Studying Unformed Objects: Deviation

From the Series: Studying Unformed Objects

Photo by Carmen Jost, licensed under CC BY NC SA.

How to stalk the unformed object?

In the 1990s and often under the influence of actor-network theory, early technoscience studies often told stories in which historically or culturally specific relations converged to fix facts and brought new entities into the world (from microbes to atoms to DNA) as new self-evidencies. These stories could be quite formulaic: in this lab or field site, this instrument, combined with this new policy, with a funding apparatus, a standardized coding system, and so on, cajoled the matter of the world to present itself as a new kind of entity, a new fact of the matter, that, once materialized, came retroactively to be part of a broader cosmology. Once microbes were secured, we had always had microbes.

Perhaps not so strangely, today this is rarely the story anthropologists, historians, and sociologists tell. Instead, scholarship is more likely to describe a version of the unformed object, of becomings that are never fully finished, of conflicted materializations always in a state of uneasy entanglement, or queer objects that defy attempts to pin them down. Technoscience studies has come to embrace what Donna Haraway called “the promise of monsters.” In other words, technoscience studies is building up a taxonomy of the “ontological choreographies” of unformed objects, to use Charis Thompson’s phrase. But where early technoscience studies was often always-more-of-the-same narratives, the stories of unformed objects tend to be heterogeneous, open-ended, and a challenge to convey in linear writing. Perhaps we need a field guide to these stories, but not one organized around a drab Linnaean taxonomy or phylogenetic tree. These creatures of wonder, these monsters, these curious surprises, need something more like a bestiary—an always unfinished compendium of magnificent and perhaps fanciful creatures. Rather than an encyclopedia filled with facts of the matter, technoscience studies is closer to drafting a bestiary populated with strange weather, curious atmospheres, and amorphous clouds. What follows is a thin first draft of such a bestiary, an unformed object that lets go of completeness. (I thank Astrid Schrader for her help in collecting these.)

It's all becoming: Kathleen Stewart’s elegant provocation corrals perhaps the most wondrous entry for this bestiary: the object as always already unformed. She offers us a vision of worlds in a continuous ontological condition of becoming. When subscribing to a relational ontology (whether assembled through nonrepresentational theory, new materialisms, or feminist and queer theories of relationality, take your pick) all things are conjured as always unformed. All things are recomposed through an analytic alchemy that transforms fixed or steady entities into entanglements of becoming within relational forces. All things become responsive capacities to be affected and affect within animated atmospheres of forces of attraction and repulsion, of intensity and dissipation. Stewart, skillfully animating this postmetaphysical turn, calling for a compositional writing that is not only attuned to the “prismatic, flickering, and gathered” relations that conjure objects: compositional writing also participates in the becoming of objects. Or, translated into other theoretical vocabularies (from Brian Massumi, Marilyn Strathern, and Judith Butler), research and writing participates in actualizing virtuals, being surprised by partial connections, or materializing or dematerializing the worlds it encounters.

Anticipatory objects: Entities that are in a state of waiting, objects shaped by the not-yet of the future. Preemption, preparedness, speculation, and forecasting are examples of anticipatory phenomena. Andrew Lakoff, Melinda Cooper, Ben Anderson, Vincanne Adams, Adele Clarke, and I are examples of people tracking entities that have not yet arrived.

Undecidable entities: Whether a particle in physics or a microorganism in the ocean, the undecidable entity refuses to respond predictably. When scientists investigate one set of relations that make an entity, other relations slip away, divert, or surprise. Karen Barad and Astrid Schrader stalk undecidability.

Imperceptibilities and insensibilities: Domains or relations that are pushed into imperceptions by virtue of the particular limits of a given regime of making sensing of the world. For example, a dose response curve can only chart reactions to a chemical that are regular and specific to that chemical, rendering as imperceptible reactions that are idiosyncratic. This is a kind of unformed object I’ve participated in. Kathryn Yusoff conjures insensibilities as forms of responsiveness lost to human-crafted sensibilities.

Illnesses you have to fight to have: Embodied states that technoscience does not register as a coherent disease entity can become partially materialized through struggle, even as they are viewed as improperly organized by biomedicine. Joe Dumit, Jackie Orr, and Chloe Silverman write about such skirmishes.

Affective entanglements: Entities that cannot be fully captured in representations and are rendered through nonrepresentational engagements of embodiment and feeling by scientists. Natasha Myers's work animates affective entanglements.

Clouds: Loose and dynamic assemblies of relations that make up the atmosphere that evokes an entity. Celia Lowe marvels at clouds.

Slow violence: Large-scale forms of incremental, chronic becoming of uneven worlds caused by global capitalism, a chronic alteration that stretches over intergenerational spans of time. Rob Nixon’s writing investigates strategies for telling stories that help to bring into legibility the slow violence of planetary mutation, which is otherwise hard to notice or conceptualize.

All these versions of unformed objects were brought into being by scholars who situated their writing in the ontological politics of technoscience. In many ways, they are the inventions, the epistemic things, that technoscience studies has created. All the entries in this little primer of a bestiary offer examples of writing in which scholars have been responsible to the invention of their own object of study—from regimes of imperceptibility to viral clouds to slow violence—rather than replicating the world as already given by a research site. Entries for this bestiary could easily multiply.

My own work as a historian of yesterday and a feminist technoscience scholar participates in elucidating unformed objects, and I am both excited and suspicious of the ways that technoscience studies is helping to conjure this cosmology of unceasing becoming-in-relation. What excites me is the commitment to more accountable stories of the technoscientific worlds we are participating in and encountering. Dynamic entanglements of response and affect, as opposed to neat networks, make for stimulating accounts of the work and play of technoscience that leave themselves open to ongoing surprise and to a greater range of actors and sites, forsaking the predictable narrative in which facts resolve themselves, disputes are settled, or entities become retroactively transhistorical, fixed for all time.

At the same time, I can’t help but meditate on the suggestion that our scholarly exuberance for unformed objects is not necessary a critical or politically charged commitment, but is in profound resonance with contemporary epistemologies by which global capitalism makes sense of itself as ceaselessly spinning, vibrating, and unfixing the relations that compose worlds. It is with this worry, then, that I turn back to the first entry in this partial bestiary (the relational ontology) and to Kathleen Stewart’s provocation. If all is becoming, it is not the mere state of becoming that has any charge for writing and research. Sure, all is becoming. But as Britt Dahlberg’s post suggests, it is the craft of looking sideways at self-evidencies that is so tricky. The craft of understanding objects through the atmosphere of relations that dynamically conjure them is hard-won by scholars through careful research and writing practice. I can’t help but find myself drawing on my historian’s sensibility to ask: what is it about our present—what forces, what infrastructures of global capital, conditions of planetary climate change, noninnocent affective economics—that provokes so many scholars to find the unformed phenomena, the phenomenon open to change and already altered, everywhere?