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Isabelle Stengers

Isabelle Stengers, continental philosopher of science, offers pragmatic resources for animating thinking with interest and passion, affirming heresy over conformity and undercutting the all-too-common binaries of religion/science and science/fiction.

Isabelle Stengers is a continental philosopher of science, strongly influenced by the work of Deleuze and Whitehead, whose early work emerged in conversation with scientists about their experimental practices. In this way, she shares affinities with Bruno Latour and Donna Haraway—and is often an interlocutor of both theorists. Stengers’s work reads like a kind of engaged ethnography because she is so committed to scrutinizing the concrete practices by which science, philosophy, and other research endeavors take place. Her texts are lively, dramatic, and comedic, inviting the reader—at times explicitly—to laugh at the missteps, follies, and wonders by which thinking occurs. 

A genealogy of her work might point to stages by which her writing emerged over time (Latour makes this point in a foreword to one of her books (1997)). For example, Stengers’s early work was often collaborative; she co-wrote influential books with Nobel Prize winner and chemist Ilya Prigogine, as well as with psychoanalyst Léon Cherkov. Her work then shifted to engage philosophy more directly, writing extensively on Deleuze and Whitehead, and more recently to address politics or, in her phrasing, cosmopolitics, proffering process-based, relational ways to foreground ecology, Gaïa, and learning itself. 

This overview, useful as a way to categorize Stengers’s many publications, risks hiding from view themes that run throughout her work. Three intersecting concerns hold particular relevance to political theology: 

  • first, how to identify the bifurcating logics that pit “modern” aspirations against the premodern, dividing the secular from the religious in both tacit and overt ways; 
  • second, how to enjoy the labor of philosophy and science by undercutting such bifurcations, infusing these endeavors with passion and interest; 
  • third, how to turn up the dial, in terms of the stakes of thinking, and find ways to redress the predatory imperatives and practices of capitalism.

Science/Religion & Other Bifurcations 

The theme of placebos appears across Stengers’s work, in part because of its import for her key references, like Sigmund Freud. It is an instructive theme to track, as it exemplifies the dual punch that Stengers diagnoses as endemic to modern science: first, the banishing of religion and all other “quacks, miracle workers” and healers outside the bounds of epistemological legitimacy (1997, 411); and second, the deployment of a whole range of practices and experimental protocols that work to keep this bifurcating divide of science/religion intact. 

Placebos exemplify this two-punch impact: excluded as unscientific because placebos appeal to the hopeful belief of patients, but then incorporated into clinical research trials because placebo-controls filter such beliefs out of scientifically valid treatments (1997; 2003; 2011). 

Freud himself, Stengers explains in the book she co-wrote with Cherkov, sought to achieve scientific legitimacy by appealing to this bifurcation. Freud’s methods laid claim to objectivity by refuting “ancient, primitive medical methods” like placebos (1992, 51). Just like Freud’s psychoanalysis, today’s medicines supply curative treatments in the name of modern epistemology—offering up “the strong drug of Truth” (2005b, 188), despite all protestations to disinterestedness. 

As this tiny citation attests, Stengers’s wit infuses how she retraces historical processes and events. As another example, consider a passage in which Stengers describes the bureaucrats, experts, and procedures that enjoy scientific legitimacy. “The emperor is wearing clothes” (2000, 44), she declares, inviting us to notice material trappings that are hidden in plain sight. Disinterestedness, contra its self-understanding, clothes itself in palpable signs of authority, like the white coat worn by physicians. (I’ve become fascinated by this paradox, exemplified by placebo effects: the white coat is well-researched as a reliable placebo, and yet its efficacy underscores the persuasiveness of “impartial” power). 

In this way, Stengers makes the ontological bases of scientific work available for scrutiny. There is theological import to such scrutiny. Science disenchants the world, on Stengers’s account, because it defies the world (1997, 34), denying the role of relationships, affects, and practices. Stengers, in turn, refuses such defiance. We can look to Stengers’s writings, in other words, for resources for a kind of re-enchantment. 

Passionate Thinking 

This re-enchantment shows itself in several places. Most obviously perhaps, it is in Stengers’s own suggestions to readers about how to think, gather, and mobilize in ways that impassion ourselves and our world.  Moreover, before we even consider our own passions, she asks us to notice how passion is at play in science itself, in the events and the controversies by which innovations become scientific

Along these lines, Stengers often uses terms like “fiction” to describe how science works (1997, 83); such locutions make it easier to notice that scientists (like all thinkers) are driven, first and foremost, by interest and imagination. (There is blasphemy to this vocabulary, contravening the science/fiction binary as it does, that is as delightful as it is philosophically salient. I note below that Stengers grants a place in her thinking for heresy; it can be helpful to notice the many places in which she offers up blasphemies instead of established ideas. My own portrait of Freud, accompanying this essay, gestures to heresy along Stengers’s lines. Freud himself sought to banish placebos, and yet our affections for theorists like Freud surely express longings for placebo effects). 

According to ideals of objectivity, of course, it is dangerous to wonder and allow oneself to be interested (2018, 411). This means that as we go about our own professional lives, we’re taught to block or obscure from view our own vested attachments. This theme of Stengers’s work also holds import for political theology. In almost all of her texts, Stengers shows how the spurned category of otherness is a pluralistic one—because whatever counts as religious in the bifurcating secular/religious binary has a great many analogues. 

We can find these analogues to religion all over the place, according to Stengers. Modern practices, ranging from science and medicine to pedagogy, deploy methods that work to disqualify their others. As some figures of authority like doctors or entrepreneurs (or professors, priests, or pastors) gain recognition as modern and lay claim to legitimacy, they rely upon the non-modern status of others, identified by Stengers as the “charlatan, populist, ideologue, astrologer, magician, hypnotist, charismatic teacher” (2010, 30). 

I’m struck, myself, every time I read passages like this one by Stengers’s suggestion that the charismatic teacher occupies the same category as the magician or the charlatan. Here is where, at least on my interpretation, there is more re-enchanting afoot. Just as the trial of Mesmer set up the first-ever placebo-controlled experiment to legitimate medicine (this is on Stengers’s historical account) (2003), we also face burdens of proof ourselves—as researchers, as teachers—when we aspire to certain ideals of efficacy. 

Stengers offers us alternatives ideals, however, and often points to suggestions for how to live such ideals out: to follow Whitehead, for example, and feel how intensely reasons matter (2005c, 49); to follow Barbara McClintock and be so attuned to corn (or whatever we’re inclining to research) that we laugh aloud in surprise and in wonder (1997, 115). 

Cosmopolitics 

Stengers’s recent work puts us all on the hook because cosmopolitics is an enterprise to which we each are invited: an ecology of practice, made up of minoritarian projects that all seek in various ways to resist the harms of capitalist imperialism. 

Note, though, that this is a pragmatic call. “But you never resist in general,” Stengers explains. “You may resist as a poet, as a teacher, as an activist for animal rights” (2005c, 45). To study Stengers is to face vocational urgings to find our own modes of resistance, whether as poet or activist or something else entirely. Such adventures in discovery are emergent, by definition, since “[w]hat is unknowable is unknown” (2011, 261). 

These adventures are also collaborative. Undercutting the ivory tower’s habits of isolationism, Stengers asks us to stop excluding the public from the terrain of scientific and intellectual labor. “My dream,” Stengers writes, “is for a ‘public’ who would expect and demand ‘spoilsport’ scientists who could actively interest them in the way in which scientists work together and also in the way in which science and power may reciprocally invent each other” (2000, 51). There is a palpable hope here that new and impassioned science might emerge, as reflected in one of her recent book titles: Another Science is Possible (2019). 

In search of another science, Stengers casts a wide net, invoking resources that are exciting for projects in political theology. Across her writings, she expresses interest in witches, magic, placebos, and other phenomena that make things happen without relying on modern epistemologies. Along these lines, Stengers at times identifies herself as a “heretic” (1992, xxi), and there is something here that is also important for political theology. (It is an insight that I’ve found invaluable myself, as someone who’s spent decades in religious community, leaving one tradition and then joining another). The insight is this: “you do not belong without knowing you belong” (2005b, 190). You can only be a heretic, on Stengers’s account, when you belong, and you only belong when you know that you do so.  

This is more than an idle existential point. For one, we need heresies as alternative offerings for how to think, work, and gather. But for two, we approach thinking differently when we have what Stengers calls a feel for belonging. For example, if we address people in terms of their own belonging (2005b, 190), then we are addressing people in the same way that ecologists address wolves and lambs, accepting that “a wolf is a wolf and a lamb is a lamb” (2005b, 191), not forcing wolves and lambs into contortions of non-belonging. 

In pointing to belonging as a condition of possibility for scientific inquiry, Stengers shares commitments with Vinciane Despret. Despret shows how scientific insights depend upon the interests of those who are being studied (whether they be cows, rats, or humans)—precisely because these “objects” of inquiry can ask scientists to pose better questions. Despret and Stengers each point to experiments like that of Stanley Milgram to get at the horrifying results of science that refuses to heed the import of belonging. Mutilation, torture, almost endless forms of injury: this is what emerges when scientific practices solicit only stark compliance from research subjects. There are no real stakes for the researcher, in such scenario, and there can be no generative heresies, only capitalist mandates of profit and conformity. 

By highlighting the relational dynamics of science, Stengers’s work can bridge political theology with “new materialists” like Karen Barad or Jane Bennett. When matters of fact turn into reliable witnesses for scientists (2005a, 165), they model the feeling and remembering that Barad describes so vividly. When scientists risk their own common, settled ground (2005a, 166), they enact a kind of sympathy, as conceptualized by Bennett. My own sense, though, is that Stengers’s account of recalcitrance, inflected as it is by a call for “spoilsport” scientists and other heretics, is even more directly relevant for affirming the often-untapped sources, rituals, and modes of belonging that tend to be classified as religious or theological. 


Annotated Bibliography:

Chertok, Léon and Isabelle Stengers. 1992. A Critique of Psychoanalytic Reason: Hypnosis as a Scientific Problem from Lavoisier to Lacan. Trans. Martha Noel Evans. Stanford: Stanford University Press. 

This co-written book offers a wealth of historical insights into the entanglement of medicine and modern epistemologies of science. It’s also a wonderful introduction to Stengers’s long-lasting interests in Mesmer, mesmerism, and psychoanalysis. 

Despret, Vinciane. 2015. “Thinking Like a Rat,” Trans. Jeffrey Bussolini. Angelaki. 20(2): 121-134. 

Despret is a collaborator of Stengers (they co-wrote Women Who Make a Fuss, for example), and her work is just as philosophically lively. Like Stengers, Despret works closely with scientists, especially primatologists, and her publications are replete with gripping stories about science in the field. 

Latour, Bruno. 1997. “Foreword: Stengers’s Shibboleth,” Isabelle Stengers, Power and Invention: Situating Science. Trans. Paul Bains. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, vii-xx.

Like Despret, Latour is also a long-term interlocutor of Stengers’s. This preface offers a taste of Latour’s own high esteem (philosophical as well as existential) for Stengers’s philosophy of science. 

Stengers, Isabelle. 2019. Another Science is Possible: A Manifesto for Slow Science. Trans. Stephen Muecke. Cambridge: Polity Press. 

—. 2018. “Aude Sapere: Dare Betray the Testator’s Demands,” parallax 24(4): 406-415. 

—. 2011. Thinking with Whitehead: A Free and Wild Creation of Concepts. Trans. Michael Chase. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 

—. 2010. Cosmpolitics I, trans. Robert Bononno. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

—. 2005a. “Deleuze and Guattari’s Last Enigmatic Message,” Angelaki 10(2): 151-167. 

—. 2005b. “Introductory Notes on an Ecology of Practices,” Cultural Studies Review. 11(1): 183-196. 

—. 2005c. “Whitehead’s Account of the Sixth Day,” Configurations 13: 35-55. 

—. 2003. “The Doctor and the Charlatan,” Cultural Studies Review 9(2): 11-36. 

—. 2000. “Another Look: Relearning to Laugh,” Trans. Penelope Deutscher. Hypatia 15(4): 41-54. 

—. 1997. Power and Invention: Situating Science. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 

These texts are my own suggestions of where to get started, for readers who are new to Stengers and eager to dive in. Thinking pedagogically, it’s often best to read a new philosopher by choosing their close readings of already familiar thinkers or texts. Along these lines, for readers who are already familiar with Deleuze, it’s an excellent idea to begin reading Stengers’s essays on Deleuze; likewise, Whitehead or Freud. For readers who share my own fascination with medicine and the placebo effect, Stengers’s 2003 essay is a great article to begin with. 

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