Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Nicholas Rowland on Govind Gopakumar’s Paper: "Acting from a distance: States, scales, spatiality and STS."

My colleague Nicholas Rowland has just returned form the meeting of the Society for the Social Studies of Science (4S) at the Copenhagen Business School in (no surprise) Copenhagen Denmark. Nicholas Rowland, Back from 4S: Insights and Directions, Installing (Social) Order, Oct. 2012).

This post described the session Nicholas and Jan-Hendrik Passoth put together for that conference, and Nicholas’ comments on "Acting from a distance: States, scales, spatiality and STS," the paper presented by Govind Gopakumar, Associate Chair and Assistant Professor at the Centre for Engineering in Society, Concordia University, Canada. 

Rowland and Jan-Hendrik Passoth, Bielefeld University put together a session for the 4S Conference:

023. (66) On states, stateness and STS: government(ality) with a small "g"? - I

9:00 to 10:30 am at Solbjerg Plads: SP216

Chair: Jan-Hendrik Passoth, Bielefeld University


"Designing the Sustainable State: the Small (g}overnance of China's Big "Ecological Civilization."" Erich W Schienke, Penn State (cancelled)

"Acting from a distance: States, scales, spatiality and STS." Govind Gopakumar, Concordia University

"Locating the state? Infrastructure, scale and the technologies of governing, a Colombian case." Kathryn Furlong, Université de Montréal

ADDED: "Viewing the Technoscientific State through the Heteroscope: The State, displaced or misplaced?" (could also be called "The Dancer and the Dance") Alexander Stingl, European University Viadrina, Frankfurt/Oder (check out his blog here)

"Territorializing, Calculating and Governing." Peter Miller, London School of Economics and Political Science (cancelled)

""Towards a Common Future": On How a Diplomatic Training Programme Socialises States into the International Society." Tobias Wille, Goethe University Frankfurt

Rowland’s comments on Govind Gopakumar’s paper appear here and in the Instally (Social) Order blog. See, Nicholas Rowland, "Acting from a distance: States, scales, spatiality and STS." Govind Gopakumar, Instally (Social) Order, Oct. 2012.

"Acting from a distance: States, scales, spatiality and STS" was presented by Govind Gopakumar of Concordia University in Canada. Govind is Associate Chair and Assistant Professor at the Centre for Engineering in Society. The abstract for Govind's project reads:

How do states act or exert their presence from a distance, especially when targets of action are separated by diverse and nested milieus of stateness? In addressing this question, the paper will draw centrally upon scholarship in three domains – governance of science and technology, anthropology of the state especially in postcolonial environments, and actor network theorizing of the state – to develop a conceptually grounded explanation. While a common concern across these domains has been to interpret the co-production of science/technology, society and state through concepts such as “boundary organization,” “state spatiality,” and “scaling devices,” one related theme that has attracted far less attention within these fields has been to understand how states act and make their presence felt at a distance across scale and space. This direction of inquiry is particularly intriguing when such actions intersect multiple and imbricated ontologies of stateness that exist at national, regional, provincial, and urban levels. Drawing from these literatures, in this paper I will use the example of a recent policy project in India as a case. NURM (or the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission) is a vast national policy exercise launched in 2005 that seeks to transform governance of technical infrastructures in 65 major cities in India by emplacing a host of new mechanisms, venues and devices to reconfigure state-society relations. Empirically investigating NURM, this study will situate and extend our understanding of how postcolonial states operate at a distance and across different scales from the national to the urban. 

Rowland observes:

I first met Govind at last year's 4S conference in Cleveland, OH, where he gave a terrific presentation on infrastructure and the Indian state. See below (CV available here):

"Knotty and Naughty: Seeing the Indian State through a Technoscientific Lens," Society for the Social Studies of Science (4S) Annual conference, Cleveland, November 4, 2011.

I was immediately impressed by the work, which draws largely on Patrick Carroll's incredible and longstanding research on the technoscientific state. In fact, Govind had a book coming out that I subsequently reviewed for the Social Studies of Science, which you can check out here and was featured in a special issue about water (because Govind's book is about water infrastructure in Indian citites and states).

Keep in mind that our 2012 theme for the panels was "On states, stateness and STS: government(ality) with a small "g"?" Govind rose to the challenge of seeing governments and governmentality with a "small g" -- the small g meaning that instead of answering big questions in sociology by referring the power of macro structures that (must exist but) are always just immediately beyond firsthand observation (such as 'the state'), we instead go to the micro-machinery of their makings (or even their underpinnings). And so, Govind did.

He took up the case of literally building state capacity, in this case, of infrastructural reform especially of the transformation of transportation. In the end, and these were short presentations that we asked emphasize theoretical points of relevance, Govind comes to a great conclusion. The state is not just out there (the state being the high-modern understanding of states as omnipresent actors forcefully shaping domestic and international matters of interest), the state comes to us during what he called 'encounters'.
 As if Erving Goffman and Theda Skocpol had been fused together into some hybrid-Franken-theorizers, Govind suggested that of course the state is not out there, but that we occasionally come into its tenacles in the minutae of our daily lives, during spectacles where the state's proverbial 'muscles' appear and are subsequently flexed, but also during (and this was quite nice) periods of construction, reform, and maintenance where the 'dirigiste' state is obvious. 
In this way, instead of seeing like the state (a reference to Scott's book from the 2000s), we see the state. We see these points of encounter (my words) as moments or locationalities wherein the state can be penetrated or penetrates our lives as citizens. These "close encounters" of another kind might just prove to be a great way to conceptualize the issue of macro-states from a relational, irreductive vantage point. 

Bravo, Govind! Govind responded to Rowland:

Thank you Nicholas for those kind words and that neat survey of my presentation and how our paths have crossed. It was a great pleasure presenting at the panel that Jan and you organized.

The work that I presented at 4S is still very much under development. In the talk I wanted to draw our attention to two aspects. First how we can understand the state with a small s and g within massive dirigiste projects of engineering. These large projects of the dirigiste state just like state spectacles are particularly knotty problems because they lend themselves very easily to statist theorizations with the state as out there. How does one see the governmentality and the state in these large projects. Encountering and seeing the state provides a lens to comprehend the specific practices, methods, and mechanisms that together assemble particular technosocial transitivities that allow the state to be seen as the State out there. The book by Stuart Corbridge and others titled Seeing the State ( http://www.amazon.com/Seeing-State-Governance-Governmentality-Contemporary/dp... has been very influential in bringing the state in my sightlines.

Second, in encountering the state how can we encounter the state from afar. By afar, I mean across nested layers of stateness or scales. In other words how would one encounter a national state that is acting across provinces and cities to act on urban infrastructures. I think here ANT provides some interesting directions to understand how states as specific network achievements cobble together cross scalar actions. Especially ideas such as technosocial transitivities, scaling devices and social topologies provide the basic vocabulary to comprehend cross scale state actions.
The idea of a state as dirigiste has a long and interesting lineage. One important strain in the history of the term is the role of the French republican state in the post-war context to manage re-industrialization of France through a selective state-led industrialization agenda through companies such as SNCF, EDF etc. The role of the state was cast as a protector and guarantor of citizen needs. Annette Fiero in the Glass State (https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/glass-state) speaks about the notion of dirigisme in Mitterand's actions of constructing some spectacular public buildings in Paris.

The other usage of the term is within the political economy of development and statist readings of the social and economic development actions of 'developmental states' in the post-colonial context. Dirigiste developmental states became common in the postcolonial context with several newly independent countries launching ambitious programs to both socially and economically develop their populations. Within a cold-war setting and the compelling pull of free market vs communist strategies, several larger developing countries experimented with mixed economic strategies where the state as a dirigiste presence attempted to actively intervene in the social and economic lives of their populace. Statist readings adopted by several authors such as Peter Evans, Meredith Woo Cumings attempted to identify key reasons that allowed some states to be more effective than others in developing their countries. Thus terms like embedded autonomy were identified as reasons for the success of states like Korea in quickly developing their societies.

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