Politics of invisibility

The construction of scientific facts and neoliberal responsibility in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill

Seminar Paper, 2011

25 Pages



1 Introduction

2 Theoretical premises
2.1 ‘Ecogovernmentality’ and the enactment of expertise
2.2 Neoliberal governmentality and responsibility
2.3 The construction of scientific facts and the ambiguity of truth

3 Case Study
3.1 The invisible oil
3.2 Sickness without a cause
3.3 The contestation of seafood safety

4 Conclusion


1 Introduction

When, on the 20th of April 2010, the oil platform Deep Water Horizon was struck by a massive explosion of gas, nobody would have expected that the consequences following the event would shake national politics, damage an entire ecosystem, sicken local people and lead to a chain of further negative consequences, an opening of a Pandora’s box.

In this paper I would like to investigate in the construction of scientific facts about the impacts of the spill and the distribution and allocation of responsibility. The use of massive amounts of toxic dispersants, which led the oil to disappear from the surface of the sea, in consequence also led to the slow but constant sickening of Gulf Coast residents and clean-up workers. The debate succeeding the incident is one of power, responsibility and construction of truth about the aftermath of the incident. Gulf Coast locals feel abandoned by the officials and the government (Project Gulf Impact 2010). From their point of view, they don’t seem willing to acknowledge their suffering from chemical poisoning with dispersed oil and the chemical ‘Corexit’, which was used in massive amounts (ca. 6,8 million litres, Kaufman 2011) by ‘British Petroleum‘ (BP) to dissolve the oil in the water column. A central question of the incident and its aftermath is therefore one of responsibility in a neoliberal society with neoliberal power structures.

I would like to approach the topic by first discussing the paradigms of ‘ecogovernmentality’ and ‘neoliberal governmentality’ in context of American neoliberalism. I will then go on to discuss the topic of ‘construction of scientific facts’, which plays a crucial role in questions of sea food safety and the sickening of local people and clean-up workers. How is biomedical knowledge constructed? What role does the pubic dissemination of ready made, ‘black boxed’ science play? Therewith I refer to inaccessible thresholds of toxicity and the separation of symptoms and causes of sickened people. I will approach these questions through the anthropology of science and its entanglement with the workings of expertise and neoliberal governmentality. I argue, that scientific facts about the impact of the spill are produced in a specific manner, in order to shift responsibility from officials and corporate leadership onto the level of the affected individual. In a further step, I will use the theoretical insights to investigate the case study of seafood safety and toxic illnesses of clean up-workers and affected locals.

2 Theoretical premises

2.1 ‘Ecogovernmentality’ and the enactment of expertise

‘Governmentality’ is a concept introduced by French philosopher Michel Foucault (1991:102-103). It refers to three processes. Firstly, to a group of institutions and procedures that allow the exertion of power on a population with and through the knowledge of political economy and apparatuses of security. Secondly, the formation of specific governmental apparatuses (bureaucracies) and bodies of knowledge as a result of the supremacy of governmentality over other forms of power. Thirdly, the evolution of the judiciary as an imposing force of law to an administrative apparatus, which is concerned with making a society stable and governable.

The concept of ‘ecogovernmentality’ builds upon the idea of the regulation of social interactions with the natural world. This regulation is done through the production and circulation of rationalities about nature and the environment, by governments, its experts and in this case study, multinational corporations. These rationalities work with the method of simplification and the goal to impose a simplistic logic onto a multidimensional reality in order to make it governable. The simplification of complex realities builds and depends upon the internalization of the rationalities through individual actors. When the individual citizen internalizes these rationalities, they become definitions, which manifest the reality they describe. The ‘chaos’ and illegibility of nature is made governable and understandable through its pre-interpretation. The role of experts in the enforcement of ecogovermentality lies in the representation of uncertain situations as stable, understandable and governable (Darier 1999, Malette 2009, Scott 1998).

One can interpret the concept of ecogovernmentality as the power of actors, in the form of state agencies, multinational corporations and experts, to define how nature works, is to be interpreted and interacted with. Unknown or hybrid phenomena are therefore transformed into normalized, simplified affairs that can be handled with. But the actual understanding and handling of a problem is complicated through the simplification process, since complexities are downplayed and denied. The public presentation of a phenomenon reacts back and transforms the actual problem, because it’s approached according to its represented pattern.

Darier (1999) notes that environmental movements coincide with an increased scepticism towards scientific knowledge. These movements contest our understanding of a positivist reality of nature, in form of the natural sciences. They ask, if these positivist claims aren’t a social construction themselves, which claim for themselves the power of definition over the natural world. Through this contestation, the role of expertise in the construction of knowledge comes into the focus of attention.

Barnes/Edge (1982:234) define experts as representatives of trusted institutions. When they speak, they argue to say what science says, and represent themselves as presenting purely objective truth. This indicates to the fact, that even scientific expertise requires a starting point, which is the expectance of science as representing investigated premises. Expertise, in this sense, derives its credibility from the maintenance of boundaries towards other fields of knowledge.

Knowledge, for Foucault (1977/1980), is never neutral. It is a construct, inevitably bound to social and political processes and historical and situational contexts in which it is produced. From this insight derives his concept of power/knowledge; the intertwining of power and knowledge. Power, in Foucault’s sense, is something that pervades society in all its aspects. It isn’t something exerted simply in a top-down manner, but is diffused and everywhere. This unspecified quality of power/knowledge is exemplified by the fact that there isn’t a clear vocabulary for the power/knowledge intertwining in existence and the denial or naivety of scientists to acknowledge the political use of scientific knowledge. The claim for truth is therefore part of a net of power relations that work beyond clear boundaries.

Weber (1919/1994) investigated the transition in the epistemology of sciences to show how claims for truth have changed over time. In the ancient times of Aristotle, science stood for the representation of actual truth, which could be assessed through the method of comprehension and scientific terms. The natural sciences of the modern era attempt to gain truth through scientific experiments. Now truth can’t be gained through the mere will to understand, but has to be approached through trial and error, measurement and objectification. Knowledge is seen as something processual that is constantly remade and revised. For Weber the problem in the will to truth lies in the entanglement of political statements and scientific facts.

Foucault (1977/1980) uses the term ‘political economy of truth’ to describe that truth is shaped by the sciences and institutions that describe it. Truth underlies constant economic and political interests. That’s why something as pure neutral knowledge doesn’t exist.

2.2 Neoliberal governmentality and responsibility

Ferguson/Gupta (2002) approach ‘neoliberal governmentality’ through the key terms of state spatialization: ‘encompassment’ and ‘verticality‘. Through these two terms, the authors try to explain the classical notion of power and nation states. The state encompasses the different scales of its society, ranging from the families and communities to the system of the nation-state. Within these scales, power is imagined to be exerted in a top-down manner, with the civil society working as a mediator between communities and state. Ferguson/Gupta (2002:982) argue that this traditional image of the state “that both sits above and contains its localities, regions and communities” is a metaphor intentionally produced and disseminated by the state to legitimate its power in the civil society. This is done through the presentation of state surveillance and presence. The concept of ‘transnational governmentality’ is offered to extend and replace this simplistic notion. It builds upon new power structures in neoliberal societies. State power is decreased and dispersed through the processes of deregulation, privatization and globalization. State institutions are partially privatized or “run according to an enterprise model” (Ferguson/Gupta 2002:989). Through these practices, the power of the state becomes contested and dispersed to new actors such as national firms, multinational corporations and organization like NGOs. They mention the example of the African states, where the World Bank and International Monetary Fund exert power on and beyond the state, through ‘structural adjustment programs’. These programs allow, in return for extensive financial credits, to impose powerful political policies as privatization and deregulation processes. Ferguson/Gupta summarize trenchantly: “Rather significant and specific aspects of state policy […] are, for many African countries, being formulated in places like New York, London, Brussels, and Washington” (Ferguson/Gupta 2002:992). New forms of transnational organization work from above (upon the government) and from below (upon local communities) on nation states, contest state power and legitimacy on a spatial and vertical level. I would like to add that they also produce new forms of agency (the capacity to act) and responsibility for individual, economical and state actors.

Hamman (2009) sees the aim of neoliberal governmentality in the production of social conditions that encourage the conduct of homo oeconomicus. He focuses on the level of the individual and its subject formation. The growing influence of neoliberal policy is revealed in the contemporary blurring of the public and private, the political and personal. Since government policy making has increasingly fallen under the influence of corporate interest, as a result of the privatization of formerly public institutions and the downsizing of social welfare, “social ills have been shifted to the personal realm” (Hamman 2009:40). The individual citizen is expected to be responsible for his/her own destiny, in good as bad. The invisible hand of the market and voluntary charity are assigned with the role of handling poverty, illness, environmental degradation etc. Hamman states that “individuals worldwide are more and more subject to harsh, unpredictable, and, unforgiving demands of market forces” (Hamman 2009:40-41) as a result of the cost-benefit calculus of multinational, private economy. Neoliberal subjects are thought of as thoroughly responsible for their own destinies. Responsibility is shifted from the level of state and corporate responsibility to the individual level. This shift of responsibility is the result of a change in ethics and conduct of political economy. As a result of the growth of neoliberal policy after the welfare state of Roosevelt’s ‘New Deal’, the American government was reconceived to be organized and ruled according to ‘economic positivism’, this is the promotion of market competition and the downsizing of state interference and influence. The drawback of the increase in individuality and competition is, that social inequalities as exploitation are now rendered invisible, because they are explained as the result of individual choices and investments (Hamman 2009).

When combining the concepts of neoliberal governmentality and ecogovernmentality, it becomes evident that the conduct of social interaction with the natural world is done according to the principles of neoliberal governmentality. This means that the knowledge about human-nature interaction and safety regulations is modelled so that responsibility and risk are shifted to the individual.

2.3 The construction of scientific facts and the ambiguity of truth

At the centre of the ‘anthropology of science’ stays the social and cultural context in the construction of scientific facts and the practicing of science, as well as the influence of non-theoretical factors in scientific processes. The beginning of the paradigm is marked by the separation of the ‘sociology of knowledge’ (the social boundedness of knowledge) and the ‘sociology of science’ (the institutional framing and social organization of science). With the post-Popper debate, the scientific claim of sciences to universality was dropped in favour of hermeneutical theories. Popper had stated that a theory, in order to be believable and scientific, has to be falsifiable. Falsifiable refers to the ability of a theory to be disapproved by an experiment; hence it can be tested and reproduced in reality.

Paul Feyerabend’s ‘empirical sub-determinacy thesis‘ states, that data alone does not lead systematically to one concluding theory, but that the specific interpretation of these data plays a crucial role in shaping a theory’s specific character. Therefore it is possible to use the same data to produce different and even contradictory theories.

The ‘theoretical determinacy of observation’ approach claims, that theories derived from observation are always shaped and influenced by the methods used to interpret an object. The methods are themselves already influenced by theoretical reflection in advance. From this insight the problem of missing objectivity can be deduced, since the reality appears differently according to the specific methods used to analyse and interpret it (Bammé 2009:21-24, Sismondo 2010:4).

The ‘Duhem-Quine thesis‘ asserts that “a theory can never conclusively be tested in isolation: what is tested is an entire framework or web of beliefs” (Sismondo 2010:5). This discovery derives from the fact that theories never make their prediction in a vacuum. They are made in reference and in utilization with a net of further theories and methods which share some of the assumptions of a challenged theory (Sismondo 2010:5).


Excerpt out of 25 pages


Politics of invisibility
The construction of scientific facts and neoliberal responsibility in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill
University of Zurich  (Ethnologisches Seminar)
Krisen, Konflikte, Katastrophen: Anthropologische Perspektiven
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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politics, deepwater, horizon
Quote paper
Simon Meier (Author), 2011, Politics of invisibility, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/174549


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