Reconsidering uncertainty, a brief note on track 06: Uncertainty as an asset? Neoliberalized technoscience and the manufacture of world and the self
Here I would like to present some observations on the debate of track 06 at the 2010 EASST conference. The debate took place in a session nurtured by a variety of empirical and theoretical approaches, which significantly enriched the discussion. Numerous empirical works were presented, with subjects covering, for example, the management of genetic risk, the role of convergent technologies (nanotechnologies, biotechnologies, information technologies, and cognitive science – collectively known as NBIC technologies) and also the view on convergent technologies as expressed by new media (an empirical research conducted in Slovenia).
The main focus of the track was the link between the narrative of neoliberalism and NBIC technoscience. This connection pivots around and thereby highlights the role of uncertainty: Uncertainty becomes an instrument of neoliberal governmentality in the management of the self and world. The concept of governmentality was introduced by the work of Michel Foucault in the field of genealogy of biopolitics. Governmentality denotes a composite concept: One of its fundamental traits refers to the all technologies of government of the population and individual (Foucault 2004). The neoliberal perspective can be represented by a hegemonic project of society characterized, in synthesis, by free markets and trades, property rights, new vision of state intervention, flexibility, individual entrepreneurial capacities and responsibilities (Harvey 2005). As O’Malley (2004) has pointed out, in the tradition of liberalism, the notions of risk and uncertainty have been instruments through which liberalism has imagined and governed the future. In this way, neoliberal governmentality (with all its values) goes beyond a merely governmental viewpoint because it also emphasizes the role of the subject as entrepreneurial individual and focuses on strategies of self-governing and self-regulation. Such a neoliberal narrative seems to consider nature as something that could be manipulated. This is a pivot point, or point of tangency, at which it fits with the narrative of NBIC technology because the latter proposes a biophysical world as one completely transformable and available to become goods.
However, many applications of NBIC technologies aren’t enabled to foresee long term consequences or harms. In this way, uncertainty is not the boost to decide to take a risk as in the traditional liberal narrative, but neither is it simply a problem for decisional processes at every level, in the world of everyday life and in political sphere: what we can eat or what kind of agriculture the government has to authorize. So the discourse on uncertainty goes beyond the fact of uncertainty being a problem for the decisional processes and considers new perspectives. One of these could be considered the notion of individual responsibility as an integral part of neoliberal narrative, overall in the management of health. Another theme is also the vision of nature, understanding as something profoundly different from the past: it becomes very similar to a product resulting from human interventions. This sort of plasticity includes also human nature and leads to the notion of responsibility in the construction of perfect life because uncertainty turns in an empowering condition for all social actors. Build scenarios or possible worlds, in which the notion of risk seems to be relegated in the past, are the most important components to govern through uncertainty. In this perspective, the problem of not having forecasts to use in the decision-making process is transformed in such a way as to emphasize the force of neoliberal hegemony in every space of social life. Obviously, there are also many ambiguities and scholarship has interpreted this shift in different ways, as well as there being many subjects of empirical investigations.
Could this perspective be compatible with other concepts, theories or different narratives? In my opinion, this seems be a sort of basic question to which the papers in the track have tried to give a response. Obviously, the answers are very different because different fields of investigation also have different conceptual apparatuses and languages, but there appears to be a set of common references that have improved understanding across fields.
These are just some of the arguments encountered in the debate, but the track, in my opinion, has achieved its purpose – to push to reconsider uncertainty – and in this sense the transdisciplinary approaches presented have been very useful and interesting: They have further emphasized the complexity of understanding uncertainty and offered new lines of research.
Foucault M. (2004), Sécurité, territoire, population. Cours au Collège de France 1977-1978, Seuil, Paris
Harvey D. (2005), A Short History of Neoliberalism, Oxford University Press, Oxford
O’Malley P. (2004), Risk, Uncertainty and Government, Glasshouse, London