The Politics of Decisions 4. ”Important Decisions” and ”Mere Detail”

Now I encounter a methodological problem. This is because I want to make an argument about discretion. I want to argue that the big places where ‘‘decisions’’ are taken, make themselves, are made, discretion­ary.17 As a part of this I also want to suggest that such places are per­formed as seeing further, that they are turned into places where mat­ters are centered or (to use Bruno Latour’s phrase) ‘‘drawn together’’ (Latour 1990). Or at any rate, I want to say that they are performed as having the capacity to act in a far-seeing discretionary manner, even if they are sometimes said to get it wrong, which is what the Con­servative opposition was claiming about the decision to cancel the TSR2. To use a jargon, they are created as centers of translation or calculation.

Discretion and its performance: look again at exhibits 7.9 and 7.10 (the two form a pair). Crossman’s complaint is that he is a cabinet

EXHIBIT 7.9 ”The papers are full of reports about the TSR2 and discussion of whether we are going to cancel it or not. Day after day I read this in my morning paper but as a member of the Cabinet I know absolutely nothing about it. Even on Thursday when we had Cabinet the issue wasn’t discussed. I read in the papers that it was being discussed in Chequers this weekend, with George Wigg and his pals present and people like me completely excluded.” (Crossman 1975, 132)

EXHIBIT 7.10 ”Actually, I am not against what is going on and I shan’t complain; but it is true that when the issue comes up to Cabinet for final decision, those of us who are not departmentally concerned will be unable to form any opinion at all.” (Crossman 1975, 132) minister and that no doubt he will have to vote about the TSR2 one way or another, but that he is not where the action is (which is a ver­sion of the point made earlier about central places). In particular, he

is complaining that he is not where the necessary information is to be found, which means that he is not being performed as a proper, dis­cretionary, decision maker, someone who can take an overview and weigh up the merits of the options. He will not (he says somewhat in­consistently, having just expressed a quite specific view) be able to form ‘‘any opinion at all.’’

So Crossman describes something about the proper performance of discretion and its location, and performs himself in a different, nondiscretionary place. But once again these performances overlap, for there are endless examples allocating discretion to the cabinet, to government. For instance in exhibit 7.8, the censure of the opposi­tion assumes that the government could have acted otherwise and re­tained the TSR2. So, though the difference between government and opposition is real enough, it rests upon the performance of a shared assumption: that the government indeed has discretion in this matter.

But what is the methodological problem? The methods by which cabinet ministers or cabinets are generated as discretionary centers of calculation is difficult to uncover and would require a study unlike the one I’m attempting here. The two points are somewhat related, but I will deal with the second first.

The problem may be succinctly stated. We are here located in the public domain and are watching the performance of a more or less public Politics. To be sure, the boundary between what is ‘‘public’’ and what is “confidential” is a construction (I explored a closely re­lated distinction in chapter 2) and is, even when built, always blurred and subject to renegotiation (Crossman’s diaries record and repro­duce discussions that are scarcely ‘‘public’’). Nevertheless, what I am not doing here is offering the ethnographic or historical material that would be needed to show how the space of discretion—the various aircraft options—is built. I’m not exploring how the discursive ar­guments that rank them are constructed as an effect of the distribu­tions recursively performed within the networks of the administra­tive apparatus. Instead, I am simply reproducing a very small portion of that apparatus, which, let it be noted, in some measure reproduces the position in which the discretionary cabinet ministers find them­selves as they wade through their briefs (see exhibit 7.11 which is by the Ministry of Defence Chief Scientific Advisor).

154 Decisions This, then, is the first version of the methodological problem. I am

EXHIBIT 7.11 ”A few weeks after. .. [Denis Healey] took over, he asked me. . . for a personal appreciation of the TSR2 project, of which, when in opposition, he had been highly critical. As a basis, I used the report that I had prepared for Watkin – son [an earlier Minister of Defence], amending it in accordance with what I had learned in the three years that had followed, and consulting only my own files. Healey went over the report line by line, with me at his side, and in my mind’s eye I can still see him underlining passages.” (Zuckerman 1988, 219) neither in the right place nor undertaking the right kind of study if I want to tell stories about the administrative performance of the cabi­net as a center of translation or explore the performative character of what is sometimes referred to as ‘‘governmentality.’’18

But there is a second and more interesting way of conceiving of the difficulty. This is to say that I am running aground on another distri­bution that is relevant to the performance of decision making—and in particular the decision making of High Politics. Indeed, the traces of such a difficulty are not hard to find in what I have been talking about. For instance, I mention ‘‘the public domain’’ and contrast this with what is “confidential”; and then I talk of the need for a ‘‘detailed’’ ethnographic or historical study; and finally I refer to the ‘‘adminis­trative apparatus.’’ But these are distributive tropes that come straight out of the discourses that perform a centered version of High Politics.

And, like the other instances we have looked at, they perform their distributions asymmetrically in at least two different ways.

First, the division between the public and the confidential operates to (try to) conceal almost everything that might be said about the basis of government and, in particular, about the way in which High Politi­cal discretion is generated. True, as mentioned earlier, the boundary between the public and what is ‘‘properly’’ confidential is permeable.

Crossman’s diaries breach the divide (though they did not do so at the time the events were taking place). And, more generally, the talk of ‘‘leaks’’ bears witness to the frequency with which the divide is breached. But this very way of talking strengthens my point because it also performs the division between that which should be public and that which should not. For (as is obvious) a leak is matter out of place, a displacement of secret fluid that should have stayed in its

container.19 Decisions 155

Second, the division between political decision making and ad­ministration operates, in a hierarchical manner, to distinguish be­tween that which is Politically important in terms of Big Decisions, and that which is not. “Operations,” “administration,” “accountancy,” “technology,” these are terms of contrast. They stand in contrast with ‘‘Political decision making,’’ and this is a contrast that works in at least two ways. First, it works to efface the politically distributive character of technology, administration, and all the rest by implying that these are essentially nonpolitical. This reproduces another version of one of the distributions discussed earlier—the performance of a narrow and specific version of the political, one that indeed limits itself to High Politics. And second (which perhaps amounts to much the same thing) it relegates that which is not told as important decision making to a ghetto, a ghetto that is henceforth called ‘‘detail.’’ We have en­countered this before in several different forms, for instance, in the division between technics and aesthetics and in the organization of the brochure. But this time the divide is posed, at least in part, in terms of interest. It is posed in terms of what counts as interesting and what does not. This argument tells of and performs the command­ing heights of Political decision making while relegating to the distant foothills of detail such routine matters as administration, technology, or illustration.

Discretion and discretionary places are created in a ramifying net­work of representational distributions. They do not exist in and of themselves. But the way in which such representational distributions perform discretion is in large measure concealed, performed as non­political, and imagined as essentially uninteresting technical ‘‘detail.’’ So this is the fourth distribution of decision making, another place of overlap and interference. It is the performance of a distinction be­tween means and ends that graces important decisions, including those of High Politics, with a special place at the top of the greasy pole where the big and important decisions are taken, while effacing all the routines, the politics, that make this distribution possible in the first place.20