Isabelle Stengers on on user movements and systems of horizontal apprenticeship

Andre Ling introduces the importance of the the Belgian philosopher of science Isabelle Stengers:

“She is a truly remarkable philosopher and currently one of my favourites. While she has written some very solid books on the philosophy of science (such as The Power of Invention, Cosmopolitics, and others), her more recent books are shorter, highly accessible and powerful. The titles of her two most recent books that I especially want to share with you are:

* Capitalist Sorcery: Breaking the Spell

* Au temps des catastrophes: Resister a la barbarie qui vient (currently only available in French, but due to be translated, I am told, in open access format in English)

The first book (which she wrote with Philippe Pignarre) sets out a new way of understanding the working of capitalism, inheriting from Marx but not in any way clinging to traditional Marxisms. It presents capitalism as a system of sorcery that produces infernal alternatives that leave people feeling they have no choice but to accept the inevitable march of progress (she discusses specific cases in depth, regarding the mutuelles in France, pensions, pharmaceuticals, etc.). She looks at how people have sought to escape the system of sorcery through specific examples (including reference to GNU/GPL and Linux amongst others), where she focuses on user movements and systems of apprenticeship. Here’s a lengthy quote on user movements to show the kind of thing she is saying.”

Excerpted from Isabelle Stengers:

“We think that there is a great deal to learn from user movements; because the user is defined by use, a very interesting term because it can­ not be reduced to simple utilisation. An object is defined by its utility, whereas a thing can enter into multiple uses, and no user can as such claim to be in a defining position. Every use is, in fact, minoritarian. Self-help groups judiciously presented themselves as bringing together drug ‘users’ because they knew that drugs are things that exceed consumption-based, medical or psychosocial definitions. That is why they were able to bring together the most heterogeneous of protagonists: none could claim to possess privileged access to the truth about drug use, a truth able to situate all other versions. One must learn about the uses of drugs, about what it is that uses are articulated around, because drugs are something to which attention must be paid if they are not to become destructive powers.

Certainly the notion of users can easily be diverted and it already has been. As soon as one hears talk of ‘the rights of users’, as soon as one accepts as users protagonists who define themselves as ‘clients’ or stake­ holders – those whose needs must be satisfied at any cost -the diversion has taken place. By definition, the client is supposed to be indifferent to the means through which his demands will be satisfied. And one can understand why those who today direct public services, privatised or not, are so pleased to have abandoned the user for the client; he who demands to be properly served, in whose name the regulations inher­ited from past struggles for solidarity can be dismantled. The model of the client and the service provider is even on the point of becoming the rule at the heart of businesses themselves: everyone must satisfy demands and demands to be satisfied. Let the just but cruel calculations of supply and demand and cost-benefit analysis reign everywhere.

We are not maintaining that, everywhere today, user movements, which try to think against the definitions that oppose users to one another constitute the great force of the future, the force which will occupy the role of motor in the anti-capitalist struggle. But these move­ments interest us much more than movements of citizens, because they do not originate in a fiction of the state. Rather, the first thing they do is to provide us with a memory of a past that was violently destroyed, one in which uses fabricated attachments. They also speak to us of the price that public sector workers and their unions have paid and are still paying for the statist definition of their role. The user then becomes an anonymous ‘anybody’, requested not to meddle with things that don’t concern him, suspected of being manipulated by those who would aim to weaken the rights of workers. When the operation of dismantling really began, it is hard not to be astonished that users didn’t meddle very much with what ‘didn’t concern’ them.

But user movements can also bear witness to rather remarkable inven­tions; to trajectories of apprenticeship that are innovative enough to silence the grand proclamations according to which the pasts of peasant communities are definitively dead, modern man henceforth being atom­ised, incapable of thinking beyond his immediate interests. It seems that when users with potentially conflicting interests are brought together in such a way that it is not a matter of arbitrating, of permitting and forbidding, but of envisaging together what they all depend on in diff­erent ways, then they are capable of creating concretely the means of distinguishing between use and abuse. Ceasing to be ‘anybodies’, they become capable of creating the means of distinguishing between man­ners of doing and the right to do, and this because they think, not as citizens – one (wo)man, one voice – but starting from what attaches them and obliges them to enter into commerce with one another.

The calculemus of users are only interesting when described in the particularity of their successes. But the latter are susceptible of giving ideas, of helping to resist the ‘we have tos’ that are always founded on the hypothesis of individuals incapable of thinking by and with one another. And above all, they are capable of resisting the seductions of the guarantee. Users don’t offer any guarantee. They can always become stakeholders.

And it is precisely for that reason – because one cannot have confidence in them, but because their eventual force has a vital need of practices of ‘trusting’ and of ‘paying attention’ – that users are a rather good figure for what Deleuze wrote of as the left’s need that people think.”

2 Comments Isabelle Stengers on on user movements and systems of horizontal apprenticeship

  1. AvatarAndre Ling

    Hi there, thanks Michel for posting this.

    I thought I would just share a paragraph (p.20) from her second book Au temps des catastrophes that I mentioned above:

    “If we are in suspense (about how to inherit from past struggles against capitalism), some are already engaged in experiments that seek to make exist, in the here and now, the possibility of a future that is not barbaric – those who have decided to desert, to flee this filthy economic war, but who, “in fleeing, search for a weapon,” as Gilles Deleze used to say. And to search, here, first of all means to create, to create a life “after growth”, a life that explores connections with new powers to act, to feel, to imagine and to think. These people have already decided to modify their way of life, effectively but also politically: they do not act on the basis of guilt about their “ecological footprint”, but experiment with what it means to betray the role of reliable consumers that is assigned to us. Which is what it means to enter into battle against that which creates this assignment, and to learn concretely to reinvent modes of production and cooperation that escape the ‘necessity’ of growth and competition. It is to these people that this book is dedicated, and, more precisely, to the possibilities that they dare to try and make exist. It is not a matter, however, of making myself their spokesperson, to describe on their behalf what it is that they attempt. They are perfectly capable of speaking for themselves, since far from enacting “a return to the cave”, as some accuse them, they are experts in websites and networks. They don’t need me, but they do need others, like me, to work, with their own means, to make sense of what is happening to us.”

  2. AvatarAlain Ambrosi

    Interesting enough to read Isabelle Stengers using the term of “user” in English .
    In that specific case of defining the different notions/degrees of uses the french language is (for once) more precise than english since it différentiates “usager” from “utilisateur”.
    In the common sense in french “usager” is a regular user (utilisateur) of a public service . Les usagers du transport en commun = the public transport users.
    But Stengers in her book “Au temps des catastrophes…” has a more precise définition of “usager “. For her (and I put it in my words) an “usager ” is an autonomous and responsible user. In other words an usager is a user who has a capacité for initiative in the public sperme. This définition leads us to différentiante the different degrees of autonomy of the user from the bénéficiaire (bénéficiay) to the client (client) to the usager” That is a very important difference when we talk for example about ” social innovation ” and “user driven innovation ”
    All the best
    Alain Ambrosi

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