It seems to be a truism that, in the throes and anguish of a pandemic, we are living in a time of “crisis”. The term certainly appears often enough in the titles of published articles and could be designated a trope of our times. Applying WPR thinking, I suggest the need to stand back from the automatic adoption of such tropes to examine them as governing or governmental mechanisms. To develop this argument, I consider the primacy accorded “crisis” in Koselleck’s Begriffsgeschichte, the links between “crisis” and “risk” as governing technologies, and the invocation of “uncertainty” as a new model for doing politics.
Categorizing approaches to “crisis”
To begin, it is useful to offer examples of the most common ways in which “crisis” operates as a concept in current academic debates. I identify three conceptualizations: first, the scientific conception of “crisis” as “truth”; second, the identification of “crisis talk” as rhetorical manipulation; and third, the production of “crisis” as social construction. The poststructuralist option I proceed to develop evades these three options and engages “crises” as governmental problematizations. First, let us look briefly at the three more common uses of the term.
- The psychologist Dev Roychowdhury (2020) makes the scientific case for “a comprehensive understanding or consensus on a definition of crisis”. He argues that such an understanding “is not only a part of sound academic approach, but also paves the ways for scientific investigation to be undertaken with the aim of explaining, predicting, and managing crisis successfully”. A firm definition of crisis, in this view, is necessary for science to be accredited as a guide to managing present and future challenges. It follows that to achieve this goal requires “access to up-to-date evidence-based guidance” (Odium et al. 2021: Abstract).
- Molla and Cuthbert (2022) direct attention to “crisis exploitation” (Boin et al. 2008) as a form of rhetorical manipulation. They describe how the Australian Government “framed the COVID-19 pandemic and the associated fear of an economic downturn as a crisis to sell old policy packages and imaginaries” (Molla and Cuthbert 2022: Conclusions). Here we have a clear example of the argument that concepts can be marshalled for political ends.
- Aligned to this view a crisis can be treated as if it were socially constructed through narrative (Hay 1996) or “discourse” (Walby 2022: 499). For example, Agamben (2020) is concerned that “the crisis has been exaggerated, if not invented, for the purpose of legitimating the concentration of power in the hands of the executive branch of government” (in Walby 2022: 507).
Walby (2022: 501) usefully points out that “crisis” is commonly treated as “real” – i.e., the scientific option – in fields of risk (Beck 1992, 2009; discussed below) whereas the notion that a “crisis” is socially constructed is common in the field of security, “especially when the issue is centred on a threat rather than physical harm”. She interprets this usage to mean that “a crisis is both real and its meaning is contested” (Walby 2022: 501). Approached through WPR thinking, a crisis is neither real nor “unreal”, and acknowledging disputes about its meaning does not advance us very far theoretically (see Hall 1998: 80). Rather, attention turns to the ways in which the concept “crisis” influences “the evolution of ongoing practices” (Tanesini 1994: 207).
Conceptual traditions and “crisis”
Where do the conceptual traditions introduced in the first two entries in this series (27 Feb 2023; 30 March 2023) fit within this schema of scientific, rhetorical or social constructionist approaches to “crisis”? As mentioned in the previous entry and developed below there is some blurring of the boundaries between the Cambridge School and Begriffsgeschichte on the treatment of “crisis” as “speech act”. At the same time, the attention Koselleck, and others associated with Begriffsgeschichte (Jordheim and Wigen 2018), direct towards what they call the “conceptual work” performed by concepts suggests some possible overlap with a poststructural performative perspective. The task, as I see it, is to clarify the relationship between “conceptual work”, as described in Begriffsgeschichte, and WPR, which I proceed to do below. To forecast the argument, Begriffsgeschichte focuses primarily on political actors who marshal concepts, such as “crisis”, for political purposes, whereas WPR examines the operation of such concepts within governmental directives, read broadly.
The term “crisis” is central to Koselleck’s work, introduced in the first entry in this series on WPR and concepts (27 Feb. 2023). Koselleck’s doctoral thesis from 1959, later published under the title Kritik und Krise (Criticism and Crisis), offers a critique of Enlightenment philosophers (Voltaire, Diderot, Rousseau, Schiller, and Kant) for evoking “crisis” to avoid “direct political confrontation with the absolutist state”. Instead, in his view, they submitted the absolutist state to a form of moral criticism “deemed to bring about its collapse”. In this way, argues Koselleck, “to talk of crisis is to bring crisis about” (in Jordheim and Wigen 2018: 438).
Jordheim and Wigen (2018: Abstract) build on Koselleck’s ideas to develop an argument about the ways in which concepts – with their targets being “progress” and “crisis” – are used to order events, objects and polities. They argue that, since the late 18th century, “the key concept for structuring the relationship between past, present, and future in Western culture has been progress” (Jordheim and Wigen 2018: 425). Their claim is that “the concept of crisis is about to replace the concept of progress as the main tool of historicization in the Western world and beyond”. In their view, what happens with these concepts is vitally important for the future world order: “which one [i.e., progress or crisis] is allowed to dominate world politics is highly decisive for what we are able to experience, to plan and to do”.
Jordheim and Wigen (2018: 438) draw a link between their argument on the important role played by concepts and the Cambridge school’s use of “speech act” theory (see discussion in Research Hub 27 Feb 2023) They state that “labelling something a crisis can be thought of as a speech act that shapes political contestation over a particular issue or field”. This outcome, they argue, is due to the work that concepts do. To illustrate this point, using the example of the concept “security”, they describe how “managing to label a particular issue, topic or field a matter of security excludes a great many actors who would otherwise be party to discussion from legitimately debating it” (Jordheim and Wigen 2018: 438). They also describe how crisis functions as a “collective singular” (see Research Hub 27 Feb. 2023), “with a capital C if you like” (Jordheim and Wigen 2018: 431).
As with the Cambridge school the focus in this account is on social actors and their deployment of concepts, though Jordheim and Wigen insist that they are interested in more than “rhetorical skills” (Jordheim and Wigen 2018: 425). The starting questions for their analysis, however, target language users and their motivations: “Who uses the word? In what way? What does it mean? What does the user want to achieve?” (Jordheim 2021). And they explicitly identify their concerns as the ways in which political leaders use concepts: “To organise and take control over time, state leaders, politicians and intellectuals of statecraft use concepts as tools of synchronisation” (Jordheim and Wigen 2018: 439).
This focus on language use can also be seen in the ways in which the authors refer to “discourse/s”. For example, they describe “calling something security” and “calling a particular issue or set of events a crisis” as two related “discursive moves” (Jordheim and Wigen 2018: 439; emphasis in original). Such a reference indicates that “discourse” here is conceptualized as language use rather than as knowledges, illustrating the important distinction between these positions introduced in the previous Research Hub entry. Concepts in Begriffsgeschichte are up for grabs and serve the specific political purposes of “discourse participants”, akin to the position developed by Molla and Cuthbert (2022; see above).
What does WPR do differently? The three Research Hub entries (27 Feb 2023; 30 March 2023; and today’s) on this difficult topic have a single goal – to suggest that WPR opens up new terrain for exploration when dealing with “concepts”. Approaching concepts as governmental problematizations leads to different foci of attention and to different questions. Rather than asking about who is using a concept or what they want to do with it (see above), the focus becomes the complex of forces and practices that go into a concept’s making, and the effects that accompany its production and use. Clearly, this stance puts in question any attempt to define “crises” as “real” and measurable (the scientific option). It also moves the analysis past local actors and their attempts to deploy “crisis talk” for political purposes (the rhetorical manipulation position). Finally, it does not imply that “crises” are “unreal” and socially constructed. Rather, it asks how the concept functions to shape realities and possible futures.
Here there is some overlap with the notion of “conceptual work” developed by Jordheim and Widen (2018). They offer useful insights into the ways in which the concepts of “progress” and “crisis” can be seen to shape political possibilities. However, where they target the people who deploy concepts, WPR interrogates how concepts operate to shape realities within governmental directives (guides to conduct) – with governmental understood to encompass wide-ranging societal administration (Dean 1999). To put it starkly, the concepts that are the focus of analysis in WPR are to be found in governmental accounts and records, not in people’s heads. Hence, I argue, interrogating them provides insights into how governing takes place that are unavailable if the target is restricted to politicians’ and intellectuals’ “statecraft” (see above).
The link drawn by Jordheim and Wigen between Koselleck’s history of concepts and Austin’s speech act theory, associated with the Cambridge school, raises the whole issue of “illocutionary forces”, and hence of performativity theory (Research Hub, 29 Sept. 2022, 26 Oct. 2022). In the Keynote Address at Karlstad ( KEYNOTE ADDRESS – CAROL BACCHI – 18 August 2022) I suggest that proposals, recommended as starting points for WPR analyses, are “in a sense analogous to Austin’s (1962) illocutionary performatives that do not describe ‘reality’ but that (help to) make worlds”. I need to stress the word analogous in this argument given the ways in which, in both Koselleck and the Cambridge group, speech act theory is linked to “human agency as the prime mover of history” (Van Gelderen 1998: 231). Koselleck confirms this interpretation of his work with his description of concepts as “linguistic performances” (Koselleck 2004: 232). By contrast, the focus of analysis in WPR is not “linguistic performances”; rather, its target consists of governmental directives, read broadly. This position can be illustrated by reflecting briefly on how WPR approaches the topics of “crisis”, “risk” and “uncertainty”.
Standing back from “crisis”, “risk” and “uncertainty”
Above I noted that “crisis” is commonly treated as “real” (scientific) in fields of risk. This alignment can be explained through the ways in which “risk” features in so many aspects of our lives – consider health, insurance, “risk management” technologies, and so on. Beck (1992, 2009) is best known for theorizing the “risk society”. As Rose (2000: 246) describes, in Beck there is an acceptance that risk reflects “changes in the contemporary existential conditions of humans and their world”. In other words, “risk” is treated as something we have to deal with and live with – “risks” are real.
By contrast WPR and other governmentality analyses approach “risk” as a governmental strategy, with governmental read broadly, rather than as an inescapable part of contemporary lives. Rose (2000: 246; emphasis in original) notes that “genealogical studies have analysed risk as a particular style of thinking born during the nineteenth century”. As he explains, “risk thinking brought the future into the present and made it calculable”. He notes a shift from an earlier period of the collectivization of risk to a contemporary individualization of risk.
Also, within a governmentality framework, Nettleton’s (1997) work on risk categories in health highlights how an individualizing logic is at work in health policy, with important subjectification effects. Says Nettleton, we are produced as “risky selves”, responsible for continuous scrutiny of diet and lifestyle to avoid threats to health (Nettleton 1997).
This example illustrates how approaching the concept of “risk” as a problematization creates the space to reflect on the ways in which we are governed through “risk” categories and “risk” technologies. Importantly, there is no presumption that people are passive in response to such directives. As Nettleton (1997: 217) asserts, “discourses on health and health policy presuppose a self that is able to react to and challenge ‘expert’ knowledge”.
Developing the governmentality position, Dean (1999: 177) states that “There is no such thing as risk in reality”:
“Risk is a way – or rather, a set of different ways – of ordering reality, or rendering it into a calculable form. It is a way of representing events in a certain form so they might be made governable in particular ways, with particular techniques and for particular goals”.
The objective for researchers, therefore, is to ascertain the interconnected sets of practices involved in the production of “risk” thinking and “risk technologies”, including practices of emergence, insertion/institutionalization and functioning (Foucault 1972: 163; 1991: 65). Dean (1999: 178) elaborates this research agenda clearly:
“What is important about risk is not risk itself. Rather it is: the forms of knowledge that make it thinkable, such as statistics, sociology, epidemiology, management and accounting; the techniques that discover it, from the calculus of probabilities to the interview; the technologies that seek to govern it, including risk screening, case management, social insurance and situational crime prevention; and the political rationalities and programmes that deploy it, from those that dreamt of a welfare state to those that imagine an advanced liberal society of prudential individuals and communities”.
WPR suggests treating “crisis” in precisely this way. In research, the task is not to identify “crises” but to examine how the concept “crisis” operates to shape political possibilities and political outcomes. For example, Larsson (2020: Abstract) examines the “preemptive logic of contemporary security and crisis management” to show how “civil and war preparedness are merged into an ever-present dimension of everyday existence”.
In an earlier Research Hub entry (31 March 2021) I considered how the concept of “uncertainty” can be examined as a problematization and a governmental technology. “Uncertainty” is, of course, a close cousin of “crisis” and “risk”. We are constantly being told that we live in uncertain times – though it is uncertain (forgive me!) how that observation is to assist us.
Standing back from “uncertainty” as a presumption about our existential condition allows us to consider its implications for how society is ordered and governed. Pre-COVID-19 Pellizzoni (2011) made the case that uncertainty has become a way of governing, a technology of governing: “Uncertainty, thus, is seen no more as a circumscribed situation on which to build a few strategic decisions, but as an empowering everyday condition”. Describing the orientation as neoliberal, he notes: “proper calculations of risk are seen as an exception, while reasoned bets over unpredictable futures are regarded as the rule”.
These “reasoned bets” produce a style of governing based on experimentation. As I described in the earlier entry (Research Hub 31 March 2021), experimenting has become increasingly normalized as a mode of governing. That is, it has been generated as a legitimate way to govern, as a kind of “truth” of governing.
This style of governing has important effects. Schroth (2016) makes the point that experiments reduce the “enigmatic world” to what are deemed to be manageable proportions. Hence, we need to consider what gets left out – what is silenced. In relation to COVID-19 the focus on “uncertainty”, “crisis” and “risk” produces a tendency to concentrate on what Aly (2020) calls “the symptoms” of a crisis. There is no space in this reactive approach to consider how we have got here – how pandemics, for example, are an increasing likelihood due to a range of practices such as deforestation (Zimmer 2011). At the same time, the invoking of “uncertainty” works paradoxically to “reinforce the authority of expertise” (Demeritt 2001: 327), those who will guide us through “uncertain” times.
In this and the preceding two entries, I have explored the proposition that we are governed through the ways in which concepts problematize issues and that, hence, applying WPR to concepts produces new forms of questioning and analysis. I hope the examples of “crisis”, “risk” and “uncertainty” successfully illustrate the kinds of questions that arise in WPR thinking, and how these are vitally important questions for considering how we govern and how governing takes place.
Clearly, this position on concepts has repercussions for our own research. It imposes an obligation to consider the concepts we use, where they come from and how they operate politically. This self-interrogation can, doubtless, be uncomfortable (Foucault 2000). Some might also query the usefulness of such self-problematization. The claim advanced on behalf of this poststructural theorizing is that there is a need to reflect critically on the frameworks of meaning we may inadvertently adopt. Such interrogation creates the space to explore alternative problematizations, the space to think differently. We can only be the beneficiaries of such endeavours.
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