119. Ben Anderson, “Preemption, Precaution, Preparedness: Anticipatory Action and Future Geographies”
I wanted to read Ben Anderson’s “Preemption, Precaution, Preparedness: Anticipatory Action and Future Geographies” because I discovered that the definition of futurity that Eve Tuck and Rubén A. Gaztambide-Fernández take from Andrew Baldwin’s “Whiteness and Futurity: Towards a Research Agenda” is actually a quotation from Anderson’s essay. Baldwin’s essay is important, but if I’m going to come to a complete understanding of the idea of “futurity,” I’d better chase it back to its source. And, as it’s turned out, I did need to do this extra reading, either because I’m too dull-witted to grasp things quickly, or because others have a bad habit of not defining terms clearly.
As his title suggests, Anderson is interested in opening up “questions for research in human geography on preemption, preparedness and other forms of ‘anticipatory action’” (777). “I argue that anticipatory action matters because geographies are made and lived in the name of preempting, preparing for, or preventing threats to liberal-democratic life,” Anderson writes (777). Well, geographies would be made and lived in the name of preempting, preparing for, or preventing threats to all kinds of ways of living, but at least Anderson is making his politics clear at the outset. He notes that “[r]uined landscapes of damage and destruction” have been made in Iraq and Afghanistan in the name of “preempting the threat of terror”; that western countries have culled bird populations in order to prepare for avian flue’ and that “[a] set of mitigation policies based on global carbon trading are being rolled out as precautionary measures to combat the threat of climate change” (777). On these issues, “acting in advance of the future is an integral, yet taken-for-granted, part of liberal-democratic life,” Anderson writes. In those examples, “bombs are dropped, birds are tracked, and carbon is traded on the basis of what has not and may never happen: the future” (777).
Anderson’s question about activities based on the future is simple: how should geographers respond, “analytically, methodologically, politically,” to “the making of geographies through anticipatory action?” (777). “My starting point is that preemption, preparedness and precaution post a problem to some of human geography’s most ingrained habits and techniques of thinking,” he contends. “Anticipatory action perplexes us, or at least it should, because it invites us to think about how human geography engages with the taken-for-granted category of ‘the future.’ Common to all forms of anticipatory action is a seemingly paradoxical process whereby a future becomes cause and justification for some form of action in the here and now” (777-78). That process generates specific questions: “how is ‘the future’ being related to, how are futures known and rendered actionable to thereafter be acted upon, and what political and ethical consequences follow from acting in the present on the basis of the future?” (778). “Addressing these questions,” he continues “requires that we explicitly reconceptualize the relation between space-time and futurity” (778). However, while geographers have studied the past—and haunting, which is interesting for my research: Anderson’s bibliography may help with thinking about that phenomenon—they tend not to be directly engaged with the future. The risk of this lack of engagement with the future “is that we repeat a series of assumptions about linear temporality; specifically, that the future is a blank separate from the present or that the future is a telos towards which the present is heading” (778). “More specifically,” he continues, “to understand how anticipatory action functions we must understand the presence of the future, that is the ontological and epistemological status of ‘what has not and may never happen’” (Brian Massumi, qtd. 778). He notes the number of ways in which the future is present in the present: in futures contracts, in investments, in contracts, in clock time, in the prophecies of evangelical Christians and fortune-tellers, and in the imaginations of science-fiction writers (778).
In this paper, Anderson intends to offer “a conceptual vocabulary” to address the task of understanding how geographies are made based on anticipatory action (778). This vocabulary, he writes, “sits in the juncture between a Foucaultian analytic of how futures are now governed and the emphasis in non-representational theories on the presence of the future” (778). Futures, he continues, “are anticipated and acted on through the assembling of” three phenomena (778). These include styles, which consist of “a series of statements through which ‘the future’ as an abstract category is disclosed and related to,” statements which “condition and limit how ‘the future’ can be intervened on” and which “function through a circularity, in that statements disclose a set of relations between past, present and future and self-authenticate those relations” (778-79); practices, which “give content to specific futures, including acts of performing, calculating and imagining” and make present the future “in affects, epistemic objects and materialities” (779); and logics “through which action in the present is enacted” (779). Anderson helpfully provides a definition of the term logics (which has been in so much of what I’ve read merely a buzzword of sorts): “A logic is a programmatic way of formalizing, justifying and deploying action in the here and now. Logics involve action that aims to prevent, mitigate, adapt to, prepare for or preempt specific futures” (779). This conceptual vocabulary, Anderson writes, “enables a mode of inquiry that aims to understand the multiform presence of the future in any and all geographies. By this I mean that inquiry would attend to how futures are: disclosed and related to through statements about the future; rendered present through materialities, epistemic objects and affects; and acted on through specific policies and programmes” (779).
Next, Anderson turns to the types of anticipatory action he is interested in, which (as his introduction suggests) are related to terrorism, pandemics and biosecurity, and both “global warming and ozone depletion” (779). There are commonalities between the way these phenomena “have been enacted as threats”:
First, in comparison to systemic interruptions, ruptures and breakdowns, they are potentially catastrophic. That is, each threat may irreversible alter the conditions of life at both the microscopic and pandemic levels. Second, in each the “malicious demon” that is heralded as the source of disaster is a somewhat vague spectral presence that cannot easily be discerned. Third, in each the disaster is imminent. Not only is the present on the verge of disaster, but disaster is incubating within the present and can be discerned through “early warnings” of danger (whether through the “harbingers” of climate change or “radicalization” in anti-terror legislation). (779-80)
“Without some form of action, a threshold will be crossed and a disastrous future will come about,” Anderson continues, although because that future is “incubating within the present, life will remain tensed on the threshold of disaster even if an immediate threat is acted against,” which means that “[a]nticipatory action must . . . become a permanent part of liberal democracies if disaster is to be averted” (780). Again, I would think that other forms of government would also be concerned with forms of anticipatory action: what about the Soviet Union and its weapons stockpiles during the Cold War, or Turkey’s current incursion into Syria as a way to prevent future Kurdish political or military activity?
The problem of anticipatory action, in any case, opens up the question of how the future relates to the past and the present (780). “Every attempt to stop or mitigate a threat holds certain assumptions about ‘the future,’” Anderson writes. “It is worth recalling just a few other ways of acting on the future in order to be specific about how ‘the future’ is related to in contemporary anticipatory action” (780). These include ideas of the future as apocalypse, indefinite progress, or utopia, each of which authorizes different forms of action in the present (780). One of the characteristics of contemporary anticipatory action, Anderson continues, is “the assumption . . . that the future will diverge from the past and present. It is neither a perpetuation of the present, nor an imminent-transcendent End outside of time. Instead, the future will radically differ from the here and now” (780). “On the one hand, the future will be uncertain in the sense that it will exceed present knowlege (or the capability to generate knowledge,” Anderson writes. “On the other hand, the future will be indeterminate in that perfect knowledge is impossible. The future is the realm of troubling and unforeseen novelty. It will be qualitatively different from the past and present and may bring forth bad surprises” (780). Acting in conditions of indeterminacy is not a new problem, but, Anderson writes “anticipatory action is now imbricated with the plurality of power relations that make up contemporary liberal democracies,” which means, for him, “that any type of anticipatory action will only provide relief, or promise to provide relief, to a valued life, not necessarily all of life. Certain lives may have to be abandoned, damaged or destroyed in order to protect, save or care for life” (780).
In addition, “the proliferation of anticipatory action, and the emphasis on an open future, is inseparable from a spatial-temporal imaginary of life as contingency. Three elements in this imaginary are particularly important” (780-81). The first is the idea that “the life threatened is understood in terms of its irreducible complexity, complexity being a function of a globalized world of transnational flows and connections” (781). Terrorism, pandemics, and climate change have all been understood through “the problem of the relation between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ circulations and connections” in this network (781). Therefore, “[t]he future is open, first, because threats emerge from a complex world of flows and connections” (781). Second, “the problem is the heterogenesis of the bad within the good. The future is open for a second reason: life is imagined as unpredictable, dynamic and non-linear. Change cannot be understood as the linear outcome of past conditions or present trends” (781). For terrorism, pandemics, and climate change, “events are themselves complex, singular, occurrences that are not necessarily temporally bound by a start, middle and end, or spatially bound in a given national territory” (781). For that reason, it is important “to act on catastrophic processes as or before they incubate, and certainly before they cross a threshold to become catastrophic events” (781). In addition, because “the causes of disaster are presumed to incubate within life,” they are not “mysterious, external, acts of God visited upon that life” (781). It is hard to care for life by anticipating disasters, however, when the causes of those disasters are difficult to identify (781). Third, “events are ‘de-bounding,’” a term which means “that their effects are not necessarily localized spatially or temporally” and will “extend in non-linear ways across space-times” (781). “[D]isasters are themselves emergent phenomena,” Anderson states, by which he means that “the effects or impacts of disaster change as they circulate” (781).
Anderson suggests that it might be possible to identify the causes of this equation between life and contingency, but what he wants to emphasize “is more modest: anticipatory action has emerged in a situation where it is precisely the contingency of life that is the occasion of threat and opportunity, danger and profit. Preemption, preparedness and precaution are, therefore, caught in the productive/destructive relation with uncertainty that characterizes liberalism” (782). He cites Foucault on this point, suggesting that:
On the one hand, life must be constantly secured in relation to the dangers tha tlurk within it and loom over it. Life is tensed on verge of a catastrophe that may emerge in unexpected and unanticipated ways. On the other hand, the securing of life must not be antithetical to the positive development of a creative relation with uncertainty. Liberal life must be open to the unanticipated if freedoms of commerce and self-fashioning individuals are to be enabled. Uncertainty is both threat and promise: both that which must be secured against and that which must be enabled. (782)
Anderson is drawing on recently published lectures Foucault gave at the Collège de France, and since I haven’t read that material, I can’t comment on his interpretation of it. However, his insistence on the connection between anticipatory action and liberal democracy clearly comes from those lectures. “In this context the pragmatic question for anticipatory action becomes: how to act in a way that protects and enhances some forms of valued life?” he continues. “The response has been to govern and secure on the basis of possible or potential futures that threaten some form of disruption to an existing social-spatial order” (782). In other words, anticipatory action “aims to ensure that no bad surprises happen,” and therefore “the here and now is continuously assayed for the futures that may be incubating within it and emerge out of it” (782). Citing Hacking, Anderson suggests that two links between “uncertainty and liberal rule are well known: first, styles of foresight based on good judgement as a means of acting against Fortuna; second, probabilistic prediction based on induction from the past distribution of events” (782). Those two styles of foresight are “in the midst of being supplemented by a third” through “the proliferation of possibilities about the occurrence and effects of events, alongside an attention to improbably but high-impact events” (782). Well, climate change (as we are learning very quickly) is not improbable, although terror attacks and pandemics might be. In any case, Anderson suggests that the indeterminism characteristic of this new style of foresight “is not only epistemic—that is, based on a restriction of knowledge that could in principle be overcome” but rather “an irreducible fact about a ‘pluri-potential’ world of complex interdependencies, circulations and events” (782). For Anderson, the best term for this emerging style is “premeditation”: it “names a set of statements that disclose and relate to ‘the future’ as a surprise” (782). Those statements shape how the future can be acted upon in two ways. First, “disclosing the future as a surprise means that one cannot then predetermine the form of the future by offering a deterministic prediction”; rather, “the future as surprise can only be rendered actionable by knowing a range of possible futures that may happen, including those that are improbable” (782). Second, “statements about the future as a surprise do not enable the future to be grasped and handled through a process of induction from the past distribution of events,” and instead “anticipatory action must be based on a constant readiness to identify another possible way in which a radically different future may play out” (782). Premeditation emphasizes knowing the future directly “because there could always be another radically different way in which events could evolve” (782-83). For Anderson, “[s]tatements about ‘the future’ as a surprise underpin preemption, preparedness and other forms of contemporary anticipatory action” (783).
Next, Anderson turns to the ways that contemporary anticipatory action understands life as contingency. “To act before the disaster takes place, futures must somehow be known and made present,” he writes. “But relating to the future as a surprise that may being forth unforeseen novelty rather than, say, a perpetuation of the present, might initially seem to lead to an impasse”: how can one “render futures actionable when the future cannot be known through the past frequency and severity of events?” (783). To address that question, “a range of practices have been invented, formalized and deployed for knowing futures and therefore attempting to ensure that there are no ‘bad surprises’” (783). These include “the ubiquitous calculations that form a constant background to life” through such techniques as “threat-prints, data mining, impact assessments, trend analysis, and complexity modelling of various forms” (783-84). He hasn’t included algorithms, but perhaps because social media was less important when this article was published, the reliance of big corporations on the predictive power of algorithms was less understood. These diverse techniques, he continues, are about measuring the world, he writes, “by which I mean that statements about the indeterminacy of the future are combined with non-linear, or stochastic, calculations of relations, associations or links,” which make specific futures present through numbers, represented as charts, tables, or graphs (784). The insurance industry relies on such calculations to make the future actionable. Predicting various (and typically catastrophic, in Anderson’s argument) futures through such calculations, “a ‘bond of uniformity’ is imposed on the catastrophic event by drawing together a set of effects that vary spatially and temporally,” and “the future event is disentangled by sorting out and ranking the effects” of its different elements (784).
Second, while “[c]alculation, whether through CAT models or other techniques, renders complex future geographies actionable through the numericalization of a reality to come—numbers that may thereafter circulate, be reflected on and take an affective charge,” another “way of making futures present is through practices based on acts of creative fabulation, including techniques such as visioning, future-basing, link analysis and scenario planning” (784-85). These techniques enable future events to be imagined as if they were real (785). Their outcomes “differ from forms of mechanical objectivity; they range from forms of visualization (such as images, symbols and metaphors) to forms of narrativization (such as stories). Making the future present becomes a question of creating affectively imbued representations that move and mobilize” (785). Such practices “make the future present in ways that are quite different from calculation” by using scenarios, case studies, and pictures rather than graphs and charts (785). They make the future actionable “through two effects” (785). First, “a horizon of expectation is created that is composed of a set of hypothetical possibilities that the scenarios refer to. The scenarios organize and categorize while affirming the openness of the future” (785). Second, “the scenarios evoke without predicting the suspension, and disruption, of life that may follow climate change,” to use one of Anderson’s examples (785).
Finally, “[f]utures are also made present through practices that stage an interval between the here and now and a specific future through some form of acting, role play, gaming or pretending” (786). The inclusion of “pretending” in this technique suggests its connections to imagining, but they “use the creative capacities of embodiment more explicitly” (786). Various kinds of performance, including exercises, war games, and simulations, can generate knowledge of a future event even when historical evidence is absent (786). “Here the future is made present and rendered actionable in a third way: ‘as if’ futures are created through the ‘anticipatory experience’ generated through both the acts of performance or play and the material organization of particular stages or sites,” Anderson writes (786). These three “modes of practice,” he continues, “enable specific futures to be made present while remaining absent, whether through a graph of future losses, a story of a journey or a feeling of shock” (786-87).
Anderson now turns to logics. “Styles and practices enable open futures to be rendered actionable,” he writes. “They are, therefore, a necessary component of anticipatory action” (787-88). But such action requires a logic: “a coherent way in which intervention in the here and now on the basis of the future is legitimized, guided and enacted” (788). He focuses on three of these logics—precaution, preemption, and preparedness—although he notes there are others. “The goal of each is to care for a valued life by neutralizing threats to that life,” he writes. (788). Critical engagement with these logics “must turn on questions of what life is to be protected or saved, by whom, and with what effects. And, conversely, what life has been abandoned or destroyed, by whom, and with what effects” (788).
Precaution, he continues, “is perhaps the best known of the three logics, as it is formalized in the ‘precautionary principle,’” which emerged in European environmental law in the 1970s. Precaution, he writes, “can be understood as a preventative logic with two characteristics (788-89)”:
First, preventative action is separate from the processes it acts on. The object of precaution could develop a catastrophic outcome if the precautionary was was not to take place. Precaution begins once a determinate threat has been identified, even if that threat is scientifically uncertain. Second, precautionary logics act before the identified threat reaches a point of irreversibility. The key question thereafter concerns proportionality: is the response in proportion to the scope of the threat? There is a need, therefore, to constantly assess the balance between what the threat could become and the costs of (in)action in the present. (789)
Climate change is where calls for precautionary action have emerged: “Urgent action is called for because of, rather than despite, the uncertainty of the links between emission scenarios, temperature changes and impacts” (789). Today, of course, such expressions of uncertainty appear rather quaint, given the increasing effects of climate change on our world, but this essay was published 10 years ago, and perhaps the situation seemed more uncertain back then.
Preemption, Anderson’s second logic, is similar to precaution: both emphasize “action under conditions of uncertainty about a future event, a focus on emergent threat ina world of interdependencies and circulations, and a generative role given to collective apprehension” (789-90). Their shared emphasis on “potential or actual threat means that both break with the logic of risk . . . as ‘calculable uncertainty’ based on the induction of frequency and harm from the past distribution of events” (790). Despite those similarities, there is “a difference in how each intervenes in life”: while precaution focuses on “the stopping or halting of something before it reaches a point of irreversibility,” preemption “acts over threats that have not yet emerged as determinate threats, and so does not only halt or stop from a position outside” but is “incitatory and . . . is justified on the basis of indeterminate potentiality” (790). Anderson’s example of preemption is the preemptive wars waged by the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan since 9/11 (790). “In comparison with the emphasis on continuity that we find in precaution, preemption unashamedly makes and reshapes life,” he suggests, causing a range of unintended effects (790). Those effects are not mistakes, “because in a preemptive logic inaction is not an option so unintended effects are unavoidable”; in fact, “preemption is indifferent to those generative effects” because “the proliferating effects of preemption may generate something else: opportunities to be seized” (790). “Unlike precaution, which aims to preserve a valued life through prevention, preemptive logics work by proliferating effects and creating life, albeit in the case of the ‘war on terror’ lives that have been abandoned and dispossessed,” Anderson writes (790), a statement that is unfortunately confusing because (I think) the theoretical language demands that it be so.
Finally, Anderson turns to preparedness. “If preemption and precaution are based on action that aims to prevent the occurrence of a future,” preparedness “prepares for the aftermath of events” (790-91). It shares, with preemption and precaution, the same problem: “how to act on indeterminate/uncertain futures emergent form a complex set of flows and connections” (791). Preparedness responds differently, however: “Its sphere of operation is a series of events after a precipitating event” (791). Rather than trying to stop an event from happening, it “aims to stop the effects of an event disrupting the circulations and interdependencies that make up a valued life” (791). Preparedness is about building resiliency (in infrastructure, for instance) “as a way of preparing for the occurrence of unpredictable events” (791).
For Anderson, “[p]recaution, preemption and preparedness are all means of guiding action once the future has been problematized in a certain way—as a disruptive surprise—and each are deployed once specific futures have been made present through practices of calculation, performance or imagination” (791). They do something else as well: they redistribute “the relationship that lives within and outside liberal democracies have to disaster. To protect, save and care for certain forms of life is to potentially abandon, dispossess and destroy others” (791). This leads Anderson to a series of questions: “First, how are different forms of anticipatory action imbricated with sovereign actions, such as violent interventions, or the implantation of emergency measures?” (792). Second, “what form of life is valorized now and in the future?” (792). Third, “how is conduct conducted in relation to different types of anticipatory action, and the specific networks of governance through which precaution, preemption and preparedness are deployed?” (792). Answering such questions “demands detailed empirical work sensitive to the operation of anticipatory logics in relation to plural relations of power” (792). He suggests that “[a] logic does not have a primary actor, primary target or characteristic spatial form”; in a logic, those are simply contextual (792). Determining those contexts is clearly something Anderson thinks human geographers ought to be doing.
Finally, Anderson reaches his conclusion on the relationships between space and futurity—in other words, between geography as a discipline and futurity as he has been discussing it. What implications does a study of the styles, practices, and logics of anticipatory action have for human geography? “First, work could attend to the presence of the future in any and all geographies,” he writes (793). Second, “we should reflect on the assumptions about the future that are embedded in our extant habits and techniques of thinking” (793). First, “work could supplement how futures are made present by anticipating other desired futures through a range of utopic sensibilities, skills and techniques,” he suggests (793). Second, “word could aim to scramble attempts to create desired futures by welcoming the unanticipated and thereafter cultivating the irruption of virtual or to-come futures” (794). Experimenting with our relations to the future “is necessary because to fold alternative futures into the here and now is to open up the chance of new possibilities; just as recovering overlooked pasts has long been recognized as a means of disclosing new and different future geographies” (794).
I didn’t read this article because I’m interested in future research directions for human geography. I decided to read it because Eve Tuck and Rubén A. Gaztambide-Fernández cite quotations from it (through Andrew Baldwin) as the source for their use of the term “futurity” in the phrase “settler futurity” (80). They note that futurity suggests the ways in which the future is rendered knowable—or at least imaginable—through the anticipatory logics of precaution, preemption and preparedness (80). Their point is “to emphasize the ways in which replacement is entirely concerned with settler futurity, which always indivisibly means the continued and complete eradication of the original inhabitants of contested land” (80). Therefore, for Tuck and Gaztambide-Fernández, as well as Tuck and K. Wayne Yang, settler futurity seems to be a synonym for the genocidal process that Patrick Wolfe describes as a logic of elimination, or the replacement of Indigenous peoples by Settlers. No wonder Tuck and Yang suggest that settler futurity is a bad thing. They describe incommensurability as “an acknowledgement that decolonization will require a change in the order of the world” (31), and suggest that “[t]o fully enact an ethic of incommensurability”—an ethic that is, they argue, central to decolonization—“means relinquishing settler futurity, abandoning the hope that settlers may one day be commensurable to Native peoples” (36). Commensurable, according to the O.E.D., means “measurable by the same standard or scale of values,” or “[p]roportionable in measure, size, amount, etc.; having a suitable proportion, proportionate to.” For Tuck and Yang, then, Settlers cannot be measured by the same standard or scale of values, because their futurity is based on the genocidal fantasy, or ambition, or replacing Indigenous peoples through the logic of elimination, whereas the futurity of Indigenous peoples is based on a resistance to the logic of elimination. Settler futurity, in this context, is thus a synonym for replacement or the logic of elimination. Perhaps I should’ve figured that out without having to read Anderson or Baldwin, or perhaps Tuck and Yang, or Tuck and Gaztambide-Fernández, could have defined that term more clearly. At least I now know what they’re talking about. I’ll take that as a victory. But I think that if I’m ever tempted to use the term “settler futurity,” I’ll refer to Wolfe’s logic of elimination instead. It just seems simpler and clearer.
Anderson, Ben. “Preemption, Precaution, Preparedness: Anticipatory Action and Future Geographies.” Progress in Human Geography, vol. 34, no. 6, 2010, pp. 777-98.
Baldwin, Andrew. “Whiteness and Futurity: Towards a Research Agenda.” Progress in Human Geography, vol. 36, no. 2, 2012, pp. 172-87.
Tuck, Eve, and Rubén A. Gaztambide-Fernández. “Curriculum, Replacement, and Settler Futurity.” Journal of Curriculum Theorizing, vol. 29, no. 1, 2013, pp. 72-89.
Tuck, Eve, and K. Wayne Yang. “Decolonization Is Not a Metaphor.” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, vol. 1, no. 1, 2012, pp. 1-40.
Wolfe, Patrick. “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native.” Journal of Genocide Research, vol. 8, no. 4, 2006, pp. 387-409.