CISP Online

Blog of the Centre for Invention & Social Process, Goldsmiths

Launching the CISP Salon: Vexations and Diplomacy in the Ecologies of Care


Visiting Research Fellow, Dr Jade Henry shares her reflections from the first CISP Salon of the 2018-2019 series, ‘Ecologies of Care.

In December, a group of doctoral and early career researchers met to launch the 2018-2019 CISP Salon. The theme for this year’s Salon, “Ecologies of Care”, is a reference to Stengers’ invitation to deploy “ecologies of practice” as a “tool for thinking” about the contested practices of technoscience (2005). We will be thinking particularly about practices in science and technology which aspire to care. As Puig de la Bellacasa notes, scientific projects and technology solutions are regularly put forth in response to calls for care in our fragile and troubled world, even as these practices create and reinforce power asymmetries that produce injustice (2011). We therefore adopt Stengers’ idea of ecologies of practice as a way of analysing some of these fraught politics of care in a selection of readings this year.

Care is considered vital to the continuation of livable worlds and is of longstanding interest to feminist thinkers, but Murphy cautions us against conflating care with affection, positive feeling or political goods (2015). In her paper, she argues instead for a vexation of care to unsettle “the ways positive feelings, sympathy, and other forms of attachment can work with and through the grain of hegemonic structures, rather than against them” (p. 731). She traces how the self-help protocols embraced by feminist health advocates and researchers in North America are entangled in uneasy racist and colonial legacies.  Compellingly, Murphy directs her criticism at those she cares for, calling upon fellow researchers and activists in feminist technoscience to situate their emancipatory work as part of larger cultural, economic and historical formations. In doing so, she offers her critique as a form of “caring work” that is “not in search of a properly corrected feminist science studies” (p. 722), but as “contributing to, and not simply working against, a better politics of care” (p. 719).

Murphy’s empirical vexations of care resonate with Stengers’ philosophical treatment of diplomacy and its role within ecologies of practice (2005). Stengers suggests that if science is comprised of diverse sets of knowledge-making practices each comprising its own unique habitat, then the task for “thinkers” is to understand how such habitats relate within larger, flourishing ecologies of practices. Here, the “thinker’s task” is not to emancipate by revealing the Truth, nor is it about finding common ground. Instead, the role of “the thinker” is to attend closely to practices as “they diverge” (p. 192). In situations of controversy, where “attachments” or values causing a habitat to think, feel and act are imposed as universal obligations for all habitats, the “thinker” becomes a “diplomat” (p. 194).  “Diplomacy,” writes Stengers, “does not refer to good will, togetherness, a common language or an intersubjective understanding”, but is a pragmatic problem requiring the enactment of new proposition –  a new articulation or construction where “a contradiction (either/or) has been turned into a contrast (and/and)” (p. 193). Like Murphy’s vexations of care, diplomacy requires both an attunement to difference, as well as the generation of new, if modest, spaces that can articulate and sustain the co-existence of such divergence.

Reading Stengers’ philosophical paper does not necessarily evoke what Haraway calls “the trouble” in science and technology scholarship and activism (2010). True to its title, Murphy’s work is more passionate and unsettling because it is directed at cherished feminist knowledge practices. Her paper raises painful complicities, uneasy alliances and distinctions between knowledge-making practices with similar aspirations of care. These vexations of care provoked careful discussion amongst us concerning the differences between queer theory, postcolonial studies and the various waves and strands of feminism. Gathered face to face around an oval table on the 12th floor of Warmington Tower, we were appreciative of the opportunity to work slowly together to disentangle and comprehend the charged and entangled divergences that have troubled the wider ecology of academia in recent times.  Returning to Stengers, we are reminded of the value of a Salon, the importance of the humble academic reading group as an enactment of diplomacy, an intimate space that nurtures “stammering” (p. 195) rather than certitude, a gathering where scholars are responsible for “paying attention as best you can, to be as discerning as possible, as discriminating as you can be about a particular situation” (p. 188).

jades blog post

Photo Credit: Nicole Harrington


Haraway D (2010) When species meet: Staying with the trouble. Environment and Planning D:
Society and Space 28(1): 53–55.

Murphy, Michelle (2015) “Unsettling Care: Troubling Transnational Itineraries of Care in Feminist Health Practices.” Social Studies of Science 45 (5): 717–37.

Stengers, Isabelle (2005) “Introductory notes on an ecology of practices” Cultural Studies Review. 11(1). P. 184-196.



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