If there really has been a ‘collaborative turn’ between the social and biological sciences, then the stakes of that turn are still very much to be negotiated. ‘Collaboration,’ of course, is not a practice or a structure simply to be aimed for: like all ethical and methodological commitments, collaboration is made in the turning – and thus the actual forms in which ‘biosocial’ accounts are made and registered become inseparable from the different ways in which scholars are and become turned. We have been increasingly frustrated at a lack of attention – indeed, a very specific inattention – to these kinds of questions, as well as the ever growing corpus of bureaucratic and quasi-scholarly encomia for ‘collaboration’ as such. Our article, which we recently published in Theory, Culture and Society, brings our frustration into the public sphere, and advances what we have come to call ‘experimental entanglements’ between the social sciences and the neurosciences as one way to reimagine the bonds of collaboration. Our wager is that collaborating might be imagined not simply as working in conjunction with an other or others, but might also unsettle the sedateness of such ‘conjunction’. (Let us not forget the subterfuge, uncertainties and complex relationalities that enfold the collaborator who works with the ‘enemy’).
Our article is the product of four to five years of shared distress at being, on the one hand, moved by technological and conceptual developments that hold out the hope of radically re-mapping dynamics between the social and biological sciences; and, on the other hand, a deep frustration, at every attempt to begin that cartographic work, where we seem to be endlessly confronted with a deadening bureaucratic and technocratic edifice of ‘interdisciplinarity’ – whose major purpose is to evacuate these possibilities of any real sense of experiment, risk, joy or play. The article, and our call for an attention to ‘experimental entanglement,’ is intended to stir a discussion about what we find sorely lacking in the rush to collaborate – and this is what it actually means to do collaborative work: what it can look and feel like, which ways of characterizing it expand its range of possibilities, and which ones radically foreclose them. Here, as a further contribution to that conversation, we pull out five themes of that article on which we’re inviting further dialogue. We want to use that dialogic space to maybe move beyond this sense of frustration – or, if not, at least to elaborate more clearly its contours. We want to think, in more detail, about the structures, feelings, and modes of collaboration that we would like to bring into being. And we as also want to locate other experimental modes of collaboration, beyond our own, which are already out there, but which are not recognized through the dominant rhetoric of ‘interdisciplinarity.’
(1) Experiments, not collaborations.
At the heart of our discussion is a realization that the increasingly black-boxed logics of ‘interdisciplinarity’ and ‘collaboration’ are not solutions to anything – that in fact those terms hold together sets of practices and registers that need to be opened up, problematized, and (in several cases) dissolved (here we think, for example, of the pernicious logic of ‘consilience’). But rather than get caught, as are so many others, in arid discussion about ‘forms of interdisciplinarity’, we propose moving to a new ground, and this is the ground of experiment. Because if there have been many rich elaborations of how the space between the neurosciences and social sciences might be re-configured in an era of (for example) social and cultural neuroscience, there has been much less attention to what this might actually look like methodologically and in practice. Or as we put it in the article, ‘there has been little suggestion that experimental labour itself might be worthy of sustained attention from social scientists and humanists.’ What if, instead of endlessly poring over maps of the shifting border of these sciences, vainly trying to reach a consensus on where those borders are at any given moment, we re-focused our attention on the neuroscientific experiment, as an already thick, ambiguous rubric for making sense of the biosocial intricacy of human life? Might this help us to think some more creative and entangled ways of exploring this space? And, then, could other practices and archives of experimental labour show us some interesting ways of understanding the contours of this still-emerging space? In our preference for an attention to ‘experiment’ over ‘collaboration,’ we are indebted to an article by Andreas Roepstorff and Chris Frith in Anthropological Theory, which insists on experiment as a form of avant-garde performance – an aesthetic as much as methodological rubric, which shifts the turning of collaboration to the specificity and intricacy of particular kinds of creative intervention.
(2) The world is entangled, whether we want it to be or not.
To the extent that we affiliate with a ‘collaborative turn,’ this – the clause above – is our entry-point. The purpose of a term like ‘entanglement’ is that it foregrounds a world, and also processes of world-making. And it provincializes the stratagems, anxieties, and sectional interests of people trying to make sense of that world – as well as the competitive jostling that goes on around different modes of sense-making. Our direct inspiration here is, of course, the work of Karen Barad (and, by implication, a broader swathe of queer and feminist science studies, which has thought for many decades – indeed has had to think – much harder about the political economy of collaboration than most). We have been especially struck by Barad’s insistence that the inseparability of agencies might well be the most basic ontological property of the world – that there is therefore no ‘under’ or ‘before’ of something like ‘collaboration.’ This is what has gotten lost in what we call ‘the regime of the inter,’ with its endless attention to, and concern for, precisely the forms of the ‘before.’ And so a ‘collaborative turn’ is – even as we remain dutifully suspicious of these namings – at least parallel to an ‘ontological turn,’ which has been much analysed here and elsewhere. Our claim is that, for those of us in the medical humanities and social sciences at least, ‘collaboration’ is the work that comes after the ontological turn. And thinking collaboration through ‘entanglement’ insists on this temporality: the starting-point is that this situation is given to us. Our predicament is thus more existential than it is disciplinary.
(3) The neurosciences are a potent site of entanglement
We do not limit our proposal to the space between the social and the neurobiological. (And indeed, much of our preoccupation is with shifting the focus away from prepositions such as ‘between’ so as attend more closely to other modes of relation). But what has invariably held our attention about the neurosciences, and in particular about neuroscientific experiments, is that they present a range of sites, a series of claims, and a set of practices, that bring precisely this entanglement of biological and social phenomena to the fore. It is, of course, sadly still the case much social scientific engagement with the effects and practices of the neurosciences (although there are some notable exceptions) understands the capacity for critique to be its singular contribution. We are not interested here (or, indeed, anywhere) in re-hashing debates about what critique should mean for a sociology or anthropology of the biosciences. In any event, whatever the potency of critique, it remains the case, as we put it in the article, ‘that many facets of human life that were, for much of the twentieth century, primarily understood through the abstractions of ‘culture’ or ‘society’ – commercial and economic life, governance, historical change, identity, distress and suffering – are increasingly understood as functions of the cerebral architecture of individuals or of groups of individuals.’ If there are risks associated with collaborating in such projects, we have been convinced (and our own experience bears out this conviction) that, as Nikolas Rose (2013) has put it, there is a sense of dynamism, complexity and unpredictability within these bioscientific forays that critics either don’t see, or don’t want to see. Becoming entangled with the neurosciences has been our own way of attempting to attend to this complexity.
(4) Many of the most conservative intellectual spaces you will find today are those that call themselves ‘interdisciplinary.’
We have been convinced of the need for a ‘collaborative’ turn for some years now. We first met – and began our own collaboration – at a networking event for junior social scientists, neuroscientists and humanists. And, since that meeting, we have been heartened by the number of funders, university departments, journal editors etc, who claim to share the same goal. But if we have ‘been inspired by broad calls for social scientists to take up new possibilities for collaboration,’ nonetheless, as we put it elsewhere, ‘we have often been dismayed by the narrow rhetorics and frameworks of interdisciplinarity that seem to govern actual, real collaborative spaces beyond those calls.’ And, at the risk of self-aggrandisement, it has become apparent that the risky and experimental space that we were trying to inhabit was not always what other people had in mind: a fairly typical ‘interdisciplinary’ interaction today is still to, for example, find a ‘philosopher’ who can ‘do’ some concept that will more narrowly parse the results of an imaging experiment – and match her with a neuroscientist with a broadly similar agenda. While this programme is wonderful in many ways, not only does it not cross any meaningful boundaries (there is, of course, often little if any epistemological separation between cognitive neuroscience and an analytic philosophy of mind) – but actually, in the way it parcels out labour and expertise, this kind of interdisciplinary interaction stridently re-enforces the very boundaries it claims to transgress. Partly the issue here is structural and temporal. (Submit a grant proposal that uses social sciences methods to push at the boundaries of neuroimaging, and – we promise you – it will be reviewed separately by a social scientist and a neuroscientist, both of whom will hate it. But this will likely change in time). More broadly, though, there is a general limit of imagination in self-established, increasingly self-congratulatory interdisciplinary spaces, and also a collective horror of risk. The regime of the inter is an entirely – and quite self-consciously – self-cancelling space.
(5) Collaboration as/and subjection
We have never understood the desire for collaborators to be – and, worse, the well-meaning advice that they should be – scrupulously honest, fair, and on a par with one another. If we were endlessly upfront with our colleagues from different disciplines, or if we insisted on fairness vis-a-vis recognition of our desires, we would, in all frankness, have hardly any collaborators by now, and even fewer friends. We are confident that the same can be said on their parts (i.e. that our collaborators have bitten their tongues many times in conversation with us). This is, of course, a fairly mundane reflection on what it means to get along with different kinds of people – but still it tends to get lost in intellectual and disciplinary contexts (i.e those in the humanities and social sciences) that are not much practised at tongue-biting. The point here is that collaboration happens in an (ethically, methodologically, conceptually) ambiguous mode, and much of the work of collaboration is thus learning to live ambiguously. The subject of collaboration, in her turn, lives an ambiguous life, and not always (indeed, perhaps only rarely) a happy one – so here we resist calls to distinguish between, as Anthony Stavrianakis articulates it in this case, the collaborator and cooperator. Living well in a collaborative mode is about resisting the urge to sort things out – it is about quelling the desire to be clear, at all times, on who ‘I’ am, and what ‘I’ am doing, and whether or not ‘I’ am getting anything out of this anyway. Indeed, much of our own learning to live in this mode has not at all been about clarifying things, but about learning to play with them – and play, as Andrew Balmer reminds us in his association of collaboration with BDSM, is a complex and at times violent ethical structure. Certainly, it allows the collaborator to confuse her subjectivity and her subjection. It might even help her to learn to find joy and insight in that confusion.
Des Fitzgerald is a postdoctoral research associate in the Department of Social Science, Health and Medicine at King’s College London, where he works at the ‘Urban Brain Lab’ , a project attempting to re-vitalize the relationship between sociology and psychiatry through a study of mental life and the city. He completed his doctoral work in 2013, where he focused on attempts to understand the autism spectrum neurobiologically – describing the ways in which neuroscientific knowledge negotiates the space between the biological and diagnostic definitions of autism, the hopes and disappointments of high-tech bioscience, and the intellectual and affective labours of laboratory research.
Felicity Callard is Reader in Social Science for Medical Humanities at Durham University and has wide-ranging research interests in 20th- and 21st-century psychiatry, neuroscience and psychoanalysis. One strand of her research comprises an interrogation of new models of self and the experimental subject within the cognitive neurosciences and biological psychiatry. She is Group Leader of the ﬁrst residency of The Hub at Wellcome Collection, which will conduct interdisciplinary experiments (on ‘rest’ and its opposites) across the social sciences, humanities, arts and neurosciences. She is also incoming Editor-in-Chief of History of the Human Sciences.
Further reading and listening
Des Fitzgerald and Felicity Callard, 2014. Social Science and Neuroscience beyond Interdisciplinarity: Experimental Entanglements. Theory, Culture, and Society,
The entanglements of interdisciplinarity: An interview with Des Fitzgerald and Felicity Callard. Theory, Culture, and Society blog, September 17, 2014.