Video School

Isabelle Stengers, Cosmopolitics: Learning To Think With Sciences, Peoples and Natures

Produced by Saint Mary's University

The main actant here is Gaia. Although her name does not appear in the title of this lecture, her presence and insistent intrusion is inescapable, as we witness daily everywhere around us. Gaia is an ancient figure, the primal Greek mother goddess, older than the gods of the Greek cities. But she does not represent the earth as source of nourishment, the benevolent mother. Instead, she is awesome, powerful, caring little for the fate of her offspring. She is a force not to be offended, and her patience can no longer be taken for granted. By naming her here, Stengers is giving a name to the metastable assemblage, composed of a complex coupling between processes, which is erupting and intruding through climate change. By metastable, understand liable to brutal global mutations. By naming the goddess Gaia, Stengers signals something more: the eruption of a transcendence to be acknowledged. Gaia is not what unites people, but what addresses the dominant tales of modern history, precisely speaking to those who believed progress relied on the very refusal of transcendence.

The insistent fact is that Gaia forces a question upon us about the quality, even the very existence, of our future. The question is one that the inhabitants of the future will ask, and that many are already asking today: Will life be worth living? The situation is such that we can no longer claim the freedom to remove ourselves from the impending catastrophe, or cataclysm, as it may be. Addressing a room of intellectuals, those who are paid—probably, Stengers says, since she is speaking to a Canadian audience—to think, envisage, imagine, and propose, Stengers evokes the issue of trust. For Gaia’s question urgently involves trust: Are we as intellectuals answerable to the trust that has been placed in us? Can we envisage the way we would answer those who trust us when they ask or will ask: “You know, and what are you doing with this knowledge, and how is it changing your matters of concern?” Unfortunately, says Stengers, the conditions of knowledge production in the academic factory have made it increasingly difficult to answer to that trust, because of the imperative to produce knowledge that is of interest to “the competitive wargames of the corporate world.” Under pressure from a competitive economic regime that is a war of each against all others, intellectual practices have been humiliated, and divorced from their capacity to act. And as we know, and as Stengers well articulates, “competition is generally indifferent to achievements.” What answers might have been imagined in the university have been increasingly forced into normative frames, easily digestible by the apparatus of high-ranking journals and highway publishing. Feeling the challenge of the trust that is put to us, we must reclaim our capacities to think, to feel, and to imagine, or even simply reclaim the very possibility of our reclaiming.

Stengers’s project in this lecture is to articulate one process of reclaiming amidst an ecology of reclaimings that she calls for others to take on. She speaks as a philosopher of science. Her intent is to reclaim modern practices that have defined themselves in terms of the conquest of knowledge and the civilizing mission, refuting the lie that she locates at the birth of modern science. The project is ambitious and controversial. It implies returning to the possibility of trust in the adventure of ideas and the idea of civilization, and countering the modernist project that turned science into a general model of objectivity, rationality, and universality. For Stengers, this is necessary so that we can escape the guilt and nihilism of useless postmodern games, but more importantly, so that we can reclaim a positive definition of ourselves in the West in order to weave different relations with peoples and natures.

Stengers endorses a pragmatic approach to knowledge, following a Jamesian pragmatism that gives primordial importance to the making of relations. She identifies this relation-making capacity as a synonym for civilization. Civilized knowledge, for Stengers, is a matter of testing and achievement. The weaving of relations in which such knowledge takes place cannot rely on a stable model of verifiability and reliability, implying rationalism or objectivity. For reliability depends on the distribution between what is defined as mattering and what can be ignored. A reclaimed notion of civilization understands knowledge as an achievement, that is, a very specific case of relation-making between human beings and what verifies the relevance of their questions. Achievement implies a risk of failure, the tottering at the border between peace and war. For certain answers to questions might in fact be acts of war against some of those for whom these questions matter, those who verify the relevance of the questions. Think, for example, of scientific expertise on genetic manipulation, and the aggression that those supposedly objective, rational, and scientific answers might pose to peoples, animals, and natures. Stengers argues that scientists should render their knowledge politically active, that is, engaged in the experience of the difference it may make in the formulation of an issue and its envisaged solutions. Against the dictates of the knowledge economy, its emphasis on speed and financial results, Gaia is insisting that we take the time to reclaim a knowledge ecology.

Isabelle Stengers is the author of many books on the philosophy of science, and is Professor of Philosophy at the Université Libre de Bruxelles, Belgium.

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