Ruha Benjamin and Activist Approaches to STS

Sometimes you go to a talk just because the title is so great, which was the case with Ruha Benjamin’s recent presentation through Drexel’s Center for Science Technology & Society: Star Trek Meets the Black Panthers: Experimenting with Science and Technology Studies In and Outside the Academy. The talk was rooted in thinking about connections between race, technology and narrative, where Ruha is a fierce advocate for activist objectives in academic work.

Ruha is wonderfully engaging as a speaker and free-wheeling in her references, bringing in Alondra Nelson alongside Alex Rivera, Arjun Appadurai, Sheila Jasanoff, as well as Octavia Butler.  Her key interest with the talk was thinking about different forms of imagination, the way that science fiction imagines new things as well as the ways that black activists insist on a need for imagination.  Speaking to a room of STS scholars, Ruha reminded us that “STS need to take on a more active role not only in studying but in shaping design,” where she sees her own work as “attempting to intervene in the status quo” about provoking “not just useful knowledge, but useful imagination.”

Although I would have loved to hear more about race, science fiction and imagination, I loved that Ruha made her presentation less of a talk and more of a Q&A.  After maybe a 20 minute talk, Ruha gave us ten minutes to respond to a choice of four writing exercises, and then we came together as a group to discuss our reactions to the prompts.  Questions and comments about the talk blended into a collective brainstorming-cum-confession of the struggles to communicate the theories that matter to us, and reminders that creativity and imagination are work that require practice.  I found the conversation incredibly open and generative, feeling like a combination of a grad seminar, an activist working group, and a knitting circle.

Ruha Benjamin is coming to Penn for a talk in March called “Black Death…And Regeneration: An Ethnography of the Future,” and I’m very much looking forward to getting to see her speak again.

Jessa Lingel, Assistant Professor of Communication, University of Pennsylvania

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