[-empyre-] On Risk Cultures

Bhaskar Sarkar bs668 at cornell.edu
Tue Nov 6 09:52:11 EST 2012

The default understanding of “risk culture” references the spectacular media that cognitively and affectively habituate us to imminent harm: advertisements, advisories, warning systems, graphs/maps, and the like. The primary effort is to wager on future uncertainty with reasonable foresight: to calculate, measure, estimate, infer, and predict future states in order to capitalize the bet, thereby turning threat into opportunity. We see such effort across risk domains—in finance, real estate, biotech industries, patent regimes, or militarized security protocols—where aggressive speculative ventures block, exclude, and foreclose multiple possible futures so as to orient us toward a single telos. That telos too often metastasizes the status quo, even as inserts the present into an anticipatory logic; paradoxically, the status quo, immunized and protected against change, becomes the way to actualize the future. These ventures materialize specific instruments (mortgages, gene therapy), techniques (medical imaging, data mining), and policies (airport security, nuclear safety). Central to these materializations is the imperative to enclose, to privatize, and to individualize—ironically, in the name of the collective, the public good, now increasingly mobilized as the metaphysics of the “market.”

In recent years, such risk cultures have been subject to formidable and necessary critique. Our fear is that only critique, however, loses sight of other confrontations of the future: creative open-ended encounters in which one embarks on a path of action without clearly “knowing” or foreseeing the future context of actualization. Scientists immortalize cells, potentiating research whose outcomes are uncertain; hacktivists rely on unknown participants to make a DDoS attack hurt; media pirates engage in brisk economies of film circulation, always with an eye on the law; parkour practitioners scale city walls to remake urban space; ecological activists stand chest-deep in water to occupy the life-worlds the coming big dams will soon wash away….one could multiply the situations in which we witness latent, unforeseen forces sabotaging individuated risk management. Against the privatizing risk cultures, then, one might pose these other modes of living with risk—those myriad and often-invisible risk cultures that encompass both singular, experimental artistic interventions and robust world-making popular practices.

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