Nikolas Bourbaki interviews Tobias Rees on his recent book. Part one can be read here.
Tobias Rees at a Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR) meeting on humans and the microbiome, in Lake Niagra, Canada. Laura Matthews, courtesy of CIFAR.
The first part of our conversation made Plastic Reason appear in ways that weren’t quite apparent to me when reading it.
Can you explain how?
I can see now that the questions that concern you, and that the book is in a way about, are questions of emergent form, that is, of the emergence of unexpected, unforeseen forms that possibly escape our theories. And when I say form I do not mean the emergence of a new formation understood as an apparatus or so, but rather of forms as they emerge from the encounters in the field. You are intrigued by the idea of capturing these forms, right?
That is a wonderful description. Indeed, I am much less interested in the emergent—in the new it, the formation that replaces what was before—than in the irreducible movement that rules when the taken for granted falls apart.
What intrigued me about plasticity was that it was not yet tamed into something consistent: my fieldwork unfolded in a situation in which the old truth of cerebral fixity had already been dissolved by plasticity—but plasticity had not yet been stabilized. It still could be many different, in part mutually exclusive, things.
To me, it was a bit as if the brain—and along with it the human—had been released from a form of knowledge that claimed to exhaust it. It was as if the brain and the human as constituted by the brain had broken free.
It was an incredibly powerful experience of freedom, philosophically as well as poetically and politically.
I have been driven by the idea to capture this freedom, to capture the irreducible openness I encountered in the field, without closing it. Fieldwork-based thinking and writing became for me a form of attending to freedom—to escapes from the already thought and known—in the genre of the aesthetic.
Listening to you makes me think that Alain Prochiantz’s interest in nocturnal work—in rendering visible the instability of any form or knowledge—is very much related to how you describe fieldwork, fair?
I learned tremendously from Alain. We both have been interested in that which escapes, which cannot be subsumed, which requires one to think again. For Alain, the tool to derail is to play with ideas and experiments; for me it has been and continues to be the exposure of established forms of knowing or thinking in fieldwork. What I learned from my conversations with Alain is that what is at stake in fieldwork is not truth but movement. That is, what is at stake in fieldwork is not so much the discovery of a truth—of a script that organizes the lives of the others—but the exposure of the categories that stabilize our concept of truth. What is at stake, that is, is the production of turbulence and, through this, of an openness that allows one to think differently from how one has thought thus far.
This is a kind of skeptical practice that is committed to the idea of truth. That is, neither his work nor mine is against science. But we think science at its best is a practice of exposure and we are both troubled when the taken-for-granted is mistaken as truth.
This is a rather unusual concept of fieldwork. May I ask you what authors helped you to attend to the irreducible open while you were in the field?
Irreducible open, that sounds perhaps too fancy. I have no theory of the open. I am not an ontologist, and I don’t think the open as such exists. What I mean by the phrase are simply the always singular, always different instances that rule when the taken-for-granted fall apart and nothing new has yet emerged in its place. As I see it, there is no open as such that can be deduced or abstracted from such situations. In any case, any such effort would defy the very idea of irreducibility I employ here.
As to what authors, I would think that the main author was Baudelaire. On the one hand, I read and re-read again and again a poem called A une Passante. In this poem he describes how he is immersed in the crowds on some boulevard and then, like an appearance, a woman walks by, without even noticing him. What the poem is about though is neither the woman nor beauty. No, what it is about is an instance of a sudden breaking open of the world, it is an effort to capture the irreducible openness that roams wild in such a moment.
It is also, I think, about freedom.
On the other hand, I read The Painter of Modern Life, specifically the passage where Baudelaire says that when the world goes to sleep, the painter of modern life sets to work: she stays up all night and transforms the fleeting impressions she sketched during the day, when she was roaming the boulevards—the instances of what Baudelaire called pure actuality—and redraws them in such a way that their actuality is preserved.
For better and worse, this is how I thought of myself (laughs).
I mean, I was amidst fieldwork. There was not meta-perspective. There were many different episodes, there were questions, and there was a lot uncertainty.
Baudelaire and the lineage I evoked in our previous interview—from Lévy-Bruhl to Foucault—were certainly authors whom I had read before fieldwork, but it was only once I was struggling with capturing conceptual discontinuities that they became practical, advice-giving friends.
Let me add that I also spent many hours listening to the advice of my teachers—Paul Rabinow, Lawrence Cohen, and Fritz Kramer.
What you say makes perfect sense, and yet I wasn’t aware of the aims of the book or of the lineage of thought it is in conversation with when I read it. Wouldn’t it perhaps have been better to explain the stakes of your book?
Maybe. But then, I wanted to write without providing the explanation for how to read and what to take away. Imagine if a painter would add an explanatory text to every one of her paintings: why she painted it, why she painted it the way she did, how the painting should be looked at, etc. That would be very odd, no?
That is fair, but I still regret that you weren’t more explicit, because I think you actually open up a space for an exploration of science that is very different from Science and Technology Studies (STS). It is a distinctive anthropological opening and you don’t say so.
My work is of course informed by the critical sociological turn to science since the 1970s. I have carefully read STS literature and have learned from it tremendously as Plastic Reason shows, I think, if in more hidden than overt ways.
That being said, I simply don’t share many of the inertia that silently organize the field of STS.
I am neither a social constructivist nor an ethnomethodologist nor a Latourian; I don’t use Actor-Network Theory (ANT) and I don’t study large technical systems.
Rather, I am a philosophically and poetically inclined fieldworker—that is, someone who is intrigued by the unanticipated stories that emerge from the field, who attends to the lines of flight they give rise to, who meticulously documents how these lines of flight escape the already known and thought and thereby open up yet unknown spaces of marvel and surprise.
And I don’t think this kind of philosophical and poetic work, this kind of practice of freedom, is what STS is about. Or, for that matter, the sociology of science.
When I move in STS circles, I therefore often feel like a clandestine visitor who has to travel incognito, secretly asking questions one is not allowed to ask.
Anthropology, if practiced as a radical field science, that is, as a science that revolves around the chance events and surprises fieldwork gives rise to, offers opportunities for exploring science—or the contemporary—that are very different from STS. At least in my experience.
Thank you for this conversation, Tobias.
On the contrary, it is me who has to say thank you.
Tobias Rees is Reid Hoffman Professor of Humanities at the New School for Social Research, director at the Los Angeles-based Berggruen Institute, and a fellow of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research. He is author of Plastic Reason (2016) and After Ethnos (2018), and coauthor of Designs for an Anthropology of the Contemporary (2008).