In 2013, a group of graduate students, university staff, and a newly-tenured professor organized a conference at UC Berkeley called “Speculative Visions of Race, Technology, Science and Survival.” The organizing team included Alisa Bierria, Mel Chen, Jakeya Caruthers, Elisa Huerta, and Christoph Hanssmann. We hoped to bring together a series of nascent conversations about race, futurity, speculative fiction, and medicine, technology, and science studies more broadly. Discussions in science and technology studies about race, gender, sexuality, species, futurity, and survival are not new—by the time we convened the conference, Alondra Nelson’s Body and Soul, Kim TallBear’s Native American DNA, Rina Bliss’ Race Decoded, and Jenny Reardon’s Race to the Finish were already in circulation, in addition to collections such as The Nature of Difference (Hammonds & Herzig ed. 2009), Genetics and the Unsettled Past (Wailoo, Nelson, & Lee eds. 2012), and The Postcolonial Science and Technology Studies Reader (Harding ed. 2011). These and other scholars, particularly in feminist STS, have long been working to bring such topics to the fore of the field. Alongside these endeavors, our conference was part of what we see as a slowly-but-steadily growing emphasis on race, gender, sexuality, Indigeneity, and speculative approaches to analysis in STS. . In what follows, we reflect on the planning and execution of this conference and its role in these shifts.
The conference’s call for submissions asked contributors to engage the following questions:
What will survival entail in near and far futures? In light of racialized violence and social control, massive technological innovation, and rapid transformations in science and biomedicine, this conference will engage the imperative to imagine, study, prepare for, and articulate future human life. We are interested in how science and technology shape the material and epistemological boundaries of existence, specifically how and whose existence is valued, policed, corporealized, and corporatized. We will also explore the capacity of embodied subjects to navigate these boundaries in the context of gendered, sex/uality, dis/abled, and queer formations. Recognizing that technology creates kinds of futures (both anticipated and unforeseen), this conference will create a space to analyze how technologies of the past and present contextualize and disclose future realities and identify opportunities for creating new possibilities.
We received an overwhelming response and were floored by both the volume and astuteness of the submissions. To accommodate more presenters, we expanded the planned one-day event to a two-day conference. Building on the currents of Afrofuturist inquiry (for which a notable convening of scholars was hosted in Atlanta a month prior), we worked to locate experimentation and possibility in the braided critical methodologies of scholar-organizers. Within what Michael Mascarenhas (2018) has referred to as “the white space” of STS, questions related to race and racism have been sidelined despite being fundamental to the production of technoscientific and biomedical knowledge. In the passionate and vigorous answer to our call, though, it was clear that it was high time for such questions to move to the center of STS as a field–and we felt that highlighting creative, speculative, and artistic approaches might open up inroads to this end.
What our small team lacked in academic status at the time, we made up for with a plucky determination to stage what we thought were the most important questions for contemporary thinkers in STS. With support from UC Berkeley’s Center for Race and Gender and Multicultural Community Center, we put together what to this day remains an especially epic event in our minds—and hopefully also in the memories of those who attended.
Original Poster, UC Berkeley 2013
We strove to plan something a bit different from the familiar genre of the scholarly conference. As people entered the main event space, they were greeted with music from our Speculative Visions playlist, including Afrofuturist and sci-fi-inspired songs from the last half-century (the Sun Ra Arkestra, Prince, Outkast, Alice Coltrane, and Janelle Monáe were among those featured). A series of life-size cardboard cutouts graced the edges of the room, each of them a different silhouette of a character from science fiction or Afrofuturism. Figures included an iconic image of Nichelle Nichols’ Uhura character from “Star Trek” and the ubiquitous portable stereo-on-the-shoulder pose of 1980s hip hop and punk subcultures.
Panels included not only scholars, but also thinkers and artists from different domains of thought and engagement–this had a diffractive effect on scholarly discussions about knowledge production. For example, a panel entitled “Upward, Outward, Onward: Afrofuturism, Transhumanism, and the Black Prophetic Tradition” featured UC Berkeley’s T. Carlis Roberts discussing spiritual music, specifically the ring shout, in the context of Afrofuturism alongside the Reverend Andrew Rogers from the St. James A.M.E. Church presenting on transhumanism and the Black church. Special guest and artist Xandra Ibarra hosted a lunchtime screening of her semi-autobiographical sci-fi film, “Fuck My Life” (2012) which follows a weary showgirl confronting another day–as a cockroach. We also screened Dean Spade and Craig Willse’s speculative film “Free State Epitaph,” which imagines social and political life beyond state formations. The first day wrapped up with an artistically focused evening of cultural resistance hosted by UC Berkeley’s Multicultural Community Center.
Speculative Visions also offered more traditional conference panels featuring an illustrious group of scholars, both new and seasoned. We steered away from the “talking head” approach, instead staging a deep and synthetic intellectual exchange through extended moderated conversations, an hour for reflective “downloads and uploads,” a questions gallery at the end of the first day, and a reflective closing session.
We were fortunate to host Dorothy Roberts as the conference’s keynote speaker. Her landmark book, Fatal Invention had been published shortly prior, and her keynote reflected compellingly on the implications of genomic science’s reification of racial difference. Ruha Benjamin presented work from her then soon-to-be-published book, People’s Science (2013) and was subsequently joined in conversation by Lawrence Cohen. Zakiyyah Iman Jackson discussed parasites and futurity in Octavia Butler’s work, which she later took up in Becoming Human (2020). Sareeta Amrute spoke on Indian IT workers, which became a focus of her work in Encoding Race, Encoding Class (2016). Kim TallBear discussed Indigenous ontologies and cryopreservation, which she later featured on her research blog. Each of these engagements reflected on questions of knowledge production as always also being problems of power, Indigeneity, colonialism, race, and racism (which Katherine McKittrick has so lucidly argued in Dear Science and Other Stories).
Cover art of books by authors who presented work or were an inspiration to the Speculative Visions Workshop
In addition to placing questions of race, futurity, and survival at the center of STS-focused inquiry, we also worked to highlight scholarship on underemphasized topics within the field, such as carceral politics and criminalization. In a panel called “Speculating the Carceral Planet,” Simone Browne discussed racialized surveillance that would later appear in Dark Matters (2015) and Katie Chandler presented scholarship on drone warfare that she later wrote about in Unmanning (2020). They were joined by Althea Wasow on the politics of numbers and Ricardo Gómez on networked connections between Chiapas and people locked up in the California prison system. Oliver Rollins and Anthony Ryan Hatch presented on a second panel on criminalization and imprisonment, entitled “Eating Brains: Biotechnology and Criminal Minds”. During this panel, Rollins talked about the racialized specter of the “violent brain,” taken up later in Conviction (2021). Hatch presented on the racial politics of psychotropics as administered within U.S. prisons, which he subsequently discussed in Silent Cells (2019).
There were too many other extraordinary panels, presenters, and moderators to mention in detail. Panelists included Tiffany Charlotte Boyle, Chris Fan, Kalindi Vora, Tamara Ho, Takeo Rivera, Jina Kim, Eunice Cho, Keith Feldman, Nick Mitchell, Bharat Jayram Venkat, Anna Jabloner, Tom Meagher, Grant Shofstall (who passed away last year), and Tala Khanmalek. Attendees came from all over the United States, and from as far away as London. Panels covered a range of topics: cells, genes, and organs; embodied markets; disaster and disability; and the very figure of the human. Throughout, we worked to define and spotlight race, futurity, and survival as key terms within STS.
Cover art of books by authors who presented work or were an inspiration to the Speculative Visions Workshop
We have no intention of taking credit for the transformations that have taken place in STS in the last decade. Nevertheless, we are delighted to have taken a small part in the collective effort of convening a group of insightful scholars who have been prompting shifts in the field’s primary areas of concern. Presently, questions of race, gender, disability, sexuality, and embodiment have a far more central presence in the field that they previously held—or are, at minimum, becoming impossible to push to the side. . Some of the thinkers we featured in Speculative Visions in 2013 have been among those who have compelled such critical changes. We look forward to the field’s further development along these lines—and perhaps in another decade, it will be time to host the sequel.
Please see the original program here and Speculative Visions Syllabus below.
Films, Fiction, and Plays
Christoph Hanssmann is Assistant Professor of Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies at UC Davis. Chris studies the politics of health, science and medicine, focusing on relationships between biomedicine and social movements. His first book, Care Without Pathology, is forthcoming from the University of Minnesota Press in November 2023, and focuses on the transnational emergence of transgender health care as an institutionalizing field and a public good in the United States and Argentina. He works collaboratively with researchers and activists in feminist, queer and trans feminist health and justice, and has published articles in TSQ, MAQ, and Social Science and Medicine.
Jakeya Caruthers is Assistant Professor of English and Africana Studies at Drexel University. Her scholarship attends to black political aesthetics within 20th and 21st century cultural production and to the study of race, gender, sexuality, and state discipline. She is at work on a project that examines literature and performance to explore the ways black folks manage racial terror through a sense of humor endowed with black feminist affects like curiosity or a sense of political legitimacy imagined to be possible even among morally, materially, and politically opposing figures. Recent collaborations include a digital archive of feminist decriminalization campaigns and a double-volume anthology on Haymarket Books entitled Abolition Feminisms (2022) co-edited with Alisa Bierria and Brooke Lober.
Mel Y. Chen is Associate Professor of Gender & Women's Studies at U.C. Berkeley. Mel’s research and teaching interests include queer and gender theory, animal studies, critical race theory and Asian American studies, disability studies, science studies, and critical linguistics. Mel's book, Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect, was released in July 2012 with Duke University Press in the Perverse Modernities series. In 2014, it won the Alan Bray Memorial Book Award, given by the GL/Q Caucus at the MLA. Their second book, Intoxicated: Race, Disability, and Chemical Intimacy across Empire will be published by Duke University Press in December 2023.