Reading Stengers

Isabelle Stengers’ Cosmopolitics, Volume I


The social theory book club met yesterday afternoon to discuss our readings of Isabelle Stengers’ first three books, in Volume I of Cosmopolitics. It had been a challenging but rewarding read by all accounts. Noting that Cosmopolitiques was first written as in French in 1997, and took 13 years to be published in an English translation, it was interesting to situate the ideas amongst other STS works, with some of her themes now familiar but often so beautifully put in her book that it complemented and consolidated some of these perspectives. Moreover, her work seemed to go beyond the Latourian view of science, to see not only all objects/actors as of equal relevance but to encompass the dynamics of multiple changing narratives of science. She illustrates this very well throughout the three books through her framing of the scientific field as an Ecology. As such, we are able to see not consensus but symbiosis amongst scientific ideas and disciplines, we can see memory as part of the present, and are able to see with some humour the paradoxes of her characterisations of fetishes and factishes. The book contains some wonderful soundbites, in which Stengers manages to capture whole arguments in succinct sentences that manage to stimulate shifts in the perspective of the reader. Some of our favourite sentences and concepts are listed below:

I really liked the way her work exposed and challenged desires for universality. She puts this really nicely on pages 61-62 when she talks of delocalized concepts ‘which guarantee the ability to travel anywhere and to be at home wherever one happens to be.. the requirement to be able to rediscover the same, here or elsewhere, the same “man,” the same moral law, the same divisions between truth and fiction, between nature and culture…’ Rather, she proposes that we seek out ‘the singularity of what “matters” here and not somewhere else, to “technical details” that no one but the practitioners involved would deem worth of interest but which, for them, are the difference between “worth” and failure’. This was one of the many ways of looking at how we create what we know, and what we want to know, that I found really useful to think with.
– Clare Chandler

I very much liked the way Stengers was able to demystify the quests for truth we see in science (presenting them in her framework of practices and materialising ‘scientific culture’) but at the same time ‘mystify’ many of the things we might take for granted. Her use of the phrase “scientific creatures” plays with the idea of scientific objects and concepts having agency but also being the creations of practices. Her commitment to rejecting singularity in terms of truth, generalisability and universality was explored though some fascinating vignettes and case studies. I thought this idea was captured beautifully in her proposition to take seriously the “humour of truth”.
– Natassia Brenman


The idea of an ecology of practices, in a kind of existence of mutual dependence was interesting for me. I found in the concepts of ‘obligation’, ‘attachment’ and a rallying ’cause’, a generous account of conceptualising disciplinary differences, and interesting explanation for the formation of separate practices. The idea of the ‘factish’ borrowed from Latour is useful for thinking about the life of facts dislocated from their origin, and is now familiar, but I thought she put it very nicely as a relationship, or vector, when she writes (p.31) “Once the neutrino, the atom, or DNA move away from the very specific site, the network of labs, where they achieved their existence, once they are taken up in statements that unbind existence, invention, and proof, they can change meaning and become the vectors of what might be called “scientific opinion”.
– Maayan Ashkenazi

I like the challenge to deconstruct taken for granted equivalences, whether in thermodynamics or econometrics, such as those which equate all ‘work’ ‘as if’ it were all the same. I liked the detailed uncovering of the histories of some of those ‘as ifs’ so that we can see what costs have been incurred by the purification and bracketing out (of friction, for example). I liked her “fight against the power of causes and the sufficiency of conditions” (p190). And, once I’ve got my head round this (may take some time…) I’m looking forward to the challenge of engaging in an ‘ecology of practices’ as an ethical way of thinking about relations between different ways of knowing in public health, one which both avoids aggredizing meta-narratives and mere tolerance.
– Judy Green

I really enjoyed reading and discussing Cosmopolitics because it helped me try and think about ways to do research and knowledge making in more interesting ways. What I particularly liked was the way Stengers develops an orientation to difference that considers differences making up practices. This seems interesting because it goes beyond just looking at multiplicities or differences between two practices, say, to why and how difference can be used to reinvent new questions and new identities as part of practices. These identities relate to interests and values which, she suggests, aren’t secondary questions to science but its actual ingredients. In a practical way, then, this offers the philosopher, and hopefully social scientist, an active role in the becoming of practices – to accentuate differences rather than make them ‘equivalent’, and to add to a situation relations which are glossed over, hidden and ‘ghostly’ (p.32-33).
– Emma Garnet

What I found invigorating in our reading of Stenger’s Cosmopolitics was the potential that taking an ecology of practices approach might allow for compared to other practice-focused theories. By taking an ecological view, we are invited to see how practices relate to one another – particularly in what they demand and oblige of other practices – and issues of power, which is not necessarily at an individual level. Through her writings we were reminded that practices are not just about actions, but also values and relationships, the implicit and explicit ways in which processes are entwined. And for me, it provides an opportunity to think about the unintended creations or consequences of these practices, that neither alone or specifically together can generate something at will. The reading and our discussions is making me rethink some of my work on policy-making and what policy produces.
– Erica Borgstrom