40. Anticipating the unpredictable: logics, actors and techniques of preparedness

Frédéric Keck (CNRS-Collège de France-EHESS), Davide Caselli (Università di Bergamo) 

In the last twenty years, the issue of radical uncertainty has become central to almost every aspect of social life. As a response, techniques of preparedness have emerged in the world of disaster management to mitigate the consequences of unpredictable catastrophic events, such as early warning signals of pandemics or simulations of earthquakes and terrorist attacks. Although these techniques come from a military rationality based on emergency, they become meaningful tools to visualize the vulnerabilities of the environment. Sentinels of pandemics, for instance, are not only soldiers on the frontline of the enemy but also animals communicating with humans on the conditions of emergence of shared zoonotic pathogens. 

Techniques of preparedness – from stockpiling of emergency devices to simulations enacting future possible disasters – are not neutral and are often associated with neo-liberal techniques of disaster management: they entitle actors (such as farmers or nurses) with specific responsibilities; they rely on specific logics of domination that frame and determine which disasters are meaningful, which lives should be saved and who counts as a responsible actor. Simulations of disasters can be described as critical stages where these forms of domination are performed but also as spaces where actors contest scenarios written by and for decision makers. 

Moreover, in a global context where the frontiers between the ordinary and the exceptional/emergency are increasingly put into question by the radical uncertainty characterising both “natural” and political contexts, preparedness as a tool for emergency management raises crucial questions about the space for democratic governance. In this sense, it participates to the more general tension between top-down science- and technology-driven technocratic approaches and radically pluralistic, democratic and inter-species elaborations. 

Finally, these techniques raise questions about models of temporality, since – in the perspective of preparedness – catastrophic events are thought as emerging and imminent in non-linear forms of causality, which makes them unpredictable. At the same time, they also rely on imagination to do as if the future was already realized, as if nature behaved in an intentional way, for instance when viruses are compared to terrorists. 

This panel will examine how techniques of preparedness can redefine borderland territories between animal species and political collectives, as well as boundary infrastructures, connecting communities of knowledge and practices in distributed organizations. 

We invite papers presenting empirical research on (but not limited to): 

➢ “communities of practice”, networks of expertise and epistemic communities that are at work in the field of preparedness, especially in healthcare and agriculture. 

➢ the specific regimes of truth that these communities impose: if they are relevant, what are the specific paradigms and regimes of meaning that are guiding private and public action? ➢ the role of digitalisation, and high technological innovation more generally, in shaping preparedness in health and agriculture 

➢ the processes underpinning the creation of preparedness indexes and rankings ➢ how preparedness is related with processes of marketisation: creation of new markets, reliance on market actors, adoption of market logic in the public sector. 

➢ how the concern for health expressed through measures against emerging infectious diseases reorganizes domains such as primary care or environmental conservation 

➢ how techniques of preparedness allow actors to imagine the future for slow disasters on long-term temporalities, such as agricultural changes to mitigate the effects of climate change.

➢ how different actors use techniques of preparedness to share vulnerabilities they perceive in the beings they care for 

As well as theoretical and methodological reflections dealing with: 

➢ What are the features and variables to focus on the territorial dimension in an empirical research on preparedness ? 

➢ How can techniques of preparedness be connected with those linked to other approaches such as prevention, preemption and precaution? 

Keywords: infrastructures – simulation – preparedness – sentinel – territory – participation – healthcare – agriculture 

Disciplines: sociology – anthropology – geography – disaster studies – environmental humanities 

Short Bio : 
Frédéric Keck, Senior Researcher at the Laboratory of Social Anthropology (CNRS-Collège de France-EHESS). After working on the history of social anthropology and contemporary biopolitical questions raised by avian influenza, he was the head of the research department of the musée du quai Branly between 2014 and 2018. He published Avian Reservoirs. Virus Hunters and Birdwatchers in Chinese Sentinel Posts (Duke University Press, 2020) and (with A. Kelly and C. Lynteris) Anthropology of Epidemics (Routledge, 2019). 

Davide Caselli, Post-Doc Researcher in Sociology at the University of Bergamo. His main research interests are related to health and welfare policies, expertise and financialization. He is currently member of the PRELOC project focused on the critical discussion and empirical analysis of preparedness in the fields of health and agriculture. He published many articles on these issues and he published Esperti. Come studiarli e perchè (il Mulino 2020).

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