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Top of the Heap: Alexander I. Stingl

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Stingl top of the heap

For this installment of the Top of the Heap series, I spoke with Alexander I. Stingl, who is a sociologist and a research consultant for Medical Humanities and Social Sciences with the Institute for General Medicine (IAM) of the University Clinic of the Friedrich-Alexander University Erlangen-Nürnberg, Germany.

Alexander I. Stingl

On dancing with the smarts: Cleanse and repeat!

My current and fairly substantial reading list is partially determined by the courses I am teaching during this winter semester at a German university; however, not only do I get to teach mostly courses in English instead of German, but also, and more importantly, courses that I am fairly free to design as I please in terms of the subject matter. As a consequence, I get to roam a vast landscape of scholarship, queering and cutting-together-apart disciplinary knowledges and literatures in the process.

The invitation to write for the Top of the Heap series is, therefore and for many other more superficial reasons and intellectual vanities, riddled with the difficulty of having to make decisions: does one focus on old and new favorites in teaching, books and papers that have ultimately shaped one’s own intellectual development, (mis)use the opportunity to feature the works of deserving friends, or take literally the idea of the title and feature the books one is about to read, that have piqued one’s interest, that are on top of the heap. I will take the literal route and pick a few from the very top of my heap, a.k.a. my current reading list that is both looming and daunting, most of which is sitting materially on my temporary desk in a comfortably warm and cushy apartment in a cold and wet, and presently quite misty, Northern German city, where I have rented a small bedroom with a small, attached office-space—a serenest of atmospheres, disturbed only on occasion by the impossibly long freight trains, a-shaking the house when passing through the nearby train station. This is a great metaphor, I think, for scholarly books can be like trains: they travel through your schedules, minds, and life like trains. The question is whether they leave you with anything more than merely a house shaken and a vase that broke, falling off a shelf after drifting and drifting closer to the edge with every train passing. Passing through my station on schedule are these new friends (and I hope you do not mind, that I call books my friends):

A book that I am extremely excited about is Lisa Lowe’s The Intimacies of Four Continents (2015, Duke UP). The wonderfully brilliant title is, I think, taken from a chapter she published in an edited book a few years prior. It’s an interesting book, because she attempts to accomplish so much with it, it seems, and she is certainly one of only a few authors who have a realistic chance to succeed with bringing in so much that is at stake. She is troubling our concepts of “freedom” and “the human” by uncovering the capillaries and forms that liberalism has embedded in the relations between continents—capillaries, forms, and embeddings that have become “vanished mediators” for which Lowe has become the most brilliant archivist. I have found in her writings a resonance with many of my own concerns about our Western/Global Northern theoretical tools and tool-boxes, a culture of intellectual tools and their deployment that I am certainly part of and am implicated by, but which is also partially inescapable. I think what Lisa Lowe manages is to neatly alert us to the impossibility of completely leaving one’s epistemic culture, while making it possible to understand that one doesn’t have to take this culture for granted ontologically. I think that Northern scholarship often acts and convinces itself that this relation can only be the other way round. Lowe troubles that intensely, and I like that word here, because she truly allows us to intensify our “feeling uncanny” about ourselves in a very useful direction. For example by having illustrated for us in a short piece a few years back, which I can foresee to echo through Intimacies, how much of our methods are infused with Weber’s comparative approach and how these methods set up what we could call—in implicating the deep roots (however disavowed officially) of the discourse of social theory from Lester Ward through Weber to Parsons—our assumed telic Northerness.

A few years ago, Brian Massumi gave us this great concept of ontopower to “think with.” Now he has written the book to show us the many lives and adventures of Ontopower (2015, Duke UP). Massumi’s work is certainly dense and challenging, but it’s definitely not jargon. [i] I think it’s sort of an invitation to dance, and here I think that we should take the idea of vita in the word invitation seriously. To invite is, for me, an effort to “bring life in.” In this context, dance is a wonderful metaphor, because one can dance with others in a community harmoniously in step with them but also for oneself in a crowd; one can dance all alone, but also with a significant other in a kind of conversation. Good books that deploy theory and concepts should be like this idea of dance itself, and I think Brian Massumi manages to show us that quite nicely. As for ontopower, its deployment invokes notions of security and subjectivity, notions of the kinds of ontologies to live with and to inhabit that are produced by security powers, but also and more importantly notions of what kinds of life these ontologies permit. What our “making the effort” of learning the concept with Massumi does is—if I am permitted to play with words a little—is that ontopower can be seen as an inployment to devoke the technologies of subjectivation through security, risk, and possibility of risk. That is what I hope to learn in thinking with Massumi.

Georgiann Davis’s Contesting Intersex: The Dubious Diagnosis (2015, NYU Press) comes out of the “Biopolitics Series” which Monica Casper and Lisa Jean Moore edit, and wherein I found every book they have in this series to be well-crafted and very useful—my favorite is probably Janet Shim’s Heart-sick: The Politics of Risk, Inequality, and Heart Disease (2014), which is not only an extremely insightful study of how intersectionality of perceptions and the difference of perceiving intersectionality work (and often don’t work well) between health care professionals and (at-risk) patients, but it is also the exemplary execution of a study that explicates its methodology towards what can be done with operationalizing concepts and methodologies; it’s great to use as a teaching tool. That sets the bar high for Davis’s book, but given the series’s editors care (and that’s why I even mention all this, because editing is a form of care work and obtains its own care ethics, as I am learning myself as I am shepherding a book series as co- and managing editor), I have no concerns that I will learn much from it. And what I hope to gain is to be put to use in a certain context, namely in my interest in the power of medical images and imaging technologies.

Something that concerns and worries me greatly, looking ahead for what’s in store with medical imaging technologies such as fMRI and newer devices, is their deployment in the moral grey zones and contested areas of medical decision-making, such as in terms of the question of children whose biological sex cannot be immediately determined after birth, but where there is a lot of pressure to do so. The discussion of whether there are male and female brains or whether there is much greater variety, which denies such a simple (and imputed binary) sorting of brains, is something that is still ongoing. In popular perceptions of science, this idea that there are these two kinds of brain is quite prevalent, and research into this question is often not well-designed, imputing the binary form. Here, now the future concern is that parents and doctors, perceiving themselves under social pressure to make children “pass” in increasingly diversity-averse societies, will deploy “brain-scans” to determine surgical procedures to follow and take away their child’s agency in the matter. Here, medical imaging becomes what I have called an implification, a technological contact zone that simultaneously and interdependently implicates and occurs also as an intensification. Subsequently, I am really curious about anything recent in terms of intersex lives as they are lived, contested, negotiated, and so on. Thus, Davis’s book seems like a great contribution to our understanding, and to help me better articulate my research concerns.

Two forthcoming books for early 2016 have me really excited. The first is Alondra Nelson’s The Social Life of DNA: Race, Reparations, and Reconciliation after the Genome (2016, Beacon Press). I have heard her speak about related issues a few times now, and I always walk away knowing much more than I did before, and not only in terms of having gained “just information.” Along with Ruha Benjamin, Aaron Panofsky, and Joan Fujimura, Alondra Nelson manages to enter this scientifically and morally mine-fielded “land of molecular biotech research” and comes out with some amazing ideas on how to navigate in this territory as well as meaningful knowledge about the people inhabiting the land and those affected by it. While the world of ancestry tests seems to be more of a footnote in terms of the science itself, it is clearly touching upon some of the core issues where science affects human beings both in their understanding of themselves as well as many highly political questions. Since I am really invested in this Jaspers-/Arendt-ian idea of our political imagination having pretty much a central role conflated in individual life-courses, science as a profession, and individual as well as collective moral and political agency, Alondra Nelson’s book will carry a lot of weight in shaping my own future endeavors where scholarship transits into the political.

As the second forthcoming book that I am looking forward to, there is, of course, Victoria Pitts-Taylor’s eagerly awaited The Brain’s Body: Neuroscience and Corporeal Politics (2016, Duke UP). She certainly is one of the authors that I cite the most when I write about all that “brain-and-embodiment stuff,” and it’s pretty much an ongoing quip at home that, if we can’t be Donna Haraway when we grow up, then we at least want to be Victoria Pitts-Taylor.

A book that Sabrina M. Weiss has brought to my attention is Ghost Stories for Darwin: The Science of Variation and the Politics of Diversity (2014, Illinois UP) by Banu Subramaniam. Just getting to know a bit about Banu’s work before even reading the book has made me invite her as a panelist (presided over by Sabrina Weiss nonetheless) in a multi-panel mini-conference on decoloniality that I am currently organizing to happen around the Eastern Sociological Society Meeting in 2016. I am very excited that she agreed to come and speak to and with us, and I am pretty anxious that I will really manage to finish reading her book in time—I am sure you know how screwed up schedules during the semester can become, no?

What excites me about Banu’s book, just from skimming through it, is this appreciation for diversity and variability that she has, while reflecting on her standpoint when bringing these two tropes to the table. It’s really great to see someone from the social sciences who is very knowledgeable in biological knowledges carry out the very ideas that for example Bourdieu proposed about using reflection to further objectivate the relationality between the subject and object of research, while keeping it real, i.e. heeding the very warnings that feminist theorists have gifted us with. I have this bit of a thing for what you could call the uncoverage of the way interdisciplianrity is done, namely either in a merely associative way or an integrative way, wherein associative interdisciplinarity is not really accomplishing anything interesting and a lot of interdisciplinary research that is conducted in the associative frame of mind is actually covering for the fact that genuine interdisciplinarity remains or is undone. Banu Subramaniam does the uncoverage of that, I think.

Marc Schuilenburg’s Securitzation of Society: Crime, Risk, and Social Order (2015, NYU Press) is a book that I picked up at the ASA meeting this year, largely because I was looking for something that I could give my students to read in a course I had designed on “Borders, Violence, and Human Security”—something that would give a good introduction to the contact zone between security and surveillance discourses. Schuilenburg, who studied and teaches in the Netherlands, has received a lot of praise and attention for his work—it’s a good opportunity to see what the fuzz is about. Beyond that, his scholarship appeared interesting to me precisely because he seems to bring together a good empirical understanding of research with a theoretically sophisticated background. There is this silly idea, of course, that continental scholarship means “(purely) abstract and theoretical,” but the actual point is that continental scholarship more often means precisely an attitude that tries not to sacrifice one for the other. Thus, my expectation is that this book is good for doing some “thinking with” that my students will also be able to deploy empirically for their own interests.

It may be a bit strange to name a book here to which I contributed a chapter myself, but it’s not really an act of malignant narcissism, but about the book’s editor’s ideas as well as how my contribution came to be included. Hans (J.I.) Bakker’s forthcoming volume The Methodology of Political Economy: Studying the Global Rural–Urban Matrix (2015, Lexington/Rowman & Littlefield) collects a number of papers that engage this problem of urban normativity that Hans made into “the” problem for his tenure as Stanley Knowles Distinguished Professor in 2014/15, and he came up with a provocation or intervention with the notion of a global rural-urban matrix as the key figure in doing the New Political Economy. Some really great researchers contributed to this volume, which was pretty much finished when Hans presented in a panel-series I had helped organize with Nicholas Rowland and Sabrina Weiss at the Eastern Sociological Society Meeting in 2015.

Based on my comments to his paper, Hans became convinced that I definitely must write a chapter for him and thus he sent me his little foreword and a draft for a promotional flyer for the book to give me at least a fledgling idea of what all of the excitement is going to be about. I haven’t read any of the other contributions, which means I am very excited for when I get my contributor copy, so I get to find out what it is I contributed to (I am laughing as I write this, because this kind of not knowing and just going out there adventuring has always been strangely appealing to me and it’s set against this “planned career moves, no risks” technocratic paradigm that is so prevalent in most corners of academia today). I haven’t even seen a final content table, so I only know the names of the people involved (some of which I recognize and am pretty pumped to be in a volume with). So, this is really Hans’ baby, I think, but what he proposes is pretty smart and pretty forward-thinking.

What we really struck up our conversation on, I think, is this notion of urban normativity that Hans and an increasing number of people are currently more than a bit cross with. It fell right in with my own increasing frustration about certain Western ideas about rural-urban relations that have been co-producers of the Global North-South division, even within the Global North itself where we find patches and pockets of a Global South and treated by Global Northerners as such. Even just looking into the past, one can see how cities that indigenous and native people built are being retold under urban normativity; and new city designs and lives—including forms of political participation in the city—are constrained by urban normativity. I am very curious, therefore, to maybe even create a few—or at least be part of—projects in the future with different groups of people and of expertise, to think through what the “city without urbanity” would look like. And yes, this is an equivocation. One of the greatest obstacles for social scientists of all fields and fashions is this inherent fear of equivocation among social and sociological theorists of the North, which some current anthropologists doing ethnographic theory, such as Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, thankfully do not share in. I think that there is an emerging scholarship, even among more open-minded Global Northerners, in an increasing number of scholarly pockets that wants to delink from urban normativity and who are not afraid of equivocation. I think this group of people that Hans collected might be such an initial effort in one small but growing corner of social science to do away with that fear.

A book that’s been on my list for the past two years that I just haven’t gotten around to, in part because I really want to dedicate the time it deserves without interrupting my reading of it, is Claire Laurier Decoteau’s Ancestors and Antiretrovirals: The Biopolitics of HIV/AIDS in Post-Apartheid South Africa (2013, Chicago UP). She is incredibly courageous and one of our smartest voices in sociology; everyone will tell you this who has ever read (about) her research. What I personally find extremely interesting, however, is how she creates a conversation between postcolonial sociology, empirical Bourdieuean methodology and ideas (sustainably beyond the recent cusp of the Bourdieu fashion, because she makes Bourdieu’s engagement with coloniality and with transformation work), and critical realism. What I find courageous is her clear-headed approach to the politics of HIV in South Africa and the various sex and gender norms in play. So this book I will read for many reasons, but to inspire me to be more courageous is probably one of the main incentives.

Perhaps I should also include an edited book here from the top of my heap, since there are a few sitting on my desk, and Federico Luisetti, John Pickles, and Wilson Kaiser’s The Anomie of the Earth: Philosophy, Politics, and Autonomy in Europe and the Americas (2015, Duke UP) is a book that has among its contributors a nice number of decolonial authors. Anomie is, of course, one of the sociological concepts that I—like many students of sociology before and after me—learned pretty much in one of the first lectures. Anomie is one of the building blocks of the Global Northern sociological imagination. I think, from what I have seen so far, that this reader interrogates and troubles sociological imaginations, and thereby holds social theorists to account, while uncovering and giving voice to the silenced concepts and the agents affected by this silencing. “Returning voice,” I think, is not so much the point as this would also just be a paternalistic and imperial gesture. The point is to stop imaginative acts that silence, and to move to acts of listening to Other imaginations; I expect that these are the exercises presented by the contributors to this book.

While these are the books on the top of my heap, I have learned that one should also keep some “pallet cleansers” around. Strangely enough, I have found Adorno’s lectures—with whom I agree on very little in substance—to be a good pallet cleanser, currently reading a chapter or two every once in a while from Zur Lehre von der Geschichte und von der Freiheit – Vorlesungen 1964/1965 (2006, Suhrkamp [engl. History and Freedom, 2006, Polity]). It goes without saying that Adorno was a most sophisticated thinker, writer, and speaker; even though I disagree with him a lot, I always learn from reading him—and reading him, specifically his lectures, is always an intellectual challenge and exercise. At the same time, since I do find his concepts intellectually engaging but not very, let’s say, “deployable,” reading Adorno nowadays doesn’t really “change my stride.” It’s really just a fun exercise to read him and cleanse my mind a bit from the STS-y mindsets I often deal with, without changing into a Frankfurter.

What is important for me, with regard to the books that I have chosen to present here from the top of my heap, is something that, if memory serves, the artist and Zen practitioner Jon J Muth has said about stories, namely that they should leave you with more than when they found you. Along those lines, and looking at a lot of academic texts that I read over the years, I found there are unfortunately too many books out there, usually very readerly texts in Barthes’s sense, that actually try and succeed to diminish their readers. Instead, a good academic text, a good scholarly book, should leave you with more than when it found you.

 

Note

[i] I will admit that I find all this increasingly prevalent talk about being “clear and concise” and the accusation of “using jargon” or “obscuration” boring at best and stupid at worst. It’s a bit like saying that you should be able to plan a nuclear power plant by using only arithmetic. It’s also about a kind of complacency that is detrimental to actually enabling people to strategically use what tactics empowerment have gained them. While there are the occasional cases where some people have really developed a jargon that is not helpful outside of itself, the majority of theory enterprises present something deployable and eventually useful “to think with.” Whether it is always useful for every individual student is another matter, but one should get to know several tools and then decide which ones are useful for oneself. But that doesn’t mean one should deny others the opportunity to use other tools to “think with.” That extends to this discussion, I think, of theory as a cultural technique (Kulturtechnik) and as technology of domination/hegemony (Herrschaftstechnik). While I agree with the complaint being made that theory can be used to that effect of establishing and maintaining hegemony and privilege, the demand to just “make it simpler” and thereby more accessible itself is an equally sinister adaptation to the culture of complacency that hegemonies deploy—access is not the same as being enabled to use the forms of empowerment we have gained, and in pretending access alone solves problems of inequality and injustice we fall into yet another dangerous trap. The key lies, I think, very pragmatically in creating new zones and ways of “learning together (with Others),” instead, where theories do play important roles. While some interlocutors in sociology today want to “Fuck nuance!” —pace Kieran Healy, for whom I have a lot of respect, and his paper against nuance was certainly more “nuanced”—I would say that we should let nuances and niches speak (back), and I wouldn’t be surprised if the reply would be “Yeah, you too!”

I think the main problem is, as is often the case, a question of effort or rather lack of it.

 

Alexander I. Stingl (PhD) is a a research consultant for Medical Humanities and Social Sciences with the Institute for General Medicine (IAM) of the University Clinic of the Friedrich-Alexander University Erlangen-Nürnberg, Germany. Since 2011, he has taught in the Leuphana Semester, a program of the College of Leuphana University Lüneburg, Germany. His interests in research are diverse, but mostly gestate around the idea of what it means to be a biodigital citizen. His most current research questions focus on the production of inequality through digital cultural health care capital, alternative cultures of ADHD and the need for a shift from an attention economy to attention ecologies, embodied and enactive cognitive cultures of food and sex, semantic agency theory, the power of medical images, the question of the “technological object,” the media archeology of the “legitimacy of the digital age,” bioeconomies beyond urban normativity, the transatlantic history of the production of “the body,” and a decolonial theory of (the production of values of) justice.


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