Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Problems with Bennett's Vibrant Matter

In the actor-network perspective adopted and updated by Jane Bennett, electricity grid failures in megacities – she discusses the Northeastern blackout affecting the Boston-New York and Great Lakes conurbations in August 2003 – can be traced to the chaotic behaviour of electrical flows in complex grids. Like Virilio (2007), she sees the very existence of the power grid as the intimation of its collapse (Bennett 2010: 27), and argues that the energy trading corporation on whose lines the disaster began, FirstEnergy, was not responsible for what happened, suggesting that humans should not be regarded as privileged by their capacity for action apart from 'the order of material nature'. Instead, comparing her attitude to that of FirstEnergy's board, Bennett argues that 'Autonomy and strong responsibility seem to me to be empirically false, and thus their invocation seems tinged with injustice . . . individuals [are] simply incapable of bearing full responsibility for their effects' (Bennet 2010: 28). While undoubtedly naïve claims of causality, and any claim to individualism, are unhelpful in the context of electric power outages, or indeed any network situation, it is equally naïve to omit the interconnection of this network with another, the deregulated energy market of the USA in the 2000s.

It is illuminating to compare the 2003 blackout with another case of megacity outage in the USA. The now shamed Enron corporation had used campaign funds to pressure California legislators to deregulate the state's energy market. Before deregulation, there had been only one serious rolling blackout: from the deregulation of December 200 to its re-regulation in June 2001, there were 38 (Public Citizen 2002). In August that year, Enron share price began to tumble, resulting in its filing for bankruptcy in November. There is no clear connection between the collapses of California's energy market and that of Enron. It is true however that ascribing the collapse of both to human greed, is inadequate. Equally, however, Bennett is correct in saying that the electrical network, the medium through which these crises occurred, provided the affordances necessary to drive them into collapse. The collapse, however, was driven by changing network goals. Missing in Bennett's analysis is the interaction between two systems, the public utility and the market. It is this interaction which created the new network behaviours which caused the crises (Healy and Palepu 2003; see also Fox 2003, Eichenwald 2005)). FirstEnergy, like Enron close to the Bush administration (CEO, H. Peter Burg had a seat on Bush's energy transition team), had quite a record. It owns GPU, the New Jersey generating company which ran Three Mile Island, and in February 2002 had its own Davis-Besse reactor in Ohio shut down at the brink of another nuclear disaster. The investigation into the blackout found FirstEnergy at the heart of the four causes (a term they find suitably problematic) of the disaster: FE's systemic failure to address problems in its network, specifically of voltage levels; its inadequate situational awareness; its failure to manage trees under its powerlines; and persuading its public oversight body not to inspect its systems and practices . While it is difficult to demonstrate that FirstEnergy was shifting power in and out of the region affected by the blackout, as Enron had done in California, the combination of software bugs and a flashover caused by overheating powerlines sparking against untrimmed trees do demonstrate the argument that when share price is the only value, energy companies abandon safe, clean and reliable supply (Bratton 2002).

This is not an example of emergent properties in a chaotic network: it clearly arises when one value – .the provision of light – conflicts with another – the extraction of profit, in the Californian instance not from retail sale but from speculative trading in real-time energy futures, in the North eastern from taking immediate profit even at the expense of the long-term profitability or even feasibility of the operation. These outcomes of clashes betwen service and profiot are even more visible in the developing world. Thus in Lagos under auspices of the World Bank and IMF during the Babangida régime in the 1980s, the national electricity provider was privatised at knock-down prices, enriching the elite while discouraging investment in the service. The absence of public utilities leads to widespread tapping into private electrical lines, resulting in widespread blackouts and frequent fires (Packer 2006: 6-7). According to Francisco Bolaji Abosede, Lagos Commissioner for Town Planning and Urbanisation, 'By 2015 Lagos will be the third largest city in the world but it has less infrastructure than any of the world’s other largest cities' (IRIN 2006). The National Electric Power Authority (NEPA), recently renamed the Power Holding Company of Nigeria (PHCN), is accused of long-standing corruption. The World Bank has however provided 100 million dollars to aid in its privatisation, despite vigorous opposition from power unions and others. NEPA was also signatory to a contract with Enron which locked it into a guaranteed purchasing agreement that had become unsustainable by 2005. Unions implied that Enron's successor, AES, was not supplying the agreed amounts of power, and the whole contract was embroiled in a legal battle alongside the political batte over splitting NEPA into eleven smaller companies prior to privatisation and deregulation (Hall 2006: 12). As Bennett suggests, such intricate networks are subject to chaotic storms and sudden, violent collapse; but such emergent behaviours cannot be understood apart from the political economy of capital, and the specific ideologies of neo-liberalism that power them

There's a permanent risk that ANT retains Latour's patrician aloofness towards political engagement The full argument is in a piece submitted to the NEP volume of Theory Culture and Society


Andre said...

I'm a bit confused by your claim that Bennett only looks at one part of the story. She clearly says this: "To understand how the deficit occurred we need to understand the other actants, including the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. [...] This greatly increased the long-distance trading of electric power - and greatly increased the load on the transmission wires [...] Power plants are technically quite capable of producing extra amounts of reactive power, but they lack the financial incentive to do so..." and more... I get the feeling you completely misunderstood what Bennett is saying... while I entirely agree that we can't look at the agency of non-human actants without looking at the human-driven political economy dimension, I don't see why you need to bash Bennett to make the point - especially if you misrepresent what she says. Or maybe I missed something? Thanks, Andre

Sean Cubitt said...

OK. I just got sandbagged by a reviewer too. But the important theme is that the ANT - Vitalist line is not a critique of postcaptilaism: it's a symptom

Sean Cubitt said...

But on a more positive note, is it that Bennett still separates out the political-economic machine from the technical apparatus. What may be missing is less an ethical-political dimension which could ascribe blame to perpetrators than an extension of the account to eradicate the psycho-social dimension entirely; to take the logic of the posthuman to the point where we eradicate individuality (and thus the legal structure of guilt). In its place, since the assemblage is exactly what needs to be explained, we should begin to analyse the components of, in this instance, the blackouts. What are they then but the sries of (incompatible) demands made on the system, which itself is constituted exactly of these demands, including the critically defective one, that it continue to function regardless.