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De-Risking

Companies and corporations, as I witnessed at various conferences and summits is exemplary for “the BioEconomy”, have increasingly called for “de-risking”. Now what is meant by de-risking?
De-risking refers to the idea that the “risks” that any new venture enters into are lessened. That does sound, of course pretty good and only reasonable, but on the other hand, not all if any risks can be made to disappear. So, what does de-risking effectively mean?
Risks, we should bear in mind, are first of all not referring to events that could happen, they are not the events themselves (as Ulrich Beck has pointed out most emphatically). Now for ventures in, for example, the Bioeconomy sector, these “risks” involve investments that may fail with the criteria of what constitutes a “failure” also being part of this discussion: An investment fails, for example if a venture cannot be turned into (the benefit of) profit at all or does not bring the expected profit (which can refer to “profit” being made from either the sale of the commodity or the financial market returns of the ventured product as an asset) or if a venture causes damage and/or harm. In terms of the bioeconomy, where often (biotechnological) research is involved, de-risking can mean several things: One issue is the question of the time it take to bring a product “from lab-bench to work-bench” or “from lab-bench to market”, which often hinges on fulfilling regulations and navigating bureaucracies created and performed up by national state and supranational governments (for example through process of trials and certifications, e.g. regarding safety), (expected) profit of a product (whether as commodity or asset) can be time sensitive for a variety of reasons (a product’s marketability can depend on a temporary trend or situation, or on when, which and how market competition is to be expected, etc.);the more a venture depends on “fundamental”/“frontier” science the more investment intensive the science may be and the higher the risk of the project to fail (although given that, for example in the pharmaceutical market novelty items or new markets require high marketing costs, the argument has often been made that the bigger problem are these costs not the research, i.e. what has been called the question of “invention of diseases”; this is, as Joe Dumit or Nate Greenslit among others have deftly illustrated, an important topic of its own, though, and also too complex for any naive and overly simple generalisation here); another issue are the question of damages and harms a product may inadvertently cause, requiring restitution and compensatory payments. Of course, investors, entrepreneurs, and (shareholder-owned) corporations want to reduce those risks, and are making the case that – on all these fronts, which certainly are not to be seen as an exhaustive list of risk categories – states, who do have an interest in the promotion of BioEconomy and respective venture, should de-risk to allow innovation to happen, productivity to increase, and growth to occur (whether this simple and near-mythical “economic narrative” holds up at all and/or can be sustained in actual reality is another matter). Yet, as I said, the so de-risked risks do not disappear, the burden is merely shifted onto states and, in consequence, onto society. De-risking means many things in practice: For example, yes, the speeding up of regulatory process – by deciding faster, dropping regulations, not being as thorough (what the anti-bureaucratic stance, that bemoans the shackles of overregulation often forgets is that most regulations have originally emerged and are maintained for valid reasons), etc. -; but also subsidising especially fundamental research or start-ups (directly through funding or indirectly through reduced taxes); as well as by reducing the liabilities businesses would have in case of damage and harm, from advance relieving them of compensation to pay for damages/harm caused or the state taking over the costs for preventative measures. In short, one could say that de-risking means not the reduction of risks but the shifting of risks from entrepreneurs/corporations to society. And while it seems only “rational” for investors, entrepreneurs, and corporations to seek that, there is an inconsistency with the logic of what can be called the “moral economy” in play: Investors&c. in general public discourse warrant profit margin – for example generated through high prices such as in the pharmaceutical market – by giving the reason that they take do after all take risks (generally understood as failure, i.e. the possibility of the loss of the investment or the diminishing of the [expected] returns [with a certain probability]: de-risking, thus and as we have seen, does not reduce the probability of the event occurring, but it means that the risk is shifted to someone else with at least the same probability of the event [the research fails, a damage happens, etc.] occurring, yes, it is even possible that the probability of the event described in the risk occurring is even increased because the more expansive the shifting of the risks entailed is, the more careless [riskier] and with less precaution the undertaking may be pursued). In the 2008 financial crisis, we have seen an illustration of an event occurring, wherein high risks were taken, but we could also see a strange temporal occurrence, because within the “banks too big to fail” rescue of banks by the state, a de-risking after the event had already occurred was performed: The risks taken were, a posteriori shifted onto society. The lesson learned by investors from this crisis is precisely the emergence of de-risking, i.e. the possibility that risks can effectively be shifted to society while upholding the warrant to price and profit at the investors leisure [mind you investors’ warrant has now, however, shifted from warrant qua justification to warrant qua entitlement].

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 A friend, to whom I suggested a collaborative paper, wrote me back with a few execellent signposts and directions we should take; he added, en lieu for a small area of legal philosophy, that he “won’t do any postmodern, though, as he’s already done that in younger years”.  Fine with me: Not considering myself a postmodernist myself, despite my affection for some authors and individual works, such as Lyotard’s post foundational argumentative logic in Le Differend, which are often labelled such (though I find such labels and the ideological effects they stand for often misleading if not a bit distasteful – it is often the followers and self-declared disciples of these authors who imagine a “movement” such as postmodernism). Nonetheless, as we were setting out to write about a problem area involving the use and abuse of transnational law, I am curious as to a similarity in two very different authors, writing about very different subject areas; one of them is often considered a “postmodern” writer: Roland Barthes. I think it was Jean-Claude Milner who wrote in his Le Périle structural (2002, quoted in Samoyault 2015: 319 Fn. 2 and paraphrased here), in a comparison of the critique of literature’s language in Sartre and Barthes, that the latter saw that literature was an ideological form and thus implied decision on l’écriture (‘writing’/Schreibweise) and thus every decision on l’écriture included an ideologue (the word dialectics was not used in the quote, non surprisingly for in the heavily Hegelian-influenced pensée or imaginary dialectics implies some necessary materiality, which, for example, a Kantian use of the term does not). Despite a resonance with Althusser, I was more struck by the possibility for analogy with Morris R. Cohen’s and Oliver Wendel Holmes Jr.’s (and to subsequently, Benjamin Cardozo’s) views on jurisprudence – which is of some unquestionable importance, given that the opposite view to theirs stemming from US corporate law (, a certain anglo-american legal positivism,) and the econo-legal Chicago school (à la Posner) in particular on “contract”, “property” and “corporate person” as legal kinds have become influential, if not even hegemonic in international trade laws, and subsequently on transnational jurisprudence.
Myers summarizes (1977: 671), that

“[t]he inherent normative content and scientific structure of the legal systemled Cohen to challenge certain practices and dogmas of American law. He was among the first to attack the phonograph theory of judicial decision-making the notion that judges find and do not make the law.’  An unconscious or hidden establishment of new legal rules under the guise  of stare decisis,  legal fictions, or vague concepts like reasonableness, betrays the science of law. Agreeingwith Holmes, Cohen similarly noted that use of the fourteenth amendment’s due process and equal protection clauses often conceals deep-seated economic and ethical motives.’”

It was the point of Morris R. Cohen that judges and lawyers practice of the law was not, as we could say with Barthes, ideologically innocent; instead the (practice of the) law was influenced by them, thus law was made; but as laws also carried the baggage of their history this was not an arbitrary process either. Thus, I think, Barthes’s point about literature as Milner portrays it, is a fine analogy for Morris R. Cohen’s (and co.) thought on law, and it’s rather surprising to me, that this appears missing in Desautels-Stein’s recent analysis as far as I seem to be aware.

Literature:
Desautels-Stein, Justin (2018) The Jurisprudence of Style: A Structuralist History of American Pragmatism and Liberal Legal Thought, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press
Myers, Edward B. (1977) “Liberalism and Legal Science: The Jurisprudence of Morris Raphael Cohen” in: Notre Dame L. Rev. 52: 653ff
Samoyault, Tiphaine (2015) Roland Barthes: Die Biographie. Berlin: Suhrkamp.

The following is a draft for a footnote from a paper on transnational law I am working on. In the footnote, I am proposing that one of the two main social phenomenological approaches, that of that Austrian banker, is not useful (the other one would be Luhmann’s systems theory, which is useful only within limits, i.e. to describe, a posteriori, formal organizations).

Along those lines, one can add that Gephardt, to do his due diligence as was necessary in terms of national disciplinary canon in sociology in the 1990s, dedicates a chapter to a hobby social philosopher, the Austrian banker, Schuetz, only to find that in the banker had no use in his works for norms, values, and law: As far as we can see, Schütz embarks on an attempt to constitute societal reality without taking into account values and norms, and definitely without law. (1993: 58, my translation of: “Soweit wir sehen konnten unternimmt Schütz den Versuch gesellschaftliche Wirklichkeit ohne Rückgriff auf Normen und Werten und schon gar nicht Recht zu konstituieren.”)

This is all somewhat non-surprising for an elitist, neoliberal person such as Schütz who conducts scholarship as white collar person’s a past-time. Gephardt (59) correctly mentions that Parsons’s, of course, saw through Schütz from the start in a their correspondence which was fueled by Schütz’s misunderstanding (according to Gephardt, although it’s more a mix of Schütz’s limitations as a scholar on the one had, and a stubborn, typical elitarian refusal to acknowledge Parsons’s polite attempt at signaling that he’s just not interested in the kind of empirics- and reality-freed– or as Parsons calls it fictional – philosophy, that Schütz is dabbling in. Schütz thinks that while it is “possible to think” someone’s orientation could be guided by norms/values (following in Gephardt’s depiction, ibid.), Schütz then dissuades such an approach with the following – no less, inherently normative, for giving a normative evaluation of the value of values and norms – statement (in: Schütz, Parsons, Grathoff 1978: 31):

“In other words, if the concept of normative value is interpreted from a strictly subjective point of view, no reason can be discovered why the choice between means (goals) and ends ruled by a normative value should differ from any other choice that is not ruled by a normative value.”

In, again, different words: Schütz wants us to accept (something that is actually impossible, namely) a flat (social) epistemology. And this is understandable, for it fits nicely with neoliberal ideology. Schütz, we should recall, is not only a banker, but a follower of von Hayek (who, by the way, himself ridiculed Schütz’s “intellectual” efforts behind his back) as well as a member of the neoliberal and libertarian Mont Pelerin society of which, for example, billionaire Charles G. Koch is a member. The denial of the existence of social epistemic privileges that bankers and billionaires have and continue to enjoy requires, to truly work at least on a theoretical level, a to suppose a flat (social) epistemology (and consider the distribution of wealth and social capital as social ontologically given); respectively the subject cannot be produced through subjectivation as Foucault would critique (something that would be perfectly intelligible for Parsons). One can imagine the acrobatics that Berger/Luckmann had to conduct in order to create something sociologically productive, while suggesting they were standing on the (intellectually rather tiny) shoulders of Schütz – who would, probably and rightfully so, be utterly forgotten had it not been for Berger/Luckmann. However, since intellectually we can already do not only the same but even better with Weber and Husserl proper, it’s time to pack away the banker and rid us of this crypto-neoliberal theorizing.

[Note for clarification: I think the problem with flat epistemology here is that (a) Schütz conflates flat epistemology with flat social epistemology; and (b) normatively imputes flat epistemology and then hides this normative imputation through reification and committing other fallacies. While the idea of a flat epistemology in general in the theory of science seems like a wishful idea (McKenzie Wark in his critical account of Timothy Morton proposes such an avenue [http://www.publicseminar.org/2015/12/from-ooo-to-poo/]), due to the info-order problem alone it’s impossible. It is debatable whether, on the other hand, ontologies can be flat (following Roy Bhaskar’s critical realist polemics but through a twisting it into becoming serious, Manuel DeLanda through a Deleuzean reading, seems to think so; whereas Graham Harman argues that ontologies cannot be entirely flat [“….not all translations are equal.” (2011)]). In a more in-depth discussion, we would also have to address Peter Unger’s work. Let’s only add this here: one critical issue is that serious proponents of a general flat epistemology (I do not include as to be taken seriously Schütz, because his evocation of epistemological flatness in general serves the purpose of flattening social epistemology in order to create a warrant for [epistemic and social] privilege that need not for it cannot be justified but can merely rest its claim on entitlement as simply being the “present way things are” due to a sort of anti-realist structure, which Schütz inherently shares with neoliberal legal scholarship of the economico-juridical Chicago School and the so-called Originalists among interpretants of the US constitution such as the late Judge Scalia) like McKenzie Wark, and, implicitly perhaps Timothy Morton and Levi Bryant, are poised towards a connection with flat ontology or near-flat ontology (à la Harman) as a sort complement or compensatory necessity, however, it would be wrong to conduct the simpleton “Hegel-synthesis” and claim that these made for onto-epistemology; on the contrary, onto-epistemology is neither synthesis nor hybrid or aggregate, but stands as a genuine Third. And, one must say, that the attribute of a “flatness” may not make any sense for onto-epistemology, or at least not in the way it would for ontologies or epistemologies (nor can epistemologies flattened only in order to be used to create a flattening criterion for ontologies – this was roughly the point of Bhaskar’s criticism of flat ontologies being flattened as to privilege the human point of view in a way similar to what Haraway exposed as the god-trick), because – if anything – onto-epistemology is not flat in this way but would help us understand how “flatness” is done/performed. In addition, with Bhaskar and critical realism, we are also enabled renounce the likes of Schütz, since the kind of “flatness” Schütz and his ilk evoke, is effectively put out of service by Bhaskar who directed his act of deposing “flatness” against it as being a feature of positivism; thus we can say it applies against legal positivism and also against privilege-/privi-legal-positivism. For transnational law, especially in regard of “extraction”, Bhaskar’s rejection of flattenings and, subsequently the respective positivisms, in particular alerts us to the conclusion that agents and actors entangled in extraction and/or in transnational legal practice and law are not all of them (perhaps not even most of them) human.

“We need to get over Foucault.” I say this as someone who is a declared Foucauldean. And what I mean is not that we “forget Foucault” or that he was wrong. What I mean is that many of the critical tools and ideas he introduced are still currently valid. For a thinker, who insisted on the geographical, t(r)opological, and temporal situatedness of his own scholarship and of intellectuals as specialized intellectuals in general, that his scholarship is still so current, pertinent, and useful (and seems that it will be for the foreseeable future) is horrifying. We should already have gotten over Foucault, because his tools, his analyses, his politics, and his problems should no longer be our own, contemporary ones. We should already have gotten over them, and thus gotten over Foucault. Therefore, it is time that we get – perhaps with Foucault – over Foucault.

Following an expanding a conceptual proposal by Terry Shinn and its adoption by Erik Lettkemann (Shinn 2002, 2008; Lettkemann 2017), we can deploy the concepts “research technology” to the way that BioEconomy deploys biotechnologies – even though it does so in the a decidedly vague sense, whereas Shinn’s conceptual framework is usuallu deployed to more concrete cases such as for example by Lettkemann to the case of transmission electron microscopy. For Shinn, “research technologies” form a “transverse regime” for the production of knowledge as well as “artefacts” (we could maybe also say, instead with Rheinberger with whose work there are similiarities, “epistemic objects”) , meaning that those practitioners who use these technologies are not bound by the institutional boundaries their disciplines, fields, institutions, and facilities normally set up.

The social locus of the transverse regime is conceived as an ‘interstitial arena’ arranged around ‘generic instrumentation’ designed to meet the requirements of a wide range of academic and industrial audiences. Each interstitial arena is populated by a community of research-technologists. They work on widening the application possibilities of their instrumentation, collaborating with heterogeneous audiences who seek to adopt the instrumentation’s generic uses. Generic instrumentation designates a research-related type of multipurpose device, including, for example, ‘automatic switching systems, the ultracentrifuge, the laser, cybernetics, Fourier transform spectroscopy, the Cooley-Tukey algorithm, the C++ object oriented computer language, the scanning tunnelling microscope, etc.’ (Shinn, 2008: 2). The widespread diffusion of generic instrumentation is accompanied by the development of a ‘metrology’ that serves as a cross-disciplinary lingua franca. (Lettkemann 2017: 394)

Lettkemann further proposes the distinction between

between nomads and settlers : while nomads live the life of freelancers, travelling from one laboratory to the next, settlers establish host laboratories and invite researchers from neighbouring fields to collaborate. (395)

This conceptual distinction is particularly useful, because when we introduce to it the geopolitics of Global North and Global South and the epistemological attitude/entitlement exuding from the Global North that Colin Scott described in “Science for the West, Myth for the Rest”, it points out how Western sciences establish host facilities in non-Western/Global Southern territories and (epistemically) coerce non-Western interlocutors. Thus, we can speak here of a form epistemic settler colonialism. The biotechnologies of the BioEconomy are an excellent example.

Literature:

Lettkemann, Eric. 2017. “Nomads and Settlers in the Research-Technology Regime: The Case of Transmission Electron Microscopy.” Social Science Information 56 (3): 393–415. doi:10.1177/0539018417719396.

Shinn, Terry. 2002. “Intellectual Cohesion and Organizational Divisions in Science.” Revue Française de Sociologie 43: 99–122. doi:10.2307/3322759.

———. 2008. Research-Technology and Cultural Change: Instrumentation, Genericity, Transversality. GEMAS Studies in Social Analysis. Oxford: Bardwell.

For Gilles Lhuilier

Inspired by his friend Goethe, Alexander von Humboldt in 1807 publishes with his Essai sur la gèographie des plantes what has been called the world’s first ecological book, originating a way of seeing and thinking about “nature” as an interconnected whole. This “whole” became quickly understood under the term “ecology” (coined by Ernst Haeckel in reference to an idea of “economy of nature” in 1866) and the (developmental) connection between the unit of interest in biology (“organism”) or the social sciences (“society and/or individual)” was construed to be with the “environment”/”Umwelt”. Today, and especially in reference to the European and French discourse on bioeconomy, the term “écosystéme” is is seeing a renaissance, given that a main area of both theoretical, empirical-conceptual, and practical interest in the bioeconomy is geared towards so-called “ecosystem services”.

“Ecosystem”, as proposed by botanist A.G. Tansley in correspondence with A.R. Clapham in 1935, and was quickly introduced into the discourse of the social sciences – where “system” had already gained currency first through John Boodin and later was continued by Talcott Parsons (one should, however and in all fairness, not forget Parsons intake of biology, as well as his human condition paradigm’s reliance on environmental factors) – where from the late 1940s to the early 1960s human ecology was vividly discussed as being the main problem or reference point for the study of “the social” by anthropologists such as Alfred Kroeber or even – following in the footsteps of Parks’s and Burgess’s Chicago School – Leo Schnore and Otis Duncan Dudley, the latter becoming a founding father of “quantitative sociology”, with their POET scheme (population, organziation, environment, technology) and Schnore in particular saw lineage herein with Durkheim. Tansley’s contribution, it should not be forgotten, of “ecosystem” conceptualized as a system in terms of engineering and energy, had a rival in Jan Smuts – of “imperialist” fame – notion of “holism”. The Tansley-Smuts debate is, by some, viewed as symptomatic and archetyptical for the 1920s and 30s, which is – historically speaking in light of social thought – at the heels of Frederick L. Holmsted, Partick Geddes and other “conservationist” thinkers who began to assume connections existed between “the social” and “nature”, which required not only biological scrutiny but also preservation. And yet, repeatedly “nature”, “environment”, and “ecology” have disappeared from the “sociological imagination” for a variety of continuous theory-political reasons and eventually the rise of a school of social constructionism, that was decidedly human exemptionalistic – not entirely dissimilar from human exceptionalism in genetic research, a human exemptionalist stance propounds that humans and their technological civilization are exempt from the influences of the bio-physical environment. Even animal-human relations (anthropozoology) have – with the exception of perhaps reference by Gerhard Lenski – not held sociologists attention for decades and come under more intensified scrutiny only very recently and, perhaps, not without the rise of feminist and postcolonial science studies and the revere across disciplines that an eminent scholar like Donna Haraway would garner. In between times, and despite “ecological problems” such as “smog” being discussed since right after World War II, it wasn’t until the end of the 1970s that William Catton and Riley Dunlap voice their frustration with sociology’s ignorance toward the “biophysical environment” – right after psychiatry’s opening a new discourse with Georg Engel’s 1977 “biopsychosocial model”, which, too, would lead to new questions of “environments role” in the life of the un/healthy mind – and become the founders of what would be known today as “environmental sociology”.

[…….]

 

Based on this history, a conceptual-disciplinary debate the social sciences, and especially sociology (and affecting its internal sub-disciplines rural-, urban-, economic-, xyz-sociology), face is the question what role “environment/nature” as a whole and non-human or more-than-human agencies in particular should play, a debate that can be exemplified in the distinction between environmental sociology and ecological sociology. Thought of as simultaneously a clear-cut distinction and a spectrum, environmental sociology defines, roughly, a that “environment” is treated by the sub-sociology “environmental sociology” with, at best, potential derivate consequences that general sociology or other sub-sociologies may acknowledge (based on the traditional German distinction between allgemeiner and spezieller Soziologie) and that this sub-sociology studies the relations and interactions between society and its bio-physical environment but maintains if not reifies sociologies underlying (Western epistemological) tradition of human exceptionalism and/or anthropocentrism; whereas the other pole, “ecological sociology” refers to a transformation of sociology entire to take into account the (dialectical, interdependent ontoepistemological, and/or ontogenetical) inseparability of whatever we may – between different disciplinary discourses, come to agree to understand under the terms “the social” and “the ecological”. But even in 1995, Canadian sociologist Raymond Murphy could state that sociology at large was still sociology-as-if-nature-didn’t-matter and that it was imperative to create sociology-in-which-nature-matters.

Academic disciplines often suffer from collective amnesia towards their genealogical chapters, and 20th century sociology post WW II, for a variety of reasons (beginning, certainly, with both its fear of being associated with Social Darwinism on the one hand, and its strange existential angst regarding equivocation), has largely forgotten its “debt to biology”. But among its founders, the ecological embeddedness of society was not a contested issue: Max Weber, for example, revered and took inspiration from Victor Hehn’s 1870 book on the transmission of plants and animals (Kulturpflanzen und Hausthiere in ihrem Übergang aus Asien nach Griechenland und Italien sowie das übrige Europa. Historisch-linguistische Skizzen.) among others, and can, as some have argued, serve as a “classical foundation for a postexemptionalist sociology” while such a sociology, surely, also needs to take inspiration form postcolonial theory and decolonial options.

Among the main challenges today, for such a postexemptionalist social sciences, especially with their focus on “Euromodernity”, is the transition to the so-called bioeconomy: In European biotechno-politico-economic elite circles, it is taken for granted that we already partially live in and continue along the transition to a bioeconomy. While national or supranational (European Commission, OECD) agendas differ in regard to both the composition (agriculture, biofuels, biomedicine, etc.) of what is to be understood as “bioeconomy”, a minimal consensus between them around the main unit of reference, “biomass”, emerges: “Biotechnology is to be deployed for human flourishing/social progress/sustainability while enabling profitability/competitiveness/exploitation-efficiency.” BioEconomy (sic!), as an extension of Euro-Modernity, continues to follow, thus, a logic of extraction, while promising to be a solution for present and future challenges from feeding 9.6 billion people by 2050 to climate change: It promises to be an agent of social progress, justice, and equality, but is conceptualized via an exploitative form of productivity, anthropic/anthropocentric (optimizable) utility, and value as monetizable/quantifiable/maximizable. It is imperative for us to get a genealogical and critical hold on BioEconomy (sic!) as an extension of Euro-Modernity today, expose some of its discontents and conflicts (such as functioning like a colonial archive technology by exercising forms of ontopower), and to create and assess possible alternatives that can help realize generative justice for circular economies that enroll more-than-human agents as partners based on past, present and future bioeoconomies in the plural.

 

In which I coin the term venting machine and talk about the Culture of ‘Schadenfreude’ .

[Coming soon, right here, at this blog]