Tag Archives: STS Live

Utopia(s), Outer Space Law and Ecology

Utopias and Realities: The New Space Race

The seeming remoteness of Outer Space has enabled Earth-bound humans to view the expanse of the off-Earth space as terra nullius – no-one’s land or empty. This leads to a spectrum of socio-technical utopias about multi-planetary futures, with human settlements on the Moon, Mars and extraction of minerals form asteroids, to name but a few. However, such narratives, that are steeped in frontier thinking of expanding territorial conquest, foster resurgence of past approaches to places deemed un-occupied merely by the virtue of not belonging to the legal framework applied by the explorers/invaders. The increasing privatisation of access to Outer Space and its resources is framed with a sense of such “entrepreneurs” (Vidmar, 2019) unquestioned entitlement to yet “un-occupied” places, reaffirming the capitalist ideology of growth through expansionist, mercantilist and colonial means. 

Under this pressure, several asymmetrical challenges have emerged: 

1. New spacefaring nations, including China’s growing unilateral prominence, gave rise to a spectrum of potential and attempted non-compliance, contestation and controversies in civil and military sphere. 

2. Smaller nations with established Space Industry, such as Luxembourg, are attempting to remain competitive by attracting the private sector bent on commercial exploitation of Outer Space resources. 

3. The growing appreciation of the space sector’s importance for sustainable development resulted in a new generation initiatives in the global South, including the emerging African Space Agency. 

4. Major existing space powers such as the US, have led deregulation through the Spurring Private Aerospace Competitiveness and Entrepreneurship Act of 2015 (SPACE Act) and Artemis Accords (NASA 2020). Combined, these allow US citizens to possess, own, transport, use and sell resources extracted from Outer Space. Such privileges are also extended to citizens of all signatory states, including Australia, Canada, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, the United Arab Emirates, and the United Kingdom. 

5. Signing of the Artemis Accords has supported the idea that future governance in space should be regulated through bilateral agreements that can advance the ability to extract and utilise resources on the Moon, Asteroids, and Mars.

At the same time, there is rising consensus amongst legal scholars that international space law based around the 1967 Outer Space Treaty is no longer fit for purpose. Though it has always sought to safeguard space and its resources for peaceful benefit of all humankind, the current technological advances and proliferation of actors in this arena seem to have been unforeseeable at the peak of the Cold-war era tensions between nation-states. A prominent feature in the 1979 Agreement Governing the Activities of States on the Moon and other Celestial Bodies (the Moon Agreement) is a utopian vision for fair and equitable sharing of the benefits derived from the development (Art 7(b)) or use (Art 7(c)) of the natural resources on the Moon amongst developed and developing nations.  However, this Agreement was never ratified and only eighteen countries have signed it. But despite this failure, the general cooperative spirit of international space law is clearly stated in the preamble of the Outer Space Treaty that the progress of exploration and use of Outer Space is for the benefit of all peoples irrespective of the degree of their economic or scientific development. In contrast, the commercial space sector actors now lobby for exclusionary private ownership of space resources, first at national level and then through bilateral agreements.

The proliferation of New Space actors is also leading to a growing interdependence between military, civil, and commercial space institutions. The lack of enforceable regulation and outdated international norms are creating a dangerous mix of growing counter-space military capabilities (e.g. satellite deorbiting) and aggressive space policies (e.g. creation of space branches of military). Moreover, there is a growing threat to continuous space access and operation in the form of the rapid expansion of space waste (thousands of disused satellites and upper stages of rockets) and space debris (tens of thousands of small fragments of the above) “occupying” orbits around the Earth. Added to the mix are emerging mega-constellations – formations of thousands of small satellites creating new networks in space – which can interfere with both terrestrial (astronomy) and space activities (environmental monitoring, telecommunications, navigation). Such challenges gave rise to more interdisciplinary and holistic, (eco)systemic, inquiries and perspectives onto Outer Space (Vidmar, 2020), since new governance and legal frameworks are clearly required, to not only to manage human-made objects and provide (fair) space traffic management, but also for planetary protection against biological (cross)contamination, if material and resources are moved across different bodies.

From Astrocolonialism to Africanfuturism: Use of Critical Art for Exploration

Directly addressing these emerging concerns within the legal uncertainty and ambiguous language around resource ownership in the ratified Outer Space Treaty, the 2022 EXTR-Activism exhibition presents an artistic and activist reflection on Euro-American positivist law. The exhibition adopts an Africanfuturist perspective, which is a philosophical, historiographical and aesthetic movement exploring the African point of view (for more details on Africanfuturism see Vermeylen and Njere 2022). Often deploying multi-dimensional speculative fiction and design practice, critical Africanfuturist art can be used as a source of experiential knowledge making – exploring both the subject-matter and the knowledge making practice itself by imagining a possible future through a black cultural lens (for more details about the relationship between space art and space law and definitions about Africanfuturism see Vermeylen 2021a, 2021b, Vermeylen and Njere 2022).

Cutting across issues related primarily to settling and mineral mining across time and space, the EXTR-Activism exhibition becomes a place to visualise and reflect upon the connection between the existing colonial extractivism (for a more details on the history of the term extractivism see e.g. Burchardt and Dietz 2014)on Earth and the emerging colonial extractivism in Outer Space. Launching in Vienna, the exhibition also provides a critical reflection on the relationship between capital and private interests and the United Nations, as Vienna hosts the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs, and thus opens a space for artistic practices to interrogate the fairness and equity of international space law which promises that space exploration and the use of Outer Space shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interest of all countries and shall be the province of humankind (see Art I of the Outer Space Treaty). However, as is widely commented upon, space travel has excluded many countries and peoples from benefiting from space exploration (Vermeylen 2021a, 2021b) 

The artworks from the global North and South explore extractivism and (neo-)colonialism of the New Space era against the background of African countries developing their own space programme (most notably South Africa and Nigeria). Hence, it seems that this new chapter in the Space Race fails to decolonise the Euro-American-centric perspective – the dominant political and economic narrative is set to displace extractivist activities into Outer Space without ever properly reflecting, let alone agreeing, on how and why Western socio-economic approach has made such a mess on planet Earth. This is a particularly stark juxtaposition – toying with the precipice between the renewed interest in colonisation of Moon and Mars by the private entrepreneurs and corporations vis-a-vis the rapid widening of the communities of space protagonists. Can we govern (in) Outer Space more inclusively? 

The exhibition is curated as an immersive performance (led by Vermeylen) wherein the decolonial body plays a central role moving around the exhibition space. Applying Mignolo’s (2011) idea of decoloniality to art curating, the driving objective is to (re)inscribe hidden and silenced voices and histories in space exploration, extractivism and space law. Following the tradition of African storytelling, the praying mantis, which is simultaneously the creator deity and cunning trickster for the San peoples in Southern Africa, takes us on a journey that mocks and ridicules – as tricksters do – the deeply rooted colonial epistemologies and ontologies that have informed current space explorations and laws. 

Through interactive art installations which bring together artists, academics, performers, musicians, writers and storytellers, the exhibition challenges Eurocentric categories of aesthetics and law making and retells the story of extractivism and space travel from the perspective of African astronauts – Afronauts. The forgotten socio-technical histories, contested legacies and repressed memories are explored through a plethora of art practices that blur the boundaries between fiction and reality. This blurring allows us to imagine how Outer Space extractivism would look like if and as we do not learn from our past and current ecocides and genocides. Through the curatorial and arts practices, the exhibition exposes how our earthly extractive practices have already been propelled into Outer Space. Raw materials, such as platinum are already congesting space. And space debris floating in space is implicated into gross human rights abuses in extractive industries. The Marikana massacre in 2012 in South Africa, which killed 34 miners, acts as the anchoring point, and has provoked an activist and aesthetic call and response between the Widows of the Marikana and other South African artists. EXTR-Activism is, therefore, also a response to the many environmental and human massacres committed by extractive industries.

By their journey, Afronauts rewrite the past and future of space exploration and frame a living artwork, All-space Treaty, which stops the exploitation of humans, non-humans and more-than-humans. During a performative and immersive exploration in the exhibition space after the opening of the show, participating artists reflected on the need that in order to challenge and transform current shortcomings of the Outer Space Treaty it was important to acknowledge first and foremost the entanglements of earth with space and what is needed is a space treaty that does not draw boundaries between earth and Outer Space, and humans and non-humans (the latter a category that is almost completely silenced in the current Outer Space Treaty). What the exhibition explores is a counterfactual history of the Space Race – exploring the future through an alternative past. The film Afronauts (2014) by the Ghanaian-born filmmaker Nuotama Bodomo has set the tone for the exhibition and retells the story of the Zambian space program during the Cold War. In her film, Bodomo refers to the Zambian schoolteacher Edward Makuka Nkloso and his space program but gives it a speculative spin and offers a perspective for a better future by critiquing and deconstructing perceived ideas about Africa both in the past and present. A similar questioning is at the heart of the exhibition. If the first person on the Moon was a Maasai woman or cyborg (Vermeylen and Njere 2022), how would space law have evolved? What would governance of Outer Space resources look like, if it reflected and engaged with lessons from terrestrial extractivism?

Tentative Steps Towards a Parliament of Everyone

The exhibition’s staging, set to the soundtrack by “intergalactic DJ” Crater Digger, has been inspired by the work of the British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare CBE, who has offered a strong critique of the commercial space race through appropriating colonial and neocolonial epistemology. Shonibare opens two parallel discourses. He questions the history of Outer Space exploration through the lens of the Western desire to conquer new spaces. But he also suggests in his arts practice that an African Space Program is viable by layering the iconic white spacesuit with batik fabric steeped in colonial atrocities. Shonibare’s utopian Afronauts have an empowering quality – they are on a journey of rejection of current legal discourses and establishment of a different kind of Outer Space.

Stops on the Afronauts EXTR-Activism Journey…*

1,2,3… Lift-Off!

The exhibition starts with an immersive soundscape by the South African musician Guy Buttery, representing the lift-off of a pan-African spaceship on a mission to rescue Mars from overexploitation. On the space ship are Afronauts who face the dangers of so much space junk that the Afronauts fear for their lives as their spaceship can be fatally hit by debris that earthlings have sent into Outer Space.

Journey through Space Junk

The history of space travel is retold through iconic events but with a twist. All art installations that are displayed during the journey are African-centric. The hegemony of the Euro-American centric space history is exposed through a post-colonial and decolonial aesthetic immersion.


The official archive of space travel portrays history as a factual progression of known events, using the frontier as the main trope to justify the thinking that space is empty. It is a myth that is used to justify the replication of settler-colonial practices of homesteading, planting flags, and making roots. Earth’s history may repeat itself on Mars unless we can halt it. The artworks in this part of the exhibition question the techniques that have been used to colonise other people’s land. But land is never terra nullius or empty. Although we like to think that Mars is empty, so we can justify space settlements on Mars, the idea that Mars is empty is a very anthropocentric understanding of what life on Mars may look like. Furthermore, on our way to Mars we have already littered space with our debris, and left already an imprint through rovers on Mars that may have already disturbed microorganisms. History is already repeating itself before the first Martians have left their footprint on the red surface.

The Space Junk Graveyard

This section of the exhibition shows the trauma, exploitation, and pollution of extractivism. The installations exposing the genocide and ecocide of mining are staged as if these massacres have happened on Mars or on other extra-terrestrial bodies. The centre piece of this section is the Body Maps of the Widows of Marikana in dialogue and conversation with other pieces that reflect upon the massacre.

Occupy Space

In this section of the exhibition the Afronauts fight extractivism and propertisation of Outer Space by proposing other ways of living and governing Outer Space. Inspired and in dialogue with the Occupy movements, alternative visions of space exploration are emerging that contest extractivism and mining in Outer Space but also propose a decolonised space programme that is beneficial for human,non-human and more-than-human kind. In order to fulfil the promise of international space law that space exploration and use of space and its resources should be for the benefit of humankind, we first need to acknowledge that space exploration has been part of a colonialist vision that space is the next frontier in our long history of capitalist and extractivist practices. This includes the exploitation of both humans and nature in order to support a wealth maximisation paradigm. Decolonising space shows how current property regimes and laws are only benefiting the privileged classes at the expanse of those who are exploited which includes both humans and non-humans.   

New Space Manifesto

The last space capsule embodies hope and an alternative future. It is also a space which allows visitors to redesign space law, reflecting on their immersive space travel experience.

*From the exhibition catalogue (link). 

EXTR-Activism Exhibition.
© Wolfgang Thaler, 2022
EXTR-Activism Exhibition.
© Wolfgang Thaler, 2022
EXTR-Activism Exhibition.
© Wolfgang Thaler, 2022

Right at the end of the EXTR-Acrivism exhibition journey, the Parliament of Every/No|where/one explores an evolutionary perspective of governance as could be seen from outside the Euro-American legal system. Reflecting on how the architectural structures of the infrastructure for and of talking – parliaments – changed through time leads to a reflection on the perpetual (re-)emergence of hierarchies of governance and attempts for their dissolution. Outer Space in particular, through its existential criticality may become (or may already be) a place for renewal of collective and communal decision-making (Vidmar, forthcoming), including the regulation of extractivism. However, controlling hierarchies may re-assert themselves in the future. As such, the piece looks at how ecological expansion into Outer Space provides an opportunity for reflection on the Earthly practices, alongside offering new constraints and affordances that constitute opportunities for reconnection and renewal within the expanded ecosystem (Vidmar, forthcoming). Situating the first installation of this exhibition, and its performative All-Space Treaty, in Vienna is an important political-activist statement because of the presence of United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs in the city. Furthermore, the exhibition, and its strong focus on African storytelling as a pedagogical method to decolonise the curatorial practice, also contributes to opening up academic writing practices to African worldviews and ways of knowing, including through this piece in EASST Review.  

The work specifically explores the intersection of visual language, social and physical architecture, and the core activity of (democratic) governance: speaking (parler). Charting its way from prototype communal assemblies towards highly sophisticated and complex institutions, the Parliament of Every/No|where/one explores the “evolution” of representation and its inclusivity. Mapping onto historical contexts of exploration, occupation and exploitation of “new” territories, this interactive work asks if we are ready on an individual and collective level to develop and sustain a framework of governance which would be distributed everywhere (in Outer Space?) and include everyone. 

Through five visual metaphors and a short accompanying essay, the Parliament of Every/No|where/one reflects on the critical contribution of the exhibition: the necessary and critical expansion of the voices expressed and listened to in the context of Outer Space governance. As such, this piece is also concluding the Afronauts’ journey, namely arriving at Parliament of Everyone, Everywhere to formulate and articulate an All-Space Treaty, a manifesto for fair and equitable distribution of benefits of activities across all space(s), on and off Earth. This trans-planetary intervention thus re-establishes the ecological interconnectedness of all living things, even those not known or not recognised as “living”. As we all meet in Vienna, the praying mantis trickster lets us believe this is not a utopia, but the future.



Parliament of Every/No|where/one 

Matjaz Vidmar, 2022, mixed-media essay/installation, www.parliament.gallery 

The earliest vestiges of community organisation are thought to literally circle around one common shared asset – fire. Even now, social groups operating off the grid – whether they be religious groups, camping expeditions or pasturalist communities – meet in round circles to talk about past experiences, future challenges and the strategies to persevere. Consensual leadership is often a feature of such groupings – where capabilities of individuals are mutually recognised and most efficient distribution of responsibility is sought. This common form of a talking circle – a sort of proto-parliament – is known everywhere and notionally open to everyone.


For much of the last 2022 years, the structure of governance involved primarily being talked at. In this case, formal representation is about subservience and downward exertion of control from the leader(ship). As the talking circles broke up due to the expansion of populace, so did the capability-based system of contribution to decision-making. Claiming spiritual investiture everywhere, the hereditary leader needs representation from no-one. Is a silent parliament better or worse than having no parliament at all?


With further population growth strictly hierarchical structures are tested as devolved decision-making is necessary in order to manage large-scale provision of resources and community organisation. Cultural norms may hold social order together, but every time (social) power erodes, dialectic frameworks of governance (re)emerge. This is especially the case in oppositional politics, where argumentative discussion marks the alternation of political dominance. Though noisy, many such parliaments have a largely performative role, whereby a “winner-takes-all” power dynamics favours agreeing with no-one and leading nowhere.


Some forms of dialogue-based decision-making have emerged, largely at the two opposing ends of the spectrum: in small communities and in the really large ones. Examples are local authorities, regional governments, small nation states as well as supranational frameworks such as the European Union or United Nations. At these levels, where it is hard to predict political outcomes, the guiding principles and practical reality tend to favour consensus making and forming of interest coalitions. In theory, this should lead to a more inclusive representation of everyone, but is often so complex it looks like decisions appear from nowhere and with little accountability.


Expansion into new spatial domains, such as Outer Space, is an opportunity for redefinition of governance structures as new ecological reality forces new communal responses. Due to size and remoteness, it is easy to see the old proto-parliaments returning, but the question remains if these forms could be made more stable and sustainable, and pave the way for a new way of collective decision-making. The laws of the sea made the ships of (colonial) explorers into such capsules of egalitarianism, but the governance approach taken when they reached the new shores was devastating to indigenous people and their environment. So, as we emerge into a new era of exploration, everyone everywhere needs to be able express their position and respectfully listen to those around them… 





Burchardt, H.-J. and Dietz, K. (2014) ‘(Neo-) extractivism–a new challenge for development theory from Latin America.’ Third World Quarterly 35, no. 3: 468-486

Mignolo, W.D. (2011) The Darker Side of Western Modernity. Global Futures, Decolonial Options. Durham: Duke University Press

Vermeylen, S. and Njere, J. (forthcoming Summer 2022) ‘African Space Art as a New Perspective on Space Law.’ In: J Schwartz, L Billings, and E. Nesvold (eds.) Reclaiming Space. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Vermeylen, S.  (2021a) ‘Space as a source of inspiration, identity and the arts’ In Schrogl, K.-U., Giannopapa, C., Antoni, N. (eds.) Research Agenda for Space Policy. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing, pp. 219-234.

Vermeylen, S (2021b) ‘Space Art as a Critique of Space Law.’ Leonardo 54(1), pp.  115-124

Vidmar, M. (2019). On the Practices of Risk Re-Normalisation: “Knowing” the Known Unknowns in Public Discourse on Outer Space Exploration. Teorija in Praksa, 56(3), pp. 814–835.

Vidmar, M. (2020) ‘Transpanetary Ecologies: A new Chapter in Social Studies of Outer Space?’ EASST Review, 57, pp. 57-60

Vidmar, M. (forthcoming 2022), ‘On Libertarian Communities in/around Outer Space: Is ecology an antithesis to liberty?’. In: Cockell, C. (ed.) The Institutions of Extraterrestrial Liberty. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

The unbearable lightness of billionaires in space

During the Summer of 2021, on our multitude of screens, we were invited to pay witness to billionaires flying to or near the arbitrary Karman line, to watch both their personal pleasures and to be persuaded by the feasibility and desirability of a new elite experience called ‘space tourism’. With their safe return, much was then written in op-eds, blogs, and tweets about those flights and their contested significance. One aspect that drew my attention was how, for Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos, the sensations of weightlessness loomed large in the accounts they gave of their experiences. While the poetry addresses the transfigurative potential of the ‘overview effect’, video from within the cabins show that spinning around, laughing, floating, pushing objects to each other appeared to be the real highlight of the trip for those who went. After his flight, Branson tweeted: ‘So joyful I still felt weightless’, and Bezos opined in the post-launch event that being in that state of weightlessness ‘felt so normal, it felt as if humans had evolved to be in that environment [ …] it felt peaceful, serene, very pleasurable’ (see: https://www.blueorigin.com/news/first-human-flight-updates).  

I’m confident that it’s an awesome feeling. As the editorial in the Chicago Tribune (2021) commented: ‘who does not crave the chance to float around like the great astronauts of our childhood dreams, Earth’s gravitational pull falling away with our quotidian worries?’ In this paper I wish to explore this claim seriously and to consider how the fantasy and desire to experience weightlessness comes to signify another kind of weightlessness as a strategy to escape the urgencies and pull of today’s world. 

For STS, weightlessness is an interesting topic. In the early days of developing human spaceflight capabilities, weightlessness was the source of some consternation and was not necessarily an experience to be craved. One leader in the field of what became known as space medicine – Heinz Haber who worked for the Luftwaffe Institute for Aviation Medicine in World War II and was later taken to the US through Operation Paperclip – drew attention to what he called the ‘human factor’ of spaceflight. Writing in 1951 he ventured that: 

From his conquered home-planet man has begun to look expectantly toward new worlds in the heavens. The Moon and the neighbouring planets, Venus and Mars, irresistibly challenge his fancy with the same spell that the seven seas once cast over their explorers. Like the pioneers who first ventured to sea in sailing ships, we are preparing to launch our first frail craft in the vast ocean of space. (Haber 1951: x) 

However, he argued that the success of space exploration lay not only with rocket design but also with managing the effects of spaceflight on the human body (and, in particular, on the male body assumed to be the only viable astronaut body at the time). In particular, the field of space medicine was engaged in efforts to better understand what would be involved in weightlessness. Haber speculated that ‘a man liberated from the shackles of gravity would most probably be in a constant state of physiological and psychological tension (1951: 18). As alluded to above, during World War II, Haber and other scientists, including Otto Gauer (another beneficiary of Operation Paperclip) had speculated on the possible effects of weightlessness. They had a paper included in the US Air Force’s compendium of aeromedical research conducted in Germany during the war, in which they expressed the concern that weightlessness could have dire consequences for the person experiencing it, rendering them with ‘an absolute incapacity to act’ (Gauer and Haber 1949). In the 1950s, to develop more of an understanding, US scientists turned to using non-human animals, strapping them into the nose cones of sounding rockets and blasting them up into the atmosphere, where eventually some survived their landing and were assessed, showing no ill-effects of being weightless (Swenson et al 1989). 

As the quote from Haber’s 1950 paper shows, the concern with the effects of weightlessness on the human body was bound up with the colonial ambitions that he and others envisaged for humans in outer space. As many scholars working within historical and social studies of outer space have shown, advocates of spaceflight often frame this endeavour in such colonial terms and view ‘the space frontier as a site of renewal, a place where we can resolve the domestic and global battles that have paralyzed our progress on Earth” (Kilgore 2003: 1-2). For Cosmists in the early twentieth century, for example, it was linked to how humans would overcome death and attain immortality by escaping gravity, travelling through space and establishing life in the cosmos (Groys, 2018). Weightlessness would be a desirable state of being, signifying the escape from Earth and death. 

In our times, the pursuit of weightlessness by very wealthy men is troubling, because these momentary, experiential states of weightlessness are connected to other practices and strategies of ‘social weightlessness’ – to adopt the term that feminist scholar Lois McNay (2014) discusses in her work. The title of this paper is a riff on one of the chapters in her 2014 book The Misguided Search for the Political (‘The unbearable lightness of theory’, which is in turn of course a play on Milan Kundera’s novel). Drawing on the writings of Pierre Bourdieu, McNay (2014: 40) uses ‘social weightlessness’ to describe a mode of thought that is ‘far removed from the practical mundanities and urgencies of the world’. She relates how Bourdieu shows that elites act to establish a ‘“magical boundary” between themselves and the mundane world. This apartness from the everyday world is both a liberatory break and a potentially crippling separation’ (McNay 2014: 41).

For McNay (2014: 39), her concern with ‘social weightlessness’ is directed at certain academic theories and their tendency to ‘rarefaction’. But in this paper I read the flights of these billionaires and the space tourism they prefigure as an expression of another mode of ‘social weightlessness’. Flying high into the atmosphere, reaching or exceeding the Karman Line to escape gravity becomes then a ‘magical boundary’, which indeed achieves a ‘liberatory break’ for those privileged to experience it. It is a few minutes in which a fantasy of freedom can be celebrated, freed as the Chicago Tribune suggests, of our ‘quotidian worries’. But in fact, rather than this being an experience a great many ordinary people will experience, access to space tourism – to the weightlessness of space – is one to be enjoyed by those who already enjoy a good degree of ‘social weightlessness’. Aside from a few  lottery winners, few will experience what is otherwise closed to anyone who is not a millionaire. 

Yet this pursuit of weightlessness both seeks justification from and is fatally entangled with the urgencies of the world. Bezos proposes that development of new space vehicles is a step towards ensuring that ​​’our children can build the future’. He believes with apparent passion and conviction that human expansion in the solar system will produce a better future for humanity. While acknowledging that there are immediate social problems that need addressing – pollution, homelessness, poverty – Bezos prefers to think long term. Faced with the prospect that capitalist economies will eventually be unable to meet their energy demands, Bezos proposes that to avoid a society characterized by ‘stasis and rationing’. We must pursue one of dynamism and growth that comes from expanding into the solar system, where there are unlimited resources. These resources would support a human civilization of a ‘trillion humans [..] which means we’d have a thousand Mozarts and a thousand Einsteins. This would be an incredible civilization’, Bezos concludes.   

Outer space then is Bezos’ imagined new ‘Great Frontier’ (Moore 2021) for capitalism.  Moore (2021: 3) argues that ‘capitalism emerged through a prodigiously generative nexus of Cheap Labor, imperial power, and the unpaid work/energy of previously uncapitalized soils, forests, streams, and all manner of indigenous flora and fauna’. In Bezos’ vision, the ‘uncapitalized’ entities are moons, asteroids, and planets in the cosmos. And science fiction has long imagined who would be the ‘Cheap Labour’ (see for example, The Expanse, a series financed and shown by Amazon Prime!).  

In the here and now, however, the entire existence of Blue Origin – Bezos’ aerospace company – is dependent on Amazon and its multi-billion dollar profit margins. Bezos explicitly acknowledged this relationship in the post-launch press event, going so far as to extend his thanks ‘to every Amazon employee and every Amazon customer, because you guys paid for all this’ (see: https://www.blueorigin.com/news/first-human-flight-updates).  

After Branson’s flight, Virgin ran an ad to celebrate both his achievement and to promote its various businesses in travel, finance and media (see: https://www.virgin.com/about-virgin/latest/if-we-can-do-this-imagine-what-else-we-can-do). The ad asked ‘if we can do this… imagine what you can do’, ‘if we can feel this .. imagine what you can feel free’, with scenes of ordinary people living with their ‘practical mundanities and urgencies’ (McNay 2014: 40) striving to overcome adversity, to escape the weight of their worlds. The promise is that they too can attain a state of weightlessness. The privileged experience of a select few inspiring everyone else to throw off their shackles. 

In this short paper, I have explored weightlessness, as a valorized embodied experience of space tourism that is also an expression of another kind of weightlessness – a ‘social weightlessness’ pursued by the extremely wealthy to escape the attraction of mundane realities and pressing social problems. Further, it is a cruel promise directed at those struggling with adversity that a simple escape is possible, as exemplified by the pleasures of billionaires as they fly to the edge of space. 





Chicago Tribune Editorial Board (2021) ‘We don’t begrudge billionaires chasing the zero gravity of space. But can they spell ‘murraya’?’, Chicago Tribune, 12 July 2021. Available at: https://www.chicagotribune.com/opinion/editorials/ct-editorial-richard-branson-space-zaila-avant-garde-20210712-x3pkhlwle5gxdnihcwrj6m74aq-story.html

Gauer, O and H. Haber (1949), ‘Man under Gravity-Free Conditions,’ in German Aviation Medicine, World War II, I, 641-643.

Groys, B. (ed.) (2018) Russian Cosmism, Cambridge MA: MIT Press 

Haber, H. (1951) ‘The human body in space’, Scientific American, 184 (1): 16-19

Kilgore, De Witt D. (2003) Astrofuturism: Science, Race, and Visions of Utopia in Space, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

McNay, L. (2014) The Misguided Search for the Political, Cambridge: Polity 

Moore, J. (2021) Climate, Class & the Great Frontier From Primitive Accumulation to the Great Implosion,  unpublished paper, World-Ecology Research Group, Binghamton University. Available at: https://jasonwmoore.com/academicpapers/

Swenson, L.; J. Grinwood and C. Alexander (1989) ‘This new ocean: a history of Project Mercury’, NASA History Division. Available at: https://history.nasa.gov/SP-4201/ch2-3.htm

SPROUTs of Hope in Times of Crisis

[SPROUT] noun 1. a shoot of a plant. 2. a new growth from a germinating seed, or from a rootstock, tuber, bud, or the like.

[SPROUT] noun 1. Spontaneous Flexible, Pragmatic, Political, Rigorous projects creating opportunities in times of crisis

The desire to survive. The green sprout of grass growing to the light from the black pipe on the wall. Concept of hope

In March 2020, the world famous pianist Igor Levit was stuck at home, unable to travel and perform. His first reaction, as he said in an interview in the American TV programme 60 Minutes, was to worry about losing his connection to an audience and being confined to just making music for himself. Then he did something unusual: He decided to stream live recitals from his living room. He used an old form, the house concert, and brought it into the 21st century. He invited people into his living room by using social media. His live-streamed recitals immediately caught on. For 52 consecutive days his recitals were followed by hundreds of thousands of people. The reactions on social media expressed people’s gratitude; people were moved by the beauty of Levit’s piano playing, the choice of his repertoire, and his obvious engagement with the music he played. He managed to reach an audience infinitely larger than in the concert hall. Many also discovered piano music they had never heard of.

Levit had taken the classical piano recital to a new institutional form. The format was flexible; he frequently announced the programme on social media no more than a few hours before the event. He often performed in a sweatshirt and slippers, and he was never afraid to show his emotions during beautiful passages, giving the concert an intimacy that is rarely attained in the concert hall. He changed the boundaries between the performer and his audience. His concerts were also political: not so much in what he played, but in the larger context in which he did it. For many of his audience and followers, Levit’s musical performance could not be separated from the courageous political stances that he took against anti-Semitism and right-wing extremism. And for environmental causes: Recently he performed, amidst buzzing chain saws, in the Dannenröder forest near Frankfurt that is in the process of being felled to make way for the construction of a highway. His choice of repertoire in the forest leaves nothing to the imagination: Frederic Rzewski’s Variations on ‘The People United Will Never Be Defeated’, a Chilean protest song. The live stream recitals had another subversive element: They offered content that could otherwise only be accessed via expensive tickets for the world’s great concert halls. Levit declared that the experience transformed him. It made him change the way that he thinks about music. That it is not a luxury but one of life’s necessities.


SPROUTing new initiatives

Early March 2020, in San Francisco, Tomas Pueyo, the Spanish-French vice-president of an online learning platform, found himself stuck at home with his three young children while his wife was hospitalised with suspected COVID-19 symptoms. He felt miserable himself, and was worried about the disease and that people were not taking it seriously enough. He had started to share his thoughts about the new virus on his Facebook page. In an interview with Sumiko Tan, editor of the Singapore Straits Times, Pueyo said: ‘One of the things I love doing is going into big, deep problems and really, really understanding them and then communicating them. That’s what I did for the coronavirus.’ When a friend asked him to bring his various Facebook posts together in a single blog post to help persuade his friend’s employer to allow people to work from home, it was read by over 40 million people. People from all over the world volunteered to join Pueyo in his mission to provide evidence-based reporting on the COVID-19 crisis. Pueyo went on to write seven more Covid-19 related articles, among other things, introducing the famous ‘hammer and dance’ metaphor.

One of us (Hendrik) first read Pueyo’s article in early April via one of Pueyo’s tweets. As life-long policy scholar Hendrik was enthusiastic about what he read and decided to write a blog post about Pueyo’s work. It had struck him that until then the media had published a lot of data but in a way that obscured rather than enlightened the issues at hand. Pueyo’s pieces were, in fact, remarkable pieces of policy analysis that, although chockful of tables and graphs, were always question-driven. The data were organised in such a way that the numbers told a powerful story, a story of the success or failure of policy making. Pueyo introduced creative measures (the ‘Hunei’) and used historical data to arbitrate in the vexing issue if lockdown kills off the economy.

Both Levit’s and Pueyo’s initiatives are example of what we have come to call SPROUTs: Spontaneous, Political,Rigorous, Opportunity projects. They both created pragmatic and at the same time political projects that created opportunities in the face of adversity. Relying on social media, they did not merely move something from the analogue world to the digital one, but they created a new form: Levit did so by harking back to an older performance practice that had long been overtaken by modern concert management, giving it a contemporary face. Pueyo took policy analysis out of the university and the government contract and showed how the clever organization of data can effectively address important practical and moral issues. He became a pop-up policy analyst.


Our own SPROUT: Solidarity in Times of a Pandemic (SolPan)

These SPROUTs were brought to life by two creative individuals — but SPROUTs can also stem from groups of people or even formal institutions. They can also be organisational inventions. We ourselves have been involved in one for the better part of last year. When the COVID-19 crisis started, a funding body invited Barbara to submit a project proposal on solidarity in times of a pandemic. Two weeks later Barbara and a small group of colleagues in the participating countries submitted a proposal for a qualitative, multinational comparative study on people’s experiences with coping with the pandemic. Just before the project was greenlit, the funding body pulled out due to doubts about the value of qualitative research; some of the decision makers preferred a quantitative survey instead. The news came as a shock. It would not have been the first time that a grant proposal of ours was rejected — but getting an invited one knocked back hurt even more. Instead of reconciling themselves to having lost a few week’s worth of their time, the research team decided to go ahead anyhow — without funding. After all, the research design had been finalised, a fine group of researchers in three countries was ready to go, and the research ethics application had been submitted. All members of the project consortium decided to remain on board, and start their work without funding. Members agreed that they would jointly own the research design and all other materials (topic guides, and so on) as well as all the data generated in the project.

When the word spread about the project — which gave itself the name SolPan (Solidarity in times of a pandemic) — colleagues from all over Europe were interested to join. A mere ten days after the decision to go ahead without funding, research ethics approval had been granted, a topic guide had been developed and tested, and interview teams in nine European countries were busy recruiting interviewees. We were keen on starting interviewing early April when in most of Europe lockdowns had just been put in place. We wanted to capture people’s experiences with having to go to work worried about getting infected, or with being cooped up in their homes, with working online, with complying with rules about physical distancing and wearing masks. We wanted to know what they thought and how they felt about this, and how they reacted to their governments’ efforts in managing the pandemic. We were surprised about the enthusiasm of the group (30+ researchers met in weekly online meetings to discuss progress and troubleshoot problems). So many people were spending time and energy on this project in times when life (homeschooling, online teaching, working from home, caring for children) was difficult enough without a new project to run.

Unbeknownst to ourselves the group had created a research commons. The well-known commons author and activist David Bollier describes commons as people who come together to “manage resources … that preserve shared values and community identity” in fair and participatory ways (Bollier, 2014, 175). The goal is not to chase private gain, but to meet the needs of a community while serving the common good. Particularly pertinent to SPROUTs is his comment that commons “generate value in ways that are often taken for granted — and often jeopardized by the Market/State.” (ibid.) In our case, the creation of a research commons was made possible by using established academic institutional forms and resources. SolPan would not have been possible if senior researchers did not have tenured positions and some leeway in using their time. Some of the senior members of the group were also line managers of colleagues who they could give time to work on this project. Junior researchers postponed work on their PhD research projects and other activites but in return obtained invaluable experience in leading task forces and other working groups within the consortium. Many junior colleagues have now become lead authors on publications emerging from the SolPan project. What makes working on SolPan gratifying is that it indeed restores academic values that have increasingly gotten lost in the corporate university.

Like Levit’s new form for classical music making, and Pueyo’s ‘pop-up’ policy analysis, SolPan has many of the characteristics of SPROUT. Although it arose spontaneously, like in any large-scale research project, the group takes great care to ensure reliable, precise data collection and analysis. Projects that secure funding prior to their kick-off lock the funder and the researchers into a set of contractual agreements and obligations. But when the world around the project’s remit changes, as it inevitably does, it is difficult to change course. The SolPan consortium does not have these constraints. Because SolPan is ‘owned’ by its members, the project’s design is more flexible. Decision making is participatory, inclusive, and deliberative (if not always friction free). Consortium meetings seek to be pragmatic, cooperative, and focused on problem solving. This has the added benefit that it creates strong engagement of many of the members to ‘their’ project. Besides in its aspiration to work as a research commons, SolPan is political also in the sense that does not merely seek to produce new scientific evidence. Solpan consortium members also write blogs and speak to policy makers and the media. We do this on the basis of evidence from our study, but we do so in forms and ways that go beyond providing morally neutral analyses. At the time of writing this blog, a sister consortium, SolPan+, had emerged that now includes research groups in 14 Latin American countries.


The New World of SPROUTs

The pandemic has imposed constraints and hardship on society. But out of the chaos and despair, new positive and creative forms have emerged, in music, research, and perhaps other fields. Using digital media, different kinds of SPROUTs are redefining established institutional forms and demonstrating new possibilities. In an important way they are reimagining and redefining the core values that govern traditional societal domains such as science and the music industry. Levit reminded us that music making is at heart an intimate process of communicating joy and emotion between musicians and an engaged, committed audience. This joint process gets easily lost in the concert hall or opera theatre with their exclusive and rigid rules and conventions. Similarly, science has once in the past been about two fundamental motivations. Curiosity, or the excitement of understanding the world around us in all its buzzing blooming confusion by discovering and interpreting patterns. And melioration, contributing to the betterment of the world by applying the results of our investigations. In the practices and conventions of institutionalised science, with its reliance on precarious work, its status hierarchy between theory and action, the jealous guarding of disciplinary territories, the outsized power of gatekeepers, the proliferation of auditing procedures, and the transformation of universities into businesses, these basic, generative passions are easily lost. Tomas Pueyo or the SolPan project show how they can be regained. How the joy of working to achieve understanding and contribute to problem solving can be organised in the interstices of traditional institutions. (Other projects in the domain of science that have several of the key characteristics of SPROUT are the CoronaPanel project at the University of Vienna, and the Recovery study at Oxford, a randomised controlled trials in real-world settings to test the effectiveness of Covid medication, just to name a few examples, and recently showcased in the Guardian as showcasing the strength of UK science.)

SPROUTs emerge because practitioners perceive opportunities in situations of personal and collective distress. SPROUTs represent hope. In his interviews, Levit frequently comments on how the live streaming of his concerts helped him get through the lockdown. The often moving reactions of his virtual audience show how people find comfort and solace in his music making. Despite the pressures and obligations that running a multinational comparative project doubtlessly imposes on the project teams, they serve restorative functions for the immediate participants. We found that working together with many of our colleagues in the SolPan project had an openness and generosity that are not easily found in grant-financed projects. Although we have of course also experienced our share of problems throughout the past months, we think it somewhat miraculous that an unfunded consortium of (now) over 40 members in several countries is still working together after almost a year (during which some country teams have been able to secure funding for parts of their work, but the consortium as a whole is still unfunded).


The spontaneity and improvisatory nature of SPROUTs is essential to their success.

Their very essence is that they operate outside established institutional conventions and form an implicit commentary on them. In that sense SPROUTs are, what we would call, ‘constructively subversive’. Their aim is not to destroy institutions — without institutional resources, SPROUTers could not exist. But SPROUTs seek to add to them, to remind them of their original mission by reimagining their latent possibilities. It is essential for this utopian function of SPROUTs to function, that they represent the best that the field has to offer: Levit’s stunning pianism, Pueyo’s brilliant analysis of data, SolPan’s rigorous research design and generous collaborative spirit. We think it is this combination of improvisation and quality that draws people to SPROUTs and enkindles a desire to be part of it.

Finally, SPROUTs are about action. They are pragmatic, actionable solutions to the everyday problems of working in a particular field. There are two sides to this. First, every institution requires ever larger maintenance costs to keep it operational. Concert schedules are set years in advance. Recording a musical performance in the traditional way is a major technical and marketing undertaking. Levit discovered that with a camera, a tripod and some basic streaming tools he could reach an audience of hundreds of thousands within a matter of days. He announced his program hours before the actual recital, contributing to the sense of spontaneity and surprise. Similarly, the usual road from idea, via project proposal, grant application, reviews, revisions, re-application, and award, can easily take a year or more. To have a fighting chance to obtain a grant, researchers needs to more or less specify their findings in advance. The unintended effect is that the world of grant application languishes under a thick blanket of conservatism and risk avoidance. If she is lucky enough to have obtained funding, stringent accountability requirements then distract the researcher from her main task of doing research and interpreting findings. SPROUTs strip away many of these opportunity costs and focus all that energy and creativity on that what matters.

Second, SPROUTs are action-oriented in the sense that they emerge from and contribute to real world problems. This quality is perhaps more apparent in science-based SPROUTs then in other domains. The conventions of academia require that researchers specify upfront what theory they draw upon. PhD students are trained to get their theory in order before they get out in the field to collect data. Obviously, we do not want to make small of theory. We need explanatory theories to understand our observations and to interpret the patterns we have inferred. But in institutionalised social science too often abstract theory has become a shibboleth, a marker that signifies to which academic camp we belong. Abstract theory becomes a way to police the boundary between supposedly serious science and the allegedly lower forms of empirical and applied academic work. SPROUTs are informed by theory and seek to contribute to theory — but they are essentially problem oriented. The questions they pursue and to which they contribute are the urgent issues of our time.

The COVID-19 crisis has changed many aspects of our everyday life. We have reduced commuting, conduct our meetings online, cut down on flying, and given up on living in overpriced apartments in big cities. Some of these changes will be enduring. We think SPROUTs are also here to stay. But organisationally complex SPROUTs cannot survive without the nourishing soil that they require to grow and flourish. SPROUTs show what untapped potential our institutions and our societies contain — but they also need a minimum of facilitation to stay alive. For institutions that are open to this, and willing to support their SPROUTs, SPROUTs can help to reconnect them with their original values. Alternatively, public support for SPROUTs could help societies to expand their organisational repertoires by including creative and innovative practices that break through the very institutional norms, forms and patterns that have led to the crisis in the first place.

We would love to hear from you how to think differently about SPROUT (also if you think we got it wrong!), or if you are aware of other SPROUTs that are worth adding to our list.

[This text first appeared as a blog post on Medium: https://medium.com/@hendrik.wagenaar/sprouts-of-hope-in-times-of-crisis-204aa8dffbec (11 January 2021]

Going Virtual: The ethnographic gaze in pandemic times

What happens to the ethnographic gaze when it reorients from a corporeal to a virtual world? In this essay, I reflect on my personal experiences of doing a virtual lab ethnography as a result of the enduring corona pandemic. By drawing on Haraway’s (1988) metaphor of vision I trace the specific, situated and partial ways of seeing something when a laptop and its screen become the most important visual technology in doing lab ethnography. I reflect on what we can learn from thinking with ethnographic vision for the research process when going virtual.

Under non-COVID-19 circumstances, I would currently be in one of the vibrant cities of Spain. I would start my second lab ethnography for my PhD project, carefully organised months ago. I would be fully immersed into a foreign research culture, exploring the worlds of epigenetic research in an institute for public health and epidemiology. I would use the breaks between observations, meetings, and talks for a little chit-chat, getting to know new people, their work, their motivations, their day-to-day hopes, struggles and concerns. Instead, I stare absently out of my window and watch cars reversing into parking spaces right in front of my flat in Germany while waiting for the next video call. 

After postponing my ethnographic stay several times, I started to play around with the idea of a “virtual ethnography”. Virtual, online, or cyber-ethnography is not a new method but has been around since the early 1990s to study online communities and their social interactions in (predominantly) virtual environments (e.g. gamer communities) (Hine, 2008). The corona measures have suddenly transformed my field site, an institute for public health and epidemiology, into such an (temporary) online community. I started to wonder if there was also a virtual way to conduct a lab ethnography.

A few months into this virtual endeavour, I ask myself: what happens to the ethnographic gaze – besides staring absently out of windows – when it reorients from a corporeal to a virtual world? By drawing on Haraway’s (1988) metaphor of vision in “Situated Knowledges” I explore how to see as an STS scholar when a laptop becomes the most important visual technology for a lab ethnography in pandemic times. Haraway articulates vision as an embodied, partial, and situated way of seeing something. She argues that “[v]ision requires instruments of vision” and that “optics is a politics of positioning” (Haraway, 1988: 586). These instruments of vision are not only our own eyes as an “active perceptual system,” building on the brain to translate what we see (Haraway, 1988: 583). They also include visualising technologies, prosthetic devices that render specific aspects of life and not others visible: the microscopes in the labs, the ultrasounds in the clinics, or – in my case – the computer screens mediating images from a different place. 

In this essay, I do not attempt to make claims on the method of virtual ethnography as such, but to consider my specific experiences to conduct a lab ethnography online. I will reflect on my partial vision that is unavoidably intertwined with the COVID-19 pandemic as it was less a deliberate choice than a means to an end to move things virtually. If we understand ethnographic vision as affected by bodily movements, a sensing that is as much part of assembling knowledge as it is seeing (cf. Ingold, 2000), I ask myself: how will physical distance affect the knowledge gathering process in the long run? Proceeding from these reflections, I will trace which specific version of vision emerges in my virtual lab ethnography by exploring three interrelated aspects: technology, immediacy and location. As I’m still in the midst of field work, this essay can only provide a temporary snapshot of my ongoing reflections on this approach.


Technology: screens as prosthetic devices

How does the technical object of a screen interact with the knowledge I’m gathering? Albrecht Dürer’s famous “Draughtsman Drawing a Nude” comes to my mind, which Lynch and Woolgar (1990) featured on the cover of their anthology “Representation in Scientific Practice”. This painting from the sixteenth century shows a male painter drawing a voluptuous, reclining nude woman by using a perspective grid. The painter divided the sight of the women into geometric coordinates in an attempt of an objective and true transmission onto paper. However, as feminist studies have shown at length such an objective practice is the god trick as this example not only shows how representations construct objects, but also “[t]he gendering of this kind of vision” (Haraway, 1997: 180). Analogously, my laptop and its screen have become my perspective grid positioned between myself and scenes at the institute. They become a prosthetic device – ironically equipped with what a big tech player calls a Retina display. While this device allows me to see into worlds that momentarily seem far away, similar to the painting it prompts the question what kind of different object these visual representations construct and the role of my positioning in this construction.

Some of these scenes that I virtually visit are various meetings: one-on-one interview situations, small project meetings with a handful of people, scientific seminars or consortia meetings with over 100 participants. The cameras that capture these meetings and broadcast them onto my screen offer a specific way of seeing: they mediate curated shots where one only sees the parts of a scene actively made visible. Yet, what about the moments that literally stay invisible, e.g. the aspects of the institutional life that cannot be mediated and escape the video frames? Going virtual creates a mobile world that promises to become accessible from everywhere. Simultaneously, certain activities continue outside the online space, such as carrying out laboratory work even if more restricted by COVID-19 measures. This yields inaccessible spaces where one cannot actively go to if not physically present. 


Immediacy: seeing and sensing with screen sharing 

Virtual ethnographies need to work with curated shots of institutional life. But they also engender a new kind of immediacy, one where I click on links and instantly become part of a meeting without travelling thousands of kilometres to somewhere. Especially the practice of screen sharing allows us to explore the notion of immediacy and its role for vision in more detail. For instance, one of the central steps in doing epigenetic research in institutes of epidemiology is the statistical analysis supported by computer programs. Researchers use epigenetic data collected in the human cohorts they work with to find answers to their research questions, such as: how does air pollution impact health outcomes via epigenetic mechanisms? Screen sharing allowed me to take part in this practice in at least two ways. Firstly, I attended the institutes’ practical hands-on online workshops to better understand how to do statistical analysis for answering these questions. Secondly, I asked my interlocutors to take me with them through their own work flow. Following them step by step through their analysis, I observed how they filled the generic code with life: adding variables such as sex, age, environmental exposures and other data. 

This technical accessory mediates the epidemiologists’ vision onto my screen, that is, their ways of seeing and interpreting their material. It allows me to engage with their research practice and corresponding tools, to follow their movements, and to verbally point to things that caught my eye. Screen sharing creates immediacy and thereby intimate moments between my interlocutors and me at physical distance. But it is a touch without touching; an experience of the other person’s screen and its content by sensing differently than one would if physically present. How does this sensing without touching impact the knowledge I assemble? – I’m not sure yet.


Location: multiple vision in pandemic times

COVID-19 has not only physically impacted my ethnographic work moving it into an online space, but it has also influenced the conversations I have with the epidemiologists and how they need to adjust their research. My interlocutors frequently address issues such as what happens to the regular visits of the cohort’s participants to take biological samples and to check their air sensors in the house? How will they recruit new participants when there are more pressing health questions at stake? Asides from concerns over the practicalities of data collection, the pandemic also affects the epidemiologists’ own vision, that is, their specific ways of seeing and articulating research and problem definitions. For instance, when talking to a scientist about a project on epigenetic changes through metal exposure she referred to the peculiarity that people living in the same household with a person infected with COVID-19 might not get infected themselves. She explained how thinking with this example helps to make sense of her own observation why some people would be more susceptible to toxic exposure than others. Looking at the infection patterns during the pandemic allowed her to understand the virus and exposure not as discrete entities but as being in relation with social position and experiences, age, gender, health status, and genetic makeup, among many other dimensions.


Closing remarks

These brief examples show how going virtual yields multiple visions from various locations: from Germany to Spain, from my own position as an early career STS scholar, from scientists trained in public health issues, and from the perspective of an ongoing global health crisis. They allowed for reflections not on the method of virtual ethnography as such, but on my specific experiences to conduct a lab ethnography online due to COVID-19, in which an important space – the lab – stayed invisible. Thus, doing virtual lab ethnography engenders a specific way of seeing and gathering data. Yet it does not create material that is more or less ‘true’ or ‘real’ than in the physical world. It yields a way of seeing that challenges the ethnographer who has reoriented their vision from a corporeal to a virtual world: how to see (mediated)? What and who becomes visible on the screens? Who gets to talk, who stays invisible? Where to see from? How is virtual seeing affected by the ethnographer’s position? What are the limits of virtual vision? What cannot be virtually mediated? How to (physically) sense from distance? And how does virtual seeing translate into written production? While some of these still incomplete questions could also be asked in an on-site ethnography, the need for a prosthetic device, to see with something, makes reflections on vision in pandemic times even more imperative.




Haraway D (1988) Situated Knowledges: The science question in feminism and the privilege of partial perspective. Feminist Studies 12(3): 575–599.

Haraway D (1997) Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium.FemaleMan©_Meets_OncoMouseTM. New York and London: Routledge.

Hine C (2008) Virtual ethnography. In: Given LM (ed) The SAGE encyclopedia of qualitative research methods. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, pp. 922–924.

Ingold T (2000) The Perception of the Environment: Essays in Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill. London: Routledge.

Lynch M and Woolgar S (1990) Representation in scientific practice. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Pathogenic Imaginaries and Covid-19 Denialism

In September 2020, I and my collaborator Larry Au (Columbia University) received a grant from the Social Science Research Council’s (SSRC) “Rapid-Response Grant on Covid-19 and the Social Sciences” for our project “Viral Agnotology: Covid-19 Denialism amidst the pandemic in Brazil, the United Kingdom and the United States”. In total, 62 projects received funding from the SSRC, on topics touching on all aspects of the social, economic, political, and cultural impact of Covid-19. The aim of grant is to help put social scientists in conversation with the global scientific dialogue on the pandemic’s directions and consequences, and to help spur reflection on how social science can be useful to improve the preparedness of society for future pandemics. 

Our project is ongoing, but I gladly introduce our project to readers of the EASST Review to help stimulate the interest of our colleagues on the topic of Covid-19 denialism, and point to ways in which STS as a field can be useful in thinking through this highly politicized topic.


Motivations for the project

By Covid-19 denialism, we refer to a broad range of doubt and skepticism expressed over the existence, severity, and need for public health interventions to mitigate and contain the further spread of SARS-CoV-2. This ranges from anti-lockdown protests, conspiracy theories that Covid-19 is a hoax, and skepticism over the need to wear a mask despite expert support for masking. Curiously, even as the pandemic unfolded and as evidence of Covid-19’s dangers piled up, major proponents of Covid-19 denialism continued to downplay the seriousness of the situation. The contentious encounter between expert discourses and Covid-19 denialism was particularly visible in Brazil, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Jasanoff et al. (2021) in a recent comprehensive report published on the Covid-19 responses in 21 countries, categorized these three countries as “Chaos Countries” because of the inability of state and society to cohere around effective strategies to mitigate and contain Covid-19.

Field hospital in Central Park, New York City, March 30 2020 (Source: BBC News by Getty Images).

Researchers in the past have looked to social indicators as level of education, the development of science and technology in society, and public trust on science as factors that contribute to scientific illiteracy. But these factors clearly do not explain the presence of Covid-19 denialism in many parts of the developed and developing world. Other analysts have pointed to the advent of the digital age and unregulated social media, as sources of disinformation and misinformation. While this is undoubtedly a factor in giving rise to Covid-19 denialism, exposure to fringe sources of information occurs in a wide range of societies, yet not all have succumbed to paralysis in rallying support for public health interventions. Further complicating this is the spread of misinformation by political leaders and heads of state.

Deborah Birx and Anthony Fauci listen as former President Trump speaks at a coronavirus briefing at the White House on March 20. (Source: Washington Post by Jabin Botsford).

Studying a topic such as ignorance is tricky, especially in such polarizing times. Nonetheless, our interdisciplinary backgrounds in STS provides us with approaches to broach this subject with care. Our analysis is based on three steps: (1) contextualize the discourses of Covid-19 denialism addressed to specific topic dimensions of the pandemic, (2) trace the discourses of denialism over time, and (3) see how these framings of the crisis are taken up by different audiences. This will enable us to further understand how the frames of denialism are taken up in different societies and how these discourses account for a fast unfolding crisis.


Beginnings of a conceptual framework

Our theoretical starting point comes from Proctor’s (2008) discussion of agnotology. As Proctor writes, “we need to think about the conscious, unconscious, and structural production of ignorance, its diverse causes and conformations, whether brought about by neglect, forgetfulness, myopia, extinction, secrecy, or suppression. The point is to question the naturalness of ignorance, its causes and its distribution” (10). Covid-19 denialism arises from actors behaving consciously with mal-intent, as a byproduct of institutional arrangements and technological infrastructures, as well as the unintended consequences of well-meaning policies aimed at combatting the pandemic. It is this latter factor that we focus on.

Covid-19 patient and overwhelmed healthcare professionals at a hospital bedside in
Brooklyn, New York City, USA. (Source: The Atlantic by Go Nakamura/Getty Images)

We also draw on Eyal’s (2019) recent book on the “crisis of expertise”. As Eyal helpfully notes, there are many parts of science that the public do not question in their day to day lives, like theoretical physics or civil engineering. But when science is asked to make policy decisions that have direct implications on people’s lives, then this policy-relevant science becomes the subject of debate and skepticism. Public health as a scientific discipline has life and death implications, particularly during the pandemic, making it perhaps the most controversial part of science during these troubled times. Covid-19 denialism, should therefore be understood in relation to public health expertise.

Furthermore, Jasanoff (2007) demonstrates that such public deliberations over evidence and knowledge can be studied cross-nationally from the lens of sociotechnical imaginaries, as how a particular society understands the emerging public health crisis will depend on relationships between experts and expertise with social, political, and economic structures. By taking up the idea of sociotechnical imaginaries, we hope to show how dominant forms of pathogenic imaginaries, as seen in public health expertise, contain blind spots that make them susceptible to populist challenges. These blind spots enable insurgent pathogenic imaginaries to mutate and come to dominate public discourse.


A brief sketch of Covid-19 denialism in three countries

In our study, we show Covid-19 denialism has been particularly noticeable in public discourses in the United States, Brazil and United Kingdom. Characterized by reluctance and delay, those societies bring similarities in the response to the pandemic by policymakers and the presence of significant opposition to public health measures designed to mitigate the spread of the virus. Partly due to this denialism, Covid-19’s impact on those three countries have been particularly pronounced. Of course, this is only one part of the story. Other analysis, such as from Kavanagh and Singh (2020), note the lack of state capacity in these countries that contributed to the inability to control the spread of the virus. As of January 2021, these three countries are still in the top five number of COVID-19 cases (along with India and Russia) and deaths along (Mexico), according with Worldometer.

President Jair Bolsonaro promoting Hydroxychloroquine in his periodically unofficial online videos on Facebook. (Source: Gazeta do Povo).

In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro publicly disavowed all social-distancing and quarantine recommendations. Bolsonaro suggested that the pandemic was just a global hysteria and insistently perpetuated the myth that it only causes a gripezinha (little flu). Bolsonaro, like Trump, also publicly backed the use of hydroxychloroquine to treat symptoms, even without scientific proof of efficacy and safety. In April 2020, the Brazilian president also fired two health ministers in less than a month who advocated for social distancing and joined protests against a governor who has put economic activities in his state on pause. What little public health guidance that was given, focused on telling the public to “stay home and take care of yourself”, which individualized responsibility for Covid-19 without specifying collective actions taken to mitigate the pandemic’s risks. In 2021, facing an increasingly pressure to start mass vaccination nationwide, Bolsonaro publicly discourages people to get vaccinated and extensively shares unfounded concerns about potential Covid-19 vaccines-associated severe adverse reactions.

Extraordinary silent in downtown London, March 2020. (Source: BBC by Jeff Overs/BBC).

In the United Kingdom, Prime Minister Boris Johnson initially opted for a “herd immunity” strategy before being confronted with catastrophic projections from an Imperial College research group, while facing high pressure from far-right groups to further ease social distancing guidelines. The primary rallying call for the public was centered on the National Health Services: “stay home, protect the NHS, save lives”. While this linked individual action to the desired outcome of protecting the capacity of medical institutions to save lives, the simple dictate to “stay home” provided an easy target for anti-lockdown protesters. In 2021, his attitude completely change since United Kingdom is now the European epicenter of new infections and had unfortunately spreading a new 30% mode deadly virus variant. 

In the United States, former President Donald Trump repeatedly undermined his scientific advisors and tweeted out in support of anti-lockdown protests around the country in a bid to re-open the economy. Public health experts, working around Trump’s obstruction and sabotage, urged the public to stay home to help “flatten the curve”. This imaginary of flattening the curve focused solely on mitigation rather than containment and eradication. The statistical abstraction the pandemic also hindered the ability of the public to fully understand the human toll of the virus. Now, President Biden’s administration has to deal with the great challenge to create a vaccine distribution plan that can outpace the rapid spread of Covid-19.

Through our comparisons of these three countries, we hope to further trace the contours of Covid-19 denialism as a reaction to dominant pathogenic imaginaries and public expertise. 

Cemetery in Manaus, Brazil, after the second wave of deaths in January 2021. (Source: Michel Dantas/AFP).


Working during the pandemic

About a year ago, after enjoying a 3-month visiting appointment at Columbia University’s Department of Sociology, invited by the professors Gil Eyal and Diane Vaughan, I left New York City a week before the pandemic was announced by WHO. Since then, me and Larry are working remotely and meeting periodically to discuss different parts of empirical research design, data collection and analysis.

Columbia University in the days before the pandemic was declared by WHO. Source: Personal Archive. February 2020.

Previous connections with each other were very important to make this work possible, since we have worked together on a comparative project that examines the trajectories of genomics and precision medicine in China and Brazil using a similar organizational process (Au and Silva, 2020). We are very proud of how STS is taking social sciences in account in the great global debates on the pandemic. Studying Covid-19 denialism is being a great opportunity to strength our community around a problem to be solved.  




Au, Larry, and Renan Gonçalves Leonel da Silva. Forthcoming. “Globalizing the Scientific Bandwagon: Trajectories of Precision Medicine in China and Brazil.” Science, Technology & Human Values. 46 p. 016224392. 

Eyal, Gil. 2019. The Crisis of Expertise. Cambridge, UK; Medford, MA: Polity.

Hilgartner, S.; Miller, C., Hagendijk, R. (Eds.), Science and Democracy: Making Knowledge and Making Power in the Biosciences and Beyond, Routledge, London. 2015.

Jasanoff, Sheila. 2007. Designs on Nature: Science and Democracy in Europe and the United States. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

Jasanoff, Sheila et al. 2021. Comparative Covid Response: Crisis, Knowledge, Politics. Interim Report. 12 January 2021. Accessed 20 January 2021. Available at https://www.ingsa.org/covidtag/covid-19-commentary/jasanoff-schmidt/. 

Kavanagh MM, Singh R. 2020. Democracy, Capacity, and Coercion in Pandemic Response: COVID-19 in Comparative Political Perspective. J Health Polit Policy Law 1; 45(6):997-1012. 

Proctor, Robert. 2008. “Agnotology: A Missing Term to Describe the Cultural Production of Ignorance (and Its Study).” In Agnotology: The Making and Unmaking of Ignorance, edited by Robert N. Proctor and Londa Schiebinger, 1–33. Stanford, CA: Stanford University.

The shadow theater of dueling modalities: A note on pandemic simulation

Given humans’ ubiquitous desire to know the future, modeling and simulation have arisen as powerful tools for the job. However, the scientific and political aspects of their outcomes—prediction and forecast—can be the target of harsh criticism and dispute. This essay examines recent controversies in the simulation of both seismology and pandemic epidemiology in Japan and elsewhere. We find that disputes over different modalities of perception, as in the intriguing issue of imaging possible alternative worlds versus the singularity of the existing world, may date back to 17th-century philosophy.

In the 1980s, one of the authors conducted field research in Java, Indonesia, on a religious sect headed by a spirit medium who allegedly could communicate with spirits of mythic figures. We visited one of the sacred places in Central Java, where the medium was to serve as an oracle for the guardian spirit of Java for the coming year. Arriving at the village near the place, we were deeply disappointed to hear that we had missed seeing President Suharto and his small company. They had just left the place, allegedly having listened to a similarly high-status spirit through the oracle, probably about the prospects for national politics (Fukushima, 2002). 

 Our irrepressible desire to know the future is all but universal, and analyses of how people construct knowledge about the future are centrally situated among widely diverse fields, ranging from the anthropology of religion to studies regarding “contested futures” in STS. Against this intellectual background, our research group has published an edited book, Forecasting and Society: How Scientific Narratives Construct Society, a collection of conducted comparative studies of future-oriented scientific discourse, such as prediction and forecasting in diverse fields of science and technology (Yamaguchi & Fukushima, 2019). 

Among our topics, seismological prediction (jishin-yochi, in Japanese) has been one of our priorities, given its integral constitution as a complex entanglement of science and policy. Both policymakers and the public in Japan have high expectations for precise predictions of when, where, and how large the impending earthquake will be. In fact, legislation has long been approved for a public action plan when large earthquakes happen (cf. Tomari, 2015).1                        

Such high expectations, however, have met the reality of actual seismological limitations, which fall far short of providing such a high-precision prediction; all they can provide is an imprecise long-term forecast for earthquakes in specific areas, based on a historiographical analysis of past cases (Suzuki & Koketsu, 2019). In fact, seismologists in Japan have carefully avoided using the term yochi (prediction) among themselves, instead favoring yosoku (forecast), which has a subtly milder connotation; however, such a difference is hardly perceptible to laypeople. The legislation mentioned above was approved specifically on the assumption that scientists would provide precise predictions. It was only in 2017 that the law was changed, partly because seismologists failed to predict the huge earthquake ten years ago in northeast Japan. 

Fig 1: National seismic hazard map for Japan (2005). Source: Earthquake Research Committee Headquarters for Earthquake Research Promotion (2005) Report: ‘National Seizmic Hazard Maps for Japan’ Fig. 3.3.1-1 Distribution map of probability of ground motions. p33. https://www.jishin.go.jp/main/index-e.html (Accessed December 25, 2020)

Pandemic simulation and its relationship to policy seem to exhibit some different characteristics from simulations for seismology. One of the two authors has long been interested in social simulation, which gives rise to notable differences in policy among countries, eventually leading our attention to pandemic modeling and simulation as a concrete subject of study. This already happened before the global catastrophe caused by the present COVID-19 pandemic. 

One of the major characteristics of Japan’s pandemic simulation is that it has had virtually no place in policymaking, in sharp contrast to the ongoing enthusiasm for seismological prediction. Although concerned specialists regard pandemic simulation as a highly useful instrument for understanding both the expansion of infectious diseases and their prevention, the number of such specialists has been considerably small to be visible to policymakers and, consequently, of little concern. 

As we faced some trouble in finding a proper example of pandemic simulation being used for policy, we extended our search to Taiwan, which had experienced failed policy on the SARS pandemic, from which, ironically in the end, they gained global recognition for their success in controlling the current coronavirus. Eventually, we found that policymakers their regard the use of pandemic simulation considerably positively, with various instances that foreshadowed the coming confusion manifest in countries’ policy processes at present (Hibino, 2019). 

Japan’s management of the present situation has exhibited an intriguing contrast with the Taiwanese case mentioned above. After an initial set of blunders in the case of a cruise-ship infection, Japan appeared to succeed in curbing the expansion of the pandemic until mid-March 2020. Subsequently, in late March, ominous signs of its explosion led to heated disputes in various fields on the proper prevention of viruses. Consequently, the government declared an emergency and asked for an “80% reduction in human interaction,” a number derived from a pandemic simulation by Professor Hiroshi Nishiura, an authority among Japan’s mathematical epidemiologists and a core member of the newly established Action Committee for the Pandemic Cluster in the Ministry of Health. Nishiura even issued a personal message outlining a possible scenario for its expansion: “If no measures are taken, like reducing inter-human interaction, the number of seriously ill patients may reach about 850,000, half of whom will die.” This statement worked to inspire public fear.  

Fig 2 Image of the mathematical models of infectious disease epidemics
(Source: drawn by Aiko Hibino)

In June 2020, when the expansion of the infection seemed to have slowed temporarily, and public opinion appeared to settle down a little, criticism of the foregoing policy measures as excessive rose sharply as the mass media collectively bashed Nishiura, mocking him as “Mr. 80%” by poking fun at his earlier forecast. The reality, however, is not that we succeeded in controlling the pandemic; just as in other parts of the world, we have been hit by second and third waves, which ironically rehabilitated the honors of both Nishiura and his simulation practices. 

In terms of policy intervention, one of the visible contrasts between the prediction (or forecasting) of earthquakes and of pandemics is that the earthquake we are concerned with tends to be a massive, single event wherein policy intervention is largely confined to two periods: efforts aimed at disaster prevention beforehand and post-disaster reconstruction from the damage. Conversely, pandemics must be dealt with differently because political decisions have to be made right in the middle of the spread of the disease, and the event itself lasts longer. It follows naturally that the mode of interaction between science and policy may reveal considerable differences as well. 



Intriguingly, although our concern has been centered on constructing the future, we realize that most of the criticism against meandering pandemic policies often targeted the past, assuming that an untraveled better past has been unrealized because of faulty policy intervention. In fact, as with the criticisms of Nishiura mentioned above, critics seem to claim that measures had not been needed, as if to say that a better world could have been achieved without such measures and that the critics indeed know what it would have been. 

We wonder, however, whether we can be reasonably sure of this alternative world wherein allegedly better policies were carried out. Such questions bring to mind Sliding Doors (1997), a fascinating movie directed by Peter Howitt, in which the main character, Helen (actor Gwyneth Paltrow), fails to slide into the closing door of a train in the tube in London in one of the two different worlds. In the other, she does succeed in jumping into the train. This results in two different, but similarly gloomy, consequences for her relationship with her boyfriend. 

Commonsensically, we think of the world we have already experienced as unchangeable and the future as being at least somewhat dependent on our choices. However, the power of scientific forecasting makes our future look like a world of necessity, and hence our effort in our edited book referred to above (Yamaguchi & Fukushima, 2019) to deconstruct such a view to leave room for the human will.3 Meanwhile, the rampant criticisms of ongoing pandemic policies—often with rhetoric indicating that things could have been better—remind us of our desperate wish to change even the past or at least to see the other world where we could have slid through the closing door of the tube train. 

Obviously, there is no way of conducting a controlled experiment in the real world: at best, either we implement contrasting policies one after another and learn from their consequences, or we scrutinize the outcome of similar policies carried out in other places. Either way, however, things are far from being controlled in terms of ideal procedures in laboratory sciences. Hence, we are obliged to be patient, as the knowledge produced by such a social experiment is fundamentally limited. However, we seem to easily forget such constraints, probably because we are constantly driven to dream of a better possible world, as seen in the harsh criticisms of actual policies in response to either earthquakes or pandemics. 



In this context, strikingly instructive is Stewart (2006) on the encounter between Baruch Spinoza and Gottfried Leibnitz in his biographical work that examines their intersecting lives. The pith of this book deals with how Leibnitz tried desperately to attenuate or eventually to annul the destructive impact of the idea of the singular world of necessity advocated by Spinoza, by creating the concept of multiple worlds of possibility. Ultimately, this concept was introduced to save the role of God, who decides upon the best among these possible worlds (cf. Ueno, 2013).

We vaguely understand, in theory at least, what Spinoza insists upon—the need for patience to understand this singular world of necessity owing to our lack of knowledge. However, it is paradoxical and somewhat amusing that we also share the wish to have a glimpse of, or even to jump to, the alternative possible worlds that Leibnitz mysteriously counterposes.4 At the end of his book, Stewart (2006) refers to Spinoza as the first modern philosopher who thought the world as rigorously singular, whereas Leibnitz is the first modern person with a constant craving for possible better worlds. In this sense, we are all descendants of both these ancestors.

The ongoing situation created by the pandemic is a good laboratory for observing the rapid oscillation, in a matter of a few months or even weeks, between two different ideas about the modality of the world(s). It is like the tropical Wayang theater where the shadow pictures of two modalities, both of which reside in ourselves, are endlessly struggling in a manner quaintly reminiscent of the ancient Javanese philosophy (Matsumoto, 1981).



1 It is called the Act on Special Measures Concerning Countermeasures for Large-Scale Earthquakes, 1978. 

2 Fukushima (2019) is an experimental essay on the book.

3 Due to space limit, we leave undiscussed the question of how our stance in the book on the issue is related to the argument in the following section. 

4 Stewart (2006) notes, however, that their relationship is fundamentally asymmetrical: that is, Leibnitz worked in the shadow of Spinoza’s influence, the former both co-opting and resisting the latter, not vice versa. 



Fukushima M (2002) The Religion and Politics of Java: An Ethnographic Memoir of Indonesia under Suharto’s New Order. Tokyo: Hituzi Shobo. (in Japanese). 

Fukushima M (2019) A Future Far Away: Forecasting and Society https://www.researchgate.net/publication/335013117_A_Future_Far_Away_An_Essay_on_Forecasting_and_Society

Hibino A (2019) The Ecology of Models in Pandemic Simulation. In: Yamaguchi T & Fukushima M (eds): pp. 113-139 (in Japanese).

Stewart, M (2006) The Courtier and the Heretic: Leibnitz, Spinoza, and the Fate of God in the Modern World. New York: W. W. Norton & Company

Suzuki M & Koketsu K (2019) The Problem of Forecasting Based upon the Past: The Probabilistic Seismic Hazard Maps for Japan. In: Yamaguchi T & Fukushima M (eds): pp. 173-192(in Japanese).

Tomari, J. (2015) 130 Years of the Research on Earthquake Prediction: Form Meiji to The East Japan Earthquake. Tokyo: The Tokyo University Press. (in Japanese). 

Ueno O (2013) The Wonderland of Philosophers: On the Seventeenth Century of Modality. Kodansha (in Japanese). 

Yamaguchi T & Fukushima M (eds) (2019) Forecasting and Society: How Scientific Narratives Construct Society. Tokyo: The University of Tokyo Press. (in Japanese). 

It begins with us: On why our embodied experiences matter in the dis/appearance of worlds

“To ‘de-passion’ knowledge”, writes Vinciane Despret, “does not give us a more objective world, it just gives us a world ‘without us’” (2004, p. 131). In this piece, I would like to reflect about us, STS researchers. Bringing the past 2020 joint EASST-4S conference theme’s ‘Locating and Timing matters’ together with the current coronavirus pandemic, I would like to discuss our embodied “significance and agency in the emergence/occlusion of worlds”(Felt, 2020). Usually concealed in the sphere of the ‘private’, ‘quotidian’ and ‘mundane’, I hope to persuade you that your embodied experiences, – always already situated within specific spatio-temporal frames –, matters. It matters, first of all to you/us, being then crucial for establishing inclusive relationships with our colleagues and ‘epistemic partners’, and, ultimately, for re-passioning our discipline(s).

In all its complexities and demands, our academic labour involves examining, analysing, theorising, writing, explaining, lecturing about scientists, scientific theories, technologies, its policy and innovation frameworks as well as biomolecules, microbes, patients, bodies, non-humans, non-western practices and many other elements. That is, these are only a few of the vast and heterogeneous array of elements that populate our work life. Where are ‘we’ in such a populous list of (other) agents, matter, meaning, and worlds in which we dedicate such a substantial part of our lives? The ‘we’ I am interesting in is an embodied ‘we’, a challenging ‘we’, I believe, for many of us. It is challenging because, as academics, we are trained in and we mostly perform a mind-based ‘we’ instead of an embodied one. 



While we deeply study processes of re- and de-naturalisation between science and society, processes of our own bodily des-/re-naturalisations remain largely unspoken. Our own body or ‘bodies multiples’ (physical, spiritual, psychological, social, biological and so forth), particularly at their perceptual, experiential levels, has been what Chris Chilling refers to as an ‘absent present’ (2012) in the humanities and social sciences. This is a striking aspect considering that bodies (gendered, racialised, (dis)able, classed, aged, etc) are a key concern of our wider enquiries about ecologies and socio-technics of worlds, particularly with regards to contemporary biomedicine. 

The ‘absent presence’ of our bodies is not only striking; it is also a paradoxical trait of our academic persona with regards to the general consensus within STS against Cartesian dichotomies (subject/object, material/immaterial, nature/culture, rational/irrational). We use the prevalent notions of ‘entanglements’, ‘biosocial’, ‘naturecultures’ and similar material-semiotic companionships and devices as a response to the western precept of the mastery of the mind (read Euro American imperialism and colonialism) over the body (read also non-whites, women, microbes). Yet, in spite of our epistemological registers, I find an evident mismatch between our theories and how we enact them or, to be more precise, why we rarely enact them by bringing them together with our fleshy bodies and lives. Our individual and collective bodies as academic workers, our ‘carnal knowing’ (Sobchack, 2004), are systematically elicited and concealed in our research, partly, as I will elaborate below, as an effect of today’s academic system focussed on ‘outputs’. 

A more unpleasant explanation could also be that our bodies and embodied experiences have never been there. Drew Leder (1990) refers to this phenomenon as the ‘absent body’, by which bodies and related motor abilities disappear from conscious awareness, residing in the ‘background’ of experience. Ignored and silenced, we seclude our bodies into our ‘academic (rational) minds’; as if in a proficient ‘habitus’ (Bourdieu, 1977) of disembodiment (mind from body) we had transcended them, as if we were… ‘transhumans’? 

To complicate the matter more, the current passage from bodily to virtual working presence in many European countries in response to the pandemic, has surfaced as well as enlarged such chronic disembodied (or mind-based) ‘we’ as individuals, collectives and institutions to unprecedented dimensions. However, instead of holding on to dystopian apathy, we might frame this circumstance as a favourable occasion to reflect on the consequences of concealing or even ignoring our physical bodies and embodied experiences from the knowledge-practices we co-create. And if our embodied beings are the fundamental or primal form of engaging with worlds, it begins with me: my own embodied memories and narratives are a required point of passage for the purpose of this reflection-piece. 


Accumulating exhaustion from the many tasks and increasing demands of academic life, we are now reclaiming slower modes of knowledge-practices making (c.f. Stengers, 2018). Yet, together with our ‘disembodied habitus’, the structural perversity of the web of productivity and success makes it hardly possible to decelerate (for the many, I believe). This, of course, excludes those able to take time (e.g. to publish…fast!).  In an inspiring plenary session at the joint EASST/4S Conference 2020, Ulrike Felt addressed this great divide between ‘those who can make time and those who are out of time’ as the ‘real expression of power’ (Felt, 2020). Exclusions, she argued,

“are no longer brought about by depriving people of material resources or denying access to specific places or placing them at the periphery. Rather, exclusion occurs tacitly, to simply making it difficult to hardly possible to be an active part of the same temporal-regime; to be able to synchronise and imposing the emergence of specific technoscientific worlds and not others” 

This quote accurately captures a reality experienced by many of us, especially during pandemic/lockdowns and especially for carers (i.e. mainly women). In my case, having my child during my doctoral years in the country with the most expensive childcare of the world (UK), without shared responsibilities or support network, took a huge toll into my postdoctoral prospects. As for the majority of women with family responsibilities, time and dedication can only be fragmentary. Childcare, housework, funding applications, teaching, a bit of research, and back again. 

A bitter consequence of discontinuous time is deceiving those colleagues and mentors who support you and your work. Missing deadlines, conferences, missing ‘opportunities’… In brief, not being able to ‘synchronise’. These vicissitudes, along with an unfortunate episode of abuse of power and appropriation in the race for ‘success’, has shrunken my prospects in academia. 

In addition, another open secret or taboo that I would like to share is that my identities – women, mother, non-native speaker, precarious early-career– have played a role in my truncated academic ‘projection’. I am, after all, easily ‘disposable’. That is, it is obvious that my ‘profile’ (read life circumstances not cv) impedes me to “keep churning out papers” (Aitkenhead, 2013), top requisite of today’s academia. 

Soon after I started confronting these unpleasant realities about my academic career, in early March 2020, I caught Sars-CoV-2, developing its persistent form, what is now known as ‘long Covid’ (Callard & Perego, 2021). 


For the past decade, I have been studying how and the extent to which human microbiome science is displacing older ideas of immunity as a guarantor of biological identity and individuality. One of the key findings of my research has been that while microbial science renders notions of the self as bounded, universal, and autonomous increasingly difficult to maintain, it simultaneously instantiates new forms of difference – particularly ‘immunitary privileges’ based on a higher microbial diversity – and  reproduces old ones in terms of neo-colonial practices of bioprospecting biodiversity (Núñez Casal, 2019). Moving beyond current medical humanities and STS work on the microbiome, my latest research develops a feminist critical analysis and embodied methodology that draws attention to lived experiences of health inequalities, the social mobilisation of microbiology and local, traditional and profane healing cultures and practices. 

Despite my research being about the entanglements between microbes, embodiment, and inequalities, I succumbed to the Cartesian matrix. Stretched to its limits, my body ‘shut down’ during and long after infection. Defying multispecies conviviality and thus augmenting the current immunitary post-Covid rhetoric, my body was perhaps protecting itself from precarity and exploitation, for all the mistreatment it endured for a long while. Rushing transformed into stillness. As often occurs when we experience illness (Leder, 1990), unable to talk or walk much for months, my body, its physical dimension at least, reappeared back into consciousness.

Among the millions infected with SARS-CoV2– medically categorized as ‘mild’ (Callard, 2020) and thus mostly recovering at home – their vast myriad of mutable and debilitating symptoms often last for several weeks or even months. During the long months of my own convalesce, I observed with a cautious enthusiasm that my individual experiences were part of an emerging and growing collective action around shared experiences of recovering from or living with ‘bodily manifestations’ of Covid-19. I was excited to witness the materialisation of what I call ‘feminist para-ethnographies’, that is, a material-semiotic device of ‘socialised biology’ (Riley, 1983) involving the transformation of silenced and private embodied experiences into shared and collective experiences (Núñez Casal, 2018, 2019, 2021). In confinement, these online support groups, communities and citizen science initiatives were firstly established in Spain, Italy, South Korea, the UK, the US, France, and Finland at the beginning of the pandemic. As occurs with other ‘recalcitrant infections’ (e.g. UTIs) in the absence of appropriate (health)care, dietary changes along with supplements from various medical traditions became crucial elements of online support. They were the only available ways to address the multiple vulnerabilities and inequalities (i.e. healthcare, employment and childcare) experienced by those struggling with ‘long Covid’ at home. 

Illness narratives and embodied knowledge have been fruitful feminist methods to challenge scientific objectivity and positivism for decades (Barad, 2007; Blackman, 2012; Haraway, 1988; Hesse-Biber, 2008; Harding, 1987; Smith, 1999).  Embodied experiences of bacterial and viral infections, however, have been underexplored aspects in the social sciences and humanities, particularly in relation to multispecies ethnographies and social aspects of Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR) (Núñez Casal, 2019). 

Although embodied biographies figure as an indispensable part of the efficacy of more conventional biomedical treatments for illnesses and disorders such as autoimmunity (Anderson and Mackay, 2014), ‘lived experiences’ have been largely devalued in the biomedical understanding of health and disease. Here, Western biomedicine is very ill-equipped compared to the integral or holistic ways of seeing health and disease in traditional and complementary medicine (Mathpati et al., 2020). As such, I believe that the pandemic provides an invaluable opportunity to revert this, co-generating and reclaiming other forms of evidence (e.g. embodiment) and of evidence-making (e.g. lay expertise) as well as different ways of healing.

If, as Felt (2020) reminds us, “we experience time mostly through narratives”, then attending and listening to embodied experiences is a way through which to “render time visible” (e.g. disease progression, recovery, relapses). A helpful example is the high incidence of long Covid in women (Brodin, 2021). Beyond scientific explanations of the role of sex hormones such as oestrogen and other immune determinants, it would not be too adventurous to hypothesise about non-biomedical factors such as the structural inequalities and exhaustion women’s bodies experience (particularly those of the most vulnerable). In other words, being asynchronised produces and reproduces what Didier Fassin calls ‘bioinequalities’ (2009) or, on the other way round, ‘immunitary privileges’ (Núñez Casal, 2019), like racial and ethnic disparities in mortality and vaccination coverage during the pandemic, to name a few. 


Becoming inclusive 

Against the erasure of data that truncates the linear and seemingly ‘objective’ scientific knowledge production, our role as connoisseurs, that is, as ‘agents of resistance against a scientific knowledge that pretends it has general authority’ (Stengers, 2018, p. 9), is crucial. Yet, becoming connoisseurs, requires careful reflection on our own positionality and its entanglements in knowledge production. It is not only biomedicine that has devalued local and traditional health cultures, including the role of embodied experiences in health and disease. For many of us, I believe, our own situatedness in the West, even if in dissidence, acts as an inherent impediment. The blooming field of chronobiology, for example, illustrates this well. At the back of the growing interest of today’s biomedicine on temporal environments, metabolism and circadian physiology, there are long genealogies of non-Western medical systems and traditions – knowledge systems that have been studying the spatio-temporal dimension of health and disease for millennia such as Indian indigenous systems of health care like Ayurveda – which biomedical and social sciences and humanities research alike often overlook. Importantly, the ecological nostalgia for a traditional or even ‘ancestral’ past articulated around ‘new’ food cultures in the west (e.g. fermentation, wholegrains, fasting and spirituality, etc) is not only about (mostly non-western) local health traditions and belief systems but, crucially, it also entails the consequential role of women in transgenerational health and wellbeing (i.e. unwaged reproductive labour). Our role as connoisseurs demands an effort to learn from or acknowledge at least knowledge-practices and actors beyond our own (gendered) Western precepts and situatedness. 

To conclude, our embodied being is “not just a location for society and culture” but “forms a basis for and shapes our relationships and creations” (Chilling, 2012, p. 15). As “having fun, doing something we do well for the sheer pleasure of doing it” (Graeber, 2014), I argue, figures as a form of re-passioning our ‘knowledge-in-practice’ about our ‘bodies-in-action’ (Mol and Law, 2004, p. 51). Bringing embodied experiences to the forefront of our critical analysis (either implicitly or explicitly in our research) would (1) make STS research relevant to wider academic and non-academic publics, as well as (2) open up spaces and paces towards ‘sensible’ (read also sustainable and ethical) knowledge-practices in our disciplinary domains, towards the emergence of (inclusive) worlds, worlds that begin with us.  



I would like to thank my dearest friend and mentor Niki Vermeulen for being always there, ‘available’, in both the quotidian and the academic. I am very grateful for being synchronised early into Lisa Blackman’s pioneering work on embodiment as well as into Louise Chambers’ pedagogy of the body at Goldsmiths. I am very grateful to Coll de Lima Hutchison, Mahesh Mathpati, and John Porter and our ‘Ksobha’ group. Our embodied conversations, compassionate support and generosity are joyful and nourishing sources of inspiration.




Aitkenhead, D., (2013, December 3). Peter Higgs: I wouldn’t be productive enough for today’s academic system. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/science/2013/dec/06/peter-higgs-boson-academic-system?fbclid=IwAR11gjnevdeRVbwHwNDwmmcQ4NfJ_082iJP7mMuY_46M1812LvXxMmwxr78

Anderson, W., & Mackay, I. R. (2014). Intolerant bodies: A short history of autoimmunity. Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press.

Barad, K. (2007). Meeting the universe halfway: Quantum physics and the entanglement of matter and meaning. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Blackman, L. (2012). Immaterial bodies: Affect, embodiment, mediation. London, England: SAGE. https://doi.org/10.4135/9781446288153

Bourdieu, P. (1977). Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press. 

Brodin, P. (2021). Immune determinants of COVID-19 disease presentation and severity. Nature Medicine, 27 (1): 28-33. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41591-020-01202-8

Callard, F., & Perego, E. (2021). How and why patients made Long Covid. Social Science & Medicine, 268: 1-5. 

Callard, F. (2020). Very, very mild: covid-19 symptoms and illness classification. Somatosphere. Retrieved from http://somatosphere.net/2020/mild-covid.html/

Despret, V. (2004). ‘The body we care for: Figures of anthropo-zoo-genesis’. Body & Society, 10(2-3), 111–134. https://doi.org/10.1177/1357034X04042938

Fassin, D. (2009). Another politics of life is possible. Theory, Culture & Society, 26(5), 44–60. https://doi.org/10.1177/0263276409106349

Graeber, D. (2014). ‘What’s the point if we can’t have fun?’, The Baffler, 24. Retrieved from https://thebaffler.com/salvos/whats-the-point-if-we-cant-have-fun

Haraway, D. (1988). ‘Situated knowledges: The science question in feminism and the

privilege of partial perspective’. Feminist Studies, 14(3), 575–599. https://doi.org/10.2307/3178066

Haraway, D. (2016). Staying with the trouble: Making kin in the Chthulucene. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Harding, S. (Ed.). (1987). Feminism and methodology: Social science issues. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Hesse-Biber, S. N. (2008). ‘Feminist research’. In: L. M. Given (Ed.), The SAGE encyclopedia of qualitative research methods, vols. 1 & 2, (pp. 335–337). Los Angeles, CA: SAGE.

Leder, D. (1990). The absent body. Chicago, ILL: University of Chicago Press. 

Mathpati, M. M., et al (2020). ‘Population Self-Reliance in Health’ and COVID 19: The need for a 4th tier in the health system’. Journal of Ayurveda and Integrative Medicine

Mol, A., & Law, J. (2004). ‘Embodied action, enacted bodies: The example of hypoglycaemia’. Body & Society, 10(2–3), 43–62. https://doi.org/10.1177/1357034X04042932

Núñez Casal, A. (2021) ‘Feminist Para-Ethnographies: A Proposition for a ‘Critical Friendship’ Between Embodied Experiences and Microbiome Science’. In J.V., Nicholls, E.J. & Denis, F. (Eds.)., Critical Friends and the Choreographies of Care. London Journal in Critical Thought. https://research.gold.ac.uk/id/eprint/29500

Núñez Casal, A. (2019). The microbiomisation of social categories of difference: An interdisciplinary critical science study of the human microbiome as the re-enactment of the immune self. PhD thesis, Goldsmiths, University of London. https://doi.org/10.25602/GOLD.00026597

Núñez Casal, A. (2018). ‘Feminist para-ethnographies: attuning matters of fact and matters of concern in microbiome science’, Fresh Perspectives: Social Research on Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR), The British Academy, London, September 10, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3wGZ3WT1ktM&t=1s

Shildrick, M. (2002). Embodying the monster: Encounters with the vulnerable self. London, England: SAGE.

Shilling, C. (2012). The body and social theory. London, England: SAGE. Retrieved from http://www.sagepub.com/books/Book235613siteId=sageus&prodTypes=Books&q=9780857025333&pageTitle =productsSearch

Smith, L. T. (1999). Decolonizing methodologies: Research and indigenous peoples.London, England: Zed Books.

Sobchack, V. (2004). Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. 

Stengers, I. (2018). Another science is possible: A manifesto for slow science. Cambridge, England: Polity Press.

The Cosmoethics of New Rights Movements

First of all, I’m not going to explain #metoo, Black Lives Matter, and other new rights movements. They speak for themselves. Their aims and their voices are pretty clear. I’m not looking for what lies behind them. I want to describe what lies ahead of them. I believe these movements and battles are a first wave of a forthcoming storm. I think its main feature is an unlimited proliferation of claims on self-sufficing existence. I mean the following: 

We can, of course, put these movements into the familiar framework of human liberation. They can be legitimately viewed as a next step in the long history of fight for human rights, human dignity, and human equality. But there is something more in them. This is a fight not only for the rights of oppressed groups and persons. The stake is much higher: they open an existential Pandora’s box, they pave the way to a new world where every individual, human as well as non-human, can claim its right for being and worthiness independently of its qualities. We are witnessing the birth of the new ethics suited not for the habitual world of human-human (or human-animal) relationships, but for all imaginable and unimaginable kinds of associations between any monads: humans, animals, plants, rivers, technological artefacts, viruses, planets, gods, anything. #metoo and Black Lives Matter, as the most consistent and charged contemporary initiatives, show that racism, sexism, ageism, nationalism, and all other forms of oppression hidden underneath the modern societies are based on a particular bioethics that makes this oppression possible. This is essentially human bioethics, that justifies not only the supremacy of males, whites, etc., but also the domination of humans as the masters of nature and the only beings that can be active, not just reactive or passive. This ethics creates the opportunities for oppression by providing those who have power with the principle of irreducible differences between monads. #metoo, Black Lives Matter, and other new rights movements suggest that new ethics are coming, ethics that are not based on the principle of difference. This ethics knows no Other, only singularities that can enter into relations with other singularities. They have no qualities. They have no form. They are unary beings that live a bare life reduced to the raw fact of existence. Such kind of ethics is best suited for those who want to have an opportunity to make associations irrespective of who or what can be part of these associations. In a sense, new rights movements build a new language that will be used by humans and non-humans to describe their connections. This new language has two properties: it is not owned by the humans and it is able to describe the endless possibilities of action inherent in any being. That is why so many people is afraid that soon we will live in a world where anyone will claim its own rights: from women to babies, from ants to elephants, from sequoias to mushrooms, from robots to pets. These people are right in their fears: the coming ethics makes no distinction among the actors that are entitled to claim their own rights. Henceforth any act of oppression will be met with resistance predicated on the direct monadic existence. 

So, new rights movements teach us two lessons. First, the old lesson of solidarity in the face of those who deny your dignity, restrict your action, want to make you feel inferior to them, take whatever they want from you, and try to keep you silent. The significance of this solidarity cannot be overstated. This is the eternal source of new forms of communication and communion. Only those that share the same experience of oppression can have force to produce assemblages of unexpected nature. In the future post-human condition this resource of solidarity will be as important as it is today. The second lesson concerns the new ethics, cosmoethics. This ethics undermines the established connection between living and power that Foucault has described as biopower—understood not as technology of governmentality, but as a way of making any monad a conduit of particular human interests. It is this biopower that made Weinstein possible. Cosmoethics will put an end to this biopower by removing any barriers to the configurations of humans, animals, plants, minerals, and stars that can be created if we cease trying to produce any associations through a kind of short circuit fueled by humans’ craving to take an exceptional position in these associations. Such cosmoethics is not based on a maxim made universal law, that is, the maxim of talking, creating the world and others in this world by spoken word. It is based on listening. Only listening to other monads can show us their properties and possible lines of association with them. One of the monads is Earth. If we want to find out how to create a new kind of association with it, a kind of association that will not be predicated solely on the “humanization” of nature, we should learn from #metoo, Black Lives Matter, and other new rights movements, because they provide us with the glimpses of a future cosmoethics that will set the rules for non-destructive alliances between humans and non-humans. 

Invisible violence in STS: Lessons on challenges and tactics from the Chilean feminist movement

“No! No! No is no! Which part do you not understand?! The N or the O?!”

Chilean Feminist Protest

Sharing is a fundamental practice of care (Buehler et al., 2015) and is even more necessary to understand cultural challenges such as the current feminist movement and its implications in Chile. This local movement denounces the phenomena of gender inequity and violence and the patriarchal culture. The figure of a masked young women exposing her nipples is an iconic image of the protests in May and June 2018 in Chile (see figure 1), taking over buildings, media and public spaces.

Figure 1: masked women protesting. http://www.t13.cl/noticia/nacional/bbc/la-marcha-en-topless-contra-la-violencia-machista-y-a-favor-de-la-educacion-no-sexista-en-chile

Universities are at the core of this movement, institutions where the movement has raised demands of basic social values related to respect for and the equity of women’s social roles in Chile.

We could assume the protest was a result of the daily violence experienced by Chilean women: subtle institutionalized harassment, sexist education, the lack of women in high-ranking positions, wage inequality and the endangerement of women’s lives by a culture that insufficiently punishes rape. The Chilean feminist movement has also become a place where women share affection and experiences among themselves and with others.

In this contribution, we extend the reflections and experiences articulated by the Chilean movement to the STS community (see also, Pérez Comisso, 2018). The social commitment of feminist movements focusses on the structural inequity of gender, which we refer as “invisible violence”. Practices, perspectives and experiences in STS can learn from this social movement to incorporate strategies to confront invisible violence in scholarly experience. Violence is a complex and under-examined phenomenon, due to the subjectivity of its definition. Gender violence is difficult to describe when it’s not lived, due to the diversity of subjects and cultures. The feminist social movement challenges us with a main question: Can we know what we cannot directly perceive?

Knowledge as experience is a form of power. Scientific knowledge based on the production of verifiable evidence is a primary concern for STS scholars. This knowledge is found inside black boxes that we need to access and analyze to discover its power dynamics. But violence seems difficult to recognize in current research culture and practices. From the feminist movements, we can recognize the requirement to make evident the violence, including experiences so extreme that humans typically try to avoid. The current feminist movement in Chile offers us four resources that make visible the invisible violence that we want to highlight: non-sexist education, sorority caring, the eradication of harassment culture and empathy.

Figure 2: feminist march June 6th, Santiago Chile, courtesy of Patricia Peña.

Making Violence Visible

The first strategy is non-sexist education. This refers to a set of academic transformations intended to avoid stereotypes in our research and learning and to provide visibility and knowledge of topics and questions produced by and of interest to women, as well as promoting the use of inclusive language and practices in educational context. Francesca Bray (2007) illustrates this situation by acknowledging stereotypes: “Men are considered to have a natural affinity with technology, while women are supposed to fear it or not”. These stereotypes are reproduced in the classroom as well as conferences and publications. A challenge in our field is to identify biased practices and transform them. It is a challenge to incorporate gender symmetry outside of actor-network models and to perform it in everyday learning.

A second strategy is sorority caring. Despite recognizing the contribution that gender studies have made to our field for a long time (Rose, 1997); dominant approaches have yet to incorporate the practices of feminist thought. We understand that positionality is not enough to inspire sorority behavior. The communality of interpersonal trust, support and comprehension provided a safe place for the members of the sorority, creating a care circle. The behaviors of feminist protestants in Chile (#OlaFeminista), Argentina (#NiUnaMenos, #AbortoLegalYa) or the American #MeToo don’t require explanation among their participants because their members connect through a collective feeling. This behavior happens in highly aware communities that recognize common experiences despite the inherent diversity of their members. Observing these elements in our behaviors, we could promote academic support networks in our practices and help to transform the experiences of STS scholars in more positive ways from a community grassroots perspective.

A third lesson in eradicating the harassment culture is the importance of not remaining silent. We refer to harassment as a multifaceted set of practices not limited to sexual harassment, which include several oppressive behaviors such as hierarchical mistreatment, disrespect, institutional injustices and abuse of power. These situations are common in academic life as well in gender violence because harassment is naturalized in several cultures. The feminist movement shows us that direct action is the only of confronting the harassment culture.

Denounce, protest and don’t be silent, a crystalized culture must be broken. Chilean feminists shout, “My body is not to be touched; my body is not for sale. My body is to be defended”, to exemplify how women fight against abuses. In STS recent examples also raise concerns about racial misrepresentation (Mascarenhas, 2018) and the abuse of power in hierarchies (as in the case of #HauTalk), but explicit personal and institutional action is still required to eliminate harassment, at least, in our scholastic communities.

Finally, a transformative insight from the experience of the feminist social movement must be incorporated into STS practices, namely Empathy. We define empathy as a personal skill used to connect with the feelings, thought or attitudes of another person. This is a key issue in feminist movements, which allows women in these social movements to acknowledge their internal diversity (class, nationality, race, age, privilege, etc.). Lack of empathy reproduces a shared blindness about gender inequality and despite long term feminist studies and movements the status quo remains in insensitive communities. A seminal case in arousing gender empathy in STS was the study of household magazines by Ruth Schwartz Cowan (1976). In this study, she overcame the dominant commercial perspective about the electrification of the domestic space, as well identifying an (until that moment) unrecognized industrial and intimate revolution taking place inside the houses of American middle-class housewives. With the techniques of a historian of technology Schwartz Cowan emphasized this cultural transformation, and the condition of women, making visible this fundamental industrial phenomenon. Feminist research is about seeing through our practices, reflecting on our social and intellectual blindness, to be able to observe the invisible.

Figure 3: feminist march June 6th, Santiago Chile, courtesy of Patricia Peña.

Begin for yourself, begin for the other.

Making violence visible is necessary to confront its pervasive nature. As we have learnt from contemporary social feminist movements and from our own tradition of feminist STS, we cannot keep violence encapsulated, ignored or nuanced in black boxes. Nuance is disallowed, not only because it can blur theories (Healy, 2017) but because it can even dissolve the limits of the acts of violence presented in our (research) life. For this reason we propose that exercising empathy is a way to start revealing the realities of systematic violence, particularly that which we do not experience every day.

An active and dialogic engagement is required with these emerging tools, methods and methodologies (non-sexist education, sorority caring, the eradication of harassment culture and empathy) that contemporary feminist movements have highlighted in their protests. In our view, to implement a new ethos of care inspired by the feminist movement and the experience of women (that surround us in the field) we can begin actively practicing empathy in our practices and our assessment of evidence. In the challenge to improve individually and as an academic community, to see things that we otherwise have no direct experience of, Empathy and dialogue will empower us. Those of us who have the privilege of not perceiving some of this violence have a responsibility to learning the consequences of our own blindness through empathy with others.

Violet spots against sexual harassment in the University: an activist collective response from Spain

26th April 2018, 15:00. A bunch of students and some academic staff, female and male, enter a classroom at the Faculty of Political Sciences and Sociology at Complutense University in Madrid. Smiles and waves are exchanged, occasionally nervous, while we sit in circle around the diaphanous space, as seats and tables have been pushed against the walls. After a while the group divides up in four, and each small group moves to a corner of the room. There, the groups prepare, using the technique of the theatre of the oppressed (Boal, 1974), everyday scenes of harassment at the University, and also the typical responses we tend to offer, both as co-students and academic staff. Body is placed on first line to generate a fiction where to rehearse possible solutions. Laughter, tears, and the so often felt outrage draw again in a sharp way while we revive scenes that have passed through our skins. Scenes that bring both shivers and disgust, and the memory of the impotence that we’ve felt all too often. Emotions that get stuck in our chests yet become political, all the while open to collective reflection. Together we learn from our own experiences of harassment and not the least from the way we’ve failed to give support. The feeling of being together and thinking together makes anger return to us as a political tool, transforming “silence into language and action” (Lorde, 1984:40): ¡Escucha, hermana, aquí está tu manada! [Listen, sister, here stands your pack!]. At the end of the meeting -a workshop on support strategies to sexual aggressions, sexual harassment, and harassment towards LGBTQI people-, the recently self-made chapas [pins] of the violet spot that we are collectively building are distributed among the volunteers. Through the low cost, low tech, analogical technology of the violet chapa [pin], we become mobile violet spots accessible to anyone requiring the support of the Somosaguas Violet Spot. 

Fig. 1: Picture of the violet spot chapas [pins]. Courtesy of the author
Somosaguas Violet Spot is an activist, non-institutional network of self-help, collective support that denounces sexual and LGBTQI harassment and sexual aggressions. The collective is formed by academic staff, students and administrative personnel alike, and was recently created in our Faculty. It has been mobilised to counter the absence of effective responses from the academic institutions to the issue of harassment in our University.

The Violet Spot have drawn strength from international mobilisations that make visible and denounce sexual harassment and sexual aggressions prevalent in the media and in the social networks worldwide in the last year – although many of them have a less well known story. #MeeToo in the English speaking world. #NiUnaMenos in Argentina and Latin America. #TomaFeminista, the feminist occupation of Universities in Chile against sexual harassment this May. #Cuéntalo, along with the mobilisations against the outraged trial and sentence in the collective rape case known as “La manada” [the pack], as well as the massive demonstrations of the 8th of march and the success of the feminist strike [#HuelgaFeminista #8M] in Spain. All of them are part of a new feminist global mobilisation wave that move online and offline crying out #YaBasta [#Enough].

The sexual harassment support workshop and the Somosaguas Violet Spot were born with the objective of making the University community as a whole responsible for the vulnerability, discomfort, violence and harassment that gender and LGBTQI people face in University campuses, whereas very often responsibility of the abuse seems to fall back into the assaulted person. We demand institutional responsibility, but we tried to go beyond the current Sexual Harassment and LGBTQI Harassment Protocol at Complutense University passed on 20th December 2016. The protocol treats accusations as isolated and exceptional, instead of recognising them as part of the “organisation culture” of the very institution, as Sarah Ahmed pointed out in her entrance on Sexual Harassment at her blog feministkilljoy, of 15th december 2015. Yet the protocol, now held as an institutional device, is the direct result of ongoing student mobilisations against sexual harassment at Complutense University in Madrid (UCM) initiated in 2013. An example of this mobilisation is the action that took place at the UCM Chancellor’s Office under the slogan “Nos desnudáis. Protocolo de acoso, ¡ya!” [You strip us. Harassment protocol, now!].

The protocol was achieved, but it participates of the institutional inertia, more interested in protecting the institution than the person denouncing, thus provoking revictimizations, invisibility and lack of institutional support. We could have bitterly asked ourselves with Sara Ahmed if the protocol has become a “mechanism of non-performativity”: “when naming something does not bring something into effect or (more strongly) when something is name in order not to bring something into effect” (Ahmed, 2017: 106-107). 

Following Ahmed’s (2017) image, academic institutions -even apparently progressive ones- are part of a “brick wall” that reproduce inequality, and to take out one single brick of the wall requires of an almost heroic effort. #AllMalePanel has raised the issue of lack of female visibility in the Academia and how it very often works as an Old Boy’s Club, were women, LGBTQI, non conforming gender, racialized and functionally diverse people seems to be perpetually “out of place”. “Quiero ser libre no valiente” [“I want to be free, not brave”] was one of the slogans we sang in the different recent feminist demonstrations in Spain. Yet, setting up a sexual harassment complaint at University enhances insecurity and vulnerability. Not only because you need to testify again and again, but also since your testimony will be continuously put into question, as it is identified as an attack to the institution in the first place. 

Providing evidence becomes, then, a key issue. “Matters of fact” become questionable biases constructions, or even “unfortunately misunderstandings” too seriously taken. One word against another. Yet, maybe, as Latour (2004) suggested we could move away from “matters of fact” to “matters of concern”, bringing to the fore the collective effort in sustaining current state of affairs in academic institutions and also assembling together the complex connections held to sustain the lives and bodies of the people harmed within institutional walls. Yet to make of sexual harassment a “matter of concern” is still not enough. We need to think about the assembled work of care required to sustain our lives (Puig de la Bellacasa, 2012; Tronto, 1993). To transform matters of fact into matters of care (Puig de la Bellacasa, 2011). Life entangles in strings that hold us as we also held them, both sustaining it and letting it go (Stengers, 2011). String figures using Haraway’s words that urge us to “cultivate response-ability” through a “collective knowing and doing, an ecology of practices” (Haraway, 2016: 34)

Thus, to resist collectively we have set our particular “string figure”. A rather ordinary clothesline at the entrance of the Students University Cafe. A clothesline to make visible sexual harassment. We have invited all passers-by to peg their own stories of harassment on the clothesline, as a washing out display to give presence to situations usually identified as absent. We wanted to wash out the silence that seems to ghost the university conjuring isolation into collective action. The narratives, many times dismissed as unreal, impossible to proof, take space and become visible, to be claimed as “matters of concern” (Latour, 2004). But the string that holds them together entails a collective effort and learning process. Both the clothesline and the Somosaguas Violet Spot are strings figures: collective caring devices both held by us but that hold us mattering care in particular ways to respond to the unavoidable demand of “staying with the trouble” (Haraway, 2016).

Fig. 2: Picture of the Sexual Harassment clothesline. Somosaguas Violet Spot, May 2018.  Courtesy of  one of the authors.
Fig. 3: Picture of the Sexual Harassment clothesline. Somosaguas Violet Spot, May 2018.  Courtesy of  one of the authors

Acknowledgments: We would like to thank Maria Kristina Rustad Nordang for her committed English review of our article.