Electric cars and colonial continuity

Image: Jack S


The shapes of electric cars obtained arise, among thousands of other circumstances, not from the minds and actions of generic scientists and engineers, but from American, German and Chinese scientists and engineers.

“If we have the tools that allow us to show that modern scientific-technological knowledge results from a collective activity, and is not bad, not good, and above all not neutral, what can we do with these tools?” (Ivan da Costa Marques)

Modern epistemology

The modern epistemological divide between the world of things-in-themselves, nature, and the worlds of humans-between-themselves, societies, generated the dichotomies subject-object, knowledge-belief, fact-fiction, context-content, science -culture etc. and gave rise to the division between the so-called natural, exact or hard sciences and the human, social, applied social sciences, literature, letters and arts (the CHSSALLA, this acronym begins to spread).[I]

This divide is present in elementary, secondary and university education, in the creation of disciplines, in the evaluation of research and in the CNPq-CAPES table of knowledge areas that conditions the construction of knowledge in Brazilian postgraduate studies. This divide conditions us to accept/create the knowledge that we are taught and that we teach, that is, that knowledge about the atomic bomb says nothing about democracy or authoritarianism, or that the floods in Rio Grande do Sul are “natural phenomena” and say nothing about policy.

For centuries, on the one hand, the CHSSALLA have felt and tried to avoid the dangers of “objectification” and have preferred not to cross the great divide, even though this has imposed on them the high cost of not having an answer to the accusation that their facts are “soft”. . For centuries, on the other hand, epistemologists have tried to defend Euro-American modernity from all the evils supposedly carried by an undisciplined multitude of knowledge coming from outside the modern canons, trying to contain them as mythologically as if they were in a Pandora's box. (LATOUR, 2001)

In Europe and the USA, about half a century ago, STS Studies opened “Pandora's box” in search of the hope that had remained there. Laying bare the processes that establish the framework of scientific forms of truth, showing their limits of validity, opens up new possibilities for the West's relationship with other cultures. It was no longer possible, in the face of China and India, to maintain as a fact the belief in the knowledge of Western sciences as something absolutely universal, neutral and objective.[ii] But the opening of Pandora's box also disturbs the strong bias in favor of colonizing knowledge that has existed for centuries in the creation and validation of knowledge.

The opening of Pandora's box can be juxtaposed with the struggle to overcome the coloniality that prevails in Brazil. For us, Brazilians on the periphery of the West, Pandora's box remains closed while we accept, resignedly, the epistemological separation and the consequent depreciation of knowledge that crosses the great divide and circulates without the approval of naturalized Western epistemology: undisciplined popular knowledge or even indisciplines rooted in African and indigenous traditions.

As we strive to take advantage of the historical opportunity for epistemological rebalancing, in anthropophagic digestion of the modern myth, we can highlight that, on the one hand, (i) what Pandora's box imprisoned are not necessarily evils, as they have remained there until now, in addition to the hope, the knowledge of popular traditions in Brazil, isolated there due to epistemological depreciation; and on the other hand, (ii) there is no reason for us to stop anthropophagically taking advantage of the Euro-American sciences that are now free to circulate outside Pandora's box, taking advantage of what they can offer us, but re-“situating” them , that is, removing from them the epistemological privileges of absolute universality, neutrality and objectivity with which they were historically presented to us. (DA COSTA MARQUES, 2012), (HARAWAY, 1988)

Eletric cars

It is precisely item (ii) that this part of this brief text will focus on. When abandoning modern dualism, it is not necessary to erase the distinct characteristics of the various parts that make up an amalgamated collective of things and people. We can have analytical clarity without resorting to the epistemological divide between subjects and objects. It is not about subjectivizing things or treating people as things.

It is rather about re-equipping ourselves to talk about entities, recognizing them as fluid networks where humans and things intertwine to such an extent that we cannot understand ourselves with them if we surrender to the epistemological divide that for centuries European modernity used to become culturally invincible. (DA COSTA MARQUES, 2008) What we seek is to capture the movements through which the networks that configure a collective vary and in these movements they change, generate other collectives, and may even fade away until they disappear.

As an example, let us think about the ongoing transition from a collective defined by “drivers of combustion-powered cars” to another collective defined by “drivers of electrically-powered cars”. To overcome the radical epistemological divide, I propose a scheme of thought, a caricature if you like, of the passage from one collective to the other as a series of coherent movements.

A first movement would be a “translation-translation” which is the means by which STS Studies articulates differences. In this case, we translate “electricity use” as “less pollution” and “lower cost per km driven”. Juxtaposing issues of coloniality, hierarchization and internationalization, let us remember that translations always take place partially within frames of reference (frames) with different degrees of arbitrariness: less pollution in cities, yes, but where is the pollution from batteries, other materials and additional electrical energy to power electric cars? The cost per kilometer driven today is lower, yes, but what is the stability of the accounting structure that defines what is paid by those who pay in the input chain that supports this translation-translation?

A second coherent movement crosses human properties with non-human properties, giving birth to new hybrids. The crossing of the “comfort condition” of humans with the “silence and absence of vibration” of electric cars, soon put into circulation by marketing, gives birth to a new hybrid entity that comes into the world with new needs and demands. Note that it is neither the driver nor the car, separately, who experience commuting with comfort, but the “driver-car” hybrid entity. (LATOUR, 1999/2001)

A third coherence goes back to laboratories and, as we will soon observe, to factories, where previously non-stably configurable entities, such as “electric cars”, gradually take on “non-human” forms when they are manipulated, juxtaposed, confined, alienated and induced into collectives. in RD&I and industrialization processes.

CTS Studies enable us to understand in the same terms the obtaining of “inscriptions” in laboratories and the obtaining of “objects” in factories. Just as there is a “laboratory” domestication of that oil once discovered as petroleum so that it explodes in engine cylinders, there is a “laboratory” domestication of electricity previously seen in terrifying lightning and thunder, or in innocent combs attracting pieces of paper, to for it to turn the engines.

As in the case of oil, there is an “industrial” mobilization of electricity so that that “laboratory” domestication can be induced in collectives of “electric car drivers” on a gigantic scale by turning millions of engines around the world. In short, in terms of STS Studies, both in laboratories and factories what is obtained is the stability of “provisional juxtapositions of heterogeneous elements” in processes of different scales, but which can be well understood without making the subject (human) divider and object (car).

Thus, a fourth coherent movement concerns the increase in scale. Electric cars, called “non-human”, can then come into the world in large quantities from industry, finding potential consumers, called “human”, effectively generating a large number of hybrid entities, “electric-car-drivers”, which they walk without discomfort, adding and mobilizing new demands and resources that produce even more hybrids.

Colonial continuity

The CTS Study indicates how the composition of the first collective is changed to configure the second, as a result of changes brought about by new hybrids and not by subjects separated from objects. The colonizing epistemological division that guides education and research in Brazil teaches us that a universal and neutral objective nature (objects separated from their subjects, raw material) is achieved by the minds of generic scientists and engineers (subjects separated from their objects, human cousins ) that act by imposing the order of the electric car on efficient matter. But how far apart are the modern constructs “raw materials” and “human cousins” in the stable “subject-driver-electric car-object” configuration?

CTS Studies indicate how to cover this distance without separating subjects and objects, visualizing movements based on the caricature above. In this case, the shapes of the electric cars obtained result, among thousands of other circumstances, not from the minds and actions of generic scientists and engineers, but from American, German and Chinese scientists and engineers, “subjects” as “situated” as the raw materials. within their reach, inseparable “objects” that are juxtaposed in laboratories and factories.

*Ivan da Costa Marques He is a professor in the postgraduate program of History of Sciences and Techniques and Epistemology (HCTE) at UFRJ. Book author Brazil: opening of markets (Counterpoint). [https://amzn.to/3TFJnL5]


DA COSTA MARQUES, I. Making NECSO: Localizing the global and – partially – globalizing the local. https://www.necso.ufrj.br/Inst.htm 2001.

DA COSTA MARQUES, I. Facts and artifacts of “modern invincibility”. In: ALMEIDA, M. d. and VERGARA, M. d. R. (Ed.). Science, history and historiography. Rio de Janeiro: Museum of Astronomy and Related Sciences, 2008. p. 231-244.

DA COSTA MARQUES, I. Possibilities of situated ontological practices. In: KERBAUY, MTM;ANDRADE, THN d., Et al (Ed.). Science, Technology and Society in Brazil. Campinas, SP: Editora Alínea, 2012. p. 67-86.

HARAWAY, D. Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism as a Site of Discourse on the Priviledge of Partial Perspective. Feminist Studies, 14, n. 3, p. 575-599, 1988.

HIRSCHMAN, A.O. Passions and interests. Political arguments for capitalism before its triumph. Translation CAMPEIO, L. Rio de Janeiro: Paz e Terra, 1979. 119 p. 8501057843.

LATOUR, B. A collective of humans and non-humans – In the Labyrinth of Daedalus. In: LATOUR, B. (Ed.). Pandora's Hope. Essays raise the reality of scientific studies. Bauru, SP: EDUSC, 1999/2001. chap. 6, p. 201-246.

LATOUR, b. Pandora's Hope. Translation SOUZA, GCC d. EDUSC, 2001. 372 p. 8574600628.

WEBER, M. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Translation SZMRECSÁNYI, MI d. QF and SZMRECSÁNYI, TJMK 5th ed. São Paulo, SP: Livraria Pioneira Editora, 1987 / 1904. 233 p.le.


[I] Among others, about this separation see (HIRSCHMAN, 1979)

[ii] An affirmation of this surprising belief in simplicity is in the first paragraphs of the classic (WEBER, 1987 / 1904).

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