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Madeleine Akrich
Yannick Barthe
Fabian Muniesa
et al.

Cooling down and heating up: a stress test on politics and economics

Fabian Muniesa

Texte intégral

  • 1 What follows is based on discussions with Michel Callon, Dominique Linhardt and Emiliano Grossman. (...)
  • 2 A particularly elaborate account of this problem is to be found in Foucault (2004).

1There is something both annoying and lucid with the opposition between economics and politics.1 The opposition is there – for sure more often as a clumsy intuition than as an exhaustive analysis – in all the innumerable occasions in which political and economic rationales are said to confront each other, to hamper or to interrupt each other. The annoying part is that this opposition is hardly true. First, “the economical” and “the political” (whatever these mean) do not always contradict each other. They often get along well: politics can be done with economics, and vice versa. Second, economics and politics are not the only two things in the world. Tensions, if any, can involve many other kinds of aspects other than these two: juridical, technical, psychological, cultural aspects, and so forth. But there is, however, a lucid part in this opposition. Basically, the strain between economics and politics makes sense as a fundamental marker of social life. It contains, in essence, a series of worries that have been haunting social thought for decades. It is for instance recognizable, to a large extent, in the great distinctions that populate the sociological unconscious, starting with the good old one – Gemeinschaft vs. Gesellschaft. It is also alive, in some form or another, in the scholarly passions raised by neoliberalism, with economic rationality being praised as a fine – or alternatively blamed as a treacherous – substitute for the political determination of things.2

  • 3 These ideas can be followed for instance from Callon (1998a; 1998b) – see in particular the use of (...)

2I believe this stress is also recognizable, in a completely different manner, in a number of recent contributions in which framing and overflowing, calculating and disputing, economizing and politicizing are conceived of, in a way, as partially contrasting movements: I refer here in part, most distinctly, to the work of Michel Callon, or perhaps to a slightly accentuated version of it.3 The difference is, or should be, noteworthy. Here, the idea is not to identify separate spheres or realms, characterize them and then examine their compatibility or incompatibility, their mutual influence or the way in which particular problems enter or not such realms, participate or not from the ideas, languages or techniques that better suit such realms. This is not exactly about spotting different “regimes”, “rationalities” or “logics” of thinking or of acting (an otherwise most legitimate and usual social-scientific standpoint). It is rather about observing the singular movement that allows situations to heat up or cool down, things to turn into open issues or into closed facts, conduct to follow patterns or to lose track – irrespective of the domain in which they evolve. For sure, this bipolar frame does not correspond to a distinction between “the political” and “the economical” in the sense of two distinct ambits, but rather to a difference between two movements, that of “economizing” and “politicizing”, than can coincide but which are essentially antagonistic.

3The metaphor of temperature is very good in this respect. You can heat water up or cool it down, you can even try to do both at the same time if you want, or mix cold and warm water together. But cooling down and heating up are definitely two different, opposed and mutually relative things, and these are the only two things that you can do to something in terms of temperature. It surely takes some liberal efforts to interpret something like the relationship between economizing and politicizing in the light of such rather impressionistic metaphor. But the efforts are worthwhile, I believe, and they may serve well the task of refining a potentially useful analytical vehicle.

4One preliminary precaution consists in trying to clarify the meaning of economizing and politicizing – not their overall meaning in the social sciences or in mundane parlance (these two notions are indeed quite ambiguous) but their meaning for the purpose set out here. It would be useless, and perhaps also a bit discouraging, to sum up the wide variety of usages of these and equivalent notions. A limited attempt at synthesizing a fairly tradable version of the intuition behind the temperature metaphor will do.

  • 4 In a sense, the analysis of controversies which involve scientific issues (and which therefore car (...)

5To politicize something can mean a lot of things: to foster partisanship in the consideration of that thing, to discuss what to do about it in a way that is open to dissent and disagreement, to impose a differentiated will in the orientation or in the determination of that thing, to appraise that thing not only in itself but as part of a collective world. To economize something can also mean a lot of things: to subject this thing to a measure of rationing, to make this thing prone to calculation, to provide ground for a rather univocal assessment of this thing, to reduce the amount of collective energy and attention that this thing calls for. From all the contrasts that these profusions of meanings may suggest, I propose to pick this one: politicizing is to economizing what heating up is to cooling down.4

  • 5 There exists a wide variety of (sometimes competing, sometimes compatible) developments in this di (...)

6In order for this frame of analysis to start making sense, however, it needs perhaps to take some distance from some widespread (and perfectly justifiable) connotations that do often characterize these two notions. To politicize or to economize something, in the sense defended here, does not need to have anything to do, in principle, with handing this thing over to a politician or to an economist, nor does it mean to displace this thing into the sphere of politics or of economics. A politician can politicize something, but can also very well economize it; and the same applies to an economist. If we were considering (but we are not) that to politicize or to economize something are operations that consist in transforming this thing into a problem that calls for a distinct domain of expertise, then, of course, these two movements would be only two among a variety of other processes (something can be also turned into a juridical problem, a technical problem, a managerial problem, and so forth) and they would for sure correspond to that thing being taken into account by different professionals, with different languages and in different sites. An analysis in terms of “domains”, “regimes”, “worlds”, “logics”, “rationalities” or “spheres” may do fine in that case – with or without the useful but not dramatically challenging intellectual precaution consisting in claiming that these are not exactly fixed structures but rather practical processes.5 In the sense developed here, however, politicization and economization are two things that can characterize the way in which something becomes a problem suitable for a juridical domain, a technical one, a managerial one, a scientific one, a military one or even a political one or an economic one.

7Turning something into, say, a scientific object can correspond, in the sense explored here, to a situation of economization or of politicization of that thing. Scientists take possession of a knotty reality and make it fit for calculation, control and optimization: this is rather a matter of economizing. Conversely, scientists invent a new entity, a substance that creates new realities, affects previously unaffected beings, originate novel concerns and discrepancies as soon as it escapes the laboratory: that is quite about politicizing. A comparable characterization can be made of a process along which something becomes a juridical problem. It can be an economizing process if it is about the unambiguous attribution of liabilities and responsibilities in the context of a well defined legal framework. But it can be understood as politicization indeed if emphasis is put on the emergence of contrasted and controversial arguments in defense of a novel actor with novel rights, or on the need to come up with a sharp decision. A managerialist approach to a problem also faces the test of this bipolar direction. Management can come with an economizing tinge when it is about administering or arranging something in a stable, optimal manner. But it can rather match politicizing when it is meant to be about conducting, directing, orienting or moving something in a determined direction. Therapy can equally be understood with attention to similar tensions. For example, the psychotherapeutic treatment of mental trouble can waver between an economizing path (with an emphasis on containment and composure, and also on the reduction of the cost and the length of therapy) and a politicizing one (with an emphasis on the enactment of conflict, on lengthy meanders, on outlay and on speech).

8This sort of consideration applies to economics and politics too, understood in the sense of spheres of activity – “economizing” and “politicizing” in the wide sense that I insist on here (let us call it primary sense) may indeed characterize processes of economization or politicization in the sense of the particular spheres of professional activity in which a problem is driven to (secondary sense). Economists handling a conflict of distribution through the development of an allocation algorithm are economizing (primary sense) the problem. In contrast, economists altering the strength of parties at stake in a particular market with the introduction of a new calculation technique are probably politicizing (primary sense) this market. The distinction between politicizing and economizing in a primary sense does also concern politicization in the secondary sense (something entering the constituted field of politics). A political problem submitted to the protocols of parliamentarian examination is, to some extend, economized. Conversely, political undertakings aiming at provoking a tendency to concern, animosity and animadversion among actors that were not concerned beforehand are politicizing the matter under consideration.

9I acknowledge from the outset that this distinction between, on the one hand, politics and economics as two heterogeneous domains and, on the other, politicizing and economizing as two fundamental movements may add confusion to already quite ambiguous vernaculars. Confusion expands if one observes that the word “economy” is sometimes used to refer to realities of commerce and excitement, which are in a sense closer to an idea of “heating up” (and hence of politicizing) rather that of “cooling down” (and hence of economizing, in the sense explored here). This is most evident in expressions such as “libidinal economy”: “economy” conveys here the idea of a more or less systematic space of flows, but surely not of rationing and counting – unless, of course, emphasis is put on channeling or on repression. A similar, reverse phenomenon occurs with notions such as “polity” which, rather than referring to the thermal understating of politicizing explored here, transmits an idea of order and equilibrium: one prone, precisely, to the science of political economy (i.e. economics).

10Why defending, in a context of such heteronomy and ambiguity of meaning, a drastic understanding of politicizing and economizing? One first advantage of the thermal alternative could be, precisely, that it contributes to the elaboration of a non-vernacular, properly scientific vocabulary. This may sound a little bit daunting, especially after all the sensible things that have been said about the objectivity of social-scientific parlance (delusive, or at best plainly social as the realities it is meant to refer to). But clarity does not hurt, just as ambiguity does not either, and it may be useful to play different social-scientific vocabularies against each other in order to make sure that some important aspects of reality are not kept out of the loop. One crucial objective of this vocabulary is, precisely, to attempt at countering a far more demoralizing sociological strategy: that which consists in stocking things in domains, each crowned with a principle from which those things ought to participate (I do not shy away from my mixed feelings towards the prevalence of a royalist unconscious in this type of wording).

11I guess that the reader is already aware of the fact that this exploration is nothing more than yet another variation on the old doctrine of Actor-Network Theory, of its conceptual tinkering and of its philosophical take. It can also be read, perhaps more pressingly, as a call against the perils of a renewal of the sociological repertoire in the terms of a “plurality of regimes” or “of worlds”. Despite the patent interest of the analysis of varieties in social styles, it is also useful to proceed to an examination of irreducible features of material life, friction (or rubbing, in its largest sense) being probably a prevalent one. This may serve as a precaution against any attempt at taking these “worlds” for granted or at forgetting that these are all here in this earthly one.

  • 6 For reminiscences on the notion of contradiction, see for instance Mao (2007), a best-selling edit (...)
  • 7 See the particularly straightforward take of Bruno Latour in, for instance, Latour (2005).

12The reader may have also spotted some kind of a Maoist unconscious (perhaps also Taoist) in this rather all-encompassing antagonistic interdependence between economizing and politicizing: a bipolar scheme of contradiction, present in all things and without which nothing would exist. We know for sure how this form of thought can develop into a revolutionary weapon, perhaps a deadly one.6 The point here is not belligerence, however. But precisely because weapons are a very serious thing, it is worthwhile taking them seriously at least from a scientific viewpoint. As for the revolutionary part, I may agree with the fact that Actor-Network Theory and associated forms of thought are indeed based, at least slightly, on the idea that the social sciences should be demolished and reconstructed altogether.7 I myself praise for diplomacy, pluralism and a culture of translation in this respect, but I nonetheless suggest remaining actively attentive to revolutionary concepts.

  • 8 The conflict between Seth and Horus in ancient Egyptian religion and its role in the mythical form (...)
  • 9 For an extraordinarily lucid analysis of Carl Schmitt’s mentality in this respect – and of the cha (...)

13That said, why sticking to “economizing” and “politicizing” instead of, say, to “constitution” and “insurrection” or to “yin” and “yang”? The choice of appropriate bipolar metaphors (from thermodynamics to dialectics, from cybernetics to kung fu) is wide.8 Here, the choice goes perhaps with a sense of sympathy and worry for the one particular concern that has animated the history of the social sciences. Some call this concern “Europe”: a fine example of the exacerbation of the tensions between politics and economics, between Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft, between the essence of the German state and the thrift of the Jewish banker (most famous European hallucinations)9, between the salutary virtues of national will and the pacifying effects of economic currency, between the right and the left. The sociological tradition is probably correct in having spotted these tensions as fundamental ones (and, incidentally, at attempting at solving them). Taking their terms as substantive matters – and caring for how irreducible and contradictory they might be – is one possibility. But another one is to consider instead these tensions themselves as the relevant topic for inquiry: their direction rather than their terms, and the thermal livability they may grant or not in their erratic movement.



Assmann, J. (2003), The Mind of Egypt: History and Meaning in the Time of the Pharaohs, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Barry, A. (2001), Political Machines: Governing a Technological Society, London: The Athlone Press.

Barthe, Y. (2006), Le Pouvoir d’indécision: La mise en politique des déchets nucléaires, Paris: Economica.

Boltanski, L. & L. Thévenot (1991), De la justification: Les économies de la grandeur, Paris: Gallimard.

Callon, M. (1998a), “Introduction: The Embeddedness of Economic Markets in Economics”, in M. Callon (ed.), The Laws of the Markets, Oxford: Blackwell, p. 1-57.

Callon, M. (1998b), “An Essay on Framing an Overflowing: Economic Externalities Revisited by Sociology”, in M. Callon (ed.), The Laws of the Markets, Oxford: Blackwell, p. 244-269.

Callon, M., P. Lascoumes & Y. Barthe (2009), Acting in an Uncertain World: An Essay on Technical Democracy, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Foucault, M. (2004), Naissance de la biopolitique: Cours au Collège de France (1978-1979), Paris: Gallimard & Seuil.

Irala, A. de (2006), Uno se divide en dos: El arma revolucionaria de Mao Zedong, Bilbao: Beta III Milenio.

Latour, B. (2004), Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Latour, B. (2005), Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Mao, Z. (2007), On Practice and Contradiction, London: Verso.

Parsons, T. & E. A. Shils (1951), “Values, Motives, and Systems of Action”, in T. Parsons & E. A. Shils (eds), Toward a General Theory of Action: Theoretical Foundations for the Social Sciences, New York, NY: Harper & Row, p. 45-275.

Sombart, N. (1999), Les Mâles Vertus des Allemands: Autour du syndrome de Carl Schmitt, Paris: Cerf.


1 What follows is based on discussions with Michel Callon, Dominique Linhardt and Emiliano Grossman. I thank them for their comments on these ideas.

2 A particularly elaborate account of this problem is to be found in Foucault (2004).

3 These ideas can be followed for instance from Callon (1998a; 1998b) – see in particular the use of thermal metaphors (e.g. “hot situations”, “cold situations”).

4 In a sense, the analysis of controversies which involve scientific issues (and which therefore carry the problem of the “arguability” of things) constitutes a fine occasion to examine how things turn “political”: see for instance the notion of “mise en politique” developed by Barthe (2006), the problem of “matters of concern” as examined by Latour (2004), the idea of “hybrid forums” proposed in Callon, Lascoumes and Barthe (2009) or the meaning of“political” according to Barry (2001) – although, in these works, the key contrast is rather with how things turn “technical”. As I explain below, I prefer here another type of contrast since I think that both science and technique can work both for the politicization (heating up) and the economization (cooling down) of things.

5 There exists a wide variety of (sometimes competing, sometimes compatible) developments in this direction in the sociological literature. See for instance Boltanski & Thévenot (1991) for the idea of “regimes of justification” or Parsons & Shils (1951) for the notion of “pattern variables”.

6 For reminiscences on the notion of contradiction, see for instance Mao (2007), a best-selling edition presented by Slavoj Zizek. One particularly precise analysis of Mao Zedong’s notion of contradiction (and of its terrifying potentials) is to be found in Irala (2006).

7 See the particularly straightforward take of Bruno Latour in, for instance, Latour (2005).

8 The conflict between Seth and Horus in ancient Egyptian religion and its role in the mythical formation of the Egyptian state can serve as a possibly reliable source, among many others, for this sort of bipolar scheme (Assmann, 2003).

9 For an extraordinarily lucid analysis of Carl Schmitt’s mentality in this respect – and of the characteristic syndrome that fed the path from Wilhelmine Germany to the Third Reich (masculine love of the soldier, trenchant Entscheidung, fear of the soft and of the bourgeois, self-fulfilling apprehension of chaos) –, see Sombart (1999).

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