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Cristina Grasseni

The Anthropology of Innovation

Home > Cristina Grasseni > How to map complex issues?

How to map complex issues?

by Redazione FGB [1], 11 June 2007

In this interview, taken at the Cerisy colloquium organised by Bruno Latour and Philippe Descola on "L'anthropologie historique de la raison scientifique [2]", (July 12th- 19th 2006), Cristina Grasseni gathered Bruno Latour's view s on responsible innovation and its relevance to the research agenda of historians, anthropologists, philosophers and sociologists of science.

Cristina Grasseni
I just have a couple of questions for you, because you know the foundation better than anyone else here at Cerisy. You know what we're interested in: we're looking for a concept of responsibility that actually makes sense in terms of our agenda, that of sponsoring and fostering responsible innovation. First of all, how do you think the findings or the discussion in this conference relate to the issue of responsibility in innovation?

Bruno Latour
I think quite frankly that Modernism was a parenthesis, actually. It was a useful parenthesis, but it never happened as a phenomenon, so to speak. It's like the French Revolution, where something happened, but something very different also happened. The official version of Modernism never actually described what happened during this parenthesis between the 17th century and 1870 - 1970, depending on where you want to put the cut-off point. We are back to where Patricia Falguière put technology in Florence or Padua in the 16th century. It's a very original combination between technology, law, politics, public debate, architecture and design. The former rationale is to believe that Modernism seems a mess. It is our duty to show that it is not a mess, but actually the new type of rationality now at work. So, if by ‘responsibility' we want to say that we have to shift from matters of fact, to use my vocabulary, to matters of concern or res, I think that the colloquium showed proof, or rather not proof, but at least concern.
But lots of other things happened during this period. We should take what happened in the 16th century, what happened in the 17th, the 18th, the 19th and in the 20th; if you take everything, it was very different from the official version of a technology that went mad, a technology dominated by Gestell, that sort of thing. So, there is a lot of disagreement, as you saw, between periodisation, different fields, styles of reasoning, the role of the Greek but, on the whole, I think the agenda is there… this is the reason why I put together the Foundation and us, and to link the notion of responsibility and technology of science.

What I'd like to ask you as well, is about the concern of responsible innovation. One of the most important things is to allocate data. The most important issue today is the fact that you cannot allocate agencies to individuals or to specific classes of individuals anymore. You always have a complex system where an agency shifts from one category of people to another, to "actants", i.e. to non-humans who are also involved into the workings of humans. So, my question is this. How can we think of different regimes of agency and does that help us to think about different ways of conceiving responsibility?

It's not only the fact that an agency shifts, it's also the way you interrogate it. The way you yourself become intelligent. This comes out very nicely for instance from Vincianne Despret [3]'s work: she's done some very interesting research on animals...

With primates?

With primates, ducks, parrots, crows… She has a marvellous book on crows. Horses, dogs, she has a very nice book on a famous calculating horse, Hans... The thing is that you can have boring animals, boring researchers, boring financers, then you have an "enlightenment of boredom" where the whole chain of translation provides nothing but more of the same. So you could have a silly project founded on silly researchers producing silly data, which might be published in the better reviews or journals. Then you have the chain of, what I think she would call, the chain of responsibility: when intelligent agencies make you do intelligent science on them. Probably, if you go further in the chain, you require intelligent agencies in the sense of sponsors, paying for research. There is a contamination of stupidity and a contamination of intelligence.
So that's the way I would approach responsibility with agencies. It's a translation chain. The translation chain can go in one direction or another depending on the contamination of intelligence. One should also mention Shirley Strum [4]'s work on baboons here. But then there's also the field in which Christelle Gramaglia [5] did a very interesting thesis on rivers and environmental pollution. Here, responsibility means inventing the way to cohabit with completely different types of agencies. How you make a river liveable, so to speak. And, here again, the question is the "dispositive" of the collective, as we saw very nicely in Sophie Houdart [6]'s work on Japan (see the following interview on this blog).

But your later work on innovative devices of representation in the political sense is probably closer to the issue of responsibility in innovation.

Making things public [7] is entirely about that.

Yes, and my question is in the wake of Making things public. I mean, I just wonder how much you feel that you've come close to a solution in terms of proposing some good devices, some good dispositives, that can also be appropriated by well-meaning governmental agencies. What we discuss often in the Foundation is that you have lots of operators, lots of public administrators, people that are actually political representatives elected in the traditional way, who are trapped in a network of devices, protocols of action and routine courses of action that do not allow them to be creative enough to pick up the kind of bottom-up representative collectives, for instance, that you or Christelle or Isabelle Stengers [8] talk about. I just wonder if you think we're any closer to being able to present to the political community some new devices that don't work like a constitution, top-down, but that work more like good devices for political representation in innovative ways.

I don't think it's the top-down which is the problem. A large part of politics really is top-down, and that's not necessarily bad. Lorenzo di Medici, Il Magnifico worked top-down. The question is really more representativity, by which I mean representing, not only in legal terms or electing terms, but representing a part. You know that very well, because I remember very well your stance on representing a problem. Rather, what I think is lacking is that we don't know how to represent the issue. And it's funny because political science is entirely devoted to the question of representation of authority, power, election procedures, but there is next to nothing in political science about representing the problem we have to talk about. And that's what we try to do in making things public. So of the three great problems of politics - Who is in authority? What is the place and site where we assemble? How do we represent the problem? - only the first is basically clear.
So, if you take a river, the invention of fuel for cars, if you take a design or a health question, we still live on extraordinarily poor representation modes. We have the press, of course, which is important for another part of representation, for public opinion. All that is very rudimentary.
I am very interested in mapping controversy [9]. I think that it is one of the tools with which the representation of what it is to disagree on something is represented. So, when you say that there is a crisis of representation in the political sense, that politicians don't know how to do things, etc…, it's true. In large part, we don't know how to represent things. And that's a completely different thing. In large part, it is due to art, the graphic displays in which the question is articulated. Demonstration, not only in the sense of mathematics, but also in the sense of public demonstrations… The only thing we know about public demonstrations is street demonstrations, which is sometimes useful but extraordinarily poor in terms of elaborating problems… So, representing a problem seems to me a very important task. It is in many ways problem that should be treated by a School of Design.


And that's a problem of magnitude. That's why I mentioned the Quattrocento. It's the magnitude of what was realized in the Quattrocento by politics, which had nothing to do with democracy, really. It was largely non-democratic; it was a princely thing, which is not necessarily a good thing. But democracy, bottom-up I mean, is a very simple reversal of the problem. The question is not a lack of representation in terms of elections. The problem is a lack of representation in terms of the problems, and the public space is not occupied by the representation of problems. What was so fabulous about the exhibition making things public was that there were at least 100 ways of doing things differently. A lot of it was bizarre, but that was really an experiment about how to represent the problem by giving it a shape that makes it visible in a new way. It doesn't solve the problem, but it's probably a partial answer to your question.

It's fantastically interesting for me because the next question was, ‘What do you think is the role of the visual in what should be a good device for debating and finding solutions to difficult problems?' I think you've basically answered that question. That is my personal interest, by the way, because I trained in Visual Anthropology. How are we are trained to see a particular type of object or situation which, for another person, an unskilled person, can be a neutral object? For instance, the body of a cow grazing in a field. But you approach the problem from a much more active point of view, not in terms of being apprenticed or trained into professional visions, but of how to invent ways of sharing views.

In the exhibition in Karlsruhe on which Making things public is based, we have done a beautiful visual installation, a demonstration that is a mixture of artists and academics and sponsors, probably. We know how to represent matters of fact, but we don't know how to represent matters of concern. I think that is what the test is. The ball is in the court of the designer; a mixture of designers, academics, artists, activists, of course, and sponsors which would allow us to invent a visual vocabulary for, what I call, matters of concern, or res. We have run out of the matters of fact, both in terms of visual vocabulary and of its critiques. The friend and the enemy are both exhausted, so it's like the two brothers in the Oedipus story. They have exhausted one another fighting together.

So your solution to the problem of political representation is that of finding, possibly, visual representations of matters of concern. Is that the most important thing?

The theory is easy, but the task is difficult. So, the question is ‘How do you, basically, form a simple question about responsibility?' Where do you find, in the same visual space, all of the different agents which are in charge of genetics? Researchers will tell you it depends on money, it depends on laws, etc…but it's nowhere in the same visual space as genes. Right? It's a very difficult question, and I don't have the answer. I'm still struggling with what I call the cartography of controversy. Every year I make more of those, basically, extended posters. Technically, I think the task is that when the visual language was invented between your Quattrocento and our Scientific Revolution, it was a vocabulary of matters of fact, so it was a very strong, powerful way of talking about the world with predictivity. The key thing was that in the same visual space you could have different things... Let's take an engineer's drawing, a key feature which is now everywhere on screen, in computers. But the problem is that computers are not new, computers are actually backwards compared to what we are discussing now. So they are bringing you back to the visual space that was invented in the Quattrocento so that if you take Google, which is very convenient, it's completely archaic in terms of visual space, it's a purely Arcadian space, that sort of thing. It's very difficult in that sort of space to project anything that we are interested in, as stated in your words about the question of responsibility. Can we invent a visual language which would provide a, not necessarily visual, but mediatic…?


Yes, shareable. That's the word. A shareable representation.

So, at the end, I wanted to close the show in Karlsruhe with Otto Neurath [10]'s work, who did invent a vocabulary, a completely Modernist one, as a matter of fact. It's the last really beautiful design with an optical quality. It's shareable. Shareable in a very Modernist enlightenment direction, but still it is very beautiful. We have not done the equivalent of that yet. But that is, I think, what should be done. Milan, actually, is a very interesting place to do that because in Milan you have a big design industry, you have a not-too-corrupt political system, it's more or less like everywhere else, and it's a place of great civilization. It's very important to do that in a place of civilization. It's the only place where you can hear that a task is of the same magnitude, not just a question of market or naïf democracy It is a question of civilization installed in the public space. Visual vocabulary where the ‘thing', the ‘res' is visible again. The problem is that the science of visual events is incredibly poor. It's a civilization question.

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Links in this document:

  1. 1] /schedabiografica/Redazione FGB
  2. 2] http://www.ccic-cerisy.asso.fr/anthropologie06.html
  3. 3] http://www.recalcitrance.com/VDespret.pdf
  4. 4] http://www.mnsu.edu/emuseum/information/biography/pqrst/strum_shirley.html
  5. 5] /it/argomenti/doc/Gramaglia_it.pdf
  6. 6] http://terrain.revues.org/document1944.html
  7. 7] http://www.bruno-latour.fr/expositions/002_parliament.html
  8. 8] http://multitudes.samizdat.net/_Stengers-Isabelle_.html
  9. 9] /it/grasseni/2006/02/quale_responsabilita_parte_1_i.html#commenti
  10. 10] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Otto_Neurath
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foto Franz Wamhof (part)
See also: Latour in the Call fro Comment Which responsibility?
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