This is the sixth post in our blog series designed to help you link your teaching with the 2016 Annual Meeting theme, Evidence, Accident, Discovery. The series offers relevant teaching resources to instructors of undergraduate and graduate courses on methods, ethics and theory. Think of it as a week’s course readings in a (virtual) box…
This week’s post comes from Jennifer E. Telesca at the Pratt Institute.
“The Authority of Number: On Evidence in Statecraft”
There are too many boats catching too few fish today, so the adage goes. The planet now faces “losing marine species and entire marine ecosystems, such as coral reefs, within a single generation,” says a 2013 report by the International Programme for the State of the Ocean (IPSO). It suggests that “high-intensity stressors” have been “a pre-requisite for all the five global extinction events of the past 600 million years.” One “stressor” in the present day is overfishing. To relieve themselves of this predicament, fisheries managers tally how many sea creatures there are. They reckon only the ones valued on the market, employing specialists from the field of population dynamics to develop predictive models that forecast how many animals fishers may catch in coming years.
Why do commercial fish continue to crash in size and number across the ocean, if the experts regularly measure and count them? Why does mathematical evidence garner such bureaucratic authority, if the primary tool used to solve the overfishing problem has not worked? These and other questions emerged from ethnographic research about global governance, which took the supranational regulatory regime known as the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) as a case study (Telesca 2015). For three years, I gained access to the ICCAT regime as an accredited observer. I attended fourteen ICCAT meetings on four continents, and conducted thirty-eight semi-structured interviews with representatives from state, industry and civil society outside of meeting events, of which only four were completely on the record. My findings show that ICCAT member states regulate not according to anecdote or collective witnessing, but according to the evidentiary protocols of number. The technocrats must show that their rule is not accidental, arbitrary or capricious in the secular age. No longer rooting their authority in the divine, policymakers instead rely on quantitative evidence: impartial; rational; objective; a form free of influence, author, interest, language barriers and the accompanying problems of translation; or so it seems.
To understand why quantification has come to “seduce” the governor and the governed alike (Merry 2016), I turn to three master texts. The literary historian Mary Poovey (1998) shows how “the modern fact” can be traced to the elementary practice of double-entry bookkeeping, which demonstrated to the magistrates how the specialized experience of the mercantilist could be elevated to the status of expertise. Poovey finds that with time numbers attained an aura of authority in the modern era as they circulated in networks of hierarchy and exchange, buoyed by the growing cultural investment in mathematics and the influence of key figures, including the natural philosophers of the seventeenth century. The historian Theodore Porter (1995) traces the advent of what he calls “trust in numbers” to the early nineteenth century, and illuminates the tension between parliamentary rule and the tendency for technocratic authoritarianism. The less the policymaker is trusted to perform his mandate the greater is the appeal to numerical forms of knowledge production to justify his survival. Yet the experts who built the regulatory state over the centuries did not merely ready numbers, nor did they observe and map a reality already born of the heavens. They made the very reality they described through metrics—to manage it, to control it, to solve problems associated with it by simplifying the people, spaces and nonhuman natures under their jurisdiction. James Scott (1998) makes this last point clear in his discussion of maps, censuses and civil registries, all of which relied on precise measurement for social engineering.
How this literature bears on fish as calculable “stock” is the subject of my upcoming paper at the AAA Annual Meeting (Telesca 2016). By reading these and other texts against the grain of eradicated fish, I piece together a central logic of technique in administrative statecraft. I demonstrate that fisheries managers wield the distancing metrics of numerical abstractions as their foremost tool of authority for conceptualizing and managing biowealth. The object of governance is not the fish per se, but its profit in “stock.” Quantitative rationales “severely bracketed, or assumed to be constant” (Scott 1998: 19-22) a complex set of relations between species and how humans interacted with them, compartmentalizing poorly understood sea creatures one-by-one so that they could be rendered a single element of instrumental value. Lost in the mathematical models is any history at all, with time scaled to the future of species marked in years, not centuries or millennia in this newfound age of the Anthropocene. Reliance on probabilistic technologies denies the limits of what the technocrats can do about stressed biomes to whose vulnerability and depletion they have greatly contributed.
Sally Engle Merry. 2016. The Seductions of Quantification: Measuring Human Rights, Gender Violence and Sex Trafficking. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Mary Poovey. 1998. A History of the Modern Fact: Problems of Knowledge in the Sciences of Wealth and Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Theodore M. Porter. 1995. Trust in Numbers: The Pursuit of Objectivity in Science and Public Life. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
James C. Scott. 1998. Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Jennifer E. Telesca. 2015. “Consensus for Whom?: Gaming the Market for Atlantic Bluefin Tuna through the Empire of Bureaucracy.” Cambridge Journal of Anthropology 33: 49-64
Jennifer E. Telesca, “Accounting for Loss in Fish ‘Stocks’” (paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association, Minneapolis, MN, November 16-20, 2016).
Interested in attending the 2016 AAA Annual Meeting? Register at www.americananthro.org/aaa2016.