Workshop 3: Bronislaw Szerszynski, ‘Experimental time and the event of politics’

Bronislaw Szerszynski (Sociology, Lancaster University) opened his presentation stating that he wants to use it as an opportunity to develop some ideas about experimental subjection, the being subjected to an experiment. He proceeded in arguing that the force of experimentality can be used as an analogy to the force of law (Agamben, 1998; 2005).

Szerszynski started his talk from the insight that experimentation as a mode of human action is a quite extraordinary modality, with its own peculiar world-relation (with different forms of experimentation and different relations to the world). He continued in claiming that this can be seen in the formulation of the experimental method by Francis Bacon in the early 17th century.

Firstly, Szerszynski referred to Bacon’s distinction between Experimenta Fructifera (the mechanic ‘fruit-bearing experiments’ which can succeed or fail) and Experimenta Lucifera (‘light-bearing experiments’ where practical efficacy is temporally suspended with the benefit of gaining knowledge). He argued that Experimenta Lucifera are particularly interesting in this context as initial pragmatic interest in practical effect is suspended: ‘they never miss or fail’ (Blake 54-5, Novum Organum, 1620, first book).

Secondly, Szerszynski described Bacon’s complex dialectic between constraining and following nature. Bacon argued that to understand nature you have to follow it and therefore in the experimental action there has to be a certain amount of letting go. Szerszynski subsequently claimed that scientific experiments must empower nature to allow it to do what it normally does:

‘Nature to be commanded must be obeyed; and that which in contemplation is as the cause is in operation as the rule’ (Blake 52-3, Novum Organum).

Hence, Szerszynski proposed that one has to suspend usual operationalizing of knowledge to find a course of nature that will guide him/her. He emphasised that one has to switch off the interest in the outcomes:

‘For you have but to follow and as it were hound nature in her wanderings, and you will be able, when you like, to lead and drive her afterwards to the same place again’ (Bacon, 1963: 295) – Advancement of Learning, 1605. 

On the other hand, Szerszynski argued, that as we have seen in the last workshop, experiments create moments, events – there in no guarantee of this, but they very often create the conditions for the emergence of the radically new – new phenomena, or a new relationship of knowing to previously hidden or mysterious phenomena, either of which (if we can firmly separate them) can change the world. Here, Szerszynski referred to Rheinberger in terms of his claims regarding the differential production of experimental systems and the emergence of new relationships of knowledge emerge which take on historical significance.


Subsequently, Szerszynski spoke of political subjectivity and evental politics the context of Arendt’s writings on action. He argued that he wants to push this into the political, in a particular sense of paradoxical relations: somehow the experiment gives being back to itself, by dividing being. Szerszynski then claimed that he wants to explore this paradox in dialogue with Agamben, who developed an account of the state of exception (1998).

He explained that drawing on the work of Carl Schmidt and Walter Benjamin, Agamben advanced the argument that law is grounded not in the norm but in the state of exception, where the law is withdrawn from application by sovereign power (the sovereign stands above the law).  Szerszynski argued that for Agamben the state of exception is the point at which the law (abstract norms) and the practice of its application are separated most clearly – but is also the condition of possibility for application of the law. He continued in drawing parallels between law and the state of exception in the experiment.

Thereafter, Szerszynski presented how Agamben theorises the state of exception in two directions:

- dictatorship / totalitarianism: when the law is in force without signification

- the messianic time: deactivation when the law is inoperative, which is at the same time its completion.

Concomitantly, Szerszynski argued that the experiment has an analogous topology – withdrawal of natural relation to the world of ongoing action – and that this withdrawal of natural relation to action somehow returns things to themselves – profanes them, transforming Baconian ‘fruit’ to ‘light’; Experimenta Fructifera to Experimenta Lucifera (Blake, 1620:54-5).

Szerszynski continued by stating that he wanted to go on to draw out some ideas about the relationship between political subjectivity and experiment. By political subjectivity he was referring to evental understanding of politics – in Arendt’s reading of natality (humans as beginners, capable of this miraculous thing called action) – claiming that the deactivation of action in experiment somehow reveals its condition of possibility. Szerszynski further illuminated his understanding of experimentality as a comportment or a world-relation, involving its own kind of time.


Further, in the context of experimental time, Bron Szerszynski made a reference to the last workshop and Rheinberger’s historiality, arguing that experiments never mean anything, have any signification in isolation, they are historical elements of experimental systems that create history through differential effects, pushing experimental systems to point of chaos, so that then their epistemological things can be stabilised and used for further innovations (just as workshop 2 discussions of experimentality in relation to low temperature physics and jazz, for example).

Szerszynski also referred to a second version of experimental time discussed in workshop 2 – Wolfgang Ernst talk about media time: when experiments happen in history, but also have a temporality that is irreducible to history (i.e. when we pluck Pythagoras’ monochord we are participating in the moment when it was first struck).

Consequently, Szerszynski argued that he want to talk about experimental time in a different more topological way, related to praxis. Hence, he presented the time of the experiment, the test, the trial run, as a time that somehow stands alongside everyday time. He also spoke of withdrawal of the everyday practical attitude, and its capturing within a larger temporality with the reference to the work of Milgram. He continued in arguing that within this understanding experiment is about perjory – lying to nature as a precondition to truth – as well as preserving a sense that the test reveals the truth.


Thereafter, Szerszynski turned to the investigation of experimental subjection, making a reference to the work of Bülent Diken and Carsten Laustsen (in particular to their book ‘The Culture of Exception’, 2005) who argue that  the figure of the camp is paradigmatic of contemporary politics. Here, Szerszynski inquired whether the experiment has acquired a similar function (resonating with Mick Dillon’s presentation at workshop 1).

Szerszynski, in his analysis, proposed to first look at ways in which the experiment instantiates the state of exception. Here, he began by referring to Agamben’s analysis of the iustitium – a time of suspension of the law (literally, standstill of the law) proclaimed by the senate, in response to tumultus – emergency situation. He argued that it signals a time where the legal limits, powers and duties placed on magistrates and private citizens are lifted and when to defend the law, the state, the law has to be suspended. Following he claimed that it is a strange state, in which actions are returned to selves: ‘we might say that he who acts during the iustitium neither executes nor transgresses the law, but inexecutes it.  His actions, in this sense, are mere facts ...’ (Agamben, 2005: 219-50). Consequently, Szerszynski draw the parallel with Baconian experiment of light, arguing that the experiment is a kind of iustitium in which all events are reduced to facts.   


Szerszynski proceeded to refer to the figure of Homo Sacer, the bandit abandoned by law (Agamben, 1998). Here, he claimed that the returning of actions to selves does not mean no relation to the law. Further, Szerszynski illuminated how building on the thought of Jean-Luc Nancy, Agamben suggests that the primary political relation is the ‘ban’, conceived as a positive relation, in which an individual is not simply set outside the law but ‘abandoned by it, that is, exposed and threatened on the threshold in which life and law, outside and inside, become indistinguishable’. Thus ‘[t]he matchless potentiality of the nomos, its originary “force of law,” is that it holds life in its ban by abandoning it’  (1998: 19, 28, 29). Szerszynski explained that something is turned into bare life by being placed in a zone of indistinction between zoë and bios, at once excluded from the law and constituted by it; and the central feature of this bare life is not that it lives but that it can be killed. Szerszynski concomitantly illustrated how Agamben draws on the work of Carl Schmidt, appropriating a distinction between norm and decision – in normal operation of law, norm dominates and decision is minimised; in state of exception norm is withdrawn and decision dominates.

Thereafter, Szerszynski made an analogy to Experiment as messianic time (desouvrement, inactivity). He argued that in messianic time the law is rendered inoperative, making a further distinction between kairological and chronological time. Here, Szerszynski argued that it is kairological time that is required in order to make sense of the irruptive moment of history, both in experimental systems and in human affairs.

However, Szerszynski argued that this is not the full story, explaining the existence of deliberative spaces as experiments – as finding out how the public would think/act/speak if they were in a position to. He has also made an analogy with nature in experiment – nature under constraint (Bacon), somehow given back to itself. Consequently, Szerszynski argued that experiment is not design as it always induces a co-performance and has to ‘follow nature’.


Finally, Bron Szerszynski made some arguments regarding the event of politics, claiming that it is about pushing the experimental system to the edge of chaos. In this context, Szerszynski said that just as messianic time in Agamben’s words lies beside itself: ‘it seizes hold of the instant and brings it to fulfillment’ (Agamben, 2005: 71), experimental time brings the moment to fulfilment. Here, he explained that Kojeve idea of end of history désœuvrement or inoperativity is based on Agamben’s reading of Paul as a-bolishing and completing Hebrew law in the same gesture. Szerszynski concomitantly referred to law’s two dimensions – prescriptive and promissory – where the latter manifests itself as an excess within the law (Agamben, 2005: 95) where law is returned to its potentiality, and thus brought to fulfilment. 

Subsequently, Szerszynski argued that experiment has a topological nature that parallels Agamben's analysis of the state of exception - withdrawal of the normal procedure of the law as actions reduced to mere facts can work against the experimental. Further, Szerszynski referred to Agamben's idea of profanation as a way of thinking about an experimental society in which experimentation has been returned to human use.


Firstly, it was suggested that experimentality is a fundamentally Christian phenomenon with transformation (of water into wine etc) as a suspension of the laws of nature. It was proposed that our understanding of the experiment is conditioned by this western historical trajectory, whereas Agamben is much more likely to speak
in terms of transhistorical meanings. Subsequently, a  question was posed of which Christian are we to talk about in this context.

Secondly, it was pointed out that being abandoned by law does not mean that one is no longer subject to its powers. Here, discussion turned to patterns of inclusion and exclusion in clinical trials and established criteria for the clinical trials where one is abandoned by the experiment but still a subject to the findings of a trial (whether participating or not). It was argued that Kaushik’s Sunder Rajan analysis of subjectivity is more fruitful here and excluding groups might be another experimental subjectivity to be included in his approach. Subsequently,  the way that people who are included in the experiments are gripped by the logic of experiment was discussed in the context of the way that authorization outside the law happens to people who participate in experiments. Concomitantly, questions regarding what happens when people are subjectified that way were posed in the light of authorization to act in ways that are not legally constituted but a-ban-doned by the law.

And finally, some references were made to ethnography and Science and Technology Studies in terms of issues of rethinking history and historical epistemology, periodization and trace.