In this episode I speak with Andrew Pickering, a leading historian of science, known for his sociological studies of scientific practices and knowledge production in books such as Constructing Quarks: A Sociological History of Particle Physics and The Mangle of Practice: Time, Agency and Science. In the context of this project, I became interested in Pickering’s work as a result of his more recent book, The Cybernetic Brain: Sketches of Another Future, where he traces the largely overlooked history of British cybernetics and finds in it some alternate ways of acting in, and with, the world. The subtitle, ‘sketches of another future’, suggests a promise and a prompt. Pickering explains that ‘cybernetics inevitably appears odd and nonmodern’, and this is precisely what makes it appealing to him. In outlining the book, he writes:
Perhaps we have gone a bit overboard with the modern idea that we can understand and enframe the world. Perhaps we could do with a few examples before our eyes that could help us imagine and act in the world differently. Such examples are what the following chapters offer. They demonstrate concretely and very variously the possibility of a nonmodern stance in the world, a stance of revealing rather than enframing, that hangs together with an ontology of unknowability and becoming. Hence the invitation to see the following scenes from the history of cybernetics as sketches of another future, models for another way to go on, an invitation.
Pickering has been further pursuing these themes in the book he is currently working on, where he considers different ways of acting with the world, what he calls ‘dances of agency’ between human and non-human agents. Developing a distinction made by Martin Heidegger in ‘The Question Concerning Technology’, Pickering contrasts a logic of ‘enframing’, which is based on control and domination, with a logic of ‘poeisis’, which suggests more open, adaptive and experimental practices. He considers examples such as the natural farming of Masanobu Fukuoka, traditions of indigenous fire management in Australia, and the adaptive management of dams in Colorado. Connecting the two books, Pickering explains:
At the most fundamental level natural farming and cybernetics share an ontology, a vision of the world as unknowable, a place that we can never master and which can always surprise us. But neither treats this vision as a recipe for passivity. Both fields are concerned with the question of how to act in such a world.
It is not possible to do justice to Pickering’s rich ideas here, but hopefully this should suffice to indicate how the themes he is considering - agency in the context of unknowability, alternate ways of living and being in the world, expectation and surprise - are of great interest and relevance. What comes through clearly in our conversation is his concern with moving beyond critique and instead identifying different practices of acting with a lively and surprising world, and the possible futures that could follow from developing such alternatives. This strikes me as especially important due to the constant risk critical approaches contain of regarding critique as sufficient, and avoiding hard questions of ‘what else?’ and ‘what next?’. In this regard, it is interesting that both Pickering and Alan Jacobs end up looking towards non-Western traditions, and this is another theme present here. I find something stimulating and hopeful in the humble, grounded practices of experimentation that Pickering examines, which we explore in this conversation.
This conversation has been cross-posted on the ‘Imperfect world’ podcast feed. It was produced with support by a grant from the Toshiba International Foundation. Previous episodes: IW01, IW02, IW03, IW04, IW05, IW06, IW07.