It matters how Automobility and Violence are thought – an Interview with Dr. Robert Braun

Geschätzte Lesedauer: 11 Minuten

Interview by Carolina Gusenleitner

Dr. Robert Braun is a Senior Researcher on Science, Technology and Transformation at the Institute of Advanced Studies in Vienna. On 11.03.2022 he gave a talk about his current field of research: Automobility Violence, as part of the Institutskolloquium during the winter term of 2022/23 on Non_Violence. Robert kindly agreed to do an interview to dive deeper into the matter. What follows is a shortened and edited version of a longer conversation. In an in-depth and inspired interview not without its puns, serious wits and ironic hints, full of twists and turns – though we set out on a linear path – how did you get from A to B? – the narrative was far from straightforward.

Asked about how he got into the topic of automobility and violence, how non-violence and non-automobility are connected and how he as a researcher and person fits into the discussion. Robert Braun takes us down his roads of inquiry and revisits important milestones in the development of his grasp of the phenomenon of automobility and how it morphs along the way. At this point we enter directly the conversation to find out about how Robert Braun came to realize the role of violence within automobility as one of possibly many other parallel political imaginaries:

Robert Braun:

At the core of automobility is violence

[…] I came to the conclusion, that when you look at automobility somehow some elements of it are visible typically what’s visible is the technology and the car, the road and infrastructure. Of course traditional mobility scholarship looks at it as a system with different artefacts that are connected within some kind of interrelatedness which was already a major move from the traditional technological view of what automobility is a means of transportation, efficiency etc. but I wanted to push this further down the road so for me automobility is not a system but it’s a way … of course I read the Foucauldian stuff so it focusses on subjectivities on how subjectivities are created in automobility specifically in automobility the driver the passenger etc. and how these subjectivities are also politically created via traditional Foucauldian language controlled discipline and of course I read Deleuze so I took a little bit further down the road this idea of control and realized that automobility is not a system but it’s much more rhizomatic interconnected set of practices and then I got interested in the politics of it. How these rhizomatic exercises are happening and then I realized that at the core of automobility is violence. Mainly death but also injury and death of the human and in numbered terms its huge its approx. 80 million people overall in automobility and hundreds of millions of people injured but then if you are going along the post human or more than human thinking then its billions and trillions and quadrillions of non-humans who are routinely killed and then I realized that all of this is occluded, effaced, and cleaned and its somehow not there because if these numbers but also experiences – as I said everybody has some form of experience with what’s traditionally called accidents – would come to the surface or this experience would become an embodied practice of making sense of the world, nobody ever would do this.

Automobility as a political imaginar

[…] In traditional STS language imaginary is a big concept. Sheila Jasanoff and others work with the concept of social technical imaginary or technological imaginaries etc. and of course I signed up for that. I realized that there is much more than the technology itself. There is something that is in our minds in a sense and is politically and socially constructed. There is a big tradition in STS about socially constructed technology. However when I was reading Jasanoff and others I kind of -because I have a philosophical background I was always fascinated by their ontological differentiation between the epistemic real and the epistemic imaginary and so in Jasanoff in the present there is the socio technical imaginary which is the enacted processes that co-construct or co-create technologies and you can’t even separate but in the future the imaginary is very different from the technology to become. […] however there seems to be some kind of binary, dichotomy of the real and the imaginary and I thought that’s bollocks. I thought that from the tradition I am coming from ANT way of thinking you cannot, there is no foundational difference, or you have then to go back to some very modernist Cartesian way of thinking to create this binary of the imaginary and the real therefore I started to think and look at automobility and realize it is an imaginary without an adjective. It is not a sociotechnical imaginary, but it is an imaginary if you will. It’s a political imaginary in which the real and the imagined is becoming inseparable. And then I read Debord from the 50s and the situationists and he speaks about the spectacle and of course in the traditional Marxist way the spectacle also collates or collapses what traditionally is called the real and what traditionally is called the imaginary. And I of course read post-modern stuff and Baudelaire and the simulacrum and how the real and the imaginary becomes blurred in these post-structuralist ideologies if you want. And so I came to think that automobility is an instance of this but it seems to be pretty hegemonic and universal and also this violence element and the occlusion of the violence is interesting and I read Schmidt’s Nomos who of course speaks about the nomos of the European system in which the peace of Westphalia created a line and this line created the system in which violence was blocked or stopped and beyond the line where violence became bracketed and occluded and that’s of course the non-European world of the colonial powers. And so I thought this is interesting because this is pretty much applicable to automobility and I wrote a paper with Richard my co-author and basically what we said is that automobility is a politically imaginary because of course that’s what the nomos is – it’s a political imaginary and it’s a very unique and special imaginary in which violence is constitutive. That’s what makes the politics of the imaginary, violence is sovereign, and it is also pretty similar to the Camp that Agamben talks about in which by the indiscriminate and sovereign violence that’s foundational everybody becomes homini sacri […] What’s then interesting with automobility is that everybody becomes a homo sacer and because its hegemonic and universal, automobility is not only of course the road but everywhere is a camp. And this was a pretty radical idea. That’s where we ended the book but of course we moved on.

Thinking and Violence

Because two things. One, we realized that automobility is although universal and hegemonic, we also thought that it is interesting because there must be other such political imaginaries parallel and because I am a post-ANT person, I was interested in John Law´s Multi-world-world theory and I tend to believe that we are living in a Multi-world-world. First I try to apply this Multi-world-world thinking to automobility which then is one world. It is a totality but it´s only one world of many in which we live and so I got interested in okay so that’s great but then what does understanding automobility help me conceive better and today I think automobility is a window on the Anthropocene and my version of the Anthropocene is somewhat different than that of geologists. And the other thing is of course violence is socially constructed and the accident is socially constructed so I have now a big research project on the phenomenology of accidents, and I am trying to understand why we need accidents and why we need violence as an anthropocentric or anthropogenic construct that creates this political ontology or political ontologies one of which is automobility. And to fully answer your question I am a post ANT person with a strong agential realist philosophy. I had a long-term interest in quantum physics, and I always thought that it’s pretty the whole Copenhagen compromise which kind of separated quantum theory from quantum mechanics and said that quantum theory is philosophy, and we are not interested, we are physicists and … quantum mechanics works and this is good enough for us. But also, there are two worlds in their mind. There are the quantum world, and this is the micro world where quantum mechanics rules and there is the macro world where Newtonian physics works and that’s how it’s fantastic how actually we are living in this two worlds parallel. But I thought this doesn’t seem to be right somehow and so I tried to rethink what would a quantum theory world on a human scale look like and that’s where I am now. And of course, this took me to mattering. How world is worlded and how thinging happens and then I came across a wonderful line by Heidegger in the theory of art, his book on art. He doesn’t follow it up interestingly enough, but the line goes like this: I always thought that the problem with thinging is somehow related to the violence of human thinking.
And this stuck in my mind and with agential realist quantum theory inspired approaches of mattering and I tried to combine this with – so what’s the violence of thinking? And the violence, and this is kind of the research question, what’s the violence of thinking, and the violence of thinking to me is how space time mattering actually happens how human thinking separates space, time and matter and so violence is conceived as (if you read violence literature) destruction or as degradation and in a quantum theory inspired thinking about matter every matter that is mattered is excluding many other potentials. So, every matter is in a superposition if you will, traditional physics, and so it’s either a wave or both a wave and a particle and when it’s becoming one of the two then the other option is excluded. […]

Violence as destructing and making within the Anthropocene as a political ontology

What I came to think is that while traditional renderings or approaches to violence think of it as destruction and deterioration, I tried to think of it as making and creating as well. And this is pretty unsettling and this comes than to answer your question about non-violence because I think that to approach violence, a, as an interhuman affair how it is approached in traditional cartesian or modernist epistemologies that is violence is a problem of culture – you would love it because you are an ethnographer – and so it’s the problem of the ethnos as opposed to other stuff that’s cruel, aggressive etc. but that’s part of nature and that’s not something we need to address and you won’t be surprised that this binary of culture and nature is not very meaningful to me therefore I want to extend the concept of violence to other domains than intra- or interhuman affairs. And part of which then takes me to human and animate non-humans so I am interested- and automobility again as I referred to in the beginning provides a wonderful example of this because we do kill trillions of animate non-humans and we kill them in a way that we don’t even take notice of it and we think that’s normal an proper. So there is normalized violence not only with the degradation of the human self the body but also with the degradation and destruction of the non-human self and bodied and then go more down the line of course again in automobility extractivism and how we destruct and degrade that inanimate body or self. But this is only one train of thought and there could be another one. That violence that is collision of matter in mattering is not only destructing but making and creating because in quantum theory if everything is in a superposition and what then collapses into one or the other state is placing the cut between the agency of observation and the object and if that makes that is matters -mattering that matters- then placing the cut is the violence and placing the cut -as we all know- is not a human affair. So agency of observation is not a human faculty that’s not seeing but it’s intra-relating to form entanglements and this unsettles – that’s why I like it – it unsettles this traditional ontology of talking about that is reflecting on entities within the ontos as prefabricated and I think it’s more complicated than that. And at least one element of this more complicatedness comes from ANT. Annemarie Mol’s wonderful book about Eating in Theory in which she investigates the human centered or humanist approach to the body. Her big enemies are strangely enough heroes that our types love Merleau-Ponty and Hannah Arendt – both of whom I loved before I read Mol who, a, of course focus on embodiment but it’s the human body that is being embodied and politics as a human affair – Arendt -through speech which is of course a human faculty – maybe not any mor with ChatGPT – anyway so how eating is much more complex. Stuff is happening outside stuff is happening within entanglements of animate and inanimate stuff and then in the body and the body is multiple because there are other entities within and then of course there are different types of illnesses within the body and then how it comes out is also interesting and then I read Merlin Sheldrakes book  Entangled Life which is about fungi. He says -which is trivial of course I understand now from fungi studies – that fungi, mushrooms colloquially, are thinking and communicating beings. They talk except fungi are not an entity. Fundi are rhizomatic symbiotic creatures and when they talk or make decisions they talk with one side of the fungi with the other and when it thinks it also thinks in intra itself or intra its symbiotic relationship and you know this is what Eduardo Kohn the anthropologist in his book on how the forest talks, speaks about this Amerindian mythologies of course he is an anthropologist he wouldn’t call it an ontology but its Amerindian mythology think of the forest as one and in that forest it is the human that is inseparable from the white wolf and inseparable not in the way that they are in a symbiotic relationship but one does not know who is who and they don’t preexist as human and forest and wolf but they are in some kind of – and then language comes short – rhizomatic connectivity flow. And this is – in my way of seeing – an alternative ontology. And so this is what now keeps me up at night if anything keeps me up at night – I am a good sleeper as a figure of speech. And there is this discussion about the Anthropocene which I got in very much interested because another tradition that I am subscribing to methodologically is Ethnomethodology which is of course not Ethnomethodology but Ethnography of Ethnomethods. Garfinkel late in his life and also Michael Lynch was very interested in scientific Ethnomethods and I am very interested in scientific Ethnomethods as a good STSer and it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity when scientists enact an ontology and this is what is happening now as we speak. With the Anthropocene decision making process that a bunch of -actually 31- geologists enact a new political ontology into the geological time and I think it’s fascinating to observe that process and I do that, but I also have a different view of what Anthropocene is than that of the geologist but that´s another story. So, this is a short answer to your question. […]

Robert, thank you very much!