Red, Black, and Objective

Restivo, Sal
Ashgate, Aldershot
9781409410393 (hb)

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Cover of book Sal Restivo opens his argument by invoking the Communist Manifesto of Marx and Engels, stating that a 'spectre is haunting the sociology of science - the spectre of anarchism.' He then counts Marxists among the enemies of this fugitive ghost, before urging the delivery of an anarchist manifesto for the social sciences, with a particular emphasis on science, hence his use of 'objective' in the title.

Scientists often write as though their statistics are directly interchangeable with the thing they describe, editing out the very specific and often bizarre landscapes of their practice and inspiration. Not only this, they elide the view of science as pre-constructed by larger discourses, capitalism for instance. Institutional power always puts boundary lines and barriers in place, before erasing them, making them invisible to us. The sociology of science is supposed to cut through all this, but Restivo thinks that it needs to go further, and that anarchism, particularly Kropotkin's figuring of anarchism as a kind of social science, might help it to proceed.

There then follows a systematic destabilising and re-ordering of our assumptions, about objectivity, science and mathematics, religion and anarchism. These wide thematic sweeps across the landscape are appreciated, but the real gems are to be found close-up here. Restivo discusses C. Wright Mills and his linking of public and private troubles, biography and history, in order to suggest that our 'categories of experience must be examined, challenged and changed to even begin to address the problems of science and society.' But, he says, we need to go much further than the advocacy Mills left for us.

Restivo then works through what became known as 'Actor Network Theory' (ANT) discussing figures such as Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar, to explain how their projects attempt to escape from default containers of knowledge. Those containers don't just limit, they mummify. This is how Restivo's anarchism is actually prosecuted, via thinkers such as Latour, who refuse to be bound by epistemologies which we assume are stable, that we all 'know', at which point, thinking not only ceases, but our straitjackets are fastened, and any real praxis effectively ends.

Restivo sketches in some very necessary distance between himself and Latour's wilder speculations, but his own hedging is ultimately rich. If 'an-archy' means without those things which are over us, then here we have the core of Restivo's argument: When necessary, our structuring containers of knowledge must be subjected to troublesome anarchism, not to create chaos, but so that we may reach a new form of objectivity, which is able to challenge, rather than prop up, our sleepy, complacent old orders. By 'orders' I mean the boxes in which we have carelessly thrown our ideas and concepts, as well as institutions and the arbitrary directions they often issue, an arbitrariness which is untenable to a proper anarchism. Equally though, any form of 'critical thinking' which remains outside the supposedly institutional bunker of science must have its blinkers removed. 'Critical thinking mated with ambivalence about science', Restivo claims, is 'bankrupt'.

The urgency of Restivo's project should be obvious. Latour himself made this clear when he described the postmortem of the Challenger Shuttle disaster, making links between the need for a 'thicker description' to describe that event, and the kind of describing we will need to face our planetary situation, as the weather morphs before our eyes, and capital ploughs forward heedless. If institutional power puts us inside invisible boundaries, which we then re-create inside science, with potentially disastrous consequences, then maybe Restivo is right, and we need the ghost of anarchism to silently re-enter this territory, on which, unlike us, it can both see and move.

The is underlined by Restivo's final call for a lower-case 's' science, which produces temporarily stable concepts which are negotiated between people, rather than discourses of Truth and Power which rule. This logic should move up from the floor of practice and into the academy. 'Creative institutions', Restivo says, 'in short, are structurally and dynamically dialectical and anarchistic.' This is the final line of his chapter on objectivity, but the first utterance I have found which fully mirrors my own, and I hope it will be the first of many more.


LATOUR, Bruno (2007) 'Can We Get Our Materialism Back, Please?' in Isis 98, Sciences Po: Paris.

RESTIVO, Sal. (2012) Red, Black and Objective - Science, Sociology and Anarchism. Ashgate: Farnham.

Steve Hanson
Goldsmiths College