Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Buttermilk Falls: Collective Policing

            Abandoning the notion that police are the strong arm of the law, the bobbies on the beat, and instead taking up the Foucauldian conceptualization of police as a public health apparatus ensuring the stability of a population, let us examine a recent collective policing enterprise in the Black River, Vermont region.
Last month the NGO Black River Action Team coordinated various public and private agencies in order to monitor the e.coli levels at Buttermilk Falls, a popular swimming hole outside Ludlow, Vermont, itself a popular tourist destination.  BRAT allied itself with various funders (Okemo Mountain Resort and Kiosko) in order to generate the operating capital needed to perform water tests at Endyne Labs, a nearby private laboratory. These water tests are then posted on a sign at the head of the short walk-in trail to the falls where any swimmer can read the conditions and decide whether or not it is “safe” – based on EPA standards and guidelines for “full emersion,” i.e. swimming – to swim in the river. Here then we have numerous private and public actors. Okemo, Kiosko, Endyne Labs: private. Environmental Protect Agency: public. And then there is BRAT itself, the hybrid entity whose undecidability between private and public gives it the ability to coordinate a collective policing endeavor. What should we call this endeavor, The Buttermilk Falls Police (BFP)?
            One might ask, so what? What is at stake here if not the health of a population? The BFP is a collective endeavor to secure the health of a population at a common gathering point, which, interestingly enough, is a location of leisure. To secure that health, BFP not only operates as detailed previous, but also through its ability to get a population to conduct itself in a specific manner seemingly on their own. To be successful, signs produced by BFP – those posted e.coli levels – must not only be read immediately prior to swimming or not swimming (to state the obvious) but also that members of the population recognized the signs as signs and then, more importantly, trust them as verified by standards of "public health" vested in the entity "Endyne Labs." Generated by Endyne's aura of veracity such credulity ensures that potential swimmers in turn freely opt to follow the police’s (in)directive. An internalization of a model, deliberative conduct occurs here: Low levels? Dive in! High levels? Hit the chlorinated town or resort pool.
            But there is another side to this as well, the tones of which resonate with much writing on rural government at least since the beginning of the Romantic period. Ranging from George Crabbe’s “The Village” to Hardy’s Wessex Novel to Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha, from Joseph Ritson's radical antiquarian to William Morris’s socialist merry old England to Raymond Williams country proletariat, novelists and theorists alike have viewed similar intrusions into once non-policed activities as destructive of desired precedents. The Buttermilk Falls policing clearly fits such a reader: a location and activity once “outside” a certain regime of policing now clearly within the ken of The Police.
Let us slow down a moment, though. The issue isn’t that the swimming hole, its participants, or their conduct were once free from policing and are now policed. The swimmer and his/her like were always subject to police, if only in the local knowledge operative at the moment of any decision (Swim? Not swim?) based on observations of water flow or clarity and framed by preexisting conceptions of what those observations "mean."  And these alternative modes of policing don’t stop operating because BFP has moved in. To understand BFP naively is to see it as monolithic: “The State is foisting its power onto the lives of free subjects via the EPA” or “Neoliberalism is taking over the lives of free subjects via capitalism ventures like Endyne. Rather, what is occurring in this case is a change in the balance of regimes at a single location. Non-BFP policing operates upon a population, but aren’t tied to collective enterprises between public and private entities orchestrated by a hybrid entity like BRAT or even codified through a regime of veracity based in a set of scientific practices. In short, what we witness with the Buttermilk Falls signage is the transition into a neoliberal mode of police, one marked by collectivization between private and public entities, the formation of alternative “grammars” (how one knows that the water is “safe” and what “safe” even means).

           The comportment of the critic here to his/her object of inquiry should not be “neutral” in any naïve manner. One cannot say that he/she should approach this emergent police endeavor without judgment. But that doesn’t mean a critic should be as partisan as a Williams or a Ritson, even if it is maintained reflexively as Donna Haraway. Rather, one must be agnostic faithfully. For example: the approach to BFP above sets out agnostically: Here is the emergence of this thing, BFP, and this is what that thing does. However, the purpose of such a critical effort is to make salient the contingency of BFP, methodologically something visible in the contrast and conflict between alternative regimes of police at a single location, or, more interestingly, as they coexist in the same location and with shared populations. Contingency is crucial to this project because it allows the critic to evaluate the object of inquiry and provide the discursive, conceptual, practicable opportunity to imagine alternatives. This is what the humanities (could a more flawed a name be given to this discipline?) can and should offer. We can not only document the operations of “police” and other government operations but also test the conditions for alternative practices of policing or, more broadly understood, “government.” Now comes the oft repeated mantra: We have done a good job with the first, documenting and contesting liberalism, neoliberalism, colonialism, biopolitics to name only a few of the more fastidiously delineated modes; we have not done an adequate job offering alternatives. The humanities (or whatever we will call ourselves) must get its utopian verve back.

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