Performative Models

One of the most difficult things for me to convey in describing my research is the idea that I am not primarily interested in the representational aspects of modeling. In other words, questions about what the models include, how well those things are represented, the accuracy of the models, and what is excluded – these are not my first questions. I think that the bias for seeing my project this way stems from a tendency to see models as a form of cognition. Models are generally considered extensions of our minds. While I think that’s true, I also think they are much more than that. Models are also technological structures with elaborate architectures, powered by material processes. They require human and non-human labor to produce, maintain, translate, and implement.

Conceptualizing modeling in this way means that I am interested in the performative dimensions of modeling – what models do – more than in what they represent. I am interested in the activities that go into producing the models and using them to decide how to manage environmental problems. From there, I am interested in how those activities produce not just models but also social relationships, institutions, management structures, and so on. 

This doesn’t mean that I am not at all interested in the representational aspects of modeling. I am in the sense that representations are, themselves, performative. The act of deciding how to model certain dynamics, how to best represent the flow of water and the effects of nutrients on the system – these representations have important consequences for the way that water quality is managed. As a result, I would argue that the classic division between the model (or map) and the territory breaks down. The model may not be the territory, but it is certainly part of the territory that it attempts to represent. The question is – rephrasing it again – how do we confront the model as both representation (cognition) and material activity (performance)? How might this view of modeling change the way we engage in modeling? My research so far suggests that there are a lot of factors to consider beyond representational issues, and I’m hoping to develop a more systematic way to confront those issues. 

Hacking Modeling

I am cross-posting this at my primary blog (Struggle Forever!) because it relates to some issues that are of interest to me beyond this project, but the ideas grow out of the work I’m doing for my dissertation research.

It is interesting to me that models can be seen as both a cognition – simulation and representation – and as infrastructure – a system of computational structures embedded within institutional organizations. In other words, the model is not the territory, but becomes part of the territory it seeks to represent, and increasingly so the more influential and widely distributed it becomes. Over at Synthetic_Zero, Edmund Berger describes modeling for environmental management as a form of repurposing of systems designed within and for military-industrial structures for uses that undermine those very structures. In other words, environmental modeling is a kind of “hacking.” It’s an idea I’m interested in and hope to explore to some extent in my research, though there are a number of other angles I’m exploring as well.

Interestingly, Berger suggests that environmental models always, to some extent, represent this kind of hacking, since environmental values are generally opposed to the neoliberal values of the systems they were designed for. Perhaps I’m still skeptical, but I’m finding that models are powerful tools, and that, regardless of the scale and type of environmental model, they have important performative effects that can be considered reformative if not revolutionary. The underlying question of my research – which I’ve already stated, but will restate again and again in many different ways – is under what conditions can we best foster these performative effects in order to promote their revolutionary potential?

I’m not completely convinced yet that all environmental modeling is equal. Some projects seem to reinforce state hierarchies, though it is these hierarchies that are often able to confront neoliberal institutions head-on. Models – especially big, complex ones – make that possible. On the other hand, there are other projects that have the potential to undermine state hierarchies and the division between expert and layperson that underlie them. However, these projects tend to be smaller scale, and rely on smaller, simpler, and potentially less accurate modeling systems. This combination makes these projects potentially less capable of confronting large scale neoliberal interests, at least on the short term. On the long-term, as more of these kinds of projects accumulate and as people come to expect this kind of collaboration in scientific practice, it seems to me that it might be possible to generate a different subjectivity that sees collective action and mutual aid as an effective means of resistance against social neoliberalization.

This is all speculation at the moment, and I’m not able to back it up with any evidence – particularly the long-term speculations. I’m also not opposed to any approach to modeling per se. At this stage, I think it is important to develop a kind of situational awareness of what the obstacles are to environmental protection and restoration in a given case, and what kind of modeling methods might be best suited to addressing those obstacles. I’ve seen little of that situational awareness being fostered – instead the focus is on improving the accuracy and validity of models. I hope my research will shed some light on the relationship between modeling methods and practices and the social relationships in which they take place so that researchers can make more informed decisions about what approach to modeling best suits the conditions of each particular situation.