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FAILURE / Vol. 83, No. 3 (Fall 2016)

Arjun Appadurai, Guest Editor
Arien Mack, Journal Editor

The most important thing about failure is that it is not a fact but a human judgment. We are therefore obliged to ask how the judgment is made, who is authorized to make it, who is forced to accept the judgment. It further follows that failure is not seen in the same way at all times and in all places.

Failure is a loose concept, covering everything from small mistakes in ordinary life to major catastrophes in society, nature, and history. Its ubiquity and universality lend to it the sense that failure is akin to a self-evident or natural fact. Yet the most important thing about failure is that it is not a fact but a judgment. And given that it is a human judgment, we are obliged to ask how the judgment is made, who is authorized to make it, who is forced to accept it, and what the relationship is between the imperfections of human life and the decision to declare some of them as constituting failures. It further follows that failure is not seen in the same way at all times and in all places. Thus failure is a volatile and variable concept, and the essays in this volume testify to the many guises in which it appears. Some of this variability is a matter of history and culture, while other parts are owed to differences between fields, disciplines, and forms of knowledge. This disciplinary variability is one reason the essays gathered here cover such varied terrain.

What does failure look like? How might we visually represent it? And what can drawings of failure tell us about its conceptual and emotional structure?

Failure, the very idea, presupposes a norm by the lights of which it gets counted as such. And so failure, I argue, is essential to understanding the nature of norms. But I begin with a qualifying restriction. There is frequent talk of failure that presupposes something less (or other) than a norm, as when we speak of “heart failure” or “engine failure.” What is presupposed in these latter expressions cannot—strictly—be a norm because these are breakdowns or cessations of a mechanism, whether natural or artificial. In this brief essay, I look only at failure strictly so called, where the lights by which it is seen to be a failure are a “norm” in the full and irreducible sense of the term—not a norm that reduces, in the end, to a descriptive tendency of nature or artifice while presenting itself on the surface as a prescriptive and evaluative standard.

Bernard Mandeville is remembered mainly for his formulation of the moral paradox of capitalism. Reading him as an economist, this article finds a theoretical possibility from which economics recoiled. It was not simply the idea that humans are driven by passions, but that passions are social in nature, existing between subjects. This idea conferred an irrevocable obscene nature on Mandeville’s notion of economy. Its repression marked the birth of modern economic thought with a moralistic failure. Beginning with Adam Smith, economic thought theoretically reconfigures the concept of economy, in order to avoid Mandeville’s moral scandal. It encloses passions within individuals and in parallel denies the social aspect of goods as sites of imagination.

Humans design things to make up for their failings. Despite our pervasive reliance on these products, design remains underappreciated and misunderstood. The process of designing products materializes time by directing users to act in particular ways in relation to certain anticipated futures. However, the process of designing is changing, as designers shift from producing a series of industrial artifacts to the ongoing designing of morphing interactive digital platforms. Rather than failure being something to be avoided, interaction design treats reality as an ongoing experiment with radical potentiality, though at dangerous political cost.

A number of contemporary disasters or failures—the recent financial crisis, building collapses, landslides, climate change denial, or the current refugee situation—are arguably the result of organizations or institutions in denial. The organizations are arranged like a closed loop that circulates only favorable evidence, and when they encounter contradiction they assume a binary oppositional stance against this perceived threat. These dispositions of the closed loop and the binary both shut out information and attempt to eliminate evidence of a growing problem that can lead to crisis or violence. If there is no punctuating event, the potential violence latent in organization may not capture the attention of history. And laws, standards, and master plans that purport to have the right answer have so much authority in global governance, even when they are spectacularly inadequate to address stubborn problems. Urbanists and architects may offer underexploited ways to adjust the political temperaments and dispositions of organization by introducing spatial variables that are time-released and part of an unfolding interplay—forms with a temporal dimension that allow them to be both more practical and politically agile.

The contemporary language of business innovation embraces failure and claims an origin in the thought of Joseph Schumpeter, which contemplated the end(s)—the failure, completion, limits, and fulfillment of capitalism. Attentive to empire and monopoly, Schumpeter represents a rich condensation of the global governmental imaginaries of his time, speaking to the Marxist temporalizing of capital and the Weberian history of capitalism, neoclassical and welfarist “market failure,” imperialism, and an emergent neoliberalism. Outlining an intellectual history of the tethering of failure to innovation, this article contributes to a genealogy of contemporary market globality, as posed against the spot analysis of global markets.

There is a short and brutal history embedded in the longer trajectories of Global South countries. It emerged in the 1980s as part of the larger so-called neoliberal project. A key feature of this project is the ascendance of logics of extraction, ranging from mining to economic privatization and financialization. These were mostly presented as good for Global South countries. In fact, they destroyed social and economic infrastructures created in the post-independence period aimed at the larger population. And they shaped a new configuration marked by the enrichment of elites and the devastation of the poorer strata. This was failure of the deepest kind but represented as development.

This article approaches failure through the lens of the ruination, residue, and debris that accumulated during the Soviet construction in northern Siberia. My focus is on the ambivalence of ruination and incomplete construction. I argue that debris as material and documentary product of the Soviet project is not merely an important component of the Soviet developmental machine but also a device for naming otherness—in particular, the imperial debris, the “enemies of the people,” and the resilience of “tradition.”

Failure in India, especially in the world of science, is a polysemic idea, which varies according to the cultural context. The essay discusses three competing ideas of failure. The first is the sociological idea that emphasizes numeracy and institution building. It is almost managerial in nature. The second is a folkloric idea of failure that evokes the heroic idea of science. The third is an epistemic idea of failure where one form of cognition hegemonizes and decultures the other. I argue that science needs an ecological and epistemic idea of failure to sustain its sense of plurality and democracy.

This analysis addresses the way second-wave feminism, through its incontestable achievements in terms of both political mobilization and intellectual critique, failed to address the larger structural sources of the injustice the movement fought, thereby falling short of the lasting emancipation it aspired to achieve. This is a story of “failure by success.” I also chart a path for recasting the feminist agenda from the point of view of a broader critique of contemporary capitalism, in which instances of gender injustice are symptomatic of broader forms of domination to which men and women are equally subjected.

This essay considers the meaning and implications of “urban failure.” Agreeing with accounts of urban future as uncertain and perilous at a time of increased importance of cities in world affairs, the essay cautions against risk mitigation strategies premised upon smart technologies, top-down management, and community vigilance. It argues instead that cities are regulated by their sociotechnical systems of provisioning and circulation, sometimes keeping adversity at bay and sometimes exacerbating crisis. The essay looks at the aspects of “machine culture” that help to keep cities abreast (and sometimes ahead) of the uncertainties and risks they face. “Urban failure” is traced to the recursions of distributed intelligence.


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