JOOST VAN LOON DRAWS ON AND EXTENDS THE WORK OF ULRICH BECK, WHOSE THEORY OF THE RISK SOCIETY FOUND A WIDE AUDIENCE FOR RISK THEORY TOWARDS THE END OF THE 20TH CENTURY.
Beck's work focuses on modernity, which he equates with industrial society. The primary or first stage social relations in modernity are based on class. Class is determined by the differential ability to satisfy needs. The ability to satisfy needs includes controlling the means of production and reproduction. Industrial society produces goods to satisfy needs, which are defined in terms of scarcity. Overcoming scarcity, or lack, has always been modernity's goal and its way of framing itself in terms of emancipation and progress. Needs are visible, and the institutions that satisfy those visible needs cannot deal with the invisible, virtual or latent side effects- 'bads'- that the production of goods creates. We are now in a transition period in which the 'bads' or risks have become visible and have started to enter into our perception of social order. Now we think production in terms of goods and hazards. This is a transition period between modernity and something else, and it is what Beck refers to as risk society.
Risks cannot be treated as mere side-effects in the risk society. This is where Beck differs from other theorists of risk such as Anthony Giddens. Treating risks like side-effects cedes their management over to designated experts. Attempts to mitigate the fallout of modern production processes only succeed, however, in maintaining the blind spots in which risks proliferate. Beck claims that once risks are perceived by the social order, they create a new relationship between scarcity, class and risk: “That is to say, the first paradox, that risks proliferate when they are not articulated, is supplemented with a second paradox, that when risks are articulated they change the conditions of their own reproduction. They do so by inducing an environment that is very congenial to their replication: an environment in which risks transform anxieties into blame and hazards into market opportunities” (van Loon, 2002, 21). Science and media play a prominent role in this feedback loop in which unarticulated risks proliferate while articulated risks are met with management strategies incapable of containing them.
Why do experts fail to stem the proliferation of risks? In the risk society, 'bads' are seen differently than before. They are not simply the absence of goods, or obstacles to overcome. They are inextricably bound up with the production of goods. In risk society, 'bads' are not in any kind of balance with goods; they are displacing goods. The institutions of modernity can only produce more 'bads' because they are still in thrall to a logic of production as morally and pragmatically good. Because of the ideology that every 'bad' can be paired and fixed with the right good, modernity cannot perceive 'bads' in their complexity.
Van Loon argues that Beck's account of risk society is instructive in a macro-sociological sense for understanding our current cultural and political context, but it lacks both insight into its philosophical and theoretical grounding, as well as sufficient detail in its discussion of technological culture. van Loon turns to the work of Bruno Latour in order to analyze how technological culture frames risk. Beck reduces the complexity of technoscience to a monolithic 'Science', conflating the discursive practices of legitimation with discursive production. Latour's concept of actants as organizing forces helps us form a more coherent ontology of risk.
Van Loon uses Latour's concept of immutable mobiles to discuss translation in terms of flows of matter. Immutable mobiles are actants whose essence is bound up with the logic of their own construction (in the way that a determination of probability is bound up with statistical analysis, for example); they can neither be silenced nor transformed, but they do the work of silencing and transforming. Immutable mobiles can be exchanged among systems without being altered, and they can effect changes in scale of representation: most of them fit onto the surface of a table, can be pinned to the wall, or contained in a photograph. They make objects appear. This is important for risk theory, since there is no risk without mediation or representation. The presence of a risk is always deferred. Objects like graphs, maps and models can travel easily and expand networks: they do the work of translation between otherwise disparate actants. Risk theory suggests that risks complicate our understanding of networks, because the risks themselves undermine the immutable mobiles of risk perception. van Loon shows how a formerly fixed opposition between objective, scientific probability-based definitions of risk and subjective, perceived risk is losing meaning, as people refuse to reduce their lives to probability: “The immutable mobile of probability calculations is increasingly failing to enrol and stabilize networks around risk, as technoscience is increasingly failing to connect to the other spheres of modern social organization” (van Loon, 2002, 53).
Prior to modernity, hazards were things to avoid by adhering to the will of God. In contemporary Western society, reason imposes a grid that interprets and regulates risk, turning anticipation into rational calculation. Risks are not new, but what is new is the extent to which risk assessment intrudes into social and cultural practices.
Secularization, the depersonalization of the social sphere, globalization, telecommunications technologies, and the encroachment of modern bureaucracy into the private sphere are some of the factors contributing to the functional differentiation and 'abstractification' of society that threatens peoples' sense of identity, traditional moral guidelines, and ontological security. These points have been made extensively from Marcuse to Giddens. Beck and van Loon argue that this functional differentiation thrusts individualized beings back into themselves: “Media technologies make an enormous amount of information available about possible and definite risks, but individuals must negotiate between them. The information is produced by science, governance but also commerce which thrives on the transformation of risks into opportunities” (van Loon, 2002, 28).
Risks are not real, they are 'becoming-real'. As soon as a risk is real it is an actual disturbance or catastrophe. Risks exist in a permanent state of virtuality and are only actualized through anticipation. For this reason, they only have a contingent relation to actual physical safety. Anticipated hazards call on us to respond.
Paradoxes are an important part of the risk society, and studying them allows us to see the complexity inherent in technoscience/government/media feedback loops in which risks proliferate. One paradox that is key for the risk society is that it thrives in obscurity: the more it is denied, the more it takes place. This is complicated by a second paradox: risks change the conditions of their own reproduction. They displace what made them first appear. How you respond to a risk changes what caused it; their causes are virtual:
“Another word for this problem is complexity. Due to the complicity of technological mediations, the symptomatic phenomena of risks interact with their virtual origins to produce a second order virtual-symptomatic system. Complexity does not mean that specific risks cannot be contained, but simply that this containment may always also engender new risk disclosures of a more complex nature” (van Loon, 2002, 25).
There is always something bad leftover from attempts to stabilize flows of goods and 'bads'. This something bad manifests as doubt about technology, science, government, and business- the expert systems of modernity. Challenges to these forms of expert authority are now normal, and individuals have extricated themselves from the positions assigned to them by these expert systems.
Technological culture refers to the ways in which the modes of inhabitation and signification that make up our world are technologically mediated. A shift in science from observation/classification to principle/prediction allowed for the birth of the human sciences, while increased domination of nature contributed to rapid secularization. These forces led to an anthropocentric organization in which the human becomes the source and measure of all things. Technological culture is a product of western humanism and capitalism.
Studying technological culture necessitates questioning what kinds of agency are possible in addition to that of the human. Van Loon is very cautious on this point. He is agnostic about the possibility of nonhuman agency. Considering the recent surge of interest in animals, animality and the nonhuman, and the increasing emergencies of global warming, pollution, habitat loss and extinction, we can perhaps be less agnostic about thinking nonhuman agency and precarity in relation to risk. Contemporary theory can supplement, extend and challenge van Loon's account of how technological culture is a kind of Heideggarian enframing, shaping, distorting and diverting care:
“The danger of enframing is very much lived in a technological culture. It is embodied in a lack of care we display on a daily basis towards our environment, including each other. It is found in the uncritical acceptance of various compromises to the way we live that are forced on us by technology... It is a culture in which technology is inhabited and taken for granted, because it cultivates, constitutes, orders and reveals, but thus also conceals, our being human” (van Loon, 2002, 94).
How does van Loon theorize this enframing logic of technological culture? Risks are forces that, when traced, allow for insight into the logic of modernity: “Risks expose the madness of reason, the self-destructive propensity of modern thought, the inevitability that a reckoning will occur, at some stage” (van Loon, 2002, ix). The cultural consequences of risk society have been overshadowed by a politics of urgency. The drive to respond as quickly as possible to risk prevents reflection and proliferates uncertainties. The concept of performativity is related to this sense of urgency.
Rather than through decisions, technological processes order a world through performativity or enactment, which, following Lyotard, is the logic that optimizes inputs into outputs. It reduces costs and maximizes benefits. It seeks to minimize the difference between thought and action until they are unified:
“When the instantaneous speed of thought becomes the immediacy of accomplished action, technoscience is no longer dependent on discourse and representation in effectuating man's full mastery over nature. When that has been accomplished, there is no need for politics or reasoned deliberation. The medium becomes obsolete. Indeed, what use is there for political and moral intervention by human and perhaps non-human actants to engage deeper senses of truth and justice than those already set to work by performativity?” (van Loon, 2002, 12)
Rather than critiquing media representations of risk, we need to highlight the constitutive role of media in the production of risk. Media are part of the assemblage through which risks appear, and are bound up with the logic of performativity: “As the global economy, the world political order and most socio-cultural systems are nowadays bound by high-speed and high-frequency information flows, there is no escape from the impact of telecommunications on processes of decision-making and anticipation. However, apart from accelerating information flows, ICTs also contribute to the acceleration of risks. One of the main consequences of the compression of time to immediacy is that contemplation and reflection get more and more squeezed out of decision-making processes.” (van Loon, 2002, 12).
Actor networks mobilized by risks have to engage in three essential practices: attributing insight (visualization), attributing meaning (signification), and attributing value (valorization): “Risks are modes of enrolment that have to be visualized, signified and valorized in cycles of credit which constitute the basic structure of technoscientific work” (van Loon, 2002, 88-89).
Signification is the transformation of raw data or information into something meaningful. Systems such as the media play a large role in determining what matters. Signification follows visualization: nothing is revealed simply as itself, but must move through a semiotic process to become meaningful. Van Loon argues that this semiotic process “pulls the revealing process into a highly formalized and instrumentalist mode of signification” (van Loon, 2002, 92), dominated by utility and effectiveness: “This thus immediately conceals the revealing by repositioning it into a predetermined and fixed order of formalized statements and expressions under the heading of Science” (van Loon, 2002, 92).
“Valorization enables a transformation of flows; it establishes connections between nodes in networks and enables operators to communicate” (van Loon, 2002, 96). In industrial technological culture, valorization comes primarily from capitalism and the expression of exchange value. Exchange value is giving way to sign value: “Valorization in terms of sign value wields an enormous 'presence' in virtual environments and symbolic markets” (van Loon, 2002, 96). Waste is the example van Loon gives to argue that everything present has a value (although in the case of waste that value is negative). What is not attributed value is left out of the frame. The process of enframing structurally induced needs, for example, is not attributed value, and this is dangerous: “Lack of valorization is a far more subtle and insidious force of exploitation because it seems as if nothing is being exploited” (van Loon, 2002, 96).
Responsibility and Ambivalence:
What kind of subjectivities does the risk society produce? Van Loon argues that individualization in the risk society works by uprooting individuals from traditional collectivist culture and reorienting them on a personalized and biographically assembled grid of ontological security:
“Individualization does not simply mean a growing sense of isolation. i.e. alienation from society (individuation), but a process of disembedding of the human being from his or her socio-cultural milieu (a process also referred to as detraditionalization) and a subsequent reembedding into a world ordered and revealed by technology, that is, a world of 'know how' that is the exclusive property of expert systems and technologies of mediation” (van Loon, 2002, 26).
Technology contributes to risks, but it also contributes to our understanding of them. Risks always require a symbolic form, and technology contributes to the symbolic form that a risk takes. Technological developments have created enough risks and enough awareness of them that we no longer have faith in technology or the ideals of progress and rationality. Science and technology are part of the recursive effect that creates suspicion of them. But risks also create the need for information and interpretation on an individual level: “It is also clear that to operate in this world of individualized responsibility consumers require not only far more information but also the skills to interpret them. The catch is that this information is itself fed by the same technoscience that generates the risks” (van Loon, 2002, 30).
Complexity and systems theory are important for Beck, and for understanding the difference between Beck and Giddens on the concept of individualization. For Giddens, individualization is an opportunity for increased personal freedom. For Beck, individualization comes partly from the failure of expert systems to manage risks. Individualization for Beck comes with insecurity and anxiety, apathy and indifference. Grounding this view is the systems theory notion that a system can never fully manage the complexity of the phenomenon it is dealing with; systems are ways of artificially reducing complexity: “Reflexivity is that which 'returns' from a particular experience that was not anticipated in the encounter itself” (van Loon, 2002, 33-34).
Risk society is characterized by ambivalence. Systemic closure of risks by expertise or legislation do not result in trust: “More uncertainty demands more knowledge, more knowledge increases the complexity, more complexity demands more abstraction, more abstraction increases uncertainty. Exactly the same goes for undecidability. In other words, risk management generates more risks” (van Loon, 2002, 41).
Extending and Elaborating Risk Theory:
Pramod Nayar claims that risk is now central to the culture of everyday life, and he fleshes out many of van Loon's main points with examples drawn from contemporary Indian society. Risk is primarily an affective phenomenon for Nayar, although there is always an objective or data-driven dimension. Affect and calculation go hand in hand in a risk society.
Stacy Alaimo thinks through risk, environmental justice and environmental health by exploring how matter passes through and links human and nonhuman bodies and environments. Her concept of trans-corporeality makes impossible the separability of the human, or culture, from nature and materiality. She draws on Beck's work to show the interconnections binding illness, environmental destruction, science, capitalism, and subjectivity. Despite the proliferation of awareness campaigns for diseases today, for example, we are never really in possession of the scientific knowledge necessary to actually be aware of the dangers we face. Risks are a lens through which inequality and injustice may or may not become visible: they affect all members of a society, but they affect some members much more than others. Alaimo traces the unstable fluctuations between personal and collective responsibility, agency, knowledge and care that animate the ambivalent risk society: “Many of the texts discussed in Bodily Natures struggle with implicit and explicit ethical matters, as they document what it is to know, to live, and to act within risk culture” (Alaimo, 21).
Jody Berland argues that images of animals magnify the desire for connection and security as these desires manifest through the adaptation of emerging technologies. Filling these needs simultaneously increases the risks generated by the militarization and industrialization of security and emotion. Animal ads are successful because they manipulate real emotions: “They produce lack (of embodiment, connection, relations to nature) together with compensation for it, and promise something magical in the spaces between them” (Berland, 61).
Berland lays out five points of actualization between cell phones and animals that strategies of risk management engender: images of animals reveal networks of human-animal-technological interfaces in which love obscures the invasive demand for compulsory communication; cell phone production causes physical harm to animals; zoos seek to establish and maintain themselves as conservation sites by soliciting donations of old cell phones; real animals themselves are promoted as stress-alleviating companions who can be managed and tracked digitally; finally, animals end up alongside marginalized humans in polluted and shrinking habitats, and in some cases, access to cell phones mark the boundary between who is a priority and who is expendable.
Technological culture makes animals culturally ubiquitous, creating a simulacrum of connection and care that manipulates and diverts a desire that might otherwise lead to ethical and political engagement: “What is being materialized in this mobilizing event is simultaneously a greater presence for and awareness of the embodied animal world in the spaces of image culture, and an almost psychotic capacity to remain indifferent to this world as it relates to personal and political practices of connection” (Berland, 61).
Animals occupy a place in a tripartite cultural logic between humans and technology, acting to naturalize the desire to be connected through technologies like cell phones. The articulation of animals and cell phones has an ambivalent effect on our ability to connect; animal images help us feel good about our close proximity another in this mobile digital network, but the maintenance of this network displaces, erodes and erases other networks of connection, some of which are vital to the survival of both human and nonhuman societies. Berland shows how consumer technologies create a double bind in which strategies to mitigate evaporating ontological security also work recursively to erode that security even further:
The theory of risk society permits us to understand the hazards of consumer technologies while empathizing with the needs and feelings of young people who consider their personal digital communication media to be lifeboats in the face of unmanageable uncertainty and danger. The animals remind them of their freedom and innocence, which they hastily abandon on their own behalf. It is not just animals who fail to benefit in the balance of things. (Berland, 52)
Adam, Barbara; Beck, Ulrich; van Loon, Joost (eds.). The Risk Society and Beyond: Critical Issues for Social Theory. London: Sage, 2000.
Alaimo, Stacy. Bodily Natures: Science, Environment, and the Material Self. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010.
Beck, Ulrich. Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity. Trans. Mark Ritter. London: Sage, 1992.
Berland, Jody. “Animal and/as Medium: Symbolic Work in Communicative Regimes. The Global South 3(1): 42-65.
Nayar, Pramod K. Packaging Life: Cultures of the Everyday. New Delhi: Sage, 2009.
van Loon, Joost. Media Technology: Critical Perspectives. Berkshire: Open University Press, 2008.
Risk and Technological Culture: Towards a Sociology of Virulence. London: Routledge, 2002.