What’s in a Word? Taking “Stock”

In our third blog post, Ian Stewart (History of Science and Technology Programme, University of King’s College) provides an overview of a panel, “Accounting for Loss in Fish Stocks,” featuring Jennifer Telesca (Pratt Institute). The panel, organized by SSHORE members Ian Stewart and Jerry Bannister, was made possible by SSHORE’s generous funding from SSHRC and other partners for the event. To watch the panel, click here.

During the 8th and 9th of March, SSHORE, along with the History of Science and Technology Programme (King’s), Ecology Action Centre (Halifax), EIUI (Dalhousie, Faculty of Management) and the Marine Affairs Program (MAP, Dalhousie), welcomed Dr. Jennifer Telesca (Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, NY)  to Dalhousie University and the University of King’s College. The range of sponsors was fitting, since Dr. Telesca  has turned her varied background in communications theory, law and society, women’s studies, and environmental anthropology to the study of fisheries science—its concepts, methods and institutions. Three years of field work at the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) has led Dr. Telesca to some challenging conclusions concerning ICCAT’s fundamental claim, announced on its website, that “Science underpins the management decisions made by ICCAT.” What “science”  is—and, indeed, what “underpinning” could mean in the context of “decisions” rendered in the complex space of ICCAT meetings—is the subject of her forthcoming book. Her work is of wider interest to the diverse disciplines represented by SSHORE scholars, not least those working in my own fields of science and technology studies and the history and philosophy of science. The previous day Dr. Telesca presented some reflections on her ICCAT fieldwork at the Department of Biology’s seminar series, co-hosted by MAP.

Her talk on March 9 at the University of King’s College focussed on the linguistic turn in the social sciences and humanities, considering the word “stock” and its rich history in science-based fisheries management (the event begins 4:35 minutes into the recording).

Dr. Telesca’s presentation, “Accounting for loss in fish stocks: a word on life as biological asset,” summarized the key findings of a published paper of the same title. Deeply influenced by the work of SSHORE member Dr. Dean Bavington (Geography, MUN) in his Managed Annihilation (2010), Dr. Telesca takes her cue from Raymond Williams’ approach to language in Keywords. She traces the role that the concept of “stock” has played in the commodification of fish, rendering possible the abstractions inherent in modern fisheries science, and their ultimate integration into the discourse of economically driven fisheries management. Her work amounts to a kind of archeology of language—in this case “stock” and its assemblages of conceptual, technological and managerial practices which condition the effect of the dangerous declines of fish and other ocean life the world over.

The word “stock” for Dr. Telesca is, in a complex sense, emblematic of the reasons that fish populations are in trouble, in that the word itself is a kind of icon for the capacity of fisheries science, with its sophisticated statistical models and risk management techniques, to be on the one hand internally “correct” in its attempts at conservation, while, on the other hand, manifestly getting it horribly “wrong” when one looks at the reality in today’s oceans.

Can a word have such power? To answer this requires not just a consideration of language and its uses. The exploration drew Dr. Telesca into the history of science, accounting, fisheries management, and ultimately into a kind of science-legitimated, imaginative reconfiguring of fish not as creatures in living systems, but as “biowealth, at the joint of both asset and population, which enables extractive capitalism to keep the productive power of nature off the balance sheet.”

In the following panel discussion Laurenne Schiller, PhD candidate in Dalhousie’s IDPhD programme, with a background in NGO fisheries management in the BC fishing context, questioned this form of linguistic turn. Ms. Schiller stressed other influences such as biological, social and cultural influences leading to fish declines, seeing in these a more direct causal link, and attributing to language a more correlative status. Dr. Susanna Fuller, from the Ecology Action Centre, similarly urged for a wider view: distinctions between fisheries science and fisheries management point to the latter as the domain of the use of “stock” as an operative term, where “sustainable use” and not “conservation” is the explicit goal, and where the precautionary principle is effectively offloaded and reserved for scientists rather than managers (contrary to its original intent).

As the third speaker, I underscored the point that language, understood through its careful archeology in the tradition employed by Dr. Telesca, is not merely instrumental. We need also to explore language as a complex “legacy that needs to be questioned” and one in which causal (vs. merely correlative) stories are to be found. Doing so requires a view of language that is more complex than the instrumentalist account of language typical of modern science.

Of course, in what sense language is “causal” is what is in dispute here, reflecting disciplinary boundaries that have their own history, going back at least to the same period in which Dr. Telesca’s paper begins. The early modern period attests to the departure of language, in this richer sense, from the discourse of science: the instrumentalist rhetoric of the turn from “words to things” (intoned by the early propagandists of the Royal Society of London, for example), is about just this. But words continually come back to haunt science, and the early theorists of the “new science” (such as Francis Bacon) were astute archeologists (and psychologists) of language. The language of science, and its influence on discourse more broadly, continues to be re-examined by scholars in my field, working alongside other subfields of the social sciences and humanities. Making the case for the relevance of such examination for understanding the nature of modern science continues to be a challenge.

The event was indeed right up SSHORE’s alley: an interdisciplinary meeting of natural sciences, social sciences and humanities. A rich Q&A that followed the panel (chaired by SSHORE member, Dr. Jerry Bannister, from Dalhousie’s History Department) had over 40 audience members, and included contributions from Dalhousie and King’s faculty and students from Biology, Marine Affairs, Philosophy, History, Sociology and Social Anthropology, and History of Science, to name a few. For her part, Dr. Telesca reported afterward that she had never before been part of such a rich and fruitful gathering of disciplines across the natural and social sciences/humanities boundaries in a discussion about the ocean. The event attests to the need for a broad-based, informed dialogue among thinkers from fields well beyond fisheries science. Such dialogue is all the more pressing given that, if Dr. Telesca is right, its absence, especially within the academy, has contributed to the looming ecological crisis facing the planet and the ocean in particular.



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