Capturing The Social Sciences: An Experiment in Political Epistemology

[The following fascinating working paper was delivered by the author at the first London Conference in Critical Thought last month (June 2012).  It formed part of the Mapping the Concept panel, which invited consideration of the productive powers of critical theory – the unrestrainable consequence of the critical process qua process.  The author would like to underscore that this paper remains a draft and we thank him for granting us permission to publish it here – the Editor]

According to the title that identifies this panel, we are here to enter into a discussion around the productive powers of something called “critical theory”. At first sight, critique and productivity might strike anyone as being opposite terms. Isn’t critique related to a certain form of negativity? To saying “no” to power? And isn’t the demands for capitalistic “productivity” what some of us criticise, or at least attempt to do so?

The title of this panel, however, seems to put such a taken-for-granted relationship at risk. “The Productive power of critical theory”– can we think of a productive criticality? or a critical productivity? What might it mean to engage in a form of critical-productive thought and how might such engagements contribute to challenging and transforming our knowledge-practices within the social sciences and the humanities? These are some of the questions with which I will attempt to experiment in what follows.

To be sure, these questions are not new, and many researchers and thinkers in the social sciences and the humanities are becoming increasingly interested in them, to the extent that arguably none of the latest so-called turns within these fields, be it the “ontological turn”, the “practice turn”, the “affective turn” and so on, leave the question of the relation between critique and productivity untouched.

Among the intellectual sources that seem to have been crucial to constructing such an interest in “production”, it is certainly the work of Deleuze (and Guattari) that has taken particular prominence. Today, Deleuzian notions pervade the social scientific field* in its striving to overcome the historically privileged attention to discourse and signification,   and in order to be able to better understand the material and affective flows of the social. Again,  such transformations immediately invite us to pose the question of critique, for the interests that identify these sciences directly affect its practice. Such turns, thus, have not only produced a change in attention, in the methods and the specific concerns of the social sciences, but oftentimes also a transformation of attitudes, that is, a partial retreat from the usual “skeptic criticism” of the social scientist and a move towards what some authors have called “inventive” or “affirmative methods”. The latter, according to Brian Massumi (2002, 12-13) are “techniques which embrace their own inventiveness and are not afraid to own up to the fact that they add to reality”. Arguably, such a move, even in spite of some of its supporters, actually undoes the opposition between productivity and critique and presents us with what we could call different modes of engagement, that is, different ways of adding to the world.

Indeed, this productive “affirmation” of worlds, this deliberate adding to reality that characterises some of the recent transformations in knowledge-practices already resonates with Deleuze’s (2004: 282) own statements in his essay on Structuralism. For him, I quote, “no book against anything ever has any importance; all that counts are books for something, and that know how to produce it.” Thus, it would seem that, while many have been doing the work of pointing towards the idea of the productive task of theory and critique, the question before us today is precisely how to become productive, that is, a practical question. In other words, to affirm the world is not the same as knowing how to add something that matters and for whom. To make our creations count, to make them relevant, we need thus to interrogate the practices of invention.

Thus, even though Deleuze and Guattari have been great inspirational and philosophical sources for acknowledging the importance of affirming and adding to the world as a mode of engagement in the social sciences, how such practices might be constituted and to what extent these authors are of help in this task is far from being settled.

In this sense, authors like Manuel De Landa (2006) have attempted to construct a general Deleuzian theory of the social by centring the enquiry around the notion of “assemblage”. In his view, the utterly exterior and processual composition and deterritorialisation of assemblages overcomes a number of epistemological impasses that characterise the social sciences, providing us with a form of processual realism that is not totalising nor essentialist. To be sure, to produce social research that may be informed by a Deleuzian philosophy of assemblages confronts us with great challenges, and just as great are the gains that it would seem to promise to a process approach to the social. However, not only is De Landa’s “assemblage theory” hardly full-fledged, but by systematising Deleuze & Guattari’s work in the analytical mode which characterises much of his books, it risks stripping their work of all its experimental character, of its power to force thinking and feeling, and turn it into what Isabelle Stengers (2008) calls “a model for serious, adult thinking”.

How to do it then? How to engage with these authors productively, so that in turn we might become productive ourselves in ways that would allow for our productions to matter?

As Steve Brown (2009) has cleverly pointed out, identifying the interests and possibilities of a Deleuzian social science is no easy task. And this is so not only because, in a way, Deleuze’s position as regards such sciences remains relatively unspecified (as compared, for instance, to his –and Guattari’s– discussions of philosophy, art, and ‘science’ in their What is Philosophy? (1994)), but also because previous attempts at accomplishing this task seem to invariably put forth a negative depiction of the ‘social scientific’ by placing it at the middle ground between two ‘better’ formalised endeavours (i.e. philosophy and science) or by stripping it away from any singularity in an –however welcome and inspiring– attempt to overcome disciplinary boundaries (see for instance Massumi’s 2002 work on affect).

Thus, in their What is philosophy?, “science” is defined in relation to philosophy as the creator of “functives” which are in turn the elements of functions:

The object of science is not concepts but rather functions that are presented as propositions in discursive systems. The elements of functions are called functives. A certain scientific notion is defined not by concepts but by functions or propositions (1994: 117).

However, as Guattari (1995) argues in his Chaosmosis, the lived functions of the social sciences do not really conform to the tripartition of Philosophy, Science and Art as previously defined. Such lived functions, which crucially affect the production of subjectivities, require, according to Guattari, a heterogenetic production of value that transverses and restores movement to the otherwise fixedly framed separation of aesthetics, ethics and politics in order to create new existential territories, that is, new modes of existence.

In a similar vein, thus, Brown (2009) opposes De Landa and interestingly argues that instead of seeking overarching frameworks, the social sciences must find ways to engage in a ‘one event, one idea’ mode of practice. This I take to be, on the one hand, a call to attempt at constructing a Deleuzian approach as an immanent exercise, that is, by attending, on an event-to-event basis, to particular creations of concepts, practices, entities, values and experiences that might provide social scientists not with any general ground or foundation but with new possibilities for experimentation. On the other hand, and insofar as the key of such events is that of becoming interesting, that is, of adding to the world by affecting and transforming the ways in which the social sciences relate to their empirical realities (Stengers, 1997), I read this suggestion as a call to experiment with a form of what we could call ‘political epistemology’, that is, an onto-epistemological practice concerned not with the demarcation of epistemic value but with the production and understanding of knowledge-practices through a transformation of the interests and values with which such practices are identified (Stengers, 2010).

Thus, in order to begin to experiment with the question of how to produce a mode of practice and knowledge-production that is primarily concerned with becoming interesting and thus, with adding something that matters, I will attempt to think with Deleuze & Guattari by taking up Brown’s  suggestion. I will thus explore some of the means through which one of their processual concepts can help us interrogate the practice of social research in a way that might contribute not only to acknowledging the productive character of adding something to the world, but also, to providing a glimpse of how to do it.

It seems to me that the challenge of adding, through knowledge-practices, something that matters to the world,  is one which should not be taken in ontological or epistemological terms alone, but one that must also be understood as an ethical interrogation. Perhaps Karen Barad’s (2007) term, “ethico-onto-epistemology” applies here, for it points to the necessity of interrogating knowledge-practices not merely in epistemological terms but also as practices of invention and relation, of “problematic togetherness” (Stengers, 2010). Simply put, adding something that matters entails the challenge of caring for the world. Arguably, the whole difference between affirming productivity and actually producing is grounded on the fact that the latter obligates us to engage with those who already inhabit the worlds we are committed to and thus those who might be affected by our additions to them.

Paradoxically, it has been the case throughout the history of the social sciences that their modern modes of practice have taken such challenge for granted through an anti-fetishistic, “critical” disqualification of those others that were the so-called “subjects” of their research. By appealing to the enlightened recourse to universal truth,  the guaranteed “objectivity” of scientific methods, to a clear-cut distinction between “knowledge” and “belief”, and last but not least, to the Western epistemic authority embodied in the figures of the sociologist, the anthropologist or the psychologist, the modern relationship between the social sciences and the inhabitants of the world under study could hardly qualify as one of “care”. Rather, as Isabelle Stengers (1997; 2000) has argued, it is the motifs of “rights” and “parasitism” that better characterise that relation: The researcher is entitled, in the name of science, to the right to “know” her subject/object of study, with the purpose of turning her unwarranted, irrational beliefs into rational, objective knowledge. Thus, in the modern relationship, it is the right of the social scientist to pose the questions, to know in advance what questions matter and why, and conversely, it is the obligation of the researched to answer them regardless of whether of not they actually matter to them.

            Thus, if asking the question of how to produce forms of knowledge that add and are committed to the worlds they research  immediately poses the problem of care, then the relationship the social sciences maintain with the worlds they study is a crucial element in interrogating their productive character. Moreover, it is one that needs not only due attention, but also an inventive approach that might help us induce transformations in such relations.

My contention is that Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of “double capture” might be of help to this task. Indeed, it might be a means to start constructing a political epistemological practice concerned with producing new modes of existence and thus adding something to the world in a way that is more democratic, and more ethical, than the modern, all too modern, social scientific knowledge-practice.

If this Deleuzian-Guattarian notion is not immediately familiar to some of you, the processual figure in which such a notion is embedded will probably be known to most. Namely, the relationship, the process of becoming and endurance involved in biotic pollination, through which wasp and orchid construct an rhizome or assemblage:

“How could movements of deterritorialisation and processes of reterritorialisation not be relative, always connected, caught up in one another? The orchid deterritorialises by forming an image, a tracing of a wasp; but the wasp reterritorialises on that image. The wasp is nevertheless deterritorialised, becoming a piece in the orchid’s reproductive apparatus. But it reterritorialises the orchid by transporting its pollen. Wasp and orchid, as heterogeneous elements, form a rhizome” (Deleuze & Guattari, 1987: 11)

Aside from the seemingly confusing dance of territorialisations and deterritorialisations, what becomes particularly interesting about such a relational process as described by Deleuze & Guattari is the extent to which it differs from the usual account of pollination as  a mimetic practice. It is not about an orchid imitating or imaging a wasp but “a wasp-becoming of the orchid, and an orchid-becoming of the wasp, a double capture, since ‘what‘ it becomes changes no less than ‘that which‘ becomes. The wasp becomes part of the orchid’s reproductive apparatus at the same time as the orchid becomes the sexual organ of the wasp.” (Deleuze, 1977 / 2002: 2).

Thus, in this immanent relational process, the mode of existence of the relational elements are simultaneously sustained and transformed by their double capture, thereby forming a conversation of sorts, an assemblage of heterogeneous elements. What this example illustrates is  the composition of an ecology that is brought into being not through consensus but through a form of symbiosis, “in which every participant is interested in the success of the other for its own reasons” (Stengers, 2010:35).

But how might this example affect the mode of practice of what we normally call social sciences? To be sure, a plain analogy won’t suffice, for the example and the kind of relational process that so far we’ve identified with the Deleuzian concept of “double capture” remains at the same time too specific and too abstract to grasp the singularity of the relations that, in the form of questions posed, social scientists construct with the worlds we study and the factishes, as Latour (2010) calls them, that we create and add to those worlds. I thus want to explore a notion that philosopher of science Isabelle Stengers has derived from the Deleuzian process of “double capture” and that she in turn calls “reciprocal capture”.

Earlier, I characterised the relationship that the modern social scientist constructs with her subjects/objects of study as one of rights and parasitism, a form of relation in which the identity of the one does not appear to relate specifically to the existence of the other. This way of independently defining the identity of the “social sciences” regardless of the worlds they construct relationships with and to which they add something is one of the basic tenets that allows for their modern representatives to disqualify and explain away any experience that defies their pre-established identity. “In contrast”, Stengers (2010, 36) argues,

“we can speak of reciprocal capture whenever a dual process of identity construction is produced: regardless of the manner, and usually in ways that are completely different, identities that coinvent one another each integrate a reference to the other for their own benefit.”

To be sure, the coinvention of identities to which Stengers refers is not a deconstructive différance by other means. Here, coinvention is not a property that already inheres in the structure of relationships, but an immanent process that belongs to the order of the event, to what can happen but is never guaranteed, and does not correspond to any right (Stengers 2011a). In the example of the Wasp and the Orchid, we saw how the process of biotic pollination induces a form of relation whereby the mode of existence of one of the elements already testifies to the mode of existence of the other. In this entanglement in which they are caught up, each of them could be said to care for the other,  each for very different reasons and in distinct ways.

“Reciprocal capture” is thus not the name of a condition but of a practical risk with which we may come to characterise certain relationships. In the case of social research, the production of reciprocal capture must thus be intimately connected with a form of ethical creativity. In other words, if adding something to the world implies a certain practice of care, a transformative relation with its already-existing entities, social scientific practices should crucially ask themselves about the constraints under which its inventions may “hold together with others” (Stengers, 2010: 43), that is, to integrate within its own self-definition the modes of existence of others to whom the inventions might interest and affect. Moreover, the question of constraints is key here for it alone allows us to move from “affirming productivity” to “actually producing”– from ideas to practices.  Under what constraints must the social sciences become productive if the “factishes” they produce are to hold together with others?

We know that the modern constraints under which the social sciences are said to produce value are those of breaking with the order of appearance, of opinion, or belief.  In this sense, the practice of critique oftentimes, and even with the opposite aim, sides with conventional practices (Boltanski & Thevenot, 2006; Latour, 2010). Insofar as their constraints presuppose the production of value through the deconstruction of appearances and beliefs, the affirmation of their identity immediately coincides with a disqualification of those “others” that they address.  As we have seen, however, this sort of relationship is hardly “productive” in the sense that any of its inventions or affirmations must coincide with a negation of a part of the world. As such, and as it is well known both by conventional and so-called critical social scientists, the inventions of the modern social sciences rarely hold together with others.

So, what challenges shall our inventions face? What should be the constraints that allow for social scientific inventions to be added to the world by a process of reciprocal capture? To what must we become obligated and what shall we require of the world so that our inventions can not only “hold” but be sustained and transformed by others?  This is certainly not a question that can be either posed or answered in general, for that would reenact a classical epistemology that may attempt to determine, as norms to be obeyed, the modes of satisfaction that would demarcate the boundaries distinguishing “good” from “bad” social science. But I do want to point out to the importance of incessantly asking this question every time we engage in research, if we are interested in taking the question of “productivity” seriously, beyond a mere celebration of its virtual possibilities.

In keeping with the “one event, one idea” mode of enquiry that Brown proposed for thinking with Deleuze, I would suggest that the posing of this question, by which I don’t mean to invoke a “reflexive” sociological practice, but an open question that is addressed to the worlds we are engaged with, already situates us within a cosmopolitical project, for it contributes to creating a space in which the voice of those who were until now absent as a result of the parasitic relationship in which the modern social sciences caught them, may now be made present and audible (Stengers, 2011b). As Stengers argues, learning to negotiate with those we address what constraints our factishes must endure so that they can hold together and affect them, so that they can really add something that matters,  ultimately means learning that we can never fully become inhabitants of someone else’s world nor can we directly embody their lived experiences in the sense that an exact translation can be provided, but that our experience of such translation might nevertheless be transformative of our practices.

This experience of double, or rather multiple, capture among different knowledge practices and diverse worlds is precisely how Isabelle Stengers (201b1: 371-372) characterises what she calls “cosmopolitics”:

 “the term cosmopolitics introduces what is neither an activity, nor a negotiation, nor a practice, but […] the experience, always in the present, of the one into whom the other’s dreams, doubts, hopes and fears, pass. It is a form of […] reciprocal capture that guarantees nothing, authorises nothing, and cannot be stabilised by any [permanent] constraint, but through which the two poles of the exchange undergo a transformation that cannot be appropriated by and objective definition.”

After all, asking these questions and experimenting with possible answers, already involves a form of collective negotiation, a political epistemological practice that is never the task of epistemologists alone, nor of social scientists for that matter, but that is crucially concerned with learning how to care.

Perhaps asking this question, not only to oneself but to others, is itself a way of entering a dual process of capture and coinvention.

Thank you.

Martin Savransky is based at Goldsmiths College, London, and the Institute for Sociology, at the University of Freiburg.


Barad, K. (2007), Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Durham & London: Duke University Press.

Boltanski, L. & Thévenot, L. (2006), On Justification: Economies of Worth. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Brown, S. (2009), ‘Between the Planes: Deleuze and Social Science’. In Jensen, C. B. & Rödje, K. (Eds.), Deleuzian Intersections: Science, Technology, Anthropology. London: Berghahn Books, p. 101-120

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* I of course realise that this so-called ‘field’ is itself a highly risky abstraction from a very heterogenous assemblage of disciplines and practices that can be hardly addressed as a unified group. Furthermore, as Mariam Fraser (2009) would aptly put it, such abstractions can be potentially reckless, especially if in the process they are confused with the concrete practices in relation to which they were elaborated. At the same time, however, as Whitehead (1985) would argue, that is what abstractions ultimately entail: risky constructions that come at the price of omitting part of the truth of process yet may become potential lures for experience. It is in this spirit, that is, as a practical risk, that I will speak of the “social sciences” as an abstract unified group.

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