Ep. 38 – Annemarie Mol on Ontology, Science, and Politics

Join John, Emily, and the lamp specter of B for this week’s discussion of some of the work of Dutch anthropologist and philosopher of medicine, Annemarie Mol. In this episode, we read several essays of Mol’s spanning three decades, and grappling with such questions as: who know what a woman is and how do the sciences both create and obscure her? What does Actor Network Theory (ANT) make of such terms as “coordination” and “order,” and can ANT make good on the promise of “theory” more generally? How are the “real” and “political” implicated in and through one another, and what is the ontological turn in Science and Technology Studies?

Our conversation asks about the relationship between epistemology and ontology, about the consequences of these views for democratic theory and democracy more broadly, and we even try our hand at engaging in a little Rawlsian thought experiment! We’ll leave it up to you to decide how well it plays out. The episode closes with a My Tumblr Friend from Canada question regarding some recents comments made by Bill Nye the Science Guy about the relevance of philosophy to science and in general.

We would also like to announce the launch of our new Patreon account. The first few minutes of the episode are replete with details regarding donating to the podcast, and rewards for our patrons. Please give it a listen, check out the site here, and consider sponsoring us if you are a fan! We are greatly appreciative and (we hope) appropriately humbled and reflexive by/about our neoliberal subjectivity. Thank you for your support!

Thanks to listener dmf of Synthetic Zero for suggesting we read these texts.  Requests for texts for us to discuss? Dreams for us to interpret? Advice questions for us to answer? Email us at alwaysalreadypodcast AT gmail DOT com. Subscribe on iTunes. Follow us on Twitter. Like our Facebook page. Get the mp3 of the episode here. RSS feed here. Thanks to Leah Dion and to B for the music.





6 thoughts on “Ep. 38 – Annemarie Mol on Ontology, Science, and Politics

  1. taking a break @ 60 mins (bedtime here) but a couple of thoughts , first thanks for taking this up I think Mol is one of the vital thinkers of our times (along with Paul Rabinow and Isabelle Stengers) and she is unfortunately often overshadowed by Latour, when you get to Deleuze ( and so deleuzians including Connolly), new materialisms (in ANT things also have active powers) , OOO, speculative realisms, etc, you have already made the ontological move, and in a related point I think among other things Mol is asking us if our theories are just another way (another grammar/vocabulary) of being merely academic (doing academic chores) or do they tune us into (or perhaps assemble) new relations (new object relations if you will) with our environs?

    1. I really love these connections that your questions. Although I was there in lamp-spirit in the episode, I hope my comrades won’t mind if I jump in. I agree that so many people get crowded out by Latour. (Linda Alcoff once described him as the “bad boy” of Science Studies [ScSt] for that very reason.) And others tend to do the same (like Levi Bryant and Michel Callon–you mention OOO theorists and the like). But let me use Latour as a means of clarifying Mol’s excellent interventions. Latour does a great job at reducing the ways ScSt engages jargon. He tends directly to the point. You want a re-staging of truth? Here it is–truth is situated, context-specific, temporal, and irrevocably chained to references in discourse. What’s wrong with the sociology of science? It has managed to bungle up the materiality of the lab and engage in the abstractions of truth-claims, forgetting that truth-claims are inextricable from the lab itself. And so Mol follows this no-nonsense approach to materialism and ontology, making it clear that if we are to actually engage in the material sensibilities of the lab, or of science (that is life itself) then we need to reject overwrought vocabularies for a more sustainable grammar. I think, at least, that’s what Mol is doing, providing an excellent means of getting to the point where philosophy and science can meet again at their continuing intersections of mutual meaning. We cannot talk about the world without decidedly speaking in a different grammar to accommodate the great diversities of human and nonhuman life. But let’s not get too bogged down with “re-naming” all the things in the process, and thereby miss the point of our sciences–understanding, connection, epistemic plurality in human (and nonhuman) lifeworlds.

      I hope that helps a bit.


  2. to mangle a bit of Latour academia has never been post-modern (as in post-structuralist) which would really do in all attempts at generalizations. So folks like Mol have focused on the particulars of what is being, and could be, done and made the move as I discussed above to offer us ways of doing/being, that as prototypes (since we are (?) post arche types) have been made by specific folks for specific reasons/contexts (see Isabelle Stengers on interests) and will need to be re-tooled (bricolaged if you will) for new interests/assemblies/events if not just scrapped all together.
    A question to you folks if I may when one reads a writer like Jane Bennett (just as an example we have in common) does one learn to have the kinds of experiences that she is describing (as one can practice/test good phenomenological studies) or just gain ways of speaking as if (perhaps even using her author-ity to make demands/imperatives) one can or should?
    a few suggestions along these lines of flight would be Latour’s http://www.bruno-latour.fr/sites/default/files/89-CRITICAL-INQUIRY-GB.pdf, Stengers on what is Thinking, John Caputo’s On Not Knowing Who We Are: Madness, Hermeneutics, and the Night of Truth in Foucault
    and https://syntheticzero.net/2014/01/07/assembling-ethics-in-an-ecology-of-ignorance-paul-rabinow/

    1. I suppose I wouldn’t follow you too far into the post-modern=post-structuralist equation you’re drawing, but I agree that post-modernism, for Latour, is more a symptom of the fact that we have never actually fulfilled the “constitution of the moderns” as set forth by the likes of Kant and Boyle. And I agree that folx like Jane Bennett and others are offering new grammars for how to encounter the world. I suppose the word “encounter” is exceptional here. For these theorists, encounter possesses a pluripotent meaning. It suggests a newness and affective connection between or among things. When a human being (a subject if you will) approaches an assemblage of garbage trapping water that flows from a drainage pipe, thus altering her decision to stay or leave, this encounter is filled to the brim with possibility, action, thinking, re-thinking and interconnected agencies. It is the microphysical possibility of movement and meaning between human and nonhuman that becomes the very site of re-thinkability. I believe Jane would tend to think that “authority” in new grammars would be misleading–since what really authorizes new grammars is hegemonic norms (in all walks of our “life” and especially in academia). Instead, there should a mutuality of recognition among new grammars that open up the possibility of new encounters–that the thinkability of our encounters, their meaning, and their interconnections are overdetermined and thus susceptible to numerous chances of action, joy, life, experience, trauma, pain, or the regeneration of subjectivity altogether.

      I have read Latour’s piece before, in addition to his piece of “One more turn after the social”, and have a tendency to agree with him on equitability of language and materiality of our mutual connections. But of course, I would always caution when we go down the road of “reason” and “authority” to remember Foucault’s admonition that “reason” has always been the means of incarcerating the strange, the unknown, the bestial, and the unreasonable. So we have to be aware that when we authorize a certain way of thinking about the world, we de-authorize others–often without a second thought. Latour has a bad tendency to systemically de-authorize so many things.

      Again, I hope that offers some “answer” to your query. I’m so grateful for the opportunity to respond.


      1. thanks for the kind reply, post-modernism (Derrida and co.) was post-structuralist but as I said that undercut most of the work done in the humanities and “social” sciences where they didn’t know what to do if they couldn’t use case studies (and such) to illustrate general principles*
        (they either didn’t know or value Wittgenstein’s ideas of familial-resemblances and perspicous-reminders which is a shame), they wanted to be scientific outline laws and causalities and all and not just descriptive of particularities, sadly they didn’t learn from STS that lab science is actually more like engineering and not really steered by Ideas ( as outlined wonderfully by folks like Andy Pickering and Hacking http://www.cbc.ca/radio/ideas/how-to-think-about-science-part-4-1.465007)

        well it’s sort of an indirect answer but I’ll take it, I was asking if readers of Jane (like yourself) actually gain new relationships with objects (I enjoyed reading her books but left without any new know-how) and the like or just come to offer new oughts in her name and you offered me an ought “there should a mutuality of recognition among new grammars that open up the possibility of new encounters” so if that is your take away than this is part of what Mol is trying to free us from so that we might instead focus on something other than merely reading/writing (OOO, SR, and the like also wanted to get themselves out of the flyjar of grammar/texts and back into the ‘wilds’ of the material world).

        Yes Latour like most academics still labors under the spell of the modernist/cosmopolitan utopia but his theology won’t get any more traction that John Dewey’s Common Faith book did in 9134.

        Rabinow offers some of the best recent examples of someone taking his work into the ‘field’ and mixing it up, see: http://anthropos-lab.net/paul-rabinow-homepage

        *”In the phenomenology of spirit, as consciousness’s becoming-other-to-itself and coming-to-itself, “forms” of consciousness emerge, as Hegel says; but this emergence of forms of consciousness has nothing to do with the procedure, now becoming routine and stemming from various motivations, of classifying the so-called types of world views and types of philosophical standpoints according to just any schema. These typologies and morphologies would be a harmless way of passing time, if at the same time the odd idea were not in play that, by placing a philosophy in the net of types, one has decided on the possible and of course relative truth of that philosophy. This urge toward classification and such like always begins at a time when the lack of the power to do philosophy gets the upper hand, so that sophistry comes to dominate. But sophistry provides itself and its own barrenness with some respectability by first catching whatever ventures to emerge in philosophy in the net of standpoints, and then, having given each type a label, by leaving it with the people. This label sees to it that, regarding the philosophy in question, one will be interested in its label only so as to compare it with another label. Subsequently, the literary discussions about the label give rise to a literature which in its kind may be quite considerable. Consequently, the Kant literature is not only more important than Kant himself, but above all else it reaches the point where no one any longer gets to the matter itself. The procedure reflects the mysterious art of sophistry, which always and necessarily arises along with philosophy and controls the field. Nowadays the power of sophism has “organized” itself, one of the many indications of this being the popularity of typologies of philosophical standpoints–typologies which appear in various disguises (manuals and series). Philosophy becomes a managerial concern–a diabolical condition to which the younger scientific minds, rare enough as they are nowadays, fall prey in their prime.”
        Heidegger, Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit

  3. John and Emily Mol and Co. are all about what (and how) we do out and about in the world (and really isn’t politics what we do together and or to each other?), imagine sharing an exercise like this with yer undergrads:
    This article reports on an ethnographic experiment. Four finger eating experts and three novices sat down for a hot meal and ate with their hands. Drawing on the technique of playing with the familiar and the strange, our aim was not to explain our responses, but to articulate them. As we seek words to do so, we are compelled to stretch the verb “to taste.” Tasting, or so our ethnographic experiment suggests, need not be understood as an activity confined to the tongue. Instead, if given a chance, it may viscously spread out to the fingers and come to include appreciative reactions otherwise hard to name. Pleasure and embarrassment, food-like vitality, erotic titillation, the satisfaction or discomfort that follow a meal—we suggest that these may all be included in “tasting.” Thus teasing the language alters what speakers and eaters may sense and say. It complements the repertoires available for articulation. But is it okay? Will we be allowed to mess with textbook biology in this way and interfere, not just with anthropological theory, but with the English language itself?

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