Anna Weichselbraun on Nuclear Safeguards Inspectors: PoLAR Author Interview

PoLAR editorial board member Andrea Ballesteros conducted an interview with Anna Weichselbraun, whose article “From Accountants to Detectives: How Nuclear Safeguards Inspectors Make Knowledge at the International Atomic Energy Agency” appears in the May 2020 issue of PoLAR.

Would you give the readers that have not had a chance to read your paper yet a brief description of where you conducted your fieldwork and what curiosities were you pursuing?

I conducted my fieldwork primarily at the International Atomic Energy Agency, which is an independent organization within the UN system concerned with the promotion and at the same time control of nuclear technologies. It is headquartered in Vienna, Austria, which is (not) co-incidentally also the city I was born and spent my childhood in. My mother had worked there briefly in the 1980s, so I knew about its existence, which is curiously (perhaps intentionally) peripheral in the local experience.

In developing my project I grew interested in the control aspects, which are called nuclear safeguards. Specifically, the bulk of the IAEA safeguards verify that states are adhering to their international agreements to only use nuclear technologies for peaceful purposes, that is, not building nuclear weapons. They do this through inspections. I conducted my fieldwork within the department of safeguards, specifically in the section that trains inspectors.

As a linguistic anthropologist with interests in the construction of authoritative knowledge, I wanted to know how an organization which had no enforcement powers of its own could produce credible reports that compelled people to action. I wanted to know the semiotic dimensions of the organization’s legitimacy and efficacy, and thought that I could find some of that out by looking at how the inspectors themselves are disciplined and discipline themselves to be certain kinds of knowers à la Daston & Galison’s “epistemic virtues.” At the same time, I was inspired by work like Matt Hull’s (2012) on the graphic dimensions of files in a Pakistani bureaucracy and sought to interrogate the nexus between knowledge, signs, and authority.

There is a fascinating thread in your paper around the question of plausibility. Inspectors are asked to assess whether it is plausible that bombs could be produced given the cues and evidence they are provided with or find. Plausibility is such a nuanced and rich concept, one might say an impossible standard to not-meet. Can you say a bit more about whether non-plausibility in fact operates as an impossible standard? How did your interlocutors understand its reach and how flexible were they in making sense of what is plausible?

As I understand it, plausibility emerged as a criterion after possibility was rejected. Possibility was deemed to be too wide a standard to pursue, and therefore plausibility was chosen. That, too, however, as you rightly point out, tends towards expanding horizons. This was something the inspectors were well aware of and complained about. Even finding all plausible paths to a nuclear weapon, especially for states who had large and complex nuclear infrastructures would be a time-consuming task. In fact, some suggested it was something a computer could (should) do. This is also why the developers of the acquisition path analysis guide I discuss in the article included (and not without precedent) time to completion as another necessary factor. This way inspectors would prioritize the paths that would most quickly lead to nuclear weapons usable material.

Part of the problem of plausibility was that it implies that certain paths make more “sense” than others. This can be helpful because nuclear engineers know what nuclear engineers would do in a lot of cases. But in some of the cases in which states did illegally pursue nuclear weapons, some of the paths and technologies that were chosen were very surprising to the IAEA because they had been deemed inefficient, outmoded, or not promising enough.

The question of plausibility, however, also speaks to the other conundrum that inspectors face under the more basic set of safeguards rules and that is proving an absence. The changes I describe dramatize that proving an absence is not possible with 100 percent certainty. Most inspectors would agree that their evaluations are never 100 percent certain. They are aware of and can work with margins of error, doubt, and uncertainty; they know statistics after all. They tend to be more comfortable with it than the diplomatic representatives of the member states, funnily enough.

It is impossible to read the historical trajectory of the verification program and not think about the political weakening of the United Nations in general in the global context. Do you think the specific transformations in the IAEA standards of verification were part a broader mobilization against “globalism” that has targeted the UN as the main actor that stands for the global? Or do you see other historical processes as being more influential in the epistemic transformations you trace?

The transformations in the IAEA’s safeguards practices have their origin in the early 1990s, the early years of the post-Cold War period when Iraq’s clandestine nuclear weapons program was discovered by international inspectors (UNSCOM, the United Nations Special Commission on Iraq in reluctant cooperation with the IAEA). This is of course a time in which the United States, as winner of the Cold War, emerges as hegemonic actor on the world stage. The end of the conflict between the superpowers and the resultant dramatic reductions in the nuclear arsenals of the two countries tends to be interpreted as a positive and peace-bringing moment in history. Nevertheless, one wonders about the temporal simultaneities of the two superpowers giving up their nuclear arms race and the sudden public revelation of clandestine programs (South Africa dismantled its nuclear weapons program in 1989 and accedes to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, and in 1992 IAEA discovers that North Korea’s nuclear program was more extensive than reported). It was also in this context that the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty was indefinitely extended in 1995, the year it was set to expire. I don’t mean to suggest conspiracies here, just notice a shifting of who or what is perceived as a threat, and whose nuclear weapons no longer worry us. In these epistemic transformations, I rather see a sedimentation of the legitimacy of the legally authorized nuclear weapons states, through a shift in focus to those that seek to cheat the system. In the new epistemic practices and legal tools I describe we see further evidence of how the nuclear hierarchy is bureaucratically and legally naturalized (which I discuss in greater detail in the book manuscript).

One of the many things that your work shows beautifully is how intense the work of managing assumptions is for IAEA’s inspectors. Suppressing one’s assumptions into the background or making them visible, is a complicated task to perform while reading evidence and making empirical diagnosis of what is happening in the world (e.g., is a country likely to produce a nuclear bomb or is it not). Interestingly, this work of managing assumptions is also the kind of work that anthropologists do. Sometimes we bring our underlying assumptions to the fore in order to challenge them, other times we keep those assumptions unquestioned, to make arguments and diagnoses possible. Do you see a parallel between what we do as anthropologists and what the inspectors do?

Yes, absolutely. I see a similarity in particular in the turn to the qualitative analysis that inspectors are expected to carry out, that proceeds rather more abductively than the deductive and inductive reasoning they are used to as engineers. I believe it is this distinction between types of reasoning that also gets embodied in the distinction between the roles of inspector and analyst. The kind of analysis that is now required at the IAEA is similar to the forms of analysis that national intelligence services do—which is also one of the main reasons that it is so controversial. It emerges from an inherently situated nation-state context. And the similarities between what ethnographers/anthropologists and what spies do have, of course, been discussed in the discipline (Price 2016; Driscoll and Schuster 2018; Verdery 2018). In general though, I would hope that we allow our investigations and analysis to follow more creative impulses and more hermeneutic freedom, since we are not ultimately restrained by the collective requirements of nation-states breathing down our necks.

You end your paper by drawing our attention to the question of un-remarkability. For the IAEA, the most important achievement is to turn the most spectacular event, nuclear annihilation, into the “most banal, technical form.” I am particularly interested in the unremarkable, the non-spectacular as a site for anthropological theorization given its power to set the limits of the possible in profound, yet unacknowledged ways. What do you think is the potential of the unremarkable for the political and legal anthropology of our times? Particularly, when the spectacular harm of injustice is so prevalent around us.

Of course, as anthropologists we have long focused on what strikes our informants as unremarkable, on the shared assumptions and common-sense (Geertz 1983) among various groups of people in order to learn what kinds of cultural logics are reproduced. In my research, much of what the people at the IAEA found unremarkable, I considered wonderfully strange (such as the security seals that I wrote about elsewhere (Weichselbraun 2019)). Yet, what really surprised me (after I thought about it for a while) was how profoundly boring much of the work was (not just to me, but to the participants as well), and wondered about the effect of this dullness. It’s almost like in a reversal of Arendt’s phrase, I became interested in the “evil of banality.” This is perhaps a bit overstated, but I think it links up with the findings of other anthropologists that show how injustice is normalized through the dull proceduralism of the legal system, or the banality of infrastructure. And here I think political and legal anthropology can gain from critically interrogating the distinction that is often made between the “political” (usually far more affectively loaded and exciting) and the “technical.” (What could be duller than a technical issue? Except on an airplane, of course). We need to examine these terms as actors’ categories and see what ideological work is done by claiming something is technical or political. I am inspired by the work of Löfgren and Ehn (2010) on the everyday moments where apparently nothing is happening (which are also often moments of boredom) and by efforts to examine “boring things” by medical anthropologists and others. If we can manage to hold our attention on the truly dull (which is always a challenge) we can perhaps learn more about this unspectacular affective dimension of politics and law and what it achieves.

Finally, can you tell us a bit about how this paper connects to your broader research program? What other publications might we expect and what are you turning your attention to these days?

I’m working on finishing the manuscript of the book based on the dissertation, and have a few articles in progress on boredom, the eunuch gender of bureaucracy, and also the “technical” writing practices at the IAEA. My next project looks to take the issue of verification that was so present in my earlier research and apply it to technological efforts to establish trust in various domains. Blockchain is one of those technologies, but I’m looking to take a longer historical perspective and to investigate how humans have long sought to reduce the uncertainty of dealing with other people through various technological and signifying means.

Anna Weichselbraun holds a research and teaching postdoc (2018-2024) in the Department of European Ethnology at the University of Vienna. She holds a PhD in Sociocultural and Linguistic Anthropology from the University of Chicago (2016), and completed a postdoc at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation. Her research examines problems of Anthropocene governance, that is, the social mechanisms and technological infrastructures by which humans attempt to mitigate the uncertainty emanating from each other and their environments. She works at the intersection of an historical anthropology of knowledge, semiotics, and science and technology studies with an empirical focus on the global governance of technology in the long 20th century.

Works Cited

Driscoll, Jesse, and Caroline Schuster. 2018. “Spies Like Us.” Ethnography 19 (3): 411–30.

Geertz, Clifford. 1983. “Common Sense as a Cultural System.” In Local Knowledge: Further Essays in Interpretive Anthropology, 73–93. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Hull, Matthew. 2012. Government of Paper: The Materiality of Bureaucracy in Urban Pakistan. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Löfgren, Orvar, and Billy Ehn. 2010. The Secret World of Doing Nothing. First edition. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Price, David H. 2016. Cold War Anthropology: The CIA, the Pentagon, and the Growth of Dual Use Anthropology. Durham: Duke University Press Books.

Verdery, Katherine. 2018. My Life as a Spy: Investigations in a Secret Police File. Durham: Duke University Press Books.

Weichselbraun, Anna. 2019. “Of Broken Seals and Broken Promises: Attributing Intention at the IAEA.” Cultural Anthropology 34 (4): 503–28–503–28.

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