This week I am in Geneva working on my British Academy/Leverhulme Trust funded project on the history of disease eradication. I'll share more on my findings in the archives of the Smallpox Eradication Programme at a later date. I must admit that, perhaps unsurprisingly, I have enjoyed the time away from classes and the early morning commute! I've also found myself having plenty of time to catch up on reading - the archive I am working at is only open 9am-12pm, 2-4pm!
In my time away from the archive, I have frequently been found sunning myself in the squares of the old city. I have managed to finish a book that has been on my shelf for a while now: Grégoire Chamayou's excellent Drone Theory (Penguin, 2015). I have been following Chamayou's work for several years now - I discuss his Les corps vils (La Découverte, 2014) in a forthcoming paper - and this latest polemic has been discussed at length, most notably in a series of posts by Derek Gregory. As the length of Gregory's account testifies, there is a lot in here for geographers. And yet it was also refreshing to discover that Chamayou acknowledges a significant debt to geographers (Gregory, Stephen Graham, Alison Williams and others) in his theorisation of the spatial-sensitivities of late-modern warfare. This is a philosophical and genealogical account, that deftly weaves a compelling and critical narrative moving from the empirically-rich discussion of the kill-chain to the broader theorisation of political bodies and the repercussions of dronisation/automation for the theorisation of sovereignty, responsibility and care. It's a short and easily-accessible book, so I won't go into a blow-by-blow account of its strengths (please, go read it yourself) but I do want to draw attention to a brief paragraph that piqued my interest in which Chamayou justifies his method.
Having made strange the recent shift to drone warfare, Chamayou poses the question: "what might the theorisation of a weapon signify?" (p. 14). Here, he draws on the work of philosopher Simone Weil to remind us that an ethical discussion of conflict cannot solely meditate on the ends of warfare ("is it just?"), but must also be attentive to the means through which war is waged. For Weil (1999, 174), "the very essence of the materialist method is that, in its examination of any human event whatever, it attaches much less importance to the ends pursued than to the consequences necessarily implied by the working out of the means employed." In other words, we should avoid fixating on the moralisation of violence and do something else: examine the means through which violence is meted out, and examine what is determined through the choice of these particular means (as opposed to other possibilities). As Chamayou suggests:
Wonderful! This is a call to remember the ways in which political problems are rendered technical; it is a call to re-evaluate the socio-political impact of this "new" technology and to use that as a way to highlight the moral implications of these developments. While I'm not working on drones or human warfare, I do see similarities here with the manner in which the question of disease eradication (a war on nature, if you like) is approached through a moral language (the "farewell to harms") and ignores the productive avenues of inquiry that a focus on the technical means facilities - an approach that allows us to re-examine, and problematise, questions of public health and underdevelopment.
"Become a technician" is a wonderful place to start a polemical account: familiarise in order that you may problematise. A lot to think about over the course of my final few days here in Geneva!
I've currently got fieldwork on the brain. I'm in the process of writing a 3,000-word reflection for my PGCAP course on a field class that I was a part of before Christmas. I'm also looking forward to hosting a group of teachers next week at the East London Geographical Association for a half-day session on conducting urban fieldwork (with my colleagues Kate Amis and Alastair Owens). In that session, we will discuss fieldwork design and also reflect a little on the position of fieldwork in the new A-level specifications. How, for instance, can teachers do cultural geography research in a way that is rigorous, relevant and not at all fuzzy?
It was great then to sit down to read some more Isabel Stengers last night. I've now moved on to look at her multi-volume work on Cosmopolitics. Contained in the second volume is a wonderful section comparing the experimental and field sciences. Andrew Barry in his recent piece on "the geographical canon" in the Journal of Historical Geography cites this passage and notes that "[Stengers] seeks to give a new sense of value to those ecologies of practice that address the contingency, path-dependency and complexity of the world outside of the purified domain of the laboratory" (2015, 90). This is great to hear as I place particular value on field research as a tool to disrupt our established regimes of practice. However, it is also a challenge for our teachers who are heading out into the field with their classes. There is the ever present danger that the results in the field won't really map onto the conceptual/modelling work already done in the classroom. While physical geographers can talk about error bars and standard deviation, it seems a little trickier to square contingency with cultural geography. We'll be unpacking how to deal with the unexpected in human geography fieldwork next week.
I'm going to include a little Stengers in my presentation to the teachers, and I'm going to leave them with this challenge taken from Cosmopolitics (see the slide below): how do we inhabit the problematic tensions between what our textbook models require and what the field chooses to disclose? Answers on a postcard.
Now that the bulk of lecture writing for the year is over, my commute to London becomes a little less frantic. I swap the Keynote software for the iPad and finally delve into some of the books and papers that I have been stockpiling over the past couple of months. My "to read" list is very long, but I triage the readings according to projects that I am working on at the moment - I find it best to read only those articles or books that are directly relevant to my current writing and research.
It was great, then, to turn to a book that has long been on my shelf: Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent and Isabelle Stengers' A History of Chemistry (Harvard, 1996). Here is the description from the publisher:
From the earliest use of fire to forge iron tools to the medieval alchemists’ search for the philosopher’s stone, the secrets of the elements have been pursued by human civilization. But, as the authors of this concise history remind us, “disciplines like physics and chemistry have not existed since the beginning of time; they have been built up little by little, and that does not happen without difficulties.” Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent and Isabelle Stengers present chemistry as a science in search of an identity, or rather as a science whose identity has changed in response to its relation to society and to other disciplines. The authors—respected, prolific scholars in history and philosophy of science—have distilled their knowledge into an accessible work, free of jargon. They have written a book deeply enthusiastic about the conceptual, experimental, and technological complexities and challenges with which chemists have grappled over many centuries.
Beginning with chemistry’s polymorphous beginnings, featuring many independent discoveries all over the globe, the narrative then moves to a discussion of chemistry’s niche in the eighteenth-century notion of Natural Philosophy and on to its nineteenth-century days as an exemplar of science as a means of reaching positive knowledge. The authors also address contentious issues of concern to contemporary scientists: whether chemistry has become a service science; whether its status has “declined” because its value lies in assisting the leading-edge research activities of molecular geneticists and materials scientists; or whether it is redefining its agenda.
A History of Chemistry treats chemistry as a study whose subject matter, the nature and behavior of qualitatively different materials, remains constant, while the methods and disciplinary boundaries of the science constantly shift.
I was drawn to the book because of the connections between chemistry and the pharmaceutical industry (expanded upon by Andrew Barry and others). I'm particularly interested in the scientific-social-economic relations through which chemicals emerge. Bensaude-Vincent and Stengers suggest that matter that emerges through the research and development process is transformed into "informed material" that is rich in information and saturated by relations (in the laboratory and beyond). I've taken lots of notes here that will be relevant for my second year course on biomedicine - I will be expanding and re-writing this next year - so hopefully there will be some space to delve into the laboratory with my class. In particular, I think the slide below will feature somewhere:
This morning I received a copy of Guillaume Lachenal's Le medicament qui devait sauver l'Afrique (La Decouverte, 2014). The title is translated to English by the publishers as The hidden story of the medicine meant to save Africa. I've encountered Guillaume's work before, particularly his theorisation of colonial "absurdity" and unreason.
As it's going to take me a while to plough through the French text (I'm a little rusty) for a full review, here is the English overview of the text from the publisher instead:
"The story, deliberately concealed, begins in the 1940s and continues until the 1970s. It is about a "miracle remedy for sleeping sickness" : Lomidine. Before being recognized as ineffective and dangerous, it was injected millions of times in Africa. The author follows its history step by step, showing the ways in which the medicine was used as a tool of power. A bitter, unprecedented historic investigation on the underside of colonial politics."
For those that can't wait for my own review, you can read an excellent overview of the book by Pierre-Marie David at Somatosphere.