Political Objects. Prescriptions, Injustices and Promises of Material Agents
Location M214
Date and Start Time 02 September, 2016 at 14:00
Sessions 1


  • Corinna Bath (Technische Universität Braunschweig) email
  • Waltraud Ernst (Johannes Kepler University Linz) email
  • Sigrid Schmitz (HU Berlin) email

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Short Abstract

Phenomena are constituted within material-semiotic networks and materialize in technoscientific devices. Does "new materialism" offer a new understanding of objects as e.g. algorithms, nanomaterials, food, brain-machine interfaces, artifacts used for and by refugees, lasergraving machines, and cows?

Long Abstract

As political objects, phenomena are constituted within material-semiotic networks of biopower and materialize in technological innovations and technoscientific devices. As material agents they contain and execute manifold old and new prescriptions and injustices. At the same time and often because of the same properties they make various enactments and entanglements possible and therefore carry promises for alternative movements such as feminism, transnationalism, class and even gender transgressions.

Karen Barad provides us with a powerful understanding of matter as a "congealing of agency" (2007: 151), rather than as a substance or a thing. However, the question remains what it means forpolitics and political agency that there are no such things as individually constituted entities, times, and places. Furthermore, if we—that is, our bodies, thoughts, and lives—are always already entangled in a close web of "ongoing responsiveness" (ibid.: 394), what is the basis for ethical and political action? What does it mean for emancipatory politics that, according to Barad's concept of "agential separability", entities can always break with their relations and entanglements and enter into (become part of) new relations and entanglements? What is at stake for "science and technology by other means" if relata do not precede their relations?

Elaborating from a perspective of "new materialism", the papers in this session offer a new understanding of such diverse political objects as algorithms, nanomaterials, food, brain-machine-interfaces, artifacts used for and by refugees, user-designer-interactions within the development of lasergraving machines, and cows or organic milk production, among others.

This track is closed to new paper proposals.


(Infra)corporeal labour in Czech organic milk production

Author: Lucie Žeková (Charles University Prague)  email

Short Abstract

Following Donna Haraway’s notion of companion species, Annemarie Mol’s multiple realities and Eduardo Kohn’s concept of semiotic lives I assume labour is performed not only by humans, animals and technologies, but also by their parts and shared infracorporeal entanglements.

Long Abstract

So far, labour has been perceived as a kind of activity performed mainly by people, some admitted that also technologies and animals may perform labour (although it remained unpaid). As an anthropologist trained in STS and ANT, I would like to introduce an organic dairy cow as a hardworking agent who (un)intentionally contributes to milk production. Organic cows are treated and recognised as individuals also on huge organic farms. These individuals perform their likes and dislikes, organise their time and cooperate with people. Their capability to cooperate with other cows, technologies and people depends on the shared trans species knowledge of the cow shed rules. Following Eduardo Kohn, who says that life is always semiotic, I think of the cow-people cooperation as of a result of time and place specific culture based on knowledge shared by cows and people. But there are also bodies and sensory capabilities of cows and people. Both not only need to be socialised into the specific cowshed culture to be able to collaborate effectively. Milk production is crucially dependent on their infracorporeality, on specific knowledge of the others' bodies.

Brain/Bodies in Technocultures: Becomings and Impacts of Brain-Machine Interfaces

Author: Sigrid Schmitz (HU Berlin)  email

Short Abstract

Grounded in the material-semiotic framework of feminist materialism this paper explores recent constitutions of Brain-Machine Interfaces: the agential entanglements of bio-materiality, technology and socio-cultural inscriptions, their political impacts, and their outreaching aims into transhumanism.

Long Abstract

Current developments at the nexus of neuro-technologies apparently fragment the border between body, technology, culture, and society. Bodies and brains incorporate technology via connectivity with machines or prostheses. With Karen Barad's onto-epistemological framework of agential realism this talk questions the dynamic becomings of bio-techno-socio-cultural entanglements, including brains, bodies, EEG-caps, brain implants, connected computers and technical devices; all embedded in scientific and medical research, in socio-cultural contexts, norms and discourses, in markets and the military field, as well as in societal power relations?

While taking the multifaceted concept of brain plasticity, i.e. the perspective of 'the social forming the biological', this paper discusses how this concept has to be re-formulated for debates on agential materiality and to account for material (including technological)-semiotic constitutions without formulating closed entities.

However, analytically - and with the aim to research socio-economic-political impacts on and of current phenomenal constitutions of brain/bodies in technocultures - agential separability can be conducted by extracting timely-spatially agential cuts. For the most recent research and developments in Brain-Machine Interfaces, I elaborate closely the intra-actions and ongoing responsiveness of neuro-technologized brainbodies (Schmitz 2016). Moreover I question the role of scientific and socio-political "actors" (including norms and values) in this agential realization, and discuss the consequences of their socio-cultural embedding, their outreaching aims into transhumanism and the impacts of these "political objects" - not at least on gender and intersected power relations.

Alternative Track in case of rejection of the session:





Emancipatory Interferences with Machines?

Author: Waltraud Ernst (Johannes Kepler University Linz)  email

Short Abstract

Powerful entanglements and meanings of difference between machine and human, designer and user, women and men get enacted in technical devices. Is there a potential for emancipatory interference with laser gravers, their users and their designers?

Long Abstract

Although being workers with industrial machines since centuries, women's requirements have never before been systematically considered in the design process of machines. Moreover, technological devices designed either for the general user or especially for women or for men often show and enforce gender stereotypes. In this sense, industrial machines are powerful agents in material-semiotic networks of production. More than marketable goods, meanings of difference between machine and human, designer and user, women and men get produced and enacted. In this way, political issues are negotiated with and within technological devices.

"New materialism" offers a new attempt to look at the entanglements of natural and cultural becomings within these social-cyber-physical systems more closely. How are questions of responsibility for justice and injustice encoded in technological innovation? Is it possible that emancipatory space is enacted beyond outdated gender norms? Relying on Lucy Suchman's insight in human-machine-reconfigurations, industrial production machines (laser gravers), their processes of development and their interferences with humans were focussed in a three-year research and development project. My hypothesis is, methods of design practices as well as methods of production, including all persons involved in the process, are open to change. To prove this, I draw on Karen Barad's ethico-onto-epistemological insights in the material entanglements of research apparatuses in processes of becoming. The goal is to show the potential for emancipatory interferences with machines made visible and possible by an interdisciplinary research and development project on laser gravers, their users and their designers.

Food, situated knowledge and politics of respect

Author: Marja Vehviläinen (University of Tampere)  email

Short Abstract

The paper discusses food as a political object and science by other means through a study of groups that work with research-based knowledge and material practices of food production. By following Haraway’s companion species, it tackles with injustices and politics of respect in food production.

Long Abstract

The paper discusses food as a political object and science by other means through a study of groups that work with research-based knowledge and material practices of food production. Material feminist theories and Donna Haraways's situated knowledge and companion species approach in particular make the framework for the analysis. Food is eaten and produced in material-discursive practices of companion species networks within bio-socio-technical apparatuses across the globe, including soil, worms and waste companies. The approach acknowledges injustices embedded in food production, dominated by international companies, including intensive factory farming of animals and vegetables, naturalised hierarchies between species and societal groups, and environmental concerns. The approach further argues for respect among partners in companion species networks. The analysis starts from a qualitative empirical study of a large Finnish home-economics women's organisation (interviews, participatory observation, documents, and magazines), and a pilot study (web pages, an interview, and a participatory observation of a two day event) of an East London based feminist environmental organisation. Both organisations work through local groups typically to women's movement. These groups, as collectives within companions species networks, produce situated knowledge by connecting research based knowledge with their work with material practices of food production. This way they work for alternative practices in food production and for politics of respect. The paper suggests that situated knowledge intertwines with the politics of respect, and it examines the promises and injustices of the politics of respect in the material practices of food production within the contradictory world of neoliberal political economy.

Gender politics of algorithms: On biases and 'facts'

Author: Corinna Bath (Technische Universität Braunschweig)  email

Short Abstract

This paper explores the gender politics of algorithms in two different ways. First, it aims at conceptualizing biases in algorithms with a new materialist approach. Secondly, it discusses a recent case of a struggle against gender studies and critical thought on the same theoretical grounds.

Long Abstract

Algorithms can be used and exploited in unethical ways. The recent case of the Volkswagen crisis, where software engineers manipulated code in order to satisfy certain thresholds values, for instance, shows that a specific historic and economic context can make them political. This understanding of the politics of artifacts, however, does not question the generally assumed neutrality of computational artifacts, whereas those examples that demonstrate effects of algorithms which were not intended by the designers, particularly sexist or racist effects, provoke common sense thinking even more.

My paper argues that the theoretical approach of the new materialism provides suitable concepts for addressing the gender politics of algorithms in the latter sense and its increasing relevance in times of big data and automated decision making. I will furthermore draw the attention to a specific case: an article published in a serious German newspaper that discussed these issues and stimulated contradicting reactions. Gender studies researchers invited me for talks, radio stations asked me for interviews, whereas a demagogue working against the institutionalization of gender studies at German universities aimed at undermining my academic expertise.

In order to explore this case on basis of new materialist thinking I will analyze intra-actions and entanglements of various subjects, objects and materializations: gender studies proponents and opponents, university representatives and legal administrators as well as the backlash against gender studies in Germany, dominating strands of epistemology in computer science, particularly naïve realism and struggles between layperson's and expert's knowledge.

Nanomaterials as material-semiotic objects

Author: Martina Erlemann (Technical University Kaiserslautern)  email

Short Abstract

In the debates about risks of nanomaterials the discourse converges into an intractable conflict of what a nanomaterial is or how it is to be defined. The paper offers an onto-epistemological re-reading of this case within agential realism for a better understanding of this controversy.

Long Abstract

In the debates about potential health and environmental risks of nanomaterials which are built into various consumer products, a heterogeneous range of different political, scientific, media, citizen, industrial actors take up their stance. Being based on different rationalities of arguing, on different epistemologies and ontological premises, the discourse converges into an intractable conflict of what a nanomaterial is or how it is to be defined and classified. An onto-epistemological re-reading and re-framing of this case could offer a better understanding of this controversy. Based on the new materialist framework of agential realism, the issue of risks of nanomaterials can be elaborated beyond a mere discourse-analytical account. Material-discursive practices of nanotechnologies, especially their re/configurings and enactments, their entanglements of materiality and discourses, can be grasped as congealing in the discourses on risks of nanomaterials as their actors, knowledges and materials. In the paper it will be explored in an agential realist perspective how nano-objects and their actors come into being through the phenomena of manufacturing, producing, defining, classifying and regulating them. It will be asked how the material-discoursive intra-actions of nano-objects, political bodies, media, citizens could be described. Last not least it will be discussed why some of these phenomena of coming-into-nano-objects seem to be more successful, more influential in the controversy than others.

This track is closed to new paper proposals.