Measurement, Circulation & Possibility (some notes for a forthcoming talk)


I’ve been asked to give a short presentation at an ISRF workshop, the details of the event are here. The workshop is on the theme of ‘Critique and Critiques’, with the second day focusing on critical theory in particular. The presentations are to be fairly short and are also to be delivered without powerpoint slides. As there is no powerpoint I thought I’d use this post to begin to assemble some notes in preparation for the talk – this post is essentially a set of notes that will frame my talk.

The title I’ve given the talk is ‘Measurement, Circulation, Possibility’. Its a provisional title that will allow me to begin to work through some ideas that will be a small part of a future writing project (I hope to post more about this soon) and will also be useful for a potential funding bid I’m included on. My plan is to use the talk to work through some questions using the books pictured above.

The talk will open with some reflections on the importance of measurement for what are often understood to be neoliberal political formations and the processes of neoliberalization (which will link to recent work by Neil Brenner, Jamie Peck and Nik Theodore). Given neoliberalism’s ethos of competition, measurement can be seen to be a crucial part of the social fabric. Measurement is needed for competition to exist. The starting place for thinking this through will be Michel Foucault’s mid 1970s lecture series, but I’m going to focus directly upon the ‘Security, Territory, Population’ lectures. There are some interesting insights in those lectures with regard to measurement and calculation. I plan to offer some thoughts on those – particularly as Foucault links measurement and calculation with circulation (which I plan to cover in the talk). Foucault’s interest in calculation is discussed further in this article by Stuart Elden’s. Following the opening discussion of Foucault I plan to then use Stuart’s Speaking Against Number to explore further the broader politics of calculation and measurement (this is next on my reading list, so my thoughts aren’t yet fully developed on this particular text).

I will then move towards questions of measurement in different settings. First, I will use Btihaj Ajana’s recent book Governing Through Biometrics. This book offers what Ajana describes as a ‘biopolitics of biometrics’. I’m currently writing a review of this book for Information, Communication & Society, its proving to be really excellent. I’m also hoping to interview Btihaj for the Theory, Culture & Society open site. Btihaj’s book provides some really valuable insights into the measurement of life and bodies. Her discussion of the ‘remediation of measurement’ is particular helpful as it allows biometric systems to be understood in genealogical terms. Her position is that new political discourses and technological developments have enabled the ‘intensification’ of biometrics.

I’ll then move to briefly discuss my previous work on the politics of circulation (an audio interview is available here). This work explored the ways in which new forms of data fold back into culture. I plan to use this to extend the arguments about measurement and to think about how emergent forms of measurement might reconfigure and reshape the social world (I expect that I’ll use Adrian Mackenzie’s work as well as Rob Kitchin and Martin Dodge’s writings to do this). I intend to focus in this section on the circulation of measurements and metrics and the potential consequences of these circulations – for the body but also for cultural forms, knowledge and so on.

Finally, the talk will conclude with some reflections on Louise Amoore’s recent book The Politics of Possibility. My intention here is to use Louise’s book to think about the way that measurement and the circulation of metrics can shape what is possible. Louise’s book explores the move from probability to the use of possibility in various types of decision making (most notably in security and border decisions). Louise’s notion of the ‘politics of possibility’ brings measurement into an embodied reality, it also pushes us towards questions about the power of those visualisations of what is possible. Again, I’ve only begun to read through this book, but I’ve read Louise’s previous work in detail. My plan is to use this talk to work through some of these texts in more detail and to use it to develop the linkages between them.

These notes are only cursory, but the talk will draw together a closer reading of these books with some other thoughts. Ultimately, I’m hoping it will be a section within a chapter of a book I’m hoping to write. This particular talk though will work towards the conclusion that what is pressing for critical theory (which is the focus of the day) is a more nuanced and detailed engagement with forms of measurement, the circulation of data and what these make possible. This is not a new problem for critical theory, but one that needs to be reaffirmed to respond to Ajana’s point about the intensification of such processes. Critical theory needs to be reshaped to respond to these questions. How should critical theory respond to these types of measurement and circulation? These books offer some productive avenues to explore further. I hope to argue that this is pressing given the escalation of data assemblages and systems of measurement, which may in turn be understood to be extending the reach of neoliberal forms of governance and the like. I also think though, beyond this, that understanding measurement and data circulations is central to understanding the social and cultural world.

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2 Responses to Measurement, Circulation & Possibility (some notes for a forthcoming talk)

  1. stuartelden says:

    Reblogged this on Progressive Geographies and commented:
    David Beer shares some notes for a forthcoming talks – which draws on Foucault, Amoore, Brennner/Peck/Theodore, Ajana and Elden, among others. Sounds interesting, and hopefully a written version will follow.

  2. Pingback: My current reading, writing and the ebb/flow of the academic year | Thinking culture

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