“No agent exerts a more continuous power upon man then the atmosphere by which he is surrounded”

– David Boswell Reid, from Theory and Practice of Ventilation, 1844

General Essay on Air

probes into the atmospheric  

conditions of liberal democracy

*

defined and begun

by Arch. Paulo Tavares

London

MMVIII

prologue

 
 

Part I

The Air Inside the Political Chamber

Fragments of a dialogue about air

14th July 1999

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. We are on Third Reading, and we would not want to dwell on amendments that have already been disposed of. (…)

Mr. Green: At no stage have we opposed the principle of the Bill. It was a Conservative Government who signed up to the European directive on which its good parts are based. We recognise that much pollution, particularly air-borne and water-borne pollution, can be tackled only on a supranational level. We were happy to sign up to the directive and supported the Government's intention to put it into effect at national level. (...) It is appropriate on Third Reading for me to go through our main reservations about the Bill. Perhaps the most fundamental is a constitutional objection. The Bill gives far too much discretionary power to the Secretary of State. Under clause 1, he can regulate

"emissions capable of causing any . . . pollution."

 

That is an absurdly wide power to give to a Secretary of State. Of course, we know that most Secretaries of State would not interpret that as widely as the Bill would allow, but it is not a principle of good legislation to write into the Bill such a wide power for a Minister. For example, naturally occurring chemicals such as radon or some dioxins are pollutants. They occur naturally in the atmosphere, but they would fall under the powers given to the Secretary of State.

 

Is he to play God and regulate the natural world?

 

I know that the Deputy Prime Minister has some delusions of grandeur, but I do not believe that even he would go that far. As the Bill is drafted, breathing out could be regulated by the Secretary of State as a polluting activity. I invite the Minister to consider whether this is good legislation.

God, the chemistry of air and the State

For anyone who has never got in touch with the ordinary procedures of parliamentary debates, the text quoted above, a transcription of a dialogue at the House of Commons on 14th of July 1999, is at best a tedious record of the traditional mechanisms of democratic politics. One recognizes the old-aged practice of rhetoric, tempered by provocative irony, which comes politely encoded as a flat speech around a small - and apparently unimportant – amendment in written law. Rarefied of any real clash of forces or ideological polarization, the short fragment seems to reveal nothing extraordinary about politics apart from its professional slowness and eloquent discursive boredom that at the end might turn out being a funny comment on the art of government. Throughout the reading, one could speculate on the ideas that drives the individuals behind their manifestations or denounce the hidden interests involved in each spoken word; one could try to identify the parties, their alliances and the position they assume in that given situation; one could even go further to question the validity of that mode of public representation and the efficiency of the dialogical mechanism embodied in the spatial diagram of the chamber where the conversation took place. Still, the depicted situation is far too common to reveal something yet not known about politics, for even if  not used to the democratic protocols, it is well known that it runs through the interplay between different opinions, values and interests of the citizens' representatives in speech-purpose-designed architectural assemblies.

Besides the presumptive mode of the discourse, however, what grasp a more attuned reader (or listener-viewer, since most of the recordings can be found in audio-video format as well), is the generally unnoticed fact that government is concerned not only with the subjects that altogether compound the supposed cohere body politic of a nation-state, but also, and perhaps mainly, with objects and materials that surround those subjects and that make collective life possible. Materials as simple as water and air, which in that particular case, under the threat of being damaged by the debris of human activities, necessarily demand the attention of government. The record is a section of a discussion on proposed amendments for the Pollution Prevention and Control Act of 1999 of United Kingdom legislation, which as every environmental regulation has necessarily to do with substances commonly found out-there in nature. Historically, at least from the point of view of law, since the Clean Air Act of 1956 in England, an regulative measure undertook as a response to what was thought to be until the late nineteenth century a “natural phenomena”, namely the deadly mixture of fogs and smokes known as “smogs” that in December of 1952 caused over 4000 deaths in London, government’s concern with the city's atmosphere becomes apparent [1]

An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump, Joseph Wright of Derby, 1768 

Following the speech proffered at the House of Commons, one can see the evolution of governmental interest in the environment updated: it might have started with the acute problems in London, when the well-being of the city's inhabitants demanded a direct State intervention on the air of the city, but more recently it has to be addressed at supranational levels - as Mr. Green clearly recognizes - for the problem of pollution, and in particular air pollution, would proved to be a transnational problem since 1972, when some Sweden scientists reported at the United Nations their worries about a serious increase in the acidity levels of Scandinavian lakes due to unwelcome and harmful substances that were being brought from England by continental air flows [2]. The dialogue then turns out as a more interesting political problem, for we start to move away from the traditional domain of the “subject-orientated” politics, in which the political is understood inside the limits of disputes between representative parties according to the laws of the social contract, towards a more “object-oriented” politics, in which the political is understood outside the limits of “the social”, incorporating a set of material artefacts that in connection with humans constitute a field for political intervention. The basic question remains the same - what matters to public life? - but the emphasis is put not just on the individuals that are “the public”, but upon the matters themselves to which their lives are attached. Among those matters, a very special one, because not only our life depends on it, but actually would be impossible without it – air.

Mr. Green, whose name ironically imprint some fictional connotation to the dialogue, evokes God and mobilizes some atoms in the chemistry of air to question the transcendental power that the mere presence of the adverb “any” in the written law could attribute to government. For the Secretary of Sate, he argues, would then have the right to govern Nature - "breathing out could be regulated as a polluting activity". Because while breathing we are emitting some “natural chemicals” that are considered pollutants, not “any” kind of pollution should be controlled by law, since that would make a complete mess in the social order, for legislation would interfere in a process that is part of the natural world. The apparently innocent but devastating effect of the word “any” would possibly turn around the ontological status of the action of breathing, transferring it from the realm of humans’ natural biologic functions to the realm of social activities that fall under the power of government.

It is somehow unexpected to discover that we are polluting the air we breath while we breath it, as if by sustaining our biological life we were at the same time causing a slight damage on it. Was not pollution an artificial-collateral effect of industrialized cultures rather than a by-product of that vital experience of breathing air? The fact is even more uncertain because the revelation comes from Mr. Green, who is speaking from inside a chamber where none of this natural facts are supposed to be represented, understood or investigated, and therefore does not seem to be an expert in those matters. If he was a proper scientist, making public some results of experimental research conducted inside the controlled chamber of the laboratory, perhaps the fact would have the force of natural law. Although not explicit, the reasoning behind Mr. Green's assertion is that the legislation in question is badly written because government is about the regulation of society and not nature. If any intervention in the way people inhale and expel air in-out their bodies should be done, it would certainly be a matter of lung-expert biologists, doctors, toxicologists, epidemiologists and other sorts of natural scientists in general. Or perhaps just a question of a simple technological artefact, such as the now very common filter-masks, those bodily-prosthesis that are often seen attached to the mouths of some Beijing's citizens struggling to breath properly in a very hostile atmosphere, an image which inevitably resemble the soldiers at the front-line of First World War with their mechanical respiratory filters fighting for life against an attack directed to the air they were drawing into their lungs. Breathing air: a question for techno-science (whether civilian or military), but by no means, it is presupposed by the dialogue at the House of Commons, a question for anyone who deals with the science of politics.

Nevertheless, the minister of parliament agreed that pollution should be regulated, so that at the end the action of breathing might be affected anyway, although not directly by law, but by the indirect effects that a more carefully governed material such as air shall produce upon it. After the Clean Air Act of 1956, so to speak, government would improve the respiration of London's population.

[1]Peter Thorsheim, Inventing Pollution: coal, smoke and culture in Britain since 1800, Ohio University Press, 2006.

[2] Historians of environmental regulation and legislation point out that fact that during the 60s and 70s, scientific research on the capacities of pollution to “travel” across borders would foster a “new phase” in the process of environmental politics. In 1979, during a meeting of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe on the Protection of the Environment, the Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution was signed by 34 Governments and the European Community (EC). As the historical accounts on environmental legislation describes, The Convention was the first international legally instrument to deal with problems of air pollution on a broad regional basis.

 
 

Object-Oriented Politics

Marcel Duchamp, Air de Paris, 1919

The tone of the speech is clearly metaphorical and perhaps should not be take far too seriously. But metaphors have the power to cross the limits of distinct semiological domains, and by doing so rendering those limits visible and problematic to the extent that the way we codify and organize our world becomes explicit. At the threshold of the possibility of governing chemicals emitted into the atmosphere, the lines that draw the division between the objectified realm of nature from the cultural world of subjects as two distinguished and irreconcilable ontological zones becomes actualized. Paradoxically those boundaries were apparently neglected a moment before, for how can this object known as pollution be at the same time both a natural element and a social artefact? The answer might be simple: air pollution is hybrid. Hence its status whether as something found out in the natural world or/and as a by-product of social activities might have a history of its own. For example: until the late eighteenth century, pollution as currently understood didn't exist. Contaminated air was thought to be the result of decomposed biological matter whereas the fumes emitted from burning fossil fuels were even considered as substances that had some positive impacts on people's health and were often used as means for disinfection. The dark smokes of civilization were just another way for domesticating and mastering the unruly natural world [1]. Certainly air pollution is a human invention, and the way we know it, produced it, or conceptualize it has an effect on the way by which the social context is organized. “Solutions to the problem of knowledge are solutions to the problem of social order”[2], for the way we produce knowledge about the world is both a cause and an effect of the way we establish relations between ourselves and our environment. What surround us are not only an empty space populated with things we find or put out-there, as if the social was just a network of humans displayed in a theatre’s stage formed by a set of objects. By its own turn, society is not only a set of abstract relations between persons for whom the world is the sum result of vital and useful materials. It may be better to think all of them together as a socio-technical-natural assemblage, in which any change performed in the content that surrounds people shall have an affect on the context of their organization. Throughout that “objected-oriented” politics, the limits between the natural and the social are negotiated. “Nature and society are not two distinct poles, but one and the same production of successive states of societies-natures, of collectives”[3]. The division between the transcendental world of God’s Nature and the immanent human world of contaminated air are not already given from the outset but in fact the result of controversial historical negotiations.

Bruno Latour has called this connected-disconnection between those two poles as the “Modern Constitution”, namely the split between the objects of science and technical mechanisms on the on side, and the subjects of politics and the laws of the social contract on the other; a division between the knowledge about things and power over people which forms the background stage of modern civilization.While those two zones are always mingling in hybrid formations, the Modern Constitution ensure that they are managed in different places - the political chamber and the laboratory -, neutralizing the social relations that are implied in science and technology and at the same time rendering the juridical-economical model of the social contract as the only and absolute matrix to understand power in society. For Latour those polarities are always in conflict. Scientific knowledge is not about what is already given, but the result of artificial phenomena created inside laboratories and reified in technical mechanisms. Insofar as scientific facts are constructed under controlled conditions which are manipulated by individuals, they are deeply human from the outset and therefore the social forces that come into play while they are fabricated shouldn't be neglected. On the other hand, the social body is not only the result of the exchange of the rights between individuals who delegate power to a sovereign entity or a representative assembly, but the social is in fact made of a set of material elements that intermediate collective relations. Assumptions about things are frequently made where just social forces are supposed to be regulated, and the social order is deeply affected by technology and consequently by the knowledge associated to it [4]. The question therefore might be how to render visible and represent the political effects attached to objects and technology and how the science of things are intrinsically implicated in politics besides its recognizable roles as tools for strategic power manoeuvres or source of information. In other words, since the State is concerned with breathing, it is possible to think not only how air became a matter of government's concern and legislation, but how the art of government finds in air a medium for operation.

 

During the 18th and early 19th centuries, people believed that the most serious contaminant in the environment was "miasmas," an airborne substance generated by decomposing biological matter. The acids and carbon of fossil fuel smokes were believed to be a powerful counter measure for contaminated air. Moreover, mastering nature had a political dimension for which miasmas theories of air acted as a sort of ideological background. Colonialism would make useful the miasma theory, as “many attributed the dangers of tropical regions not only to their climate, but also to the failure of those who lived there to exert proper control over nature. (...) Civilization, in their view, would domesticate not only unruly and dangerous nature, but unruly and dangerous natives”.

[1] See Peter Thorsheim, op. Cit., p. 12-18

[2] Steven Shapin and Simon Shaffer, Leviathan and the Air-pump, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985, p. 332.

[3] Bruno Latour,  We have never been modern, p. 15.

[4]See the interview with Andrew Barry, The technological dimension of governance.

Atmospheric Apparatuses

An experiment on ventilation being carried out on a 1/8 scale model of the debating chamber of the House of Commons at the National Physical Laboratory in the early 1920s. The direction of air flows in the Chamber was demonstrated by observing smoke produced by a special firework. Image courtesy of the NPL

In search for an object-oriented politics, one should look not only for a system where truth claims about materials are frequently stated inside political assemblies, but for a system which very existence is sustained by those objects and which therefore is always to some extent dealing with the ways those objects should be regulated, managed, produced and designed. “The birth of ancient Greek political theory implied a doctrine of living in an artificial construct”, for the polis is the political-space which enables the coming-together of different persons with apparently no commonality to assemble and “naturalize in a shared climate”, as the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk wrote. The definition is powerful because the concept of “the public” is already entangled with the matters of social concern in a mixed, non-polarized and non-hierarchical relation: “the public sphere is not just the effect of people assembling but in fact goes back to the construction of a space to contain them”[1].  For Sloterdijk, the idea of the polis as a political construction implies a “pre-symbolical” dimension of coexistence of the citizens which is the result of the “designed” conditions they inhabit. There is an “atmospheric politics” produced by all the materiality that surrounds the subjects and that sustains the possibility of cohabitation. Hence the idea, notably taken forward by Paul Virilio, that is impossible to distinguish the built environment of the city and the political sphere, insofar as there is no such a thing as the voided space where social affairs take place but in fact the organization of the technological milieu which defines the city is already the site of social dispute and political intervention. Thus politics becomes not just a question around the symbolical – opposed ideologies, values, consciousness, representation and so forth -, but it is very much grounded on the ways by which the common environment is shared and managed, or in other words, on the collective conditioning of the atmosphere of the city.

From the conceptual urban dimension of the polis down to the architectural scale of political chambers, the artificial conditions that enables cohabitation and forms the ground of the political can be seem embodied in the functional design of parliamentary assemblies, those architectural speech-machineries where air works as the medium that guarantees the voice of rhetoric and provide the adequate climate conditions for one to wait while listening to the others[2]. Indeed, the first time issues around the action of breathing, atmospheric gases, air and other correlative matters had entered inside the House of Commons were not through a discussion about regulations on chemical emissions, but by means of architectural mechanisms, when as early as 1835, David Boswell Reid, a graduated doctor, partly physician partly chemist, who would be known in the records of design history as an engineer specialized in ventilation systems, brought the matter to the level of scientific precision: “at the sitting of the House of Commons on a very leading question, when 800 persons, members and strangers, are present for twelve hours, air is required for 12.520.000 respirations”, he stated in his major work, Illustrations of the theory and practice of ventilation, published in 1844 [3].  Reid was a typical man of the sciences of his time who among others contemporary hygienists, physicians, chemists, doctors, statisticians and city planners, was very much concerned with the relations between health and the quality of air. At the Edinburgh University, where he held a chair in the Chemistry Department, Reid constructed “laboratory” rooms equipped with special arrangements for heating and ventilation that he used to investigate issues on respiration. Inside the controlled chambers, he tried to establish the precise amount of air required for health and comfort through experiments conducted with “human guinea pigs”. After October 1834, when a serious fire destroyed most of the Parliamentary Buildings in London, he had the opportunity to transfer his scientific researches from his equipped rooms to another chamber, the temporary House of Commons, which was built to hold the parliamentary debates while the definitive building commissioned for the architect Charles Barry was being constructed. Reid accepted the invitation to design the ventilation system of the provisional House regarding it as a possibility to test his technology before the new building's definitive system that he was also designing was definitively implemented. In an entire section of Theory and Practice of Ventilation he carefully describes the project as if it was a truly experiment he had brought from inside the laboratory to the scale of reality: “The movement of air, from its ingress to its egress, was regulated as in a pneumatic machine, the house, in this respect, being treated as a piece of apparatus” [4].  Along with his efforts to regulate the air flows to achieve the right acoustic necessities of the House - a clear demand made by the selected Commons Committee -, what is very interesting and curious in his report is the way by which Reid tried to put the system in fine tune with the types of activities that were going inside the House. He was concerned with very small details and handled them with precision, a fact that is made clear, for example, by the way he paid special attention to the “atmosphere with which The Honourable Speaker is supplied”. He made a slightly modification in the system in 1836, when a separated and autonomous controlling mechanism was placed just for the site where The Speaker would sit, once he was often required to stay longer periods of time and therefore, Reid thought, would necessitate greater amounts of air. Even more curious is Reid's sensibility to the connections between the state of humour of the members of the parliament and the air conditions inside the chamber:

“In directing the ventilation, great difficult is often experienced in ascertaining the feelings of the members. They necessary fluctuate with every change of circumstances in the state of the internal atmosphere that is not immediately controlled, independent of the extreme diversity of temperament that may be expected to prevail where so many are assembled in the same apartment.” [5]

Thinking that the atmospheric qualities of the House could have a direct effect on the emotion of the constituents, and therefore exerting considerable influence in the course of political decisions, he designed the system to act in response to oscillations in the levels of excitement of the parliamentary members. The “pneumatic apparatuses” therefore should allow the calibration of air inputs in accordance to the changes in the temperature of the chamber brought up by polemical political affairs.

“During the late debates, as they advance to two, three, four, and five in the morning, the temperature should be gradually increased, as the constitution becomes more exhausted, except in cases where the excitement is extreme.”[6]

The quantity of the air supplied to the House of Commons was placed under the control of valves that could be adjusted according to variations in temperaments and temperatures. Reid regarded his duties with so much importance that it has been said that he would often stay in personal control of the system when the House was in section, as if he was another member of the parliament ensuring the adequate climate for the political stability of the British Empire. It is not surprising, however, that Reid had taken his empirical experiments with the ventilation systems in the House with such a great care, as for him air was not just a matter of healthy and bodily vigour, but a material that should be supplied in the necessary quantity and with the adequate quality to ensure the full disposal of mental capabilities. “When the air is of inferior quality, the mental faculties are subdued and deteriorated in proportion as the body is oppressed by the vitiated atmosphere, pure air being not only essential for the proper development of the bodily frame, but also a requisite for the due energy of intellectual functions”[7]. Considering that he was dealing with individuals who were in charge of the decisions that would indicate the political future of the nation, it is very comprehensible that Reid would want to “supply” the best emotional state possible for them to execute the parliamentary activities. It is less comprehensible though that he thought to do that by simply managing air flows. In the light of his remarks, the history is rather comic and Reid easily appears as an ingenuous victim of his time, when air was ascribed both a medical and moral value, a material which should be mechanically delivered in precise amounts to ensure the health of the body and spiritual strength. In the light of more recent scientific studies that try to establish a connection between employees productivity, individual’s levels of concentration, child behaviour and neuro-psychological functions with variations in the quality of air and adequate rates of ventilation, however, Reid, even limited by the scientific knowledge of nineteenth century, then turn out to be a sort of visionary pioneer. [8]

[1] Peter Sloterdijk, Atmospheric Politics, in: Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel (ed.), “Making Things Public: atmospheres of democracy”, 2005, p. 946 

[2] Once again Sloterdijk's obsession about architecture-as-atmospheric-design is an unavoidable reference: “Democracy is based on the proto-architectonic ability to build waiting rooms”, op. Cit, p. 944. It is worth mentioning that the media-acoustic-machinery of the House of Commons is now added with several microphones scattered around the chamber, let alone the cameras that broadcast the sessions in a daily basis. The contemporary “mediatization” of the chamber makes clear how the idea of the public sphere is already implied in the proto-mediatization of the rooms’ acoustics provided by the adequate design of air circulation. Along the several encounters between the history of the House and the history of air, concerns with its acoustics have had an important role.

[3] David Boswell Reid,  Illustrations of the theory and practice of ventilation. London: 1844, p. 16.

[4] David Boswell Reid, op. Cit, p.249.

[5] David Boswell Reid, op. Cit, p.249.

[6] David Boswell Reid, op. Cit, p.297.

[7] David Boswell Reid, op. Cit, p. 07.

[8] Large part of contemporary scientific research related to air quality and especially with thermal comfort indoors is related to issues of productivity and behaviour, trying to connect the effects that air and adequate levels of ventilation might have on people's psychological states. 

 

Fresh Air to the Body Politic

ventilation diagram project for the Palace of Westminster, late 1800s 

The idea that good air was not only a fundamental element to ensure health but also to avoid the deterioration of mental faculties is an inheritance Reid received from the eighteenth century, when disease and lack of reason were connected together as twin parts of the same “evil” that threaten the social body. If breathing air and political power can be linked together, their bounds are certainly not limited to the walls of the House of Commons, but in fact go back to the walls that surrounded the “Houses of Confinement”, those places where, until the beginning of the nineteenth century, all the undesirable products of civilization – people who didn't work, vagabonds, criminals, young thieves and the insane – were kept locked and controlled to avoid the danger of contaminating society. In Madness and Civilization, Michel Foucault describes the role of those buildings inside the cities. Hospitals, prisons, jails, and other similar equipments, which in England were known as the “houses of correction”, regardless minor differences, were all used for the same political purposes in the seventeenth century: policing social disorders and protecting government against collective agitations by absorbing unemployment, idleness, mendicancy and poverty. Madness appeared as the horizon of delinquency and the incapacity for work, and soon was incorporated as another social problem that was threatening the space of the city and therefore should be housed together with all other sorts of misbehaviours. Given their usually poor sanitary conditions, fevers and similar diseases that were common at this time would easily turn into epidemics inside those buildings. Because they were considered to hold all the social dangers that threaten the cohesion of society, the frequent occurrence of disease rapidly became attached to moral connotations. The “evil” housed indoors being thought as what impregnate the flash and at the same time contaminate the soul. Air was considered as the medium of contagion by which the rotten vapours and impurities rising from the houses could be transmitted to the atmosphere of the entire city, threatening the health of its inhabitants and the moral vigour of society. The reform movement that followed in the second half of the eighteenth-century in hospitals was largely based on the effort to ensure cleanliness, both social and biological. Architecture was called to define precise divisions, providing that undesirable communication between the interns were closely observed and regulated, but at the same its mechanisms should be designed to enable good rates of ventilation to reduce the risk of contamination and thus “preventing evil and disease from tainting the air and spreading their contagion in the atmosphere of the cities”[1].

 

Later in the nineteenth century those fears can still be noticed in introduction of the Theory and Practice of Ventilation  –  “no other cause, at least in modern times, appears to have inflected so great amount of evil upon human race as defective ventilation” -, but now they come as just a glimpse of a discourse that had already been fully incorporated by the technical language of design, and which by design was applied in other spatial configurations besides hospitals and prisons. The great sanitary reforms of Victorian London disseminated ventilation mechanisms throughout the houses of the cities, supplying fresh air no just to lunatics and delinquents, but to the whole urban working-military living force. The poorly infrastructure-equipped working-class neighbourhoods of nineteenth-century industrial London where more then the sources of social misbehaviour; they were the motor of modernization and the protagonist of a possible historic disorder. Frequent disease and discomfort among workers were economically and socially costly; they made the bodies vulnerable, debilitating the economy and weakening the army, at the same time they provided potential sources for social agitations, increasing the political temperatures. Fresh air would have to be delivered to make life stronger and more productive; good ventilation should ensure a more docile political atmosphere[2].

Reid's pneumatic apparatus would have to serve the entire city; his carefully management of the ventilation valves would have to be applied to the proportions of social structures. Air was not only the material which demanded carefully management to provide the adequate conditions to house government, but from the eighteenth-century on, air came to be a material which government should carefully care to ensure the desirable strength and conduct of the body politic.

 

[1] Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization, London: Routledge, 2001, p. 206

[2] On the political role of sanitary regulations and the reforms of working-class habitat in nineteenth century England see Francois Beguin, The Comfort-machinery in XIX century England, 1992.

 

Political Temperatures

A thermal image of Earth on August 4, 2003, shows the  Sahara's high temperatures spreading north, engulfing Europe in a heat  wave that had lethal effects. Such satellite views are among the new tools giving a clearer view of the weather ahead.

Fragments of a dialogue about air

04th November 2003

Mr. T. : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I hope that you will not think me a voyeur, because I am not, but last night I noticed that you were fanning yourself with the Order Paper when you were in the Chair, because obviously it was too hot in the Chamber. As all right hon. and hon. Members know, the Chamber has the best air conditioning and is the coolest part of the entire Palace of Westminster. If it is hot in here, it is unbearable in the rest of the House. It is hot, sweaty, stuffy, stinky and insufferable. You said, Madam Speaker, that you would be inquiring into the events of last night. That is most welcome and worth while. Will you also inquire into the air conditioning, temperature and ventilation in the House? It is well beyond time that something was done about them.

Even if the air-conditioning system installed in1954 were fully functioning, it would have been inevitably hot inside the chamber of Commons during the summer of 2003, when an exceptional planetary wave of heat was flying over Europe. As David Boswell Reid had thought, the air of the chamber seem to be extremely sensitive to political variations; the complaints about the insufferable indoors atmosphere in that day reverberating at the architectural scale of the assembly the proportions of a planetary-warming risk that had entered into the agenda of global politics. Indeed, despite all Reid's effort to find the adequate air conditions to house government, his design had to be constantly updated, as if the alterations in the ventilation system of the chamber could be read as a sort of index to the variations in the historical political climate.

The last proposed modification was made in 2004, after the British military intelligence have launched an alarm of a possible anthrax attack to the Commons. A £600,000 airtight screen running from floor to ceiling was proposed to be used as a barrier between the public gallery and the parliamentary sits, conforming a smaller chamber within equipped with an independent ventilation system. Since air would not flow freely, speakers installed around the gallery would permit that the debates were still held in public. Together with the transparency of the glass and the safer isolated atmospheres, all the system working to ensure that democracy was being properly defended in a state of war in which enemy's attack could unexpectedly come through air. [1]

[1] On the reported alterations at the house see the article in Telegraph, Anthrax threat to MPs in the House, available at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1460021/Anthrax-threat-to-MPs-in-House.html

 

Conditioning Air

Fragments of a dialogue about air

1st July 2004

Mr. M.: The Government's position, reported frequently to Parliament, has been that the detainees should either be tried fairly in accordance with international standards or be returned to the UK.

(...)

Throughout the past two years, we have also been very conscious of the importance of safeguarding the welfare of the British detainees at Guantanamo Bay. No Government have taken more interest in the welfare of their nationals than the UK's. We were the first to visit our nationals detained there, within days of their arrival, and have seen them more often to check on their welfare than any other Government have in relation to their nationals. British officials have visited Guantanamo Bay seven times, most recently in March. On each occasion, a report on the condition of the detainees has been given to their families and to Parliament. We will continue to keep them informed of the detainees' circumstances and of other related developments. My hon. Friend has given a graphic description of the alleged conditions in Bagram air base in Afghanistan and in Kandahar. I regret that I am not in a position to comment on those. As regards living conditions in Guantanamo Bay, however, detainees are housed in indoor accommodation with individual sleeping, toilet and washing facilities, and air ventilation.

 

Ms K.: Some would say that the air ventilation was used as a method of torture.

 

Mr. M.: Yes, I am aware of the allegations made about the misuse—alleged misuse — of the air conditioning.

The last chapter of this dialogue housed at the Parliament describes an exceptional situation in which air was brought inside the political chamber. If exceptional cases have the power to illuminate the overall rule, this scene should work as the final act that uncover the real meaning of the play, thus revealing by what means air can be truly attached to politics.

In April 2002, Judith Butler published an article describing the paradoxical situation in Guantanamo Bay: although the US government had finally conceded that the detainees should be covered by the 1949 Geneva Conventions that establishes international rights for war prisoners, it refused to officially recognize their legal status as Prisoners-of-War. For the US government, the detainees, assumed to be members of a terrorist organization, should not be called as POWs, since they were not part of a national regular army, they were not serving any country, and ultimately, there was no real war at all, at least in the traditional terms defined by the Geneva Convention, because the “war on terror” was not primarily a battle between recognizable nation-states. Alleging that the prisoners felt completely out the parameters stipulated by the accord, the US government conceived the situation as an exception, allocating the right to determine the legal status of the detainees to the American Department of Defence, which designated autonomous military commissions to be in charge of their trials. President Bush Administration claimed that their actions were consistent to the Geneva Conventions solely based on the supposed “humane” treatment of the detainees, but systematically neglected the prisoners' right to access legal councils and be judged by official courts as presupposed by the rules of the accord[1]. As it is well known, some of the detainees are entitled to have no trial at all and to be permanently detained.

For Judith Butler, it was a question of denouncing a flagrant and cynical violation of the Conventions by the Government of the United States. But nevertheless, the paradoxical fact was that because the Geneva Conventions accord on the rights of Prisoners-of-War was largely articulated around a notion of war that only includes conflicts anchored in the legitimacy of nation-states, it was unable to protect the legal rights of prisoners who were engaged in military operations in behalf of stateless organizations, such as the case of the Taleban Guantanamo Bay's detainees. A voided-space inscribed in law left a margin for the US Government's manoeuvre, thus creating a place whereby international legal rights of human beings could be - “legally” - completely suspended. For Butler, although it should be insisted that the case was carried under the cover of the Geneva Conventions, it was also necessary to re-conceptualize the notions on which the law was based, extending the rights of prisoners to military situations where non-state parties were in conflict. “Battlefield detainees”, as they were named by the US Government, she wrote, “designates a place not yet under the law, indeed, outside law in a more or less permanent way”. Moreover, Judith Butler argued that since the United States declared that they were following the Geneva Conventions in treating the prisoners “humanely”, the very definition of “humane” inscribed in the Conventions was at risk of becoming emptied, for the detainees had no legal guarantee that they would have access to the rights stipulated by international rules, and the “humane” was therefore reduced to a pure biological-being, somehow outside culture and civilization, with no citizenship, no political rights and non official recognition under legislation.

The dialogue at the Parliament add some factual data into the paradox: UK's government position regarding nine British detainees was that either they were treated in accordance to “international standards” or they should return to British territory where their status as citizens would assure their legal rights. Inside Guantanamo Bay, where law was indeed suspended, there was no guarantee that legitimate proceedings would be followed and that the detainees would have a fair trial. Nonetheless, the UK's government reiterates its concern with the “importance of safeguarding the welfare” of the British prisoners and had designated commissions to report on their living conditions. Limited by a space outside the cover of law, UK's government only attempts to guarantee that the alleged “human” treatment the prisoners deserved were being respected. Mr M. gives a description: “<em>detainees are housed in indoor accommodation with individual sleeping, toilet and washing facilities, and air ventilation”. </em>Inside the cells, divorced from any legal status, the “human” was detached from the “rights”, and his welfare limited by some basic infrastructures to sustain his life, which no longer attached to law, were reduced to its most pure naked vital dimension.

For Giorgio Agamben, a detainee in Guantanamo Bay is a “legally unnameable and unclassified being”, whose situation can only be historically referenced to the situation of the Jews in the concentration camps of the Second World War that similarly were fully stripped of their citizenship and completely erased as legal subjects [2]. The comparison made by Agamben was largely controversial as it entitles a direct correlation between Bush Administration and the Nazi regime. Latter he explained his analysis, avoiding a direct historiographical correlation yet reinforcing the parallelism, since both situations, although historically distinct, reveal the same political structure that for Agamben characterizes contemporary forms of power, namely an exceptional state by which individual's legal status are suspended and therefore human beings are confronted with a raw power in face of which they appear as only humans as such, a pure biological body without any juridical or political rights.

For Agamben what is crudely apparent in the space of the camp is the process in which the biological became a problem of sovereign power. By institutionalizing a state of exception that suspends all legal rights that defined individuals as political subjects, power starts to confront the individuals as just bare life, without any qualification or mediation. The camp is therefore the space where the connection between the biological and the political that characterizes modern (bio)politics structure acquire its most extreme significance and becomes fully intelligible; a totally organized and rationalized space instituted by law yet completely outside the political and juridical order in which power is directed to human beings without any other definitions apart from their biological existence [3].  If following Michel Foucault, the introduction of man as a pure living being into the realm of politics is what define the background where contemporary mechanisms of power operates, it is so that, for Agamben, biopolitics finds its most finished form in the hidden horizon of the space of the camp.

Guantanamo Bay therefore appears as a sort of actualization of the camp that confirms how the biological dimension of life has become a site of power. Similarly, the logic of modern politics appears in its extreme  - exceptional – configuration. Hence we should come back to the dialogue where the situation touches the ground, for it certainly should allow us to understand what is at stake when one is talking about life as the last realm of power.  At the same time the UK's government recognizes the impossibility of the detainees to be treated as political and juridical subjects inside Guantanamo Bay, they attempt to ensure that their lives are being properly safeguarded, ensuring that a corporal-biological welfare is being adequately supplied by basic necessities such as an adequate shelter, a toilet, a space for cleaning the body, fresh air to breath. Precisely at this point, something more is revealed about that political configuration called  “biopolitics”, for the material means which should provide a “humane” treatment to at least guarantee that life as such was being preserved has turned out to be the very medium of State violence. In 2004, detainees that were released from Guantanamo Bay reported that they had been subjected to weeks in solitary confinement where suffocating hot or cold air was used as punishment for failure to “cooperate” during interrogations or for violating prison rules [4]. The conditioning of air was used as a means of torture.

When life has entered the realm of politics, not only the body is inscribed in its mechanisms, but the arms of power are extended to the entire “field” that makes man's natural existence possible. In that sense, biopolitics is not only the absence of juridical and political rights that render individuals as merely biological entities, but stands for that moment of inventiveness when power has found in the very material conditions that sustains the possibility of living a medium for operation. Certainly, one should be cautious in delineating such a straightforwardly analysis by simply taking into account some fragments of a dialogue in which Air was the protagonist. But if biopolitics is a modality of government of man by which power is made effective at the precise point where individuals are just pure living beings, it is so, as Foucault argues, that “at once becomes possible to protect life and to authorize the holocaust” [5]. Air is a material that becomes a question for politics insofar as it has a directly connection to life as such, and therefore should be made a matter of government in order to protect the life of individuals, as it was the material by which, in the paradigmatic space of the camp-as-gas-chamber, was chemically poisoned to be used as a weapon for mass murder.

[1] Judith Butler, <em>Guantanamo Limbo, </em>the article appeared in the April 1, 2002 edition of The Nation. Available at: http://www.thenation.com/doc/20020401/butler

[2] The comparison can be found in: Giorgio Agamben,  State of Exception, University of Chicago Press: 2005.  “Neither prisoners nor persons accused, but simply “detainees”, they are the object of a pure de facto rule, of a detention that is indefinite not only in the temporal sense but in its very nature as well, since it is entirely removed from the law and from judicial oversight. The only thing to which it could possibly be compared is the legal situation of the Jews in the Nazi <em>Lager </em>[camps], who, along with their citizenship, had lost their very legal identity, but at least retained their identity as Jews”, p. 03-04.

[3] See Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: sovereign power and bare life, Stanford: University Press, 1995.

[4]Humans Right Watch, Guantanamo: detainees accounts, available at http://hrw.org/english/docs/2005/01/13/usdom9853_txt.htm

[5] As quoted in Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: sovereign power and bare life, Stanford: University Press 1995, p. 03.

Schematic drawing of gas chambers in Auschwitz, Robert Jan van Pelt, The Case for Auschwitz (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002)

 

interlude

The Technological Dimension

of Governance: 

conversation with Andrew Barry

 

Paulo Tavares: You wrote a book entitled “Political Machines” , a title which I think brings some very interesting questions. So let's start by that, by a very straight forward question: in what sense do you think a machine can be thought as political?

Andrew Barry:  That is not a straight forward question at all. The title, as I am sure you've picked up, has multiple senses. It is about machines which have political effects and it is about the whole machinery of politics. It is about how one might understand the relationship between politics and machines. One of the main themes of the book is that one shouldn't try to understand machines as embodying politics, or containing politics, but having a certain kind of political instability, creating political effects in particular situations and sites, in particular spaces and times. So it is about the location of politics and the ways in which machines open up new political sites and spaces. It is a direct play; there is a way in which politics is increasingly “machined”, increasingly controlled, and on the other hand there is an instability which also coexists with that.

PT: There is a dimension of the machine that can be thought as political, but a “machinic” dimension of politics as well. When one think this relation between politics and machines, on the on hand, technology can be thought as an instrument employed in conflicts between political institutions, as a sort of “political instrumentation” of technology. On the other hand, politics can also be thought to become over-determinate by technology, or even substituted by it, as in a kind of technocratic political administration. But in both senses, although technology is connected to the political, in fact, the machines still remain “out-of-politics”. They are rendered as just tools for political action that should be or not be used, according to specific social interests. However, technology has an intrinsic political dimension, and that is what I think the term “political machines” illuminates very well. Because – and here I am quoting you - “technical designs and devices are bound up with the constitution of the human and the social”. To render technology intrinsically political is not to denounce it, but rather politicize it. It is the process of finding in technology a political dimension insofar as the social and the individual do not pre-exist technology, but are actively shaped by technology.

AB: Intrinsically political, for we need to consider the ways in which social arrangements include technologies, non-humans, and devices and so on. This is an argument I am taking from both Foucault and Bruno Latour. But one must be cautious in specifying what that politics is, recognizing that one in doing so is also playing a part in the constitution of these political arrangements. There is no kind of wonderful, neutral, external vantage point, in which one can describe this politics. What is striking to me is that the discipline of politics does an enormous amount of work to make sure that all of those things - technical devices, architectures, materials -, are excluded from the discipline. In Political Machines I take an object, the European Union. There is a vast industry of political commentary about the EU. Yet, despite the fact that the political entity which is the European Union is centrally about the organization and the arrangement of things, of materials, of technologies, actually that industry has virtually nothing to say about that.

European Union Air Monitoring Stations Network ( more then 9000 - based on map of the Atmosphere Project – ww.atmosphere.net)

PT: So in what sense do you think political thought works to put the machines “out-of-politics”?

AB: How political thought excludes talking about technology? I am not sure I have a general answer to that question, but perhaps my point would be that it does talk and it doesn’t talk at the same time. It does to the extant in which academy think that it does, and it doesn’t in terms of the ways in which formal institutions are set up. There is a clear division of labour between what goes on in parties and parliaments and what goes on in laboratories. It is in this way that I am fairly informed by anthropology. Any good anthropological research, any good social research, will soon recognize that what goes on inside institutions rarely or never corresponds to their formal external definitions. The more one goes into details, the more things do not correspond to the way they are formally represented. Actually, one would find plenty of talk about materials and technologies and so forth in formal political institutions, it is just that actually that is not part of their self definition, that is not part the way they are externally represented. There are many truth claims about material objects being made in the House of Commons. In a way, what I am trying to do in my work is simply to bring out what is there, to bring up what you can find out through a very detailed level of investigation.

PT: It is about politics beyond discourse, it is about to go beyond what political institutions say and how they represent themselves and more about what they do and how they operate.

AB: Absolutely. One kind of approach which I’ve used a lot is to focus on events, on situations, within which it is possible to open things up, in which things are already opened up. Events in which people are talking in rather messy ways about things as they happen, in which they are not giving some post-talk rationalization of what happened. It seems to me that it is a very fruitful approach for trying to interrogate beyond the level of discourse or beyond the level of formal representation of what institutions actually do.

PT: Beyond the level of institutional discourse and beyond the level of traditional political theory as well.

AB: The curious thing is that if one looks at political theory, political theorists are probably rather frustrated and dissatisfied, but they may not say it explicitly in the whole field of political science or political sociology. The political theorists may pluck examples, situations, events out of the air, without doing any empirical research because political sciences excessively rationalizes the kind of messy nature of political realities.

PT: One has to go to the field, specifically in the case of technology and politics. Put the “symmetrical anthropology” at work. One has to see what is going on out there.

AB: Of course there is the question of what the field is, and how one constitutes the field, and what the space of the field is. I guess the problem with anthropology is that it got locked in a certain notion of the field, of an ethnographic field site which is contained, enclosed, understood implicitly or explicitly in terms of some notion of community or culture. Lot of anthropology of course has moved away from that, but it stills primarily focused on very particular field sites rather than on events and process which transcends particular field sites.

 

PT: As we are discussing the “limits” of the field, I would like to turn to your concept of technological zones. I am not sure if I can call it a concept. The idea of a technological zone already implies a field or I think it can serve as an “operational concept” to draw the field of research. You draw a field by identifying a specific technological zone. I think the idea is very interesting because a technological zone, as you say, cannot be determinate by regions, not even territories, but they are more or less a space of circulation and flows, organized by means of regulatory process. By following technology, by the very act of drawing a technological zone, you end up by crossing over the boundaries between outside-inside that traditionally limits a field; you end up by connecting different cultural formation, by transgressing, for example, the traditional division between the space of the nation state and international politic. Technological zones are, almost by definition, “transboundary”. So, how can we define a technological zone, or in better words, how can we think about “technological zones” as a kind of operative tool to draw the space between technology and politics?

AB: Of course the formation of technological zones is not unconnected to the constitution of States. They may not correspond or have some connection to formal State boundaries. The development of technological zones in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is intimately associated with the formation of empire. The British Empire was an extraordinary extended technological project. But I suppose what I haven’t done is try to map the extension of such zones. I am more interested in understanding them as projects, and understanding the instabilities of their boundaries. In the notion of technological zones there is a certain degree of dissatisfaction with the overemphasis on notions of networks, on flows, the rhizome, etc. within contemporary theory. I am trying to emphasize the degree of a kind of stability and rigidity which is associated with the development of technology. It is not a material rigidity; it is about a rigidity of a formation of a very hybrid space.

EU Air Monitoring Station

PT: I think it is an interesting idea because insofar as a technological zone do not necessarily correspond to spaces and territorial regions defined in conventional geopolitical terms, a particular kind of political action, which is not directly related to the limits of a national territory, can operates through technology. Technological zones can be thought as territories where politics can operate.

AB: Yes, of course, and it is not territorially continuous, but a kind of discontinuous space which creates a zone of relations. It is a very natural concept to me. I originally studied physics as an undergraduate, and the  idea of thinking of spaces connected by practices of measurement or standardization is an entirely natural one. I think it is more difficult to understand what is going on in the formation of conventional forms of political territory than in a technological zone. I don’t have a problem with that, actually it is a starting point.

PT: Technological zones necessarily imply connectivity. As we’ve discussed, it is a form of connection that can goes beyond territorial borders. However, it is also a territory in itself, in the sense that it could be described as an island that operates with its own means of regulations. Access to technological zones can be denied and may be forbidden to whoever is thought to be undesirable. The regulatory mode of operation of technological zones may as well signify that they can configure spaces of extra-territoriality, real islands operating in connection to other islands, but in fact geographically disconnected to their immediate surroundings. To avoid connection is also a political action that can be regulated by means of technology. A simple example could be internet protocols.

AB: Those kinds of examples, such as internet protocols, are easy to observe. Lot of technological zones are in fact very difficult to see, because the access to them, or even observing and recognizing that they exist, requires a degree of specialism or expertise knowledge within that particular constitution. So part of the political reason why I want to reveal those sites is that such spaces are everywhere but often we just don’t recognize them. We don’t recognize where such borders exist, we don’t recognize who is included and what is excluded, we don’t see where the islands are, where the islands overlap, how they interfere.

PT: Because they are “islands of expertise”...
 

AB: One needs to be attuned to the way that expertise operates.
 

PT: Hence again the political importance of science and technology.

 

AB: Absolutely. And the political importance of having some awareness of such scientific and technical artefacts.

PT: With the concept of “technological zones”, I think your book highlight a more general question which is the relation between a national population and a territory, a relation that is constantly re-organized by technological means. Here, of course, I am following Foucault, when he says that from nineteenth-century on the political rationality would follow not so much concerns regarding the territory, but rather the “social geography” of the state. Government starts to be concerned with the well being of its population, in the sense that the population is the “source”, or rather the “resource”, of the well being of the state. However, that does not mean that infrastructure would be regarded as less important, but quite the opposite, technology and the means of connection would provide a certain “space of governance” through which political action could be exercised. So in that sense, “technological zones” is a kind of “space of governance”, or the means by which political action can take place within this modern rationality of government. To regulate, to defend, and to re-structure a technological zone can be thought as a political action in the strictly sense of the term. Perhaps you could comment on that: how a technological zone can be described as a space of governance, or in other words, a site where government takes place?

AB: I suppose the difficult issue is how one brings together a history of the proliferation of these technological spaces of government. And it has been a proliferation that doesn’t necessarily correspond or coincide, because they are variable, depending upon different industries, different devices, different political regimes and so forth. And of course some technological zones are entirely privatized, they are extensively established by corporations. What the relationship between that and the more classical histories of twentieth- and twentieth-first century politics which are around notions of the nation, of nationalism? It is clearly that technological zones had provide ways of establishing national borders, building up the possibilities for increasing the health and well-being of populations, but they have also provide reasons and sites where various national politics have tried to combat against. Certainly reactions to development of European Union in Britain and elsewhere could probably be seen in these terms. There is a way in which technological zones create new sites and spaces of politics but they also may limit the degree to which conventional forms of democratic politics can intervene.

 

PT: In what sense they act as limitations?

 

AB: Because the proliferation of such very specialist and very particular forms of spaces of government means that conventional political institutions like parties and parliaments, however they might occasionally address the constitution of such spaces, are poorly equipped to deal with them. They just don’t have the expertise, the resources, the time and nor are they particular aware of the issues involved.

 

PT: So how to bring this expertise into politics, to bring scientific and technological expertise to politics without, let’s say, make scientists and technicians members of parties or parliaments?

 

AB: I must qualify, because it may not just be experts. Of course non- experts may equally have a role here. But non-experts who are particularly attuned to what the issues and problems are... non-experts who become aware of the issues. It isn’t just any non-experts, it isn’t just the public in general, but it is various publics, various non-experts who are particularly aware of what the issues are. But as I am sure you are aware, I don’t propose any solution to this problem, and I am rather cautions in wanting to do so. I don’t want to short-circuit that process. It is opening up a question rather then providing a solution.

 

PT: Perhaps it connects with the idea of an “informational citizenship”, where the subject is demanded to be well-informed and well-equipped to participate in political life.

 

AB: That is the desire in the demand. To some extent I am questioning that as well.

 

PT: Of course, but somehow this also brings a kind of expertise for everyone. Think about personal computers, or even a video-camera, all this kind of everyday technological equipments and gadgets that we have to deal with. All those artefacts are overspread and produce knowledge as well. I don’t mean that “big science” is becoming a matter of non-experts, but because technology is so necessary for and diffused within everyday life, somehow political action can be thought to be at hands of ordinary people.

 

AB: There is a demand that the citizens become much more involved in politics of science and technology. I think something like recycling or monitoring the amount of carbon that one uses in one’s everyday life is an example of that. I am not sure that being able to use a computer or a video camera is a good example, because I think many technologies, notably computers, are designed in such a way that limits the degree of understandings that users can have. Actually, this demand that citizens become more and more involved in providing solutions to their own problems thus create a kind of strange empowerment, in the sense that people do acquire a degree of expertise and perhaps critical awareness, possibly of whether, for example, a recycling scheme works, or whether it makes sense to trade their petrol-driven car for an electric car, and then they start to make calculations about such issues.

European Union Air Monitoring Network, Continental Pollution Maps over pixel grid

PT: Information has a regulatory dimension, to remember the idea of Marilyn Strathern that you are very familiar with. The image of a very complex cybernetic machine that works by inputs of information and demands desirable feedbacks.

AB: Exactly, the consumer becomes integrated into the machine. For Marx, in nineteenth century, the workers were becoming integrated into the machine, now is the consumer. But it isn’t a machine that is controlled by a particular agency, or by a particular individual, but a much more unstable machine.

PT: A huge socio-technical machine: technological zones as a space of governance where well-informed citizens should somehow self-govern themselves.

AB: In principle, that is a much idealized image.

 

PT: Certainly, but an image of a form of government, even if an idealized one. The idea that through technology or through information one can somehow regulate this socio-technical machine by acting at a distance. As you said; by providing the information of weather a product is organic or not, by letting people “free to choose”, by providing information you can somehow operate through minimal regulations. It becomes a form of government. I wonder where the gap is, where the machine is not functioning... as Deleuze says “a machine always functions without functioning”...

AB: The machine is always not functioning. I approach the issue as much empirically as philosophically. For me it is more an empirical observation, which is also a political observation, recognizing that actually things do not function. Things working in disconnect ways is what social life is. That is perfectly normal and this is not news for a sociologist. But it is an important observation.

 

PT: There is something else about your book in which I am also interested, mainly because of my research on “The Air of Europe”; the idea that European Union is a response to a potentially new global order which demands a political attempt to increase the scientific and technological power.. The union of Europe, or perhaps, we should say, the “European connection”, is understood more as a technological system than a political fact in the traditional means of the term; the integration of Europe describing an exemplary expression of a technological zone as a space of governance.

AB: I think for particular historical reasons, Europe and European Union pays particular emphasis on the importance of technology and in its development. It becomes a sort of extreme case of a political system in which the formation of technological zones is absolutely central. Perhaps what you are suggesting is that it became a kind of leading case that actually has set an example which subsequently, in some ways has been copied elsewhere. Perhaps, and partially. There are many different strands involved  in the development of what I have called technological zones. Today I think we would want to trace the progressive formation of increasingly global technological zones. But just like the European Union this doesn’t create some kind of straight forwardly global political community. It creates something much more disordered and non-integrated actually. Particular devices become integrated globally but this doesn’t mean that we create a global political community.

PT: A kind of gap between technological connection and social connection.

 

AB: There are so many different spaces. There isn’t any central coordinating principle. And also the formation of technological zones is itself contested. Think about the whole arena of environmental regulations. On the one hand, one sees the development of global standards; on the other hand these standards are continuously contested information.

 

PT: There is also the idea of the “standard” as a means of political connection, as a tool to provide a “smooth space”, especially in European Union, towards harmonization and homogenization. But as we’ve discussed, technological zones function as islands as well, therefore the smoothness is not completely effective. Somehow, technology is not enough for political integration, it lacks something.

 

AB: It certainly lacks something if one looks to European Union today. I am not an anti-European at all, and actually I have been accused of being a pro-European. But remember, this was in Britain, and probably it wouldn’t be the same elsewhere in the EU. I don’t think that my book is either straight forwardly pro or anti-European, but it is certainly the case that European Union lacks something. It has become a very technocratic project and, despite everything, there is a lack of any sense of a European political debate. Still the case that we have national political debates with very little connections between them. The connections established are technical. In this way, my analysis would be a quite conventional one; there is an absence at the centre of concern with politics in a more traditional sense. How much in the UK or anywhere else in Europe does one see any discussion, or coverage, or debate about European issues? Very little. And of course, part of the reason for that is because EU is concerned with all those technical issues. That is part of the reason why I wrote the book. There is an issue here; one needs to bring this rather “un-alive” situation more alive, make people recognize that actually there is a possibility of engaging with this rather strange political formation. It isn’t impossible, but it isn’t happening. I think European Union needs livening-up.

PT: If I understood correctly what you were saying, in the case of EU, in order to access the political one has to engage with scientific and technical matters which are the very site where the political debate is happening.

 

AB: Exactly. This will make me sound like an anti-European, but I think one needs a kind of degree of decentralization of politics. The political institution of Europe has been too centred in Brussels, Strasbourg and Luxembourg, and remote from where political debates happen in London, Paris, and Rome.

 

PT: I find rather strange what you are saying, perhaps because I see the situation as an outsider and I can not see it clearly. I am saying that because the idea of the network as a political model, which is supposedly a non-centralized political model, seems to work in the European Union, at least for technological and scientific matters. What I have been seeing with my research on the “Air of Europe” is that all the projects related to any kind of research on air quality are designed as an attempt to establish a de-centralized network of scientific and technological research institutions.

 

AB: They can be very effective and they are very important and very influential.

 

PT: But you were saying quite the opposite, that in fact there is a process of centralization.

 

AB: There is not new in saying that. And I am not sure I have the solution for that. It is quite extraordinary that over thirty years since Britain joined the EU the lack of public discussion about what is going on in European institutions in Britain is astonishing. British university students wouldn’t really be able to tell you what the relations or the differences between the Commission, the Parliament and the Council Ministers are, for example. One element of my analysis that is not in Political Machines is quite pessimistically, almost “Adornian”, in its tone. There is a real problem in the kind of commercialization of public political life which means that it is very difficult to get what are quite particular technical issues into the public realm. I may sound pessimist in that respect.

 

PT: Finally, there is one more question that I would like to ask you, about the research you made on air quality projects. We have been talking about the political aspects of machines and technology, and how what you call technological zones can provide a space of governance, and how European Union is mainly a technological zone, or how technological zones are central to the political project of the integration of Europe. Your research on South East London, a very specific case of monitoring air quality network, shows that to monitor air was a means to acquire information about the environment in order to foster a change in the behaviour of urban citizens, regarding, for example, the way they conduct their vehicles. There was a difficult in acquiring data about air pollution, which was quite controversial, but the underline idea was that this information should be made public in order to possibly guide the conduct of the inhabitants of the city. It is a very simple example, almost banal, but in fact, by providing information, a certain act of “governamentality” can be described: one that counts on the responsibility and the will of the population to “self-government”. Of course, together with that, there is a tactics of policing as well: regulations and standards of pollution emission might be established by law and must be followed. Following this line, I think we can see a form of governing which seems to be very effective, one that operates through air.

AB: In that particular case not effective at all. The kind of information that was produced had no particular public profile, nor was it produced in a form that could be useful. So in a sense, the desire to create a more informed public and to imagine that this information would allow the public to govern their own behaviour was there. I don’t think that was the way it worked. What I was trying to say is that there was an obsession about producing more and more information about the air. And bad information about the air. In this respect I am quite a scientist, so I can say it was not very well done scientifically. You could do it much batter. In fact, it actually displaced other ways of addressing the problem. What is striking is that even well known environmental organizations like Friends of the Earth became invested in demanding more monitoring air quality when that monitoring of air quality wasn’t telling you that much because it was so badly designed. Although the desire was to produce a kind of form of self-government, it failed. It actually displaced other ways of doing politics. Politics had been channelled down the route of monitoring, of trying to regulate the content of the air. I am not saying that this is necessarily a bad thing. Actually, historically it has been tremendously important to transform the quality of the air in London. Earlier, there was the terrible period of smog, when there was large number of deaths and so forth. But in this particular case, it was driven by an excessive technological enthusiasm.

PT: However, if we think about the idea of the “space of governance”, specifically the space of liberal politics, I think we can see how this space can operate through air regulation, in the sense that just by acquiring data and providing this data to the public, by fostering policies of air regulation according to this data, a certain form of government is established. It enables to “change the conduct of conducts”. So it may be not well designed technologically, but well-designed politically.

AB: I suppose we came back to our initial question, if a technological design is not unconnected to its political design, and if a poor technological design reflects the fact that it was too politically driven in the conventional sense of the term. I suppose what I am advocating is a kind of minor politics of science in which something that is technically better designed is better politically designed. What was designed there was quite hopeless.

 

Part II

Governing Air

The environmental chamber at the University of Umea, North Sweden where the Environmental Research Group conduct experiments on human respiratory systems. Image courtesy of ERG.

 

The Right to Air

“A fundamental human right should undoubtedly be unlimited access to clean air”. In the light of the parliamentary dialogue about the situation at Guantanamo Bay, this statement could possibly be thought as the humanitarian principle that had lead the UK's government to ensure that adequate ventilation was being supplied for the detainees, or perhaps it could had come from a civil organization attempting to protect their lives. However, the rights advocated here are not direct to the living conditions of prisoners but to the living conditions of the entire population of a city. Neither from a human rights organization nor a governmental institution, the statement is the opening phrase of a report by the Environmental Research Group (ERG), a scientific research agency lead by toxicologist Frank Kelly that is responsible for monitoring the quality of the air in London[1]. The implied political dimension nonetheless resounds in a similar fashion: for what human does clean air is a necessary fundamental right if not for the one who is primarily considered as just a living-being before any relation to law or citizenship? In other words, if rights are a matter of politics, how does one access the political meaning implied in “human right to clean air”? Techno-science compromise with nature: here, the discourse of human rights does not concern any legal status of citizenship, but certainly concerns the rights of man insofar as he is a living species which life depends upon the quality of air[2]. The humanitarian appeal of the ERG's report, even if weighed with the force of democratic rhetoric, has the merit to show the actual stage of a historical movement in which access to good air came to be understood as a right that should be protected by a good government.

It is throughout the nineteenth century, and mainly at smoky London, that we can see how air emerges as a matter that should be regulated by the State. At this time, the question of whether emissions in the atmosphere should or should not be controlled by legislation was particularly controversial. Apart from the fact that industrial smoke was regarded as a symbol of wealthy and modernization, accordingly to liberal reasoning, the fact that the State would intervene in the way people heated their houses, since burning coal in private homes was one of the main sources of air pollution, was often seen as abusive to individual rights. Slowly, the balance between the unavoidable existence of pollution as a result of economical growth and private property started to be weighed against the rights of people to “common resources” such as clean air. Historians of environmental legislation always emphasize that the right for a good atmosphere was a demand mainly fostered by civilian organizations with philanthropic (humanitarian) objectives, but at this time, as it is well-known, the “Victorian environmental activists”, as the historians like to call them, were concerned with the poor who lived and worked in industrial cities such as London. That was already “bare life” becoming a matter of government. Gradually, a series of legislations were implemented, mainly related to industrial smokes, sanitary and health regulation standards[3. But it was not until the Clean Air Act of 1956 that Air definitively became a matter whereby State would intervene.

[1] Environmental Research Group, <em>Queen's Prize Submission Report, 2005.

[2] In that sense, the efforts of UK's government to certify that adequate ventilation was being provided for the detainees is an example of how a discourse on the rights of man-as-life has entered inside political institutions. Inversely, one would find that the site of “the political” of a system of government that takes life as its main focus is placed in various spaces besides traditional political instances. For Agamben the separation between humanitarianism and politics that can be seen in current practices of human rights organizations that claim to be acting solely based on humanitarian and social enterprises rather than taking their practice as a form of political intervention is the example that makes clear how the rights of man are completely detached from the rights of citizens, and how humanitarian aid has become just a practice of representation and protection of bare life. (See Giorgio Agamben, <em>op Cit, </em>p. 133). Although his analysis comes from an “exceptional” situation (in that particular case the situation of the refugees, which accordingly to him, is becoming a norm), it is worth taking into account how the report of the ERG implies an humanitarian discourse and makes clear how “human rights” is diffused beyond the juridical-political discourse. It confirms how biopolitics is inscribed not only in the “exception” but in fact works inside a system where law indeed prevails; a field before and beyond legal rights, but also within, where politics is found in every situations where life as such comes into question, as it is when the air we breath becomes a matter of government.

[3] Peter Thorsheim, Inventing Pollution: coal, smoke and culture in Britain since 1800.

 

Deadly Waves

2003 heat wave temperature variations in comparison to normal temperatures in Europe.

What makes the Clean Air Act a paradigmatic point, and indeed a very interesting one, however, is not so much the fact that it marks a highlight in the history of environmental legislations, as often noticed by the specialized historiography, but the fact that a “natural” catastrophic event triggered the law. It was certainly the result of a long history of attempts to control chemical emission into the atmosphere and pressure of civil society, yet if the Great Fog of 1952 in London wouldn't have happened one could doubt that the Act would have passed in the Parliament. The sharply increase in the number of deaths during the event has made clear once and for all how deeply the life of the individuals was affected by the air of the city. That was not a novelty, since nineteenth century “environmental activism” was about anything else if not to the realization that the living-working-force was becoming weaker due to the poor state of the atmosphere. But the exceptional event brought the situation to alarming levels and made apparent the fact that to govern a city and to provide that the health of its inhabitants were being protected was not just a question of controlling human actions, but government would have to deal with the unpredictability of “natural” phenomena such as the occasional variations in the weather that together with the smoky air of London had generated the deadly smog of 1952. The word smog says much about it: a mixture between fog and smoke, it is a nature-culture hybridization. The former, a climatic natural phenomena which is beyond human control, the latter the by-products of civilization. To regulate air and guarantee the right for a good atmosphere would be a question not only of making it cleaner for better health, but ensuring security against threats to life that, although affected by human activities, cannot be humanly controlled [1].

History seems to always repeat itself at greater scales:  “The summer of 2003 in Western Europe was characterised by a serious heat wave and a substantially higher mortality rate. During this heat wave, the concentration of air pollution, in particular ozone, broke records and frequently reached levels exceeding the EU alarm levels. It has now been calculated that this ozone-related summer air pollution contributed considerably to the observed mortality rate”. That is the statement that opens another report produced by the AirNet project, a pool of scientific research institutions that is part of the European Union's Clean Air for Europe Programme [2]. Similarly to the event in London 1952, a link between an unpredictable natural phenomena, the chemistry of Air, and the life of the population is designed, but now scaled up to the European territory. After considering how the bad quality of Air in the continent causes serious damage to the health of Europeans, the report is illustrated by a map that shows the loss in statistical life expectancy attributed to the emission levels of particular type of pollution in the year 2000. According to the map, someone who is living in London, for example, would be expected to die eight months before someone who is living in Stockholm, who is expected to die four months before one would live if “unlimited access to clean air” was provided. Another map follows, similar to the first, now showing a future scenario which describes in comparison to the first the percentage of life that could be “saved” if pollution was brought down bellow certain guidelines. The pixelized image of the maps gives them a low resolution aspect that makes us doubt of their accuracy, specially because we might want to do so, considering that if one is in London and starts to analyse them carefully, one would realise that, according to an absurd number given by Frank Kelly, “the figures indicate that everyone in London each year is loosing 7 to 8 months of their life span” (!) [3].

There is indeed a degree of fiction in those images. In ordinary situations, individuals are exposed to multiple types of particles and gases which levels of concentration vary in relation to various factors: the places they are, indoors/outdoors concentration differences, how they move around the city, changes in temperatures, wind directions etc., therefore it becomes rather difficult to isolate and establish a direct connect between one particular chemical and its real effects upon people's health[4]. In exceptional cases such as the London fogs in 1952, when the event was literally visible in the air, the link is dramatically felt yet not discretely identifiable. But it becomes possible to link a sharply rise in the levels of concentrations recorded by sensitive air monitoring stations and then calculated those numbers against a pick in a curve of mortality rates extracted from the data stored in hospital hard-drives. During the Heat Wave of 2003, the weekly-based reports generated by the Office for National Statistics calculated an overall 16% “excess in numbers of deaths” across England. Inside London this number reached 42%. Those data were later on analysed against the unusual concentration levels of particulate matter and ozone monitored by the Meteorological Office for the same period. The serious variations in the climate could then be made “sensible” by the oscillations in the life of the population: “the weekly deaths reporting system provided a useful indication of the impact of the hot weather in England” [5]. Since a study carried out in six North American cities in the early 80s[6], a statistical link between numbers of morbidity-mortality and the concentration levels of certain particles and gases was “discovered” and later transcribed into a mathematical exposure-response equation that allows to quantify the changes in the chemistry of air as numbers of “years of life gain” or “years of life lost”.

 

The relations that become visible during exceptional waves were transcribed in a model that allows analysing and preventing the potential effects of particular elements in the atmosphere by taking life as a sort of thermometer. Behind this scientific fact fabricated using the entire ecology of cities as a kind of laboratory, there is involved a whole rationality which is designed to incorporate the indeterminacy of natural events and try to measure its impacts. That sophisticated technique demands an extensive technological infrastructure of sensors and fast computer processors to model the patterns of air flows, it relies on the expertise of toxicologists to determine which gases are particularly harmful, it counts on specialists in the sciences of risk assessment to delimit certain thresholds for atmospheric concentrations, and finally, it credits to environmental consultancy companies the task of computing those effects in terms of loss and gains to the economy.

Because air pollution, as we saw, is an object which ontological status is rather problematic, being a result of the interactions between natural elements and human activities, to clean the atmosphere and return it to its “natural” state is virtually impossible, and in fact, an economical-civilizational disaster. Considering that pollution can not be completely eliminated or fully controllable, it is necessary a technique that enables it to be precisely monitored and regulated. So government will have to work not so much to guarantee “the right for unlimited access to clean air”, but rather to guarantee safety limits for its levels of “dirtiness”. It will have to be able to prevent that the negative impacts of bad air won't exceed certain expectations, and it will have to try to reduce the risks of costly and deadly natural accidents. The AirNet maps are not the image of a real situation in the territory, but the image of a specific technology that allows to project a probability on a geographic scale by utilizing the body of the population as a very sensible device to monitor the oscillations in the atmosphere. They are indeed fictional, but a fiction that tries to anticipate the future: forecasting is a climatological science that is being incorporated into the realm of politics.

Moreover, however fictional, they show a real fact: how “life” has become a common word in the environmentally friend discourse of government. A life that is not the one of a particular individual, but the overall life of a population that can only be accessed as computer-processed information. From the beginning of the 90s, several projects on continental air quality have been part of EU government’s environmental agenda. Infrastructure and a truly scientific “task force” was stimulated to generate those types of information and to develop a specific knowledge about how to relate them[7].

 

[1] Often we see the history of human kind being told by the linear succession of its achievements, but its is never enough to emphasize how much it deserves to the history of  accidents, of failures, of natural and technological catastrophes, and exceptional situations that forcefully foster moments of inventiveness.

[2] AirNet, Air-pollution and the Risks to Human Health, 2004.

[3] See the archived interview with Frank Kelly, (London) an environmental chamber.

[4] See the interview with Frank Kelly, when he explains the difference between the experiments realized in controlled chambers and the experiments realized in the city.

[5] Johnson H, Kovats S, McGregor G, Stedman J, Gibbs M, Walton H. The impact of the 2003 heat wave on daily mortality in England and Wales and the use of rapid weekly mortality estimates</em>. Eurosurveillance, Volume 10, Issue 7, 01 July 2005

[6] The famous study is called “Harvard Six Cities Study”. See the interview with Ben Croxford, <em>Comfort, a state of mind.</em>

[7] Just to name few: LRTAP (long-range transboundary air pollution), EuroAirnet (1996-2000), Air4EU (2004-2006), Expolis (1996-2000), Atmospheres (2000-2005) and the recent CAFE Programme. For sociologist Andrew Barry,   the union of Europe is more as a technological system than a political fact in the traditional means of the term. EU is technological zone as a space of governance, for which Air is just a medium of integration. See the interview with A. Barry in this volume.

 

Stock-at-Risk

In the late nineteenth century a notorious English reformer named Edwin Chadwick had the fantastic idea of establishing a company that  similarly to the way fresh water was delivered in the houses trough  pipes, would draw the clean air from the higher layers of the atmosphere  and distribute it into the houses of London [2].  The basic idea in his system – getting good air from upper cleaner  sources – is nearly the same used by contemporary high-rise buildings in  polluted metropolis [3].  But Chadwick was dreaming of an entire city, as if this Victorian  Sci-fi mechanical design would function like an urban version of the  pneumatic apparatuses David Boswell Reid saw in the Houses of  Parliament.

Although the idea of supplying an adequate atmosphere remains  similar, the actual infrastructure of London is probably less  spectacular, but perhaps more sophisticated, and no less extensive. We  rarely notice, but there exist a 130 air-monitoring stations network  scattered around the city that provide daily-basis information about the  concentration levels of some elements of the air. Even more invisible  are the 64.000 links displaced next to the city roads that measure  traffic-flows intensity and generate the type of information necessary  to calculate the overall emission of vehicles. The maps produced by the  ERG model 3 million different emission sources inside London between  road transport, gas combustion, and marginal industrial activities.  Pollution coming from outside the city is incorporated by transforming  data gathered by a similar national air-monitoring network into  background concentration levels. Processed by equations that simulate  the patterns of air dispersion, all this information is placed against a  1km resolution matrix of 2466 km2 layered over the map of the city. For  each one of the km-pixels different types of concentration are  calculated. The entire system works as a type of informational  cartography that enables to estimate the pollution levels with great  accuracy, as Frank Kelly emphasises: “in every street in London, and  obviously outside everybody's front door, outside school gates or beside  a hospital.”[4]

London Air Monitoring Network  / 1KM pixel London-air monitoring matrix

This type of infrastructure and information manipulated by the ERG is  likely to be extended and developed towards more complex arrangements.  Because the shape of the urban fabric deeply influences the patterns of  winds or variations in temperature, the city starts to generate a kind  of “micro-climate” of its own. Whereas in the past the climate  conditions in urban areas were available just at the macro scales of  traditional weather forecasting, which are commonly measured in open  sites located outside the city, it starts to become important to get a  better knowledge of how the atmosphere vary inside the urban  environment, and that type of infrastructure should provide the access  to this information. Similar networks can be found in Paris, Berlin and  New York.

 

When  describing the technology utilized by the ERG to monitor and model air  pollution dispersion in London, Frank Kelly does not use the image on a  pneumatic apparatuses, but describes the city as a “huge experimental  environmental chamber”. Similarly to Reid that thought it was possible  to bring his ventilation arrangements from the laboratory outside to the  parliament, the idea of the city-as-chamber is the urban translation of  the experiments the ERG conduct in atmospheric controlled cells.  Differently, however, Reid's apparatus was a thermodynamics whereas  Kelly's chamber is a chemistry. Besides monitoring and mapping the air  quality in London, the ERG counts on a lung-expert team that studies the  impacts of pollutants at the molecular scale of humans’ biological  structure. Up-north in clean-air Sweden, where the rates of mortality  associated to the quality of air are much lower and lungs are healthier,  volunteers are exposed to controlled concentrations of chemicals inside  architecturally sealed rooms, their bodies being monitored by special  devices during the process. The impacts of the emissions are analysed  later in blood and lung-tissue samples. The damage that specific agents  commonly found in the air cause on the micro-fibres that sustains life  are verified in details.

London Atmospheric Monitoring Station

The Environmental Research Group is a typical example of the  connections between the laboratory chamber and the chambers of politics.  Funded mainly by public contracts, it works as an independent -  “neutral” - research agency providing scientific data that furnishes  “policy makers”. When the recently installed Low Emission Zone [5] was in discussion phase, in order to access the impact that lower  concentrations levels of certain gases in the city's atmosphere would  have on health, the principle of the environmental chamber – levels of  exposure X life response - was tested on the scale of London's urban  fabric. The ERG modelled a series of maps showing pollution  concentrations across the city and designed future scenarios estimating  the probable reductions that would be generated by the introduction of  the scheme. This data was then processed by an “exposure-response”  mathematical model against population statistics and translated into a  series of estimative numbers [6].  The equation used is: impact = pollution × stock at risk × response function, where pthe notion of "stock at risk" represents population or certain population sub-group. 

 

Among other calculations, healthy benefits from the reductions on the  concentration of PM10 levels, for example, were estimated in 4036 years  of life gained for the city. If NOx emissions in the air of London were  reduced by 1000 tonnes a year, more 929 years of life would be added.  The final result estimated that if the LEZ was implemented, from 2005 to  2015, “the emissions benefit in London will lead to 5,200 years of life  lost gained”, plus 310.000 cases of lower respiratory systems and  231.00 “restricted activity days” would be avoided [7].  Translating the numbers of  “years of life lost gained” in monetary  value, the total discounted benefits of the scheme calculated by the AEA  Energy and Climate, a environmental consulting company which appealing  slogan is “Let us show you the green path to profit”, were estimated up  to 420 million pounds [8]. The exposure-response mechanism of the chamber is transformed into a cost-benefit balancing act: life is caught up in between economic calculations and  scientific-activism for the rights to clean air. Employing a cybernetic  lexicon, Frank Kelly describes how this calculation is possible:

“Every life has got a monetary value. We use this commonly in life  insurance policies. If a life, if an individuals' health is modified so  much that they are not productive for the society any more, than that  is a lost to society. And in those terms, you can actually quantify what  the overall lost input to society that air quality is having."

               impact =  pollution × stock at risk × response function

 

Snakes Kane East, London - live CCTV cam

There is a certain “ecological rationality” of government that is  demanded to deliver clean air. To intervene in the composition of the  atmosphere is in fact to operate in a much larger field which integrates  the unpredictability of the weather, the organization of urban flows,  the health of the population and the laws of the market into one single  system of interactions. The air inputs must be balanced to  provide a well-modulated intervention: trying to meet concentration  safety guidelines to avoid natural accidents, while at the same time  compensating the economic costs to reduce emissions by the benefits that  “extra-life” [9] expected outputs will provide to power up the urban machine. In fact,  access to good air is not so much a right the State protect by law, but  the material resultant of an entire technology of urban government.

 

[1] See footnote 51

[2] Peter Thorsheim, op. Cit.

[3]The recommendations for the design of ventilation systems consider that  the more far from the street levels the air intakes are the better. The  Gherkin, for example, a building by Norman Foster that is often  considered as symbol of the high-tech ecological design follows this  principle: only the upper windows can be opened to draw the cleaner air  inside and ventilate the building.

[4]Interview with Frank Kelly.

[5] The LEZ was introduced in February 2008 and cover the whole area of  Greater London. Only vehicles meeting certain emissions criteria or  standards can enter the city without being daily charged. An LEZ is the  actualized version of the 1946 “Smokeless Zones” that in 1987  practically covered 90% of London.

[6] The equation is: impact = pollution x stock at risk x response function, where: pollution is ambient pollution concentration; stock at risk is  population, or sub-group of population; exposure response function is  the concentration response functions identified in the underlying  epidemiological studies.. See AEA Energy and Environmnet, London Low Emission Zone Health Impact Assessment. Final Report, November 2006.

[7] RDA - Restricted activity days - is an index that refers to  restrictions on individuals’ ability to complete everyday activities  through ill health caused by poor air quality. AEA Energy and  Environment, op. Cit.

[8] AEA Energy and Environment, op. Cit.

[9] When explaining the figures of life expectancy in London related to air  quality, Frank Kelly says: “This is just calculations that suggest that  if air pollution was brought down below the WHO guidelines, then  everybody would have on average 7 or 8 extras months of life. (...)   ultimately that would be 7 or 8 months <em>extra life</em> that you could  provide. But first of all you need to be able to introduce those  policies, so therefore that is why you need the research to be able to  indicate to you what the most meaningful, appropriate and efficient  policy introduction should be, and then secondly, of course, you need to  show that there is definitely an economic advantage of doing that, or  otherwise, with all the other areas of society competing for these scare  resources you are going to have difficult to convince the politicians”.  See interview with Frank Kelly.

 

PART III

MODEL ATTACK

 

Air

Étienne-Jules Marey , air visualizations, 1990-1901

In principle, by its own nature, air is an  element that avoids spatial description, visual representation, and  ultimately, historicity. Its resistance to formalization puts air almost  on the opposite side of architecture: air is shapeless, neglects order,  and is inclined to invisibility. As architecture, air is a tangible  material, but its volatile physics is refractory to traditional  interpretations of tectonic art. Yet they share an essential spatial  feature: the habitual experience of air, necessary to our living  condition, likewise that of everyday spaces we inhabit, calls the  immersion of the body, and similarly, it is so integral to our habits  that tends to precipitate in unconscious forms of perception. Parallels  are not merely phenomenological but properly political. For air is one  of the most meaningful public spaces of the city, since it is vital and  communally shared. If we shift the perspective therefore, looking form  the point of view of air instead of focusing the built environment, a  series of modes of visualizing and describing the urban are suspended.  What was before not presented to knowledge now requires a cartographic  description; the void becomes full of content and acquires the  consistency of a space in itself. Integrated in the modes of seeing,  conceiving, and governing the city, air becomes a matter of collective  attention, visual elaboration, technological intervention and political  action

 

Millieu

National Centre for Atmospheric Science (NCAS), UK - Enflo Wind-Tunnel

Between 2006  and 2009, a series of  scientific experiments were conducted within the  atmosphere of London  under the “Strategy for Countering Chimical,  Biological, Radiological  and Nuclear Terrorism” implemented by the UK  government after the  terrorist attacks of 07/07 in 2005. The objective  of those scientific  trials was to infer about potential effects of  hazardous materials  released in the atmosphere of risky-prone urban  zones. Some questions  remain difficult to answer: how much material  would be released? And  what material specifically?  But it is possible  to “simulate” an event  through a series of complex spatial-scientific  exercises, and try to  understand how any material released would behave  inside the urban  fabric. The difficulties of identifying gas-dispersion  patterns are  directly related to the inconstant nature of the atmosphere  itself, and  also to the complicated interactions of the airflows with  the urban  design. Traditionally, information about air conditions and  climate  variations are obtained at geographical scales, though  meteorological  instruments usually situated in airports control towers  or scientific  stations. The problem is that the data recorded at this  scale does not  allow knowing what happens at street level. The city  generates a type  of “microclimate” of its own, constituting itself a  coherent ecological  entity, and therefore, it is necessary to conceive a  model in which  urban variables and airflows are part of an extended  spatial field.  Those scientific experiments advance an  epistemic-technical  construction according to which space is  conceptualized as a hybrid milieu, an  assemblage of natural  rhythms and social designs. Inside this model,  air becomes a turbulent  urban agent, virtually incontrollable and hard to police.

 

Attack

Atmospheric modelling of chemical attacks using a model of Manhattan

Developed by state-sponsored scientific  think-thanks and private techno-military consortiums, trials were  carried out in poorly ventilated tubes of London Underground, at  open-air congested urban intersections, and also under controlled  atmospheric conditions, within the architecture of   laboratorial  chambers. From an environmental-technological standpoint, a chemical  attack and a scientific trial are virtually the same thing, only differing in degree. Both operate the release of an alien element  detachable from the normal conditions of the atmosphere. The noun  “terror” in that case, appears attached to an immanent dimension of    technology given by its intrinsic lethal-destructive potential. Following Sloterdijik, it is less about an identifiable enemy and more about a miltary-ecological modus operandi proper to techno-science, which ultimate negative consequences are manifested through atomic destructions, radioactive accidents, environmental disasters, and collective states of fear. Scientific experiments, however, are less violent and conducted under manageable psychological circumstances. During field trials, scientists equipped with small bottles filled with some kind of volatile liquid release a gas into the atmosphere. At specific points, they collect air samples to measure levels of concentration, trying to trace the patterns of dispersion of the element across the urban environment. This atmospheric-mapping procedure relies  on a sophisticated network of sensors installed throughout the built fabric of London. Because those tiny electronic filters are  hyper-sensible, it is possible to conduct open-air trials releasing only very small, non-harmful concentrations of a determined gas. Despite its low intensity, however, the operation through which knowledge about air  is produced is similar to a violent act to which air is the medium,  because it is the design and the rehearsal of a “non-harmful attack”  that makes possible to estimate the potential spatial impacts of an  exceptional situation. In other words, the knowledge produced   about the behaviour of air corresponds to the techno-ecological power of intervening in the atmosphere.

 

Model

A model of London central area being tested in the wind-tunnel of The National Centre for Atmospheric Science (NCAS), UK.

At laboratorial scale, experiments are  conducted inside artificially acclimatized architectures.  Environmental machines like chemical-chambers or wind-tunnels provide  a detached and controllable air-space, making effectively possible,  albeit at reduced scale, to conceptualize a formal design of the  atmosphere. Models are not much an abstraction of the real but  artificial constructions that, despite being limited, enable certain  elaboration of a given problem in reality. Inside a wind-tunnel, not  all variables are totally incorporated, but  the ones integrated into  the atmospheric model are   fully reproducible  and can be precisely modulated. Therefore, the ecological indeterminacy  is partially  assimilated as a controllable, observable and calculable  element  inside the system. At real scale, being it an accident in a  nuclear power plant, a bio-chemical attack,  or a scientific experiment, each event is singular. When realized under controllable atmospheric conditions, however, the rehearsal ad infinitum of the event at accelerated rates provides a full range of probabilities against which worst-case scenarios can be identified and levels of security  defined.  Originally, architectural models started to be introduced inside  wind-tunnels to test preventive designs  against  structural  collapses due  to overload generated by wind forces. Similar experiments are also used to optimize the design of  industrial facilities such as nuclear power  plants and chemical  factories against  potential leakages. More recently, they became  operative in  mitigation  planning against atmospheric  violence in urban environments. The techno-scientific procedure employed  is based on   the formal elaboration of an “accident/attack” in an  atmospheric-urban   model, allowing  scientists and architects to forecast  impacts and estimate risk.  Digitally measured and calculated, the data  generated   through the model allows to infer on what would have happened, for example, if a dangerous gas was released at the corner of  Merylebone   Road with  Gloucester Place in central London, on a sunny warm  day,   with  north-winds coming 51 degrees to the right from the  north-south   axes of  the street at 2 meters per second.

 

Cartography

air visualization in a model of central London rendering visible potential atmospheric effetcts of chemical attacks - project ENFLO, The National Centre for Atmospheric Science (NCAS), UK.

In addition to the data collected  for the elaboration of computing  probabilistic models, experiments  were carried out with lightning and  video equipment. The recorded  images show the patterns of air streams in interaction with the  buildings. They recall the first photographic  records of  air-dynamics realized at the benign of the XX century by Etienne Jules Marey. But now, transported to urban dimensions, those images acquire the consistency of cartography, depicting in time and space the behaviour of airflows in relation to the city structure. The empirical questions of these visual trials are apparently very  simple –  in the case a hazardous is released in the atmosphere, how  does it     behave? Where it would blow? Which routes does it follow? How does  the  form of the urban fabric interfere in its mode of  dispersion? And more  importantly, what are the areas that are  potentially safer and the ones that offer greater risk? Atmospheric  mappings produced under controlled laboratorial conditions are  necessary to inform   risk-reduction designs and emergency-response  planning. The air-dynamic cartographies constitute a set of tools  based on which an  “exceptional planning” is drafted out: public  spaces are converted into isolated areas, streets  are blocked and  traffic diverted,  underground stations are evacuated,  air-conditioned  office buildings become atmospheric shelters… That re-urban planning  is always a potential, only actualized in   extraordinary situations  and for a  short  period of time. Yet it is no   less sophisticated than  an  ordinary  urban design, for it must be   sufficiently elaborated to allow the fast  and efficient reconfiguration of the urban dynamics.

 

Politics


When life appears as the object of the  art of government, not only the    body of the subject is inscribed  inside its power-knowledge    mechanisms. The dispositive is extended throughout the medium of which the lives of the individuals depend upon. A techno-military-ecological rationale operating at the bio-environmental level, and which implicit violent dimensions appears negatively in the form of a lethal ecology. Implied in this scheme, air appears as a central element of interventions, for it is the element which should be carefully regulated and protected in order to preserve the life of the population, as it was the material through which, in the paradigmatic “exceptional atmosphere” of the concentrations camp, was used as the medium of mass murder.

General Essay on Air:

probes into the atmospheric conditions of liberal democracy

PT, 2008

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