Sunday, July 06, 2008

A turn to ontology

A couple of weeks ago, some of the more well-known, and some of the newer names in the field of Science, Technology and Society (or Science and Technology Studies; STS) gathered in Oxford to consider the current turn to ontology in STS. The speakers' names and their papers are gathered here. Organised by my colleagues in the James Martin Institute, the workshop sought to consider whether there is a turn to ontology in science studies and what, if anything, this might signify.

Attending as an occasional traveller/hanger-on/collaborator with STS scholars, I was struck how some of the discussions in the room seemed to be almost an internal conversation...STS was once radical...Has it lost its edge? ... What does it mean to be radical anyway? ... What does STS and its focus on the materiality of objects and their traces in social relations have to offer as compared to other approaches? And so on. Listening to Noortje Marres (Goldsmiths) present some of her work looking at the blogs of people undertaking green living experiments and the materialities they are entangled with raised useful questions about climate change and action.

Often when I read or listen to STS perspectives I am struck by the parallels with critical (or perhaps better termed reflexive) practices in art and design. It's already there in some of the STS literature. In Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory (2005) Latour, for example, makes clear the similarities between ANT and activities in fields such as art: the making of an installation is a work of construction or assembly. Artists and designers are educated to pay serious and detailed attention to artifacts. Part of their practice is to assembling things and often their methods involve questioning the nature of things, whether they are designing a chair, or making a performance. We might say the work of some artists and designers can be seen as creating accounts of the traces of actors (in the ANT terminology). And that they are knowingly, iteratively, reflexively going about doing this. But this idea is not usually present in meetings such as this (see the next post....).

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