Scandalous (?) Science: Redefining the Kilo and Latour’s Intellectual Paxil


A few days ago I was driving to campus and going through the same motions I go through every weekday at 6:45a.m. (well, every weekday except Friday): *carefully* drinking a ridiculously huge insulated mug of black coffee, intently listening to NPR, and – inevitably – frantically – searching for something (usually the previous day’s Starbucks receipt, but this week, it’s been a birthday card I received a few months ago …) to jot down “things to remember and research” as NPR churns out more and more relevant, interesting, and applicable (at least to my scholarly interests) daily news. One such example of a morning scribble that I’ve really been wanting to follow-up on is this: BBC’s “Curbing the kilogram’s weight-loss programme.” For me, this particular conversation is way more than simply a “scandalous proposition” … it’s reflective of the conversations we’ve been having in one of my graduate courses, “Rhetoric of Science” taught by none other than The/our Herndl (Dr. Carl Herndl) and, more generally, it is certainly reflective of Latour’s political ecology (one of the primary motivators that continues to shape and influence my scholarship in English/Rhetoric at USF).

During Herndl’s Wednesday class (and, now that I think of it, throughout our discussions from the beginning of the semester) we’ve argued in favor of Latour’s science/s: science (little “s”) as practices of doing, not of knowing. For Latour, the sciences ought to be concerned with the doing (practicing, risking), not obsessed with the knowing (fact-discovering, etc.). In this particular session of Rhetoric of Science (Jan 26 2011), we decided that Latour’s theory of science articulates science as a practice, as a doing, versus the tried-and-“True” science: science as “knowing.” For Latour, science is DOING not KNOWING, because, as Gross articulates, “Science is rhetoric without remainder, we don’t discover, we make facts.” Discovery or construction? For Latour, it’s most definitely the latter. (Yet – NOT social construction … )

Ok, so although it’s nice and all that I can simply re-articulate a Herndl lecture on Latour … what does The Herndl’s most recent lecture have to do with the scandalous science and the most recent news (via NPR, as mentioned above)? From the way I see things, the noted concern with “the goal … [of creating] … standards that, unlike the almost-a-kilogram of platinum in France, won’t change with time”  … is particularly relevant for measuring small changes that happen over the course of years or decades” (Palmer). The “small changes” Palmer refers to manifest in political anxieties over debacles like the climate change “debate” (“debate” alluding to its political … well, its political messiness, in general … meaning it is framed as though it were a negotiable “fact” to be proven/dis-proven). For Latour, quibbles over “standards” and especially, standards that, purportedly, “won’t change with time” aren’t sufficient ways  for practicing the sciences/political ecology. Are there such standards? If so, what are they? Can we think of any specific cases?  Per The Herndl, Latour isn’t interested in these standards, these Universal/s or Truth/s, rather, he’s interested in what’s INVARIANT and what’s USEFUL … meaning that we “get there” through language as DOING, as a kind of material performative, in a sense …

Those who understand Latour’s theory of political ecology, a theory within which he has invented a new “language” to articulate the terms of the (old) debate, are instantly satiated -alleviated – of the anxieties that inevitably accompany the old debate of Science. Whereas the old debate perpetuates Science, Latour’s sciences are an intellectual paxil, in The Herndl’s framing of it: Latour’s new language of political ecology frees us from the circular and paralyzing dichotomies of the old politics, the politics that subsumes nature within itself: the politics of nature that is concerned with creating standards that … won’t change with time.

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About klangbehn

Doctoral Candidate: Rhetoric of Science University of South Florida 4202 E. Fowler Avenue Tampa, FL 33620-5550 View all posts by klangbehn

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