An STS of fear and facilitation

(For a conference session in 2010 that didn’t happen, for reasons I can’t recall, I proposed a participatory presentation building on an exchange between Octavia Butler and Raymond Williams.)

Towards the end of a century of confidence in progressive increase in understanding and controlling nature and society—for better or for worse—late twentieth-century STS developed a picture of researchers establishing knowledge and developing their practices through diverse and often modest practical choices, which seemed to be the same as saying they are involved in contingent and on-going mobilizing of materials, tools, people, and other resources into webs of interconnected resources, which seemed to be the same as saying they contribute to change processes operating at different spatial and temporal scales that transgress the boundaries of the situation under consideration and restructure its “internal” dynamics. At the same time, as befits that relatively benign and ecumenical period, STSers regularly employed accounts built around simple themes that were readily conveyed and digested by a wide audience. They did so even as they began to note the tension between purportedly general themes and engagements with the particular complexity of the diversity of things researchers—including themselves—do and the diversity of resources implicated in facilitating efforts to establish knowledge and carry on doing other things. The persistent attraction to STSers and other intellectuals of simple, general themes could, if I were to imitate that very style of interpretation, be associated ironically with a fear, barely below the surface, of the erosion of the diverse facilitations making their knowledge, work, and lives sustainable. Now, would it have made any difference to those STSers of the turn of the millennium if they had known that science fiction writer Octavia Butler’s vision of the turbulent 2020s (Parable of the Sower, 1993) was prescient, almost completely eclipsing the hope expressed by Raymond Williams in his cultural analyses that “detailed, partipat[ory], consciously chosen planning” would supplant crisis-management and “politics of temporary tactical advantage” (Toward 2000, 1983)? Could they have helped prepare their students to navigate the impending “climate changes” (using that term broadly and metaphorically) by drawing attention to the fiction of Williams in which he articulated the tension between solidarities forged through working and living (struggling, surviving…) together in particular places—”militant particularism”—and trans-local perspectives or abstractions available to researchers who traverse more social worlds? (Loyalties 1985) I wonder. What do you think?

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