Issue 01 / Foreword
The meaning and practice of risk have changed over history, yet, in the context of late modernity, risk can be conceptualized as an estimation of future threats. This present-day understanding of risk implies a specific relation to the future, one that demands the monitoring of the yet-to-come and the development of specific tools and measurement systems that make the future legible. Indeed, today the future is everywhere; it is dystopic and must be “hacked” by actions and technological progress in the here and now. The global “risk society” is hence a reflexive modern phenomenon, in which the risks and hazards produced by modernity itself need to be prevented by more modern developments. In this regard, risk changed from a mere obstacle into a roadmap for action, giving rise to big data and other predictive technologies. Yet, Ulrich Beck explains that imaginations of a catastrophic future as possibilities dovetails with world-wide feelings of anxiety and uncertainty, as risks like global warming, nuclear disasters and novel diseases are simply not so easy to predict and avoid.1
Emphasizing the nexus of risk narratives, technology and embodied action, a Foucauldian understanding of risk and uncertainty suggests that risk management is more than a maneuver dealing with the reality of certain threats. Identifying the future as bearing with risk is linked to specific visions of order and the ways to shape, establish, and reproduce it. This perspective views risk as a dispositif for governance, where uncertain futures become vehicles of power that assemble individuals, institutions, bodies of scientific knowledge, and rationalities of security. As such, risk has become the central element of governance both in the public and private sphere, as it allows for action and interventions outside of the own domain. As Kevin Grove has pointed out, "what constitutes 'risk' and 'uncertainty' changes as liberal government reflexively problematizes the amount and kind of government exercised over external domains such as the economy and society. From this perspective, catastrophe risks associated with, inter alia, climate change, terrorism, and global pandemics are less symptoms of modernization run amok, than ordering principles of a 'precautionary risk' that is a central component of dispositive neoliberal order."2
Whether articulating risks as tools for power or as the products of modern societies, established frameworks objectify risks as external structures created and utilized by the human race. How do landscapes of risk assemble when we rethink their ecological and social situatedness, their genealogies, the reality transforming actions that they animate, their very own agency?
TERA stands for Technology, Ecology, and Risk Assemblages and explores how speculations about the future affect societies in the present day. In its scope, it aims to offer new frameworks to understand risk as ecologies, rejecting the separation of technology and biology, narrative and matter, pointing to their very interlacing manner instead. The framework of ecologies of risk and resilience is also a means to shift away from a human-centered approach to risk, emphasizing that “we are in a knot of species coshaping one another in layers of reciprocating complexity all the way down.”3 It has to be noted that rethinking the human in the context of risk does not mean these assemblages are not political—quite the contrary. By pointing to relationalities, TERA investigates how assemblages are shaped, negotiated, and held together by visions of risk, and reframes their ethical implications. As María Puig de la Bella Casa emphasizes, “the purpose of exposing how things are assembled, constructed, is not to debunk and dismantle them, nor is it to undermine the reality of matters of fact with critical suspicion about the powerful (human) interest they might reflect and convey. Instead, to exhibit the concerns that attach and hold together matters of fact is to enrich and affirm reality by contributing further articulations.”4
This first issue of TERA journal provides a curation of thinkers and practitioners who explore ecologies of risk and resilience in different yet, interrelated ways. All express the need to develop new ways of thinking, as established frameworks fail to capture the complexity of the present day. Yet in its scope, TERA does not aim to work towards a systemic explanation of risk as such. Rather, it triangulates a space to discuss the relation between speculation and structure, concepts and their matter, and to give voice to a variety of viewpoints relevant for contemporary debates. The contributions to the first issue of TERA journal are accompanied by images of Isabel Cavenecia.
Ed Finn asks the important question that Ulrich Beck left unaddressed in Risk Society: if we cannot “calculate” catastrophic risks, how do we make sense of the future in general? He argues that humans make decisions largely based on narratives. In his words, “[w]e are storytelling animals, constructing models of ourselves and reality on the fly.” Proposing the lens of narrative implies not only to rethink the concept of risk in itself but also the industries that developed around it. Insurance companies, advertising, media platforms, Finn argues that the markets that emerged are not so much specialized in certain risks, but rather in risk narratives that thrive on fear and anxiety. In order to tell better risk stories, Finn makes a case for the power of the imagination. A focus on the imagination helps to redefine the individual as an active agent, not as a mere figurant in the risk stories created by others in today's and tomorrow's worlds. Hence, cultivating both individual and collective imaginative capacity is a first step to imagine better futures.
In an interview by Krisha Kops, Thomas Pogge elaborates on the way how certain risks are identified, measured and termed, and translated into international policies. If people worldwide narrate risks differently, how do humanitarian programs designed elsewhere deal with these local differences? What ethical considerations are involved in global policies when risks are distributed unequally? And in general, how can we think about and act upon risk and justice in such a way that it does not reproduce undesirable power structures? Thomas Pogge discusses the theories of the philosopher John Rawls and others to argue for a theory of social justice that promotes the moral assessment of institutional arrangements and shifts the responsibility to institutional design. Emphasizing the role of the individual in institutional change, Pogge argues against the terminology of "goals" that disables actors to be held accountable when failing to avoid certain threats.
An empirical example of how risk narratives become vehicles of power is provided by Groundhem Initiative. In their essay “Managing Risk: Urban Redevelopment and State Violence in Turkey’s South-East,” the authors discuss how notions of risk are utilized by the Turkish state to carry out policies that reshape the architectural landscape. Groundhem Initiative takes the historic city center of the city Diyarbakir as a case to demonstrate the way the Kurdish population is being displaced under the guise of security. Working at the intersection of research and visual journalism, the collective developed methods to visualize the link between urban planning and military destruction, aiming to provide counternarratives as a strategy against the recent violent gentrification in that region.
In her essay “Rethinking the Risks of Rejecting Religion: Secular Speculations and the Construction of Nonreligious Risk Narratives,” Jacqui Frost discusses the notion of uncertainty in relation to the presence and absence of religious beliefs. Modernity, she points out, is often associated with secularization and the loss of religious stability, and hence it is presumed that individuals in modern societies experience more existential uncertainty. Providing empirical examples from atheists, agnostics, and transhumanists communities in the U.S., Frost shows that many nonreligious people find meaning in uncertainty itself, embracing it rather than that they try to avoid it. The author discusses the way nonreligious beliefs influence narratives of existential risk, emphasizing that these imaginations are highly politicized as they fundamentally shape present-day debates and policies while proclaiming specific visions of a future world.
What does uncertainty sound like? Musician and sound-artist Nicola Privato developed W.E.I.R.D, a musical performance where the chords are translated Twitter feeds generated by a bot during the first months of the Corona pandemic. Privato found inspiration in Zygmunt Bauman's Liquid Modernity, in which the author raises questions on what characterizes modernity. “To ‘be modern’ means to modernize–compulsively, obsessively; not so much just ‘to be,’ let alone to keep its identity intact, but forever ‘becoming’, avoiding completion, staying underdefined. […] ‘[L]iquid modernity,’ is the growing conviction that change is the only permanence, and uncertainty the only certainty. A hundred years ago ‘to be modern’ meant to chase ‘the final state of perfection’–now it means an infinity of improvement, with no ‘final state’ in sight and none desired.”5 Similarly, the chords of W.E.I.R.D are ever-changing, reflecting societies worldwide that are always in becoming.
Building upon these notions of continuous change, the final four essays take the notion of risk as a starting point for ontological reconsiderations, adding complexity to the debate by emphasizing entanglements and anti-genealogy. James R. Watson, Laura E. R. Peters, and Jamon van den Hoek point to the inaccuracy of identifying separate risks in today's highly interconnective world. Whether speaking of transportation systems, ecology, or financial markets, the nominal boundaries that used to define world-systems do not actually exist, as all are spaces simultaneously political, social, cultural, and economical. Acknowledging that entanglements lead to "supersystems," the authors coin the term "supersystem risks" as crises in one system inevitably leads to crises in another. Supersystem risks can be hidden until the moment that world-systems change. Yet, as the economic incentives demand an evolvement toward even more connectivity, supersystem risks will likely increase in the years to come. While we continue through the Anthropocene, the authors argue that rethinking the notion of risk in complex ways also requires to rethink resilience. Emphasizing the ever-changing nature of our world, they make a case to embrace diversity, modularity, and redundancy and think through different timescales when it comes to decision-making.
In a similar vein, Erik Bordeleau borrows Timothy Morton’s concept of “hyperobjects” to refer to risks so massively distributed in time and space that they challenge the very idea of what a thing is in the first place. More specifically, Bordeleau discusses uncertainty in the context of financialized capitalism, questioning how to work towards the invention of new leveraging practices, cooperative and implicated ways of world-making by which different species, technologies, and forms of knowledge generate their own loci of intensive commingling. He scrutinizes financial systems as fundamentally designed to invert uncertainty, not by finding ways to mitigate it, but by operating as closed structures that “loop” themselves back into existence. As such, systems are self-referential and circular mechanisms that disable any possibility for change. With this, Bordeleau offers important insights on the performative aspect of monetary systems, financial apparatuses, business models, and derivatives in their way how they not reflect but shape reality in presents and futures yet to come. Elaborating on crypto-economics, Bordeleau makes a case for speculation and uncertainty to make value structures “weird” again and disrupt the looping of extractive systems that results in their continuous self-fulfillment.
Loops are also discussed by Shannon Lambert, who takes Jenny Offill’s novel Weather as a starting point to elaborate on the embodied aspect of patterned experiences and knowledge. The protagonist's repetitive feelings of uncertainty regarding future risks invites to rethink the relation between the individual and ecological, the future and present day. As such, the term "contractions" that is in the title of the essay explains Lambert in a Deleuzian way that considers the synthesis of human and more-than-human bodies. The author emphasizes the dialectical relationship between the meaning of narratives and the way stories are being told and retold, how structure and narratives reinforce each other. As such, she shows how contemporary literature can provide the means to think differently, not merely in a thematic way, but how narrative strategies negotiate existing ontologies and conventions like linearity and individuality. Emphasizing the inherent material and temporal entanglement of the atmosphere and the human body, Lambert asks, “what does it look and feel like to read with a contracted body, with attention to contracted formal patterns like loops and synecdoche?"
Finally, Tinna Grétarsdóttir and Sigurjón Baldur Hafsteinsson present the Icelandic turf house in their "Pulses for Future Architecture" as a space where humans, soil, microorganisms, and other species' bodies become imbricated in one another. The turf house, a structure in between an object and a living being, shifts away from the traditional definition of "architecture," as it is a superorganism born out of a complex process of multi-species alliances. The authors argue that the turf house should be recognized and comprehended as a verb to acknowledge its constantly changing nature, not something that is "out there" but something that the inhabitants become. In their essay, Tinna Grétarsdóttir and Sigurjón Baldur Hafsteinsson demonstrate the turf house as a building without a blueprint, adapting to new economic and social needs for both humans, plants, and animals alike. Also, the turf house is embodied by processes started already billions of years ago, hence embedded in multiple temporalities that link the future and the past. As an example of speculative design, the Icelandic turf house is a guide in a quest to find better ways to live in the future and provides valuable means for ontological and epistemological reconsiderations in the present day.
All of the essays and artworks introduced above offer ways to rethink the notion of risk in speculative ways, foster complex and interdisciplinary perspectives and critically question the ethics they imply. As such, TERA does not take uncertainty simply as the relation between past, present, and future, nor as a product of society as Ulrich Beck and others have suggested in previous years. Rather we hope to add to its meaningful understanding by mapping the assembled structures and effects of risk, going beyond activist claims to see how we can be with uncertainty. TERA is an exercise to "stay with the trouble,"6 an exercise that has just begun.
1 Beck, U. (1992). Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity. London: Sage Publications.
2 Grove, K. (2012). “Preempting the next disaster: Catastrophe insurance and the financialization of disaster management”. Security Dialogue, 43(2): 139-155.
3 Haraway, D. J. (2008). When Species Meet. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press: 42.
4 Puig de la Bella Casa, M. (2017). Matters of Care: Speculative Ethics in More than Human Worlds. Minneapolis; London: University of Minnesota Press: 39.
5 Bauman, Z. (2013)  Liquid Modernity, Kindle Edition: 82.
6 Haraway, D. J. (2016). Staying with the Trouble. Durham: Duke University Press.