I ended the last entry with several important political issues that arise in the theoretical debates around the “ontological turn”. I noted, for example, that claiming that one’s research practices produce “realities” raises critical questions about how one decides on a particular research project. Just how does a researcher select a particular reality to create? There are links here to consideration of almost inevitable connections between researchers and governmental projects through funding processes (discussed in a subsequent Research Hub entry). According to Suzanne Fraser (2020: 8), “Here we have nothing but politics and ethics to guide us: we must ask which realities expand respect, understanding and inclusion, and which do not”. At the same time, some researchers express concern about the limitations of turning to ethics to answer always political questions (see Lemke 2018; Pellizzoni 2015: 9-10).

Relatedly, broad questions arise about the nature of critical inquiry. These questions can be traced back to Latour’s (2004) seminal article “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern”. He wrote this article in the wake of the 1990s “science wars” that broke out over the questioning and de-realizing of scientific knowledges in early Actor-Network theory. Putting the legitimacy of scientific knowledge into question came to be seen as a deeply dangerous political project in the light of climate change and the claims of climate change deniers. Could we really afford to challenge the “truth” of science?

In response to this disquiet Latour denounced forms of radical critique that, in his view, tended to “totalize” and “demonize” proponents of scientific “truth”. With “matters of concern” Latour intended to “replace excessive critique and the suspicion of socio-political interests with a balanced articulation of the involved concerns” (Puig de la Bellacasa 2011: 91). Latour targets for criticism a particular style of critique, which he describes as a purely deconstructive and hence “negative” form of criticism (see Coole 2000). In his view, rather than (simply) deconstructing or “debunking”, researchers need to be involved in assembling – i.e., in bringing together collective “concerns” in a “Parliament of things” (Latour 1993: 142-145):

“The critic is not the one who debunks, but the one who assembles. The critic is not the one who lifts the rug from under the feet of the naïve believers, but the one who offers the participants arenas in which to gather.” (Latour 2004: 246)

Munk and Abrahamsson (2012) offer a simplified history of Actor-Network theory to distinguish between these two styles of critique as strategic alternatives, associated with John Law on one side and with Latour on the other. Recalling Law’s position on “reality making” (Research Hub entry 30 Nov 2020), the critical task becomes to undo “the singularity of the real” (Munk and Abrahamsson 2012: 54).  On the other side, for Latour (2003), researchers need to do more than “dismantle” (or “debunk”) this singular “reality”. He suggests they take up a “compositionist” aim, “to craft new and comprehensive common worlds supported by notions of due process and parliamentary procedure” (Munk and Abrahamsson 2012: 54). Critical scholars are invited, it seems, either to “unite under the compositionist banner, or join the guerrilla of ontological interferences”, to “choose” between “crafting commonality or enacting disparity” (Munk and Abrahamsson 2012: 54; see Lorenzini and Tazzioli 2020). 

Suzanne Fraser (2020) insists on the need to explore options between these two positions, a stance with which I am sympathetic. Here, I wish to consider how these two positions, when set in opposition, relate to the opening question about how to decide upon the realities we wish our research practices to help create (Lancaster and Rhodes 2020). Borrowing from Fraser, I wish to ask – can critical research expand “respect, understanding and inclusion” and, more pointedly, should it do so?

I am taking up this question because it appears to me to be at the centre of much theoretical disquiet at the moment. To risk an over-simplification, there appear to be intractable disagreements between researchers who fear that moving towards “compositionism” (see Latour above) is dangerous politically because it ignores the operations of power, while adherents of the “compositionist” view are worried by the breakdown in communication between researchers and scientists caused by research that appears to target “science” as unitary and engaged in world-threatening practices. 

We saw this division of opinion in the previous Research Hub entry (30 Nov 2020) where I discussed Lemke’s assessment of Bennett. There I note that Lemke describes Bennett (2010: 37 in Lemke 2018: 43) as intent on ending the “blame game” in politics, rendering obsolete any idea of a “strong responsibility” – i.e. holding any particular group [e.g. scientists] or subject responsible for outcomes we consider dangerous or deleterious. He offers Bennett’s comments on the famous power blackout in North America in 2003 as an example of her recommended mode of political analysis. By focusing on the “heterogeneous actants that in one way or another contributed to the blackout”, says Lemke, Bennett “disturbs linear concepts of causality” and suggests “there is no simple answer to questions of responsibility and accountability”. Lemke expresses dissatisfaction with this assessment: 

“While it is certainly necessary to address the composition of the collective and open up the ‘demos’ for more-than-human encounters, this theoretical move is not sufficient to account for the political. It still remains to be seen how exactly forces come to be determined in one way rather than another.”

We return in Lemke to the argument, introduced in the last entry, that instead of attempting to see “matter” (simply) as having “agency”, we need to attend to “the relationality of how materialities work in concert” (Lemke 2018: 42).  

The position that there is a need to stop “blaming” science and scientists is developed in Latour’s staged dialogue with a concerned environmentalist who is angry with sport utility vehicle (SUV) drivers. Puig de la Bellacasa summarizes Latour’s position on the encounter:

“if we really want to affect their [SUV] use we must also engage with the concerns that animate those who support them [SUVs]. This means that to effectively care for a thing we cannot cut off those with whom we disagree from the thing’s political ecology.”

According to Latour, when such oppositions become “fundamentalist” – expressed, for example, in the ire of “SUV haters” – it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to “give them [SUV drivers] a say in an assembly of representative democracy” (Latour 2005 in Puig de la Bellacasa 2011: 91). 

In tune with Latour, Isabelle Stengers (2005, 2011, 2018) encourages “a more respectful way of making knowledge and realities” (Fraser 2020: 4), which she describes as “symbiotic research”. The objective here is to incorporate “interested parties into the process of research, and articulating findings and conclusions without undue attention to the State’s preferences” (Fraser 2020: 4) – a topic pursued in the next Research Hub entry. 

Puig de la Bellacasa (2011) debates how “the problem” is presented in Latour, and how “respect for concerns” – or for “matters of concern” – becomes an argument to moderate a critical standpoint.  Specifically, she argues, Latour’s labelling of criticisms as “fundamentalist” exhibits “mistrust regarding minoritarian and radical ways of politicizing things that tend to focus on exposing relations of power and exclusion”. Many useful applications of WPR illustrate that such ways of politicizing do not necessarily totalize or demonize – as Latour speculates – but rather open up specific assemblages to critical scrutiny and questioning (Puig de la Bellacasa 2011: 96). 

It is useful to see Latour’s position as an attempt to challenge some of the divisions and oppositional standoffs that characterize a good deal of contemporary political discussion. However, in the desire to move beyond polarization, we need to retain an ability to interrogate specific positions critically. Keller (2017: 62), for example, is concerned that in Latour’s “Parliament of things”, echoing Habermas, social actors, assembled around a table, decide in a setting “free of domination” upon “hierarchies of concerns”.  Countering this claim, Keller (2017: 62; emphasis in original) notes that:

“Social relationships of knowledge are asymmetric relationships of power. Material and symbolic resources for politics of knowledge are anything but equally distributed throughout society.”

It follows, says Keller, that we need modes of empirical analysis and of genealogical and reconstructive discourse research to “make visible these asymmetric relationships of knowledge and the work of knowledge politics” (Keller 2017: 62). 

As Lemke (2018: 42) suggests, there is a need to analyze what comes to matter and what does not. Van Wyk (2012: 135) makes the same point:

“A politics of the future which is a sustainable politics must account not only for the force of life, of the vibrancy of matter, but the force of the negative as well, the forces that demarcate the field of becoming into the possible and impossible, determining what matter can come to matter.”

WPR is designed to facilitate such an endeavour. It interrogates all assumed starting points for analysis – including “matters of concern”, “knowledge controversies” (Whatmore 2009) and “emergencies” (Lancaster et al. 2020). With Keller (2017: 62) it asks about the criteria designating a “matter of concern”. Indeed, I would want to ask: “What is the specified matter of concern represented to be?” (see Puig de la Bellacasa 2011: 92). To engage critically with this question, I would apply the WPR analytic “template”: start from “proposals”, work backwards to problem representations that require interrogation, and ensure that one’s own proposals receive the same treatment through self-problematization (on “knowledge controversies” see Addendum in Research Hub entry, “Troubling ‘wicked problems’”, 16 April 2018).

The last point on self-problematization is critical. WPR is not a “finger pointing” exercise. It does not demonize. Researchers ought to be cautious therefore when they enlist WPR to assist them in forms of “ideology critique”. There is a distinction here therefore between WPR and the “Essex School of Hegemonics” (Keller 2017: 59), which emphasises “the antagonisms that emerge through the radical contingency of discourse” (Howarth et al. 2020: 1). By contrast, self-problematization offers an “immanent critique” in which “‘we’ … do not pre-exist the entangled movements out of which subject and objects, agents and patients, emerge” (MacLure 2015). 

For this reason, in WPR, researchers have an obligation to subject their own proposals and analyses to the same critical analysis they apply to others, protecting against “finger pointing”. In fact, many of the most useful applications of WPR call upon those who express intentions to redress power imbalances to engage in self-scrutiny. This uncomfortable position – an “ethics of discomfort” (Foucault 2000) – indicates the strength, not the weakness, of the kind of questioning Foucault-influenced theories encourage. Wendy Brown (1998: 44) explains that the kind of poststructural approach offered here does not prescribe political positions nor does it describe desirable futures:

“Rather, it aims to make visible why particular positions and visions of the future occur to us, and especially to reveal when and where those positions work in the same register of ‘political rationality’ as that which they purport to criticize.”

The promise of deconstruction, therefore, lies in the commitment to apply its philosophical premises to one’s own work (Bacchi 1999: 42; MacLure 1994: 285; Lancaster and Rhodes 2020: 3). Complementing this analysis, Question 4 in WPR (see Chart, p. 20 in Bacchi and Goodwin 2016) opens up the opportunity to be inventive, to imagine worlds in which a specific confluence of circumstances is either not problematized or problematized differently (Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 22). 

The question as to the political usefulness of such poststructural interventions has attracted renewed attention in a recent exchange of views on critical realism versus ontopolitically-oriented research (Stevens 2020; Howarth et al. 2020; valentine and Seear 2020), a topic I pursue next time.  How self-problematization complicates the question of “valid” research is also pursued.  


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