Part II: The Phatic Language in the Penumbra of Machinery


As a tenuous corollary to Part I (on ‘depoliticized’ developmental politics[1]), there remains the charge laid out that there is an insipid tendency for developmental institutions to refer to their work as solely ‘technical’, situated on a ‘neutral’ platform with regards to policies and the delivery or design of Aid. Having presented in Part I with reference to anthropological or ethnographical accounts how the premise is at the very least questionable, I will hope to be convincing enough in showing why it is nonetheless in many instances defensible (an unpopular position which like in Part I on culture, one I only weakly endorse). The defense starts nevertheless with the acknowledgment that the institutions are inherently political aside from what might be official rhetoric. However, with regards to the rhetoric in its officialdom, a preliminary note on linguistics would be that it is marred with machinery; in proxy, the ‘gray literature’ of development from the World Bank down often talks of projects, either in review or projections, as if it is talking about an engine[2]. From ‘drivers’ to ‘instruments’ to ‘mechanisms’ and ‘functions’, of ‘unlocking’ ‘levers of change’ on ‘engines of growth’ operating within a network or complex of ‘processes’ between ‘inputs’ and ‘outputs’ via ‘tools’ to ‘service’ a credible ‘system’ of development.

If ‘development discourse’ is charged as being willfully apolitical, then it should be clear at least that a degree of acculturated ‘technical’ language exists as a mode for sustaining (and covertly justifying) it; machines after all, are supposedly insentient, and as non-partisan as compliant servants, so borrowing some of its descriptions is like a buffer in aid of articulating multiple developmental problems and their solutions in familiar, functional, and often homogenized terms. The degree to which this use of language merely ‘reflects’ how Aid Agencies or Development Departments frame themselves, or whether it plays a determinant role in its practice, I’ll leave open. However, the question of why ‘gray literature’ makes for dull reading should in this light, at least be obvious, since people don’t read assemblage manuals either.

Another comparable way of putting it (though it requires a little theoretical flexibility) would be in reference to the semiotic categorization of ‘phatic communication’. That is, a mode of communication where language performs the social function of keeping a line of communication open over and above conveying substantial content, as in asking ‘what’s up?’ to a passing acquaintance when the answer or response is not actually anticipated, or giving a perfunctory ‘ta’ to the bus driver even if you are not verily thankful. This sort of ‘rhetorical’ use of language is an indispensable part of retaining or rehearsing certain social ties or acknowledgements, the climax of which is ‘small talk’, a practice in line with –looking over at chimpanzee’s picking fleas from each other- grooming. So called ‘gray literature’ can in a sense be seen to conform to this notion in the sense that -with sympathies again towards Mosse’s (2005) book- there is a frustration at the length of policy documents relative to the dearth of actual substantial content, at the wasteland of words required to express what may even end up feeling rather ‘commonsensical’. Thanking God for Executive Summaries (which in turn anyway end up being reducible to a few lines), the main trick is to resist the thought that this is somehow a sign of comical incompetence or a lack of creative will; the ‘wasteland’ is a powerful yet surreptitious signifier. ‘Content’ in a certain sense may be secondary; the primary function is rather the phatic one of the subservience of language to the task of defending and rehearsing a legitimacy or ‘line of communication’. A document fat with inconsequential sentences turns out in this reading to be a power relation in the process of being groomed, with phatic communication aiding the sustenance of authority. As such, it -in a line- matters less what’s being said, but that the fact that it’s being said frequently and fairly consistently. Why this is perhaps defensible is another matter.


In Defense of a Pretence Or, Foundational Factors

So if there exists a possible connection between the unimaginative or un-colorful world of ‘gray literature’ (policy or otherwise) as a function of many of its institutions adhering to an apolitical agenda of ‘technical’ solutions, one early and obvious reason would be that flair or style are obviously not considered professional. If it were, it would denote a whimsical ephemerality at risk of seduction or hijacking by ‘trends’, conquering the cool analytical head. Fashions have a tendency not to be taken seriously, whilst seriousness airs out authority. With regards to temporality however, I have been assured by lecturers and academics alike that ‘trends’ come just as thick and fast in development as elsewhere, where research and funding for decentralization or gender mainstreaming have come and gone (or stayed, but in the same way polo necks or tight jeans have endeared), as has the misappropriation of social capital (Harriss 2002) and sustainable development. Harriss (2002) in relation to the above usurping of Putnam’s ‘social capital’ by the World Bank is quick to point out that ideas or theories are picked up at politically important moments for institutions, to serve political ends in moments the institutions themselves might later in retrospect define as a historical juncture.[3]

As important as the above ‘trends’ might be (I do not wish to undermine their validity or prescience at particular moments), the fact that a large institution amalgamates them deliberatively on the pretense of ‘neutral’ grounds, is for me perversely at least, reassuring, for the same reason that governments often claim the same pretentions; pretending to be ‘apolitical’ (even if this position is impossible) is in some instances potentially more ethically desirable for people than not. It is highly imperfect and leaves underlying structural flaws intact, but there is also nonetheless something inherently better for example in a government not openly discriminating against its citizens (as a far right party might, or a housing policy) than one’s who is constrained from such naked power with a pretense, since the pretence at least implies a social obligation to still perform.[4] The problem in this equation is that it bodes badly for democratic performance, since citizens can also be pretenders.  

In fact on a more abstract, psychoanalytical level, one could characterize this ‘pretense’ as a necessity of its function. What if the pretense of being apolitical, however imperfect or self-conceited, is perhaps the most ethical of positions over explicit politics (particularly with regard to large and powerful institutions)? Furthermore, what if pretending to be ‘depoliticized’ is not a sign of insentient development practitioners (though I don’t write off the possibility that many have no clear ‘politics’ in mind when they work, and might shun the suggestion they are hostages to it), but a requisite; analogous to (switching tracks for a second) the ‘pretense’ of absolute objectivity in hard sciences? Infamous as he is (and as cautious as I am about using him), there is a particular if rather counterintuitive point made by Žižek (2004 and 2011) that is perhaps well worth mentioning in the context of apolitical ‘pretenses’, how seriously we should treat them, and why they oughtn’t be treated as synonyms of ‘falsity’. Writing on a conference made by Rumsfeld during the early days of the Iraq war, and on the WikiLeaks scandal respectively, Žižek advanced what roughly became known as the ‘unknown-known’ hypothesis –that in the case of Assange (critiqued for his lack of political ‘tact’) lay beyond the level of content, the actual leaks, beyond the scandal of which minister or diplomat thought or said what about Qaddafi;

The only surprising thing about the WikiLeaks revelations is that they contain no surprises. Didn’t we learn exactly what we expected to learn? The real disturbance was at the level of appearances: we can no longer pretend we don’t know what everyone knows we know. This is the paradox of public space: even if everyone knows an unpleasant fact, saying it in public changes everything.’  (2011)

And earlier, in some sense delivering a parody on Rumsfeld three scenarios in Iraq:

‘In March 2003, Rumsfeld engaged in a little bit of amateur philosophizing about the relationship between the known and the unknown: “There are known knowns. These are the things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know”. What he forgot to add was the crucial forth term: the “unknown knowns,” the things we don’t know that we know-which is precisely the Freudian unconscious, the “knowledge which doesn’t know itself” as Lacan used to say.’   (2004)

From Weapons of Mass destruction to the photos that leaked out of Abu Ghraib, Žižek stresses that the unknown-known’s there were precisely the ‘disavowed beliefs, suppositions and obscene practices we pretend not to know about, even though they form the background of our public values ’ (Žižek 2004).

Whilst it would be a little extreme to draw the exact comparison with Rumsfeld, what if to be ‘political’ in the avowedly neutral institution would be to disclose a tactless secret everyone seems to know but doesn’t wish to articulate?[5] That part of the public good one has to be seen as doing, is the requirement of doing it without bias –even if one knows who has them? In essence, it appears that much of discussion around this topic concerns perhaps not so much the problem of being ‘apolitical’, but rather that institutions might benefit from the greater inclusion of other fields of knowledge (by adopting a more ‘interdisciplinary’ stance). As such, the argument above might seem misplaced, as arguing for a wider array of voices rather than a ‘neutral’ one are two different things. But nevertheless, the purpose is not to deny that a plurality over a singular voice might be a good thing, but rather to suggest that it might perhaps also be useful to consider thinking of institutions less as engaged in a cynical ‘covering’ up of political beliefs, and rather the more moderate case that the ‘covering up’ is necessarily a foundational function of the institution, similar to the sort of ‘foundational’ myth of many a social body or organization.[6]

If altering this situation is desirable, ‘reformers’ of whatever color or stripe would need perhaps then first to grapple with this ontological contract prima face; recognizing that shifting to more overt ‘politics’ or a new desirable norm requisites a ‘violence’ to this very foundational myth (or unknown known), and one that if the change is supposed to be lasting, necessarily needs to alter the very constellation of the institutions self-recognition. It hinges on the ability of those ‘within’ to experience a doubt in identity, and as a corollary, find a new symbolically relevant but nonetheless unnamable pretense.


‘Aid Futurism’ As If…

To sign off on this point, it is worth perhaps as an open-ended ending to leave speculating unto the reverse of the premise. In the spirit of Jameson’s (2007) magisterial work on a literary theory of science fiction[7], more modestly, what if all aid come out the closet to the charge of politics in the future? If agenda’s were clear, liberal or cynical? The ignoramus within the institution, whom genuinely had not thought they were divested in consequentially ‘political’ work but merely ‘common sense’ dispensed technically, would for one, have to pick some sort of side –or self-invent. Whatever politically motivated ideas were thought to float unconsciously in the background would probably have to be brought to the fore and articulated, dragged out like thief for mob justice. Perhaps some would be surprised there were no surprises. Where before he/she had never to wander whose ‘larger’ interests are being served or how problems are framed, now needed to think like a paranoiac. If aid were politicized, or more politicized, I for one (with a disposition for the dramatic) would suspect the outcome to not have much net effect; it would simply mean a higher degree of the ‘securitization’ in conflict or fragile states. Tanzania would lose out Afghanistan, or Mali would gain where Nepal lost out (at least until they flooded), or a genre of ‘preemptive’ development would be there to curb kidnappings in Nigeria, detracting from dams in Ecuador. Donors though, would probably largely still advocate good governance. Aid would be given and approached in a manner not dissimilar to the Cold War.[8]  

Some countries, with smart and/or deceitful leaders, seeing little improvement in their trading, manufacturing, or exports (and having little natural resources) and exhausted by the scant attention, might raise the ‘specter’ themselves in a sort of Hegelian return to farce; siphoning off millions on a hard to define or defeat enemy, making a living (credible in my view, if we’re being ‘realist’) off the panic of Western donors (a sort of double farcical Mobutu). Putting the ‘specter of terror’ aside; development would need to justify itself far harder in terms of getting a ‘return’ on investments to the ‘global South’. ‘Value for money’ would be a much more developmentally flauntable phrase than it currently is (where with our current ‘tactful’ pretenses, it at least produces a sense of mild embarrassment or skepticism dependent on who the speaker is), self-assured enough to use it openly when it handsomely promises more benefits for domestic electorates, politicians or donors. Any more politicized, it would make for even more unevenly allocated aid budgets, but at least appease somewhat a larger proportion of Daily Mail readers by taking ‘action’. Bizarrely I imagine the big donors would feel the pressure ‘do something’ about immigration; mobility would not be discouraged as such, but angry and hard-line turns to the right in domestic politics (already on show in the EU) would push hard on development institutions to renew or review work where possible on the underdeveloped countries where migrants leave from. Like steampunk (the sci-fi subgenre that appropriates the aesthetics of the industrial revolution), ‘politicization’ would probably in some senses cannibalize history; a premise which, as an incredibly niche idea for a novel, might be appealing in particular to a retiree African(ist) scholar.



Delezue, G. and Guattari, F., 2004. Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. London: Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd.

Ferguson, J., 1994. The Anti-politics Machine: Development, Depoliticization and Bureaucratic Power in Lesotho, University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis

Harriss, J., 2002. Depoliticizing Development: The World Bank and Social Capital. London: Anthem Press

Jameson, F., 2007. Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions. London: Verso

Le Guin, U., 1981. The Left Hand of Darkness. London: Orbit

Mosse, D., 2005. Cultivating Development: An Ethnography of Aid Policy and Practice. Pluto Press: London.

Mouffe, C., 2005. On the Political. London: Routledge.

Pogge, T., 2011. World Poverty and Human Rights. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Polity Press

Robinson, K., 2003. The Years of Rice Salt. New York: HarperCollins

Žižek, S., 2011. Good Manners in the Age of WikiLeaks. London Review of Books. 33(2) [online] Available at:

Žižek, S., 2004. What Rumsfeld Doesn’t Know That He Knows About Abu Ghaib. In These Times [online] Available at:


Beasts of the Southern Wild. 2012. [Film] Directed by Benh Zeitlin. USA: Fox Searchlight Pictures

[1] I am a little self-consciously in the essay conflating the words ‘depoliticization’ and ‘apolitical’ as interchangeable entities. While there is strong distinction for someone like Harriss (2002), with depoliticization largely seen as a willful, even malicious act of ‘deflecting’ legitimate anger or claims to justice away from its structural causes, I will for convenience sake ignore this. At most I acknowledge that the act of believing one’s acts ‘apolitical’ is perhaps tantamount to a symptom of an institutionalized and internalized discourse anterior to a process of ‘depoliticization’.


[2] There is insufficient space here to really attempt a ‘deconstruction’ of this, nevertheless, the references of Part I (Ferguson (1994) and Mosse (2005)) would be a good start. Though I am unsure if Ferguson (1994) made any explicit reference to the ‘mechanical’ language of development, the subtitle of the book describes the complimentarity of bureaucracy and development as an ‘anti-politics machine’ -making at least implicitly this connection. Borrowing from Deleuze and Guattari’s (2004) Anti-Oedipus as Ferguson does, the sense in which I am deploying the term shares some vague analogy to that of their ‘becoming-machine’. Despite my use of the engine as a metaphor however, the percolation of cybernetics is, and will most likely continue to be -sticking to our futurist theme- a new linguistic frontier for ‘apolitical’ development discourse too, from the ‘complexity’ of ‘networks’ to (who knows?) the ‘ecology’ of ‘rhizomatic’ Civil Society Organizations. The jargon (I mean ‘jargon’ here most affectionately) either way is tantamount to a conceptualization of a sort of ‘abstract machine’ as a description of society, which as a result ensnares the problems and possible solutions into a set of similarly ‘technical’ responses of ‘fixing’ ‘broken’ electoral systems or societies, ‘engineering’ its change from whichever way up when NGO’s ‘tick the boxes’ as major donors ‘set the pace’.      

[3] An idea articulated with surprising poetry and clarity by none other than Milton Friedman in a passage which could make even the hardest of left hearts swell: [t]here is enormous inertia—a tyranny of the status quo—in private and especially governmental arrangements. Only a crisis—actual or perceived—produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.’ (cited in:,_Milton)


[4] There are various serious flaws with this reasoning, not least how inefficient it seems but also there remains a good argument to be made that this ‘pretense’ allows discriminations to endure, or in institutional apolitics, for basic assumptions to remain unturned. 

[5] There is always the much more plausible claim (which will probably be articulated in the next blog entry) of institutions not taking ‘political sides’ per se, but are precisely considered neutral by virtue of being somehow ‘beyond’ politics, operating on the ‘post-political’. There are good criticisms of this (Mouffe (2005)), but nevertheless whilst I have largely ignored this position, it is the one I would imagine most of those accused might hold, with the emphasis precisely on going beyond the unfashionable ‘left’ or ‘right’ paradigm to that of pragmatism, of solutions cooked up beyond the sentiments of an ideological bias.  


[6] Žižek (2001) makes this point clear at the start of his article on WikiLeaks with reference to the Batman film the Dark Knight, where there exists and allegorical and fundamental ‘lie’ in order for order to exist in the social contract. On a purely theoretical impulse, the relationship (and an improperly allegorical solution) in one of its dimensions can also figuratively be summated in one of the final climatic scenes in Zeitlin’s recent Beasts of the Southern Wild, where both the father and daughter (Wink and Hushpuppy) finally reconcile Wink’s immanent death. With violins swarming, both character’s clearly welled up with water streaming from their faces, Wink manages ‘No cryin’ remember’, to which Hushpuppy replies ‘No cryin’’ –both maintaining an attitude of aloofness even when both know it conceals their true feelings. The point from a symbolic level is that even if both spent most of the film avoiding articulating their love for one another, even at the moment when it is finally communicated, both maintain the pretence or contract they established anterior to it; it is a way of maintaining order even while the ‘unknown’ becomes known. This, in Žižek’s terms, is close to ‘tact’. In relation to the foundational myth, one may even say that the very ‘no crying’ policy (of avoiding a certain truth at all cost) Wink instigates is the very foundation of how their love finds expression or form.


[7] The literary genre of science fiction (and more broadly ‘magical realism’ and fantasy) as Jameson (2007) reminds us, is precisely left with an emanicipatory value by asking the question of ‘what if?’,from which I borrow here liberally in topping off the essay. From LeGuin’s feminist opus of sad ambassadors in love with the genderless in Left Hand of Darkness (1981) to the detailed alter-history of Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt (2003) where effectively the hegemonic powers of the world became the Arabs and the Chinese (of especial interest in feeding post-colonial fantasies).


[8] I mention more politicized for the very reason that Thomas Pogge observes in his World Poverty and Human Rights in pointing in the near freefall of aid between countries strategically important in the Cold War and those ‘post’-Cold War (2011:8), including later stats such as in 2005 over one fifth of ODA worldwide went to Iraq (2011:226), a disproportionate amount which for Pogge at least, as a philosopher, is not ethically justified.



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