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The Rhetoric and Lethargy of the Anthropocene

Interview by Richard Marshall.

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Ewa Bińczyk is a philosopher at the Institute of Philosophy, University of Toruń, Poland. Here she discusses Joseph Mitterer and his rejection of the discourse of ‘dualism’, of the importance of Bruno Latour’s actor-network theory, anti-essentialism, the sociology of knowledge in the Bible, the value of empirical findings for philosophy, science and technology, postconstructivism, why we need a new contract between science and society, the role of philosophy as technoscience develops, the possibility of more democratic monitoring of technoscience, climate change and environmentalism, the Anthropecene and feminism. Onwards…

3:AM: What made you become a philosopher?

Ewa Bińczyk: I guess many contingent factors played its devious and surprising role in this. As a teenager girl in a high school I loved astronomy. We had an astronomical observatory in Grudziadz with a devoted group of people creating an inspiring atmosphere around this institution. I found a multitude of philosophical inspirations in Polish literature as well as in Russian novels which I adored very much at that time. A self-reflexive and distanced, skeptical attitude of literary characters strongly appealed to me. I craved for having such friends around. Fortunately it became possible at Nicolaus Copernicus University. Working as a professional philosopher and a sociologist in the Liquid Modernity Era I almost feel like “the chosen one”.

3:AM: Let’s start with dualism and Josef Mitterer. Could you first tell our readers about Mitterer and his attempt to reject dualism. What are we to understand by the term ‘dualism’ in this context?

EB: In 2005 in Torun there was held a research seminar devoted to the philosophy of Josef Mitterer from the Klagenfurt University in Austria – with the participation of the philosopher himself. Josef is a wonderful, unassuming and kindly man, with amazing sense of humor. Meeting him marked the beginning of a long-term co-operation (including participation of a group of my friends and myself in the Wittgenstein International Symposia in 2006, 2007, 2009 and 2012).

Mitterer claims that the so-called dualising way of speaking has its own history. Dualising way of speaking is highly valued and extensively used by the Western philosophers. Mitterer’s books are elegant, written with the sophistication that is on par with that of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus – even exceeds it! I cannot understand why these works still have not been translated into English. The dualising techniques of speaking emerge with special epistemological positions of experts-advocates. They take (or even usurp) the right to speak on behalf of the silent instances located in the other side of the discourse – such as God or nature. We appoint such instances as instruments enabling us to settle human disputes. I was always a little afraid of any usurpers speaking in the name of essences. And I like to interpret philosophy as a Wittgensteinian language-game, as a set of discursive techniques that evolve in time.

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3:AM: What role does Bruno Latour’s actor-network theory play in your argument?

EB: In my book Technoscience in the Risk Society (published in 2012) I claim that we should think about the adverse consequences of the practical success of technoscience in a new, non-standard way. This kind of thinking is quite far from the prevailing beliefs of the Polish research elite concerning the social role of science and technology. This way of thinking about technoscience also undermines widely accepted philosophical assumptions concerning nature, the role of laboratories, the dynamics of social change, the so-called “progress”, or the status of non-humans. I argue in my book that these are the very assumptions that block the successful monitoring of systemic risks. There are a lot of mental mechanisms that validate our passivity towards uncertainties and unknowns awaiting us in the future. Paternalistic disqualifying of values articulated by laymen, establishing risk limits, the belief that any potential damage may be compensated for in the future, are only some of them. A scientific vision of progress still imposes severe limitations on our imagination. We are unable to seriously take into account any alternatives to the progress obstinately identified as economic growth and hyper-consumption. I wanted to depict a specific transformation of thinking about the civilizational role of science, happening before our very eyes in the area of humanities. There are important political implications of this: so far, we have only tacitly been aware that there are unwanted consequences of our own actions, but in the era of the Anthropocene we are pressed to respond collectively.

The actor-network theory introduces the topic of the agency of things in the sphere of our thinking. The competencies are distributed onto material surroundings of our actions. Things are not only simple carriers of meanings or passive tools of human activities. Highlighting the importance of non-humans takes currently the form of the “turn to things”. This type of posthumanism is an indispensable condition for abandoning the anthropocentric illusions of the past.

I take on the topic of the role of non-humans in the processes of collective integration and coordination. We can see that technological infrastructures stabilize and consolidate society. They contribute to social relations as well as embody moral standards, discrimination or political oppression. I try to convince my readers that, while describing the role of objects and technology, we do not have to veer off the beaten paths of technological determinism (depicting the dangerous processes of alienation). Non-human factors should not be interpreted as single items. Every innovation involves an in-depth transformation of the collective in many areas, including financial, legal and normative aspects. Such a seemingly innocent invention as frozen food reconfigures what we call family and leisure time and transforms women’s identity. Photographic techniques or the construction of a bridge may perpetuate racist social hierarchies.

3:AM: Is this a form of anti-essentialism?

EB: Absolutely. I interpret Bruno Latour’s actor-network theory as one of the most consistent anti-essentialism ever projected. ANT avoids the assumptions included in other dualising ways of speaking. It is a very original methodological approach that can be fruitfully adapted to the analysis of the global risk society. (Of course we mustn’t forget that ANT is developed and used by other important thinkers: Annemarie Mol, John Law, Michel Callon and many others.)

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3:AM: Is your hope that by getting beyond the dualism that a certain historical and cultural formation of language and thought a new anthropological research program can be developed, that we can begin reconstructing archaic and preliterate cultures?

EB: The main inspiration for my previous book, A Picture that Captivate Us. Contemporary Views of Language in the Face of Essentialism and the Problem of Reference (published in 2007), was a picture of a language in archaic, preliterate cultures. Analyzing the exoticism of such cultures, we head for the most remote regions of the human history and touch upon the problem of the beginnings of a symbolism itself. I framed in this book the speculative model of pre-referential cultures. I hope it facilitates resignation from the old habits of the traditional thinking about language (including essentialism, dualism between language and reality, and harmful overfocusing on the problem of referentiality). Interesting attempts were undertaken with a view to redefine the category of reference beyond the assumptions of essentialism. They are particularly prominent within the philosophy of Josef Mitterer, Stanley Fish, Latour, late Wittgenstein, John L. Austin, Willard V. O. Quine, Richard Rorty and Jacques Derrida.

The Wittgensteinian metaphor of picture that captivate us, which is the interpretive key to the arguments contained in my book, refers to a collection of futile philosophical assumptions, strongly criticized by the heroes of my narrative. Those assumptions prevented the development of more fruitful and more open views of language. While philosophizing about language we need to take into account a few factors, such as: 1) the existence of non-referential but meaningful expressions as well as the fact of the empirical underdetermination of reference, 2) the importance of performative dimension of language, 3) the role of practice of building and maintaining references in the area of situated speech (parole), 4) the existence of de-essentialised common area shared by the participants of acts of communication.

In my first book, The Sociology of Knowledge in the Bible (2003), I pictured the selected elements of Hebrew reflection on language. I suggested that the Bible does not only contain a sophisticated reflection on cognition and social institutions, but also on the many functions of language. The content of the Bible implies that the Hebrew were able to understand the social conditions of knowledge. On the one hand, the Bible also presents a magical conception of language. Language is seen as capable of directly implementing real changes in the world. I define this feature as “superperformativity” of language, and point out that it is a characteristic element of preliterate cultures.

On the other hand, many themes that can be found in the Bible point to the recognition of the problem of the adequacy of the linguistic description of reality. The efficiency in the use of language enabling people to define social reality is seen in the Bible as an important competence and a dangerous skill. The authors of the biblical texts recognize the existence of bilateral relations between social context and knowledge. They are aware that the human cognitive perspective may be limited and distorted by previous assumptions. They know that cognition is determined by social mechanisms. Certain biblical quotes indicate the recognition of the fact that the transformation of knowledge can lead to a social change, constituting social order.

3:AM: This seems a multi-disciplinary approach to philosophy where empirical research is a key element to it rather in the spirit of David Hume. Do you think philosophy is a great way to work out empirical research programs?

EB: Philosophy should be sensitive to empirical findings of other disciplines. This is particularly important in the case of philosophy of science and philosophy of technology. Since around 2006 I have been particularly interested in contemporary reflection on the undesirable consequences of practical success of science. I identify this success with the reproducibility of experimental, laboratory results and with the effectiveness of technology. I set myself the task of building a synthetic and coherent theoretical perspective that would enable philosophical discussion concerning the latest empirical and naturalistically oriented trends of research on technoscience. I tried to present an interpretation and the synthesis of the research findings in the following areas: 1) Science and Technology Studies (STS), 2) actor-network theory (ANT), 3) the conceptions of cognitive sciences where cognition is defined as an effective action (enactivism, situated cognition, distributed cognition) and 4) research on modern risk and the political role of experts (the sociology of risk and Public Understanding of Science). My aim was to show a synthesis of philosophical tendencies that characterize the research field of STS. I interpreted the ethnography of laboratory (K. Knorr-Cetina), new experimentalism (I. Hacking) and the most important claims of A. Pickering, H. Collins and W. Bijker. I acquainted Polish readers with the discussions of theoretical trends in the stream of STS, interpreted as the “turn to technology”, the “turn to things” and the political “participatory turn”.
In my opinion the research within STS should be labelled as a form of postconstructivism. Many STS standpoints put a clear emphasis on the importance of the laboratory, practical, instrumental and experimental context of science, characterized as a project that is materially situated. Postconstructivism expresses a critical distance to the thesis of the social construction of reality.

I claim that the originality of postconstructivism lies in the fact that it makes an attempt to model laboratory practices as: 1) materially located, ensuring effectiveness, 2) empirically underdetermined (which implies rejecting the excessive epistemological claims of representationalism), 3) institutionalized according to standards and criteria that are historically contingent (which, in turn, implies dismissing the fundamental assumptions of essentialism), and 4) modelled in keeping with certain realistic intuitions (I mean the kind of realism which I describe as “trivial” or “banalised”).

It is very interesting that laboratory science can be modelled in a non-standard way, by combining instrumentalist, constructivist and realistic premises. Postconstructivism (as I believe) is an anti-essentialist approach, questioning the epistemological representationalism. It convincingly locates the conditions of practical success of laboratories, e.g. possibility of reducing the complexity of a given problem and the mechanism of duplicating trials and errors while minimazing their costs. I claim that: 1) understanding the phenomenon of theorising requires the consideration of the role of bodily and physical situatedness of the knowing subject and the meaning of its tacit knowledge and practical skills, 2) abstract thinking is very limited without the ability to “delegate” cognitive competences into the environment, 3) sophisticated cognitive results are achieved through the use of instruments, prototypes, diagrams, texts, tables, maps and other non-human factors.

As it seems, the use of the concepts of adaptation, “interactive stabilisation” and “robust fit” instead of the concept of representation while describing technoscience has its various benefits. The use of the above-mentioned categories allows us not to think of cognition in terms of the final result to be evaluated (such as a ready-made theory that represents or does not represent reality). Cognition is thus regarded as a dynamic, located process (of interactive stabilisation of the results of scientific work) which extends back in time and can always be revised. The adaptation may take many different forms, whose benefits are evaluated according to different criteria.

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3:AM: Why do you think we need a new contract between science and society? Is it because you think we need to avoid the Collingridge dilemma that says that technological assessment always happens too late?

EB: First of all, I think that the problem of technoscience must always be discussed with a clear reference to the topic of the undesirable consequences of scientific discoveries and technological innovations. My book Modelling Technoscience and Nanotechnology. Societal and Political Impacts (co-authored with Tomasz Stępień and published in English in 2014) reflects on the philosophical foundations of our current thinking about new modern forms of systemic risk. Systemic risk is produced as a result of sudden interference of technoscience and industry. This is why Technological Assessment often takes place too late.

Modern risk is a distinctive side effect of industrial and laboratory interventions (for example biomedical, biotechnological, chemical or pharmaceutical). It is the result of the existence of a vast network of global relationships between various ontological elements. Due to the complexity of global connections we observe surprising consequences of our actions in very remote areas of collective life. I enumerate some examples of such consequences, testifying to the fact that we live in the age of instability. I think that it is necessary that the processes of hybridisation should be first carefully diagnosed and then closely monitored. Yet, it is difficult to make such a diagnosis within the classical essentialist framework. The successes of technoscience testify to the fact that the sacralized ontological boundaries (nature-culture, body-machine, subject-object, tool-living organism) have no absolute character.

3:AM: What risks do you see as technoscience develops and how can the humanities help – has philosophy a role to play?

EB: As we can observe, the modern systemic risk (such as ecological or financial one) leads to tremendous epistemological and political problems. Risk is always axiologically and politically conditioned and at the same time it is virtual, socially constructed and real. In a risk society, where a game about positions that makes it possible to define certainty and threats is being played, the status of empirical evidence and expertise undergoes some interesting changes. At times characterized by the loss of public trust and by the existence in the public discourse of numerous non-conclusive controversies, the role of experts also changes. As we all know, doubts and uncertainty are also professionally produced and commissioned. The experts (on whom we cannot give up) are no longer perceived as independent as they are very often involved in conflicts of interest. Fortunately, many disinformation campaigns have been recognized as such and described in detail by such great thinkers as Naomi Oreskes.

From my perspective, risk increases especially quickly when laboratories are commodified. Our book Modelling Technoscience and Nanotechnology begins with a reflection on the commercialization of science. The commodification of scientific knowledge intensified in the 1980s. Science lost its ethos, the significance of basic research diminished, the state’s influence on laboratories weakened. The patent system integrated and we witnessed serious concentration of scientific elites (as well as the concentration of capital). In the most important areas of technoscience we deal with transitional, heterogeneous forms of organization, with projects geared to the effective short-term implementation of the achievements and with the dependence of laboratories on the market competition between the most powerful actors.

I hope that all this philosophical analysis and my own research will result in a transdisciplinary, theoretically consistent glossary that will integrate the discussion on the consequences of the success of the technoscience. In addition to providing the necessary set of definitions, we also need to question the validity of the theoretical and axiological decisions underlying this discussion. I think we should stimulate and facilitate a dialogue between the different areas of research on science and technology such as STS, ANT, the philosophy of technology, the history of science, the philosophy of science, Technology Assessment and the sociology of risk.

3:AM: You argue that we shouldn’t block technoscientific progress but need to discuss its role better – but with things like the singularity where machines get to be cleverer than humans isn’t there a case for saying we should stop developing technologies in that direction because the risk there is just too great?

EB: In my work I try to consider the possibilities of democratic monitoring of technoscience, both from a practical and a political point of view. I do not think that we should block laboratories. I confront and compare the standpoints of various authors, for example Ulrich Beck’s project of cosmopolitics (in some respects supported by Z. Bauman, P. Sloterdijk and G. Soros), Latour’s politics of nature and broader postulates of an extended participation of laymen in the current debates on innovations. I also depict other institutional solutions such as the Precautionary Principle, or the proposals presented within Technology Assessment. I discuss the ideas of disenchantment (desacralization) of science, the anticipatory democracy (A. Toffler) and the education of technology (N. Postman). I also take a closer look at the ideas of transforming the nature of local research establishments, and creating self-restricting agreements between laboratories, industry and NGOs. All of those mechanism and solutions deserve consideration. Some of them may be institutionalized into the debate about the s-called singularity problem. For sure, there is a need for a more careful analysis of the research carried out within the DARPA (Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency) in your country.

I also postulate a discussion about some form of macro-ethics of global responsibility, developed for the global risk society. It could be based on such concepts as Hans Jonas’ principle of responsibility, the ideas of sustainable development and prosperity without growth (T. Jackson), or the replacement of a category of natural resources with a far more flexible notion of reproductivity. However, it is very difficult to dismantle the matrix of organized irresponsibility for systemic risks. It probably requires the implementation of active monitoring into subpolitical areas, as well as the inclusion of a global reflexivity in the various social subsystems such as economy and mass media.

3:AM: Climate change and environmental issues generally are a connected subject in your work. You link it to late capitalism which you characterize in various ways – one striking phrase you use is ‘the myth of ‘clean’ cognitive capitalism’ – can you explain what you’re driving at in this phrase?

EB: The myth of ‘clean’ cognitive capitalism presents modern media and digital industry as environmentally harmless. This picture, however, is not true, we know that the so-called e-waste is one of our most alarming ecological problems. Justin Lewis showed this very well in his book published in 2013 Beyond Consumer Capitalism. Media and the Limits of Imagination. The ecological costs of our laptops, smartphones and all other Internet-related gadgets are enormous. These aspects of modern information technologies are largely absent from popular discourse in which IT has always been associated mainly with emancipation, entertainment and individual freedom.

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3:AM: Are you optimistic that the changes required to navigate the risk society can take place quickly enough?

EB: Diagnosticians of the present era are rather pessimistic. I think “disappointment” is the word that aptly sums up their diagnoses of the current state of affairs. I am not too optimistic, either. This is why the metaphor of lethargy appears in my current project. The lethargy is ingrained in the current economic, capitalist system. The inertia of mass media is disturbing. We know that the causative power rests on the transnational hegemonic actors of the global market. Yet, nobody knows how to regulate and direct it.

3:AM: All of these issue seem bound up with the notion of the Anthropocene – is it fair to say that it is this notion that binds together your multiple interests and if it is how would you characterize this idea and its importance?

EB: I am currently working on the book entitled: Rhetoric and Lethargy of the Anthropocene. A Fiasco of the Politics of Nature and the Irrationality of Late Capitalism. I can say that anti-essentialism and constructivism bind together my philosophical interests, and the notion of the Anthropocene is inherently constructivist. The idea of the Anthropocene embodies tensions and fears of our anti-essentialist age. In the Age of Man such notions as nature, climate, or weather are not neutral categories anymore.

In my opinion, a potential climate catastrophe is one of the most important political, philosophical, categorical and also existential challenges for the XXI century. Philosophy of science, focusing on its civilizational role can no longer avoid the problem of climate change. The current debates about the climate and the environment constantly redefine our understanding of nature as something worth protecting. It is a deeply normative and political concept now. At the same it has become very problematic. More and more people think that the climatic correction of late capitalism is unavoidable.

3:AM: Does feminism have a role in all this – does this follow from the anti-essentialism of your position?

EB: Feminist philosophy is an important inspiration for a substantial part of my activities that go beyond research and writing. With my close friend, Aleksandra Derra, we have helped to establish the Postgraduate Gender Studies at the Institute of Philosophy in Torun. We also organize panel discussions, presentations and public lectures. I think such activities are much needed, especially in the current political climate in Poland. There is only one of my philosophical articles that has visible feminist overtones. I try to localize in it the limits of anti-essentialism, commenting on Rosi Braidotti’s and Judith Butler’s conceptions.

3:AM: And for the readers here at 3:AM are there five books you could recommend that would take us further into your philosophical world?

EB: Sure:
1. Josef Mitterer’s “Das Jenseits Der Philosophie. Wider das dualistische Erkenntnisprinzip
2. Ludwik Fleck’s “The Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact” (published in German in 1935!)
3. Michel Foucault’s beautiful opening lecture for Collège de France “The Order of Things
4. Bruno Latour’s flagship text “Give Me a Laboratory and I will Raise the World
5. Ian Hacking’s “The Social Construction of What?

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ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

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First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, May 14th, 2016.