“Was not their mistake once more bred of the life of slavery that they had been living?—a life which was always looking upon everything, except mankind, animate and inanimate—‘nature,’ as people used to call it—as one thing, and mankind as another, it was natural to people thinking in this way, that they should try to make ‘nature’ their slave, since they thought ‘nature’ was something outside them” — William Morris

Friday, October 19, 2012

Kim Fortun Q&A: Biopolitics Liveblog 4

Q: As things become more valuable the production of ignorance becomes more important. Do you see that as something that is happening? Is that idea useful and can you think how to combat it?
A: Language ideology is part of what is at stake. The manner in which evidence is discounted, there is a vacuous semiotic field. When you're trying to sense make, there's nothing to bounce off of for comparative reference.

What the environmental scientists are trying to do is to make the semiotic field denser, e.g by using powerful computation. A theory of meaning that recognizes that truth is not an essence.

Q: Material data sheets. What is disturbing is that there are up to 100 000 new chemicals. Why aren't there toxicity tests.
A: I've studied this for decades and I'm still shocked. Eight substances have been banned so far, like formaldehyde. There are no standards. An effort to modernize the Toxic Substances Control Act--you don't have to test unless you have reason to be concerned, thus creating a loop that enables testing not to be done.

A huge percentage of PhDs in toxicology work in industry.

Q: The lack of standards not just to do with industry, but also to do with the inner logic of chemistry. Narrow causal experiments.
A: The good rodent studies are very slow and expensive. The science has to be aware of its context, say the new toxicologists. Looking for end points that rule out a lot of things.

Q: Discursive gaps where there is no idiom to deal with a thing. Do you see emerging idioms that are transmissible?
A: Some studies have ecological humility and are very reflective about data and history of science. E.g. sessions on banning the word "accuracy"--what new term to use? Reaching for ways to designate rigor. Hegemonic idiom not friendly to the practices they are caught in.

Q: "Late industrialism." Is this term an implicit critique of certain periodizations of capitalism that seem to be more consumer focused?
A: I often think this in parallel with feminist materialism. We are about to have 100 000 hydrofracking wells in upstate New York. The number of toxic sludge ponds... It really is a soiled landscape. How do we acknowledge that?

Most chemical plants are 60 years old and still operating. All new refineries are abroad. And safer. I'm all for stronger regulation but we also need to invent new modes of collectivity.

Q: The problem of uncertainty. The dominant scientific paradigm requires time and massive investments. So in the absence of certainty, what is the effect of some kind of collectivity as a catalyst. Can sharing uncertainty bring us together?
A: I think about this a lot. Scientists on my campus are organizing around the issue of vulnerability. Disaster theory is often spoken of as about unexpected events--we should not be using this term! Especially when you have coupled nested systems. We can say no to vulnerability, which is unevenly distributed. I'm working with the idea that this gives us a place to understand.

Q: How do we transport this into the classroom?
A: Sense of gross misfit is educational. Fear that things can blow up. There are coupled systems. Understanding the tech. My students go out and build things that I work on. Expertise is critically important, yet also it blinds. We can't anticipate challenges. But teaching students to be good methdologically. Think about the way language works, explanation and so on.

Q: Are you familiar with John Downer's work on epistemic accidents? In the late 80s there wasn't an understanding of aluminum fatigue (so the top of the 737 can rip off). A knowledge gap that exists at the moment of inception of the tech.

Q: Delay between what we know and what we should know. Are there ways of rethinking data? Science in the face of catastrophe? The very notion of evidence might be rethought?
A: Does this mean proceeding without an assumption that we need evidence?
Q: Or can evidence take different forms?
A: There is a recognition that heterogenous data types give explanatory power. There is deep interest in qualitative research and interdisciplinarity. We do need to cultivate multiple modes of knowledge

Q: Like in brownfield remediation.

A: There is a sense of "What do we know, and what do we know from this?" There is a questioning about the nature of insight.

Q: One of the issues of biopolitics is how science represses other kinds of response. Grassroots or narrative response. Maybe it's important to think about diminishing the scientific aspect sometimes.
A: One reason is that the industry effort is so concerning is that it's a sweeping effort to discount many forms of knowledge. Nothing counts as good enough to think with. So part of the struggle is what counts as science?

Q: I often think about how we look at our own bodies. Do we think of them as a series of nested systems? We have actually changed our own bodies, so how do we think outside of that? We need to think about what we are individually. We have been taught to deny our internal environment.
A: On the other hand our public health institutions are indeed worried about what is inside us. The exposure scientists refer to "NIH Types" (who start inside).
Q: I speak from experience about farmers who are in denial about being sick, sticking their arms into the toxics.
A: At the year anniversary of Fukushima there was a piece about how nuclear worry is foolish, in Scientific American. Concern as an index of vulnerability. There are many reasons that make it difficult to get our heads around toxics. They are cultural trouble.

Q: Changes in university systems that make knowledge harder to get at. Idea that knowledge will save us.
A: But the dissing of science is really concerning. (cf how Thatcher used Foucault to close mental hospitals!) The cool field of the exposure scientists; their president was the chair of the Chemical Council. Maybe it's old fashioned but this is a conflict of interest. Exxon should not be providing science to second graders.

We have learned in gender and race studies that we rule out things as not appropriate speech. There is also some disciplining that's needed in terms of language and social organization.

Q: The question of agency comes up again and again.
A: We could try to understand toxics with a different language. The "is it safe or not" is too binary. This is not how you make meaning in language. This is where humanities people need to be in the fight.

Q: The farmer point was very interesting. Because it points to the need for a sensitivity to rhetoric. Not everybody wants to complexify their world. How do you acknowledge a desire for a more simple world as you're also complexifying? How do you talk to the farmer?
A: We need thick descriptions. We have had very minimalist descriptions that don't have traction with some kinds of listener. We have missed the governance boat if some pesticides are in the farmer's hands in the first place. We need to invent a way to decide what should be on the market.

In Bhopal and Deepwater crises, what set up the disaster was the absence of law. No governing structure around it. We need to invent ways to decide what should be at the individual level.

Q: Do you have to deal with engineering hubris? The Wall Street crash << elite engineer disdain for traditional knowledge of how to manipulate piles of money. Is there resistance from your students and colleagues?
A: Yes. But there is also (and this also includes natural scientists) a subject effect. It's very humbling to think the environment, so you tend to get nicer ones in my domain. But twelve hours after Fukushima, one wrote an article for the Times that said there was no problem. What evidence licenses assertion?

Q: This leaves us with a cautionary note. Be careful what you ask for. If we have a system for declaring what's toxic; new forms of evidence and agency, etc. We get the Wobblies but we also get the Tea Party. If education really was the be all and end all we would be living very differently.
A: You think we can't do a better job?
Q: The issues are tied up with our lives that have very polar effects, eg we all benefit from mining. Many of us like who we are. The notion of newer types of evidence can lead us into very dangerous aspects.
A: We don't teach our students to deliberate together. Engineering students hate conflict. They don't have the social comportment to work through. I've done some K through 8 education: you CAN get your head around complex issues. There is a real cultural bias against it being hard.

Q: Whatever we accept as fact will not adjudicate. Questions of who and what is going to benefit? Any time you try to subvert that, it's an expression of power. The farmer shouldn't be discounted but seen in a wider context.

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