Archive for March, 2015

Following my involvement in the ‘Decoloniality and the Social Sciences’ Panel Series at the ESS meeting in New York City on March 1st, the editors of Installing(Social)Order have invited me to join the discussion of the theme of Decoloniality with one contribution to their blog. I proposed two different ones. The choice was, eventually up to me. I felt that ‘On Genomics’ was a better fit, and now publish ‘On Magic.’ on my own blog. As a sort of primer: Many decolonial writers have made the argument that should not be reduced to the geographical division of Global North and Global South. Coloniality happens in many forms – which is why they should be resisted, according to Walter Mignolo, with ‘epistemic disobedience’ – in many places, including within and across the societies of the Global North. The following is a meditation on and diffractive reading of the ‘question of technology’ and ‘postcolonial science studies’.

‘Any sufficiently advanced technology’, the bromide goes, ‘appears indistinguishable from magic’. I prefer to speak of a ‘bromide’, rather than of a ‘proverb’, a ‘commonplace’, or a ‘saying’, for ‘bromide’ by definition as well as by homonymic qualities illuminates that a once profound insight has disjointed (temporarily) the popular perception of technology from the actual techno-scientific Zeitgeist and thereby become both effectively and affectively useless. It’s lost, so to speak, its magic, precisely because its magic has had an effect. In much the same way, in Japanese, ‘bromide’ is still used to denotate photographs taken of celebrities and ‘Idols’, even though in our digital times hardly anyone still uses bromide paper to take a picture. Bromide did its magic in having been its own vanishing act.

This is, I think, characteristic of all magic. Alan Moore (2015), perhaps one of the greatest practitioners of magic of our times, has recently (and repeatedly) emphasized what I understand to be a similar point about the deployment of magic:

‘Do you really want that? Make up your mind before you go in the door, because that’s the thing about magic being something to do with language; you have to be very careful what you say. All words are magic words, and you can find them coming back to haunt you. And in my experience, magic always gives you exactly what you ask for.

[…Y]ou’ll start to notice that it’s changing the way you think, it’s giving you a different language of symbols to work with. And having a different language is the same as having a different consciousness. It’s a linguistic phenomenon.’

Any language is a technology of this kind, any language as a language of technology is a kind of magic: In his effort to unravel the Western colonial Magic [sic!] of power, Walter Mignolo (2012) argues that the key terms of Western languages, such as for example in their inherent I-You structure, have accomplished just that.

Our initial bromide, however, some of our dear readers may know this, is actually the third of Clarke’s Three Law attributed to his essay on the Hazards of Prophecy: The Failure of Imagination (1972). This failure of the imagination occurs when certain facts are appreciated but the ‘vital facts’ remain ‘undiscovered and the possibility of their existence is not admitted’. Even with merely passing familiarity with STS or sociology of science literatures, one should be able to sense the Foucauldean implications of Clarke’s musings. How long is the time from the discovery to the admission? It’s the time it takes to co-ordinate the temporalities that are in play in the different practices: The practices of discovery and of admission on the one hand, but, more importantly on the other hand, the practices of making up one’s mind, the practices of saying the words, and the practices of noticing one’s mind changing.

To deploy another bromide: We will find that by the time we have ventured far enough into the impossible to ‘discover the limits of the possible’ (Clarke) that ‘Time is out of joint’. But perhaps this is what we have learn to admit: It is not ‘time’ but it is ‘temporalities’ that are really out of joint. For this conclusion, even if accepted, we have yet made no words and concepts to comprehend this outcome, except to take notice of it and consider that any magic even if insufficiently advanced will still have to be called technology.

20 years ago, Colin Scott (1996) made the attempt of imparting that lesson upon anthropologists, sociologists, and STS-ers, in stating that

‘achievements of indigenous ecological knowledge […] are neither mysterious nor coincidental – they result from intellectual processes not qualitatively different from those of Western science. Western science is distinctive not through any greater logical coherence or empirical fidelity [,…], but through its engagement of particular root metaphors in specific social institutional and socioenvironmental settings. Any number of root metaphors, situationally elaborated in the course of practical engagement with the world, may inform rational explanation and the effective organization of empirical experience. Equally, any number of the same metaphors may obstruct effective knowledge through a dogmatic misplaced literalism.’

At issue, in both magic and technology, is therefore only how we organize the world effectively – and, of course, affectively – but therein, as they say, ‘lies the rub’.

[Next up: ‘Dry Rub Fo Yo Chicken: What STS and ANT can learn by actually cooking up some stuff’.]


Clarke, Arthur (1972) ‘Hazards of Prophecy: The Failure of Imagination’ in A. Toffler (ed.) The Futurists. New York: Random House: 133 – 150

Mignolo, Walter (2012) The Darker Side of Western Modernity. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Moore, Alan (2015) ‘Interview’ in Mustard, Issue #4, 2015, retrieved at: http://www.mustardweb.org/alanmoore/index.htm, last accessed on: March 3, 2015

Scott, Colin (1996) ‘Science for the West, Myth for the Rest? The case of James Bay Cree knowledge construction’ in L. Nader (ed.) Naked science: anthropological inquiry into boundaries, power and knowledge. London; New York, NY: Routledge: 69 – 86

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Why we do research.

Reading reviews for grant proposals can be an infuriating, “facepalm”-moment inducing exercise. Specifically, when one’s own approach is about how practices, including language, are deployed in science and scholarship. Reading reviews, hence, often says more about the reviewers and the institutional culture they are part of, then it does about the project they reviewed. One of my favorite recent lines is this one: “While novel in terms of field site and the joining of ABC concepts, the overall framework rests on unexamined assumptions about the future of XYZ.”

It begs the question: Do we not actually do research to examine the assumptions we make about the future?

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Posted Elsewheres

I have just contributed a short piece to the Installing(Social)Order site.


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