By Andrea Ballestero and Monika Lemke
This interview with Andrea Ballestero discusses her 2012 PoLAR article “Transparency Short-Circuited: Laughter and Numbers in Costa Rican Water Politics.” The article examined a Costa Rican NGO’s pursuit of building an indicator system that would produce “speaking numbers,” which would help them attract funding for their “human right to water” project initiatives. Ballestero revisits the themes of the article, which include audit culture, the cultural accomplishment of “good speaking numbers,” and constitutive role that laughter played in the audit process. This conversation elaborates on the feminist ethics and political commitment to immanent critique that infuses Ballestero’s research with its unique sense of praxis.
Monika Lemke: In the 2012 PoLAR article, you detail how your informants aim to further the core objective of the NGO at which they work through, unexpectedly, actively participating in an audit. I’d like to hear your reflections on your informants’ tactical and pragmatic decision to take the lead on the audit process despite their lack of experience with this genre of work. For instance, was there the sense that they anticipated that the audit could be a malleable and creative process, as you end up describing in the article? Or was it their naivety about the audit process that allowed the NGO to exploit audit culture for its own purposes?
Andrea Ballestero: I want to begin by saying that they were completely clear about this. It was not new to them in the sense that so many organizations, NGOs and otherwise, have been dealing with this kind of audit demand for a long time. Many NGOs demand their “beneficiaries” to be transparent about how they use resources. International cooperation agencies have been thinking about this for a while, but also many NGOs, like the ones I’ve worked with, demand transparency from governmental agencies and other entities.
This is to say, it was not naive in any way. What I like to think is that it was bold, and that’s what was key. That’s why it was so interesting what they were doing, because rather than succumb to what an outside observer would want them to do, their objective was always to be able to sculpt the story. Here, I’m using the word “story” not as an account of something that requires or desires a certain tone or to do certain work, but “story” as a way of constituting and knowing what they were doing and who they were.
In the previous experiences they had had with transparency and indicator systems, they had very little room to bring their own perspective into shaping those accounts. So, this was an opportunity to really take charge, but without the naivety of thinking that you’re taking charge completely. It’s this simultaneous challenging of the rules of the game, and at the same time, in a certain way, reproducing those rules—both at the same time. It’s the boldness of doing that, when you don’t have the luxury of saying I’m just going to completely refuse this. They didn’t have this luxury for the same reason as so many NGOs and social justice organizations, which is that they had little resources. If there’s an opportunity to have some resources, you jump on it. When you’re working out of those constraints—when you have to make the decision from within those institutional constraints, and the historical constraints in which you live—then it is boldness to say, “Okay, we’re going to do this, but we’re going to push to structure the process itself, and structure the mechanisms through which this account of what we do and who we are, are produced.” And so, it was built on previous experience, having participated in similar processes for the NGOs, but it was the boldness of saying that we’re going to do this, and we’re going to try to shift its direction toward what we want to say about ourselves.
Monika Lemke: Yes, I see where you’re coming from. I remember the way you phased it in the article, that the audit took on an experimental quality.
Andrea Ballestero: Right. To complement what you’ve said, it was an experiment with important consequences. Because there’s a way in which the experimental audit process can be seen as this inconsequential thing. In a sense, its effects are not major. But this willingness to experiment when there were important things at stake, I think that’s really interesting. It also comes from a particular historical conjuncture when this was possible. These are not organizations that do this all the time. I don’t want to give that impression. It was this particular historical conjuncture that allowed for that experiment to take form.
Monika Lemke: I’d like to move on to ask you about the cultural accomplishment of numbers. The audit enabled the NGO’s executives to communicate a view of themselves as integral political actors, especially with the NGO’s affinity for presenting “good speaking numbers.” The technology of the audit exploited the association of political agency with “integrality.” Could you explain how the concept of integrality became indispensable to you as you thought about this NGO’s desire to use the audit to heighten the awareness around the lived multiplicity of water management?
Andrea Ballestero: That’s an excellent question. And I was thinking about it as well. I did that translation, and I’m not sure exactly what the best word would be in English. But I’ll say a little bit about that.
At that moment, there were many conversations amongst NGOs, other social movements, and local community organizations about a dissatisfaction with the ways in which their experiences were represented in the international aid world, because they were made to fit very particular development or humanitarian narratives. You can imagine what those accounts or narratives are! “In Costa Rica, there’s X number of people that lack treated water, or there’s an X percentage of people that don’t have enough knowledge about what water law says.” That kind of account is very common when aid agencies or governmental agencies want to change or intervene in a particular situation. In other words, those are the usual ways in which indicators are mobilized.
There were a lot of conversations among this group about the dissatisfaction they felt with that kind of display of their experience, that kind of deployment of what their lives are and what they do. That kind of approach partitioned their experience, “You are the number of people that lack treated water,” or “This country has a percentage of people that don’t know X.” That was a way of presenting their experience that created a partition or emphasized one particular dimension. People were very unhappy about that. We can also understand this as a way in which certain postcolonial relations and imperial relations are refused. In the eyes of people that come to give us money, we can be reduced to X or Y. We don’t want that because we’re much more than that. So, the language that they used to speak about that dissatisfaction was the lack of an integral approach to who they were and what they did.
The term I adopted is their language. That was the mobilizing factor: how can we produce an account that is integral? In other words, it was a refusal to be partitioned into numbers that spoke a certain kind of story, and a search for numbers that spoke another kind of story, a story that was more integral. It was a search for numbers that spoke of integral stories, numbers that are able to convey multiple dimensions at once: multiple parts of their political, social, and intimate experiences, at multiple scales, such as the individual-, the community-, and the country-scale.
Here, one thing that’s really important to say is that this idea of an integral representation is different from a representation that is complete. The objective was not to produce something that seemed complete (because they were very aware that this is impossible), but to integrate. Here’s where the Spanish becomes really important, because the verb to integrate, integrar, has a very nice connotation of bringing things together and fusing them so that they become something else than just the addition of parts. It’s that surge of a process through which you can put these stories, spoken in numbers, together in a way that results in something that is more than the pieces, but also something that is not necessarily complete, although it is integral. I find that there’s a slight difference in the meaning of the word [in Spanish]; it emphasizes the act of bringing together rather than the “unit” part of the concept.
For example, this is a concept that is not new in Costa Rica. Since the 1950s and ‘60s, the government has promoted the creation of community organizations that were called Integral Development Associations, associations that are integral. If you go to most small towns here in Costa Rica you will find one of these associations, and their job was to provide leadership and organization to achieve some of the conventional development goals—such as improving education, improving health standards, and improving the infrastructure, like water infrastructure, but also highways and roads. The idea here during the audit process was also that by thinking integrally, an integral method, you get something that you wouldn’t if you just had different people taking care of the different elements. So, the use of the word comes from that tradition, and it emphasizes the act of combining and melding, welding, or fusing. Importantly, it does not presume that what matters is the achievement of a complete entity at the end. It’s not about completeness, but rather the act of bringing together.
Monika Lemke: Yes. That’s what I found so provocative about it because it’s not exactly like making a whole, or in the sense of holistic. With a concept like integrality, what we’ve got is a logic akin to Deleuze and Guattari’s. It is a logic of intensity. The genealogy that you just sketched out was very helpful, too, to understand the politics underlying integrality.
Andrea Ballestero: This is why I love ethnographic work and anthropology so much. There are concepts that we find in the literature you mentioned, and then, as you do your fieldwork, you begin to see an analogous register with concepts that are in the world doing things, and that people mobilize in so many ways. It’s one of the gifts that our way of thinking about the world and engaging with the world offers when we put the care into thinking about the ethics of doing that work. We see the ways in which slight differences in this concept can reveal important differences in relation to how social life is organized. This is exactly what you said about the difference between the holistic versus the integral approach.
Monika Lemke: I think this will dovetail nicely into the discussion of laughter. I wanted to speak to you a little generally about “the punctuated but constitutive role of laughter” that you described in your article. Given that laughter is, by its nature, spontaneous, what motivated you to treat it as a notable, not to mention evocative, element of the audit process? What do you find understandings of laughter bring to anthropological studies of knowledge, power, and law?
Andrea Ballestero: Even today, it’s striking to me how little we talk and think with laughter, in relation to the themes that you identify—knowledge, law, and power—but also more generally. I think this was a memorable moment for me in fieldwork for a couple of reasons. One is very simple and the other is more conceptual. So, I’ll begin with the personal dimension because it might be interesting.
Before doing a PhD, I had a job just like Xinia (the pseudonym I gave to the woman leading the workshop). I was responsible for planning and running many, many workshops with many different groups of people in relation to the NGO work that I used to do. Sometimes I would plan new projects, other times evaluate the projects that had been done, and other times figure out why things didn’t work out, why project were complete failures.
At that moment, during that afternoon, I was very empathetic about what was going on in the room. It was becoming a very difficult room because the discussions were revealing how impossible this CAP methodology was. Of course, this CAP methodology was one of the good methodologies that tried to go beyond a very narrow, extractive way of understanding social life. I was very empathetic with Xinia and what was happening in that moment. I was getting very nervous because I remembered many, many times when I was her. I was the person in front of the room trying to make sense of something that you had thought could work. Then you realize, of course not. It’s not going to work. So, I was really nervous for her. The conversation reached that moment when it could have become a confrontational, aggressive moment, since people were thinking that this is good for nothing, [wondering], “What are we doing this for?” But instead, the explosion of laughter completely shifted the affective register. And it’s not that [the audit] became unimportant or non-serious, not in any way.
What happened was that the contradiction or the impossibility of the methodology was recognized as something that was intrinsic to what we were doing. But that was not a reason to imply that the methodology should be left behind or the audit project should stop. It was almost like the fundamental assumptions about knowledge—being something that is verifiable, empiricist, positivist, and that needs to follow this rational, clean trajectory—that were creating the difficulties were, all of a sudden, erased or pushed out of the window of that room. With all that put aside, something else was possible. A different form of rationality or logic was being built, in which the fact that these categories were overlapping and complicated was not a problem. And that was possible because of this affective shift that was performed through the explosion of laughter.
That is the second part of my answer. The first part is this more personal identification of myself with Xinia, and the second is that it was such an important moment that opened a completely different trajectory for pushing this system of indicators towards a politics closer to the kind of account they wanted to give themselves. If, at that moment, there had been a stubborn commitment to “good” categories, systematicity, and a narrower understanding of knowledge, then the project would have failed. It would have been nothing more than a failed indicator system. But because there was this redirection, thanks to laughter, a completely different rationality and logic were possible, which were much more interesting and much more flexible. If we think about it in an instrumental way, it was much more powerful for what they were trying to do.
Monika Lemke: That’s so interesting. I’m thinking of the language being used. On the one hand, there’s the adherence to good categories: there’s this rigidness, like a fetishization of this bureaucratic form of the way audit cultures must proceed. Then, on the other hand, we have this opening up with that laughter, which is embodied, flexible, and gives a chance for that politics to occur. How does that fit with you?
Andrea Ballestero: Even if, on appearance, these indicators seem to fit the characteristics [of audit culture]—because they end up in some Excel sheet and are then used to say this was an accountable system, for saying we know “this” happened—it’s their simultaneous layered existence that I think is important for processes of social change and political mobilization. This is not to say that this is the only way to push for social change, but it’s a really important way in which things might seem like they are something when in fact they are something else. Being attuned to that layered existence can help us see the cracks in systems, and the ways in which transformations might begin to happen. It’s not a full-on rejection, it’s not a full-on refusal. This is the case even though, again, in appearance, the results, the indicators, and the numbers fulfill some of those principles of fixed, “good” categories (wherein one category measures one thing, rather than a mess of things in social life). This being the case, it’s interesting to think about it as a form of resistance as well.
Monika Lemke: Absolutely. I see that in the architecture of your piece, especially towards the conclusion, you articulated that if you hadn’t focused on this process of the audit, we wouldn’t have been able to appreciate that there are political possibilities within this neoliberal technology.
Andrea Ballestero: This ethnographic commitment to tracking how things come into being is something I am very fascinated by. It’s also something I find interesting politically, though I wouldn’t say that I do work that is activist anthropology. I would say that my work is always inspired or always tries to get closer to those things that need to be changed, instead of seeing them from a distance. I come closer to see the cracks within which there could become spaces for building different worlds. I do this because I learned from the people I work with who are my collaborators. Another more conceptual way to say that is that I’m making a commitment to the immanent quality of the critiques that we can produce. Rather than seeing from a distance, this is about embracing the fact that all our critiques are from within, and that such critiques of these powers systems are also coming from a position in which we benefit from these very power systems at different points in time, to different extents, and in various situated, embodied, classed, and racialized ways.
This commitment to the immanent critique, rather than a critique performed from the outside and from a distance, is also something that comes from my commitment to feminist theorizing. This understands the ways in which the everyday labor of these processes is distributed asymmetrically. Such a commitment is something that grows from what we could call an ethnographic ethics of care with the people that we work with. I’m using the word “care” here in the very nuanced way in which care is not necessarily always positive, sweet, and enjoyable. Sometimes you care for things that you don’t like. It is a combination of all these, i.e. the imminent critique, the commitment to feminist theorizing, and an ethnographic ethics of care that pushes me to always get closer to the things I dislike in order to understand them better. In doing so, you find the people who open their lives and share their experiences with you. There’s a responsibility to that openness. There’s an ethics of caring for the knowledge that emerges out of those relationships, which is part of how I understand this kind of work. In other words, there are many things that many NGOs don’t do well, and there are many things that they do in fact do well.
Like with so many collectives in social life, it is about being close to them and understanding that they are within systems of power, systems of capital. From within that space, appreciating that they are there to figure out their ways to press the system is how I approach understanding their work. This is rather than saying from the get-go, “Oh, this is just another instance of neoliberalism,” which it is, of course, but I don’t need to say that. We know, it’s known, and they know it. So, if we’re not going to do that meta-diagnosis, if we’re going to do good ethnographic work, that means being close to them and understanding the situated decisions and tactics that emerge when people decide to press on systems they want change. Did I go in a totally different direction?
Monika Lemke: You know what, I loved it. Thank you. I wanted to continue talking about laughter, because in your article there’s this laughter of equanimity. I feel like that’s a very specific kind of laughter that came out in the space. I thought there was something about the term equanimity that gestured to a commentary about what the laughter was doing.
Andrea Ballestero: So, to ask a little more about that, what are you thinking about with the term “equanimity”?
Monika Lemke: Like you had mentioned earlier, your personal experience brought you that empathy for the woman conducting the audit, Xinia. In the situation where the laughter took place, there may have been perhaps some hostility, awkwardness, or some anxiety about this external contractor coming into the NGO to show them the CAP methodology. With that laughter, it felt as though there were some barriers being pulled down regarding the formal roles everyone was occupying.
Andrea Ballestero: I love the way you’re putting it because I think that’s exactly what we were doing—the laughing was giving Xinia a pass. At the same time, it was saying, we’re not going to go the route of pointing at the inadequacy of this. We’re not going to do that.
I’m trying to think of the moment when this happened to see how I can convey something that’s close to what happened. It wasn’t like it was known what was coming next. It wasn’t, “We’re going to give you a pass so that we can do Y.” Y wasn’t there at the moment. That was something that emerged later. But at the moment, it was, “We’re giving you a pass, we’re going to let this inadequacy go, even if we don’t know what’s right around the corner,” and even though we’re not saying we’re replacing an inadequate instrument with an adequate one. The laughter was able to communicate that it’s okay that this seems odd and that this just does not work for what we want to do. We’re still going to do it. But it’s not like we have something to replace that thing that doesn’t work.
If you think about it, that is a moment of radical openness. It’s a moment in which it’s not your usual instrumental tactic of, “It’s not X, it’s Y.” It’s, “It’s not X, let’s see what happens next.” And in that moment we’ll have to all put our energy toward seeing what it becomes. Our energy might be just answering the questionnaire, or our energy might be offering interpretations of the indicators, or the energy might be working on the accounting that we have to give to the aid agency that gives us the money.
But your question made me realize that that moment is a moment of radical openness in the context of the exercise. That openness is not something that all organizations can handle. It’s not something that certain agencies could handle, because this would mean lots of difficulties for them later on. For them, the charade must continue. We all have to act as if this works. And if this is solid, and these categories are good, even if we know they aren’t, we’re not going to pull the veil. We’re going to continue acting as if things worked. Instead, here it was, “We know this doesn’t work yet. Let’s continue to see what happens.” That’s another dimension of what the laughter was doing at that moment.
Monika Lemke: There aren’t many organizations with the possibility to do that, to not be so constrained by the process. Given the methodology, or maybe even the scale of the NGO, did it seem like there was a familiarity among people in the room that allowed for this embodied moment, this laughter of equanimity, in which to breathe and then from that released tension ask, “What are we doing next?”
Andrea Ballestero: Yes. And that would not have been possible had this been your conventional audit. If it had been a totally external person coming to evaluate, there would have been much more concern for all of the misunderstandings that could arise. Is this person going to present us as people that are not making good use of resources? Is this person going to represent us as people that don’t know better? Through all those doubts, all of those anxieties, it would not have been possible to have that moment of radical openness.
And, I should say that the woman leading the workshop, who knew the methodology, was not part of the NGO, but had been working with these NGOs and these communities for a long time. So, what you’re saying is crucial here. This returns us to the question of short-circuiting this unique linearity that is presumed in audit exercises, that is, in transparency projects this linearity of people who observe and people who are observed, going from A to B. Here, it was a circle; A and B were the same. I think that aspect is part of why it was possible to let go in this kind of way and not have that fear of the more negative consequences of radical openness.
As the interview ended, what stuck with me was Ballestero’s appreciation for the ingenuity that her informants had brought to audit culture, and in turn, what Ballestero brought to its study. It is rare in the study of bureaucratic knowledge systems and other aspects of neoliberal governance that we can appreciate their inadequacies as an occasion for inventiveness, rather than as a barrier to it. Ballestero’s article now seemed to me a parable about what a feminist ethic of care can make possible when storytelling about neoliberal systems. I began to see Ballestero’s commitment to immanent critique as mirroring her informants’ pursuit of knowledge forms that could communicate what was integral about the NGO and the community it served. Both are forms of resistance.
As Ballestero outlined, a position of stubborn commitment would have left her informants with a failed indicator system, and consequently, no “good speaking numbers” with which to attract funding from aid organizations. Yet, her informants persevered. They resuscitated the CAP audit process with laughter, a canny expression of the collective feeling that more a generative and open-ended understanding of knowledge were necessary for the audit to work. It enabled the participants to simultaneously acknowledge and forgive the awkwardness of the exercise, a move which invited a different conversation about the story the NGO ultimately wanted to tell through their indicators. The cracks in the system, the exhausted logic of the rigid methodology, was the ground upon which resistance could take hold and transformation could be contemplated. Similarly, Ballestero’s approach to the research demonstrated to me, a junior researcher, how a feminist ethics of care could express itself in ethnographic storytelling to respond to this collective neoliberal moment.
Andrea Ballestero is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Southern California and Director of the Ethnography Studio. She is the author of A Future History of Water (Duke 2019) and co-editor of Experimenting with Ethnography: A Companion to Analysis (Duke 2021) both of which are open access and can be found on her website: www.andreaballestero.com.