When Worlds Meet

Endre Dányi, Department of Sociology, Goethe University, Frankfurt am Main, Germany, shares his thoughts on the conference theme of ‘Meetings’ for EASST 2018 at Lancaster University, 25-28 July 2018.

As I’m writing this, alone in the office, I’m already looking forward to the 2018 EASST conference (https://easst.net/easst-2018/). I will be happy to return to Lancaster, and it will be wonderful to see so many friends again. It will be a meeting – not a skype call, a quick exchange of emails, a fragmented discussion in a coffee break, but an event where interesting conversations can develop and continue to resonate for many years to come.

Yes, the 2018 EASST conference will be a meeting, but it will also be a collective reflection on meetings. I remember thinking about this theme obsessively while working on my PhD on parliaments (http://we-aggregate.org/piece/walking-as-knowing-and-interfering). Meetings necessarily imply politics (who are in and who are out? what is this about? how to engage well?), but that politics is often delegated to the architecture and the infrastructure of the meetings themselves. So many parliaments and quasi-parliaments, with their agendas, comfy and not-so-comfy chairs, papers and pens, tablets and mobile phones, minutes and decisions.

We, of course, know this, both as STS scholars and as participants in countless and (seemingly) endless meetings. To a large extent, they constitute our world. But how to think about meetings that challenge our world – or, to put it differently, about instances ‘when worlds meet’? In my postdoc research at the Goethe University in Frankfurt, I’ve been looking at three such instances. The first is a hunger strike that took place in Brussels shortly before what came to be known as the European refugee crisis. Together with Sebastian Abrahamsson (http://saxoinstitute.ku.dk/staff/?pure=en/persons/527388) I’ve been thinking about that hunger strike, which involved 23 undocumented migrants from North Africa and the Middle East, as an event where the breakdown of a Western logic of sovereignty was briefly made visible. It posed a challenge not only for Belgium or the EU, but also for us, STS scholars, trying to describe what it is to be political/act politically. (Our paper titled ‘Becoming Stronger by Becoming Weaker’ will be soon published by the Journal of International Relations and Development.)

The second instance is related to drugs, and the ways in which they are constituted as a problem. In some cases, drugs are celebrated as means through which different worlds become accessible – or, to be more precise, through which our own world becomes accessible differently. Think of Walter Benjamin’s use of hashish to learn the language of things (http://www.cabinetmagazine.org/issues/30/taussig.php) and Michel Foucault’s experiments with LSD in California (https://boomcalifornia.com/2017/09/10/michel-foucault-in-death-valley-a-boom-interview-with-simeon-wade/). But more often drugs are associated with crime and sickness, and therefore feared and regulated through national and international regulations – with mixed results. The spectacular failure of the ‘War on Drugs’ (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/apr/19/war-on-drugs-statistics-systematic-policy-failure-united-nations) shows how difficult it is in principle to come up with a solution to this problem, while harm reduction programmes in large cities across the globe demonstrate that in practice it’s always possible to find better ways of living with it. (A chapter based on my fieldwork in Lisbon appears in World Politics in Translation https://www.routledge.com/World-Politics-in-Translation-Power-Relationality-and-Difference-in-Global/Berger-Esguerra/p/book/9781138630574)

The third instance highlights that while liberal democracy is relatively good at accommodating different worldviews, it’s rather ill-equipped to deal with different worlds. Together with Michaela Spencer (http://www.cdu.edu.au/northern-institute/our-teams/michaela-spencer) I’ve been involved in series of ethnographic studies in the Northern Territory in Australia, which in one way or another all examine how Yolngu Aboriginal modes of knowing and doing relate to Western political institutions. One of our studies is centred around a Yolngu parliamentary ceremony, recorded in a short video called Riyyawaray – Common Ground (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ytfqf1LWdQI). The ceremony was organised in 2008 to formally object to the Australian Government’s design and execution of ‘the Intervention’ (https://www.monash.edu/law/research/centres/castancentre/our-research-areas/indigenous-research/the-northern-territory-intervention/the-northern-territory-intervention-an-evaluation/what-is-the-northern-territory-intervention) – a bundle of laws that were supposed to address a range of problems in Aboriginal communities without much prior consultation. As some Yolngu elders explained in the video, the parliamentary ceremony was a deliberate political act during which a world otherwise invisible to the Australian Parliament was momentarily made visible. The participants of the ceremony did not ask for a symbolic recognition of sameness (as humans or Australians); what they asked for was a very practical recognition of difference.

Needless to say, these three instances associated with the European refugee crisis, global drug policy and indigenous initiatives are quite disparate – they are worlds apart. At the same time, they also make worlds meet, and suggest forms of politics that resonate strongly with several concerns in STS. I can’t wait to discuss them further at the 2018 EASST conference in Lancaster, at that meeting of meetings.