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STEM Policy in the Trump Era: Spectacle and Beyond

Mon, April 8, 4:10 to 6:10pm, Sheraton Centre Toronto Hotel, Floor: Mezzanine, Chestnut East


In 2015-2016 global shifts seemed to be signaled by a variety of elections and referendum in England, the U.S., Poland, and elsewhere, signaling a challenge to the economic common sense of the past 30 years involving globalization, neoliberal (aka market) solutions to social problems, and the liberal world order (Davos, etc.). This challenged involved what I call conservative retrenchment, i.e., a re-embrace of nationalism defined by resurgent misogyny and racism. In the U.S. context this was embodied in the election of Donald Trump, whose main message emphasized sealing national borders, especially against Muslim and Latin American immigrants. Part of that neoliberal order under attack were those industries glossed together as STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). STEM can be read as a rearticulation of disparate technical and academic fields, connecting them to each other and to market forces (e.g., through emphasis on translational sciences, for instance, i.e., sciences that can quickly create intellectual and material property), and thus can be read as a neoliberalization of those fields: an opening of their boundaries in the interest of expanding markets. This paper explores the fate of STEM in the Trump era. It examines what I call the STEM assemblage: the actors, agencies, companies, and media that speak to and for STEM and its component fields. To make sense of the assemblage the paper uses discourse analysis and theory of the spectacle (Debord, 1983; MacAloon, 1984) to examine the role of STEM spectacles both on the part of Trump, who staged elaborate NASA related media events at various times in his first six months as president, and scientists, who “marched” to protest his draconian budget cuts annually. It is these symbolic and therefore spectacular cuts that form the next part of my assemblage, I also explore the clear role that reactionary and fundamentalist framings of nature, masculinity, femininity, and curriculum have in the logic of Trumps policy logics: beyond the budget taking the form of his executive actions against many in the STEM assemblage.
After tracing this assemblage, the paper goes on to note that despite Trump’s anti-neoliberal signaling in the election, his administration has mostly continued the STEM policies of Obama, even on issues of global trade, extractive industries, and border enforcement. In other words, despite whatever other shifts may be occurring under Trump (outright abuse of office, for instance), in the domain of STEM, little has changed beyond spectacle and symbolism, though that symbolism has itself produced increased acts of violence, misogyny, and xenophobia.

The paper concludes by exploring how this array of spectacles might begin to be contested in a critical pedagogy of STEM, which our program calls STEAMD (STEM + Arts and Democracy). Central to this is a redefinition of democracy around a perpetual struggle for inclusion, care, and participation and an overt hostility to both the neonationalism of Trump and the market tyranny of extant STEM.