ANTICIPATING FAILURE: Transparency devices and their effects

Penny Harvey, Madeleine Reeves, Evelyn Ruppert

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The article explores the politics of making worlds legible, transparent and actionable through devices that governments and international organisations mobilise in the quest to achieve moral certainty about their activities and decisions. Through an analysis of three distinct examples, we examine the effects of such attempts to open things up in the name of the public good: the performance metrics that are part of the UK government's 'Transparency Agenda'; 'conflict mapping' as part of Kyrgyzstan's internationally sponsored programmes of Preventive Development; and the procedures of Peru's National System of Public Investment (SNIP) through which public investments are regulated. We explore these three as instances of what we call 'transparency devices'. It is to past moral failures - of wrongdoing, conflict or corruption - that these devices react and consequently it is the anticipation of future moral failings towards which they are then oriented. Each device does so by establishing matters of fact as moral certainties through technical settlements carried out in 'public'. But in their enactment of social realities, such devices are also generative of what we call collateral effects and affects. First, technical settlements require establishing what is to be included/excluded but such stabilisations are only fleeting, always and already partial, and provisional. As such rather than alleviating uncertainty they come to amplify it. Furthermore, while they can be understood as neoliberal techniques of producing active, rational witnessing subjects who take responsibility for ensuring moral futures, they are also generative of affective dispositions of suspicion and hypervigilance; fostering subjects with a greater awareness of that which is yet to be revealed. We suggest that they should not be considered weaknesses, but rather that uncertainty and hypervigilant responsibilised subjects call for the continuation of more of the same and thus are a source of the very authority and legitimacy of transparency devices. © 2013 Copyright Taylor and Francis Group, LLC.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)294-312
Number of pages18
JournalJournal of Cultural Economy
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2013


  • moral certainty
  • moral failure
  • neoliberal
  • suspicion
  • technical settlement
  • transparency devices


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