Seminar "Crude Knowledge: Decolonisation, Nationalisation, and Hydrocarbon Epistemologies" & "On the Remarkable Role of Economic Science in Calculating Iran’s Democratic Future"

Le 01/02/2023

with Laleh Khalili, Queen Mary University of London & Katayoun Shafiee, University of Warwick

The stories we tell matter.

"Crude Knowledge: Decolonisation, Nationalisation, and Hydrocarbon Epistemologies"

How did decolonisation and postcolonial geopolitics shape the contours of Arab knowledge about oil? Who were the experts and polemicists and scholars that created a hydrocarbon episteme on the pages of numerous Arabic language scholarly, political and commercial journals and magazines about oil? In this essay, based on a review of the complete archives of several Arabic language oil/gas and commercial journals between the 1950s and the present time, I will argue that oil was transformed from the knowable material of everyday life and struggle into an abstract, distant and illegible subject of specialised knowledge. I will elucidate the fragmentation of hydrocarbon knowledge, specialisation and jargonisation, and ascendancy of quantitative, descriptive, categoric and macro methods of understanding over qualitative, analytic, interpretive, and micro methods.

Laleh Khalili is a professor of international politics at Queen Mary University of London and the author of Heroes and Martyrs of Palestine: The Politics of National Commemoration (Cambridge 2007), Time in the Shadows: Confinement in Counterinsurgencies (Stanford 2013) and Sinews of War and Trade: Shipping and Capitalism in the Arabian Peninsula (Verso 2020).

"On the Remarkable Role of Economic Science in Calculating Iran’s Democratic Future through the Reassembly of a Dam in the mid-20th century"

A burgeoning scholarship has taken seriously the use and management of the world’s fresh water as a site of critical investigation, highlighting the contribution of science and technology studies in making the infrastructural life of water visible. However, studies say little about the calculative terms of the decision-making process involved in infrastructural appraisal which are often taken for granted as something inevitable. This paper examines the unexpected and remarkable role that cost-benefit analysis played in governing Iran’s democratic future through the assembling of a dam in the mid-20th century. Indeed, cost-benefit analysis traveled the world via flows of water. I investigate the ways in which the calculation of risk generated by the device of cost-benefit analysis of neoclassical economics became over several decades the most influential language for explaining and organizing the relationship between humans and nature, including the soil, in southwest Iran. The waters of the Dez River and other major rivers of the world shaped the building of large-scale infrastructural projects around dams, but they were simultaneously entangled with the production of economic information about the costs and benefits to local areas, making possible the development of new methods of governing democracies in terms of risk. US-based government aid agencies, institutions of global economic governance, private American investors, engineers, and soil scientists converged in a small corner of Iran to transform the region, its water, and its farmers into a laboratory of grass-roots democracy for a profit.

Katayoun Shafiee is Associate Professor of the History of the Modern Middle East at the University of Warwick, Department of History. She is currently working on her second book project, Governing Democratic Futures: Risky Measures along an Iranian waterway, 1920-79 which explores the role of neoclassical economics in the politics of international water resource development in Iran. Her publications on the topic of energy development have appeared in Social Studies of Science, the International Journal of Middle East Studies, Economy and Society, and History Compass. She is the author of Machineries of Oil: An Infrastructural History of BP in Iran (MIT Press, 2018).

Printable Program

Wednesday 1st february 2023, 12 pm

Online on ZOOM

To register please fill in this form

Contacts: Omar Jabary Salamanca

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