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Symmetry, STS, Archaeology (Part 1 of 2)

Posted by Timothy Webmoor

Territorial wrangling is a good indicator that there is something emergent which is coveted amongst disciplines. The principle of symmetry, while a topic no longer generating any sustained discussion in its home setting of Science and Technology Studies (STS), is a case in point. Given recent disciplinary exchange involving symmetry, it seems appropriate to post the following piece, a version of which is forthcoming in The Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology of the Contemporary World. It discusses disciplinary agency in terms of Temporality, Representationalism/Performativity, Scale, and Symmetry. It also considers the broader issues of rhetoric and disciplinary politics, and the political economy of academic exchange and scholarship. These come under the banner of mereology, a modernist metaphysics with which the principle of symmetry is caught up.


In the world of knot making, there is a particular arrangement of two ropes that doubles the reach of either singly. It is not an especially complex knot, but it is incredibly useful, even lifesaving, when it is relied upon in circumstances such as Alpine mountaineering. Ropework is an ancient craft and the origins of particular knots are obscure (Hoste 2005). As a matter of course they derive, however, from mundane and practical pursuits. Only later did they re-emerge as integral to the success of rather more lofty pursuits. Though humbly deployed and, when capably acting, receding from immediate attention, we may nonetheless acknowledge their integral, if inconspicuous, role in a multitude of mundane activities and adrenaline-charged courses-of-action. There is all the same a remarkable sophistication to knot-theory and an irreducible elegance in the performance of a finely made knot.

Figure 1: Double Fisherman’s Knot

In sketching the cross-disciplinary setting involving Science and Technology Studies (STS) and archaeology, two fields in which I have held posts, practice as a “boundary scholar” and serve (however loosely) as a knot, I am going to suggest that knots themselves offer a rich heuristic for understanding their relations. I do not want to push the knot metaphor so far that it slips from rhetorical purchase. Yet I am sympathetic with Ingold’s (2000, 2007, 2010) “organic scholarship” with its attempt to forefront craft metaphors and everyday tools for thought. More importantly, these (sometimes) literal conceptual tools such as knots draw attention to ontological relations as opposed to the predominance of epistemological metaphors that figure prominently as guides for modernist thought (e.g. Peirce 1955; Putnam 1981; Rorty 1979). Contrary to these, knots urge “actualism” (Harman 2005, 2009b:291-3); they focus knowing upon the effect, outcome or action accomplished by objects, humans and nonhumans. Most importantly, I find that the topology of a knot aptly describes cross-disciplinary collaboration. Especially as the topology of knots urges our attention along the lines of engagement to discern the crucial distinctions that make a difference: when knots are actually unknots.

The Fisherman’s knot is a symmetrical knot that is itself composed of a series of overhand knots. Symmetry is critical for the overall ‘knot-strength’ of the Fisherman’s, and hence for its reliability in critical situations. To hold, the strands must enfold themselves in such a manner that they “strangle” one another. That way, an increase in the load weight lends greater friction between the ropes—pull harder, add more weight (to a point of course!) and the symmetry of the Fisherman’s folds only tighten together.

Tracing the topology of STS and archaeology under “load”, when they grapple with intellectual problems, it becomes apparent that they are entangled. However, when the weave of these intellectual fields is detailed we find asymmetric tension, but little friction. While the two “lines” of empirical investigation both contribute object-centred inquiries and seem capable, in concert, to extend our understanding of how we are ourselves knotted in the material world, their engagement with one another is passing and not binding in a productive sense. The weave is not a knot.

In this post I will first briefly consider the collegial ideal of disciplinary cooperation. I then move to the points of contact between STS and archaeology, exploring whether there is friction or slippage between the two disciplines. Here symmetry, not just as metaphor of parity but in the specific analytic form of generalised or “radical” symmetry is unpacked as one point of contact between the fields. After the currents of thought in the fields are followed, I conclude by suggesting waypoints for orienting around what I feel to be eddies in the disciplines’ respective radical currents, to offer a knot in the future of object-centred inquiries.

The Mereology of Inter-Disciplinary Dogma

Before moving on to describe the disciplines’ literary networks, I want to push a bit on the academic politics of interdisciplinarity (see Garrow and Yarrow 2010; Jensen and Rödje 2009). Equally, I feel provocation may be beneficial, especially when it comes in the form of questioning assumptions and operating principles. I am going to make the perhaps unpopular suggestion that discussions of collaboration across fields of practice are overly saccharine (Barry et al. 2009).

This is because such ideals of partnering across differences of background knowledge, working assumptions, practical skill, research goals and so forth predominately operate according to mereological reasoning; this is, following Strathern, the guiding framework for scholarship that believes that partial perspectives sum up to a more complete understanding of a whole (1991, 2010:368). Mereology suffuses modernist thought. To be sure, there is debate within STS over how prevalent the modernist mode of being actually is (compare Latour 1993a; Law 1994). And whether there are properly two competing sets of sensibilities or logics in operation through modernity (on the “Baroque” and the “Romantic” see Kwa 2002; Mol and Law 2002).

Mereology, nonetheless, stands out as a materializing logic of modernity when contrasted with metaphysics that place emphasis upon differing principles, such as alterity, complexity, contingency or incomprehensibility. While these metaphysics have been exhibited within Euro-American logic, with some in STS urging complexity and irreducible mess as the norm of modern sociotechnical systems (Law 2004a), mereology seems to best stand in relief when contrasted with non-Western examples (Viveiros de Castro 1992, 1996). Nature stands monolithic behind the vagaries of perspective upon a singular reality. However, other metaphysics do not experience contradiction in, or the impossibility of, allowing multiple cultures and multiple natures, questioning our more familiar scenario of multi-culturalism set against mono-naturalism. Such symmetry between epistemic and ontological pluralism opens vast venues to be negotiated. In considering collaboration, however, the significance of mereology is how it justifies the possibility of complete knowledge through a unified ontology (Nature) which serves to arbitrate the many partial, incomplete, situated or even erroneous “voices”.

Stengers (2010, 2011) draws our attention to the manifestation of mereology in a myriad of scientific procedures. This is especially so in the correlative species of mereology: reductionism (see Latour 1993b). Mol and Law (2002:5-8) argue that the “power of reductionism in the modern world” forms part of an oscillation to and from simplicity and complexity. It is an urge to simplify going back to the Enlightenment that they suggest may be expressive of dynamics of the human psyche. Reducing and simplifying is an integral gesture of mereological thought.

For if parts may be added to understand a singular whole, then the reliability of knowledge acquisition begins with breaking complex wholes into assimilable constituents. Let us consider, on the material register, the manner in which archaeologists routinely split “wholes” apart in excavation so that artifacts, features, and various media may be reassembled as a whole, as an archive of a (transformed) site (see Lucas 2001a, 2001b, 2012; Olsen, et al. 2012). Or consider the assembly of “outputs” of investigations in archaeology or STS, whether textual, laboratory analyses, or visual media (in archaeology see Shanks and Webmoor 2012; Witmore 2004; in STS see Ashmore 1989; Woolgar 1988).

Reaching far beyond mereological reasoning, these operational procedures and organizational devices partially fix how collaborative research is performed. While the earliest pre-modern experimental laboratories operated with a division of labor along class lines (Shapin 1988:395, 1989; Shapin and Schaffer 1988), separated tasks led to collective work of ostensibly more equal scholars. We might also look to the disciplining of antiquarian practice into what was to emerge as archaeology (Schnapp 1996; Schlanger and Nordbladh 2008; Olsen et al. 2012: chapter 3). Both reflexive archaeologists (e.g. Berggren and Hodder 2003) and STS ethnographers (e.g. Latour and Woolgar 1986; Mol 2002, 2008; Mol et al. 2010) draw attention to the organizational practices, hierarchies and relations of accountability that federate individual efforts. “Audit culture” and “audit society” in the contemporary academy bureaucratize the sociomaterial arrangement of interdisciplinary collaboration (Power 1997; Strathern 2000). But it is constraining, even counterproductive, to require collaboration in terms of measurable outputs and “impact” factors. Moreover, I would add that it further normalizes mereology by dissimulating its peculiar rationale behind everyday operations.

We might also ask, aside from requirements to do so, what really motivates researchers to form partnerships? Is this how the process of thinking and working together really happens? To the contrary, studies of interdisciplinary practices from the history of science and STS suggest that the notion of piecing partial contributions together is both more complex and more contentious than is suggested by the mereology of interdisciplinary partnerships. Such undertakings often work only by constituting a new hybrid output. Rather than intercalating research products into a predetermined “deliverable”, the process and temporary outcomes are both more uncertain and risky. Mol (2002, 2008) presents, in detail, how sociomaterial “coordination work” may stabilise “boundary objects” (Star and Griesmar 1989) in order that knowledge may be attached to them through shared “language” and exchangeable media (also Galison 1997).

Against mereology, Strathern argues that “disparate viewpoints can never add up” (2010:175). Social multiplicity is not vouchsafed by the singular ontology of a “Nature” and partial descriptions of an object or sociotechnical process do not add up to a complete description. Nor could they ever. We can only describe what is partially always in flux. A consequence is that, with Stengers (2011), we may spend more effort “wondering about materiality” then explaining it. Such a position of humility resonates with recent calls within archaeology and anthropology to (re)affirm radical, unknowable alterity (Alberti and Bray 2009; and Garrow and Yarrow 2010), and STS scholars remind us that such a non-mereological mode of being opens up alterity within our own sociotechnical processes and collective selves. “Bad” matter, unruly ruins, awkward or abject things have too readily been excised away from the “us” of humanity (Webmoor and Witmore 2008).

The consequences, then, of mereological reasoning extend to material practices of the scientific endeavor, the possibilities of knowing and to our ontological make-up. We must question the starting assumption of interdisciplinary collaboration as a concept and goal and unpack how it prefigures relations between practitioners.

Let’s return to the topology of the knot. If partnering through disciplines works, then we ought to look to the boundary objects, the mongrel materials that are composed to do work. A knot requires the type of “coordination work” that Mol (2002; also Mol et al. 2010) has sketched in complex medical settings. As a boundary object, a knot, exemplifies non-mereological symmetry in partnerships. Under load, it moves attention to how it performs, rather than to its static composition. When working properly, the knot is a mixture, “more than one but less than many” (Mol and Law 2002:11; also Harman 2009b, 2011). To continue with the suggestion that ontological composition is a paradox, too fluid to be rendered satisfactorily in mereological reasoning, I would urge letting go the interdisciplinary goal in the manner of a Zen kōan: loosen hold of the goal in order to attain it. It is to affirm that we can be collegial without being interdisciplinary.

Knot Knowing

Shed of the idea(l) of synergy, how do we describe the relations between STS and Archaeology? Like our climber on the cliff setting up a rescue abseil, ensuring that what is in the hands is not an unknot requires understanding whether the topology will “bind” when under load. I look at two primary sets of literature where disciplinary interests connect: ethnographies of practice; discussions of descriptive work. Sketching these literary networks I identify four points of slippage between archaeology and STS: temporality; representationalism/performativity; scale; symmetry.

. . . continued in Part 2 of 2.


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