Volumes: The Technical Politics of Mathematical Abstractions in Contemporary Peruvian Amazonia

Editorial Note: This post is part of our series highlighting the work of the Anthropology and Environment Society’s 2021 Roy A. Rappaport Prize Finalists. We asked them to outline the argument they made in their submission and to situate their work in relation to the field of environmental anthropology.

By Eduardo Romero Dianderas, Columbia University §

Ledger for calculating timber volumes. Photo by author.

ABSTRACT: In the last two decades, the urge to standardize and coordinate practices of timber volume calculation has become a crucial concern in the transnational effort to bring transparency and accountability upon Peru’s tropical logging industry. Drawing on 24 months of fieldwork following the activities of loggers, timber industrialists and state technocrats across state offices, sawmills and logging sites in Loreto, Peru’s largest Amazonian region, in this paper I examine the contentious practices by which Amazonian timber is regularly transformed into mathematical abstractions known as volumes. I argue that volumes are a privileged example of how mathematical abstractions come to embroil themselves in particular practices and political projects, thus generating intense political affects that are irreducible to any form of materiality. As the global environmental crisis calls for emerging regimes of technical standardization and coordination that aim to tame mathematical abstractions like volumes at planetary scales, I discuss how despite all technocratic hopes for transparency, accountability and commensurability, volumes cannot escape from the affects of power, history and bodily experience.

In recent years, anthropologists, sociologists and media theorists have criticized the self-proclaimed abstract rationality of bureaucratic rule by showing how politics saturate even the most impersonal and procedural forms of technocratic governance. The strategy adopted in much of this literature has been to track politics at the level of its materiality, showing how attention to the material composition of artifacts such as administrative documents, property titles, or maps can unveil subtle political relations that quite often go unnoticed if we take such artifacts for granted. These critiques have been extremely productive for contemporary social theory. And yet, despite this fact, such a mode of critique runs the risk of not accounting for the fact that key objects of technocratic governance cannot by definition be reduced to any form of materiality. The objects I refer to are not palpable entities, but mathematical set of relations that ultimately reside in the intuitive realm of the mind. Lines, points or polygons constitute obvious examples of these kinds of objects.

In my work, I refer to these objects as metaphysical objects. And I follow them as they are contentiously deployed as part of complex technocratic reforms seeking to turn Amazonian rainforests into spaces of fine-grained technical legibility. Metaphysical objects are not at all new. They have long histories in technical realms of governance associated, for instance, to topography and forestry. However, what interests me in my research is the way that they become enlisted today in complex infrastructures of coordination and standardization that aim to make them self-consistent across time and space. The challenges of climate change and biodiversity loss call for the rise of technical forms of global environmental governance. And much of this process, I contend, deals with the urge to make transcendental abstractions increasingly coordinated and standardized at planetary scales.

Workers make field measurements to calculate timber volumes. Photo by author.

In this paper, I center upon one kind of metaphysical object whose coordination and standardization has become the target of complex technical reforms in Peru over the last two decades: tropical timber volumes. In forestry, timber volumes are numbers that represent the abstract amount of timber contained within a wooden body. By transforming logs of all forms and sizes into commensurable quantities, calculating volumes is crucial for lumber products to circulate as fixed quantities of value in national and international tropical timber markets. But just as important, precise volume calculation is fundamental for state institutions supervising Peru’s tropical logging industry, an industry that has traditionally been associated with illegality, deceit and the degradation of the Amazonian rainforest. When loggers and timber tradesmen report to the state how much timber they plan to harvest and trade, they are obliged to do so in terms of volumes. And when state authorities find that a timber shipment is totally or partially illegal, they do so by finding discrepancies between the volumes legally reported by loggers and the field calculations performed by state inspectors themselves. All of this is to say that the standardization and coordination of volumetric calculation across time and space has become a crucial concern in the transnational effort to bring transparency and accountability upon Peru’s tropical logging industry. By extension, volume calculation has also become one of Peru’s fundamental challenges to comply with its international environmental commitments in the context of the global environmental crisis.

Along the paper, I thus examine the political lives of timber volumes as they manifest across different historical genealogies and ethnographic scenes. On the one hand, I show how the two formulas that are conventionally used today to calculate timber volumes in Peruvian Amazonia are embroiled in very different kinds of political affects. Thus, the Doyle formula, a formula favored by loggers in Peruvian Amazonia, is embroiled in the legacies of century-long racialized networks of exploitation, trickery and deceit, whereas the Smalian formula, the one favored by state bureaucrats and enforced in national bodies of legislation, carries today liberal technocratic hopes for transparency and accountability. On the other hand, I show how practices of measurement themselves, despite sophisticated attempts to standardize them through state-enforced protocols, resist technocratic hopes for full commensurability. And thus, they are always haunted by the possibility that two calculations performed upon the same object will be different despite all efforts to the contrary.

100 feet of timber. Photo by author.

By tracing the contentious lives of timber volumes as the Peruvian state seeks to regulate the tropical logging industry in Amazonia, the paper considers the politics of metaphysical objects in the context of the global environmental crisis. Particularly, it shows how mathematical objects that cannot be directly experienced by the senses come to embroil themselves in particular practices and political projects, thus generating intense political affects. As climate change and biodiversity loss call for the rise of technical forms of global environmental governance, the push to secure the self-consistency of mathematical abstractions like volumes through various forms of coordination and standardization will become even greater, not only within particular countries or regions, but at planetary scales. In this conjuncture, my research asks what kind of place should be acknowledged to the affects of history, power and bodily experience as elusive mathematical abstractions like timber volumes come to circulate at planetary scales.

Eduardo Romero Dianderas got his PhD from the Department of Anthropology at Columbia University. His dissertation, Calculating Amazonia, examines the epistemic politics of rainforest governance in Peruvian Amazonia and how recent technocratic reforms come to transform how tropical rainforests are experienced, governed and disputed in the context of the global environmental crisis.

This post is part of our series, 2021 Roy A. Rappaport Prize Finalists.