Attachments / ethics and politics / beings of fiction: Pragmatism put through the trial of survey and debate

Last spring, I was invited in Weimar by the IKKM (Internationales Kolleg für Kulturtechnikforschung und Medienphilosophie, affiliated to Bauhaus-Universität Weimar), within the framework of a residential program for German and foreign professors. During my three-month stay, besides exchanges with the other guest professors, attending conferences and “labs” (research workshops addressing current research), the Institute gave me the more original opportunity to organize three research workshops. Each one, based almost on the same format, gathered twelve to twenty external guests during a week: at first, two or three days of internal work with the participants about their research material, then a resumption in an open seminar, intended to pursue the PotWeimar_juil13debate with the interested researchers, professors and students of the IKKM or the University.

During the sessions themselves, we took time to present and discuss thoroughly each participant’s inquiries without putting aside the delicate issues. The advantage of the formula was to enable the exchanges to go on in a café, a restaurant or to be continued in the evening, and real links were formed between those who wished to extend these exchanges. Another effect of the formula, rather natural even if I expected it less, is that shared cross-cutting issues arose – about pragmatism, inquiries, commitment, value and evaluation of action or things – thus creating connections for the future between the three collectives that have been formed in Weimar.

Three research workshops in Weimar

A first workshop gathered researchers (who did not all know each other, far from it), working on dependence, vulnerability and uncertain identities to discuss the possibility of “situated ethics”: how do we act in difficult cases or take part in problematic actions when faced with unclearly formulated issues, constraints and contradictory requirements or disagreements between the people involved, furthermore in situations where judgments are themselves subjected to uncertainty? In particular, is it possible to restore the practical and theoretical continuity between action, analysis and evaluation, instead of having them distributed in too convenient divisions – between superior principles and know-how resulting from a learning-by-doing process, between researchers and actors, between prescription and description?

The second workshop, co-organized with Bruno Latour’s program “AIME” on modes of existence, was dealing with “fiction”, the notion being understood in a much broader sense than the definition established in art and literature: figures, forms, images, characters… beings of all kinds, marked by the ambivalence of the making and having made: what type of action, presence and agency are these beings we make, and in return make us, capable of? This workshop placed under the sign of Souriau’s magnificent texts on “the work to be made” and the call of beings to more existence led to discussions on issues close to those tackled in the other workshops, about commitment and responsibility in a world to be achieved.

Finally, the third research workshop, “inquiry, commitment, writing”, gathered about ten participants of the Attachments seminar, most of whom had attended the previous workshop. One of the objectives was to reflect upon the functioning of next year’s seminar, that will be centered on the writing of a collective book whose purpose is to sum up our debates, specify today’s implications of our plural references to pragmatism, and make our approach known. And which would be a truly collective book! But the main subject was there also, taking long presentations as a starting point, to discuss together about the unsolved issues and problems raised by our experiences, to think about new forms of inquiry, about our implication, our relation to the concerned people, as well as to other modes of work in common, writing and publication, in the strong sense that pragmatism gives to the terms “common” and “public”.

A collective experimentation

The formula seemed to work very well. Our meetings were together dense and friendly. To get deeper into the contents of the workshop, I would say that, beyond what is by now a common Deweyian stock of knowledge (indeterminate “issues”, actors investigating in order to define these “concerns”, research as an experience participating in the training of such concerned publics, forms of debate that are themselves part of the debate, etc.), spending a week together allowed us to reverse the line: starting from concrete, specific situations forces to rethink things over, to see what the adoption of a pragmatic approach changes, and conversely what the new issues raised by a particular research are, without merely applying what would otherwise rapidly become empty slogans or methodological catch-all.

New research issues

The precise thoroughly discussed cases made us progress, problems and ideas only appearing by trials and errors, both while conducting the research and among ourselves. There is considerable work to be done about the difficult issues we put on the table. I briefly mention them here, inevitably in a sketchy way.

The redefinition of politics today, when it puts forward forms of life and worlds to come, and not affiliations (governing nanotechnologies or Antoine_Bruno_Weimar_Juil13understanding pricing policies, as well as “inhabiting” a district, promoting common experiences, accompanying sex workers…).

Commissioned work (for a ministerial agency) in an institutional framework (a house for “difficult” adolescents), or in connection with local projects (such as a regional park or urban projects).

The sensitive, in all the senses of the word: for instance the possibility of reconstituting a rather harsh and contradictory history without hurting or doing violence to its actors (the plant closures in Lorraine); or else the work of caregivers or educators placed in awkward situations; or the follow-up of a board of physicians in charge of answering transsexuals’ requests and who, as they gain more experience, learn, or rather tame an unfamiliar reality.

And also about vulnerability and the sociologist ‘s commitment: what to say, what to do and how to be responsible for a trust relationship formed with those who precisely entrust? Our debate on the fragile but involving relation forged by one of us with a girl “labeled schizo” who, not having to deny being labeled as such any more, hands over little by little to her visions and to the monsters following her, directly echoed the fascinating work of the association Dingdingdong, which is a work of “coproduction of knowledge” (and not of “mutual-support”) on Huntington disease.

We finally discussed the philosophy of the object contained in all this (i.e. object-concern, which means the object as a relation, an aim, a call, etc.), beyond the allergy to the actors’ objects that is constitutive of sociology. And on the difficulty, but the crucial importance, of defining a situated ethics and of facing the individual and collective responsibility it requests: if the researcher—who is but an investigator on investigators—does not define herself by a scientistic overtowering position, she nevertheless has to question the nature of her experience with her investigated-investigators (which is not theirs), what she produces, and the effect of her reports, both towards the concerned public and to the academic world.

What more can I say to conclude but warmly thank the IKKM, in particular the persons in charge of welcoming us, as well as all the participants in the diverse workshops, and finally to solicit reactions and comments: all of them are welcome!

Photo # 1: Afternoon discussion at the café, Market Place, Weimar, July 2013. Photo: Jean-Michel Frodon.

Photo # 2: Workshop “Fiction” co-organized with Bruno Latour’s program “AIME” on modes of existence, Weimar, July 2013. Photo: Jean-Michel Frodon.