Caroline McLoughlin has pushed me a little on my invocation of the term ‘margin’ – see her comment here – by suggesting I try to think through Derrida’s use of the term. In anticipation of that more extended engagement (which will require me, too, to dig into my 1990s brain), here are some thoughts from my dissertation in which the margin figures prominently.

The first is from a chapter, The Ethics of Document Engineering, in which a fisheries specialist, working for a hydropower firm on a consulting team, was progressively marginalized from the final report. I obtained a copy of the managers’ edit of the final report in which his prose was seriously edited. I was thinking about Riles’ use of documents as artifacts of knowledge, and arguing with her take on ‘politics’ as somehow the objective in anthropological inquiry (see her contribution to the edited volume Documents; and note that her position is to take documents in themselves in a gesture parallel to Derrida’s refusal of the ‘outside text’). My objective was not to show that politics was already in the text, but talk about artifacts of knowledge through which we could say, riffing a bit on Stanley Cavell’s take on philosophical skepticism, that politics is the pathos of expertise. Cavell’s argument, importantly, is an argument with Derrida on his reading of JL Austin. So the margin of the edited document can be read for the pathos of the text, the pathos of normalized expertise. See here the image-figure and the following paragraphs of prose (unfortunately I can’t get the resolution good enough to make visible the tense prose excised by the managers):

rra-2 screenshot cropped 2

“I saw John had scribbled comments here and there in the margin of Steve’s interim report. ‘Bouali came in while I was reading this yesterday,’ John said. ‘And he looked at me and said, ‘jai yen, jai yen John’—it means ‘cool heart, cool heart—calm yourself’—because I was so upset my blood pressure was through the roof and my ears were turning red.’

“‘He writes all this stuff,’ John continued, ‘Da-tada-tada. Then he writes in bold capital letters, several font sizes larger: BUT—BUT this is what you should do about it.’

“One can sense the anger in Steve’s prose, delimited here in those blue boxes off in the margin (figure 3.1). That pathos points toward the political economy of Lao developmentalism, identifying its ecologically destructive mode and the limits of fixing the problems that proliferate in hydropower’s wake. In the gap between anger and form, do finally we get to substance? Is the real precisely what Steve, the fisheries specialist, can’t get beyond or behind? The report is eminently difficult for the firm to constrain, to maintain within limits. Controlling things—the ecological status of the fisheries, for instance, or the extent of erosion—implies controlling people, and vice-versa. The extent of the firm’s capacities is clearly limited, and things get out of hand in the wake of large-scale industrial developments like hydropower dams. No doubt this ‘out-of-handness’ also constitutes the potency and danger of the joint evaluation—the risk of trying to conduct a joint evaluation cooperatively with the activists. Isn’t that what technology does—work? Doesn’t this imply an ontology which, nonetheless, is saturated with uncertainty? This is why we can say, answering to Ulrich Beck, that management is how nature is handled after its end.”

One other instance in which margins figured prominently – perhaps more in the spirit of Guyer’s work: the work of activists. Here’s another passage:

“The logic of anti-hydropower environmental activism rather operated from the premise that enforcement of existing standards, regardless of their less-than-ideal regard for environmental conservation and protection of local groups, could be enough to make (future) dam projects unattractive to investors, even while potentially benefiting project affected people. Insisting on mitigating and compensating for social and environmental damages implied raising the marginal cost of hydropower development and potentially making it that much more difficult for future projects to be funded and approved. In effect, this implies an operational attempt to make capitalism pay its own way, even as the tactics of the intervention remain separate from the historical problematization of dams. Environmental NGOs therefore figure themselves as a kind of transnational regulatory agency, albeit with weak instruments for enforcement.

“Finally, the concept of a marginal gain to political practice is important to the form of the audit activists used, at least in terms of environmental monitoring. If a radical critique of energy investment is de-linked from the operability of the critique, it is because the audit form marginally influences the risks bearing on hydropower investment. Whereas the activists were able to maintain a critical anti-hydropower position, the effectiveness of their practice did not involve convincing others that hydropower per se was unnecessary or unwanted. It instead introduced specific consequences to hydropower development, namely the presence of a protracted, politicized approval process, at least for some projects. This marginal difference introduced specifically managerial logics to dealing with activists, since the problem was re-framed from one of environmental planning to public relations and image management.”

All for now. I’ll have to go back to the Derrida.

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