Klopsteg Lectures

All lectures are open to the public, thanks to the generosity of the Klopsteg fund, and (unless indicated otherwise below) are held in the Hagstrum Room (University Hall Room 201) on Mondays from 4:30-6:00pm.

Program Director: Professor Helen Tilley (History)

FALL 2017

October 2, 2017

JOSEPH MASCO - Anthropology Department, University of Chicago

"The Radioactive Anthropocene: On Planetary Accountability"

Description: Geologists are increasingly interested in locating the start of a new geological epoch — the anthropocene — within the radioactive fallout from nuclear weapons tests, making plutonium exposure a new
geological period in earth history.  This talk examines the technical logics of this proposal as well as some unanticipated political opportunities enabled by recasting the nuclear age as the anthropocene.  Reading across a variety of contemporary nuclear projects, it asks: what new forms of collective futurity are emerging within these debates?


TIMOTHY MITCHELL - Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies, Columbia University

"On Capitalization"

Description: We have recently come to understand “the economy” not as a feature of all societies, nor as an aspect of the emergence of market societies in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but as a mode of organizing material worlds and calculative agents that developed much more recently, in the mid-twentieth century. We imagine the economy as a macro-object, the product of new statistical work, regulation, and management organized at the level of the nation-state. But this is misleading, for making the economy was a work of scaling down and excluding things from calculation. The birth of the economy is better understood in relation to a wider and earlier development, the rise of the large corporation. If the economy involved what has been called “economization” (the work of rendering things calculable and creating economic agents), the large corporation involved the larger project of “capitalization.” The corporation emerged as a way of building technical-spatial arrangements—initially colonies, canals, and railways, later oil fields, dams, urban fabrics, industrial processes, and consumer worlds—whose scale, durability, and powers of control promised a future stream of income that could be traded speculatively in the present. The birth of the economy was a short-lived attempt to stabilize the increasingly unstable speculative futures on which capitalization had come to depend.

October 9, 2017

DIANA KURKOVSKY WESTDepartment of History, Northwestern University

"CyberSovietica: Dreaming of Big Data in the Soviet Union"

Description: Cybernetics took a firm hold in myriad aspects of Soviet science and culture. Accepted after the 1950s as part of the State-sanctioned theory of communication and a kind of “umbrella science” to unify all scientific fields through a joint methodology, Soviet cybernetics research spilled into a range of fields and diverse domains. The approach was united by a shared belief that, if given enough data and processing capacity, all aspects of science and culture could be optimized and managed through continual informational feedbacks. My talk will address an incarnation of this idea in the work of late-Soviet regional planners interested in applying cybernetic methods to complex regional planning challenges. In particular, it will focus on the Soviet integrated industrial and geographic systems called Territorial-Production Complexes (TPC), paying particular attention to the Novosibirsk branch of the Soviet Academy of Sciences. In following the researchers’ attempts to develop dynamic models for TPC planning, I will explore their visions of a computerized future, the efforts to create balanced plans that considered geography, natural resources, future economic development, and environmental sustainability as a single algorithmic puzzle. I will also consider how these themes relate to the contemporary optimism about the big data future of cities, as the collection of vast quantities of information continues to be presented as the solution to problems of managing complex urban systems.

October 16, 2017

BRETT WALKER - History, Philosophy, & Religious Studies, Montana State University

"Natural and Unnatural Disasters: 3/11, Asbestos, and the Unmaking of Japan’s Modern World"

Description: At 2:46 p.m. on March 11, 2011, a massive earthquake devastated northeastern Japan and caused one of Earth’s most dangerous nuclear catastrophes. The quake was 9.0 on the Richter scale and it unleashed a tsunami that swept away entire communities. Along with an enduring nuclear legacy, it also left an estimated 25 millions tons of rubble, much of it contaminated with asbestos and other carcinogenic toxins. Indeed, when the tides of the devastating tsunami ebbed, the unnatural disaster of cleaning up Japan’s pulverized and aerosolized built environment remained. Now, every time a backhoe or shovel digs into this rubble, asbestos fibers are released into the environment to threaten human health.

 Japan’s history of asbestos use contrasts with many other industrialized nations. Although the United States E.P.A. began phasing out asbestos in the 1970s and banned most of its use in the 1980s, as did the United Kingdom in 1985, Japan continued to use chrysotile asbestos until 2004.  Indeed, asbestos was a critical fiber in the construction of Japan’s modern built environment because of the culturally engrained fear of fire. Unlike many other industrialized countries, Japan has had large cities since the late sixteenth century, as well as the accompanying catastrophes of massive urban conflagrations. Japan also suffered through the most blistering examples of fires in built environments: the incendiary and atomic bombs that burned some of its largest cities to the ground during World War II, cooking hundreds of thousands of people.  In the postwar period, with such grim wartime memories fresh in the minds of urban planners, asbestos offered a powerful solution to fires in sprawling built environments, until it became closely connected to pulmonary diseases, including lung cancers.

 This paper investigates asbestos in the construction and, more importantly, destruction of Japan’s built environment, with a focus on the impact of the 3/11 disaster and the later clean up. The paper is part of a larger Guggenheim-funded project concerned with the unmaking of the modern built world, and what it means for the future of human health.

October 30, 2017

ROBYN d'AVIGNON - Department of History, New York University

"Shadow Geology: The Search for Subterranean Knowledge in West Africa"

Since the late 1990s, rising gold prices and pro-market reforms to national mining codes have encouraged companies listed on the stock exchange of London, Johannesburg, Sydney, and Toronto to establish gold mines and exploration camps across West Africa. Corporate security forces and geological teams increasingly enter into violent conflicts with so-called ‘artisanal’ miners who extract gold with handpicks and dynamite. Conflicts between ‘artisanal’ and ‘industrial’ miners have been slotted into narratives of Africa’s neoliberal resource scramble and problems of governance. Through a focus on longer histories of empire and extraction, I reframe this ‘clash’ as one node in a far-reaching debate over the rights of agrarian households, the state, and private capital to the subsoil. Under colonial and post-colonial conditions, I argue, state and private prospectors have systematically appropriated the gold discoveries of African miners, while degrading African miners as primitive, criminal, and wasteful. This talk breaks from a historiography of extraction that focuses almost exclusively on the exploitation of labor and ecologies. I argue that the co-option of knowledge, and not only natural resources, is central to mining capitalism in Africa. 

November 13, 2017

ONUR ÖZGÖDE - Department of Sociology, Northwestern University

"Fractals of Governance: The Construction of Systemic Risk as the Dark Matter of Macroeconomic Governance"

Systemic risk marks the limits of neoliberal, market-based regulatory mechanisms. Coined on the onset of the Latin American debt crisis in 1982, it signifies the systemic vulnerabilities that render financial systems susceptible to collapse. Since its inception, it replaced inflation as the most challenging governmental problem of central banking in the United States and the rest of the advanced capitalist world. The ascent of systemic risk reached its apex when policy entrepreneurs in the Obama administration elevated it to the status of a target of macroeconomic intervention under the Dodd-Frank Act of 2010, mandating the Federal Reserve to manage it under a controversial systemic risk regulation regime that allows the Fed to reach into financial mammoths like Citibank and make executive decisions on their daily operations.

In this talk, I will argue that systemic risk, far from being a recent invention, is a much older problem that has been serving since the 1920s as the anchor point around which the modern administrative state has been assembled. In this form, it points to the build-up of an unsustainable imbalance between different components of the modern capitalist economy. In its contemporary conception, however, it denotes a financial imbalance that was mapped onto a new object-domain, the monetary credit economy, in the 1970s. Under this framing, systemic risk is construed as a new feedback loop between the financial system and the economy, transforming catastrophic disruptions in short-term interbank lending markets, such as the money and capital markets, into depressions.

Mapping the mutation of systemic risk allows us to free ourselves from the conventional master narrative that conceives the transformation of the management of crisis-ridden capitalism as an epochal decline in the amount of government (more versus less state), with an initial expansion (in the New Deal) followed by a contraction (under neoliberalism). I argue this history can be best understood as a recursive problem-making and problem-solving process through which experts constructed the domain of macroeconomic government in the form of concentric governmental layers that were developed in segregated areas in different eras. Instead of displacing each other (e.g. monetary governance replacing Keynesian, and systemic risk regulation displacing the latter), the layers were assembled at each others’ limits, where they can no longer manage the risk of a systemic collapse without limiting economic activity and growth. What distinguishes systemic risk regulation is its redeployment of the system analysis techniques to reduce the vulnerability of the financial system. First introduced in the New Deal’s central planning agency and later further developed in the defense mobilization preparedness agencies during the Cold War, these techniques rearticulate monetary government in a systemic mode so that the Federal Reserve can continue to manage systemic risk as well as the economy at a distance, without intervening in its internal substantive processes.


January 22, 2018

STEVEN EPSTEIN - Department of Sociology, Northwestern University

"The New Truths of Sex: Operationalizing Sexual Health"

In recent decades, the idea that people may aspire to something called “sexual health” has traveled widely in both professional and lay domains. My book project examines the rise of new conceptions and formal definitions of sexual health in the 1970s; the remarkable proliferation and diversification of sexual health meanings and projects beginning in the 1990s; and the implications of these new ways of conjoining sexuality and health for science, politics, and selfhood. My talk draws on material from one chapter of the book to consider scientific and bureaucratic projects that seek to operationalize the concept of sexual health in formal ways—in particular, to measure, standardize, survey, and classify it. I examine the development of a number of rationalizing efforts—including sexual health assessment tools, sexual health surveys, and sexual health taxonomies—all of which are intended to produce new truths of sex. I describe three fundamental tensions embedded in these projects that complicate their enactment: between the appeals of simplicity and complexity; between the will to know and the will to not know; and between the goal of defining normality and the urge to destigmatize sexuality. Together, these tensions shed light on how sexual truth-making is transformed by its conjunction with the imperative of health.

February 12, 2018

Funded by the Buffett Institute for Global Studies in support of its Global Medical Cultures and Law Research Group

LAURA FOSTER - Department of Gender Studies, Indiana University

"Modalities of Materiality: Peoples, Plants, and Patents in South Africa"

Hoodia gordonii is a succulent plant known by Indigenous San peoples for a variety of uses, including for food, water, and energy. In 1998, South Africa’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) made claims to knowing the plant as molecule when they obtained patent rights to Hoodia’s chemical compositions in the hopes that they, in partnership with Pfizer and eventually Unilever, could develop Hoodia as an anti-obesity product. San peoples, however, opposed the patenting of their indigenous knowledge. As a heterogeneous group, San did not all agree, but they mobilized through their own South African San Council to demand a benefit-sharing agreement in 2003 whereby CSIR granted all San across Southern Africa 6% of their revenue from the sale of Hoodia. A few years after the San-CSIR signing ceremony, the South African San Council also negotiated a second agreement, this time with Afrikaner Hoodia growers in South Africa who were supplying plants for a global herbal supplement industry. Three material-discursive meanings of Hoodia thus stood at the center of these agreements — Hoodia as molecule patented by CSIR, Hoodia as cultivated by Hoodia growers, and Hoodia as a plant found in nature and known by San peoples.

Using a feminist decolonial technoscience approach, this talk examines how San peoples, Hoodia growers, and CSIR scientists made claims of attachment to different materialities of Hoodia (as molecule, as cultivated, and as from nature) to assert rights of belonging in South Africa through struggles over patent ownership and benefit sharing. What becomes apparent is how such claims were informed in unequal ways by colonial and apartheid understandings of race, indigeneity, and gender as the San African San Council worked towards establishing meanings of San as modern political subjects, CSIR scientists sought recognition as producers of science located in the global south, and Afrikaner Hoodia growers aimed to position themselves as belonging to a changing post-apartheid South Africa. In turn, this talk analyzes how Hoodia’s materialities (e.g. chemicals and seeds) refused and/or aligned with the forces of law and science that sought to contain them. In doing so, it argues for an emphasis on multiple modalities or expressions of human and nonhuman materiality to understand modes of unequal belonging within South Africa. 

February 19, 2018

TOWN HALL - "Robot Futures: AI and Humanity"

LUCY SUCHMAN - Sociology, Lancaster University, and President, Society for the Social Studies of Science

This talk considers recent initiatives in the design of humanlike machines; that is, technologies modeled on an understanding of human attributes and capabilities. More specifically, it looks at the case of humanoid robots under development in the seemingly opposite domains of social well being (particularly elder care) and warfare (with the increasing automation/autonomy of weapon systems). The connecting thread that joins these very different initiatives, Professor Suchman argues, is a promise of technological solutions to social problems and, more specifically, the premise that forms of situational awareness identifying of humanity can be successfully translated into algorithmically tractable courses of action. She will close with some suggestions for how we might reconceptualize both the technological and the human, in order to open new spaces for inventive design.

March 5, 2018

JANET VERTESI - Department of Sociology, Princeton University

"The Social Life of Spacecraft: Social Organization and Technoscientific Work on NASA’s Robotic Spacecraft Teams."

How does social organization affect the conduct and practice of science? To explore this question, I present empirical data from a comparative ethnographic study of work on two NASA robotic spacecraft mission teams. While the robots appear to be singular entities operating autonomously in the frontiers of space, decisions about what the robots should do and how they accomplish their science are made on an iterative basis by a large, distributed team of scientists and engineers on Earth. As spacecraft team members negotiate among themselves for robotic time and resources, their sociotechnical organization is paramount to understanding how decisions are made, which scientific data are acquired, and how the team relates to their robot, with implications for team solidarity, data sharing, and scientific results.


April 16, 2018

CLARA HAN - Anthropology, Johns Hopkins University

"A Life in Debt to the Dead: Learning Kinship in a Setting of Pervasive Death”

Description: How do children come to learn kinship in a setting of pervasive death? How do children come to inherit the dead within a web of kinship? What is it to be “in debt to the dead”, as seen through the eyes of the child? In this talk, I draw on ethnographic research in a low-income neighborhood under police occupation in Santiago, Chile. In particular, I focus on an extended case study of a young man who was killed by police during a drug raid in the neighborhood. At the time of his death, he and his girlfriend were expecting their first child, a daughter. This ethnography brings into soft focus the ways in which the extended kinship network and neighbors brought this child into a web of kinship and how the child is coming to learn who her father is and what a father is. Much anthropological literature has explored how the debts to the dead are given form through commemoration. This paper takes a different angle on the debt to the dead – not in terms of how the dead are remembered or forgotten in commemorative practices, but rather how the dead are intimately made alive to us in everyday life. Through exploring the ways in which the child was seen to inherit gestures and expressions from her father, the father’s visits to the child and her relatives in dreams, and the child’s efforts to touch and hear her father, this talk considers how the dead are woven into kinship and how kinship is marked by a complex interplay of death and life, absence and presence in this neighborhood.

April 23, 2018

MARIO BIAGIOLI - Science and Technology Studies, History, and Law, University of California-Davis

"Medical Ghostwriting: Strange Appropriations and Emergent Authorship"

April 30, 2018 

ADIA BENTON - Department of Anthropology, Northwestern University

"Care, Compassion, Conflict: A Walk in the Fever Museum"

May 7, 2018

PAUL EDWARDS - Center for International Security and Cooperation, Stanford University

"Knowledge Infrastructures Under Siege: Environmental Data Systems as Memory, Truce, and Target"

May 21, 2018

DUANA FULLWILEY - Department of Anthropology, Stanford University

"Racial Automation: Genomics, Artificial Intelligence, and Markets of Political Intimacy"