Book Review: Experimental Practice by Dimitris Papadopoulos

Tuesday 26th February, 2019

Review by Nicholas Beuret

Dimitris Papadopoulos is Professor of Science, Technology and Society and Director of the Institute for Science and Society at the University of Nottingham. His work in science and technology studies, social theory and social change has been published in numerous journals and in several books. He is currently a Leverhulme Research Fellow working on a monograph called Chemopolitics and Elemental Justice and a co-edited volume called Reactivating Elements. Substance, Process and Method from Chemistry to Cosmology (forthcoming with Duke University Press) which examine elemental thinking and the becoming ecological of chemical practice. His most recent book, Experimental Practice: Technoscience, Alterontologies and More-Than-Social Movements (Duke University Press 2018), investigates how community technoscience, social innovation projects and the distributed invention power of social movements change the meaning of politics and justice today. Previous books include: Escape Routes. Control and Subversion in the 21st Century (Pluto Press 2008), Analysing Everyday Experience: Social Research and Political Change (Palgrave 2006) and Lev Vygotsky: Work and Reception (Campus 1999/Lehmanns 2010).

What’s the matter? We can take this political question in two ways. As a kind of searching for something specific, something troubling, in amongst the more general series of complex crises that characterise the contemporary world-system. That is, as a question looking to create the grounds for some kind of action. We can also take it to be a question of matter, of materiality. Materiality being that subject that has come to the academic fore through a number of different names – speculative realism, new materialism, geohumanities, the material or nonhuman turn. For the most part, the latter use materiality as a starting point but not as a framework. Answers are not given; questions are what they seek to pose. Climate change provokes philosophical reflection; developments in science prompt us to reconsider our ontological presuppositions; technology opens up the question of agency and subjectivity. It is rare that the political questions and materiality are thought together, meaning that often what we find within texts addressing the ‘material turn’ are ethical programs and not political accounts. We are left with coping with what is the matter, not transforming matter to tackle the problem that the former question identifies.

Dimitris Papadopoulos’ Experimental Practice: Technoscience, alterontologies, and more-than-social movements seeks to think politics and materiality together. Or rather, to take the convergence of the two as a starting point for articulating political practices appropriate to the current moment. That moment is one characterized by both a ‘decentering of the human in its relations to other species, machines, and the material world’ (Papadopoulos 2018:1) and an eerie absence of political effect, where despite a series of ‘extraordinary social mobilizations’ (ibid) that have taken place around the world since 2006 very little social and political transformation has taken place. Experimental Practiceexplores the sense that there is a connection between the two.

The book closes a trilogy of texts that explore how social movements and social conflict transform social relations through everyday experience, collectivity and, with the most recent book, materiality. As with his previous co-authored books, Experimental Practiceis a hybrid work, one that brings together methodological, philosophical and political concerns through a close engagement with autonomous social movements.  

At the heart of the book lie two chapters on activist materialism and insurgent posthumanism that set the terms of the book’s political conversation. Activist materialism names an unstable historical current of praxis that takes the conditions of life as the focus of political action (ibid: 81-82). That is, a political practice that seeks to change what kinds of everyday life are possible by transforming the material foundations and infrastructure of social life. Insurgent posthumanism names an approach to change that seeks to acknowledge the non-human elements of social movements, and to do so without falling into the universalizing tendencies of ‘mainstream’ posthumanism – of treating ‘humanity’ and ‘nonhumanity’ as universal categories (ibid: 95).

If activist materialism is a historical current of political praxis, insurgent posthumanism questions what constitute that current. Brought together, the two enable a conceptualisation of social movements as more-than-social: that is, movements that seek to change society practically by engaging with both human and nonhuman relations, through some involvement with technoscientific practices (ibid: 3).

The significance of this conceptualization of political praxis is that the emphasis falls on processes of worlding (ibid: 94-95) – that is, on making and remaking the conditions of life and thus the forms of life that can exist. Worlding in this instance is the ‘crafting – literally – alternative forms of life’ (ibid: 94). For Papadopolous this involves actively experimenting with the material conditions of our everyday lives, to see what alternative kinds of lives we can live. The aim of these processes of experimentation is to generate not only alternative but ‘autonomous spaces of existence’ (ibid: 3), autonomous existence being a life that is not overdetermined by either Capitalist social relations nor the heterogeneous composite that is the modern state. Yet while the varied histories of both activist materialism and insurgent posthumanism both set out an implicit answer to the question ‘autonomous from what’, here what is missing is a more detailed account of autonomy after or post humanism. Or rather, a more explicit one, as it appears the very possibility to experiment is itself the condition of autonomy. To what degree one can act on one’s conditions of existence would seem to be how autonomy is, or can be, defined. It is the capacity to experiment with everyday life.

This capacity to experiment with everyday life offers the possibility of pursuing ‘thick justice’ – that is, forms of extra-legal justice – where the goal is not to produce prescriptive regulatory regimes but create a plurality of worlds contra the logic of existing ontological politics. Taking up the notion of a ‘frontier of matter’ (ibid: 13-14), ontological politics operates through expansion, where the creation of new worlds works through the inclusion of new territories (ibid: 13). This movement is both liberatory in that it creates new possibilities for life and, at the same time, oppressive, insofar as it is a movement of appropriation. Ontological politics, as mode of politics bound to modernity, carries an implicitly coloniality. Papadopoulos argues that this implicit coloniality can be challenged through a decolonial politics of matter (ibid: 17) that aims at decolonizing matter not through projects of inclusion and representation but rather through practices that challenge inclusion (and by inference, representation) as the basis of political life (ibid: 16-17).

In addition to the rich histories and engagement with contemporary theoretical debates, the book takes up (through what Papadopolous calls baroque fieldwork (ibid: 5) a series of accounts of experimental practices: migrant and no borders experiments with ‘mobile commons’ (ibid: 50), ACT UP’s AIDS activism, debates around plasticity and brain science, and contrasting accounts of maker culture (in the global North and South respectively). This rich tapestry of fieldwork – what Papadopolous terms social science fiction (ibid: 6) provides a detailed account of the kinds of experimental practices that comprise the activity of more-than-social movements, and is a useful resource for people working within these various sites and the fields of social movement studies, political theory and science and technology studies.

There are two absences that I found notable. The first is the relative absence of environmental movements, surprising both as Papadopolous references them in several places as a site of varied experimentation (i.e., permaculture is a reference point here in particular) and given the onset of dangerous climate change and the Anthropocene, as well as the pre-history of the material turn in environmentally aware forms of political ecology and science and technology studies.

More broadly, there is a rich current of experimental practice within environmental movements that Papadopolous only briefly touches on that would have well been worth exploring more deeply. While the health activism of ACT UP is examined, the environmental campaigns around the defense and expansion of commons, around alternative forms of technology and energy production, around agricultural production, are all noted but left unexplored.

The second absence is more theoretical (in contrast to the question of fieldsites). While talking to and engaging with varied sites and conditions of experimental practice, the differentiated groundings for experimenting with alternative forms of life is not explored directly. There is only a fragmented account of how the capacities to experiment with worlding are produced and distributed. The partial accounts located in the chapters discussing the mobile commons of migrants or the varied experiences of make-spaces suggest that ‘material literacy’ (ibid: 200) and the resources required to experiment, including spaces opened up for experimentation through regulatory and legislative programs, are far from evenly distributed and have a significant effect on the capacity to experiment and produce autonomy. 

It is clear that Papadopolous is aware of the unevenness of the capacity to experiment, and the book offers detailed accounts of how different movements engage and work within the cramped confines of existing social worlds. Politically it would have been good to foreground this question as a material problem and explore some of the varied experiments with the unevenness of experimental capacities (the various solidarity economies of Greece come to mind here, or the limits to Transition Towns programs). 

Experimental Practiceis a thorough and practical account of how matter matters, and how we can bring the non-human or more-than-human world into our political calculus and convincingly sets out a case for experimental practices. The next step is to bring this account into conversation with the social, infrastructural and ecological ruins of neoliberalism, to articulate how the capacity to experiment is conditioned and how, ultimately, to challenge and change the conditions of an insurgent activist materialism.

Nicholas Beuret is a lecturer at the University of Essex whose work focuses on environmental politics and science and technology studies. His work explores how environmental issues are produced as sociotechnical matters of concern and how they function to shape political practices and imaginaries. 

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