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CSISP Salon with David Oswell: In an age of devices before devices, are we all post-representational?

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David Oswell began this CSISP Salon with the assertion that devices like apps are everywhere. STS researchers use devices as most people use apps: as tools for navigating through the complexities of the social world. The novelty of STS approaches in social science are often premised on the claim that it’s possible to open up and look inside devices. Navigating in contemporary STS is thus often characterised as a process of following and tracing the inscriptions constituting a device; through practices of description STS works through the device out to the world. Moreover, as Savage and Burrows recently argued, the development of description as a mode of scholarly engagement is needed for a contemporary sociology to address the challenges posed by a “knowing capitalism” capable of appropriating the devices sociologists once thought to be their own. In this Salon, then, we sought to interrogate this alliance between the study of devices and the practices of description. In order to navigate our way through a discussion of devices, Oswell invited us to draw comparisons between contemporary STS formulations of the device and work in cultural theory from the 1980s. By looking at Ian Hunter’s (1984) ‘After representation‘ and Colin Mercer’s (1984) ‘Entertainment ore the policing of virtue‘ this Salon was an attempt to think with the devices of the Victorian novel and to contrast these with the shinier devices that STS is more familiar with.

Oswell’s proposition to us was that if the shift to devices was grounded in a promise of a turn to the “material” then this approach was not unique to STS work, but was found more broadly in “post-representational” approaches across the social sciences. Surveying a broad theorisation of devices which included Deleuze – device as “assemblage” – Foucault – device as “dispositif” or “apparatus” – and Callon – device as “agencement” –, Oswell asked whether specific theories of the device entailed particular commitments of scale. Was there a tension between devices theorised as being big, complex, and materially heterogeneous and the conventional talk of devices as small, simple and surreptitious? In relation to these questions, cultural theory potentially offers an alternative avenue for thinking about devices and the associated forms of scholarship. The post-representational theory of Hunter and Mercer asks how it’s possible to understand the complex relationships between the novel and Victorian society when representational approaches are no longer adequate. Both Hunter and Mercer invite us to consider particular literary capacities – reading, watching, and spectating – as inter-textual artefacts engendered by the Victorian novel. In other words, where representational approaches to literary capacities were founded on a discontinuous relationship between the worlds of the novel and the Victorian reader, the shift to devices enables both worlds to be treated equally as textual fabrications. In both Mercer and Hunter’s accounts, then, texts are the “surface of emergence” for literary capacities whose foundations go no deeper. And yet, though they emerge on the “surface”, these literary capacities are nonetheless built up and deployed in various ways, they do not simply “emerge” from nowhere. If, like Hunter and Mercer’s accounts, the practice of describing devices in STS stems similarly from the critique of representation, Oswell invited us to think about how description of surfaces can account for properties such as depth and duration. Was there a tension between the notion of surface implied by the study of devices and the aspiration of sociology to attain a “thickness” in its descriptions of the social world?

The discussion centred on the importance of devices in relation to the recent proposition of Live Sociology. In a recent edition of Sociological Review, Les Back argues that sociology as a “crafty science” needs thickness which combines commitments to both innovation and critical reflection. Is there a risk that we lose this thickness if we use only devices to navigate the social world, approaching them first as small and simple black boxes? Furthermore, critical reflection and political aspiration have often coincided in the sociological imagination. If the role of critical reflection seems often to be put aside in following the inscriptions inside the device then there this too has political implications. If navigating with devices entails abandoning representation then what kind of recourse to political processes is left? For example, a pertinent objection was raised that devices may assemble political actors but there are as yet too few studies of devices that can account for the social movements and identity politics that sociology has long concerned itself with. For a sociology of devices to succeed as a live sociology, we wondered whether it must ultimately enable sociologists to navigate not only through contemporary problematics of innovation but also to draw associations between these and the longer term concerns sociology from which it draws its thickness.

Please note: Image of Charles Dickens’s Our Mutal Friend from University of North Texas Libraries

One Comment

  1. Thanks Laurie for the great summary (and David for the provocations!). These are some important questions, I think. I might add that as well as a (over?) focus on the small/surreptitious devices in STS, devices also tend to be associated with the technological/technical. One additional question might be what does it mean to follow a lived-body-as-device, a seemingly quite different material entity (even if coupled to various technological prostheses). This might (arguably) bridge to those questions of identity politics that you mention at the end.

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