Performing the Bay

An interesting insight I’ve had in the early phases of my research has to do with the issue of performance in the way that the models are constructed. Of course, I’m particularly attentive to these kinds of issues, because I’m using a performativity framework to make sense of my research, but it’s interesting to have that framework validated by some of the actions and discourse of the people who actually do the modeling. Furthermore, it’s nice to be surprised by the ways in which the framework is validated – to have a novel insight come out of the process of refracting the practices I’ve been observing through the lens of performativity.

For the last few months, I’ve been attending various meetings and conferences in which the models that I am studying have been developed and discussed. Of course, most of the work goes on behind the scenes, and I haven’t had a chance to fully observe those processes yet, but it has nevertheless been a very informative opportunity to take part in these meetings. I get an opportunity to see the various facets of the model hashed out among different people representing different backgrounds, conceptual frameworks, and interests. The construction of models is, in this sense, always a collaborative process.

One of the things I’ve seen often in these meetings has been depictions of the modeled results paired against depictions of results from monitoring sites. It’s a fairly common practice, and probably fairly mundane for those familiar with modeling. Comparing the model to the actual system (as refracted through monitoring equipment, at least) is an important part of the process of constructing and validating a model. It’s possible to understand this practice in a representationalist framework: modelers want their models to accurately represent the system, so presenting the two sets of data together enables us to see how closely the representation comes to reality. That’s useful, maybe, but I think the performative framework provides a more interesting way of understanding this practice.

In thinking about modeling as performance and as performative, it occurs to me that this practice of presenting modeled data alongside monitored data is a kind of performance – an audition, perhaps. The model is being asked to perform the role of the Bay (at least some subset of its attributes, but that’s true of all performance and role play). It’s in these venues where the model’s performance is critiqued, and then the modelers go back to work with the model and improve its performance for subsequent rehearsals (like reciting lines). All of this is in preparation for when the model has to perform for the regulatory bodies, the environmental management staff, and the general public, and, hopefully, if the modelers have done their work, and the model’s performance has been fully vetted, it will convince the audience by performing the Bay effectively.


That’s not all, though! Saying that the model performs the Bay and comparing these demonstrations to rehearsals is not in itself revelatory nor is it explicitly performative. Where the performative framework becomes really interesting is in understanding how performances do more than represent or enact a role, they also come to shape the realities upon which they act. I can see two ways this happens in this case. First, there is the relationship between the role and the performer. An actor may have some agency to improvise and perform a part in a variety of ways, but those performances are always structured by the role itself and by the expectations of the audience. An actor cannot play Hamlet however s/he wants, the actor must, to some degree, internalize the character of Hamlet and perform as if s/he were that character. This requires a process of conditioning where the actor disciplines herself to perform the character (some schools of acting are more intense about this process than others – method acting, for example, is notoriously so).

With that in mind, the Bay model could be said to be undergoing a similar conditioning process, and these rehearsals are where the process is demonstrated and refined. The model must internalize the Bay as the character it will perform, and it’s through this process that the model is shaped not as a representation, but as an actor playing its part.

The second way these practices are performative rather than simply performances is in the relationship between the actor/character and the world with which they act. By world, I am referring to all of the other actors involved in the performance, and I mean “actors” in a broad sense. In a film or a play, there is a sense in which the stage and props are actors, the other actors are as well, of course, but so too is the audience. All of these actors perform their own roles, and this shapes the way that our actor/character performs as well and vice versa. As a result, through this process of many actors performing their roles, a world is created (not a static container for the actors, but the emergent product of their performances).

This is where the metaphor of actors and stages breaks down or has to be expanded, because in the case of the model, there is no “fourth wall” – no imaginary boundary between the performance and reality. Instead, the actors perform their roles within the “real” world. There is a sense, then, in which the model performs the Bay alongside the Bay itself, which is performing it’s own role in a much broader drama. As a result, the two are, to some degree at least, mutually constituting – the Bay and the Bay model perform a world together. The question that my research is meant to answer, to some extent, is what kind of world is being performed?

The performative framework allows us to understand the processes and practices of knowledge production (and others as well) from a non-representational perspective. In my view, the representational perspective is limiting because it separates our knowledge and representations from the world. The performative perspective embeds knowledge in the world as practices and relationships. Understanding how these practices contribute to the production of a world in relation to the objects of their representation (e.g. the Bay), will allow us to imagine other possible ways of producing those worlds, and will encourage us to enact new ways of performing them.

Modeling is not about the future

Sometimes being an anthropologist surrounded by archaeologists has its benefits. Engaging with them conceptually has certainly helped me to think through the materialisms that I have encountered in my theoretical explorations, and given me a deeper appreciation for infrastructure. But another thing it has done for me is to give me a better understanding of the meaning of the past and memory in our lives. This is something I think I can also apply to models as projections of the future. 

There is an abundance of literature in archaeology on memory and the social construction of the past (see e.g. Shanks and Tilley’s Social Theory in Archaeology). The underlying premise – put very simply – is that the past is not an objective fact, but is constructed and continually reconstructed in the present. In that sense, the role of the past and memory in our lives and social worlds is not to project an image backward, but to compose relations between people and objects here and now. We seek to make sense of the past, and this in many ways shapes the way our world is structured today. The implication for archaeology – the study of the past through material culture – is that, rather than attempting to uncover the “real” past that will tell us how things really were, the purpose of archaeology is to explore new ways of constructing the past in the present. This has resulted in practices like critical archaeology, the archaeology of race and gender, public and collaborative archaeology, etc. 

My research deals only marginally with the past. There is the history of the models, the history of the ecological systems that they are meant to represent, and the histories of the institutions that have developed around modeling and managing those ecologies. These pasts are relevant and important but not the major concerns of my work. However, my work deals significantly with the future – models have become a kind of oracle through which we can project current conditions and processes out into the future. This is a new kind of science. Field and lab research couldn’t tell us what the future would be like, they could only tell us what could be observed in the present. Models bring a dimension of prophecy to the world of science. 

It’s like the Tarot or I Ching – we call to mind some problem, cast the oracle, and the oracle tells us what might come of the future. Obviously, I don’t believe in magic or the transcendent forces that underlie these methods and lend them legitimacy, but I have always been fascinated with practices of divination. I think it was reading Joseph Campbell and subsequently Carl Jung that led me to accept that these practices might have some value even when those transcendent forces were removed. The power of divination lies not in the power of the cards, sticks, stones, tea leaves, etc. to predict the future, but rather in their symbolic ability to redefine the present and encourage us to think differently about it. The media function as catalysts for reinterpreting the current conditions by way of a prediction of the future so that we might become more aware of the various possibilities open to us and then act to manifest those possibilities in our present lives. 

This is the same thing that archaeological theory tells us about the past and memory, so there is in many respects an analogy between the role of the past and the role of the future in our lives. If the past is a construct that enables us to make sense of and restructure the present, then so too is the future, and methods of divination are the processes and practices by which we construct the present by way of the future. 

As I’ve suggested, modeling too is a method of divination or oracle consultation. It differs from the others, of course, in that it is based in empirical observation and mathematical representation rather than symbolic projection and the unconscious, but there are many similarities nevertheless. There is always a dimension of uncertainty around modeling. No matter how well calibrated the model is (i.e. how good it is at representing the past – another way that my research touches on the role of history) future conditions are always fundamentally unpredictable. We can project what we know forward, but there is always the possibility that some unknown factor will come into play and change the whole system making all of our predictions irrelevant. With that in mind, the idea that models can predict the future is just as spurious as the idea that Tarot cards can tell us when we will die or with whom we will fall in love. It may be that the model provides a better approximation of future events than the Tarot, but the uncertainty always remains. 

Following the implications of archaeological theory and the non-transcendent understanding of the value of divination, however, it becomes apparent that predicting the future is not the function of models at all. Modeling is not about the future. Like divination and archaeology, modeling constructs the future in the present, and provides a catalyst for reinterpreting present conditions. This allows us to be more conscious of the various possibilities open to us so that we can act to manifest those possibilities in our present lives. Whether or not a particular possibility will manifest is fundamentally unknowable – there are simply too many factors at play – and this is why we must continually reconsult the oracle. As with the past, the future must be continually reconstructed in the present in order to structure and restructure our world. 

Again, following archaeology, but this time in terms of praxis rather than theory, this raises a lot of implications for how modeling is performed and how the future is constructed. As I mentioned, in archaeology the result has been a shift to critical approaches, as well as collaborative methods. I think the implications are similar for modeling, but first we have to rethink the role of modeling along the same lines as divination. 

Models have to be deprived of their seemingly transcendent authority – as more-or-less accurate representations of a pre-existing and eternal Nature. This is not to say that models shouldn’t be based on the best empirical knowledge we have at the time, but that we should recognize the limitations of that knowledge and understand that the future is fundamentally unknowable. Modeling must come to be recognized as a tool for understanding and restructuring the present by way of a prediction of the future just as divination methods have done and as archaeology has come to define itself in relation to the past.