Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Following an expanding a conceptual proposal by Terry Shinn and its adoption by Erik Lettkemann (Shinn 2002, 2008; Lettkemann 2017), we can deploy the concepts “research technology” to the way that BioEconomy deploys biotechnologies – even though it does so in the a decidedly vague sense, whereas Shinn’s conceptual framework is usuallu deployed to more concrete cases such as for example by Lettkemann to the case of transmission electron microscopy. For Shinn, “research technologies” form a “transverse regime” for the production of knowledge as well as “artefacts” (we could maybe also say, instead with Rheinberger with whose work there are similiarities, “epistemic objects”) , meaning that those practitioners who use these technologies are not bound by the institutional boundaries their disciplines, fields, institutions, and facilities normally set up.

The social locus of the transverse regime is conceived as an ‘interstitial arena’ arranged around ‘generic instrumentation’ designed to meet the requirements of a wide range of academic and industrial audiences. Each interstitial arena is populated by a community of research-technologists. They work on widening the application possibilities of their instrumentation, collaborating with heterogeneous audiences who seek to adopt the instrumentation’s generic uses. Generic instrumentation designates a research-related type of multipurpose device, including, for example, ‘automatic switching systems, the ultracentrifuge, the laser, cybernetics, Fourier transform spectroscopy, the Cooley-Tukey algorithm, the C++ object oriented computer language, the scanning tunnelling microscope, etc.’ (Shinn, 2008: 2). The widespread diffusion of generic instrumentation is accompanied by the development of a ‘metrology’ that serves as a cross-disciplinary lingua franca. (Lettkemann 2017: 394)

Lettkemann further proposes the distinction between

between nomads and settlers : while nomads live the life of freelancers, travelling from one laboratory to the next, settlers establish host laboratories and invite researchers from neighbouring fields to collaborate. (395)

This conceptual distinction is particularly useful, because when we introduce to it the geopolitics of Global North and Global South and the epistemological attitude/entitlement exuding from the Global North that Colin Scott described in “Science for the West, Myth for the Rest”, it points out how Western sciences establish host facilities in non-Western/Global Southern territories and (epistemically) coerce non-Western interlocutors. Thus, we can speak here of a form epistemic settler colonialism. The biotechnologies of the BioEconomy are an excellent example.


Lettkemann, Eric. 2017. “Nomads and Settlers in the Research-Technology Regime: The Case of Transmission Electron Microscopy.” Social Science Information 56 (3): 393–415. doi:10.1177/0539018417719396.

Shinn, Terry. 2002. “Intellectual Cohesion and Organizational Divisions in Science.” Revue Française de Sociologie 43: 99–122. doi:10.2307/3322759.

———. 2008. Research-Technology and Cultural Change: Instrumentation, Genericity, Transversality. GEMAS Studies in Social Analysis. Oxford: Bardwell.


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For Gilles Lhuilier

Inspired by his friend Goethe, Alexander von Humboldt in 1807 publishes with his Essai sur la gèographie des plantes what has been called the world’s first ecological book, originating a way of seeing and thinking about “nature” as an interconnected whole. This “whole” became quickly understood under the term “ecology” (coined by Ernst Haeckel in reference to an idea of “economy of nature” in 1866) and the (developmental) connection between the unit of interest in biology (“organism”) or the social sciences (“society and/or individual)” was construed to be with the “environment”/”Umwelt”. Today, and especially in reference to the European and French discourse on bioeconomy, the term “écosystéme” is is seeing a renaissance, given that a main area of both theoretical, empirical-conceptual, and practical interest in the bioeconomy is geared towards so-called “ecosystem services”.

“Ecosystem”, as proposed by botanist A.G. Tansley in correspondence with A.R. Clapham in 1935, and was quickly introduced into the discourse of the social sciences – where “system” had already gained currency first through John Boodin and later was continued by Talcott Parsons (one should, however and in all fairness, not forget Parsons intake of biology, as well as his human condition paradigm’s reliance on environmental factors) – where from the late 1940s to the early 1960s human ecology was vividly discussed as being the main problem or reference point for the study of “the social” by anthropologists such as Alfred Kroeber or even – following in the footsteps of Parks’s and Burgess’s Chicago School – Leo Schnore and Otis Duncan Dudley, the latter becoming a founding father of “quantitative sociology”, with their POET scheme (population, organziation, environment, technology) and Schnore in particular saw lineage herein with Durkheim. Tansley’s contribution, it should not be forgotten, of “ecosystem” conceptualized as a system in terms of engineering and energy, had a rival in Jan Smuts – of “imperialist” fame – notion of “holism”. The Tansley-Smuts debate is, by some, viewed as symptomatic and archetyptical for the 1920s and 30s, which is – historically speaking in light of social thought – at the heels of Frederick L. Holmsted, Partick Geddes and other “conservationist” thinkers who began to assume connections existed between “the social” and “nature”, which required not only biological scrutiny but also preservation. And yet, repeatedly “nature”, “environment”, and “ecology” have disappeared from the “sociological imagination” for a variety of continuous theory-political reasons and eventually the rise of a school of social constructionism, that was decidedly human exemptionalistic – not entirely dissimilar from human exceptionalism in genetic research, a human exemptionalist stance propounds that humans and their technological civilization are exempt from the influences of the bio-physical environment. Even animal-human relations (anthropozoology) have – with the exception of perhaps reference by Gerhard Lenski – not held sociologists attention for decades and come under more intensified scrutiny only very recently and, perhaps, not without the rise of feminist and postcolonial science studies and the revere across disciplines that an eminent scholar like Donna Haraway would garner. In between times, and despite “ecological problems” such as “smog” being discussed since right after World War II, it wasn’t until the end of the 1970s that William Catton and Riley Dunlap voice their frustration with sociology’s ignorance toward the “biophysical environment” – right after psychiatry’s opening a new discourse with Georg Engel’s 1977 “biopsychosocial model”, which, too, would lead to new questions of “environments role” in the life of the un/healthy mind – and become the founders of what would be known today as “environmental sociology”.



Based on this history, a conceptual-disciplinary debate the social sciences, and especially sociology (and affecting its internal sub-disciplines rural-, urban-, economic-, xyz-sociology), face is the question what role “environment/nature” as a whole and non-human or more-than-human agencies in particular should play, a debate that can be exemplified in the distinction between environmental sociology and ecological sociology. Thought of as simultaneously a clear-cut distinction and a spectrum, environmental sociology defines, roughly, a that “environment” is treated by the sub-sociology “environmental sociology” with, at best, potential derivate consequences that general sociology or other sub-sociologies may acknowledge (based on the traditional German distinction between allgemeiner and spezieller Soziologie) and that this sub-sociology studies the relations and interactions between society and its bio-physical environment but maintains if not reifies sociologies underlying (Western epistemological) tradition of human exceptionalism and/or anthropocentrism; whereas the other pole, “ecological sociology” refers to a transformation of sociology entire to take into account the (dialectical, interdependent ontoepistemological, and/or ontogenetical) inseparability of whatever we may – between different disciplinary discourses, come to agree to understand under the terms “the social” and “the ecological”. But even in 1995, Canadian sociologist Raymond Murphy could state that sociology at large was still sociology-as-if-nature-didn’t-matter and that it was imperative to create sociology-in-which-nature-matters.

Academic disciplines often suffer from collective amnesia towards their genealogical chapters, and 20th century sociology post WW II, for a variety of reasons (beginning, certainly, with both its fear of being associated with Social Darwinism on the one hand, and its strange existential angst regarding equivocation), has largely forgotten its “debt to biology”. But among its founders, the ecological embeddedness of society was not a contested issue: Max Weber, for example, revered and took inspiration from Victor Hehn’s 1870 book on the transmission of plants and animals (Kulturpflanzen und Hausthiere in ihrem Übergang aus Asien nach Griechenland und Italien sowie das übrige Europa. Historisch-linguistische Skizzen.) among others, and can, as some have argued, serve as a “classical foundation for a postexemptionalist sociology” while such a sociology, surely, also needs to take inspiration form postcolonial theory and decolonial options.

Among the main challenges today, for such a postexemptionalist social sciences, especially with their focus on “Euromodernity”, is the transition to the so-called bioeconomy: In European biotechno-politico-economic elite circles, it is taken for granted that we already partially live in and continue along the transition to a bioeconomy. While national or supranational (European Commission, OECD) agendas differ in regard to both the composition (agriculture, biofuels, biomedicine, etc.) of what is to be understood as “bioeconomy”, a minimal consensus between them around the main unit of reference, “biomass”, emerges: “Biotechnology is to be deployed for human flourishing/social progress/sustainability while enabling profitability/competitiveness/exploitation-efficiency.” BioEconomy (sic!), as an extension of Euro-Modernity, continues to follow, thus, a logic of extraction, while promising to be a solution for present and future challenges from feeding 9.6 billion people by 2050 to climate change: It promises to be an agent of social progress, justice, and equality, but is conceptualized via an exploitative form of productivity, anthropic/anthropocentric (optimizable) utility, and value as monetizable/quantifiable/maximizable. It is imperative for us to get a genealogical and critical hold on BioEconomy (sic!) as an extension of Euro-Modernity today, expose some of its discontents and conflicts (such as functioning like a colonial archive technology by exercising forms of ontopower), and to create and assess possible alternatives that can help realize generative justice for circular economies that enroll more-than-human agents as partners based on past, present and future bioeoconomies in the plural.


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In which I coin the term venting machine and talk about the Culture of ‘Schadenfreude’ .

[Coming soon, right here, at this blog]


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There is, today, a lot of conversation about “fake news”.  There is, even and already, a bit of a fatigue regarding the intellectual discussion of this issue – not only among those sharing the currently quite en vogue anti-intellectual sentiment, but even among intellectual people themselves. Still, there are a few noteworthy things to be said about the issue, about its emergence, its prevalence, and about how to tackle it in the long-run. I want to focus here on only a select few, and point them out quickly. To anyone familiar with my writings, some of what I identify is going to be very obvious, indeed. This is, also, not a finally word on the issue. It is, like many things on this blog, an initial exploration, open for critical discussion, and meant to be revised and improved over time.

When today I stumbled  over the following “news” item Sean Hannity Flips Out After Getting Busted Sharing Fake News (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/sean-hannity-mccain-fake-news_us_58af9677e4b0a8a9b780d36a?), which is, actually, a kind of “meta-news”, since it is news about a news-maker (falling for fake-news, and then being enraged over news about his falling for fake news – it’s a meta-news item, then of the third order, no?), I had to laugh, because, well, none of this is, actually, “news” but it illustrates various issues and dimensions packed into the current discourse of and on “fake news”. The whole question here is about some Tweets by Mr. Hannity – a media personality, working for a large US-American media company. This Mr. Hannity tweeted a link to a story by someone, which he qualified with “Wow if true”. Now, let us think about this for a moment: What is or makes  news “the news”? We have come to a moment in history, at least in the Global North, where every “item” that may carry information is considered news-worthy if it purports “relevance”; mind you (and pace Habermas), not a truth claim but a claim to relevance. Relevance, I might add in channeling Tyler Burge, as a kind of warrant would be a warrant kind of entitlement not a warrant kind of justification. Tentatively we could say, that this makes for two kinds of possible understanding of what “news” is: News is either current information about the world which is already partially warranted and seeking further warrant through justification, or news is what is deemed relevant (qua an entitlement structure). Anyone familiar with my more recent work and thought process knows that there is this thing I talk about, which I call “economy of  relevance” of which  “attention economies” are a particular aspect of – which is something that I see as being similar in some ways to what philosopher Bernard Stiegler is writing about, for example in his book Taking Care of Youth and Generations. I do not so much care about this  particular “fake news” story then being debunked, Mr.Hannity being called out, then him being upset, etc.  What I find interesting is (a) that this falls into one category of what “news” is, or rather has increasingly become (in and of itself, this turn to relevance and warrant qua entitlement over justification is nothing new itself, but more a cascading expansion of tabloid press: the tabloidization of “the news”, if you prefer to call it that. Perhaps, Boris Groys’s book on the question of what is “the new” would be an interesting read here as well); and (b) that any news-person, such as Mr. Hannity, who is working for an organization of the very size and  very means as his employer could offer, should(!) have editorial staff at their disposal who would check the claims made in any source – this could sometimes be called fact-checking, but I would refrain from calling it that, because sometimes even news-worthy items in the “justifiable news”-category cannot be fully verified as to their facticity in a given moment (I will admit that I have been wondering about the notion of “alternative facts”, that has been thrown around by members of the Trumpites, as being  Heideggerian in origin: after all, Heidegger distinguishes between facticity and factuality; but this may be problematic, with Heidegger’s political affiliation with the original master’s of populism and propaganda, no?), so I would prefer to call it plausibility-checking.  But this is precisely my point, the issue is, very often, one of plausibility. What has gone out of the window with the emergent dominance of relevance-driven news-cycles is not so much the question of checking “fact versus fake” in terms of truth, what has really gone out of the window is to check for plausibility. Facts are states of affairs in so far as facts present (as) truth-claims about states of affairs. And in practice, news organizations (regardless of their political couleur) when confronted with an item that might be news-worthy, they should at the very least do a plausibility-check (even if the fact-check as truth-check cannot be conducted to its fullness). But this doesn’t happen (as often) anymore for two reasons: (a) Quite practically (or in terms of social ontology), because there seems to be less spending on editorial staff in both numbers and competence, there are less staff available to work on a news item and there is an ever increasing number of interns and other low-paid, overworked (precariate) workers doing the job that a host of well-trained, well-paid, and well-rested editorial staffers should be doing (just think of the increasing number of typos, grammatical errors, etc. in online-outlets of even the most established news producers); (b) Because (in terms of social epistemology) we have and continue to exchange  plausibility with relevance , or at least, we value relevance more than plausibility (btw, this counts for news the same as it does for research grant proposals, which are subject to a similar kind of relevance economy). And relevance is somewhat of a construct. This is, I think, also something where philosophers and intellectuals of various could come to an agreement over, regardless of where they come down epistemologically  on the question of what “truth” is. I think that it is worth for them exploring this notion of plausibility here, because intellectuals of various camps (so-called realists against so-called Postmodernists) have been mutually “blaming each other for Trump”.

But sometimes, it’s not even about plausibility, but about how economies of relevance and cultures of relevance clash. Think of the question of the recent “news” about French presidential candidate Macron’s sexual orientation (http://www.zeit.de/politik/2017-02/fake-news-emanuel-macron-russland-rekonstruktion/komplettansicht), which people claim is a “fake story” launched by “the Russians”. I am interested here  not so much in the truth or plausibility alone, or even who is “really behind” the story (do I, btw, sense a new genre of “Whodunnit?” stories here – novels that are not murder mysteries but mysteries about who launched these news and why?). What is interesting is the question, why and in what manner do people think that Monsieur Macron’s sexuality is relevant and why would anyone want to use it for political gain? Again, I am not interested in “the Russians” (or any other “collective” ascriptions), but in the fact that there is two news items here: One is about Monsieur Macron’s sexuality, the other news item is about “the Russians” spreading this for political gain.  So whoever spreads the news about the sexuality of Monsieur Macron has assumptions about why people would be interested (and these assumptions say something about how these people think of the French people, for example). Those who talk about “the Russians” have assumptions about how “these Russians” think about how “the French” think about sexuality, i.e. that someone being a politician being homosexual might be a problem for the French, or that he is married to a woman while having sex with men might be a problem, etc. etc. But perhaps people in France don’t care, or perhaps the voters “these Russians” supposedly seek to swing to, supposedly, vote for Front National  wouldn’t care,  etc. Take the comparative case of Germany (which I know a bit better), where sexuality is something people consider something that is best left inside one’s own four walls, i.e. Germans think sex and sexual orientation of their political personnel is something that is their private affair and has no place in political debate – hence, we had politicians in high offices, who were known to be gay and when some news media were trying to make it into something, it turned out that the majority of people didn’t really care and actually rewarded said politicians if they were themselves taking a “so what?” attitude (see the case of Berlin governor Klaus Wowereit, who simply stated “I’m gay, and that is good.”, which basically said: So what, and that’s it.) One could assume, but this is only an assumption, that those voters in France who aren’t already voting Front National (which always had an anti-gay faction, despite current attempts to portray the party as more neutral on this question) may not be too interested in what happens in Monsieur Macron’s bed-room. Or maybe they are. But my point here is, that there are different assumptions in-play about is deemed as relevant, and so are, sometimes, efforts to reconstruct  what relevance is: See the disparity of the gravity of offense between the Clinton emails and the various problems the Trumpite camp has in maintaining their digital security. Regardless of how even so-called liberal media who were more on Clinton’s side reported on it, the fact that they reported to such a large amount and degree on the Clinton email  issue says a lot about relevance as well as that even their reporting often did jump the gun, forsaking plausibility for relevance.

For news organizations, mainly, the issue of relevance is not only which news are deemed relevant, but (as I have written previously on the issue of, for example, research grant proposals and the prestige economy in academia) but to stay relevant themselves. So they often will report what might be “relevant news” as quickly as possible (hence the inflation of the “breaking news” genre in the past fifteen or so years), in order to not appear “irrelevant”. The logic here is: Better to appear relevant, even if utterly wrong, than to be right but appear as not being able to present what is currently and in the moment deemed (most) relevant. In the same vein, currently US comedians jump on everything the Trumpites do and try and make it funny – they thrive on relevance, too. But one can ask, if this contribution to the economy of relevance – which gives itself a guise of “criticism” –  is not contributing to the problem. What if these comedians from  Colbert to John Oliver and so on, stopped being funny about and got serious for a while, because what they talk about is serious? For late night shows in the US, their economies of relevance comes in two layers, too: What is relevant in the news cycles, and what is relevantly funny. But if, what is relevant were truly serious and truly serious to them, why make it funny? If the matters were so serious, for example with real lives being (plausibly) at stake, shouldn’t they not stop being funny to also convey the seriousness of the matter? The answer to this question is not an easy one, for certainly many people wouldn’t even listen to the message if it wasn’t presented in a funny way, and that way they at least here the message  – though, what is the/a “message” here, one could ask? But it also seems, presently, that comedians as well as many news outlets, after years of decline in audience, have profited from the current political situation. They appear more relevant, again. In the world of news, so many economies of relevance have become entangled that it is nearly impossible to make sense of them with any analytical clarity. What I wanted to point out here, though, is that two main trends over a long time have contributed to the current fray: The substitution of plausibility with relevance, and the decline in quality editing. And these two are dimensions, I claim, we seriously need to talk more about.

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After the rise of neo-r/facism and neo-colonialism, after Brexit and the election of Trump, now the core European nations (and universities in the US) must invest in the humanities and liberal arts, as an investment in the future, an investment in the true infrastrucuture. STEAM, not STEM. It will mean to also learn that it takes to provincialize the Western knowledge basis and to create new spaces of learning. Within the academy, we need the move away from university and monoculture to pluriveristy and new, open forms of scholarship and conversation, transdisciplinarity not disciplinary decadence, instead of White Collar Academia we need BluesCollarship. It is white wealthy and wanna-be wealthy voters (https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/nov/09/white-voters-victory-donald-trump-exit-polls), it is people who enjoy privileges and, thus, mindlessly execute racism as if it is a privilege, who voted for Trump, it is an anti-intellectual movement, that consumes and destroys the true infrastructure by precarizing knowledge and cultural labor and which now turns to precarize everything. It is a number of people who didn’t vote, who is not participating in the political process, who is not feeling as though they belong at all. It is an increasing lack of political imagination in society, it is the lack of political society, when all that is left as options for belonging and turning belonging into participation is either the remainder of the once colonial idea of Enlightend civil society on the one hand and an imperialistic, neo-colonial privileged anti-intellectual camp. We need to rebuild the real infra-structure in the Global North, but rebuild in using decolonial options and provincialize in the same movement and gesture. The time is now, the place is here, as we are faced with a huge problem, but as I wrote in Digital Coloniality of Power, it is not anymore about doing problem-oriented scholarship, it is about creating opportunities from and within the problem. Let’s think together, learn together, have conversations, and let’s move together, not just occupy but inhabit together: Let us build together the infrastructure, in which it will be possible to inhabit the future together.

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A ‘Sneak Preview’ from my upcoming book Care, Power, Information will be posted here, soon.

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When I was a pre-teen, I was growing up in an 1980s German city, in a neighborhood where many families lived who were – back then – called ‘Gastarbeiter’ (guest-workers) – a label indicating a collective denial, which was politically transformed only after a Left wing government took over in 1998, that Germany was (and still) is a country that both saw as well as required for demographic and economic reasons immigration. At that tender age, I still had a hard time grasping the reasons for the ‘ethnic’ tensions at my school, where the Turkish kids would cluster in the schoolyard, and conflicts were fueled by ethnic categories and stereotypes distilled into us German by our fathers (more than our mothers). Our own personal and family histories need to be questioned, especially when we work as scholars.  I will never forget the day that I was made to sit next to a young Turkish boy in my class whose grades were quite bad, and it was deemed that he would be helped by sharing a classroom desk with me. Most of the Turkish kids were in their own, the ‘Turkish’ class, but this boy’s father insisted that he attended a ‘regular’ class to learn better German – even if they didn’t speak any German at home and he didn’t have any German friends, which was making it hard for him to practice conversing in German. We quickly became friends, as we realized that we could help each other out – in the way 8-year-olds figure out things: I would help him with learning, and he would help me with copying things from the blackboard, which – now that I was seated in the back row with him – could no longer see as well, strictly denying that I needed glasses (which I got a few months later, anyway). My Turkish friend, after a few weeks, confided in me that whenever he brought home an F, his father would ’take off his belt, and severely beat’ him. While he swore me to silence, horrified as I was by his story, I didn’t keep that promise. I informed my parents and attempted to talk to the teacher, but nobody seemed interested or knew how to do anything about it. Ever since then, when I encounter people who seem to prefer to be oblivious to someone actually suffering or – as my later self expanded into questions of the political imagination – are unable or unwilling to acknowledge the wider political implications of something they’re saying or doing, especially when they prefer a form of politics and politicking over the actual political, that’s when I apply some more aggressive forms of sarcasm to hold the mirror to people, especially when these are people who have received (or are active part of) higher academic education.
I found myself very recently at a conference with a lot of graduate student speakers and was rather surprised when a graduate student made a silly joke about whether stealing the artsy conference poster would get her send to  a labor-camp, this was in no way offensive by itself so I merely remarked in also somewhat non-serious way (I’ll come back to that) that since I was being German, the joke had a certain flavor when addressed to me – in the same sense that I remark that references to leading the way or leadership have funny ring to German minds. The graduate student, stopped, and then said, while laughing, that she ‘oh, was referring to that US-American student who just got sentenced to 10 years of labor camp in North Korea for stealing a poster’. I wasn’t sure how to take that as a joke, really, because it involved presently living, identifiable persons, and one individual in particular, currently actually suffering in North Korea.
I was curious, given that in some of the PhD-student presentations I had seen while at the conference, also seemed oblivious to some of the more actual political consequences of their research, to crucial ethical concerns, and to aspects of (in)justice that often remained silenced (including such instances in the keynote speaker’s talk).
While I certainly do not go the level of Zizekian tastelessness in jokes, given that I was born in Germany, I have a very unique opportunity of creating provocations, by emphasizing a certain indifference to the aspect of appearing apologetic as many Germans feel compelled to appear in public when abroad. But there is method to my madness – and I will admit, there is method even to Slavoj Zizek’s madness: Zizek’s point, that once people stop making stupid jokes about each others culture/ethnicity/religion that’s when it gets really dangerous, is not far off the mark; he’s onto something. But not liking Zizek’s tasteless jokes too much, I prefer to usually make one or two harmless comments, that refer more to how Germans should not be ruled by guilt and that a healthy way to overcome it is with some mildly obnoxious humor. When there are other Germans present at a conference, they tend to blush at these, US- Americans and British people usually become curious and refer to stories of other Germans they met, who wanted to make sure to demonstrate that they felt guilty and were apologetic for the German misdeeds during 1933 and 1945 – as if, by the way, the invention of modern biological racism by Kant, Blumenbach, and other Germanic scholars, as well as numerous other horrible chapters in German (and European) history didn’t matter. I use my mildly provocative maneuver to open a space in the discourse for a partially political point: My problem with the guilt-apologetic mentality is that it is mainly focused on oneself. Demonstrating that one is apologetic includes an expectation of forgiveness of a sort. ‘Apology’ and its relation to ‘apologetic’ are etymologically interesting, because of the relation to Greek apologētikos and apologeisthei their meaning derives, as far as I understand, from the idea of ‘speaking in one’s own defense’; the German word for apology, Entschuldigung, if taken apart means literally ‘taking off one’s guilt or debt’. When cartoonist Walter Moers published a sarcastic cartoon titled ‘Adolf’ in the 1990s, a story about Hitler emerging after 50 years of living in underground – drawn in the style of Moers famously politically incorrect provocation of Das Kleine Arschloch  (The Little Asshole) cartoons -, he faced a lot of moral backlash. But his response was put on a poster: ‘Is one allowed to laugh at the Nazis? No, one must!”
Sarcasm and satire, even if not understood as such by everyone, I came to learn early on, are far more effective than being apologetic in achieving the important political meaning behind these discourses: Namely that we do remember the suffering that happened, and that our culture/society/nation/community/… was responsible for and how  and the people who suffered, and that we make sure this kind of suffering does not and cannot happen again. In the German case, the holocaust and World War II stand out as events, but others, such  as the Massacre Germans caused to the Herero people and other colonial crimes should not be forgotten nor taken lightly. And with Germany as an economic power from the Global North, we cannot claim that we have done overly well as a nation in preventing suffering of the kind we have been responsible for directly in the past. US American history, too, is riddled with ‘problematic episodes’ to give this a, let’s say euphemistic description, and the discussion of what ‘atonement’ could mean and what forms it should take has not really been led in the US. If Randolph Hohle is right, then ‘American neoliberalism’ was born out of racism in the 1960s and 1970s, when a white business elite decided that all things white were about property and privacy, and that the welfare state and everything public was to be considered in relation to black people. This would mean, following Hohle’s analysis, that calls for austerity and tax cuts are a code for racist politics. Neoliberalism in the US American style (and here, I would correct Hohle, because we all have become so accustomed to saying [in a very colonial way] American when we should say US-American – it was noticeable that in every presentation I heard during the conference and in conversations after, people when talking and on many slides referred exclusively to ‘America’  and not ’the US’) is the oppositional force resisting that US American society and politics fully acknowledge and remember the suffering of African slaves, of Black and of Brown people, as well as of Asian Americans, and also prevents people from actively, politically working on the prevention of catastrophes on a collective, national level – individual activists and groups aside. I make this point about remembrance and prevention often, and I tend to find it maddening, when I encounter educated people who seem to prefer and convey a ’dignified ignorance’ towards political issues they are implicitly raising. That’s when I venture into provocations. It is, however, particularly frustrating, when people choose to ignore the importance of remembering the intertwined issues of past suffering and prevention of current and future suffering, especially when they chose the tactic of not engaging these issues by focusing on the initial provocation and its ‘perceived incorrectness’ instead. To begin with, we would not be in a position to have a serious discussion about the problem of collective attitude towards political events of suffering, if the provocation hadn’t served as the entry point – I have tried making my arguments in various ways over the years, and found that the route via provocation is the one that at least makes people attention. But the tactic of focusing on the provocation by interlocutors is an interesting one, because it’s a sign of a state of complacency that they want to remain in – a bit of a social pathology, if you like. In addition, their focus on the provocation itself exposes other pathological aspects, akin to the Lacanian account (often retold by Zizek) that a persons jealousy of suspecting that their lover is cheating on them is pathological, regardless if the lover is cheat in or not; i.e. fixation on the provocation instead of the argument deriving from it says more about the provoked than about the provocateur. It’s for that reason that I take more risks in pushing provocation even further. (My curiosity is perhaps my, cat-killing, pathology, as is my drive to make people think even if I run the danger of making a few ‘enemies’ along the way). Sarcasm is both a sharp knife and a blunt instrument, and it is interesting to observe when and how people refuse to engage it. As a few graduate students from said conference fell into this trap, I learned a lot about them.  As I said, I was initially engaging into this venture because I noticed in their discourse but also in their demeanor a certain ignorance to underlying political consequences as well as to actual cases of suffering and injustice, and also an interesting obliviousness to  physical surroundings. In short, we do have to face the question, at which point is a graduate student ‘trending’ towards assuming epistemic entitlement. In the preceding conference, I felt that colonial issues were, with few exceptions aka exceptional speakers, largely sidelined.  I was baffled by one person in a conversation describing  Jews in general and US-American Jews in particular as ‘colonized and Globally Southern’ – Jewish people have suffered throughout history, and  no one could dispute that Jews in the US, too, have suffered from discrimination and forms of oppression and violence, but in political terms the story is certainly more complicated than using the lens of colonialism – it may be a disrespectful to people who suffer(ed) colinialism, and not for nothing can we use the term ‘Judeo-Christian’ when referring to the Western, colonial episteme.  It’s also fascinating to take into consideration some of the white male citations during the talks and not wonder: In a few discussions during the conference, Garfinkel, Goffman, and breaching experiments came up – and, of course, we all conduct a lot of ad hoc breaching experiments at social gatherings – so it was interesting, I decided, to see what would happen if I asked one of the graduate students – the person who had a fondness for labor-camp jokes – the question ‘What if I was just conducting a breaching experiment?’ The response was enlightening, because the graduate student failed to address that I deliberately asked a hypothetical question. I was presented with a counter question instead, which was asked seriously and not in jest: ‘What? You did not have an informed consent procedure for that?’ It makes one wonder, how a persons who just spent their day invoking Garfinkel & Co. can ask this question since that would beat the purpose of the experiment. This was my actual yet hypothetically phrased response: ‘If it were one, then wouldn’t that beat the purpose?’ – a question that was the response to a questions receives as response another question…. Interestingly, the graduate student went off to discuss – in earshot – with some of her fellow graduate students the impropriety of my ‘breaching experiment’, which never was one to begin with, since I clearly wasn’t conducting any kind of study [I will however add, that if there ever was any population with whom we could potentially still consider conducting breaching experiments in an ethically at least marginally justifiable way it would be social science graduate students and faculty, precisely because they must understand the stakes of research – again, this is merely hypothetical, but the inherent attitude of a certain harshness of either sarcasm or breaching experiments should never be deployed with, for example, undergraduate students]. If this has resulted in anything, then in this being more like a piece in investigative journalism about the mentalities and sensitivities of primarily White graduate students in some of the ‘upper class’ universities in the US. While there may be understandable reasons why someone who identifies as Jewish or is close to the Jewish community would be more affected by any sarcasm built on ridiculing German apologetics culture, and sarcasm is always a hard bread to stomach,  I stay away from  references to actual atrocities or individual-related acts of violence, because these come to close to Zizekian tastelesness, which is inherently too antagonistic. Context matters in these cases, which makes it an interesting under what circumstances and for what reason this kind of sarcasm seems to affect someone personally.  Provocations, undertaken seriously, have the task of enabling the creation of discursive spaces for discussing political matters – I am very post-foundational here in my thinking. But when even this backfires, a risk we must take, i.e. when instead of creating an agonistic space together, only antagonism ensues, I wonder about my interlocutors: There is, if one recalls, a famous scene in Star Wars: The Empire strikes back, where Luke Skywalker is told to go to place where the Dark Side of the Force resides, as he is packing heat, he ask his master what he all find there, to which Yoda responds, ‘only what you take with you’. Of course, the whole thing goes pear-shaped. And that’s my question: What ‘heat’ were are people packing, who react intensely negatively to sarcasm? I assume that it is a form of ‘entitlement’. I mean this in a particular way in terms of social epistemology, but it relates to how I understand White Collar academia. Namely, my question is about warrant. Tyler Burge (and others)  made the argument, roughly, that if a person has a belief that is warranted can either come as ‘being/feeling entitled to that belief’ or ‘being able to justify or having justifications for that belief’. Along those lines, I teach my students that whenever they say or write ‘My opinion is….’ (German students, for example, are very fond of saying  and writing this  way about their opinion: Meiner Meinung nach…. or Meine Meinung ist…) they need to say or write two or three sentences giving reasons to justify that opinion. On my end, in situations such as encountered at conferences, I follow up on sarcastic, cynical, or satirical statements about ‘German guilt’  with justifying the reasoning behind the provocation: Explaining that it’s not guilt and Entschuldigung that matters but taking (political) responsibility. This responsibility is, to a large degree, of an epistemic kind. And this is precisely what is missing in our political culture or should we rather say culture of politics?
By stating one’s opinion, without even caring to be able to justify it, and by not caring about how another persons statements and beliefs could be justified, but only caring about them appearing ‘antagonistic’ to one’s own, one operates based on entitlement. It is saddening, even frightening, when specifically graduate students seem ‘not to care’, and it makes provocations more and more important. In taking on provocations, we take risks, obviously, and we run dangers (they may never serve as ‘excuses’ [another possible translation for Entschuldigung]  for random acts of symbolic/verbal violence). We expose both the vulnerabilities of ourselves, of those we provoke, and at times of those who are subjected to but subject of or in the provocation. But this is an exceptionally interesting point: Vulnerabilities. In the Western university, which is inherently structured as a White, male (and Judeo-Christian) institution, ‘vulnerability’ is given no place in the academic mentality – I will be publishing more on this issue in the future, actually. But if we want to conduct scholarship that makes a difference in people’s lives, we have to accept and deal with vulnerabilities. Vulnerabilities are what matters. But we have largely excluded them from academic discourse – to be correctly understood: I am not speaking here about the issues of ‘trigger warnings’ and ‘safe spaces’ and so on. – We have archives of resistance but we have no archives of vulnerabilities. This, namely dealing with and allowing for vulnerabilities, is something graduate students need to grasp. Scholarship that is meaningful is vulnerable scholarship. That less and less students do, is problematic and it makes provocations more and more necessary but also more and more risky – in part, because the climate that has made students turn to ignore vulnerability is a climate wherein politics is conducted in antagonistic, intentionally hurtful and violent forms – it often calls itself provocation or hyperbole, but the difference is, here, too, one of entitlement versus justification. Therein lie some dialectics, if you like, or, if you prefer, some double-binds. These are hard to escape, as Gregory Bateson and Norbert Elias have shown, but try and break them we must. Herein, I keep heeding lessons from feminist science studies and feminist ethics about epistemic responsibility: If we do not act epistemically responsible and that involves, sometimes, provocation to draw out justifications and justifying process that were hidden or ignored, epistemic injustice will increase and epistemic agency of vulnerable agents be reduced. Acting epistemically responsibly is, however, not always pretty or friendly. Provocation and sarcasm, while brutal in a way, draw out vulnerabilities.
For the better part of my life, I began to follow a learning curve of how to live along lines of Dao and Zen, specifically teachings that deploy humor, sarcasm, and a certain harshness in learning and teaching. The more epistemic responsibility a person should carry, the harsher my response if I observe that the person does not take that responsibility seriously. That means, sometimes, that the provocateur needs to appear as the kind of person that others shouldn’t want to become but are on the verge to. Because being responsible means to uncover vulnerabilities, and we can only do that if we also allow for them and allow for our own to be exposed. This is what political being means, to quote, further, Lewis Gordon: ‘To be political is to emerge, to appear, to exist.’

I never learned what became of the Turkish boy, I shared a desk with so many years ago. I switched schools when I was 11. What I know, for sure, though, is that he was vulnerable, but for my teachers he did not exist as a political subject. So, don’t(!) forgive the sarcastic man for sometimes having to annoy people a lot, think about your political existence instead.

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