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Andrew Barry, Material Politics: Disputes Along the Pipeline. Wiley-Blackwell, West Sussex, 2013, 258 pages, ISBN: 978-1-118-52912-6.
See Kai Bosworth's most recent Society & Space contributions: Thinking permeable matter through feminist geophilosophy: Environmental knowledge controversy and the materiality of hydrogeologic processes
While many geographers and political theorists have argued that materials augment capacities for political experimentation, provoke public outrage, or shape power relations, others suspect that focus on the vague politics of matter is largely a force for rendering political contestation inoperable. In Material Politics: Disputes Along the Pipeline, Andrew Barry sidesteps both arguments, instead arguing that materials are bound up with the availability or transparency of information. Barry argues that the production of material information—lay and expert knowledge, documents, data and evidence of harm or injury—can often lead to new or more intense forms of dissent, especially over the frontier between public and clandestine information. Barry demonstrates this thesis through a wide-ranging and comprehensive account of the forces that attempt to demarcate where, how and which materials come to be disputed in the construction of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline. Through an examination of a number of different sites and materials: landslides, beehives, concerned citizens and international NGOs, artistic practices, knowledge controversies, labor disputes, and archives of documents, Barry constructs a vast web of the relations and processes that come to matter (or don’t) in the political construction of a multinational energy infrastructure system.
Barry begins from a core paradox currently emerging in geographic thought and practice: “Just as we are beginning to attend to the activity of materials in political life, the existence of materials has become increasingly bound up with the production of information” (page 2). Material Politics is thus surprisingly situated at a tangent from the prevailing theoretical investigations falling under the banners of "new materialism" that seek to recognize a radical break between a material entity or object and its capacity to be known by humans. Nor does he devote much to the materiality of human bodies or nonhuman animals or ecologies. Instead, Barry argues that the tenuous production of and attention to material is always enmeshed in events and bound up with an ever increasing amount of technical information. In the traditions of science and technology studies, these include regulations, documents, statistics, and public archives. Barry goes further than most in concern to qualitative knowledge of engineers, workers, and villagers of the specific dynamic capacities of a material to respond to its surroundings. Consequently, “the pipeline was always more than a physical infrastructure” (page 87) because it was constituted in and through a vast informational infrastructure that breeds different forms of expertise (economics, engineering, environmental management). Many geographers might be wary that such technical expertise might appear or be rendered as a depoliticizing force. Against these claims, Barry argues that the availability or transparency of information and expert testimony can often lead to new or more intense forms of dissent, including over the dividing line between the information and knowledge presented and circulated and that which is unspoken or hidden.
Two important conceptual contributions made early in the book are worth explicating. Following C. S. Pierce, Barry argues that politics often happens through logics of abduction, wherein a particular material event comes to index or stand in for a wider constellation of political relations. For example, the failure of a synthetic pipeline coating agent to properly perform becomes an index for shoddy and clandestine relations between government and business. Or, the dynamic instability of land becomes a cypher through which the political instability of Georgia and the post-Soviet Caucasus region is understood. Abduction is central to Barry’s other conceptual contribution, the political situation. Rather than view a knowledge controversy as self-contained within an already constituted political process (such as environmental and social review), or determined by any one particular actor or space (such as oil), Barry argues that the spaces and relations which come to be disputed are a part of a fuzzy process of border drawing between the things (and knowledge of things) that are public and thus available to dispute or clandestine and thus rendered apolitical. Because the borders, scale and actors of any political situation are not pre-given, a logic of abduction can challenge and transform the supposed apparent grounds of any political situation. In asking us to engage more closely with the specific relations that constitute political situations, Barry challenges both the assumptions that materiality is self-evidently political and that politics is merely a matter of rationally resolving disputes on a stable or pre-given terrain.
Focusing on the ‘energy corridor’ running through Georgia, Chapter 2—“The Georgian Route: Between Political and Physical Geography”—gives an account of the historical and contemporary mobilization of George not simply as a political territory but a changing geopolitical field whose strategic significance is constituted in part by expert knowledge from Russia, Britain, and the United States. In the first iterations of pipeline plans in the 1990s, scientific and technical matters were taken to be external to the pipeline’s significance, but as the project neared construction, things and events were brought back into public dispute. The depth at which the pipeline would be buried, the risk of landslides, and the pipeline’s environmental and social impacts “led to the folding of the political into the technical” (page 49). This chapter in particular contributes to recent works in political geography that attempt to think more completely through the geo of geopolitics (Clark, 2013).
Chapters 3, 4 and 8 concern attempts to form and challenge transparency and openness in knowledge controversy, and the attempts of artists, activists, and NGOs to contest the production and circulation of information. Chapter 3 focuses on the production of transparency in the historically clandestine oil industry. Transparency, also performatively calls a public into being, who the oil industry attempts to persuade of its openness through the demonstration of its knowledge. But, as Chapter 4 shows, the so-called “ethicalisation of oil” through transparency is less a matter of foreclosing politics as one might expect, but in fact multiplies the sites and situations in which knowledge is contested through abductive inference. For example, activist groups like Platform sought to make the impact of the BTC pipeline visible in London, where the financers, experts and knowledge producers were located.
Chapter 8’s focus on the vast archive of documents testifying to different material aspects of the pipeline and its impacts itself exposes not simply an incomplete account of "more real" events, but in fact complex “feedbacks between documents, the practices they described and the world that these practices were expected to transform” (page 156). Once again, while the public archive might be assumed to have a depoliticizing function, its borders and absences become generative of disputes. In one striking example, Barry shows how public information on compensation for pipeline impacts led many villagers and landowners to claim to have had walnut trees in the path of the pipeline, knowing they would be well compensated for the presence of these particular trees. Others may have moved their beehives closer to the pipeline route in order to receive compensation. Thus the technical knowledge that was presented led to unexpected disputes. Yet Barry is also concerned as to why these events became part of the archive, while labor disputes over working conditions failed to register. Here, the archive does seem to serve a depoliticizing function, as it diverts attention away from these struggles and instead toward materials. Labor, it seems, must constitute its own political situations outside the archive.
Chapters 5, 6 and 7 concern more centrally the materiality of the political situation and the ways in which materials were used to either politicize or depoliticize the pipeline. Chapter 5 concerns the gathering of a ‘concerned public’ that was expected to be impacted materially – socially, environmentally, even sonically—by the pipeline’s construction or operation. On the one hand, the BTC Environmental and Social Impact Assessment defines ‘pipeline affected communities’ as those within a certain extensive space next to the pipeline or its worker camps which could then be governed as such. On the other, communities felt the effects and affects of the pipeline in a multiplicity of ways—some outside the zone were affected, while others within the zone felt unaffected and worried that they were being compensated for unknown health effects. Thus the ability to know, draw and contest this border between the affected and unaffected became yet another war of position.
Similarly, Chapter 6’s account of the definition of what counts as "being affected" by a visible or felt impact is a contested matter. Certain of these impacts lend themselves to being measured and recorded (like the vibrations caused by construction or cracks one can see in buildings, walls and pipes), while others like feelings of injustice, anger and frustration are rendered illegitimate or illegible. In a simultaneously spectacular and mundane example, Chapter 7 turns to the materiality of the pipeline and especially the contested accounts of the efficacy and dynamism of a synthetic pipeline joint coating material. Not only does Barry argue that we have given short shrift to the unique properties of synthetic materials like metals and plastics, but also that these synthetic materials offer vastly different ways of conceiving a kind of ‘vital matter’ outside the reductive ecological and biological guises it usually assumes. This account leads to some of Barry’s most forceful and important claims: in the same way that the political situation cannot be taken as a given, so too are the politics of materials never simply given. “Materials acquire more-than-local political agency only occasionally, not in general” (page 152). The division between these accounts is thus centrally a matter of knowledge and thus of power.
Although the account is vivid in its detail and intensely important in its theoretical contributions, I argue that Material Politics sometimes fails to follow through on its own promises and possibilities in creating and transforming a political situation. In these most provocative pages, the sense of politics is most generative and also perhaps most vulnerable to slippage. Despite the fact that the materiality of the pipeline, landslides, the archive, knowledge systems, the physical geography of Georgia, beehives and trees are all taken by Barry to be indexes of the contingent, open and disputed borders of a political situation, it becomes difficult to trace why these materials rather than others became political. Barry asks this very question:
“Why was the politics of material considered more significant than the politics of class? If politics…involves making objects and problems visible, why were the failures of material objects rather than the working conditions of labourers rendered visible?” (page 145).
It is difficult to discern. While cracks in pipeline coating material were clear objects of concern to English-speaking UK politicians and media outlets, the claims of pipeline workers could be written off as self-interested and were rendered inaudible by the Georgian language (page 147). Nonetheless, the energy injustices wrought on those along the pipeline have certainly been well documented by Platform activists James Marriott and Mika Minio-Paluello (2012), among others.
Could it be that the pipeline’s material politics is not separate from, but part of its class and labor politics? Are these relationships not also imbued with materiality—those of inequality, wealth, and embodied relations now subjected to the oil industry and possibly oil itself? In drawing attention to compensation for beehives and vibrations rather than injustices in labor or class relations, lines are drawn which attempt to prevent wider grievances from being raised – or to use Barry’s concept, from being abductively inferred. It is no surprise then that the pipeline is built, the disputes (assumed to be) resolved, and that today, more pipelines appear on the horizon. Was the political situation of the BTC pipeline really transformed through dispute, or were knowledge controversies merely headaches for the corporations, politicians, and political individuals and groups involved? What might we learn about the controversial process of drawing of boundaries around political situations that could bend their tendencies towards justice rather than deferral?
These are important questions not just for political and materialist geographical practice, but also for those studying controversial global oil infrastructure buildouts and networks (Carroll, 2012; McCreary and Milligan, 2014). In North America, the longstanding controversy over the Keystone XL pipeline brings into debate the differential materiality of tar sands oil and its possible effects on pipeline materials, sandhill cranes, subterranean aquifers, human health, sexual violence, cattle ranches, jobs and economic growth, oil prices, and property norms and rights, including those collectively claimed by indigenous peoples. Similarly saturated with information and somewhat unsurprisingly managed by the same consultant as the BTC—Environmental Resources Management—the struggle over Keystone XL and other tar sands pipelines appear to similarly centralize the material. Yet instead of obfuscating claims of justice, material impacts are often used as the basis of and for claims towards environmental and social justice.
To use Barry’s terminology, I would argue along with pragmatists like C.S. Peirce, and political thinkers like Gilles Deleuze and Alain Badiou, that processes of political abduction (qua abstraction) are perhaps far more rare and difficult to produce than given credit (see Bell, 2006). The fuzziness of the BTC pipeline’s political situation is rendered fuzzy only to a certain degree – as long as the pipeline reaches construction and is not meaningfully threatened. While I agree that perhaps every political struggle begins from some form of accounting for the materiality of a situation—taking inventory of the scars of past inequalities rendered upon a political body and the expectations of iterative events—an abduction process is equally capable of being arrested or nullified by material situations or endless disputes, which redirect focus back to an ever-proliferating series of disputed micro-events. The pipeline coating material or efforts to receive individual compensation (page 162) may in fact shrink the borders of the situation, rendering the possibility of wide-scale intervention in the oil distribution network more difficult. This intervention is also one of abduction, but one that seeks to begin from the situation to link up grievances and disputes into a geopolitics through making visible the material situations of the excluded . Although the abductive inferences of environmental justice activists are certainly subject to failure, the creative attempts of activists to abstract from local situations and thus make visible the materiality of injustice deserve the rare name of politics.
Barry’s contribution to this method of political scholarship and practice should be clear; although many of us may prefer to take a different route than Barry’s choice “not to be partisan” (page 27); the concepts of political situation and abduction offer exceptional tools for geographic inquiry into all manner of controversies. Still further, his methods of inquiry, attention to detail, and brilliant accounts of the roles materials played in knowledge controversies are standout contributions to the field and challenge several of the assumptions of now-common disciplinary gestures to new materialisms. Finally, Material Politics may offer scholar-activists new ways of thinking pragmatically about the points of vulnerability in oil infrastructure and knowledge networks in which academic knowledge could best be mobilized.
 See, for example, the method of Marx’s Capital, which begins from the lowly commodity and abstracts to the systemic properties of capital on behalf of the proletariat. Or, in a not entirely different manner, Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus, which begins from the psychoanalytic approach to studying an individual schizophrenic and abstracts to the historical and material context of capitalism that produce the conditions of possibility of schizophrenia. Importantly, neither discount the micropolitics of knowledge and materiality (see the Grundrisse’s so-called ‘Fragment on Machines’ (page and Anti-Oedipus’ ‘the Civilized Capitalist Machine’).