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SCIENCES WERE NEVER “GOOD”

Isabelle Stengers
The contributions made to this discussion by Wistar rats, Mr. Ojo, and Austra-
lian Aborigines, along with their scientists, are considerable. Beyond the case that
each makes against unilaterally imposed relations, their presence is important,
because they help in disentangling my proposition from what can be perceived as
privileging the kind of achievement that is central to the experimental sciences.
The importance I gave to the case of the experimental sciences was meant to
renew their role as the starting point for thinking about science “in general.” I
wished to uphold the singularity of their achievement and collective game (which
Helen Verran characterizes as the “painstaking labor of solidifying comparison as
a thoroughly reliable participant”) in order to call for a pluralization of sciences. I
proposed thinking about the sciences in terms of the contrasting demands bear-
ing on such a “participant” (nonunilaterally imposed) comparison.
For instance, I am not sure that all scientific achievements lend themselves
to solidification, while I would think that the collective dimension belongs to
sciences as such. But this collective dimension should then be reduced to very
generic terms: a science exists when its practitioners are interested in each other’s
work, learn from each other, refer to each other. Any science must then include
“reporting home” (rather than “going native”), but the definition of what is to be
reported has nothing general about it and depends on how the collective achieve-
ment is defined.
Common Knowledge 17:1
DOI 10.1215/0961754X-2010-039
© 2011 by Duke University Press
82
S y mpo s i u m: C ompa r a t i v e Re l a t i v i s m
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Moreover, in speaking of an achievement as an event, I wished to emphasize
the dissymmetry between “the rule of objective knowledge” and the adventure of
relevant relations. I am not very surprised that J. B. Watson was not unhappy with
his career in industry, if the industry was busy with ergonomic unilateral mea-
surements. But if rats possess a “cognitive map,” the question of relevance is open.
What matters from their point of view? How do they map “us”? How do they
relate to the situation? Learning relevance then entails learning what is relevant
for them. And the “them” itself may be problematic — what of past experience, of
trust, of their map’s reconfigurations, of the “personality” of each rat? Wherever
relevance is a matter of crucial concern, there remains a kinship with experimen-
tal sciences; in these cases, I would propose, “progress” means that what is defined
as the “object” becomes more interesting and more challenging, while questions
inspired by the “rule of objective knowledge” become more disgusting.
Correlatively, if, as Steven Brown remarks, when addressing scientists
dealing with other “humans,” I turned to a series of “unfair comparisons,” it
is because “rat scientists” enjoy a privilege in comparison with those scientists.
Given the opportunity, rats have happily served as witnesses to their cognitive
map. In contrast, humans, as soon as they are in a scientific lab, agree (I am sad
to say) to answer questions or produce performances that reproduce lab dissym-
metry: scientists are wondering, learning, hesitating about the relevant interpre-
tation while the object performs without questions. Humans, when they serve
science, lack recalcitrance in contrast to some of those we have characterized in
terms of beliefs (I refer to one side of what Bruno Latour calls the “Great Divide”
between “we” who have science and all others who desperately mix up nature
and culture ). The recalcitrance they developed about the regime that colonizing
powers imposed was able to inspire nagging doubt in many ethnographers. As
such, they were the cause of some of those ethographers “going native,” and the
source of the learning trajectory that leads to Viveiros de Castro.
But so many powers depend and feed upon the knowledge/belief divide that
the question of “human sciences” cannot be generically disentangled from the
political question of empowerment. Whatever the achievements in the human
sciences, they depend upon an increasing recalcitrance about accepting irrelevant
or insulting questions. This is also the lesson that Latour learned during the
unhappy “science wars” episode, which he takes as the felix culpa of the social
sciences. Social scientists had addressed the same kinds of question to scientists
as they address to anybody else. But some scientists, mainly physicists, were not
impressed by the “science” of those who claimed to characterize them. They not
only felt insulted but publicized their outrage. The question is now open: how to
avoid people mutely “feeling insulted,” or actually “being insulted” without even
feeling it because they have already been deprived of the possibility of attributing
value to what they know and feel. The Pandora’s box is open, and safety has flown
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away. If what remains in the box is hope, the hope for a nonpredatory human
science, I am convinced that in this case it demands that the event known as
“achievement” be recognized in its political dimension. Recalcitrance is required
for learning relevant, knowledge- producing connections, but the production of
recalcitrance is not in the power of scientists. Unable to “prepare” recalcitrant
protagonists, scientists must depend on an event, usually political, to produce
them (see Dewey on the emergence of publics).
I turn now to a point common to the three commentaries on my article:
their vivid reaction to my description of the knowledge economy and the pre-
dictable destruction of our academic world. Each contributor accepted the con-
cern but endeavored to propose alternatives to the “death knell of science” that
they heard.
I was amused by the contrast between my “pugnacious” style and the
announcement that “we” were defeated. I was even taken as proof that science is
still alive. About that last point, let me briefly answer that I am not a scientist but
a philosopher, and a philosopher who considers that her practice is “just surviv-
ing” (and has already been killed off in many countries by the attempt to mimic
the authority of the sciences) and that the implementation of the rule of objective
evaluation will finish destroying it — at least, as an “academic” practice. Under
this regime, either I would never have got a university job or else, if I had, I am
ashamed to imagine what kind of philosopher I would have been. Yes, I am alive;
but I am defeated, because I know that my students will soon realize they must
turn their backs on what turned me into a philosopher but belongs now to a
romantic past. And the same is true for many scientists of my generation. In such
a situation, recognizing defeat, as Péguy’s example shows, occasions a standpoint
whose consequences need to be explored but that at least serves as a protection
against cynicism, howling with the wolves, or complaining about unfairness or
misunderstanding.
But who is the “we” that has been defeated? On one point, my article clearly
failed. I was heard as foretelling the death of “good” science, or “normative” sci-
ence, and as generally denouncing alliances with industry or even applied science.
If I spoke about a “we,” it is in reference to an academic world that generally has
lacked recalcitrance, the capacity to say no — to resist a technology of objective
evaluation that insults us all, despite the plurality of our practices. Proclaiming
defeat creates a time for togetherness, for “perfect” comparison as Charles Péguy
defines it, when each of us may try to tell others, without rivalry, what is in the
process of being destroyed, what each special strength of our practice was and its
own way of divergence. And we may also feel a closeness with other (nonscien-
tific) practices that have been destroyed.
This is what the ecology of practices is about: to give words to our defeat,
our lack of recalcitrance — words that free us from nostalgia about our (academic)
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world that is being destroyed. It contrasts the predatory nature of this world
with the speculative possibility of practices disentangled from authority, from
competition for power and legitimacy, and presenting themselves through their
respective particular divergence. Ecology is about ways of life that are recalcitrant
to unification, recalcitrant strengths, making each connection between them an
event adding new dimensions to the world.
I must admit I was very surprised to have been heard foretelling the destruc-
tion of “good” science, as if it existed as such, as a matter of fact. What is being
destroyed, at least when experimental sciences are concerned, is what Latour in
his Pandora’s Hope figure 3.3 names links and knots, links between colleagues in
the game, and knots between them all and that which they attempt to address.
It is not “good” science. It is only an aspect of science, the one that makes its
practical specificity. And it is also the one that is under threat, in contrast with
the four other aspects described by Latour, mobilization, public representation,
the process of autonomization of the discipline, and alliances with industry
or the state. In other words, it is not “good science” that will be destroyed but
what differentiates the ongoing construction of experimental sciences from
the general category of “social construction,” or at least makes it a very specific
kind of construction. What we call science was always dependent on the allies it
recruited. As actor- network theory made clear, academic scientists were always
on the lookout for so- called applications, actively trying to interest industries and
the state. The “goose that laid the golden eggs” metaphor corresponds only to
the unaccountability that academic scientists claimed for the use of the eggs. And
the price they paid for their autonomy was to turn a blind eye on the complete
nonautonomy of scientists working in and for industries. What is new is that this
“alliance” has been broken. Allies have invaded the territory defined by concern
for the crafting of links and knots.
Correlatively, the “temporal disjunction” described by Verran also belongs
to the past, as it was indeed the very point of the construct that is being destroyed.
The scientific “eggs” were laid in a very special environment, with demanding
collective constraints, but their value as “gold” depended on another kind of envi-
ronment. What would hatch out depended not on “links and knots” but on the
market, while still benefiting from the eggs having been “scientifically laid” — that
is, carrying the trademark of progress and rationality. When there is no longer a
place for the “painstaking labor of solidifying comparison as a thoroughly reliable
participant,” there is no longer an end point, each point being equally defined in
terms of speculative opportunities. I am not sure that researchers will be able
to trace out, as Brit Ross Winthereik proposes, the path followed by research
proposals and all that, at least where biotechnology or nanotechnology are con-
cerned. Secrecy may well prevail now on many occasions. Just try to enter into
Monsanto files. I am also very doubtful about the possibility that the relations
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between these researchers and scientists “partnering” in research on genetically
modified organisms will resemble the relations between Verran’s Aborigines and
their scientists. Also I would insist that the knowledge economy not be confused
with what, in the commentaries on my article, is called industry.
What we are dealing with is not a “powerful monolith,” as Winthereik
remarks. We never were. However, I would propose that the knowledge economy
characterizes a process of destructive redefinition that concerns both academic
sciences and industries. The same despair, cynicism, and resentment are invading
both scientists and industrial workers. For these workers also, the possibility of
giving some definition to an “end point” is disappearing as production has become
an element in strategies, sometimes a rather indifferent element when compared
with shareholders’ satisfaction, for instance, or strategic games. If ethnographers
want to observe a process of decay, let them go to France Telecom, where suicides
multiply; let them observe seminaries or self- help initiatives organized around
harassment and burnout. Working “for” an industry is quickly becoming a thing
of the past, just as working for reliable or interesting or relevant knowledge is.
If I am fiercely resisting the “transformationist” temptation, it is because
too many souls are despairing or dying today in the name of flexibility to add
insult to what they already suffer: the loss of meaning, pride, the feeling of being
part of an adventure, whether scientific or industrial. My question is not what
each of us shall do in order to go on. It is rather how to resist — not in the name
of the past, but in calling for a different future.
My hope is slim, so slim that it seems to have escaped the attention of my
commentators. It depends on what relation is created between scientists and those
who struggle for a sustainable future and want relevant, reliable knowledge to be
produced. Which is to say they do not need academic geese claiming that their
eggs are golden, but rather accountable interlocutors whom they can trust when
trying to “make public,” to turn into a public affair, the “temporal disjunction”
that occurs any time that knowledge may have a bearing on the future composi-
tion of our worlds.