BOB JESSOP AND JOHN LAW: Failing Designs for Safe Living

New Sciences of Protection Conference: Theme Panel 2 ‘Design Failure and Designing for Failure,’ with John Law and Bob Jessop.

John Law and Bob Jessop (download presentation) offered differing diagnoses of design failure. They also each provided some tentative thoughts on how designs for safe living could begin to be reconciled with the excess of unsafety which always evades even the best-laid plans. Both agreed that the complex and processual nature of the socio-physical world could never be full captured and accounted for in any design for safe living, and that designs for safe living can never provide a guarantee of safe living. This was the starting point for both their discussions which addressed the problems of how the governance, management and organization of safe living might begin to be reconciled with this excess of unsafety and uncertainty.

In ‘Centre and Periphery: Or Managing Catastrophe in the English Manner’ John Law used the examples of the UK government’s responses to avian flu, foot and mouth disease and mad cow disease to discuss the prevention and management of catastrophe. The ‘English school’ of catastrophe prevention and management, he argued, is ridden by an operational and evaluative tension. It values both a centralized hierarchical structure of command and monitoring and an autonomous periphery which is able to react and respond to local situations faster and more effectively than the centre. Yet in the cases of the outbreaks of contagions which he discussed, policies which seemingly emanate from ‘the centre’ effectively deconstruct themselves as they are applied in differing local conditions. The more one interrogates what ‘policy’ was actually applied the more the notion that there was in fact a single policy becomes increasingly difficult to sustain The absence of a coherent and homogenous policy which can be readily evaluated by the centre after the event leads to a ‘State of disappointment’ and calls for more accountability and transparency. Yet the fact that the centre is blind to its own policy heterogeneity need not be the source of so much lament. Policy heterogeneity is precisely what is required, and precisely what is in fact already operational, in catastrophe prevention and management. Designs for safe living, we could say, ought to place less emphasis on the ‘design’ than on the ‘living.’

In ‘Governance Failure, Failing Governance’ Bob Jessop addressed different forms of governance, or different ‘modes of coordinating complex reciprocal exchange,’ and their failings. He identified four modes: anarchy of exchange, hierarchy of command, heterarchy of reflexive self-organization, and solidarity of unconditional loyalty and trust; pointing out how each mode of governance being particularly vulnerable to certain kinds of governance failure. Responses to the shortcomings of one mode of governance take the form of either a reorganization of the existing model (second-order governance) or a hybridization of the forms of governance (third-order governance). Governance failure plagues even these meta-forms since even they cannot wholly capture the complexity of the reciprocal interdependencies they seek to manage. In the face of this irreducible complexity and fallibility of our modes of organization (including the organization of safe living), Bob Jessop asked, ‘what is to be done?’ Rejecting the responses of stoics, cynics, fatalists and opportunists, Jessop proposed a Gramscian ‘romantic public irony,’ a contemporary ‘pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will’ that should accompany our (forever fallible) designs for safe living.


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