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Here’s my recent paper The Prey of Uncertainty: Climate Change as Opportunity.

In this article I describe the post-Copenhagen moment in carbon markets and climate politics as one characterised by deep uncertainty. Uncertainty describes the social experience of emerging climate policy, but it is also business strategy. Uncertainty is necessary for markets to function. To understand this, I look toward practices of capitalism, which produce the future as indeterminate. Uncertainty is generated by business practices of treating conventions – rules and institutions, but also social conventions such as people’s ‘green’ expectations – in terms of their material opportunities. Treating conventions as always open to negotiation requires an ambitious or speculative ethos. Rather than projecting a stable vision of reality, nature or truth, these practitioners constantly ask, what can we do with these possibilities? I project that the near future will involve a proliferation of low-value, nontransparent carbon markets without any binding global cap on emissions.

The objective here is not only to capture the sense surrounding a rapid (and radical) market expansion over the period of 2008-2010, but to do so through practices we can associate with the new politics of possibility. As I argue in the paper, the issue here is creative work involved in manipulating diverse material connections. It is a kind of speculative realism, but one in which the speculation is that of actors whose work can be described ethnographically (see, for a different take, the post Apocalypse? Or Forward Curve?).

In fact, there is a metaphysical point to be made, in the sense that uncertainty entails a situation in which it is impossible to gain a stable vantage point or satisfactory perspective from which to assess climate futures. In this sense metaphysics is required by market actors themselves. They grasp toward a perspective on the real which is simply not available without metaphysical speculation. But, if so, their metaphysics so far is unrecognizable to philosophy.


Never mind the Gregory Bateson crib in the title. Never mind the incredibly laborious reconfiguration of Niklas Luhmann-type second order systems theory, or the apparent attribution of such thinking to Michel Foucault. Never mind the acres of contorted language that appears now as critical theory’s version of a subprime mortgage-cum-credit default swap.

Brian Massumi’s ‘National Enterprise Emergency: Steps toward an ecology of powers‘ (Theory Culture and Society, 2009) is the work of a notable post-Deleuzean theorist who takes on–in one grasp–the then-contemporary significance of war and weather as the twin poles of a transformed biopolitics. His query is precisely what to make of biopolitics in a moment of high-neoconservatism, a moment marked by the paradigmatic performances of George W Bush at the apex of the global war on terror and that maybe-climate-catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina, still the most costly ever US unnatural disaster.

Massumi reads Foucault through biopolitics, but more crucially against a certain way of thinking governmentality as ‘environmental.’ Without so much as a nod toward Arun Agrawal for proffering the term ‘environmentality,’ Massumi takes this stamp of the predicament of a neo-con problematic: “The shift in the figure of environment has moved it out of the reach of normalization. It asserts its own normality, of crisis: the anywhere, anytime potential for the emergence of the abnormal. It has nothing but variables, perpetually churning. […] Environmentality as a mode of power is left no choice but to make do with this abnormally productive ‘autonomy'” (Massumi 155, citing Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics).

(Incidentally, in his Terror from the Air, Peter Sloterdijk relies heavily on Marilyn Strathern’s concept of ‘making explicit,’ also without any acknowledgement of her seminal After Nature (2009, Cambridge).)

Massumi’s problematic is to configure a space for thinking the irruption of constant threats within an emergent world that not only creates knowledge of threats (and therefore understands ‘terrorism’ or ‘climate change’ within a specific epistemic field) but, more drastically, creates the threats themselves qua real threats. What world is this, then, in which biopower once sought to regulate the aleatory events of nature through statistics, social planning and institutions, but now is forced to manage the radical contingency of a world of its own making? Are we still then thinking of a world that can be characterized as ‘making live, letting die…’ – the classical configuration of biopower?

It is clear, at any rate, that the practices, instruments and techniques at stake are wholesale different. The neo-con connection between war and weather is aptly drawn here, to the extent that in both cases we can trace a Paul Virilio-like trajectory toward information bombs, toward visuality and so many strategies of dèception. Virilio characterizes the US/UN intervention in Kosovo using that term which, in French, alludes to games of seduction – a tactic of inflated optimism and ultimate disappointment.

To be honest, Massumi’s essay here leaves me feeling like that.

He is correct, in a generic sense, of having defined the problem in this way. I rather like Jake Kosek’s more empirically astute take on a similar set of concerns in his recent piece in Cultural Anthropology (‘Ecologies of Empire: On the new uses of the honeybee,’ 2010), where he takes up military programming of bees for anti-terror purposes. His political entomology, built around Bush Administration practices that outstrip the imaginations of armchair philosophers, defines neo-conservatism more aptly than Bush’s speeches from the floodplains of Louisiana.

It part this may be viewed as a call for theorists like Massumi to trust the theory they are citing. He quotes Foucault: “Innovation, that is to say, the discovery of new techniques, sources, and forms of productivity, and also the discovery of new markets and new resources for manpower” came to be “absolutely consubstantial with the functioning of capitalism” (156 citing Foucault Birth of Biopolitics). If this is true, then like the emergent biosecurity threats that may irrupt from generative swamps of industrial agroproduction, critical philosophy must find its problems through some critical empirical process.

In addition to his framing of the problem, I also find him correct (but unoriginal) on two other accounts. 1) A redefinition of nature – from stasis to threat. Massumi argues that once stable configurations of nature as nonhuman other, as temporally static and objective grounding for objective knowledge, give way to a dynamically complex nature-as-immanent-potential. “Its form is a priori neither human nor natural. Its form is in the looming, as-yet-undetermined potential to just suddenly show up and spread” (160). The objective here is to identify a shift in the problematic of nature as inert toward nature as, well, a lot more active. Concomitant with that is this shift toward management and intervention as modes of practical reason. But many people have been making this point – indeed I made it in a paper in Parallax in 2008 (‘Intervention, Management, Technological Error’), and in my dissertation (2008) discussed at length the ontological status of ‘threat’ as distinct from ‘risk.’

It strikes me that a lot of interesting questions could emerge here, but don’t. For example, I would like to note that the experience of nature as very active threat calls into question the overarching premises of Latour’s work, which is forever demonstrating precisely that nonhuman actants are indeed very active. In other words, whence the uneasy similarity of perspectives here? And then how do we describe neocon practices which precisely do not view nature as passive but as open to constant manipulation? What do we make of these perspectives? I attempt answers in The Prey of Uncertainty and Accounting for Atmosphere, but here I’ll just note that Strathern, in her 1980 ‘No Nature, No Culture: The Hagen Case,’ suggests that Westerners are apt to view conventions as artifacts, that is, as things with a provenance (the outcome of some contingent social process) and therefore also constantly subject to novel, innovative uses. The subject of action here, I argue, is one of speculation, and there is an inevitable gloss between nomos and logos, between rule as norm and the logical operation through which speculation is possible.

2) Massumi is also generally correct to identify a transformation from biopolitics to what he calls ‘ontopower.’ In a similar vein, Steve Woolgar is talking about onto-governance these days, and some of these issues were already on the table when Andrew Barry wrote Political Machines: Governing a technological society (Athone 2001). I think it is quite apt to locate a tremendous amount of generative activity where highly specific objects are being designed and implicated into extensive social worlds, but the question is really what to make of it? There is a fair amount of expectation of profound results invested in this word, ontology. Even at the level of social practice serious investments are being made in Heideggerian projects of care, community and being present, and in part I do sympathize (as I and others, notably Candis Callison, have written) with a diagnosis of the ‘becoming ontological’ of climate.

Massumi make an interesting distinction between the territorialized ‘natured natures’ of contemporary emergence and the deterritorializing ‘naturing natures’ of preemptive anticipation. “The emphasis on natured natures’ operative reality and effective givenness distinguishes this concept from social constructivism’s notion of naturalization” (165). Yes, I buy this. Contrast: “Having no territory of its own, naturing nature can only ‘give’ of itself [earlier he says “lends itself”], to various territories’ systemic self-organizing. What it gives is a charge of indeterminancy to-be-determined, which strikes with driving force” (167) And “threat… becomes the bellwether of naturing nature for the complex, crisis incubating environment of life. Preemptive power directly follows” (167).

The issue here is that threat anticipation operates in a domain of potentiality such that power then comes to bear on what might happen. Preemptive strike is the mandate under scrutiny here, so between the poles of war and weather Massumi identifies a common form of anticipation of unlivable worlds. “Preemptive power operates on a proto-territory tensed with a compelling excess of potential which renders it strictly unlivable.” (167). What he thus seems to propose is a strong link in neocon doctrine that binds the destruction of New Orleans to the destruction of Baghdad. (Would have been nice for him to actually write that.)

OK, this has gone on long enough. The article reads like a sort of laundry list of theoretical flotsam. The Luhmann-esque systems theoretical language is a serious fail on Massumi’s part – it’s totally unclear why he needs a system-environment distinction, and nowhere does he play heed to the critical distinction between first and second order observations needed for any serious uptake of systems theory. He would do better to underscore information theory’s real problematic of uncertainty in anticipation, and its reading of the ‘universe as information.’ His insistence on only pointing toward real world dynamics rather than working through specific instances, while adding layer on layer of cryptic language (Whitehead! Foucault! Agamben! Bateson! Deleuze and Guattari!) makes serious thinking very hard, and the unintelligibility of many passages calls into question his stream of consciousness. I’m not joking in making the comparison to a credit default swap. I’m sure someone, somewhere, is duped into believing this is the real deal, risk free money.

The strongest point I take from this of relevance for a critical human science of climate change is that similarities of form pertain to the status of preemption in climate policy and in counter-terrorism, and that these pertain not only modes of knowledge and action but also to devastated spaces in which life is made unlivable. The exercise could have been done much more easily by discussing those devastated spaces rather than circling exhaustively the predictable tracks of Massumi’s mind. For all that, the specific practices of speculative anticipation are pretty interesting, and Massumi would have done well to actually investigate them.

Over the past several weeks I’ve become motivated to closely examine critical theory approaches to climate change. Most recently, I’ve been inspired by the limitations of object-oriented philosophy or what some are calling speculative realism, such as Levi Bryant’s recent lament that there is no hope for the climate and we might as well consign ourselves to a potlatch fossil energy conflagration. Bruno Latour’s now famous argument ‘From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern’ also hinges on climate change and, like Bryant’s, it is also inadequate from any empirically-informed stand point. But so what? Does it matter to critical theory? Does critical theory matter to a social science of climate change?

The real question, it seems to me, is not to hammer the philosophy-types because they aren’t empirically grounded – nothing could be more pointless from my view – but rather to ask whether work that’s a little less caught up in the intricacies of practice can help formulate relevant questions for an empirically-informed ‘fieldwork in philosophy.’ In other words, what is needed is neither a catalog of minutae nor theory from the troposphere, but a range of meso theorizations that provide a grasp on contemporary transformations.

The loud sucking noise created from the collapse of Foucault-inspired critical social science in the US hasn’t really abated much over the past few years. My own dissatisfaction with the range of alternatives – Latour, Deleuze, whatever – has been heightened by the totally unsurprising realization in the course of my dissertation writing that those approaches has little to say about what was patently important in the field, and even less of a commitment to sussing out the demands empirical work should make on theory. To top it off, I still find convincing Rabinow’s proposition that we shouldn’t be doing theory. Rather, the challenge is to identify what’s critical and then create the necessary equipment. Subsequently, the conceptual work I have found most useful has been far less over-arching, less tied to any God-figure, and a lot more mobile.

But a specific disappointment remains – namely, whether there is capacity to think the broader significance of events or processes such as climate change, beyond the analytical demands. In other words, maybe even if we’re still within the space created when life enters history, the bottom up approach of analyzing ‘practices, instruments and techniques’ (as a recent very awesome workshop hosted by Amy Levine and Andrea Ballestero pegged it) seems insufficient to the scale of the transformations we are witnessing.

Granted, we are so close to so many potentially monumental historical moments. One doesn’t even know what questions to ask when scientists begin formulating concepts like Anthropocene, or for that matter when geothermal engineers trigger swarms of earthquakes by injecting pressurized water kilometers deep in seismically active fault zones. At the very least we are at an intensely generative moment. But the other side of the analytical coin is that our critical tools for understanding culture – power – history are really good now. I mean, they are fabulously good. The wealth of critical resources, far from having played themselves out, have instead obviated many of the questions that motivated them.

When I started the Accounting for Atmosphere project, two overarching framings dominated: first, that the political project of dealing with climate change was to create a global regime to manage atmospheric chemistry; and second, that the primary technical mode for this dwelt on intensive quantification regimes at several scales (national carbon budgets, carbon finance (markets), and enterprise accounting (businesses, etc). All of this still holds, and many of the practices, instruments and techniques in play are excited loci of dynamic transformation. Indeed, there is a rapidly expanding literature on carbon markets, including luminaries such as Donald MacKenzie and Michel Callon.

On the other hand, there is Critical Theory Climate Blah Blah, which is sort of like Video Killed the Radio Star, I mean, there are a host of old and new hats weighing in on climate change who just don’t know much about it, or maybe they know something, a little bit, but are prone to speculation because they too easily recognize in climate change their own specific intellectual commitments.

Let me take an example I like: Peter Sloterdijk’s nifty Semiotext(e) volume Terror from the Air. To me, this is an exciting book – I very much sympathize with how he formulates a problematic around chemical warfare in terms of a trio of environment, design and atmosphere. But Sloterdijk’s short little passage on climate change just doesn’t cut it. It’s banal. It’s generic. Climate is a stand in for what he already thinks. At any rate, it’s just one example. Another example – one I really have not much sympathy for – is Brian Massumi’s ‘National Enterprise Emergency: Steps toward an ecology of powers’ (TCS, 2009).

Having established now in three different papers what I think is critically relevant for these contemporary transformations, over the next few months I’ll shift from using the blog as a platform for critical empirical analysis toward some public thinking-through on the critical theory lit.

We need a critical theory of planetary relations. We need a critical geology and a critical take on atmospherics. We need a biopolitics that does not confuse active critical politics about the future with the many brute instruments of control. We need a take on speculation that is not deliberately weighted down by metaphysics, and a critical analysis of ecology that doesn’t get lost in infinite connection. Many loose threads are floating around: the task is to try and collect them into something – a web, a cocoon, a fabric.