thesinkhole.org

130301151745-02-sinkholes-0301-horizontal-large-gallery*from: http://www.cnn.com/2016/11/28/asia/japan-sinkhole-fukuoka/

There is an odd combination of care and mockery with regard to infrastructure devoted entirely to sinkholes. Please, please go to thesinkhole.org and check them out. It is not a complex blog, but it is dead serious (for example, note that a number of the stories covered by the blog record casualties). A curious resource and one to keep your eye on.

End of Year Reflection

… while the topics associated with infrastructure were plentiful this year, one of them sticks-out and consistently lingers in my mind’s eye. It is a topic implied in what I saw again just today while scrolling through my facebook and twitter feed.

It is called a number of things, although, apparently, “ruin porn” is term that has come to encapsulate the phenomenon. For example, I saw it today: an abandoned Wizard of Oz theme park that “will haunt you.”

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CfP: Science, Technology, and the Politics of Knowledge in Global Affairs

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CALL FOR PAPERS

Science, Technology, and the Politics of Knowledge in Global Affairs

An Interdisciplinary Graduate Conference at the Buffett Institute for Global Studies

Northwestern University, Evanston IL 

March 30-31, 2017

Keynote: Sheila Jasanoff, Harvard Kennedy School

Organizing Committee: Kevin Baker, Savina Balasubramanian, and Omri Tubi

Scientists, state actors, international institutions, and lay activists vie for credibility and legitimacy to both frame and control global issues. Science and technology are routinely cast into a supporting role to bolster their claims. From nuclear energy in the battle against climate change to the politicization of “big data;” from new information technologies in emerging regimes of global surveillance to the use of randomized controlled trials in international development research – scientific and technological expertise operate as instruments of power and authority, which can serve to legitimate or contest new forms of global governance and intervention.

The Buffett Institute’s second annual graduate student conference will investigate expert knowledge in contemporary global affairs, looking at the ways this knowledge is created, invoked, circulated, and contested in the international political arena. We invite graduate students to present work that explores questions such as: How do various international actors attempt to position themselves as credible participants in global politics? Under what conditions does expert knowledge come to be seen as legitimate on the global stage? How and why do global issues become understood as primarily technical, rather than political? In what ways do international actors frame these issues and what must be done about them? How is scientific and technological expertise marshaled or ignored in processes of claims making and action to structure interventions into global “problems?” And, finally, how do these practices organize, sustain, or challenge structures of global inequality and power?

 

Possible topics include but are not limited to:

  • The politics of climate change, climate science, and environmental security
  • The rise of actuarial and genetic approaches to global crime
  • Biosecurity, global health, and the regulation of infectious disease
  • Globalized technologies of risk and quantification
  • The technologization of global finance and economic markets
  • The politicization of social and computational science in an age of “big data”
  • New regimes of information and global surveillance
  • The changing nature of international development interventions
  • The constitution of transnational lay expertise in global social movements

We invite graduate students across the humanities and social sciences to submit abstracts of no more than 250 words by December 15, 2016using the submission link on the conference webpagehttp://buffett.northwestern.edu/programs/grad-conference/. There will be no deadline extensions. Accepted presenters will be notified by January 5 and papers are due to faculty discussants by March 7. The Buffett Institute will provide hotel accommodations and will subsidize travel costs (fully for US-based graduate students and partially for international students). Please direct all queries to the Graduate Organizing Committee at: buffettgradconference@northwestern.edu.

Creating windows of opportunity: Installing (social) order at the National Weather Service

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An often overlooked aspect of how infrastructures impose (social) order is through transforming time into a trusty ally. One of their essential functions is to afford  shared frames for enacting a window of opportunity. Like many out there, I have been watching with bated breath as Hurricane Matthew churns a destructive path through the Caribbean and, now, along the coast of Florida. Yet, by the time Matthew goes “live” on our news screens it is already too late to act. The window of opportunity is gone, and even emergency personnel must wait until it is safe to respond. The U.S. National Weather Service (NWS), however, has been closely monitoring this storm long before it became  “Hurricane Matthew” to us. Charged with protecting life and property, NWS forecasters all over the East Coast were anxiously (and excitedly!) poring over the model forecasts and other weather guidance from the National Hurricane Center, deliberating over the uncertainty of the storm’s path and pondering how and when it was going to affect their area of forecasting responsibility. Remarkably, despite the great excitement and responsibility involved, the demeanor of the entire agency through it all has been calm, measured, and deliberate.

We may take it for granted, but “speaking with one voice” represents a great sociotechnical achievement – at the NWS as well as anywhere else. As I discuss in my book, the NWS has cultivated sets of temporally judicious decision-making habits in its forecasters both by promoting expeditious meteorological skills and rules of thumb and by scaffolding the temporal architecture of a given task onto more or less fixed deliberation structures and technologically hardwired timing sequences. Specifically as it pertains to hurricane operations, NWS forecasters must abide by the storm tracks charted by the Hurricane Center and, in fact, cannot publicly divulge any information prior its official release to ensure “the issuance of information to all users at the same time on an equal basis.” As I had occasion to witness first hand, however, NWS forecasters don’t always agree with the  pronouncements of the Hurricane Center, or of each other for that matter. And so, Hurricane Center forecasts/warnings are issued one hour before NWS field offices are to issue local hurricane advisories and warnings. This hour is the window of opportunity during which NWS forecasters will deliberate (via prescheduled conference calls and (ad hoc) chat room discussions) with the Hurricane Center as well as neighboring field offices about possible local amendments to the intensity/timing/track of the storm. Local expertise (in microclimatic conditions as well as community needs) is considered an asset at the NWS, militating for the existence of field offices in the first place. But eagerness to save the day and “nail the storm” can lead to flip-flopping, over/underwarning, or even bouts of indecision. It is especially for those fateful moments, when successfully utilizing windows of opportunity becomes paramount, that the NWS has sought to mold time into an organizational resource and forecasters into poised decision makers.

When it comes to windows of opportunity, however, one size doesn’t fit all. Different time horizons call for different infrastructural regimes of decision-making action. Here I have only touched upon hurricanes, which are “long-fused” events. Forecasting tornadoes, or some such “short-fused” event, presents entirely different windows of opportunity. Predictably, therefore, NWS infrastructures during fast-paced scenarios call forth a set of skills and resources best suited for keeping up with the action, whereas slow-paced scenarios come bundled with an equivalent set of skills and resources, meant to elicit good long-endurance performance. In the end, time makes a fool of us all, of course; but, in the meantime, we might as well devise ways to turn it into our best ally.  

Incentivizing “Repair” in Sweden

This is an idea worth reviewing — imperfect, of course, but something of this ilk should be developed, at scale. You can see reports on this all over now: the Guardian, CNN, Washington Post, BBC, and so on.

This comes on heels of much needed attention to maintenance, especially in terms of infrastructure, but with a new mechanism for incentivizing these behaviors on a wide swath of products, which re-articulates attention toward “demand” in a fresh way and away from “demand” as merely “voicing political concern” (which seems not to work, other than verbally). 

Sweden proposes tax breaks for repairing things, extra tax on unrepairable things.

Demand for Infrastructure Essential

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After reading a short piece by Christopher Jones (assistant professor of history at Arizona State University and author of Routes of Power: Energy and Modern America, 2014), I was reminded of just how essential “demand” is when it comes to actually getting politicians to invest in shared infrastructure (rather than fall back on ill-advised cost-savings measures that delay or push-back maintenance).

The basic idea is that we are focused on “game changing innovations,” rather than the day-to-day maintenance of our infrastructure. For most of us, of course, effective roadways and public transportation are at least as important as ground-breaking innovations. But Jones goes a step further in our understanding of this, effectively suggesting that innovations primarily promote/aid/help the already wealth, monied upper-class elites who can benefit socially, politically, and financially from emphasis on innovation as opposed to maintenance on, for example, roadways, subways, waterways, and all manner of other ways.

Jones’s solution: Demand it! (after all, we once did, and worked out rather well). See his new piece “New tech only benefits the elite until the people demand more,” and start demanding!

Re-Using Nuclear Sites

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Logging and nudist colonies

It is an admittedly odd juxtaposition, but these two ideas landed on my desk this week. 

First, in an example of public participation in inquiry,Chornobyl’s urban explorers find evidence of logging inside exclusion zone” — logging glow sticks in the “zone of alienation” (thanks dmf). A group of “stockers” roams the zone of alienation and monitor it, and they have found some interesting things in their somewhat odd form of tourism. “The first time we saw forests and the second time it wasn’t there,” says Kalmykov. Chernobyl is having a birthday.

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Internet Railroad?

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I will return to this piece each year teaching STS. Living in Central Pennsylvania, we are sitting right on top of PRR country (Pennsylvania Railroad). It is useful for students to understand the sunk costs, the path dependency (literally, in this case), and the reverberations through history that simple technological infrastructure decisions can make. “How railroads shaped Internet history.”

Unintended Consequences Go Hog Wild

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If you find yourself teaching unintended consequences, consider this case “Radioactive wild boars rampaging around Fukushima nuclear site.” The animal population, which was previously hunted as a delicacy, has expanded dramatically (likely on account of nobody wanting to eat the radioactive meat); the hogs have pillaged the environment local to the Fukushima nuclear site, eating all manner of contaminated fruits and vegetables.

Infrastructure Game Changers?

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The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) has a relatively new project called “Game Changers,” which (purportedly) captures and shares with viewers “successful solutions across the major infrastructure sectors to identify the most innovative #GameChangers. Imagine what more we could do if we seize the opportunity to replicate these engineering innovations.”

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New Essay: Hail the Maintainers

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“Hail the maintainers” — a must read.

Innovation is overrated. “Capitalism excels at innovation but is failing at maintenance, and for most lives it is maintenance that matters more.”

* Image from original post: Workers at the Blue Plains Waste Water Treatment Plant, Washington DC.Robert Madden/National Geographic Creative

Infrastructure Collapse, India

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Collapsing bridges (again and again), this time a flyover under construction in Kolkata (Calcutta). “India bridge collapse: Kolkata rescue efforts under way,” “India bridge collapse: At least 23 killed in Kolkata,” “Kolkata overpass collapse kills 24; rescuers dig for survivors,” “India Kolkata flyover collapse: At least 20 dead,” and it goes on.

Uncommon Walking Tour of Bristol

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In a fascinating post about walking, Will Self offers an uncommon walking tour of Bristol. According to Self, “walking was the way to break free from the shackles of 21st-century capitalism.” Walking tours, sometimes also called pedway tours, are growing in popularity; pedways are pedestrian walkways and they can be both above ground and below; they are sometimes discussed as a form of ungoverned or unplanned civil engineering.

Self, who guides the walking tours, gets meta pretty quick; he “began with a brief introduction to the situationists – the Paris-based artists and thinkers of the 1960s who championed the concept of “psychogeography”, the unplanned drifting through an urban landscape to become more in tune with one’s surroundings.”

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Post 1 of 3: The Architecture and Infrastructure of Memory (MAI)

Leviathan Monument

Hobbes’ Leviathan frontispiece revisited: Dingpolitik and object-oriented governance.

 

What is the connection between the Chinese National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) and the National Holocaust Monument currently being built in Ottawa, Canada? (Chalmers:105) Though this question seems rather peculiar at first, the answer is far less obscure when considered within the context of memory architecture and infrastructure (MAI). This is because MAI is intricately bound up in both remembrance and sovereignty.

The connection between memory and the authority or power to govern is nothing new: the correspondence between the two was established in early Greek mythology. According to Hesiod’s Theogony, the ability to rule over others was granted to certain favoured individuals by the Muses through their unique bond with their mother Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory and guardian over what should be remembered. As history would have it, memory would be stolen from Mnemosyne along with Hephaistos’ fire (thanks to our friend Prometheus) and humanity (led by the privileged few) became able to record their own past via material culture and technology. Mnemonic technologies (texts, film, photographs, commemorations, digital memory, the internet, etc.) have become increasingly complex, varied, and augmented as those responsible for filling the void left by Mnemosyne go about constructing our past(s).

However, though the figuration of memory has changed over time, the relationship has remained very similar: those who possess the ability to shape what is remembered and how it is re-collected are in an auspicious position to exercise sovereign rule, and inversely, those who wish to maintain such authority take a special interest in doing so. This is in part why memory studies scholars have written so extensively on both the more recent proliferation of commemorations (memorials, monuments, etc.) and their role as part of modern state attempts to reconstruct the past. The salience of state-sponsored memorials and monuments is particularly distinguishable in national capitals, where commemorative landscapes are often extremely composite and interconnected.

As a specific example of mnemonic technology, memorials and monuments are durable structures that have become delegates or heads of populations that are the punctualized result of previously formed assemblages composed of a multiplicity of actors (politicians, special interest groups, community organizations, artists, architects, city planners, academics, government organizations/departments, etc.). To say that these sites and their structures are delegates is to say that they ‘speak’ on behalf of the array of different actors who had gathered to establish them (and have since become ‘silent’ – an effect of punctualization), but it is also to say that they represent histories, specific events, ideologies and ideals, among other knowledges. Additionally, they participate in a discussion with a host of other such memorial delegates that exist within local, national, and international commemorative networks: with other delegates representing punctualized networks that then come together to form even larger commemorative networks.

It is these networks that form what is referred to here as memory infrastructure, or the organization of various punctualized assemblages that have been made durable (and to an extent more stable) through practices of art, design, and architecture.

Why is it important that we recognize MAI? Just like roads, sidewalks, trails, electricity, the internet, power plants, etc… MAI facilitates (and limits) possibilities and creates complex connections between these possibilities for both individuals and governments. This is how Canadian economic or foreign policy can be connected to a mass genocide in Europe during the 1940s (as well as a myriad of other seemingly unrelated issues). Memory infrastructure and architecture establish thoroughfares that align a variety of translated interests in order to guarantee (as much as possible) a certain range of agencies: in this case, the governments ability to successfully deploy policy decisions.

Squirrels, Sharks, and Eagles, oh my!

While teaching STS, I was recently talking to my students about what constitutes an “internet attack.” The students arrived with clear examples in mind (and in hand, which was part of the assignment). The answers were primarily in the form of human-based hacking projects, and, as most of you know, they are abound. Giving the timing of the assignment, most of the cases had something to do with hacks against the US, hacks against power production facilities, and financial institutions.

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However, one student brought this: Sharks, replete with jokes about Sharknado as evidence of the prowess of the shark. Seeing as how a previous lesson was about ANT, with an emphasis on non-human agents as not-to-be-ignored agents in understanding social order, broadly speaking, this was a sign that at least one student “really got it.”

Another student brought in this: an eagle hitting a drone, hard.

Not a few days pass, and the blog’s oldest friend, dmf, sends me to a great website, half-serious, half-satire, CyberSquirrel1. The site is a terrific description of how our critical infrastructure is seemingly the most danger from other nation-states; however, the empirical materials do not seem to suss-out such an explanation; in fact, squirrels and other non-humans are responsible for more “attacks” than anyone else.

Makes for a great lesson if you want to find a fresh new way to bring infrastructure and the agentic role of nonhumans into the classroom in a way that is, to my mind, far better to the early discussions that Latour made about stop signs or door hinges.

NEW BOOK: Assembling Policy

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I am Sebastian Ureta and Nicholas has invited me to discuss my new (November 2015) book Assembling Policy.

Also, I owe a big thank you to MIT Press for publishing Assembling Policy!

For readers of the blog: Given past interest in Foucault, the origins of governmentality, and hybrid infrastructures, I thought the book would be of interest, seeing as how I mix classic STS with governmentality studies (among other things). I’ve published in The Information Society, Social Studies of Science, Organization, Public Understanding of Science, Urban Studies, and a few other places, if you’re curious about other work.

The case: I analyze the Transantiago, a mayor infrastructural policy carried out in Santiago, Chile in 2007 with utterly disastrous results. You can see the publisher’s overview bellow.

*I am happy to expand/comment on any of the book’s contents — please ask in the comments!

Publisher’s Overview:

Policymakers are regularly confronted by complaints that ordinary people are left out of the planning and managing of complex infrastructure projects. In this book, Sebastián Ureta argues that humans, both individually and collectively, are always at the heart of infrastructure policy; the issue is how they are brought into it. Ureta develops his argument through the case of Transantiago, a massive public transportation project in the city of Santiago, proposed in 2000, launched in 2007, and in 2012 called “the worst public policy ever implemented in our country” by a Chilean government spokesman.

 

Ureta examines Transantiago as a policy assemblage formed by an array of heterogeneous elements—including, crucially, “human devices,” or artifacts and practices through which humans were brought into infrastructure planning and implementation. Ureta traces the design and operation of Transantiago through four configurations: crisis, infrastructuration, disruption, and normalization. In the crisis phase, humans were enacted both as consumers and as participants in the transformation of Santiago into a “world-class” city, but during infrastructuration the “active citizen” went missing. The launch of Transantiago caused huge disruptions, in part because users challenged their role as mere consumers and instead enacted unexpected human devices. Resisting calls for radical reform, policymakers insisted on normalizing Transantiago, transforming it into a permanent failing system. Drawing on Chile’s experience, Ureta argues that if we understand policy as a series of heterogeneous assemblages, infrastructure policymaking would be more inclusive, reflexive, and responsible.

Co-opting Participation Infrastructure?

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Kenny Cuppers has a cool set of papers on the rise of shared “cultural centers” in major Postwar European cities. His is the first substantive chapter in a not-yet published book, which seems tailor-made for his research line, and which acts as a kind of companion piece for his published article “The Cultural Center: Architecture as Cultural Policy in Postwar Europe.”

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Infrastructural Lives, Reviewed

Add this one to your reading list: Steve Graham and Colin McFarlane have edited a book, which has just come out, Infrastructural Lives

Contributors include AbdouMaliq Simone, Maria Kaika, Vyjayanthi Rao, Mariana Cavalcanti, Stephanie Terrani-Brown, Omar Jabary Salamanca, Rob Shaw, Harriet Bulkeley, Vanesa Caston-Broto, Simon Marvin, Mike Hodson, Renu Desai, Steve Graham, and myself.  Arjun Appaduria kindly provided a thoughtful foreword for the book.

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3:1 — Post-Neutrality — Post 2 of 3

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Neutrality is under fire, or, at minimum, “not finalized” (whatever that means), possibly, even dead. I am surprised, in light of discussions of postmodernism over the intervening decades, that we humor the metanarrative of human emancipation embedded in “net neutrality” in the first place. Continue reading

3:1 — Post-Neutrality — Post 1 of 3

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Thirty years ago, in 1985, the historian Mel Kranzberg proposed a “series of truisms” starting with Kranzberg’s first law: “Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral.”

Eighteen years later, in 2003, the law professor Timothy Wu coined the term “network neutrality” to refer to a “a system of beliefs about innovation.” Wu characterized defenders of this system of beliefs as “Internet Darwinians.” He approved of their theory of innovation—namely, that the Internet should be “indifferent both to the physical communications medium ‘below’ it, and the applications running ‘above’ it.” As a result, Wu argued, network neutrality was an “attractive” and “suitable goal of Internet communications policy.”

The simple version of my argument here is: listen to Kranzberg, and be wary of Internet Darwinians. Technologies aren’t neutral, so we shouldn’t defend norms or make laws that pretend they are.

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Presentation: 4S, 2015

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4S 2015 Denver is our (Jan-H and I’s) presentation from, unsurprisingly, 4S 2015 (Denver), wherein we reflect on the trends and recurrent themes in our five years of organizing panels around STS, governance, and the state, which we are now calling simply “Social Studies of Politics.” We have a chapter summarizing a bit of this in “Knowing Governance,” but the paywall is steep, steep!

IO: Infrastructure Observatory

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Infrastructure Observatory (IO) is a “community devoted to exploring and celebrating the infrastructural landscape.”

Their mission: “to render visible the oft-invisible guts of modern life, and foster chapters of enthusiasts around these structures throughout the world.”

The group recently came out with this pocket-sized waterproof book about “shipping containers and the corporations that own them” (The Container Guide, 2015). They also held MacroCity, a cool-looking group of critical panels and city infrastructure tours wrapped into one conference.

Their main page is a little with interesting photographs of urban infrastructure — check it out. As of right now (late 2015), they are — somewhat obviously — set in major metropolitan areas: San Francisco, New York, and London. However, I’d love to see, in the future, groups like this China, India, or elsewhere.

Infrastructure Toolbox

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This is a useful resource for anyone writing about or thinking about infrastructure from a big name (Gupta) and a rising star (Anand), it is the notion of an “infrastructure toolbox.”

One of the bottom-line insights appears to be that STS has had an impact on general thinking about infrastructure, in particular, legitimizing the “social” study of it (think: infrastructure ethnography, which I’ve discussed before too, especially in relationship to jugaad). Thus, we ask, what does infrastructure mean, even metaphorically, for “theory-making?”

Here is the opening passage (and it is freely available on-line): 

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New Zealand Grants River Personhood

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Great ANT case for teaching: “New Zealand Grants River Personhood

Want to take it to the next level in the classroom? challenge students to understand how a person-like “state” (in this case, New Zealand) is apparently accorded the ability to do this!

Ask them, which is weirder, a river being a person or a state granting the personhood?

Pacification of Rio’s Favelas

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Infrastructure is often seen as a pivot-point for addressing social ailments, directly or indirectly. That is what you’ll read — that assumption fully addressed — in Mariana Cavalcanti‘s “Waiting in the Ruins” a book chapter in Infrastructural Lives. What social ailments? Anything in the way of establishing Rio de Janeiro as a world Olympic city.

Questioned is the rhetoric championed by proponents of the favelas pacification programs as a form of “state intervention” — finally! Continue reading

Anti-Crisis and Post-Crisis

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At fellow blog “Society and Space” a recent book is under review, namely, Janet Roitman’s Anti-Crisis (Duke University Press, 2014). This discussion dovetails nicely with some topics on Installing Order some weeks ago with guest blogger Peter Bratsis, wherein I was attempting to suggest that “crisis” is a concept that is sort of like a balloon with the air let out of it (or an “empty container” to mix some metaphors 😉 ), stating:

Living in a state of semi-permanent crisis can be construed as a license to do nothing. Fatigue sets-in. Apathy ensues. Inaction seems plausible.

In Luca Follis’s review of Janet Roitman’s Anti-Crisis we see something similar. This line sticks out:

But is this global state of affairs merely a reflection of a historical, empirical moment or is it an expression of the ease and haste with which we label events as critical (and by extension the way we approach the broader category of crisis)?

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On Revanchist Policy and Water Infrastructure

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In “Water Wars in Mumbai,” a book chapter in Infrastructural Lives, we learn an important lesson about infrastructure as a material-social entanglement, in particular, in relation to the poor: infrastructure — or the lack-thereof — can be used to subjugate the poor — thus, reproducing their impoverished state — but infrastructure also, with rare exception, binds the poor to the non-poor. 

This lesson dovetails nicely with Simone’s insights about postcolonial urban environment, and speaks to the fecundity of the chapters housed in the edited volume Infrastructural Lives. Continue reading

Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank

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“A senior US diplomat said it was up to individual countries to decide on joining a new China-led lending body, as media reports said France, Germany and Italy have agreed to follow Britain’s lead and join the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). A growing number of close allies were ignoring Washington’s pressure to stay out of the institution, the Financial Times reported, in a setback for US foreign policy.” from The Guardian.

Similar stories ran in most of the world papers — Telegraph, NYT, and so on — China wants to fund large-scale infrastructure projects in some of Asia’s poorest countries; the US views the move as a means to up-end the IMF and World Bank (institutions that helped to usher-in the world economy that we know today.

Infrastructure Making People in Europe circa 2030

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Two months ago the European Commission’s Mobility and Transport wing announced “Infrastructure – TEN-T – Connecting Europe,” an approximately €700 billion financial investment (into 2030), which is an extension of previous efforts to unite Europe infra structurally, where TEN-T means Trans-European Transport Networks. Continue reading

Ship Breaking in Bangladesh

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Worth seeing: The Ship Breakers. Ships, at the ends of their lives, are rammed into the beach, thusly beaching these “end of life” ships onto the shores of ship-breaking yards of Bangladesh, India, and a few other states. The work is dangerous and the environmental consequences are visually obvious. There are other examples here, here, and especially this piece in the Atlantic here.

3:1— Post-Disciplinarity or “Committing Sociology” — Post 1 of 3

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At a time when inter-disciplinary and multi-disciplinary research is becoming the norm, aligning one’s work with any one discipline seems outdated. However recent events in Canada have prompted me to re-consider identifying myself as a sociologist (in-training). On the one hand, the discipline has been put into question by veteran Canadian sociologists (see Curtis and Weir). Whatever side of the debate one takes, sociology’s public utility and institutional longevity have been cast into doubt. On the other hand, the Prime Minister of Canada is openly dismissive of sociology. In the wake of the Boston terror attacks, after one of his political opponents highlighted the need to consider the “root causes of terrorism,” the Prime Minister famously replied that now is not the time to “commit sociology”: terrorist attacks must always be dealt with immediately and only in the severest of terms by state authorities. More recently, Harper refused calls for a public inquiry into the thousands of missing and murdered aboriginal women in Canada, rejecting it is a “sociological phenomenon.” Given our leader’s indifference to sociology, the discipline’s uncertain future, and the general movement towards post-disciplinarity, this hardly seems like the time to dedicate oneself to entering the profession’s ranks.

But Harper’s off-the-cuff remark has, in a way, galvanized sociologists (and criminologists) who have come to the defense of the evidence-based policy-making approach that the Conservatives continue to ignore. And the resulting op-eds and blog posts have consistently made reference to the Conservative Government’s “War on Science.” Since Harper took office in 2006, federal funding for research departments (e.g., Environment Canada, Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Library and Archives Canada, Parks Canada) has been slashed, federal labs have been shut down, and government libraries have closed their doors. The national census even became an object of controversy because of changes made by the ruling government.

As the decision-making processes of the executive branch have become increasingly autonomous, Canada’s knowledge production infrastructure has crumbled and federal scientists have been muzzled. This prompted federal scientists and researchers, in the summer of 2012, to march on Parliament to stage a funeral mourning the “Death of Evidence”. Perhaps this war was begun as soon as Harper was elected. In 2006, the office of the National Science Advisor, previously reporting directly to the Prime Minister, was first moved to Industry Canada; the Science Advisor was never consulted by Prime Minister Harper. Then, at the Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Technology, conservative parliamentarians tried to tar and feather Dr. Arthur Carty over his office and travel expenses. Finally, the national science advisor was dismissed by Harper in 2008, and Canada remains the only G8 nation without one.

Now, it is not my intention to turn this space into a soap box for Canada’s scientific public; nor do I want to constitute some sort of “Harper effect” wherein the scientific apparatus has been manipulated by the sovereign towards clandestine, ideological ends. Rather it is intended as a passive aggressive “thank you” letter. Whatever Harper’s actual views of sociology, he has unknowingly gifted sociologists with an interesting and engaging problematic: instead of approaching sociology from a disciplinary/institutional perspective, we should approach it mainly as a practice that necessarily engages others and oneself. Given the ongoing “war” in the human-park that is Canada, I think it is indeed time to commit sociology, and, like others, am committed, now more than ever, to that label— thanks, both directly and indirectly, to the Prime Minister.

Infrastructure Makes Prime Time Slot

Infrastructure Makes Prime Time Slot

This Sunday, Nov. 23, CBS’ 60 Minutes will feature an interview with American Society of Civil Engineers Past President Andrew W. Herrmann, P.E. SECB, F.ASCE discussing our nation’s infrastructure deficit while flying via helicopter over Pittsburgh.

The interview is part of a larger piece on the Highway Trust Fund hurtling once again toward insolvency. Tune in or set your DVR to 60 Minutes, which airs at 7:30 p.m. ET7 p.m. PT, to see ASCE tell the story behind our nation’s bridges.

Below are additional details of the segment.

AMERICA’S INFRASTRUCTURE IS “ON LIFE SUPPORT,” SAYS FORMER TRANSPORTATION SECRETARY RAY LAHOOD.  NEARLY 70,000 BRIDGES IN THE UNITED STATES NEED TO BE REPLACED OR SIGNIFICANTLY REPAIRED – “60 MINUTES” SUNDAY
November 21, 2014
Federal Highway Trust Fund  – Which Funds Road and Bridge Repair – is Nearly Broke

Ray LaHood, the former U.S. transportation secretary, tells 60 MINUTES  many of the roads and bridges we drive on every day are “on life support.” What’s more, nearly 70,000 bridges in the U.S. are deemed structurally deficient.   “I don’t want to say they’re unsafe. But they’re dangerous,” says Ray LaHood, the secretary of transportation during President Obama’s first term.  “Our infrastructure’s on life supports right now. That’s what we’re on,” says LaHood, now co-chair of Building America Future, a bipartisan coalition of current and former elected officials seeking to increase spending on infrastructure. LaHood  speaks to Steve Kroft for a

60 MINUTES report on the state of America’s crumbling infrastructure.  It will be broadcast Sunday, Nov. 23 (7:30-8:30 PM, ET/7:00-8:00 PM, PT) on the CBS Television Network. Watch an excerpt.

60 MINUTES cameras capture the rust and the cracked concrete on bridges across the country, especially in Pennsylvania, where the problem is most acute according to the American Society of Civil Engineers.  LaHood says that the broken roads and bridges need to be fixed now, but the Federal Highway Trust Fund, the pot of money states rely on for new construction and maintenance of roads and bridges is just as broken.  The Highway Trust Fund is financed by the federal gas tax – about 18 cents per gallon – and it hasn’t been raised in 20 years.

“It’s falling apart because we haven’t made the investments. We haven’t got the money,” says LaHood.  “The last time we raised the gas tax, which is how we built the interstate system, was 1993.”  LaHood goes on to say “Politicians in Washington don’t have the political courage to say, ‘This is what we have to do.’ That’s what it takes…They don’t want to raise the taxes. They don’t really have a vision of America the way that other Congresses have had a vision of America,” he tells Kroft.

The failure is a bipartisan one says Rep. Earle Blumenauer (D.-Ore.),  a member the House Ways and Means Committee, just one of a handful of Committee’s responsible for funding long term transportation bills. Blumenauer says he’s been asking for a hearing on funding for the Highway Trust Fund for 44 months “It has, to this point, not raised to the level of priority for the Republican leadership. Although,  in fairness, when the Democrats were in charge, we had a few hearings, but not much action.”

Obama on infrastructure and business retention

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President Obama links infrastructural improvements to business retention, specifically, that unless American start to improve the country’s infrastructure, which will require Congress to discontinue divisive austerity-politics, or else we will continue to lose businesses abroad as they pursue higher-quality infrastructure for their business needs.

Perhaps this is a pathway that will result in some of the changes that are much needed. Whether this linkage is true or not (i.e., whether infrastructural improvement is linked meaningfully to business retention) is essentially unimportant; whether it results in actual political or economic change seems to be the only operant quality of concern given that truth in politics seems at most a tertiary concern for a generation of politicians.

Appropriately, Obama gives the speech near The Governor Malcolm Wilson Tappan Zee Bridge, the crumbling cantilever bridge spanning the Hudson River at one of its widest points. 

Twitter as a tool for political protests

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Just out is a new paper on using Twitter as a tool for social protest, written by Lisa Ems “Twitter’s place in the tussle: how old power struggles play out on a new stage” being published in Media Culture Society.

Abstract: 

The recent proliferation and impact of protest events in the Middle East, northern Africa, and the development of a worldwide Occupy Wall Street movement have ignited inquiry into the people, social structures and technologies that have helped give these social movements form. Three cases are described here which add to this discussion and lead to a pruning of the analytical landscape in this subject area. By looking to the use of Twitter as a tool for political protest in Iran in 2009, Moldova in 2009 and the G-20 Summit in Pittsburgh in 2009, the complexity of the intertwined social and technological strands that have given rise to these new political protests is acknowledged. By realizing that this distinction is salient yet fuzzy, it becomes possible to make new observations, ask new questions and begin to understand the nature of recent political tussles and the communication tools used in them. For instance, this article posits that by seeing the particular use of a new communication tool – a socio-technical assemblage – as an artifact, analysts can learn something new about the motivations of those sitting at the negotiating table.

If you’re standing in front of the pay wall, consider this useful little link here.

Book Symposium on “The Materiality of Bureaucracy” in HAU – Journal of Ethnographic Theory

For those of you that are interested in the machinery of governance there is a wonderful book symposium in HAU – Journal of Ethnographic Theory. HAU is:

…an international peer-reviewed, open-access online journal which aims to situate ethnography as the prime heuristic of anthropology, and return it to the forefront of conceptual developments in the discipline.

HAU – focus and scope

I know there are many new peer-reviewed, open access online journals out there and sometimes, lets be honest, their quality is dubious. But HAU is really cool, the research is very empirical, the book symposiums very enlightening, and their recent “classics” series is totally fascinating.

The symposium is on Michael Hull´s “Government of Paper”, in itself an interesting read. Here is the list of contributions, check it out!

Book Symposium – Government of paper: The materiality of bureaucracy in urban Pakistan (Matthew Hull)

Materiality, materialization PDF
Constantine V. Nakassis 399–406
Matthew Hull and ethnographies of the state PDF
Katherine Verdery 407–10
The question of the political: Thinking with Matthew Hull PDF
Naveeda Khan 411–15
Travels among the records: Some thoughts provoked byGovernment of paper PDF
Justin Richland 417–20
Paper as a serious method of concern PDF
Stephen M. Lyon, David Henig 421–25
Reflections on dysfunctional functioning in the political economy of paper PDF
Michael Gilsenan 427–30
On signatures and traces PDF
Béatrice Fraenkel 431–34
Messy bureaucracies PDF
Akhil Gupta 435–40
The materiality of indeterminacy . . . on paper, at least PDF
Matthew S. Hull 441–47

The failures of constructivist language

This is an excerpt from a paper that we will present in Izmir, Turkey, next week as part of the European Workshops in International Studies; we are in the social theory section (big surprise) organized by Benjamin Herborth, University of Groningen, and Kai Koddenbrock, University of Duisburg-Essen.

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(left-over Nazi bell from the ’36 Summer Olympics)

On the failures of constructivist language for our purposes.

In each case, the materiality of the object contributed to its fate. There were clear economic, cultural, and logistic costs and considerations associated with our objects under study being de-constructed, re-constructed, or, for lack of a better term, un-de-constructed, or, put simply, left. Upon even modest reflection, the available constructivist vocabulary seems to fail us in these moments; primarily developed for understanding how things are to be built, we find it difficult to utilize such language for encapsulating and illuminating the processes associated with the allowable decay resistant materials and the slow unintended or unattended-to wasting-away of durable objects.

The only apparent option is to capture attempts at (re)framing — discursively, symbolically, but not practically — the (re)appropriation of monuments in official and unofficial accounts of history. People “make sense” of these ruins, so the classic constructivist interpretation goes. And as soon as they stop or do not care any more there is nothing left to say. That is exactly what Foucault bemoaned when he complained about a historiography that turns monuments into documents. One can easily see that his complaint does not only hold for historical accounts, but for social sciences looking at contemporary issues as well: if we cannot find someone who makes sense of something, then that something simply does not count. But as our cases show: that does not make these massive pieces of concrete, bronze, and iron go away; it does not even leave them untouched. Even when people do not care, forget, or even ignore: the stuff left-over by former state projects stays and shapes what can and cannot be done with it.

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(Soviet War Memorial)

As we view the cases, those Soviet War Memorials constitute a kind of classic form of international relations, one held together by international treatise and inter-governmental agreements regarding the conditions of maintenance for the sites. Based on agreements, the materiality of the sites are not to be marred. The formerly-Nazi Olympic bell constitutes another form of international relations that is de facto, meaning, the bell’s unearthing and repositioning outside the Olympic stadium is not the outcome of treaties with another nation or the result of any linger agreement from former German governments. The bell’s durable material hardly needs to be willfully maintained; however, to remove it would require a considerable quantity of will, both economic and cultural. As the international stage observes how Germany will learn to deal with its past, the irremovable bell lingers-on in public view with only modest material transformation, which recognizes without celebrating the past. How Germany relates to the material residues of past governments becomes a form of international relations.

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(perpetually graffitied Ernst Thälmann Park memorial bust)

The Thälmann bust appears to us as an example of international relations unquestionably shaped by materiality, or, put another way, as a standing example of material international relations. The costliness of its decommissioning outweighed so greatly the will and coffers of the Berlin city commission that, despite being selected for removal on the basis of historical value, the monument endures (Ladd,1997: 201). Unlike the Soviet War Memorials, the the Thälmann bust is not vigorously maintained; however, it has also not been disabled like the Berlin Olympic bell. The operant or public identity of the memorial in Ernst Thälmann Park is one of a graffitied material behemoth. Creative urban artists embellish the statue and only occasionally and without ceremony is hulk washed of the ongoing alterations that it is subjected to from the public.

In sum, the Soviet War Memorials endure for classical reasons of international relations; the Olympic bell endures, irremovable but intentionally altered so that it no longer bears the inscription of a past government and it is incapable of expressing its material purpose to ring; though its removal was approved by a commission whose sole purpose for convening was to determine how the Berlin cityscape would be selectively altered, through its hulking materiality the Thälmann bust endures in a state of semi-permanent but allowable vandalization.

As we reflect on the monuments to a former age, we think of commentary on the repurposing of the Berlin Olympic stadium. Walter’s (2006: xiii) reflects in an extended passage from a perhaps little-read preface:

“Whereas other Nazi edifices such as the rally grounds at Nuremberg are rightly abandoned, this is a building still very much in use – even playing host to the 2006 World Cup final. Although some argue that a structure so closely associated with the Nazi period should not be used, it would seem churlish (and uneconomical) to abandon so handsome and vast a building. In 1936 it may well have been regarded as an architectural embodiment of the waxing power of the new German Reich, but in 2006, the seventieth anniversary of the Nazi’s Olympics, it stands as a symbol that Germany has the ability to come to terms with its past. Why should it not be used? What harm does it do? The shape of the Olympic Stadium does not register as a symbol of evil in the same way as the infamous entrance to Auschwitz, with its railway lines converging to pass under its all-seeing watchtower. The stadium may well not be free from guilt, but like many associated with the Nazi regime, it does not necessarily deserve the death penalty.”

The language used in the passage above to execute an old stadium produces a clear image in the mind; however, do not mistake it as a heartfelt call from the inner-circles of STS to adopt a relational materialist approach to the symmetrical depiction of humans and nonhumans. Still, there is a kernel of insight worth coaxing into germination.

Sentencing a stadium to death would not only be deemed mean-spirited and irrational by Walters, the implication is that one way to deal with international relations (even with old dead states, like the Nazi state) is through the material relations — what Barry calls “material politics” — of monumental spaces such as architect Werner March’s, on Hitler’s orders, grand Olympiastadion staged in the Reichssportfeld (which was built on the foundation of the previous Olympiastadion from the aborted 1916 Games in Berlin). By material politics, Barry conceptualizes processes by which the material world gets drawn into a dynamic relationship with politics; the material world, as it happens, is an important resource for the practical conduct of politics. In STS, Barry’s approach can be contra-positioned with the old adage that “artefacts have politics,” by which Winner (1986) means that technologies have politics as a quintessential part of their design or contextual situatedness.

Returning to our main line of discussion, Barry’s project is explicitly about dealing with a project under construction, in his case, laying a rather large oil pipeline, while our is about dealing with a project long-since constructed. Barry’s case is emergent; our cases are left-over. For us, this sometimes means intervention or decommission and other times it means preservation or transformation, either way, the state must relate to these residues of past states. While the constructivist language common to STS accounts serves Barry well, we find it wanting and search for alternatives more suitable for conceptualizing and describing decay amid durability and the state of being left behind.

It is in contemplating the impossible that one distinguishes advancing from declining societies.

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China Daily has reported that China is planning to build a high-speed rail from China to the United States.

A tunnel from the Bering Straits to Alaska under the Pacific Ocean is the proposal.

If the Channel Tunnel is a “Chunnel” (the 50.5-kilometre rail tunnel linking the United Kingdom, with Coquelles, Pas-de-Calais, near Calais in northern France, beneath the English Channel), then is this is this Ocean Tunnel … an “Oceannel” of maybe Oceaunnel”?

Brazilian infrastructure: Boom to nothing

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A disheartening reality-check for the infrastructure boom in Brazil, now reduced to rubble and rust. While we have often discussed infrastructure as a basic economic good, inferior or incomplete infrastructural development may very well have the reverse effect.

These pieces from NYT’s Nadia Sussman, an eery video, and this companion piece from NYT’s Simon Romero (Photographs by Daniel Berehulak), a combination written and visual story, paint a vivid image of a nation striving to build the massive infrastructures similar to those of other nations, but at a time of stagnant and non-existent government budgets, all of which comes on the heels of planning for the World Cup in June, just a couple months away from the time this post goes up. We wrote about the economic impact of similar Olympic stadiums and even a bit on how we might think about their copious infrastructural leftovers.

The article reads:

The growing list of troubled development projects includes a $3.4 billion network of concrete canals in the drought-plagued hinterland of northeast Brazil — which was supposed to be finished in 2010 — as well as dozens of new wind farms idled by a lack of transmission lines and unfinished luxury hotels blighting Rio de Janeiro’s skyline.

Economists surveyed by the nation’s central bank see Brazil’s economy growing just 1.63 percent this year, down from 7.5 percent in 2010, making 2014 the fourth straight year of slow growth. While an economic crisis here still seems like a remote possibility, investors have grown increasingly pessimistic. Standard & Poor’s cut Brazil’s credit rating last month, saying it expected slow growth to persist for several years.

Chinese Constitutional Politics

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The video recording of the conference, China-Constitution-Politics, is now available for accessing via mediasite. I was involved in the PM discussion; I reviewed Dr. Larry Backer and graduate student Karen Wang‘s paper “THE EMERGING STRUCTURES OF SOCIALIST CONSTITUTIONALISM WITH CHINESE CHARACTERISTICS: EXTRA-JUDICIAL DETENTION (LAOJIAO AND SHUANGGUI) AND THE CHINESE CONSTITUTIONAL ORDER” which is soon coming out in Pacific Rim Law & Policy Journal; the AM session considered Zhiwei Tong (童之伟) and his new work “Two Issues.”

RECORDINGS: Entire Conference HERE: AM Session HERE: PM Session HERE.

The original schedule is here:

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Retrospective on “The Carceral”

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A chapter of Michel Foucault’s famous 1977 Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1975, Surveiller et Punir: Naissance de la Prison) is titled “The Carceral.” In a few brief notes, I reconsider the chapter in light of contemporary discussions and literature.

As with so much of Foucault’s work, the chapter starts with a rich, seemingly (but not really) unorthodox example, in this case, the official opening of Mettray, a location where “disciplinary form at its most extreme” was born. Utilizing nearly every form of traditional organizational forms — the family, the army, the workshop, the classroom, and juridical ordering techniques —  such that those “young delinquents condemned by the courts” (as well as, I will note, boys charged, but acquitted, and yet were imprisoned as an alternative to “parental correction”) were to be overseen by “technicians of behavior; engineers of conduct, orthopaedists of individuality.”

As you can see from the quotes, Foucault’s language holds nicely to this day, even if post-foucauldians in governmentality studies have “cleaned-up” the ideas so much so that now we rattle-off “voluntary self-regulation through myriad disciplinary techniques,” it is worth remembering that, earlier on, we used to have to learn what Foucault meant from writing that did not give way to bullet-point-like writing or textbook-like bold terms sitting like warts in our prose. That said, some of the prose does not really hold over time as well as his language choices. When I first read Foucault, I recall his work being mind-blowing and yet, at some level, impenetrable. My colleagues would say something like “this is not sociology as usual,” and while I agreed with them back then (perhaps out of fear — Foucault readers often loved him dearly and not “getting it” was something you would not normally want to reveal in public, which I think now Foucault would have laughed about), now that I have some distance from my initial readings, it is easy to see why Foucault was not sociology as usual: it is not sociology. I do not mean it does not belong among the sociology canons; I mean that it was never “just” sociology; his work always struck me as historical, political, social, etc. but that it was simply not possible to reduce it to any of them. At any rate, I return to the retrospective.

Of course, the penal systems were famous for meticulous notes; “a body of knowledge was being constantly built up from the everyday behaviour of the inmates,” such that in the toughest of prisons, at the hardest of times, surveillance always implied: “I shall note the slightest irregularity in your conduct.” These two quotes, juxtaposed in the above sentence, give you also a sense of Foucault that I only notice now. I used to think that he was a dynamic writer, for a historian (I used to think of him this way); however, now, having done some professional writing, I see that Foucault is a master of shifting registers. He switches effortlessly between gigantic abstractions that seem to swallow-up the entire carceral world, for example with a quote like, “a body of knowledge was being constantly built up from the everyday behaviour of the inmates”; however, moments later, he reduces his voice to a nearly personal tone, as if whispering to the reader (without breaking eye contact, I imagine in my mind’s eye) shifts registers to tell you, the reader, what an person might have heard, as a prisoner, and in these moments, you are both, for example, “I shall note the slightest irregularity in your conduct.” You get the feeling Foucault might have, upon uttering this line, paused for effect. As a matter of style, I will take this form of writing over the bullet-points and bolded-terms, but the executive summarizing of texts into carefully constructed abstracts and sound blurbs (like those that post-foucauldian governmentality studies scholars have reduced Foucault to) seem to win the day in our times.

While all the discussion of discipline, training, and then self-discipline is positively lovely to read, I was stopped dead in my book at this line: in a discussion of supervision and being supervised, “[a] subtle, graduated carceral net,” Foucault writes, “with compact institutions, but also separate and diffused methods, assumed responsibility for the arbitrary, widespread, badly integrated confinement of the classical age.” I have no recollection of reading that line before; however, reading it now, its like a curio box of how the work has been up-taken into contemporary sociology: the emphasis on “[a] subtle, graduated carceral net” feels like the precursor for discussions of networked stateness; having the net replete “with compact institutions, but also separate and diffused methods” serves to underscore that Foucault was not an anti-institutionalist, but that institutions were “separate” (or distanced both practically and analytically) from the “diffused methods” upon which much (if not most) discipline is rendered; from there, we get a feel for jurisdiction as a key mechanism for control and knowledge production (which, for example, Andy Abbott’s work is a cool off-shoot as well as Tom Gieryn’s) when we read the net of institutions carefully divorced from the methods of everyday discipline, “assumed responsibility for the arbitrary, widespread, badly integrated confinement of the classical age.” The sentence, as it were, and for me only in retrospect, twinkles like a curio box of Foucault’s lasting legacy.

Another matter warranting some re-consideration is how sloppy Foucault is and how this general sloppiness is neatly pasted-over by his vivid word choices. For example, in an incredibly sloppy historical gloss of the origins of the prison, we get a paint-by-numbers tour of yesteryear, seeing “colonies of poor, abandoned vagrant children,” those boarded-up “almshouses for young female offenders” whose mothers exposed them one too many perversities, backbreaking “penal colonies” for young men often acquitted but condemned to reform through labor, “the institutions for abandoned or indigent children” as well as “orphanages,” what was left of the institution of “apprentices,” or those “factory-convents” where young girls would tally-away under circumstances of voluntary confinement, and if all of those beautiful and tragic pictures of yesteryear were not yet enough to bully the reader into agreeing not to disagree with the fine points raised by Foucault, we now get bombarded by “charitable societies, moral improvement associations, organizations that handed out assistance and also practised surveillance,” and now I am too exhausted to continue this German machine-gun of corollaric  examples. Still, a point is to be made here, because we have all seen this technique before (some of us, in our own writing), this “exhaust the reader with colorful examples” technique (I am, myself, routinely guilty of this); however, until reviewing Foucault again for my students in social theory today, I had no idea that I was doing this, as if a scholarly mimeograph machine, in the tradition laid-out by Foucault (although, and it would be fitting, perhaps Foucault was copying somebody else that either I don’t know about or whom has been lost in time).

Those are just a few thoughts, having returned to Foucault’s D&P after a number of years.

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The Trouble with Gas Pipes

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It seems that every time you turn around, especially with me living in Pennsylvania, I heard about our grand future with natural gas. USA TODAY heralds “U.S. forecasts natural gas boom through 2040” or the Economist asking about natural gas “Difference Engine: Fuel for the future?” to which the obvious answer is: “Two things are clear, though: there is a lot of natural gas out there; and it is extremely cheap. In both electricity generation and road transport, it will be a hard act to beat.” I could document more and more examples, but it is hardly necessary because my main point is not about natural gas. It is about natural gas pipes.

The New York Times has put out, in the last month or so, a number of pieces about failing gas pipe infrastructure in our nation’s major cities. The piece readers are probably the most familiar with is the March 23rd piece “Beneath Cities, a Decaying Tangle of Gas Pipes,” a terrific piece by .

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Underneath the bustling streets of New York, “6,302 miles of pipes transporting natural gas” and they are crumbling; chief concern, of course, have to do with leaks, and “Leaks, like the one that is believed to have led to the explosion that killed eight people in East Harlem this month, are startlingly common, numbering in the thousands every year, federal records show.”

Thus, as we grow more dependent on our plentiful natural gas reserves, danger will follow: “The chief culprit, according to experts, is the perilous state of New York City’s underground network, one of the oldest in the country and a glaring example of America’s crumbling infrastructure.” There is a super-cool graphic available here:

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New York, though, is replacing their pipes as quickly as any city in America, but other cities are not; “Baltimore is on track to replace its pipes in 140 years, while Philadelphia will not be done for 80 years.”

What’s interesting and alarming about these sorts of issues has to do with the wide distribution and sheer scope of the problem; leaks are bound to happen, so they are predictable; however, the location of a leak is simply unanticipatable. The solution: these companies rely on users! “Utility companies now largely rely on the noses of their customers to alert them to danger. The gas that flows through the network of pipes under the streets is naturally odorless, so a compound known as mercaptan that smells somewhat like rotten eggs is added.”

Another piece comes from the editorial page and falls under “opinion”; “Warning: Gas Leaks and Aging Pipes.

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The first comments come from ARMOND COHEN, Exec. Director, Clean Air Task Force, and mainly frames the issue as one of national security: “This is a matter of national public safety, a priority for protecting the climate and an opportunity to create jobs, and must be immediately addressed at all levels — by state utility regulators, by the Environmental Protection Agency and by other federal agencies.” The second comments are even more interesting, COURTNEY CARROLL, a resident of New York, tells the average resident what to expect if there is a leak. “One way to increase vigilance in spotting gas leaks is to look for damaged vegetation like dead trees, dead grass and dead shrubs.” I like this idea of enrolling the missing masses to monitor infrastructure; maybe we need an app for that! Seems like an obvious university project for students or something that communities, if they want access to upgraded piping, could commit to … of course, the ironies hurt: as soon as residents get new infrastructure, that is precisely when we start to “forget about it”.

The final piece “Under the Streets, a Lurking Danger” adds some balance and redirects the discussion toward government. Aging pipes have NOT yet been identified as the cause of the East Harlem gas explosions, they remind us. Also, the real battle is on the hill: “Congress can give momentum to two Senate bills sponsored by Senator Edward Markey, a Democrat of Massachusetts, which seek to hasten the replacement of old, leaking natural-gas pipelines nationwide.” Let’s see if the combination of government action and local citizen action get us through to the future with natural gas…

Critical Infrastructure and Climate Change

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Sometimes things juxtapose themselves. Dmfant wrote a reply about a terrific piece now available on-line, free, as an mp3. Backdoor Broadcasting Company’s academic broadcasts currently host access to the file, which is from:

The Political Life of Things: A One Day Workshop at The Imperial War Museum, London, UK; Nick Vaughan-Williams (Warwick) & Tom Lundborg (Swedish Institute of International Affairs): There’s More to Life than Biopolitics: Critical Infrastructure, Resilience Planning, and Molecular Security

The piece is about critical, self-healing infrastructure, and, of course, require this discussion requires significant use of the “human/non-human” distinction, if only to dash them to bits. Well, while this piece is years old, Dmfant just posted it in response to a previous post about an upcoming event.

There is a piece in the New York Times today about the third time that world scientists united in order to provide a broad response to the public about the realities of climate change. How these two pieces appear to be linked together so nicely is a claim made Tom LUndborg about how the linguistic turn in political philosophy has distracted us, on the whole, from the “social” concern over materiality and a full-fledged research base of studies on infrastructure. Tom goes further, though, claiming that the linguistic turn has made it much more difficult to be fully critical as theorists or, conceivably, as government agencies or even public citizens to take the next step … although, that is where the radio show ends.

PACITA’s 2nd European TA Conference

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PACITA’s 2nd European TA Conference

The overall aim of the conference is to take stock of and support the exchange on TA capacities throughout Europe. Following the successful meeting of researchers, TA practitioners, policy makers and civil society organizations at the 1st European TA Conference in Prague in March 2013 we look forward to continuing the fruitful discussions and networking at the 2nd European TA Conference in Berlin. The Conference is organized within the framework of the four-year FP7 project PACITA (“Parliaments and Civil Society in Technology Assessment”). Generally, the PACITA project and the Conference define “Technology Assessment” in a broad sense. TA comprises methods, practices and institutions for knowledge based policy making on issues involving science, technology and innovation, including TA-related fields such as Foresight, Science and Technology Studies (STS) and research on Ethical, Legal and Societal Aspects (ELSA) of science and technology.

We submitted and we’ll let you know if we get a spot (along with some invitations).

Here is our submission:

Session Title: The State as a Concept In Practice

If it is necessary to reflect upon concepts that support democratic problem solving and decision making, then no concept is more important or central to this aim than “the state.” Over the last decade, scholars in science and technology studies (STS) have developed an innovative and useful model for understanding the state. In particular, they show how the state is an academic concept — a theory, to be specific — that is used routinely in the everyday practices of contemporary Continue reading

Presentation and Roundtable: Jan-Hendrik Passoth and Nicholas Rowland on “The Possibility & Contours of State Multiplicity: Preliminary Findings”

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Jan and I recently gave a talk at the School for International Affairs in the Law School at The Pennsylvania State University, which is available HERE.

The presentation, “The Possibilities and Contours of State Multiplicity: Preliminary Findings”, featured Jan-Hendrik Passoth (Technische Universität Berlin), Nicholas Rowland (Penn State University) presenting their latest research work on state theory, and Larry Catá Backer (Penn State) as discussant.  The conference was recorded and all are welcome to watch and comment, engage.

Description of the talk:

For at least 100 years, scholars in law, political science, philosophy, international relations, and various branches of sociology have asked: What is the state? And, for at least as long, answers to that question have commonly taken the form of a petty and seemingly endless game of conceptual one-upsmanship. An alternative direction exists from the small world of science and technology studies. State multiplicity. The shift toward seeing “the state” as multiple implies that we understand the state to be, convincingly, both one thing and many things simultaneously. In this talk we draw on more than 100 years of research on the state to document the possibility state multiplicity and then we hazard a few tentative and counter-intuitive conclusions based on our preliminary findings.

 

The Passoth-Rowland Presentation and Roundtable may be viewed HERE (via mediasite) or on Penn State Law’s Multimedia Page.  It may also be accessed through the Coalition for Peace & Ethics Website: HERE.

Continue reading

Diagnosing Bridge Collapse

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New York Times has a nice retrospective video on the “collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis in 2007 killed 13 people and focused attention on the state of bridges across the nation.” As a native Minnesotan, this event is one of the moments I look back and can easily pinpoint my growing interest in infrastructure, especially, infrastructural decay as a major present and future concern in the US and beyond.