conference took place in Australia, we enjoyed a thoughtful engagement with a native Australian (spokes)person. In that context the participants of the social event have been invited to join a traditional smoking ceremony where they burn eucalyptus on an artfully carved and ornamented wooden plate.

It is supposed to clean the soul but also the lungs (some of us seemed to doubt that but the menthol within is indeed refreshing; fans of menthol tobacco products will know what I mean). However, one rather Kafkaesque or Twin-Peaks-like feature was how the materials of this smoking ceremony were burnt, using a common lighter only, which looked a little anachronistic altogether and made me wonder if this actually was what such a ceremony is supposed to look like; particularly in terms of time, for the burning took really long and the eucalyptus was very defensive against the little lighter’s attempts to burn it. Nevertheless, one does not need to get all cynical about this, for this has also been a cyborg lesson in synthesis of practice, artifacts and culture. Another feature of the social event had been that it took place at the Sydney Powerhouse Museum, apparently an artfully reflexive postmodern architecture idyll, where they exhibit technology, machines, science and art in a rather deconstructive manner. At the time of the conference they had there a “human/non human” exhibition, corresponding with the theme of our social event. To be honest, I wonder if this is something like a ‘cheap theme’ for what else is anything supposed to be if not non/human? Even more! Usually, the différance of this dichotomy results in strong projections of anthropomorphism, ironicizing completely the aspirations of their critique of anthropocentrism… Also I am not sure if humans can escape or compensate their human subjectivity anyway; after all, it’s what we are. Nevertheless, the exhibition had been quite interesting. It had been generally nice to have a social event venue that close to the conference itself (in comparison to EASST/4S Barcelona…). Also it had been fun and inspiring to roam through this interesting exhibition while enjoying the snacks, drinks, and conversations of the social event. Particularly for me, who always manages to buy the social event tickets when no one he knows goes there (and the other way around), this was nice because the non-human actors of the exhibition were very helpful as amplifiers and nodes of social interaction (with other human actors – sorry, dear non-human actors!). The threshold of getting in touch with each other is significantly lowered by just staring at the same thing. Thinking about the same thing is almost the inevitable initiation of (mediated) interaction. Also we had an edible fiber event there, however, alas, I am too neurotic for this kind of stuff… I guess it is really something to keep in mind when organizing a conference to provide such network-y features and amplifiers (not just alcohol, although that helps, too). Especially for social scientists it should be obligatory to reflect on these techniques of getting people into socializing. Nevertheless, this was already a lot of side notes on the conference; now, let’s go a little deeper into the actual science stuff that happened there.

The following (summarizing) comments might be differentiated in advance like: Discussing time and space, the usual suspects (and who they are), my own talk, and MCTS reflections (on their reflections).

Speaking of time, space, and conferences, a lot might come to mind immediately. The simultaneousness of panels, often leading to painful decisions when content-wise similar or complementary panels share the same time-slot… However, people invested a lot of time to travel through space to get to this year’s conference which was not just an oceanican academic hub but as a really interesting, international get (all) together; offering, reciprocally, a very colourful, diverse, and informatory meetup. Altogether with the particular Australian setting this was a quite unique conference experience. Spaces, by other meanings and means, were also discussed a lot insofar they are used to organize ‘spaces’ of particular semantics and norms (like the field of academia) but also represent an almost innate order of significance, e.g. when it comes to nuclear waste storage, droughts, etc.

However, time is another (non-)thing. One might highlight time as a special feature of data analysis, or to get a broader sense of historical developments. One might also ask about the performance of time, and how time is done, used, organized, and accounted. This became a specific topic at Ulrike Felt’s panel concerning time in science and academia. Talking about waiting games which academic careers are composed of, and questions of unpaid overtimes, and ridiculously little time-frames for specific tasks like reviewing (also significant proposals for great funding); also, on a less organizational level, how the things of which science is made, shape time themselves as experimental settings, measurement procedures or expected events required for further study. However, the rather concrete topic of academic time-management and exploitation was obviously the hot topic of this session since this dominated the afterwards discussion deeply (in terms of time) into the coffee break and had there (and beyond) still its echoes of further debate and exchange. And, I guess, in academia we have a sensitive relationship with time, although I think besides deadline rushes, we are not the most stressed people on earth, not all of us, and especially not when this is discussed during extended coffee breaks; but the neo-liberal agenda forces us, if not given, to perform being stressed, it’s capital and habitual attitude. However, discussing time at a panel on time is not that surprising. It might be more interesting how time came in on other levels at the conference. Time was also to be found in the many historical, genealogic contributions one could spot – at least if one tried (hard enough). Many topics like that were particularly studied through a lens of timeliness which was for some more common (the developments within anti-psychiatry or the development in Iranian politics on water management) and for some more conspicuous, like timings of theory development in science and the planning of and waiting for greater experimental setups and (infra-)structures like CERN. I had the impression that some certain dimension of time had been missing though: time in terms of media for most discussed time-terms had been something one might call ‘social time’. Also time played, once again, a role at the between session discussions on the future of MCTS, which is still a rather melancholic topic, and a lot of us did quite a lot of mutual, emotional care work (is this a tacit, latent function of conferencing, at least for humanities scholars and researchers?), telling and listening the stories of uncertain futures, time pressure and the necessity of strategic writing and time management; which is particularly noteworthy for its Bourdieuian implications of “illusio” and capital strategy; although there is a lot of strategic action going on with academia, I wonder what might be up with this dissatisfaction with academic life. We might all be driven by “world changing” ideas, but at some point almost everyone gives up on the idea of world changing. Although, with MCTS, some almost affirmative, intrinsic idea of world improvement, participating invention, remains. As a sociologist I have a much more fatalist view on that. So I wonder how to interpret this recurring pattern of lamentation and concern?

However, I will leave this question open for now for any spontaneous speculation would probably just add to this illusio(n) set-up… Concerning this, it was almost nice that the 4S did not feature a Future of MCTS workshop that would, once again, amplify our very academic sorrow and result in a collection of doubts and concerns as I have often experienced it so far. Seldomly I’ve seen these workshops produce something positive or confident, and even if they do they rather work as indicators of absent career aspirations.

Anyway, as a bridge from that (partially depressing) topic to the next one, the time and space theme was even further highlighted by the overall “transnational” framework of the conference. Something you feel right away if you enjoyed the pleasures of being drugged by your jet-lag or try to communicate with people home in time zones far, far away. Correspondingly, we had a lot of panels focusing particularly on (other) nations and places, and as they might be considered “other” they deserved historical introduction. Also you had – possibly already while traveling – the chance to witness others talk about your ‘home’ as something ‘other’ which I consider a very, very odd experience. That way, this transnational framework has been integrated with most of the conference, into all kinds of panels. And never have I learned more about those places I call, subjectively, far away.

Then, there had been the (other) usual suspects. And it was interesting to see our continued business, well, continuing. Those topics which are accompanied by a certain urgency of action. These topics include, e.g., nuclear waste management, energy producing/consuming technology, digital phenomena and discourses (a lot less than I, as a digital media lab researcher, would have expected!), medicine, biology, natural science, eventually also some reflections that seem to touch our very own discipline, like a bit of MCTS on MCTS or social science studies of social science studies. As these topics often are dealt with in terms of case studies, and these case studies tend to be particularly situated, this pushed even a re-entry of time, space, and transnationality through this all, but also the double role of terminology as both, intrinsic, scientific means and part of our very own illusio, a meconnaissance regulating the economic fights within science in terms of reviewing, discussing, appreciation and critique. However, this was really fascinating, not only in terms of international academic exchange, but also in terms of learning a lot about different places of the world, their issues and, in particular, their points of view. For you learn so much about the white blindness of being yourself being confronted with that which is accounted as ‘other’. The Arabic/Indian engineering culture, the history of Tokyo’s water systems, or about practices of Chinese think tanks. However, as MCTS is a young and extremely diverse and, in itself, interdisciplinary discipline (cf. my blogpost on the EASST conference). This sometimes overstrained the already given diversity; at least I struggle sometimes to have an own “imaginary” of MCTS concerning this plurality and its discrepancies – something that is, interestingly, also featured with much smaller, national conferences like MCTS Austria or MCTS Italia which still are able to gather distant individuals in their ‘conferencial togetherness’. That way, there are very reflected and sensitive studies, other that rather go with the things they observe (in some kind of descriptive positivism against positivism), and such which seemed to rather represent a certain kind of naïve social science research concerning interdisciplinary topics (however, this was very rare – nevertheless, I joined a strange talk on “food addiction” and how the people concerned by this term think about it and whether it could be used for a sugar tax policy; from a, or my, sociological point of view, this is a rather naïve, affirmative grasp on that issue. But I am, partially, involved with fat studies and that gives you specific sensitivities… Thus, it can be tough to get all these different perspectives, approaches and levels of research together. That way, it is also hard to differentiate between national-cultural differences of academic research and the basic noise we have within MCTS.

However, speaking of the usual suspects, something has been, on the first glance, underrepresented. For a very political and inclusive disciplines there are only few explicit feminism and postcolonial panels. Against that, these issues pop up every now and then, or rather always, almost naturally within the talks and discussions, so I am not sure if there is so little explicit feminist MCTS (compared to other rather STEM conferences like CHI, CSCW) because it is generally more present with the talks and discussions or if this is actually a counterfactual effect – I believe to find similar with other rather social science conferences; so I wanted to note that here…

Another similar issue is how we talk about science, I observed with me and others talking about the science practices of other researchers they study that they have a quite empathetic way of understanding their motives and behaviours. However, since I had the feeling that time is, conceptually, highlighted with this 4S conference, I thought a lot about Bourdieus thoughts on time, strategy and praxis. So I wonder: Why do we, as scientists, assume we and other scientists were, genuinely, that interested in science and that you could explain our very conduct primarily out of scientific interest? Not only, but especially the panel I gave my talk in, a panel on scientific practices and phenomena around “non-discovery” and “not-knowing”, made me think that a lot of provocations, a lot of pretending to be almost naïve and “promising” (something nicely rethought by Götz Bachmann as a discursive mean of legitimizing interests) great cutting edge and ground breaking findings, although we know that our scientific passion is often made of a love for the triviality of the field, not of an insight into its genuine fascination, is rather an effect of economic necessities and a strategic effort.

Something we could reflect more on ourselves, I guess, especially when it comes to think about or investigate how we do (our) science ourselves… This was nicely reflected and concluded with the “social studies of politics” panel which had been co-organized by our lab leader Jan Passoth and Nicholas Rowland, who I had the pleasure to meet and enjoy compelling discussions with. Beside compelling case studies this panel featured a rather programmatic talk by its conveyers, asking for a very detailed understanding of our own fields and discipline. Eventually, this is not that much about reflection but rather about the fact, that the account (not concept) of reflection is an integral element of our scientific discourse, the way we criticize and appreciate, for different reasons. It had been rather that way around, that such a reflection of our own research practices lead to the need of social studies of politics, taken seriously, as a micrological understanding of the things that happen when politics are made happening – something which then again re-affects our discipline as one that is very interwoven with politics and policies. No surprise that we ended up discussing the utility of different theoretical accounts of MCTS and how to evade social and technical determinism by co-production.

I, however, think that technological and social determinism have been virtually overcome. With a relational or pragmatistic understanding of social and technological entities they become inseparable anyway and thus, necessarily, will reflect their oppositional critique in some way… This also concerns the general conceptualization of “the political”, is it a certain performative product, something achieved through practices and discursive efforts? Or is it rather the other way around? One more time, I would suggest to revisit Bourdieu’s writings (on the state) and consider the state an abstract entity that is much more elementary than the things we might call or consider belonging to states… Hence, social studies of politics might require to see not people doing politics, but politics doing people, and beyond this tautological phrase: to carefully investigate the thought of state-existence and how state-belonging affect the things that appear to be politics, and how explicitly governed practices are constituted by the same mysterious “state” that orders implicit and tacit structures of order… After all, the state is, in particular, something that cannot emerge from micro practices, it is quite obviously an “imaginary institution”, as Castoriadis ‘stated’ (play on words), and we appear to be somewhat of a ‘zoon politicon’. Maybe the present side of this absent, latent state concept is the basic idea and conduct that we cooperate, identify, or practice solidarity. Some say society begins with the simultaneousness of absent things, thoughts and acts; and whatever makes this possible – artifacts, entities, institutions, practices – are somehow constituted by the state; whether the state is a reflexive answer to a question concerning our status quo or a true metaphysical origin. One might answer this question, but relax, I guess it doesn’t matter.

Taking that into account, I want to give one more thought on the Bourdieuian perspective on ourselves as scientists. I guess with the observation of ourselves as well as of other scientists, we should take the scientific illusio and strategic games more serious. Although I do not want to preach some fatalism that everything was just conflict and a capital struggle. I do not agree with Bourdieu in that regard, conceiving science as mere (martial) sports. Then again, Bourdieu taught us that we have the best chances of overcoming limitations and reach degrees of freedom if we specifically focus on these limitations and take them into account. Here meaning that the capitalistic infrastructure around and within science renders us strategic actors, but this is no ahistorical necessity at all – and we might learn that from a more engaged reflection on the socio-economic pressures that shape us.

Now, let’s go on to my talk which I would like to talk about: My presentation, first of all and in general, went great, might be the best talk I gave so far, although I, once agoin, forgot to include an example of an “inherently difficult problem”, so, once again, I had a hard time of making people understand what I work about. However, maybe you wonder, too, what I have been talking about. My presentation has been another result of a call I just answered, although it included not really my research question. However, it was a great opportunity to shed more and other light on my research, this time: How is creativity research done given the fact, that other researchers face the same problems of undefined creativity terms and concepts like I do all the time? This then appeared to be an actually quite compelling question. So I tried to further organize my findings on the creativity discourse: adding to the common places on shifts from genius to creativity, and my study of usage and application of creativity as a term a system of reference problems that would be able to differentiate requirement or genesis of creativity as well as “studies of” or “studies concerning” creativity. Thus, the field could be organized still leaving a pile of research approaches that were not able to offer an elaborated concept or account of creativity (so at least I am not alone about that…). In the end, I had the rather spontaneous idea (while practicing my talk), that this could be more than a mere description, this could be used to show how creativity, as an over/underdetermined and fuzzy term, always will indicate certain latent reference problems or hidden conceptual assumptions which could thus easily be dug out. After all, I have a really good feeling with my talk, had nice but challenging questions, and also these great moments when people make photos of your slides (love it! Next goal: getting tweets on my conference talks!). So, although I had my talk after famous colleague Thomas Lemke, this went quite well. And if you want to know more about my work on and around creativity, please feel free to contact me.

And thus I am about to close my report on the 4S conference, only giving some smaller remarks on the tasty strawberry-cucumber-water there, empowering shortbreads, lacking vegan options and free books (very generous of some publishers!), and a hosting country that has, from a European perspective, a very peculiar way of governing the people. Really, they have signs telling you what to think and do everywhere: “Think before you decide”, “Being noisy at night, is just not right”; on the back of the police cars another sign reads: “choose wisely, drive slow”. In a nice and funny way, still the order is strong with this country (at bars they ask you, when entering AND ordering, how many drinks you already had), not to mention the ridiculously expensive cigarettes (and still, governing, they even have regulating smoking time spaces, places where you can only smoke from 9p.m. to 5a.m.)… However, insofar was Australia a perfect place to rethink (social [studies of]) politics.

Oh, one last thing, hard to believe that I met a colleague there at the conference which appears to live in the same town as I do. I wonder how often two Freisingers happen to show up in Sydney without intending it. Calculating the odds would be fun.

Tags:  Conference Report, 4S, Art, Creativity
Kategorien:  Updates, Blog, Conference Appearances, Ethnography, Science