28 November 2013

Inscriptionism

Latour and other theorists have argued that bureaucracies conceptualise - and by extension law gives recognition to - entities that fit into categories on forms. That is illustrated in an account in the Guardian earlier in the week regarding incident reports from detention centres managed by Serco.

The Guardian reports that
The birth of children and clinical depression are no longer being formally reported as incidents in Australian detention centres, while self-harm events have been downgraded from critical to major, according to new guidelines from the detention service provider Serco. 
The new guidelines were created in March this year, when the previous Labor government was in office. 
Incident reports are how Serco communicates with the immigration department about events in detention centres, such as births, deaths, assaults and escapes. 
The new reporting guidelines, which were obtained under freedom of information laws by Refugee Rights Watch, significantly alter the categories of incidents Serco is required to report to the immigration department. While some categories have been replaced or expanded, “birth of a child” and “clinical depression” have been removed, with no apparent replacements. 
The removal of the categories means it is unclear how the immigration department is now being informed about births in detention facilities. It also means that no performance audits in the form of “post incident reviews” would occur for childbirths. 
Serco issued a statement saying the department determined how an incident was categorised.
"The categorisation of incidents, that is, whether an incident is classed as minor, major or critical, is determined by the department. The categories relate to reporting timeframes. 
"We are required to report minor incidents within 24 hours, major incidents within one hour and critical incidents within 30 minutes.".... 
“It’s shocking to think that a birth behind bars doesn’t even rate a mention any more,” the Greens immigration spokeswoman, Sarah Hanson-Young, told Guardian Australia. 
“This change in protocol is very concerning. Will the department of immigration now plead ignorance when it comes to the number of babies born in detention? This government’s addiction to secrecy is becoming ridiculous and dangerous. 
... Among other changes to the guidelines are the downgrading of “self-harm – actual” and “assault – serious” from critical incidents to major incidents. This means Serco has more time to inform the department of when an incident has occurred. Bomb threats and unauthorised media presence have also been downgraded from critical to major. 
Some categories have been expanded to give more detailed reports. Assaults are broken down further so that incidents involving children are logged separately, and voluntary hunger strikes have been reclassified as “food/fluid refusal”. 
Sexual assault has been listed as a separate category. Guardian Australia had previously had to lodge freedom of information requests with Comcare to reveal the number of sexual assaults in detention centres, because the immigration department did not log this information as a separate category.
In thinking about the consequences of bureaucratic rationality - a box for everything (that matters) - I'm struck by 'Dead zones of the imagination On violence, bureaucracy, and interpretive labor (The Malinowski Memorial Lecture, 2006)' by David Graeber in (2012) 2(2) HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 105 -

He comments that
one often finds a remarkable sympathy — dare one say, sense of affinity? — between scholars, who generally double as academic bureaucrats, and the bureaucrats they study. Consider the hegemonic role, in US social theory, of Max Weber in the 1950s and 1960s, and of Michel Foucault since the 1970s. Their popularity, no doubt, had much to do with the ease with which each could be adopted as a kind of anti-Marx, their theories put forth (usually in crudely simplified form) to argue that power is not simply or primarily a matter of the control of production but rather a pervasive, multifaceted, and unavoidable feature of any social life. I also think it is no coincidence that these sometimes appear to be the only two intelligent people in human history that honestly believed that bureaucracy is characterized primarily by its effectiveness. Weber saw bureaucratic forms of organization — public and private — as the very embodiment of impersonal rationality, and as such, so obviously superior to all other possible forms of organization that they threatened to engulf everything, locking humanity in a joyless “iron cage,” bereft of spirit and charisma (1958: 181). Foucault was more subversive, but in a way that made bureaucratic power more effective, not less. In his work on asylums, clinics, prisons, and the rest, bodies, subjects—even truth itself—all become the products of administrative discourses. Through concepts like governmentality and biopower, state bureaucracies end up shaping the parameters of human existence in ways far more intimate than anything Weber might have imagined. 
It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that, in either case, their popularity owed much to the fact that the American university system during this period had itself become increasingly an institution dedicated to producing functionaries for an imperial administrative apparatus on a global scale. During the Cold War, this was often fairly explicit, especially in the early years when both Boasians like Mead and Benedict and Weberians like Geertz often found themselves operating within the military-intelligence apparatus, or even funded by CIA fronts (Ross 1998). Gradually, over the course of the campus mobilizations of the Vietnam War, this kind of complicity was made an issue. Max Weber — or, to be more accurate, that version of Weber promoted by sociologists like Parsons and Shils (1951), which gradually became the basis for State Department “modernization theory” — came to be seen as the embodiment of everything radicals wished to reject. But it wasn’t long before Foucault, who had been whisked out of his retreat in Tunisia and placed in the Coll├Ęge de France after the uprising of May 1968, began to fill the gap. One might even speak here of the gradual emergence of a kind of division of labor within American universities, with the optimistic side of Weber reinvented (in even more simplified form) for the actual training of bureaucrats under the name of “rational choice theory,” while his pessimistic side was relegated to the Foucauldians. Foucault’s ascendancy, in turn, was precisely within those fields of academic endeavor that both became the haven for former radicals, and were almost completely divorced from any access to political power — or, increasingly, from any influence on social movements as well. This gave Foucault’s emphasis on the “power/knowledge” nexus — the assertion that forms of knowledge are always also forms of social power, indeed, the most important forms of social power — a particular appeal. 
No doubt, any such pocket historical summary can only be a bit caricaturish and unfair. Still, I think there is a profound truth here. It is not just that we are drawn to areas of density, where our skills at interpretation are best deployed. We also have an increasing tendency to identify what’s interesting with what’s important, and to assume places of density are also places of power. The power of bureaucracy shows just how much this is often not the case.