Monday, February 21, 2005

Documentation and Performativity. II. MacKenzie and Bowker

[NOTE: I just clang ideas around until I come to a hypothesis. To save you the reading effort: “After all that, here’s a thesis: the stabilization/closure of documentation is performativity.”]

In MacKenzie’s articulation of performativity I’ve found a useful framework. It only makes sense that MacKenzie would cast some light on this issue given that his own early work is précised in the great founding articles of SCOT(MacKenzie, 1987) . His version of performativity is based on that of Callon. Both authors use the concept to describe the equity markets. While MacKenzie has discussed performativity in a number of his recent publications, his most thorough discussion appears in a paper prepared for Harvard-MIT Economic Sociology Seminar in the fall of 2004:

“What might it mean to say that an area of economics such as option pricing theory is ‘performative’? At the most general level, the term ‘performative’ involves no specific reference to economics and connotes a general theoretical stance: the postulates that ‘phenomena only exist in the doing of them’ and ‘they have to be continuously performed to exist at all’ (Callon 2004). The performances that are of interest will normally involve acts by human beings, but typically not by unaided human beings: central to the ‘actor-network theory’ developed by Callon and his colleague Bruno Latour is the view that the ‘actants’ involved in the production of phenomena include non-human entities as well as human beings.”(MacKenzie, 2004 p. 9)

I’m a big fan of this description of performativity. Basically, it states that phenomena only have an ontological reality in the doing. Furthermore, it is firmly established in a materialist epistemology (from ANT) that provides a forum for the consideration of material objects. Gone are those other difficult aspects of performativity such as Butler’s attention to the social creation and propagation of gender or Lyotard’s focus on processes of legitimation. Indeed, the index of Callon’s The Laws of the Markets (conveniently available on Amazon) gives no credence to either of these authors.

MacKenzie introduces two different flavours of performativity. The first—generic—occurs “where the use makes a difference.” In this case, a world or setting where the phenomena exist is different from one that lacks the phenomena. Furthermore, the difference is caused by its existence. He describes the Black-Scholes-Merton equation as an example of generic performativity:

“For this use to qualify as performativity it must, as suggested above, make a difference: the world with the theory being used must be in important respects different from the world without it being used."(MacKenzie, 2004 p. 18)

The second flavour of performativity is Austinian performativity:

“Austinian performativity, as I am using the term, is the claim that amongst the differences made by the use of an economic model is to make the model more true.” (MacKenzie, 2004 p. 23)

In MacKenzie’s discussion we see two very different aspects of performativity: 1- phenomena become true through their use, and 2- certain phenomena become more true through usage. He also suggests that certain phenomena may experience “counterperformativity”. For example, the use of certain phenomena may make them less true. MacKenzie posits that the widespread usage of the Black-Scholes-Merton equation may have been a factor in precipitating the 1987 market crash. While the equation had accurately predicted the market prior to the crash, it has never performed as well since. In this sense, the use of the equation led to an event that demonstrated that it was not universally valid.

I want to apply MacKenzie’s principles to our world of documentation. With his first description of generic performativity, we see that things may be interpreted as true through their usage. This argument certainly resonates with the world of documentation. The canonical work in STS would suggest that the possibility of certain phenomena cannot even be contemplated until they exist and circulate as some sort of transcription. Latour, for example, discussed the process of creating successive inscriptions in order to create a fact; however, it’s not enough that these inscriptions just get created. They have to circulate within practice and they need to win allies through citations and academic discourse.

The academic discourse is particularly relevant to our discussion of inscriptions and facts. What do professionals do if not create facts? One could argue that scientists exist to create scientific facts, and that accountants exist to create facts from disparate and varied financial documents. Similarly, doctors turn symptoms into the facts of etiologies and treatments. Engineers and architects, however, do something a little bit different. They’re not out to discover facts that we assume to be lying dormant in the dust. Rather, they take something from the mind and turn it into a fact through a kind of reverse process of inscription. Instead of starting with the precise detail of a set of scientific inscriptions or financial documents that get abstracted, the engineer and the architect start with a rough sketch or idea—the “back of the envelope” described by Petroski(1996) or the esquise of the Beux-Arts tradition (Pai, 2002)—and create the fact of the artefact through a succession of more detailed descriptions and renderings. In all cases, however, the facticity of the inscriptions are established through the actual use of the documents. Will the hypotheses of uncirculated scientific papers ever be considered true? Is the unaudited financial statement a thing worth considering? Can preliminary sketches stashed away in a sketchbook suddenly emerge as real artifacts?

Within the world of inscriptions and documentation we also see examples of Austinian performativity and counterperformativity. MacKenzie’s own discussion of the Black-Scholes-Merton equation demonstrates how the hypotheses presented in a series of academic papers became true only after they circulated within practice i.e., Austinian performativity. A classic example of counterperformativity comes from Kuhn’s(1962) discussion of chemistry. Could Lavoisier have overturned phlogiston theory if the theory had remained undocumented?

MacKenzie himself provides a very interesting example of performativity in his discussion of the fact sheets published by Black for use in the trading pits:

“Instead, an old technology formed the key mediator between the model’s mathematics and the shouting, sweating, gesticulating, jostling human bodies on the trading floors: paper. Away from the hubbub, computers were used to generate Black-Scholes prices. Those prices were reproduced on sets of paper sheets which floor traders could carry around, often tightly wound cylindrically with only immediately relevant rows visible so that a quick squint would reveal the relevant price. While some individual traders and trading firms produced their own sheets, others used commercial services.” (p. 13)

In this description we see the importance of the materiality of the documents and the ways that the affordances of the particular medium of enabled information space to interact with meat space. Also evident is the notion of standardization. Compare MacKenzie’s description of “shouting, sweating, gesticulating, jostling human bodies” to Bowker’s description of Schlumberger’s engineers who “waged a campaign against the messy, local subsoil mush as they did against the traditional cultures and the luxuriant jungle.”(Bowker, 1994 p. 93) In both examples we see the importance of documentation and standardization for overcoming the inherent messiness of local contingencies.

We can imagine the brokers with their bits of paper shouting at each other in their trading pits. It is important to recognize, however, that their bits of paper only held any significance to them. People who aren’t traders—or traders who used a system other than Black-Scholes-Merton—needed to be converted or somehow inducted into the usage of these documents in order for the represented phenomena to be performative. How did this process occur? With Bowker’s engineer’s we see a process of reducing the world to a type of laboratory:

“Once in the field, the geophysical company entered into a series of negotiations in order to make the notional laboratory (defined by closure) into a real laboratory (defined by controlled conditions). Then came theory. It arrived after closure and negotiation, each of which was commercially and (dare I say it?) socially mediated. It should therefore come as no surprise that the science Schlumberger produced mapped the social world at the same time that it mapped the real world.”(Bowker, 1994 p. 68)

But what do we see in the world of the traders? How do they standardize the world? Is performativity a kind of condition of closure i.e., the performative effect of documents can only exist after the significance, meaning, and practice of the document has been stabilized? Is this perhaps the definition of closure when it comes to documentary practice: performativity?

After all that, here’s a thesis: the stabilization/closure of documentation is performativity.

Bowker provides one more great pull quote on the nature of documentation, performativity, and technology. He describes a kind of interaction between the physical world, the conceptual world, and the world of documentation to fulfill a kind of promise, the promise of oil:

“A further feature of the network space, indeed its very reason d'être, was its ability to produce local order in the space of the old state. Measurements down an oil well displayed ever greater degrees of accuracy, and mileposts were lined along the roadside, thus providing a new set of local reference points that allowed the accretion of more local knowledge. The space within which these new measurements and markers occurred-the oil well and the asphalted road-were equally ordered and universal. In whatever country they occurred, these pockets of uniform space allowed a deeper, more penetrating knowledge of the old state. They never touched the old state, for their very nature was its exclusion, but through the mediating influence of maps there was an exchange of information between the network and the sate. Maps, produced by geographers, geologists, and geophysicists heralded the creation of the new space.”(Bowker, 1994 pp. 83-84)


Bowker, G. C. (1994). Science on the run : information management and industrial geophysics at Schlumberger, 1920-1940. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Kuhn, T. S. (1962). The structure of scientific revolutions. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

MacKenzie, D. (1987). Missile accuracy: A case study in the social processes of technological change. In W. E. Bijker, T. P. Hughes & T. J. Pinch (Eds.), The Social construction of technological systems : new directions in the sociology and history of technology (pp. 195-222). Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

MacKenzie, D. (2004). Is economics performative? Option theory and the construction of derviatives markets. Paper prepared for the Harvard-MIT Economic Sociology Seminar, 16 November 2004. Retrieved Febrary 17, 2005, from

Pai, H. (2002). The portfolio and the diagram : architecture, discourse, and modernity in America. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Petroski, H. (1996). Invention by design : how engineers get from thought to thing. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.


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