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Modes of UncertaintyAnthropological Cases$

Limor Samimian-Darash and Paul Rabinow

Print publication date: 2015

Print ISBN-13: 9780226257075

Published to Chicago Scholarship Online: January 2016

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226257242.001.0001

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(p.1) Introduction
Modes of Uncertainty

Limor Samimian-Darash

Paul Rabinow

University of Chicago Press

Abstract and Keywords

Examining how insurance has been imagined and practiced in various historical configurations of liberal governance, this chapter explores the diverse ways in which security, uncertainty, and freedom change their meanings quite radically. Nineteenth century liberalism emphasized individual foresight as a technique for governing uncertainties (such as the free market) that were imagined to be essential to freedom. Around the turn of the 20th century, the institutions of insurance became perhaps the fundamental site in which state policy repositioned and sought to reduce uncertainty in the name of a new “modern” configuration of freedom and security. By the late 20th century, however, yet another reconfiguration was underway. It is common to view this latter, “neoliberal,” turn in terms of winding back “the state,” deregulation, and promotion of individual responsibility. Yet these developments, arguably, are more about increasing uncertainty and decreasing the calculability of the future than they are about “states” or “individuals” as such. In this light, liberalism appears historically engaged with the question of how much uncertainty, and of what kind, is essential to freedom.

Keywords:   liberalism, insurance, uncertainty, calculability, government, security, responsibility

Why Uncertainty?

In this book, we identify uncertainty as a central problem in contemporary anthropological thought and practice. The studies brought together in this collection explore how uncertainty emerges in various realms of human activity and is shaped in knowledge domains, governmental technologies, and forms of subjectivity. The book lays out a distinctive approach to the phenomena of risk and uncertainty, bringing an enriched conceptual framework to bear on the analysis of how these phenomena are experienced and managed.

We argue that it is vital today to distinguish among danger, risk, and uncertainty, both analytically and anthropologically. To that end, we present a series of concepts and cases that clarify emergent problem spaces in a variety of domains as well as the way these problems are currently addressed—or not addressed—by relevant scholarship and those charged with managing risk. In our view, the scholarly fields that have historically focused on risk assessment and management are inadequate in the face of many contemporary problems, in part because the world is increasingly being populated by forms, practices, and events of uncertainty that cannot be reduced to risk. We make the case that scholars should not focus solely on the appearance of new risks and dangers in the world, which no doubt abound, but should also treat uncertainty itself as a problem and examine the forms of governing and experience that are emerging in relation to it. The studies in this book, with contributions from various fields—finance and markets, security and humanitarianism, and health and environment—enable consideration of the forms of knowledge and technologies as well as differing modes of subjectivity that have developed beyond risk assessment.

(p.2) What is the Anthropology of Uncertainty?

Danger and Certainty

The cultural approach to danger and risk, elaborated by Mary Douglas and Aaron Wildavsky (1982) in Risk and Culture, proposes that each society selects specific dangers for attention on the basis of particular cultural criteria. From this perspective, danger is an ontological hazard that is culturally selected and evaluated. Additionally, in Purity and Danger, Douglas (1966) describes a link between risk and taboo—how taboo (as a socially constructed norm) preserves social boundaries. Similarly, in Risk and Blame, Douglas (1994) argues that danger and blame are linked such that danger is perceived as resulting from undesirable behavior. Most important from our perspective, rather than investigating how cultures cope with risks, these studies demonstrate how they attempt to create certainty. In this book, we depart from this tradition and construct a framework in which danger, risk, and uncertainty are distinct concepts. The reconceptualization of these related issues informs the studies in the book and contributes to a better understanding of the contemporary problem of uncertainty and of the governing mechanisms it elicits.

Risk and Modernity

The risk society approach, classically laid out in Ulrich Beck’s Risk Society (1992) and Reflexive Modernism (Beck, Giddens, and Lash 1994), proposes distinguishing between danger, recognized in traditional societies, and risk, created by reflexive modernization. Anthony Giddens expands this notion, asserting that “traditional cultures didn’t have a concept of risk because they didn’t need one” (2000a, 40). In Giddens’s contestable view of these societies, hazards were associated with the past and the loss of faith, whereas risk is linked to modernization and the desire to control the future. “Risk is the mobilizing dynamic of a society bent on change, that wants to determine its own future rather than leaving it to religion, tradition, or the vagaries of nature” (42). The risk society approach, then, mainly deals with the production and transformation of “real” risks in “society” (understood as a totality and as an agent) and with society’s attempts to control the future, which render it more “dangerous.”

Pat Caplan’s edited collection Risk Revisited (2000) criticizes the universality of risk in social theory and asks why risk has become such a central issue not only in the world but also in the social sciences, particularly sociology. The alternative to that trend is the relatively distinctive explanations to (p.3) risk offered by a collection of a variety of anthropological cases. In Modes of Uncertainty, our concern is not merely with the diverse perceptions, or cultural selection, of risk presented in various anthropological contexts. Drawing on Niklas Luhmann’s work, we address risk and uncertainty as concepts rather than as things in the world, through which certain knowledge and practices circulate and are made available (both to “societies” and to social theorists).

In Risk: A Sociological Theory (1993) and Observations on Modernity (1998), Luhmann treats risk not as an object in a first-order observation but as a concept in a second-order observation. Risk is thus defined not as the obverse of security or as a synonym for insecurity but, rather, is distinguished from the concept of danger. Whereas danger is external to the system, risk is dependent on the decisions of the system:

To do justice to both levels of observation, we will give the concept of risk another form with the help of the distinction of risk and danger. The distinction presupposes … that uncertainty exists in relation to future loss. There are then two possibilities. The potential loss is either regarded as a consequence of the decision, that is to say, it is attributed to the decision. We then speak of risk—to be more exact, of the risk of decision. Or the possible loss is considered to have been caused externally, that is to say, it is attributed to the environment. In this case we speak of danger.

(Luhmann 1993, 21–22)

In this approach, the focus is not on the quality of new dangers in the world (universal or not, calculable or incalculable) but on the mode of observing risk as conceptually inherent to modern systems and how each decision or abstention from decision concerning the future determines risk.

In this book, we propose an additional distinction with regard to the concept of uncertainty. We ask how observations about uncertainty come to circulate in the contemporary world, constituting a new problematic field for which certain policies emerge as solutions.

From Risk to Uncertainty

Other scholarly work approaches uncertainty as comparable to risk or insecurity. That is, the greater the uncertainty, the greater the risk and lack of security, and vice versa. In some studies, however, uncertainty is distinguished from risk and presented as something that exists in situations of incalculable risks (as François Ewald [2002] proposed in his use of the term nonrisk). However, even then uncertainty is presented as an object that expresses (p.4) a change in the quality of risks in the world and not as a different conceptualization associated with a distinct form of governing and subjectivation. Similarly, Beck (2009) in his later work World at Risk, points to the emergence of a new problem in the risk society, referring to hazards “which nowadays often cannot be overcome by more knowledge but are instead a result of more knowledge” (2009, 5). Though he takes steps toward defining a new problem, Beck still uses the term risk to conceptualize it.

The essays in this book call for conceptualizing uncertainty to better confront contemporary problems. Moreover, they take a problematization approach (following Michel Foucault), and, instead of trying to provide or identify ultimate solutions for coping with risk and uncertainty (e.g., as policy makers do), they take technologies and experiences as objects of research and analysis and ask how they emerge in response to the problem of uncertainty: What kinds of truth claims are advanced about the future, what interventions are considered appropriate, and what modes of subjectivity are produced within this problematization?

Governmentality and Risk Assessment

In company with Mitchell Dean (1999) and Pat O’Malley (2004b), the contributors to this book move beyond the general narrative of an ontological shift—the transition from calculable to global uncontrolled risks. Dean and O’Malley draw on Michel Foucault’s work on “the art of government” and tend to focus on a central governmental technology—risk technology—that turns something into risk to make it governable. That is, risk technology converts uncertainty into possibilities, accidents (assessable risks) over which management and control are possible. This technology has been applied to many areas of research, such as insurance, old age, psychiatry, pregnancy, AIDS, crime prevention, and drug use.

Michael Power expands on this theme in his Risk Management of Everything (2004) and Organized Uncertainty (2007), discussing the spread of risk-assessment technology in social and economic institutions. Risk management not only renders organizations extremely accountable and “preoccupied with managing their own risks”—in fact, obsessed with risk—but also results in the emergence of secondary risks. Thus “this trend is resulting in a dangerous flight from judgement and a culture of defensiveness that create their own risks for organisations in preparing for, and responding to, a future they cannot know” (Power 2004, 14).

Science and technology studies scholars see as problematic the techno-scientific assumption that more knowledge about future risk, by itself, allows (p.5) for prevention or control of that risk. Moreover, some studies, such as Sheila Jasanoff’s The Fifth Branch: Science Advisers as Policymakers (1990) and Brian Wynne’s Risk Management and Hazardous Waste (1987), ask whether the terms risk and risk assessment and control are still adequate descriptors of the “post-normal science” problem. Challenging the basic discourse of modern science and technology, which assumes that predictive control can (at least, theoretically) be fully attained, they argue that the world has become more uncertain and, thus, that a better strategic approach to future eventualities must be developed.

Modes of Uncertainty contributes to the discussion of risk as a technology and a form of governmentality by moving the focus from the control of risk to the management of uncertainty. Thus, it joins other recent studies inquiring into technologies that emerge in relation to a new problem space that we have defined as uncertainty rather than risk. The essays in Embracing Risk (Baker and Simon 2002) and in Biosecurity Interventions (Lakoff and Collier 2008) exemplify such studies, though, using the term nonrisk, they present precaution and preparedness as new forms of governing uncertainty that supersede the rationale of prevention, which was adequate for risk

The Management of Uncertainty

A distinction between risk technologies and technologies of uncertainty was initially suggested during the course of Samimian-Darash’s anthropological study of Israeli preparedness for future biothreats, notably, pandemic flu (Samimian-Darash, 2013). In that case, uncertainty infused a situation in which not only had a pandemic not yet taken place but also, relying on past information, experts could not predict what it would look like or even what virus strain would cause it. This scenario raises the question of what kinds of preparedness practices to put forward before the nature of the actual event is known. In this case, three main technologies were proposed to deal with the problem of uncertainty: the purchasing and stockpiling of antiviral drugs, the enactment of attribution scenarios, and the operation of a syndromic surveillance system. Each of these solutions represented a distinctive approach to the problem and thus the application of a distinctive technology.

Antiviral Drugs—Risk Technology

One attempt to prepare for future pandemic influenza involved purchasing and stockpiling antiviral drugs. In preparing for a virtual disease event, it is hard to create an effective vaccine. In other words, production of a vaccine based on information available at a particular time cannot take into account (p.6) the possibility that a new strain may appear. Hence, the decision was made in the Israeli case to use antiviral drugs that were not aimed at the unknown virus but, rather, at the symptoms of the disease it was expected to produce.

Use of antiviral drugs that can treat a broad range of possible influenza events (based on information about known viruses) assumes that a new event will be similar to previous ones and that antiviral drugs will be effective. Therefore, although antiviral drugs are able to act on a wide range of possible events, they still only constitute a risk-technology type of solution to uncertainty, knowledge of which is based on similar past possibilities. However, regardless of how comprehensive the drugs are, new actual events (a new strain or different morbidity patterns) may occur that have not been (and cannot be) taken into account and against which these drugs would be ineffective.

Attribution Scenarios—Preparedness Technology

The idea behind the attribution scenario is to create a possible event before one has come about and then treat the proxy event as if it were real and needs to be prepared for. The attribution scenario does not try to predict the future uncertain event or exchange its uncertainty for known possibilities, but to provide specific realizations of it in the present to enable the system to exercise its reaction before the event becomes catastrophic. The attribution scenarios in the Israeli case were constructed on the basis of available knowledge regarding past incidents of pandemic influenza, current-day avian influenza, and the morbidity patterns of seasonal influenza. Predictions regarding the event were also based on knowledge of morbidity and mortality rates during previous influenza pandemics.

What is particularly interesting about the type of preparedness technology just outlined is the number of different scenarios it generates. Scenarios change in relation to new knowledge. That is, expanding knowledge leads to the creation of new scenarios; each scenario creates a new possibility that is treated as real and therefore should be prepared for. Thus, when any new information appears, the scenario is updated to better represent what is still uncertain. However, because the future uncertainty could be actualized in multiple events, which are not known in advance, no information in the present can portray the real event before it takes place.

Syndromic Surveillance System—Event Technology

The Israeli Center for Disease Control operates a syndromic surveillance system, which it called into play during preparations for the pandemic flu event. The system has three main aims: to monitor “exceptional morbidity” (p.7) (before a specific disease has been diagnosed), to detect “new events” as early as possible, and to provide “reliable information” following the occurrence of an event to help in its ongoing management. The system’s challenge is to develop a technology that can deal with an emergency situation at two main stages: before and after the diagnosis of an exceptional event.

The syndromic surveillance system is distinguished from the “traditional” response system on the grounds that it deals with the surveillance of information before a diagnosis has been made (regarding a given disease). Because the system does not try to identify the virus or diagnose the event, its success is measured in terms of the speed with which it discovers that there has been an event. Thus, a distinction is made between “early detection” and “first detection.” That is, the actual event has to take place, and then the issue becomes its early detection. Through this practice, uncertainty is recognized as such. It is not converted into past possibilities to be managed, nor is any use made of the realization of future possibilities before they have taken place. Instead, through the detection of syndromes and the emergence of exceptional morbidity patterns, this system produces new events, a multiplicity of occurrences that can signify actual events.

The case of preparedness for pandemic flu clearly pointed to new ways of perceiving and responding to uncertainty. We continue to explore that new terrain in this book. Instead of seeing uncertainty as a unique, new problem or as an object in the world, the essays in the book show how uncertainty, as a concept, reflects a way of observing the future and how it facilitates forms of governing, as manifested in policies and experiences in diverse fields of research.

Anthropological Cases

Modes of Uncertainty offers understanding of the problem of uncertainty in three major contemporary domains: economics and entrepreneuralism, security and humanitarianism, and environment and health. Each chapter addresses the governing of uncertainty either directly or by careful attention to modes of subjectivity and knowledge production in which uncertainty-based conceptualization plays a crucial role. More broadly, the volume shows how anthropology can productively analyze contemporary problems by providing a conceptual framework underpinned by empirical studies such as those presented in the book’s individual chapters.

(p.8) Part 1. Economics and Entrepreneurialism

Uncertainty has become a vital concern in the context of sustained volatility in global financial markets. The contributors to Part 1 of Modes of Uncertainty discuss how the focus of financial and economic logic has changed from risk to uncertainty and how policies and practices aimed at controlling risk—in a variety of related fields—have shifted to managing uncertainty. Some contributors also address how particular fields have embraced uncertainty as a mode of subjectivity.

Pat O’Malley reviews how insurance was conceptualized and implemented at different times in the twentieth century and finds that uncertainty has historically taken on a diversity of meanings, with significant implications for the way freedom is envisioned.

Eitan Wilf discusses how ideas of jazz music as a flexible, risk-taking form have infused organizational policy and management and led to the embrace rather than the avoidance of uncertainty.

Natasha Dow Schüll analyzes online poker players who use self-tracking software to improve their play and finds that, instead of working against or despite the uncertainty of the game, this technology requires the player to make an ally of it.

Part 2. Security and Humanitarianism

The contributors to Part 2 of Modes of Uncertainty examine uncertainty as both a means and an end of security technologies. They discuss how security and humanitarian mechanisms not only face the problem of policing and governing uncertain subjects but also how these subjects are transformed through new technologies of uncertainty.

Meg Stalcup analyzes the Suspicious Activity Reporting Initiative in the United States, and tracks how police officers observe and document incidents of unspecified suspicious behavior under the assumption that doing so enables management of uncertain events.

Rebecca Lemov looks at the history of “coercive interrogation” as a domain of policy and experiment in the United States, examining the constitution of “the uncertain subject” through distinct risk and uncertainty technologies, as part of security policy and practice.

Carol A. Kidron focuses on the encounter between global policies of humanitarian interventions aimed at governing potential “trauma outbreak” and the alternative discourses and life experiences with which Cambodian (p.9) trauma descendants confront the imposed cultural risk prevention approach.

Gaymon Bennett explores how the uncertainty generated by contemporary biological research invokes new security concerns. Through the institutionalization of malice, the moral transformation of biosecurity is justified, a process played out vividly in the case of engineering of the H5N1 avian virus to be transmissible in humans.

Part 3. Environment and Health

The current proliferation of doomsday scenarios is symptomatic of how uncertainty has pervaded global environmental and public health issues. The contributors to Part 3 of Modes of Uncertainty discuss spaces and horizons of uncertainty relating to such concerns and describe new modalities of management brought to bear on them.

Adriana Petryna shows how “extreme events” like Superstorm Sandy have opened new political horizons of uncertainty. She examines the notion of ecosystemic “tipping points” and looks at how policy makers and climate experts have turned to nonparametric ways of reasoning to assess climate change.

Frédéric Keck discusses the management of uncertainty at the human-animal interface in species barrier zones, focusing on how virus hunters develop devices to capture potential catastrophes that they perceive as actual. This space of uncertainty produces a new articulation of microbiological research and public health policy.

Austin Zeiderman tracks the governmental techniques and political rationalities being assembled in response to uncertainty in Colombia, where a literally unstable landscape combines with poverty and political inequality to produce urban “zones of high risk.” These zones become spaces of uncertainty that need not be measured to be governed.

The volume concludes with an afterword by coeditors Rabinow and Samimian-Darash, who offer reflections on modes of uncertainty as a realm of contemporary anthropological research as well as a form of inquiry. (p.10)