β. Refracting Stasis
Anthony Stavrianakis
Paul Rabinow
Refracting Stasis
The recognition of the fact that we were working in an apparatus devoted to stasis with regards to the state of ethical problems rather than an assemblage designed for motion with regards to those problems, finally yielded clarity about the affective stasis in which we were engulfed. This self-evidence re-directed our efforts from remediation of the situation to the task of an Ausgangshaltung. This blockage (stasis), we realized is an essential component of  the apparatus in which we were struggling.
Given this kairos (occasion) the question became how to exit given a better understanding about what we were exiting toward. This better understanding embodied our recognition that the effort to engage anthropologically and ethically in SynBERC had been blocked, although the doors were wide open for ethnographic work .
Among other things this diagnosis encouraged and made urgent a  strengthened commitment, beyond ethnography, to a form of anthropological inquiry and intervention capable of taking up the challenge of reconstruction. Of course, the discipline in its dominant modes does not constitute a fully satisfactory destination.
Previous inquiry had shown the pressing need for remediation and eventual reconstruction. That being said, elements of anthropological equipment, potential parameters and even metrics seemed available for form-making experiments. Of the disciplines, marginal traditions of this sort remain, if not vital, not thoroughly ruled out in this unruly field.
Our restive resolve to resist the apparatuses claims to constitute the only reality was invigorated by the diagnosis of stasis and the urgency of finding an Ausgang. We re-affirmed that other ways of living a scientific life had previously existed and new ones could be given form.
The question was how to do it given the vices (indifference, negligence, control, marginalization, Babbitry etc.) we had endured for five years.
Instance: Ausgangshaltung

“We have to leave the field.”

How to exit? One resource throughout has been to turn Seneca's writings into paraskeue (equipment), the use Seneca originally intended. Writing to his friend Lucilius (Letter 52), Seneca observes that given the pervasiveness of stultitia that one will encounter in life, one is nonetheless not without resources. He directs Lucilius to keep ready at hand the insight that;

"No man by himself has sufficient strength to rise above it; he needs a helping hand, and someone to extricate him...Nor need you despise a man who can gain salvation only with the assistance of another; the will to be saved means a great deal, too."

In our case, Lucilius reminding Seneca that help could come from different quarters was trenchant. A different positionality produced a different insight into the stasis, the existence of the apparatus and the necessity of an exit. What Seneca's directive and Lucilius' response clarifies is that mutual dependence can be capacity-building and mutual precisely because of different positionalities.

Our freely chosen engagement with the apparatus and its rewards constituted a burden that needed to be discharged with integrity. Accepting that task, it was clear to one of us that we had a scientific and ethical obligation to get out of this stasis in order for our collaborative work to continue and flourish. This intervention (Betrachtung) catalyzed an effort (ergon) to turn the object (apparatus, affect) into an objective that could be worked and acted on so as to put into motion the process of exiting.

Affect: Futility

What marks the directionality of the struggle, among and between flourishing and withering, seemed to be the affective structure in which that struggle operates.

What are the affective dimensions of  flourishing or withering in a  milieu? What are the practices that generate these affects?

We concluded that one key affect that characterized our situation was “futility”.


“A hostile dependent involvement where one of the parties insists on a response to multiple orders of messages which are mutually contradictory, and the other cannot comment on these contradictions or escape from the situation.”

Weakland and Jackson, 1958, quoted in Campbell's psychiatric dictionary

Thumos: From Anger to Indignation

As a means to developing a more satisfactory mode of subjectivation within this situation of domination but not exploitation, what passions are appropriate to such a situation? One candidate was anger, or more accurately thumós.

As with the other virtues in the Aristotelian schema, the mean is flanked by two equally negative extremes, one an excess, the other, a defect. The excess term is “irascibility,” but there is no term for the deficit. Aristotle describes the condition of enduring insults and putting up with insults to one’s friends as slavery (meaning, not a citizen). The French Hegel scholar Alexandre Kojève equates thumós with the Hegelian concept of “the desire for recognition.” This intimate relationship between self-evaluation and anger is captured nicely in the English word indignation.

This may have been one of the appropriate passions when we were not recognized, but as a diagnostic mark of the discordance we were inquiring into, it was not sufficient.

Episode: The a-veridictional, once again

Anger and then stultitia were the reigning passions generated by the situation in which we had been experimenting.  These passions, we now saw, however, were not actually the dominant affect. An episode helped us to warrant this judgment. We now saw that the apparatus operated to separate and demean both truth and care. We finally understood - in an embodied manner (Haltung) - that the affect of futility had continuously been generated and regulated through the maintenance of this separation of truth and care.

The episode, which for us functioned as an event, took place at the fifth annual SynBERC retreat preceding the NSF site visit. We had already seen the indifference towards either truth or care in the annual report compiled before the retreat and submitted to the NSF.  This report claimed to narrate the year's achievements and activities. We had not been consulted in its writing and it contained many distortions. When this state of affairs was pointed out to the senior management the response was; “Sorry to hear that. Unfortunately, the same is probably true for all of the thrusts.”

Event: The exotic of the a-veridictional

This episode (all too frequent in the way the organization routinely functioned) was transformed into an event at the retreat. Having worked for several hours with the new leader of thrust 4 at his request on a synthetic overview of our past activities and future plans, we were startled when he responded to a question from a member of one of the Advisory Boards as to what the category "mind the gaps" consisted in? "Mind the gaps" was his coverall term for what we had diagnosed as the problem of preparedness in synthetic biology. He responded that "nothing comes to mind". One could  go on at length whether this was a lapse of memory, a simple lie, complete contempt for our work, or an overriding negligence relative to the problem. Each of these could be taken up within different modes of veridiction and or subjectivation. 

Affectively however, this event broke our double-bind such that we were  no longer governed by the passions of thumos and stultitia which dissipated like the August  fog in San Francisco.  We were clear and resolute that our next task was to find a fitting way of exiting from this apparatus.

Refracting the Ethical

We entered the situation of inquiry knowing that complicity with power can have existential ramifications. If one is doing inquiry for the purpose of making practical judgments, then this is the cost of entry into the game.

The price to be paid for the participant-observation we were engaged in, we now see, turns out to be futility. The price to be paid for not participating in such an experiment, however,  is the bracketing of virtue. In that, insofar as ethnographic knowledge production excludes a judgment of vices and virtues. Whereas, at least in principle, an anthropology of the contemporary entertains the possibility of warranted assertions of the ethical covering observer and observed alike, albeit differentially.  

We are now in a position to ask:  What might be the range of virtues required to engage recognizably dominant and residual forms of knowledge production so as to open an inquiry into the requisite capacities to engage emergent ones? In 2006 this was the premise of our engagement. In 2011 this is the premise of our exit.