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Institutions as Ecologies

pantxo ramas, Trieste. Institutions as Ecologies, 2016, photo.

Is it possible to imagine "welfare" as a dynamic and distributed practice of care and emancipation? Can we socially unlearn both the neoliberal individualistic and the social democratic prescriptive modes of welfare provision? Can we start to inhabit a difficult, but possible, urban ecology of care? Transition is a practice of change and regulation: the question is how to imagine, beyond the crisis and towards an elsewhere, a continuous displacement from the real, an otherness of space built through one's own living. This requires political imagination that is immersed in the real and that escapes determinism.

To conclude this series of posts for L'Internationale Online, I try to define some vectors of consistency in the practice of transition and the ecological approach, to envisage how this imagination of social change as ecology allows something that the institutional analysis and critique do not permit.

This can be done on the basis of the elements gathered in my previous contributions: my starting point was imperceptible institutions to disarticulate a static configuration of institutional analysis and to put practices, instituent practices, under scrutiny. Secondly, the route constituted the ground to recognise how instituent practices emerge in the moment of danger, in the trespassing of borders. Thirdly, care emerged as crucial site for imagining an institutional critique capable of breaking the regime of protection and prescription and affirming a welfare state based on practices of emancipation and mutuality. Finally, I also focused on the plural and multiple production of care: making care.

To deal with the institution as an ecology means not analysing the institution as a closed system of equivalences and equilibriums anymore, but rather as a series of dynamics that constitute themselves in the open urban space. To use a powerful expression written on the walls of the former asylum of Trieste1, the institutional practice "enters outside" in the city. By entering outside, the institutional space is immediately immersed in the city as a permanent environmental, mental and social production of reality2. The institution is not only in the city, but is a multiple body in the ecology of the city3.

Looking at the institution as an ecology in the city also means shifting attention from the rationale to the effect of the state, and from the definition of the norm (how to act) to an effectual logic in which norms and protocols are embedded within a series of realities4. The space of transition is therefore the one in which the institution is not configured through the prescriptive limits of norms, but through a catalogue of practices that intervene and develop in a living world. This catalogue is immersed in the urban ecology, inhabited by a series of agents and gatekeepers, regulated through boundaries and gateways, constantly reconfigured to open passage points and funnel tensions and memories, or craft new realities. It implies permanent encounters and the engagement of subjectivities and materialities: a set of possibilities that is at the same time a realisation of an elsewhere. A common enterprise5.

This possibility of an irreversible transition does not lie in the invention of something new – the expanding revolution – but in a practice capable of destroying and inventing through the interdependence of cycles. It is a practice of social change always related to durability and, at the same time, transformation.

Through the permanent critique and invention of welfare, care does not emerge as a rational definition of a prescriptive behaviour that evolves through history and is accumulated in the institutional setting; it is rather an ecology of matters, feelings and engagements that involve a contingent and situated tinkering of socio-technical teamwork: this teamwork engages with troubles and invents singular arrangements of care. In this common enterprise, agents, objects, memories and sensibilities configure healing as a process that does not aim to make the body productive, but to nourish and enjoy a life that, without exception, is finite.

1 — I refer here to the Urban Political Ecology proposed by Heynen, N., Kaika, M., Swyngedouw E. 2006, "Urban political ecology", in: The nature of cities: Urban political ecology and the politics of urban metabolism, Routledge, pp. 1-20.

2 — Guattari, F. 2005, The Three Ecologies, Bloomsbury Publishing.

3 — Mol, A. 2002, The Body Multiple: Ontology in Medical Practice, Duke University Press.

4 — As referred to in a previous post Mitchell, T. 2006, "Society, economy, and the state effect", in: The Anthropology of the State: A Reader, A. Sharma (ed.), Wiley-Blackwell, pp. 169-186.

5 — Star, S.L., and Griesemer, J.R. 1989, "Institutional Ecology, Translations and Boundary Objects: Amateurs and Professionals in Berkeley's Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, 1907-39", Social Studies of Science, vol. 19, no. 3, pp. 387-420.

Posted 11 Nov 2016
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