Apparatus, Infrastructure, Institution

I’ve been reading McKenzie Wark’s latest book Molecular Red (slowly…because I’ve been “busy”…), and I feel that it provides an excellent synthesis of different threads of thought (Marxist, posthuman, science fictional, etc.) which will be extremely useful in my dissertation research. One of the things he explores is the notion of the “apparatus” in Karen Barad’s work on particle physics. The apparatus is what enables us to know the elusive, mysterious objects that compose the world that we inhabit. Juxtaposing two versions of realism – objective realism in which what’s considered to be real is an objective world apart from our conceptions of it, and process realism in which what’s real is the processes by which we encounter the world around us – Wark describes the way that the apparatuses that mediate our encounters with the world, “make a cut.” In other words, it’s not that these apparatuses give us a unique view into a world that is simply there waiting for us to view it – a particularly voyeuristic and patriarchal way to understand knowledge – it’s that the apparatuses make a cut into the world that enables us to encounter it in a particular way. This is the materiality of knowledge production, which is often ignored by the scientists and philosophers who are engaged in the processes.

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After exploring the implications for this approach to realism – inspired not only by Barad, but by Haraway, Mach, Feyerabend, Bogdanov, and Platonov – he draws on Paul Edwards’s work on climate science to discuss the complex infrastructure that binds these apparatuses together to construct a global knowledge. Edwards’s book has been massively influential for me in my dissertation research, so it’s understandable that I would be interested in a theoretical approach that links it to other theorists that have interested me. For Wark, infrastructure is what links the various apparatuses of knowledge together to create a vast knowledge system. It’s not just that “knowledge is power” or that we cycle through a set of paradigms – these are idealist notions of knowledge – it’s that the production of knowledge is simultaneously the production of a world.

“Edwards: ‘Data are things.’ If we are to avoid a commodity or corporeal fetishism of such things, then critique has to inquire as to how data is produced. Data are the product of a whole series of labors, of observing, recording, collecting, transmitting, verifying, reconciling, storing, cataloguing, and retrieving.”

The result of all of this labor is not just knowledge, but a complex architecture, a structure of material relations between people, objects, technologies, and organisms. In my research on modeling, I am beginning to resolve the structure of relations that underlies our understanding of the Chesapeake Bay watershed, but what I’m most interested in are the institutional structures that come out of those knowledge practices.

The Chesapeake Bay Program (CBP) is a sprawling institution with many links to various other institutions – universities, federal, state and local agencies, environmental management institutions, interest groups, and so on. It’s so vast and substantial I’ve taken to thinking of it as the “leviathan of the Bay.” All of these connections are, I would argue, constructed around a knowledge infrastructure that is predominantly engaged in the development of the Chesapeake Bay Modeling System (CBMS). This is a large, complex model that links watershed and airshed inputs to estuarine water quality allowing researchers and managers understand how the system works and what kinds of activities are most effective for cleaning it up. It’s not a deterministic relationship where the development of the model – because it is so large and complex – produces the institutional structure in which it operates. Rather it’s a mutually constituting relationship – the large institution of the CBP contributes to the construction of the large CBMS, and the large CBMS depends upon the large institution of the CBP to operate.

My contention here is that, if we are to take a socio-ecological approach seriously, then we have to attend to the processes by which socio-ecologies are produced, and our knowledge production practices cannot be separated from the socio-ecologies they inhabit. The apparatuses we use to know the Bay, and the infrastructures and institutions that link those apparatuses together are as much a part of the Bay socio-ecology as the phytoplankton, crabs, and aquatic vegetation the CBP is trying to manage. Thinking this way about the socio-ecology of the Bay might allow us to explore different ways of constructing it – different kinds of apparatuses, or different ways of linking them together – that might produce a better relationship among the various actors who compose it. In order to do that, we need what Wark describes as a “low theory” – one that theorizes relationships by working through the messy, complex, and difficult connections that are made in the process of producing knowledge. Hopefully, this is what my research will contribute.