Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Revitalizing Science and Technology Studies: A Marxian Critique of More-Than-Human Geographies

Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Revitalizing Science and Technology Studies: A Marxian Critique of More-Than-Human Geographies

Article excerpt

... science it would seem ... is neither sexless nor classless; she is a man, bourgeois, and infected too. (Rose, 2004 [1983]: 68)

Natural science will in time subsume under itself the science of man. just as the science of man will subsume under itself natural science: there will be one science. (Marx, 2007 [1844]: 111)


The idea that the technological application of modern science has reconfigured the biogeophysical composition of the planet to such an extent that humanity has entered a new geological epoch of its own making (i.e. the Anthropocene), gains increasing notoriety among the social sciences (see Castree, 2014; Moore, 2015; Parikka, 2015; Wark, 2015). Anthropogenic material flows from fossil fuel combustion, agriculture and metal ore smelting, as Bridge (2009: 1224) argues, now rival in scale those occurring independent of human activity, like volcanic emissions, rock weathering and water erosion on a planetary scale. From synthetic micro-organisms to complex infrastructural systems that stretch across whole continents, the process of socio-metabolic transformation that defines our current epoch is mediated by a staggering degree of technical sophistication and dynamism. In light of such massive transformations, Diana Coole and Samantha Frost (2010) argue in a programmatic statement of "new materialist" thinking that there needs to be a renewed emphasis on materiality. Indeed, ever since Sarah Whatmore observed in 2006 that cultural geographers were undergoing a turn toward materialist concerns, the field of Science and Technology Studies (STS) has become heavily influenced by Actor-Network Theory (ANT), new materialisms, speculative realism, and object-oriented ontologies.

Despite their differences, the tendency of these self-proclaimed materialist (or "materialsemiotic") approaches to treat technical and scientific artifacts as ahistorical and external to relations of production, bears striking resemblance with the intellectual landscape that motivated older debates on the nature of materialism. In 1846, Marx and Engels wrote The German Ideology with the purpose of developing a materialist philosophy of history that stood in opposition to the idealism of Young Hegelians such as Bruno Bauer and Max Stirner, as well as to the "contemplative materialism" of Ludwig Feuerbach (see Marx and Engels, 1998 [1846]). For Marx, the unwillingness to systematically interrogate the history of industry and exchange made his contemporaries erroneously consider forces of production to be "a world for themselves, quite independent and divorced from the individuals" (95). Today, the influx of new materialisms on the fields of STS and geographical scholarship in general has engendered similar ideological visions. Plastic bags, surveillance systems, and electric grids, to cite a few examples, are often viewed as acquiring a seemingly autonomous existence, and this precludes a truly democratic engagement with technological change.

Interventions that either seek to establish a dialogue between new materialist thinking--especially ANT--and Marxism, or that criticize the former by means of a contrast with the latter, are abundant in the literature (see, for example, Brenner et al., 2011; Castree, 2002; Christophers, 2014; Holifield, 2009; Hornborg, 2014; Kirsch and Mitchell, 2004). The remit of this article is therefore different, because my core aim is not to seek a synthesis/synergy between approaches, or to point out flaws in a theoretical framework. Rather, it is to stress the urgency of reclaiming the field of STS as one that is fundamentally concerned with the critique and radical overturning of the variegated forms of racism, exploitation, social domination, and ecological destruction engendered by bourgeois science and technology. To do this, I show the potential of Marx's philosophy of history to revitalize the field. I deliberately stress the word revitalize to reassert the view that underpinned Marx's own doctoral dissertation on Epicurean vitalism and dissipate commonly held views of historical materialism as an irredeemably deterministic and anthropocentric framework (see Burns, 2000; Foster, 2000, chapter 4). …

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